Grandes Charmoz North Face

It was immediately after the ’38 route on the Eiger and a couple of days off were needed. We decided to head over towards Zermatt to rest and maybe have a look at the North Face of the Matterhorn next up. The weather had now changed considerably since the Eiger, becoming much more unsettled and bringing heavy rain / snow to most of the Alps. We rested but conditions never improved, and it was a couple of days later I dropped Kev off in a very damp Geneva to fly back home. I however still had time on my hands, so I decided to head over to Chamonix to see who was about and what I could get done.

‘Ginger Ben’ a man that needs no introduction to Chamonix locals, was around and keen to climb. We met in Elevation (a bar- and as such a place where many good plans are hatched), and decided to go and have a look at the Grandes Charmoz North Face. This was a wall I have wanted to climb for a very, very long time. From first footsteps in the Alps many years ago to recent outings on neighbouring routes, this elegant peak is so often visible on days out from Cham I can feel it’s looming presence whenever I pass under its North wall. Did it whisper ‘fraud’ to me as I went past? Probably not, but it was definitely on the list. The route itself is a 900m uber-classic TD whose difficulties lie in first getting off the glacier onto the face (needs ice on the lower slabs- often seen as the crux), and a few tricky mixed pitches higher up. The route has a reputation for looking in condition and tempting would be ascensionist’s on to it, only to be thwarted by a lack of ice and snow covered rock. This was a tale I have heard on more than one occasion…

It was with regret a day or two later that Ben had to pull out of the proceedings when a long-lost (but evidently not forgotten) relative announced their imminent arrival in the valley and with it the need for lodgings and entertainment. On this occasion these were to be provided by Ben, and so now a new partner was needed. As luck would have it Colin Haley was in town and keen to get out, so with partners changed the plan was back on.

We met the next morning to discuss our tactics and make a plan. Unlike most alpine routes, the Grandes Charmoz is in such a geographical position and nature that opens up several possible styles of approach and ascent. Most big routes require a long-ish approach normally the day before, some type of sleep ‘themed’ activity (often just a few hours of sleeplessness in bitter cold with insufficient insulation passed by daydreaming of being somewhere warm), then the route and often a long descent. Our plan was to catch the last train of the day up to the Montenvers station and begin by biving there for the night. We would then stash our comfortable (heavy) bivy gear at the station and ski-tour into near the base of the wall to stash our skis and approach kit. This would enable us to hopefully get a decent sleep before the route and to go super light on the climb itself. It would also give us the option of either descending the back side of the Charmoz and heading straight back down to Cham (which would leave our skis to be collected at a later date), or if conditions and time allow, descend the back side before traversing back over the Col de la Buche to the North side of the mountain to pick up our skis and either ski back out to the Montenvers station or the James Bond trail back into town. Sounds simple? Not really, but then it is nice to have options in the mountains…

During the Montenvers bivy the wind picked up and became quite strong around the witching hour, so much so that we discussed our options if it was still the same when the alarm went off. This discussion was short as to be honest neither of us could think of any decent, ‘bad weather’ options to head to from our location, and so it was with relief when we awoke to a perfectly calm, crisp alpine morning. After my customary early-alpine bivi breakfast of Cliff Bars, M and M’s and chocolate covered coffee beans (alpine crack), a quick pack and stash of our now unwanted bivy gear, and we were ready for the off. A steep head-torch lit ski descent followed and we were on our way down towards the Mer de Glace; the glacier were we would begin our approach towards the face.

A large moon illuminated the mountains well and we made good progress skinning along the flat glacier until near the face. There we turned, and started searching for the line of ladders that we knew led up off the sheet of ice and onto the steeper approach slopes beneath the wall. As predicted these were difficult to find, but once located gave us a rough idea of the correct line of ascent when joined together in the opaque light. The linking up of these snowed up sections of steep ladder and metal posts with skis on our backs was all pretty good ‘Type 1’ fun for 4am, and a good warm-up for the work ahead. Think deserted kids adventure playground on a snowy day with skis and a pack along with a much bigger drop and you kind of get the idea…

The terrain soon kicked back so on again with the skis, with me and Colin both taking turns putting the skinning track up towards the wall. I have always enjoyed establishing skinning tracks. Aside from the fact time on skis is always good fun, the challenge of making a good track (not too steep, not to shallow) and in choosing a good line appeals greatly to me and upon completion can either be a knowledgeable work of art, or show glaring inexperience and poor judgement. It’s also about as close to artistic expression as I come (those who know me know that I am not an artist) but the fact it’s made in such a crazy frozen medium means it can either remain as a lasting monument to one’s experience, or disappear in a matter of minutes dependant on conditions. We continued like this up to a rock spur descending from the lower reaches of the wall. This was to be our high stash point for our skis and kit not needed on the climb.

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Colin approaching the wall just up from the ski stash

Kit sorted and it was into climb mode just as the first rays of dawn began to illuminate the nearby peaks. The Aiguille Verte, the Sans Nom, the Dru, then the Droites along with the Grandes Jorasses all took their turn and soaked up the early alpine light. What a great place to be I thought. I could be asleep or in a whole host of other places right now, however I am here and very happy to be so. Up to the base of the route we went, to a well filled in bergshrund that granted us easy access onto our climb and it was here that Colin took the lead. The route looked to be in good condition and comprised mainly of ice from what we could see. The rope soon went tight and we began moving together, all on Scottish grade 4 type ground then a pitch or so of 5 which saw us progress over some awkward steps and onto good ice a couple of pitches up. It was great to get past these first couple of ‘problem’ pitches so easily which so often constitute the crux. The angle eased a little, and now several hundred meters of ice and neve followed, all at or around grade 3/4. I took the lead but after a couple more rope lengths and with the climbing remaining easy but good protection difficult to arrange, we decided to coil the ropes and soloed on up. The alpine ‘death pact’ was of no use to us today.

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Colin at the start of the route, just up from the bergschrund

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Myself seconding the first few pitches

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Myself taking the lead

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I remember reading an item written by Mark Twight many years ago about a solo ascent of this wall ending in a storm and subsequent harrowing descent after being forced to bail somewhere onto the East face. The article enthralled me as a youngster and I wondered if I would ever have a similar experience. I since have, however today would be nothing like that I was sure.

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Colin motoring up the snow slope

We motored for a few hundred meters until we hit the large triangular snow patch in the centre of the face. We were cruising. Up to the top right hand side of this we continued until we hit ice once again. Another couple of moderate un-roped pitches followed, and before we knew it we were belayed below the beginning of the exit corners with some great looking Chamonix style mixed climbing above. Now Colin is a world-class Alpinist so when he suggested he took the lead because he might be faster I wasn’t going to argue.

‘Crack on’

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Colin moving off on the brilliant mixed pitches at the top of the snow slope

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Myself following

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He took off looking super steady and led a couple of pitches upwards and then left, over to a bomber peg belay. This was all at about Scottish 5/6 with brilliant well protected ice-filled granite corners and cracks. It was here I joined him and with a quick change over began belaying Colin again as he moved off onto snowier ground this time round to the right. I was belayed in a narrowing and with Colin having to clear a lot of fresh powder to get to the climbing above I was fully immersed in spindrift hell for prob 45 min or so (because it felt like two hours) and by the time I was able to move off and follow the pitch I could barely hold my tools. I climbed up to meet Colin (and with him the hot aches from hell), then saw the trench he had dug to bring us around the corner. He assured me that the pitch was positively ‘Alaskan’ in nature and that I should get used to that for when I head over that way!

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At the spindrift belay…

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A short traverse over and around some snow mushrooms brought us into the final couloir that leads to the notch on the ridge. This was all pretty loose with rotten rock but again easy. By the time we reached this point it was 4pm, so with a return back down to Chamonix on the Montenvers train out of the window, it was time to kick back and enjoy the situation with no real time constraints. Alpine routes of this nature can very often be non-stop, high tempo affairs racing to catch primo conditions or make last lifts, so it was really nice to stop the clock-watching and just take it all in. Colin fancied gaining the true summit and so set about with some tasty looking dry-tooling and ‘French-free’ style aid to access this, one of the Chamonix Aiguille’s most jagged summits.

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Topping out on the couloir onto the summit ridge!

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Just below the summit

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With the route and summit in the bag it was time to head down. A short, sharp ab brought us back down to the notch and we headed off the back into the Charmoz / Grepon couloir. We had been climbing on a single half rope but had brought along a 5.5mm tag line to facilitate our descent so made 50m abseils down the back side of the Charmoz. It had evidently been pretty warm in the sun on this side all day as the snow was soft, but with the temperature dropping as the afternoon warmth began to disappear from the mountains things started to firm up. We found a succession of rap anchors on the right bank and reached the Nantillons glacier an hour or so later. With conditions looking good and loads left in the tank we though it best to traverse back around to our stash and ski back down to town.

The glacier was well filled in so we remained un-roped, down and around to the point where the couloir comes down from the Col de la Buche. The last (and only time) I had been here before was 14 years ago during my first season in the Alps on my way to the top of the Aiguille de L’M. I remembered the mountains taking my breath away with their steep walls and sheer vastness, for it was like nothing I had ever seen before. We were completely in awe of the speed folk were climbing the routes out there and to be honest felt a little out of our depth. Fond memories of good times indeed, tho looking back full of mistakes and at times lucky to get away with such a steep, untutored learning curve. I remembered where the ladders were to gain entry to the couloir proper (helped by the fact I still have a picture of us; fresh-faced and youthful, but with much bigger bags in the same spot in my living room). What did we used to carry around the mountains? This final ascent felt much smaller than it did 14 years ago…

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Beginning the ladders

From the breche and with daylight fading fast, it was a thigh-deep wade back down the other side and across to our skis. A quick change and we were on our way again just as daylight said good bye and we began skiing back down towards the glacier we had approached along that morning. Due to the temperature variations found on your normal alpine day, all sorts of snow conditions can (and often are) encountered on a big route. Snow can be firm on the 4am walk-in and a mushy mess on the way out, icy in places or well preserved powder. There is however almost always a point after a big route where you hit snow that is beginning to re-freeze again after a day of melting and with it a breakable crust. This is exactly the worst type of snow to encounter and always seems to come at a time near the end of the day when you have typically been on the go for 10 – 30 hours and just want to get down. I call it ‘North Face’ snow and without it’s appearance no north face escapade would be complete.

We made our way down and back onto the Mer de Glace with some combat style skiing to pick up the well travelled and piste like Vallee Blanche track. Down and round we went to the hike up through the trees to the James Bond track (our kit from the Montenvers bivi could be picked up tomorrow- the joys of a borrowed season pass). An icy but familiar descent followed as the previous days moon began to rise again.

It was 10pm by the time we hit the town and all was quiet. It had been a while since we had eaten anything so the only thing for it was to head straight to the kebab shop and order a couple of Cham Sud specials! #winning. It was then finally time for some sleep after such a great day.

I spent the next day relaxing in town and contentedly drinking coffee in the sun under the watchful gaze of the Chamonix Aiguille and the summit we were sat on less than 24 hours earlier.

Cheers Colin for a good little adventure!

Dave.

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