It’s funny how motivation and psyche can fluctuate. If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago if I wanted to climb the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, I’d have said no without a moment’s hesitation. Why spend a long day climbing cold and loose rock on an austere face when I could be climbing glorious golden granite on a sunny south face.
Fast forward a week and I find myself excitedly packing my bag, about to walk in to the Leschaux refuge to attempt the Walker Spur, the iconic hard alpine route on the Jorasses’ north face. I’m not quite sure what’s prompted the complete turnaround. Perhaps it’s the change in season. With autumn just around the corner, I know this might be my last chance to climb a big alpine rock route this year and I’ll regret it if I pass up the opportunity. Perhaps it’s the attraction of the unknown brought on by a storm that’s coated the face in fresh snow. The Walker had received much attention in the preceding weeks with trip reports of successful ascents all over the internet. These reports had only served to diminish my interest in the route. I had little desire to get on the Walker with the comforting knowledge that a successful outcome was almost certain. Though I certainly enjoy this sort of sport alpinism every now and then, for me the Jorasses is a place for adventure, for facing the unknown and testing yourself. Perhaps it’s just a growing thirst to attempt something big and committing after a couple of weeks away from larger alpine routes. Whatever the reason, I was psyched to have a go, as was Juho, and so off we went to the Leschaux refuge.
The north face of the Grandes Jorasses. The Walker Spur takes the rock buttress on the left and tops out at the highest point on the ridge line.
To the Leschaux we go. With the Montenvers train station currently closed for refurbishments, it’s a long walk in at the moment.
On arrival at the Leschaux refuge we were a little concerned but not overly surprised to find four other teams vying for an ascent of the Walker the following day. Good conditions on the face are rare and the recent internet reports detailing successful ascents had brought alpinists from far and wide to the face. Whether conditions would still be good was unclear. Though from afar the face still looked dry, the first teams to attempt the Walker post-storm did not seem to be having much success. As we walked to the Leschaux, we saw one team being heli-rescued from half way up the face. Another team seemed to be making painfully slow progress, just a third of the way up the face by late afternoon.
With the potential for log jams and rockfall in certain sections, each team wanted to be first on the face the following morning. This prompted an early start for all. Opting for a comparatively luxurious lie-in, we left the refuge at 2 a.m. in last place. Fortunately a solid pace on the approach meant we soon caught the other teams and started up the route in second place, just behind a team of two local French guides and their client. Confident that the guides had no intention of spending the night on the face, we relaxed a bit and got into a good rhythm behind them.
After a bit of ice climbing through the bergschrund we got onto the spur proper. Easy ground took us to the base of the Rébuffat-Allain corners, the first pitch of harder climbing. Our guidebook description talked of an overhanging corner and a difficult, un-aidable crux move. In the pre-dawn cold and with a heavy backpack it was hard to get psyched for it and I was pretty happy that it was Juho’s turn to lead. It turns out that the corner isn’t quite as scary as our descriptions suggested. For the most part the climbing is technical rather than strenuous. Take the time to work out the sequence and it’s all there.
Juho getting his stemming game on at the start of the Rébuffat-Allain corners. It goes at about E1 5b in UK money and is a quality pitch of climbing.
Moving together as quickly as we could, easier ground took us to the base of the next iconic pitch, the 75m corner. This was another section of quality climbing with solid jams on great rock and gear whenever you wanted it.
Juho following up the 75m diedre. It’s awesome. Just great, secure corner climbing with solid gear. Pure plaisir. Would probably be HVS 5a in the UK.
Climbing onwards and upwards I was starting to properly enjoy the route. The climbing was good, the rock for the most part dry and devoid of ice, and we were going at a solid pace. After a bit more climbing we made a small rappel to transfer ourselves onto the right side of the spur and to the base of the famous Black Slabs. At this point there’s a small bivi site for teams opting to climb the face over two days. It didn’t look that appealing with just a small, icy bum seat for each climber. I was glad we were opting for the single push approach.
Juho on the traverse to the rappel just before the Black Slabs.
Starting up the Blacks Slabs, things began to get a bit harder. I took the lead for the first pitch and quickly found myself on some tricky and delicate climbing. As I traversed out right, the climbing got harder and the gear worse. I found myself somewhat frozen in place. My gear was rubbish and the climbing difficult. I pondered my options. They weren’t great. I couldn’t reverse my moves and there was no way I was about to willingly weight the gear. I hate moments like this. I had little option but to just have a go and pray I didn’t fall. After giving myself a bit of a talking to, I carried on. A couple of metres of insecure balancey climbing brought me to a thank god hold and soon after the comfort of a belay.
Juho following on the first pitch of the Black Slabs. We felt this was probably the crux of the route. Though not especially difficult, the climbing was bold, balancey and insecure. It felt pretty full-on given the situation. Probably E2 5b back home.
A second pitch of tricky climbing, swiftly dealt with by Juho, brought us to the top of the Black Slabs. Our confidence was high. We knew that most of the hard climbing was now behind us and we had plenty of time in the bag for unforeseen problems.
Juho starting up the second pitch of the Black Slabs. Solid E1 5b or French 6a. We did the Black Slabs in two pitches and thought the climbing here was harder than anything else on the route.
As we progressed upwards the spur started to take on a more mixed nature. Patches of snow and ice had to be avoided and the occasional hold brushed clean of snow. A small goulotte brought us to the base of another wall of steep climbing. The climbing up this wall struck just the right balance between being challenging and fun. Never too hard but never too easy, it was just sustained, quality granite climbing.
Juho heading up an icy goulotte to the base of the steep wall, which goes at around HVS 5a or French 5c. This is a quality pitch of climbing that’s worth 3 stars in its own right.
After climbing this wall, a long section of simul climbing up the crest of the spur brought us to the base of the Triangular Névé. From here things got decidedly mixed and so it was off with the rock shoes and on with the boots and crampons. Unlike the other teams, Juho and I had opted to take two technical ice tools each. Though extra weight, we were unsure what conditions would be like on the route and figured it could save us time and stress if the upper section of the spur proved to be heavily iced up. Apart from at the bergschrund, so far the tools had just been extra weight but now they were starting to prove useful. With two tools each we could comfortably simul climb a 100m section of ice and firm snow that we’d otherwise be forced to pitch. This enabled us to catch up with the French team at the base of the last section of challenging climbing, the Red Chimney.
The Red Chimney has a bit of a reputation. Nearly 900m up the face, it’s meant to be the last bit of hard climbing. Though not especially difficult technically (maybe 5c or HVS 5a), it’s known for being very loose, often iced up and offering little in the way of good gear. We arrived at the chimney to find it pretty heavily iced up. Depending on how you look at things this was either good or bad. On the one hand, it significantly lowered the risk of rockfall (good). On the other hand, it was going to make the climbing harder (bad). After a brief wait for the French team, Juho took the lead and dispatched the main chunk of the chimney in one rope-stretching 60m pitch. Climbing with bare fingers but with crampons and boots on the feet, the climbing was often tenuous and insecure. It was also freezing cold and resulted in some excruciating hot aches on arrival at the belay. It was a solid lead by Juho and a pitch I was glad to second.
Myself at the start of the exit pitch out of the Red Chimney. (Photo: Juho Knuuttila)
At this point our topo suggested the remaining 300m or so should be pretty cruisy. Unfortunately the grades given in the topo reflect what it would be like to climb the route on dry rock in mountaineering boots or rock shoes. In the current conditions, we’d be climbing in crampons and the rock was heavily verglased in places. What should have been a pretty cruisy slab pitch turned into a pretty desperate and scary lead for me. Juho then took over for a similarly scary lead, trying to dispatch some extremely iced up rock that offered too little ice for our technical tools but too much ice for bare hands.
Juho following a 5a slab section at the base of the Red Tower. In rock shoes this would be a piece of piss. In crampons it was a bit of a horror show, probably partly self-induced by refusing to pull on the in-situ pitons (not that they looked particularly solid).
After these two pitches the difficulties finally seemed to ease off. Moving together, we headed up the crest of the spur, occasionally turning around to take in the awesome views behind us. A final mixed chimney brought us the summit cornice which we broke through to find ourselves positioned directly on the summit. And like that, we were done. We had climbed the Walker Spur.
Juho on the crest of the spur, just a hundred metres from the summit and the one brief moment where we actually got some sun on the route.
Juho climbing through the summit cornice. Not quite sure what was going on here, but I think he was pretty psyched to top out.
After brewing up some tea and sharing a few congratulations with the French team, we started our way down the south side of the mountain towards Italy. Having done the Rochefort-Jorasses traverse earlier in the summer, we knew the descent well and were pretty confident we would be able to descend to the Boccalatte refuge in swift time. This turned out to be slightly mistaken. Though we got off to a good start, on reaching the Glacier des Grandes Jorasses at the base of the Rocher du Reposoir we found ourselves at a bit of an impasse. The route we had taken through the glacier a month earlier had now taken on a far more menacing vibe following a long period of warm, dry weather that had opened up many crevasses. There was no track going through it and we weren’t too psyched to go making our own. Equally it wasn’t too clear where the best route went. We each had our own idea on the best way to proceed, but neither of us were too keen on the plan the other was suggesting. In our indecision the French team caught up with us and so, to our great shame, we decided to fall back on a classic alpine tactic; if in doubt, just follow the guides. They weren’t too sure where to go either, but quickly made a decision to descend directly through a series of rock bands. Though this took longer than the usual descent route, it avoided some sketchy looking glacial terrain and a short while later brought us to the refuge.
On the summit of the Jorasses and about to begin the long descent down to Italy.
Arriving at the refuge well after dark, we found Franco, the guardian of the refuge, still awake. Being the absolute legend that he is, he kindly offered to make us all dinner. After twenty hours on the go and only a handful of peanuts left in my pack, to say we were grateful would be an understatement. Never has a plate of pasta and a can of coke gone down so well.
The next morning we took our tired bodies back down to the valley floor. After hitching a ride with a Romanian truck driver back through the Mont Blanc tunnel we found ourselves once again in Chamonix, back where we started 48 hours earlier.
With some storms brewing in the weather forecasts, I think the Walker Spur might mark the end of my summer of alpine rock climbing. If it does, I’m pretty damn happy to end it on that note. It’s an awesome route and one that I’m psyched to have finally climbed.