Wednesday, 10 December 2014


The North face of the Jorasses has many amazing routes that make their way up it's mass. One route that has been in my mind for the past few years is the Desmaison-Gousseault. It is situated on the left side of the Walker spur, and follows a series of ramps. The route has a variety of different climbing from chimney squeezes, open face ice climbing to steep rock climbing. I'm not going to go into all the history of this route on my blog, but as an outline;

 Rene Desmaison and Serge Gousseault attempted the line in 1971. Due to difficulties the outing became a two week nightmare. They managed to climb to within 80m from the summit, but Gousseault collapsed with exhaustion. Leaving them stranded on the head wall. For reason still unknown, the rescue team arrived late. Once they did arrive Gousseault had been dead for three days and Desmasion was only just clinging onto life.
 Desmasion returned in 1973 to finish the line with Giorgio Bertone & Michel Claret. Which I think says so much about Desmaison.

I tried the route for the first time about 3 years ago, with my friend Dave Searle. We got about 1/4 of the way up the route, but I think it was maybe just a bit too much for us at the time. I'm sure we would have been fine with the technicality of the climbing. It's just a big route that you have to be moving, climbing and thinking efficiently.

So fast forward a few years to the Spring of this year, 2014, and you would find a bored Jon Griffith and myself wondering what exciting thing we could get on. Jon came up with the crazy idea to go give the Desmaison a try in winter conditions. Not having any better ideas of my own I thought, why not. So we studied the topos, organised our gear and set off from the Midi with our small approach skis strapped to our feet. Winter/Spring isn't really the best time for climbing on the North face of the Jorasses as it's too cold for the snow to stick to it. Also the Autumn before in 2013 wasn't too good, so there was no good Autumnal conditions continuing on. We knew that the conditions wouldn't be the best, but we thought it'd be a good laugh to go give it a try; There were no laughs!

Normally when you go climbing on the Jorasses, you either spend the night in the Leschaux hut or sleep at the base. This time however we thought we'd ski in and get straight on the thing. Jon had found out the day before that there was also a 3 other french lads getting on it at the same time as us. We thought at first we'd be a lot faster than them as we were a team of two, but in finding out they were Robin Revest, Helias Millerioux and a friend. Well then we knew we weren't going to be racing ahead of these guys. As I had been on the route a few years ago, it made sense that I take on the first block of leads. We ditched the skis below the bergshrund, and I racked up with all the gear and carried on up the first section. A small chimney pitch at the bottom slows things down slightly, then a big ice field brings you to the bottom of the first ramp. We both felt pretty tired from skinning in and climbing the first section, plus it was probably around 5pm so we thought it'd be best just to bivvy here. The other guys were right behind us and bivvyed in the same area.

Myself seconding. The Frenchies behind us.
Photo; Jon Griffith

The Frenchies right behind us.
Photo; Jon Griffith

The PGHM doing what they do best!
Photo; Jon Griffith

Here's a link to a video that Jon filmed of the rescue in operation.

The following day, after we had some tea and breakfast, I set of first again as I still knew the way. Then Jon took over for his block of leads at the start of the end of the first ramp. Most of the climbing up to the second ramp doesn't require too much ice. However the second ramp is pretty mellow angled, and has a few steps that would be a lot better with thick ice plackage on them. Jon climbed the first pitch of the second ramp. It was very tenuous as there was only a ribbon of is to climb on and you had to be very delicate with it. Even though after the tenuous section there was a lot more ice, it was still very brittle. Which meant it took a couple of swings to get the axe sitting comfortable.

Amazing exposure even on some of the lower pitches.
Photo; Jon Griffith

Just as I then started to take over for my block of leads. Robin, of the trio behind us, reached the same belay that Jon was at. Though when he arrived he knocked a rock off which went flying down towards the previous belay. Where the rest of his team was. Straight away we could hear this scream of pain. Helias had got hit on his shoulder pretty badly. Robin lowered back down and they decided to bail off the route and get choppered out off there. Which was pretty exciting to watch. After they left we phoned up a friend to get a weather up-date. He told us that there would be a foen storm starting up the following evening. There was no way we would get up the rest of the wall in time, so we decided to bail ourselves. We rapped into the Shroud and down the bottom section of it. However as we neared the bottom a slab of snow avalanched from above, it went straight by us and took out all our skis and poles which were sitting at the bottom. We raced down as fast as we could to try find our skis before it got dark. After a while of searching and, literally, a stab in the dark. We managed to find all our skis. We clipped in and made our way through the night back to Cham. It's soooo scary skiing fast down an icy glacier at night with huge Alpine bags on your backs. The legs were pretty tired after that.

Myself at our high point on Jon and mines first attempt  together.
Photo; Jon Griffith

After a days rest in Chamonix, Jon gave me a shout saying that there is a weather window starting the next day. ''Okay Jon, lets head back into the Jorasses! Hmmmmm why did I agree to this?''
 So known what the conditions were like, we knew we wouldn't be running up the thing. More gas and food is what we'll be needing. Oh and a bit more of suffering psyche. We also decided to take two hammocks with us. As there wasn't much snow on the ramps, and It'd be hard to chop a snowy ledge to sit on. Also from our last experience of skiing in and getting straight on the wall, which I think tired us out quite a lot, we would just ski in and bivvy at the base, then start climbing early the next morning.

Techy pitch.
Photo; Jon Griffith

Still feeling the effects from being on the wall a few days previously, we made our way in and camped at the base. The next morning we set off early and found ourselves at our high point by around 5pm. The short days of winter definitely make things quite awkward. In spite of getting up to our previous high point in ok time. We still had to climb a few technical pitches before, where the topo said, there was a bivvy spot. Now that it was dark things started to slow down a lot. I led a pitch which was mostly rock climbing but on very suspicious rock and dubious gear. Then Jon made his way up a steep aid pitch that carried onto where we assumed there would be a good bivvy spot. However once we arrived we could see there wasn't much to work with. The topo actually states there is an awesome bivvy spot, but after figuring out that it was in fact above us on different route. We found ourselves having to get pretty imaginative. As we had the hammocks we thought we should try find somewhere for them. It took us a while to find a spot to hang one hammock on this slab. Then realising we would only be hanging one up, my heart sunk. I gave the hammock to Jon as he's very old, plus am way more bad-ass and harder than him. I found this horrible ledge that was built up of these loose blocks. I tried to arrange them in some sort of manner, but every time I would move one block the rest would shift and some even fell away. After realising I would just have to make do, I blew up my roll mat then thought I would stash it behind a rock whilst I sort my sleeping bag out. PFFFFFFFFTTTTTTTT!!! ''Oh no!!'' Yup I just burst my roll mat. After some food and liquid I climbed into my bag and lay on my pathetic excuse for a bed. The night past long and cold.

Night climbing is always fun!

Jon chilling in the hammock.
Photo; Jon Griffith

View from my bed.

My super comfy bivvy spot. Note how the sun striking the wall just in front. Torture!
Photo; Jon Griffith

I could see morning was starting to happen, as a red sky line was starting to emerge. It was quite a chilly start to the day. Made even worse by the sunlight striking the wall that was in front of me. Wishing for it to come round and warm the bones up only made me feel colder. I tried to shift my body and release my dead arm, that had been my pillow. However in doing so I dislodged one of the main supporting rocks to my bed, and got a sudden shock that well and truly woke me up. Now sitting up right and not wanting to move a muscle in case my bed dissembled anymore. One event did warm me up though. It wasn't my breakfast and tea. No. Instead it was Jon's breakfast that warmed me up! You see, over the past couple of days. Jon had been going on about this freeze dry breakfast he had. It was 'eggs & bacon', and he made sure that I knew how good it was going to taste and was so much better than the crappy muesli things I would be having. So on the morning of this bivvy, sitting smugly in his hammock, he began to prepare his breakfast. Now with these meals it's good practice to get the amount of boiling water fairly spot on, as it makes it taste as it should rather than to dry or to soupy. After reading his packets instruction he lets out a very upset ''OH No!''. Straight away I thought it was an issue with the stove. I asked what was wrong, and he replied with, ''Add 200ml of boiling water, mix well, and then fry in a frying pan!!'' I gave a very 'sympathetic' response.... Jon thought the best idea would be to leave it brewing for an extra 10mins. This will surly transform into a packet full of fluffy scrambled egg with rashers of bacon on the side. Turned out it didn't and Jon just poured out the eggy soup mixture.

Jon on the scary morning pitch.

Myself following the scary morning pitch.
Photo; Jon Griffith

After packing up all our bivvy kit. Jon got geared up for what looked like a grim piece of climbing. It was the starting pitch to the 3rd ramp, and didn't have a spot of ice on it. Dry, loose and protection-less. This was gonna be a nice wake up pitch to the day. Jon took his time, working his way steadily up the slab. A nasty bit of aid, using flared cams in loose blocks, brought him to the end of the pitch. The remainder of the ramp was brittle and hard black ice. Not fun to climb on and gave the bonus of hurting the toes from kicking, and tire the already tired calfs.

 We made our way slowly up to where the main bivvy spot is on the route, that is made up of a large snow arete, which we would chop a large ledge into. However on arrival we found that the snow wasn't very 'snowy', in fact it was mostly just ice. Any snow that was there had formed into 'corn', which doesn't stick together at all. It just flakes away. To make matters even worse, the wind started to pick up quite significantly. As well as the temperature dropping quickly. Which meant that everything was getting covered in hoarfrost. We knew we couldn't stay in this area as there was nowhere to bivvy, so we abbed back down a couple of pitches to where we thought was a good stance. Turns out it wasn't the 5 star bivvy we had thought it to be, and could barely fit one person. We arranged one hammock for our feet to rest in. Then put the other one in front of us to act as a wind breaker. This never worked and it actually just flapped in our faces the whole night. We nestled ourselves into some sort of comfortable position. Then I spent the next while making water and filling our bottles. Jon passed out straight away. Once I had finished the bottles I asked Jon if he wanted some food made. I skipped dinner as I just wanted to go to sleep. He passed me his freeze-dry dinner and I prepped it for him. Then past out for a few hours. I woke to find Jon's food packet next to me, which I thought was strange. I asked him about it and it turned out that I filed it with cold water, so he had to just pore it out! We tried to get a wee bit more sleep, but it was hard to stay comfortable that long. I did manage find some comfort though. However it was in the form of Jon's chest! I didn't realise that my head was laying on him until I woke and looked into his eyes, I could see he wasn't happy with this scenario. So I swiftly turned to face the other way.

Trying to organise the belay in stormy conditions.
Photo; Jon Griffith 

Our cosy bivvy for the night.
Photo; Jon Griffith

The next morning we felt pretty shitty. After 2 bad nights sleep in a row. Things were still cold and windy. We phoned our friend Jeff who works for the PGHM (Chamonix mountain rescue), to get a weather report. He told us that they'll be another storm starting up that afternoon which would be around for a day or two. Thoughts of getting in trouble was on our minds if we carried on. He informed us that they wouldn't be able to fly there after that afternoon.
 The classic foen storm comes from the south side of the Jorasses (Italy) and then rushes down the North side (France). So the worst place to be in a foen storm is the top of the Jorasses.
 Jon was fairly happy to continue with the route, but I was worried about the difficulties ahead. Even though we were 3/4 way up the face, we still had some hard pitches that lay ahead. In these current conditions, I couldn't imagine us running up it. We decided to bail. Which was a hard choice to make, as we put a good effort in to get to here. We also decided the safest option would be to get choppered off the wall. As the previous days we had watched so many rocks rain down the Shroud, which is where we would be abseiling down. We still had to rap down a few pitches to find a safe open spot to be picked up from. Once we were in position Jon phoned up, but they told us they had to do a crevase rescue first and would be an hour. Which I thought was outrageous... Jokes! Whilst waiting for the chopper we both climbed into our sleeping bags and snoozed.

 Then it was our turn to be picked up. It wasn't until Jon said that he hates the feeling of being winched up that made me think about how wild it will be. You see the don't sit stationary and winch you up in place. Once your clipped on, they whisk you away and winch you up at the same time. So you'll be way out in the middle of the air before you climb into the chopper. But first the winch man has to be dropped off at our spot. They lower him down and swing him into place. These guys are living legends. Once he arrives he takes care of everything and is the one who clips you on. Jon went first and then they came back for me. It feels so weird to be standing on the mountain, then the next second you have 1000m of air below your feet. I remember the feeling of the sun when we flew out of the Shade, which I had been in for the past 4 days. I don't know what Jon was talking about. This was awesome. It's not everyday that you get to hang from a helicopter and look at the Jorasses. After we were all collected they took us down to their base in Les Praz. We signed a form, said a massive thank you and then were on our way. It felt weird walking around town knowing that only moments ago we were on the Jorasses. Straight away we knew where we were going first. Rhodos! Best pizza and beer in town, and only a few minutes walk from where we were dropped off. So that was the end of that attempt for Winter/Spring. Jon did ask me again for another attempt that season, but I told him to get stuffed.

After climbing the Bonatti- Vaucher at the start of September, we knew how good the conditions were on the wall. Unfortunately there was a few weeks of bad weather which would keep us from climbing Having booked my flights for my return to Scotland, in a few weeks time I was starting to get worried that I might not get the chance to finish off the Desmassion with Jon.

Last walk-in of the season for me.

Bivvy at the base of the Jorasses.
Photo; Jorasses

Then on the last week of September there was a good weather window and Jon and myself made our way, once again, to the base of the Jorasses. Knowing this would be the last time I'd be walking in here kind of made the experience a bit lighter and funner. We both knew the route really well up to our high point which is where we were planing to climb to the following day. Then we would just have to find our way up the head-wall and then descend down the back.

The chimney pitch at the start.
Photo; Jon Griffith

Jon on the aid pitch half up the wall.

After our bivvy at the base, which I didn't get much sleep at, we headed up to the bergshrund. There was another team of Frenchies on the route as well. They got an earlier start than us, which was fine, as due to the nature of the route it didn't matter too much about having someone above you. Like I said earlier we knew the route really well and managed to cruise our way up through the lower ramps. Pitches that had caused us grief on earlier attempts were now mellow ramps of ice, quite a few were even simul-climbed. The harder pitches were still much the same as some of these were either vertical mix climbing or aid pitches. It was just so amazing seeing and feeling the difference of the conditions. Really felt like a totally different route. Just goes to show how important conditions can be.

Exact same pitch, different conditions.

We found ourselves at the upper snow arete at about 5pm. This was our high point last Spring and what a difference. Masses of snow, no wind and very relaxing. The team of Frenchies had continued ahead. We were worried in case they were going to bivvy here as well, but they had decided to continue on and climb the whole route in a day. Which to be honest I think Jon and myself would have managed this as well, but we had an awesome bivvy spot. We could take our time the next day and actually maybe even enjoy this thing! Anyways, we hacked and stamped out our ledge's into the snow. Organised the bivvy gear and made ourselves comfy for the night. It was a very calm night. Starry sky and no wind. For some reason I had another restless night and couldn't sleep much. Jon was fast asleep and snoring away. Not for long though. Even though the bivvy spot was awesome, it was still exposed slightly to the upper head wall.

Jon leading up to the snow arete bivvy spot.

The snow arete bivvy spot. 5 * view, with 5* exposure.

Photo; Jon Griffith

Whilst cocooned in my bag I heard this loud screaming whistle. Straight away I knew something was falling from above towards us. I instantly crunched up into hedgehog safety position (technical term). Suddenly, 'BANG!!', Jon starts screaming in pain. ''Fuck, this is bad!'' I thought straight away. I kept asking Jon if he was ok, but because his ledge was just above mines I couldn't really see how he was or what damage was done. ''My... my.... my....'' He blurted out a few mumbles. ''Oh no, he's broke his arm, his leg, something bad'' I thought. Then he managed to tell me, ''My.... BALLS!!''. A large block of ice had fallen through the air, reaching terminal velocity and was instantly stopped by Jon's balls. Can you imagine lying fast asleep on your back and having a block ice dropped on your privates? I would like to say that I was actually very sympathetic to him. Guarantee if it was the other way around he would be laughing straight at me. I did mange to get some sleep after that, and with a small grin on my face for some reason...

Jon getting tucked in for the night. Pre ball tap.

We woke around 5 the next morning. Had our breakfast and was off by 6. Still dark I headed up the first pitch. Which was a tricky pitch for breakfast. However we were about to be rewarded massively. You see the route takes the North East face of the Walker Spur, so the upper head wall gets some sunshine first thing in the morning. For the next few pitches we were climbing with the sun on our backs. There's not many hard North face routes in the Alps where you can climb in the sun. It just made the experience so much more pleasant.

Loving the morning sun.

On the upper head wall. The route has some amazing exposure at the top

Myself on one of the headwall pitches.
Photo; Jon Griffith

The head wall rock is a lot looser than the rest of the route, which makes it pretty tricky in places. The upper head wall crux consists of a steep exposed start, followed by a tenuous traverse into a groove and then onto an ice smear. The best description I heard of this was, 'a Gogarth E3 pitch''. Which I think suits it very well. Jon lead this pitch, and carried on with the upper ramps. Which still had a few awkward moves in them, but we knew it was almost over with.

Jon on the top crux pitch. Gogarth E3!

Myself following Jon up the last ramp.
Photo; Jon Griffith

I followed Jon out of the face and onto the summit of the Grandes Jorasses.We now had well and truly broke our 'Jorasses curse'. Straight away we congratulated each other, and I actually managed to get a hug from Jon. He told me this would be the first and the last, we'll see about that! The main thing that struck me on the summit was how hot it was. I stripped down to the base layers right away. Then we chilled out on the top for a while, making some tea. Even though we put it off for a while, we both knew what was coming next. The walk down. The heat of the midday sun had turned the snow pretty soft, which made it even more tiring. As we knew the descent pretty well we were down in good time. Which still takes 5 hours!

Start of the walk down.

To have finally climbed this magnificent route meant a lot to me. After trying it the first time with Jon I wanted to wait and climb it in proper 'nick'. Which is what I got. I've spent a bit of time on this route and  I'm glad of every moment on it. There's not many routes in the Alps that I would love to do again. But this is one of them!

So happy to top out on this route.
Photo; Jon Griffith

Summit shot.
Photo; Jon Griffith

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