GRANDES JORASSES, EAST FACE

Posted on: September 1, 2006


The 750-meter east face of the Grandes Jorasses (4208m) can only be seen from the far end of the Val Ferret. This so-called "Lost Face" has three parts: a shield of slabs, with a couloir in the middle; a steep, 300-meter wall with many roofs; and a mixed section with loose rock that leads to the end of the Tronchey Arete. Giuseppe Gagliardone and Giusto "Il Fortissimo" Gervasutti made its first ascent in 1942 (during the war!), by what was surely the most difficult route opened in the Alps before 1950.

Lionel Daudet on the first ascent of Little Big Men (VI 6a M5 A3, 750m) on the east face of the Grandes Jorasses. The climb, which was named for Jean-Christophe Lafaille and Damien Charignon, was completed in predominantly poor weather. [Photo] Philippe Batoux

On March 14 Lionel "Dod" Daudet and I set off on our second attempt to climb a new line between the Gervasutti and Groucho Marx (Cristiano and Fabio Delisi, 1983). Since avalanche hazard threatened the summer approach, we reached the Col des Hirondelles via a 350-meter couloir (III M5+ max) on its north side, then traversed to the beginning of the face. We then began climbing the Gervasutti, which in winter entailed 250 meters of M6 WI4 with a pendulum to reach a snowfield.

We installed our portaledge at the base of the wall. After three A3 pitches, we arrived at a smooth section. Since we didn't want to drill, we made a double pendulum to rejoin the Groucho Marx cracks, then left them two and half pitches later to follow a roof-topped dihedral.

Not until I raised my head above the roof did I realize how hard it was snowing. The first of many spindrift slides forced me back down. I placed a piton and pulled myself up; now the spindrift only hit me in the chest, and I could still breathe. As Dod took the lead, his rope disappeared into a void of snow.

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For the first time in my climbing life, I'd been keeping in contact with a meteorologist. Before we started, the forecast had been excellent: eight days of good weather. In the end, we had four days of sun and four days of storms, with the biggest and most frequent spindrifts I've ever seen. Each day, the meteorologist said there would be good weather the next day, with a storm to arrive on Saturday. Each day, the spindrift became stronger. Given the "good weather" thus far, the thought of Saturday's storm terrified us.

The weather improved, however, and we reached the top of the wall, climbed the mixed section (M5 A2) to the Tronchey Arete and arrived at the summit of Pointe Walker on Thursday, March 23, at 2 p.m. We rappelled the route and began to wade through a meter and a half of deep snow in the Col des Hirondelles.

A few seconds after I started to worry about avalanches, a "whooff" sounded; a fragile layer collapsed nearby. If the slope went, I might be pushed over a serac. I asked Lionel to belay me as I traversed the exposed area until the rope grew tight. Suddenly Lionel screamed. I jumped over a step and plunged my ice axe. The avalanche went between us, then cleared the serac. Fifty meters wide.

We still had to cross another similar slope to reach the start of the rappels. Dod and I continued now on two different sides of a snow ridge. Again the slope broke, thirty meters above me; I planted my axe and watched as most of the avalanche poured into our descent couloir.

After fetching our equipment from the bottom of the east face and making four, 100-meter rappels down this couloir, we returned safely to our skis, left eight days before. Straight to Annecy. Two large pizzas, a bath, hot water and proper, separate, beds were waiting—strong motivation to get down quickly. On Saturday, when our long-dreaded storm indeed arrived, we were safe at home.

We named our route Little Big Men (6a M5 A3), in homage to Jean-Christophe Lafaille, lost on Makalu this January; and to Damien Charignon, who perished in an avalanche on Serre Chevalier this March. Both short in height, the two were, nevertheless, alpinists of great stature.

—Philippe Batoux, Annecy, France



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