Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I'm an alpine climber and my experience of big walling is pretty much zero, but a route on the north face of the Grande Jorasses which could almost be classed as a "big wall" has been on my mind for several years. "Manitua" splits through the centre of the extremely compact and steep monolith which forms the left flank of the Croz Spur. Starting up the Croz couloir then traversing towards No Siesta, before launching through the wall and moderate mixed ground above the Croz icefield and the Croz its self, Manitua could be described as a "mini-big wall" sandwiched by an alpine winter north face.

The line. Credit: GMHM Bohin/Ratel/Perillat

First climbed by the legendary Slavko Svetecic in 1991 in summer, the wall section was given 6c and A3, with a single bolt placed on the blank crux aid pitch, which was ripped out by a falling Remy Escoffier, making this pitch a real spicy one. As it stands in 2012 the route has seen a handful of summer repeats, and a smaller handful of winter ascents, which in this vogue, makes Manitua a very cold, slow and heavy ordeal.

The legendary Slavko Svetecic. The year before he put up Manitua, he soloed the Harlin on the Eiger in 26 hours in January. He died on Gasherbrum IV in 1995.
I first became aware of the Manitua wall when i was about 12, and i was flicking through an oldish "High Mountain Info" Lindsay Griffin piece about Mauro "Bubu" Bole, who over several trips over several months in summer had redpointed a free route based around Manitua at about 7C as far as the Croz icefield. Although that ascent was not what really inspired me, a photo from a helicopter of Bubu crimping on to a blank 7C granite wall 700 metres up a big north face, tantalizingly close to the snow field of the croz really stood out as one of the wildest photos i'd ever seen, and made me aware of this crazy corner of the Jorasses.

Since then i have stared over at the wall from the Colton Mac, Walker and No Siesta, and it never fails to take my breath away.

A view from the Walker a few years ago. If you look real close you'll be able to spot the offwidth bivi.

Another shot from the Walker, albeit very tilted.

It seemed like as good a time as ever to get on the thing this week with a solid forecast, and relatively (for March) nice temperatures. Jon was keen and most importantly so was Geoff Unger, an American friend and guide living in Chamonix. Geoff has a decent amount of aid and walling experience behind him, but very little big alpine mileage, in fact this was to be Geoff's first north face. With a third person being absolutely crucial on a route like this, we felt that as a three we had the necessary skills and experience to give the route a good shot.

Due to a very unfortunate slip about 2 hours away from the safety of the Boccalatte hut on our descent, one of our bags containing two cameras, several of Jon's SD cards, two sleeping bags, about 15 cams and some lesser stuff went for a long ride down the glacier never to be found, which is unfortunately reflected in this blog post by the photos starting at day 3.....but i will do my best to paint the scene leading up to that point.

Walking down the Midi arete i realised that i hadn't been on ski's since last June in Alaska, so with our huge bags full of aid kit and food for 5 days i clipped my Phantom 6000's in to my 150cm approach skis and took the Vallee Blanche easily down to the junction of the Leschaux glacier.

The approach from here was a sweaty one, dressed for a winter north face the sun beat down on us until we crept in to the shadow. Its such a weird feeling setting out on a route which will take a long time, you casually stroll over the schrund and it begins. When climbing a route such as this you don't just have to slow the pace of the climbing, you also have to slow the pace of your thinking, chopping it in to small stages, because if you start thinking about the last bit of the route, in 4 or 5 days time, it just seems too far away and unlikely to even contemplate.

That afternoon we climbed about 300 metres, up the Croz couloir then branched out across the ramp beneath the monolith. I led and Jon and Geoff followed with the big packs at a slow pace, until i found a small snowfield which looked like it would yield a bivi after some work. That night we spent on three small ledges a few metres apart, in partial sitting positions.
This is a shot from No Siesta, but we spent our first night on the face here, and the enxt day launched up the wall above. Currently it is much much drier than this.

It was crucial the next morning to get stuck in to the start of the difficulties as fast as we could, as we knew that to stand a good chance of reaching the Croz icefield on day three, we would have to fix a pitch above the bivi, to save time the next morning. So it was with much annoyance that we crawled along the horrible brittle black ice in the morning trying to access the start of the crack system. After an involved traverse in from the left, Jon reached the start of the crack system, and it was time to get the etriers out.

Immediately Geoff got going, lowering down in to the opposite corner, then back cleaning his way up level with us and then just kept going. A few pitches led us to the incredible "Offwidth Bivi". We hadn't had much practice before hand with regards to our hauling set up, but things had gone relatively smoothly, Geoff would fix the ropes, i'd jug the dynamic while wearing one of the big bags, cleaning the pitch and sorting the rack, while Jon would jug the free static and then haul the other big bag. We were going without a haul bag, which at times was a little scary, but with care it worked OK. Although not exactly mentally draining, jugging and hauling on these pitches was extremely physical and tiring.

Behind Jon is the offwidth that all three of us squeezed in to for the night.

While Jon started to excavate the Offwidth we would be sleeping in (just imagine sleeping inside a 40cm wide pipe), Geoff fixed the long first pitch of the next day. I have to say that that night was the most surreal bivi experience i've ever head. We could just and so fit three of us lying down in the offwidth, by shuffling to the very end and slightly overlapping heads/feet, but forget doing anything once in there, it was like sleeping in a straight jacket, and even my relatively narrow shoulders were squeezed against the sides of the crack all night. We took some good photos from inside the crack, its a shame no one will ever see them! It was a crazy feeling to be sleeping inside the mountain, halfway up such a wall and not tied in.....

The mornings were of course tough, cold and tired, my socks were also wet for the whole route after the warm ski in, and i never quite managed to dry them out. Geoff started jugging the free hanging static back up to the highpoint of the night before, while i jugged the dynamic, and cleaned the pitch which has some wild swings through a roof. Geoff however had the biggest wake up that morning when 4 metres away from the anchor, he found a serious core shot in the 11mm static.
Geoff jugging the static, while i clean the pitch from the dynamic.

We semi short fixed the next pitch, and i led off while Jon was still jugging the pitch before. A brilliant free pitch up a steep ramp for 50 or so metres with gut renching, base jumpable exposure. Flash pump while dealing with heinous rope drag on the steepest bit felt pretty wild straight out of bed.

Here we could finally see the last three pitches of aid climbing to the Croz icefield, the last one being the crux A3+ pitch. Jon put in an awesome effort jugging this diagonal pitch while wearing the heaviest bag, and joined Geoff and myself somewhat red-faced.

Myself jugging a pitch near the top of the shield.

The aid kept coming following a fantastic line through this phenomenal bastion overlooking the Colton Mac, and Geoff was ploughing through at a decent pace. These pitches were going diagonally leftwards, which resulted in some extremely scary swings on the static for me, while jugging and hauling. Jon would lower me out over the abyss with the big bag between my legs for maybe 20 metres until the anchor was directly above, and i could start jugging, then Jon would start cleaning.
Jugging and hauling fast so try and make as much ground as we could was pretty tiring.

Up until the last pitch, the aid was on the whole pretty straight forward. This pitch however was the infamous A3+/4 pitch with a snapped bolt, spicy slab and invisible bat-hook placement. It was hard to watch as Geoff worked at unlocking the sequence high above on the lip of the roof, it would be destroying to not make the Croz icefield that night. We could almost touch the thing, he was literally 5 metres away from it when he made a very unstable top-step move on a thin blade and fully extended attempted to poke a C3 in to an out of reach crack. Twice he came down hard on the pin on his etriers as his strength ran out. But third time lucky and we were through.
Geoff on the crux.
And again.

Another scary jug through thin, increasingly gloomy air saw us on the icefield. A big relief, above us the top third of the Croz spur looked like a dawdle in comparison. It was now late and pitch black, after cramponing up and sorting the ropes and huge rack, i traversed the whole breadth of the icefield in haste to find a cave/boulder feature i knew existed and thought we'd be able to dig out. After bringing the others across, a tiring digging session began until we all had a bum seat and the ordeal of sorting kit and melting snow could begin.

Dosing as we operated the stoves, we felt relieved that we were on easy ground, albeit with another cold night and big day (or two) still to come.
Third night on the face, Geoff falls asleep with his torch still on, while we melt snow.

The alarm went at 5.30 the next morning and the ritual of stoves, freeze dried mush, boots on, sleeping bags away and so on began. Jon led off up bullet hard black ice for about two rope lengths while myself and Geoff seconded with the big bags. The original way that Svetecic went to reach the croz spur took three moderate pitches of rock and placage to join the croz 200metres from the top at the breche on top of the tower. We decided that in its current, disgustingly dry state that this would be very unwise so we took the right side of the tower up on the Croz. This decision was confirmed as a good one when i looked down the pitches from the breche to see some horrible rotten rubble. Only one of the repeats i know of have repeated these three pitches, whether that was because of conditions i don't know.

100 metres of bullet hard ice to start day 4.

The big bags really hurt on the upper Croz.
The horribley dangerous top pitches were an unwelcome sting in the tail for our tired minds.
So close!

The day dragged on, with the big packs now full of all the excess rack crunching our shoulders and zapping our energy even more. I took over the lead again on the final tower (we went direct at the top of the Croz rather than the goullotte on the right which has become popular of late). I was shocked by how dangerous the climbing was, these last pitches do carry a reputation but i find it hard to believe that anyone could accept the risks currently on this section; tottering piles of jenga in steep grooves, which require you to pull on them rather than tip toe around. I downclimbed certain that if i went further a rope would be chopped or much much worse. I then traversed left in to a wide corner then broken spur which yielded two also loose, but justifiable pitches until i found myself standing on top on Pt croz with the sun on my face and the realisation that we'd just climbed Manitua. Well i say realisation, but i usually find these never actually sink in.
Can't quite believe it.

Another Jorasses descent dragged on and on, but could have been a lot worse if it wasn't for the firm snow. So close to the Moraine and Boccalatte hut a careless yet understandable mistake resulted in the aforementioned loss of a bag. A night of disturbed sleep and cramping muscles in the hut and another 4 hours of painful trudging and down climbing the next day saw three tired and dishevelled climbers stumble through the forest at Planpincieux on to the ski du fonde track, to the curious gazes of glamorous Italian families enjoying a saturday stroll.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Last Scottish Fling

Ten days ago i made my last trip up north to Scotland for this winter. Along with employees of Outdoor Research in the US who had come over from Seattle to see what all this scottish winter business is about, and the guys from the Mountain Boot Company in the UK, we spent 3 very soggy but fun days up on the Ben, staying in the CIC hut, which managed to keep its roof on for the duration of our stay.
     On the first day we caught what might have been (but hopefully not) the last decent Scottish conditions in a while, and i had a great day climbing with Alex Kutches, the president of Outdoor Research, and Glyn Padget, sales director for OR in the North of england. We climbed Comb Gully Buttress in alpine conditions. I climbed this route years ago with one of my original climbing partners, and so the day was also a little nostalgic for myself.
        The next couple of days were soggy to say the least, but i think the Americans left having had a "good" experience.

Alex Kutches, OR president, beginning to understand what is required of clothes in Scotland. Credit- Rich Bentley

As i say, that's Scotland over for me this year, but i had some great little trips with good friends and did some decent routes. I'm in Chamonix now, trying to sort myself out; find a new place to live, train, and hopefully climb some big stuff. And even start to think about big big stuff, a trip to Pakistan in the summer is starting to take shape.