American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Traverse of the Grandes Jorasses

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  • Publication Year: 1931

The Traverse of the Grandes Jorasses

Geraldine I. Fitz-Gerald

THE climbers of this trip comprised myself, with the guides Alfred Couttet and Anatole Bozon, of Chamonix. We left the cosy Cabane de Leschaux at 3.10 A.M. on August 31st, 1930. The night was perfect. Overhead twinkled my old friends the winter constellations. Taking a middle course up the Glacier de Leschaux, we followed smooth ice as far as possible by first bearing to the left, then to the right under the rampart of Pointe Young, thus keeping away from the séracs of Mont Mallet glacier. Bearing still to the right, we ascended the steeper slopes which lead under the advanced buttress of the Dôme de Rochefort. From here on we crossed several snow-bridges. Bearing again to the left, we approached the rimaye. It gaped through its glistening teeth; but its snarl proved to be nothing but a threat. We halted for a hasty bite; not caring for an icy seat, we stood, for the wind which precedes the dawn was blowing bitterly cold from the heights. Again we crawled upwards by means of carefully cut steps in the sheer ice.

As recently as last year on the Col du Géant, the superb valley of Courmayeur, flanked by the bulwarks of the Italian Alps, had suddenly appeared to me through shreds of cloud and a stinging blizzard. Today it burst upon me serene and golden in the early light. As before, I was dazzled with its beauty, and could only stare at it in bewilderment, scarcely breathing, while the guides rummaged in their rucksacks for breakfast. We had gained the Col des Grandes Jorasses by 7.15; we left it about twenty-five minutes later.

The west ridge is attacked straight up from the Col, rather towards the north slope. Good holds are plentiful, although apt to be small. We found the rocks ice-coated and cold to grasp; but the rock is solid ; no loose or treacherous stones here. Pointe Young was attained at 9.30 A.M. From then on, the climber has only to follow the ridge.1 As regards rock-work, Pointe Young is perhaps the best part of the expedition. Between it and the next Pointe there are a series of drops punctuated by knife-edges on which we all cheerfully tore our hands. Between Punta Margherita (4,066 m.) and Punta Elena (4,045 m.) we halted for a twelve o’clock lunch upon a sunny ledge, and emerged later on Pointe Whymper (4,196 m.).

Between the twin summits is a deep notch. We were now ploughing through snow softened by the warm sun. The crust broke up and slid away in miniature avalanches. To gain time, we hung the corde de rappel on a little mushroom of ice and skidded down. Huge curling cornices leaned northward toward Chamonix, dangerous, but resplendent against the sky. A short upward pull, and Pointe Walker, the summit (4,208 m.), was reached by 2.30 p.m.

From Pointe Walker the ridge continues in a straight line eastward down to the Col des Hirondelles, some 800 metres below. At first easy, in spite of fresh snow, the rocks soon became ice-coated. Up here, the rock itself is in good condition, but the ledges are littered with débris. Occasional vertical gaps called forth the corde de rappel.

It is rather hard to recall the various steps of five continuous hours with one’s nose to the rock-wall. It was a succession of gigantic columns, tilted at an agle of about 70° and fluted with rectangular couloirs. These afforded good holds and plenty of friction—almost too much of a certain variety. The famous V-shaped notch (which for a long time blocked climbers on the ascent) we rioted down in a single rappel 35 metres long. Here we found the pitons left by the guide Adolphe Rey, who made the first ascent in 1927. Mr. Geoffrey Winthrop Young, in writing about this ridge,2 mentions “a party of speed and power” taking six and one-half hours from the summit to half way down to the V-notch. We felt that the whole ridge should not occupy more than four hours in all.

Ours was a race with daylight. Without the glimmer of an afterglow, the sun dropped from view with an awesome finality, and the first stars sprang out. At 7.40 P.M. we reached the Col des Hirondelles, just in time to peer over its vertical steeps and gauge our descent on to the glacier below.

At this point the awkward dilemma was presented to me whether to continue down in the dark or to bivouac where we were. As both horns looked equally unattractive, I temporized ; it would be less draughty farther on. Perched on the only possible ledge about one-fourth of the way down, we still discussed bivouacking during our first meal after eight hours of steady going. For diversion we snarled like puppies over our chicken, supplementing the pièce de résistance with what remained at the bottom of the sack: a handful of crumbs mixed with raisins and what-not, a watery tea, and lemon drops in sticky pink and green paper.

Night was now upon us with a vengeance. The rock was completely rotten; crazy fragments of all sizes gave away at the slightest provocation. We could trust to nothing, and yet had to assure ourselves in everything. The rubbish, which we pushed off before us, howled through the darkness like discomforted avenging ghouls. All afternoon we had had to face the rock, telescope into ourselves, seize with our fingers the beading held with the toes and scrape down again to arm’s length or even further to the next beading. By daylight this is all very well. I was now moving between two shadowy forms, that of Couttet vaguely blocked out against an indigo glacier directly below, that of Bozon on an equally indigo but spangled sky. Bozon proved the less shadowy, as I could not always prevent his standing on my head or trampling my already-tortured fingers. On the black rock it was a game of hide and seek with the holds, treacherous ones at that. And although we kept in close formation, the fear of dislodging a large rock upon my companion below was a constant source of worry to me.

By rare judgment and guiding, Alfred Couttet brought us down below the great rimaye. Once on the snow, pale starlight helped us around the larger crevasses and over several snow-bridges. We skated down two steep snow slopes on the corde de rappel with safety and dispatch. After that we made good progress. Our descent from the Col had been tedious if not monotonous; with a good moon our speed would have been much better.

At 1.30 A.M., September 1st, three weary climbers returned to the hospitable Refuge de Leschaux. Four and a half hours later they were trotting down the Mer de Glace toward Montenvers and Chamonix. The first complete traverse without bivouac of the Grandes Jorasses had been accomplished in 22.20 hours, with stops. Alfred Couttet thinks it should be done in 18 hours. Our climbing conditions were pretty bad.

As a matter of interest it might be well to recall the first great ascents of the mountain. Tlius, on June 24th, 1865, the western summit of the Grandes Jorasses was attained by Edward Whymper with the guides Michel Croz, Christian Aimer and Franz Biner. At the summit they met with a violent storm. Two days later some guides from Courmayeur, Henri Grati, Julien Grange, Joseph-Marie Perrod, Alexis Clusaz and Daniel Gex followed the first party’s traces to the summit.3 One June 30th, 1868, “Mr. Horace Walker, with Melchoir Anderegg and Johann Jaun, of Meyringen, as guides, and Julien Grange, of Courmayeur, as porter, ascended the highest peak of the Grandes Jorasses."4 Innumerable other climbers followed. Of the two expeditions mentioned, both ascents and descents were made from the Courmayeur side. It was likewise from the Italian side that Mr. Geoffrey Winthrop Young and Mr. H. O. Jones, with Joseph Knubel and Laurent Croux, accomplished the first descent of the northeast ridge, the 11th of August, 1911. Three days later, without Croux, they made the first ascent of the west ridge, scaling but not traversing over the Punta Margherita. Mr. Young writes of the Margherita: “To try the ridge would be waste of time.:"5

For this trip, good weather and climbing conditions are essential. An early start is advisable; but climbers would do well to wait for the sun before beginning the rock-work since about twice as much energy is consumed upon icy or even cold rock as on warm. This fact is not always taken into account even by seasoned climbers. Again, mid-summer is the best season for this trip both on account of the length of time required and on account of the altitude of the peaks to be crossed. In the old days it was necessary sometimes to bivouac because of scarcity of cabins and refuges. This, in my opinion, should no longer be attempted, as few people are able to stand the rigors of a night at high altitudes unless highly specialized equipment is used.

The new cabin of Leschaux is an ideal one for climbers. Unusually comfortable and well-appointed, it greatly facilitated this particular traversing of the Grandes Jorasses. In closing, the writer cannot resist the desire to express her appreciation of the great work of those who blazed the way before her.

1 See A.J., xxvi, p. 245-6.

2A.J., xxvi, p. 238.

3Scrambles, 2nd Edition, pp. 344-5.

4A.J., Vol. IV, p. 157.

5“On High Hills,” p. 267. See also A.J., xxv, p. 163-4; xxxvi, p. 393-4.

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