Les Courtes—Face Nord
“IN France we say that the third time is always lucky.” So we were greeted by the guardien of the Argentière refuge in the Mont Blanc massif. Layton Kor and I had been here two other times in futile attempts to do the north face of the Aiguille Verte, and always the weather had turned us back. It had been a disastrous summer weatherwise. None of the big classic mixed routes had been done except for the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses, climbed with eight bivouacs by a slightly more than enthusiastic Japanese contingent. Though it was already the beginning of September and Kor and I had been climbing all summer, neither of us had yet bagged one of the big ice climbs for which the Alps are so famous. Pressed for time now, we were willing to stick our necks out a little if given reasonable conditions.
I hardly had time to lay down my rucksack before Layton stepped out of the hut with an armload of bottles of beer. Sitting on the terrace, we watched the alpine glow leave the tops of some of the greatest ice climbs on earth. The Triolet, incredibly steep and dangerous-looking with its hanging séracs; les Courtes, 3000 feet of ice and ice-covered rock; les Droites, the most difficult ice climb in the Alps, whose first ascent took five days and whose third ascent was only done this year. (The first 800 feet are 55° to 60° ice over unclimbable rock slabs, where belay is impossible because of the thinness of the ice.) And last to lose its golden crown of glow, the second highest in the French Alps, the Aiguille Verte and its Couturier Couloir, the least difficult of the great north walls of the Argentière basin.
The Verte was our goal — but the sky was too blue and conditions too good; with the sun hardly down, it was already below freezing. No, we could always do the Verte. We should go for something really big: maybe the Courtes. The guardien’s son mentioned that the North Face Direct had been done only six times before, a testimonial to its difficulty when one considers that a fearsome climb like the Triolet has probably been done a hundred times.
Midnight. I toss and turn in bed, my eyes wide open. I can’t sleep, and get more and more angry because I have to sleep. There is only another hour before we have to leave. Kor is having the same trouble and so in a fit of anger we grab our gear and bolt out of the door into the moonlight. The glacier crossing is no problem with such a bright moon. At the rimaye we eat an early breakfast, or is it a late supper? We rope up 40 feet apart and move together. Kor goes first with his headlamp, ice axe, ice dagger and crampons, the tools of the ice climber. My world is a 20- foot square of 50° white ice; beyond is darkness. Above, another light moves at the same speed. Stick in the dagger, plant the pick of the axe, kick in one crampon, then the next — the German technique, efficient but extremely tiring on the legs and not nearly so sophisticated or varied as the French. Five hundred feet of 50° hard snow goes quickly when you move together.
It is three o’clock and bitterly cold and we gloat over our new double boots. Since the snow turns to ice and steepens considerably, we start to belay. Two pitches of 55° to 60° ice are scaled partly by chopping steps and partly by front-pointing. Two more fantastic leads of +60° are done all on our front points with piton belays. The dawn reveals wild exposure. The beginning 50° slope looks like a ramp compared to what we are on. Although the angle eases off to 50° again, we continue to belay and place ice pitons because the exposure is so awesome and our legs are so tired. Occasional pieces of ice come zooming by and so I fix a line from my waist belt to the ice piton that I am using for a dagger. Should I see a rock or hunk of ice coming, I can quickly drive in the piton.
We have to cope with three kinds of conditions now: hard snow, water ice and powder snow, which change every twenty feet. By now both of us are disenchanted with the German front-point technique and vow to learn the French method before we try another climb like this. Switching leads is no longer practical because by the time you arrive at the leader’s stance, your legs are too tired to lead on; one man leads for three pitches or so and then we switch. Lack of sleep, severe dehydration and the altitude have us moving like snails. On the summit I am completely exhausted. On the descent Layton belays me down all the ticklish spots. There is obvious avalanche danger, and in fact two people were killed on these same slopes a few days before, but we have no choice but to go down. At nightfall we reach the Couvercle refuge; it’s all over; it has been a hard day’s night. Summary of Statistics.
Area: French Alps above Chamonix.
Ascent: Les Courtes, seventh ascent of Direct North Face, early September, 1966 (Yvon Chouinard, Layton Kor).