American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Imagination—Grands Charmoz North Face

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1975

Imagination-Grands Charmoz North Face

John Bouchard

… L’imagination, inquiète et débile Vient rendre nul en eux l’effort de la Raison.

Dans leurs veines le sang, subtil comme un poison,

Brûlant comme une lave, et rare, et coule et roule En grésillant leur triste idéale qui s’écroule …

—Paul Verlaine, Poèmes Saturniens

THE north face of the Grands Charmoz bears a striking resemblance to a Gothic cathedral; the central icefield and upper gullies give an illusion of light rather than darkness to this north face, and the geometrical proportionality of the face forces the eye to follow the route itself—up the snowy cracks leading to the icefield which dissolves into the twin couloirs that reach directly to the summit. The eye, however, continues beyond the summit as if in search of some higher reality. I like to think myself a rational creature, yet I believe in higher realities, and climbing appears an activity that affirms a belief in those realities. The North Face of the Grands Charmoz interested me because it was a physical representation of a belief and to solo it would be an affirmation of my belief.

I began my training with a solo ascent of the Integral Traverse of the Ponset in the Maritime Alps. A week later I left Nice for a go at a Weltzenbach route; I was on my way to the north face of the Grossglockner with no idea what it looked like, motivated only by the promise of a friend that I would find it more than interesting. It was snowing while I was on the face, and the descent was difficult since there was neither visibility, nor were there tracks to follow. The greatest surprise was the water-ice I found on the face, contrary to all American stories about Alpine ice routes. I should have been surprised that my ice axe bent during the climb, but that well reputed gear had let me down many times before. After breaking through a snow bridge and only getting lost a few times, I was finally running across the glacier thinking about Chamonix.

Chamonix is a curious place in mid-June. It is empty! Snell’s field is clean and odor free and the grass is high. Somewhat confused on my arrival, I went up to the Plan de l’Aiguille and camped under a boulder.

Oddly enough I brought my ice-climbing gear and bivouac food. The next morning found me wading up the Nantillons glacier and elbowing my way up past the crowd coming down the descent from the Aiguille de I’M. I wanted a look at the north face of the Grands Charmoz. There was too much snow; even I could see that. Back in town at the Office de Haute Montagne they told me to wait a few weeks because the first hivernal had been done the previous March.

So I waited two days before I repacked my sack and set off again. The actual climb turned out to be technically the most severe mixed climb I have done. The lower section, the easy part, was plastered with snow, and the ice was just too thick to have been verglas. The stone fall in retrospect was light, but at the time was the heaviest I had seen. One small stone on the head would not have killed me, I merely would have lost consciousness, unroped, 1500 feet above the glacier. I thought of the characters back home who loudly claim that helmets take away the sense of freedom of a climb and a rucksack over the head is a better substitute; I wondered if they had ever climbed under a stone fall (later that summer, I never saw a climber on the hill without a helmet). My ice hammer fell off its webbing, and by the time I was halfway up the face, my axe was hopelessly bent. But there was a small marteau-piolet in the sack.

In the deep recess below the twin couloirs the ice lacked even the veneer of a few respectable white centimeters; it was grey black and full of grit. Mercifully here the stones were silent, but as if to compensate, the angle steepened into the twin couloirs. The cloud sealed me off from the blinking eyes of Montenvers and left me quite alone to choose the left couloir, the Heckmaier-Kroner variant.

The mixed climbing here was most serious. The filthy gullies of New Hampshire and the northeast couloir of Mount Owen had been useful training, but they lacked this intensity and length. Scraping and mantling up the jagged jumble of ice-cemented flakes, hand-jamming between ice and rock, and hoping the light snowfall would not become what I thought it was going to be, this climbing was that of the desperate concentration on a short unprotected rock climb. The summit cornices were barred by wet apparently bottomless snow flutes. I took off my sack, dug out the rope and tied one end to myself and the other to the sack draped neatly over a flake; anything to be lighter on that loose snow.

Above the cornices I had to flip the rope around a gendarme before I could haul the sack. It jammed. I made despairing bargains with God. Surely He had to realize the importance of the sack. I was almost crying. My duvet, my elephant’s foot, the stove, tea—hot tea. If I had some hot tea I would be all right.

I had been in the cloud for some time and without a watch I had no idea of the hour. Maybe I could leave everything and go down anyway. The sack finally came loose. I was laughing now with tears in my eyes, almost hysterically thanking God. The situation had me so drained that I came too close to falling off the final summit gendarme. My movements were clumsy and weak. I would have to bivouac. An icy ledge below the summit was suddenly covered with a rope and a bit of foam pad. The light snowfall had stopped, but I was still in the cloud. I took off my boots, got into my pied d’éléphant, and woke to a clear sky filled with the setting sun. I spent the rest of the night smoking cigarettes and brewing tea. It was the night before the summer solstice, the best night of the year for a bivouac, so the dawn soon saw me frying my boots to get them soft enough to put my feet in them. The descent was a relief after the remainder of the summit traverse, and the warm sunshine of the rocks below the M did finally arrive.

The rest of the summer was anticlimactic. I raced a frontal system up a verglaced Frendo Spur, finishing in the first bit of the storm, and I did manage to stop smoking for a few days to do the Austrian Route on the Courtes in three hours and fifteen minutes from the rimaye to the summit (that time I did have a watch!). John Porter and I did the Directe Américaine on the Dru, the Route Major on the Brenva Face of Mount Blanc, the Swiss Route on the Courtes, the French Route on the Pouce, and the North Face of the Pain de Sucre. There was no bad weather, excepting the usual drizzle or light snow and cloud, a grand total of one bivouac, and only one dangerous descent (not including the descents under the stone fall from other climbers).

Looking back, I’m filled with an unreasonable sadness. The greatest pain of the summer was the realization I had betrayed a trust, one of the higher realities, when I abandoned a partner for the glorious selfishness of a solo climb that never materialized. I suppose the sadness then, is the increasing awareness of a most important factor in climbing, death, which that summer, and all my summers had been absent. From the other side of what Messner calls non-competitive mountaineering, death is seen as something happening to the unprepared. Death is always a mistake. The first time under a stone fall or a descent after a stormy bivouac dispels that naïve notion. I have merely been lucky because climbing has held only joyful moments of exhilaration and a personal quiet triumph. It is at this juncture that the irrational decisions are made to continue, certainly under the spell of a “triste idéale,” one of the realities embodied in the north face of the GrandsCharmoz.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.