The Grand Voyage
A solo enchainment of 10 Alpine faces in 15 days
by Jean-Christophe Lafaille
translation by Ernest Sachs
Monday, April 3
After a railroad journey across beautiful bucolic Swiss countryside, I arrive at the Petite Scheidegg and the foot of the monster Eiger. I hike toward the north face to try to figure out this 1800-meter-high "ogre" which I am seeing for the first time. The concentration and nervous tension before the climb are taking their toll, particularly when I consider what this enchainment will bring over the next two weeks. It seems enormous; fortunately Gerald and Jean-Jacques are here….
Tuesday, April 4: The Eiger and the Monch
I spend a short overheated night in the dormitory, then get up at 4 a.m. to hit the Lauper trail with Jean-Jacques. The night is dark, and deep snow on the trail makes the going fatiguing. A third of the way there I get lost in rocky ice, losing valuable time. A series of snow, ice, and mixed pitches leads to the large upper face. All in all, conditions are bizarre: lots of snow down low, some in the rocky central sections, but the upper pitches are blown by wintry winds to reveal hard black ice. The top of the wall makes progress slow and exhausting because of the black ice, which is as hard as a sidewalk. But the open air above and empty crack between my legs offer an exceptional thrill — I'm a fly stuck on a mirror leaning at 55° or 60°, with skiers sliding down trails 2500 meters below me! Fantastic!
A broken axe point on this incredibly hard ice forces me to slow down and finish by a delicate mixed snow-and-ice pitch. I arrive with a degree of loneliness (the antenna on my radio is broken) at the windy summit after six and a half hours of free solo. The descent is quick but the going delicate on the south face of the Eiger as I rejoin the foot of the north face of the Monch (4099 meters). Despite fatigue and the handicap of a broken ice axe, I ascend this superb 600-meter mixed couloir in three and a half hours, finishing on the shoulder of the Monch 200 meters below the summit in an increasingly strong north wind. An atrocious descent through heavy snow via Monchjoch hut allows me to rejoin friends and rest after this long first day. I have
Thursday, April 6: The Alteschorn
After a rest day forced by the broken ice axe in which I travel from the Monchjoch hut (3629 meters) to Holandia hut (3225 meters), I climb the north face of Alteschorn (1000+ meters), establishing a new route in two hours, 15 minutes. Most of the pitches are 50° to 55°, with one section at 60° to 65°; the day is windy and gray. After a foggy and cold summit, I descend over black ice along the west arête, then get in some great skiing south toward the rocky site of the hut at 2640 meters. The hut is located in a magnificent natural shelter from the wind and snow. I spend a quiet and solitary afternoon waiting for friends to bring up a new ice axe so I can make a stab at the North Face of the Nesthorn (3806 meters) tomorrow.
Friday, April 7: The Nesthorn
I leave at 4:15 a.m., and am out on the Wetzenbach route by 6 a.m. The bottom of the face features snowy passages and seracs covered with black ice. The second step in the bottom section is exceedingly difficult, with hard- pack snow both above and below an overhang. I am forced to down-climb past the rocky central mouth because of hazardous snow conditions — with the hard ice and years of snow on the granite, the wall must be thoroughly saturated. The conditions are somewhat hazardous with a thin glaze of ice over rock up to 70°. At the start of the pitch I use aid in a spot of tough 6a. I reach the summit around 10 a.m., thoroughly happy after the thoroughly wild climb. A perfect moment of solitude! The fantastic view gives me a clear shot of the north face of the Matterhorn and even Mont Blanc beyond.
I find it dangerous going down the rocks to a point where I can put my skis back on. I've completed almost a third of my voyage and continue down toward the Rhone Valley, but have to stop for about six hours at a shepherd's summer cottage because of enormous avalanche danger present in the race slopes that I need to take to the ski slopes of Belalp. I then devote three extremely dangerous and nerve-taxing hours to cover only 300 vertical meters! I'll later decide that this section, far from the north faces, was the most dangerous leg of my journey. I arrive late in the valley, rest in my car, and go over the logistical needs for tomorrow. At night, I sleep at Visp.
Saturday, April 8
A day of rest in Saas Allmagell is imposed by the tiring travel from the Swiss Oberland. Tomorrow I’ll get under way again toward Italy and Mont
Rose, but today inactivity weighs on my shoulders. I feel terribly alone in this valley where so much is busily going on. The only real pleasure of the trip will be the hot shower, clean shave, and porcelain toilet!
Sunday and Monday, April 9-10: Mont Rose
Off at 6 a.m. for Moro Pass (2868 meters) and the dive into Italian territory. A lengthy transition leg alongside Lake Matmark reveals not another human anywhere in these vast dales; only old tracks guide me to the col, where I manage to find the east face of Mont Rose (4554 meters) bathed in sunshine. I leap into the yellow warmth and ski toward Macugnaga, where I blend in with the happy band of skieurs (and, more importantly, skieuses!) with my backpack, ice axes, and short skis. I pass through the warm and friendly village en route to the moraine at the foot of the immense face, where I find the Zamboni Zappa hut (2065 meters). The beauty of the alpine houses and the warmth of the valley invite me to slow the pace of my undertaking. I'd like to stop here, and I stretch out on the porch simply to contemplate the titanic sun-drenched face I'm about to challenge. Is this really important?
Two hours later I'm again in the cold of exposure above Zamboni. 2400 meters of rock — the largest single face in the Alps — stretch above me. The first glimpse makes me want to abandon my plan to follow the French route to duFour point: the jumbled glacier that flows to the bottom of the face is just too dangerous for a solo climber. In its place I take the classic Marinelli corridor, which starts at an ice flow part way up. I feel very lonely, and have a sudden urge to listen to music or to read a book, but my commitment to minimal weight in my pack deprives me of such pleasures. The burden of solitude is shattered when a fellow Frenchman arrives — he lives in Italy and knows this face well.
Up at 1 a.m. and out the door into the chill at 2 a.m. The only light is the moon's reflection off the top of the rock face above. I'm tired from yesterday's long climb. As I progress without particular difficulty along this lengthy wall I ponder the training that this enchainment demands. Much of the difficulty comes from the cumulative lack of sleep. Short nights and daylight naps are difficult to manage, and the constant need to remotivate myself to start each new climb becomes a passionate emotional experience. I had not expected the stress of the enormous contrast between completely focused solitude while climbing and the noisy gatherings with friends and strangers in the huts at night.
Tuesday and Wednesday, April 10-11: The Matterhorn
I find myself with my backpack at Shwarsee (2600 meters) in the middle of a motley crowd of tourists and skiers. The universally familiar silhouette of the Matterhorn (4478 meters) dominates the sky, drawing all eyes heavenward. We're in the midst of a photo session, and Phillipe Poulet keeps his eyes behind a camera. After a quick goodbye and final pats on the back, I relish the solo climb to the Hornli (3260 meters), traditional departure point for almost all Matterhorn climbs. I feel relatively calm, but I know tomorrow will be stormy.
Arriving at the hut I am happy to find Jean-Jacques Jaouen, my absolutely reliable logistic support, who has become an emotional lodestone for me throughout this immense project. Unfortunately, six other climbers also plan to do the North Face tomorrow, a bummer after the solitude of the Oberland and Mont Rose. This news upsets me more than the apparently unfavorable conditions on the rock. I am reluctant to climb with so many folks on the same north face, which seems terribly bleak and exposed to the north wind, spitting its rage beneath ominous lenticular clouds above. The radio predicts tomorrow's wind from 80 to 100 kilometers and the temperature between minus 20° and minus 25° — winter conditions guaranteed.
Another short, doubt-filled night. Up at 3 a.m. and en route at 4 a.m. I am the first one out on the rock of the North Face, but surprised by the width of the base of the Face, I start too far to the right and miss the Schmid route. I rejoin it via a long delicate crack and find it blocked by other climbers. I move quickly over the first section (which is completely iced over) in order to be the first onto the famous ramp. This presents the principal difficulties. Along the ramp the climbing becomes extremely precarious because of the weather — the lines, normally along solid ice, have become routes of delicate climbing on rather friable rock. Paradoxically, among the frightful dryness, even the slightest hold is revealed by the fine hail that fell two days ago during the bad weather I suffered on Mont Rose. I therefore assure progress by self-belaying with my rope more than I had expected and the hours fly by very quickly. The route proves to be a dangerous balance, like climbing a tile roof with Footfangs.
Around 4 p.m., during the final stages of the route, I get ready for a short section where I really need protection. I hang what little material I have on my harness, but in the process my clumsy hands drop my last pitons. I am screwed. All I can do is borrow some material or join one of the roped-up groups below me. I hold my position against the increasingly violent gusts of wind while waiting for French friends to reach me, and join them to finish off the wall, continuing at the lead position on the rope.
Progress slows and the climbing conditions remain dangerous. The north wind hammers even more violently on the knife-edge at the summit, where we arrive at 11 p.m. Despite the penetrating cold and gusts which threaten to throw my full weight to the other side of the Italian border, it is one of the most beautiful summits in the world.
We can't bivouac without equipment in these conditions without great risk, so we undertake an interminable down climb along the Hornli arête as the wind slams us about. It lasts all night, making vision almost impossible. I think I froze my cornea — I vacillate between complete and partial blindness for several hours!
Twenty-eight hours after leaving I finally reach the warmth of the hut. This major leg of the Grand Voyage has turned out to be a real street fight. I am exhausted but happy to have it behind me despite a touch of frostbite on fingers and toes. I try to revive my sense of touch with maximum hydration.
I can already see the north face of Breithorn which I am planning to climb tomorrow in order to fill the place of the aborted north face of Lyskamm two days ago. I think — no, I know now, after this most recent night battle that I am going to the Grandes Jorasses, the end point of my dream expedition.
Friday, April 14: The Breithorn
From the summit of Breithorn (4164 meters) I can see the Mont Blanc massif for the first time in the west. A new wall has been conquered, the seventh. Despite fatigue I have really relished this 1000-meter north face, which included a wonderful set of gullies in superb condition. It strikes me as perhaps a new route, but after the Matterhorn the passion of the climb envelops me once more.
A few hours and a few turns down the ski trail later, I head back to the Inneri Valley toward the Schonbiel cabin (2694 meters). From now on my solitude will be different. I am on the rails which take me to Mont Blanc and the Grandes Jorasses. Filled with emotion, I watch the symbolic landmark of the Matterhorn, on which I suffered so much a few days ago, disappear to my left. The dark enticing rock of this icy valley has totally wiped me out. I only look forward to tomorrow's objective, the North Face of the Dent d'Herens, which unfortunately looks more like an exhibition hall of seracs then it does a classic rock face. The evening is spent pleasantly in Schonbiel.
Saturday, April 15
No chance at all to do the Dent d'Herens with the threat of danger from the seracs. A long jaunt on skis against the headwinds coming from the famous Champney Zermat through the Valpelline Col, then over to the Dix cabin. Tremendous physical fatigue and emotional lassitude plague me today, but I spend a pleasant evening relaxing despite the deteriorating weather predicted for the night and tomorrow. I hope to negotiate both the North Face of Mont Blanc De Cheillon and the North Face of Pigne d'Arolla, but the weather may preclude that. We'll see.
Sunday, April 16: Mont Blanc de Cheillon
Easter Sunday, lost in the fog and the snow. A scary route over crusty snow which barely covers Rous Locks takes me to the summit arête of Mont Blanc De Cheillon (3869 meters) in two hours, 25 minutes, and then I make an even more frightening descent along the same route, all in rotten weather with a danger of avalanche down the central corridor of the face. I rappel a 130-meter section, then return to the hut and go down all the way to Arolla ahead of the weather. I hike on toward Orsieres. Tomorrow, by God, I'll get back to Mont Blanc. The weather report is still pessimistic for the days to come.
Monday, April 17
I move from Orsieres to Champex. The weather is better than predicted. On the long climb to the Col des Ecandiaes, I find my strength and morale have returned and I feel great. Thanks to the hospitality of the hutkeepers and the presence of Swiss guides, I spend a wonderful afternoon at the Trient cabin (3170 meters). Despite the weather, which remains unsettled and unpromising for the next few days, my goal becomes clear: I absolutely must get to the foot of the Grandes Jorasses tomorrow night, because afterward I will only have one day to climb the Linceul before a great depression overwhelms and wipes out any hope of completing the Grand Voyage.
Tuesday, April 18: L'Aiguille Verte
Fortified by the hopes of finishing off nothing less than the North Faces of Argentiere, the Droites, and Talefre in one major day, I "wake up" at 11 p.m. It’s folly, however, because it's very overcast and windy. I bide my time until 3 a.m., then get an atrocious start in the cold and violent wind. I decide to skip L'Aiguille d'Argentiere and head directly for the Col du Chardonnet (3323 meters). During this easy descent, I fall on skis, bashing my ankle.
A day that began badly continues — following bad weather and a painful ankle, I leave the Droites alone to scramble up the North Couloir of the Col of L'Aiguille Verte (3796 meters), a two and a half hour climb, give or take. From the summit I make a hairy descent in a major snowfall down the Talefre glacier. The only consolation of this disappointing day is the magnificent view of the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, the ultimate goal of my voyage.
Dark clouds cover the sky as well as my thoughts. I downclimb carefully to the Deschaux glacier, arriving at the hut shortly after noon in time for a massage and a little sun-bathing while I wait for the arrival of Yves and Gerald, who are scheduled to meet me with new ice axes (mine being completely worn out), some decent food, and their moral encouragement for the final leg of the adventure.
The evening is great fun; the three of us have the entire hut to ourselves. The only shadows on the wall now are the ache in my ankle and the worry of a shrinking window of opportunity because of the bad weather. This last climb is going to be a vertical road race; I hope my ankle holds up. Mercifully, the condition of the route is reassuring. Through the binoculars, the gullies appear to be in excellent condition, and I fall asleep quickly to this encouraging thought.
Wednesday, April 19: The Grandes Jorasses
Out of the hut at 4 a.m. Two and a half hours later, after a careful approach (because of my heel) and a few crevasses, I am at the top of the Linceul. I move onward in great spirits, despite the pain, to the ultimate leg of the voyage. The conditions turn out to be excellent and despite the few technical difficulties, I am at the Arête des Hirondelles two hours later. Things are happening almost too fast, and at first I don't realize that I am right at the end of my dream expedition with 10 classic alpine faces in my pocket (or rather in my legs).
The wind and the snow don't give me time to appreciate everything that is going on. I have no chance to enjoy my arrival at the Walker Point Summit. I have to head down right away. But which direction? I am reluctant to go down on the Italian side, or by the Arête des Hirondelles, because my rope is too short to do the necessary rappels and the rolling clouds are giving me pause. I finally decide that French character demands that I go right back down the Linceule. Three hours later, deafened by the wind and the snowfalls that fill the gullies, I jump the summit. I am again at the head of this mythical North Face. Visibility zero.With maximum nervous tension, I recklessly descend the glacier, and finally escape the Foehn cloud just above the Leschaux hut.
It suddenly hits me that it's over. I slide down the glacier to rejoin the classic superhighways of the Vallee Blanche which lead me back to the world of normal people. My head is empty. Nervous tension disappears, displaced by utter exhaustion. I sit for a long quarter hour all alone on a chunk of rock in the middle of the glacier. Several gum drops, tears, and swallows of water later I walk toward the valley, my voyage behind me, toward friends who await below.
An afternoon in Chamonix; an hour later it snows. But in the middle of the noise, the hustle and bustle, and the warmth of friendship, what difference does it make? My Grand Voyage was beautiful, and I am glad it is over.
Summary of Statistics:
AREA: Western Alps, Europe.
SOLO ENCHAINMENT: Lauper Route (TD+, 1500 meters) on the Northeast Face of the Eiger; North Face (TD, mixed, 750 meters) of the Monch; North Face (1000 meters) of the Alteschorn (new route); North Face (TD/TD+, 900 meters) of the Nesthorn (new finish); Marinelli Couloir (D+, 45° to 55°, 2300 meters) on the East Face of Monte Rosa; Schmid Route (EDI, 1000 meters) on the North Face of the Matterhorn; North Face (1000 meters) of the Breithorn (new route); North Face (TD-/TD, 650 meters) of Mont Blanc de Cheilon; North Couloir (AD+, 800 meters) of the Col de L’Aiguille Verte; The Shroud (TD+, 750 meters) of the Grandes Jorasses. Travel between objectives accomplished on skis (180 kilometers) or by foot.