Saturday, November 21, 2009
Super Shroud - Grandes Jorasses
Jon Tinker, Rick Graham and Martin Doyle at the Leschaux Hut, July 1980.
I have told the story behind this picture numerous times down the pub but never ever written anything about it. It’s not the kind of tale that would ever end up in print but it had a big influence on my climbing career and its a bit of history that might not otherwise be told. Here goes:
Jon Tinker and Martin Doyle were aiming to climb the Walker Spur while Rick and I were looking at a new line to the left of the direct start to “Le Linceul” - (The Shroud) on the Grandes Jorasses.
We spent several days at the hut waiting for weather and conditions. Eventually we gave up and headed back to the valley.
A few days later it was clear that a stable period of weather was on the way. The only problem was that Rick and I had learned that we now had competition for the new line.
Tim Leach and Nick Colton had been chosen, as the leading British alpinist of the time, to attend the prestigious ENSA week in Chamonix, along with elite teams from all over the world.
Tim and Nick weren’t slumming it with the rest of us under a plastic sheet at Pierre d’Orthaz. Courtesy of the French Alpine Club they were accommodated in the ENSA building at the north end of Chamonix. Of course we would have done the same if we had the chance but their privileged lodgings meant that they weren’t fully in the info loop of campsite society. As such it came as shock to us that on the morning before we planned to walk back up to the Leschaux Hut (link shows the new hut), and make another attempt on the new line, that they were also intent on trying the same line and were heading up there that very afternoon.
What to do? Nick more than anyone had a strong claim to the route having made an audacious ascent of the stunning central couloir between the Walker and Whymper Spurs with Alex MacIntyre four of years earlier. Tim was also an alpinist of enviable talent having made solo ascents of the Super Couloir and the north face of The Droites the previous year.
We had to get on the route before Nick and Tim, but both of us would have to wait until at least after mid-night for conditions to be cold enough.
Knowing that Nick and Tim had complimentary hut passes we assumed that they would make use of the free accommodation. This was our chance to get ahead.
Rick and I walked up the Mer de Glace at midday; much earlier than one would normally set off for a two and half hour walk to a hut. Instead of climbing up left to the hut we continued up the glacier in the heat of day until we reached a large boulder in the middle of the glacier, some distance above the hut.
There we waited. All afternoon we waited, until at last we could see two tiny figures coming up the glacier towards us. Would they head left to the hut or keep walking straight up glacier to the foot of the route? To our relief they headed left and climbed the few hundred feet from the glacier to the hut.
The trap had been sprung. Nick and Tim arrived at the hut thinking they had the mountain to themselves while we waited enough time for them to unpack their gear and relax into the hospitality on offer as guests of ENSA.
I would like to think that we stepped out from behind our boulder just as they were relaxing with a beer on the hut veranda looking through a pair of binoculars. Perhaps because I had slight pangs of guilt at our questionable tactics I never got around to asking either of them if this was the case or not.
We waded up towards the foot of the route in soft afternoon snow knowing that we were at least an hour ahead. I can’t remember much about the early evening except that we were sitting in snow buckets close to the bergshrund until around mid-night.
The temperature had dropped below freezing and it was time to go. Rick was definitely a stronger ice climber than me. I’m not sure if I conspired to not get the crux pitch or not but in any event I led a long steep-ish pitch over the bergshrund to rocks at a point where the angle steepened. I think there was probably some moving together.
The belay was not amazing, consisting of a few micro nuts and tied off pegs. As I turned to face out and bring Rick up I could clearly see two lights zigzagging down the path from the hut to the glacier. Nick and Tim were on their way.
No problem, they were at least two hours from the foot of the route. Rick set off up the steepening shallow couloir above. Of course it was dark so neither of us could see the length of the pitch or what was involved beyond the scope of our feeble torches.
The rope inched out steadily while a steady stream of debris trickled down past the belay. Time passed and the torches from below got closer. Rick placed a peg on the right wall and continued. More time passed but it didn’t seem like a really long time. The lights below were now crossing the bergshrund and climbing up the slope towards me. By now I could make out helmets and rucksacks in the halo of their own illumination.
Tim reached our belay followed quickly by Nick. The shout came from above to start climbing. Nick and Tim had hauled us in and were fully intent on climbing through and bagging the first ascent for themselves. As I left the belay Nick had swung leads with Tim and he was hard on my heels.
Though steep the climbing wasn’t too bad at first. But the angle soon increased and the ice deteriorated into unconsolidated vertical junk. As I looked up into the gloom I could see two vertical trenches, which had been ploughed by Rick’s left and right axes and crampons. He had been forced to dig deep to get axe placements.
The peg was about a third of the way up the pitch. It looked poor from what I remember. A thin blade placed behind a flake, about half way in. I un-clipped the rope and left the krab and sling for Nick to clip. At this point the climbing was precarious and near vertical.
The pitch just kept coming, with no further gear. After what seemed like a lot more than 50 metres the climbing reared up into a final vertical bulge. It was clear that we had been moving together at this point with nothing but a crappy peg between us. I could hear Rick but couldn’t see him for the bulge above. I think I may have asked for a tight rope, in any case I was very nearly off. I reached the screw belay shaken and frightened by the insecure and strenuous nature of the climbing.
We could both here Nick working on the pitch below. He sounded close to the belay and must have been starting on the final bulge when we heard a shout and whimper followed by the kind of noise you get from something falling through the air. Nick was off. The whooshing noise was quickly followed by another shout which assumed must be Tim getting ripped of the belay below. We waited for the sickening spectacle of head torches attached to unseen bodies accelerating down the face to glacier below.
Nothing came. Miraculously the peg runner held. The second shout did indeed come from Tim as he was smashed into the rock wall behind the belay while holding Nick’s 50-metre fall.
We shouted down and they seemed ok. Nick hand broken his hand and they abseiled off.
I think I might have led the next pitch but backed off a steeper pitch above which Rick led. We crossed the stone shoot above the steep climbing just as the sun was hitting the upper east wall of the Walker Spur. The rocks were already coming down. Once out to the left of the snowfield and stone shoot we were relatively safe.
The climbing was easy now if still steep. With no belays or runners we untied and trailed a rope each, preferring to look after our own safety rather than face the consequences of being dragged off the face in the event of the other making a mistake.
We reached the Hirondelles Ridge around mid morning. Inconveniently, I had to have a sleep part way to the summit of Point Walker. We managed to descend and get back to Chamnoix that day, hitching a lift back through the tunnel.
The route became know as ‘Super Shroud’.
I didn’t feel particularly elated, unlike the previous year when I was bagging the big classics. Maybe we’d pushed it a bit too much to be comfortable. I don’t know how Rick felt about it; I didn’t ask him.
Jon Tinker and Martin Doyle both went on to climb the Walker Spur in future years.