Monday, November 15, 2010

Colton-Mac, Dru Couloir and others

Gav Pike
After the poor autumn conditions of a year ago, this year's fall brought excellent ice and great climbing to the Mont Blanc massif. I arrived back in Chamonix pretty psyched to hit the mountains after the start of my Guides' scheme training in a very rainy North Wales.
Following a weekend spent piecing some mixed pitches together and getting re-acclimatised on the Tacul Triangle, we decided to get on the Dru Couloir. One of the lines above Chamonix, it is nevertheless a tricky one to get in good conditions, with a good covering in the initial icy couloir required to facilitate a fast ascent. After hearing reports of an ascent the previous week, and after scoping the entry couloir from Les Praz, we jumped on the Montenvers train to head up.
The initial couloir passed quickly in the dark, until I was faced with a myriad of route-finding options to gain the Nominee crack. Unfortunately, on seeing a French team making fast progress out to the left, I chose the wrong one. It turned out the French guys didn't really have a clue what they were aiming for, and had to reverse a section of one pitch after a wrong turn. After spending two and a half hours on a ledge beneath the Nominee crack waiting for the French guys to climb it, and then belaying Dave, I was left to rue my error in not going direct.

Climbing the steep and strenuous Nominee crack
A further tricky pitch followed on a combination of aid and thin mixed moves, but after struggling in vain to match our route topo to what lay ahead and with only a couple of hours of daylight remaining, we pulled the plug. Frustrating, but at least now pre-armed with knowledge for a rematch.

Looking for the way ahead on the Dru Couloir

After this early-season failure, spirits were boosted by some excellent cruddy mixed on Pinocchio on Mont Blanc du Tacul east face, and the superb thin icy runnels of the Carrington-Rouse on the north face of the Pelerins.


Getting to work on the thin ice runnels on the Carrington-Rouse headwall

Nearing the top of the Carrington-Rouse
Work got in the way of the climbing for a while after this, and a period of settled high pressure frustratingly passed. The arrival of James Clapham, partner-in-crime from my two Alaska trips, for a week-long visit presented my last chance to get something big done before leaving town for the remainder of the autumn. The choice boiled down to two big faces: Grandes Jorasses or Eiger. The information from Grindelwald was short, and to the point. Too Much Snow. The Jorasses it was.
We had only a three-day window before a big storm was forecast to hit the area. So, one day to approach, one day to climb, and one day to get off the mountain. We decided to head in for the Colton-MacIntyre. The only problem was the reportedly buried and avalanche-prone slopes on the Italian side of the mountain (which is the normal way off the mountain) from a storm the previous weekend. The only feasible alternative was to rap the route. Jon Griffith and Ueli Steck's abseil descent of the route the previous year was possibly the only time this had been done in its entirety before. Certainly 1200m of non-equipped rappels was not something to be undertaken lightly, but arguably represented the more prudent choice in the conditions.

In the first steep ice couloir on the Colton-MacIntyre

We had teamed up with Dave Searle for the route, and he turned out to be quite the rope-gun, dispatching the steep and cruddy ice crux without problems. After a Droites-worth of calf-burning ice, the rotten granite of the headwall gave some pretty thin and badly protected mixed climbing, made all the spicier by the 5pm onset of darkness in the too-short November days. After three further pitches in the dark took us over onto the crest of the Walker Spur, and sensing the nearing summit, we started to look for somewhere to stop.
We were travelling pretty light, carrying only a belay jacket each and a two-man bothy bag for the three of us to squeeze into. We found an appropriately small ledge for the occasion just below the top of the Walker, and settled down for memorably claustrophobic night. -7C temps and a howling gale added to the enjoyment...
Finally dawn arrived, and being only a pitch of easy terrain from the wind-lashed summit, the decision to rappel was an easy one. Eight hours of endless abseiling and Abalakoving finally delivered us back to relative Terra Firma, and the long and hungry march back to Chamonix.
Moving up onto the top icefield on the Colton-Mac

James digging deep after 1000m of ice!

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