When you think of classic alpine routes, you think of Chamonix. It’s host to more ‘classics’ than anywhere else in the world, and I guess the fact that it’s the birthplace of alpinism has a lot to do with that. Quite apart from the Whymper years of Alpinism, Chamonix has also been the stage for the progression of technical Alpinism. Of course it is not the only place, but ever since people started moving off easy aretes and in to the confines of dark north faces, Chamonix has always been at the centre of it all; you get the impression that ‘cutting edge’ was coined here and I guess that is what makes climbing out here so rich with history. But among all the hundreds of classics there are to do out here, there will always remain the super classics; the ones that combine five star climbing with an epic tale so enshrined in our sport, that make them the ‘must haves’ of Alpinism. The Desmaison Gousseault is one of them.
The story alone behind the first attempt is one of the most famous accounts of survival, tragedy, and political bickering that Chamonix had and has ever seen. It led to a complete upheaval of the way that rescues are carried out in the valley, and publicly exposed deep personal rifts within the community. But that is old history now; sometimes you can get lost in your own progression and ego to remember that over 40 years ago pioneers were opening these lines with equipment we wouldn’t even think about giving away nowadays, without weather forecasts, without blogs, tracks or freeze dried meals, even without cams. Today’s watchword is speed- it took eight days for the first ascent of this route. Eight days of rock climbing up verglassed granite, hammering in pitons, and a cigarette at night instead of a meal. It’s insane. Speed wasn’t a concern, it was never a race, suffering was the concern. It was accepted practice, shit was always going to hit the fan, that much was certain. I remember on one of my first visits to Chamonix, René Desmaison was doing a book signing outside one of the Chamonix book stores; I remember seeing the posters up announcing it but being too juvenile in my Alpinism history to know what he had done, even if I did recognise the name. The day of the book signing I walked past the shop and there he was, an old man sitting by himself outside the shop, and no one giving him a second glance; if I’d known then what I do now I would have brought him a coffee and gotten him to sign everything I owned, but like everyone else I just walked on by. A missed opportunity to shake the hand of a legend.
The winter of 2013/2014 had been a very bitter one. The North Faces were completely bare, and it had been a long time since the Grandes Jorasses had seen good conditions. So much so that I’d given up on the idea of waiting and felt like scratching my way up something would be better than nothing. The Desmaison Gousseault had been on the list for a while and I figured why not give it a go? Instead of packing light and fast, it would be heavy and slow, but then this is winter climbing and that’s accepted practice. Roping in Ally Swinton we skied in to the base of the Jorasses. Coincidentally we weren’t the only ones to come up with this idea and a team of three came in hot on our heals- it’s odd but also comforting to know you’re not the only ones with these mad ideas sometimes.
We headed up the start of the route straight away hoping to make the best of a short weather window. The route was dry and snowy as expected and progress was slow, but we settled in for the night on two very insecure snow scoops under the full moon. The night was long and cold.
The French team were good enough to let us lead off first thing in the morning so we headed off up the rock pitches and to the first snow field above. You forget how short the days are in winter really, and that’s a bit of a problem sometimes. The second ramp was almost devoid of ice making for very delicate and run out climbing on thin blobs of ice, never hard just very tenuous. As we neared the top of the ramp, the leader below knocked off a flake that slammed in to the belayer below. I heard the shout, and watched nothing to do, as the flake made a direct hit on Helias’s shoulder. Game over for them.
I felt like it was game over for us too though. We were moving a lot slower than we had thought, and were going to be bivying low down enough on the route that night that we would run out of food and gas. Bailing from the top of the second ramp was also relatively easy, and so we did. The face was so dry though that stone fall was a real problem down The Shroud, which is the easiest line of retreat. As we neared the base the shrund beneath us collapsed taking out our skis; this could be a problem. Arriving at the avalanche zone we spent a while walking up and down the slope but amazingly found all our kit and skied off back down to town.
A hot bath and a couple of days later, I was keen to head back in again. This time we would go much heavier, food and gas for 3 days on the wall. The conditions called for it. Ally was keen again and so we headed back in, this time we would be alone on the wall as is so often the case in winter up here. Opting for a leisurely night at the base in the First Light we started early the next morning- a terrifying start up The Shroud that was pinging with rockfall as the sun hit high above. We had the advantage of knowing the start from our previous attempt, so we made good progress. However we still ran far in to the night. The ramps were desperately thin and run out, making progress a time consuming puzzle. Ally led up the rotten rock pitch and in to the sunset, and I aided my way through the crux in the dark. We had hoped for a nice bivy on the ice field above the crux but on arriving it took me about 15 mins to even set up a belay. There was no ice let alone snow. We spent over an hour covering every square inch of this loose steep slab in the dark desperately trying to find somewhere, but there was nothing. In the end I managed to sling one of our hammocks up on the slab and Ally quested off to sit it out on a pile of loose rocks. It was 1am by the time we finally got in our bags- tired, hungry, and dehydrated. It was a mission to even find snow to make water, and being 15m apart didn’t help either. Above me in the dark I could just make out the breakfast pitch for he next morning- it looked fricking hard.
We got up with the sunrise, keen to make as much progress as possible as our weather window was tight. To my shock I realised that my freeze dried scrambled eggs required frying in a frying pan, given how hungry I was it wasn’t a great start to the day. I tried one spoonful of the rehydrated egg soup but just poured it all away, and got myself ready for the breakfast pitch.
In a nutshell the breakfast pitch was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever led. Not helped by the epic day before, and by the lack of water and food, I sketched my way up this insecure slab for what seemed like an age. Thankfully Ally isn’t one to get angry with long belays. It was one of those leads where you’re about to fall and rip everything out for almost all of it. I was wrecked by the time I got to the next belay. Another short overhanging section took us on to easier ground, but also the bullet hard ice of the third ramp. But at least here we were picking up some speed. In theory it was plain sailing to our next bivy spot just at the base of the top headwall, but in reality it was frustratingly slow again. Linking thin sections of black ice smeared on steep slabs. The weather had come in, we were climbing in a cloud in bitterly cold northerly winds. I was absolutely freezing cold leading in my winter down jacket and I was starting to loose my cool. Arriving at the supposed bivy spot was another huge let down- again the lack of snow forced us to cover every tiny possibility for a bum seat but in the worsening weather and the dark things were starting to look bad. In the end we rapped back down three pitches to a sheltered spot that might yield us a bum seat each. We were wrong. As the wind strengthen and everything started to cover in rime the humour levels were bottoming out. I managed to nestle in to my down bag supported by my harness and the hammocks that held our feet whilst Ally did his best to do the same. It was pretty grim, but it’s amazing how things brighten up when you’re in your bag. The cold was debilitating. The cramped bivy was worse than just cramped though- the wind and snow funnelled in to everything, and the hammocks snapped about bitch-smacking my face all night. Urgh. Ally tried to make water but really the only thing to do was to just try and pass out and ignore it all, which I did whilst he got the stove out. He tried to make me a freeze dried meal but ended up putting cold water in- I waited 15 mins eagerly for my first meal since last night, but was too tired to really care when I realised that it wasn’t going to work. Like the honey badger, Ally didn’t really give a sh*t, and had already gone to sleep. F*ck it.
The next morning broke, and neither one of us had gotten much sleep. At one point Ally had tried to use me as his mattress and I woke up to find him asleep on my chest- all very adorable but somehow the bromance wasn’t really working for me, he had f*cked up my dinner after all. The wind was still battering us but it had died down a bit. My main concern was that we had to get off this face that day as this was the start of a bad weather system that was moving in for the next few days. Given the history of the first attempt I didn’t want to repeat a modern day version of it. We had a chat and decided to bail, here we were at least protected from the wind a bit by the Walker Spur to our backs, questing up the headwall above would bring us in to full contact with it.
The obvious option for rapping at this point is to head down The Shroud. Unfortunately the wind was roaring up high and knocking down all sorts, turning The Shroud in to a real no go. We rapped down far enough so that we felt we’d gotten out of the winds up high and called for the heli. For some reason it felt ok to do that, I can’t explain why. In retrospect we could have tried to rap down the Desmaison Gousseault to the bottom but at one point we would have to cross The Shroud and I didn’t really fancy our chances lower down. Still you do get a feeling of guilt when the chopper comes in and you realise you’ve put others at risk because you didn’t want to put yourself at risk- at least you get to choose.
Twenty minutes later and we were in sunny Les Praz at the DropZone. It’s so surreal, but that was it for that season. The Desmaison had definitely won. We’d fought really hard and climbed some of the hardest pitches I’ve done on the Jorasses but there was just too much of it. Sitting outside the pizzeria in the sun with a beer in hand, and I didn’t feel too bad about bailing either.
Fast forward to the autumn of 2014. What a difference 6 months can make….
Back from Pakistan and I had been busy with work shoots as well as getting my Grandes Jorasses rat well and truly fed. After 2 grand days out on this face it was time to get back on the old nemesis: the Desmaison Gousseault. Who better than with Ally of course. This time conditions were visibly different- as in there was a line of white névé the whole way rather than a line of blank slabs. Choosing to avoid our previous disasters on the route, we went for a bivy option high up on the face; nice and relaxed.
As usual conditions dictate everything. The photos speak for themselves really but keen to move fast we led the same pitches we had done the winter before and arrived at our high point nice and early. What had taken us two really long and hard days 6 months earlier had taken us a relaxed and short day this time round. We managed to hack out two 5 star sleeping platforms in the arete - the same one that quite simply hadn’t existed last year. It was my 9th bivouac on this face, and certainly the only one where I’ve actually been comfortable. The Jorasses is the reserve of the sitting bivy, and often much worse than that. So to find such comfort is quite a gift and I was fed, hydrated and tucking myself in as the sun started to set. Win. Quite different from last year.
The following morning we headed off up new terrain (for us) and even in to the sun. Climbing on a North Face in the sun? This route just gets better and better. Ally flew up the next few pitches and I took over at the awkward and exposed traverse in to the final ramp to the top. I had a ‘moment’ trying to rock climb out of the second crux pitch (i.e. refused to commit to a rock-over for a while) and before long we were romping up to the summit proper.
It was kind of odd toping out to be honest; the Desmaison Gousseault had been quite the journey- the actual ascent had been pretty relaxed and fun, but the attempts from the winter had given it a bit of a black mark. It was a shame not to have done it that winter, alpinism is such a conditions game, and we all know that, but the winter had been a tooth and nail fight for every inch gained. Scary, committing, cold, and tough. The autumn had been the exact opposite in every single way- fun alpinism. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the reward is always greater when you’ve given it all you’ve got and somehow clawed your way to the finish line. Then the sun that awaits you on the summit as you pull out of the North Face is, to be honest, orgasmic.
Ally did get his summit hug though, he’s been going on about it ever since.