Ever since Colin Haley and Nils Nielsen attempted the triple link up a few years back of the Aiguille Verte, Droites and Courtes north faces its been one of those winter projects I’ve wanted to do.
The onus nowadays is on unsupported link ups and the issue with this one was that you have to down-climb two of the faces adding a great deal to the day time and energy wise. Instead of climbing the North Face of the Droites though I decided to climb the NE face as I wanted to descend that way as well; this turned out to be a bad decision as the Messner on the North face would have been easier, faster, and less tiring but hindsight can be a bitch sometimes. In any case the 3/3/2013 loomed and the numbers at least seemed to match up.
I hadn’t planned on soloing it. I’m not a big soloist; I’m not ballsy enough to cross glaciers and bergshrunds with no one around. It scares the shit out of me. Whilst I knew that the shrunds on the Aiguille Verte and Les Courtes would be tracked and relatively safe, I also knew that the bergshrund on the Legarde would be its traditional scary nightmare. So I enlisted Magnus to come and join on the climb, but unable to locate his skis at the last minute he missed the last cable car up and I found myself with no option but to at least try it alone.
The following morning and I left nice and early for the Aiguille Verte. Crossing under the seracs in total darkness is always a little scary especially as I managed to collapse a snow bridge on the ski over. Not a great start to the day. The Couturier couloir was in great nick though and I made good progress. The sunrise was stunning and as the Alpen Glow flooded the gully around me I felt good, strong and psyched for the day ahead. A couple of hours later and I had tagged the summit and was making my way back down again. It felt odd to look over from the Verte to the summit of the Droites and then the summit of the Courtes and think that if all went well those would be my next two view points. It felt like a very long day was ahead of me.
Back down at my skis and it was a quick change around and on to the Legarde Direct on Les Droites. Skiing over on a high traverse and a bit of a nightmare approach saw me at the shrund of the Legarde Direct. The route looked bomber but the shrund did not. It has a bad reputation and I was glad to catch up with Magnus at this point who had decided to come and solo the Legarde and ski the backside. Thanks to Magnus for the belay over the shrund and for putting the track over it. The first couple of hundred meters of ice was great. A big grin on my face. First time placements. Just how Chamonix goulotte climbing should be. But then the hell began. I guess the shrund has put anyone off from coming up here recently and there was not track- shock horror for Chamonix! I have a bit of a thing for putting in tracks though but this snow was deeeeep and gave way to bottomless sugar snow towards the top. I found myself cursing whilst digging a channel and I started to worry a little about the time.
Eventually I made the summit ridge and I allowed myself a few minutes in the sun on the top; it would be the last time I would feel its warmth for a while. How had it taken so long on the way up? The descent was long and arduous as well. There are no insitu rap stations and the rotten snow demanded care and attention. But I got to my skis about 10 minutes before sunset and braced myself against a bitter wind on the glacier. It was time to brew up and make a decision. Even though the Legarde had taken alot more out of me than I had planned I wasn’t feeling tired. I knew I had more than enough in me to do another north face and the Courtes would be the easiest as it was steep and therefore wouldn’t hold too much snow. The only problem really was psyching myself up to do it in total darkness. You can feel a bit vulnerable when its cold, dark, and you’re on your own.
I spilt my food, got my gloves wet, and poured water from the jetboil everywhere. I was also swearing alot. So I gave up. The wind was making the simple task of melting water a nightmare so I packed everything up, put on my head torch and headed off in to the night in the direction of the Swiss on the Courtes. It was a nice night but it was windy enough that I couldn’t find any tracks and I wore my down jacket on for the rest of the ‘day’. Arriving at the shrund and I felt oddly at ease with my decision to head up the Courtes and so off I went.
The first section was more trail breaking as the spindrift had filled all visible tracks in. I was glad to finally get to the excellent nevee that I knew this route had and make my way on to steeper and faster ground. The next 800m passed by in a rhythmical thunk thunk of tools in plastic ice and nevee. Glad to finally find a track higher up the face I summited in under three hours- not my fastest time but I had felt strong which was good.
It was cold though. Really cold. Even though I was moving in a down jacket I was still feeling it. I had gotten wet from all the spindrift, but it was cool topping out on the Courtes and stopping the watch. It had been a long day and amazingly I had covered 4148m of ascent including the approaches on the Suunto (though am finding this hard to believe as it’s about 3800 if you work it out on the map). I was relieved that I could ski down the south side and I didn’t have to down-climb yet another north face. The slope from the Col de Droites was exactly as I had feared though. Bullet hard steep snow with plenty of heavy wet avvy debris and deep rutted ski tracks covering the terrain ahead. I also had a binding that felt the need to ignore any DIN setting I gave it and release at the slightest hint of any pressure, so I resigned myself to side slipping and occasionally ice axe arresting down the slope as my binding would eject. It took me a whopping three and a half hours to get to the Couvercle hut from the summit but a few hours kip and some biscuits and it was back down to town for a good shower.
I would like to thank Jeff for keeping an eye out for me, Caroline and Adam far panicking when I missed my ‘home’ time, Ben for being Ben, Magnus for the shrund, and Jack for the grapefruit and tea when i got back to town.