October 16th 2014

Grandes Jorasses - The First Ascent of the Colton-Macintyre

A few years ago, as part of research I’m doing for (another) book, I got in touch with Nick Colton and asked him if he could write-up the story of the first ascent of the Colton-Macintyre on the Grandes Jorasses North Face. Given its huge popularity this year, and with Nick’s permission, I’ve copied it in below. It’s not only a great line but also got a very interesting story behind the first ascent and the evolution of alpine style in the Alps back then.

The North Face of the Grandes Jorasses on a very busy morning

The North Face of the Grandes Jorasses on a very busy morning


We started at the foot of the Jorasses with a much reduced rack. Five or six rock pegs, half a dozen nuts, no cams (they hadn’t been invented yet), and a few ice screws. We’d done the Dru Couloir a couple of days before via the Fissure Nominee and during that climb we’d lost all our equipment. I’d cleaned the big aid pitch and, as I reached the top of it, the gear loop on my harness snapped and all our gear rattled off down the mountain. The reduced rack was also, of course, because we wanted to go light. As light as we dared knowing that a previous attempt of this line had ended after 17 days but had only managed about two thirds of the route.

Next came the plan: to avoid the unpredictable stone fall that comes thundering down the Japanese Couloir and off the Whymper face, by starting up the Walker Spur.

It was late on an August evening and we could still hear water running under the ice as we climbed the initial rocks of the Walker Spur. Further up there’s a broad ramp that leads right into the central snow and ice bowl. We followed this to the start of the difficulties. Our head torches didn’t reach far into the darkness but they did pick out what looked like the start of an ever-steepening Scottish style ice runnel ahead.

Our hands held state-of-the-art terrordactyl ice axes. These had short, steep, straight picks that meant your knuckles were constantly being bashed against the ice. Alex swore by them, and ably and efficiently led the steep ice pitches up the first runnel, without any fuss, to a point where we could see that the ice ran out into deep powder below a section of steepening rock. It was my turn to lead.

To get to the rock there was a short, easy angled pitch of hollow ice that lay over shattered granite, seemingly unconnected to it. The ice shuddered and vibrated each time it was struck. Once at the rock my feet found solid ground on a small ledge of rock or ice. I could stand comfortably enough to hammer in a dubious peg to serve as a belay. After bringing Alex up, I tackled the face above. It was all very dusty and crumbly. I was climbing above Alex, to the left of a shallow corner which housed a big hold that I cupped with my right hand. As I reached leftwards, the hold disintegrated. Without warning I was off!

Flying directly past Alex, I took a big fall. With no runners, my full weight came straight on to his belay. To my great relief I realised that the peg had held and I’d stopped some way below him. It had been a full-on factor two fall, held in a very difficult and dangerous position, with only a poor peg and waist belay between us and disaster.

 Climbers moving up the crux of the Colton-Macintyre on an unusually fat year for ice

Climbers moving up the crux of the Colton-Macintyre on an unusually fat year for ice

Quickly I grabbed my ropes and pulled up them to get back to Alex at the belay. We said nothing. We both knew this had been a very serious moment. Without hesitating I went straight back up on the pitch. This time the rock held and I reached good ice and the continuation of the ice runnel.

Ice that had looked promising proved to be thin and bare in sections. Alex described it as “on the border between rock and ice”. Even so, with Alex in the lead, we moved steadily upwards until we reached a large expanse of hard black ice. Five relentless pitches of it. Resolutely we pressed on until finally, at the end of the last one, we climbed diagonally rightwards and moved onto rock.

From there we would have to climb together as there was not enough rope to reach a good belay. More in hope than anything else, I thrust a nut into a shattered crack near my feet. It was the only gear between us, and I waited anxiously, the rope between us taut from my efforts to find a stance, whilst Alex stripped his belay. Once ready, he set out tentatively across brittle, hard ice with blunt axes, and crampon points that barely bit into the shiny black mirror whilst I pressed on above. A fall was unthinkable. We were both very tired and struggling hard to maintain concentration to avoid any slip-ups that would have terrible consequences.

 Will Sim entering the top headwall

Will Sim entering the top headwall

We’d reached the headwall and the rock was poor when I dislodged a dinner plate sized rock. Alex watched it, trapped, unable to get out of the way, as it plummeted towards him and slammed into his thigh at high speed. He howled until the pain subsided and then we continued.

We moved diagonally left and up. I was stood on a good square-cut foothold, holding on with a solid pinch in my right hand. As I transferred my full weight onto my left foot the foothold snapped off and my full weight came onto my right hand. The pinch grip detached from the wall, and I took another fall; this time a much shorter one, onto a good runner not far below..

Eventually we crossed a gully high up onto the Walker Spur itself.

It was now around 6pm. There was a ledge, and the cornice was in sight. We knew it wouldn’t go dark for several more hours so we sat down and had a brew. We didn’t just have a drink, we fell asleep. Soundly asleep; and we didn’t top out until the next morning.

Perhaps we should have gone on a little further, had our brew on the other side of the cornice and avoided having a bivy on the route. But we were not thinking like that. We were thinking “alpine style” and to us that meant total commitment. Starting at the bottom of the route with no support from friends or helicopters, no fixed ropes, making our way up under our own steam. It seems strange now but that way of doing things had got lost for a while on some of the bigger new routes being attempted in those days by the big names of the day.

Both aged twenty-two, we saw ourselves as the new kids on the block, taking things on to a new level, and in the process upstaging the older generation with what we perceived as their outmoded methods of doing big new routes.

The Alpine Exposures coffee table photo book