January 7th 2009

Grandes Jorasses -Colton Macintyre Ueli Steck Speed Record

Ueli Steck speed solo of the Grandes Jorasses- Colton Macintyre route from Jonathan Griffith on Vimeo.

The North Face of the Grandes Jorasses and the line taken by Steck

On the 28th Dec 2008 Ueli Steck blasted his was up the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in another record time. Moving on from his 2.47hrs ascent of the Eiger north face in February earlier on this year he arrived in Chamonix on the 27th with his eyes on the north face classic- the Colton-Macintyre (VI,6). On the day of his ascent I was trying an abortive climb of Scotch on the Rocks and at 1.15pm I received a text from Ueli seeing if I wanted to meet up for a beer later. I naturally assumed that he had called off the climb as it was firstly in pretty bad nick and secondly the weather was incredibly cold and windy on the Jorasses. Of course what many of us ‘normal’ climbers cant get our head around is the speed of Ueli when he speed-solos something. What had transpired is that Ueli arose at a leisurely hour, left his bivi spot below the face at 8am, and was back in Chamonix (having climbed down to Italy and got back through the tunnel) in time for an early lunch. Compare this to my feeble attempts on the day and its laughable. Steck climbs up a 1200m face, with some very bare and tricky mixed at the top and sections of 95 degree ice in the middle, at an approximate ascent rate of 10m a minute; I on the other hand ‘climb’ a total of sum 400m moving at approximately 2m a minute…laughable indeed.

Ueli on the top mixed section- what he thought was the crux of the route as it was so dry

Ueli on the Walker spur exit

Meeting up with Ueli the next day was definitely an interesting experience. The mind of a speed-soloist is not something you come across every day and Ueli is no exception. You might have expected some kind of 6ft6 tall Swiss-German machine with an ego the size of Belgium, but whilst a machine he might be, at 5ft11 and with the quiet and calculated demeanour of someone who knows he doesn’t have to shout about what he does because his actions literally speak louder than words, I was fascinated by what he had to say.

Possibly the most interesting and most over looked part of a speed soloist is the incredible mental strength it takes to achieve these records. The difference between the soloist and the speed-soloist is obvious but one that I don’t think many people appreciate. Whilst soling you are naturally going to be taking your time making sure that you are fully relaxed and that all placements are good ones- on the flip side a speed soloist cant afford this kind of attitude and has to just assume that every first time placement isn’t going to rip. As Steck pointed out you really just have to go for it and even if you know the axe is wobbly or the crampon point could rip at any second you just have to put it out of your mind and keep moving on up- if you take time to replace all your dodgy placements then you can say goodbye to your speed record.

Now, translate this to 95 degree sections of ice and slabby dry tooling 1000m above the deck and you can maybe start to appreciate the fine line that you are treading- not that Steck is naïve enough to ignore this. He is fully aware that his alpine soloing, in fact any type of soling for that matter, has a finite life to it. Earlier on this year he stopped rock climbing soloing forever having completed a few 8a solos: “I realised that if I continued I would one day kill myself, so now I have stopped rock soling and am concentrating on Alpine instead. But his too will one day have to end. Soloing in any mountain activity is about knowing where to draw the line and say enough is enough”.

Ueli on the 95 degree ice of Alexis

Ueli on the upper headwall

There is no denying that Steck’s obsessive attitude towards fitness plays a huge part too in his ascents. Aided by experts from the Swiss Olympic team, his body is at peak physical fitness which, it seems, allows him to not feel lactic acid build up and for him to literally run up these alpine faces. His form resembles more that of a spider than of a man when he is at top speed…maybe that is his secret- some kind of trans-species adaptation. For all that though, he is also even more obsessive about his light weight approach to climbing. He chooses to carry 50m of 5mm cord instead of an actual rope which really struck home a few days later when we found ourselves rappelling down the face to re-enact the climb for some photos- I had bought along part of a cut 8mm rope for abseil tat which meant that I was now rappelling off 8mm tat on a 5mm rope- surely the wrong way round? He is also a man who extols the virtues of those Russian made titanium pitons and ice screws that the rest of the climbing world mock- every gram counts with Ueli.

As for his future plans that’s for him to say and not me, but expect to see a lot more of Ueli Steck in the climbing headlines.

Steck climbed the Colton-Macintyre but instead of climbing the crux of the Colton, he opted for the (harder) Alexis pitch where he encountered sections of vertical and overhanging ice.

Ueli on the summit with the Mont Blanc in the background

As for previous record ascents there is no better source really than Luca Signorelli who was kind enough to send us this informtation:

Fastest GJ ascent so far was via the Shroud to the summit, 2:00 shrund to ridge, then a little less than one hour to the summit. Actually the first speed record there is quite “ancient”, JM Boivin did the Shroud to the ridge in 2:45 around in september 1977.

Fastest Colton-Mac so far was (for a soloist) less than four hours (Svetic early solo was in seven hours, back then quite a record). Best roped team ascent is 6 hours, but I’ve just sketchy details on that. (still think is the Jeff Lowe record to be considered the best timing) Best official solo climb of the Walker spur in summer is rather “slow” (4 and half), there are rumours of faster ascents. My regular climbing mate (Renzo Luzi, was one of Giancarlo Grassi’s partners) did a roped simul climb of the Walker spur in seven hours from the Leschaux hut to the summit, but it’s not the record.

Everything else is much slower. Slovenian route record is still Alison Heargraves climb (she was helicoptered in and out however, something that in my view matters a lot, as both approach and descent are not elementary). Patrick Berhault claimed a “lighting” ascent of the Desmaison – Gousseault in 26 hours, but he avoided the first third of the route via the Shroud.

Others GJ records are quite old – best ascent of the Hirondelles was in 1946, guide Arturo Ottoz climbed it with a client in 12:40 all the way from Courmayeur!

Fastest ascent of the normal route in summer is around 4 hours from Planpincieux. But there, the first ascent of the GJ by Whymper and C. in 1865 may be difficult to beat, given the year – left from Courmayeur at 2:00am, were on the summit at 13:00!

Other speed records – great soloist Nicolas Jaeger did the Tronchey Ridge – West Ridge – Rochefort – Torino hut link up in 1973 in a fantastic 20 hours (non consecutive) from the Jachia hut.

However, if you ask me, the most impressive speed record on the Jorasses (actually THE speed record for the area) remains Marco Bernardi 10 hours free solo (with two roped pitches) of the Gervasutti route on the East face in 1980. It was an insane performance back then (the route was basically clean, and no detailed topo was available), and would be difficult to beat even now.

The Alpine Exposures coffee table photo book