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Caroline George Returns to Bold Lines on the Grand Jorasses
Posted on December 26, 2014

Nicole pulling on the Walker Spur

Caroline George has a résumé of big, bold climbing lines to her credit. From the six great north faces of the Alps to lines such as Beyond Good and Evil, she has ticked some heavy ice and mixed climbs in her vertical career. But a Caroline-style downshift for new motherhood kept her off the biggest, boldest lines for the past two years. That all changed when George got a call to climb the Colton-Macintyre route on the Grandes Jorasses this fall. She responded with a long, cold, and committing 1,200-meter route that ended in a WI6 diversion up a route appropriately named Extreme Dream. —LYA Editor

The Grandes Jorasses at sunset

Words, Images and Captions by Caroline George

The Colton-Macintyre is the obvious ice line to the right of the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses. Having climbed the Walker Spur before, I thought to myself: “Been there; done that; never have to do that again.” And I held true to those words…until this Facebook message showed up in my inbox: “Ciao caro ca joue? Dis par hasard, gdes jorasses?,” which translates to: “Hey Caroline, what’s up? Hey, any chance, Grandes Jorasses?” The weather was stellar, I had the following days off, I knew conditions were perfect, and Adam wanted to spend time with his parents, so I really had no excuse not to go. Oh yes, I had a bit of a cold. But it’s funny how a cold that seems to be ruining your life is suddenly only a detail.

I tried to sound nonchalant and even excited but, deep down, I was quite reluctant to get back on that face. It’s long (1200m), cold, committing, and I hadn’t done anything quite this big since Olivia was born, other than Beyond Good and Evil, a 600m route on the north face of the Pelerins, which didn’t offer the same commitment, as we could have rapped off at any point in time. Yet I let it all just happen: we exchanged emails, text messages, sorted the gear out and two days later, Nicole was on my doorstep, ready to go. And weirdly enough, I was too. It almost seemed like an out-of-body experience.

We rode the train to the Montenvers with my friend Christian Trommsdorff, whom I had climbed the Eiger north face and Matterhorn north face with 11 years ago. The Grandes Jorasses was the only climb we hadn’t done together, so we ticked the missing link to the three north faces, as he was headed to the same route with a client. I knew of other people going on the Grandes Jorasses that day. Would it be too busy to climb? But over dinner at the Leschaux hut that night, hardly anyone seemed bothered by the idea that we would all be climbing the same ice route. I was definitely quite concerned. I don’t like climbing ice underneath other people, much less as a mom.

We woke up at midnight to a starry sky and a little breakfast. We ate quickly and made our way down the ladders below the hut to the glacier. We hiked to the base of the face, where we geared up. Nicole led the way through the maze that was the bergschrund, and climbed the very steep upper lip of the bergschrund. We crossed another bergschrung that led to a little ice runnel. There, we were getting hit by ice nonstop and I feared that the higher we went, the more ice would come down on us. I reached Nicole and told her we should go down.

We stayed there for a while, quiet. I felt terrible being there, thinking of Olivia, thinking that the consequences of an accident on this face would mean never seeing her again. But I didn’t want to disappoint Nicole either. I was very painfully torn. I sighed and said I would give it another little while and see how things evolved. We climbed up the 400m ice face to the base of the difficulties.

 

Surprisingly enough, we weren’t getting hit anymore. It was more like a constant spindrift coming down on us. I led up the steeper ice runnel, which offered a mix of unconsolidated snow and ice that didn’t take very good gear, just like the crux pitch a few pitches higher up. On the crux, I was able to place a solid-blue no3 camalot in a crack, but the rest of the gear on this vertical pitch would not have held a fall, and the situation became a little more stressful because a climber was seconding the pitch right behind me as I was leading it. Though having people on the face made the climb feel less isolated, it was also the most objectively dangerous aspect of the climb.

A week later, up to 50 parties were spotted climbing on different routes on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. This is the downside to social media, as everyone gets to see what conditions are like, and the Leschaux hut keeper was also posting daily updates on conditions. It is amazing that there aren’t more accidents with such heavy repetitive usage.

The section following the crux is a 200m-long relentless calf-burning ice face to the base of the summit headwall. There, the regular Colton-Macintyre route traverses left to meet the Walker Spur proper. But another line called Extreme Dream (WI6) was in condition as well this year, so we chose to climb this beautiful 4-pitch-long mixed line to reach the Walker Spur. But with so many people on the route, we again had to wait a long time for our turn, unable to parallel climb up this very narrow and thin line. We ended up waiting an hour and a half at the junction between the Walker Spur and Extreme Dream. Once we reached the Walker Spur, we were only 150m from the summit and made quick work of this final snow/mixed couloir to the highest summit of the Grandes Jorasses: the Pointe Walker (1,208m).

 

Nicole and I hugged on the summit, happy to have done an all-woman ascent of the climb. We then proceeded to pack up our gear, only leaving out what we knew we would need for the very long (2600m) descent down to Italy. The first part of the descent is down a narrow and exposed ridge to a snow plateau. I had really bad memories of this descent from when I had first done it back in 2003. We were now in the clouds, and not seeing the exposure somehow made it feel less scary. We had crossed the plateau under the Whymper serac, a massive icefall that is said to be very active at the moment.

But it was hidden in the clouds, so we started running as soon as we saw the ice debris, and we were grateful not to see the icefall proper. We made quick work of the following rappels, and traversed to reach the Reposoir, a rock ridge that took us to the glacier below. It was dark when we got off the glacier and started the long and steep descent past the Boccalatte hut and onward to Planpincieux, where my husband, Adam, had dropped off a car for us the previous day. We were so grateful to have the car there and be able to drive home to our respective beds, and to my little one, who opened her eyes as soon as I walked into her room to give her a goodnight kiss.

Wild features on the descent

 

 

Author: - Friday, December 26th, 2014
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