Sunday 13 March 2011

Richard Cranium Memorial, Les Droites

Who can resist a route with a name that good?!? Certainly not Tom and I, so we took the last bin up the Grand Montets on Thursday evening hoping to make the likely first British ascent of this route on the North West face of Les Droites. Mark Twight and Barry Blanchard did the first ascent in 1991, grading it IV, 5, 5c, ED. 800m, and Twight famously quipped, “We called it the Richard Cranium Memorial because we hoped we’d outgrown him.” There’s something about knowing the history of a route that makes it far more appealing than it should be!

Les Droites, Richard Cranium Memorial marked.
 Due to some idiots leaving a mess in recent months climbers are no longer allowed to sleep in the nice warm toilets at the cable car station and we had to make do with the corridor, but such is life. There is a good system at GM, whereby if you bivi at the station and leave your kit there they will take it down on the lift for you, so bearing this mind we had perhaps the most luxurious mountain bivi ever, featuring 90mm sleeping mats, pillows and beer. Its a hard life.

A tough bivi

Up and away just before 5am we walked over to the Droites pretty easily, except for a short section of tough trail breaking at the very end. Having stayed in the tracks leading to the north face for as long as possible we ended up at the left side of the bergschrund and had a fairly brutal time getting across it. This then led to some loose snow over rock and all in all it was a bit grim, but we eventually found ourselves at the foot of the long slope leading up towards the Col de L’Aiguille Verte. By this stage we were well behind our estimated timings and considered turning back but decided to plough on. The snow slope was fairly brutal and the loose sugary snow made for scary and slow progress.
Eventually we found ourselves on good, firm neve and with the crux pitches not too far away. Putting the rope on we began moving together and made good time up to where the real climbing starts. By this time we were miles off our predicted timings, but with plenty of daylight left and not wanting to try and retreat down the crappy snow below, we started up the crux section.  We moved together through the first half and it felt fairly comfortable until we made a stupid route finding error and ended up having to ab back down a pitch to rejoin the route. By this stage we were really racing darkness and unfortunately we lost the race about 150 metres from the summit. At this stage Tom was heroic in continuing to lead while I just about managed to second with a headtorch providing about 6 feet of vision. Needless to say progress was pretty slow (try route finding through mixed terrain at night) but after a lot of front pointing up, across and down hard ice in the search for a feasible way to the summit ridge, we eventually made it.

Tom on the lower ice section

Sometimes a bad photo can still convey an experience accurately.

Both desperately thirsty we got the stove out and brewed up and then, being pretty done in we both fell asleep for an hour. After a brief discussion about what to do we had another hours kip, and then decided that with less than half the night left we might as well sit it out. The summit of a 4000er in winter with no bivi kit is pretty grim place to be but we were just about ok and both managed to doze enough to pass the night quite quickly.
We decided to set off at 7am or when the sun hit us, whichever came first. As it turned out the barometer on my watch showed that the pressure was plummeting so we got off at first light. We had discussed traversing to the South Breche to ab but it looked  pretty tricky so we decided just to drop down the couloirs next to where we’d spent the night as there was some ab tat at the top and it looked like there were spikes all the way down to provide anchors. Luckily for us it was clearly a common descent route and there were in situ anchors all the way so we were quickly on the glacier and walking out to Montenvers.

Heading home down the south face

So quite an adventure! The route was not as technically hard as the grade suggests but we should have gone up the day before to check out the bergschrund -  I think there is an easy way across it further to the right and it cost us ages crossing it where we did. Also, we should have turned back when we encountered poor snow on the lower slopes and got behind time. However, despite these failures on our part and our poor route finding, it was a great experience....with hindsight! I  took my headcam so there’ll be a video when I get round to it.
Over in Grindelwald Jack and Rob got up the Eiger and reported reasonable conditions. They climbed from the first train to Death Bivi the first day and then to the summit the second day, descending the West Rib in just 2 hours on day 3. Jack reckoned October would be the way to go when it would be warm enough to climb some sections bare handed, but it seems like it is certainly ok right now.
Here in Cham the dreaded Foehn wind has blown in so we can expect warm, unsettled weather and rubbish skiing (although Italy is apparently ok). I think a nice warm weekend in Provence beckons....