Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Tronchey Ridge, Grandes Jorasses

After a huge amount of snow fell above 2500m last week, options for big routes were limited but Peter and I figured that if we could come up with something south facing then we might be in luck. After discussing various options we decided that the wild and remote Tronchey ridge (V, 4c, M3+, TD, 950m) on the Grandes Jorasses might fit the bill. Tom Grant did it last year and said it was great, so on his advice we drove through the tunnel and started the long slog up to the Jacchia bivouac hut. 

This hut is surely one of the most remote in the massif, and certainly one of the least visited, with people sleeping in it on average 3 or 4 nights every year. Having done the climb up to it I can see why, as it is a real grind, with virtually no path marking, some loose rock and some slabby scrambling which would be extremely difficult to descend. It's quite a strange feeling to arrive at a hut at the start of a route and feel like you're committed already! The hut is amazing though, perched high on a ridge between 2 rarely visited valleys, and with unbelievable views across to the Gran Paradiso, Valais and Zermatt areas.

All photos Peter Riley -

Me heading up to the hut. I said to Peter that it was no fun and all toil, and he likened it to "being one of them  Roman slaves - rowing a boat while some c*** whips you". I can put it no better.

View of the Tronchey from the hut

The hut as seen from the Aiguille de l'Eveque

Sunset from the hut

With the hut (unsurprisingly) to ourselves  we both slept really well and by sunrise had made good time over the Aiguille de Tronchey and were in the breche below it. The initial ground was quite loose, but nothing too bad, and it stayed that way as we passed the first and second towers on rock of varying quality. By the time we reached the spur coming down from the third tower we were moving really well, and had high hopes of being on the summit by early afternoon. However, on the first pitch of the spur Peter was rocking over onto a block when it came off, and he took a pretty decent leader fall. My belay was frankly awful (a sling optimistically put around a loose block), and he only had one small cam in, so it was quite a relief (and a surprise!) when he gingerly pulled himself back up to me (he'd fallen past the belay) and announced that he was OK. I dived out of the way when he fell so didn't see where he went, but it seems he landed on his feet, fell backwards, and the block shot past him and off into the abyss below. Lucky bugger! He wanted to "get back on the horse" and so resumed his lead, and was fine for the rest of the day except for a sore ankle, and a bruised arse. They make them tough in Sheffield.

Me on the ridge at sunrise

Looking forward to the sun reaching us!

The sun hitting the upper part of the Tronchey

The 3 pitches up to the third tower are certainly the best on the route, and then they lead into a tough traverse across the top of the Jorasses E face. Both of us led loose, snowy traverse pitches which were often more harrowing to second than to lead, and we eventually found ourselves at the bottom of a long snow couloir leading up the top part of the E face. Having faffed about for ages trying to find a way through the maze of icy slabs on the upper E face, it was great to suddenly make really good time again, and I was glad that I'd taken 2 axes as I could lead the couloir with no gear but the security of my axes, and Peter got a tight rope. Taking 2 axes seemed a bit excessive when I first thought about it, but given that we had virtually no info on the route, and no idea what conditions would be like, it seemed like a good way to ensure that we could climb just about anything, and so it proved.

Me belaying on the traverse below the third tower

Once onto the E ridge proper the rock becomes truly awful, but it's mercifully only a short distance from there to the summit. Reaching the top was amazing having seen the Jorasses so many times from all around the Massif, and to do it by such an "out there" route made it even sweeter. Neither of us had much of an idea about the descent though, so we barely paused for a photo and were on our way down.


You can go down directly from Pointe Walker (the highest summit), but this involves traversing under the mother of all seracs, so we decided to take the option of traversing across to Pointe Whymper and descending down the Rocher de Whymper ridge. This cost us about an hour, but if a serac carves off it will cost you a lot more than just time, so we were happy to swap time for less hazard. The descent is indeed as involved and long as everyone says, but we got it done and were back at the car the next morning.

At the Boccolatte hut

Overall we felt that the climbing on the route is not great (save for a handful of pitches below the third tower) but it is an amazing adventure. The difficulty of retreat and the feeling of remoteness makes this a pretty major undertaking, but well worth the effort for the more adventurous alpinists out there.

The weather has broken in Cham now, so I've been happily sitting on the couch. Is it wrong to hope it stays this way for a few days longer?!?!