A personal description of the journey to climb the six classic north faces of the alps.
‘The Marine’ opened the conversation quietly but confidently, stating that we should start our alpine climbing career by climbing the six alpine North Faces. I agreed. For the uninitiated, as was I at this point, “the six” include: The Eiger, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petit Dru, Piz Badile and Cima Grande di Lavaredo.
Not only did I agree, but I suggested that we could easily knock them off easily before we were thirty… “No problem” said ‘the Marine’.
Because of course when you are sixteen, and have done a couple of routes on the grit, being thirty is an inconceivable period of time away. How hard could it possibly be?
The bearded outdoor instructor at the wheel of the van had heard it all before, and I was waiting for the inevitable rolling of the eyes followed by a lecture on learning ones craft, or simply the likelihood that we would kill ourselves. The lecture didn’t come, but instead was replaced by the seemingly innocent yet forensic question of: “Which one are you going to do first?”…
Now this was a problem. ‘The Marine’ and I went way back, in fact we had known each other for the sum total of two days. As we were both sixteen and working at an outdoor centre in our holidays, I knew that he was unlikely to be a marine and more pressingly probably couldn’t name any alpine north faces. I certainly couldn’t name one, so while looking for a crevasse to open up in the foot well of the slightly battered van, the pause gave ‘the Marine’ just enough time to save us from this embarrassment. The Eiger! We will do the Eiger first…
#1 North Face of Petit Dru (Voie Allain)
Six years later and ‘the Marine’ was displaying the most unflattering of his traits: unacceptable levels of smugness. We were at a cold and chilly bivouac on the Dru Rognon situated below the North Face, and it was drizzling with light rain more akin to a Scottish hillside than an alpine face. We had agreed to take a lightweight and committing approach aided by the advice of ‘Our kid’. An elder statesman of the Stockport climbing scene ‘Our kid’ was ready to school us in the ways of light weight alpinism. He had confidently done this by explaining that all we needed was a blizzard bag. Better described as an expensive silver foil sac for transporting accident victims to major trauma centres within the “golden hour”.
Now, ‘The Marine’ wasn’t intending on finishing his route in a helicopter, so had packed a lightweight down sleeping bag instead. Removed with a flourish, the sight of this luxury sleeping equipment was met with a round of expletives from ‘Our kid’, a man who liked the finer things in life. Separated from his Audi collection and Italian Barolo, he was just keen to get on with it.
The morning came and after a sluggish start we witnessed maximum commitment from ‘Our Kid’ as he set off into the gloom. The cloud had quickly cleared and we were rewarded with pitch after pitch of honest and burly climbing in cracks. Climbing in mountaineering boots was logical and in many cases easier, according to ‘Our Kid’ at least.
Later that afternoon we reached the Quartz ledges after some mixed climbing with verglas and much brushing away of hail from ledges. We bivouacked here at the top of what was the Bonatti Pillar. A timely reminder that geological time does include the now, when thousands on tonnes of granite had parted company with the mountain the year before.
For a short talk about the North Face of the Dru check out the Alpine ClubCast #14: Six Great North Faces. Part 2. Ian Bryant, James Thacker, and Dominic Oughton
#2 North Face Cima Grande di Lavaredo (Voie Comici)
The following year and the growth of budget airlines gave an ideal opportunity to engage in weekend alpinism. Could we climb a classic north face in a weekend? Stationary on the M1 with time ticking away to make our flight from East Midlands Airport, climbing a north face looked, frankly, unlikely.
There was little team cohesiveness in evidence as ‘The surfer’ explained why we would be totally justified in using the hard shoulder. ‘Dobby’ was resigned to the idea of not doing any climbing anyway, and ‘PK’s’ brother was in the police, so the analysis was that it would probably be ok. The discussion continued as the traffic cleared and we were on our way to ‘PK’s’ alternative stag do at least…
We woke early at our car park bivouac, shrouded in mist and drizzle but decided to walk in to the base of the route. The weather cleared and I led off on the first section. The climbing was reminiscent of Stoney Middleton, with slightly disposable rock of a temporary but familiar nature. In fact, the climbing was fantastic, at times powerful but never overwhelming, quickly leading us upwards.
‘The surfer’ took over for the top section just in time for the dripping wet chimneys of the upper section. This probably wouldn’t have been a problem on any other route, but polished wet limestone in the Dolomites, well, that was different. Luckily, ‘The surfer’ held it together and we emerged out onto a sizeable snow patch on the ‘Ringband’, a horizontal ledge system just below the summit. This would have been interesting enough if it wasn’t for the late afternoon thunderstorm that we were now centre stage to. We confidently traversed the ledge system looking for the first of a series of abseil anchors.
‘The marines’ advice was ringing in my head, “Just traverse around and find the abseil chains, they are dead obvious”. “All you need is a pair of speedos”. This was ‘The marines’ second most unflattering traits: unacceptable levels of gross understatement. Searching for the small abseil chain was of course like looking for a needle in a haystack, but luckily we eventually stumbled on it and started our descent.
Lower down the descent route became harder to follow in the fading daylight and the inevitable happened. We had to sit it out on a ledge and wait for daylight, our small LED head torches just simply weren’t up to the job. The rest of the descent was obvious at first light, and we made our way easily down and straight to the airport. It turns out you can do a North Face in a weekend, just!
#3 North Face of the Piz Badile (Voie Cassin)
We were a third of the way up the smooth granite slabs on the North Face of the Piz Badile, and the storm had just arrived with full force. Hail bounced off the slabs and we could hear the distant rumble of thunder. I looked at the ‘Wee Grey Man’ and the ‘Wee Grey Man’ looked at me.
The ‘Wee Grey Man’ grunted and we both knew what had to be done, there was only one thing to do and that was retreat to escape the torrents of water and hail coming down the slabs. Abseil after wet abseil, down we went and escaped the face.
A couple of days later we returned in better conditions, shuffling around the early season snow patches with care, mindful of the tragedy here a couple of years before. This time our enemy was other parties rather than the weather, and we jostled for position early on positioning ourselves for the pitches ahead.
After an initial stiff pull to get started, pitch after pitch of good quality rock took us steadily upwards. The exit cracks lived up to their reputation of being steady but largely unprotected. Fine for those who have served a gritstone apprenticeship.
Like many before and since we decided to descend the North Ridge of the Piz Badile by abseil. Another seminal experience then it comes to continually throwing the ropes on rock slabs.
#4 North Face of the Eiger (1938 Route)
Starting up the narrow ice filled gully at the bottom of the face, I saw a light high up to my right. Twisting my head to get a better view and puzzling for a while, I realised that it was the famous Stollenjoch or gallery window. It was at this point that I truly comprehended the size of the face that we had just started to climb.
‘Waljit’ and I had bumped into each other while staying in Kenton Cool’s flat in Chamonix. The “house of psyche” as it was known to many, was an excellent base, but sadly located in the concrete hell that is Chamonix Sud. Many of the buildings would be more at home in the post apocalyptic nuclear winter than Europe’s most famous mountain resort. But luckily, with news of good conditions in Switzerland it was time to make our escape.
We had arrived at the Eigergletscher station the evening before, and tried to find the hostel only to be met by an irate Swiss chap whose opening line was “same old story, same old sh**!”. Sheepishly we realised that we were in the wrong place and he gestured for us to jump into the back of a truck, before driving us to the hostel. We had of course come to climb the classic 1938 route on the North Face of the Eiger, and his face suggested that he was tired of meeting walking corpses (or maybe just Brits).
At about three the following morning we set off under the face on crisp neve and snow ice, making fast progress to the bottom of the face. Here we realised that we had started in the wrong place, taking a bad line in the dark though the featureless terraces at the bottom of the face. Without a word being spoken, we both knew that we could little afford any more school boy errors like this; it was time to get going.
‘Waljit’ soon reached the belay and we took the rope off, opting to solo as far as possible up the face. The conditions were excellent with good squeaky placements allowing fast progress through the complex terraces and walls. The hazy early morning light started creeping up the face as we reached the Shattered Pillar; a couple of short mixed walls taking us to the Stollenjoch. Here we roped up with our single 9mm rope and had a quick break.
It was unique being on a face with so much history. I was now looking across the ledge system that Toni Kurtz’s rescuers traversed during what later became one of the most famous rescue attempts in history. For us I was quietly hoping for a more mundane ascent.
Moving together, we traversed into the bottom of the Difficult Crack using bare hands on cold limestone. ‘Waljit’ set off upwards making the precarious moves on small edges, still wearing crampons he pulled out of sight. The rope inched out but then a shout of “Safe” indicated the end of the difficulties; for ‘Waljit’ at least. Following, I was surprised to find that there were very few pitons on this pitch, another timely reminder that we were a long way from Chamonix’s over pegged cracks.
Continuing upwards along neve covered terraces we soon reached the Hinterstoisser Traverse and a new static rope disappearing over what can only be described as a stomach churning abyss. Suspecting that this was a new rope put in by British Mountain Guides, during the filming of ‘The Beckoning Silence’, ‘Waljit’ happily “aped” across. Following the call of “Safe” I pulled across only to be rewarded with a badly frayed rope, which looked like it had been hit by stonefall. After a few expletives we were able to pull into the sanctuary of the Swallows Nest and consider our options for negotiating the terrain ahead. Opting to stay on the rope we moved together across the ‘1st Icefield’ and up to the base of the Ice Hose.
By now, despite never climbing with each other before, we had a good feel for each other’s abilities and were swinging the leads to match our strengths. It was my turn now to start up the Ice Hose which was a couple of metres short of actually being fully formed. A few thin mixed moves on small limestone holds allowed me to get a tool into the ice, and run the rope out to a belay. I shouted down that I had got “only one ice screw left” and then eyed the 50 metre drop with two inadequate ice screws interrupting the clean sweep of the rope. Cursing our minimal rack I set to work drilling an abolokov anchor and threading a sling, a much better option that a single screw belay.
After two further pitches we set foot on the ‘2nd Icefield’ and silently untied from the rope. Quietly, we both knew that soloing in the good conditions was the best option, exposing ourselves to the risk of stone fall for a much smaller period. Standing on this icefield nearly 1000m above Kleine Scheidegg, the whole situation seemed very serious. This worry soon evaporated as I made fast progress upwards, until close to the rocks, at the tope left hand side of the giant icefield. Here I built a belay and watched ‘Waljit’ climb across towards me.
Back on the rope, a couple of tricky mixed pitches took us to the open snow slope below the Flat Iron and the sinister Death Bivouac.
“Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep”. My alarm woke me from what seemed like about ten minutes sleep. It was four in the morning and time to get moving again. We packed our things and moved off, acutely aware that the hard climbing was to come. Over the 3rd icefield and into the ramp the pitches were pleasant Scottish IV, leading us upwards towards the main event. Here we were soon slowed down by the Waterfall Pitch. This heavily verglassed horror show sports some impressive downward pointing pegs, which have obviously taken some punishment. ‘Waljit’ led slowly off, taking his time to find good protection in the verglassed rock. Some elaborate bridging soon resulted in an all or nothing lunge for the top; he was up.
I followed, being immediately struck by the exposure, it was like bridging up a corner poised above the edge of the world. Luckily this is not an experience that I have felt before or since. From here the climbing became easier but much more serious. I ran the rope out up the continuation of the ramp, chipping small placements in the verglass. The rope hung uselessly down to the belay about 25 metres away; I kept chipping. Moving upwards again I was rewarded with an in-situ peg; barely enough to reduce my heartbeat I pressed on before the angled eased into another icefield.
‘Waljit’ followed without incident and we made our way up to the start of the Traverse of the Gods. Here more brain jellying exposure lapped at our heels as we shuffled across the traverse and into the relative sanctuary of the White Spider. Above, sunlight was bathing the rocks of the Exit Chimneys, an occasional crack giving away the presence of small rock falls.
We moved together, picking out the better snow ice and heading into the bottom of the Exit Chimneys. From here I moved on upwards climbing steady mixed ground to reach the base of the Quartz Crack. The pitch looked hard with a big off-width crack and a blank slab to the left. With some words of encouragement from below, I moved up the first mixed pitches with ease, and placed an ice screw in the base of the crack. Pressing on, I found myself in a constricted position with my crampon points on small edges. My confidence and strength was wavering.
Anderl Heckmair had been here before on the first ascent, with small wet snow avalanches funnelling down on him. Here he had drunk half a phial of “heart drops” supplied by Dr Belart in Grindelwald. There was no drug based assistance for us.
I backed off. The two figures that we had seen soloing across the Spider were now chambering past ‘Waljit’ on his belay stance. The inevitable question of “Mind if we come past?” drifted up on the slight breeze. This was clearly a rhetorical question as they were actually coming past, and had their crampon points hooked into the karabiners of the belay to prove it.
The two Grindelwald Mountain Guides announced that they had started at 0400 in the morning with a lavish breakfast at Kleine Scheidegg and were doing the face in a day.
Obviously, being Swiss they were superbly efficient; climbing the pitch easily by swinging to the right, and pulling on some hidden fixed rope. Cursing my blinkered British ethics I quickly followed. We were both now tired and moved slowly and deliberately on the tricky mixed traverse to the bottom of the final cracks. Here the climbing was technically easy, but the water worn limestone with no gear was no crowd pleaser. ‘Waljit’, moved off and I watched the rope swinging upwards with no runners in sight. Another sideways glance at the peg belay did nothing to add to my confidence.
 Roger Schali and Hanspeter Hug later knocked two hours off the record (for a conventional climbing pair) by climbing the face in 8hrs in October 2007. Schali later returned on the 28th Jan 2008 to climb the face in an astonishing 6hrs 50min!
‘Waljit’ found another in-situ peg belay and we just led through, delicately scraping our way upwards still wearing crampons.
I hoped I wasn’t verbalising what I was thinking: Don’t blow it, don’t blow it. Think of the shame of killing yourself on a VD pitch…The angle eased and we plodded up the final snow field and onto the famous Mittellegi Ridge. Moving along this we found a small ledge and rigged a traverse line to allow us to stay clipped in on the narrow crest. We rewarded ourselves with half a mug of herbal tea, and tucked the now empty gas canister away. As the sun was setting, I looked across to the huge shadow cast by perhaps one of the most infamous north faces in Europe. We had done it.
#5 North Face of the Grandes Jorasses (Eperon Croz)
Fast forward to 2014 and I got the chance to join Rich Cross and David Horwood for an ascent of the Croz Spur of the Grandes Jorasses. Conditions weren’t perfect but an early storm in September gave us the conditions for an ascent.
After a bivouac on the glacier we climbed the route and descended into Italy over a long day. Our pace was limited slightly by my pre-production crampon which fell to bits half way up. Now this is Chamonix, so the first option would have been a long winch out by helicopter followed by a selfie in the back of an EC145 and beers in the evening for me. But one look at Crossy, and I tied what was left of my crampon together with a small sling. Clearly he is not the sort of guy that welcomes rotary assistance when climbing north faces…
A lengthy and more mundane ascend followed combined with some interesting abseiling down into Italy. Eperon Croz video here… https://vimeo.com/107092979
#6 North Face of the Matterhorn
Fast forward to 2021 and I am trying to climbing the remaining north face before I am fifty. The question is, am I a completer finisher?…