In this third in a series of articles on classic Alpine summer routes, Mike Pescod of the Jöttnar Pro Team guides us through one of the finest outings in the Alps: the traverse of Les Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc range.
Sometimes you need to try and try again in the Alps. The first time I tried to traverse Les Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc range was with my good friend Donald. It was 2003, an incredibly dry year when there was a lot of rockfall. On the way over Aiguille de Rochefort, which you traverse to reach the start of the Grandes Jorasses traverse, a tower of rock about 8m tall and 100m away from us, toppled gently and fell down the Italian side. We looked down at the tower we were standing on and found it looked very much the same as the one than had just fallen over.
We did continue to the Bivacco Ettore Canzio but we were so spooked that we chose the difficult descent from the col into Italy instead of continuing the traverse.
The second time was with John, in much better conditions and with a stable weather forecast. Despite this, we woke up in the bivvy hut to thunder and lightening at 5am. Needless to say, we chose to retreat from the col into Italy. This proved just as serious as it had been the first time with Donald!
“Third time lucky” worked for John and me though. We had already climbed the Mer de Glace face of The Grepon, and the Frontier Ridge (Arete Kuffner) on Mont Maudit, so we were going well. This time the traverse of Les Rocheforts was fun and we got to the Bivacco Ettore Canzio in good time. It is well worth checking out the first couple of pitches of the traverse above the col in the evening, when it is warm and dry. At first light, the rock is cold and can be quite icy. This is the hardest climbing on the route so you might even fix a rope in place for the early start the next day.
The traverse itself is outrageous. The crest of the ridge is narrow, rocky and exposed. Of course, you know that it runs over the 1200m North Face of Les Grandes Jorasses and I expected to feel the sense of scale. What I did not think about was the 1000m overhanging drop on the Italian side for much of the way. In fact, the best route threads through lines of weakness between overhanging layers on the Italian side in a few sections.
At other times, the crest is the best way to go. Down-climbing a ridge that is less than a metre wide and quite tricky, with at least a kilometre drop on both sides, tends to focus the mind. The angle is too shallow to abseil, and much slower anyway. Climbing down is the best option, but do it carefully.
The rock gives way to snow at Point Whymper and a snowy traverse follows over to Point Walker, the summit. Reaching the summit is only part of the experience, though; the descent of Point Walker on the south face is not to be underestimated.
By the time you get there, it is likely the snow will be wet and soggy. It is best to find a ridge of rock descending Point Whymper which you can climb down instead of walking down very steep snow, but finding the best line is not completely straightforward. Finally, you will reach the Boccalatte Hut and the long walk down to find pizza and ice cream in La Palud.
Valley Base – Courmeyeur, Italy.
Start and finish – Torino Hut (3375) for Aiguille de Rochefort, Bivacco Ettore Canzio before the Grandes Jorasses Traverse, finish at Boccalatte Hut.
Auiguille de Rochefort Traverse (4001m) AD, Grandes Jorasses Traverse (4208m) D 5a