When the alpine climbing legend Walter Bonatti passed away I was climbing the Swiss route on Cima Ovest with Helen and one thought that popped up in my head directly was to pay my respect to the iconic Bonatti by trying to repeat his little known master piece on the North Face of Grandes Jorasses. Situated between Pointe Whymper and Pointe Croz this part of the face is the home to some of the hardest mixed routes in the Alps such as No Siesta.
With a huge weather window open and the word spreading that a number of routes on various aspects of the face was in good condition the idea to go and try the Bonatti-Vaucher felt like a no brainier. In the guide book the route is described as "More difficult than the McIntyre and easier than No Siesta". That's quite a grade range so we expected quite a hard route. The route has seen very little traffic since it was first climbed in the early 1960’s and to date it might have as few known repeats as six in total.
We approached the wall in 4 hours on Monday the 3rd and felt super motivated. It was such a calming feeling to finally be off after all mental preparations. My partner had done both the North Face of Eiger (11th time up the NF of Eiger) and the North Face of Matterhorn with in the last week so we split the work load in to two parts where he would lead the "cardio" (little did we know there was really no such parts...) stretches of the route and I would do the technical pitches.
We departed our bivy at the base of the wall just before 7 am and made rapid progress up the first part of the route that seams to be the same as the start of No Siesta judging from tracks and pictures I've seen on some blogs. The conditions where not too bad and the "info" was that the upper parts would be in even better conditions, so everything thing looked good. But as we all know two different alpine routes on the same face is never the same...
The climbing is exceptionally good on steep mixed ground with only one short section of slugging so always interesting and full on climbing. As soon as you pass the traverse out left the route starts to bite back for real with some very sustained and interesting mixed and dry tooling. The North Face of Jorasses is quite impressive raising 1100 vertical meters from the start of the routes to the summit. The upper parts are hard for the grade in my opinion and relatively exposed compared to other routes in the same grade range. The top section, at the same level as the crux on No Siesta some 50 or 60 meters to the right we found the hidden couloire bone dry with extremely lose and brittle rock. The belays at this section are impossible to place at a sheltered spot. We climbed on the right hand side and did not manage to divert out left, as there was way too much lose rock falling straight on to the belay. We free climbed what I think is some of the A1 pitches and I'd say at present in the conditions we had they where about 6a+ish/M7 (this might sound lame for someone flashing 8a but given you are there with a back pack full of bivy gear, food, stove and some spare items climbing with big boots and crampons its pretty much full on). As you can't expect any protection it’s not comparable to the normal alpine grading systems, it’s better to say 6a/M7 R/X http://www.safeclimbing.org/about_overview.htm (very runout, where a fall at the wrong place will likely result in at least serious injury and possibly death).
At 3.20 pm we estimate that we where about 150/200 meters from the summit but decided to call it quits. We had enough of having the belay pounded with falling rocks and way to many close calls... Continuing would no doubt keep exposing the belay for more rock fall so we decided that getting off was the only sensible thing to do. Staring to abseil off the route did not seam like a possible option so we decided to try and retreat to a position where we would be less exposed and try and send a sms and ask PGHM to try and pick us up with a helicopter. We had very bad reception but around 6.30 pm we got in contact with PGHM and made it clear we where not badly hurt or in any immediate danger but in need to get off before a serious accident would be a reality.
We clearly stated to the PGHM that we where equipped for a bivy with sufficient supplies of food, gas and bivy gear so the safest option for them would be to try and get us the next morning. We built a super solid (expensive) belay knowing that the "Secouriste" would take a huge risk clipping in to a belay built by some one he had never meet. This is some thing you have to think of if you call for rescue, the belay has to be bomber solid. The rescue guys takes a huge risk when they come for you so you need to know the belay can take an extra person who don't want to be there. Well now I will rest a bit after this weeks trip to the North Face of Matterhorn. More about that next time.
I REALLY want to take this opportunity to thank PGHM Chamonix for there swift assistance!