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Les Grandes Jorasses, Pierre, and a peculiar expedition

Les Grandes Jorasses, among the most beautiful mountains in the world, has a magical attraction.


Igi Salza


April 1, 2020

Les Grandes Jorasses, among the most beautiful mountains in the world, has a magical attraction power and is surrounded by an aura of high prestige. An aspiring average mountaineer, like myself, keeps at least some books'memories of the historical achievements made by alpinists on the steep slopes of Les Grandes Jorasses. The ascent of the Normal Route to the Walker peak has been one of the highest ambitions for me for years, worthy of being considered the crowning achievement of an entire season. Here the story of what happened that weekend of August in 1988.

* * * 

On a Friday at the beginning of August 1988, after months of training on smaller peaks and days spent reading the sacred texts - the Vallot Guide and the Guide of the Italian Mountains - Ettore and I set off heading to Planpincieux.

We eat a sandwich in a bar in Planpincieux, constantly looking at the Jorasses in the background, whose peaks are covered by a thin slice of snow. And then we walk. The monotonous and cadenced sequence of steps; the pine forest; the stony ground with sparse bushes; the crossing of a torrent full of glacial water; the steep track culminating in a short-equipped stretch. Then the long moraine, thistles, and gentians around, right in the middle of the Planpincieux Glacier's seracs. Finally, the Boccalatte Refuge, whose access is made easier by the presence of a pair of providential fixed ropes. The small refuge is quite crowded for its 30 places.

We wake up at 1 AM, and we leave an hour later, under a small crescent moon. Unfortunately, Ettore starts moaning about a slight sickness from the very beginning, which instead of being temporary, worsens over time. We proceed slowly until he desists, at the base of the Reposoire, claiming he prefers not to be an obstacle. He does not even try to induce me to go alone, but he pushes me to find someone to rope up with and continue, while he will get back to the hut. I think about it, but I cannot picture myself in such a situation, tied up with a stranger in one of the most challenging expeditions of my life. Heartbroken, I tell him I will also give up. Nevertheless, Ettore, armed with his strongest pragmatism, asks me to at least give him a chance to find someone. He reminds me that, yesterday, while eating dinner at the hut, there were at least a couple of people who wanted to go up alone.

We notice a lonely light approaching. Ettore stops him. I hear they speak French. He is a lone wolf, but he would gladly accept to rope up with me. Our front lights cross, and Pierre makes his appearance. At first, communication is not easy: I barely speak French and he does not speak any Italian. Pierre is a Belgian, ruddy guy. He has no helmet or rope or hammer, but he carries a full bag of photographic equipment. He shows a strong determination and grit despite his sixty years. I seize him up: of course, it is a bet. A person who approaches to climb the face the Jorasses like this - he is either incredibly strong or an idiot. To cheer myself up, I think that certain meetings, occurring in the beams of the front lights, must necessarily be successful. I decide to give it a try, deciding to postpone the evaluation of my buddy's skills during the first difficult stretch on the Reposoire. He ropes up and delegates me the management of the climb, with total confidence.

First day: towards the hut


Groups leaving for the summit

My previously unknown rope buddy: Pier

We start walking while the other groups have already disappeared from our sight, mysteriously. A few rough steps in the dark do not help me to relax. I cannot see Pierre in the back, only running rope behind me. Pierre, with whom I can communicate through a few technical terms learned at the last minute, goes at my pace. He does not complain. To reassure me (or perhaps to reassure himself), now and then, he shouts that "everything is ok." After the initial apprehension, the situation gets more relaxed. Despite the apparent superficiality with which he planned to climb the mountain alone, I must say that Pierre seems at ease. He is careful; he goes up with precision and calm. I am relieved. At the top of the spur, we wear crampons to cross the wide and exposed couloir Whymper, up to the large dihedral-channel at the base of the Rochers. Tracks are visible, snow is hard and it holds weight well. It is getting lighter. Now we can finally see and smile at each other. Pierre, you are awesome! The peaks behind us are lightened in pink and orange, while the valley (2000 meters below us), is still shrouded in the dark. The plateau of the Jorasses Glacier, under the famous hanging serac, gives us a long moment of breath. We reach some of the groups that were ahead of us.

The final mix-climbing crest, which starts just above 3900m, is quite easy. It quickly leads to the white summit, suspended on the dizzying northern wall, where we meet with the rest of the rope parties. It is 8 AM.

At the top of Les Grandes Jorasses

It takes us more than six hours to climb down. The communication with my partner is as demanding as moving in the soft snow. We need to perform some uncomfortable maneuvers to put on the crampons at the base of the Rochers Whymper: we hover against an ice wall, both of us secured to a single ice screw, to which we also secure tools and backpacks. Two now delicate crevasses defend the traverse of the Whymper canyon. At the Repoisoire, we rappel down the critical points.

The long glacier that flanks La Bouteille, despite evident tracks, hides pitfalls of small holes covered with soft snow. Since he is quite robust, I ask Pierre to stay behind and to be ready to stop my fall, just in case. Shortly after that, I slip with my whole leg into a hole that suddenly opened under my feet. Pierre stops my fall. I don't think I would have fallen in it completely. However, the tightrope helps me to get out quickly.

Just above the refuge, we meet Ettore again. He has recovered and looks much better. At 3.30 PM we are back in the hut. I take off the backpack and all the gears, and I leave them on the hut's balcony. After eating something, I hug Pierre. We exchange addresses and he immediately proceeds with the descent. I throw myself in a bunk, where I fall asleep instantly. Ettore wakes me up just before 5 PM. I slept only an hour, but we still have to go down to Planpincieux.

My beautiful yellow ice hammer has disappeared from the gears left on the hut's floor. Oh well, I consider that a tribute to the adventure.