With such a strong high pressure sat over the Alps at the moment it would be rude not to make the most of it. Especially as my driving work has all but stopped. We decided to head up to the Argentiere basin to check it out. We had our sights set on the Colton-Brooks on the north face Of the Droites. We had no idea what the conditions were like on the bottom half of the face as its impossible to see from the valley but we decided it was worth a punt!!
Here’s how it went…..
We started the long and arduous approach up to the Argentiere hut at 11am (29/9/11) to make the most of the cooler temperatures in the morning. It took about 4 ½ hours to walk up to the hut (much better than the 6 or so it took the last time we walked up there!!) and we were meet with a superb view of the north faces in excellent conditions….
When we got to the hut though I thought it was going to be game over. A few men wearing work boots and overalls were mooching about carrying wood and tools. I spoke to the hut Gardien, Fred, who informed me the hut was totally shut for the inter-season. Luckily he looked kindly on us and let us stay in the winter room with the only two blankets that were there!! He also offered to fill up our water bottles which saved us from melting snow too (I’m not sure he would be grateful if lots of people turned up there looking for a similar welcome so I would recommend bivy kit if your thinking of heading up).
We set off at 1.45am from the hut and headed down onto the glacier and over to the start of the route. The glacier seems to be a lot more open than last year, probably due to the dry winter we have just had, but we still managed to find a easy enough way up to the Bergshrund.
One pretty spicy pitch through the shrund got us onto the bottom of the face and on our way up. The first half of the face was straightforward enough with excellent Neve and even a few pegs and bits of tat to clip on the way. We soon got the the bottom of the first of the crux’s after a bit of time squinting up at the walls above with our head torches, trying to work out the best way to go. Ally led two long pitches trough the crux on thin but good ice.
I took over for the rest of the diagonal runnel and up the beautiful snow crest at the top of the face with ally taking over for the last 30m or so because I ran out of pro. It almost felt like being on the Frendo Spur for a moment on the snow arete, an amazing situation. The last 100m or so of mixed climbing up to the summit ridge was excellent too with bomber gear and ice. We topped out 9 hours after crossing the Bergshrund.
We set about the descent down the south side with high spirits. We new how bad this descent was from the previous time we had been down it but this time if was even worse. Little to no snow in the coulior made it exceptionally loose and hard work. We were abbing on a 8.1mm Iceline with a 5mm tag line which didn’t help when we got a rope stuck 4 abs down. We soon got it freed and continued on down dodging rocks and trying to stay out off the firing line as much as we could. We finally hit the snow cone at the bottom but the fun wasn’t over yet. We headed off as fast as we could in the knee deep slush, thinking we were going to get nailed any moment by the constant rockfall from the neighbouring gully. We started to down climb some black ice to get onto the glacier when I heard a thud above me, I wheeled around to see a rugby sized block heading towards Ally. I shouted but all he could do was duck and hold on, luckily it bounced away from him. I quickly turned around to check that was the last of it, it wasn’t…. that smaller block had dislodged a microwave sized block that was quickly gaining speed. I shouted again but this time it was coming closer to me. You would of thought I was Neo from the Matrix the way I dodged it. It must have passed 8 inches or so from my face. We hurried on down the last 20m of black ice to the safety of a small niche in the rock wall. Time for a toilet break. One short abb onto the glacier marked the end of the chaos and we were soon on our way down to the Couvercle hut for a well earned sleep.
I would strongly recommend an alternative descent of the Droites for the time being (probably for the rest of the autumn) as it was harrowing to say the least. If I could re-do things I would make an abseil descent of Ginat (no joke!). It would be a hundred times safer and easier and would mean that somebody else could make the use of it too (are you going to be that first man??).
Anyway all fun and games. Superb route, horrible descent. C’est la vie. It was also great for me to come back to this face almost exactly a year after doing the Ginat as my first Grande Course to see how far I have come. I felt so much more comfortable and stronger with everything, except the rockfall which only a idiot could get comfortable with. A few days rest for us now before heading back out there for some more action….
Take care folks. Until next time.