Three North Faces

21 November, 2011
Andy Houseman contemplating the Grandes Jorasses on the approach. The Croz takes a line up the buttress in the middle of the face. © Rob Greenwood

I'm not a believer in New Year's resolutions, but some time in January 2011 an idea had made its way to the forefront of my mind: "must climb more in the Alps." The culmination of countless hours climbing throughout the U.K. in both summer and winter had led to a certain intrigue. I didn't have much alpine experience apart from a Jonathan Conville Memorial Trust training course and a big Dolomite rock route but was 'time served' in Scotland. The time was right. I felt ready.

However, not knowing a huge amount about the Alps I needed a place to start. Somewhat unimaginatively perhaps, I decided to focus my efforts on the blindingly obvious ‘Great North Faces’ – the Eiger, Matterhorn, and Grande Jorasses. As far as ‘places to start’ go it seemed like an adequately ambitious one.

Starting in March, first up was the original 1938 route on the Eiger, quite possibly an illogical choice owing to the fact it is without doubt the hardest and longest of all the ‘Great North Faces’. One thing was clear though, Jack (Geldard) and I were on a mission and needed to get this one off our chests.

Climbing the 1800 metre high North Face of the Eiger in winter without incident was something of a revelation, a confirmation that I could do it, I had what it takes. For quite some time after I had to repeat the words “I have climbed the North Face of the Eiger”. They took some time to sink in. You'll find an account of our ascent at the end of a detailed article, including kit-list and topo, that Jack wrote over at UKC.

So, it was only a matter of time before Jack and I decided to team up again. In October the next objective we (loosely) chose was the Schmidt Route on the North Face of the Matterhorn. The Matterhorn is a stunning mountain to look at, but a terrifically poor one to climb on in terms of rock quality. Essentially it is a pile of Weetabix and nobody wants to climb on a rock that can be likened to a breakfast cereal. Fortunately this capricious rock is covered in ice, and the more ice there is the better. We found the route in ‘satisfactory’ conditions, with ample ice for the most part and a few bare patches that would be best described as psychologically ‘dark terrain’ (i.e. start singing the national anthem and don’t fall). The final low-angled 300 metres made a lasting impression on us (jackgeldard.com). Despite non-existent acclimatisation, jokingly little sleep, minimal food, and pretty much no water (we’re nutrition experts) the ride was a comparatively smooth one – or at least that is what I tell myself retrospectively.

Jack Geldard following on the Upper Icefield of the Eiger North Face. © Rob Greenwood
A few days later, last but certainly not least, came the Croz Spur on the Grande Jorasses. For this event I teamed up with Himalayan 'uber-wad', trucker, and all-round nice guy, Andy Houseman. Arguably the toughest part of the day was spent in navigating our way around the complex Leschaux Glacier in the early hours of the morning. After hours of hard graft we found ourselves sitting underneath the route, absolutely shattered. A quick 20 minute brew-stop and a bar of ‘energy’ (who knows what they put in it!?) and we were off.

In comparison to the slow progress we had made through waist deep snow the steep ice went by a dream. Running together pitch after pitch we covered vast quantities of ground in a short space of time, intermittently pitching the occasional hard section. As you would expect with a 1100m face, there is going to be at least a few metres that aren’t in great condition. On this occasion it was the top two pitches, which rated at around Scottish VII(ish) - a fitting finale and an appropriate way to end the odyssey.

No north face comes without an investment of effort. You’ve got to want it. Something character building happens on each ascent and it is that challenge that makes it so appealing. You learn something about yourself - your limitations, your boundaries and your ability to push on through the next barrier.

Only problem is that I’m fresh out of ideas for 2012. Or am I..?