For the past 6 years, Ben Tibbetts has dedicated himself to climbing all 82 of the Alps’ 4,000m+ peaks. Documenting the journey in his new book ‘Alpenglow’ with a combination of his award-winning photography, hand-drawn illustrations and detailed storytelling, Ben has created one of the ultimate mountain compendiums. In this article, he shares with us an exclusive sneak peek at the book’s final chapter.
The Rochefort & Jorasses Traverse
‘The mountain that we once have climbed recalls us afterwards with a more vivid appeal, the spell of a friendship formed in the fiercest moments of intense living,’ – Geoffrey Winthrop Young, after the first traverse of the Grandes Jorasses
For both early and modern Alpinists the Grandes Jorasses holds a mysterious enchantment that only a very few mountains possess. Though much less difficult than the famous north face, the Grandes Jorasses traverse fascinates and inspires almost all alpinists. The Canzio bivouac at the Col des Grandes Jorasses provides a welcome refuge in case of unstable weather but the traverse is still a long and committing adventure that should be approached with utmost preparation and respect.
The Climb – 29-30th July 2018
My relationship with the Jorasses Traverse began two years earlier. I had wanted to try to cross the summits not in the conventional West – East direction, but to start up the Hirondelles ridge and then head in a continuous push westwards to the Canzio bivouac and back to the Helbronner. At 5.30am the first hint of daylight appeared in the East as we headed onto the Frébouze glacier. Our head torches swept across the dirty ice searching for a sensible way through the chaotic crevassing. Several hours later the infamous “Rey” crack provided a steep and savage pitch that called for a burly approach. Whilst Valentine led it in boots, I almost slipped off on second, and the difficulty seemed totally at odds with the rest of the route. Moreover it was hard to imagine making the moves with a hemp rope around the waist and just three pitons as Adolphe Rey had done in 1927.
“Though for us the end finally seemed in sight, the idea of continuing the traverse now seemed like a laughable idea.”
Several pitches of good climbing then led us up onto what turned into an unimaginably unpleasant and loose section of ridge and face climbing. Perhaps I should have researched the history before trying the route as I subsequently read that in 1911 Young had had the same experience: ‘The incalculable looseness of the higher rocks, every ledge loaded with crazy fragments, called forth our most delicate caution and a heartening freedom of language.’
Though for us the end finally seemed in sight, the idea of continuing the traverse now seemed like a laughable idea. Having carefully belayed our way up most of the route, rather than quickly simul climbing as we had envisaged, we reached the top just as the sun was setting. It was already 7.30 pm and once again the descent of the South face looked like it was going to furnish a long, delicate and traumatic process in the dark. We finally stumbled onto the balcony of the Boccalatte refuge at 3am.
Having abandoned the East – West traverse we came back in late July of 2018 to try the route in the conventional direction. We found ourselves at the Torino refuge for an early night before leaving again at 3am. The clawing of our crampons and the trailing rope broke the silence as we ambled across the glacier, lost in thought. Only beyond the Dent du Géant did we meet the wind, raking hard across the ridge from the North-West. We made steady progress through the dark, scuttling along the exposed knife-edges of the beautiful Rochefort ridge, slowing intermittently to catch my breath, steady the camera against a rock and take a slow exposure by the low light before dawn. The cold blue-magenta tones convey for me not just the beauty of this light, but the excitement and anticipation of the day ahead. As the light increased so did my frenzy until I had taken nearly a thousand photos by sunrise. At the Canzio bivouac we spent an hour relaxing in the morning sun waiting for the air to warm up and make the shaded slabs above seem more attractive.
“Above the Col des Grandes Jorasses,” writes Young after their ascent of the full Jorasses traverse in 1911, “the first nameless peak [now named after Young himself] springs sharply against the sky, with a deeply serrated summit ridge… The cliffs start abruptly and sternly… of little comfort on the ice-clogged and infinitesimal hollows sketched as holds up the hanging slabs… Behind and before us the sharp spires of bronze rock curled over to left or right like the alternating halves of an abbot’s mitre…”
“After the Pointe Croz we took the rope off and the nervous excitement of danger and commitment finally evaporated for the first time in the day.”
Tom, Valentine and I left at ten and headed up the same few abrupt pitches of clean grey granite on Pointe Young. They are now adorned with the odd piton and bolt but I was glad to find the rock largely free of ice. The first three pitches were exquisite. The razor sharp ridge beyond forced us into a laborious and delicate traverse below the crest to finally reach the summit of Pointe Young. We gradually found our rhythm weaving gear into the rope as we carried on over the summit of Pointe Margherita. After many hours of intricate scrambling we passed the Pointe Hélène and the climbing became easier. The ridge was interspersed with bands of schist and shattered granite and the crest became gradually less defined.
After the Pointe Croz we took the rope off and the nervous excitement of danger and commitment finally evaporated for the first time in the day. After a break we moved lazily along the chaos of rubble, peering every so often down the north face. I felt deeply fatigued by the altitude, by the strong afternoon sun and by having taken 4,000 photos. On the last slope up to the Pointe Whymper we found a welcome trickle of snow melt and filled our bottles before reaching the summit where there was a comfortable spot to bivouac for the night.
This, The Pointe Whymper, was my last peak of the 82 x 4000m summits. I was so tired that I barely knew how I should react. I could hardly feel the significance of the moment and kept skittering around and taking photos as the sun lowered in the sky.
Taking a planned bivouac at the end of the climb turned out to be a stroke of genius. Not only were we able to relax and enjoy the incredible position we had earned, perhaps one of the finest spots to bivouac in the Alps, but we also left the long descent for the following day when the snow slopes and glaciers would be grippy and cold. In the fading light we watched two friends carry on down the glacier, punching up to their knees in rotten snow. Though travelling fast and light can be a simple and exhilarating pleasure, there is often barely a moment’s pause to reflect and absorb the experience. To sit and watch the setting sun from the top of the Jorasses added far more to the experience than the pleasure of rushing down to a warm bed.
Finishing an arbitrary list of mountains was never my original objective. The journey and the experience was the goal. And the images and stories with which to inspire others were what I had dreamed of creating from the outset. Nevertheless the fulfillment provided by these adventures always seems so cruelly short lived, quickly leaving space for fresh desire and other mountains. In the crisp morning light as we began the descent, the satisfaction was already tinged with anticlimax. Having completed their long sought after traverse of the Jorasses, Young wrote similarly: ‘I was never before so acutely conscious of the regret that walks with gratified desire. The brief pleasure of realization was dearly bought with the ending of long hope’