Matterhorn North Face (not quite Cham but near enough)
After the Colton Mac I went bouldering for about a week then drove home with Hazel. I couldn’t keep away long though. After about a week in the UK I got a message from my friend Tom asking if I was keen for the north face of the Matterhorn. I hadn’t seen or climbed with Tom in ages and the Matterhorn was the last tick I need in Gaston Rebufat’s arbitrary tick list of alpine north faces, so after a quick gear and vehicle swap we were heading towards dover again….
Over 1000 miles and several days later and we wake up at 2am near the Horli hut. Tom prepares some kind of high intensity gum tobacco to get himself psyched. I stick with coffee and porridge. Many other teams set off the same time as us, but we manage to get ahead by soloing. Unfortunately I take a wrong turn up a harder section and teams sweep in up the easier ground on the left. After about an hour of full “shit show” we decide to stop. Partly to let the “shit show” pass and partly because Tom is curled over with intense hot aches.
The route was in amazing condition and didn’t put up much resistance apart from the drastic lack of oxygen near the top. Neither of us were acclimatised. At about 2 thirds height Tom informs me that he’s heard that “the top is proper f**king slog.” I expected the worse, but fortunately it wasn’t quite as bad as that. We topped out a bit before dark.
“Did you enjoy that then,” I asked Tom.
He probably just needed some oxygen, but more crucially nicotine.
A week or so later Toms flown home and Ben comes out. Our aim was to try and climb the Desmaison Route on the Jorasses. A route I’ve dreamt about climbing for a quite a long time. I’ve read Guy Robertson’s article “Magic on the Jorasses,” several times. Tales of sustained mixed climbing all the way up the tallest bit of the Jorasses. Pretty inspiring stuff.
Sat in Elevation there’s lots of talk of foehn winds. When I’ve seen the foehn on the forecast before I’ve always just assumed there would be a bit of a warm breeze. But there’s talk of flying deck chairs, flattened trees and relocated bus stops. All very dramatic stuff. To confuse things further a cocky ginger youth starts denying the very existence of the foehn. Saying that it is just a myth created by Chamonix locals to keep the routes less busy. The main thing that concerns us however is that the foehn is often worst on the Jorasses.
Over the next few days we um and arr about what to do. Two mornings we try and set off for the Jorasses. But either the weather’s doing something weird or the forecast has changed. On the third morning we wake up to blue skies and a forecast of of three days of no precipitation and “light” foehn winds. The decision about what to try is not an easy one. It seems like we’d have a better chance of climbing something of the Sans Nom or the Dru, but we’re both mega psyched for the Desmaison. Given that Ben has just come out for the week I let him make the call. It’s always a tricky one with decisions like this: whether to try something not as hard/long with a greater chance of success or to put all your chips on the big win with a lesser chance of making it to the top.
“Fuck it, shall we just try it anyway,” Ben says with conviction. I like his style.
We wake up the next day below the face, after a slightly blustery night it’s still and the skies are clear. It’s on. After some slight faff at the shrund the pitches start to flow. The route is as good as the hype. Sustained top quality mixed climbing. As we reach the second ramp I notice a few flakes of snow landing on my jacket. I haven’t been paying much attention to the sky all day, but now it’s fully socked in. We continue hoping that it’s just a quick flurry. Two pitches later and things have got far too Scottish, I can barely look up without my hood completely filling with snow. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were at the base of the M7/A1 pitch, all we could see was the channel of spindift piling into us. We get into the bothy shelter to try and see if things improve. Ben sits on my knee to keep warm and I half stand on the ledge half sit in my harness. After about half an hour we’re both quite cold and the snow is building up between the wall and the bothy bag, pushing us off the ledge. Bad scenes! Ben remembers a small ledge with a bit of an overhang two rope lengths below, so we decide to make a break for that. The ledge turns out to about 2 star on the Mick Fowler bivi scale. But we manage to brew up and get in our sleeping bags. With wet snow everywhere the down in our bags gets instantly soaked, but at least we’re out of the main spindrift channel.
The night passes with a lot of shivering and not much sleep. At one point my feet must have slipped as there snowy purchase collapsed. I dream that the anchors ripped and I’m falling down the face, next I realise that it hasn’t and think I’m just falling off the ledge then I wake up still safe on ledge, Ben’s snoring away…The bastard!
In the morning the spindrift eases for a while, but it looks like there more to come. It’s time to go down. The abs go smoothly as we get into the Shroud and abseil down it on V threads.
“It’s brilliant alpine climbing,” Ben announces as we reach the deck, “You can fail and it’s still really satisfying. It’s not like Peak sport climbing, that’s just frustrating.”
He’s not wrong.