The Walker Spur
My first season in the Alps. It hadn’t started too well as on the first route we somehow had managed to climb the wrong route. This wouldn’t have been too bad, but we were on the wrong mountain at the time!
Despite this Mike was keen to attempt the Walker. “Err Mike, I wasn’t too hot on the altitude on what we have just been on, let alone at 4000m and on a major route”. But he was having none of it: “You’ll be fine”. So it was that a couple of days later with a fine forecast under our belts we were boarding the train for Montenvers again.
Descending the ladders from the station onto the Mer de Glace we have left the hustle and bustle of the world of the tourist behind. The glacier is dry at this level and avoiding the crevasses is easy, painted oil drums indicate the path to follow though on occasions the surface has changed and we are forced to make a detour to avoid a crevasse.
Eventually we reach the point at which the Leschaux Glacier joins the Mer de Glace and smooth progress is interrupted as we climb over the chaos of the medial moraines before heading upwards along our new highway.
This glacier is steeper and is becoming snowier with the rise in altitude. Shortly the path(!) heads leftwards towards the Leschaux hut. This is situated on a spur above the glacier and a steep path has formed up and across the moraine to access it.
Mike being, shall we say, not prone to spending money we are sleeping outside the hut. Our chosen bed is next to the helicoper landing pad. This turns out to be a bad move as about an hour later we are asked to move as someone suffering from altitude sickness is to be choppered out. Hastily packing our kit back into our bags we get as far from the pad as possible.
After this little excitement we settle down again and begin our evening meal. This is definitely a room with a view, ahead lie the Jorasses seemingly filling the sky. As an object to climb it is huge! Far, far larger than anything I have seen before. Four Creag an Dubh Lochs would fit into its height or six Scafell crags! A search helicopter heads towards the mountain and simply vanishes in its vastness, it takes me some time to locate it again even though the sound of its rotors echo faintly from the walls.
It is still dark in the morning when we wake. Parties from the hut are stumbling past, most heading for the classic route on the West Face of the Petite Jorasses but some are destined for the Walker. By the time we are away, we are well down the queue.
The path upwards along the glacier is well worn up to the point where parties for the Petites Jorasses diverge, it then becomes harder to follow in the gloom. The glacier becomes steeper as it rises to meet the base of the pillar. It also becomes more crevassed. Eventually we are level with the pillar but to its right. A short traverse and we are at the rimaye and gearing up. It is now light and the helicopter returns to lift off a couple of Polish climbers who have been injured.
There are two ways to climb the first section: an ice slope or the crack between the slope and the rock to its left. A French party in rock boots are jamming the crack. We are in full boots so it is the ice option for us. A helicopter comes in close to the face, the downdraught from its rotor sending stones and rocks flying. What with natural objective danger, that from other parties and now this, it was becoming a dangerous place to be!
A couple of pitches up this and we are at the top of the ice. Above lies a field of tiled flakes and blocks, the result of a fine summer denuding the snow cover. Off with the crampons and we head up and rightwards towards the first of the real difficulties: the 75m diedre.
Despite the warm weather, the cracks here were icy, with slivers of verglas lining the slabby right wall. The climbing was not too difficult but with cold fingers and the patchwork of ice it made movement tricky at times. The verglass also blocked many of the gear placements so that for the most part the only gear available would be the fixed pegs of unknown vintage.
Despite there being several parties on the route we were essentially alone, the others were climbing quicker than us and had left us behind. As the day wore on the intricate route finding took more time than we would have liked. From the top of the 75m diedre, the line of the route heads rightwards towards another, shorter, corner. It was my lead. This was tricky in plastic boots as it relies on friction to move from one groove to another. With some difficulty I manage it without pulling on any of the gear which all seemed to be in the wrong place anyway. Moral: don't assume that modern gear is better than traditional!
A short abseil leads to a ledge, then it is over the “black overhang” which is surprisingly easy. More easy ground leads to the foot of the “Tour Grise” or Grey Tower. This is climbed on its right hand side, which overlooks the vast couloir separating the Walker from the Croz spurs. There are several modern mixed routes up the depth of this couloir, mainly attempted in winter as summer is too dangerous. Indeed as we climb the mountain shudders to the sound of huge falls of rock bouncing down the gully.
The rock on the Tour Grise is the best on the route, pleasant granite slabs with little loose material. This is one of the technical cruxes but doesn't feel too bad.
Eventually we are at the top of the tower and as night approaches we continue up the easier mixed ground above. We cannot finish the route today so we aim to get as high as possible before bivouacing. With the last of the daylight we come to a ledge about a pitch below the final difficulties. This will have to do.
Mike clears an area for the stove and gets ready to get a brew going while I clear the rest of the ledge so that we have a smooth area on which to sleep. The ledge is about 3m long and 2m wide so we have plenty of room. “I can’t find the control key for the stove!” announces Mike. We search in vain in the darkness for the missing spanner which will enable us to cook our food. Admitting defeat we settle down in our sleeping bags and chew on what food we have that does not require cooking.
The morning is again clear, and we pack up and go quicker than normal as we have no food to eat. The Red Chimney lies above, this is easy if a little loose in places. The ground above leads up and rightwards until a final groove leads back to the crest of the spur.
A few pitches of easy climbing up this and I get the final pitch to the top of the route and of the Grandes Jorasses. Sitting on the summit we gather our thoughts and prepare to head down to the Val Ferret on the Italian side.
The descent down the normal route is long and increasingly worrying as our dehydrated bodies wilt in the rising heat of the day. We eventually leave the glacier and pass by the Grandes Jorasses hut before the final descent into the valley.
We reach the road as night falls and decide to sleep in a small wood by the side of the road. Longing for food I curl up in my sleeping bag when Mike gives a shout. “I've found it!” We break open the uncooked food and I find a stream for water. Several brews and all our food later we are sated and fall asleep.
The following morning sees us attempting to hitch through the Mt Blanc tunnel back to our tent. The border guards ask us in “for a chat” and once they realise that we have been climbing call in another of their number who questions us about the route before waiving us through. A lift materialises and we spend the rest of the day basking in the sunshine in the campsite, eating our fill, preparing for a rest day before the next adventure.