Grandes Jorasses - Plein Sud - Up-Climbing

Grandes Jorasses – Plein Sud

by Marcello Sanguineti
Marcello Sanguineti, who with Sergio De Leo, Michel Coranotte and Marco Appino made the first ascent of Plein Sud on the south face of Point Walker (Grandes Jorasses), tells the story of this corner of the Monte Blanc massif and the main phases of this first ascent.
  “An infernally alive face, which seems the exact opposite of the damned force of the ice which tries to enter into its heart”  (Guido Alberto Rivetti 1923)
Grandes Jorasses, S face: Plein Sud, 900m, VI, WI4+/5R, M6+
Sergio De Leo, Michel Coranotte, Marcello Sanguineti, Marco Appino – 22 May 2010
by Marcello Sanguineti
The history of the S face of the Grandes Jorasses, which with its 1200 metres precipitating onto the little Pra Sec glacier, is incredibly brief.
“An infernally alive face, which seems the exact opposite of the damned force of the ice which tries to enter into its heart”: was how Guido Alberto Rivetti defined the face in 1923, during the climb, made togther with Francesco Ravelli and Evariste Croux, of the Pra Sec ridge. This climb, which took three days, followed a route which was only ever repeated 5-6 times.
In July 1928, the American explorer-alpinist Albert Rand Herron, Evariste Croux and Croux’s cousin climbed the hitherto unclimbed Tronchey ridge.
That was it for 44 years. Only in 1972, Alessandro Gogna and Guido Machetto tackle the “lower part of the face” which is still unclimbed, making a great climb in exemplary style.
From 1979 onwards, Gian Carlo Grassi’s attentive eyes cast their gaze on the S face. He was waiting to make a quintessentially ephemeral ice climb. The route was born in 1985, climbed by the team Grassi/Luzi/Rossi: it’s the “Gianni Comino Memorial”, or “Phantom Direct” (1400m VI/6). Grassi documented the climb in the November-December 1985 edition of the Rivista Mensile del CAI (pp. 575-579), an account which is worth reading. After the 450 metres of runnels and the central gully, the initial idea was to penetrate right into the stomach of the “monster”, the enormous chimney which cuts the upper part of the face, right up to the brèche with the III Torre di Tronchey. But the ice was poor and dry -tooling hadn’t yet been born, so the threesome decided to make a long traverse to the left, to the start of the upper snowy gully, and climb up the couloir on dodgy ice formations following the 1923 route. The “Phantom Direct” is still unrepeated today.
It needed another 25 years before another route was born on this face, taking precisely the “monster-chimney”: on 22 May 2010 “Plein Sud” was climbed, our “ghost line” on the S face of the Jorasses.
Sergio had been keeping an eye on the face for years, waiting for the right moment, to seize at once. After missing a chance at the end of April, the bad weather had made us wait another month. On 22 May we managed to form two teams – Sergio with Michel and Marco and I – with the usual difficulties of fitting things in between work commitments.
Friday 21 May, we left the chalets di Tronchey at 14:30, and approaching 19:00 we were a hundred or so metres from the bergschrund, under a rocky face, in a good spot for a bivvy. Two of us went to check things out as far as the bergschrund. Our initial idea was to climb high on the first day, and bivvy at the start of the central couloir, where the Grassi/Luzi/Rossi traverses left. Unfortunately, though, at this time of day the first goulottes become waterfalls. As a compensation, we found that it was very easy to cross the bergschrund. Incredible!! And to think that, before we’d seen it close-up, we’d been resigned to complex balancing acts, fixed ropes and goodness knows what else to cross it …

Back at the bivvy, we set the alarm for 1:15 and we set out at 2 am of Saturday night. The first 450 metres of goulotte, up to WI4+, go quickly in the dark. In the waterfall of the “forra” (hole), as Grassi had called it, we don’t want to take unnecessary risks and climbed a good pitch which, after 30-odd easier metres more, takes us to the gully leading to the chimney, on 50° ground.

Just before 7 we’re at the foot of the “monster”. Blast!! No even from here can you see if there’s a goulotte all the way up to the top… Yet again, we have no choice but to press on, hoping for the best. I felt that venturing onto this face was a bit like sneeking secretly into Granny’s cupboard to steal some jam. “Let’s hope we don’t get discovered”, I thought, smiling, to myself. The first pitch, very nice and tricky to protect, was on very thin ice – there was no chance to use even the shortest ice screws. Luckily, we have no shortage of nuts, pegs and friends.
Then the goulotte broadened out into a snowy bowl and, finally, we find a vague and worrying goulotte, which winds uncertainly between the chimney’s overhangs. So, inside the “monster”, there’s a way, even if it’s very complicated! We couldn’t help uttering exclamations of surprise and joy, even if we know that the climbing wouldn’t be easy. Another goulotte pitch preceded two absolutely spectacular pitches. After a few metres on ice where we even managed to place a medium ice screw, here was one of the cruxes: before yielding, it forced Michel and I to take off our sacks, which we haul up once we’ve reached the belay. Progress in the narrow goulotte was often blocked by enormous snows “bouchons”, which needed a lot of tiring cleaning.
These alternated which sections of dry-tooling which require our full concentration, since, not least, we were at almost 4000m, carrying bivvy gear and had already climbed several hundred metres. With the rock which didn’t take pegs well on the sides and the poor rock at the back of the corner-chimney (some falling rocks take out a helmet, pair of glasses and a peg at a stance), it required our full efforts. But the setting and the climbing were exhilarating!! With the stupendous pitches which the route kept offering us, the nervous joy of the most intense moments filled our every move.
Not far below the brèche of the III Torre di Tronchey, the goulotte finishes and becomes a sort of open rocky diedre, filled with enormous snow formations. Towards 12:30 we started abbing down, equipping the stances, at times rather spartanly, until we reached the Pra Sec glacier, where we arrived at about 18:30. Another anchor, and we abbed down once again, as far as the Val Ferret and the pizza we wolfed down at La Palud.
Why, I ask myself, it was us who managed this climb? Maybe because we were ingenious in how we tackled it. Ingenuity meaning not climbers who improvise and find themselves on something too hard for them, but like enthusiastic children, curious and full of the desire to explore. Climbing that hidden goulotte made me feel a bit like a modern-day Robin Hood who, hoping to steal from a supermarket, found himself in a bank vault and cleaned up. Even more than the beauty and technicality of the pitches, this face amazed us, and this feeling overcome our initial repulsion. A person who knows how to be amazed, I have always said to myself, is someone who’s incredibly alive.
I believe that climbing in the mountains means, among all the other things, looking for the sublime. For some, the sublime is a snowy ridge stretching as far as the eye can see, for others it’s perfect limestone wall, for others it’s losing yourself in the hues of the sunset. For me, the last goulotte of Plein Sud, with its meagre ice and wedged in there, like being in a black hole that seems to swallow everything around it, is sublime.
A “total” climb, during which you don’t want to be anywhere else. We were in the right place at the right time. In the meanders of this open wound on the face, the infernal and the heavenly meet and are mixed together, creating a magic playground for climbers.
Marcello Sanguineti thanks TrangoWorld and Grivel
1 set friends (also small sizes) up to Camalot #2
Ice screws: 5 medium, 3 short, 2 very short
Rock pegs (lost arrows, universal and, particularly, knife blades)
Brief description
1. 450 m goulottes of the ”Direttissima” – “Gianni Comino Memorial Route” (or "Phantom Direct", Grassi/Luzi/Rossi 1985)
2. Couloir up to the big chimney 250m
3. Ice goulotte and dry-tooling in the chimney 200m