Hard British first ascent on the Grandes Jorasses

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 11/02/2009
The Grandes Jorasses from the north east. Lindsay Griffin

For 30 years the second ascent of the legendary Sergé Gousseault Route on the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses has been credited to Gordon Smith and Tobin Sorenson. It now appears that the line they climbed was almost entirely independent of the Gousseault, far more direct and most probably one of the hardest routes completed in the Alps at the time.

The 1,150m Gousseault Route up the North East (left) Flank of the Walker was first climbed in eight days during January 1973 by Giorgio Bertone, Michel Claret and René Desmaison. An attempt two years previously by Desmaison and the young aspirant guide Sergé Gousseault ended tragically in one of the most famous epics in Alpine history: the pair was trapped by a huge storm just 80m below the top, where Gousseault eventually died of exposure and, with considerable media coverage, Desmaison was dramatically rescued more dead than alive.

Even if the 1973 climb was overshadowed by the 1971 drama and the huge public controversy that followed, the eventual ascent is widely considered to be one of the greatest achievements in the history of alpinism.

In September 1977, after a previous attempt with Nick Colton, Scottish climber Gordon Smith, one of the foremost British alpinists of the 70s, and the highly talented American Tobin Sorenson, used a variation start right of the original line to complete their ascent in two and a half days - the first summer ascent. They used about half a dozen points of aid, only a fraction of that required by the first ascensionists.

The presumed third ascent, also in summer, took place over four days in July 1979 (two Czechoslovaks) but the fourth (and second winter) had to wait until January 2000. To date the route has received around a dozen ascents and was climbed free (at around M6 and 6b) in the autumn of 2007. Although there are no supremely difficult sections, it is one of the most sustained mixed ascents in the Alps, with an overall grade of ED3/4 for a free ascent.

At the time of their ascent, Smith and Sorenson had only the vaguest idea of the line and it wasn't until Smith received a copy of Gino Buscaini's Vallot guide a couple of years later that he realized Desmaison's description failed to match the route that he and Sorenson had climbed. For a start they hadn't discovered any fixed gear apart from a few old pegs and tattered rope on the first ramp.

However, by then Smith had given up climbing, got married and become a student, so he didn't pursue the matter. He would move to America, where he returned to rock climbing in the mid '80s before turning nautical. He now makes his home in the Philippines. Sorenson went on to make the first alpine-style ascent of the Harlin Direct on the Eiger with Alex MacIntyre, but was killed a little later soloing in the Canadian Rockies.

Enter the Italian climber Luca Signorelli, who is working on a comprehensive history of the Grandes Jorasses. Last year Signorelli managed to track down Smith over the internet. The latter's memory of the ascent, his last major alpine route before retirement, is excellent and he has been able to piece together a topo on a detailed photograph.

After climbing an icier start to the right of the original line (possibly, but not certainly, later used to begin the Czech route, Rolling Stone) the pair reached the Gousseault at the start of the 'first ramp'. After climbing this for several pitches, they broke out right, overcoming steep and very difficult mixed ground leading directly to the left side of the Tour Rousse: Sorenson, in particular, made sure they had their noses pointed firmly towards the summit.

Sorenson led an awesome pitch up the Prow above, taking two falls before reaching a hanging belay. Smith's lead took him round the exposed capping overhangs on awful rock, and then the two climbed moderate gullies to join the Cassin Route not far below the summit.

If appropriate, Smith would like to name this climb La Scala di Seta. In the vernacular of the time, the grade was ED+, VI+ and A0, 90° ice, and buckets of hard technical mixed. It now really needs a modern ascent to put this historic climb into perspective.



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