Capitalizing on the unusually heavy snow cover currently prevailing in the Alps, three Italians and one Frenchman have climbed new ground in an attempt to solve arguably the most outstanding problem on the Grandes Jorasses.
On the 19th June 1985, one of the coldest and snowiest Junes of the decade, legendary Italian ice climber Gian Carlo Grassi, with Renzo Luzi and Mauro Rossi, climbed the Phantom Direct on the South South East or Tronchey Face of the Jorasses.
Grassi's plan was to climb the central couloir into the huge gully that splits the upper half of the face, exiting onto the Tronchey Ridge at a small gap above the Third Tower.
However, despite having scrutinized the face for many years and made six reconnaissance trips before deciding conditions were right, Grassi found that the ice in the gully was unclimbable.
Instead, after climbing the initial 450m of icefalls in the couloir, the three made a delicate and irreversible rising traverse to reach a parallel hanging couloir to the left, which they followed direct to the summit.
Since then, a repetition of the Phantom Direct (aka Gianni Comino Memorial Route: 1,100m: ED3 VI/5 or 6) or better, a completion of Grassi's original vision, has been on the minds of many climbers. Unfortunately, the line is totally ephemeral: the right party and the right conditions have never coincided.
On the 22nd May this year Marco Appino, Michel Coranotte, Sergio de Leo and Marcello Sanguineti climbed the lower couloir at WI 4+/5, and then continued into the upper gully via 250m of 50° snow.
This narrow, encased goulotte gave 200m of 75-90° thin ice and mixed climbing up to M6+, leading to blank granite slabs approximately one long pitch below the Tronchey Ridge. The Italians had deliberately not taken a bolt kit and found the slabs impossible to climb, so were forced to make a lengthy series of rappels down the route.
The team has suggested a name - Plein Sud - for their 900m of ascent and likened it to the Modica-Noury Couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul, topped by Omega on the Petites Jorasses. The last few dangerous pitches involved much cleaning of large snow mushrooms.
While abandoning the final c50m of such an aesthetic line, rather than resorting to bolts to overcome it, should be applauded, it is debatable whether we can consider this climb anything more than a very valiant attempt to complete a coveted objective that will obviously require exceptional conditions if it is to be finished clean.
Thanks to Luca Signorelli, who also provided the photograph, for help with this report.