UKC

An Off-the-Couch Performance on The Walker Spur

Scottish Alpinist Ally Swinton describes an adventurous day out in the Grandes Jorasses, armed only with a limited supply of off-the-couch fitness...


Courage... Determination... Raw Talent... Discipline... Drive... Self-confidence...These are all great characteristics of amazing athletes. Athletes can also have specific areas that they excel in such as power, strength, speed, balance... I regard mine to be my ''Off the couch performance''! It's maybe not something I should be proud of, but is there any greater test of endurance than sitting on your bum for a while then going for a jolly over the Grandes Jorasses?

Walker Spur Topo  © Rockfax
Walker Spur Topo
© Rockfax

My friend Callum asked if I fancied flying out to Cham for a quick hit on the Walker Spur. With a small weather window we'd have to be fast. As it turned out Callum couldn't make it due to various reasons. However, now the seed was planted in my head. It was just by chance that my folks were driving out to Cham for a holiday in a few days time. So I asked around my Chamonix friends to see who'd be keen for the Walker. Ginger Ben wasn't too hard to persuade. The only down side was that I'd be arriving late Wednesday night and there was bad weather coming in on the Friday.

photo
Training on the couch...
© Ally Swinton

Therefore we'd have to start early Thursday morning in Chamonix, hike up to the Mer de Glace, walk into the Jorasses, climb up the Walker Spur and descend safely down the back. In a single push. This would for sure be a test of my ''off-the-couch performance."The reason I was on my bum for a while was that I was back in Scotland for the month of June for various reasons including a climbing trip to Pabbay and Mingulay. Also I was trying to do some lifey stuff, like looking for a job... Go on laugh as much as you want, but yes I do work sometimes! So the week before I came out to Cham I was on the slaptop constantly. With the kitchen only a few metres away, I'd be lying if I said my diet was something to be proud of.

I drove out from the UK over two days and arrived in Chamonix around 9pm. After organising my gear I made it to bed for 10:30pm. Not before setting the alarm. You know it's gonna be a long day when your alarm tells you you're gonna have 3 hours sleep, and that's at best...
Ben picked me up outside my house, then we drove to Les Bois where we had a swift re-pack of our gear. Picking up my bag off the floor was exciting not because of the adventure ahead, but because of how light the bag was. I love doing these big long missions in the mountains whilst carrying nothing. It has to be the best way to go Alpine climbing. We left the car at 2.15 am and made our way up to Montenvers train station. This was the part of the whole day ahead I was not looking forward to. The climbing on the Walker will be fine, once I get there... So this first hour of hiking up a steep path and onto the Mer de Glace was gonna be the test of just how fit or unfit I got on that couch.

Thankfully Ben, who always seems to be in shape, had just finished his guides course to be accepted onto the French Guide scheme. (applause) Which meant I had a chance to keep up with him! Hiking up to Montenvers turned out to be fine which obviously boosted the confidence about the rest of the day ahead.

photo
Ben having a rumage in his sac on the Leschaux Glacier.
© Ally Swinton

Even though Ben and Myself have walked & skied on the Mer de Glace many times, we still manage to get lost on the bloody thing. Luckily we didn't lose much time on it. After the remaining walk up the Leschaux glacier, we made it to the foot of the Jorasses just as the sun was coming up. The Jorasses' big looming walls were starting to become a reality of what we had lined up for the day. To say I felt super fresh after the walk-in to the base, I'd be lying. At least now though I only had to climb up...We weren't planning to bivvy on the face or at the top, so we had to keep moving.

photo
Can I get a woop woop?!!
© Ally Swinton

Ben set off first and as I followed on the mellow terrain at the bottom of the spur, I had an instant reminder of what Summer Alpinism is all about. Loose rocks and shit protection. Why we do this, I just do not know. I honestly do not like Summer Alpinism that much. It's hot, loose and takes ages to walk everywhere. Winter Alpinism however is soo much better...Cold, dark and you can ski around. But I hate the cold and I'm scared of the dark! Anyways...

photo
Nearing the end of our long morning approach.
© Ally Swinton

There was one team just ahead of us which we managed to catch up after the 'Rebuffat corner'. This is probably the first main rock climbing pitch. I would say it was like a Cairngorm E2 style of pitch. What looked to be great cracks, turned out to be thin seams. So take a few small wires for this pitch if you climb it.

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Ben leading the way to the start of the Walker.
© Ally Swinton

After that pitch we traversed horizontally around on loosish rocks to the 75m ''Ken & Diedre'' pitch. Ben took over here as he's a big 'Corrie' fan. for his block of leads/simul-climb.

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Not a great photo, but shows you the steepness of the Grandes Jorasses.
© Ally Swinton

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Steepness on the Walker Spur
© Ally Swinton
 
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Ben super excited as usual.
© Ally Swinton
After this I took for my block of leads/simul-climbing, which took us through the pendulum pitch. We thought the quickest way to do this was for the me to climb to the belay, from which you pendulum off, clip onto that and then be lowered down to the next belay. Ben then came over and I lowered him down to me. He quickly untied the rope and pulled it down. Then I set off again for some more climbing on loose blocks, Yey!
 
photo
Ben on the 75m 'Ken & Diedre' pitch.
© Ally Swinton
 
Ben took over at the start of the Grey slabs, which started with a really fun bulgy E1 pitch. It looked intimidating but there seemed to be really good holds on it. It felt pretty good to do some nice enjoyable climbing on the route rather than just scrambling around on precarious rock. This seemed to be the theme on the Walker. There would be some scrambly loose stuff followed by a nice section of solid enjoyable rock then back into sections of loose again.
 
photo
Still a lot of loose stuff around on the route.
© Ally Swinton
 
I took over again after the Grey Slabs. By now the time was about 2 in the afternoon and things were heating up. There was so much rock crashing down either side of the Walker Spur. Mostly it was accumulated in the Colton-mac area. However, even though I knew it was all happening pretty far away, I would still shit myself when I heard it happening, and I would instantly freeze and sheepishly look above me to make sure it wasn't happening above me.

Ben following on the crest. Phenomenal views.  © Ally Swinton
Ben following on the crest. Phenomenal views.
© Ally Swinton

I climbed a really enjoyable E1 pitch that brought me to a long rock spur that lead us to the main headwall of the Walker. We just simul-climbed the majority of this. Until we reached the Red Chimney. Due to me not looking where I was going, I managed to climb into the wrong start to the Red Chimney. I found myself in a nasty wee spot where everything was pretty loose. It's a horrible position to be in. It'd be bad to rip a block off and for me to fall off, but more importantly I did't want to knock anything down onto Ben. We climbed the chimney in a few short pitches so that we could find shelter for the belayer.

Once I popped out of the main part of the Red Chimney I traversed out right. There is a continuation of the Red Chimney above that you do not want to take as there is normally a constant flow of rocks falling down it. It's fairly obvious where to head out right. It was made even more obvious to me as there was two abandoned sacs which looked fairly fresh. I presumed they had been rescued.

Nearing the summit!  © Ally Swinton
Nearing the summit!
© Ally Swinton

After the Red Chimney Ben took over for the last block of leads. He traversed across an awesome slab underneath the red tower. The slab is smooth but you just walk across it. This brought us to the home stretch, which thankfully was fairly steady and quite enjoyable. Though by now I was starting to feel a wee bit tired. Being at sea level for the past wee while didn't really help my breathing.

The very last steps on the Walker Spur are great. A few snow steps and you then pop straight onto the summit of the Grandes Jorasses. We topped out just before 7pm. The route took us around 12hrs from the base. I had only had 1 litre of water since I left Chamonix. So it was time to get the stove out and make another litre. We chilled on the top for a bit, but it wasn't super warm. In fact I think I was more warm the last time I was there last October. So after I had made my water and got our 'Summit Selfie' shot, we made or way down.

Summit selfie!  © Ally Swinton
Summit selfie!
© Ally Swinton

Last Autumn the descent was really swift as you could down climb a gully next to the serac. However, in the summer the descent takes that bit longer as you have to down climb the rock spurs. But it actually wasn't too bad, and we were down at the Boccalate hut for 11pm. It took us roughly 21 hours from where we left the car to climb up and over the Joarasses and down the other side to the hut. What was really fun about the hike up and over the Jorasses, was that I hadn't seen Ben in a while so we just had a good chin wag the whole way. After spending the night in the hut, along with a few Argentine's who had just climbed Manitua, we made our way down the remaining hour to the Italian valley floor. The path that you walk out on conveniently finishes at a bar. We thought it'd be rude not to have a beer. 4 beers and 2 plates of fries later, we left the pub to head back to Cham. 

This story was originally posted on Ally's blog.

Ally is sponsored by: Rab and Zamberlain.



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13 Oct, 2015
Great write up. Is this rockfax topo just a one-off for the route or part of a larger guide?
14 Oct, 2015
Good article. Would also be very interested if this is signs of a Rockfaxx guide in the works for the Mont Blanc Massif?
14 Oct, 2015
Which Rockfax guidebook is the topo from?
We are well progressed on a Rockfax guidebook to Chamonix. It is being written in the main by Charlie Boscoe, with help from Jack Geldard, and will cover the best of the climbing in the area. This means valley sport crags, mountain routes and big faces. A massive undertaking in a similar style to the Dolomites guide. We are aiming to publish early next summer in book and App form. Alan
14 Oct, 2015
Haha, Rockfax Chamonix (or whatever) has seemed like an obvious title to publish for a long time. With the AC guides looking extremely dated by modern standards and confusing even by old standards and with French guidebook writers' apparent inability to release guidebooks of similar scope to the AC guides, I'm not surprised you lot have stepped into the breach. Looks good.
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