In this regular feature from the British Mountain Guides, Tim Blakemore from Northen Mountain Sport shows us the classic Colton-Brooks on the North Face of Les Droites, France.
Colton-Brooks is a great line which links logical and aesthetic ice runnels up a huge face. Fully living up to its 'Grande Course' status a team will have to employ swift tactics to ensure they keep within guidebook time.
Range: Mont Blanc Massif, France.
Mountain: Les Droites (West Summit 3944m)
Route: Colton-Brooks, North Face of Les Droites
Return: South East Face then South Couloir of the Breche de Droites
Grade: ED, IV 5m. 9 – 12 hours for the ascent, a further 4 – 6 for the descent (to the Couvercle Refuge).
Guide book & Map: Snow, Ice and Mixed, Francois Damilano, Vol 1. IGN 3630OT Chamonix massif du Mont Blanc Valley base: Chamonix
Approach: In the 'off season' the Grands Montets lift is often closed for maintenance which means a walk from the valley. This shouldn't put you off as it's a varied and interesting hut walk. Start from the ski resort of the Grands Montets and follow the pistes past the Lognan Hotel. From here the moraines and then glacier proper are followed (including a section on ladders which can be very icy). Allow 5 hours to the Argentiere Refuge (Winter room when unguarded).
Tamsin on the Colton Brooks
Route Summary: The Colton-Brooks is objectively safe with little rockfall and no serac threat (though the descent gully can be prone to rockfall).
Messner start, Colton Brooks
Nowadays, most routes on the North Face start via the Messner Gully (photo right) which seems to stay in condition. Where the Ginat heads left the route keeps straight up over ice at about Scottish IV. Eventually the central ice field is reached and climbed before the headwall is tackled. This is key to the route and should be reconnoitred beforehand. Either traverse in, over sometimes grey and hard ice, or take the mixed ground direct (same grade). A fine pitch of Scottish V follows in a superb situation before it eases slightly and the fine, hanging ramp/gully is followed to the upper slopes. A final mixed section is tackled before the summit crest.
Tactics: Like all alpine climbing, tactics and strategy are important. The face can be reconnoitred from the Col de Montets (with binoculars) to ascertain its condition (or check UKC!). Whilst a proper alpine face it lends itself to 'single push' tactics and there are few good bivouac sites. Many parties now climb (with a good forecast) without bivouac kit and carry out the descent to the Couvercle hut in a single outing. You should be familiar with climbing simultaneously over technical ground with your partner to ensure success.
Whilst a proper alpine face it lends itself to 'single push' tactics and there are few good bivouac sites.
Descent: From the summit head obliquely down the face towards the gully falling from the Breche de Droites. Once here it's equipped for rappel to the glacier. In recent seasons this has been very dry and should be avoided if there are any other parties above you (rockfall). Once on the glacier head over one or two crevassed areas (may need to abseil) then take a long, contouring line in to the Couvercle Refuge.
The Colton-Brooks has interestingly been claimed twice (as a first ascent) in the Damilano guide. Having been climbed in 1977 it was later climbed in 1980 by the strong team of Jean-Marc Boivin, Philippe Martinez, Christophe Profit and Dominique Radigue who are credited with the 'second first ascent'!
High on the Colton Brooks
Tim Blakemore is based in the Chamonix valley where he continues to explore the mountains in all seasons. He's climbed Les Droites North Face 3 times now and is still interested in going back!