We've all seen it. At some point an area gets "climbed out." The plums have all been picked, routes crisscross the faces, and any "new" lines seem contrived, not natural. Nowhere is this truer than the Alps, the birthplace of mountaineering. Cable cars, trains and other absurd engineering feats render approaches improbably convenient. Huts offer comfortable and convenient shelter. And most great alpinists of the last 100 years have climbed here. World-famous alpine features have next to them names like Bonatti and Cassin, and yet the history here is even older than that. What could possibly be left?
Mark Thomas and David Almond have proven once again that limits lie not in the mountains but in our minds. Their new route, Jottnar (Scottish Grade VIII,8, 250m), ascends the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, one of the most iconic peaks in the Alps. That sufficient unclimbed ground exists for a natural, non-contrived route on the Midi seems unlikely.
Thomas spotted a thin line of ice (Pitch 4) while guiding clients, and after he and Almond bailed off Pointe Lachenal in sketchy avalanche conditions, he suggested they give it a try. They rappelled from the top of the Cosmiques Arete until they were level with the base of what would become Pitch 4, with the intention of continuing all the way down to Passerelle Couloir. But the ground grew steeper, and, running out of time, the pair decided to climb out from there.
Two days later they returned, and four rappels brought them to the base of their intended line. Almond led off, working his way up a groove to an airy traverse on snow. "Looking up, we saw what looked like reasonable ground for Pitch 1 but we new that we had a scary traverse across a snowfield that looked like it would slide off the slab it was on as soon as I touched it." Almond wrote. "We ended up having to move together to allow me to get to a good flake belay on the far side of it. We both commented that the snowfield felt like a mini 'White Spider.'"
Thomas went next, scratching 55 meters up overhanging flakes and a faint groove, reaching the base of a cracked yellow and red wall. "On arriving at the base of the next pitch I realized it was going to be the crux, and if we failed to get up it I was going to be bitterly disappointed," Almond said.
He took the sharp end, and promptly shredded a pair of new climbing pants in a narrow chimney before gaining the crack systems. "The cracks provided great torquing moves but due to few foot holds they were very strenuous." At the top of the crack one wide step brought him to a pod on the left. "I don't know if I was pumped after the previous moves but the next 10 meters was hard as the hooks were marginal and gear was hard to find," write Almond. "But now we knew we had the route in the bag." The final pitch, also graded Scottish VIII,8, took Thomas up some "amazing layback torquing" to the Cosmiques Arete.
With every pitch 55m or longer and having extreme technical difficulties, the pair graded Jottnar Scottish VIII,8, and commented that they felt it was significantly harder than the classic Scotch on the Rocks (IV M7, 450m). Almond sums it up: "The climb builds as it goes as it gets progressively harder and to get two full pitches back-to-back at that standard is, as Mark says, 'Awesome'. It is easily accessed so it can be climbed in almost any conditions, i.e. stormy weather and its perfect for acclimatization. We climbed it without using pitons or using any aid or tension moves and hope that anyone that attempts it uses the same ethics. What I found amazing is that we managed to climb a new, quality route up one of the most looked-at pieces of rock in the European Alps. Maybe I should start looking harder at those classic cliffs. There may be spaces to fill."
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