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Three North Faces, Solo, in Winter. Check.

13-Mar-2013
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Griffith begins the Lagarde Direct on the Northeast Faces of Les Droites. Photo: Alpineexposure.comThe British alpinist Jonathan Griffith has soloed the three North Faces of Les Droites, Les Courtes and Aiguille Verte in winter, in the same day, and, most notably, under his own power—he descended without technical assistance, often down soloing.

The climbs, located in the Argentiere basin outside Chamonix, France, are big, cold and serious undertakings with a glacier approach and substantial objective hazards from seracs, bergschrunds, plus the mundane rock and icefall and avalanche dangers. In February, two Lithuanian climbers became stranded in storm on the Lagarde on the Northeast Face of Les Droites, and died there.

In 1986 the great French alpinist Jean-Marc Boivin linked the North Faces of Les Droites, Les Courtes, Aiguille Verte and the Grandes Jorasses in winter, but used a paraglider and a hanglider, where were pre-stashed on the summits, as transport from peak to peak. While Griffith did one less North Face, he covered more terrain under his own power, having climbed up three faces, down two and a ski descent of the third (Boivin also used skis for one of his descents.) After an illustrious/extreme/radical alpine career, Bovin died in 1990 while BASE jumping from Angel Falls in Venezuela.

Griffith’s outing accounted for some 13,500 vertical feet of climbing, plus a near equal amount of descending. The descents can’t be underestimated—typically, climbers go up and over the peaks, descending the lower-angle backsides. The North Faces, which are mostly snow and ice, have little in the way of anchors for retreat or rappel. Griffith isn't giving out the times for each climb and descent or even for his overall time, saying, "All these speed ascents are always based around a time that is completely pointless as mountains in winter are all about conditions. For sure I was two hours up the Verte and that was going at a slow speed for me, but if it wasnt in good nick I could have easily spent four or more. Same for the others. Achieving a certain time means nothing in winter."

Griffith began pre-dawn on March 3. First up was the Aiguille Verte via the Couturier couloir, a classic French Alps line with 3,300 feet of snow up to 55 degrees, and fodder for extreme skiers. Finding good conditions, Griffith tagged the top after a couple of hours, turned around, and downclimbed.

After a quick ski to the adjacent Northeast Face of Les Droites, Griffith found dangerous conditions for the bergscrund crossing, and accepted a rope for the hazardous move onto the face from a friend who met him there, also to solo the face, also by the Lagarde Direct. Once across the 'schrund, Griffith was on his own again.

Griffith had chosen the Lararde on the Northeast Face over the Messner on the North Face proper, believing the former would be easier and faster and have better conditions, but discovered that no one had been on the route ahead of him, and he had to break trail up steep, rotten ice and snow. The time-consuming conditions caused him to climb at a slower pace than planned. “I went from hoping to make the Courtes summit at sunset, to starting the Courtes at sunset, to simply getting off the Droites before sunset,” he noted on his blog alpineexposures.com


After summiting and then another long descent back down a North Face, Griffith arrived at the base at sunset. After debating whether to continue or call it quits, “You can feel a bit vulnerable when its cold, dark, and you're on your own,”  he decided to press on. “I knew I had more than enough in me to do another north face, and the Courtes would be the easiest as it was steep and therefore wouldn't hold too much snow,” he says.The Trilogy. Photo: alpinexposure.com

Surprised by initially poor conditions of blown snow on the Swiss Route of Les Courtes, Griffith fortunately encountered good neve higher up, and summited in three hours. From there, he skied off the back via the Col de Droites, encountering hard conditions and a traitorous ski binding that made what should have been an easy downhill run into three and a half hours of attention to reach the Courvercle hut.

While soloing big north faces might seem common due to media attention, in fact only a handful of alpinists participate in the game, and fewer still commit to the big link-ups. Griffith’s March achievement is a standout, up there with Kilian Jornet’s speed solo of the Innominta on Mont Blanc last October.  One down, two to go. Griffith on the summit of Les Courtes. Photo: alpineexposure.com

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