Where is the Rochefort Ridge?

Stoke is high in the morning.
Stoke is high in the morning.

Rochefort Ridges on Grand Jorasses

 

by Colin Simon

 

On Sunday, October 6, the Alpine Mentors Team attempted to traverse both the Rochefort Ridges and the crest of Les Grandes Jorasses, one of the Alps' largest and most iconic peaks. We planned to climb it in two days: start at Point Helbronner, spend a night at the Canzio bivouac hut, and descend back to Courmayeur.

The team smoothly crossed the glacier and ascended the first obstacles, passing the Dent du Geant (Giant’s Tooth) and continuing across a corniced ridgeline to a small peak, l’Aiguille de Rochefort. A half-meter of fresh snow slowed our progress, and we descended the peak in quickly deteriorating visibility. This is where we made our first navigation error.

We misinterpreted a guidebook picture and failed to study the nuances on our map. In poor visibility we climbed the wrong ridge and traversed loose, snow-covered rock to the far side of the wrong mountain. We found no ridge, no Grandes Jorasses. Only a cliff pouring thousands of feet into the abyss.

You might think that ridge climbing doesn't require a lot of navigation skills. Wrong.
You might think that ridge climbing doesn't require a lot of navigation skills. Wrong.

Those of us who spend a lot of time in the mountains will inevitably make route-finding errors. I’ve made plenty, but this was different; we were on the wrong mountain, and thoroughly confused.

 

We reversed our steps to the Aiguille de Rochefort, and through the whiteout we could barely pick out the correct ridge. We contemplated bailing, but decided to keep climbing. In fading daylight, we climbed over a small peak until we could barely make out a large, steep, dark wall in front of us. Steve told us this was the side of the Grandes Jorasses – the hut would be in a notch right in front of it. We looked around the notch. No hut. When we finally pulled out the map and GPS we recognized that we were again in the wrong location and that several pitches of snow-covered rock climbing stood between us and the hut, so we made the decision to bail.

Weather and vision got gradually worse and worse.

Alternative to planning a route well: a cold bivi.
Alternative to planning a route well: a cold bivi.

We retraced our path until Steve found a crevasse we could safely sleep in. Between five climbers we had three sleeping bags, two sets of puffy pants, one bivy sack, and an emergency blanket. We had no sleeping pads. To insulate us from the snowy floor of the crevasse, we laid on empty packs, ropes, and boot shells. Wet spindrift sprayed us all night, melting onto us and saturating our clothes.

 

The next morning the world looks different.
The next morning the world looks different.

Eventually we emerged from our shivering half-sleep and willed ourselves out of drenched sleeping bags, except for Buster, who didn’t even have one. We climbed out of the crevasse and were greeted with an epic sunrise. It was cold but gorgeous as we returned to the warmth and safety of the Torino hut and a telepherique down to Courmayeur. I removed my boots and was thankful to see ten lively toes, undamaged by the cold.