The Walker Spur - The dream climbSome 49 years ago I wrote the following article for my friends of the G.G.M. (Groupe de Grimpeurs de Marseille which some funny guys from Paris called 'Les Grandes Gueules de Marseille'- President: the famous George Livanos (Le Grec)
G.G.M. Bulletin 1rst quarter 1963 - Eric Vola
It is nothing like a Dolomites's wall, or even the West face of the Drus, the steepness is not excessive. However, we are already very high on the spur and the Leschaux glacier which gets darker and darker with the sun setting down beyond the Flammes de Pierre, is 800 meters below us: Denise Escande, Cabri (Jean Thérond), Habib (Marcel Zerf) and I the last.
When I settle, it is dark, and all the others are already in their sleeping bags. The manoeuvre is quite prickly, particularly when I take out of my rucksack the brand new ‘elephant foot’ duvet which Denise borrowed from Lionel Terray, covered with the content of a huge condensed milk tube which broke open in my rucksack. I sticked to everyone near me! I learned there that on the Walker spur, making such a joke is not the best thing to make yourself popular, particularly if you do not want your companions to have the sudden desire to throw you overboard. And as there, as far as “boards” are concerned, there were none. I then understood that I should not laugh, and I put on my face the most sorry expression which I could manage.
All night long, thunderstrokes and flashes of lightning due to a heat storm will follow in succession. But the summit seemed to be near and that made us optimistic.
As far as I was concerned, my night was not good. Cramps in the legs resulted in some holes in Lionel’s duvet, and I thought that Lionel must be very rich to lend one of his sleeping bags (but surely he did not quite know the chap who was to use it!).
I thought also that if I had not delayed a rendezvous, I would then have been some hundreds of miles from here, in the sun with a fairly pretty girl. In truth, I was asking myself if the girl friend in question would accept a delay of some 3 weeks. But the magnificent weather made those mountains far too attractive, and how can one imagnine that a 20 years old youngster would resist to such a passion?
It was during our descent of the West face of the Drus, when, very happy with our last success, we were admiring the Mer de Glace and the proud wall of the Grandes Jorasses, that Cabri put up the idea.
A week later, at the end of the afternoon, while the sun was covering in gold the top of the Walker, we started climbing the spur. Already, after our first bivouac below the Allain-Rebuffat cracks, we felt rather far from everything. The next day allowed us a magnificent climb on a very sound granite, with many varying colours, never really black, even in the slabs which have been given that name. But, what appeared to us quite dark at that point was the way to follow. The first pitch is like an enigma and looking to the black ice in the central gully to our right, I imagined what had been the adventure of Terray and Lachenal over that type of ground.
Those few pitches are the most beautiful. All slabs, with minutes climpers, as in fact on most parts of the spur.
As the previous day, we woke up late. At 3800 m high it is quite cold early morning! My climbing boots ‘far too new’, as it was their first walk out, had started being quite painful and I did not feel that fit. Habib took the lead. Climbing slabs continued on the Grey Tower.
We started to dominate the chain of mountains which goes up to the Aiguille de Leschaux, and the show offered to us was truly unique. But we thought primarily to reach that summit which we imagined quite near, and more we climbed up, more grew our eaderness.
The bivouac morning 1rst september 1962
from left to right:
myself, Habib (Marcel Zerf), Denise Escande -
brewing tea necessary to stir us up from the freezing cold of the night!
Photo taken by 'Cabri' (Jean Thérond)
The Red ChimneysAt last after the tricky section of the triangular névé, we reached the Red Chimneys, our last obstacle. I was traversing last to reach its base, when Denise, some 20 meters above, sent an enormous block in the void. Bloody well aimed…! It bursted onto my skull, and I was covered with dust fragments. With most surprise, I did not feel but a very slight pain! So, I became very proud of the sturdiness of my skull, and even today I hesitate to believe Denise when she said that she saw the block burst one meter above me, and that I only received minutes fragments. Obviously, it would be too easy !
The SummitAt last, the summit is near, and the strain disapears nearly completely.
Denise in great form pushes nearly Cabri to the top, and at once I can guess, they are on the summit. Before getting over the last summital cornice, I take a long look around me, and despite the joy to have climbed this magnificent North face, I have a short moment of sorrow, as I know that soon after I will have to get back to this misty country where mountains are only small hills [I was then living in England].
The sun is still very high when the whole snowfields of the South face dazzle me with their whitness and its quiet and gentle slopes.
Another climb was coming to its end.
My climb revisited 30 years afterWhen you are 20, you shut up (most often you shouldn’t…) in front of elders: I had excellent climbing boots with which I had just climbed the West of the Drus without any problem but with holes at the toes. Denise and Cabri considering that I was risking frostbites, forced me to exchange a brand new pair belonging to a guide doing his national service at the EMHM (a friend of Michel Amoudruz with whom I had climbed the previous year in the the Dolomites and of Jean-Louis Bernezat who will catch up with us at the top of the Walker spur) for two Allain carabiners quite used up. So they rapidly became painful and I did not climb as well as I should.
Habib, who also learned to pipe down by necessity - (the Algerian war was ending painfully, Charonne* had occurred some months before and the OAS attacks on algerian immigrants were still going on. Habib was an FLN ‘suitcase carrier’ and his greatest joy was to be in the mountains far from all this bloody mess) - and I were forced to accept to carry loads of food to face a whole siege in exchange of the bonus of a flight in a ‘lark’ (the famous French helicopter) and a deposit on the Leschaux glacier (it was the first in the valley and it came for test flights); therefore we were not to sleep in the Leschaux refuge, but instead bivouac below the Alain-Rebuffat cracks.
So after we just had finished our breakfast, we saw passing us in a whirlwind, the TGV party: Devouassoux-Mazino who did the whole climb in 13 hours and the Swiss Bron and Gamboni following them suit. As for the Alain-Rebuffat cracks, with 17/18 kg on my back and the early morning cold, my arms muscles were nearly paralyzed. With at least 10 kg more than them, it was impossible to catch up with the TGV (The French Train à Grande Vitesse introduced 10 years after)! In the morning of our last bivouac, Habib and I who had been used as ‘high altitude porters’ threw overboard, with much disgust, quantity of food and gas cans: we could have stayed a whole week on the climb and the four of us!
• We did the 25th ascent - first ascent in 1938 - (the 2nd of a guy from Marseille after Gaston Rébuffat) and it will have been climbed that year as many times than since its 1rst ascent, during the best summer of the century! And two days before us, Chris Bonington and Ian Clough climbed it also in 13 hours, but as this was not enough for them, after a bivouac they continued traversing all the Grandes Jorasses summits, the Rochefort ridges and then up to the Torino hut. Quite a feat, but I only discovered it the month after when I met him when back in England.
• Whatever, I never regretted the way we climbed it. Our joy to have done this superb climb was so much stronger.
* Charonne: in February 1962, during a protest event organised by the trade unions and the communist party against the OAS (Organisation de l'Armée Secrète fighting for keeping Algeria French - the Evian peace treaty will be signed one month after and Algeria independance established four months later), charged by the special police forces 9 demonstrators will die at the Charonne tube station.
external linksDenise Escande in memoriam
Route description on Camp to Camp
The Grandes Jorasses on summitpost
Another description of the route by a friend
Riccardo Cassin, Mister Walker, the 'author' of the 1rst ascent
once upon a time the 6th grade
by Georges Livanos Editions Arthaud - Paris 1983)
Extract : «The Walker? He knows that it is in the Mont Blanc range, range where 'his hand never put its feet' (Alphonse Allais). His documentation is limited to a postcard sent by his friend, the journalist Vittorio Varale. A vague line indicating the spur, with at the back, some words written by Varale: 'This is what you should climb.' [Description of the way, on foot, with their equipment, from Courmayeur to the Leschaux refuge] to the turn reaching 'the spur behind there', something emerges from the surrounding summits, with this air of haughty inaccessibility of great men.
A look on the postcard: 'this is it' [Superb description of the ascent of the Walker spur by Cassin-Esposito-Tizzoni] 6th of August 1938:
A dark silhouette overcome the last cornice. 3PM, the snow comes in whirlwinds, the wind howls, Riccardo, Riccardissimo, Mister Walker, is on the summit. The roaring clamour of the storm are the sparkling brass instruments of his victory. On this 6th of August to be remembered, non only Cassin did climb the Walker - and his simplicity reaches magnificence - he stopped the time, the time of alpinism, with a major date, as Whymper and Croz, on the 14th of July 1865, on top of the Matterhorn. The supreme gestures of a masterly action do not fade away, they remain enduring marks in the open space."
Georges LIVANOS (Ed. Arthaud, Paris. 1983).
(Review " La Montagne et Alpinisme " - No 2, 1983)
Riccardo Cassin, "A man who once the goal is decided never backs down, a man who goes for the essential, for whom the enterprise is the goal."
Georges Livanos (Riccardo Cassin once upon a time the 6th grade Artaud )
Some history of the route1864: Irst ascent of the Whymper point by E. Whymper, M. Croz, C.Almer and F. Biner.
1868: 1rst ascent of the Walker point by H. Walker, M. Anderegg, J. Jaun and J. Grange.
1911: 1rst ascent of the West ridge from the Grandes Jorasses col by H.O. Jones and G.W.young avec J. Knubel.
1927: 1rst ascent of the 'Larks' ridge (East) by G. Gaia, S. Matteoda, F. Ravelli, G.A. Rivetti with A. Rey and Chenoz.
1935, June 28 and 29: 1rst ascent of the North face of the Croz spur by M.Meier and R. Peters.
1938, August 4 and 6: 1rst ascent of the North face of the Walker spur by R. Cassin, L.Esposito et U. Tizzoni.
Some more historyAs early as 1907, the famous Joseph Knubel attempts an ascent of the Croz central spur, but he is far too in advance of his times.
Armand Charlet takes up the torch in 1929 at the Walker spur, but fails. Heckmair, the Eiger future conqueror, tries the Croz spur in 1931 with Kroner, but facing rock falls give up.
On the Grandes Jorasses, compared with the Eiger, there is another dimension: the wall is as large at its base than as its top, finding the ideal route remains quite a problem!
Léo Rittler and Hans Brehm follow suit Heckmair, do not bother with the rock falls but fail; Heckmair comes back and find the two bodies of the unfortunate at the foot of the face and give up once more.
Attempts do not cease, Charlet will make six! Then Gervasutti, Welzenbach (at the Shroud in 1934!), Loulou Boulaz from Geneva, Chabod, Cretier, Allain, Lambert, Greloz, Boccalate. Everyhting is attempted, spur on the left, on the right, they climb up but come down even faster.
July 1934: Heckmair is tenacious. He comes back with Meier and Steinauer, while Peters and Harringer are part of the same attempt by pure chance, meeting fortuitously in the refuge. But in the morning, the weather is bad, only Peters and Harringer start. The next day, Charlet and Belin from Argentière caught them up, in the bad weather! Gervasutti and Chabod are nearing them... too much crowd on the North face of the Croz, and the storm which invites itself, mean that they all come down...but Peters and Harringer, who charge in. They will force the crux pitch of the Croz spur but will have to come down due to the continuing disatrous weather, without having reached the summit. During their descent, at the bivouac, Harringer slips and fall down at the bottom of the face. Peters, helpless, will be saved by a rescue party, led by Franz Schmid himself, victorious of the North face of the Matterhorn in 1931... Alpinism is a small world!
1935. Peters comes back with Meier. The weather is good, they avoid the refuge where there are many pretenders. They climb the spur meeting no resistance solving the North face problem, in total discretion. Chabod, Gervasutti, Boulaz and Lambert make "their 1rst ascent" of the same spur on the 30th of June, come out in the storm and discover at their return that they just did the 2nd ascent...
The Grandes Jorasses North face is complex. The Croz climbed, now comes the possibility to access to a '2nd world' the Walker! And to get through the trap of this "2nd world", here comes a candidate in a class of one's own, Riccardo Cassin, the italian from Lecco, a Dolomitii climber.
In 1938, Riccado Cassin is at the foot of the Eiger, the weather is bad. Four alpinists are on the North face, they are quite high, if they come back alive, they will be victorious. It is done the next day, Heckmair and his party come down to the Kleine Scheidegg with in their pocket the 1rst ascent of the Eigerwand. Cassin takes back the train for Lecco; Only the Jorasses are left...
The story that follows is on the verge of a comic movie, but testify of the freshness of mind and technical mastering of Riccardo Cassin. He does not know the Mont Blanc range, about the Grandes Jorasses he only has a postcard. On the 30th of July, he is at Courmayeur with Tizzoni, asking the way to the Géant col and they go up to the Torino refuge. The two alpinist leave behind them a sense of incredulity when they ask to the Torino refuge gardians the way to the North face of the Grandes Jorasses. Reaching the foot of the mountain, recognized thanks to the postcard, Cassin and Tizzoni hide their pegs and carabiners and go back to Torino to find Esposito, the third culprit.
On the 1rst of August, Pierre Allain crosses the berschgrund! But the weather conditions are not so good and the 'pure light' (name given to the best climbers on the Fontainebleu boulders) comes down, once more, disturbed by a rock not dry enough to climb free.
Cassin comes back, the 4th of August, crosses the bergschrund with Tizzoni and Esposito. As far as he is concerned, he does not bother with detail, one ladder here, one peg there, and they go through. His experience in the bad weather at the Badile and the constantantly overhanging walls of the Dolomites have given him a remarkable ease in all sorts of grounds. Cassin will demonstrate an extraordinary route finding sense and remarkable speed. After two bivouacs, the party is on the summit of the Walker the 6th of August at 3 pm, in a ferocious storm. A third bivouac on the summit, and the victorious party is down in the valley on the 7th.
This is how a 'Dolomitii climber' did his first climb in the Mont Blanc range!
Georges Livanos who admired him will write about Riccardo:
"About his litghning victories, the indestructible '