Britain’s Tom Livingstone made a name for himself in 2018 with his ascent of the north face of Latok I in Pakistan, along with Slovenians Aleš Česen and Luka Stražar. Having fallen in love with the French Alps, his goal this winter was to climb several famous big mixed routes on the most iconic peaks. With Matt Glenn, he climbed the Rolling Stones route on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. Here is the story of their spicy winter ascent.
What draws us into the mountains, caught like a snowflake in a storm ? Could it be the aura of a route ? Could it be the reputation from the previous ascents, or the difficulty of the climb ? Rolling Stones on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses took six days on the first ascent in 1979 ; it was given A3/M6/6a/90° and has only been completely freed once in 2014.
Could it be the peak itself, luring climbers towards like rock’n’roll fans ? The north face of the Jorasses is one of the largest walls in the Alps ; it’s a kilometre-high castle. Within the Mont Blanc massif, it’s also one of the more real and adventurous playgrounds, creating a testing-ground for alpinists. This mountain matches some of the essence of alpinism for me : uncertainty, commitment and hard climbing.
Of course, it could also be the pleasure of climbing, which gives me a long-lasting, ‘after-burn’ of contentment. Nothing quite matches the feeling of reaching the summit after many days of technical, engaging pitches. But why me ? Why am I drawn time and again ? Maybe it’s like the rock band The Rolling Stones sang : ‘I can’t get no satisfaction!’
I could hear the distant drumbeat of the mountains. It’s like walking towards a music festival, the air crackling with energy and excitement
In fact, I’ve wanted to return to the Jorasses in winter for a long time. My specific memories of climbing the Walker Spur in March 2016 with Pete Graham are fading, but the experience and satisfaction it gave me still burn brightly. I could, and still can, hear the distant drumbeat of the mountains. It’s like walking towards a music festival, the air crackling with energy and excitement, music blaring and lights flashing from the stage… the Jorasses is the alpinist’s hedonistic festival.
Matt Glenn is a solid young climber from Northern Ireland. He laughs easily and his ‘go for it !’ mentality makes him a reliable partner. A month earlier, Matt, Connor Read and I had bailed from the North Face Direct route on La Meije. Deciding to descend was a tough decision, but I’d seen enough to know Matt’s mind was always looking ‘up.’
There are a hundred reasons not to ‘go big’ in the mountains. Covid-19 ? A mere inconvenience now. ‘Dry’ conditions ? Not a major obstacle. Deep down, I wanted rock ‘n’ roll again. I wanted hard climbing, I wanted to feel scared, and I wanted the sun to prickle my skin after days spent in the shade. Rolling Stones seemed to be a logical choice. I channelled some of the headstrong mentality from legendary climbers of the past.
‘I was born in a cross-fire hurricane!’ I yelled at the driving snow. Matt and I were camped beneath the north face of the Jorasses. The snow tapped a rhythm on the tent and clouds boiled all around. This wasn’t ideal weather, but we kept the tone light, joking about alpine yoga (‘open your gore-tex trousers, breathe in the smell…!’).
The next morning, as sunrise washed colour into the surrounding peaks, we were already high above the glacier. We began Rolling Stones via the Walker Spur’s first few pitches. I didn’t particularly want to do this – I prefer to start at the beginning and finish at the summit. But last winter, after bailing from another objective, I had climbed the initial rope-lengths of R.S. to recce the route. The pitches were thin, time-consuming and slow, and looked to be the in same condition now. I’d only considered the ‘Walker Spur start’ after reading the Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne boys had done the same a few years before, and I hadn’t thought of it before. It surprised me at the time, but now seemed like the right decision.
When the rope slowed, we knew the other was on difficult ground, so the belayer paid extra attention.
Matt and I set about climbing tricky, technical pitches, leading in blocks. Compact granite provided just enough small edges for our mono-point crampons, our breaths slowing to match the delicate movements. We linked runnels of névé with steep corners and slabs, always searching for the correct way. I was grateful I’d seen photos from previous teams each time we recognised a familiar feature. The route would often follow a long crack system, our picks hooking thin seams, before we quested onto a slab.
As the day progressed, fewer words were needed. The anxiety of being on a big route slipped away and I relished our position. Nothing else mattered. The horizon expanded gradually, the climbing always engaging. When the rope came tight, the other person would start climbing. When the rope slowed, we knew the other was on difficult ground, so the belayer paid extra attention. ‘Watch me’ were the only sounds.
After anxiously wondering where we’d finish our first day, we were psyched to stomp out a ‘five star’ ledge in the snow. ‘I think we’re at pitch 17 ! But how have we done so much already ?!’ we exclaimed.
Crux pitches on Day 2
Cracking and stretching our tired limbs after breakfast, we were soon launching upwards again. We’d climbed hard mixed up to M7 yesterday, but today held the M8 crux.
Matt recognised the way to go and gave me the (much lighter and more enjoyable) Leader’s pack. I slotted my axes up a leaning crack, pasting my crampons as high as I could. I occasionally swung into blobs of névé, using just the right amount of force ; too delicate and my pick would barely bite into the chalky snow-ice, looking pointlessly feeble. If I swung too hard, the névé would shatter and tumble down the face, leaving nothing.
Pulling with my axes, pressing with my crampons, I huffed and puffed without going anywhere. The opposing forces kept me in balance but the sum of everything equalling zero. I looked at Matt, 30 metres below. My wide eyes met his, the only thing visible within his warm jackets. I wanted to say, ‘watch me here !’ and, ‘sorry I didn’t haul the bags up !’ but I think he got the picture from my expression. Overheating, I pulled off my hood and struggled to the belay. As Matt seconded, I tried to ignore the guillotine-looming crux above.
The M8 crux is the eponymous pitch. I began delicately hooking loose blocks, wincing as they crunched and grated under my weight. The tagline hung from my harness and wiggled in space – ‘better late than never !’ we joked about finally hauling our packs. A corner of iodine-coloured rock shot into the sky, and I inched upwards in the middle of it all, a fly trying to evade capture. My mind was half oil, half water : the rational brain remained calm, gently reminding me to climb carefully. The irrational side simply screamed, ‘AHHH ! This is mental !’
Thankfully, the blocks didn’t protest too much, allowing Matt and I to climb the pitch cleanly. Above was easier ground, but first another hard-looking rope length (which I messed up and had to sit on a couple of cams, blowing our free ascent, because I didn’t know where to go). A few hours later, our head torches finally found a decent bivy. We slumped into the double sleeping bag, Matt threatening that the full moon was so bright it might prevent him from sleeping !
We gunned for the summit the next morning, rapidly gaining momentum as the top – and our first sunlight in three days – tempted us onwards. Our excitement and pitch lengths grew, the heavy drumbeat of The Rolling Stones becoming louder and louder. We racked up faster, said, ‘go !’ as soon as we were ready, then climbed 200 m sections up easy ground.
Suddenly, I recognised something : I saw a sloping ledge where Pete and I had bivied during our ascent of the Walker Spur. We’d been caught in a storm and, unbeknownst to us, were only 60 metres from the top. It felt bizarre to revisit this place of suffering in the calm of broad daylight, a weird glimpse at a past experience.
Perhaps was it the memory of that miserable bivy, because when I turned and looked up at the sunlight on the ridge-line above, I wanted to be up there, to be finished with it all. With rock ‘n’ roll deafening my mind, an electric guitar dancing on a punchy drum beat, and Mick Jagger singing the lyrics of The Rolling Stone’s song Gimme Shelter, I climbed and climbed… and finally flopped over the top of the Jorasses, into the warmth.