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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 wanted to climb Rolling Stones on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. Part One of Tom Livingstone’s story : training for this specific Grandes Jorasses winter big mountain route.

In previous years, I’ve spent a few winter months in the Alps, but this was the first time I witnessed the complete cycle of the seasons. I saw the snow line creep down the mountainside and settle in the valley, then watched it recede gently back towards the Chamonix Aiguilles. I stamped my feet in thick boots as the days shortened and temperatures dropped, my van coughing black smoke as it struggled to start…then I basked in the sunlight, feeling its warmth grow. I’ve been here from autumn to winter to spring. Now I watch new sprigs of grass poke their green heads into muddy, pale gardens.

I learned a great deal whilst climbing in the mountains this winter. In fact, I seem to learn every time I go towards these jagged peaks. Is the greatest weapon (and weakness) of an alpinist their short-term memory ? I seem to forget the shiver-bivies and terrifying run-outs, instead remembering the slow, after-burn enjoyment from multi-day routes.

My winter was also about embracing the French alpine lifestyle. My van no longer slid off the road once I’d bought snow tyres, and I can now tell the difference between Tomme and Beaufort. My vocabulary improved and I continued to explore quiet, high-quality climbing areas which I’d never heard of.

Tom climbing the crux pitch of Paccaladry in the Aravis, early in the winter. © Jon Bracey

I liked the limestone because it reminded me of my home country, the UK. You have to be delicate with the soft rock… or it’ll break and send you flying !

In December, when the memory of sunny rock climbing was still fresh and the nights had only a crisp nip, I began training in earnest. Dry tooling – that weird activity of scratching and scraping –  prepared me for short alpine routes in the foothills of the Haute Savoie. Exploring these new areas, I climbed chossy limestone and splitter granite. Although I prefer granite, I liked the limestone because it reminded me of my home country, the UK. You have to be careful, to be delicate with the soft rock… or it’ll break in your face and send you flying ! I was also grateful for my 15 years of trad climbing apprenticeship (another gift from the UK) as I wiggled in wires and cams.

On Paccaladry, a limestone route in the Aravis, I placed my crampons delicately, ignoring my racing heart and an axe which teetered on a matchbox edge. I also learned what the French words ‘plein gaz’ meant during our abseil descent, my hands gripping the ropes tightly.

Mountains without ski lifts

Weighty, historic peaks drifted around my mind : the mythical north faces of the Grandes Jorasses and the Eiger, the incredible cirque of the Argentiere glacier and the ‘Queen’ La Meije, amongst countless others. The mountains drew me in and I watched the forecast, waiting for a break in the stormy weather.

My weak leg muscles protested during my uphill training laps, but finally surrendered when they realised they had no choice. In January, the ski lifts closed for the winter due to covid-19, and the Mont Blanc massif became a mini-Himalayan range again. I like the mountains without ski lifts ;  they’re a little quieter, a little wilder. From my balcony I looked up at the Chamonix Aiguilles, plastered white after another low pressure. My breath curled and smoked in front of my face, the steam from my coffee rising into the fray. I traced lines up the faces, wondering if there was ice or nevé. In alpine climbing, the crux is often convincing yourself to ‘take a look,’ to quest into the mountains with optimism and hope. 

A progressive practice. Here in Bachi-Bouzouk, Aravis. ©Rob Smith

Then Meije, North Face Direct route. Tom leading one of the M5 pitches. “Attempt, did not summit, but learned a lot.” © Connor Read

I wanted rock ’n’ roll on Rolling Stones

Finally, in February, the weather forecast delivered. I refreshed the web page for good measure, then sat back. Little yellow symbols of sunshine lined up, one after the other, predicting a settled anticyclone. Around this time last year, I’d been about the go to Rolling Stones on the Grandes Jorasses with a friend. My bag was packed and waiting by the door when I turned on the television to watch Emmanuel Macron address France. Gravely, Macron announced the first lockdown.

This time, however, the news remained thankfully quiet (besides, maybe I wouldn’t have cared even if there was another lockdown ?). I messaged Matt Glenn and he agreed to my idea : I wanted rock ’n’ roll on Rolling Stones.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve approached a shadowed, 1000-metre-high alpine face. I feel a mix of anxiety and excitement every time. I think it’s the uncertainty of the next minutes, hours, days which prevents me from sleeping. What will the crux pitches be like ? Will we find the right way ? Which of the hundred possible outcomes will be ours ?

But I’ve learned the importance of embracing uncertainty. Climbing technical routes on big mountains requires a steady, calm approach. You have to enjoy the moment, to think of the immediate task rather than the outcome. With a healthy amount of luck and a quiet mind, I can think of the process of climbing and try to enjoy it, rather than worry about what may – or may not – happen. Besides, are we ever ready to climb these ‘dream’ routes ? Even after a week of pondering, I was still unsure about what gear to take or what strategies to adopt. I stuffed warm clothes into my bag and accepted my fate.

Matt and I began the long approach to the Jorasses the following morning, the legendary north face looming ever-larger as we tip-toed into the giant arena… (…to be continued)

Grandes Jorasses, Walker. Rolling Stones is route number 5 © Guides06.com

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