Inspirations, Part III: Gervasutti's Climbs

Posted on: February 6, 2008


Simon Richardson climbing a new mixed route on Ben Nevis: The Madness of Crowds (VII 7). [Photo] Chris Cartwright

Many climbers have a favorite mountaineering book or essay. Athletes and guides, those whose lives are so deeply connected to climbing, often have literary obsessions—and everything from a story's lyricism to its ethical stance has influenced how they approach the sharp end.

We at Alpinist picked a handful of climbers we found inspirational and asked them to share their literary influences. Read Vince Anderson's first installment in the January 2, 2008 Weekly Feature and Kelly Cordes and Masatoshi Kuriaki's second installment about High Alaska in the January 30, 2008 Weekly Feature.

Simon Richardson on Gervasutti's Climbs, by Giusto Gervasutti

As a teenager, consumed by a newfound passion for mountaineering, I had a voracious appetite for climbing books. I read my way through the school library and then the local town library, seeking out more adventures and experiences on the written page, so that I could gauge my own faltering beginnings in the sport. After visiting the Alps, I became fascinated by the autobiographies of the great alpine masters such as Terray, Cassin and Bonatti. But there was one book that I turned to more than any other: Gervasutti's Climbs by Giusto Gervasutti.

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Gervasutti was a remarkable alpinist, but his untimely death whilst retreating from a new route on Mont Blanc du Tacul in 1946 perhaps caused him to become the least known of the period's great mountaineers. Gervasutti started climbing when the great north faces of the Western Alps such as the Grandes Jorasses and the Eiger were still unclimbed, and he just missed out on the first ascent of the Croz Spur, topping out two days after the first ascent pair of Peters and Meier. Gervasutti plowed his own furrow, climbing futuristic new routes that took decades to be fully recognized. Climbs such as the Right-Hand Pillar of Freney and the South Face of Pointe Gugliermina on the Italian side of Mont Blanc were years ahead of their time in terms of difficulty and commitment, but his standout route was the East Face of the Grandes Jorasses in 1942. The sustained climbing up vertical cracks set a new technical standard that was equaled only when Hemming and Robbins climbed the American Direct on the Dru. More significantly, the remote position of this beautifully daunting wall, which is situated high above the chaotic Frebouze glacier and almost continuously strafed by rockfall, meant that it was one of the most committing undertakings in the Western Alps. By the beginning of the 1980s, you could still count the number of repeats on the fingers of one hand.

Simon Richardson climbing Gervasutti's route: the East Face of the Grandes Jorasses. [Photo] Nick Kekus

Gervasutti's route on the Grandes Jorasses became my dream climb. I had worked my way through the well-known alpine classics and was yearning for a deeper and more exclusive challenge. In the summer of 1982 I had my chance. Nick Kekus was camping in a nearby tent on Snell's Field, and we were both fit and confident after ascents of the Central Pillar of Freney. A "grand beau temps" was forecast, so we decided to go for Gervasutti's route on the Jorasses. The weather didn't live up to its billing (we had two storms and a lightning strike burned a hole in my sleeping bag), but the route lived up to expectation with pitch after pitch of immaculate alpine rock climbing in a savage environment. Four days later we returned to the campsite as minor heroes. Hundreds of British alpinists had climbed the Walker Spur, but only the great Tasker and Renshaw had climbed the East Face of the Grandes Jorasses. The French climbing press reported our climb as the seventh ascent, and twenty-five years later it is the only alpine route I've done that has fully maintained its cachet.

A photo of the Grandes Jorasses from the Petites Jorasses. Gervasutti's Route (ED2, 700m) takes the bulging pale wall left of the central ridge-line (Arete des Hirondelles). The north face of the mountain is in profile on the right. The ice sheet is The Shroud, and the upper half of The Walker Spur is in profile to the right. [Photo] Simon Richardson

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