Sunday July 28, 2019, 3:30 a.m.: The Desert in Valjouffrey, Upper Bonne Valley
“Hey, psssst, get up, gotta go! my buddy Max whispers to me, trying not to wake the other people in the dorm. Talk about it, I barely slept all night and I was ready to take off in less than 10 seconds. All things are ready, I lace up my shoes, swallow a biscuit and I follow the silhouette of my companion in this clear and promising night.
The day before, we spent a lovely evening in the company of a group of winegrowers from the Trièves plateau who had come for a tasting at the Font Turbat refuge. Despite the evening's entertainment, the guardian took the time to brief us on our objective for the weekend: the North face of Olan via the Couzy-Desmaison route. Of the five parties who attempted the ascent this year, four fell back and only one reached the summit… at 4 am the following day. Message received, the stakes are high and the climb will be far from easy. To prepare for this day, we have been doing a number of big routes over the past few weeks. From the Aiguilles de Chamonix to the Dévoluy, passing through the Aravis, we have built a solid roped party relationship on historic routes opened by big names such as Rébuffat, Livanos or Chapoutot. But this time the bar is set a notch above our previous climbs. The north face of Olan is longer, higher, colder and more austere. It's serious, you'll have to climb hard, fast, and without getting lost. The line was opened in 1956 by Jean Couzy and René Desmaison in three days. It was then repeated ten times over the following decade and the first free climbing ascent dates back to 1991 by the Ravanat brothers. In general, the Olan is an emblematic summit of the Alps because it has been the scene of famous dramas such as in 1949 with the rescue on the back of the mountaineer Emile Voltram, a milestone episode in the establishment of modern organizations of mountain rescue.
A summer night envelops the Refuge de Font Turbat, and the hundreds of sheep grazing at the bottom of the valley sleep peacefully. Everything is silent, there is not a breath of wind. Suddenly, I realize that I don't have my mobile phone on me! I turn around at a run, overwhelming myself with insults inwardly and return to search on the bunk of my dormitory at the risk of waking up our overnight companions. Fortunately, I immediately come across the precious object. Thank you Max for not commenting on this thoughtlessness which cost us 15 minutes from the outset. We are at around 2400 meters but the temperatures are very mild and we take off our jacket quickly. The lunar shadow of Olan engulfs us as we go up the snowfield at its foot, the mountain seems to welcome us while crushing us with a scrutinizing presence.
Max takes the lead and attacks the long base which weaves between systems of ledges to bring us to the foot of the difficulties. At night, with the headlamp, the progression is done without roping because the climbing is easy. But it's easy to get lost and we find ourselves repeatedly climbing or de-climbing tricky sections in order to find the correct route. As agile as a chamois, my companion rushes ahead and locates the best route. For my part, I am slower, little reassured by the rock of poor quality on which it is really necessary to ensure its support. It's simple, on certain sections falling is prohibited. If we cross from time to time traces of passage, it is difficult to say if we follow the simplest way. Mentally, this creates a challenging cocktail for this approach. I save myself as much as possible in order to keep resources for the rest of the day. Finally, the first light of day catches up with us and makes our journey less random.
After 3h30 of effort, and 600 meters of grappling on the North-West face, we reach a beautiful ledge. Above us, a 500 meter wall points skyward, steeper than any other in the Ecrins massif. What presumption to tackle such a piece, I have shivers of excitement. But I'm glad we got to the end of the base safely and without blowing the schedule. Now, we will attack the beginning of the physical and technical climbing with lengths to pull. We will have to scratch our fingers and find in ourselves the effective gesture to overcome each of the difficulties. But at least we will be roped up on the rock, bound to the mountain by our ropes, our nuts and our straps, and no longer in this form of endless nocturnal solo that this first part represented.
We decide to take a short break at this time. Max squats between two boulders, his pants down to his ankles, and applies a classic rock climbing technique of strategically releasing excess weight before the climb, while enjoying postcard-perfect views. It was then that a stone the size of a fist rolled down the cliff and burst on the ledge 2 meters from him.
"Ouch, it sucks here, he says to me, pulling up his pants, we're moving! »
Call to order, Olan sends us a clear message: no respite, we must go for it. "Our security is our concentration" as Patrick Berhault would say, whose beautiful biography I have just finished, written by Michel Bricola and Dominique Potard.
We easily find the starting belay and the first four pitches follow each other without any problem. We go up a kind of ramp in straight ascending whose fragile rock does not always allow to place good protections. But the difficulty is moderate and these lengths are ideal for adapting to the gneiss of the Olan and immersing yourself in the mechanics of climbing. In the grandiose shadow of the mountain, the refuge of Font Turbat now seems very distant. Even if we know that the guardian follows our progress with binoculars, we are alone in the face, truly elsewhere, in levitation in another universe. But that's not counting the ibexes from the Ecrins who come to keep us company until the belay on the 4th length. Incredible, how do these hoofed quadripeds move in such verticality? They drop a lot of stone and regularly we hear the crash of rocks that roll down the face and bounce in the big gully below us.
Our benefactor guardian of the refuge had warned us the day before:
“Be careful, a lot of ropes get lost there, you shouldn't pull too far to the right on the first pitches. »
Attracted by a boulder that seems ideal for a relay, Max goes a few tens of meters too far on the ramp and we leave the historic route of Couzy and Desmaison. We don't realize this immediately, but the doubt that appears during the following lengths becomes more and more precise. Rather than turn around and lose precious time, we trust the few straps and pegs that tell us that we are not the first to get lost on this part of the face. So we continue to climb, pulling as far to the left as possible in order to catch up with the large wide dihedral spotted from the pastures of the valley. Immersed in sculpted structures and rocky outcrops, it is very difficult for us to see the rest of the route. Where is that damn white pebble which must mark the end of the dihedral and the start of the first key length of the route? This kind of questioning is specific to this type of route and the optimism of our team does not weaken. As long as there are places for our jammers we can move forward and find the way that will bring us back to the historic route.
Since the beginning of the difficulties, Max has done all the lengths in the lead. We do this to avoid having to exchange too much equipment at each stint, take more regular breaks and get into a dynamic of climbing in the lead, while the other lets go second. And finally, Max takes us to the white block, at the foot of a series of black, damp roofs criss-crossed with pitons, some of which seem very old. Finally, we are back on the Couzy-Desmaison.
My turn to take the lead. I embark on this first key length with the firm intention of chaining it free, that is to say without pulling on pitons or jammers. But as soon as I arrive under the roof, I am immediately disillusioned, the grips are wet, there are pitons in all directions, a good part of which certainly dates from the first ascent as they are so rusty. Moreover, at this place the wall is overhanging, I am pulled into the void by my backpack and my harness loaded with jammer. The feeling of emptiness is total, when I put my slipper on a hold it is the foot of the Olan that I see, 800 meters below. It's exhilarating but it also drains my mental strength. I tense up more than necessary on the holds, my forearms swell and I lose my initial rhythm. Quick, a piton less bad than the others and I cower on it to think about the situation. Obviously, it does not go straight through the roof. I twist my neck and see a few pitons going around the obstacle to the left. It seems easier to me on that side, especially since the rock looks dry. So I cross slightly and progress in artificial climbing to pass the overhang on the left. In the recovery, I place a jammer, pull on it and stand up, extricating myself for a brief moment from this implacable gravity. In the lead, the rock seems even more fragile to me than in second, so I carefully test my holds. This spoiler on the left seems perfect to me, but as soon as I grab it before even putting weight on it, I detach it from the wall, causing a huge block that falls on my thumb, opening part of my finger. A rain of large blocks will then crash 500 meters below in the corridor with a thunderous noise.
A little shaken, I beat a retreat towards my jammer. I hear Max giving me encouragement:
“Come on man, we have to get out of here! »
I pulled myself together and chained the remaining 10 meters to a mediocre belay on two pitons hanging in midair. I reinforce this belay as best I can with the help of a strap and a jammer, but the nearby locations do not invite confidence. I have nothing better, it will have to hold:
“Relay cow! Max, it's up to you! »
Second, rested and relieved of the nuts, Max rushes and chains the entire length in freestyle, having fun in this extreme climbing, as if he were climbing a sporty cliff next to the house. His mental strength allows him to climb to his maximum level regardless of the terrain or the commitment. I'm impressed, and I feel lucky to have him as a climbing partner.
I decide to drop this curious idea that I had of wanting to climb all the free pitches and I artificially climb a second key pitch, in a level slightly lower than the first. Then I continue on the next three lengths, easier than the previous ones. We are now at the foot of the great summit chimney. More than 150 or 200 meters and it's the summit. Since the beginning of the day we have not taken the slightest break. We take advantage of the relays to have a sip or a bite to eat while belaying, but do not hang around when we pass each other, concentrated and focused on the climbing and our progress in the face.
I pass the baton to Max who then launches into the last big difficulty. A 10 meter long winding crack in good rock. Max first tries to go through the left, but the crack turns out to be too wide to place jammers. He would have needed size 4 and 5 Camalots to protect this passage. So he falls back on the crack-corner on the right, finer but very technical. After many grunts and a few artificial steps, this ultimate difficulty is overcome. The approach to the summit gives me wings and I have fun chaining it free.
After a few easy lengths that we do on a taut rope, we finally reach the top of Olan. What happiness, I can't believe it! We fall into each other's arms, congratulating each other for this fabulous ascent. It is then 5 p.m., about 10 a.m. after roping up, and 1:30 p.m. after we woke up. We are at 3564 meters above sea level but the weather is very mild and we take advantage for half an hour of the panorama that is offered to us. Renowned for its violent storms at the end of the day, we are lucky to take advantage of this moment in such conditions! The location of Olan on the western edge of the Ecrins allows us to embrace all the peaks of the massif as well as the mountains of Vercors and Devoluy looking towards the west.
Below the summit ridge, I can't help but take a look at the Base-Jump exit. Opened by Nicolas Joubert in 2008, it is a magnificent jump that can be done with a simple track combination. That's how steep and vertical the face is. Nevertheless, the high mountain aspect of this jump should not be overlooked and I don't have the level to do it this season. This could be a good goal in a few years...
But the weather is not conducive to reverie, the topos are unanimous: the descent from this summit is long and difficult. To return to our starting point, the only possible route is the north ridge, downhill. For 3 long hours, we weave along the wire of this long ridge, descaling sometimes delicate sections where we find the tension of the first 600 meters. Despite the fatigue of the day, we must remain focused without failing. If this route is the busiest to reach the summit of Olan, we lose the traces of passage and improvise two abseils of 30 meters to join the descent route. Just when we think we're out of the woods, we find ourselves once again making risky crossings to reach a very steep snow couloir that we descend on our buttocks as best we can. The Ecrins and this remote valley are definitely a place where the mountain is wild in which a descent by a normal route is not easy.
Finally we arrive at Lac des Pissoux, more than 400 meters of negative elevation by an easy and marked path. The view of the northwest face of Olan is sublime. Under the glow of the setting sun, all the austerity of this dark rock seems to have vanished.
And it is at 9 p.m. that we arrive on the terrace of the Font-Turbat refuge. We do not fail to warmly thank the guardian for her valuable advice. We would have liked to stay longer in this beautiful valley, but we can't stay longer because I have to go back to work the next day. Despite the fatigue of this ascent which will have lasted 18 hours, we descend the 10 kilometers and 1000 meters of negative elevation to reach the car parked in Valjouffrey. Then follows a fight against sleep during the 2h30 drive to Chambéry. The next day, after 3 hours of sleep, wake up at 8am, to start work. Physically, I am present to give the little strength I have left to the capital, but mentally my spirit has remained up there, somewhere on the formidable mineral ocean of Olan.