The day was perfect, except for the March date: Friday the 13th. We stopped for coffee and cakes in Baie, St. Paul at the bakery. We decided to finish our project we’d started last year on the north face of Mount Gros Bras. The three of us – Mathieu “Mat” Leblanc, François “Frank” Bédard and myself were to make the attempt.
We tried five times to climb the second pitch, but there was nothing to do. It was almost like a mirror, tiny crimps to place the tip of our blades, one or two micro cracks, no protection possible.
Even the strong Nick Balan came to lend a hand and it was on that Jan. 2, 2014 we would read in the newspapers: “The cold records were broken on Thursday in several regions of Quebec.” Nevertheless, we decided to go climb on the north face of the Gros Bras. Memorable.
That time, our feelings were different. A good mix of conviction and a sense of the last chance. When we arrived, we still inspected the north face to be sure that nothing escaped us. The discussion was no longer about the second pitch, but we looked more to the various options to complete the route and reach the summit.
Even in mid-March, it was cold and the snow was solid on the way, so we saved time on the approach. When we arrived at the foot of our route, it was decided that Mat would tackle the first pitch. Frank, the bravest, would have the difficult task of the second and I felt lucky to get the third-pitch that we hadn’t touch yet. We didn’t know who was going to climb the fourth pitch.
The start was doubtful and Mat was surprised, but working hard not to fall on the diagonal ramp that continue into a beautiful crack. Gros Bras in winter inevitably means freezing hands and screaming barfies. After a good battle, Mat finished the pitch by offering us the luxury of throwing a few jokes from above when placing is last protections. Once again, we noticed that this first pitch was like a violent punch in the teeth, it was surprising. The protection was good, but no good foot holds in some places so the forearms felt pumpy.
It was Frank’s turn. From the belay station, it was difficult to see the end of the vertical section. It’s a strange feeling to see his friend going up knowing he has a very good chance of falling with two sharp blades and so many sharp metal spikes below is feet. When he arrived to the crux, it was extremely delicate.
He moved slowly. Small move after small move, we could see that everything is in the footwork. Silence was total when one blade of François snapped and he fell. On the belay, we made scared faces. Luckily, the crampons did not hit the rock. Frank was jumbled when he stopped. He went off again in search of micro-crimps by probing with the blades of his ice tool. I was impressed.
Frank eventually deciphered the sequence and then engaged in a long and icy section. It was long, we were cold at the belay, but two big smiles are now split up our ears.
Frank gave me the pro. It was my turn to go and try to make the most direct line as possible to avoid breaking the aesthetics of the route. My first option didn’t work.
Then I found it. It was “run-out,” but much less technical than the first two pitches. I arrived on a small ledge under an overhang. On the third belay, like three frozen sardines we discussed our options.
Mat volunteered to continue. His first choice looked promising, but after a few metres, he sees no logical sequence and must turn back to carry through an overhanging to reach some large unstable blocks. When we see Mat take off his small backpack, we deduced that section would add spice to the route.
Indeed, we saw him step into an off-width that led to a closed dihedral, without any cracks to secure progress.
Mat finally found a place to put the smallest cam in the world to do a single aid move (C1). Ironically, it was the last move to be made before the slab section where we only had to cross two short ice steps before reaching the summit.
While we coiled our ropes, we congratulated Mat for its impressive lead of the final pitch. The vertical atmosphere disappeared as we walked together to reach the summit of Mont Gros Bras.
There was only a slight dark, orange glow on the horizon when we finally reached the large cairn on the summit. The lights of the small shacks in the bottom of the valley brought back memories of Chamonix.
Before the descent, I knew the project was finally complete when I thought about our friend Yannick who guided us all day from above. It was one of the Quebec crags he especially liked to come with some good friends in search of alpine adventures and to listen to the echoes of his swinging ice tools.
Summary of ascent: Le dernier Rōnin 175 metres M6 C1 (The Last Rōnin). New route on the north face of Mount Gros Bras, Quebec.