Vedrines and Billon Speed Up Legendary Route on the Grandes Jorasses

For the rest of the winter, we should perhaps add a Feat of the Day story from the Alps. Today, Benjamin Vedrines and Leo Billon laid waste to the Gousseault-Desmaison route on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses…in 9h 10 min!

In fact, their time for the entire climb was 15 hours from parking lot to summit, and another four hours from summit to — pizza dinner.

a climber on a vertical, mixed face, a broken glacier far down at his feet.

During the climb. Photo: Benjamin Vedrines


The climbers set off at 1:30 am on Feb. 15. From the moment they stepped out of their car, they followed excellent style. They climbed swiftly, in perfect harmony, and reached the summit even sooner than they had expected. “We didn’t need sunglasses throughout the ascent,” Vedrines noted.

the climbers on a snowy, flat summit, the ropes at their feet.

Vedrines and Billon at the summit. Photo: Benjamin Vedrines


An epic story

Climbing this route had deep meaning for Vedrines, a child of the Alps who grew up hearing about the brave pioneers, the conquest of virgin peaks, and the attending dramas.

“I was so frightened at reading the stories and seeing the images of that climb,” Vedrine recalls. “Alpinism seemed inaccessible to me at the time.”

He and Billon (both currently 30 years old) were high school kids when they first heard about a climb that shook the alpinists of previous generations. That tragedy changed the way that rescues are performed.

Rene Desmaison himself recounted the tale in his book 342 hours on the Grandes Jorasses. Serge Gousseault died, probably of hypothermia, less than 100 meters below the summit. Desmaison was rescued after enduring the sort of ordeal that just doesn’t happen anymore — hanging from a steel piton for five days.

Book cover

The cover of Desmaison’s book.


Desmaison was one of the best-known alpinists in the Chamonix Valley when he set off for the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses in February 1971. Aspiring guide Serge Gousseault of Belgium was at his side.

They climbed for eight days “up verglassed granite, hammering in pitons, and a cigarette at night instead of a meal,” climber Jonathan Griffith describes on his blog, Alpine Exposures.

On the sixth day of the climb, the climbers were caught in a storm.  (Forget about forecasts in that era.) A rock sliced their rope, the radio broke, and Gousseault became seriously frostbitten.

Two days later, the pair became stranded some 80 meters below the summit. A helicopter rescue followed while the press, the public, and the controversial mayor of Chamonix (none other than Annapurna summiter Maurice Herzog) fed a heated debate about how much risk rescuers should take to help stranded climbers.

The ‘pilot of the Grandes Jorasses’

By the time famed pilot Alain Frebault reached the pair, Gousseault had been dead for three days. Desmaison was barely alive, hanging from his single piton for nearly five days, with 1,000m of void below him.

Black and white picture of Desmaison in hospital after being rescued.

Rene Desmaison in the hospital after the rescue. Photo: From Jonathan Griffith’s blog ‘Alpine Exposures’


Desmaison returned and completed the route in 1973.

That was the era of the original pioneers. Now, the next generation of elite French alpinists has arrived. They are looking for different challenges, often related to speed. Below, check some pictures and a video from the climb:

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides graduated university in journalism and specializes in high-altitude mountaineering and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporations, press manager and communication executive, and a published author.