The Drus. Who has never heard of these peaks? Mentioned in many tales, slender and proud, dominating the Chamonix valley – standing as tall as their reputation.
A short name that tells a lot about these two summits: Le Petit Dru and Le Grand Dru. Three letters, a rustic name. An austere look. Packed with history, legends and exploits. Tales of the routes that have made these mountains famous. Le Couloir Nord des Drus, opened at the end of December 1973 by Ceccichel et Jager, the Pierre Allain route opened by Allain and Leininger on the North side in 1938 and last, but certainly not least, the mythical Bonatte Pillar opened in 5 days, solo style, in 1955. All of them considered incredible achievements that have shaped the history of alpinism. But, let’s rewind a few years, to the first ascent of the Grand Dru made in 1878, a milestone for the time. However, it’s not until 1903 that the first traverse of the Petit and Grand Dru was realised by Ravanel, Girrand and Comte.
On the 29th of August 2017, things have changed quite a bit from those early days of alpine exploration! It’s on this day that I meet up with my friend Julien, a fellow mountain guide. To end the summer season we have decided to tackle together the traverse; a beautiful, classic line that is a climb through the past glories of alpinism.
We head to the Charpoua refuge; a guaranteed change of scenery, away from the crowds of Chamonix and the packs of alpinists on other routes around the massif. The guardian is charming and this refuge is one of those rare mountain huts with a real soul. It’s simple, having just what we need and nothing more. If we listen carefully in the quiet up here, we can almost hear the stories of alpine history emanating from every board and panel. The old wood is squeaking; re-telling the tales of shared moments on the rope and the loud laughs of those old bearded men, the pioneers.
We get a short night’s sleep among the past and wake early to make our own history. It’s still night as we cross the tortuous Charpoua glacier. The route description points our way up a vague couloir and after a few hundred meters we reach the Flammes de Pierres ridge. We continue along the ridge as it vanishes into the large face above. Just on our left-hand side we can see what is left of the West pillar after the successive collapses of 2005 and 2011. A reminder that alpine dangers are never far away. It’s still pitch black, but we can see a few bright spots around the valley. From the Grandes Jorasses to the Aiguilles de Chamonix, there are plenty of other climbers getting an early start.
The conditions are fantastic. It’s not even that cold. The climbing is enjoyable and never too difficult. It alternates between harder moves and easier parts but always on very good rock. We come across our ancestors’ paths a couple of times finding old wooden wedges in the cracks. Our protection is a little more modern.
The sun is rising slowly. The massif is waking up and we hear the sounds of rocks falling and seracs creaking as the valley stretches out in the sun’s heat. We reach the summit of the Petit Dru at 8am. It’s a true cross point in the history of alpinism. Bonatti, Cecchinel and all of those other great alpinists came here and waved to the Virgin, all driven by the same passion.
We can’t rest here for long though and soon we’re heading down the descent to the Breche des Drus, the separation between the Petit and the Grand Dru. The guide was well thought through and we easily find our way. We attack the Grand Dru and after more spectacular climbing, we finally reach the summit. We enjoy this moment, a simple moment, surrounded by the Verte, the Charpoua and other famous summits.
We start heading down, one rappelling after the other. The comfort of going down on bolted spits fades quickly as stones start to whistle past our ears. The mountain reminds us that we are just visitors here and we hurry on. It takes us nearly three and a half hours to reach safer terrain, away from the whistling rocks. I remark that maybe this is the mountain foretelling its future in the face of climate change. Even this place will alter in time.
In sharp contrast to the forbidding mountain, we arrive back at the Charpoua refuge; a convivial, human place amongst these wilds. Our senses heightened by our achievement and our brush with the mountain’s dangers. We sit down to a simple meal, the taste fresher on our tongues for the day’s exertions. Simple things, but important, something shared by all of us who’ve passed this way.