The North Face of the Drus in Chamonix hosts some of the most daunting alpine terrain in the Alps. In winter it stands as steep and dark as a tombstone looming above the tasty powder slopes of Pas de chevres.
The view from the top of the Grand Montets is of uncompromisingly steep and blank rock and aside from the two Classics routes, the NE couloir and the original 1935 route the face has drawn little interest from westerners alpinists.
A closer look and the repetition of a few routes on the face gave us a different view of what kind of climbing was to be found on the north face,- good cracks, good rock, sheltered from fohn winds and above all awesome mixed climbing!
No wonder that routes like the Lesueur Route are mostly sought after from top alpine mixed climbing specialists (mainly from Britain). The remainder of the face, comprises of super classics - Dru Couloir and Allain-Leininger 1935 route – and hosts routes rarely or never repeated.
Climbed almost exclusively by alpinists from Eastern Europe, very little is known about those routes. From Left to right there are a Polish route first climbed by Himalayan legends Kurtyka and Kukuczka, a route from two climbers from former Ceskoslovenska republic Simon-Slavik back in 1979, then the French Direttissima Gabarrou Long from 1985, the soon to become classic route from the Lesueur brothers, (a tremendous effort way ahead of his time back in 1952), and the Guides Route -climbed in the winter 1968 by French Alpinists Seigneur, Paris, Jager, Feuillerade.
The Guides route and the Lesueur are the only ones climbed in winter. During the summer of 1998 a competition organized by the Russian Mountaineering federation unleashed a bunch of Russian Alpine Masters on the Drus steepness, the result was obviously a string of fast repeats and hard variations on various routes. Nevertheless the Czech and Polish routes as far as we know remained unrepeated.
Together with my partner Jeff Mercier, we wanted to climb the portion of the face left of Lesueur route since quite long time and secretly hoped to find some challenging mixed climbing. The high pressure system and warm temperatures called for a try on this project…
Super stoked we started from the Grand Montets for a recce. Double set of cams and double set of ice tools, we stood in front of the beast… for some kind of reason we deemed unnecessary to carry any topos and we started on the face where it looked most comfortable to.
I've been guiding on skis daily for a while and the idea of carrying anything else than ski boots never touched me. Jeff would lead the recce. After a few hours of wrestling in splitter cracks and our crampons wrecked on the smooth sides of a chimney, we were questioning our little progress and poor tactics. Rock Shoes seemed necessary for any further progress!
We fixed a rope (bad style) like a dog peeing on a wall to mark his territory, pretty useless action since this portion of the face saw only two parties in 33 years, but, with all the foxes in Chamonix valley, one never know, and the Drus this winter seemed to attract a lot of people.
Two days later we were back on the cable-car to the GM chatting with artist and film-maker David Autheman, the dude was going off ski-touring with a couple of young and nice ladies, and we were going to the coldest, grimmest, darkest place around, but our motivation was still intact.
After so many days of melt and freeze the approach was too sketchy to do on skis, our skills might remind those of a giraffe. It was with some relief that we took off our backpacks and started climbing up the fixed rope.
Of all the existing ways of gaining altitude climbing up a 8mm rope with a Tibloc is the one we are most incompetent at. Just above it was a perfect steep crack that ate all of our big cams.
From above I watched my friend blasting himself following the pitch climbing in big boots with the haulbag and all our gear on his shoulders, we decided to haul as much as possible and to use rock shoes for the steepest pitches.
I was going to lead for the remaining of the afternoon, Jeff will have the time to figure out how to follow without making it looks as strenuous as an M14 at l'Usine.
After two steep pitches, came the first test for my poor route finding skills, left or right? hard to say not knowing exactly on which route we started!
Jeff provided useful helps dropping his crampon 65m and having to be lowered to descend and retrieve it.
I had enough time and good reasons to choose the easiest way. Some dry-tooling, some good cracks and a lot of tricky manoeuvres saw both of us atop of a steep pillar at the base of a way steeper, thin looking, shield that would be my partner's occupation tomorrow
morning. The sun dropped and so did the temperature, Jeff found a nice ledge for us somewhere down and right, it was pretty chilly in the wind, my choice of clothes made by 25 degrees back in town was not sound!
Fortunately Jeff had chosen more wisely and provided extra clothes.
Time to bivy.
Our second day started with some pretty interesting climbing for Jeff, a brief attempt of dry-tooling a thin crack ended with him and his tool ejected by the wall, I watched as one of his tools fell down the face only to stop few meters from our skis 300 metres lower.
We were "obviously" on the Czech route graded by the first ascensionists UIAA 5+ A1 (5MT) I reckon in Czech republic 5 means 5 and + means sandbag. Nevertheless Jeff made steady progress out of it and took us to a dihedral on the left of the shield, then out on easier more broken terrain. It was time for me to take the lead and finally do some mixed climbing. Now we were on the Dru north face proper - a place we had both dreamed to be for quite a long time.
A portion of slabs with some good mixed ramps took us to the base of a gnarly looking crack, the key to the upper wall. The crack happened to be easier than expected and offered some very cool climbing. We finally joined Lesueur route, this fine line that sneaks all the way across the mountain.
Some good dry tooling and ice and it was already time to look for a bivi spot. I opted for a cone of snow behind a boulder detached from the wall where we could sit on our arses and contemplate how cool alpine climbing was and maybe understand why the best alpinists simply don't do bivis. Jeff didn't seem too appealed by the idea and started looking around on the decreasing daylight.
I have very deep respect for his bivi spotting skills. On No Siesta a route known for his poor bivis he found an awesome ledge cached in the overhanging wall on our side. It didn't took him very long to find out that there might be a very good bivi atop of a skinny overhanging pillar 20 meters above our heads, he scrambled a few meters and declared that by the amount of frozen human waste aside of the cliff someone had bivied somewhere up there, fortunately we knew exactly who was the last party repeating the Lesueur route.
Jeff sorted his cell-phone and called Christophe, a common friend that made a swift repeat of the Lesueur a few days before. Christophe confirmed us that the bivi is five stars but mentioned some sort of tricky climbing to get to it… Night was falling and we were standing on the only portion of our route ever repeated, around ten parties in 60 years, running out of daylight we had only to sort out a cellphone to get some reliable beta. That's Chamonix!!
Jeff started on the fierce crack. I was already seeing myself in the sleeping bag when from above came some grunts, I tried to figure how the climbing could have been because I could see nothing. It didn't look like we were actually going to make it to the bivi spot.
A few minutes later he was back. For two days we've been wondering if we were on a Czech a Polish or a Russian route now we were getting our ass kicked by a boulder problem putted up in big boots by Fontainbleau Specialists back in 1955. I started cutting a ledge around my feet but I was immediately sent up trying to reach the tantalizing bivi spot.
With the right technique the crack was sent and the bivi reached. An awesome ledge already cleared by snow and ice, in a few minutes we were in the sleeping bags and I could finally eat some of Jeff's food as a reward for the effort provided.
Daylight brought some more good weather and a need for action. If the priority for the previous evening was to find a good place were to sleep, the priority for today will be to get back to our intended line that lay somewhere 60m down and right of our terrace. The day started with a tricky diagonal rappel and Jeff started in the morning and quickly dispatched the two steep difficult and cold pitches. A grey granite scar some loose flakes and a titanium piton suggested that we might be on the upper Russian variation. The climbing was still of the highest quality. Climbing on this face is just so inspiring.
I took over on the mixed terrain that led us once again on the left at the point where the Lesueur route traverses the dru couloir to the left. We continued straight up and finally the terrain got easier and we found ourselves on the ridge above the Drus Breche where we soaked up the sun.
We didn't do the scramble to the actual top. Instead we preferred taking our time and not to mess with the descent. After so many hours of using arms and legs to do any progress upward the idea of only walking was simply not even taken into discussion. Bad style!
The descent down the dru couloir went fine for us but not for Jeff's new rope…
The ski down, with such heavy backpacks provided a last sting in the tail. It was a very good route that should interest climbers looking for some adventurous climbing on the heart of a steep big face.
by Korra Pesce