North Face of Les Dru - Winter Ascent
Les Dru. Photo: www.mmoss.ca
Wednesday, 16 March 2016
The cable car arrived. Doors opened. Stampede surged. The usual hustle and barge of skiers pushed onto the Grand Montets top cable car, shoulder to shoulder. The lift operator desperately tried to control the crowd, but she had no hope. ‘We want powder! We will not be told to wait, and we will not remove our backpacks!’ they silently shouted. A mob of skiers, all with smart shiny jackets to match their smart shiny GoPros, were being physically forced into the cabinne. Amongst this melee, Kim Ladiges and I heaved our enormous rucksacks into the throng of skiers, complete with skis, boots and alpine bivi kit.
We had met only yesterday, in the bright sunshine of Chamonix, and immediately talked of alpine north faces. Our indecision dragged through the day and the OHM admitted to not knowing much about current alpine conditions. Kim’s big afro and strong Australian accent (‘that’s a total shitfest!’) made me smile, and we settled for going big on Le Petit Dru.
Pitching our tent on the Dru Rognon, I soaked up the cloud inversion. Kim described it as a ‘giant duvet that you just want to jump into,’ and I agreed, although we thought better of it. The evening alpenglow of a continuous high pressure calmed us, and I relaxed: things were going to be smooth.
We fired up my Jetboil and a few minutes later the entire route was in jeopardy. The stove produced a whisper of a flame, barely enough to warm a hand an inch over the burner. I had cleaned the stove a few months previously and it had been working fine again, but now worry levels were approaching the summit of the Dru, some 1000 metres above, and it looked like we’d be going home the empty handed.
Thankfully, amazingly, generously, three French heroes had just arrived back at their tent after climbing the Lesueur Route (our original objective) and we borrowed their stove. We considered filling every bottle we had (5.5 litres of water) and going for a single push, but they agreed to sell their stove to us. I didn’t know what to think - angry at myself, raging at the Jetboil, thankful for the French generosity, a bit embarrassed and like just picking a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card, all at once.
The alarm ruined everything at 4 a.m and I silently groaned. ‘Why do I do this again?’
Sanity quickly vanished and I racked up and sent the first pitch of the Pierre Allain (a.k.a the Classic North Face route) of Les Petit Dru. We were off, and the soft pastel light of dawn comforted me as we climbed through the first snowfield. We led in blocks, the pitches of moderate climbing flowing fast.
It was apparent we weren’t going to reach the summit this evening - maybe early tomorrow morning, at a push - as we passed the second bivi site about 2/3rds. I belayed from the good ledge in the sunshine and Kim battled with slushy snow. We had mentioned yesterday we should make the most of a good bivi site and this opportunity seemed too obvious to pass. We melted snow on the new Jetboil and literally tried to soak in the dying rays of sunshine. I stomped a bivi platform and Kim looked on in disapproval - not only had I chosen the inside spot, but I’d also made it a bit too small. What a chump. Sorry for being ‘a shithead, mayte!’
Another fresh bivi was ruined by a few single words. It was 3:40 am and we were both awake and cold. ‘Shall we get up early?’ The climbing brought warmth, screaming fingers and burning toes, but at least we were winding our way higher, towards the summit.
Limited topo information and a foreshortened view meant we constantly thought we were nearing the top, but in classic alpine style the route went on forever. Late afternoon I finally crawled through the hole at the Quartz Ledge, from north to south face, from shade to sun, cold to warmth. The climbing looked easy in rock shoes (a continuing theme) and we donned headtorches as the clouds sank into the valley and the rocks glowed gold and orange once more. Kim said it accurately: ‘this is one of the best views I’ve ever seen!’ We could see the little metal summit statue up ahead, a woman with hands joined in prayer, and we raced towards her.
The rappels down the North Couloir (and Direct) were quick, but our minds were slowing and the darkness brought uncertainty. I counted 15 raps, mostly 55 metres long, and I finally jumped the bergschrund at an unknown hour at some point in the night - I couldn’t tell you more and the details don’t matter, anyway.
Another fresh night and half a Snickers bar for breakfast, but the promise of home had us up at first light. We packed, stomped and crushed our toes into ski boots for an epic descent back to Chamonix. We’d learnt the route on the Dru gave nothing away. The climbing was involving right up to the summit, and the descent into town was much the same; it just made the chocolate waffle all the more delicious.
Thanks to Kim Ladiges for a great adventure, and to the Frenchies for the stove.
The Pierre Allain route (aka the Classic Route). Winter ascent. 2 days.
The North Face of Le Petit Dru, Mont Blanc Massif.