Sometimes its good to dream. For many years I dreamed of climbing Les Dru in Chamonix. Initially my dream was to climb the Bonatti Pillar. Turns our I had left my first visit to Chamonix to late, by the time I first arrived in Chamonix the pillar had fallen down. My dream crushed into millions of small stones at the base of the Dru’s North Face. However, the dream didn’t die. The Dru still stood and it had plenty of other routes to offer. Each visit to Chamonix I would take a walk up valley and stare at the Dru. Its steep North and West Faces leading to a double pointed summit. I was however never with the right partner at the right time and for several years and several visits the Dru remained an often thought of but never attempted challenge.
European Winter January 2013
Another goal, a dream, a desire if you will was that one day I would onsight M8 on a high mountain route. I never really told anyone this dream. Even to myself it seemed unlikely. I remember the first time I said it out loud to a local climber when she asked what my plans were for the winter. Saying the words seemed to reinforce the pressure I was placing on myself to give it an honest attempt. As of November 2012 when I packed my bag and headed to Europe I had only onsighted this grade before at roadside crags. Mostly with the right warm up and a few shiny bolts to spur me on. I had never however onsighted it mid climb on a big alpine wall. For this to happen I knew many things must first go right. Onsighting is a funny businesses. When pushing your limits there is little room for mistake. A wrong move, a slip of the crampon, rock breaking, loosing your nerve or miss judging a resting stance. Any mistake may cause you to blow the onsight. Even the notion of onsighting on an alpine route, climbing free, not pulling on gear, pushing to the point of falling and failure mid winter with sharp attachments on your hands and feet seems a little absurd. Surely the risk of falling while alpine climbing outweighs the reward of going onsight and free. But in truth it does not. The satisfaction of pushing your body and mind high on a big alpine face while battling the cold and fatigue is both memorable and exhilarating. For me the summit is no longer my only goal. The real test of your skill and your will can be displayed by the choice of style you bring to the mountain. How I get to the top is equally as important as reaching the summit in my opinion. Should I fix ropes ? Should I aid moves that I could possibly free? Do I bivy mid route or have someone else lead all the crux pitches? No. The style of the ascent matters.
les Dru North Couloir Direct, AI6, M8, 800m
Somehow I stumbled across this route while google searching the Dru. For me this line represented a true alpine challenge. Firstly it is a direct line on the Dru something I had dreamed about climbing for many years. Then a North Facing line, cold, long, devoid of sun with limited daylight in the depths of winter. This would mean the need for fast efficient climbing if we didn’t wish to suffer all night on the route. Last but not least that mental block. The M8 45m crux pitch. Vertical corner climbing that grows into a gentle overhang followed by a thin steep ice top out. In the months leading up to my visit to Chamonix I studied many photos of the route. I visualised myself onsighting the crux. I used the line to motivate myself to train. Fitness, power, mental strength all of these would be required in order to get the four crux pitches nailed without a fall. I say this route provided a mental barrier because even though I had lead pitches of this grade several times many with traditional protection the clean ascent had always come on the second or third try. On bolts sure, I had a good shot at the onsight or with some preplaced gear the flash. But getting it all right, linking the moves, nailing the gear, holding it together just long enough to avoid falling well that had always alluded me when the grade pushed M8 or higher. I also knew this line had only been freed a handful of times. It had grown in reputation in recent years as a quality modern testpeice. High quality photos from the route taken by well known Chamonix photographer Jon Griffith cemented its status as a must do line in many alpinists minds. However in winter, you could still count the number of successful onsight ascents on one hand. Unless you are climbing solo you can only be as good as your climbing partner. The right partner instils trust, motivation and desire. I knew for this line I needed the right partner.
The crux of the route comprised of four pitches. They appear around 300m up the North Face. I knew that in order to have my shot at the onsight it was essential to arrive at the crux of the climb feeling physically and mentally fresh. To do this I would need the help of a good partner. Firstly I needed to find someone with the desire to spend hours on a cold north facing wall mid winter. I also needed a partner with the right skills who made me feel comfortable being on the mountain with them. I did not want to waste valuable time and energy dealing with a troublesome climbing partner on the other end of the rope. Luckily only the week before our ascent I met Fredrik Aspo a young Finish mountain climber. I say lucky as Fredrik was a friend of a friend and usually the two guys who can’t find anyone else to climb with are not going to make the best partnership. However, in mid winter its almost fair to say that find two guys who want to go climbing big routes when the temperature is minus 20 degrees and chances are they probably do know what they are doing. Fear of freezing your fingers and toes off usually keeps the pretenders away. In the four days prior to our climb on the Dru Fredrik and myself racked up some quick partnership points with successful climbs including a single push trip up and down the North Face of the Grand Jorassas. Fredrik was young, tough and seemed to be used to the cold. He was also fast and efficient which was perfect for my plan on the Dru. A good plan helps put your mind at ease. My plan was simple. Simul climb all of the route fast and then pitch out the 200m crux. Fredrik would be on the lead for all of the simul climbing. This would give me the mental rest I needed to arrive at the crux fresh and give it 100 percent. Safe in the knowledge that if I could perform for this one hard block of pitches my work on the mountain was essentially over.
Our ascent began in the early hours of a cold winters morning. At 8am we arrived at the base of the crux section. Almost perfect timing. Daylight had recently arrived, I was fresh and feeling rested. As I looked up I felt relaxed and confident. With the final pitch of the Direct North Couloir forming the crux of the route I was forced to remove any thoughts about it from my mind. In order to claim the full onsight ascent I had to overcome three other hard pitches before even worrying about what might happen on the final section. Pitch by pitch I must attack the route. If all went well each successful lead would build additional motivation to get the next pitch onsight as well. The crux 200m high corner almost looked like it could be done in a single pitch. I smiled to myself as I looked up and thought this shouldn’t take long. I was however in for a big shock. The next four pitches took us a full seven hours. For well over four of these I was on lead. Pumped, scared, excited and determined.
Thin vertical ice leads me into the Direct North Couloir. The line has clearly not seen an ascent so far this season and I spend precious time and energy cleaning endless powder mushrooms out of cracks and bulges as I search for gear and calm my nerves. The climbing is steep and run out but pitch one of my block is done and dusted. I slowly begin to fully appreciate the size of the corner I am now faced with. From the base it came across as a short straight forward crux. Im now a full 60m up the line and have hardly made a dent in its total length. Pitch two goes pretty fast. Moderate ice and mixed lead to the base of the real climbing. Two full pitches off hard ice and mixed. My real shock was pitch three. I hadn’t realised that the crux was guarded by a full 60m pitch of M7+ climbing. Offwidth, corner climbing, steep face, the pitch was relentless, a full two hours on lead with shaking legs and burning forearms. I had to get it though. One slip here and even if I climb the crux pitch clean I will have failed in my goal of onsighting the line. I also need the mental motivation for the final pitch that comes from successfully completing all the previous parts of the climb. I hang on and fight to the end. My confidence is both lifted and defeated. Just one more pitch to go but if what I just climbed was not crux then what the hell is going to happen on the following pitch? My entire body is exhausted after the two hour endurance pitch. The mental preparation ramps up. I suck down a shot of GU and wait for Fredrik to arrive with the pack and water. Once at the belay I eat and drink some more. This is it. Talk is cheap. The words of long time kiwi climber Nick Craddok ring in my ears. In response to a letter in issue 81 of Climber Nick quoted on Climber.co.nz "From my perspective there is lots of talk & not much walk from the present day protagonists. Maybe it is time to stop playing in the sandpit, throw away the trainer wheels & put your money where your mouth is...........ie. in our BIG mountains where the ice/mixed isn't fickle & you can't use fruit boots." "It is one thing to ponce around in the warm July sun with crampons & ice axes, close to the latte machine & completely another to onsight a new standard setting winter mixed route". He was right. The real prize lay in front of me. I had climbed myself with the help of Fredrik into a position where it was no longer possible to simply lower down and get a nice hot coffee, It was time to put up or shut up. You only get one shot at the onsight on any route. Its even more true though when your on a real classic.
The Dru North Couloir is a modern winter testpeice, my desire to get this onsight was huge. Its a personal thing, something I must prove to myself. Its also a statement. Its my way to say to guys like Nick who enjoy taking the piss out of the new generation of “soft” climbers, take your latte drinking comments and shove them up your arse. We can climb at the crag and we can bring those same skills to a major alpine route as well. Light, fast and free is the style I aspire to climb with. For many reasons it usually does not happen on big mountain routes. Bad conditions, weather, fear they all provide excellent excuses for failure. The next 45m are make or break. Almost anyone could aid their way up the corner. Hell that’s been done plenty of times. I know I can climb most of it and pull through at the crux but can I motivate myself enough to risk the fall. The trick is to run it out just enough to save energy for the hard sections, but still put in enough protection in to inspire enough confidence to commit to the climbing above. I ease into the climbing. Corners are my favourite and the style suits me. Moderately overhanging it is a straight forward endurance test. Surprisingly there are sections of loose rock a bit of hollow choss.
Suddenly my feet blow off the wall, my crampons have broken the small edges I’m standing on. I hang off my tools fighting to regain the wall. Deep breaths, I shake out my pumped forearms constantly milking every stance for all the rests I can find. 30m into the pitch I realise I’m nearing the final crux moves. The overhang steepens and I can see the final vertical ice top out. This is it. I plug in my final gear and commit to the moves. I know I have nothing left in my tank. My arms are now completely maxed out. I’m pulling into moves and sequences I can definitely not reverse. If I hesitate my arms will fail and I will fall. Desperate to reach my own goal I push though. Confidence and speed save me as my strength departs. I desperately climb upwards until finally whack, whack my axces are secure in thin alpine ice. Careful now, shake it out, whack, whack I move slowly higher onto the steep ice wall. Finally I’m over the crux overhang. I scream out to Fredrik, Fuck Yeah!! Fuck Yeah!! Adrenaline is pulsing through my body. I’m very excited. I know my work is done. Fredrik will now lead us to the top. I will sit back and relax our partnership working to get us both quickly up the mountain. Fredrik follows the pitch with the pack and doesn’t rest or fall. A perfect clean team ascent. We are both buzzing with the thrill of nailing the crux on such a classic line. Even though we have not reached the summit yet we congratulate each other safe in the knowledge that the final 300m of climbing will be mearly a formality. We race up the rest of the route. On the final 50m I realise just how tired I have become. I definitely could not have continued simul climbing safely in my current state. Its over though, the climb is finished. A dream fulfilled. As we rappel through the night I can’t stop smiling, it will not be long now before I am skiing back to Chamonix and enjoying a nice hot Latte.