The Integral ridge spanning the Flames De Pierre to Aiguille Verte should be one of the iconic Chamonix alpine climbs. Over the course of 5 days, Daniel Joll, Chris Warner and Alastair McDowell traversed the granite skyline ridge connecting Les Flammes de Pierre, Les Drus, Aiguille Sans Nom and Aiguille Verte, descending via the Moine Ridge to Couvercle Refuge. The 3 days of climbing involved traversing 3 kilometres of complex ridgeline, bagging 4 summits, ascending over 2000 metres of technical terrain, with 2 bivouacs just below the summits of Petit Dru (3700m) and Aiguille Sans Nom (3950m).
I was on the bus, arriving in Chamonix on the final leg of my long journey from New Zealand, admiring the glistening summits four thousand metres above the valley. Dan Joll sent me a message, a 5 day weather window was rolling in, and he was packing for a big mission. A ridge traverse of Les Drus, a linkup he had been dreaming of for several years. I was keen, it seemed like a great way to acclimatise to the great mountains of the Mont Blanc region, living on a ridge line for several days, living and breathing French air. I mentally treated this as a tramping trip instead of a trail run: although the extra weight would slow us down making steep climbing harder, I remembered how refreshing it is to be relaxed at the end of the day as darkness approaches, setting up a bivouac on the summit, instead of stressing about the long descent.
The fact that this traverse has seen only 4 ascents to date (that we know of) is strange considering how many iconic summits the route takes in and the moderate difficulty of the climbing across the ridge. The following info hopefully will make future ascents easier.
While you could get away with light axes , crampons and running shoe style footwear we choose to take one proper axe each, light boots and steel crampons. I would recommend sticking with the heavier axes and crampons due to the snow and ice climbing on the Sans Nom – Aiguille Verte ridge. This can contain blue ice and would be fairly sketchy in alloy crampons or with an ice axe that couldn’t swing properly into hard ice.
If you’re a party of two 1 x 60m rope is all you need. Parties of 3 could take 2 x 50m ropes. You need to make some 30m rappels on both the Dru and the Moine Ridge. Rack. Single set of cams sizes red C3 – blue C4. Single set of nuts. 2 x pitons. 8 quick draws (60cm ones are ideal) 2 x 120cm slings. 2 x cordalette’s. 2 x ice screws. Spare cord for descent rappels or retreating.
Being Chamonix no doubt it won’t be long before someone does this traverse in a day, which would be fully possible. We spent two medium sized days climbing and a short day for our third to reach the Verte summit followed by the time to descend. That being said, the climb covers some excellent terrain with fantastic bivy spots and enjoying this route over several days is a worthwhile experience. We opted for the relaxed approach, stopping for brew breaks each day and enjoying the excellent scenery. The maximum rock difficulties of the full route are 6b but you need to be comfortable moving fast on typical 5c – 6a terrain. We climbed most of the route in alpine boots and gloves. We opted for rock shoes for the higher part of the Flammes De Pierre and Les Drus.
The best places to bivy are, near the end of the Flammes de Pierre. Below one of the few rappels you need to do towards the end of the Flammes, look below you and you can see a well formed bivy spot (finding snow to melt here will be hard late summer). The next good bivy locations are near the summit of the Petit Dru. The Petit Dru summit bivvies are excellent. They also put you close to snow which is going to be handy as there are not alot of locations for getting water on the Flammes if you are climbing the route late summer. Either depart Montenvers on the first train start climbing and hopefully make it to the summit of the Petit Dru or as we did walk in to the base of the Flamme de Pierre and bivy there ( approx. 3 hours)
The next day climb to the summit of the Petit Dru 12 – 15 hours if your moving at a moderate pace.
The following day head to the summit of the Aiguille Sans Nom via the Arete Sans Nom. There are not many good bivy spots between Les Drus and Sans Nom. There are two good bivy spots near the Sans Nom summit. One right on the ridge that we created and sleeps 3 people. Another on the Southern side of the ridge part way along. You could also cut into the snow anywhere along the ridge but we preferred to sleep on the rock and be a bit warmer.
As an alternate you could also continue on to the summit of Aiguille Verte (approx. 1.5 – 2 hours) and then take the bivy at the very top of the Moine ridge below Aiguille Verte summit. Once on the Moine ridge there are many bivy spots and you could basically stop anywhere.
If you are early season when the Whymper Couloir is in condition this is your fastest way down the mountain. However if you are climbing the route late summer as we did descending the Wymper is not a safe option. Therefore you will need to take the longer but safer Moine Ridge. This will take 5 – 7 hours for most parties to descend. (maybe longer if you get off route) The Moine ridge has recently been cained making route finding much easier. From Couvercle hut, 3 hours to Montevers Station, or if not taking the train an extra 1 hour to Chamonix.
The two major objective dangers of this route are climbing the gully to the col between Pic Sans Nom and Aiguille Sans Nom (if its late season and dry) and the Whymper Couloir. You will need to take the level of rock fall into account before heading up or down either of these two couloirs.