Les Drus is the most impressive granite monolith overlooking the Chamonix Valley. Often you will catch a glance of the intimidating, dark rock peak from the opposite sunny side of the valley, and its a wonder that this face would be so alluring. This winter in Chamonix has been unusually dry, the mountains are devoid of ice, every new snow fall brings dry snow that fattens the ski-fields, but blows off the steep mountain faces. So instead of lamenting it, we embraced it, and set about blunting our tools and crampons on 850m of granite dry tooling up the North Face of the Petit Dru.
I teamed up with dread-locked British climber Tom Seccombe. We took the first chairflift up from Grand Montets, and started the skinning track up from Bouchard to the top 3200m station. Since the major telepherique which takes you to 3200m burnt down late 2018, you actually have to go up-hill to get to the Drus! How unfair. We reached the base of the route at 1:30pm and started to climb. I usually bivvy at the base of long routes before climbing the next day, but for this route it makes sense to try and push for the bivouac spot halfway up the route to separate two days of climbing and a long descent. To make matters more interesting, I had a flight to Morocco on the Monday morning, so we had no time to waste!
The first sections are an easy warm-up, mixed climbing moving together, and some very fun cracked slabs. The first day becomes tough just when you need it - at sunset. First, a tight thrutch chimney with heel-toe camming in double boots & crampons while dragging a 40L pack below you.. I would recommend hauling the packs for this nasty section! As dusk falls, the infamous "Fissure Lambert". I found this short pitch quite difficult, hanging on fist jams with skating front points, I eventually tensioned off the #4 into another crack with an exhausting mantle. We used "alpine tactics" profusely, that meant a lot of A0 or whatever it took to keep moving upwards.
Tom took over for several pitches to the Niche (the second snow slope) and above we reached a bivouac spot overlooking the sheer West Face at 11:30pm. It turns out this was off-route, and the correct bivouac spot is higher to the left - so just above the Niche look out for fixed ropes leading left and go up a gully to a more comfortable spot. We melted snow into the early hours, dozing off between each snow top-up, and enjoyed our position high above the glittering Chamonix valley.
Five hours of "sleep" and we readied ourselves for the summit push. The second half has sustained M4-M5 climbing pitch after pitch with tricky route finding - there are pitons and wooden bongs all over the place, since the route was first climbed in 1935, but whenever the fixed gear runs out you start to assume you might be off-route! Since there is almost no ice and little snow, in warmer conditions having the leader wearing rock shoes could speed things up. There's nothing quite like repeatedly falling onto two hand jams at full extension as your front points ping off blank granite as you try to smear them against the rounded crack edge. Climbing in a thin pair of leather gloves is also good idea to take advantage of the juggy granite with one or two tools stowed away.
Icy chimney scrambling lasted into the late afternoon as we finally emerged into the sun at the top of the face. Lady Madonna was so close but still out of reach! Here we traversed fixed ropes 100m on the south side before finishing up energy sapping sun-baked snow to the summit ridge and collapsed next to the summit statue. Eyes blood-shot staring out to the setting sun. I was anxious to start descending before dark, but we forced ourselves to take the time to brew up some hydration for a long unfamiliar descent.
Despite the hot drinks, I still made the mistake of not traversing far enough towards Grand Dru to start the abseils down the North Couloir. This led to many hours of adventurous abseiling off down steep, uncharted terrain of the North Face. Long vertical blank sections would be impossible to re-climb in the event of a stuck rope. At first, convenient ice patches would appear for V-threads just when needed, but lower down our nut & piton rack began to take the hit. A stuck rope, Tom micro-traxioned 40m of 8mm and a scary hour later we managed to pull the ropes.
Each abseil I would swing further over towards the North Couloir and about halfway down the mountain I finally managed to swing into the classic ice/mixed route and clip into some decent fixed anchors. The lower North Couloir was totally devoid of ice and yet more nuts relinquished. At 3AM I found myself hanging onto the end of the ropes at the lip of the bergschrund, wondering whether to let them slip through and commit to the jump. I thought better of it and with some cracked-throat shouting matches we engineering a safer solution.
Back at the foot of the route sleep was tempting, but so was getting home. We sleep-walked and climbed deliriously up the 500m vertical back to Grand Montets, often collapsing into the snow for a few minutes kip until the cold roused us again. Almost 25 hours on the go was playing havoc on our minds. On the beautiful sunrise 2000m ski descent, Tom took a wrong turn and ended up lost in a corner of the skifield before the lifts opened. While he skinned back up to the home run, I starved in the carpark for another hour, jealous that he was now getting more exercise than me. "So tell me your story!" I asked when he finally arrived at the van. We collected a lot of good stories to tell after this exciting two days climbing the Petit Dru.
- 0.3 - 4, with doubles on 0.5-2
- Nuts 1-6. (We placed very few nuts on route but may need some on descent)
- 6 normal quick draws
- 3-4x 60cm quick draws
- 1-2x 120cm sling
- 2x 4m 7mm cordallette (for anchors and also as abseil tat on descent)
- 2x microtraxion, 2x tiblocs for simul-climbing / self-rescue
- 3 ice screws (21cm, 2x 16cm) for the descent, v-thread hook
- 2x 60m 8mm ropes (many raps 55m+)
- 1x medium gas can, Jetboil (for 2 day trip. Add an extra gas can if planning for 4 days i.e. bivvying before & after the climb)
- Thermarest 3/4 length foam pad (sharp rocky bivouac platform would not be great for air matts)
- Macpac Epic 400 sleeping bag (820g, rated to -4C)
- Macpac Equinox large down jacket (730g)