Drus North Couloir
Les Drus, The Drus. A beautiful granite monolith that stands proud above the Chamonix valley, burning like a flame as the sun sets down on it.
There is no easy way up the Drus. There is no easy approach to it either. It’s a mountain that you have to earn. I first climbed it back in 2001, upon graduating from law school. I was with my brother and we had wanted to climb the American Direct, a stunning line up the center of the west face. We had little experience and carried way too much with us – we had over 5liters of water for our bivouac half way up the face! – and we didn’t make it to the summit. The route doesn’t end at the summit, but with a mountain like the Drus, the top matters. I had always wanted to get back on the Drus. In 2003, I climbed the north faces of the Eiger, the Matterhorn and the Grandes Jorasses, all in just over three months. A week later, I was climbing the north face of the Piz Badile, another one of the six great north faces. I was hoping to climb all six in six months, but that summer had been very dry and the Drus was falling apart. An ascent of its north face would have been suicidal. I tried the north face of the Cima Grande too. We left after work on a Friday evening, drove 8hours to Cortina d’Ampezzo and tried to climb the route the following day. It was already late in the fall and very cold, but moreover, the local rescue team was conducting a training, rapping 300m down the face. Their ropes were hitting the face, triggering lots of rock falls. We had to bail and drive back to be on time for work the next day. I hadn’t given that project much thought until this summer.
With a very wet August in the Alps, I figured conditions were going to be amazing for early season ice climbing in the mountains. I didn’t have a precise idea as to what I wanted to climb. Adam was desperately looking for a partner to climb the north face of the Eiger but I had no real interest in climbing it again, I had been working non stop, guiding pretty long routes back to back and felt that I needed to rest more than go climb a big face. But since he couldn’t find anyone, I motivated to go with him and started to look forward to a bivouac on the face. Yet at the last minute, he found a partner. The next day, I woke up to intense FOMO desperately longing to do something big too. The weather was perfect, conditions were perfect and I was dealing with shuttling cars and house work instead of being in the mountains. During a failed attempt on the Lessueur route, I saw that the approach couloir to the Dru looked like it was in condition and I was excited to give it a go.
I first went with a girlfriend, Ildi Kiss, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time: we had first met competing in ice climbing world cups back in the early 2000. She hadn’t been in the mountains in a while but was motivated and it was really fun to reconnect with her and try this route with her. We left early in the morning and simul-climbed some of the approach couloir. Things spieced up after that. I led the first mixed section and she led the second one but ended up way left of where the route was.
So, we had to lower off and climb back up to the base of the Nominee crack – a 30m long overhanging crack filled with fixed pitons. We climbed it but when we got to the top, we realized it was a little late and that we would most likely get benighted on the route if we kept going. Night falls at 6.30pm at this time of year, so we only had a few hours of daylight left and I wasn’t keen to search for rappels in the dark (the rappel route doesn’t go down the climbing route). So we rapped but I knew I would be back before I flew back to the US, providing I found a motivated partner. I couldn’t pass up the perfect conditions on the route and the beautiful Indian Summer.
The crux indeed proved to be the lack of partners: people were either down south rock climbing, or working, or on expeditions and no one was really motivated to hike up there when you can access it more easily on skis in the winter. I guided the Midi-Plan traverse on the day following our return from the Drus. On the way back, I got a message from my friend Ueli Steck saying that he was really motivated to climb this route with me. I was bursting at the seams with excitement: not only I had a solid partner, but I also knew we would for sure make it to the top! My only worry was that I was worked from too many big days in the mountains and from lack of sleep, but motivation was all I really needed to get me up the climb. The body would follow.
We met the following afternoon at the Montenvers train station to sort out gear. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years and it was fun to catch up as we hiked back up to the bivouac. We made good time hiking through the heinous talus field and reached the rocky knob at the base of the Drus in 2h30. We weren’t alone. Another party was going to climb the Lessueur route and two others were going for the same route as us. Since it’s an ice climb, we didn’t want to have anyone ahead of us, so we got up at 1am to start up the route.
There was no moon, so it was pitch black out, but I knew the way and thought I could figure it out in the dark. Ueli led out and went off route pretty much right away, but it enabled us to climb a pretty fun pitch, so that was all good. We rapped down it and I led to the start of the difficulties. It was still dark when we got to the Nominee crack.
Ueli led it in style, freeing this very steep/slightly overhanging crack. I so wished I would have had monopoints to free it too, but with dual points, I couldn’t reach inside the crack and my feet would skit, so I resorted to stepping on some of the pins. Two more sustained traversing rock pitches with rotten ice and lots of wideness took us to the base of the ice couloir.
From there, we found perfect ice to the top. We simul-climbed it in two sections and made it to the Breche des Drus, embracing the sunshine. We kept going to the “antecime” of the Petit Dru, sorted out the gear and started back down to the Breche des Drus.
We had to build V-Threads (ice anchors) on the way down as there weren’t any, which made us think that we might have been the first to top out the route this season.
I lost count of the number of rappels we did down the 800m long face, but we were back at the bivouac by 3.15pm. After a little
soup, we packed our stuff and made our way back down to Chamonix. The train had closed for the season, so we were forced to hike all the way down to the valley floor. We were down when the bells rung 7pm.
The north couloir of the Drus is the best climb I have done in a long time. It was sustained and varied, with lots of ice and mixed terrain. It’s one of those routes I could do over and over again! Of all the peaks in Chamonix, the Drus is the most striking and proud one. It’s every alpinist’s dream to tick this one off and I was all the more happy to reach the top by climbing this stunning line! It felt good to want a climb this badly again. I have spent the past couple of years focused on getting my IFMGA certification, almost forgetting about the lines that had haunted my dreams. Climbing the Drus has enabled me to reconnect to who I was before I decided to become a guide: an extremely motivated alpinist, climber and ice climber. I am already looking forward to the next big climb!