Words and photos by Ryan Colley
Even in the Mont Blanc massif, home to some of the most impressive mountains in the world, Les Drus stands out as a peak of immense beauty and allure. The north face is considered one of the six great faces of the Alps. The sheer West face attracted pioneer Yosemite climbers Royal Robbins and Gary Hemming, who climbed the classic line that is now known as the American Direct.
With 1200m of climbing up to 6c+, A1, it is still a testpiece 60 years after its first ascent.
The Dru has had a few impressive attempts at falling over. Two serious rockfall events, in 2005 and 2011, wiped out many lines on the west wall, including the Bonatti Pillar. While the original American Direct has remained largely intact, the upper section of the west face (above the crux corner) isn’t climbed anymore, and it’s almost always finished via the north face. There is still a real rockfall risk, especially in the lower third.
Last year, I attempted the route with Monse. She had spent lockdown climbing overhanging limestone in Turkey, and I had been climbing long mountaineering routes around the Alps.
She was the rope gun and would lead anything over 6b, and I would climb all of the easier pitches as fast as I could. I was faster, and she was stronger. We made a good team.
Unfortunately, about 20 pitches up the wall, we got hit by a sudden afternoon storm. With no shelter, the wet snow and rain soaked us through to our skin, and we made a hasty retreat.
“Was I bummed we didn’t make it to the top? Sure. But that experience was also priceless. To watch the mountain change in an instant only added to its mysticism. We had awoken the dragon!”
That attempt was late in the season, and shortly after, the first winter storms rolled in, covering the mountain in snow. I hoped I would get a chance at the climb before flying back to New Zealand next season.
Three weeks ago, I was going to climb in Georgia and planned to fly back to New Zealand from there.
I had a farewell barbeque, and someone asked me ”if you could climb one last mountain before leaving, what would it be?”
I didn’t have to think very hard… Les Drus, of course!
The day before I was supposed to leave, I was up all night with my head in the toilet bowl. I had caught a stomach bug, and there was no way I could travel. I canceled my tickets and had another three weeks in Europe… maybe the Drus was an option afterall!
Coming up with a plan
Andrew and I had lived together, worked together, and shared some epic trips in the mountains together (like any good friend, I often sandbagged him). We had become close mates and were as tight as brothers.
He is always good value in the mountains, and what he may lack in experience, he makes up for in toughness and good nature.
Once I was over my stomach bug, we agreed to have a big adventure together – one last hoo-rah before going our separate ways.
With the Drus fresh in my mind, I thought about the intricacies of going up there with Robbo. He had only really got into climbing last year, and he had never climbed trad before, let alone been on anything like the Dru. I would have to lead every pitch, and we wouldn’t be very fast. But I trusted him completely, and win or lose, it had every symptom of being a trip we would remember for years to come. But was I really willing to turn around on the Drus again?
I told him about my idea and showed him the topo. He was stoked and I admired his bravery. Or was it stupidity? Either way, he agreed!
He came back in the morning with a few questions, and after a chat over breakfast, we agreed on a plan and caught a train to Chamonix.
After a good night’s sleep on the Rognon, we set off at about 6 am. The first few pitches are surprisingly bolted, so you can start much earlier, but we met two Italians who wanted to do the route in a day, so we slept in and gave them some space.
We decided to pitch the bolted slab to the first ledge. I would normally simul this section, but instead decided on a more relaxed start to the day.
At the top of the slab, I saw the Italians were off route, and after some yelling back and forth they rappelled back down. We climbed together for a few pitches in the corner pitches that make up the first crux of the route. The first pitch is magic. It’s as pumpy and fun as it looks!
With a bit of trouble, Andrew made it up, and was keen to carry on. He told me afterward he was worried he would have to turn around if the following pitches were as difficult.
After the corner, we shot up some beautiful corners to where Monse and I had turned around. Up until this point, we had been cruising. We weren’t breaking any speed records but moving well and enjoying the atmosphere.
We made it to the crux corners at about 7 pm – two hours before sunset. I was keen to carry on, but I could see a decent bivvy close by, and I knew the next one was after the aid traverse, at least three hours away. We would still need to find and melt snow. Carrying on would mean a late night. I decided we would fix the first 6c pitch and then bivvy on a good ledge below the corner where there was snow nearby. Then we could get a good rest and still have plenty of time to reach the summit the next day. Plus, after leading 20-something pitches with a pack on, my arms were cramping up every time I had to belay Andrew – I could do with a rest!
Although I slept well, I woke up a bit sore and dreading the crux pitches. I can’t even get up a 6c+ at a sport crag, or at least not without a battle! Two of them back to back was going to be a rough start to the day. We enjoyed a coffee and some oats in our sandy beds and then climbed back up to the base of the corner. It looked steeper than the day before.
After pulling on some gear, I got up the two crux pitches and then to the aid pitch, thinking I would put on a Micro Trax and pull myself along the fixed rope. It wasn’t so straightforward, and I had to attach a foot loop to the rope, which made things pretty awkward.
“The rope is connected to bolts. Some are modern but two or three are from the first ascent in 62′. Watching the rusty pins flex while hanging 700m in the air woke me up pretty fast!”
The aid traverse leads to the upper half of the classic North face route. The first four to five pitches are the most difficult, but the hardest part was trying to figure out which cracks to follow! There seemed to be possible lines and pitons everywhere. I still have no idea when I was on route and when I wasn’t. After the harder pitches, it became horribly loose, adding to my fear that we were lost. Finally, we reached the Quartz ledge and knew the summit was close – I couldn’t believe it but it looked like we were going to make it!
I read a topo that mentioned going hard right at the ledge and then going around to the south face. I could see some pitons and a bolt and followed these to what must have been a harder route or a dead end. More time wasted. We traversed left until we met with the old-school line again and moved together onto the ridge, which was again more complicated than I expected.
I was determined to reach the summit that night, but after climbing around in the dark, I came across a decent bivvy spot and brought Andrew up. I was a little too determined to reach the top and felt a bit bad having dragged him through the dark. I could see the summit Madona in my headtorch, agonizingly close, but in the cover of darkness, there wasn’t an obvious way there. Two more pitches I guessed, but they would have to wait for the morning.
Andrew found some snow on the north side and I climbed into my sleeping bag with helmet, harness, and even crack gloves still on. Within minutes I was asleep.
Andrew now took the role of the leader, waking me up to eat and drink and melting snow for the next day. We realized in the morning on his last brew, he fell asleep and woke up sometime later to the stove flickering away and almost all of the full pot of water gone! We were tired alright!
Getting off the mountain and back to Cham’
The bivvy was decent enough but not too comfortable. I was sleeping with a rock on my side, which caused me to move in my sleep. During the night, I woke up with cold feet and realized my legs were dangling off our rock with nothing but air below! I quickly wriggled back and tied myself into a cam so it could happen again.
The next morning was magic. We were perched on the south face and had a view of the entire mont blanc massif in the rising sun. All the big players were there, Grandes Jorasses, Dent du Geant, Mont Blanc, and its subsidiary peaks. It was quite the show.
We were both pretty battered by now, and the past two days had taken their toll. We looked at each other with bloodshot eyes and laughed at our bloody hands and bruised bodies. Andrew’s hands were extra nasty. He had a rough lesson in hand jams! I noticed he was a lot more quiet than usual, but still wearing his smile. We didn’t really need to talk. We ate our breakfast and admired the show before getting ready.
There was a party of Catalonians who had bivvied one pitch below us. We called out our good mornings to each other, and after two long pitches (much more obvious in light) we all met at the summit. Hugs and fist pumps all around!
We traversed to the Grand Dru, and after about three hours of rappeling down the south face, we reached the broken Capoura glacier. After two and a half days, we were off the mountain! We had done it! We missed the last train down and had to walk into Chamonix, which strangely enough was quite enjoyable. We got some burgers and lay down at the park, looking towards the summit of Les Dru and letting the last few days sink in. It was a wild ride and a perfect last adventure for Andrew and me.
“If you had told me I would climb this face when I first looked up at the mountain three years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. Dreams are free.”
In the pack: Good route to bust out all of the lightweight goodies. Every gram counts – cut that toothbrush in half!
- Single rack (.3-3 cams, 1 set small to medium nuts) would recommend doubles from .4-.75. I forgot and it was okay but I could have used them.
- 12x quickdraws
- 2 x 50m half ropes
- Lightweight crampons (okay when NF is dry)
- Boots (good approach shoes with flexi crampons better, glacier OK. Only when NF is dry)
- Lightweight ice axe
- Climbing shoes
- Crack gloves
- Stove with medium gas (could’ve gone small)
- 3x dinner, 2 x breakfast, lots of snacks
- Micro Trax – leader carries both, very handy on this route for simul, belaying above, and hauling.
- Extra cord in case off route on rappels
- 0’c sleeping bag
- 38L Gregory Alpinist pack – great size for this and haul loops worked great
- 2l Water
Climbing blocks in a group of three would work pretty well. That way the leader wouldn’t wear a bag and wouldn’t need to haul, and wouldn’t be much extra hassle.
No sleeping mat but the sleeping bag was good. Plenty of flat bivvy sites and slept on ropes.
Study topo for the NF. Must less obvious than west.
After the bolted slab go left at the ledge to a short R-facing corner. Do not go to the white fixed rope in a large flake system.
Rapps newly equipt (2021). Now have cat’s eyes at each anchor and leading to the first rappel. The anchors are often hidden from above and not easy to find.
There is snow and a stream at the base of the route for water (2021 and 2022)
The path isn’t always obvious after the first stream crossing. If you lose it go to the base of the rocky spur that leads to the Rognon and you will find it on the ridge. Allow 4 hours at least from the train.
There are fixed ropes from the Mer de Glace which lead to the Alp above. they are in a pretty obvious spot but keep you eyes out.
No snow on Westface in July 2022. There is a deep chimney crack on pitch 21 below the crux which still had snow and ice. None on the north face until above the Quartz ledge almost at the ridge.
Great bivvy sites at the summit of Petit Dru and along the ridge.
Growing up on the rugged west coast of New Zealand, Ryan’s passion for the outdoors started at a young age. That has since grown into a love for mountains and he has been fortunate enough to base his life around climbing. He is most inspired by long routes on wild walls, but is no stranger to a sit-start either!