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George Ascends North Couloir of the Drus in France
Posted on October 21, 2010

By Caroline George

There is no easy way up 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 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 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 didn’t make it to the summit then.

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 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 8 hours to Cortina d’Ampezzo and tried to climb the route the following day. It was already late in the fall and very cold. Moreover, the local rescue team was conducting training, rapping 300 meters down. 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.

The crux proved to be the lack of partners available—people were either down south, rock climbing, working or on expeditions. 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 the route with me. I was bursting at the seams with excitement. Not only did I have a solid partner, but I also knew we would make it to the top! My only worry was that I was worked from too many big days in the mountains and 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 two and a half hours. 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 1 a.m. to start up the route. There was no moon, so it was pitch black out. 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, which Ueli led in style, freeing this very steep, slightly overhanging crack. I 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 800-meter-long face, but we were back at the bivouac by 3:15 p.m. After a little soup, we packed our stuff and made our way back down to Chamonix.

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!

Author: - Thursday, October 21st, 2010

  1. Jonathan

    Great climb! Crazy steep though…not much room for error! Very cool.

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