Filed under:Blogs, Tom Livingstone, Alps, chamonix, Les Drus, Leseur, Pierre Allain, Tom Livingstone
Winter climbing in the Alps is a pretty specialised – some might say hardcore – activity, and with winter in full swing here in Chamonix, leading UK climber Tom Livingstone retells a story of two classic climbs in the Mont Blanc massif…
Kim Ladiges and I climbed the Pierre Allain/Classic route on Les Dru in winter last year. We spent two days scratching and scraping up the north face, climbing ice-filled gullies and granite cracks. Leading in blocks, we slowly ticking off the crux pitches and studiously following the topo. I felt the fear many times on that route: thrutching up offwidths made my heart thump; thin hooks required a steady hand; I placed my crampons on crystal edges and gently stood up…
A pastel orange sunset warmed our tired bodies on the bivi after the first day. The clouds sank into the valley, a soft blanket of fluffy white, and we soaked up the last light. ‘It’s a giant duvet,’ Kim said in his Australian accent. In the morning our momentum returned with warm blood rushing to our fingers, making us gasp from the hot aches.
The picks of my ice axes became blunt stubs of steel. I even managed to bend one pick into a banana shape when my foot slipped and I slumped onto the axe. In horror, I pulled it out of the crack, put it back in the opposite direction and pulled as hard as I could to bend it back. ‘Watch me!’ I shouted down to Kim, and carried on.
The route went on, and on, and on… it continuously tested our reserve. Every time I longed for a break or an easy pitch, we’d be ‘smacked down’ (as Kim says), and the route would serve us another crux. Every time I wanted an easy ride or to see the summit, I’d be rewarded with more climbing, more difficulties.
But finally… eventually… the metal statue of the Virgin Mary caught in the light of my headtorch at the end of the second day and I closed my eyes in relief.
A year after climbing the Pierre Allain/Classic route on Le Dru, Kim and I are back in Chamonix. Winter has recently returned, dumping snow over the Mont Blanc massif. The rooftops of town are transformed to white and I ski perfect powder for days. But something in me is hungry for a fight, and it’s not being fed by ski touring.
Kim and I sit in a different apartment this year – this one belongs to Tim Oliver – and ‘talk smack’ again. Conditions in the mountains are very dry, with almost no ice, but we discuss options for the following two days of good weather. We categorise routes into ‘shit’ choices, ‘pussy’ choices and ‘going big.’ Deciding on a route, like packing, takes as long as you’ve got, so a full day later we agree: to traverse ‘as far as possible’ from the Grand Montets lift station, over the Aiguille Verte and into the beyond, would be an adventure but it’s not for this time. Instead, the Leseuer Route on the north face of Le Dru is our goal.
Almost exactly a year after the Pierre Allain route in 2016, Kim and I stand beneath the bulk of the north face of Les Drus. The weather is calm and settled, again. The route looks quite dry and hard, again. I feel the butterflies start in my stomach, again.
A team is climbing slowly up the Leseuer and we wonder what it must be like up there, but for now, we melt snow in the sunshine and try to get an early night. We both know we sleep badly on bivis, but somehow our minds settle and we rest for a few hours.
At 1am the alarm pulls us from our sleep and we’re soon walking through firm snow, panting heavily in the cold air. Little needs to be said; at the base of the route Kim starts climbing and I follow, passing the team who were on the route the day before. They turn out to be three GMHM climbers who have bailed from above the second crux, and I wonder how bad it must’ve been for these guys to turn around. They say it’s too cold in the wind, the conditions are too dry and there were no bivi sites. ‘We’re in for a ride,’ I think. These guys are legends, and our brief conversation at 3am is the end of their day and the beginning of ours.
In the grey light of dawn we climb mixed pitches, occasionally dry tooling up sections of rock. We follow our noses and the occasional footprints of the GMHM climbers, and are grateful of their belays. They have left rappel anchors, which changes our commitment levels: the ‘time to decide’ is now 400 metres higher, and we continue upwards at a steady pace.
I climb the first crux, enjoying the positive hooks, solid granite and outrageous positions as I chimney up a ‘bomb bay.’ When Ueli Steck and Jon Griffith climbed the Leseuer a few years ago, Ueli says, ‘come on baby!’ when he pulls out of the wild position in the chimney. I can’t resist doing the same – the position and situation demand appreciation, in the most sincerest of terms.
Kim clips the leader pack to a piece of gear and then calmly thrutches through the second crux. He hauls both bags up to the belay, and I’m grateful to follow up the awkward chimney/slot without the extra weight. We can’t believe our luck – the GMHM team were at this point at about 5pm yesterday, but we’re here and it’s about lunch time! Kim keeps the momentum going, but I can feel our pace slowing…
At about 4.30pm, we are tantalisingly close to the Dru Couloir. The frozen tongue of bullet-hard ice is about 20 metres to our left, but we can’t traverse across. In a moment of deja vu from last year, just when I want the climbing to be easy, the route rears up again. When we feel close to the top and ready to be done with the route, we get a double-dose of hard climbing. Le Dru always keeps a few surprises up her sleeves.
We guess Ueli and Jon traversed into the Dru Couloir lower than us, but we want to stick to the route. The topos show pitches of French 6b or Scottish 7 – either way, we’re in for another fight. I try the ‘Ally Swinton lob flake pitch’ (I think this is where Ally tried to go when he climbed it with Ben O’Conner Croft) but down-climb, grimacing at the thought of dry, rocky slabs and tenuous front-pointing.
Looking round the corner, I find the view I’m looking for: more amenable climbing, a peg, and suddenly it all starts to fit our topos. Now for the 6b crux, which is thankfully a hard but well-protected boulder problem, and I’m back onto rock and offwidths.
I bring Kim up to a snowy ledge level with our traverse left into the Dru Couloir. I’m glad we kept following the route, as the couloir looks in bad shape and I always later regret bailing, pulling on gear, or shouting ‘take.’ The winds are occasionally fresh and a couple of times I hear big gusts on the summit, just above. I reckon we should keep going and bivi on the top, but Kim speaks sense when he suggests biving here to stay out of the wind. Just like that, my plans of ‘free, in a day,’ vanish and we wisely choose to be sensible.
The bivi is short-lived, really. Sleep is interspersed with cramp and spilling spaghetti bolognaise over our sleeping bags (sorry Kim). As always, the night will pass and warmth will return. We take comfort in the fact we don’t sleep on bivis, which actually means we sleep alright.
Two pitches – into the couloir, and up to the Breche – flush my numb fingers with hot blood again. ‘Oooooffffttt,’ and swing, swing, swing the arms. Shake, gasp, shake, and it’ll all be alright in a minute. ‘Sorry mate! Safe.’
In another wave of deja vu, I remember climbing from the Breche to the summit of the Grand Dru with Uisdean last summer. We’d climbed the American Direct in a day, and my rock shoes easily padded up slabs and through chimneys for 60 metres. ‘It’s not piss,’ I said to Kim as I racked up, ‘but I should be fine.’
How naive. I should have known. (We’d avoided the last two pitches of the original route as they looked in appalling condition). An hour later, and I pulled myself onto the summit ridge of the Grand Dru, tired and hungry. Of course, the final two pitches turned out to be hard. Loose. Committing. Everything I didn’t want or need… but that’s alpine climbing I suppose!
I am grateful for Kim leading most of the rappels down the rotten Dru Couloir, and breaking trail back to the lift station.
We miss the last lift down from Grand Montets but the warm bivi in the lift station toilets is better than being outside. We chat shit well past our 7.30pm bed time (‘I bet nobody else did the 6b crux!’) and finally doze off, glad to be down from another adventure on Le Dru.
Thanks for a good one, Kim!
Free ascent of the Leseuer Route (900m, ED2/M7). North face of Le Grand Dru. 14/15th March 2017. Kim Ladiges and Tom Livingstone
Tom Livingstone is a 26-year-old climber and writer based in North Wales, UK. He has a penchant for trad, winter and alpine climbing – the bigger and harder, the better. Find out more at www.tomlivingstone.com