April 3rd 2012

Drus - North Couloir Direct

The last 10 days of good weather has seen plenty of strong teams climbing some really impressive stuff out here. The Drus saw alot of action with ascents of the voie des Papas, Czech route, and the first free full ascent of the Lesueur to name a few. But whilst it is nice and warm in the valley in the sun it is still definitely winter temps up high in the shade of a north face. Maury Birdwell and Jesse Huey are on a fleeting EU Alpine Smash visit so after showing the the sounds and sounds of drinking in Chamonix and the epic Cosmiques arete it was time to look for something worthy of their trip. I was keen to head back into the Grandes Jorasses again but the weather window was closing fast and didnt allow us enough time for a multi day route. With the Jorasses out of the equation it was all eyes on the Dru.

The Dru N couloir is one of those really famous Chamonix classics, but the Direct is definitely the line. Considering that the N couloir itself isnt that easy the Direct was going to be a real treat for the visiting americanos, especially as it is bone dry right now. Armed with rope-gun-Huey it was going to be easy on the mind…I could ‘guide’ us up the route and Jesse could try and free the direct. As I’d invited myself along anyway I was just keen to let the boys get their Alpine tick and get some nice shots of it at the same time.

The Dru and the Direct- NB not current photo

4am and we were out of the Grands Montets lift station and on our way to the base. Shortly before day break and we were over the shrund and climbing up the initial mixed and snow slopes- the entry corner is pretty thin right now with a couple of thin technical moves but then the rest is in incredible nevee nick. Arriving at the base of the Direct and I handed over the reigns to Jesse. Since Jesse lead all but the last exit pitch of the Direct here were his thoughts…

Dru Couloir Direct!!!! Three weeks ago I was skyping with my friend Maury Birdwell from a lonely hotel in Terradets Spain, where I was thoroughly getting my ass handed to me on the foreign spanish limestone. Maury expressed interest in coming out to meet me for some full limestone sport action and a possible pine hit in France. Having never been to Europe before, my ears instantly perked and I was hooked full line and sinker to go and have an “Alpine Smash.” Never seeing these mountains in person immediately my mind drifted to the North Face of the Eiger. Getting in touch with our friend Zoe Hart, a Chamonix local, she mentioned that we should be in touch with the one and only “Sir Jonathan Griffith” - evidently he knows the Queen of England or something??? Jon is basically the man to know in town, having climbed over 100 routes in the valley, he is an incredibly experienced alpinist, and well, outright hilarious. We asked Jon about the Eiger and he just laughed, “you cant be bothered with that big pile of choss mate, you want to have it here on the Chamonix granite.” In just a few minutes over the phone, we made plans to stay on his pullout sofa and to go and climb something together.

Talking with Maury while driving toward Cham, I mentioned to Maury that my wet dream would be to find proper steep hard mixed terrain with bomber protection…. a combination that is hard to find back home. Several days later after following Jon a thousand feet up the Dru, it is my block to lead and I instantly realize that I found what I was looking for. My first knowledge of the Dru came from photos and video of a close friend who came up to Canmore to stay with me for a month to learn to mix and ice climb. Micah and I had made a very loose plan to climb the Dru one day with he and Johny to finish a route that they had tried the year prior. Losing those guys made me want to climb the Dru that much more.

Arriving at the Direct, © Maury Birdwell

Looking up, it was pretty obvious that Marko Lukic, the first person to free climb the Direct wasn’t giving away the grades. The climbing was amazing, consitently engaging, and sporty with a full rack.

Jesse heading up the first pitch

More sustained mixed on the second pitch

The final pitch was one of the best I have climbed in the mountains. Exposed to all hell and pumped out of my mind 10 feet above a bombsquad red camalot, I was pretty sure that if my foot blew I would fall. The pitch was almost over but I still had to pull the final ice bulge. Fighting the pump, I found a good incut hand hold to shake out and place a stubby ice screw. Topping out the final M8 crux pitch I heard the voices of fellow Americans Kevin Mahoney and Hans Johnston, two alpine heros of mine who had climbed the route the day before.

Jesse heading up the monster final, and crux, pitch

Almost there….

We set up a rope so that I could take shots of the top pitch on lead so feast your eyes on these….this, for me, is about as cool as alpine photography gets.

Jesse pulling out of the final bulge

Feel that exposure!

The second half of the route, was pretty much exactly what I told Maury that I didn’t want to climb, endless 70 degree black ice.

Maury heading up the ‘S’ bend

Maury meters below the Breche in full alpine glow on the Verte behind

I didn’t realize how tired I was until we were a rope length or two from the top. With barely any water left, I realized that I made a huge error in not bringing a stove with us to the base to make water. After a few high fives at the top of the route, we were on our way rappelling down the massive face. My least favorite part of any route, Jon graciously led all 15 full length rappels. It wasn’t until rapping over the direct that I really saw how properly steep the mixed climbing was. Rapping over it and seeing it from this angle made me feel less bad for feeling so tired. At one point I actually thought I was going to vomit from dehydration. Passing the shrund and putting the gear away, I realized that I had bonked. Taking way too long to get back to the hut, we fought through the headaches and my urges to vomit, so excited just to sit in a heated bathroom where we would catch a lift down in the morning.

Happy Americans in Cham

NB: Whilst Jesse managed to free the crux of the Direct I swung out on a C3 on the final pitch of the Direct to reach into a crack, so I blew the free ascent…sorry Jesse!

The Alpine Exposures coffee table photo book