In late March, Matt Glenn and Tom Livingstone made the first free ascent of Vol Du Dragon on Les Droites and repeated the intimidating Rolling Stones on the Grandes Jorasses. The pair each shared an account of their climbs...
Vol du Dragon (1200m, M7+, 6b), Les Droites
by Matt Glenn
After an eerily straightforward time on the Grandes Jorasses, Tom and I were psyched to get after it again with the next weather window. The next week unfortunately turned out worse than predicted, so I had to contain myself. Thankfully a four-day spell of yellow balls on the forecast meant we could get prepped again!
On the Jorasses I felt like an imposter; it was my first route on a north face in winter, having climbed one other route this season (ski touring doesn't make your arms strong). My climbing gear was held together with tape and jackets - more patches than material - and I was tempted to turn down Tom's offer initially. This time, however, I felt more like I knew what I was getting into and I could be adequately mentally prepared to get after it.
It was a bit of an enigma at first as there was very little information available about the route, compared to the normal plethora of topos, photos and beta available from the collective Chamonix Valley community. We knew the route had been done at least once and it sounded like a real battle; five bivis is a big mission in Chamonix, the centre of 'do it in a day' style.
As with all routes this season we skinned up the piste. It was a somewhat harsh beginning to each day in the mountains, but also something that I've come to appreciate more and more with each route. Making good time we reached the base of Les Droites at 12.30 p.m. High winds meant we sheltered in a Bergschrund to get kitted up and leave our skis.
Taking delicate, steep steps up the first pitch while drowning in spindrift did not fill me with optimism, but after a slower start I got into a rhythm and climbed directly past the belay. Moving into a section with good névé but no anchors, reaching me when I finally stopped, Tom and I agreed that moving together on V+ ground wasn't the best idea but we were moving quickly nonetheless.
Upon reaching the base of the M7 pitch, Tom took over: "Hopefully it's as straightforward as it looks". We debated stopping for the night as we were next to a good bivi spot. However, given the time we decided we shouldn't waste three hours of daylight. Two pitches of relatively simple climbing later, we arrived on the "bivi spot" marked on the topo. A tiny ledge suitable for an uncomfortable night for one. We set about excavating… after an hour and two damaged Nomics later, we had managed to establish we couldn't shift a 100kg granite block to make more space.
Thankfully I spotted the bolt that had fallen out of my axe pick in the debris we had created. Delicately screwing it in with my fingers then tightening it with my crampon front point didn't fill me with confidence with two days of hard climbing ahead.
"Sun! We are only climbing on NE faces from now on". Basking in the brief warmth, I watched Tom cruise up the pitch leading to the A2 aid pitch which we hoped to free. Climbing shoes donned, Tom started questing up towards the cracked roof.
As it turned out, there was a more logical line of cracks and flakes to the left on the face. He traversed out, made short work of the pitch and hauled the bags. We decided I could follow in crampons; this made the traverse significantly more difficult, scratching around for loose crystals instead of smearing in rubber. Nonetheless, we were through what was possibly the crux of the route.
I led through on another M7 pitch with wonderful thin feet and thoughtful climbing on good hooks.
Tom led two harder pitches to get us to the 'M6 !!' pitch on our topo which turned out to be a fairly standard mountain M4+. Thankfully, this deposited us on a snow arête to create our 5* bivi for the night.
A luxury night on our snow ledge was greatly appreciated. However, due to my last-minute packing I had only managed to secure two freeze-dried desserts instead of real food. 140 grams of sugar in the form of blueberry fruit coulis does not make up for real food!
5:15 a.m.: heat water, eat, melt snow, drink, faff to wait for the sunrise…. Glorious warmth spreading through stiff, tired bodies.
Once I had recharged in the UV like Wall.e I hurried through the remaining easier mixed pitches (taking one slightly harder variation in my haste). I then found myself seconding Tom across grey ice with one screw per 50m. He of course found this ground trivial but as I watched the bolt in my axe head loosen with each swing I couldn't ease the intense body tension I had.
"What is going on?!" I heard from above. "Give me a f**king second!" I shouted up as I desperately tried to finger tighten the bolt that was holding my pick and life in its loose grip.
A harrowing 100 metres later I emerged into the sun and to the sight of Tom grinning.
12:30 p.m. We made some soup, stuffed our extra bars into our faces and decided that the descent towards the Mer de Glace was way too long and slushy. Even with a wobbly pick on my axe, the long 1000m downclimb on the Legarde gully was preferable as it deposited us back to our skis.
We were back in the Valley by 6:45 p.m. in time for a trip to the shop for beers and pizza before curfew!
Rolling Stones (1200m, M8, 6a), Grandes Jorasses
By Tom Livingstone
I'd wanted to climb Rolling Stones (and many of the other mythical, classic routes on the Grandes Jorasses) for a while. In fact, Colin Haley and I were about to launch for the route in March 2020, but then France went into lockdown on the first day of a seven-week weather-window. I watched the TV address in the evening, resigned myself to not going climbing, then threw everything into my van and drove straight to the UK!
On 27 February 2021, Matt Glenn and I toured to the base of the Jorasses in light snow (why does the weather always try to create doubt before a big route?). Matt is part of the new 'Young Alpinist Group.' We'd tried the north face of La Meije a few weeks earlier. Matt led several pitches confidently, and although we bailed, I saw enough to be convinced he was psyched.
I thought Rolling Stones would be more logical than No Siesta (another hard route on the north face) because the latter sounded like it relied on ice a bit more (although nowadays, 'dry' conditions are the new normal and many things can actually be climbed in most conditions).
Day 1 on Rolling Stones with Matt went well. We climbed tricky mixed pitches, often following ribbons on névé before teetering up rock with our axes and crampons. The route-finding was impressive and I was really grateful to have read Korra Pesce's blog about climbing the route in 2015, as we recognised several pitches from his photos.
We wanted/were thinking of starting on the described start, but I'd actually climbed the first couple of pitches of RS last winter with Rob Smith as a consolation prize after attempting a different route. The pitches were dry, scrappy and in poor conditions, and I could see this winter was the same. We decided to copy the Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne boys, who climbed RS by starting via the Walker Spur. Funny, because I hadn't even considered this until I read about it!
We were very keen to reach the bivy marked on the topo at P9. In fact, we got lucky with our progress that day, and made a king-sized bivy ledge on P17!
On Day 2 Matt and I followed tricky pitches through very improbable ground, following the topo and our memories of photos. At one point, Matt traversed out of the (kind-of) obvious ramp system we were following. I thought he was going 'full Rambo' but actually he was totally correct, and we then started following a 'line of strength' through steep ground and hard crack systems.
The crux pitch is given M8 (top effort from Luka Lindic and Luka Kranjc to free it). It's actually pretty reasonable but has a section of giant creaking flakes and blocks which were uncomfortable to climb past... I guess it's called Rolling Stones for a reason! I would recommended 99% of this route for its excellent, hard climbing, but I sure as shit wouldn't recommend those four metres of loose death flakes!
Annoyingly, I was a bit mentally fried after this pitch, and on the next pitch I sat on a couple of cams to work out where to go. I should've persevered but when it's getting late, you're stressed, and you can't work out which way to go, it's easy to be soft. Our single and tagline system had worked well so far, but now the single rope zig-zagged everywhere as I tried to follow the right way. We were happy to free everything except this pitch, but still... nothing beats free and onsight!
A few more pitches and voilà! A bivy. Only this time, we had rocks poking us in our backs and a fine wind to keep us nice and cool. It was time to embrace the winter bivy…
We topped out around lunchtime on our third day. It was surreal to pass the tiny ledge that Pete Graham and I had bivied on when we did the Walker Spur in 2016. For Pete and I, late on our third day, we were gunning for the top when we got caught in a localised storm. It was pretty scary being so high on the mountain, at night, with it snowing and cold. We got in our sleeping bags and tiny bivy bag... I knew Pete was probably loving the prospect of another bivy but he was also falling asleep whilst I tried to feed him a Snickers bar, so I knew he must be tired! In the morning the storm had blown itself out. We cracked our icy shells on our sleeping bags and looked around. I did a 60 metre pitch to get us to the top, and into the sunshine. It was the first time we'd got the sun in many days and it tasted sweet!
Anyway, Matt and I climbed past this same spot after Rolling Stones, but in perfect weather. It felt weird to be back there again! It was even more strange that there was a much bigger, more comfortable-looking ledge, just 20 metres lower! I don't know why Pete and I sat on the shitty sloping ledge all night!