As a result of our obsession with challenges, certain milestones have been created. 'First lead' is the start of it all and is certainly one we never forget (After the Blitz, VS 4b, Angelzarke Quarry, if you're asking). First winter route is also a big one, but most people are used to climbing rock by that stage, so the effect is perhaps lessened. First alpine route is a significant step up – it just feels so huge and intimidating - but that feeling lessens as you spend more time in the big hills. There is however, one final milestone, the ultimate leap that brings the adrenaline surge straight back, the first “Grande Course”.
Working through the grades is comparatively easy – if you've done loads of HVSs, E1 will just feel a bit bolder with smaller holds. Grade 5 ice just feels like lots of the hardest bit on grade 4s. A Grande Course is a whole new ball game. It may be easier than some routes you've done but its BIG - hence the name. Suddenly, bad judgement, slow climbing or worsening weather has consequences far beyond missing the last cable car. Get on these routes too early and you're in trouble, far more than you are if you try and reach other climbing milestones too early. You're entering a world inhabited by people you see in magazines and staring out at you from posters, a huge drop falling away beneath them. You could never be like them....could you?
Despite the potential for disaster, there comes a time when you feel that the leap may be possible. You've trained hard, climbed (and retreated) enough to feel it is possible to step up and handle the leap in seriousness. How hard can it be? Look at an internet blog from any well known alpinist and they seem to tick off massive routes most weekends. Still, the knowledge that some people do this all the time doesn't make it any less intimidating – just like all the climbing milestones.
Having finished university I quickly decided that a graduate training scheme, 24 days holiday a year and the daily commute were not for me. I just wanted to climb, and was soon drawn to the Alps because the Alps were where proper climbers went to climb proper routes. Riding the Montenvers down after my first route felt incredible. I wasn't like the other people on the train, all trying to get photos of themselves with the mountains behind. I didn't need to fake it – I was an alpinist.
However, after a few easy alpine routes you find yourself facing a familiar feeling - the urge to improve. That first lead at a local crag leaves you buzzing but you're not content to just go back and do the same route or even routes like it, the urge comes to push it, to see what you can do, to rediscover that initial buzz of overcoming something you didn't think was possible. So it was that I turned my thoughts towards bigger routes. The Chere Couloir, Forbes Arete, a January ascent of the Tour Ronde North Face and more all came and went but it wasn't enough - too easy, too escapable or both. I wanted to commit, to back myself and face the consequences.
Live – “The Dolphins Cry”
So it was that Nic and I found ourselves walking out of the Montenvers station and looking up.
You can't miss the Drus, it is just so HUGE, but try looking at it when you're planning to climb it - it doubles. Both of us took a few minutes just to stare and consider whether the other one could come up with a good excuse. Neither of us spoke so we were going for it. The sun beat down mercilessly and we took a long time to reach a good bivi spot just across the glacier from the south face of the Petit Dru. Our intended route, the Drus traverse, glowed in the last rays of light and we picked out the line up to the summit of the Petit Dru, along the west ridge, and across to the summit of the Grand Dru. It didn't look too bad but the guidebook description said it all "...not often climbed these days due to its length and commitment". Still, the crux is only VS, how hard could it be?
Unusually I slept well at the bivi and it took a lot of will power to be up and away for 3.30 having left a warm sleeping bag behind. The glacier seemed a bit scary but by no means the worst I'd been on and we soon found ourselves soloing an easy traverse into the couloir which takes you up to the Flammes de Pierre ridge. Once into the couloir we roped up but moved together quickly and with minimal gear. Something told me that the couloir was not a place to linger and Nic shouted up that he felt the same, so after a while we opted for speed and stopped placing gear. Wordlessly we continued, still roped up and both understanding the implications of what we were doing, until we emerged onto the ridge. I've been in some exposed spots but that view down across the West face of the Petit Dru and to the glacier below will stay with me forever. Pleased with our quick progress we had a quick drink and then continued up the ridge to where it merges with the West face of the Dru. Shortly after getting moving an enormous rock fall poured into the couloir we had just climbed, sending TV sized blocks spinning down to the glacier. Trust your instincts.
Initially we made good time but the route seemed so confusing, and large chunks of the mountain seemed to be missing. Indeed, virtually the whole mountain felt loose. Nothing actually fell off but the human body is a sensitive machine and you just know when the rock under your feet doesn't feel right. Grey streaks and huge scar where the Bonatti Pillar used to be told us everything we needed to know about the rock quality up here. Our progress slowed from quick to steady and finally to slow. The worst part was that we phoned a friend in the valley for a forecast and got told that there was a previously unforecast late afternoon thunderstorm risk. At this rate we'd be on the summit in the afternoon, but were utterly committed. Still, this was what I'd been looking for - commitment, seriousness and adventure. Trouble was, I wasn't sure I wanted it like I had from the comfort of the valley.
Eventually we found ourselves on the summit of the Petit Dru and despite the gathering cloud, I allowed myself a moment of satisfaction that I was finally stood here looking down at Les Praz rather than the other way round. We quickly moved across to the Breche des Drus and began climbing up to the summit of the Grand Dru which is reached by 3 awkward pitches involving 2 traverses. Some icy cracks slowed us down and we had to change into crampons whilst hanging on a belay above the north face, but as the clouds briefly parted and the sun began to head down, we pulled onto the summit of the Grand Dru. Now, the summit of one of the most inaccessible peaks in Europe is not the place to be with big black clouds forming, but if you can't enjoy that brief moment of reaching the top regardless of the circumstances, you're in the wrong sport.
For a fleeting moment I thought that, after this, every sunset I saw from the valley would be different. Life would never quite be the same after simply being here. I used to think when I first arrived in this valley that if I ever stood on the summit of the Drus, at least I'd feel like I'd achieved something, and would be able to walk away if I chose to, safe in the knowledge that I had achieved something special. I know now that it's not true, there's always more to climb - the passed test is soon forgotten when facing the next one - but it's nice to enjoy the possibility that this will satisfy “the urge” even for a brief time, and that I might be content with what normal people look for in life – stability, comfort and 2 weeks a year on a beach. Some hope.
Steve House – “Beyond the Mountain”
We got some photos, had a bite to eat and shot off down the East Ridge and easily found the first ab points to take us down the south face. The abs initially went well but as the cloud gathered and the light disappeared, finding the in situ anchors got tougher by the minute. We began to give up and started going off our own gear to save time but it wasn't enough. A rope got stuck and despite attempts at reclimbing the pitch, pulling the rope in every direction and lots of swearing, it wouldn't budge. The single strand of rope disappeared into the gloom up an unprotectable wall and neither of us was willing to try and prussic up it without any form of protection in case it suddenly freed itself. We got the knife out and were left with a 50 metre rope and a 35 metre rope - not great but no disaster. We did a few more abs, leaving bits of gear where it was unavoidable, and eventually found ourselves within a couple of rope lengths from the glacier. By this stage it was pitch black and with the thunderstorm seemingly not appearing, and a notoriously difficult glacier to negotiate, we collapsed on a small ledge for some rest. The sun couldn't come up quickly enough and we swiftly completed the descent to the glacier and after crossing the glacier, reached the bivi and a well earned cup of tea.
When I got home I realised that doing a Grande Course was not just the biggest step up of all the climbing milestones, but it was a complete abandonment of the principles learnt on previous climbs. I rarely run out a long way above gear on any route, simply because a simple slip or a falling rock from above could spell disaster, but on a big route, there is no place for such conservatism. Speed is safety. I knew this of course, but it's much easier to sit in the pub talking your way up a big route rather than actually being 1000 feet up, soloing in the dark. Suddenly all that bravado is stripped away and what seemed doable all feels a bit tougher than expected. All those blogs you'd read by people doing the Droites in 4 hours, all those miles on the crags, all that confident talk over a beer, means nothing. We've all talked about these routes in the comfort of a warm house and said to each other “You've just got to go fast – pitch the hard bits, move together or solo the rest. Speed is everything”. I know I'd said that plenty of times, but if, like me, you say it without having actually done it, don't say it any more until you try it.
Maybe we shouldn't have got on the route, maybe we weren't ready for it. But then again, how do you get ready for it? I'd done long routes, but they'd been technically easier, or they had ab descents down the same way. There's only so much you can do to prepare, just like all climbing milestones. How do you prepare for that first E1, that first winter lead, that first alpine route? You read, you talk to people, you practice on other routes, but ultimately you just have to get on it.
So, what next? There's certainly a lifetime of climbing out there without having to get on big alpine routes for your fix, so why bother? I bother because I like the challenge, we all do, and it's why we climb.