"Just go a full 60, it'll be OK" Korra yelled up to me as he saw me hesitate and consider building a belay after only 30 metres of climbing. Above were huge stacked pillars and flakes inside an overhanging chimney. They looked as though they would fall out of the mountain if I made the slightest wrong move, crushing my partner in an instant and most likely ripping me from the wall.
Everything was telling me to belay and bring him up to a slightly sheltered alcove before leading again, thus protecting him from the precariously balanced flakes above. But after four days of battling such terrain whilst an undercurrent of stress nagged at our minds, even Korra, one of the most accomplished climbers in the Alps, just wanted the hell off the mountain, and not to prolong it any further with an extra pitch.
With a slightly numb brain from some of the most careful climbing of my life, I clove-hitched myself to some equalised pegs, which reassuringly penetrated bronze knobbly granite, weathered for thousands of years to this texture. "Fixed" I yelled down, so that Korra could begin jugging and I could start hauling.
The ropes ran below me over five metres of old bronze rock before it turned to slicker grey stone, angular and fresh for almost 900 metres to our tracks on the snow slope below that we had walked up four days prior. We had just exited the "rock scar" on the West Face of the Drus, where the infamous Bonatti Pillar once stood; once one of the most famous and sought-after routes of the Alps, now a ghost, consisting of memories and stories.
In 1954 Bonatti set out on his own to climb the West Face of the Drus. The North and South Faces had already been climbed, and the West Face, the largest and steepest aspect of the mountain, had been breached by A. Dagory, Guido Magnone, Lucien Bérardini and Marcel Lainé in a series of attempts on 5 July and 17–19 July 1952 using a significant amount of artificial aid. With the progression of style, technical ability and gear between 1955 and 2021, it's hard for us to really understand how much more of an achievement climbing 1000 metres of Alpine big wall granite was then than it is now.
A large set of cams and a pair of rock shoes alone diminish the effort required by a huge margin, compared to the static cable-like rope, stiff leather boots, hundreds of steel pegs and wooden bongs, which were the tools Bonatti had on his ascent. A splitter pitch of granite that can effortlessly pass under ones hands and feet in minutes nowadays would have been a several hour struggle, with upward progress being a hard won fight as he skilfully eked out his precious gear, recycling it where he could like a self-belaying steeplejack come carpenter on the side of a gothic cathedral.
For the years after Bonatti's ascent of the West Face, the "Bonatti Pillar" gained in popularity as climbers became more and more technically proficient, and by the '90s the route was no longer the cutting-edge climb that Bonatti had created in 1955, but a popular classic that would get one hundred or more ascents every summer. It was towards the end of the '90s and early '00s when the story of the Bonatti Pillar reached a crucial stage.
All mountains are essentially in a state of "falling down". In some ways, there is nothing special about the rockfall on the Drus; if you stand in a steep-sided valley, whether it be in the Karakorum or the European Alps, you will hear a glacial and geological orchestra of crashes, bangs, booms and hisses as you witness a snippet of mountain erosion that will eventually round off the spiky summits to something reminiscent of the English Lake District. It's an extremely gradual process that unfolds over many hundreds of thousands of years. But in the case of the Drus, a crucial fragment of geological erosion (especially concerning us climbers!) undoubtedly started some time in the 20th Century.
Between 1850 - when the first detailed black and white photo of the West Face of the Drus was taken - and the end of the 21st Century, there were approximately ten huge rockfalls and countless smaller ones that changed the shape of the West Face. Most famously, those of 1997 and 2005, until eventually the entire route that Bonatti climbed in 1955 had fallen down to rest at the foot of the mountain in mostly plant pot-sized rocks — in all an estimated 450,000 cubic metres of rock.
So why do chunks keep falling off the West Face of the Drus? And why at so much greater a rate than on the surrounding mountains?
This question can mostly be answered by looking at its aspect and altitude. The top of the Drus is at an altitude of 3,733m and the bottom approximately 2,700m. Below 2,000 metres in the Alps, most mountains have lost their permafrost - the ice that adds strength to the internal structure of the rock - but in the 2,000 to 4,000 metre range, the permafrost still plays an important role in bonding the rock together. The height of the Drus rock scar (2,700m - c.3,500m) is in the altitude range that has seen the largest loss of permafrost in the last 100 years.
The aspect is also a very important factor. Facing west, the West Face of the Drus receives a lot of afternoon and evening sun, meaning that compared to on its North Face, the permafrost is melting here at a much faster rate. A study carried out on the summit of the Aiguille du Midi, which has more or less the same height and the same rock as the Drus, reflects this well.
Bore holes were drilled on the north and south sides of the granite summit of the Aiguille du Midi. The mean annual temperatures at a depth of ten metres were measured at -1.5C on the South Face, and -4.5C in the North Face. This was similarly represented in the depth of the "active layer" (the layer of rock on the surface which is no longer bonded by permafrost and is therefore susceptible to collapse). The active layer being roughly two metres thick on the North Face, and six metres thick on the South Face, therefore proving how much of an effect the sun has on the warming of the rock internally.
After the 2005 rockfall, when the remains of Bonatti's masterpiece fell down, the huge white scar that was left in its place was one of the biggest question marks in the Alps. You can climb minor new routes in the Alps until the cows come home, but with all the most impressive features - walls, summits, corner systems, ridges - already climbed (especially in the Mt Blanc Massif) the opportunity to climb a huge new wall that had been formed by the rockfall was just too tempting to resist.
It was Jean-Yves Fredrikson and Martial Dumas, two mountain guides living in the Chamonix area, who first reclimbed the area of the rock scar in 2007, spending nine days in the depths of winter in full big wall mode with a portaledge and primarily aid climbing their way up.
Since then, a Spanish/French team made the second ascent of the Voie des Papas in 2012. In 2014 a strong Spanish duo known for their aid climbing abilities attempted to forge a way up the rock scar, but retreated after a fourteen day effort due to injury and general attrition. Then in the winter of 2021, the rock scar saw attention from two teams in the same week; the French GMHM team climbed (and livestreamed) a new route up a corner system on the left border of the rock scar, and Italian Korra Pesce and myself repeated the Voie des Papas with several pitches of variation in the area of where the Bonatti Pillar once was.
So what does the future hold for the West Face of the Drus? I've been asking myself this a lot since Korra and I descended from the mountain. The combination of the "Papas" and the area left behind by the Bonatti Pillar was extremely logical and the most spectacular route I've climbed on the Drus. You would always have to climb it in winter, or at least in cold conditions, to ensure the loose rock is stuck together, even if just for your own conscience!
But what's to say that the West Face won't continue to fall down in the hot summers we experience nowadays? In 2011, there was another huge rockfall in the same area, which was arguably as big as 1997 or 2005. It's conceivable that the left hand side of the West Face - home to the classic American Direct - could also fall down. If this were to happen, another classic rock climb of the Alps would be lost, but another unclimbed wall would be left in its place. One certitude is that the story of the West Face of the Drus is still unfolding, rock layer by rock layer.
Listen to a podcast interview with Will about climbing on Les Dru by Jake Holland.