The American Direct - Up, Over and Round and Round the Top

John McCune has sent in an amusing piece about climbing the The American Direct ED1 on the Drus earlier this summer. He told us: 'It's a famous route, but like a lot of alpine grand courses, a bit out of fashion and not often climbed. It was cool to finally get to climb it after wanting to for a long time. It's one of the best big routes I have climbed in the mountains, due to the quality of immaculate climbing.'

Coincidentally, it has been reported on Facebook that John - alongside Uisdean Hawthorn and Tom Livingstone - has just climbed Divine Providence on the Grand Pilier d'Angle in the Mont Blanc Massif. Unfortunately the trio had to aid the hardest 7b+/c pitch due to wet rock after snowfall, but they'll be back...

The Drus towers high and mighty over Chamonix. It's very pointy. The west face is an immense wall of granite. For me, staring up at the Drus from Chamonix is almost as memorising as staring up at El Cap from the meadow. Complex corner systems link up occasional ledges to the left of the most famous rock scar in the alps. The mountain is renowned for colossal rockfalls that have created a terrifying reputation in recent years. The American Direct is the ultimate line.

Les Drus, 152 kb
Les Drus
© stemill, Aug 2008

It takes a steep direct and obvious line up from the lowest point of the face on a slither of sound rock between the edge of the north face and the edge of the grey choss of the rockscar. It was a great prize to the Americans, Royal Robbins and Gary Hemming, who put their Yosemite granite big wall skills to good use in pioneering a king line.

'Three Irish alpinists going round in circles, unknowingly following each other on the top of the Petit Drus.'

I heard about the American Direct on an early trip to the alps. The notion of climbing E3 corners up in the clouds on something as iconic as the Drus was inspiring. It became a route I dreamt of climbing. The only problem was getting over the fear of the mountain's reputation, justifying the risk and choosing suitable conditions. I guess I didn’t attempt it sooner because my alpine visits never coincided with suitable conditions. Over a number of Alpine trips I ticked off many of the major alpine Grand courses around Chamonix, but the American direct eluded my list. Until recently the majority of my time in Chamonix had been in winter. For the last two summers I have been working in the alps as an aspirant guide with the opportunity to climb big routes on days off. Last year I considered it seriously but with the sustained heat wave I decided it best to stay well away.

This year, summer seems to have been a better mix of cool and dry. My friend Rhys suggested we do it. I was guiding all week, but had the following weekend off and said I’d think about it. I knew it would be a big effort because we would have to go up and over. Abseiling back down from the top of the 90 metre corner was missing the point on an iconic mountain like this. I thought about going sport climbing somewhere safe, solid and sunny instead. With conditions looking perfect and reports of good conditions from another climber who had been on the route, I didn’t have any excuse. Missing the last train up to Montenvers was nearly my best excuse to pull out. Rhys, and now Liam, had gone up earlier in the afternoon and taken most of the gear. I had to walk up all the way from Chamonix but thankfully with not too much to carry. We teamed up around 9 in the evening up at a beautiful bivouac under the mountain which was eerily shrouded in mist. Our bivouac kit was minimal so we would have lighter bags and be able to enjoy the climbing more. We would still have to carry glacier kit for the descent down the Charpoua glacier. With a spiky juniper bush as a mattress I had a considerably good night's rest.

Following up perfect granite on the American Direct, with the Charpoua glacier below, 168 kb
Following up perfect granite on the American Direct, with the Charpoua glacier below
© John McCune

We left our base at 4.30am. This allowed maximum time, starting the climbing in daylight. After a bit of steep snow climbing we were soon soloing up the initial rock pitch at first light. After making an executive decision that we should put a rope on I led the first block up the apron. The climbing was great fun and as I raced up searching out the bolts (YES BOLTS) I soon forgot about the potential splat zone the Apron represented. The great niche 400m above has a reputation for dropping things. Before long we were on the big ledge from which the really good stuff started. Liam took over the next block of leading. From here the climbing gets into full swing. Laybacks, finger locks and hand jams led onwards and upwards. An amazing 40m corner presents itself requiring a steady lead. Remnants of the pioneers, old wooden wedges beaten into the crack and a museum of pegs led into the sky. From here we watched a Czech team get rescued off the ledges below us. We had passed them a few pitches below, and they seemed OK, but weren’t much chat. They had been on the mountain all night and the day before. Watching a tiny helicopter picking some little specks below us gave us a grand illustration of the enormity of the face.

Rhys took over the next block linking up more cracks and fissures into the base of the enormous open book “diedre mally." Climbing up this I felt like a minute insignificance on the mountain. An alpine chough started chirping around my head and I realised his house was deep inside the crack, and one of his mates looked out at me with concern as I shuffled past. Two pitches up this corner system a horizontal crack leads out right and then further a pitch on some dubious rock leads up to the jammed block ledge. The ledge is a good size and could be a reasonable bivouac. Rising out of the ledge is the 90m corner which is the real prize of the climb. Ninety metres of immaculate granite corner stretches into the sky.

Leading up a technical corner on the American Direct, 163 kb
Leading up a technical corner on the American Direct
© John McCune

Liam started up the first pitch with Rhys belaying while I took pictures and basked in the sun enjoying its warmth. After some wild bridging and jamming and almost running out of gear, Liam brought us up to his stupendous hanging stance. I took the next lead up the second part of the corner. With clouds swirling around far below the atmosphere was incredible. This pitch was everything I had hoped for. Sustained laybacking straight off the belay continued to provide a good fight right up to the top of the corner where gigantic roofs closed it off. It might have been one of the best pitches I’ve ever climbed, given the situation and exposure. From here we followed the A1 traverse to the North Face. From my belay a line of sketchy looking rusty nails with rings dangling from them led to what we hoped was a great bivouac. Rhys worked his way across, carefully hanging from the rusty pins, not thinking about how far they went into the rock or how much they bent when weighted.

After 22 pitches we all regrouped on a splendid ledge that was right on the arete between the West and North Face. It was just after 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I had climbed the classic North Face route in winter 2014, and knew that the hardest bits of it were all still to come, so we decided to stay put, enjoy the sun, and leave the rest for the next day. We sprawled all over the spacious ledge, listening to music, chatting shit, eating food and watched the clouds build up into a vast ocean below. Enjoying the warmth of the evening sun on a north face in the alps is a euphoric experience. VROOM! “ROCKS” in an instant the mood changed from super mellow chilling to absolute terror. The three of us dived under the slight cover of a steep boulder. Sizeable chunks of granite smashed down and ricocheted a few meters from where I had previously been snoozing in the sun. That kind of killed the mood. We wondered if there might have been another team above us, but maybe it was just the sun melting something way above. Whatever caused the rockfall it was terrifying and we were glad we were not climbing on the pitches immediately above our bivouac. We made ourselves as small as possible, with heads under the boulder, squeezed into Liam's two man bivi bag and had a bit of sleep.

Vapour trails soar above the American Direct, 144 kb
Vapour trails soar above the American Direct
© John McCune

At first light we started up the North face. We had no topo now, so I followed my nose from what I could remember from the time before. The route finding up here is complex, with a lot of bad rock and possible options. The last time I was on the route, I had followed the original route trending left up a blocky chimney, but I remembered reading about a more popular finish which followed a hole through the mountain onto the the south face. I stuck to the edge of the mountain fixated on finding this “hole.” We climbed some beautiful pitches on the edge of the North face. After a bit of exploration I gained easier ground, and belayed the guys up to a mysterious ring bolt anchor. I stuck my head around the corner to the right and saw a hole. I thought 'that must be where we go through onto the South face.' We took in some coils and I told the guys to follow on when the rope came tight. I scurried off round the corner and weaselled my way through the hole. I followed a snowy ledge round leftwards and pulled round another corner.

When I emerged back into the sunlight I saw a person just about to disappear behind a rock. Surprised to see another team, but also quite happy to see company, I shouted a cheery “Hello there, whats the craic.” Maybe these guys caused the rockfall the previous night. Said person turned round and looked at me with absolute confusion. It was Rhys, just about to follow the ropes. Liam was already half way through the hole. I had just climbed around the mountain in a circle back to the same point. We stared at each other for a moment and then began laughing as we figured out what I’d done. We joked about how long the circus might have continued, circling around the mountain if the length of rope between us had been a bit shorter. Three Irish alpinists going round in circles, unknowingly following each other on the top of the Petit Drus. We sorted ourselves out, and continued to the top, the ‘hole’ still a mystery.

Belay selfie on the American Direct, 169 kb
Belay selfie on the American Direct
© John McCune

The continuation to the Grand Drus was typically longer than we expected and not without difficulty. The steep squeeze chimney was full of teetering blocks of ice and required one last effort. Around midday we all stood on the highest summit block of the Grand Drus enjoying the space and exposure all around. We shuffled down the North east ridge searching for the supposed line of abseils that leads to the Charpoua Glacier. The abseils were a bit grim, involving a lot of back and forth across a minging steep gully flowing with gravel and snow melt. About twelve crappy abseils later we landed on the glacier. We stomped down the glacier and paused at the hut for the tastiest craft beer. The guardian enthused we were the first team to come up and over this year. After stalling the inevitable as long as possible we got on with the long walk back to town. We arrived around 11.30pm, just in time to grab a burger and see all the disappointed French football supporters. I got up at 5am the following morning, back to work to guide the Cosmiques Arete feeling like a true weekend warrior.

It was a great adventure with the best of company and we all agreed it was one of the most enjoyable big routes we have climbed.

John is a mountain guide based in Chamonix. He is supported by Scarpa UK.

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