Patrick Pessi, Sébastien Ratel, and Rémy Sfilio have made a significant first ascent on the north face of Les Droites, Mont Blanc massif, France, earlier this month with their new route Ecaille épique (1000m, M6, 90°, A1).
The Droites north face is on most aspiring alpinists' tick lists and the ultra classic route Ginat - being in exceptional nick over the last few years - has become a favourite first winter Grande Course. Whilst it sports one of the best Chamonix winter classics, the face is also the reserve of hardened alpinists, with numerous mixed lines as well as other real gems such as the Colton-Brooks and the Tournier Spur.
The line of Ecaille épique was first spotted by Patrick Pessi fifteen years earlier when he made a winter ascent of the Messner Pillar which stands on the left hand side of the Tournier Spur. Chamonix cannot keep a secret so he kept the line to himself until last spring when he teamed up with Jérôme Para. Their attempt ended short of the meat of the climb due to poor conditions but mainly bad weather which dumped enough snow on them that they thought it wise to retreat. As is so often the case with these big routes the weather can be your worst fear and enemy.
However Chamonix has just experienced six weeks of high pressure without a cloud in the sky, and a plan was formulated. Under the guidance of Patrick, the trio packed only enough for two bivouacs and headed in from the Grands Montets lift station from first lift on the 1st of February.
The route starts with 4 pitches of ice up to 90 degrees which leads to a small snow field and then two dry tooling pitches. This was the high point reached by Pessi and Para last year.
A luxury bivouac later and they started their second day in earnest: "those first pitches after waking up set the tone for the route, hard to read dry tooling and interesting to protect" said Seb.
"We continued slowly; above Patrick throws himself into the unknown. The rock steepens up but the cracks keep linking up. Then I take the lead up an aid section through a blocked crack system which takes us level with the first tower."
They then fixed this last aid pitch and bivied for the night on a terrace below - far less comfortable and windy, they had only climbed 6 pitches on the second day and knew this meant they would have to bivy again so tried to ration their food.
The next day Remy took the lead taking the party up through sustained and delicate terrain until they finally exited on the upper snowfield.
Here there were two choices as Seb explained: "We could either traverse with a perpendicular rappel into the normal Messner pillar route. Or we could head straight up into the wall above on the second tower, which seemed very compact for 10 or so meters. Patrick goes for 'elegance' and starts to head up this famous slab. From below we could see him in the middle of the slab with his axes in hand, it was incomprehensible. But in fact there was a tiny flake just big enough to squeeze a couple of aliens and axe picks. A short aid pitch and we arrived at the base of a superb system of cracks."
More dry tooling pitches ensued and they finally climbed onto the top arête of the Tournier spur. Night had set in though and they dug a small platform in the snow for a very cold and foodless sitting bivy.
Day three and the need to exit the route and get back to town was felt by all. The climbing was less difficult but huge cornices made progress slow and feel exposed. Finally they could cut across the north face and join the very last of the arête and at 6pm they summited the Droites.
The snow down the south side, combined with fatigue, caused them to miss the Couvercle hut with its promise of a warm log-fired sleep. After one final cold bivouac they arrived the next day at the Montenvers train station, exhausted and hungry, but with an amazing winter ascent under their belts and a 15 year old plan laid to rest for Pessi.
Many thanks to Sébastien Ratel for his cooperation in writing this article.
Sébastien Ratel is part of the French Mountain Military (GMHM) and is sponsored by Crispi and Simond