Chamonix honours Petit Dru West Face anniversaries

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 30/07/2012
What's left of the west face of the Dru in 2012. Lindsay Griffin

To alpinists the Petit Dru is the most easily recognizable granite monolith in the world, and this year there are three anniversaries connected with the West Face, with a celebratory evening on 31 July at the Majestic Congress Centre in the heart of Chamonix.

The West Face of the Dru was one of the great post-war objectives of the Alps, clearly visible from the Chamonix Valley. Pierre Allain, who in 1935 made the historic first ascent of the North Face, referred to it as "the very prototype of the impossible". 

Although on the radar of most of Europe's top alpinists, its beetling overhangs and perceived impregnability deterred most suitors.

The first ascent in 1952 was a real tour-de-force and a benchmark in alpine history; together with the first ascent of the East Face of the Grand Capucin one year earlier, it marked the introduction of systematic aid climbing on "big walls" of the Western Alps.

The successful team was spearheaded by Guido Magnone and comprised top Parisian climbers Lucien Bérardini, Adrien Gregory and Marcel Lainé.

The first three climbed from 1- 5 July up the loose and stone-swept lower face, working left to reach more solid cracks, and eventually the top of the famous 90m diedre, where they retreated.

Not wishing to repeat the experience, they returned on the 17th with Lainé, climbed the North Face to where it overlooks the West Face, and then traversed across blank walls using bolts to reach their previous high point. They topped out on the 19th.

Six decades later, on the 9th July this year, Magnone passed away aged 95.

This French icon of alpinism was actually born in Turin in 1917, but moved to France aged three. His early years were taken up with swimming and water polo, in which he achieved a very high level of success, only getting into climbing when moving to Paris, aged around 30, and meeting Robert Paragot.

He joined a talented bunch of Fontainebleau climbers and quickly developed a high standard of ability, in 1948 making a relatively early ascent of the Cassin route on the Piz Badile.

1952 was arguably his stand-out year: not only did he make the first ascent of the West Face of the Dru, but he also repeated the East Face of the Grand Capucin and the North Face of the Eiger, before going to Argentina to make the first ascent of Fitz Roy with Lionel Terray.

In 1955 he made the first ascent of Makalu, and in the following year the second ascent of the Muztagh Tower, narrowly beaten by Joe Brown, John Hartog, Ian McNaught-Davis and Tom Patey.

In 1957 he led the first reconnaissance of Jannu and returned in 1959, reaching within 300m of the summit with Paragot. Unfortunately, he wasn't part of the successful 1962 ascent, led by Terray, but did travel the same year with Terray to Peru, where he made the coveted first ascent of Chacraraju.

As for the others on the Dru team, two years after their ascent of the West Face, Bérardini and Dagory would be summiteers on the French expedition to climb the South Face of Aconcagua, a route "discovered" two years earlier by Magnone and Terray, and arguably the first really major, technically difficult, high-altitude wall to be climbed.

July 2012 also marks the 50th Anniversary of the American Direct.

At the start of the 1960s alpine climbing began to be influenced by new rock climbing techniques, notably what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

Enter Royal Robbins, one of America's top big wall climbers. He brought with him recently developed hard steel pegs of all shapes and sizes that could withstand repeated use in granite.

With Gary Hemming he chose a line on the left side of the west face that was not objectively threatened, on sound rock, and led directly to the base of the 90m diedre.

The two completed their route to the summit from 24th-26th July, employing a mixture of hard free and aid climbing. It was considered the the most difficult  route in the Western Alps at the time, but as rock climbing standards rose, it became classic, and the route of choice on the west face.

Thirty years ago Christophe Profit, who will host the celebrations at the Majestic, made the first "free solo" of the American Direct.

Although this certainly wasn't the first solo, which had been achieved in 1971 by Jean Claude Droyer, over two days using conventional backrope techniques, nor the first completely free ascent, which probably took place in the late '70s (Pat Littlejohn and Steve Jones almost climbed it free, to the summit, in 1971), it was notable for audacity and speed of ascent.

Profit took no harness or rope, just a small sac. He was helicoptered to the base, and then met by friends carrying ice tools at the exit of the face, not far below the summit. His time for the face was an astonishing three hours and 10 minutes, and heralded a new super-star of French alpinism (who at the time was doing National Service).

Today these events have greater significance, given that a series of cataclysmic rockfalls, caused by climate change, have erased most of the original west face.


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