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The Drus, 1952 Vintage

Lucien Berardini, Guido Magnone, Marcel Laine and Adrien Dagory, after the 1952 first ascent of the West Face of the Drus.

[Photo] Guido Magnone archives

IN 1952 A SPIRE of monolithic granite presented a high challenge to the climbers of the day–a dare that the setting sun outlined each evening, illuminating its burnished slabs with a red flash that no alpinist could ignore. The West Face of the Drus had a reputation for invincibility. “There, in any case, is something that will never be vanquished by man,” declared Pierre Allain, who had observed the 1000-meter wall during his first ascent of the North Face in 1935.

At the beginning of the 1950s, climbing was at a turning point in the Alps. The great north faces of the Matterhorn, the Grandes Jorasses and the Eiger had all been repeated, at times very quickly, by the generation that emerged from World War II. The youngest of these climbers, often born far from the mountains, now dreamed of the sheerest walls in the Mont Blanc massif, where they counted on applying the direct-aid techniques developed in the Eastern Alps. In 1951 a young Italian, Walter Bonatti, solved the challenge of the East Face of the Grand Capucin with his friend Luciano Ghigo. Those 400 meters of golden granite, sliced by overhangs, represented a new kind of climbing in the region–steep and compact stone, from which it would be difficult to retreat.

Gradually, the West Face of the Drus began to appear less impossible. Since the end of the 1940s, some of the best alpinists had already started attempts. But their progress was slow: the long glacial approach required cumbersome gear and supplies. Little by little, the aspiring teams realized just how wide the cracks would be. In those days, climbers protected offwidths with wooden wedges–which made for bulky objects in their packs, especially if they needed a lot of them! Even after they’d identified a great dihedral as the only weakness in the middle of the wall, the line seemed perplexing. Above that point, where did it go? The unknowns of the West Face weren’t just logistical or technical. It was necessary to explore it, to understand it.

By 1952, Guido Magnone, a former competitive swimmer and water-polo player, was in great shape. That February in Patagonia, before a stunned Lionel Terray, he’d led the aid pitches during the first ascent of Fitz Roy’s 3405-meter granite tower, relying on skills that he’d previously tested on short training cliffs. When Magnone returned to France, he assembled a team for the Drus: Lucien Berardini, Adrien Dagory and Marcel Laine–all strong, young climbers from Fontaine-bleau who had familiarized themselves with aid climbing on the cliff of Parisians, Le Saussois.

The “Pendulum.”

[Photo] Guido Magnone archives

On July 1 Berardini, Dagory and Magnone set out for the West Face, heading up the rockfall-swept couloir and then traversing left across terraces toward the center of the wall. Three days later, they arrived at the base of the famous “Ninety-Meter Dihedral.” In the years ahead, Magnone would often speak of the emotion that seized him at the sight of this open book, as polished and solid as bronze, glimmering and vanishing into the sky. “It was a beautiful section,” he explained, “a real crux, even if there’d been other equally difficult pitches lower down. At the time, to launch yourself up a dihedral like that, slightly tilting from the beginning to the end, wasn’t so common.”

They climbed the Ninety-Meter Dihedral the next day, only to dead-end amid blank slabs. Their sole option: a pendulum to the right to reach a ledge. But afterward? A colossal overhang loomed above…. And if the route didn’t go? They’d have to fix a rope at the pendulum to return. They didn’t have a spare one. And they’d run out of food and water. It was hot; they were thirsty. They retreated to the valley–with difficulty.

On July 17, they began again, this time with Laine. It seemed unthinkable to re-climb the lower part of the West Face (they’d removed the pitons from their line, and in order to move as fast as possible, they hadn’t used fixed ropes). So they started up the North Face, instead, to a vantage point overlooking the abyss enclosed by that perfect dihedral. From there, they planned to regain the upper West Face by making an aerial traverse across a polished slab that seemed to hang suspended in the air.

Laine got out the hand drill. After two hours, some primitive micro-“bolts” and a free-hanging rappel, he landed on the ledge above the Ninety-Meter Dihedral. The next day, Berardini was back at the overhang. A miracle! It went free! Magnificent climbing up airy cracks and corners led to a higher junction with the North Face. In his memoir, The West Face, Magnone described placing his hands on the sun-warmed rocks of the summit. “What other stones,” he wondered, “what other mountains would give us, to such a degree, a reason for living?”

Meanwhile, the press had seized upon their ascent. Back in Paris, Berardini’s parents learned that their son had been in the mountains for several days. “The little one must be hungry,” Madame Berardini said to her husband. “You should bring him something to eat.” He rode the train to Chamonix and asked where the Drus were. People told him this was a very difficult mountain. “What do you mean?” he replied. “My son is up there, and I can’t go?” Gazing out from Montenvers, he took in the scale of the endeavor and decided to wait for his son’s return.

Other alpinists have sometimes criticized the team: Magnone and his partners climbed the route in two installments, they aided a lot of it (175 meters, in fact) and they used “golots,” small, early homemade bolts–but (to be precise) just a handful of those and only on the traverse from the North Face back onto the West. Magnone spoke of this route as “the grand enterprise.” Like Warren Harding several years later on the Nose, for an uncommon ascent, Magnone had used uncommon means. The size, complexity and sustained technical difficulty of the West Face, combined with the weight of gear and provisions for a multiday alpine climb–such problems required the abilities and strategies of a new age. Perhaps, if Magnone had thought to fix at least the hard pitches of the lower West Face, and then returned to complete it in a continuous push, more people would trace the origin of “big-wall climbing” to this ascent. Back then, however, the route belonged to a concept that wasn’t yet defined.

The “Laine Traverse,” with homemade bolts.

[Photo] Guido Magnone archives

At the same time, the media circus surrounding the West Face eclipsed other remarkable feats that took place on the Drus that summer. On June 30, the guides Michel Bastien and Andre Contamine followed the beginning of the normal route of the Petit Dru, which contoured around a large spur that descended from the Grand Dru. In seven hours, they finished a difficult route, starting on the left side of the South Pillar, more than 700 meters long, almost completely free, using only seven pitons. It would be hard for anyone to move faster and with more limited means on this rock! Those who have since climbed their route can never forget the rounded and exposed cracks, now protectable with cams, which hadn’t been invented in 1952. Today, the climb is rated 6a+ (5.10c). Future climbers, with the benefit of modern gear, would add harder lines to its flanks, but it would be difficult to deny Bastien and Contamine their status as forerunners.

The West Face team had barely descended when two Parisians completed another new climb. From July 25 to July 27, Henri and Pierre Lesueur headed up a severe line on the North Face of the Grand Dru. Their route would be neglected for years. When Alan Rouse and Rab Carrington finally repeated it in 1975, Mountain reported that they found it “very hard and very good; a forgotten masterpiece that was very advanced for its time.” And then in 1983, while skiing at the Grands Montets, Thierry Renault and Andy Parkin noticed a lightly iced-up line. They descended to Chamonix, picked up their alpine gear and rushed to the North Face. The Lesueur Route, as they experienced it, was a pinnacle of modern mixed climbing.

At the beginning of 1952, alpinists could climb the Aiguille du Dru via the normal routes of the Grand and Petit Drus, the 1935 Allain-Leininger on the North Face and the 1938 Grivel-Frova on the South. By the end of July, three more routes had been added. All Grade VI, these climbs radically changed the history of the Western Alps. We’d soon find the same protagonists on first ascents of the South Face of Aconcagua (1954), Makalu (1955), Muztagh Tower (1956) and Jannu (1962). Magnone would describe these years as “the prodigious decade.” For all of them, the Drus were the beginning of something more. Each lived long enough to measure what he’d accomplished, and to have the joy of reading in the eyes of future generations the admiration and affection that he’d inspired.

In 2002 I and the other staff of Vertical magazine summoned a crowd of old and new friends to Montenvers, right in front of the West Face, to celebrate with Lucien Berardini and Guido Magnone the 50th anniversary of their first ascent. The festivities continued late into the night. Surrounded by young climbers such as Julien Herry, who had just climbed the American Direct at age sixteen, these wonderful old gentlemen–Robert Pargot, the Lesueur brothers, George Payot–were solid partiers. Fine wines flowed…without any thoughts of the next day. In the small hours of the morning, I needed some fresh air. Outside the hotel, I bumped into Guido, who was gazing toward the wall of his youth from the terrace. Still shadowed in the grey light of dawn, the Drus appeared even more forbidding, smooth and mysterious. Guido turned, without a word, and pointed at me with an authoritative hand. “You. You don’t know how much pleasure this has given me.” Then he went inside to warm up. He was eighty-five.

As a little boy, Guido had emigrated with his family from Italy to France. Starting from nothing, he’d built an extraordinary career as an athlete and an alpinist. Many French youths now owed him their first steps in the mountains: for a long time, he’d directed an organization that offered inexpensive alpine trips. But, above all, Guido was an artist. He’d begun sculpting as a hobby during his military service. After studying at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts, he’d graduated at the head of his class. Much later, as his eyesight dimmed with age, his hands would caress the rounded forms that rose from his imagination. With what gaze did he observe the Drus, on that morning? That of the climber or that of the artist? He’d titled his last book Sculptor of Summits.

The Pendulum. In The West Face, Magnone wrote of the famous view of the peak, “This panorama, though much publicized and photographed, conceals in its immensity all the indescribable freedom and ruggedness of new territory.”

[Photo] Guido Magnone archives

–Translated from the French by Katie Ives