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The Face of the Future

The North Face of the Drus.

[Photo] Pascal Tournaire

LIKE A LIGHTHOUSE DOMINATING the sea…. The Sea of Ice. The Drus seem to have conquered the Mer de Glace and stilled its waves, until the glacier no longer dares defy their steep mountain walls. Large pale stains, signs of recent rockfall, gleam like salt crystals deposited during some earlier epoch when the Sea of Ice flowed powerful and high, before it began to die down and to draw back, slowly and gently, leaving behind only vile shores of scree. Tourists arrive in uninterrupted floods to view Mont Blanc–merely to find its pallid summit drowned in a mass of satellite peaks, the Dome du Gouter and the Mont Maudit. The Drus, on the other hand, visible from nearly everywhere in the valley, their shape so easy to describe, are unmissable. You might say that a good portion of our planet’s inhabitants has seen them, if only from the seats of cars.

But to observe the massive North Face in its totality requires a little effort and knowledge. When I was young and naive, a few hasty observations combined with overflowing self-confidence led me to believe that I’d divined an obvious approach. Drawn too far right, I found myself rapidly slipping on sheer, grassy slopes. Clinging to brittle rock, I was obliged to place an emergency rappel anchor, where…I lost my axe. Finally, I became incapable of traversing the glacier: too many big stones rolled down it, too often for my liking. (Having since skied this same slope, the Pas de Chevre, in winter, I’m now almost relaxed there.)

Twenty-five years later, with more experience–but with the same overflowing self-confidence–I can only conclude that this wall is “The Face of the Future of Alpinism, Made in Chamonix.” As you clamber up the snowy path to its base, you feel as though you’re entering a cathedral. Surrounded by rock from both sides, you must crane your neck far back to see the sky. You notice the steepness, the length, the lack of ledges…. Surely, if a Walter Bonatti had come here to establish a line, it would be world renowned, but the absence of media visibility means that this wall has few attractions for today’s young wolves, hungry for fame. A decade after the catastrophic rockfall of 2005, the more legendary aura of the late lamented West Face still lingers in many climbers’ minds.

My friend Korra Pesce and I have stared at the North Face for a long time, searching for the line that seems most beautiful to us. Until recently, the Lesueur Route, that avant-garde line of 1952, was rarely repeated. At 2 a.m. in a smoky Chamonix bar, Thierry Renault told me the story of making its first winter ascent, with Andy Parkin, in 1983. Thierry recalled climbing one crux section by jamming a crack with an ice screw gripped in his hand. As he spoke, he raised his hands in the air to mime the scene. The difficulty of the moves, the sense of the void below him–each memory flickered across his face as if the climb had just happened.

My conversations with Monsieur Pierre Lesueur changed my vision of modern alpinism. We met in a place that was dear to him, La Potiniere, a lively, wood-paneled cafe that he’d frequented for sixty years. Although his recollections of the precise route had become vague, the emotions were still fresh. Imagine, in 1952, the two brothers Pierre and Henri working in a Parisian car factory, having started to climb just two years prior, training to their utmost on the sandstone boulders of Fontainebleau and the pocketed cliff of Le Saussois. With only two weeks of vacation a year, they had to be efficient. They began with a repeat ascent of the Walker–only the fourth, to be exact!

After reaching the height of Montenvers, they saw a rope team on the North Face, a little to the left of the Allain-Leininger. This was the line that the brothers had in mind–and there was no question of their allowing someone else to steal it. Nevertheless, they still had to get back to Chamonix for provisions. After having descended almost 3000 meters, they climbed up 2000 meters to Helbronner and down the Vallee Blanche–a journey of about ten kilometers.

At last, without any real rest, they set off for three days. The other team, meanwhile, had retreated. The Lesueur brothers managed to complete the line entirely free. To me, their deed seems superhuman. As they searched for a way through the sustained difficulties, they had to rely on the limited equipment of the time and to accept a high level of risk. One of their good friends was supposed to repeat the route shortly afterward, so Pierre attached silver chocolate wrappers to each of the pitons to make them easier to find. He also told me about one section where he felt as though he were climbing over bird droppings, because of the blue color of the stone, but also because of its tendency to crumble.

The second ascent of the Lesueur didn’t happen until the 1970s. It was amusing to see how, after this route came back into fashion around 2010, great alpinists congratulated themselves for having “freed” it. Those champions probably meant to say that they’d made the “first free ascent with 80 percent less weight, with weather forecasts largely improved and a topo with details down to the millimeter.” With a lighter pack and a more thorough knowledge of the topography, modern alpinists can, certainly, enchain more routes than their grandparents had. The only drawback is that perhaps we’ve lost too much of the rustic character along the way?

–Translated from the French by Katie Ives