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Marko Lukic following the pendulum on Pitch 6 of the Gabarrou-Silvy Direttissima (ED2/3, WI 6 M8, 950m, Gabarrou-Silvy, 1978). On March 17-18 he and Andrej Grmovsek likely made the second all-free ascent of the modern mixed classic. [Photo] Andrej Grmovsek

The well-tried and tested Slovenian partnership of Andrej Grmovsek and Marko Lukic has made what is probably the second completely free ascent of the modern mixed classic Gabarrou-Silvy Direttisima on the northwest face of the Aiguilles Sans Nom (3982m) in the Mont Blanc Massif, France.

This 950-meter high route, which lies toward the right side of the Nant Blanc Face of the Aiguille Verte, was climbed from August 5-7, 1978 by Patrick Gabarrou and Philippe Silvy. It begins directly below the summit of the Sans Nom with a 300-meter rock buttress. Above, an open ice slope at 50 degrees, steepening to 60-65 degrees, leads to the headwall, which gives very steep mixed climbing in icy runnels, followed by more open mixed terrain to an exit just left of the summit. Subsequent ascents confirmed this to be one of the finest and most varied routes in the Massif, and over the years the grade has settled down to ED2/3, with hard technical rock climbing at 5.10c/d and A1 in the excellent cracks and corners of the lower buttress, and then ice climbing to WI 6, with a section of aid, on the headwall.

In recent years routes such as these have not really been possible in the summer, drier winters and the increasing heat of early summer stripping the headwall. Due to the hard rock difficulties at the base, the first winter ascent was long in coming and by the mid 1990s had become one of the most coveted prizes in the range. It was finally climbed over February 8-9, 1998 by Marko Prezelj and Thierry Schmitter, who were actually unaware when they went for the route that it was still awaiting a first winter ascent. By this time ice and mixed climbing techniques had progressed, and for sometime climbers had dispensed with aid on the headwall. However, it wasn’t until recently that parties took modern dry-tooling techniques onto this part of the face.

Both Grmovsek and Lukic are noted as very talented rock climbers, particularly in the “big hills” but have also been practicing sport mixed climbing for the last four years. At first they treated it with great respect but also a little scepticism. But finding it interesting and very useful for body fitness, they progressed and last winter climbed many of Europe’s hardest routes. Lukic climbed Tsunami (M12), Vertical Limit (M12), No Limit (M12+) and Big Bang (M12), while Grmovsek was successful on La Vida es Bella (M11), Tension (M12+) and Game Over (M13-). They came to two conclusions; the grades of the very hardest sport mixed routes are somewhat overrated, and the transfer between sport mixed and longer alpine ascents is still quite slow. To see what it was all about, they decided to try a hard alpine ascent in this style and chose the Gabarrou-Silvy, which the French free ascent reported as M9.

Their first try in February was not successful due to difficulties with acclimatization, health problems and a late start after a nine-hour drive from home. Next time, in mid-March, they began early in the morning from the Grands Montets Station and climbed the route all free in one and a half days. The route went well but on the descent they were caught by strong winds, snow and darkness as a cold front moved in, providing an adventurous 15-hour escape from the mountain.

They found the route to be superb, with hard dry-tooling in perfect granite on the first 300 meters, and excellent mixed climbing in the upper third. They highly recommend it to other alpinists: it has perfect climbing, good rock, good protection and a relatively modest level of difficulty in terms of sport mixed. They predict it will become a real classic when the wider climbing community get to grips with using axes on hard rock in the mountains.

The Slovenians graded the technical difficulties WI 6 and M8. Their topo shows nine pitches to gain the bivouac site at the top of the rock buttress, with the long corner on pitch 3 providing the M8 crux (though the seventh pitch was M8- and the whole buttress sustained at around M7). The headwall sports a couple of pitches of M7-.