Les Droites

April 9th, 2006

For those who are mislead by how the French spell, like myself, it’s pronounced “Le Dwat.” It’s big, cold, and very accessible. And, to make the story short for those who only skim first paragraphs, we started up the wrong couloir, ran into difficult rock, and bailed. This was a Friday/Saturday trip.

(for a sense of scale) Les Droites is in the Argentiere basin, a cirque of peaks 3800-4000m tall (12,400-13,120 feet). Directly across from the Refuge d’Argentiere, a 150 capacity staffed hut at 2771m (9091 feet), Les Droites stands tall with some of the most prized, and difficult, alpine routes of the area. The guide book states the “extremely atmospheric N face of the Droites presents the mountaineer with an unparalleled range of climbing possibilities. The richness of its gullys, slopes, and pillars, together with its unequalled place in the annals of alpine climbing, have made the N Face of the Droties the most famous wall in the Argentiere Basin. An ascent of any of the routes on this face is a milestone in any mountaineer’s career.”

Well, I’m reading this now after failing. On the NE not N face. When looking at the route we were thinking of, I simply thought it was a good line, would be a challenge, and was more sensible than our original proposal, the Swiss Route on neighboring Les Courtes (3856m), an open face with a couple of choke-points where water ice was supposed to form. Note, I said ‘supposed to’ as this season, it seems, hasn’t been kind to alpine ice. Many of the peaks sport sheets of old, gray, bulletproof ice or simple dustings of powder snow over rock. Not much plastic, confidence instilling, one-swing ‘hero’ ice. On our return we read a report at the Maison du Montagne that a couple of parties had recently climbed the Swiss route to find “ice thin and protection hard to find.” A little too risky for my tastes considering my skill and fitness right now.

(Rob at the hut) The approach is nothing like the bushwhacking slog of the North Cascades. We took the Grands Montets tram to 3295m then skied down the Rognons glacier, across the Argentiere glacier, and up 100m to the hut. It was tough in the blazing alpine sun (yeah, let me tell you..). We lounged with dozens of skiers on the sun-drenched stone balcony, eyeing the various faces and routes before finally coming to our decision, the LaGarde Direct with a traverse over the summit of Les Courtes and descent via its NE Face.

Dinner was pasta cooked up in the “winter room” while the other higher-paying guests were served dinner upstairs. While it was still light out we crawled into our bed in a bunk room of mattresses, wool blankets, and pillows. Later, loud Frenchman bustled about then clambered up beside us; they stack guests like cordwood and while I did sleep, I couldn’t wait to get up at 3am and escape the heavy breathing of the man on the other side of Colin. Rob had the wall and his iPod. Lucky guy.

We traversed the glacier in minutes, a gentle breeze cooling the air which was already hovering in the low teens; nylon only crinkles when it gets that cold. Ascending the glaciated slopes below the face we soon realized we were up too early. It was still dark and figuring out which couloir was ours was difficult. We chose poorly. Steep, unconsolidated snow gave way to scratchy rock, a little bit of rotten ice, and then a channel of spindrift-swept snow. Now in the full light of dawn, we could see we weren’t on route. Vainly we traversed left, hoping to gain our couloir, but ran into a dead end on compact rock slabs covered in a dusting of powder. Colin, the more skilled climber, was on the sharp end, forty feet out, no gear in sight, with an anchor consisting of two nuts (they were good though). Instead of trying to force our way up into the unknown we backed off.

(Colin at the dead end) Four time-consuming rappels and some down climbing later were were on the glacier, realizing where our route was and what route we had been on; the La Garde Couloir which took the first ascent team 16 tries before they succeeded in climbing through several rock bands before easier ground lead to the summit. We hadn’t even started with the difficulties.

I’d like to go back and, weather allowing, we will. We may not stay in the hut this time, favoring a quieter, if colder, bivy on the glacier. When I got back to town an email was waiting from Todd Miller, a friend working at ‘the shop’ (Feathered Friends). The last time he’d seen the Refuge Argentiere was when he was collecting the personal affects of a friend a few hours after he and his climbing partner were killed on Aiguille d’Argentiere, a peak directly across the glacier from Les Droites. Rescues may be quick in the Alps, but fatalities occur all too frequently. I’ve been told there have been 40 avalanche fatalities this season and only last week, Seattle climber Doug Coombs, fell to his death while trying to assist another. Sobering.

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