In March 2022, Tom Livingstone, along with Tom Seccombe, successfully freed Voie Des Guides on the north face of Les Drus. The FFA came after 2 previous efforts by Tom to free the route, and followed a long line of attempts made by several strong alpinists over the years.
Words by Tom Livingstone
Images by Tom Livingstone, Rob Smith, Matt Glenn and Tom Seccombe.
Voie des Guides - FFA of an 850m mixed route on the north face of Les Drus, in the Mont Blanc massif. One of the hardest alpine routes I’ve done.
The route has been attempted by strong mixed climbers like Jeff Mercier and Korra Pesce (who were eventually helicoptered off from high up the face) and the Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne (GMHM), a dedicated group of French military alpinists, but nobody (to my knowledge) had made a free ascent. The GMHM drew a topo and gave several pitches M8+, leaving many question marks about the grades of the pitches.
I'd noticed this route when I lived with a friend (John McCune); from our balcony in Chamonix, we watched the Drus apparently be set on fire every evening. We stared at the orange, gold and pink sunset colours and imagined being high on the face, often leaving our dinner to burn in the oven! The Guide’s Route apparent lack of a free ascent slightly intimidated me, since previous teams were very strong and it clearly forces a direct line through some of the steepest sections of the face. Les Drus are some of my favourite mountains - amazing rocket-shaped peaks which scream out to be climbed, but also look very improbable!
I first attempted it in January 2022 with Rob Smith, but throughout our bivy before the route the tent was smashed by gusts, and in the morning we decided to just crag the start, since it’s not obvious where it goes. We climbed onsight and reached the base of the first M8+ pitch before retreating with freezing bodies.
Attempt 1 with Rob Smith. Photos by Rob Smith.
The second attempt was in March with Matt Glenn, but freezing temperatures again forced us down at the end of the first day. We were often climbing in all our clothing, which made hard mixed climbing even more difficult. Nonetheless, I was happy to onsight the pitches above my previous high point, including the first M8+ pitch. It follows an overhanging crack which gets thinner and thinner, with less and less footholds. High steps and minute granite crystals between shallow pick placements led me to the belay. We bailed after this point, and I learned if the temperatures are forecast to be -21 C at night… they probably will be!
Attempt 2 with Matt Glenn. Photos by Matt Glenn
Returning a few days later with Tom Seccombe and warmer temperatures, we climbed to the Niche on 10 March. Again, I freed all pitches and marvelled at the steep terrain as I hauled the packs. Tom and I passed several good bivy sites to reach the Niche, but were then dismayed to find only a poor snow ledge to sleep on.
On the second day we forged up the left side of the Niche, our tired arms and minds beginning to weaken. Tom S. led up looser terrain, and I still clung to the free ascent. He then made a pendulum along the famous Quartz Vein and I teetered along it, wondering why flurries of snow were falling - our apparent good weather was ending. Since I’d freed this pitch, I decided to go ‘full attack’ and give all my energy to the rest of the route. I launched up the second M8+ pitch, a corner which ended with a two-metre roof. I placed as much gear as I could, filled my lungs, then launched into the roof and pulled the lip. Power screams helped my axes stay in baggy torques, and I had the full exposure of the Drus dropping below me. I was pumped stupid when I reached the belay!
Attempt 3 with Tom Seccombe. Photos by Tom Seccombe and Tom Livingstone.
I led one more thin M7 pitch as night fell, and then found a ledge for us to sleep on. We jumped into the tent and crashed out. Waking up to fresh snow, we were initially very worried: suddenly, conditions were like Scotland, where Tom and I had just been climbing with the UK’s Young Alpinist Group! We’d also run out of proper food, since we didn’t expect (or want) to bivy a second time on the mountain. We had electrolyte water and a few Werther’s Originals (boiled sweets) for breakfast!
Tom S. climbed the final hard pitch whilst sweeping away the snow and I freed it on second, psyched that the hard pitches were over. We reached the summit, hungry but content, then rapped down the Dru’s North Couloir. I felt very satisfied to have freed the route (although I don’t mind if it’s the FFA or the 100th Free Ascent). My research hasn’t found a record of a free ascent, and I’m just very happy to have realised a long-term project.
I also thought this ascent was good preparation for an upcoming expedition, where running out of food, pushing on with tired arms and minds, and ‘trying something unlikely’ are common. Tom S. and I had a great adventure which was certainly challenging and involved a lot of modern, difficult climbing. I don’t know about the grades of the hardest pitches, but I’d say it’s one of the hardest alpine routes I’ve ever done and somewhere between M8 and M9 seems about right.