Dru north face: Tom Livingstone manages the first free ascent of the Voie des Guides.

In the third attempt, the Briton Tom Livingstone got the first free ascent of the 850 meter long mixed route Voie des Guides in the Dru north face. Strong alpinists like Korra Pesce and Jeff Mercier had already tried to free the direct line through the steepest part of the north face before him and his climbing partner Tom Seccombe.

Testimonial from Tom Livingstone

In March 2022 I'll be there in two and a half days Tom Seccombe can Voie des guides free climbed – an 850 meter long mixed route on the Dru north face in Mont Blanc massif. For me one of the hardest alpine routes I've ever climbed.

The line has already been used by strong mixed climbers like Jeff Mercier and Korra Pesce in 2012 and by the Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne (GMHM). To my knowledge, however, no one had ever managed a free ascent. The GMHM has drawn a topo and several pitches with M8+? rated. But even apart from these pitches, I found the route persistently difficult.

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View from Tom Livingstone's balcony in Chamonix: the rocket-shaped peaks of the Drus. image Tom Livingstone

favorite mountains

while me with John McCune lived together, we looked in from our balcony every evening Chamonix on the Drus and watched in fascination as the peaks seemed to burst into flames. We stared at the orange, gold and pink sunsets and imagined we were high up in the wall. We often let our dinner burn in the oven, deep in thought

"The Drus are among my favorite mountains: they are amazing rocket-shaped peaks that beg to be climbed."

Tom Livingstone

The guide's voice intimidated me. On the one hand because the previous teams were very strong, on the other hand because it runs as a very direct line through some of the steepest sections of the wall. The Drus are among my favorite mountains: they are amazing rocket-shaped peaks that beg to be climbed.

Freezing temperatures

I took the Voie des Guides with me for the first time in January 2022 Robert Smith tried, but during our pre-route bivouac our tent was shredded by the gusts of wind. It was a noisy and shaky night and when the alarm went off in the morning we decided to just climb the approach as it wasn't obvious where it would lead. We onsighted about a third of the face and reached the base of the first M8+ pitch before retreating, bodies freezing.

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Rob Smith descends a difficult pitch during the first attempt. image Tom Livingstone.

The second attempt took place in March with Matt Glenn instead of. But here, too, the icy temperatures at the end of the first day forced us to descend. We often climbed in all our clothes, which made the difficult mixed pitches even more difficult. Nonetheless, I was happy to climb the pitches above my previous highest point, including the first M8+ pitch.

"The first M8+ pitch follows an overhanging crack that is progressively thinner and has fewer and fewer treads."

Tom Livingstone

It follows an overhanging crack that is progressively thinner and has fewer and fewer kicks. After this point we got off. I have learned that the temperatures usually come as forecast – -21 degrees were forecast for the night.

uncomfortable night

A few days later I returned with Tom Seccombe in warmer temperatures. On March 10th we climbed to the famous alcove in the north face of the Dru. On the way I freed all pitches and was amazed at the steep terrain. Tom and I passed several good bivouac spots on our way to the alcove, thinking there would be a better spot higher up. Then when we found only a bad snow ledge to sleep on, we were dismayed.

"As we discovered the crucial and famous traverse along the quartz vein, the snow flurry began to darken the mountain."

Tom Livingstone

On the second day we climbed up the left side of the niche. I'm glad I occasionally get into drytooling territory Left Bank visits. It is good preparation for this type of climbing. I was still clinging to the free ascent as we slowly gained altitude.

But as we discovered the crucial and famous traverse along the Quartz Vein, the flurry of snow began to darken the mountain. Apparently our window of fine weather had come to an end. Tom Seccombe took the lead and I didn't mind.

Legendary Edge

Of course I wanted to free every pitch, but on an alpine route it would be a lot more challenging than normal to want to lead every pitch – and at the same time quite selfish. This isn't El Capitan, where both team members can take turns leading each individual pitch -- and have multiple redpoint attempts if necessary.

"I definitely wanted to lead all the crux and difficult pitches and I felt like I managed to do that."

Tom Livingstone

I don't think it's practical or logical to define a free alpine ascent as having to lead every single pitch. I definitely wanted to lead all the crux and difficult pitches and I felt like I managed to do that.

Tom did a pendulum along the quartz vein and then I swung over and found good hooks and kicks. After I was able to free this pitch and the weather improved again, I decided to attack full force and use all my energy to free the rest of the route. I started the second M8+ pitch, which is labeled as a legendary edge in the topo with three stars.

"I filled my lungs with oxygen and started climbing - completely exposed, with the sheer Dru below me."

Tom Livingstone

The intersection ended with a two meter high roof. Once underneath, I shook my arms and hung enough gear on my harness. Then I filled my lungs with oxygen and started climbing. Completely exposed, below me the sheer Dru. I was pretty excited when I got to the stand.

Image gallery: Voie des Guides - in a direct line through the Dru north face

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Water and sweets for breakfast

As night fell I ran another skinny M7 length and then found a ledge for us to sleep on. We jumped into the tent and fell asleep. When we woke up to find several centimeters of fresh snow, we were very worried at first: Suddenly conditions were similar to those in Scotland, where Tom and I had just climbed with the British Young Alpinist Group.

In addition, we had run out of groceries because we hadn't expected to have to bivouac a second time. So our breakfast consisted of hot electrolyte water and a couple of Werther's Original sweets.

Tom Seccombe climbed two final M6+ pitches. I freed her second, excited that the climbing pitches were now behind us. Around noon we reached the summit - hungry but satisfied - and abseiled down the north couloir.

Great adventure

I was very happy to have cleared the route (although I don't care if it was the first or 10th free ascent either. In my research I didn't find any record of a free ascent. I'm just very glad that I was able to complete a long term project Tom Seccombe and I had a great adventure that was challenging and involved a lot of modern difficult climbing.

"Tom Seccombe and I had a great, challenging adventure that included a lot of modern, difficult climbing."

Tom Livingstone

I don't know the difficulty levels of the pitches but I would say it's one of the more difficult alpine routes I've done so far. It seems to be somewhere between M7+ and M8+. I agree with Raphael Slawinski who is known for his tough but fair grading saying “M7+ is really tough and a big grade in the mountains.” I agree that M7+ can be difficult in the mountains so I would agree tend towards this rating for Voie des Guides.

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Credits: Cover picture Tom Livingstone

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