2 German Climbers blocked on the West face of the DRUS (3754 m), 700 meters above the ground
The DRUS Rescue – August 1966
13th of August 1966:
two Germans, Heinz Ramisch and Hermann Schridell started the ascent of the West face of the Drus; caught in a storm, they stopped on the small ledge below and to the right of the pendulum, 700 meters above the ground.
They will spend ten days on the wall. Plunged into an adventure largely above their capabilities, they will be the cause of one of the largest mountain rescue operation ever done in the Alps.
Neither hurt or exhausted nor sick… but simply unable to make a further step on this wall too huge, too steep, too difficult for them.
Some history on the West Face route
In August 1946, Georges Livanos with Charles Magol make an attempt stopped due to rock falls in the initial gully. Gaston Rebuffat with Jean Save de Baurecueil make an attempt the same year and then in 1947 with james Couttet up to the ledges after the gully. Georges Livanos tries again in 1949, meeting on their way up Jean Couzy and Marcel Schatz. They all stop below a vertical crack and abseil down. He tries a last time in 1950 with René Ferlet. This is what many years after Georges Livanos will write:
Confirming the line of ascent on the centre of the face, this reconnaissance left us with many doubts on its feasibility. Aided climbing was then in its infancy on granite which was believed to be, wrongly, more difficult to peg than limestone…”
and after having observed the route with binoculars:
‘A long time before me, Gabriele Boccalate had said that binoculars are only good to make difficulties look much greater than they are! Ours made the traverse high up on the face disproportionate. On this blank wall, only pendulums can make progression possible. And if on the other side, one cannot go further? We should have taken one more rope (several maybe) to leave behind, to allow a potential retreat. Yes, I know, Cassin did take off the abseil on the Jorasses, but had Toni Kurz not also taken off his on the Eiger? We were beaten, at quite a distance, by this traverse which will defeat, for the same reason, Bérardini, Dagory and Magnone, forcing them to retreat.’
It will finally be climbed in 1952 by a group of the elite climbers from Paris (Guido magnone, Lucien Bérardini, Marcel lainé and Adrien Dagory) in a succesion of two attempts and much artificial aids, solving what was then considered ' the last great problem in the Alps' and repeated many times since.
In 1966, the West face of the Drus classic route was still considered a very serious enterprise, at par with the famous Bonatti pillar (the Drus South-West pillar climbed first and solo in 1955 by Walter Bonatti), but less than the 'American Direct' opened by Gary Hemming and Royal Robbins in 1962 which joins the classic West face route below the 90 m dihedral.
1000 meters high, then quoted ED (now ED-), its main difficulties are concentrated high up, particularly with its famous 90 m dihedral. Then climbed mostly aided, it is now climbed free (2 long pitches of 6C).
To progress further, the first ascentionists faced with a completely blank wall, did a 35 m pendulum to the right (45° angle) reaching a small but good ledge and left one rope behind in case they had to retreat. From there, there are roughly nine more pitches of lesser difficulty (5+ and one 6a) before coming onto easier ground gaining the North-West ridge and then the summit.
All subsequent parties did use that rope and the two Germans were less than 300 meters from the summit. René Desmaison had done its first solo ascent in 1963. The North face was also a first climb done in 1935 by two climbers from Paris, Pierre Alain and Raymond Leininger. The 'voie normale' used to descend, although easy is quite long, making the whole climb, a serious enterprise even today.
Many modern and bold routes had been made on the West face, but huge rock avalanches have distroyed them, particularly the one of 2005 (265000 m3 of rock falls) which destroyed completely the Bonatti pillar. This occured after a 30000 m3 rock fall in 1997. The last rock avalanches to date occured in September (12000 m3) and October 2011 (60000 m3). See them filmed by TVMountain (links).
The West face classic route seems to have not been damaged by the latest rock fall, but just. Climbing in the area damaged by those avalanches is risky. Despite the huge risk factor, some new route were made: Léna,10-16 February 1998, by Valery Babanov and Youri Kochelenko in 7 days; in 2001, winter solo 1rst ascent of the Lafaille route by Jean-Christophe Lafaille. Left to the American direct, in an area undamaged by the rock avalanches. 900 m, A5, M7 et V. In 2007, 'voie des papas' by Martial Dumas and Jean-Yves Fredericks, on the left flank of the "ex" Bonatti pillar opened over 8 days. From the 5th till the 9th March 2012, Jérôme Sullivan and Pedro Galan Diaz started on this route then opened a new line (free French 7a) up to what is left of the last part of the Bonatti pillar.
The first rescue party
Start of the Rescue
On the 17th, the rescue is activated. The ‘École Militaire de Haute Montagne’ (EMHM - Military School for High Mountaineering) which for this period of time was in charge of mountain rescue, send rescue parties on the easiest route to the summit, the ‘voie normale’, via the Charpoua hut, continuing towards the summit of the ‘Petit Dru’ where they will bivouac, the same evening, some sixty meters below the summit.
The plan of action is very heavy. Some forty persons are spread out on all along the route. Quite a few of them are not trained for such a rescue and some struggle, particularly with the very bad weather conditions. Above 3500 meters, snow and black ice bar their advance.
Early next morning, the 18th, some experienced guides, among whom, Méot, Fontaine and Coudray, are sent as reinforcement. They also await a cable winch which is supposed to be dropped by an helicopter on the summit; but the weather conditions have worsened and the attempt fails. However, and despite the dreadful weather conditions, some alpinists reach the summit and manage to equip 120 meters with ropes.
The second Rescue party formed by Gary Hemming goes into action
Gary Hemming and five friends form a rescue party
The same day, the 18th, Gary Hemming; evaluating the chances of the EMHM to rescue the two Germans as very poor, formed a rescue team of volunteers with Gilles Bodin, François Guillot, Lothar Mauch, Mick Burke and Gerhard Bauer, all top climbers at the time. With the agreement of colonel Gonnet, commanding the EMHM, they started for the foot of the West face of the Drus, with the intention, to climb directly to the Germans by the West face route.
The following day, they were caught up, at their first bivouac, by René Desmaison and Vincent Mercié, sent by Paris-Match and the French national television (ORTF). Christian Brincourt for ORTF and Gérard Géry for Paris-Match will cover the rescue with reports broadcasted live. Louis Jannin’s hotel de Paris will be transformed in a Press room and up to two helicopters will be put at the journalists’s disposal. The media cover was at its maximum, reported in prime time several times a day during the entire rescue, and soon was followed by an audience of more than 10 million, increasing each day with the incoming of the other European countries media!
The climbers on the West face, 8 in all, climb rapidly led by François Guillot. They bivouac on the 19th, climb up the 90 meters dihedral the following day (Saturday,) but cannot reach the ledge after the pendulum and are forced to bivouac again on the night of the 19th, without having reached the Germans due to the difficulties of the climb and the very bad weather conditions.
The third rescue party
Colonel Gonnet calls for more help!
On the 20th, colonel Gonnet requires assistance to the two other rescue bodies, the ENSA and the ‘Compagnie des guides de Chamonix’. The ENSA allocates two guides, Yves Pollet-Villard and Yvon Masino, The Compagnie des guides de Chamonix, Gérard Devouassoux and Christian Mollier. In the afternoon, a helicopter drops them at the Rognon, their intention is to reach the Germans climbing the North face.
On the 21th, François Guillot who continued to lead all the way and Gary Hemming reach the Germans. At the same time, the ENSA and the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix's four guides arrive at the junction between the North face and the West face which one can get onto by an overhanging and tricky traverse on etriers (equipped with tiny expansion bolts, 15mm long, home-made by Marcel Lainé, who banged them in half deep only i.e. 7.5mm during the 2nd successful attempt of the 1rst ascent, in 1952 – on their 2nd attempt they went to their previous high point reached 12 days before, climbing the North face and then put the expansion bolts to gain the top of the Pendulum). There, the four guides will witness, without been able to give him help in time, the death of the German, Wolfgang Eggle, a friend of the two German climbers stuck on the West face. He had gone spontaneously with the EMHM rescue parties and was coming down from the summit of the Petit Dru. His abseil rope was stuck by some rocks and he was hanging in an overhang, trying desperately to free himself. When Gérard Devouassoux reached him, it was too late, he had died from exhaustion.
A bit later, Yves Pollet-Villard asked René Desmaison - who was on the pendulum fixed abseil taking photos of the Germans then with François Guillot and Gary Hemming - to have the Germans come down the North face route with his team. After a radio contact with Jean Franco, Head of the ENSA and believing wrongly that René Desmaison was the leader of the West face rescue party, he transmits to René, Jean Franco’s order which is that the Germans must be taken in charge by his group! After some discussion with François Guillot, Gary Hemming decide to get down using the American direct route as originally planned. This is the route he opened in 1962 with Royal Robbins and which Mick Burke not only made the second ascent of in 1965 but had to take down his wounded partner all the way from the 'jammed block' in 15 abseils - in fact the idea to go down that route was his -, so they both know very well what they were doing, unlike the Chamonix guides who had never climbed this route (the 3rd ascent will be done the following summer by François Guillot). They believed, in contradiction to Franco’s party, that considering the physical state of the two Germans (one was particularly sick), it was by far the best solution and the safest.
The rescue ends succesfully on the 23rd
Gary named by the Press: 'The beatnick of the Alps'
The rescue will end on the 23rd, after a last bivouac in the worst storm of the whole rescue. The rescuers will then be overwhelmed and pestered by a swarm of journalists. They will then discover that the whole event was covered live by most European national papers and TV channels, making the headlines everywhere.
None of them liked to be seen as heroes. They believed that they had done what they should have done.
"Everyone can be a hero one day
and a mother fucker the next"!
The Desmaison controversies
The second and more major controversy was aroused by René Desmaison’s attitude, gone to join Gary Hemming rescue party with a substantial contract from both PARIS-MATCH and the ORTF to cover the rescue with photos. It will be triggered when five weeks after the end of the rescue, the ‘Compagnie des guides de Chamonix’ decided to expel René from their ‘Compagnie’. Their decision was motivated by the three following reasons:
1.Gone on Friday the 19th of August without having given any notice and without asking for an authorization.
2.Gone with an advertising and lucrative aim (contract with the Television and a magazine), which is in contradiction with our ethic.
3.He refused to collaborate with the Chamonix guides who climbed up the North face and wanted to take the survivors down that face, according to the orders of the man in charge, Jean Franco.
In truth, this Drus affair was just a follow up of several previous clashes between René and the ‘Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix’, and it served as the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
But the Chamonix guides from the ‘Compagnie’ were wrong on the last point: René did not lead the rescue party and had no say in the decision taken by Gary Hemming and François Guillot not to descend from the North face but to take the far more direct line of the American Direct route. Also their opinion was erroneous on the best route to take: they did not know the American Direct, the way down the North face included a number of traverses, much loose rocks, which with a total of 14 men meant taking far more risks of rock falls hitting one or several of them than on the American Direct route. Finally, the traverse on the Lainé's 'golos' fully rusted started with a 3 m old rotten hemp rope to be climbed on the blank vertical wall. The following year, Yannick Seigneur with a customer escaped using that traverse with much difficulty. This would have taken quite some time particularly with one of Germans who was sick and quite weak. François Guillot and Gary Hemming's decision was the right one.
Whatever, this decision was highly inopportune for the image of the ‘Compagnie’. But for René, it was holy bread! Thanks to it, he gained national fame by the indignation which it aroused: even the Sea Rescue French national organization sent a protest, stating that as far as they were concerned if René had been one of them, they would have given him a medal! René's exclusion made the headlines of all the French and European press and TV which forgetting that René had joined Gary Hemming's party as a photo reporter with a very substantial contract presented him as the rescuing hero of the Drus badly abused by the overjealous Chamonix local guides!
Despite this controversy, this rescue operation remains first of all a very great moment of mountain rescue when all actors, whatever their individual level was, have involved themselves to the full. The price was a lost life – Alas – for one of them. Do the utmost to rescue two lost men. This was their motivation, transforming their achievement in a true feat.
The two survivors came back alive: the aim was reached and it seems justified to highlight the strenuous efforts deployed on the three converging routes, when each of the rescuers with their individual capabilities, did their best with unreserved heart, taking considerable risks.
Gilles Bodin interview on TVMOUNTAIN
Interview of Gilles Bodin by David Autheman on TVMOUNTAIN the 11/08/2002
But the best is to listen to Gilles Bodin, a guide who created in 1975 (with his brother Patrice, Patrick Cordier and Jean Afanasssieff) the ‘Compagnie Indépendante des guides de Chamonix’ (now called the Association internationale des guides du Mont Blanc), and one of the rescuers, member of Gary Hemming’s group:
The 1966 Drus rescue told by Gilles Bodin. During the summer two Germans start climbing the West face of the Drus and are caught in bad weather. They were blocked just after the pendulum. Several rescue parties will be involved. The first to reach the Germans will be the team formed by Gary Hemming. Giles Bodin, a notorious Chamonix figure, was part of this team. It is one of the most impressive rescues ever done in the Alps.
‘Here’s Chamonix, After ten days of uncertainty and anguish, those are the last minutes of the drama. The national Gendarmerie and Civil Protection helicopters have just landed at the Rognon where the ten alpinists have bivouacked last night. The two helicopters that you see on your TV set must normally carry the Germans and the rescue party:
Hemming, Guillot, Desmaison, Vincent Mercié and the English Mick Burke… all the same, some carry Mueller, the German who get into the Gendarmerie helicopter helped by his companions.'
David: tell us about this Drus rescue that everyone knows about.
Gilles: Everyone, everyone! Ask the youngsters and you will see that they are not so many who know; for them it’s part of the Middle Ages! Its goes back a bit far, but to me it was yesterday.
So, in fact, to take it in a chronological order, the day the German attacked, I saw them. I was with Jean Fréhel and two climbers from the Maurienne area. We were going to climb the Bonatti and faced with a threatening weather and a bad forecast from Geneva, we were going down when we crossed the Germans who just had reached the West face ledges and we told them the weather forecast we had. As they were concerned, on the contrary to us, they had seen the weather forecast from Lyon announcing a perfect weather for the week to come. I don’t blame them. Perhaps we would have done the same, though the weather was quite bad.
We went down and two or three days later we learned that they were blocked up there, after the pendulum. And there, I meet Gary Hemming in town. Gary was truly a fantastic guy. He tells me: 'we must do something, no one goes to get them, we must go'. I tell him, sure but how? He replied: 'don’t worry, we will find the people'.
We went to see colonel Gonnet who was commanding the EMHM, because in those days, the mountain rescue in Chamonix was separated in three parts during the summer, one third of the time the Military School for High Mountaineering, one third the ENSA and the last third, the Chamonix guides. It was the time part of the EMHM and colonel Gonnet did with what he had at his disposal. He had sent people on the normal route of the Drus to abseil down the North face of the Drus and then the West face to get them off, but this was nearly impossible. So we told him, we are going to try; our plan is to get up by the West face and get them off.
He gave us the green light, Army rations, which, between you and me, are absolutely disgusting. Luckily, they contained cigarettes packs. We grouped together some friends, of whom François Guillot. Gary Hemming had brought Lothar Mauch who was coming from the Dolomites, where I believe they climbed together; Mick Burke, a very strong climber who had down the 2nd ascent of the American Direct, and then, at the Montenvers, a young German, Gerard Bauer, who told me, they are my compatriots, and despite that if you want I go with you. I told him: but who are you? He just had done the North face of the Matterhorn with two girls. I told him, good Ok then, you come, no problem!
And off, we went. We got a special train to the Montenvers. Mind you, we were big wigs! And under pouring rain, we walked up to the foot of the Drus. From there, with Gary Hemming, we practically equipped the gully in order to get up it, because of the truly bad weather; it was snowing.
And from the top of the West face ledges, François Guillot led it all. So, first bivouac on the West face ledges. We stayed there one day and one night so dreadful was the weather. And then on the second day, we heard shouting in the gully. It was Desmaison, climbing the gully with Vincent Mercié. We threw them a rope in order that they would get out of the gully because the weather conditions had further worsened. Then, early in the morning, from that place, it was François Guillot who took us up as rucksacks right up. He was a fantastic climber.
Well, then we got the Germans down.
Ah, yes, a slightly amusing event: Franco who was the director of ENSA had sent four guides on the North face. They climbed very fast until the junction with the West face, and, there, I will always remember the leader, Pollet-Villard who told us: ‘Franco gives you the order to give us the Germans.’ We discussed among ourselves and considering the physical state of the Germans – they had been more than a week on their ledge, one sick – we thought that with all the traverses on the North face, accidents were bound to occur. We therefore decided to get straight down by the American Direct route, since it goes down absolutely straight, we could let down everyone without any problem. And so, we did.
David: Climbing up in the bad weather, how was it ?
Gilles: you should better speak with François Guillot who did all the leading. He must have had a hard time, but he is truly an exceptional climber and still today thirty or thirty five years after. Without François Guillot, we may have succeeded, but we would have taken twice as much time.
David: and then, organizing the way down, how did it go?
Gilles: Well, we realized one thing slightly amusing, well amusing no : we knew a little bit but Desmaison did come, sent by PARIS-MATCH and RTL. We then told him: now it's time for you to earn your dole. He stayed behind and belayed everyone on the way down. So, you can imagine the number of abseils, rope maneuvers and the rest. The only stone which came down during our descent fell onto my shoulder!
David: And there, it was fully equipped with fixed ropes?
Gilles: No, no, no way. We made abseils after abseils.
David: And the Germans how were they?
Gilles: They were standing, but just. I remember that when we got them from their ledge, climbed up along the Great dihedral, abseiled down the Great dihedral, we spent the last night on the jammed block, and all night I made soups, tea, soups, tea, for everyone, because we needed it and it was the only flat space we had. We had to bivouac, after many bivouacs. I remember Desmaison, which is amusing, shouting ‘Mother’ because he was lying down across a gully with as a pillow, our pack of karabiners and pegs. He must have taken in to the full on his head. I would not have liked to be in his shoes.
David: Because, then, during all the rescue, the weather was bad ?
Gilles: All the time, bad, day and night ! We were soaked through from the start. And this is why that thanks to the Army’s rations we could smoke. The funny thing is that at the beginning only Mick Burke and I did smoke. And at the end, everyone was smoking to get some warmth during the night. So, it did not last so long.
But, well, it is only a small episode.
external links and Bibliography
Gilles Bodin interview
ORTF BROADCAST Live Coverage explained
Wikipedia description of the Drus
summipost Drus description
TVMOUNTAIN Photos of the Sept. 2011 rock fall
TVMOUNTAIN Photos of the Oct. 2011 rock fall
Guido Magnone, 1953 'La Face W des Drus', Amiot-Dumont, foreword Maurice Herzog.
Georges Livanos, Au-delà de la Verticale, Arthaud, Paris, Grenoble 1958; Guerin 1997.
Rock Falls of the Drus
Upper part of the West Face of Les Drus (October 2006)
White line: 2005 rockfalls scar; white square: location of the laserscanner; white point: temperature sensor implanted in the NW face of les Flammes de Pierre;white arrows: fractures plans N30°E-75°NW; black arrows: fractures plans N120°E-80° NW; A, B and C: see text.