Guillaume Pierrel Skis Down the North Face Of The Dru — Somehow

The main challenge with skiing the North Face of the Dru is not just that it is one of the biggest, most daunting walls in the Alps. It’s that, because of its verticality, there is no way that snow sticks to the smooth granite face. In the words of the late Corrado Pesce, “In winter, it stands steep and dark as a tombstone looming above the tasty powder slopes of Pas de Chevres.” So what has Guillaume Pierrel done exactly?

Winter climbers’ dream

The mythical spire in the Chamonix area is one of the classic North Faces of the Alps. Climbing it in winter is a dream for elite climbers, on a par with the North Faces of the Eiger, the Grandes Jorasses, or the Matterhorn. Yet a ski descent seems out of the question. In winter, the sheer granite face features a network of ice lines on its cracks and ledges but is otherwise too vertical to hold snow — except for a distinctive patch on the upper side of the spire. Known as “the Niche”, this gigantic terrace fills with snow in winter, creating an ice/snow field with an average slope of 50˚.

Route topo on a picture of the north face of the Dru. The route ends up at the Niche.

The North Face of the Dru on Feb. 7, with the route climbed by Pierrel to the snowy ‘Niche.’ Photo:

Climb + ski + rappel

The Niche’s length varies with conditions. On Feb. 7, it was some 250 meters long, according to Guillaume Pierrel, who skied it that day.

Pierrel climbed the classical Allain-Leininger route (which was the route taken during the first ascent of the North Face in 1935). Pierrel carried skis on his back and roped up with Etienne Potof, who was fresh from climbing the North Face of the Droites. Together, they climbed the first 16 pitches (including the crux) of the route until the Niche.

Then Pierrel ascended alone to the top of the Niche, which he reached at 1 pm. On the way, he made sure that the snow conditions were good — namely, cold and hard. Then he stepped into his skis and glided down the vertiginous route, while Potof waited below.

Pierrel’s video shows the descent:

In Pierrel’s opinion, the crux of the day was not the skiing, but the long series of rappels down to the base of the face. It took him 16 hours in all. “Luckily, the rope only jammed once,” he wrote.

Pierrel has a soft spot for icy patches on big north faces. In 2022, he skied down Le Linceul couloir on the Grandes Jorasses.

Marlboro Man precedent

This was the first ski descent of the Dru’s Niche. The only precedent was a snowboard descent, done in a different but also spectacular style. It was in the spring of 1986. Bruno Gouvy parachuted from a helicopter and managed (by centimeters!) to land on the Dru’s summit.

From that point, he rappeled down to the Niche and snowboarded to its lower end. A support team was waiting there for him with a second paraglider. He then BASE jumped down to the valley.

Check the feat in the video below. The quality is not very good, but it’s well worth watching for its steep snowboard descent and the background rock music. Incidentally, both the helicopter and Gouvy’s suit feature the corporate colors of a famous brand of cigarettes that sponsored the activity. Yeah, that kind of advertising was legal in the 1980s!

“Times have changed,  but passion remains intact.” Pierrel wrote about that 1986 feat.

Gouvy, by the way, held the record as the fastest monoski rider for some time, reaching 177kph. In 1988, he used again helicopters to snowboard down the Eiger, the Matterhorn, and the Grandes Jorasses in a day. Sadly, he died two years later, at 27, when he lost control of his snowboard on the Aiguille Verte, next to the Dru.

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides graduated university in journalism and specializes in high-altitude mountaineering and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporations, press manager and communication executive, and a published author.