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Hard, Historic, and Alone. A 3,600-foot Route in the French Alps Gets Its First Winter Solo

Climbing spoke to French alpinist Charles Dubouloz after his stunning winter solo of the historic Rolling Stones on the Grandes Jorasses’s North Face.

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The French alpinist Charles Dubouloz has made a behemoth solo of the iconic Rolling Stones (3,600 feet WI5+ 5.10a A3 80° ED), over six days and five nights (January 13 to 18).

It marks the first time in history that the route has been soloed, and in the heart of winter, to boot. 

Rolling Stones, first put up in July 1979 by a Czech team (Tomáš Procházka, Jaroslav Kutil, Luděk Šlechta, and Jiri Švejda), ascends between the Walker Spur and Le Linceul on the mighty North Face of the Grandes Jorasses (13,806 feet), one of the six great North Faces of the Alps. The line was sent in winter five years after its inception, by Benoît Grison and Eric Grammond. 

Rolling Stones didn’t go free until a whopping 35 years after the first ascent, however, under an onsight assault by the crack team of Luka Lindič and Luka Krajnc in March 2014. The former called the line “pure alpinism” at the time, referencing its technical difficulty and high level of commitment.

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Mountain stalwarts from Kilian Jornet to Victor de Le Rue and Colin Haley took to Instagram to show their support for Dubouloz’s accomplishment. The famed French soloist Christophe Moulin, who climbed Rolling Stones in winter in 2006 with Erwan Madore and Jean Burgun, called Dubouloz’s climb, “one of the greatest solos in history.”

(Photo: Seb Montaz Studio)

Dubouloz has had a spectacular year. In March 2021, he soloed the Pierre Allain on the North Face of Aiguilles du Dru (Les Drus) in three days. In October, he made the first ascent of the North Face of Chamlang (7,319 meters) with Benjamin Védrines, via a 5,250-foot route the duo christened In the Shadow of Lies (WI5+ M5+ 90° ED). Before Rolling Stones, he had already completed several climbs on the Grandes Jorasses, including a 2016 climb and ski descent of Le Linceul and a single-day ascent of Manitua last summer. 

Dubouloz spoke to Climbing from his home base in Annecy, noting that there was no complex motivation behind his decision to attempt a solo here, and he wasn’t vying specifically for a “first,” but simply attempting to push his limits as much as possible, to see what he was capable of.

“[Soloing] is simply the best way to live an unforgettable adventure,” he said. “For me, when you solo north faces in winter, you are constantly climbing at the peak of your abilities. You need to utilize every skill available in alpinism, all in top form. You really need the full package to reach the summit.”

The mission came somewhat on a whim for him, when a high-pressure cycle arrived sooner than expected, and he catapulted into action. He packed in a hurry, grabbing gear right and left, before racing out to meet up with a friend, Christophe Dumarest, who happened to be heading to the same area for a different climb.

“[I did] no specific preparation for this route,” he said, “just many years of mountaineering! For me, it is a kind of conclusion of all those years. It is the highlight of my alpine career.”

Rolling Stones, he said, is one of the hardest routes in the Mont Blanc range. “It’s very long, always in shadow, and with bad rock. It’s a mix of everything hard in alpinism.”

(Photo: Seb Montaz Studio)

Dubouloz tackled a handful of the line’s 40 pitches free solo, but noted that because of the poor rock quality, “[to] free solo everything is suicide.” His goal was not to free the route, either. He belayed himself free on a handful of pitches, but also aided frequently.

He ascended each of the route’s pitches at least twice, hauling 77 pounds of gear divided into two haul bags. He brought far too much food, and only ate on three occasions during his six-day climb. Poor appetite is a problem he struggles with on many big climbs, including on Chamlang last October. 

“I don’t know why,” he said of his struggle to eat, “but probably because I’m so stressed.” 

Oddly enough, the food he did manage to consume included a large quantity of Smurf-shaped Haribo (gummy bears) dipped in boiling water. Full of sugar, flavor, and morale, Dubouloz recommended this recipe wholeheartedly to other alpinists.

Weather conditions were clear thanks to a solid north stream, and ascending spectacularly thin ice smears on the second day was a highlight for him, but the first few days overall were rough, with the first day by far the scariest. 

“The first pitches were very dry, and the rock is really loose and bad,” he told Climbing. At this point he considered bailing, wanting to go back home to his family, but “thought a lot about this project and all the energy I’ve put in and decided to push a bit.” 

“In French, there is an expression: to climb on eggs,” he said. “This expression perfectly describes what I’ve lived!”

(Photo: Charles Doubuloz)

Aside from the heinously bad rock, Dubouloz battled bouts of frostbite during his five bivvies, most of which were in a hammock. Temperatures plunged to -22°F and winds clocked around 25 to 30 mph, by his estimate. “My right foot was already frostbitten in Nepal this autumn [on Chamlang]… So it didn’t help much with recovery,” he noted wryly.

He told Climbing that he typically listens to classical French music on his climbs to stay motivated, but on Rolling Stones, his phone fell from his pocket on the third day, so he was totally cut off from the outside world (and from any music) for the latter half of the climb. Luckily, he’d printed out his route info and beta from other ascentionists beforehand, so was still able to continue, sans-phone.

All the hard, scary climbing aside, Duboulouz said he believes that finding and tapping into a viable source of motivation is perhaps the biggest factor when it comes to successfully powering through long, multi-day solos like Rolling Stones

“I just think about all these climbing years, and remember why I am here. [Rolling Stones] was a dream for me, so I just have to think about it and say to myself, ‘This is your dream Charles. This is your story. Now it is your turn to play, and play HARD if you want to succeed!’”

Owen Clarke is a freelance writer living on the road. In addition to spending time in the mountains, he enjoys motorcycles, heavy metal, video games, and key lime pie. 

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