Ecrins Excursion

The last month or so hasn’t involved a whole lot of climbing. I’ve had a pretty indulgent time visiting Julia and my family, lounging by a pool in Turkey catching up on some reading and trying to sort out my stubborn alpinist tan lines. After a while, I was itching to get back to Chamonix and get out in the mountains (reading Mark Twight’s Kiss or Kill got me ludicrously psyched), and a couple of weeks ago the wonderful chaps at Alpybus dropped me back at my apartment.

So far so good. Back in the mountains. Abundance of psyche. Where shall we go?

I checked the forecast, which was abysmal. There were big storm fronts moving through the Alps for the coming week at least. Really, this is good, as the mountains desperately need some snow and ice back, but for my short term fix, this was a large meteorological spanner in the works.

I swung by Tim’s apartment the next day and we scoured the weather charts for all the surrounding ranges. Dolomites? Bregaglia? Valais? The issue with going East was that all we were doing was trying to outrun the storm. No good. We looked West…the forecast for the Ecrins was stellar. A plan was hatched!

We snatched a couple of cruisy days in the brief weather windows of an unsettled Chamonix and then headed out to the Ecrins a few days later. Neither of us had ever been, but it was amazing to get outside of the Chamonix bubble and explore a new, wilder feeling place.

 Aiguille Dibona, standing proud in the background.
Aiguille Dibona, standing proud in the background.

We headed up to the Soreiller hut at first to climb on the magnificent Aiguille Dibona. The first day was a write-off, unfortunately, but we got some fantastic routes done on the following two days, and lying awake with my head sticking out the end of the tent in the middle of the night, I was treated to the most incredible view of the spiral arm of the Milky Way, spattered across the night sky. Moments like these have a habit of reminding you why you love the mountains.

Complete washout on the first day resulted in muchos Monopoly and cheap red wine...
Complete washout on the first day resulted in muchos Monopoly and cheap red wine…
Committing to the traverse on pitch 4
Committing to the traverse on pitch 4 of Voie des Savoyards.
Cruisy terrain higher up on the route.
Cruisy terrain higher up on the Voie des Savoyards.
Tim hauling ass up on the steep P4 of Visite Obligator.
Tim hauling ass up on the steep P4 of Visite Obligatoire.
Pulling onto the knifelike summit rib near the top of Visite Obligator, a moody Ecrins panorama in the background.
Pulling onto the knifelike summit rib near the top of Visite Obligatoire, a moody Ecrins panorama in the background.
Just a little bit of exposure on the final pitch of the ludicrously sustained Visite Obligatoire, of which every pitch was 6a/+ bar one.
Just a little bit of exposure on the final pitch of the ludicrously sustained Visite Obligatoire, of which every pitch was 6a/+ bar one.

The next day we headed down to the valley, and headed up for a brief afternoon’s climbing on the nearby Tete de la Maye on a cruisy little route called Pain Grillé. 8 pitches up to 6a, we flew up it in 2 hours 45 minutes.

Tim following the crux 6a slab pitch, La Berarde valley behind.
Tim following the crux 6a slab pitch, La Bérarde valley behind.

Tired, we headed back down to the car park in La Bérarde to get some sleep. It was nice not to be in the condensation-prone single skin tent I’d brought, and instead just to doss on the ground under the stars in the sleepy little alpine village. I guess once upon a time, Chamonix used to be like La Bérarde, before it lost its way amongst all the tourism!

Evening light on the village church, La Bérarde.
Evening light on the village church, La Bérarde.

The next morning we’d hoped to lie in, but a combination of natural light and about fifty French military personnel toting assault rifles woke us up early. We grabbed a coffee from the one shop in the village and set about sorting our kit for La Meije.

At around midday we decided we had to bite the bullet and get on with the 9km, 1400m ascent approach to the Refuge du Promontoire. Fortunately, because we were mentally prepared for it being so awful, it went pretty quickly and the first half, at least, was actually quite an enjoyable walk, with some spectacular views. The guidebook time for the approach was 5 hours, but we absolutely Ueli Stecked it in…4h50.

The loooong walk into the Promontoire.
The loooong walk into the Promontoire.

Arriving at the refuge, we were greeted by a small child violently waving a wooden sword, bow and arrow slung across his shoulder, dressed in a cardboard suit of armour emblazoned with ‘Boulangerie Savoyard’. Tim and I looked at each other, but we were both too knackered to really question whether this was a normal thing to be encountering at the second highest, most remote Refuge in the Ecrins national park.

We headed off to scope out the approach for the Voie Pierre Allain, our objective for the next day, and then spent a night stuffed in the attic of the Promontoire, which was fully-booked, before the alarm exploded into life at 3:15am.

As is always the case at these black hours of the morning, we went about getting ourselves ready without a word, zombies to the ritual of alpine preparation. Slaves to the anxiety; to the trickling fear; to the apparent insanity of stepping foot onto an untamed 800m face while convention sleeps on, unaware, in the valleys you left behind.

After some route-finding issues at the start, we were soon a third of the way up the face, the much-needed warmth of the sun inching towards us, all too slowly. The route was long, but we kept up a good pace and reached the summit around three o’clock.

Tim, about three-quarters of the way up the face.
Tim, about three-quarters of the way up the face.
Tim on one of the many short, steep walls, with the vista of the Ecrins national park behind.
Tim on one of the many short, steep walls, with the vista of the Ecrins national park behind.
Tim on the final easy terrain up to the summit of the Grand Pic de la Meije.
Tim on the final easy terrain up to the summit of the Grand Pic de la Meije.
Spent, but enough energy for a selfie with the Virgin Mary...
Spent, but enough energy for a selfie with the Virgin Mary…

Painfully aware that a complex, involved six-hour descent was still to come, we kept the summit celebrations to a minimum and started down the rappels.

Tim heads down the many rappels from the Grand Pic to the Glacier Carré which hangs 3/4 of the way up the  South face.
Tim heads down the many rappels from the Grand Pic to the Glacier Carré which hangs 3/4 of the way up the South face.

The descent went almost unbelievably smoothly. Five rappels of varying sketchiness got us down to the Glacier Carré, where we tied together again and headed diagonally downwards, about three metres apart, Tim leading the way and me keeping the rope tight with coils in hand. Quite a stressful little section, knowing that if one of you slips, there’s a good chance you’re both sliding off the glacier and down the rest of the sheer face. Needless to say, every footstep was stamped solidly, with purpose, and we were relieved to make it to the line of the Voie Normale, where we resumed the rappels.

We worked solidly as a team on the descent, Tim in charge of leading the raps and locating the next anchors, myself in charge of retrieving the ropes and ensuring (as best one can) that they didn’t become stuck on the way down. Before long we were down in the Couloir Duchamel, and then on the Arete de la Convention, a couple of hundred metres above the hut. Lots of slow, methodical down-climbing in exposed positions put us back at the hut about an hour before sunset. Food and bed weren’t far behind.

Refuge du Promontoire
Refuge du Promontoire

The forecast looked bad for the coming days so we walked out the next morning and drove back to Chamonix. Ironically, now we’re home, the forecast here is bad again, and the Ecrins looks good. Plans are afoot for a return journey and a quick ascent of the 1100m South Pillar on the Barre des Ecrins…

Long slog back to La Bérarde...
Long slog back to La Bérarde…
Approximate lines of ascent (red) and descent (blue). Note that conditions allowed us to follow the original line up the chimney through the 'surplomb vert' though most years this is iced up and teams escape left onto the face.
Approximate lines of ascent (red) and descent (blue). Note that conditions allowed us to follow the original line up the chimney through the ‘surplomb vert’ though most years this is iced up and teams escape left onto the face.
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