Écrins, 30th July - 14th August 2005

A group of us from the Ochils Mountaineering Club decided to go to the Écrins for a fortnight's climbing and Alpinism.

We arrived at the campsite at Ailefroide at various times in Saturday afternoon, evening, and night, and spent the Sunday doing a bit of cragging nearby and sorting a few things out. Some people went up to the Glacier Blanc hut that evening to begin their acclimatisation - all of us planned to stay at the Écrins hut on Monday night, with various objectives for the next couple of days.

The weather was gorgeous on Monday, with spectacular views across to Mont Pelvoux as we walked up towards the Glacier Blanc hut


The glaciers in the Écrins have receded to a huge degree over the past few decades, even years. The path up towards the Écrins hut now makes its way up the side of the heavily crevassed lower section of the Glacier Blanc - crossing the glacier itself would be hard work


The upper part of the Glacier Blanc, with the Barre des Écrins at the back. The Écrins hut is on a ledge quite high above the glacier, off to the right of this picture


We wanted to get up a peak on the way in, and settled on the easy, scrambly, Pic du Glacier d'Arsine. After scrabbling up screes and scrambling up slabs we got to where the map showed a hanging glacier - it's just a modest patch of ice now and we didn't need to rope up or even put our crampons on for it. We met the others heading down here, some of them having been to the top already. We scrambled up some loose rock from the corrie to the left of this picture to a col, then the short distance along this ridge to the summit


Looking North from the summit


Back west towards Pic du Glacier Blanc


Scrambling back down to the col

We then headed on to the Écrins hut and caught up with the others. Despite having been assured over the phone that we could get vegetarian meals, the wardens didn't have anything to offer us - having run out of cheese and being very low on bread. Our meal consisted of pasta, without any sauce or accompaniment.

In the morning, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. We were clagged in and lots of fresh snow had fallen - and was still falling. The wardens could not (or perhaps more likely would not) provide any weather forecast, and we all eventually decided to abandon our stay in the hut and head back down to Ailefroide for the meantime. A slabby buttress on the path out was made more interesting by the rain, and we could hear rockfall and avalanches across the glacier


Things were better in the valleys on Wednesday (although the hills were still clagged in). Jen and myself decided to climb Palavar les Flots, a longish easyish bolted granite slab climb about 20 minutes walk from our tent


The campsite is visible below on the left. The crag at the back is split by La Fissure - a brilliant HS/VS on mostly traditional gear which I was very keen to climb later


The route was fairly pleasant, but I lacked the confidence to do the second, slabby, crux and aided part of it. After the route came the descent - a multipitch abseil off the side of the hill, very steep for the first couple of abs, then easing below that to this final slab


On Thursday Jen and myself drove round to climb Arêtes de la Bruyère, a Dolomites-style ridge traverse above le Pont de l'Alpe near Villar-d'Arêne. The walk-in was pleasant, and a bit reminiscent of our trip to the Pyrénées earlier that year


Someone in front of us on the first pitch. This is the crux of the route, and a bit more awkward than it looks - in part due to the highly polished footholds


After the first couple of pitches the route followed or wound around the crest of the ridge. It was mostly on very easy ground but had a few sections of V Diff or Severe, and one abseil. The rock was loose and it was quite cold, but the views and situation were great and it really did feel like climbing in the Dolomites


The final scramble to the summit. After this there was a wee bit of scrambling and an abseil to get back down off the end of the ridge. It was really quite windy by this point


A puffball we spotted on the walk out


We wanted another try at getting up the Barre des Écrins, but didn't want to go back to the Écrins hut, so the next day we walked into the Glacier Blanc hut and spent the evening and night there. This lazy marmot was sunbathing around the side


We had a proper alpine start (an hour earlier than the warden was happy to allow) so as to avoid falling behind the hordes from the Écrins hut higher up. They were all spilling down onto the glacier as we passed, so we managed to avoid being at the back


Passing the Barre Noire at the head of the Glacier Blanc, where it steepens and rises up to the Barre des Écrins


Looking back down the glacier a short while after sunrise


Of course, we weren't at the front of the queue either...


The altitude started to have an effect on the way up this section, and we had to stop to catch our breath a few times


The final section below the col was a steep ice chimney (below this picture, to the left), about grade II/III, and there was a queue for it. While we were waiting someone knocked down a sizeable rock from the ridge above, and it landed amongst the waiting crowd, missing everyone by sheer luck. Despite the apparent calm here, the wind was howling past and it was quite hard to stand. The route up the Barre from here was across the ice and onto the rock, then up onto a knife-edge arête to the summit. I started across the exposed icy traverse, but the ice was horribly brittle and simply shattered when hit with my axe. Being a natural coward I weighed my fear of this, plus my concern at attempting the arête in high winds, against my desire to get to the top - and promptly retreated. I made chicken-wings with my arms and flapped them, to the amusement of the French couple next in line, and we headed across the other way instead - to the Dôme de Neige des Écrins - a subsidiary top of the Barre, just over 4000m above sea level. After a quick look at the traverse, the French couple followed us


Jen at the summit of the Dôme de Neige des Écrins


We felt a bit down at our defeat, but at least the views were great


Looking back towards the Barre; the col is at the foot of the sharp rocky ridge. We could see some climbers scattered along the ridge in various places, but none were making a lot of progress. The wind was tearing past, and I was glad that it at least provided a valid excuse I could use for having chickened out of the icy traverse. We descended a slightly different way from the Dôme, and down over a short vertical section of snow ice above the top of the glacier, which happily didn't have a proper bergschrund at this point. As we descended the head of the glacier we kept looking back up, wondering whether we had made the right choice - but none of the climbers on the ridge were anywhere near the summit, and I'm not sure whether or not any actually did make it up that day. We trudged back down past the huts to the car and drove back to the campsite at Ailefroide


The next day was Sunday and we felt like having a day of rest. It was hot and looked like it might thunder in the hills, so we drove down the valley to do a couple of via ferattas. We stopped at the Durance Gorges, paid the entry fee, raced past a large group on the path in, and started along the wires, ladders and bridges.

It was quite good fun, and zig-zagged along the gorge at various levels, crossing on bridges every so often

The gorge was surprisingly deep towards the back, and there was a very long 'ladder' section up the walls. My complaint about this feratta was that it didn't follow natural lines which could be climbed with the wire just used as protection - they had just added rungs to blank sections of cliffs, and there was little opportunity to climb the rock itself

After finishing, we headed down to Argentière-la-Bessée in the main valley for lunch, then drove back up to Les Vigneaux for another feratta

This one was more exposed and more interesting - and very sweaty work in the afternoon warmth. I wished I had taken a pair of via feratta gloves, as my hands kept slipping on the plastic-coated cable at the steep 'crux,' where I found the rock itself too hard to climb


The next day the weather was still good, and we decided to have a go at La Fissure, a giant crack in the buttress just across the river from the campsite, climbed mostly on leader-placed protection rather than bolts, and an absolute delight. The climbing was quite varied, but did involve a significant amount of chimneying and body jamming, fairly sustained at about Severe or Hard Severe with a crux high up that might be just a wee bit harder than that. Belays were mostly in recesses (to provide shelter from any falling debris, although the rock was generally very good), so I didn't take a lot of photos. This is a direct finish we did, which looked good but wasn't in the guidebook, and was probably Hard Severe or easy VS.

That night was Kai's last - he had to head back home to Germany - so we joined the others for a group meal in town. The forecast was OK for the next day but poorer for the one after, so we decided we should head around to La Bérarde on the bad weather day in preparation for an attempt on the Aiguille de Dibona


Jen leading a pitch on a crag a short way to the NE of Ailefroide village.

The next morning we packed up and drove round towards La Bérarde. We fancied a bit of luxury, and checked into a cheap hotel in Venosc for the night


Next morning we drove up the rather exciting road to La Bérarde for a look around. A bird had made its nest in the public toilets!


We then drove back down the road a bit and walked in to the Soreiller hut under the Aiguille de Dibona, an excellent refuge beneath a very dramatic peak! The others soon joined us. Jen and myself, and Ian, Mhairi and Dave intended attempting the easy Boell Route up the Dibona (AD or AD+, about Severe but with some interesting routefinding), and Stuart and John would attempt the Madier Corner (TD), which John had attempted before but had to abandon when a thunderstorm hit.


The first section of our route involved finding the line of least resistance (about Mod / Diff) along ledges about a third of the way up the Dibona, and we did it moving together on the rope

The route then headed up a gully, then onto a spur where we started pitching it. This led up and round into a corner-chimney above the Madier corner, then out right over a slab and chimney, then around an improbable traverse line into some groves. Here, Jen has belayed at the top of these grooves (which were probably the crux of the route). There was a lot of tat above her (some visible here) where others had evidently kept going a bit too far and had to retreat. The route then made an even more improbable traverse back left, which looked quite hard but was actually about V Diff, then up more grooves and chimneys onto the summit ridge

It was then just a couple of pitches to the summit itself. Descent was by two abseils and a scramble on the other side.


We returned to the hut to find Stuart and John sampling some beer, having retreated from their route after taking too long on it. The others had still not appeared by dinner time, and Jen and myself headed up a little before nightfall with our headtorches and some spare food, to meet them just off the route and heading down the screes. We got back to the hut after dark, and the warden had kindly set aside some dinner for them. They made short work of it!

The next day Stuart and John headed up to do the Boell Route, determined to get up the Dibona by any means! Ian, Mhairi and Dave were a bit knackered and were for just heading down. Jen and myself set off to do a route on the Tête de Rouget. The map showed many glaciers around the top of the corrie, but there were barely even any patches of snow. Unfortunately, Jen was feeling quite ill, and we were soon back at the hut.

Jen and Dave on the walk out below the Dibona


A couple more pictures of the Aiguille de Dibona taken on the walk out


Some beetles enjoying themselves in the morning sun

Jen and myself decided to head part of the way back to Grenoble Airport that afternoon, and again treated ourselves to a cheap hotel room, this time in Vizille.

We headed home the next day, via a chocolate shop in a town near the airport