UPDATE July 2015: Ken and Hannah are now running Scottish walking, mountaineering and climbing courses for West Coast Mountain Guides.
>Following a day’s guiding Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis with Edita and Boris, from Croatia, Scott and I made the long journey from Fort William to Ailefroide, on east side of the Ecrins National Park. The village of Ailefroide sits at 1515m, and is surrounded on all sides by towering granite mountains, offering everything from roadside bouldering and single-pitch sports climbing right the way through to long (500m+) bolted and traditional multi-pitch climbs and mixed alpine climbing. Coupled with some of the best weather in France and an enormous, yet tranquil campsite with climbing a mere ten minutes walk away, it seemed like the ideal destination. And it was.
|Scott enjoying the granite slabs of Ailefroide|
Having driven for 24 hours almost non-stop, we chose to ease ourselves in gently, and headed up to the local crag of Sector Engilberge (15 mins walk from campsite!) and climbed ‘Ma, que! Seulment du V!’, which was a perfect introductory climb to the area and sported 5 well bolted pitches of fantastic granite slabs. The following day, we headed up to Sector Orage D’Etoile and climbed the even better ‘Orage D’Etoile’, this time sporting 10 well bolted pitches up equally fantastic slabs, which just kept on coming. The route is quite sustained at the grade, which given the quality of climbing, was no bad thing!
|Dawn on the Pelvoux Traverse|
After a quick bite to eat, rehydration and a quick re-pack of the bags, we headed up to the Pelvoux Hut at 2700m. The following morning, having managed about 4 hours of broken sleep, we joined other early risers to head up the ‘Coolidge Couloir’, graded PD+ (see here for more info on alpine grading) and reached the summit of Mount Puiseux at 3943m, part of Le Pelvoux, which dominates the views to the NE from Ailefroide. We continued the classic Pelvoux Traverse, and descended via the impressive Violettes Glacier, before tackling a number of rocky ridges and abseils, all as part of a huge 6 hour, 2500m descent back down into Ailefroide. A long, but highly recommended day!
|The summit of Mount Puiseux 3943m|
|The start of the descent via the Violettes Glacier|
|Cravasses on the Voilettes Glacier|
Following a day of single-pitch sports climbing (I found the routes much harder than the equivalent grade on steep limestone!), we walked in to the popular Glacier Blanc Hut, from where we tackled the Pic Glacier Blanc at 3525m via a seemingly less travelled route called ‘Le Communard’ graded D (photo topo here). This excellent route takes quite a direct line up the south face of the ‘Pic du Glacier Blanc’, and is reasonably well bolted, particularly on the trickier pitches.
|Pre-dawn, looking out over the Barres des Ecrins|
|Pic du Glacier Blanc|
|Scott on Le Communard, Pic du Glacier Blanc|
|Bivi beneath the north face of La Meije|
After one last climb up Little Palavar, we left Ailefroide, and planned to head round to La Grave, to try ‘Gravelotte Couloir’ on the north face of La Meije. This involved bivi-ing on top Les Enfetchores, at one of the most spectacular spots that I’ve spent a night, directly underneath the looming north face of La Meije. However, after another early start, we began crossing the heavily cravassed glacier, and soon realised that the snow was far too soft and that the snow bridges, which would allow safer passage through the almost blind maze of cravasses when frozen, were not so secure due to the temperatures not falling as much as anticipated through the night. We called it a day (at 5am!), and whilst we were unsuccessful on climbing La Meije this time, it was a great experience non-the-less and certainly a lesson!
The village of La Berade was our next destination, and is almost a mirror image of Ailefroide, minus the crowds and shops. A quick climb on the local crag of Tete de La Maye set us up well for our final trip into the higher mountains, up to the Soreiller Hut, which lies at the foot of the striking Aiguille Dibona. We climbed ‘Voie Madier’ TD, which is now largely bolted, which was without a doubt, my favourite route of the trip. The route follows an obvious diagonal fault up to the Boell Ledge, from where we took a slight diversion up the grooves of Visite Obligatoire to reach the summit.
|The striking Aiguille Dibona|
|The Aiguille Dibona from the Soreiller Hut|
|On Voie Madier, Aiguille Dibona|
One last climb of the trip saw us abseiling 6 rope lengths down the Cascade de Villard, close to Bourg d’Oisans to gain the base of ‘Issue de Secours’. The three routes of this well hidden crag lie either side of a magnificent waterfall, which provided a very atmospheric backdrop to our final adventure in the Ecrins. Whilst the climbing probably only merits two stars, the situation definitely deserves three!
A visit to the Ecrins National Park is highly recommended, and I will be heading back there in the future!