>Mixed conditions in the Ecrins


I returned to a snowy Cumbria after a long 21 hour drive from the French Alps after a mixed couple of weeks in the Ecrins.

We arrived the week before Christmas. The mercury was dipping to -18c overnight and the icefalls were beginning to form. A few days later and the Ecrins were buried, snowfall over two consecutive days dumped a good 60 to 70cm of snow down to 1000m and considerably more fell higher up.

The first dump of snow in Vallouise

By Christmas Eve, it was raining! This cycle of weather as warmer air from the southern continent did battle with the colder air from the East and North was to continue for most of our trip and unlike little Britain which was locked firmly under a cold arctic airmass, the Southern Alps frequently lost the fight and we were faced with skyhigh freezing levels. Some days we skied, some days we climbed, on the odd day we gave up and drank tea.

Things did not get off to the best of starts. Sitting in a service station on the M20 for 12 hours whilst Eurotunnel decided whether or not they were capable of running passenger services. To cut a tortuous story short, they eventually decided they could and we arrived half a day later than planned at 5am on the Sunday morning.

Ailefroide – Clapouse a Gauche – WI3

Our first full day saw us walking towards Ailefroide. This tiny French hamlet is closed for 8 months of the year but for a short summer season becomes the busiest mountaineering centre in France, outside of Chamonix. Our objective was a short WI3 icefall an hour or so further up the valley from Ailefroide named Clapouse a Gauche.

Rich and Dan near Ailefroide – Icefalls behind

The snow was firm and consolidated, ok for walking and as we approached, we could see both left and right hand lines were climbable – the right looked a little brown and not quite in perfect nick and it was our first route of the season afterall, so we opted for the slighty easier left hand version.

After little more than an hour, the snow began to fall, much earlier than predicted. Another hour later and ourselves and route andwere rapidly becoming encased in a thick layer of snow. Slings, karabiners, us, everything started to freeze up; it was like climbing in Scotland only without the wind. A foot of snow must have fallen in the couple of hours it took the three of us to climb the route and it was a cold, dark and snowy walk back down the valley.

Boxing Day saw us searching for options. There was little useful information on the Icefall.com website, few locals appeared to have been out, we were in an information vacuum. We had little choice but to do things the old fashioned way and simply head out. Destination Fressinieres. The jagged chunks of snow were piled high either side of the road as we made our way down the valley. Nothing much appeared to have formed.

How many people does it take to fit snow chains?

We took a chance on one torrent, deep within a gully which from the road looked to contain ice further up, but a 40 minute walk to its base revealed otherwise, it was pouring with water and surrounded by brittle fangs of ice.

Dan and Rich mull the options in Freisinierres

Les Orres – Dancing Fall – WI5+

The following day we headed southwards towards the small French Ski resort of Les Orres. After parking at the edge of the village we headed up the valley in search of ice.

Some serious avalanche debris near Les Orres

After 20 minutes we spotted the first smears on the far side of the valley. Only one line looked really possible – Dancing Fall. This stunning line cascaded down through the band of cliffs in a vertical drop of around 200 to 250 metres. An enticing climb at WI5+.

I set off up the first pitch, it was steeper than it looked, 80 to 85 degrees perhaps, the ice was virgin and the initial screw placements did little other than to make it look like it was protected, each screw in hollow or soft ice. Unsure of the precise location of the belays, I took some sanctuary about 30 metres up, fashioning a belay in a hollow off to the left. Chris quickly came up and with razor sharp and shiny Nomics in each hand he was off up the next pitch. Again steeper than it looked in its initial section, again around 85 degrees, it then eased off. Chris thankful for this has he teased his way through ice encased sugar to the safety of a reasurringly large pine tree.

Rich on the first pitch of Dancing Fall

Chris forging up Pitch Two of Dancing Fall

The final pitch looked like the real prize. A large cigar of vertical ice plunging down the short rock band near the top. We could hear running water, but it looked like it might go and was certainly worth the look. Tentatively I reared out from the security of the ice-cave which had formed behind the cigar and stepped onto the face.

Rich on the final Cigar Pitch of Dancing Fall

The central line was pouring, but there looked to be a drier line with good ice, albeit steeper to the left. For 15 or 20 feet I battled upwards, getting steadily wetter, axes ripping through little better than a slush puppy, only another 5 feet or so and I would be past the worst of the cascading water. But I was rapidly becoming drenched, my arms felt heavy, I could feel water running down and inside my trousers. I had to admit defeat and retreat.

“I would have given up as soon as I stepped onto the face. But you seemed game so I wasnt going to tell you to stop. You go for it.” Remarked Chris. It was satisfying to know he thought I was slightly nuts for once.

A rather bruised Rich after retreating from Dancing Fall

We didnt hang about, I was soaked to the bone and rapidly beginning to chill. We made a hasty abseil retreat downwards before scurrying to our waiting friends and the warmth of home.

Ceillac – Formes Du Chaos – WI4

I had done my best to avoid Ceillac for nearly a week, but with little else in obvious condition we were back. Dont get me wrong, it has some of the best and most accessible mid-grade ice climbing in France. But thats the problem, its often in condition and often accessible meaning its often busy and why repeat routes you’ve done before. You repeat routes you’ve done before when there is little else to do and you’re thinking of others for a change who may not have done them!

And so we joined the queues at the bottom of arguably one of the finest pieces of WI4 climbing you will find anywhere. 7 pitches of pure entertainment, rock dodging and international diplomacy and negotiations.

An hour or so later we started, Steph kicking off with her first leading of the winter on the 70 degree pitch. Pitch 3 was narrow but there was a relatively unclimbed and steeper line off to the left giving a great little pitch of 80 degree ice.

Pitch 4 was a combination of water and cauliflower ice and again 75 to 80 degrees in places, Dan was less than impressed, it might not have taken many decent ice screws but for the second it was certainly fun to climb.

For the next few hours, we hung about, dodged very large lumps of ice and had conversations with bemused nationalities of Europe, everything that crowded continental ice climbing should be.

We finished off with the Scottish-esque gully pitch and final sting in the tail, a short wall of 80 degree ice.

Avalanches and more avalanches

The following day we decided to head on our second sortie up into Ailefroide, this time on ski, and this time to look at Clapouse a Droite, the WI4 line we had not had time to do on our first foray into this high valley.

It was ominously warm as we left the car and started skinning up the road towards Ailefroide. We left the road near to the eerily silent camping ground, taking a short cut through the forest. From this moment on it would not have been an exaggeration to say that we witnessed avalanches and serious sluffs of snow all around us every 4-5 minutes. The crackle and rumbling of whooshing snow was all around us, luckily at a safe enough distance, but the signs were all there that this was probably not a day to be venturing too far into the mountains.

The snow was heavy and sticking to our skins as we made our way further up the valley, the avalanches continuing around us. We reached the upper part of the valley, which gave us a line of sight across to the icefall, the slope above it looked stable enough but this was not a day for chances. Would I walk up that slope I thought. Not in a million years, so climbing underneath it seemed equally fool hardy. We ate our lunch and skied back.

Dry Tooling – L’Argentiere & La Vachette

From there the weather went down hill, pouring rain dampening everything including the spirits a little but we were determined to keep climbing. Dry tooling was the only answer.

The first crag we visited was less than inspirational on first acquaintance. Loose shale, scorch marks from the many a fire that had been lit to entertain the locals on short summer nights and the general debris that marks the urban crag. Still there were several routes from M3 to M6 – perfect for those new to the art of dry tooling.

Someone not new to Dry Tooling is Tooled Up Mixed Master Andy Turner. Andy dispatched everything with clinical perfection but even he looked as though inspiration was lacking a little as the rain poured off the front of his visor. This was not quite what any of us had envisaged when dreaming of this trips possible exploits.

A day later, tools slightly blunter and arms slightly stretched we headed past Briancon towards La Vachette and to a relatively new Dry Tooling venue high above the Nevache road. A jedi speed inducing 25 minute walk from the road. Or to a mere mortal like myself, 40 minutes of gut wrenching slog up a snowy hillside.

We arrived to be greeted by solid, compact rock, amazing lines, cowering roofs and 8 very ethusiastic locals who seemed a little surprise that the English had managed to find their crag. La Vachette was in fact developed specifcally for competition with routes ranging from M4 to M12 – all with drilled holes, bits of tree trunk and generally massive reaches, in fact other than insane overhanging roofs the main difference between grades seemed to be just how far you were capable of reaching. But worth the walk.

Powder Skiing – Montgenevre

With a return to somewhat colder conditions and with little time for any notable ice to have formed we took the decision to ski on the first day of 2010 and the final day of this trip. An awesome day, nuff said.

We stayed with Jerry Gore who along with his wife Jacqui and two daughters Beth and Lotti run Alpbase. They have lots of chalets at lots of budgets to suit and as always, Jerry will go out of his way to give you info on climbs, walks, skiing – in fact anything. Well worth a visit.

Up to date information on icefall conditions in and around the Ecrins massif can be found on www.icefall.com


About Richard Talbot

An accomplished fell-runner as well as being a keen climber and mountaineer. Since 2005 he has worked for the UK based manufacturer Mountain Equipment and is currently Director of Product. He has worked in the outdoor industry for over 15 years.
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