La Grave - Ice Fall Paradiseby Jack Geldard & Tom Briggs Jan/2009
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The small village of La Grave sits hidden in a deep, sunless valley, over-looked by the nearby giant mountain of La Meije. It is this steep sided valley that is the major draw for the visiting ice climber, the rivers and streams that flow down these chasm walls freeze in the winter, forming roadside ice-climbing attractions, of all grades. As the valley is so deep the low winter sun can hardly peek over the rim, making La Grave a reliable bet for some Euro ice conditions. However this can also mean that while the ice stays cold and fat, the higher snow slopes can be sat in direct sunlight. Be aware of potential avalanche triggers.
La Grave is a justifiably popular holiday destination, with spectacular mountain scenery, fantastic off piste skiing and road side ice-fall cragging all within a stone's throw of the village centre. It can get quite busy at weekends, so opting to climb some of the routes with a slightly longer walk-in can pay dividends.
Many of the routes are within walking distance of the village (See Photo Below for a selection) and are mainly between 100 to 300 metres in length.
The routes can be split in to two - those on the opposite side of the valley to the road (pictured) and those on the same side of the valley as the road.
A selection of icefalls tumble through the trees on the far side of the valley. The first ringed icefall is called Le Pylone and is a popular two pitch route that lies very close to the village. It is often crowded, especially at weekends, so arrive early or expect to queue.
All the ice-falls in this photo can be reached by foot from the village of La Grave. Just drop down behind the ski lift station, cross the river by the bridge and follow the ski path along the valley, heading up in to the trees to find your ice fall. Le Pylone is the first on your left and the ascent path is usually well worn and is sometimes marked with a wand. Le Pylone lies around 30mins from the village centre, with the other ice falls taking slightly longer to reach (depending on how far up the hill they are!).
A full list of routes is available on the UKC Logbook page: La Grave
On the road side of the valley are many other climbing venues. A five minute drive down hill from La Grave brings you to the Tunnel du Grand Clot. You have just past the Grand Clot climbing area 500m up the hill, near to some industrial buildings (literally metres from the road). The classic route Grand Clot is marked on the photo topo above.
Around the Tunnel du Grand Clot flow some superb and popular icefall routes. Les Moulins is a long and superb III/4 situated just after the second tunnel. Caturgeas flows between the two tunnels and is reached by parking just before the first tunnel on the left. It has bolted belay stations and can be quite busy.
Again a full list of routes is available on the UKC Logbook page: La Grave
Conditions no good in La Grave? Talk to other ice climbers in the village, as there are a number of options, especially if you drive over the Col du Lautaret and head towards Briancon. Alternatively, the Vallon du Diable is near, and a visit can be combined with a supermarket trip to Boug d'Osians! The Vallon du Diable is stunning and also a great place for ski touring. For those with the skills, a trip from the top of the ski lift at La Grave, all the way to Vallon du Diable is a superb adventure.
Head downhill from La Grave to Bourg d'Oisan, then take a left just as you are entering Bourg to reach Vallon du Diable. It's about a 40-minute drive from La Grave, and typically, a 1 hour 15 minute approach to the icefalls (though after snow, a trail breaking horror show is not uncommon. For some reason the valley seems to accumulate a lot of snow). Conditions are often reliable in the Vallon when everything is melting in La Grave, though be careful of the south facing side of the valley, which is particularly avalanche prone. There are lots of 3-star WI4s, as well as a fair smattering of WI3s and WI5s. Most can be easily viewed from the bottom of the valley before committing to slogging up to their bases. Check out Autisme (WI4), Le Hemos a Godo (WI4) and Les Larmes de Chaos (WI4). For something a little more 'Scottish', Miniscule Gully (WI4), has nice mixed climbing. At WI5 Les Cloches de l'enfer is a short, steep pitch, with Repulsion (WI5) being the big tick on the sunny side of the valley.
If you were to sum up the Fresinierres Valley in one word, 'hardcore' might just do it. Legend has it that some of the UK's top ice climbers had their butts well and truly spanked on the terrifying M-style trad mixed routes here. From Briancon, drive along the N94 past L'Argentiere-La Bessée (you can buy the guidebook from the Tabac here, which also covers Fournel – see below), then take a right to the village of Fresinierres (chains often required). Most of the ice is on your left as you head up the valley. Yes, those hanging daggers have been linked! The Tete du Gramusat is a good place to start. Ice Pocalypse (WI4) and Le Diedre (WI5) aren't too intimidating, with Geronimo (WI5) being a 550m prize for ice alpinists.
Fournel is right above L'Argentiere-La Bessée, just off the N94 from Briancon. There are over 100 routes here between WI3 and WI6, but access can be a problem as the road isn't routinely cleared of snow. Skinning in is de rigeur. There's an ice festival every January at Fournel. See http://www.ice-fall.com/
About 1 hour 15 minutes drive from La Grave over the Col de Lautaret, or 40 minutes from Briancon, Celliac is like a Tremadog for ice climbers. Most the routes are about 5 minutes walk from the car and are up to 300m long. There is a café! The classics are Holiday on Ice (WI3), Les Fourmes du Chaos (WI4) and Sombre Heroes (WI5). Les Fourmes du Chaos is a superb multi-pitch adventure up a huge gash in the side of the mountain. The upper pitches snake through pine trees on a narrow ribbon of ice before the final steep curtain. Sombre Heroes is much sought after, with it's crux being a 15 metre 85 degree ice pillar. Pumpy!
Jagged Globe run ice climbing courses in La Grave, as well as Chamonix and Cogne. They employ extremely knowledgeable guides who can search out the best ice in the area.
British Guides Rich Cross and Al Powell also guide in La Grave during January (Alpine Guides Website).
When do I go?
La Grave is a reasonably reliable winter climbing venue, however conditions can be fickle anywhere in Europe. Choose the coldest months, with January and February being the most reliable.
Who flies where?
The closest main airport is Grenoble, with flights from all the usual suspects. La Grave is also within driving distance of Geneva and Lyon (however these are at least twice as far as Grenoble). Sometimes flights to Grenoble can be more expensive that to Lyon or Geneva. Jagged Globe run courses in La Grave and recommend flying to Lyon - you can read their travel info HERE.
Where do I stay?
What's the scoff like?
Ahem! (Adopts a bad French accent..) Monsier, zeez eez France! Zee Cuisine, c'est excellent! There are several restaurants in the area and the nearest super market is in Bourg d'Oisans, there is also options in Briancon. The patisserie in La Grave is of the usual high French standard, although the pastries may not improve your grade!
Which guide do I buy?
Where can I buy gear and food?
The small village of La Grave has shops, hotels and restaurants. It also has a small selection of climbing gear in various shops. Nearby Briancon is a large town with supermarkets and a selection of climbing shops.
What else is there apart from the climbing?
La Grave offers superb off piste skiing for serious skiers, with one lift from the village taking you up to 3550m opposite La Meije. The nearby Col de Lautaret is popular with ski tourers. For beginners, both the resorts of Les Duex Alpes and Monêtier/Serre Chevalier are close by. If conditions are poor on the ice, or you fancy that extra 'burn' at the end of the day, there are even dry tooling boulders in the La Grave valley.