International Ice Climbing Festival in the French Ecrinsby Nick ' Alpnick' Smith Jan/2009
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It is ice climbing festival season. All around the world from Switzerland to Colorado those interested in ice are meeting together to share ideas and advice, try out the latest gear, climb and have a great social time. Last week the Alpkit team (alpkit.com) went to the International Ice Climbing Festival in the French Ecrins. Nick Smith reports back with photos by Colin Alpkit.
For anyone interested in ice climbing and particularly for those wanting to take up the sport the International Ice Climbing Festival in the French Ecrins is the ideal weekend. The Fournel and Freissinières valleys around L'Argentière la Bessée are recognized as one of the top spots in the world, offering some of the best ice climbing in Europe. With free gear to use and mountain guides on hand you'll never find it easier to try out the sport. Best of all the event attracts all levels of ability, so you can feel comfortable whatever grade you climb. The organisers even layed on free shuttle buses to shuttle you to the foot of the climbs and later bring you back down.
The event started on Thursday evening with a safety briefing and film, but it's not until Friday that the real action started and if you know what you are doing then there are over 300 icefalls to choose from at any grade and length you would want. There are 25m warm ups on the Cascade du bois in the Fournel, or the massive 650m ice walls of the Tete De Gramusat in the Freissinieres valley. At the end of the day you were free to browse products from favourite brands such as Petzl, Beal and Vertical and even Alpkit in the ICEXPO village. Then once you had your fill of the latest ice vest from Vertical you could go over to the townhall and watch films from the Best of Banff.
Saturday started much the same with teams heading off in to the valleys to tackle cascade de glace and keeping just enough energy to get up to the winter bivy party. Everyone was picked up by shuttle bus from Ice HQ and taken up the Fornel as far as winter tyres and chains would take us. The organizers laid on hot food, massive fires, and a caldron of Vin Chaud to keep out the cold. An hour in, a bright globe lit up and mirrored the huge moon that lit up the camp. Below this there where two performance artists. The first may have left us baffled and in search for an interpretation but hats of to anyone who dances barefoot at -15c. The second though was fantastic, a guy in snowshoes throwing firesticks around, tethered to cords above, the sound of them wooshing around inches from your face made you feel like a kid again. Later the band rocked on and the fires slowly died out. When they got so low you could no longer keep your bum warm, it was time to get in your bivi gear.
Sunday was a little bit of a mish mash and not a lot happened apart from a laid on breakfast with some good strong coffee. Most people seemed to pack up, get a climb in and head off home.
This is the first time that i have been to a winter event like this, and although the bivi was great I was slightly underwelmed by the event itself, but the climbing, the setting and weather more than compensated for this. Next year it all changes as Francois Lombard take the reigns. Not only is he an awesome ice climber, snowboarder and all round nice guy, as he organises the summer Tout le Bloc event he also knows what he's doing when it come to sorting out international meets.
Events like this can provide an easy way for someone to sample a variety of winter supports without the commitment of a specialist course. It is easy to hire a guide for a day or two a get a feel for ice climbing, hire snow shoes and get on the mountain trials and, if you feel a need for speed, then there are plenty of quiet ski resorts to head to. If you want to see what the Alps are like in winter then this would be an ideal event to springboard from.
To find out more about the event go to : www.ice-fall.com