Ceillac: Classic Ice Climbs

© Kevin Avery-UKC

F rance's Ecrins National Park has long been famous as a world-class ice climbing destination. La Grave, Fournel, Freissinieres and Vallon Du Diable all provide acres of fat, reliable ice with access ranging from 30 seconds and roadside to 2 hours and skis. Easy ramps, goullottes and free-standing "cigars" mean that the climber is never short of variety. A nice easy plod or a terrifyingly steep hookfest on rotten ice; you can take your pick. For those new to the sport La Grave has always been a good choice with ease of access and some short and friendly lines. Fournel and Freissinieres tend to be more serious and the domain of the "Hell-man" as one of my friends once put it! So if you are looking for a gentle easing in, then they are probably not the places to head for (although the climbing is, simply magnificent!) So after La Grave where do you go? Well the answer is simple; Ceillac!

Unknown Climber on the first pitch of Les Formes Du Chaos WI4, Ceillac  © Kevin Avery-UKC
Unknown Climber on the first pitch of Les Formes Du Chaos WI4, Ceillac
Kevin Avery- Assistant Editor- UKC
© Kevin Avery-UKC

Ceillac is a small village tooked away in a high and sheltered valley in the rugged mountains of the South-West Alps. It actually more specifically belongs to the "parc régional du Queyras" and is also known as a small, but reliable ski resort. The icefalls lie on a densely tree-covered, north facing hillside with the base of the climbs lying at around 1650m the area enjoys a long and fairly reliable season. Furthermore, the attraction of being able to gear up in the car-park and stroll five minutes through the trees to the base of the routes means that those who are not accustomed to long yomps and Alpine starts, can actually enjoy something of a leisurely trip. Even the belays on the majority of the routes are bolted. (So that's what they mean by sport-ice!)

The Routes

Ceillac offers a range of waterfall ice climbs and some M-style mixed routes (bolted dry tooling, usually involving ice at some point but maybe not!) The valley does not offer an enormous number of routes (approximately 10 or so) and as such is not a major destination on its own, in fact a competent party could probably clean up here in three or four days. But what it lacks in quantity of routes it more than makes up for in quality and beauty. All of the climbs are memorable but here are two of my personal favorites:

Les Formes Du Chaos

Out of the cave - 4th pitch
Les Formes du Chaos  © mart rich
Out of the cave - 4th pitch Les Formes du Chaos
© mart rich, Feb 2008

This is widely regarded as an area "mega-classic" and it fully lives up to the hype. It is the left-most ice-fall when viewing from the parking area and follows a narrow diagonal gash in the hillside via some superbly varied climbing up walls, ramps and bulges with an atmospheric situation to boot. Providing around 300 metres of climbing in total, it is most certainly not short but at least you haven't slogged for two hours to get to the base! Conditions can sometimes prove to be rather "interesting" on this one as the fall sometimes only freezes up on the sides leaving tons of water booming down the centre! A friend of mine has climbed this route three times (he likes it so much) and says that it has been different each time. When we climbed it there was water booming underneath the ice on some parts (a little disconcerting) but apparently this is quite normal. Beware of guided parties on this route even though it is wide enough to climb out of the way of others. On busy days it may be worth holding off and trying a different climb as there is no point in spoiling such a great experience. Five stars? I think so.

Sombre Heros

John Shepherd on the main pillar of Sombre Heros WI5 at Ceillac, France  © Kevin Avery-UKC
John Shepherd on the main pillar of Sombre Heros WI5 at Ceillac, France
Kevin Avery-Assistant Editor- UKC
© Kevin Avery-UKC

This is the obvious frozen curtain to the right of Les Formes Du Chaos. It was my first WI5 on our first trip to the Ecrins back in 2003 and also probably the first time that I had climbed any real waterfall ice. I was totally amazed to see all of these frozen free-standing sculptures, particularly the ones you could walk round the back of! At the time we'd done some Scottish 5's but I'd been told that WI5 was harder than that and more like Scottish 6. In reality the route wasn't too bad at all and offered much in the way of helpful hooking for the axes as well as features for the frontpoints. I have since heard many people say that it is a good introduction to the grade and in the late season condition that we climbed it in I would say this is true. It starts with a short easy pitch which leads to a bolted belay on the right of the main 'cigar.' From here attack the fifteen metre free-standing pillar which gives sustained 85/90 degree ice and then pull out left to a tree belay. The final pitch offers one more tricky step (particularly in lean conditions) to the sanctuary of a tree belay. Descend by abseil and bask in the glory or maybe even abseil back to the base of the main pillar and tackle one of the bolted M-style mixed routes up the rock on either side (both M6/7) if you are really keen!


When to Go

The valley offers a reasonably long and reliable season with most of the climbs being in condition from December through to the end of March, although this of course depends upon the weather! The Ice-fall site is an invaluable resource, providing conditions reports that are updated on a daily basis complete with photographs of the climbs.

How to Get There

From the UK the best option is to either drive (via a cross-channel ferry or the tunnel) or fly and hire a car. The nearest airports are Chambery and Grenoble. Turin is also a good option. We flew to Geneva and from here it is a fairly easy three hour drive to La Grave but then a further one and a half hours to Ceillac itself.

Ceillac is reached from the N94 road that runs from Briancon to Gap. From Mont-Dauphin turn off to Guillestre and then follow the D902 and the D60 to Ceillac. Carry on all the way to the carpark at the ski area. The ice falls are located on the steep hillside on the right (facing the ski lift.)

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My trips to Ceillac have usually involved a drive from La Grave (UKC article) as this is where I have tended to base myself. We stayed at the excellent Hotel Edelweiss which provides comfortable rooms and excellent food. From here you have a one and a half hour journey (each way) to Ceillac itself. Obviously this isn't the closest place and if you want to sample a range of different areas then I would probably suggest basing yourself somewhere more central. Briancon may be the best compromise. You could even stay in Ceillac itself, although that means you have to drive everywhere else! The following links are useful for finding local accommodation:

Where can I buy gear and food?

The area has numerous restaurants and cafes offering everything from cheap pizza and bar snacks to posh and elaborate multi-course feasting with a price tag to match. Ceillac itself has some small bars and restaurants whilst Guillestre and L'Argentiere La Besse (back down the road) have supermarkets, bakeries, cashpoints, post offices and all the other amenities you would expect of a small town. L'Argentiere also has a couple of small climbing shops. Briancon has everything you would expect of a large town, including a knowledgeable tourist office and some well stocked outdoor shops.

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Which guide do I buy?

Les Cascades de Glace de L'Argentierois et du Brianconnais by R Balestra is the definitive guidebook although I struggled to locate a copy when I was last there. If you can't get hold of a copy then the Ice Surfing webpage is invaluable as it documents many of the routes in great detail and also gives lots of useful information about the area (although not all of it may be up to date now.)

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Other Activities

This part of France is home to numerous ski areas, offering endless piste and off piste skiing including touring and cross-county. Ceillac itself is a small but friendly ski resort, with a particularly good range of runs for the beginner to intermediate skier. Other areas nearby include Serre Chevalier, Alp D'Huez, Deux Alpes and Montgenevre. There is also the hallowed off-piste grail of La Meije.

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11 Mar, 2009
There's a couple of gites close by, I've stayed at the Refuge de la Cime which is a bit like a roadside alpine hut - driving from La Grave each day seems bizarre !
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