Scotland is nice, but Europe has the ice - and ex-pat Jerry Gore's getting very excited about what's freezing in his local area.
Ever since climbing the route Holiday on Ice in the Ecrins Massif's famous Ceillac Valley back in 2003, I was a convert. This was not the damp masochism of Scottish winter. This was not the tingling fear of alpine mixed - but instead pitch after pitch of pristine water ice blessed with short walk-ins, stunning views and more often than not fantastic weather.
What's on offer
Out of the 20 different ice crags and cliffs in the Massif, the three principal valleys are Ceillac, Fournel and Freissinieres:
For beginners and mid-range activists without doubt the place to start is Ceillac, located in the Queyras Regional Park, about 50 minutes drive from the Ecrins centre of Vallouise. "Tool up" by your car, and take the footpath over the little footbridge. Routes are between 70m and 250m long, with bolted belays and grades from Fr. 2 to 5+. Descent is either by abseil (not recommended if busy) or via the footpath that runs along the top of the climbs. See also this UKC destination feature UKC Ceillac article
Routes To Do: Easy Rider (70m. – Fr.II/3) to warm up on and then Holiday on Ice (Y branche de gauche) (250m. – Fr. II+/3+) yielding seven pitches of pure gully fun including an exciting 85ºdegree section to provide the topic for the evening's banter. If going well - the must do is - Les Formes Du Chaos (300m. – III/4). Touted as one of THE BEST IN THE WORLD at the grade!!
The Fournel Valley has arguably the greatest concentration of quality ice routes in the Ecrins. This 10km long valley now boasts over 150 routes of all grades and from 30m to 700m in verticality! Access is easy from L'Argentiere-La-Bessee. In a normal season you can drive (with snow chains) right to the car park at the far end, just past the Basse Salce chalets.
Routes To Do:
No match for climb name:Sexy Gully
(180m. – Fr.II/4); Capitain Courageaux (200m. – Fr.III/4); Hiroshima (150m. – Fr. III/5); La vision de Marco (100m. – Fr. II/3); No match for climb name:Colosses de Rhodes (700m. – Fr.V/4+); Iznogood (60m. – Fr.II/3); Double Scotch (80m. – Fr. III/5 – direct variation M7)); Davidoff (200m. – II/4+); Beating the Retreat (Ravin des trois Queyrons) (300m. – IV/4+)
A magical place with well over 100 pure ice, mixed and dry tooling climbs at literally every grade up to Fr.7 and M10. There is even an "Ecole De Dry" for the "dry" debutante. The routes extend all the way on both sides of the valley right up to the car park at Dormillouse, a worthwhile excursion because the huge 650m ice walls of the Tete De Gramusat have to be seen to be believed! take snow chains!
Routes To Do:
No match for climb name:Frenesie Basquaise
(280m. Fr.III/2); Fracastorus (200m. – Fr.II/3+. You can walk off this at the top by going uphill 50m. bear right and come down a big gully but be careful of avalanches); Secteur Madame Tape Dur – great for beginners at the start of the week; Paulo folie (180m. – Fr. III/3); No match for climb name:Torrent de Naval (450m. – Fr.III/3); Cascade Chantriaux (200m. – Fr.III/6 – don't climb late in season or if it's warm); No match for climb name:Happy together (120m. – Fr.III/4); Cascade des Viollins (150m. – Fr.III/6); Geronimo (550m. – Fr.IV/5 – one of the longest on the Tete and a real classic with a cigar on the penultimate pitch - always in condition); Gramusat Direct (320m. – Fr.IV/6 – always in condition if anything is).
N.B. SECTEUR TAHITI DOUCHE IS A NO GO AREA – TOO DANGEROUS!
Other good ice fall routes and dry-tooling in the area
1. Good Beginners Route: No match for climb name:Torrent De Queyrieres (200m. – Fr.II/3) - p.194 in Glace et Mixte guidebook
2. Les Orres – Dancing fall – (100m. – Fr.II/5+) - p.233 in Glace et Mixte guidebook
This new and exciting sport has developed rapidly in the Ecrins, thanks to a band of very good local climbers. Recommended routes include the following:
Freissinieres - Hasta La Vista (80M. – Fr.III/M8/6); No match for climb name:Mixte and fly (90m. – Fr.II/M8/6); No match for climb name:Berthe, Allons! (20m. – Fr.II/5/M4); No match for climb name: Nouvelle Collection (30m. – Fr.II/6/M9+); No match for climb name:Moulins de mon coeur (300m. – Fr.V/M9+/6);
Ceillac - No match for climb name:Prends moi sec (20m. – Fr.II/M7+); Sodomice (20m. – Fr.II/M6+)
Cervieres - Everything! This crag was developed just for dry tooling! Must do - Changement de slip (25m. – Fr.II/M7); Aux lames citoyens (30m. – Fr.II/M5+/5+); Fais gaffe j'y vais (30m. – Fr.II/M5 - a good intro to dry tooling)
French Ice Grades - Climbs in the Ecrins use the usual classic French (Fr.) grading system for icefalls. The grade is split into 2 sections, a Roman numeral grade and a numerical grade. The Roman numerals refer to the overall difficulty including length, approach, how sustained it is, the descent and objective hazards like avalanches. The numerical grade gives the technical grade of the hardest pitch, and takes into account the angle, the complexity of the moves, and the usual quality of the ice. Very roughly add one to the French numerical grade to get the Scottish equivalent. Fr.2 = Scottish III and so on.
Avalanches - Avalanches are an ever present danger for ice climbers throughout the winter season as they often follow natural gully lines where many routes go. North facing slopes can hold deep powder and south facing ones are obviously affected by direct sunlight. Wind slab is also a common occurrence especially after a long, dry spell and they must be watched especially when descending. Often it is better to abseil your line of ascent and hence most of the popular routes are well equipped for this. Always get a local forecast as heavy snowfalls can occur at any time during the season. Never be afraid to ask locals for advice.
Weather Forecasts - The forecast is usually posted up daily outside village tourist offices, and the mountain guide bureau. Alternatively try the following resources:
www.alpbase.com Just ask us as we get it via the internet and TV.
Mountain Rescue: THE number to 'phone is: +33 (0)492 22 22 22
Briançon Hospital: +33 (0)492 25 34 56
La Grave: +33 492 21 10 42 (Gendarmerie)
Briançon : +33 492 21 36 36 (PGHM - Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne)
L'Argentiere: +33 492 21 10 42 (PGHM):
And finally........ learn how to make an Abolakov V thread abseil point before you come out! Have fun this Winter!
A brief history of ice climbing in the Ecrins Massif
The official start of Ecrins Ice started in 1984 with the publication of Godefroy Perroux's "Cascades de Glaces" covering ice climbs above Bourg d'Oisans. Since these early days the local talent began opening up icefalls on their doorstep. The launch in 1991 of Europe's largest and most successful ice climbing meet "ICE", now in its 19th year, together with the brilliant website www.ice-fall.com detailing the condition of local climbs throughout the season, are the two vital ingredients that have resulted in making the Ecrins Massif the No.1 icefall destination across Europe. See this video www.youtube.com to really whet your appetite - a retrospective on ICE 2010:
When to Go
The Ecrins' high mountain gullies may come into condition as early as mid-October, after the first winter snowfalls. For the icefalls you will have to wait till mid-to-late November in an exceptional year and from mid December in a normal year. By the second week of March the first signs of spring are noticeable and we generally stop climbing low level ice by then. But ice climbs have been done as late as mid April in high valleys such as Ceillac. For a full resume on what's in condition consult www.ice-fall.com. It's superb!
How to Get There
Calais to the Ecrins is a solid 10 to 12 hour journey by car via expensive French motorways. So the best advice is to fly to Turin (EasyJet or Ryanair etc.) and hire a car from there. Transfer by car from Turin to Briançon is less than two hours and having your own transport in the Ecrins is a distinct advantage if you really want to see the area. Don't forget to hire those snow chains though.
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Ropes - use two half ropes (8-8.5mm are recommended with dry finishes). I use a Black Diamond ATC Guide, saving time and energy for the leader when belaying. Clothing - as per Scottish winters but generally go light with layers designed for dynamic movement. This game is about movement not inactivity. If doing a big route one belay jacket between two is normally sufficient. Rucksack - often I leave mine at the bottom of the route, but if I take one it's small (30ltrs). Footwear - personally I always use full mountaineering leather (B3) boots. Ice gear - Any modern ice screws (e.g. Grivel 360's or Petzl Lazer Sonics), technical water ice axes (I use Grivel Matrix Tech's). 10 (min.) normal quickdraws plus 1 or 2 screamer quickdraws are nice to have along. A number of thin 4 and 8 foot slings (dyneema etc.). Plus a few meters of emergency cord (8mm static) for abseils and/or abolokovs, plus an abolakov threader. Leashes - Personal choice but this is the land of the free! All locals I know climb leashless. Crampons - Use C3 crampons (e.g. Petzl Darts or Grivel Rambo 4's). Local opinion is divided re monos or twin front points for pure ice. I have tried both and have now gone back to twin points. On mixed/dry tooling routes the consensus is definitely monos. Headtorch - ALWAYS take one each!
Gear, Food and Supplies
Things are generally cheaper in the Ecrins compared to the Northern Alps, so eating out is not a bad option. Be aware that this area of France is very laid back. Shops shut between 12 and 2pm (often to 3pm) and are often closed all day Sunday and Monday. Most villages have local markets. For the majority of routes mentioned in this article the bible is Glace Et Mixte En Cascade by E.Fine and Ph.Turin (Edition 2005 - ISBN 2-914466-01-3), available locally at newsagents and gear shops. This guide covers the Brianconnais, Argentierois and Embrunais sectors. The only guidebook in English is John Brailsford's "Ecrins Massif" - an Alpine Club guide printed in 2002, (ISBN 0-900523-63-8). This useful guidebook provides details on the local valleys with a selection of the best ice routes. The Ecrins Massif is split into five IGN maps at 1:25,000 and these can be bought online at www.ign.fr or locally at newsagents and supermarkets.
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Unlimited piste and off piste skiing and boarding at Serre Chevalier, Montgenevre, Vars, Risoul, Puy-St-Vincent, Deux Alpes and La Grave - off piste capital of Europe! Still bored! Don't forget miles of Snowshoeing, X-C skiing, Russeling, and husky dog sledding! /p>
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