The Ecrins
September 2015.   Report by: Bryan Rynne


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In the course of last year's trip to Chamonix (see last year's newsletter) we decided that another trip to the French Alps was warranted. However, instead of going back to Chamonix, a subgroup of us, together with Simon decided to go to the Ecrins, in autumn.

We stayed in a chalet in la Casse, on the edge of Vallouise in the Ailefroide valley. The location was partly based on a Climber article about the area by Jerry Gore (who runs a guiding/accommodation outfit based out there, and from whom we rented the chalet). Sue and Bryan et al went there in May, although they stayed in a smaller village called Vigneux a couple of miles down the valley. Vallouise is a very nice little village, with an excellent hotel and restaurant called the Vallois, which did very good food and drink. Both the beer and the red wine (by the litre pitcher) were excellent after a hard day's climbing. The chalet was only 10 minutes walk away from the Vallois, across the fields, and 3 minutes walk from a very nice boulangerie, where I set up a daily standing order for baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolats (some doctors feel that a combination of beer, red wine (by the pitcher) and croissants and pain au chocolats provides a well-balanced diet containing all the vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants that anyone could require).

We flew to Geneva and then drove to Vallouise - the drive took about 4 hours. On the way there we followed the satnav and drove through the Frejus tunnel into Italy and back out again, which was not very scenic and very expensive. On the return journey we drove over the col du Galibier, which was extremely scenic, and free! It may even have been quicker....

The weather was good almost all the week, although gradually becoming a bit greyer and gloomier, until it started pouring down on the final evening. However, it dried up again for the drive back to Geneva, and over the col du Galibier. It was cold first thing in the mornings (Vallouise is at about 1200m), but had usually warmed up by the time we started climbing (there was little incentive to get out at the crack of dawn). Judging by the others' experience, this may be a better time to go there than May.

The climbing was also very good, with a very fat guide book full of single and multi pitch climbing, all relatively nearby, and on a variety of rock types. There are also many high, 'Alpine' routes, from the Ecrins and Glacier Blanche huts above Ailefroide. We all did a mixture of these options.

On day one we all went to the crag Rocher Baron, a nice crag, high up a long rocky road, above the main Durance valley, for a day of single pitch routes in the sunshine, to warm up. The next day Alan and Simon decamped up to the Ecrins hut to do one of the high, 'Alpine' routes alluded to above, while James and I stuck to single pitch stuff. After that, we (James and I) decided to do a couple of the long slabby granite sports routes (i.e., no big boots or crampons!) above Ailefroide.

The first of these was Ecrins Total, 5c, 6 pitches, which is an easy and pleasant 20 minutes walk up the valley from Ailefroide, and was very easy to spot due to the prominent triangular slab of whitish granite at the start, which was visible from a long way off. When we arrived there were several parties abseiling off, which was handy as it showed up the descent route, and in particular the final abseil anchor which was not marked on the topo and would not have been obvious on the way down.

Setting off up it with some trepidation (after some sandbags in the morning), we found that it was actually quite easy most of the way, on very rough granite, with plenty of holds most of the time, and very well bolted. So, a very enjoyable route which took about 3 hours up and 1 hour down.

Next day, after the success on Ecrins Total we decided to do the second easiest route in the multi-pitch section: La Cocarde, 5c, 6 pitches. This turned out to be a much tougher proposition - right from the start! The first pitch had a desperate move off a ledge, near the ground, from the 2nd to the 3rd bolt - this was one of the hardest bits of the climb and the bolts were about 4 metres apart! If you fell just before the 3rd bolt you would almost certainly injure yourself on the little ledge just below the 2nd bolt, and then topple over the edge into space, where you would then meet your belayer coming up due to the high fall factor.... I spent a long time trying to get round this impasse - so called 'ethical' considerations would not have held me back if I could have cheated past it. Unfortunately, it became clear that it had to be climbed cleanly or not at all, and my fear of being thought of as a wimp overcame my fear of being helicoptered out to the local hospital. Fortunately, I managed it, and things got slightly better after that! The climbing remained hard, and the bolting never became good, but it wasn't as bad as that anywhere else. By the end I felt like I was starting to get the hang of walking up steep blank slabs with no holds. A route that became very good - in retrospect! (In particular, in the bar with that beer).

Alan and Simon returned that evening, and the next day Alan, James and I went single pitch cragging while Simon rested in order to go back up again the following day with me.

On Thursday Simon and I walked up the Ecrins hut to do the Barre des Ecrins on the Friday. We got woken up by the hut warden at 3.15am, and set off at about 4.10 - in the dark obviously, down onto the glacier and roped up. Unfortunately, due to the lack of a path across the glacier (apparently there is usually one in the snow, but there wasn't any snow!), and the extensive crevasses, we took too long crossing the glacier and by the time dawn came up it was clear that we were short of time, and the weather wasn't great anyway (it looked unlikely that we would do the Barre anyway), so we gave up at that point and walked back down to the valley.

While we were doing all that, Alan and James were doing more of the low level multi pitch stuff. This more or less finished things, apart from a final day of single pitch stuff.

So, overall, a very good trip with many different types of climbing done, and an immense amount more to do. I will be going back.