Text and pictures © 2004-2014 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2012/12/07
"When it comes to skiing, there's a difference between what you think it's going to be like, what it's really like, and what you tell your friends it was like."
Above: The Pelvoux Refuge and the Pte of Celse Niere in the background. The couloir visible above the roof of the hut is the semi-classic Pelas Verne couloir (50deg).
Left: Video of the start of the ski descent from the summit ridge of Pelvoux towards the Violettes glacier (left of the rocks).
The main summits of the Ecrins range are 'La Barre des Ecrins', 'La Meije' and the Pelvoux, with many other contenders. Only the first one reaches 4000 meters, but several of the others hover just below that. In all those years of coming irregularly in the area I've only managed to climb the Meije a long time ago via a solid 5.10 route on the south face. Now is the time for something different, a ski traverse of the Pelvoux.
Right: Jumping between crevasses and seracs down the Violettes glacier.
There's been a lot of snow this year in Briançon so even though we are a bit late in the season, Vincent claims we'll be able to ski up right from the Ailefroide parking lot. Right. When we get there, it's all green grass, purple flowers and happy marmots. We carry the skis half the time during our afternoon hike up to the Pelvoux refuge. The other half of the time we ski up very soft and heavy snow. The winter part of the refuge is already full: 6 german skiers and 3 other people we know.
The night is barely cold enough and the germans have started at 3am. At 5am we start with a few meters of rock climbing in the back of the refuge and 5 minutes later we are already overtaking the germans. The snow is hard and the area is globally exposed, probably the reason why we are the only two going up with the skis while all the others use crampons. The weather is quite cloudy and the forecast was to have the general conditions degrade by the afternoon. After crossing the Bosse de Sialouze and and reaching the namesake glacier in the fog, we have a little talk with the other 3 climbers. The descent on the other side must absolutely be done in good visibility. They decide to go down from where we stand while we keep going up. After a short time the weather clears up and from high up on the Coolidge couloir we see the germans reaching the glacier... as well as our friends who've changed their mind halfway through the descent.
Right: The last snow couloir before arriving at the Pré de Mme Carle, end of the trip.
The summit ridge is windy and the summit above is lost in the fog. The visibility is good on the east side, so we just skip the summit and start going down the complex itinerary of the Violettes glacier. An easy snow slope on the Pelvoux glacier crosses into the Violettes glacier, skirting seracs, down a rock cliff (skis off, and often a rappel is necessary), below a dangerous serac section and into a very long couloir of soft and patchy snow. Down, down, down for 2600 meters. At a certain point the couloir turns into a large cliff and we cross to the left on a ledge for a few hundred meters. The funny thing is that I can actually see the belays anchors of some of the rock routes arriving on this ledge ! I'd skied before in couloirs where other people where climbing with ice axe and crampons, but never where the rock routes are 5.10 and above ! A final couloir (le couloir des militaires) takes us down to the Pré de Mme Carle, the large flat fields at the bottom of the valley. There a long boring walk down the cleaned up but not-open-yet road and we are back to the car.
Left: Lower part of the descent, a hard to find but critical ledge with just enough snow to cut across to the next snow gully. Otherwise you end up having to downclimb 5.10 with skis...
The only thing spoiling the fun is that although our 10:30 timing up and down the mountain is far from being slow, the previous day a guy broke a speed record going up and down in 3 hours and 13 minutes... Makes you want to start collecting stamps instead.
Above: A panoramic view of a critical section of the descent, still on the left of the Violettes glacier. If there's enough snow, you can ski on the right of the bump, right onto the glacier. Otherwise you have to go left for a rappel or a bit of downclimbing like we had to do. On the right, the narrow couloir between the hanging seracs (right) and the rock ridge (left) is the classic Chaux gully.
Right: Panorama taken from the Glacier Noir. Left to right: Barre des Ecrins, the bottom of the glacier, Mt Pelvoux, Pic Sans Nom, the Coup de Sabre (the sword cleave), Ailefroide and the Temple pass.
Left: Going up the 'Couloir de la Breche du Glacier Noir'
Right: The upper part of the couloir becomes rocky but is skiable earlier in the season (50° slope)
Left: Peak Coolidge shadowing the Ecrins, above the Glacier Noir.
Right: The Glacier Noir pass. Left to right: a short rappel down to the Sialouze glacier, Ailefroide, Ecrins, couloir down to the Glacier Noir, ridge leading to the Coup de Sabre.
Left: Skiing down the other side, the easy Sialouze glacier.
Right: Hideous rock covered snow on the last snow. Remnants of now mostly melted avalanches.
Left: Finish on foot trough bushes and rivers...
Left: Early morning light on Mt Pelvoux.
The 4088m Barre des Ecrins is an obvious target in summer, being the only 4000m peak in the southern Alps it tends to attract lots of passing climbers. In winter its summit is too steep and rocky to be skied except by the most fearless, so the obvious destination becomes the secondary summit called the Dome, just 73 meters lower.
Left: Trying to reach the Glacier Blanc by the left side of the valley. In summer the normal way is to go on the right via the trail to the hut, but in winter it's faster to take the snow covered slope. Except that here we are late in the season, the slope is almost dry with a lot of frozen mud warming up in the sun and lots of stuck rocks getting ready to go. We are also way too late in the day, having woken up at 6am for a 2000m climb. Yes, that's a freshly frozen avalanche and the blocks were so unpractical that we had to remove the skis.
Right: Looking back at the Pelvoux.
Right: The impressive north side of the Ecrins as seen from the Glacier Blanc. The Dome is visible while the true summit itself is hidden in the clouds. At about that time it started getting extremely windy.
Right: North face of the Ecrins, with Agostino right under the serac, if still some safe distance away. It takes only 2 minutes to cross under the serac, but it's a very nervous 2 minutes.
Right: About 40 people going up and a few already coming down the upper part of the north face of the Ecrins. Is the big serac visible enough now ?
Right: Upper part of the north face of the Ecrins, with the ski tracks clearly visible.
Right: Shortly before the final traverse under the main summit. Plenty of people under the Lory breach (pass).
Left: The traverse under the summit. On a warmer day I'd be a bit nervous of the rockfall danger.
Right: The normal way for either summit is to go to the pass in between.
Right: Summit of the Dome des Ecrins. The wind is still blowing strong. We arrived on the summit shortly after about 40 other people, most of them guided parties having started from the Ecrins hut. They didn't wait long on the summit, but the wind calmed down about the time we got there.
Left: Skiing down the wide slope of the Ecrins, way above the Glacier Blanc. Not too much crevasse risk on that day.
Right: Agostino self portrait. After 2000m up the Ecrins, he felt like he hadn't had his fair share of exercise yet, so he went up for an extra 500m up Roche Faurio, which is where I took my pics of the Ecrins last year.
Right: Roche Faurio and the Glacier Blanc. The Meije is in the background.
Above: The Taillefer range, seen from the Grand Renaud: the Grand Armet on the left and the Taillefer itself on the right, with the Ornon pass underneath.
Left: Etendard peak (3464m, left) and Grand Renaud (2776m) seen from the Petit Renaud (2606m).
Above: Ski tracks on an antecima of the Rochail, the 4th summit of my tour. On the left are the three Aiguilles d'Arve, then on the right of the Rochail, the Malhaubert point and the Confolens point.
Above: As seen from the Neyrard: the Ornon peak, the Rochail, Malhaubert and Confolens.
Left: The petit Renaud, first summit of the tour.
Right: Evening light on the Devoluy.
Left: The whole tour visible from the last summit, the Clottous.
Left: Above the Lauvitel lake, after a rather shitty traverse on soft snow and loose rock.
Right: Emanuele eating cold pasta salad.
Left: We can't be very far from the summit, right ? Wrong, it'll take us 8 hours on the way up: it's far and quite technical, requiring crampons, ski-crampons and lots of changes in progression method.
Right: Emanuele reaching the summit of the Muraillette, with the Muzelle in the back.
Left: Just below the summit of the Muraillette is this exposed traverse: a layer of 45° crust with 50cm of powder snow underneath and random rocks sticking out. All this fun with a 50m cliff right underneath...
Above: The impressive Tete de la Muzelle.
Left: The Aiguille de l'Olan and the Maximin couloir on the right edge.
Right: The classic Maximin couloir. I found it in poor conditions: hard snow. The lower part is 50° but not too exposed while the upper part is a sustained 45° with a 100m cliff below, in case you felt like falling off your skis.
Right: The Lavey hut.
Above: Fetoules et Etret on the right.
Left: Early start from Villard d'Arene, daylight catches up with us only above the hut.
Right: Here's our destination: The 'Pic de Neige Cordier' (Cordier snow peak). We are supposed to go up and down an easier pass hidden to the right, but I'm actually tempted to come straight down the couloir in the middle since there are fresh tracks in it.
Right: Panoramic view of the peak from the moraine of the Arsine glacier.
Right: Looking down at the Arsine glacier.
Right: Another view of the peak showing the couloir used on the way up.
Left: Coming up on the glacier with the low grazing light from the sunrise.
Right: Higher up into the couloir. As you may notice I'm trailing in the distance. I have the excuse that I'm taking pictures, but the truth is more that they have super light equipment that weight way less than half of mine.
Left: Cecile and Christine going up the couloir, with the skis on the pack.
Right: On the upper part of the peak, the only exposed section.
Right: A view to the north: Grande Ruine (left) and Gaspard Peak / Meije (right).
Right: Final section of the Cordier. There's a rocky section at the very end to rech the summit.
Left: Below the summit, great perspective on the Barre des Ecrins. From the Emile Peak pass visible here, you can either ski down towards the Glacier Blanc and the Ecrins (left), or around the back side of the Cordier to go back to Villard d'Arene. We decided on the later, but the snow proved horrible.
Right: Crusty snow. Frozen snow. Hard snow. Icy snow. Just about everything except good snow. How many words do eskimos have for snow already ? I'm pretty sure skiers have just about as much. We should have rather skied the transformed east slopes. And the hours spent pushing on the poles on the flats at the bottom before reaching the car was the deal breaker, particularly when Cecile and Christine both have carbon fiber skis with titanium bindings weighting one third as much as mine and they chat while doing cross-country motions while I trudge along. Long day.
Left: Evening view on the Agneaux (left background), the Chamoissiere peak (center, the Villard d'Arene alpine hut is just at the base, hardly visible), the Grande Ruine and the local weather station.
Above: Great sunrise colors on the Pic de Neige Cordier and its notorious east couloir.
Left: Early morning start on the Arsine glacier towards the Agneaux. The classic Piaget couloir looks to be in awesome conditions, but we'll go up the left side (not visible between the rocks) and down the other side.
Right: A good 400m to go before the summit of the Agneaux.
Left: Summit of the Agneaux. Snack, removal of skins but no change of clothing: it was cold on the ascent of the north face, we'll be in the sun for part of the descent, that is until we reach the Davin.
Right: Other skiers reaching the top of the Agneaux. The north face direct descent starts right on the left of them.
Left: Descent of the Agneaux.
Right: The steepest section, that is until we reach the Davin whose start is visible here on the other start of the flats.
Left: After a short walk up I launch into the famed Davin. One of the most classic 'steep' couloirs of the southern Alps, it is most often down from its side entry. But this year the top is fat with snow and rides in large curves.
Right: Two climbers about to reach the steepest and narrowest crux section of the Davin. There were two others behind me I wanted to photograph, but my friends who had taken the side entrance were already all the way down the couloir. Time to ride.
Left: Vincent jumping off rocks after the descent of the Davin, visible in the center of the image. More than 2000m today...
Right: A view of the Davin (right, next to the glacier), the Small Davin (left) and some crazy shit in the middle, seen while going to the Arsine pass.
Right: Last sunlight on the summit of the Agneaux, seen from the Arsine hut
While going up the Agneaux for the Davin descent a week ago, I had the opportunity to take a close look at the north face and the breathtaking Piaget couloir. It wasn't the plan on that day, but a week later I'm back. Instead of doing the long flat and muddy approach via Villard d'Arene, I option to start from the Casset, without knowing in what conditions I'll find the shepherd's hut. I gather a bit of firewood while I'm still in the forest, but I'll be incapable of lighting it (too wet). I reach the hut a few seconds before the sun sets on the summit of the Agneaux, giving me a glimpse of what is to come. The hut is great, and even packed with leftover food, wich goes great with my tiny sandwich.PL(); IR("../Photo/640/20090424_102004_AgneauxNorthFaceDirect.jpg", "Instants before diving into the direct north face descent of the Agneaux. The first curve is on 50-deg hard snow, which makes me doubt as it's really dicey, but the second one happens to be in powder snow."); PR(); IL("Ecrins/20090424_104354_AgneauxNorthFaceDirect.jpg", "Halfway through the descent, looking back at my tracks in the powder."); PL(); IR("Ecrins/20090424_111101_AgneauxNorthFaceDirect.jpg", "A view of the NW face, with the Piaget as the obvious diagonal and the direct, being, well, direct from the summit... The tracks are visible at higher magnification, after all the face is a good 900m tall."); PR(); IL("Ecrins/20090424_112232_AgneauxPano.jpg", "A more general view of the north face of the Agneaux, with the various up and down ways visible."); PL(); ?>
Right: The Rouies, seen from the Sirac.
Left: Crowds passing briefly under a serac. The various summits of the Sirac are visible but very rarely skied.
The Valgaudemard valley is one of the most remote of the Ecrins range. I'd never gone there until I took this 2 hour drive in the middle of the night to reach the end of the road early for an ascent of the Sirac. A report on skitour.fr the previous day promised "powder snow from top to bottom and nobody". The first part of the trail is on rocks and doesn't gain any altitude. It traverses some old snow patches, hardened by the night freeze.
Right: Crowds at the V pass of the Sirac. And the promised powder snow is all but gone: ice balls, crust, heavy and sticky but no powder!
Left: Going down in the too narrow first meters of the pass.
I walk groggily from the long drive and the lack of sleep when at a certain point I hear something over the music. I remove the earplugs: nothing. I carry on but after a few seconds, I hear it again and leave the plugs off until after a few more strange cries I see a hand moving behind a rock down near the river. I head down and there's a guy with a broken leg: he slipped on the hard snow and hit a large rock hard after having gained too much speed. No phone signal, so I try to make him a bit less miserable until his two friends show up a while later. One of them goes down for help and after over an hour a helicopter shows up and takes him up for a ride. I manage to reach the summit of Sirac pass at the same time than the groups who left from the hut halfway up...
Right: Vincent jumping a bit too high during the descent.
Left: The upper and steepest part of the couloir. The main danger are the rocks hidden under the snow: hit one too hard and all bets are off.
I've been at the Glacier Noir pass twice in recent times. Once when we climbed the Emeraude gully 2 years ago and walked it down. And last year when we climbed it to ski the easy other side. This year our target is a variant of the Emeraude gully but when we get to the base there is no ice to be seen, only snow on rocks. Change of plans: we leave all the heavy ice gear at the base and decide to ski the gully, which proves an excellent choice and a good end of the season for me.
Right: A thin layer of powder in most places makes the descent very enjoyable and the exposure is not too bad.
Left: Middle part of the couloir, slightly more relaxing: no rocks, good powder snow.
As we near the base of the gully I notice footsteps and what appear to be ski tracks going off the side to join the end of the Emeraude gully in some insanely steep slopes. After getting some info, it appears our friend Herve skied it the previous day, one of his many first descent in the area.
Right: Middle part of the couloir. Herve skied 'something' in the middle of those rock slopes.
Left: Lower part of the couloir with the schrund visible. The clouds start to close at about that time and we finish the descent in a starting whiteout.
Right: The Rochail already lit by the sun, as seen early from the parking lot. The rock valley can be a pain and dangerous to cross, but there are also good ice climbs in it.
Left: Yesterday's trail towards the summit.
Right: Refuge communal des Sources covered in snow
Left: View on the Ornond peak.
Right: Looking towards the south: the Lauvitel and the Muzelle.
Left: Skiing down the north slope of the Rochail in perfect powder snow.
Right: Other skiers coming up, including an older guy with two titanium knees who goes straight up to avoid having to turn.
Left: Our trace in perfect powder snow.
Right: Different light on the 'Aiguille du Midi' (same name but nothing to do with Chamonix).
Right: 'Pointe de l'Alpe' above the 'Plan de Valfourche'.
Left: North face of Roche Faurio, from the summit of which I took some high-resolution pics.
Right: Going up the Grande Ruine with Benoit.
Left: Roche Faurio and the Ecrins as seen from the summit of the Grande Ruine.
Right: Zoom on the 'Barre des Ecrins', highest summit of the southern Alps.
Left: Skiing below the summit in crusty snow.
Right: Farther down in transformed snow.
Left: Several different gullies can be used to go straight down.