Text and pictures © 2004-2020 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"I asked her last july what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said: 'A contortionist. And a dominatrix. And an ice climber — rock climbing is for pussies'." — ^,,^ about 10 year old Zola.
Right: Vincent on a mixed M5+/6 at Cerviere.
February 2005 — "I've always hated climbing on ice, my hands get regularly frozen till I almost vomit, I stress enormously trying to avoid the plates of ice crushing down on me while the leader is climbing, I get frustrated looking at the other side of the valley which is full of sunshine while we are idling in the most humid and cold corner of he mountains.
It has always been a mystery for me why some climbers find amusing passing their winter in such a manner, and yet I've always endured feeling miserable and sorry for myself.
Left: Jenny leading WI4 at Cervieres
But now something had changed... It must have been the feelings of loneliness living alone in a complete foreign country speaking a language that I still don't feel comfortable with that made me mentally stronger and autonomous, or maybe it's just my new tools !!!
Anyway I've started to crave for frozen icefalls and Briançon, the small town on the south Alps in France were I now live, is certainly one of Europe's ice climbing Meccas.
Left: Jenny leading WI4 at Cervieres, belayed by Betty.
At just 30 minutes distance driving from my house some of the most well known valleys are hiding such as Fournel, Fressinière and la Grave; here I've recently been lurking and finally discovered the so long sought mystery of pleasure of ice climbing: the sense of power that overcome while handling tools that place themselves perfectly in the steep ice, the beauty of some ice pillars reflecting the blue light, the technical and challenging moves on some dry sections, and the acclamation of all those cute guys when they see a chick leading on ice..."
Right: René on the grade 6 crux column of the Viollins, Freissiniere.
The Vallée du Fournel just above the small village of L'Argentiere-La Bessée (recently renamed to L'Argentière-les-Ecrins to try to attract more tourists) is the most popular place to climb ice in the region with more than 100 routes ranging between grade 3 and 6 and many long routes around 200/300 meters. The approach normally takes 10 minutes to 1.30h if the road is open till the summer parking which is the case just after the annual Ice Festival (beginning of January) or in poor snowfall year ( like this year). One day I've counted 17 cars at the parking lot but everybody disappeared in the valley choosing different climbs. Classics such as Hiroshima, Davidoff, Les Nains des Ravines, le Colosse de Rhodes, le Géant des Tempetes, Le Monde des Glaces, Delicados are just amazing climbs in an awesome wild environment. In really low temperature condition you can climb the pillars on the south face of the valley wile getting warmed up by the sun.
Left: 4th pitch of Le Géant des Tempêtes, grade 5, in the Fournel valley
Freissinières is the valley for the hardcore climbers since most of the routes range around grade 5 and 6 with a lot of mixed modern pitches, anyway there are a bunch of routes for mortals such as Fracastorus and the Torrent de Gramusat, very fun climbs indeed. Super-classic Les Viollins, with its beautiful pillar grade 6 and its 20 minutes approach is considered a must. This year the conditions have been exceptional downgrading the climb at a 5 with its double pillar and dihedral style of climb, the crux is getting through a hole in the ice. The Gramusat Direct and its 320 meters is an immense curtain of ice sometime leaning on the rock some other just hanging in space.
La Grave is a small village on the road between Grenoble and Briançon, the icefalls are all visible from the road with ridiculously short approaches. At the end of the day skiers and climbers get their reward in some Creperie sightseeing the astonishing show of the unfolding glacier of La Meije (3982m).
Ceillac is an other area for lazy climbers. South from Briançon (40 minutes drive) with 5 minutes of easy approach climbers stand in queue at the base of Le Y de Gauche or Les Formes Du Chaos, this last one climbs the icefall that drops from cave to cave in a superb environment and comfortable belays.
Left: Jenny leading WI4 in the Fournel valley.
Cervieres is a classic half day area with a bunch of single pitch ice routes and some dry tooling. There are thousand of gullies and couloirs doable in spring season for the harsh feeling of adventure in the high mountains.
Left: Base of L'Arlesienne at Ceillac.
Right: The long waterfall starting right off the tunnel on the road to La Grave. Its orientation makes it so that it's rarely in very good conditions but no matter what, there are always people on it !
Right: Tonino dry tooling. Admire the style... C;-)
Left: Jenny trying for a pumpier dry-tooling overhang.
Right: Some ice in the Vallon du Diable. 2007 was a very poor year for ice climbers. Virtually no ice anywhere in the Alps, the little ice to be found there was wet, unstable and crowded. Here in this remote and high valley there are normally 80 formed icefalls. That day you were lucky to find 5 that were climbable. And all of it was wet. 'Les larmes du chaos' is almost hidden on the left.
Left: Jenny on 'Les larmes du Chaos' in the Vallon du Diable.
Right: Jenny finishing up 'Les larmes du Chaos' in the Vallon du Diable. The other side of the valley is south facing and the ice there looked about as solid as your average meringue.
Left: Some ice, but not much, in the Vallon du Diable.
Left: Christmas 2007, first ice climb of the season, and almost the last one. I'm leading the 3rd pitch, looking for the belay after 55m when I hear a loud 'snap'. 3 pitches above me I see a large free-standing free-falling towards me. After a bunch of small vertical steps I'm on easy grounds, the last screw a good 10 meters previously. In 2 or 3 huge and desperate steps I cover the remaining 5 meters to reach the barely adequate protection under the next vertical step while screaming for rope. I reach it as the exploding ice pelters my legs, the rope and my 2 partners down below. We retreat hastily, leaving a good screw.
Right: Jenny arriving at the belay in the Vallon du Diable.
Left: With Agostino on an easy classic, with the south-side falls in good conditions (for once !) visible in the background.
Right: Some ice too small to climb ?
Left: Less known than the areas of the Fournel or Freissiniere, there are also some intersting icefalls near Embrun, some km south of Briançon.
Right: Jenny after the climb.
Left: Some choice of ice.