Living on top of Ben Nevis might sound like fun, but it has its drawbacks. Like today we had snow almost down to our garden, and it's only the beginning of October! Actually Vallouise is only 1,200m., more than 100 meters lower than the summit of the Ben but today at least it feels like we are perched on the UK's highest mountain; cold westerlies stream in and the bullet-blue sky is full of atumnal reds, golds and browns. A good time indeed to look forward to the winter season ahead and review what is in store for you sport ice freaks! Ever since climbing the route Holiday on Ice in the Ecrins Massif's famous Ceillac Valley, back in the nineties, I was a convert. This was not the damp masochism of Scottish winter. This was not the tingling fear of alpine mixed. I'd climbed throughout the world, from the wilds of Patagonia to Himalayan extremes, and if you'll forgive the turn of phrase, I was hooked. Icefalls, or as the locals poetically call them "cascades de glace", are a particularly euro pastime. And as usual, Brits are amongst the last to join in the fun. So keen to make up for lost time, I moved out to Vallouise, gateway to the Ecrins Ice area in 2003 and ideally placed to reap the icy fruit this amazing area has to offer. I was not disappointed that's for sure, but the thing that really hit me was how the French have managed to turn a decidedly brutal and barbaric sport into a thoroughly civilized one! 10 minute walk-ins from the car park, in-situ gear, bolted belays and beautiful weather, and all before a three course lunch go to make-up the typical day out on Sport Ice.
A brief history of Sport Ice Climbing The whole pure ice thing is in fact very new, even here in the Ecrins Massif where local climbers have been active for centuries and the region's highest peak, The Barre Des Ecrins (4,102m) was first climbed as far back as 1864. 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 such as the Troussier brothers (Stephane climbed 8a this year aged 50!), Pschitt Perrier and Christophe Moulin began opening up icefalls on their doorstep. Ceillac Valley was the first to fall with its five-minute approaches, bolted belays and easy footpath descents. Then the boys moved up into the Fournel Valley above L'Argentiere-la-BessÈe and the creation of France's sport ice Mecca was begun. The launch in 1991 of Europe's largest ice climbing meet "ICE" (now in its 16th year) together with the brilliant website www.ice-fall.com detailing the condition of local climbs throughout the season, were the other two vital ingredients that have resulted in making the Ecrins Massif the numero uno sport ice destination across the EEC.
Ceillac Valley 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 ice 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. Access to the ice climbs is 2km beyond the centre of Ceillac, and parking is right in front of the ski lifts. Tool up by your car, walk ten minutes and you'll find climbs between 70m and 250m long, with bolted belays and grades from 2 to 5+. Descent is either by abseil (not recommended if busy) or via the footpath that runs along the top of the climbs. Try Easy Rider (70m - II/3) to warm up on and then Holiday on Ice (250m - II+/3+) yielding seven pitches of pure gully fun including an exciting 85-degree section to provide fuel for the evening's banter.
Fournel Valley The Fournel Valley has arguably the greatest concentration of quality sport ice routes in the Ecrins. Since 1981 climbers have been developing its rich pickings and this ten km long valley now boasts over 100 routes of all grades, and from 30m to 700m in verticality! Access is easy from L'Argentiere-La Bessee where it is well sign posted, and it takes only five minutes by car from the town's centre to gain entrance to the first sector "Hiroshima" or "Secteur Du Bas". Above this it just depends on how much snow has fallen and how far the road has been cleared. 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. At the beginning of January, the road is almost always cleared up to these chalets for the annual international ice festival ICE (Ice Climbing Ecrins) in L'Argentiere. To find out about road conditions phone the Mairie (Mayor) of L'Argentiere on +33 492 23 10 03. Incidentally the next ICE festival is on the 09-13th January 2008. Where amongst other things they have hot spiced wine waiting for you on descent!
To find out about ICE 2008 visit www.ice-fall.com. Routes to do include Sexy Gully (180m - II/4), Capitaine Courageux (200m - III/4), Hiroshima (150m - III/5), La vision de Marco (100m - II/3), Colosses de Rhodes (700m - V/4+), Iznogood (60m - II/3), Double Scotch (80m - III/5), and Davidoff (200m - II/4+). [b]Freissinieres Valley[/b] Freissinieres Valley is a magical place with well over 100 pure ice, mixed and dry tooling climbs at literally every grade up to WI 7 and M10. There is even an "Ecole De Dry" for the dry debutante. Freissinieres is the next valley over from Fournel, running parallel to it, and only 15 minutes drive from L'Argentiere. To access the valley take the main road towards Gap (RN94) and just before La Roche De Rame look for a small turning on your right (D38) sign posted to Freissinieres. Shortly after passing the main village of Freissinieres you'll see the first ice climb of the valley, the classic Fracastorus, on your left. The routes extend all the way on both sides right up to the car park at Dormillouse at the head of the valley. The narrow approach road is almost always kept open as people live year-round at Dormillouse, a tiny alpine hamlet which feels more Nepalese than French. Be warned though, snow chains are normally essential if you want to get right to the end. This is a worthwhile excursion though, because the huge 650m ice walls of the Tete De Gramusat have to be seen to be believed. Routes to tick include Frenesie Basquaise (280m III/2) - ideal for the beginner with an easy walk-off, Fracastorus (200m - II/3+), Paulo Folie (180m - III/3), Torrent de Naval (450m - III/3), Happy Together (120m - III/4), Cascade des Violins (150m - III/6), and Geronimo (550m - IV/5) - one of the longest on the Tete and a real classic with a cigar on the penultimate pitch. So forget that long slog up north this season, come down and experience a slice of Sport Ice.
But remember SPORT ICE IS NOT LIKE SPORT ROCK! Always treat this fragile medium with the respect it deserves. When ice breaks it takes no prisoners. Always seek local advice, talk to guides and fellow climbers about the current conditions, and find out what has been happening to the area recently. Unlike mixed climbing in the UK, where fickle conditions can often make you charge onto the first thing you see, with Sport Ice falls you can afford to start slow and build your grade up gradually during your stay. And finally, don't forget, sharp tools are essential on pure ice routes, so make sure you pack your file. Have fun and hopefully see you out here! Jerry Gore You can drop Jerry an email for local route info through his Alp Base website.