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Ecrins Ice

Photo: Anne Arran

John Arran on the crux column pitch of Cascade Les Viollins, WI5

Time to swing a pick on sparkling Ecrins Ice?

The scale of this place is mind blowing. A veritable forest of ice, draped like glistening tinsel from festive hillsides. Millions of finely formed chandeliers hang tantalisingly, intermingled with fatter, temptingly easier ice flows. Trees stand defiant, cloaked in a layer of fresh snow. Most lines are in perfect condition, although there is an avalanche risk in some sectors due to the accumulation of snow above, helpfully identified in the guide with appropriate warnings. The development of most of the routes started in the late 80's but the first ascents of some of the easier lines were earlier and the first ascentionists unrecorded.

How cold?

Looking out of the car window I can't wait; it's hard to contain the desire to be amongst it, hooking and scrunching into the elaborate ice flutings. But then I remember that this is a warm car and out there is cold, hot-aches territory. This year I've brought four pairs of gloves, but will that be enough? It is easy to see the condition of most routes from the road, cross-referencing the pictures in the guide with evidence from your own eyes as to which colonettes are fully formed.

There is something distinctly satisfying about scaling these frozen palaces, finding good placements and removing excess delicate ice, hearing it fall through the silence with a CLINK, Clink, clink. Not being an ice god, after three to five pitches my calves are screaming for mercy and, however attractive the prospect may be, pain suppresses any real desire to attempt the monster routes on the very impressive Tête de Gramusat in Freissinières. Maybe next year!

Photo: Alastair Cornah

Giles Cornah dry tooling on Double Dry, M7, Fournel


Giles Cornah shows his fitness

Fitness however is not a problem for our British friend Giles Cornah, who now lives in the local Pelvoux valley and plans to enter the Ice World Cup in Saas Fee in Switzerland in 2007. Francois Lombard, former World Cup winner in 1994 and regular competitor, also lives nearby. Now Giles is working on new mixed lines with the blessing of the local FFME guide in charge of supervising any re-equipping of the area. This of course means visitors will have the opportunity of more mixed options this winter.

Out springs Tim

We drive on along the icy and narrow track, between high banks of cleared snow, and spot Giles and Tim Emmet in a van. They are on the way back from climbing and we are just scoping the place out. "Ah, Arrans," we hear as Tim springs from the car. "Got any good pics then?" I ask, aware that we are fully blocking the road beneath the Tête de Gramusat but equally aware that only about two cars an hour pass by here during the week. "Yeah, on my phone, look here," he replies. We spend a couple of minutes examining the contents of Tim's mobile, with which he takes some shockingly fine pictures - you couldn't get a much more gripping angle anyway. Instantly up there on the Tête de Gramusat - what a view - wild! Giles is doing some amazing move off two tiny pick edges onto a stalactite. Thinking about this it looks like any one move could be possible and I am secretly hoping that these great mixed conditions hold out so I can have a go. Tim disappears back off to Scotland and we clear the roadblock.

Photo: John Arran

Anne Arran enjoying Cascade du Bois I/3+,
secteur Hiroshima, Val du Fournel

Part of the beauty of this place is that you can climb easy ice or attempt some of the hardest mixed desperates all in the same trip. At Freissinières and Val de Fournel a degree of driving dexterity is required to reach the end of these valleys and sometimes it is only possible on foot. In fact our poor 2-wheel drive car was thwarted by the Fournel drive. But we did learn the layout of the land and vowed to return early in the morning.

What to expect & recommended climbs

The Val du Fournel (1300m-1700m) lies just above the small village of L'Argentiere La Bessée and has more than 100 routes from grade 3 to 6, including many around 200-300 metres long. It is possible to climb here after having made a late start. The first sector, Hiroshima, contains the classic Hiroshima III/5. Moving up the road there is some easier mixed climbing at sector Point Jaune, starting at M4+.

Freissinières is the hardcore climbers' valley since most of the routes range around grade 5 and 6 with plenty of mixed climbing pitches on the demanding Tête de Gramusat. It takes around one hour 15 minutes to reach the base and route times are quoted as 7 hours or more for most routes. This magnificent cliff is mostly mixed style and is fairly conditions-dependent, with some challengingly thin flutings. Currently the hardest route is Quartier Nord at M10, and the the best line is taken by the 7-pitch Gramusat Direct (IV, 6, 320m). There are easier ice options elsewhere in the valley making it a good target for all.

Photo: Anne Arran

John Arran climbing a new ice route at Ceillac to the left of Sombre Heros. This is normally the M7+ Prends Moi Sec when there is less ice


Near the entrance to the valley, Cascade des Viollins (III, 5+, 150m) is a magnificent outing, overlooking the tiny and picturesque village of Les Viollins. Originally given grade 6, this route settled down to 5+, although sometimes a second cigar forms and may be climbed at a sporting 5.

At the head of the valley, sector Les Simsons [sic!] is a good introduction to the area, offering some great short (30-60m) routes, Madame Tape Dur (II/4), les Bidochons (I/4) and les Simsons (I/4) - particularly friendly to untrained calves!

The nearby Tahiti Douche sector is popular due to its accessible and amenable mixed routes, but it was taped off on our last visit, climbers having ignored guide-book warnings and been killed by ice falling from high above the small climbs. Local mountain guide and Briançon doctor Pierre Muller, who was part of the attempted rescue, advocates finding out as much information as possible about local conditions, and avoiding being there at all when there are many climbers around.

Ceillac (1600m) faces NE and has a super-amenable atmosphere. The venue was discovered in late 1979 and the ice here is often in good condition and the belays comfortable. With only 13 listed routes it's a very small area, but has some wonderful climbs. Wonderful too is the après-climb option of sitting in the comfort of the hotel café, cappuccino or mulled wine in hand, watching other climbers progress up the routes you've just finished. From Guillestre take the D902 towards Chateau-Queyras. At la Maison du Roy take a right onto the D60 towards Ceillac. Ten minutes walk will get you to any of the routes. We recommend Sombre Heros and les Formes du Chaos.

Photo: John Arran

Three climbers attempting Les Pylons, La Grave

Cervieres is a classic half-day area with a bunch of single pitch ice routes and some dry tooling. It is often used as a teaching venue.

La Grave is a more traditional area

La Grave is good for anyone who likes to climb ice, with some routes accessible in just one minute! Mid-December to mid-March is the season, during which conditions should be pretty reliable on the North-facing side of the valley. January is definitely best for the more fickle conditions of the South-facing side, but when they're formed many of these routes are longer and among the most accessible.
A wide range of grades and options on both sides of the valley means that usually there will be a suitable objective in condition.

Location, location, ... & accommodation



The town of La Grave is on the RN91 west of the 2058m Col du Lautaret. The valley beneath the town contains over 70 listed ice climbs, for which walk-ins typically take less than 40mins. The town of Argentiere La Bessée lies on the other side of the Col du Lautaret, to the South of Briançon on the N94.


Southerners can fly from Southampton to Chambery with Flybe, or from Stansted to Turin or Milan with Ryanair. Alternatively EasyJet and BmiBaby fly from many UK airports to Geneva and with a little more driving both Lyon and Nice offer further options. Don't forget snow chains for the hire car.



There are numerous hotels and gîtes in La Grave and the surrounding villages. We were well looked after in the budget hotel Le Farranchin up the road in Villar d'Arène, and also heard very good reports about the economical Gîte de Rocher which is in La Grave itself. The local tourist office is extremely helpful and happy to answer queries in English: tel +33 (0)4 76 79 90 05; fax +33 (0)4 76 79 91 65; email ; internet .

Close to Freissinières I can recommend Giles Cornah's guest house in Pelvoux, ideal for groups of up to 9 people looking for good value catered accommodation. It is well placed for climbing and village skiing/boarding, being in the midst of the main climbing areas of the Ecrins, and only five minutes walk from the piste in winter. Tariff: 15 euros b&b, or 32 euros full board per person per night, with dinner and packed lunch. The food is excellent. It is also run by climbers, so any local info on routes/conditions will be readily available. Email: ; phone: 0033492232890.


Photo: John Arran

Les Valseuses III/5 or 5+, 80m, La Grave

Also Recommended near Vallouise is, which offers a number of accommodation options for families or climbers in the Valloise area, with optional courses and add-on activities available. Highlights were the apartment's quality, family feel and the useful, well-thought-out information sheets. Contact Jerry Gore () for booking and further information. More general alternatives may be found on and


This article, by Anne Arran, first appeared on in January 2007.