Sunday, August 25, 2019

An eclectic mix of alpine climbing.

South Face of the Dibona

 I was about to be joined by John Young for ten days climbing just as the local, Mt Blanc massif weather forecast had gone  awry. A familiar story.   It was, however. considerably better down in the Parc Nationale des Ecrins.  I suggested to John that we head down there and "warm up" by climbing the south face of the Dibona.  John is fundamentally up for any new mountain  adventure and  just said "lets do it " so off we went.

Yet I had last climbed the Dibona exactly ten years ago and the trouble was I had forgotten that I had forgotten three key parts of my original trip. 

We drove from Chamonix leaving in the rain. After a four hour drive we ended up  near the end of the remote Berarde valley where we  parked the car and set off up the path.  The first key thing I had forgotten was how fierce the walk to the Sollier Hut is.  A very steep unrelenting 1000 meters plus walk.

The Hut was busy but not too busy.  Some work had been done on the infrastructure since I was last here  and it was good to be able  to take a [albeit cold] shower.

We were keen to grab an early start the next morning  because our route, the Madier Climb, is the classic of the Dibona and we didn't want to be all tangled up with other groups. The Hut is a ten minute walk from the start of the climb .  If you fell off the climb you would probably land on the roof. We were climbing by about 7.30hrs.  Soon passing through the famous tunnel pitch.
John popping out of the tunnel pitch

 It was several pitches later that I remembered that the climb is a lot longer and considerably more difficult  than my memory recalled.  Still we climbed on, always on fabulous rock and in sensational situations.

Finally the summit , as the photos suggest it's  compact.  We weren't alone as all the climbs on the Dibona naturally converge on its top.  Quite an eclectic set of climbers from every part of Europe.

 A couple of short rappels from the summit followed by some simple but exposed scrambling lead us to the path which took us pack to the hut.  The third thing I had failed to remember is the descent from the hut back to the car is harder work than the ascent.  Ultimately a twelve hour leg shredding day.  "Some warm up climb" John said.

What to do next ?  Well we were down in the Ecrins with a good forecast and it seemed that we should make the most of it.  In particular John had never climbed the Barres des Ecrins.  [One of the 4000 meter peaks  missing from his impressive portfolio.]

Me with the Barres des Ecrins in the background.

We secured a reservation in the Barres des Ecrins Refuge [Hut], which was easier than I had anticipated because the flip side to the ease of reservation   was that not many people were climbing the the Barres des Ecrins because it was intimidatingly  icy and a lot more serious an undertaking than normal- [whatever normal now means in the world of global warming].
We left the road-head at at 10.30hrs and followed a path which was ludicrously busy but after two hours we  troughed down  a welcome omelette at the Glacier Blanc Refuge. After which we continued plodding on to the Ecrins Refuge.  The whole approach walk taking about 4 and half hours.

In this part of the world it is a bit of a tradition for the Hut Guardian to address his  guests with an "After Dinner Speech" -a bit of a conditions report and the weather forecast,freezing temperatures etc etc.
It is also the tradition  for the Guardian to actually wake people up at their designated breakfast time. Ours was at 3.00am. There were only about 8 of us for the early breakfast.

We were a way by 3.45hrs.  Firstly it's all about re-descending about 200vertical meters back down to the glacier. [Global warming] before plodding up the glacier  for an hour or so, where the ground rises up sharply and the difficulties commence.  Suddenly we knew exactly why there were so few people attempting the peak.  It was steep , there was no track, we were surrounded by huge crevasses and it was still dark.  We were forced to front-point up some boiler plate hard ice which was distinctly sketchy, while at the same time thinking it its like this all the way , then , we're going to struggle and that is without the no small matter of returning .
We carried on and to our relief the terrain mellowed out and we followed a good track until we arrived just before the Dome des Ecrins.  This proved to be another tricky obstacle because all the snow had melted into ice.  We had to pitch the final part placing ice screws for protection.  We were able to do this in a controlled and considered manner , yet nevertheless it was far harder than what most people would sign up to.

Once we were on the Dome we had to make our way on to the ridge of the Barres des Ecrins. This part of the climb benefited from the dry conditions and the climb to the summit was magnificent. Alpine climbing at its best. We moved  quickly along the rocky exposed ridge and were on the summit for 9.00hrs.

The summit of Les Barres des Ecrins
  To the north we could see Mt Blanc . To the south Monte Viso. We took  some photos, then  something to eat and then it was back down again.   The rocky ridge went well .  We were able to circumnavigate the icy ascent of the Dome des Ecrins by a rappel.

The rapel avoiding the icy slope of ascent in the background
 A group of four french climbers very kindly let us jump on their ropes.  We made the descent with some  trepidation while pondering how we were best going to negotiate the treacherous icy section. As it happened the snow had warmed up the track and we found our crampons bit in to the ice well.  We were able to weave our way down through the crevasses, the  intimidating snow bridges and steep slopes with no problems.  Then it was just a case of knuckling down to walk the 2000 meter vertical descent back to the car.   We did stop to trough a couple more  omelettes on the way down which were fairly essential fuel. Still another 12 hour plus day.
Pointing towards Mt Blanc

 Big crevasses spanned by small snow bridges.
We traveled back to Chamonix.   We decided to take a rest.  This also coincided with some bad weather which allowed us to rest without feeling overly guilty.  

We reconvened three days later.  It seemed sensible to change the emphasis from massive mountain days and explore some of the multi- pitch rock climbing .  Firstly we needed to find somewhere that was dry after the apocalyptic rain of the previous days.
We chose to start on the Pantagreul on the Trappistes crag which is near to Sembrancher on the road bewteen Verbier and Martigny.
Penultimate pitch on the fabulous Pantagreul 6a
The next day we headed up the Berard Vallee to climb the modern classic L'Ete Indian.  A stiff hour and halfs walk brings you to the foot of a seven pitch masterpiece all in beautiful remote surroundings.

On our final day we decided to head over to the Col de La Colombiere famous among Tour de France fans as its on the Tour most years.  There is also a huge amount of easily accessible rock climbing.  We chose to climb the route Le Lord Anglais on the pic de Jallouvre. 
Col de la Colombiere
It seemed like a strange name for a climb. May be the last pitch was a clue :  It was much harder than advertised and effectively "sand bagged" us, not unlike the present privileged classes and the Aristocracy is doing to everyone over BREXIT ?

Still a very fine climb to sign off on.