In July 1998 we made two attempts to tackle Pic de la Grave, in the Ecrins Massif, near Grenoble. We chose Ecrins as, although we have a fair bit of experience on snow, we are not rock climbers and the usual "beginner's alps" in Chamonix would have proved too trouser-filling for me - Ecrins has a wider mix of routes.
The first attempt, on our first day in the Alps, was an absolute scrub. We were both amazed by the difference that altitude made and we were carrying all of our gear in our packs - only 15kg, but still 10kg too much. The rest of that day will be another story, involving a little fall, descent of the wrong couloir, and a zoom down a glacier trying to find the hut before the storm hit.
Went back to Pic de la Grave, this time with every intent to do it. We started this epic from Les Deux Alpes, a sort of Southend-on-Snow, where we were to base ourselves for the rest of the holiday to avoid carrying these damn packs. We took the morning's first telepherique back onto the ice, had a good long glacier walk, crossing over the highest peak around more or less without noticing. The altitude was still slaying us, but at least the weather was the perfect Beau Temps.
The peak is a PD (about a III/IV in English money, which we thought ought to stretch us technically) and the crux is in the middle and probably a IV. After traversing the bergschrund you have a 10-15m ice wall (about 45-60 degrees, hardly a killer) up to a buttress. You then have a bolted traverse along the top of the slope to a corner, another tiny ice wall, and then just the rocky step to the top.
Well, it was tourist central with at least four other parties on the mountain. We got to the foot of the bergschrund just behind a party of four, being led by a clearly experienced old alpine goat with his significant other at the back (she had a cute butt - I got to study it a lot). They got up the slope to the rocky buttress OK, and I zoomed up the steep ice slope on front points and axe to the foot of the buttress. No technical problems at all, and all that work I had been doing on the weights really worked, although Frank was perhaps less confident. The second person in the guided party lost his footing while traversing the slope and, despite being on tight ropes front and back, freaked and welded himself to the buttress
It took that party an hour and a half to winch him and his equally freaked missus back down, while I stood on front points below them looking for a way past that didn't involve crossing their rope. At last, they were off and I had a clear route. I did the traverse in about 30 seconds (annoying), and out onto the final ice slope leading to the arête. I had waited too long - water was cascading down the ice.
|Here are some views from the Pic, and
the other mountains in the area, from local snapper Jean-Marie
Malherbe (slow to load).
Below is a picture of the Bergschrund, with the crux of the climb visible as a narrow chimney to the right of the ice fall. It's actually quite broad. The Pic is out of shot to the left.
Back to Frank, to find that the altitude and 90-minute stationery wait had taken its toll - he was very cold and unable to focus on his ropework. I got Frank tied to a bolt and reset the ropes for the classic absail retreat. Just one problem - I'd never absailed before, although I had watched a video before we left. Ulp. Anyway, Frank got down OK and I followed him rather gingerly (trying not to remember the accident statistics) leaving us with a walk back across the glacier in time for the last car down to the pub.
What did we learn from this holiday?:
Will we go back? Absolutely ! Now read about our 200 expedition to the Dolomites.