Gran Paradiso

Now-crowded refuge


Gran Paradiso is the highest of a group of mountains south of Mont Blanc, in a national park in northwest Italy. Goedeke’s guidebook gives it a less-than-stellar review, calling it something like a “crowded glacier slog,” and it lived down to expectations, being my least-favorite European outing so far. Still, tagging this garbage-peak was a good way to make use of a day of mediocre weather, with a high trailhead and straightforward standard route.

Cascade next to trail

It had rained overnight, so I got a semi-lazy start from the big parking lot at Le Pont, located at nearly 2000 meters. The trail started out as a road, then became a cobbled stock trail, switchbacking efficiently up the side of the gorge toward a hut. I passed a few morning day-hikers on the way, but I was out too late for “alpinists” going up, and too early for any coming down. I was on the lookout for the ibex which supposedly inhabit the park, but saw only a single, skittish chamois.

Conga line going down

I passed the hut, then looked around a bit before finding a line of cairns crossing the boulder-field on its north side. After this minor boulder-hop, I followed a lattice of trails connecting an irregular grid of cairns up the slope toward the still-invisible Gran Paradiso. The steep sides of the valley, and bulges on this face, hide the summit until one is only about a kilometer and a few hundred vertical meters away.

Reaching the base of the snow, I followed a well-developed boot-pack up a gully toward the Gran Paradiso Glacier. It was still cool and shady, but the rain had softened the surface snow a bit, and I did not need crampons to follow the path. As it turned out, I did not use my crampons or ice axe the whole day, merely taking them for a walk. As the climb steepened below the glacier, I began running into groups of various sizes coming down, roped together and playing “mountaineering dress-up.” At least, that is the term that comes to my mind when watching people walking down a moderate, sun-cupped snow slope while tied together, carrying ice screws, and wielding trekking poles.

Approaching summit

The weather deteriorated as I climbed, and the previous night’s rain turned to snow, filling in the sun-cups and chilling my feet. When I topped out on rise where I could finally see the summit, I met a chilling wind, and put on all my layers and almost my mitts. The summit was still a little ways off, but I could see from below the line of people waiting to stand on the small rock outcrop. I was not really putting in a full effort, stopping to let various groups pass on their way down, when I looked back to be startled by a man doing it right. He was charging up the trail with running shoes, ski poles, and… a spandex ski-mo suit! Seeing him charge past the “alpinists” lifted my spirits, and I hung with him for awhile before letting him gap me, as he was more aggressive in passing others.

Junk show going up

I reached the summit to find maybe a dozen people milling around, either ascending, descending, or waiting in line. The rocks were covered in a bit of ice and fresh snow from the night before, which probably made the situation worse than normal. Frustrated, I followed a path below the summit knob, then doubled back to carefully climb up the snowy rock to just below the final bottleneck. This proved to be a 10-foot, very exposed third class traverse, protected by two bolts. I waited, growing cold, for a group of three to make its death-defying way across, then stepped across and climbed around the last member to touch the Virgin Mary, who could also serve as a belay anchor. I took a couple of photos, then tried to get out of there. There was another group descending now, doing something weird with clove hitches on the draws they had clipped to the bolts. I finally gave up and climbed around below them on a narrower ledge, then retraced my route.

Junk show going down

The snow got more fun as I descended, with good sliding in the path, or plunge-stepping on the rest of the slope. I was surprised for a second time by a guy who knew what he was doing, flying by me in a mixture of boot-glissades and running plunge-steps. I initially let him go, then mustered a bit of speed, catching him when he stopped to put something in his pack. In French, we briefly shared out enjoyment of the snow conditions, then took off again on our own paths, sliding and running down to the base of the snow.

Since I was in no hurry at all, I planned to walk or at most jog the path back to the car. There were fifty or more people outside the hut as I passed, but I did not feel like stopping to be surrounded by loud conversation in a language I don’t understand. The weather had improved a bit, it was getting warm as I descended, and I was taking my time when a fifty-something Frenchman in big boots, with two axes on his pack, tore past me on the switchbacks, taking every available shortcut. I followed him for a few, then returned to the trail. I am no fascist about trail-cutting, and often do so on trails with stupidly flat switchbacks, but this trail felt steep enough, and I prefer not to cut trails in front of tourists. I met the guy waiting at the base of the trail, and spoke to him briefly, pleased to be able to actually talk to someone. It turned out that he was only carrying his friend’s axe and doing the standard route that day, but he seemed to do a fair amount of legitimate climbing as well.

I hiked back to the trailhead, then drove toward Courmayeur, thinking I could get some errands done. Unfortunately this was Sunday, so almost nothing was open. I found a big supermarket where I could get some stuff, then drove up an awesome pass to 1950 meters to sleep more comfortably and lose less acclimation.

Grand Combin

West ridge from near hut


The peak I wanted the most in the Mont Blanc area was the Grandes Jorasses, but I decided to put it off, both because it looked like I had two days of good weather, and because I am honestly a bit intimidated. Instead, I found a couple of other nearby “big” things with less difficulty and higher trailheads, which I could reasonably do back-to-back. The first was the Grand Combin, a peak in western Switzerland with a high trailhead near Bourg-Saint-Jean at 1850 meters. It has both a rock route, the west ridge, and a glacier route, the northwest face; I went up the former and down the latter.

Some flowers

The trailhead for this peak is a parking space for a half-dozen cars, with locked spaces for another six, next to some guy’s farmhouse. Driving around from Chamonix, I got there in the evening and pulled into a not-at-all-level spot. Not only was the spot slanted, but the flies and manure stench from the nearby cows were a bit intense, so I eventually was forced to find another, flatter spot on a side-road farther from the cows. It is hard to get away from cows in this valley, though, since they roam within electrified fencing to over 2000 meters.

Peak across the way

Since I was doing a west-facing rock route with only about 2400 meters of gain, I got a non-headlamp start up the manure-strewn trail, taking a slight detour around some cows resting directly on it. The frequent red-and-white paint marks on the rocks directing me toward the hostel were helpful in the pasture, but less useful above, where a well-defined trail climbs up the valley to the left of some old moraines. I passed some climbers descending from the hut on the final, steep climb, which ended at a nice stone hut with what I assume was the flag for the appropriate Swiss canton flying next to it.

No one seemed to be home, so I continued up a cairned trail to the base of the snowfields leading toward the ridge. It was still cold on the shady side of the mountain, and the snow was rock-hard, so after trying to sketch up it a bit in running shoes, I put on crampons and followed the boot-pack up a surprisingly long and steep snow slope to the minor col.

Interesting bolt

The west ridge rises about 800 meters from the col to the summit in not very ridge-like fashion. While there are a few class 4-5 steps, most of the climb is a wander up chossy slopes and gullies, either staying on the ill-defined crest or avoiding difficulties to the right. Though I surprisingly had the peak to myself, the route is apparently popular, since I found numerous bolts and rebar loops for protection on the steeper parts.

Grand Combin from false summit

I finally reached the sun just below the western sub-summit, which was decorated by a mopey-looking Virgin Mary and a memorial plaque for Sebastien and Nicolas, two men who apparently died young in separate incidents. From there, a boot-pack in the snow/glacier continued down to a saddle, then up to the true summit, where it joined the main track coming up the glacier. Though it was sunny, it was windy and cold, and there were scattered clouds mostly hiding the high peaks to east and west. I did, however, make out what I am pretty sure is the Matterhorn.

Matterhorn, I think

It was too cold to hang around, so after taking a few pictures, I headed down the main glacier track, figuring that even with the climb back over the west ridge, the snow descent would get me down faster. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case. It was too cold for the snow up high to have softened, so I had to walk down in crampons instead of sliding. Also, the route got steeper and more complicated where the glacier drops off a sort of summit plateau. The boot-pack helped in threading steeply between some crevasses and seracs, then grew faint and split below. I followed one track for awhile, then left it when it seemed to be heading straight for a steep ice bulge. Serac-fall and/or avalanches had scoured off the surface snow in many places, leaving glacial ice with just a bit of firn on top. The slope angle was about 45 degrees, a bit too steep for comfort on ice in my running-shoe crampons. With a bit of careful side-climbing, and a few deliberate swings and sticks of my ice tool, I managed to reach another boot-pack in a region with a bit more surface snow. From there, careful and often inward-facing downclimbing got me to the glacial plain at the base of the face, where the snow was softer and I was finally able to move at a decent pace.

Sketchy descent

The climb back to the col in the west ridge was less painful than I had feared. Unfortunately, the other side was also mostly slow going, as it was too steep to glissade, with a bad runout. I finally got to move quickly for a bit across the low-angle snow, heading for a large cairn and some flags pointing to the hut path. I stopped at the edge of the snow to switch to shorts, wring out my socks, and put away my snow gear for the day, then started hiking and jogging toward the hut.

Gratuitous ladders

There were a half-dozen people hanging around outside, including a woman who proved to be the hut guardian. I almost went by without saying anything, unsure of the proper etiquette, but after exchanging greetings, this guardian proved much more outgoing than the last. Fortunately, this corner of Switzerland seems to speak French, so I could actually carry on a conversation. She and the guests seemed surprised that I had done the Grand Combin, more so that I had made it down the glacier in running shoes. I explained as best I could that it hadn’t been particularly easy, but that you could do a surprising amount of snow work with running-shoe crampons and experience in how to use them.

After talking for a few minutes, I left her to prepare for the crowd arriving that afternoon, and began jogging and hiking toward home. I passed multitudes on the way down and, due to them, ended up taking a different trail. Though the route I had taken on the way up was well-marked and easy, there is another path that forces its way up a gully via two ladders and some chains — the Europeans really like their ladders, it seems. Wearing shorts, I was reminded on the way down that the Alps have stinging nettles, so my thigh hurt for a half-hour, and remained swollen for the rest of the afternoon as I drove through road construction and an overpriced tunnel to Aosta, then on to the next trailhead at Pont.

Summer Alpine gear

Some readers may be curious about the gear I have been using on my recent adventures in the Alps, where most people carry a lot more and move a lot slower. Since the North Cascades are called the “American Alps,” it is no surprise that I carry Cascades gear, but warmer: a fleece hoodie instead of a wool long-sleeved shirt, a wind shell with a hood instead of one without, heavier socks, and mitts as well as gloves. In more detail, here is what I have used so far.

For my feet, I wear medium-weight wool socks and knobby trail runners. I am currently destroying some Salomon Speedcross 4’s, but La Sportiva Mutants, New Balance Vazee Summits, or Adidas Terrex Trailmakers would also work. I also bring a couple of plastic bread-bags to put between my socks and shoes if needed. This can come in handy when transitioning from a warm, slushy glacier to a cold, windy ridge.

For my torso, I wear a t-shirt (cotton or synthetic — it doesn’t matter), and carry a Mammut fleece hoodie (like a Patagonia R1, but bought on clearance for far less than $200), and a used-to-be-waterproof shell I found on a peak in Nevada. I also carry a $5 poncho if I think it might rain lower down; I cannot climb in it, and it is no good in strong wind, but it is absolutely waterproof, and can serve as a sort of emergency shelter.

For my hands, I bring loose-fitting fleece gloves and mitts. The former do not climb well, but they breathe, and do not constrict my fingers. The latter are much warmer, and waterproof in case I have to spend a lot of time pawing at snow. I have some tighter-fitting, water-resistant gloves I can bring instead of the fleece ones if I need to climb a lot of wet rock and/or snow.

For snow and ice travel, I carry an alpine tool (most recently, the Petzl Sum’Tec I found) and Kahtoola K-10 crampons. This setup is best on low-angle ice and most snow, but can be pushed to handle hard snow and even a bit of ice up to 45 degrees or so. This takes practice, though — if I think I will be doing a lot of steep snow and ice, I will still bring heavy boots.

Mont Blanc loop (Grand Mulets to Aiguille du Midi)

Mont Blanc and Maudit from Tacul


The standard route up Mont Blanc, the Gouter Ridge, starts somewhere west of Chamonix, reached by some combination of trams and cog-rails. That did not appeal to me for a couple of reasons (logistics and being out-and-back), so I looked instead for a direct route from Chamonix that would enable a possible loop. I remembered that Killian Jornet had done Mont Blanc in a ridiculous time starting at the town church, and it seems like the route he used was the Grands Mulets, which climbs to the tram station at the Plan de l’Aiguille, then up the Bossons Glacier to join the standard route at the Col du Gouter. Not being Killian Jornet, I started from the dirtbag lot, went much more slowly, and tacked on some extra minor summits.

Sunrise and Aiguille du Midi

I left the car around 3:30, and wasted only a little time finding the trail to the Plan de l’Aiguille, which starts just behind the dump station in the RV lot near the base of the tram. The trail starts out steep, then flattens out a bit as it switchbacks up past the refuge to the midway tram station and restaurant. Above, there is a marked trail continuing toward the Pèlerins Glacier. However, the glacier has retreated a lot since the trail was installed, and it now deposits one at the edge of a super-sketchy lateral moraine. I wasted some time trying to downclimb it near where the yellow dots end, then found a more stable section a couple hundred yards uphill. In retrospect, I think there is a social trail, possibly leaving below the tram station, that traverses below the glacier’s toe to rejoin the old Grands Mulets route.

Instead, I sketched up some snow and talus on the other side of the glacier, then side-hilled a bit before descending to the old trail, now much fainter. Along the way, I found numerous old pieces of skis, and a nice left and right glove that unfortunately did not match, all collected by avalanches past. I followed the trail to a large, abandoned tram station, then continued on a fainter path, intermittently marked in blue. I passed two holes blasted in the rock, with signs indicating that they were shelter zones from rockfall off the Aiguille du Midi. It seemed unlikely that, after seeing approaching rocks, one would have time to jump into one.

The trail ends at the Bossons Glacier, whose tongue used to extend almost to Chamonix, and is still impressive from town, descending to around 1600 meters. The glacier is large and heavily-crevassed, and I was apprehensive about taking it on solo with lightweight gear. I put on my spikes, took out my axe, and started up the left side. At the Plan du Glacier, I traversed southwest, aiming for the Grands Mulets. The terrain got more complicated, but as it was mostly bare ice, there was little chance of falling in a hole.

Tricky glacier below Montets

Below the Montets, where the glacier is split by a rock ridge at la Jonction, things got interesting. There is a gash in the glacier, partly filled with debris and large ice cubes. I found a bamboo ski gate on one side, and bits of boot-pack headed toward the gap. There turned out to be a circuitous path down and around some ice cubes, then up the other side to more continuous glacier, where there remained enough surface snow to both hide crevasses and preserve a boot-pack.

Questionable crevasse bridge

The pack stayed well away from the Montets hut, which supposedly has a guardian, but does not seem to see much use. The boot-pack was useful in threading through the maze of large crevasses. However, it seemed to do a few sketchy things, and someone following it had put a leg through, so I had to pay attention as I made the 1200-meter climb to join the standard route at the Col du Gouter. There are some large seracs on this side of the Dome du Gouter, and plenty of evidence of large chunks of ice falling off, but I did not see any activity, despite spending a good chunk of the morning there on a sunny day.

Crowds coming from Dome du Gouter

Though I had seen what might have been crampon marks from earlier that day, I saw no other people on the route until joining with the standard Gouter Ridge. There I passed the probable creators of those marks, and joined the hordes headed to and from the summit. It was noticeably colder on the ridge: while I had been sweating in an overshirt and thin gloves before, I soon put on my windbreaker and mitts. My shoes iced up, and my feet were a bit cold, but not cold enough to worry or stop to put on my plastic bags.

Final summit trail

The last 600 vertical meters were a well-churned trail, or well-established steps on the steeper parts. I passed a small crowd at the Refuge Vallot, now an astronomical observatory and emergency refuge, then continued following the boot-pack to the summit. Most of the crowd was what I expected: people with big boots and lots of gear, moving slowly and roped together in groups of 2 to 4-5. However, I saw a lone man 100 yards ahead of me, moving quickly with trekking poles. I tried to catch him, but I was not at my fastest after 3600 meters of climbing, so he stayed out of reach until the summit. He turned out to be one of a pair of Germans (I think), climbing the standard route in proper minimalist gear, light hikers and micro-spikes in his case. Spread the Truth and the Light(weight), brothers!

Climbers and Chamonix

It was sunny and only slightly breezy on the summit, so I took the time to eat half a sandwich, check out the views of lesser peaks and the Courmayeur valley, and watch parties arrive, take selfies, and depart. Having been told that I could buy a downward ticket at the top of the tram, I decided to continue on my loop, continuing over Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc du Tacul, ending up at the touristy Aiguille du Midi. One thing I enjoy about Richard Goedke’s guidebook is his personal asides, and he feels a particular disgust toward the Aiguille infrastructure. He notes that fighter planes have twice clipped the gondola cables (yikes!), and states strongly that all the buildings desecrating the peak should be removed. There does not seem to have been any progress toward this goal in the quarter-century since his first edition.

Col de la Brenva

The traverse looked simple from Mont Blanc, but there were several complications on the downclimbs, hidden from above. After following more easy steps down to the Petits Mulets, I found a steep, somewhat icy descent to the Col de la Brenva, where I was forced to downclimb facing in, semi-front-pointing with my running shoe crampons. This was one place where having Real Boots would have made my life easier, but my lightweight setup was sufficient. After a traverse, I easily French-stepped directly up the snow face to Mont Maudit’s small rock summit, admiring the massive serac at the col behind me.

I at the last of my food while admiring the view, then tried to figure out how I should get back to the boot-pack. It would have been easiest to return the way I had come, but Goedke describes following the ridge to the Col du Mont Maudit. This proved annoying and sketchy, a mixture of rock and steep, hard snow. This was the other section where I would have been better off with boots and real crampons, but I made it work by staying next to the rock, where the snow was a bit softer, and I could grasp various handholds with my non-axe hand.

Col du Mont Maudit

Reaching the Col, I was surprised to find a steep and icy descent. I watched a couple of French climbers start down, for some reason roped together with lots of rope out and no intermediate pro in the classic European suicide pact. I gave them some space, then carefully made my way down the variable-quality steps, pretending to find a use for a hand-line with widely-spaced overhand bights. I caught up to them fiddling with gear on the lower edge of a crevasse, and complimented them on their lightweight choice of footwear (Salomon X-Alps, a bit pricey for me at $250/pair). One replied that I seemed to be traveling a bit lighter…

Mont Blanc du Tacul summit

Below the initial headwall, it was mostly easy stairs through the crevasses to the Col Maudit, where I passed a few people lounging in the sun. I continued on the trail to a point due west of Mont Blanc du Tacul, then followed the less-traveled boot-pack a short distance to its summit. There was an impressive piece of ice hanging off the north side, and a bit of third class scrambling on the west leading to the summit, where I passed a roped group of three on their way down. I had a good clear view of Mont Blanc and Mont Maudit from the summit, the latter looking much more serious than it did from above.

Ladder above Col du Midi

Back on the trail, I found the descent to the Col du Midi both longer and trickier than I had expected. Rather than simply plunge-stepping down a snow slope, I followed a meandering path around some crevasses, and finally descended a ladder bridging one that seemed to cross the whole slope, completely blocking access from the Aiguille. There was a steady stream of climbers on the final path, mostly returning to the Aiguille after their ascents. I was hungry and wrecked, pathetically slow on the final 300-meter climb to the tram station. Fortunately everyone else was tired, too, so I still got to pass some people. I finally reached the ice-tunnel into the station, climbed over an apparently locked gate with an “alpinists only” sign (what, me?!), and sat down among milling tourists to wring out my socks.

It turns out that they do not sell tickets at the upper station, but they will give you a number to board, and apparently sell them at Plan de l’Aiguille. I grabbed a bit of overpriced refreshment in the cafeteria, then made my way through the milling crowd toward the line for the tram. I got into conversation with a friendly family from Belgium, who spoke excellent English, and seemed interested in what I was doing. Being from a country that is mostly at sea level, they were not mountaineers, though the son seemed like he might be interested. The descent from 3800 to 2300 meters was easy and scenic. At the midway station, everyone queued up to switch from the upper to the lower tram. However, to the side I noticed some completely unguarded steps leading outside. I suppose I could have asked whether I would have to pay at the bottom if I rode the tram, but I seized the opportunity, leaving the station and jogging the last 1200 meters down to town. I doubt they have many customers willing to both “hike” up to the Aiguille, and jog the last leg.

Aiguille Verte (Moine Ridge, AD, 13h35)

Talèfre Glacier and Aiguille Verte


The Aiguille Verte is a misnomer: it is neither particularly needle-like nor green. Rather, it is a prominent golden wedge at the intersection of three needled ridges, which descend to the west, south, and east to the Drus, the Moine, and the Droites. The peak was first climbed by Whymper and his Swiss guides in 1865, via a couloir leading just east of the summit. The Moine Ridge was climbed shortly thereafter, by local French guides. Global warming makes couloir routes increasingly questionable in summer, most are funnels for rockfall later in the day, and they often require front-pointing, hence boots. For all these reasons, I chose to tackle the Verte via the Moine ridge, rated AD with rock to III (5.4). I brought my light-and-fast setup of one alpine tool, trail runners, and crampons. I did not end up using the crampons, though I could have in several places where I had to engage in gymnastics and step-cutting to deal with hard snow and ice. The ridge felt close to the limit of what I would want to attempt with this setup. It also took longer than I expected, thanks in part to slow travel up the Mer de Glace, the lower part of which is more of a “Mer des Pierres” these days.

Montenvers ladders

I actually got something like a real Alpine start this time, heading out from the dirtbag parking in Chamonix at 3:30, following the signs up the trail paralleling the cog-rail to Montenvers. I was startled just above the parking lot by a young malamute-ish dog joining me. It was wearing a collar, so it seemed to belong to someone, but it did not seem particularly loyal, staying with me and keeping a lookout in the dark all the way to Montenvers, 1h30 or so into the day. It was still dark as I wandered past the rail station, hotel, and bar, nearly stumbling over a climber bivying on the patio.

Yeah

Just beyond the last of the tourist outpost, I passed a sign showing the level of the Mer de Glace glacier in 1820. Since then, its level has dropped something like a couple hundred yards, exposing steep, polished slabs on either side. In a very European response to this problem, someone (guides?) has installed wild, Doctor Seuss-worthy series of bolted ladders, platforms, steps, and hand-rails to descend to the glacier. The ones at Montenvers are fairly tame, with two parallel lines to accommodate up- and down-traffic. The ones up to the Couvercle are a bit wilder, with some sections completely vertical, and the rungs sometimes close enough to the rock to make them tricky to stand on.

Glacier du Tacul at dawn

It was just growing light when I reached the moraine, and I saw a few headlamps on the Aiguilles, including two half-way up the Drus. The glacier moves enough to prevent a path forming, but I followed intermittent cairns southward, sticking to the moraines to avoid the slick, bare glacial ice, which was too slick this early in the morning. It had been t-shirt weather up to Montenvers, but it was cold enough down on the ice cube to need an overshirt and gloves. I lost the trail somewhere below the Leschaux Glacier, and made my slow way up the loose moraine to the left. I saw two climbers making their way down the long ladders from the Charpoua hut, base camp for the Drus.

Ladder sketch-fest

I eventually picked up the trail again, and followed the red-painted cairns until I could see the big white square painted on the cliffs above the ladders and what-not leading to the Couvercle. Though it is all bolted into the rock, this random collection of hardware felt as sketchy as anything I encountered on the ridge. Maybe I will get used to this sort of Euro-hardware. Above, a good trail leads to two huts, a big new one, and a smaller old one sheltering under a giant boulder. Below the huts, a trail marked with yellow wands descends to the Talèfre Glacier. While there turns out to be a better path above the hut, I did not know it at the time, so I followed the wands down onto the flat lower glacier.

New and old huts

My guidebook mentioned crevasse problems on the glacier, but it was mostly straightforward. I bypassed the icefall on slabs and moraine to the left, then stayed left on softening snow until I joined the boot-pack from the hut, which climbs along the base of the Moine ridge to the Whymper Couloir, on the other side of the Verte. The entire ridge from the Moine to the Verte looks long and complicated. The so-called Moine Ridge route actually skips most of it, gaining the ridge on slabs and broken ground just past its last major gendarme, the Cardinal.

Moat and lower face

There was a bit of sketchiness crossing from the glacier to the face, but I fortunately had a boot-pack to guide me around a crevasse, along a snow ridge next to the moat, then across a big step to a steep snow-chute from which one could final step onto the rock. Not wanting to deal with crampons, I cut a step to help myself get into the chute, then carefully followed the hard boot-holes.

Pinnacles on lower Moine Ridge

After so much ascent to reach the base, it seems like the ridge should be short, but the numbers don’t lie: it’s 800 meters from the moat crossing to the summit, slightly longer than the northwest ridge of Mount Sir Donald, and much more complicated. The first part is a wandering climb back toward the ridge, which can probably be kept to class 4, but ended up being class 5 in a few places. Above, the route stays below the ridge on some chossier rock, paralleling a couloir separating the main ridge from a subsidiary one, finally reaching the main ridge near where the two join.

Ridge to summit

The route had been mostly snow-free to this point, but beyond, some snow became unavoidable. The boot-pack split, with one group taking a lower and snowier line, and another staying closer to the crest. Both seemed to be keeping their crampons on for both snow and rock. I do not like doing rock in crampons when it can be avoided, or wasting time taking them on and off. I am more comfortable working around or sketching through snow, an approach that worked in this case.

Mont Blanc from summit

The route-finding becomes somewhat simpler higher up, but is still not straightforward. The ridge is fairly narrow, but jagged enough that one cannot follow the crest, but must detour left or right to find the easiest path. This route-finding, and a mixture of fifth-class rock, slush, and hard snow, demanded constant attention, and was mentally taxing. I was disappointed by my slow progress, gauged off the neighboring Grande Rocheuse. There were some memorable passages, including a foot-traverse with no hands and an à cheval and/or hand traverse. The established boot-pack was often helpful on the snowy sections, but I had to improvise in places where its creators had used their crampons to climb rock-hard névé or ice.

Grandes Jorasses and Dent du Géant from summit

I finally emerged on the summit around 11:30, greeted by a moderate breeze and clear views in all directions. All morning, I had been admiring the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, probably the most impressive face the region. That and the neighboring Dent du Géant still drew most of my attention, but there were sharp spires and serrated ridges in most directions, plus the white dome of Mont Blanc to the southwest. There had been a helicopter making a wandering patrol all morning, seemingly checking in on my progress a couple of times. As I sat on the summit, I saw it nearly touch down on the Aiguille Sans Nom (toward the Drus), though I couldn’t tell if it plucked someone off.

Heading down

Mindful that the descent might be slower than the climb, I ate my sandwich quickly, then put on my gloves and began retracing my steps. I was tempted to go with crampons on the way down, but decided against them, since the snow had softened enough to make them not particularly useful most of the time. The descent was intense, but went mostly better and faster than expected. I did get off-route once, wasting some time looking for a downclimb on what may have been a rappel route, but was rewarded by finding someone’s Petzl Sum’Tec, a nice alpine tool and the successor to my own well-used Aztarex. Score!

Once past the subsidiary ridge, things went more quickly on the ledges and slabs leading down to the moat. I even bashed my knee on a cairn, reminding me that I was on-route. The vicious thing might have been helpful, but I refused to repair it, lest it claim another victim. On my way up, I had seen a group of three making their way to the base of a nasty-looking garbage-chute leading to the Evéque, a pillar on the Moine Ridge. Now I saw them in the same place on their way down, and thought I might catch them on the glacier. Safely getting back off the rock took a bit of time, though, so they were out of sight by the time I was back on easy snow.

WTF steps

The surface slush was about ankle-deep, but I could still move quickly in the boot pack, and found excellent boot-skiing where it was shallower. I followed the hut boot-pack this time, catching the trio as they de-geared at a flat spot just before the hut. It seems they had gotten a late start, and turned around at the base of their route. They knew the area, and were a bit surprised that I had done the Moine Ridge solo in trail runners, but were neither incredulous or disapproving. I appreciate the general attitude here of “do as thou wilt in the hills.”

Mer de Glace and Montenvers

I normally would have jogged the trail down, but my knee was still stiff from that nasty cairn, so I settled for hiking quickly. I stopped to switch into shorts and refill my water at a stream — we’ll know how clean it was in 4-5 days — then continued to the ladders. They should have been harder going down, but they felt about the same, so perhaps I am getting used to them. I saw several other parties on the Mer de Glace, from groups going to and from the hard routes on the Jorasses, to a guide or parent leading a kid across the moraine roped like a dog, to some hikers out for the day with trekking poles. I still couldn’t quite run on the trail down from Montenvers, but I at least managed a shuffling jog, passing plenty of day-hikers on my return to the car. At 13h35 and only 3h or so of mindless trail, it was a tough but not over-long day.

Aiguille de Bionnassay

Nearing rock section


The Aiguille de Bionnassay is to Mont Blanc what Liberty Dome is to Rainier: a little bump on the side with just enough prominence to technically qualify as a separate peak. However, since Mont Blanc is a more rugged peak than Rainier, the Bionnassay is still fairly impressive-looking, with some interesting fourth class climbing on fairly solid rock. Also, since it is not accessible by tram, the 3000-meter elevation gain keeps the crowds away.

I got a half-assed alpine start around 5:00 AM, and briefly got lost in the road maze before picking up the signs directing me to the Chalets de Miage, a small village accessible by foot or capable 4×4. The access road is in good shape, but far too steep for my underpowered rental car, even steep enough not to be annoying on foot. Past the houses, signs directed me to a clear trail leading past a waterfall and up an old moraine left of the Miage Glacier’s outflow stream.

Sheep at 2300m

The trail wastes no time in gaining about 1200 meters from the valley to the Plan de Glacier hut. Along the way, I passed a Frenchman making steady progress up the hill, and a couple weirdly camped in a flat spot on the grassy hill. I also passed a herd of sheep, busy mowing the grass and polluting the water. At the hut, the trail traverses some snowfields to pass the rock rib on the left side of the glacier. The Aiguille is on the west side of the mountain, so I was in shade the whole way up, and the snow was rock-hard and slick. I almost put on crampons, but felt comfortable enough hiking the boot-pack with my axe out to guard against a possible slip.

Miage valley

The traverse over the rock rib is marked by several fixed cables and lots of red dots and arrows painted on the rock. I passed a guide and client headed down, and a couple roping up and putting on crampons to cross the friendly, flat part of the glacier. I continued skipping along the traverse, then proceeded more carefully where the boot-pack turned up the snow-slope next to the talus ridge leading to the hut.

Bionnassay from col

I got on the ridge of garbage-rock as soon as I could, then made a steep, efficient climb toward the hut around 3300m. There were multiple paths, seemingly following multiple lines of red dots, some looser than others. There was also a boot-pack in the snow to one side, which I might have used if I were doing this in boots-and-crampons mode. I finally reached a few more cables just below the ridge, then climbed about 10 feet of snow to pop into the sun, where I was greeted with looks of mild disinterest by a couple French climbers done with their outing by mid-morning. Most of the route to the Aiguille was visible from the small hut.

Helpful stairs

After stopping to put on sunscreen and strip down to a t-shirt, I followed a boot-pack and bits of trail up the mixed talus and snow of the broad lower ridge. The snow was still almost hard enough to demand crampons, though there were some frozen postholes suggesting that it turns awful in the afternoon. I carefully crossed a somewhat-narrow snow arete, then a bit of easy rock scrambling, then another narrow snow-ridge leading to the base of a rock step. As I carefully walked across, I watched a lone climber make his way up the final snowfield to the summit.

Back toward col from rock

Though there was some loose rock, most of it was solid, a welcome change from the Ailefroide. My guidebook talked about taking some couloir to the right, but following the crampon marks and doing what seemed right kept me on or just right of the crest most of the way. The rock there consists mostly of solid fins with good positive edges, making for enjoyable, exposed climbing. The crux was probably an airy traverse into a corner, followed by some steep climbing and a big step right on the ridge crest, protected by a bolted chain. This step will get a lot trickier when a sketchy-looking but well-used flake finally breaks off under someone.

Mont Blanc from Bionnassay

Above, I continued without crampons, carefully booting up the softening snow, with some underlying ice in places making it trickier here. I passed the man I had seen earlier on his way down and, a few minutes later, emerged on the summit snow-crest. There was a well-established path continuing toward the Dome du Gouter, where it presumably joined the standard Gouter Ridge route to Mont Blanc. I was vaguely tempted to continue that way, but it is another 2000 feet of gain to the summit, and descending the Gouter Ridge would put me in some weird place far from my car. Instead, I had a sandwich, sent some email (there’s 4G on the summit, of course), and took in the views of Mont Blanc to one side, and the impressive Dome du Miage and Aiguille Blanche to the other.

Trailhead from summit

I started down in just running shoes, then thought better of that and finally took out the spikes. The transition took an extra few minutes when I realized that I had lent them to Peggy back in the Tetons, who has small feet, and had not used them since. Once I got that sorted out, I carefully downclimbed the rest of the summit snow, facing in on some icy parts. The rescue helicopter I had been watching all morning did a circle overhead, seemingly patrolling for stuff going wrong in the area. This might actually be justified, as Mont Blanc sees an insane number of deaths by American standards — about 100 per year. Les flics montagnards are talking about making a minimum-gear law, but I don’t think it has been imposed yet. Get it while you can.

I made my careful way down the rock part, expecting to see and pass the Frenchman I had met on the way up. I was almost off the rock when I heard a shout, and turned around to see him standing on a sketchy snow ledge too far right of the route, preparing a rappel into worse terrain. In addition to the bolted-chain rap stations on the standard route, there seem to be a handful of slings elsewhere, added by people who were more or less lost. Alain had apparently strayed climber’s right, then used one of these.

After a bit of exploration, I determined that he couldn’t rap sideways back on-route, and suggested that he climb farther right, up a corner, and back toward the crest of the ridge. I watched somewhat nervously as did a bit of careful climbing across snow and choss, then laybacked up next to a flake and disappeared around the corner. When he didn’t reappear on the route a few minutes later, I climbed back up to see what was going on. I wandered around a bit, eventually finding him higher up the ridge than he needed to be. I directed him back through the crux, which is not obvious from above, then down the ascent route to the snow.

Dome du Miage and col

I stuck with him the rest of the way to the hut, engaging in some stilted conversation in my still-awkward French. I learned that he had been coming to the Alps for 40 years, and had driven down from Paris for the weekend. I did that sort of thing a decade ago while in school in LA, driving up to the Sierra on Friday nights, but I don’t think I could do that now, much less 20 years from now.

I took him up on his offer of overpriced beer and obscenely-priced water at the hut, which went well with my remaining sandwich. I also met the hut keeper, who showed me a gloriously French ennui and lack of interest. She apparently reserved this privilege just for me, as she seemed normally friendly toward the other (French) climbers; maybe I just have some incredible unconscious anti-charm.

I bid farewell to Alain just below the hut, bombing down the scree-ridge and passing some more climbers on their way up. One pair was planning to stay at the hut, then traverse over the Bionnassay to Mont Blanc and down the Gouter Ridge. Below the Plan du Glacier hut, I began encountering day-hikers, who had made an impressive effort to reach this spot 1600 meters from the valley road. The cafe at the Chalets de Miage looked like a happening place, but I hadn’t brought any money, so I just kept on down the road to my car. I moved it into the shade, then had a seat to read, write, and plan what to do next. I had plenty of time to drive to Chamonix, but figured camping here would be much easier and quieter.

Écrins to Chamonix

La Meije from the Galibier


Though part of me wanted to spend more time in the relatively laid-back Écrins, I needed a day off, and figured I would be bored if I didn’t put it to some use. So it was time to drive boldly into the tourist pits of Chamonix. My phone plotted some stupid toll route through Italy, but I saw a little gray line on the map that looked more direct. If it was both more direct and slower, I suspected it would be more interesting. I was right — the road turned out to be the Col du Galibier, a ridiculous mountain road I had seen many times on TV while watching the Tour de France.

Aiguille d’Arve

There were quite a few cyclists on the road, and some motorcycles as well, but not much car traffic, so the narrow road with no guard rails and lots of blind corners was not too stressful. There is a sort-of useless tunnel cutting off the final few switchbacks of the pass, but I drove to the top, then got out to look at the informational sign pointing out the various peaks. Probably most impressive, I had a clear view of the nearby La Meije, a complex 3983-meter peak on the northern end of the Écrins range. Farther away, the Barre’s glaciated north face was finally visible, standing tall above its neighbors. The nearby Aiguille d’Arve also made an impression, looking like a small Matterhorn. I probably should have climbed the nearby Grand Galibier, but this was supposed to be a recovery day.

Mont Blanc

I continued down the eastern side of the Galibier, through a ski town and over the Col du Télégraphe, a barely-noticeable bump on its west side, then continued descending to the highway. I put in some quick, mindless driving, then turned off on the road through Ugine to reach Chamonix. This part of the drive was much more engaging, with the road winding along the side of a narrow gorge, and enough traffic to keep me alert. The road eventually deposited me at Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, which was near my next trailhead, but also proved to be a terrible tourist pit with no usable WiFi. I needed to get online and also buy another SIM card to replace my Spanish one that, though promised to work in France, did no such thing.

Wading through the weekend mobs, I eventually found a parking spot and some usable internet outside the Montenvers cog-rail station. It was mid-afternoon, so in addition to the expected tourists, there were lots of fit, attractive climber-couples coming off the train in mountain boots, with various route-dependent climber-stuff hanging off their packs (ropes, rock shoes, ice tools, etc.). There was also a steady stream of mountain runners, more and less poser-ish, in the requisite uniform of compression leggings and Salomon running vests.

After taking in this scenery and completing my internetting, I headed into town, where I found a news stand that sold overpriced French SIM cards and data plans. Whatever… I’m saving money by sleeping in the back of a little Citroën and not riding trams, so I can afford to spend money on communicating and not being lost. Then it was back through Saint Gervais, where I tried and failed to get the rental up a steep dirt road toward the Chalets Miage, then gave up and slept near the base around 1000 meters. It would be a long day…

Traversée des Ailefroide

First gendarme from east summit


I wanted to do something else in the Écrins, and l’Ailefroide seemed like an obvious choice for which I would not have to repeat any ground. The highest of its three summits, the west, has over 2000 feet of prominence, and my guidebook describes a traverse from the east to the central peak, rated AD and 3c/4b (i.e. 5.4-5.6). I figured I could extend that traverse to the highpoint for an adventurous day. It turns out, though, that the Alps aren’t all as friendly as the Barre des Écrins.

Headwall below Sélé hut

I got a leisurely start toward the Sélé hut, passing a couple of older solo hikers and being passed by a young trail runner. I was carrying a full pack, and feeling the previous day’s effort, so I made no attempt to keep pace with her. The trail steadily gains elevation until reaching a headwall just below the hut, with a waterfall pounding through a slot to one side. It is not obvious how to reach the hut, but the trail winds its way up the cliffs with a mix of ledges, chipped steps, and handlines. The hut seemed deserted, but I saw smoke coming from the chimney, so at least the guardian was there.

Chamois

Beyond, I followed a faint and somewhat-cairned trail across the morainal flat, then up toward and past the old hut. While the trail apparently sees some use, it is far less traveled than the one leading to the Barre, and somewhat hard to follow. However, it was obvious where I had to go: up a mix of scree, grass, and slabs toward the Glacier du Coup de Sabre, named for a sharp notch in the ridge to its north (the saber cut).

South ridge with access couloir

Below the glacier’s tongue, I traversed left across some flatter ground, then followed a faint old boot-pack to the base of the access couloir through the Ailefroide Oriental’s south ridge. The previous party, probably wearing boots like everyone does here, kicked steps all the way up the gully. Being in trail runners, and not wanting to switch into crampons, I stepped over onto the rock to its left at the first opportunity, then had an easy class 2-3 scramble to the ridge.

Cut-off Barre des Écrins

The rest of the south ridge looked like it might go, but the route description said to climb the snow to its left, and I meekly obeyed. There was a lot of elevation to gain, so the climb was tiring, but never difficult. The south-facing snow had already softened lower down, leading to some minor postholing. I eventually plodded onto the summit plateau, where I could see the Coup de Sabre to one side, the rest of l’Ailefroide to the other, the head of the Glacier Noir below, and… still not the Barre, which was covered in clouds.

I ate my Camembert baguette, the last of my food, and sat around for about a half-hour debating whether or not to continue. The ridge looked tricky and time-consuming, with gendarmes, choss, and snow-rock transitions. Retracing my steps would be fast and easy on the soft snow. Eventually, after more than a half-hour of dithering, I committed to the traverse.

Random chossineering

The initial descent was a slow mix of snow, choss, and small pinnacles taking longer than it looked like it should. I eventually reached the base of the first gendarme, the supposed 5.4-5.6 crux, and was somewhat dismayed. The route description said (I think) to go straight up the ridge, but that seemed to have an overhanging start. Instead, I descended a bit to the south, then meandered my way up easier ground trying to get back toward the ridge higher up. I found a sling or two, but not anything that I felt confident climbing, so I eventually gave up and contoured around the thing on choss.

Next up was Pointe Fourastier, a slight larger gendarme. (Everything has a name here, even the ironically-named “Pic Sans Nom” between l’Ailefroide and Mont Pelvoux.) The guide had an elaborate route description I did not entirely understand — I am bad at French mountain jargon — but I understood enough to follow the hand-line (!) and old pitons much of the way. The pitons seemed to lead to a face/dihedral I didn’t like, so I traversed left around the corner. I scrambled up some easier ground, then climbed through a tunnel/chimney to nearly reach the Pointe.

Exposed traverse ledge

From there, the guidebook correctly described a traverse on a wildly-exposed ledge to reach easier ground. I actually enjoyed the ledge, and while the “easy” ground was obnoxious and chossy, it at least wasn’t stressful, and I soon found myself on the Ailefroide Central. The highest summit is only a few hundred meters from the middle one, but clouds seemed to be gathering, and it looked like things turned complicated, so I quickly gave up and started the descent.

This won’t end well…

The guidebook said (I think) to “return west to the first couloir,” which makes no sense: I came from the east, so I could either “return” or “go west,” but not both. Since I was already west of the central summit, I decided to do the latter, heading down some garbage-chute that I hoped wouldn’t cliff out. I refilled my empty bladder from a muddy trickle partway down, then continued toward the probable badness. The book mentioned rappels to reach the glacier (not surprising), but said that you could avoid them, though possibly only with another rappel (what?!).

Miraculous traverse ledge

This seemed like the kind of messy chossineering problem I can normally solve, so I went for it. Sure enough, the situation was exactly what I anticipated. I tried sneaking down near the line of rappel along some wet ledges, only to be defeated. Next, I headed skier’s right losing elevation whenever I could. The upper edge of the glacier also dropped in that direction, though, so I tried to come back left when I could. After some sketchy moves and a bit of backtracking, I found a miraculous and sometimes quite narrow and cramped ledge that led down and right nearly to the snowline, from which I could reach the edge and cross the easy moat.

The Ailefroide Glacier seems fairly well-crevassed, but following a hint of an old boot-pack and a generally conservative line, I reached the slabs at the bottom without any problems, and even had some good boot-skiing lower down. Unfortunately, there was still quite a bit of descending to do on a mix of slabs, grass, and morainal debris, but I found no more serious obstacles getting to the valley floor. I was feeling energetic enough to run most of the trail below the headwall, passing the odd day-hiker, but no one equipped for mountaineering. It seems to be relatively easy to get off the beaten path in the Écrins, something I don’t expect to do in Chamonix.

Barre des Écrins

Barre des Écrins from Col du Galibier


Barre des Écrins is the Alps’ westernmost 4000-meter peak, the only peak in the Barre des Écrins national park above the arbitrary line. Because it is in a park, it is not covered in téléferiques like the peaks around Chamonix; if you want to climb it, you have to walk from the base. It was an encouraging first Alpine peak; if the rest are similar, I think I will find myself well-suited to this place. The climb required endurance, vertical speed, and comfort on a variety of terrain. While I missed the need to do any route-finding, I appreciated the lack of bush-whacking, stream-wading, and other suffering. Also, the mountains are different yet familiar enough: unlike Picos de Europa, they have the things one would expect in mountains, like larches, pine trees, and marmots.

Glacier Blanc hut

Continuing my tradition, I reached Ailefroide near dark, saw the “camping interdit” signs around and above town, and found a side-road just below to sleep. In the morning, I headed toward the high trailhead for Barre des Écrins, until I hit a “parking 2 euros” sign. While I had had time to pick up sandwich fixings the day before — baguette, Camembert, cucumbers — I had not found a cash machine, so I had no money to feed the parking meter. In retrospect, there’s an attendant during regular hours, so I probably could have just parked for free at 5:15 AM. Instead, I added an extra 3 miles and 1000 vertical feet to the day. However, thanks to the friendly Alpine trails, it was still only about 8 hours despite being about 22 miles and 9000 feet of gain.

Refuge des Écrins

I walked the road to the trailhead in about an hour, then followed a well-used and efficient trail toward the Refuge de Glacier Blanc, at the toe of the large glacier that wraps around the north side of the Barre des Écrins, from near its summit to (currently) about 2800 meters. It was mostly cloudy, but still t-shirt weather while hiking uphill. Above the refuge, the trail disintegrated into multiple cairned paths, which eventually converged at the side of the glacier. From there, a well-traveled boot-pack continued to the Refuge des Écrins, where most people start their summit bids at 3100 meters and apparently before dawn.

No route-finding required

I passed the first parties descending a short way above the hut turnoff, then a few more lower on the face. I never got a clear view of the whole face as I made the long, slow march up the flat lower glacier, but I saw enough to know that there were several large crevasses. There were some on the flat part, too, but all but a couple were closed, and those that weren’t were easily stepped over.

Seracs above route

I reached the steep part around 8:30, thought about putting on crampons, then decided they were unnecessary, as the surface snow was soft, and the stairs were fresh. I passed a few more parties on their way down, mostly guided. They were short-roped, descending a steep, slushy, sticky boot-pack wearing crampons, with predictable results: tripping, slipping, slow-moving, and probably pants-stabbing. Even for someone familiar with crampons, these are not the easiest conditions; it would have been easier and probably safer to descend without the spikes, as one would probably come to a stop naturally before going too far in the deep slush. Then again, I also saw people marching along the flat lower glacier’s boot-pack in crampons and helmets, roped together, which made equally little sense.

Brief view on upper face

The boot-pack seemed to lead over one super-sketchy snow bridge, which I avoided to the left, then it ascended into clouds and occasional graupel. The route-finding here would have actually been a bit tricky if I were on my own, but all I had to do was follow the path. After weaving around some seracs, it made a long traverse right, passing under the steep, chossy north side of the summit ridge before crossing a sort of crevasse to reach a snow-saddle at its eastern end.

View on summit ridge

I had to think a bit at the transition from snow to rock, as there was some steep ice below the easiest transition. This was probably the crux, as evidenced by the numerous pitons and pieces of tat in the first 30 feet. Above here, the route makes an ascending traverse, mostly on rock, on the north side of the ridge. This could have been tricky if the rock had been chossy or covered in rime, but it was surprisingly dry (the clouds and wind were from the south), solid, and well-featured. I passed over Pic Lory, a minor sub-summit, then descended a tiny bit before climbing the last 100 horizontal meters to the upside-down (??) summit cross.

Proper equipment required

I still had my Camembert sandwich left, and it wasn’t very cold or windy, but there was nothing to see, so I retraced my steps, catching intermittent views of other peaks to the northwest, and the Glacier Blanc to the northeast. Since I was smart enough not to wear crampons, I side-stepped and slid quickly down the face, in slop that reminded me of the snow on Mount Rainier. Reaching the flat part of the glacier, I put my axe away and jogged the downhills, passing the hut a bit over an hour from the summit.

Tongue of Glacier Blanc

I switched to shorts and t-shirt and finally took out my sandwich at the edge of the glacier, chatting with an Austrian couple out who were out for a dayhike to the hut, but carrying enough gear for a minor expedition. The clouds began to clear a bit on the descent, though never over the peak, and I got tempting views of the neighboring peaks, particularly Mont Pelvoux and l’Ailefroide (“Coldwing”) to the south.

Glacier tongue on the way down

It started sprinkling a bit past the high trailhead, encouraging me to jog down the road. I was amused to see a couple of Pad People sheltering under a large boulder near the pay station waiting to get back to their 10-foot “problem” while surrounded by peaks rising over 2000 meters. It takes all kinds, I guess… I was also a bit surprised to find a number of trad climbers sorting gear in the lot where I had parked. Turning around, I realized that there is a multi-pitch crag a five-minute walk from the parking area. It turns out that Ailefroide is quite a popular climbing destination, a bit like Chamonix without the gondolas and the tourist hordes they bring.

I needed some tape for a finger cut, and wanted to find some other things I could do in the area, so I headed to the local climbing shop. The owner didn’t really speak English, but he was clearly used to talking to foreigners, as he was very good at slowing and simplifying his French without making it too obvious. He grabbed me some tape, handed me a couple of guidebooks to consider, then gave me some time to flip through them.

A few minutes later, he offered me coffee, and we ended up having a wide-ranging half-hour conversation. He made the interesting observation that while American parks keep nature more pristine, they do so at the cost of being more “fliqué.” (“Les flics” is French for “the cops,” so the adjective means “more regulated and controlled.”) It seems true in my very limited experience: the Barre des Écrins park seems to operate under a minimally-enforced rule of “don’t be a jerk,” while popular US national parks are patrolled by gun-toting law enforcement rangers. I pointed out that the US is large and empty enough to have three levels of federal land — National Park, National Forest, and BLM — but it would be nice to have something between Parks and Forests that is more laissez-faire without being open to commercial mining and logging (and horse-packing…).

Pico Tesorero

Pico Tesorero


[Sorry for the lack of place-names, but this was written with super-slow internet access, because Ailefroide is like that. Also, not all the photos uploaded. — ed.]

This was supposed to be the day for me to climb Torrecerredo, the highest summit in Picos de Europa. However, a combination of a less-than-awesome map, unsettled weather, and general wussiness led me to instead tag this consolation peak, which had a good view of what I should have climbed.

No camping?

I picked up my rental car in León, then managed to escape the city without getting lost or in a wreck, no small feat. Once on the open road, I had a chance to relax a bit and get used to driving stick as I made my way to the eastern side of Picos de Europa. The first part of the drive was familiar, while the second part became new and interesting as I climbed the gradual side of a pass, then descended a windy, switchbacked, lane-and-a-half road down to the edge of the park. I wasn’t sure about the dirtbagging situation, as this part of the park seems more developed than Valdeón. I was momentarily dismayed to see a “no overnight RV parking” sign at the entrance to the large lot near the tram, but then I saw several RVs blatantly camping there, so I figured I would be fine curled in the back of my little Citroen.

High pasture

My crappy map (the “global topo” from Peakbagger) showed two similarly-long routes leading toward Torrecerredo from this side, and lacked contour lines over much of the relevant area. Somewhat arbitrarily, I chose the one to the west. It started out nicely, with efficient switchbacks leading through a break in the cliffs ringing the valley. I enjoyed a jog around a meadow in a high valley, home to some cows that I heard but did not see, then began regretting my route choice.

Poky limestone “slabs”

I passed a single man putting a junction sign back in place, then began climbing to a col. I quickly found myself on solid snow, reduced to following the line on my crappy map, an occasional cairn on an exposed outcropping, and bits of what might have been an old boot-pack. The route was up and down and generally slow: even when I was not trudging through snow, I was making my way across limestone slabs eroded into small, sharp fins that would do some serious damage if I tripped and fell.

Torrecerredo, left

By the time I reached the col where I could finally see the semi-famous cliffs of Naranjo de Bulnes, it was late morning, I was low on food, and it looked like the forecast rain might arrive. Rather than simply head home, I decided to tag the peaks on either side of the col as a consolation prize, Torre de los Horcados Rojos and Pico Tesorero. The former was pretty lame, a minor bump on a ridge, while the latter was a semi-legitimate peak, with good views of Torre de la Pardida and Torrecerredo to the north, taunting me in the sun.

I took some frustrated photos, then boot-skied down to the trail, this time taking the eastern trail, which leads past the top of the tram. As I should have guessed, this trail was easier, better-maintained, and well-used, and I passed crowds of tourists as I drew close to the tram. Rather than doing the obvious thing and following the trail down from the tram station, I trusted my evil map again, taking a more direct “trail” that dropped basically straight down a narrow cleft that I would never have otherwise attempted. It was steep and slick, but efficient, and it even had a decent hand-line to get around a waterfall and chockstone. Below, I chased a chamois for a bit, then managed to touch some plant that gave me an itchy rash for the next hour before reaching the real trail. With my new firsthand knowledge, I could have stayed around another day to tag the highpoint, but I was getting impatient to reach the alps, and would have been bored hanging around an entire Spanish afternoon, so I decided to take a chunk out of the painful drive to eastern France instead.