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…).

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