Fine Alpine Art
Ascension Chronicles

Ascent of Barre des Écrins and Dôme de neige

Written by Thomas Crauwels
Mountaineer heading for the Barre des Ecrins, soft morning light over the mountains

Can you smell the heady fragrance of great adventure in the air? At the end of April, spring returns and the mountains open up to life once again. Their call becomes more urgent and I dream of once again surveying their vertiginous flanks. This time, the Valais gives way to the wild and remote Écrins massif. This time, I'm preparing to climb the Barre des Écrins and the Dôme de neige. At an altitude of over 4,000 metres, this traverse marks the moment of our reunion. The start of an alpine season that I'm dreaming will be the most beautiful and the most daring.

The Vallouise valley: At the gateway to the Ecrins National Park

April 2024. Johann Filliez, my guide, has set himself an incredible challenge this year: to climb the entire 4000-meter range of the Alps to celebrate his 40th birthday. He's preparing to climb the Dôme and the Barre des Écrins. So why not join him? The race is reputed to be easy, and the forecast calls for two days of fine weather in the French Alps. I've been training all winter to get back into the mountains at my best. I've walked, I've run, but I've admittedly neglected my ski equipment. The mountains are white at the end of winter. So I set off to buy some new equipment, test it out and leave, not really knowing what to expect. In the Écrins massif and on the other side of the world.

I join Johann at the gateway to the Ecrins National Park, in the heart of the Vallouise valley. Tonight, our van will be our refuge. We sleep for a few hours before feasting on a succulent pizza at dawn. Who else but us manages to digest such food at such an early hour? I don't know, but one thing's for sure: we're happy. The simple pleasures that give life its full flavor.

Looking at summits, however, I'm overcome by fear. A strong wind is blowing at altitude, snow is flying on the rocky ridges. The traverse promises to be icy cold. In these extreme conditions, will we be able to complete the climb? I doubt it very much, and my weary, pointless thoughts threaten to undermine my motivation. I may know that the route is simple, but I also know that all I can think about is the present moment. Envision the mountain step by step, concentrate on what's essential. Even so, I'm apprehensive about the effects of altitude on my physical capabilities. Like every year, I have to acclimatize to the high mountains, and this stage always seems insurmountable. Nevertheless, I'm confident that Johann is by my side and that we won't be the only ones on the Écrins route today. The parking lot is already full of cars, which reassures me.

Climbing in the Écrins massif: From the Pré de Madame Carle to the Glacier Blanc

We put on our touring skis to cross the Pré de Madame Carle, still covered in snow, and enter the marvellous Ecrins National Park. Today's objective: to reach the Ecrins refuge, at an altitude of 3170 metres. The walk warms us up, and as soon as the sun comes out, the temperature rises. Above the Pré de Madame Carle, we continue our advance. Where the snow is gone, we walk, skis on our backs. We arrive at Tuckett Lake, frozen by winter, and contemplate the landscape. Behind us, Mont Pelvoux dominates the Alps, another colossus of the Écrins massif.

Under a magnificent sky, we set off to cross the splendid Glacier Blanc. A silent victim of climate change, it is suffering and irreversibly retreating. We only catch a glimpse of it when we arrive above the Glacier Blanc hut, so much has it regressed in recent years. We then have to don our harnesses to protect ourselves from the dangers of its snow-covered crevasses? The glacier is smooth and immaculate, and the first steps I take on its thick carapace give me a unique emotion. To be able to tread on one of the most beautiful giants of ice in the millennia is an immense privilege, and I thank nature for having given me such an unforgettable memory.

ski mountaineering in the ecrins massif

Around a bend, the Glacier Blanc guides us towards the Dôme des Neiges and the Barre des Écrins. A splendor of gneiss with opaline reflections, the mountain reveals itself, sublimated by the deep blue of the sky. I knew that as I gained altitude, the landscape would open up. The appearance of the high summits was imminent and I watched for it. But as the massif suddenly came into view, expanding with every step we took, my heart raced. So much beauty in just a few ridges, so much grandeur in just one glance, I'm overwhelmed.

Le refuge des Écrins: At the foot of the Barre des Écrins and the Dôme de neige

With a dreamy soul, I realize that we've arrived at the refuge des Écrins, our destination. Enjoying a breathtaking view of the Barre des Écrins, we finally take a breather. After 4 h 30 of a journey into the heart of a crystalline world, we take a break. We are welcomed by Damien Haxaire, the hut's janitor for many years. A lover of good food, he prepares an extraordinary omelette. Gourmet and tasty, it melts in your mouth. Pure happiness. The more intense the effort, the tastier the food. Sylvain Tesson's words at La Grande librairie come back to mind: "When you have a feast in a cave and it takes you ten hours of strenuous walking to reach it, it will be a king's feast [...]. [...] A wood fire when you've been cold is an unheard-of luxury. Give me all the champagne in the world [...] it'll never replace the glass of water I'll drink when I'm thirsty. The only five-star hotel is a dry bivouac when you've had rain all day."

the refuge des écrins with the barre des écrins in the background

With our meal, we drink plenty of water and sweet drinks to restore some of our energy. Then, once we've had our fill, I put my clothes out to dry in the sun and we rest. The comfort of the refuge is rudimentary, and when the wind picks up, it easily blows through the windows. Tonight it will be -17°C. The warden informs us of this, as there is no network here summits. So, despite the sobriety of the place, we're happy to be here, well sheltered from the icy cold of the heights.

As the sun sets, I contemplate the panorama of the Glacier Blanc. Night takes hold of the Alps, from silvery azure to the darkest blue, like the shades of the ages of life. Silence pervades this haven of peace, the Parc des Écrins, preserved by man. And I catch one last glimpse of the mountain on the horizon, soaring skywards like a vibrant ode to the beauty of the world.

Climbing the Barre des Écrins and the Dôme de neige: the splendors and dangers of the high mountains

Mountaineer advancing towards the Barre des Ecrins, pink with sunrise

After a refreshing night's sleep, we have breakfast at 5am and leave the refuge at 6am. Our ascent of the Barre des Écrins begins. First we cross the Glacier Blanc. As we advance, the snow crunches under our skis. As dawn breaks, the light fades from pink to gold and then to its full brilliance. We soon reach the foot of the mountain, where 900 metres of ascent await us. Although rated easy, this climb presents objective risks. Throughout the climb, we're exposed to falling seracs. And underneath the Barre, the rocks can fall off in their turn. So we have to stay focused. The snow is frozen and I'm uncomfortable on my skis. But the higher I climb, the better my technique.

Behind us, the landscape is fabulous. The Matterhorn looms large on the horizon. The Täschhorn peaks at Dom des Mischabel, that unforgettable traverse I was lucky enough to complete last year, flash before my eyes. The highest mountains in the Valais seem to greet us, as does Mont Blanc. The spectacle is grandiose.

But the higher we go, the more the altitude oppresses me. My breathing becomes heavy, my energy threatens to run out. I have the unpleasant impression of not moving forward. Without physical vigour, the strength of the mind evaporates, thoughts become cloudy, ideas slow down. This is where we need to hold on to our goal. It holds us, and whatever happens, with this ambition in mind, we surpass ourselves. Because success isn't an option, it's a necessity. So the climb becomes a battle against ourselves. It's up to us to reinvent our suffering, so that in the midst of the ordeal we can take pleasure.

Climbing the Barre des Écrins and the Dôme de neige: Over 4000 metres in the French Alps

We're just below the Barre des Écrins when the first roped parties reach its crests. I'm glad to finally be able to put down my skis and put on my crampons. After climbing a snowy couloir, we climb the rocky ridge towards summit. Climbing Pic Lory makes me feel lighter. We have to stay fluid and link up short movements. Thanks to Johann's professionalism, we're making good progress and eventually overtake all the other roped parties. At summit du Pic Lory, the ridge in front of us rises up, majestic and gigantic. As we climb it, I finally rediscover the exhilarating sensations of our summer ascents. As far as summit, I'm delighted, happy to finally feel closer to the prodigious peaks that make my heart beat faster.

mountaineer on the ridge leading to the Barre des Ecrins

Finally arriving at summit de la Barre des Écrins, I salute its cross, guardian of the place. Then, alongside Johann, I marvel at the view before us. The Valais Alps dazzling under the snow. I text my partner to tell her we've made it. But there's no time for contemplation. We need to continue our journey as quickly as possible. In the face of the icy wind, we have to keep moving. Movement becomes a matter of survival.

So, after just a few minutes at summit de la Barre des Écrins, we headed back down its ridge before abseiling down the Lory breach. And here I recognize the courage of Johann, who carried 60 meters of rope throughout our run, which we only used to cross this passage. An hour has passed since we left summit de la Barre des Écrins when we reach the summit of the Dôme de neige des Écrins. I'm exhausted, out of breath and my fingers are stiff from the cold. I warm up with a few sips of tea from my thermos before setting off again.

The Écrins massif: ski down from the Dôme de neige to the Vallouise valley

Then it's time to put on our skis. We take off our crampons, detach the sealskins and knives from our skis and attach them to our boots. I've been dreading this moment since the very beginning of our adventure. For me, skiing is a way of discovering inaccessible places, but what I love is climbing. Ski touring in incredible landscapes. I don't do much piste skiing, and I'm not very comfortable going downhill.

But there's no time for hesitation, and I'm off into the snow. Soon, everything fades away. Doubts fade, and I no longer think about the cold or the quality of the snow. I descend, my mind free of all constraints. Amid the seracs, I concentrate on each turn and Johann helps me anticipate the next loops. I gain in confidence and savor the moment. And towards the end of the descent, I'm back on the snow I love, this spring down so soft and pleasant to criss-cross.

Without really realizing that the trip has just come to an end, we return to the parking lot and the Vallouise valley. I'm delighted to have started this alpine season by climbing the Barre des Écrins and the Dôme de neige. Two legendary summits over 4000 meters high. Two more. Taking one last look at these sumptuous mountains, gneiss peaks studded with seracs, I leave the French Alps with a smile on my face. This spring is definitely off to an auspicious start.

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