So by some hefty slab of irony, I found myself in the most densely climber-populated area of my trip so far, and yet without a partner. Ailefroide is a busy, commericalised climbing area in the Ecrins, with most of the visible valley floor taken by a huge campsite. It has the scale of a festival, but without any music.
The person I was hoping to meet here has gone down the valley for a bit to catch up with an old friend, and some rest by the pool. The rest of the campsite doesnt seem very penetrable socially. There is no ‘guitars around the campfire’ moments, just lots of very quiet family groups or couples. There was an Alpine Club meeting here, including some Scots, but I just missed them.
So here i am amongst the throngs, cues for routes and clusterfucks of parties-of-three backing up under crux pitches, just enjoying soloing and moving over clean, well travelled rock.
The first day I arrived, waiting to see if my contact (Sarah) was going to appear, I went up Fissure d’Ailefroide (VS 4c, 200m) which proved to be a great old-fashioned route, and a perfect one to solo since there is no sense of exposure – one is always close to a ledge or in a chimney, even though there is some face climbing as well as thrutching. Just dont take a rucksac!
That evening I met some folk from the Alpine Club meet, and arranged to rendevous in the morning to make a plan to climb. Turned out one of their number was on her last day, and wanted to climb with her two friends as a three (do I smell that bad? It is possible…), so I was on my own again.
I took myself off to the Draye sector, where I knew there was a convenient path to descend from a solo. After warming up and getting a handle on the local grading at the ‘Ecole de Draye’ crag, I climbed the interestingly meandering Remente Pente Direct (5c, 200m), before taking a leasurely lunch during the heat of the day, and returning to the cliff to enjoy the two neighbouring lines of Chaud Biz (5c+, 200m) and Two Hot Men (6a, 200m), just as a massive clusterfuck of parties cleared ahead of me.
I know its a guilty pleasure, which I have to keep an eye on, but being able to solo a 200m route in 30mins, run back to the bottom and climb another before dinner is SO satisfying. All in all I climbed about 650m of routes that day. I didnt mind at all being without a partner – everything flowed, the rock was kind and I never once felt in danger. The friction on the slabs is fantastic and whenever things get steeper (at this grade range) the jugs are as good as one could hope for.
Soling is also a conversation opener it seems – the next day I got a kind, random offer to go sport climbing down in the valley. Indeed it was good to pull on some hard moves for a bit (and has led to a further invite for a big Briancon climb), but once i drove back up to Ailefroide, I was itching for another good long route. I chose A Tire D’Aile Froide (5c, 230m), a sustained 5c route on the Fissure area. It had great features to break up the slab action, continuous technical interest, and a spicy no-hands traverse sequence.
At the top I met and descended with a couple of Croatian climbers. We got chatting and they kindly invited me to meet their group in the evening. They were a very social and open bunch, with a good dry-humoured approach to climbing which I think would go down well in Scotland. I hope some of them can come visit sometime. I met Orsat in the group, who was looking to do something a little harder than his colleagues were comfortable with, so we arranged to rise early to beat the sunshine, and climb Toulon Land, in the Ravin des Fourons area (300m, 6c+, 10 pitches). Pleasantly far from the madding crowds of Ailefroide centre, it was a great route, with challenging technical puzzles, delicate (sometimes super-thin) slab sections and a fantastic headwall. Orsat claims only to be able to do three pull-ups, but he certainly makes up for it with flawless footwork technique.
We rapped off and descended in time to chill out for the rest of the afternoon, and wait for the evening’s rain and thunder to roll in.
The next morning, the rain gradually cleared to allow the sun to bake dry the rock, which it does very quickly. There was a cool breeze left over from the storm, so the conditions were very pleasant. I called Orsat, but unfortunately he had developed back pain, and needed a rest day. I couldnt let the day go to waste, however. Parties were venturing back onto the cliffs, evidence that they were drying effectively.
I decided to have one last solo, up L’Explosion des Calcaneums (6a/+, 200m) as it preported to have crack and corner features that are quite unusual for this area (slabs being the norm). Its a great line, with 2 pitches of delicate 6a slab to start, followed by a scramble up to the steeper upper tier. The money-pitch is P5, up a leaning fissure/ramp. After that things got a bit tricky, as I encountered sidepulls, heelhooks and crimps rather out of character with the stated grade! Turns out that following bolt-lines is dangerous – I had been suckered up a closely adjacent 6c section of ‘La ou Vit Merlin’! Needless to say I breathed a sigh of relief when the uberjugs of the final 5b flake-crack pitch appeared and I could relax and enjoy myself again.
Thanks Ailefroide! Its been a blast. Im off now to meet Polish Izabelle to climb a mountain route near Briancon, before striking off finally into Italy.