Rebecca Skillman narrates the highs and lows of a walk on the wild side: a 3-day glacier hike roped to a mercurial mountain guide at an altitude of over 3000m.
Inspired by my husband, Juan, who has been yearning to do a glacier walk for yonks, and our crampons, unused in their boxes since winter, we book on the Bureau des Guides des Ecrins three-day Randonnée glaciaire around the Meije. We know the Ecrins well, but walking above 3000m of altitude will be a new experience.
Day 1: La Grave to the Selle refuge (2673m) via the Col de la Lauze (3512m)
We meet our guide, Jean-Paul, at La Grave. He has brought his wife and daughter along for the trip, explaining that they’ll be roped up separately, so are not technically part of our group. In addition to ourselves are Grenobloise Chantal and a Parisian couple, Pauline and Annette.
We set off, taking the cable-car to the top, just below the Rateau. Leaving the grotte de glace tourists behind, we step onto the Girose glacier. My crampons don’t seem properly adjusted to my boots. I hesitate to place my foot inside, as Jean-Paul instructs, confused by what he says about the crampon fitting. To my shock and amazement I find him literally shouting at me. I can’t believe it. How am I going to spend three days with this man … But fears are displaced, at least for now, by the staggering view. Across the valley, north of La Grave, the Aiguilles d’Arves glisten with the previous night’s dusting of snow. We are bathed in sunshine and the glacier looks sensational (see top).
Being roped up and walking “in formation” is a strange sensation. No possibility of stopping for a snack or drink, let alone a pee. Photo opportunities are confined to hasty snaps – before a yank from the person in front puts an end to it. An hour or so on we stop for a break and Juan and I scamper up the Dome de la Lauze. We are hardly catching our breath but Jean-Paul is already bidding us come down. Why the haste? Is it the biting wind, or some other reason? I drink in the 360 degree views, and follow him down reluctantly.
It’s as we descend from the Col de la Lauze into the Selle valley that our problems start.
Pauline and Annette are manifestly ill prepared for (or ill informed about?) the walk. It is walking, albeit down a very steep, snowy slope. But Annette has no stability, hunched over as she tentatively inches her way forward and down. It’s painful to watch, and even more agonising to have to stay roped up as a pack. I am ready to scream when – praise the Lord – Jean-Paul announces that we can unleash ourselves. Juan, Chantal and I speed on ahead. The relief is unimaginable. Slippy slidey snow. Weeha…
At the bottom of the descent, we bask on a grassy slope above the Selle refuge, waiting for the rest of the group to catch up. We can see Jean-Paul, at times far ahead of his herd, for a guide – and then, good, he is waiting for them. It should have taken us an hour, but is nearer 2.5 hours by the time we are all down. Jean-Paul is obviously concerned about the viability of the group, which is stretching the classic rule of going the pace of the slowest beyond what is safe.
Our late descent (which Jean-Paul admits was a mistake) meant the snow was unstable and could have avalanched. But he doesn’t seem to think any particular action is required on his part. By good fortune the two women have seen that their presence is jeopardizing the feasibility of the walk and they decide to pull out. It’s a sad moment – failure for them and (indirectly) Jean-Paul, and the loss of good company. But it has to be the right decision – and Jean-Paul is simply lucky that he didn’t have to impose it.
From the refuge we watch the sun’s last rays against the massif du Soreiller, then spend the evening chatting.
Jean-Paul perfunctorily teaches us a few knots. Clearly, we are the zillionth group he has done this exercise with. He brusquely informs us that we will be getting up at 5am, having breakfast at 5.02am and leaving at 5.30am. Yes, sir! I am awake most of the night, unable to shake off the stress of the day. But somehow manage to be ready for 5.45, completely zonked.
Day 2: Selle refuge (2673m) to Chatelleret refuge (2232m) via the Col du Replat (3201m)
Head torches light our way as we leave the refuge. By the time we reach the Selle glacier it is almost light. Crampons aren’t necessary here but as we walk up the eastern wall of the glacier they once again earn their places in our rucksacks. What a pleasure walking with them, our stability enhanced with so little effort.
We arrive at the Col du Replat and perch there on a knife edge. The reward is generous: wonderful views all around, including south towards Gioberney and the Pilatte glacier, and east to the Dome des Ecrins.
It’s too cold, not to mention vertiginous, to stay long. With some reluctance at losing hard-won altitude so soon, we rope up and begin the descent. There are some tricky passages scrambling down a rock wall. I find it’s tempting to use the rope like via ferrata, giving it my whole weight. But we are not hooked up to the rock, so this would be fatal. Jean-Paul yells at us to keep the rope between each of us taut – if one person falls their fall will then be less. But how can you do this when each of you is negotiating delicate foot positions, manoeuvring around awkward ledges? If the rope is taut we will pull each other off the mountain. As Jean-Paul barks at me from above (“Do you understand me, Rebecca?” Yes. “Then why aren’t you doing as I say?”), Juan simultaneously nags me to give him more slack. Grrrrrr!! Talk about being between a rock and a hard place …
On a sunny, flat rock we find a resting place for “lunch” (it’s only 10.30am), still above the snow line. We catch a glimpse of an ermine zipping around the rocks. Across the valley rock climbers attack a vertical wall.
We’ve been walking for five hours but Chatelleret refuge is still not even in sight. We set off again and practice a few ice-axe techniques on a scrap of snow. I then choose to dawdle, enjoying going at my own pace. Juan uses the opportunity to take some flower photos (Androsace pubescens – now how often have you seen that?!)
I’m too tired to do anything other than will my feet down the path, as erratic cairns give way to a well tramped route. Across the Selle valley we can see tomorrow’s path disappearing up the northern end of the valley into what looks like an impassable precipice. I put it out of my mind. The mountains’ barks are sometimes worse than their bite.
We regroup outside the refuge and enjoy blueberry tart. The refuge has a lovely position alongside a river that ribbons to create a hundred picturesque picnic sites. Juan and I use the refuge shower, powered by the ultimate solar heating system: a long black hosepipe. Bliss. While our guide and family take a siesta the three of us find a spot by the river to chat, analyzing the faults of our guide and putting the world to rights. It’s an effort to stay awake but we’re determined not to undermine the possibility of sleep tonight.
Supper – and not a moment too soon. Jean-Paul surprises me with a party trick: how can you position three glasses and three knives so as to support a jug? (answer: it’s all in the way they overlap) Fuelled up, we waste no time in heading for bed, Juan protesting at the early hour but in fact not far behind the rest of us (what else can you do?!). The 20-bed dormitory is full, the ambiance high as a good French Camembert, and the malfunctioning window letting in gusts of near-freezing air. But nothing will stop sleep this time. Eight solid hours.
Day 3: Chatelleret refuge (2232m) to Villar d’Arène (1667m) via the Col du Clot des Cavales (3158m)
We are again a few minutes over Jean-Paul’s projected departure time – this time because he is behind schedule. Once again we set off as dawn breaks. The granite peaks are temporarily transformed into sandstone as the early sun picks them out. A magical time.
We don’t need crampons until the last stretch of snow below the Col du Clot des Cavales. It’s a gritty, unpleasant walk: extremely steep, unstable underfoot and impossible to keep the rope straight and free from the many jutting rock faces that we have to pass around, and which break the continuity of line. Jean-Paul is impatient – all three of us answering him back like rebellious teenagers. What on earth does he expect from people who have never done this before?
From the col we look back to yesterday’s descent. From this perspective it looks barely credible as a route.
To the east is the valley of the “Torrent du Clot des Cavales”, which joins the Romanche valley further on. With the sun shining straight towards us, and scree on all sides, the landscape is at its most austere. We enjoy the eagle’s eye view for a moment or two, but don’t dally. The wind, and knowledge that we still have many hours of walking ahead, push us on.
Here, at least, there’s no need for ropes. We zigzag down through the snow, the Pavé refuge soon revealing itself next to the lake of the same name; the path runs slightly south of the refuge, along textbook moraines.
Jean-Paul seems more than usually introspective. At the confluence of the two rivers rocky haute montagne scenery gives way to more gentle alpages frequented by a number of day walkers approaching from below. The greenery and flowers, and gentle gradient, are very welcome. I voice my appreciation to Jean-Paul but he either doesn’t hear or doesn’t want to hear, and says nothing.
The end of the walk is beautiful, following the Romanche river east and then north to the car park just south of Villar d’Arène. It’s only the last half hour that really gets to us. Juan needs several breaks in order to make the distance. Back at the cars Jean-Paul offers us a chilled beer and we conduct an informal post mortem. It is extraordinary. Here’s this vastly experienced mountain man, with a devoted wife and daughter, finally acting like a human being. Relief at being able to talk adult to adult for the first time in three days is tempered by sadness at the wasted opportunity: with different group management this would have been such a different adventure.
Jean-Paul explains his bad temper as being common to all guides (really?), and that it was only when we were in danger that he lost his temper (?!) In his view there are any number of routes where the effort and aesthetic are better balanced. He claims the use of the description “randonnée glaciaire” by the Bureau des Guides is misrepresentative – this walk is more accurately début alpinisme. We charge him with the responsibility of reporting this back to the Bureau des Guides. “So no hard feelings, then?”, he asks us. And I guess there are none. But I’ll know what questions to ask next time.