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Wright, W.A. (1924) Les Écrins And The Meije. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 5 Number 16: pp86-93. Leeds: YRC.

Les Écrins And The Meije.

By W. A. Wright.

Returning to the Alps after an absence of years caused by the great war, I was curious as to the state of mind and body in which I should find myself, being desirous of making the ascent of one or more of those higher peaks to which the lover of the Alps naturally turns. However, recollections of previous holidays, coupled with a visit in 1922 to the Montenvers region, served to assure me that by steady training I might have an enjoyable time and reap some measure of success on expeditions of reasonable length, though not perhaps with the speed of former years.

My choice of district this season, 1923, fell on the Dauphiné Alps, with the ascent of Les Écrins and, possibly, the Meije as the ultimate goal.

On alighting at St. Michel de Maurienne, I secured a place in a local motor conveyance, my travelling companions being an interesting party of peasant women with their curious white caps, and a genial padre. Through the good offices of the latter, who by telephone secured me a room at the Hotel de Valloire, I was spared the anxiety incidental to many travellers in the crowded month of August of being in doubt as to obtaining accommodation, so night found me safely ensconced in comfortable quarters, intending on the morrow to walk over the Col du Galibier to the Lautaret, with the hope of a glimpse, if not a glorious view, of some of the most romantic and beautiful peaks in the entire range of the Alps.

Due to no fault on my part, I was unable to make a start before 7.30 a.m., but by taking short cuts, I was enabled to reach the tunnel near the head of the Col a little before mid-day. Instead of going through the tunnel I diverged to the left, crossed the old road, and making my way over débris and patches of snow reached the summit, where my labours were rewarded by the view I had anticipated. To the south rose Les Écrins, and the awe-inspiring arête of the Meije; southeast, Monte Viso and other minor peaks; to the north the imposing range of Mont Blanc, and north-west one of the peaks of the Aiguilles d'Arve. Other parties arriving from Lautaret and Valloire by a small path on the other side of the tunnel were equally enthusiastic at the unique panorama.

After a delightful day revelling in the flora which abounds in the pastures near the Lautaret Pass, I deemed it advisable to make my way down to La Grave and secure a room at the Hotel de la Meije, which I intended to make my headquarters for the first portion of my climbing holiday. There I was recognised by Madame Juge, who evidently remembered my former visit, and had the pleasure the following day of greeting my guides, Alfred Balmat and Alfred Simond of Chamonix. We contented ourselves on the morrow by a preliminary walk of three hours to the Chalvachére Chalets, and arranged to make the ascent of Bec de l'Homme on Saturday, August 4th.

We left the hotel at four o'clock and on arriving at that part of the glacier where climbers making the ascent usually take to the rocks, the leading guide, Balmat, enquired whether we should do this or keep to the glacier, and after conferring with a friend who accompanied me, we decided upon the latter. We thus turned our expedition into one upon ice and snow, arrived at the Col de l'Hommc at noon and returned to La Grave at 6 p.m. The result of this day's effort served to confirm my earlier impressions that more training would be necessary to acquire those reserves of physical strength and nerve force which contribute so much to the enjoyment of a first-class climb.

After a brief interval I revisited the Col du Galibier with an artist who had kindly promised to make me a sketch of Les Écrins from the summit, but the sky clouding over gave disappointing conditions. We were, however, more fortunate the following day in securing the same scene under sunnier aspects, with the very satisfactory result that a charming water colour of Les Écrins with the rocks of the Roche Faurio and other peaks is now in my proud possession.

This was my second visit to the Dauphiné, my previous one being in 1907, when among other expeditions I crossed the Brèche de la Meije. We set out to repeat this on August 8th. Leaving La Grave at 4 a.m. we reached the Brèche at 11o'clock and there rested for one hour enjoying the view from this sharp deep gap. The usual route near the Promontoire Hut not being negotiable this year, we had some interesting work on the glacier and, by crossing a small ice bridge where steps had been cut by previous parties, reached the lower slopes of snow, which took us to the path leading to the Refuge Chatelleret. This the guides accomplished with true Chamoniard skill and sagacity.

After a few minutes rest we were en route for Bérarde, and caught a glimpse of the wonderful rocks of Les Écrins up the Bonne Pierre glen. Arriving at our final destination, we found the Hotel Tairraz in the full swing of the climbing season, the very steady fine weather which prevailed contributing to this. Though I had made the ascent of Pic Coolidge in 1907, I decided to repeat the expedition for the purpose of again inspecting the steep rock precipices of Les Écrins, l'Ailefroide and Pelvoux, and this, followed by a walk up the Tête de la Maye on August 12th, helped forward my training for the bigger climbs I had in view. For the traverse of Les Écrins I engaged the services of Joseph Eymard, of St. Christophe, as porter, it being desirable that we should be well provisioned, as after crossing the mountain our intention was to stay the night at the Ernest Caron Refuge and return to Bérarde by the Col des Écrins the following day. As events turned out this proved successful.

If I am accused by some of taking things rather leisurely, the only excuse I can advance is that I must now class myself in the words of a well-known writer, as a middle-aged mountaineer.

The first night we slept until 12.30 at the Carrelet Hut, getting away about 1.30 a.m. The guides had already selected the route, from the summit of Pic Coolidge, and as a consequence we had no difficulty in making our way over the moraine to the Glacier du Vallon de la Pilatte, where we took our first breakfast at 5.30 a.m.

I feel I must dwell on the grand view of the rocks of Les Écrins from a point where the path diverges to the Col de la Temple. Of great breadth, they appear somewhat dwarfed in height, which is perhaps due to the intervening foreground, but these characteristics, combined with their colour, contribute to the romantic beauty of this wonderful peak.

Daylight had been assisting us for a little time, and though a party of younger men had overtaken us in the early morning and already climbed out of sight, we had no difficulty in selecting the right couloir and thoroughly enjoyed our first contact with the rocks. May I here mention the experience, no doubt shared by other mountaineers, of the ease given to mind as well as body by changing from moraine to glacier and then to rocks.

For about two and a half hours we continued steadily climbing, then we had refreshments in a couloir where water was available. The first portion of the climb is sufficiently difficult to be interesting, and culminates in a well-known slab where a steel cable hangs down for those who feel the need of it, but both hand and foot holds are in evidence for the observant climber.

Crossing a steep snow couloir we were soon reminded of danger by the porter, the last man on the rope, crying out, "Attention! Attention !" as a fairly large stone came bounding down, fortunately clear between Simond and myself. We were not to be deterred by such an incident and, making our way up another small couloir, got on the final steep ridge of rather loose rocks which leads to the arête of the mountain. Hitherto the climb had been in the shade, but now the heat of the sun was somewhat troublesome, and the last hour and a half became more laborious and required greater care on account of the nature of the rocks.

All mountaineers know the sweet and solid satisfaction of reaching the goal of their ambition, or what is of nearly equal truth, to have the summit well in sight, and it was ours as we got on the arête and could see the heads of climbers sitting comfortably in the sunshine a few yards on our right.

I experienced a slight feeling of regret at finding the rocks disintegrated on the summit, but it was not possible to dwell long upon this view of nature, as the vision was directed to the majestic cliffs of Pelvoux, Ailefroide and La Meije, and the far distant Mont Blanc and other peaks. It is one of the rewards of the devout and consistent lover of the mountains to be able to recognise the forms of the peaks which have been ascended in previous seasons. This was our experience as we recognised with its long snow slope the Grande Casse among others, easily discernible against the deep blue sky.

After an hour's rest in warmth and sunshine on the summit, we made our way down the arête, descending a few rocks and an ice slope over a bergschrund, and traversing steep slopes of snow found no difficulty in reaching the Glacier Blanc, over which an easy walk brought us to the foot of the rocks upon which the Ernest Caron Refuge is built. We were pleased to enter this new and well-fitted hut and soon made preparations for "high tea." The following morning we walked leisurely on to the Col des Écrins and made our way down the steep rocks to the Bonne Pierre glacier, where under a large rock we completely finished the remainder of our provisions and reached Bérarde in time for lunch.

The traverse of Les Écrins may not come up to the standard desired by an ardent rock climber, but it surely must rank high as an alpine expedition.

The traverse of the Meije had been seriously discussed, and the necessity had arisen of carrying with us at length of thinner rope for the descent to the the Brèche Zsigmondy, and down the ice slope of the Central Peak, but our minds were set at rest by the porter Eymard securing a sufficient length from a guide at the village of Etages. As events turned out, we need not have shown anxiety on this point, the local guides having already fixed ropes at the places mentioned.

On arrival at the Promontoire Hut on Friday evening for the morrow's ascent, we found five other parties with the same aim. We were the third party to leave the Hut at 5.30 a.m. It is always an interesting and sometimes an amusing sight to see climbers and their guides take their meals in turn, as in some huts the small table provided will only seat a limited number, and the celerity with which a meal can be prepared and despatched reflects credit on everybody concerned. More especially does this apply to the early morning breakfast.

We reached Refuge l'Aigle at the same hour in the evening. So thrilling an expedition, however, cannot be dismissed in such curt and summary terms. Undoubtedly the traverse of the Meije comes up to the high standard demanded by the keen lover of rocks, these being firm and good, and the handholds sufficient both in quality and frequency. Each "mauvais pas" has become sufficiently well known to be incorporated in Baedeker and other guide books. I have in my library, among other books on mountaineering, a charmingly illustrated volume describing the ascents of Les Écrins and La Meije, with the various "mauvais pas" now known to climbers as the Dos d'Ane, Dalle des Autrichiens, Pas du Chat, Cheval Rouge, Chapeau du Capucin, cleverly depicted.

Sitting on the summit of the Grand Pic, the sight of the arête, including the intervening peaks, and the famous Doigt de Dieu, is sufficiently alarming to compel the would-be traverser seriously to take stock of two things, firstly of his physical and mental capacity for the task in front of him, and secondly of the width and nature of the rocks of the arête. I made no remarks to the guides as to how the traverse would be made, whether by the steep snow slopes, some little distance beneath the arête, or by the rocks close to the ridge, but observing a party on the latter, this method was evidently the work in front of us.

I had been assured by an English climber who had recently traversed the mountain that there were no difficulties after the ascent of the Grand Pic, but I think this requires no slight qualification, there being one difficult place on one of the smaller peaks, while the final descent of the rocks of the Central Peak required considerable care. Below them the descent of the ice slope to the Tabuchet glacier from the arête beyond the Doigt de Dieu was achieved without the genial warmth of the sun and accompanied by cold blasts of a north-west wind. In all difficult places the guides made safety, not speed, their first thought, and great caution was observed in descending this ice slope. One slight advantage arose from there being several parties making the traverse, as one party sheltered behind the rocks on the ridge while another descended to the glacier.

Once on the glacier, we soon restored our lowered temperature by a sharp walk to the Refuge de l'Aigle, at which we decided to stay the night. One of the other two parties who came in later kindly granted us the use of their spirit lamp, and we refreshed ourselves with hot tea and good supper. Wrapping ourselves in warm blankets, we secured snatches of sleep despite the gusts of wind and the banging of rickety doors.

The early morning was fine but cold, and lower down we left the glacier for the rocks under the Bec l'Homme, gradually reaching a warmer climate and La Grave at 10 o'clock. Three days later a severe storm broke over the district, and M. Juge of the Hotel Meije expressed the opinion that with the heavy snow which had fallen mountaineering would not be possible for a considerable length of time, so we rightly congratulated ourselves upon having achieved the Meije expedition.

A motor run down to Grenoble and a further tour through the Grand Chartreuse to Chambéry afforded a charming contrast to the ice and snow of the Dauphiné Alps and brought my holidays to a conclusion.

I must not omit to pay a tribute of praise to the guides - Alfred Balmat and Alfred Simond. To the former for his good managing qualities, to both for their skill on rocks and glacier, and their readiness to adapt themselves to my services upon every occasion.

As a striking contrast to the difficulties of the Meije, I recall a pleasant variation I made whilst returning from a holiday at Florence in May. During a short stay at Bellagio on Lake Como, I determined to secure a peep at the Alps from one of the mountains in the district, and engaging a porter from a neighbouring hotel, I set out for the Ristorante San Primo to make the ascent of the mountain of that name early the following morning. The walk was enlivened by the porter relating his experiences as a farmer in California and pointing out the excellent point of view which the wealthy Italians had chosen for their summer residences.

The Ristorante was a very desirable resting place in every respect, and in addition will be remembered by its parlour having the characteristic odour which one associates with an old-fashioned English farmhouse. It rained heavily in the night, leaving a dark level bank of clouds to discourage us in the early morning. Even for so small a peak, I did not begrudge an early start, but at 3.30 a.m. the outlook was still disappointing. An hour later I decided to make a move, trusting that the sun would soon assert its supremacy, though the whole sky was still clouded over, with the exception of a small portion over Lake Lecco.

On reaching the summit we were richly rewarded with a magnificent prospect of the Alps from Monte Rosa to the Bietschhorn, of the snow clad peaks at the end of Lake Como with Monte Legnone and the Grigna. Another group of mountains to the west of the Legnone was partly hidden by the mist. It was round the summit of the Grigna that the sun was having its final ordeal of battle with the clouds, and the grandeur of this scene almost equalled in glory the sight of the long line of snow-clad peaks.

We did not fail to enjoy the contour and lovely colour of the lake with the picturesque villages lining its shores, and I still recall the charm of the spring flowers, the narcissi and lilies of the valley near the Ristorante, and the gentians and other flowers on the arête of the Primo.