words by Kai Fitchen pic by Marine Drouilly
I wasn’t in a particularly chipper mood when we touched base in France. Getting rained out of Catalonia was horribly disappointing. During our entire stay, we only managed to climb twice. In a way, however, it would have been nicer to not have climbed at all. It was like being served a delicious piece of cake, taking a small bite and, just before digging in, someone whips it away and puts their foot through it! Added to that, I’d picked up the flu that wreaked havoc on my weak African system. Jumping from one heated terminal to another, and then walking through sleeting mushy snow with 30 kilograms of sport climbing and cold-weather gear only exacerbated it.
We caught several trains from Lyon to the little mountain town of L’Argentière-la-Bessée deep in the French Alps. It is part of the Ecrins National Park and home to some of the best ice climbing the Alps has to offer. It may not be the most famous, but it has rivalled the likes of Chamonix for decades, producing some of history’s boldest alpinists.
I’ve taken many precarious means of public transport in my life, however, even in the disgruntled feverish state that I was in, train travel in France is cushy. Weaving in and out of frost-burnt valleys, as we climbed higher into the jagged and pointy landscape that make the Alps so striking. The shape and steepness of the peaks are so novel, and you just want to climb everything.
The familiar crunching of snow beneath my boots and the crisp frozen air filling my lungs energised my achy body as we stepped into the quiet mountain town that, for a week every year, attracts the adventurous at heart to celebrate their love for ice and snowy mountains. We came about The Ecrins Ice Festival by pure chance, and from the get-go, it ticked all the boxes. Out of all the mountain disciplines, skiing and ice climbing are rather elitist. Along with equipment rentals and an ice-climbing guide, which is essential unless you are experienced and have all the know-how, it will cost between 200 and 350 Euros (±R3k–5k) for a single private outing. This was unfeasible, because, as much as we would like to be, neither Marine nor I are trust-fund kids. While you won’t have the piste or icefall to yourself, the festival offers a smorgasbord of activities that will get your rocks off. From outings ranging from Nordic or backcountry skiing to ski mountaineering, or from learning how to ice-climb on semi-artificial icefalls to getting out onto wild multi-pitch lines – there’s something for everyone. Plus, there are plenty of mountain courses such as avalanche rescue (not super-useful for a Safa, but still pretty interesting!).