A short Ecrins winter trek

Early December and I had a few days time to make a winter trekking. Not that much snow yet this year in the Alps but the weather seemed to stay splendid in the French Alps and so I decided to pay a visit to the National Park of the Ecrins. Due to the cold spell since last episode of snowfall a week earlier, snow was lingering to even the bottom of the lowest lying valleys. The south facing slopes that usually bath in the sun for most of daytime near Prapic (1550m), the mountain hamlet where I started the trip, had become snow free again but once above about 2300m a nice white wonderland seemed to be awaiting me.

Ecrins 201312
The mountain hamlet of Prapic (1550m) down below.

Ecrins 201312
Not yet that much snow in the mountains.

Ecrins 201312
Looking back to frozen Lac des Estaris (2560m) from Col des Freissinières (2782m).

Ecrins 201312
View back to Col des Freissinières (2782m) while climbing Roc Diolon (3071m).

Ecrins 201312
The way to the summit of Roc Diolon (3071m).

I was experimenting with a pair of neoprene cycling overshoes over my trailrunners on this trip to keep my shoes dry and my feet warmer. The top of the overboots don’t have a close fit around my lower shin. Not enough time anymore before I left to sew an appropriate gaiter onto the overboots and by coincidence (or I can better admit that I’m not that organized) I didn’t find my second gaiter in my closet at home to wear over the overboots and so I eventually left without gaiters. I would be walking on snowshoes for most of the time and seen the recent weather evolution and the limited amounts of snow, I was probably not going to be missing my gaiters that much. It was not ideal but I wasn’t really worried. I still could bent my socks over the top of the overboots, a makeshift that seemed to work sufficiently.

Ecrins 201312
The bivouac spot on the ridge at around 3040m altitude.

Ecrins 201312
The Champsaur valley and the ski resort of Orcières-Merlettes from the summit at night.

Ecrins 201312
Melting snow for supper in the tent after the avoided disaster.

I gained altitude on the zigzag path above Prapic, then headed north over the snow covered terrain near the closed ski resort of Orcières-Merlette to reach the frozen mountain lake of Grand Lac des Estaris (2560m) around noon. I had been walking on microspikes since I touched the first crusted snow, but from here I had to put my snowshoes on to reach the Col des Freissinières (2782m) over the deep wind driven snow accumulation that had been blown trough the mountain pass. The climb to the mountain pass ended in a short steeper section with a slope up to around 35°. From the pass I looked down into the deeps in the valley head of Val des Freissinières at the other side. Descending the pass over here looked steep and didn’t seem to be without avalanche danger, but that would be for tomorrow.

Ecrins 201312
The highest peaks of the Ecrins including Barre des Ecrins (4102m) from Roc Diolon just before sunrise.

Ecrins 201312
Awaiting the sunrise at the summit cairn.

Ecrins 201312
The modest sunrise behind a veil of high clouds.

Ecrins 201312
First sunrays hitting the highest peaks of the Ecrins.

I exchanged snowshoes for microspikes again and turned south on the pass to continue to gain altitude on the mountain ridge over hard icy snow. After a while I reached the summit of Roc Diolon (3071m) without much effort. The sun was now already low above the horizon. I enjoyed the summit views for a while with especially the 4000m peaks of the Ecrins in the north that impressed the most.

Ecrins 201312
The east ridge of Roc Diolon with Tête de Soulaure (3243m) in the background.

Ecrins 201312
The perfect spot for a ridge bivouac, Vieux Chaillol (3163m) and the Devoluy mountains in the back.

Hardly a breeze on the summit, ideal conditions to make a high altitude bivouac as planned. If possible I would have pitched my tent on the summit but that seemed to result in an uncomfortable nights sleep. About 30m below the summit I found a perfect spot and pitched the tent while the sun went to sleep behind the horizon. The wind picked up at night to a steady moderate breeze and maintained a constant -8°c inside the tent.

Ecrins 201312
The view while descending down Col des Freissinières into the valley with the same name.

Ecrins 201312
Looking back to Col des Freissinières and Crête du Martinet (3104m).

While melting snow for supper it started to smell suspiciously like propane gas inside the tent after a while. I checked my burner and gas canister and then suddenly noticed that liquefied gas was squirting out of the rotary valve on the gas canister. I was using my MSR Windpro burner in inverted liquid feed as I had always done before without problems. While turning the canister to close the valve, the leaking gas caught fire and I now had a burning bomb of a gas canister in my hands! In panic I started to knock the flame with my hands (while wearing mittens luckily) but the flame only got extinguished once I realized after a few seconds that I better just could close the valve. What a relief when the flames died, my heart yet beating as hell. Fortunately I had left the tent door opened. If not, the tent fabric could have caught fire. I had checked the gas burner at home before the trip and it had worked fine than. When I lit the burner again I found out that the rubber around the lever seemed to have worn too much and did not entirely seal the valve anymore. As long as I did not turn the lever too abruptly the leaking hold off. Still this is unacceptable for me. A gas burner should remain safe at all times, even when some sealing rubber would start to wear off. Anyway, I eventually had a good meal that evening but a few holes had been burned in my mittens though.

Ecrins 201312
Down Val des Freissinières.

Ecrins 201312
The frozen river at Val des Freissinères while approaching Dormillouse.

Ecrins 201312
Reaching the tree line again while climbing to Cabane de Palluel, Pic de Rochelaire (3108m) and Tête de Couleau (3038m) in the background.

I climbed to the summit again during the morning and awaited the sunrise which led to a very short lived morning glow on the surrounding peaks. The nocturnal breeze faded away as the sun rose and I packed my stuff in a deadly silence… as long as there was no jet plane flying overhead at least. When again arrived at the Col des Freissinières I put crampons on my feet and took my ice ax from my backpack and descended steep down into the valley over crusted snow between outcrops of rocks. Finally on flatter terrain I continued over mostly portable crust but suddenly fell through the snow in a deep hole onto what seemed to be a boulder field underneath and while hitting ground a point of a crampon pushed into the femur of my other leg. I climbed out of the hole and checked my leg. Despite there was no hole torn in my pants, I still felt a lot of pain for a while and noticed a wound on my leg, slightly bleeding but not troublesome enough to stop me from walking deeper down the valley.

Ecrins 201312
Morning at Canabe de Palluel (2173m).

Ecrins 201312
The mountain stream slowly freezing, Le Tuba (3008m) and Petit Pinier (3100m) in the background.

Ecrins 201312
A steep climb out of the valley, Le Tuba (3008m), Petit Pinier (3100m) and Grand Pinier (3117m) at the horizon.

Val des Freisinnières is yet one of those quite wild and remote looking valleys in the Alps which you don’t find that much anymore these days. Deeper down the valley the winter sun didn’t reach the valley bottom and progression became more tiresome through a half a meter of powder. It took me till late afternoon to reach the hamlet of Dormillouse (1727m), now abandoned during winter. From here I crossed the river and climbed over the summer trail in the forest which leads to Lac Palluel. I climbed above tree line and stopped at Cabane de Palluel (2173m) before reaching the mountain lake. The shepherds cabin was now locked for winter but I found an easy way to get in. I cautiously melted snow with my own burner inside the cabin and now managed to limit the gas squirting of the burner to a minimum.

Ecrins 201312
Overlooking the terrain towards Col des Terres Blanches (2721m) and Tête de Couleau (3038m).

Ecrins 201312
Peculiar footprints.

Ecrins 201312
Watching the night sky.

Ecrins 201312
Moon and star trails at the bivouac spot near Col des Terres Blanches (2721m).

Ecrins 201312
Polaris found.

Later during the night I was mostly awake in the cabin, too warm inside and the usual uproar of mice kept my out of my sleep most of the time. The next morning I left early after sunrise and created my own traces in the snow while searching a route to Grande Cabane de Faravel (2204m). From there I could descend down to the valley bottom and climb along the eastern slope of the valley passed a steep rock face to reach a high mountain valley under Col des Terres Blanches (2721m). I pitched the tent just below the col that evening and enjoyed the starry sky for almost two hours before searching for my sleeping bag in the tent.

Ecrins 201312
Local zastrugi formation at Col des Terres Blanches (2721m).

Ecrins 201312
Footprints of chamois and snow grouse lead me towards the summit of Le Tuba (3008m).

Ecrins 201312
Pic de Rochelaire (3108m) and Tête de Vautisse (3156m) seen from le Tuba (3008m).

Ecrins 201312
Ridge walk back to Col des Terres Blanches (2721m).

Ecrins 201312
A distant view to Monte Viso (3841m).

The last day included a long ridge snowshoe walk towards the summit of Le Tuba (3008m) where I enjoyed a long pause to admire the surrounding peaks. Back at Col des Terres Blanches I started the final and long descend back down to Prapic. Along the way I encountered a couple of chamois that seemed to be playing tag with each other. When I arrived at Prapic it was already dark and night while the stars started to appear in the sky. The beautiful trip had come to its end.

Ecrins 201312
Snowshoe hare, where are you?

Ecrins 201312
Following the deep incised Torrent de la Bruyère below Col des Terres Blanches.

Ecrins 201312
The last bits to Prapic (1550m).

11 thoughts on “A short Ecrins winter trek

  1. WOW< no words really, that was a great trip. Nature is stunning, nothing can match her.

    The photos are amazing. At least. Although I enjoy looking at them I think its nothing compared to being there myself.

    I am surprised you did not call for help when you got injured Joery, but if it was small wound and you knew your way back I guess its not big deal. Small accidents I suppose are expected. But still its kind of scary to fall through snow!

    So sleeping in a tent is better than sleeping in a mice-infested cabin!

    " Footprints of chamois and snow grouse lead me towards the summit of Le Tuba" :)) The best professional hiking guides :))

  2. Mindblowing trip and photos!! Awesome as usual. Thanks so much, really stunning & mesmerizing stuff !!
    Joery, would you mind to share your gear list, as well? I’m thinking about similar trip and really need some ‘inspiration’ in this matter 😛

    • @mirogster, If you want a buddy for this trip, let me know. I am in Germany,I speak intermediate German, BUT I am inexperienced on this mode of travel.
      Email (remove dots from address) b.e.r.l.i.n.mvaluna AT gmail com

  3. That was time well spent.Wonderful weather and beautiful nature.That shot called “watching the night sky” is brilliant. Stoves , I find, are often troublesome, fuel quality, pump, seals, all trouble makers. As you found Joery gas also can give problems.Even after a test run prior to departure. Stoves and cameras have to be the least reliable gear items.

  4. Thanks everyone for the comments!
    I’ll see if I can add my pack list of this trip later as soon as I have some time to work on it. The problem with the stove seemed to have been my own fault after thouroughly studying at home what caused the leaking. Never screw the canister too tight as I did on the trip the first two days. 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s