The Bounty of Frost

A short introduction to the best ice climbing in Western Europe

Feature type Story

Read time 11 min read

Published Jan 29, 2021

Photographer David Pickford

David Pickford David Pickford is an outdoor writer, editor, and photographer based in the UK. Find out more about his work at www.davidpickford.com.

Story & Photography | David Pickford

The Aiguille du Dru cast in sharp definition by the last few minutes of midwinter sunlight. In the centre of the Chamonix Valley, and looming over the great icefall climbs of the Argentiere Glacier, the Dru is a constant presence on any climbing trip in the region.

The Aiguille du Dru cast in sharp definition by the last few minutes of midwinter sunlight. In the centre of the Chamonix Valley, and looming over the great icefall climbs of the Argentiere Glacier, the Dru is a constant presence on any climbing trip in the region.

“By the early 1990s, I felt like ice climbing had fallen behind rock climbing in its technical interest and challenge. In the winter of 1992 I found the answer to this dilemma whilst belaying one of the great French climbers on the fourth pitch of a new route on the Tete du Gramusat [in the Ecrins massif]. Thierrey Renault and I were confronted with a big rock ceiling festooned with hanging icicles. I played a game in my mind, envisioning how it would be possible to climb the roof using just the picks of my tools and points of my crampons. A couple of years later, I found the climb to demonstrate the concept. The ascent of the Octopussy Wall in Vail, Colorado, opened the gates to a gymnastic approach to mixed rock and ice, and a resultant explosion in interest in the art.”

– Jeff Lowe (1950 – 2008), The Art of Ice Climbing

James Harrison searches for a solid axe placement on the steep crux section of Davidoff (WI5) in the ice climbing paradise of the Fournel Valley, high above L’Argentière-la-Bessée, home to the Ecrins Ice Climbing Festival held every year in January (ice-climbing-ecrins.com).

James Harrison searches for a solid axe placement on the steep crux section of Davidoff (WI5) in the ice climbing paradise of the Fournel Valley, high above L’Argentière-la-Bessée, home to the Ecrins Ice Climbing Festival held every year in January (ice-climbing-ecrins.com).

It is no coincidence that Jeff Lowe’s revelation in 1992 came to him in the heart of one of the great ice climbing cliffs of the Ecrins massif in the French Alps. Facing due north, rising over four hundred metres above the Freissinières valley floor, and striped with tantalising pillars of free-hanging water ice throughout the winter months, the Tete du Gramusat is just one of hundreds of crags and mountain walls in the Western Alps that seem purpose-built for ice and mixed climbing. As one of the world’s leading innovators in the rapidly developing sport of ice climbing in the 1980s and 1990s, American Jeff Lowe was in exactly the right place to see what the future might look like.

Today, almost thirty years after Lowe’s eureka moment on the Tete du Gramusat, the Western Alps still has everything an ice climber could wish for. Accessible single pitch icefalls, gigantic vertical free standing pillars, multipitch goulottes of a mountaineering stature rising from crevassed glaciers, and steep, highly technical mixed routes that include substantial ice features like those that so inspired Lowe to push the boundaries of ice climbing back in the early 1990s.

Giles Cornah moves out across the ice curtain on Prends Moi Sec (M7+) at Ceillac, a small but excellent ice and mixed climbing area in the Eastern Ecrins. This route follows a mixed line out of a large cave to eventually gain the ice pillar of the super-classic Sombre Heroes (WI5).

Giles Cornah moves out across the ice curtain on Prends Moi Sec (M7+) at Ceillac, a small but excellent ice and mixed climbing area in the Eastern Ecrins. This route follows a mixed line out of a large cave to eventually gain the ice pillar of the super-classic Sombre Heroes (WI5).

Whether you’re looking to make the transition from mountaineering-style couloir climbs to steeper ice, or you’re a seasoned winter climber looking for the next big thing, some of the best opportunities for ice climbing in the world lie in the high valleys of the mountain-clad triangle between Geneva, Zurich and Turin. Whilst the ice climbing in Norway and North America has the advantage of more reliable conditions, the Western Alps has a variety and scope than few other regions can match, and all within a relatively small geographical area. The photographs that accompany this piece are nothing but the tip of the figurative iceberg of what’s on offer; they might provide an idea of the sheer scale of winter climbing opportunities in the Western Alps. Of course, there are a great many more challenging ice and mixed climbs in the region than those featured here, and there’s still ample fuel for any modern pioneers of Jeff Lowe’s bold and beautiful vision; for that precarious shadow-dance across an icicle encrusted ceiling, hundreds of metres above the snow-clad ground.

The Western Alps has a variety and scope than few other regions can match, and all within a relatively small geographical area

As far as the skiers and snowboarders are concerned it probably hasn’t been this good for decades

Excellent late season conditions on the crux 4th pitch of the Chèré Couloir (D4, 350m), one of a number of classic alpine ice routes on Mont Blanc du Tacul, high above Chamonix. The route commands an awesome position above the glacier, looking across to Cosmiques and L’Aiguille du Midi; it is a popular introduction to the more technical mountain ice routes in the Western Alps.

Excellent late season conditions on the crux 4th pitch of the Chèré Couloir (D4, 350m), one of a number of classic alpine ice routes on Mont Blanc du Tacul, high above Chamonix. The route commands an awesome position above the glacier, looking across to Cosmiques and L’Aiguille du Midi; it is a popular introduction to the more technical mountain ice routes in the Western Alps.

You might need a day off in a couple of weeks of hard ice climbing. Via ferrata is a great rest day activity, and the Ecrins is full of possible routes - such as this one, high above Vallouise with amazing views out towards Pointe de l’Aiglière and Mont Pelvoux to the north.

You might need a day off in a couple of weeks of hard ice climbing. Via ferrata is a great rest day activity, and the Ecrins is full of possible routes – such as this one, high above Vallouise with amazing views out towards Pointe de l’Aiglière and Mont Pelvoux to the north.

Some of the best opportunities for ice climbing in the world lie in the high valleys of the mountain-clad triangle between Geneva, Zurich and Turin

A spooky scene in falling light on the long walk-out from a great day’s ice climbing in Cogne, Italy.

A spooky scene in falling light on the long walk-out from a great day’s ice climbing in Cogne, Italy.

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