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Untamed ice in the Queyras

March 16, 2017

Untamed ice in the Queyras

The Queyras, a mountain valley in the Southern French Alps that straddles the border with Italy, contains one of France's most popular ice climbing areas (Ceillac) as well as several dozen little-known lines left in obscurity until 2013. During several low-snow winters, local climber Guillaume Vallot revisited the ravines and chasms of the surrounding mountains in search of waterfall-ice to sink his axes into… and then put pen to paper to write the first ever Queyras ice-climbing guidebook.
 
Irresistible eye-catching lines of frozen blue bliss
It's February 2013, and my friends and I are bored out of our minds. The snowpack is in a state of disrepair, and temperatures have hovered around -25°C for the last few days. My eyes catch sight of several obstinate frozen waterfalls. Tired of sitting around just twiddling my thumbs, I head to the garage to dust the cobwebs off my ice axes, pull the mothballs off my ice screws, and pay a visit to these frozen beauties. Near the village of Abriès, I start with a few south-facing lines that will soon disappear as the days grow longer. Christened Les Bronchites (Bronchitis) in honor of the germs that, to flee the Arctic freeze, had decided to take refuge in my lungs. Further up the valley, towards Bric Froid Peak, which has one of the biggest south faces in the Alps (1700 meters of continuous vertical between 30° and 40°), I discovered Acouarelles (Watercolors), a free-standing gem twenty-fives meters high. I couldn't believe that we had made the very first ascent. Yet none of the local "old climbers" could remember ever hearing of, let alone climbing this particular frozen chunk of water.
Like diamonds on display
After this fantastic warm-up, I decided to check out Arvieux. Other than a bulging curtain above the historic local mill, there was nothing else to sick my picks into. So I crossed the Guil River and ventured up Aigue Blanche basin. Snooping around a little, I quickly found a handful of new lines. The most impressive among them was located beneath Curlet Ridge. The expression, "you only see what you want to see," applies here. The six frozen falls are obvious, as obvious as diamonds on display at Tiffany's, and yet all of them had gone completely unnoticed for years to ice climbers from near and far who had passed this way.
 
Homage here, an icicle there
My next stop was the Upper Guil Valley. The northern aspects above the village of Ristolas, beneath Ségure Peak, contained several frozen lines of interest. Letting my literary side express itself, I named the most stunning among them La Comtesse de Ségure (The Countess of Ségur – a well-known Russian novelist) II/4. I then sped towards Monta, where Peyre Grosse Creek unveiled an unexpected 400 vertical meters of spectacular ice. As homage to the charming female managers who oversee the traveler's lodge located at the base of the ravine, I named it Les Filles de la Monta (The Ladies of La Monta). Is the name truly magical or has Internet word of mouth played a role? Since the first ascent, this route has become a classic. Further up the valley, near Echalp, the narrow ravine formed by Maloqueste Creek (or "Bad Taxes" creek in the local dialect) contained a dozen incredible lines of ice visible right from the road! Given the controversial tax and labor laws of a certain former French president's administration, I named one line Le Paquet Fiscal (Fiscal Policy).
 
Towards Mount Viso and the Lost Palace
I finished my exploration with the long ascent towards Mount Viso (Monviso in Italian). Beneath the north face of Taillante Ridge, I discovered and climbed five new incredibly enticing lines. This alpine valley rises towards the "Rock King," the nickname Italians traditionally use when referring to Mount Viso. Here, a 2-hour approach leads to the Palais du Bout du Monde (the Lost Palace) and its multiple curtains of ice. The icing on the cake is the Viso hut right nearby. I have fond memories of spending an evening there sipping a fine Bordeaux wine and enjoying (and devouring…) Lyofood's Beef Stroganoff, which recharged our batteries after a long day out in the cold!

 
Text and photos: Guillaume Vallot
Translation from French: Darin Reisman / dreisman74@gmail.com

 





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