The Écrins mountains lie in the southern alps. Compared to the northern alps where Mont Blanc and many of the other more famous glaciers, ski resorts and mountains stand the steep and sharp peaks of the Écrins tower proudly above the deep valleys below. It definitely holds its own.
The ice festival has been going on for the past 28 years or so. It kicks off in January when the temperatures are at their coldest and the ice quality at it’s best. M had visited the Écrins a couple of times before, climbing ice, big mountains and skiing all over the show. She’d, however, never been to the festival. When it comes to traveling on the fickle Rand, the relatively small entry to the festival is a real bargain. It gives you access to tons of activities, the use of some gear free of charge and experienced guides who would take participants to some of the most beautiful ice falls and off piste slopes in the region.
Coughing and spluttering my way from Barcelona to L’Argentiére-la-Bessee les Écrins, the little town surrounded by jagged rock and powdered peaks wasn’t particularly pleasant for others around me but, I was incredibly impressed by my first French outing. Seeing Europe by train is something everyone should put on their bucket lists. The gentle rocking of the train calmed my flu and gazing out onto the frost-burnt landscapes, rushing icy streams gave me a wonderful introduction to a country I’d been longing to see for so long. As we got deeper into the alps, the air became dry and crisp and I started to feel more at peace with the Catalonia debacle. I started being in the moment, not worrying about what had happened or what may unfold.
We stayed in a small village called Vallouise which looked like something out of Santa’s workshop. Rooftops of chalets caked under meters of snow decorated by menacing icicles looked staged- like some kind of Christmas film set.
Skiing of every kind was on our doorstep and M was eager to show her bewildered South African her country.
Side note: there are a number of things that the French are largely proud of, but their pastries are on top of the list. Sadly, I’m fussy when it comes to food and my flu had killed my taste buds. I’ll get back to that but it would prove to keep M up at night, imagining that I’d leave France without experiencing the joy of a “pain au chocolat ” or a “Paris -Brest ” .
Anyway, the novelty of snowy mountains hadn’t lost it’s touch on me after suffering up big peaks in the past. We arrived a couple of days before the festival and I was hoping that it would be enough time to get better, but we were out early the every morning so rest and getting rid of my flu would have to wait. We were ready to ski slopes in temperatures well below zero and get high up in the alps.
On all the mountains I’ve climbed I’ve always imagined skiing down them on the descent. Walking or rappelling is a bore and often more dangerous than the ascent, so shoving on a pair of skis at thr summit is something I’d like to get into. That being said, I’m not particularly graceful and the first 2 days were filled with laughter at my expense. We tried alpine and Nordic skiing and each had their challenges and glorious wipeouts (see video here).
Going into the festival I felt less than well, but time spent in the mountains and snow had dusted off the cobwebs and we were ready to go climb some ice falls!