Dauphiné, Col du Lautaret, Briançon – admittedly, these buzzwords would rather come to mind when it comes to skiing, the Tour de France or great alpinism. Hardly anyone who has not already been here would associate the Haut Val Durance with great sport climbing, which for us Germans is more at home in the south of the French Republic. The area is not a brand new, as yet an unknown spot that is just about to be hyped. Climbing in the Durance valley goes back so far that the area has already been forgotten. In Europe, however, there are hardly any other areas that have so much vertical variety to offer in such a small area. The repertoire ranges from granite to quartzite and conglomerate to lime, from bouldering and baseclimbs to day-long multi-pitch tours. And there is plenty of everything, excellently furnished, in a quality and in an atmosphere that suits every taste. No question about it, the region around Briançon is a true climbing paradise!
Adventures into the unknown
Even we, my wife Alix and I, did not know exactly what we were getting ourselves into when a weather situation a few years ago took us far to the south-west of the Alps. It promised dry, warm autumn weather there for two weeks, while in the north one low pressure area after another was raging. From Lake Geneva we followed the A 43 into the Maurienne and curved south over the many tight serpentines of the Col du Galibier (2,674 m) and the Col du Lautaret (2,078 m). We deliberately chose the route in order to see something of the mountains of the Ecrins National Park while driving past and we are not disappointed. From the high passes, the crown of the mountain range, to which the Dauphiné owes its reputation, presents itself: the Meije (3,982 m), just on the opposite side, rugged and covered in white snow. A little further away, the Barre des Ecrins (4,102 m), the southernmost four-thousand-meter peak in the Alps, with its mighty glaciers. In between and around it, loads of other, wild, jagged rock peaks. But also lovely alpine meadows, wide caves, gently rounded ridges and deep, green valleys. A contrast that will accompany and fascinate us for the next two weeks.
The history and heritage of the Dauphiné
But the Dauphiné is more than just one of the most spectacular high mountain regions in the Western Alps. It is a historic stretch of land in south-east France which was only divided into the current departments of Isère, Drôme and Hautes-Alpes during the French Revolution. The term originally goes back to the Dauphiné de Viennois, an independent feudal state that belonged to the Kingdom of Burgundy between the 11th and 14th centuries. From the 12th century, the rulers gave themselves the title Delfinus («dolphin»), which translated into French was «Dauphin». After all properties were transferred to the French heir and the throne in the 14th century, the Dauphiné became in fact part of the Kingdom of France. Since then it has also been the custom that the respective French crown prince receives the paragium over the region and the title “Dauphin” when he is born. The dolphin is still the heraldic animal of the three aforementioned departments. The largest cities in the region are Grenoble (over 500,000 inhabitants), Valence to the west of the Vercors (60,000 inhabitants), Gap, which borders Provence (40,000 inhabitants) and Briançon (12,000 inhabitants) to the east, near the Italian border.
Briançon – the climbing hotspot of the area
The latter lies at an altitude of around 1,200 meters above sea level and, in a way, forms the epicenter of climbing in the region. Its field of activity extends far down into the Durance valley, up to 800 meters. At the same time, it reaches high up to the passes and an altitude of over 2,500 meters. Just as versatile are the possibilities to escape excessive heat by choosing the right area. The Durance valley is therefore a recommendation, especially in the hot summer months. It is equally suitable for autumn or spring. Don’t let the altitude give you the wrong idea – Briançon is more south than Venice or Rijeka. Therefore, the sun can pop hard into south-facing walls even in the transition period and make you sweat on your forehead.
Camping under the stars at the foot of Mont Pelvoux
There is no shortage of accommodation in the Durance Valley which is well developed for tourism and which owes its good reputation above all to the wide range of winter sports and mountain hiking opportunities. In the widely scattered towns there is a large number of holiday apartments, guest houses and hotels available which are well booked during the main season, but are almost in abundance during the other times. But actually you should not miss sleeping under the open sky in the great nature of the valley. In this regard, a campsite deserves special mention which locals like to compare with California’s Yosemite Valley in terms of ambience: Ailefroide at the foot of Mont Pelvoux, which is also one of the oldest and largest climbing areas in the region.
Green, spacious meadows surrounded by steeply towering, rugged granite walls actually convey something of this flair in the remote high valley. We almost feel like we’re pitching our tent on El Cap Meadows. But here this is legally possible, provided you pay a small daily fee at the entrance of the huge campsite. In return you get a free choice of seats, well-maintained sanitary buildings, showers with hot water and the company of an international climbing community. British, Czechs, Dutch, French – they’re all here.
As a family or climber, you will find something for everyone
Ailefroide is particularly popular in midsummer. No wonder with this great scenery. Many of the routes can be reached on foot. Streams invite you to swim, meadows to rest and forests to wander around. The place is also a small paradise for families with children. As far as climbing is concerned, three groups in particular will be delighted: boulderers, hard movers in the highest levels of difficulty and lovers of flat multi-pitch tours. Since we are definitely not one of the first two, we prefer to settle for the third category: «Cascades Blues» (6a, 8 SL) – named after an unconventional waterfall crossing in the middle of the route – «Riviere Kwai» (5c +, 14 SL) or «Snoopy directe» (8 SL, 6b) are worthwhile candidates here, with quite beautiful rock and a distinctive landscape experience to offer.
Enjoying pizza at the end of the world
After our work is done, we both sit in Ailefroide starved in front of “Flo’s Pizzeria”, an older type of mobile home painted with flower power paints. In front of it you will find gray plastic chairs and tables in the middle of the litter meadow. Inside the vehicle, an XXL oven is currently heating our freshly prepared pizza. One “Meije” with Provencal herbs (fresh, not dried) and one “Pelvoux” with goat cheese (also fresh). Our mouths watered just from the smell from the stove. The whole thing with a view of the real Mont Pelvoux and accompanied by a sumptuous French country wine, Flo serves us with a hearty “bon appétit” in the middle of the flower meadow, in front of the pizzeria at the end of the world. If it weren’t for reality, it could also be a scene from a French art film.
In the second part, we will continue to take you with us on our journey to varied climbing areas with wonderful tours and idyllic places through the southeast of France.