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Circuit d'Ecrins

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

During August/September 2019 I trekked round the Ecrins massif in the French Alps and in this blog share my experiences and photos from the trek around this amazing region.

Parc Nacional des Ecrins is the largest national park in France. It is home to many rare species of flora and fauna most notably the lammergeier vultures that are famous for dropping bones of dead animals from on high to crack them open and obtain the nutritious marrow inside. The park also hosts the most southerly 4000m peak in the Alps, the Barre des Ecrins.

For the first six days I participated in a trek organised and supported by KE (Keswick Expeditions) details of which can be found on the KE website:

During the last 4 days I explored this lovely mountain region further with my friend and fellow photographer David Dear.

First Day - Les Combes to Vallouise (15.5 km, 710m ascent)

Having gathered in Briancon the day before the departure, and enjoyed getting to know one another over drinks and dinner, the group set off early the next morning in mini buses to reach the starting point for the trek, a narrow track above the tiny village of les Combes.

After a gentle start through a meadow of grazing cattle in the Partias Reserve the trail ascended steadily towards the Col de la Trancoulette (2293m) followed by a relatively benign ascending traverse to Col de Vallouise (2589m). The views from the Col de Vallouise are wonderful and it proved the perfect place to stop for a picnic lunch. A relatively easy day was concluded with a gentle descent to the village of Vallouise.

Second Day - Entre-les-Aygues to Refuge du Pre de la Chaumette (17.8km, 1171m ascent)

After a brief mini bus transfer to the hamlet of Entre-les-Aygues we headed south along the route of the G54 trail alongside the l'Ale, a tributary of the river l'Onde. The narrow valley gradually opens out into the meadows of le Clo Angel where sheep happily graze in the custody of the Pastous dogs that shepherds train to guard their flocks especially against attack by wolves. The angle of ascent steepened suddenly for a sustained pull up to the breathtaking Col de l'Aup Martin (2761m). The col is not much more than a knife arete and provides breathtaking views to the impressive Crete de l'Aup Martin.

The Col was the high point of the trek for the day and was the perfect spot to stop for a rest and to enjoy the fabulous picnic lunch organised by our guide Nirmal. We enjoyed the best local produce including fresh artisinal bread, local cheeses and cured, dry ham along with fresh tomatoes, cucumber and yummy chocolate to finish.

With the clouds gathering, a short gentle traverse took us to to Pas de la Cavale (2735m) from where an initially steep descent culminated in our arrival at the refuge du Pre de la Chaumette where the draught beer was very welcome!

Third Day - Refuge du Pre' de la Chaumette to Giobernay (18.6km, 1089m ascent)

Everyone awoke with a sense of anticipation about the three col day that lay ahead! The weather on this day was rather dull and foreboding with heavy cloud overhead and the feeling that it could rain heavily at any moment. The route comprised a steady ascent along GR54 from the refuge (1790m) to Col de la Valette (2668m) before a reasonably gentle traverse to Col de Gouiran (2597m) before arriving at the Col de Vallonpierre (2607m).

The descent from the third col involved some very steep zigzags that would have been fairly tricky in wet conditions. The material under foot was a cement like aggregate that in heavy rain turns to unstable sludge as fast as lager turns to piss. Our guide was anxious to get us past this point before the heavens opened and it was not too long before we were enjoying our picnic lunch (and in my case a beer) at the Refuge de Vallonpierre!

This had been quite a tough day and the onward trek to our pick up point at Giobernay was a surprisingly long way and we were all rather relieved to arrive at the final destination.

Fourth Day - le Desert en Valjouffrey to Valsenestre (13.2km, 1327m ascent)

The three cols the day before had been the toughest so far and following a conversation with Nirmal, our excellent guide, the group were unanimous in agreeing a variation of the planned route for the day. Rather that walk the planned route from Villar-Loubiere to Desert en Valjouffrey (17km & 1750m climb) we opted to hike from le Desert en Valjouffrey to Valsenestre via the amazing Col de Cote Belle.

The sun shone brightly as we set off on the steady 3 hour ascent up grassy slopes to the Col perched below Pic de Valsenestre. The decision to make this an easier day than the one planned turned out to be a sound one not least because the temperature for most of the day was over 30 degrees c but also because the views north from the Col towards Roche de la Muzelle were fabulous.

The extended lunch break atop Col de Cote Belle (2290m) was one of the highlights of the entire trek because after lunch Nirmal our guide suggested that those of us who were game should follow him on the short ascent of the enticing peak of Cote Belle close by. This was a great addition to the planned route for the day. We were soon on top of the peak (2390M) enjoying the views. The crags of the high peaks above the col were now so close you felt that you could reach out and touch them!

The descent to Valsenestre was straightforward and entailed what seemed like a lengthy stroll through the Bois du Bot along the valley to the village.

Fifth Day - Valsenestre to l'Alleau via Col de la Muzelle (18.1km, 1628m ascent)

This was scheduled to be quite a tough day in hot sunshine. We therefore made an early start along the route of the GR54 out of Valsenestre retracing our steps the day before through the Bois du Bot. After a kilometre or so we headed north to commence the long and arduous ascent in more open terrain up to Col de la Muzelle. As we gained height there were fabulous views looking back to the Col de Cote Belle and its small peak that we had visited the previous day.

The view in the opposite direction was equally stunning with Lac de la Muzelle visible in the middle distance and with the ski resort of Les Deux Alpes appearing beyond.

We headed down to the lake to take lunch at the Refuge de la Muzelle which can just be seen beyond the northern shore of the lake. The trail down to the lake from the col can clearly be seen in the photo. After a very pleasant lunch at the refuge of freshly made omelette and salad we began the long hike down to the car park at l'Alleau where we joined our minibus for the short transfer to our gite in Besse-en-Oisans. Besse-en-Oisans is a lovely small, traditional, rustic village in a small valley to the west of Vallee du Ferrand. Our gite was the charming le Sarret where we enjoyed wholesome home cooking with plenty of beer and wine to round off a perfect day.

Sixth Day - Besse-en-Oisans to le Chazelet via Plateau d'Emparis (16.2km, 1358m ascent)

We made another early start following the GR54 trail initially overlooking the small hamlet of Bonnefin above Besse-en-Oisans.

We continued along the trail up the steep slopes to Col Nazie taking a short break there before pressing on to the high point overlooking the Plateau d'Emparis.

The traverse of Plateau d'Emparis was one of the very few places on the trek where we were not either steeply ascending or descending on the trail. The plateau is used to graze sheep and our guide explained that the grazing rights are shared by two local villages.

We continued across the plateau heading towards Lac Noir on the north side of Vallee de la Romanche and La Meije (3980m).

The lake, with its spectacular view of La Meije, was an excellent place to take a break for lunch in the warm sunshine. Once again Nirmal supplied a great selection of locally produced cold meats, cheeses, salad vegetables, fruit and chocolate. We could see that cloud was building and in view of the forecast for storms in the area as soon as lunch had been taken we pressed on across level ground to Lac Lerie that lies close by.

With the threat of stormy weather increasing we continued to make a lengthy traverse along the GR54 over easy ground towards le Chazelet, our final destination for the trek.

Within an hour or so we were heading down the steep zig zags to le Chazelet and the end of a fabulous 6 days trek with KE that included so many highlights from this wonderful region. I would like to take the opportunity to thank Nirmal our excellent guide, KE and my eight trekking companions - thank you!

Seventh Day - Col du Lauteret to Refuge de l'Alpe de Villard d'Arene (7.7km, 179m ascent)

We took the scheduled Grenoble bus service from Briancon as far as the Col du Lauteret which has been crossed in the Tour de France on over 40 occasions, although unlike the nearby Col de Galibier, it has rarely featured as a climb for the King of the Mountains competition. The view from the Col towards La Meije is stunning.

After a quick coffee at the cafe at the col we were soon on our way south west along the Sentier des Crevasses around the base of Pyramide de Laurichard and passing along the edge of a nature reserve (Reserve Narurelle de Combeynot). Within an hour the trail turned to a more southerly direction and we were confident in the dry conditions that we were enjoying that the highly exposed sections of the route would pose no difficulties and so it proved.

For the most part the trail was easy going and offered great views toward Pic Gaspard, Le Pave' and La Meije.

Walking at what can only be described as a gentle pace we arrived at the refuge in less than three hours (walking time) and were soon enjoying a beer and the wonderful views down to Plan de Vallourche.

Eighth Day - Refuge de l'Alpe de Villard d'Arene to Refuge Pave' (8.6km, 1245m ascent)

After a stuttery start we set off for what we expected to be quite a tough day to the highest point on the trek, the Refuge du Pave' perched at a pinch below 2900m. A short, gentle descent from the refuge was followed by an easy stroll along the Romanche valley in the cool air of early morning. By the time we reached the fork in the valley the sun was high in the sky and any shade had all but disappeared. On reaching the fork the scenery changed dramatically from the rather pastoral feel of the Romanche Valley (or Plan de Vallourche) to a wild and rocky wilderness in which alpine plants seemed perfectly at home.

The trail steepened rapidly and eyes and mind were initially set on reaching a prominent stretch of lateral moraine that looked as though it would give some respite from the angle of ascent. This was not to be and proved to be something of an optical illusion. Once on the moraine the effort required to move forwards did not seem to change at all. About half way along the moraine a signpost indicated a track sloping off to the right for Refuge du Pave via the chain assisted ascent. We decided to plough on up the standard route even though the chain assisted ascent is more direct and speedier.

As we continued to ascend the moraine we failed to spot the refuge perched high below the peaks to the right. The photo below showing this view of the refuge was taken on our descent as we now had a much better understanding of its precise location.

Although the path was never indistinct it was helpful to see and follow two hikers moving at a faster pace above us. The path became a series of ever tighter zigzags until we reached a point level with the edge of the glacier and a fork to the right in the path leading to a signpost for Refuge du Pave'. We knew we had gained the vast majority of the height for the day and began to enjoy the relatively level and easy traverse to the refuge.

Within 20 minutes or so we arrived at the refuge. The refuge is extremely basic and is in fact the tin hut used to accommodate construction workers who built the orignal refuge in 1971. However, that refuge was destroyed completely by an avalanche in its first winter and so the adjacent construction workers hut was adapted to become the basic refuge that it is today. The hut offers 26 beds in a single dormitory and although there is a basic toilet unit outside there are no washing facilities. Guests who are not deterred from using ice cold water are able to wash in the beautiful Lac du Pave nearby provided no detergent or soap is used! Suffice to say there were no takers on our visit. We arrived at the hut just three days before it was scheduled to close at the end of its short season.

As we had arrived so late in the season we had expected to be the only people staying at the hut and were amazed to find that it was virtually full on the night we stayed there. A number of guests had come to enjoy the excellent scrambling on the nearby peaks but the majority were scientists working for the Ecrins National Park and who were studying micro organisms that were somehow living in the pristine and icy water of the lake. Pauline, the lovely and helpful guardien at the hut was able to supply large bottles of chilled beer, pichets of wine and given the limited facilities available cooked an amazing dinner for all the guests that evening.

Ninth Day - Refuge du Pave' to Refuge l'Alpe de Villard d'Arene (8.6km, 295m ascent)

Our route on this day was simply to retrace our steps from the day before. We rose before dawn to catch the pre-dawn alpenglow and the early rays of sun catching the peaks soon afterwards. The view to the east was stunning as the early rays of light poured in through the peaks and valleys miles away.

Soon we were on our way down the steep slopes to the Romanche valley we had left the day before. Lac du Pave' was almost magical in the early morning light.

Tenth Day - Refuge de l'Alpe de Villard d'Arene to le Monetier via Col d'Arsine (14.7km, 305m ascent)

The weather forecast for the day was good and rising before dawn to catch the early light was becoming routine. The alpenglow and first rays of the sun were once again dramatic outside the refuge looking towards La Grande Ruine.

We set off after a rather meagre breakfast at the refuge knowing that the hike planned for the day would be relatively easy with far more elevation lost than gained. We also felt some excitement on seeing how good the light was and with high expectations of the mountain scenery that lay ahead on the Col d'Arsine about which we had read so much.

The trail followed the route of the GR54 from the refuge in a south easterly direction. As expected this was easy terrain and the trail followed the course of a tributary of the River Romanche. It wasn't long before we were taking our final view of La Grande Ruine before it disappeared behind the lower slopes of Pic de Chammoissiere on which a herd of cows was lazily grazing.

As we headed on towards Montagne des Agneaux the glacial morraines below the peaks came into view and in the slightly hazy light reminded me of spoil heaps seen outside coal mines.

The light and scenery were captivating and so it was impossible to resist the temptation to keep shooting pictures even though this made progress very slow. After over an hour and a half from leaving the refuge we approached Col d'Arsine and couldn't believe our luck as we watched the clouds shrouding the peak slowly lift to reveal the beauty of the highest peaks.

Not only was Col d'Arsine (2340m) the high point of the day it was one of the highlights of the entire trek and we were so fortunate to enjoy such good weather and perfect light while we stood in wonder to take in this majestic mountain scenery.

All that remained now was the steady descent down to the villages of le Casset and le Monetier-les-Bains our ultimate destination. On the initial stage of the descent we were closely accompanied by the rushing water of the Torrent du Petit Tabuc before it entered the steep gorge that it has carved out over thousands of years.

On reaching le Monetier we celebrated the completion of our trek with a healthy crepe and beers before getting to grips with the timetable and correct bust stop for the bus back to Briancon. For anyone else who is inclined to follow in our footsteps with this excellent extension to the KE trek I have a word of caution. The bus service back to Briancon seemed a little flakey to say the least. The timetable at the bus stop did not seem to be accurate and it was not clear which stop to use - whether the stop in the direction of Briancon, or counter intuitively the stop in the direction of Grenoble. For some reason the driver of the bus from Grenoble to Briancon would not let us on and waved us away to the stop on the other side (direction Grenoble!) We had all but given hope of ever seeing a bus. However, just after we had ordered a taxi a bus duly arrived at the Grenoble stop and the driver confirmed that he was going to Briancon - and so it proved when he set off with us on board and promptly turned left to take a road at the back of the town towards Briancon.

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