Friday, 12 September 2014

A Day at La Blanche

Getting there

We thought it would be interesting to have a look at another type of rock and visit a different area with HJ and Tammy, who have arrived to hang out with us for the rest of our time here in the Briançonais area. Our friend Carol waxes lyrical about the beauty Queyras, and the guidebook gives three stars to a group of crags beyond Saint Véran, which is the highest village in France and the third highest in Europe.

Although the distances don't look very large on the map, getting from one place to another in this part of the world can take some time. (Mary and Tim found this out when they drove from Nice to visit us here in Saint-Blaise. Google maps says it's 204 kilometres from the airport to our apartment and it should take just under 4 hours. They thought this was excessive. In the end it took them 6 hours.)

From our apartment in Saint-Blaise to Saint Véran is 63 kilometres - or one could go via Col d'Izoard which is only 53 kilometres  - in Americanese or UK English that's about 42 and 32 miles respectively. However, Google Maps shows the travel time for the former as 1 hour and 12 minutes and the latter as 1 hour 15 minutes. Here's the evidence:

High road or low road: it'll still take a while!
We'd already been over Col d'Izoard both ways so it was a no-brainer to go via Guillestre. Like most of the routes we've driven hereabouts which cling to sides of gorges, there were road works along the way so the drive actually took a little longer still. No matter, it's a stunning trip. HJ, who is a keen paddler, has been impressed with the rivers we've passed by, and Rivière Guil, which drains down towards Guillestre was no exception.
The cultural history highlight of the drive would be passing Fort Queyras, a medieval citadel that was built in the 13th century and then further fortified by Vauban in the 16th century. Once you arrive at Saint Véran, there is a further 6 kilometres of dirt road to get to the Chapelle de Clauzis before starting the half hour walk up to the crag. Because it's now September, we were able to drive through to the Chappelle de Clauzis; if it were sometime between the beginning of June and the end of August you'd either have to walk or take a shuttle bus.

Just before arriving at the crag we came to this ruined shepherd's shelter ...

An old shed below the crag
... and a little further on this signpost showing distances to various landmarks ...

Hiking? Where do you want to go?
Incidentally, our guidebook says that the crag we're headed for is at 240 metres but if the altitude listed at the top of this sign is  correct, La Blanche is probably at 260 metres because it's still a little ways up the hill from here. (That would fit with other features scattered around this high valley.)

At this point HJ, who injured his shoulder just before coming over to Saint-Blaise from Bozeman, decided to go to Italy. Yep, it's just over the col; in fact either col: Blanchet or de la Noire. (Apparently Hannibal came over one of the passes in this area with his elephants. No one is sure which one, but HJ just raised his eyebrows when I relayed this information to him.)

Looming ahead is the Tête des Toillies, rising to 3176 metres ...

Tête des Toillies
HJ liked the look of the hike that circumnavigates the peak: 10.7 kilometres long, travelling past the Lacs Blanchet. Of course HJ, being HJ, did his own variation on the theme, leaving the track and hiking up the ridge a ways before heading back down to the route on the other side. He took some great photos along the way, some of which I hope to share at a later date.

At the crag

The guidebook says La Blanche - a Gabbro slab - faces west, which sounded perfect as it was just on noon when we arrived and we thought we'd have the sun by the time we got geared up to climb. In fact the sun didn't come around and actually strike the rock until about 2:30, by which time we'd done five routes, so I reckon the crag actually faces northwest. In the area there are three crags: Nourotchou, Le Rouchon and La Blanche, all scattered around a high bowl around the Refuge La Blanche. Nourotchou has three sectors quite close to each other, with single pitch routes up to 30 metres high ranging from 5a to 7b. It is a half hour walk from the parking area. 

Nouritchou, behind Refuge la Blanche

Le Rouchon is a pinnacle about 180 metres high with three routes on it between 4 and 5 pitches long, graded 5c, 6a and 6c. If you're going up there you need to bring some wires with you to supplement the bolts. It's an hour's walk from the parking area. Vanessa says that she and Dave had been warned off the multipitch gabbro, which I think must have referred to Le Rouchon, but it would be interesting to know why. Maybe because most folks only climb with quick draws and it would be  rather runout between bolts without the wires recommended in the guide. Who knows? If the rock is anything like La Blanche is should be brilliant.

Le Rouchon is the obvious pinnacle

We'd picked out La Blanche from the guidebook for a few reasons: the environment sounded great, it was a new area, it was a type of rock we hadn't climbed on and it sounded like a user-friendly sort of place that would suit Tammy who hasn't been doing much climbing lately. It turned out to be perfect.

Discounting the extremely short 3c at the extreme righthand end of the crag, there are 20 routes ranging in grade from 4b to 6a and in height from about 15 to 30 metres. Here's Di starting up our second route for the day, a 5b ...

Queuedalle 5b
... and Tammy leading a 4c ...

Le père soif 4b
As you can see, although the sun has come around to shine on the crag it's still a little cool: Tammy and Di are both dressed in long tops and bottoms.

Unlike some of the limestone hereabouts where the friction underfoot has taken a little time getting used to, this gabbro felt fantastic. There are lots of neat little scoops and side pulls. In places it almost seemed like the rock had been smeared together using an artist's palette knife. And being igneous, it was good and solid. 

After lunch at about 2:30 it started to warm up nicely. Here's Di leading a 5c ...

Itineraire pour le nuite blanche 5c
As you would probably already have appreciated, the environment is stunning. Here's another view looking back down valley ...

Hard to beat, n'est-ce pas?
You might be able to see a small dot on a peak behind the refuge (especially if you enlarge the photo): we thought it was probably an observatory, which is testament to the generally clear skies in this part of the world (Briançon is said to get 300 days of sunshine per year).

A little while before we finished climbing HJ arrived back from his hike. He was a little tired from his excursions and the sun was delicious so he decided to have a little kip ...

Who's the sleepy boy then?
... while Tammy toproped one of the 6a's that we did ...

Vive les chèvres 6a
We climbed nine pitches in total: two 6a's, three 5c's, two 5b's and two 4b's. Two of the 5c's were 30 metres long. Here's a photo looking down towards Di seconding one of them ...

Di following La Source 5c

 Most of the rest of the routes were about 20 metres. There was a distinct difference between the two 6a's: Vive les vaches was significantly harder and is probably the only route that we've done here in the Alps so far that you actually have to climb the "maximum" grade given: on every other route there has been a bolt right at the crux that you could pull on if you were so inclined. Vive les chèvres was a little steeper at its crux but overall was much more positive.

We'd highly recommend this crag if you're bumbling along at our level or you just wanted to see the area and have a cruisy day fooling around with ropes and stuff. Here's a view looking  back at the crag as we were leaving ...

La Blanche
On our our way back down the road towards Saint Véran we paused to photograph the village in the evening light ...

Saint Véran in evening light
So there you have it,
another day worth living 
- made even better by sharing with friends.

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