“Spring is also the time of the year when we are at our best, both physical and mentally, especially if we have managed to have a steady winter season.”
When the season seems to come to an end, April – janvril for locals- and May mean longer days, a more stable snow layer and big powder days. Time to exhaustively analyze weather forecast searching for a window after the storm, to start approaching in the middle of the night and to hit mountain refuges. Spring is also the time of the year when we are at our best, both physical and mentally, especially if we have managed to have a steady winter season. With all these ingredients in hand, it’s the perfect time to think big.
To fill you in on the location, the Massif of Écrins is located between the French counties of Isère and Hautes-Alpes. It is a rock and ice temple where we can take our splitboarding to the next level. We arrive in Villard d’Arène through the valley of L’Oisans, following the GR 54 trail, which leads us to the Refuge de l’Alpe de Villar d’Arène in a bit more than an hour. This has been a pilgrimage destiny -especially over the past few years- for those aiming to score some of its classic pente raide –steeps. A place I dream about coming back year after year.
Aurélien Routens and Cédric Giraudeau are cooking dinner at the refuge while they wait for us to arrive. Two good mates are with me on this trip: Pyrenean guide Javier Barro and photographer Juan Aizpuru. Aurélien is currently producing his Carpe Diem episodes and we take advantage of the opportunity to spend a couple of days with them.
“Time to take quick and consensual decisions. The slightest change in the weather or a mistaken decision could ruin it all.”
It’s 3:00 am when the alarm clock goes off. It’s a cold night and the snow has dropped down to 2.000 m (6.500 ft), but with no visibility whatsoever, we need to be patient. The first beams of light shine through the window short after 7 am. We rule out some of our options due to the schedule and the orientation, and we head out skinning swiftly aiming the Col de Roche Faurio, to search for powder on north exposed faces. Once at the base, after seeing how the sun is affecting the snow layer, we decide to spend the night at the Refuge des Écrins, despite the risk of finding the Col has been tracked when we come back. Time to take quick and consensual decisions. The slightest change in the weather or a mistaken decision could ruin it all. We reach the pass past noon, after a challenging 1000 m (3300 ft) boot packing on deep snow. Located on the NW flank between the Barre des Écrins and the Pointe Mettrier, we can spot the beautiful Couloir de la Barre Noire, our first goal for the following day.
We slide down the smooth slopes that lead us to the Refuge des Écrins, a true mountain hotel, located at 3.170m (10.400 ft), where we are rewarded with a mind-blowing sunset over the Barre des Écrins, a good dinner and a hot bed.
The next morning, we eat breakfast watching the rope teams progressing through the Glacier Blanc. Snowfalls have been abundant over the past two weeks, and the Dome de Neige is looking pristine. We set off looking for the first beams lightening the Couloir de la Barre Noire. Apparently, no one is breaking skin track around, and there’s basically just us on the whole glacier. It takes us just over 30 minutes to arrive in the base. We cross the bergschrund and we hike up the couloir wrapped in a breath-taking atmosphere. The conditions are really awesome, there’s a stable cold powder base. A flashback to winter in the middle of the spring, we couldn’t ask for more. Breathing heavily, completely focused, we drop in! Big mountain riding to its fullest.
“Everything we dream of when we get out there. High doses of adrenaline, freedom and dreams come true.”
We gather at the glacier, where we eat a bite and ride down to search the south faces that lead us back to the Col de Roche Faurio. Surprisingly enough, there are no descending tracks. It’s been a very cold and dry night. Thus, we froth while we ride down fresh, dry powder through 1.000 m (3.300 ft) of vertical drop: everything we dream of when we get out there. High doses of adrenaline, freedom and dreams come true.
After a brief stop at the refuge to eat and pack our stuff, we head back to La Grave feeling satisfied with a well-accomplished mission. We spend the night at The Black Sheep in Les Hières, a spectacular balcony overlooking La Grave-La Meije, and a more than advisable place to set camp if you have in mind spending a few days in the area.