In recent days a spate of accidents in the Alps has left many dead, nowhere more so than in the Ecrins Massif, where last Saturday one of the worst tragedies in recent years took place.
At 6:00am six well-equipped French climbers, two men and three women aged between 42 and 64, and a 16-year-old adolescent, left the Alpe Hut below the Arsine Cirque, south of the village of Villar d'Arène in the north east sector of the Ecrins Range.
Their goal was an ascent of the Pic de Neige Cordier (3,614m) via the classic route up the East Couloir and North Ridge, first climbed in 1896 by P d'Aiguebelle and Louis Faure. It gives 1,500m of ascent from the hut and today is rated PD+.
Best climbed in early summer, it is also popular with ski-tourers in the spring when it can be combined with a descent of the Normal Route to the Glacier Blanc.
The East Couloir rises to 45° at the top, where it reaches the Breche de la Plate des Agneaux (3,217m), a notch on the North Ridge.
It appears that the six climbers were moving in two ropes and the first had more or less reached the Breche, when there was a slip and all three fell back down the couloir.
While the second rope may also have fallen at much the same time, it seems more likely that the first collided with the second. All six climbers fell 150-200m, coming to rest at approximately mid-height in the couloir.
The scene of the disaster was discovered next morning by a British climber repeating the route. The alarm was raised and the bodies evacuated by helicopter.
On Monday, little more than 24 hours later, the helicopter was in the air again.
At 6:00 that morning two mountaineers, reportedly aged 57 and 58 left the Pavé Hut to cross the Col du Pavé on route to the Promontoire Hut below the South Face of the Meije.
They were descending the far side of the col when one fell 20m into a crevasse and was killed. The other was seriously injured in the accident and airlifted to Briancon Hospital.
The Ecrins is a popular destination for British climbers. If you're heading there, make sure you have an up-to-date guidebook. Local guide Sébastien Constant has published a new guidebook in English: Snow and Mixed Climbs Volume I (Ecrins East, Cerces, Queyras). With loads of practical advice, this is probably the most extensive overview of mountaineering routes in the region yet published, re-describing the area’s great classics.
The photograph shows the Pic de Neige Cordier (left of centre) in winter from the east. The East Couloir (partially hidden) rises to the North Ridge more or less in the centre of the picture.
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