ICE: International Ice Climbing Festival, Argentière la Bessée, 2003

(by Moira Creedon, from the IMC Newsletter, Spring 2003)
Every January hundreds of hoary down-clad climbers descend on the tiny village of l’Argentière-la-Bessée in the heart of the French Écrins. The village is the home of the ICE festival (International Climbing Event) which this year celebrated a successful 13-year run, and which has placed Argentière firmly on the map as an international Mecca for the esoteric sport of climbing frozen waterfalls.

For those of us who arrived in the sleepy village a week before the festival, it was all the more extraordinary to later witness the mass invasion. As we arrived in late December, the ice was not yet fully formed, the festival had not yet begun, and the festival’s organisers were to be seen wandering around the Fournel and Freissinières valleys in logo-covered Land Rovers, biting nails and looking up at what should have been ice falls. By New Year’s Eve most of the famed routes of the surrounding valleys were forlorn and mushy waterfalls, and worse, almost completely inaccessible due to avalanche risk from the very heavy Christmas snowfalls.

While Argentière is well placed to access several surrounding ski resorts – Serre Chevalier, and Puy St Vincent among others, the town has quite clearly only started to court tourism quite recently. The ICE festival is one of the main annual showcases to boost trade. The traces of the town’s very recent industrial past are still highly visible, and quarrying and cement production are still the real economic mainstay of the town. We are a long way here from the glamour of a Chamonix with its long history of ski tourism. In many ways Argentière is all the more charming for its innocence, despite the straggling townscape and the sometimes bleak industrial architecture of the town.

The village is so small, that having eaten all the menu options in the one and only good restaurant by day 4, we were forced to go shopping to cook on day 5. We realised, as villagers in the shops and streets greeted us warmly, that after 5 days we knew the entire community. This was partly because we were pretty much the only foreigners staying in the village all week, and hence were invited as welcome guests to the village New Year’s Eve party – they didn’t want us to feel left out on the important feast day, and went to enormous lengths to make us feel at home.

By January 3, the major Irish incursions started in earnest, as several groups of Irish climbers straggled in to Argentière – meeting up almost instantly in the café on the village square. There were in all about 27 Irish climbers from all over the island. The IMC contingent was unusual in giving the impression of the IMC as an unusually progressive and feminist climbing club – Síle Daly, Niamh McGreen, Sara Spenser and myself, soon to be collectively known as the Teletubbies – a reflection on our Red, Yellow, Green and Blue down jackets, rather than our shapes … I’m told …

With balmy mild temperatures still prevailing through the early New Year, most of the mainland European climbers held off. For a few days the Irish held the village to themselves, meeting eagerly in the evenings to exchange intelligence on what little ice had formed. Within days however temperatures plummeted, Festival organisers went off to sacrifice new-born lambs on ice altars, the town started to fill up, and climbing started in earnest.

There are a bewildering number of ice climbing options in the near vicinity of Argentière. Fortunately at any one time, only a few crags were in good condition. The major advantages of the festival – apart from great craic and a fantastic atmosphere – are that there is information, advice, guidance and transport constantly available to bring you to the crag of your choice. On the first day of the festival we were told to report to the village hall at 7. Having duly ignored this request, the Irish all struggled out of bed at the crack of 9, to check conditions with the local guides and the detailed web printouts posted up in the hall. We were given a van and driver (free) at our disposal for the day to take us to wherever we wanted to climb. We unanimously chose la Grave – a good hour’s drive distant, and a definite snow-chain destination. This would have potentially been quite difficult in our badly-equipped hired cars.

We climbed primarily in:

  • La Grave (Very wide selection of multi-pitch – 3 to 6 pitches, grade III upwards, short steep walk-ins or in some cases belay from the car walk-ins)
  • Cervières (about 8 routes, single pitch, quite hard, grade IV upwards, beautiful one hour gentle walk-in)
  • Ceillac (many routes but only 2 were in condition for us, Grade III, easy, multi-pitch, easy 10 min walk-ins).

The most popular guidebook in use was “Glace en Cascade”, which brings together detailed topo descriptions of the climbs in the Embrun, Briançon and Argentière regions, available in bookshops locally or directly from [email protected].

The festival was not however just about getting up routes all day. There was a pretty exhausting schedule of night-time entertainment that was too good to be missed, no matter how wrecked you were after a hard day on the ice. The Banff Mountain Film Festival was in town. All night for the first two nights there were back-to-back mountain films on show, free to a hall full of intimidatingly fit and hardy looking climbers. Watching base-jumping off the Eiger inevitably made daytime exploits on ice routes seem pretty tame.

On the last night before the festival gala dinner the town stages an extraordinary “son et lumière” – light and sound show – on an ice-fall specially “constructed” on a mountain directly behind the village hall. This year the performance was a re-enactment on vertical ice of a tragedy, which took place in the early 50s in a nearby hamlet. An avalanche destroyed the village killing most of the inhabitants, leaving more than 50 dead. The play told the tale from the eyes of the village priest as he slowly realised the extent of the disaster and listened to the few survivors, including two brothers saved by the warmth of a dead cow, telling their heart breaking stories.

Registration and attendance at the festival is open to all. Absolutely no previous experience is required, and it is definitely a great way to start ice climbing – without having to go to the expense of hiring a guide. Classes and guides are available during the festival, but we simply decided to go for it and try it out, under the initial protection of the slightly more experienced, but were all leading routes independently by day 3. Previous experience on multi-pitch rock is obviously essential for security and rope management aspects. The event website (www.ice-fall.com) provides a wealth of information on everything imaginable, from equipment recommendations, ice climbing technique tips, constant updates on the condition of each individual ice fall, weather forecasts, and details of what is happening during the festival.

Transport to Argentière was a creative art form with no two groups choosing the same approach. The transport routes used by the Irish included: dirt cheap Ryanair flights to Beauvais and a very long minimum 8 hour drive in a hired car; fly to Turin with Ryanair and drive 4 hrs, Milan and drive 3 hours, Geneva and 4.5 hours drive, or finally St Étienne and a pretty long train journey. Aer Lingus flights direct to Geneva were definitely the luxury flight option. The main advice if you take that choice is to pre-book your car in the French section of Geneva Airport.

Accommodation was also a bit of a trial-and-error issue. The festival organisers offer to book and organise accommodation for all visiting climbers, and we took this offer. When we arrived however we realised instantly that the accommodation provided – in a pretty badly equipped hostel in the middle of nowhere – was not going to work for a 2-week stay. After several other false starts we hired a gîte in the heart of the village – a beautiful old converted mill, which became a cosy home for the holiday. The other Irish groups went through similar experiences. For anyone going to Argentière I would recommend the “Gîte Le Moulin”, and the Gîtes owned by Francois who runs the local pizzeria. Phone +33 (0)4 92 53 62 00, fax : +33 (0)4 92 53 31 60, for the local tourism office, and preferably book well in advance.

Finally equipment and costs. One of the many good reasons why the festival is a fantastic time and place to try ice climbing is the access to equipment provided. All of the main European gear manufacturer – Petzl, Black Diamond, Grivel, Charlet Moser etc., participate in the ICE-expo trade exhibition. For a deposit of passport or driver’s licence, you can borrow state-of-the-art equipment – axes and crampons. This means that if you do eventually take the opportunity to buy (French retail prices are much better than Irish, and there are generous discounts during the festival) you do so with a pretty clear notion of what you want. It is however probably advisable to bring your own crampons and axes just in case. Ice screws and ropes can also be bought at the exhibition at very competitive prices – very attractive compared to Irish retail offerings. 60m dry light ropes are the obvious preference, as some of the fixed belay points assume a 60m rope, creating havoc when trying to approach on 50m.

The holiday was surprisingly cheap, as transport at that time of year was good value, local restaurants are cheap, and if you cook yourself food – and beer in French supermarkets is excellent quality. Unlike many climbing holidays, there are no lift passes to buy, so day-to-day expenses are minimal. Accommodation in the Gîte Le Moulin, where we had the place to ourselves for most of the holiday, was excellent at €13 a night per head.

For anyone who has ever fantasised about ice, this is an opportunity you simply cannot miss. Mark your calendars now for next January.

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