The dream of climbing to the top of a mountain, exerting your physical capabilities to the max and indulging in the privileged view you have earned, is a dream shared by many. There are many mountains in the Alps but for some reason there are only a few that ever get on the bucket list of the majority of budding mountaineers. Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe is undeniably beautiful and technically accessible for amateur mountaineers in good physical shape.
In the sunny Southern French Alps, the Ecrins massif is the second most popular mountaineering destination after Mont Blanc. It’s most famous peak is the Barre des Ecrins 4102m. They are both fabulous mountains and it is certainly an experience of a lifetime to summit either of them.
However, their popularity is also their own worst enemy.
Choose a small refuge
The authentic and personalised welcome and friendly sharing of mountaineering stories with the refuge guardian is, for many, an integral part of the mountaineering experience.
However, the refuges that serve as half way houses to make these and other popular summits doable are full to bursting with mountaineers from June to September so much so that a space under a table to sleep for the night can be considered lucky. Some refuges sleep more than 200 people – all of whom you will be sharing the summit with the next day.
The good news is that you only have to travel to the other side of the same mountain range to find the complete opposite. Less popular and smaller refuges will be pleased to see you and will welcome you accordingly. In the Valgaudemar Valley, also in the Ecrins Massif, you can stay in an traditional alpine refuge dating back to the 70s with an equally authentic character of a guardian who will welcome you like a king to do the Olan 3564m.
Choose under 4000m
Mountains with a slightly lower altitude are immediately removed from the radar of 4000m summit baggers and their prestige in the name dropping world of mountaineering is much more niche. For purists and alpinists who prefer to experience the beauty and serenity of mountaineering as it was before it became fashionable, this is great news.
If mountaineering is about the journey, the quality of the climbing, the beauty of the glaciers and your own personal achievement rather than the kudos of telling your friends you climbed Mont Blanc then you are in for a treat. There are hundreds of summits between 3000m and 4000m with spectacular ridges, panoramic views, magnificent glaciers and quality rock all waiting to be discovered.
Choose a local guide
The problem is that finding these magical summits served by small friendly refuges is not easy. They aren’t necessarily hugely written about on the internet and even if they are, trying to choose the one for you can be a daunting task.
The solution is to choose your mountain range and then find a local guide who will really know the mountains. Tell them what experience you are looking for and let them choose the mountain.
Sally Guillaume is Director at Undiscovered Alps.