Parc national des Écrins, France – Hiking a glacier

On the French-Italian border, above the Parc Natural de Mercantour and below Mont Blanc/Chamonix, lies the Parc national des Écrins. Within this park, I came face-to-face with something I had never experienced before but thought was absolutely amazing: a glacier.

Until 27 August 2018, I had never seen a glacier before. Well, that is not true. Hiking around Mercantour, I did see (and hear, my god are they loud!) glaciers, but this was the first time that I was up close and personal with one. When I say that I came face-to-face with it, what I really mean is that I walked across its face with metal spikes on my hiking boots (crampons).

The hike

Our hike started at the car park at the bottom of the mountain, which was at the end of the valley. There were two possible trails that we could have taken in this part. One went to Glacier Noir (Black Glacier, which has dark ice due to the soil that is contained in the ice) and was only a few kilometres. The other was a longer trail (just over 20 kilometres) to the Glacier Blanc.

As I enjoy a long hike (and was with a hiker one could describe as a sadomasochist for hikes), we decided to go with the longer hike to Glacier Blanc. This included walking along the face of the glacier. What we didn’t realise was that this hike also had a total elevation change of 1.2 kilometres between the start and the glacier, so it turned out to be a more gruelling hike than we thought it was going to be.

We started at the bottom, which is the deceptively easy part. This part, while steep, isn’t a necessarily difficult hike and families can do it. This part ends at a river of glacial run-off water, which serves as a great place to have a picnic. A small, flat bridge crosses this river and then the real ascent starts. The intermediate goal of this stage of the hike was the first refuge. The first refuge was a mountain kiosk/restaurant of sorts along with toilet facilities. A family that lives there (apparently) permanently runs it. This part of the trail was mostly on solid but rocky ground with a steep slope. This part of the trail was also the part that brought us to the bottom of the glacier. Most people seem to stop and turn back rather than go onwards.

The next part of the trail is for experts only and we quickly found out why. It was not a hike on solid ground. Rather most of this last leg of the trail was along the side of mountains covered in unstable stones. These stones moved and fell with very little weight applied. It was often a game of testing several possible places to put your foot before you could actually take another step. What made it worst was that this trail is far up the mountain, meaning that if you fall down with the rocks, you fall down quite far.

The Glacier

Global warming is also taking a toll on the glacier. The parts nearest the rocks are some of the most unstable and several large gaps have formed. You would fall partially under the glacier, making recovery and potential rescue that much more serious. The trail itself seemed to be in the most stable portion of this slope. It was easy to figure out when you had left this trail over the rocks. They occasionally had white circles painted on them as the rocks shifted much more than on the trail. Eventually, this trail led down to the glacier. This is where we attached crampons (a device that attaches metal spikes to hiking shoes) to walk along the periphery of the glacier. We didn’t have ropes or harnesses of any kind since we were not traversing any of the giant cracks in the ice.

The hike until this point could really have been anywhere mountainous. The last part of the trail was definitely my favourite part. This is when we walked across the glacier. Nature is such an amazing force: beautiful but deadly. The trail we walked on during this part was well-worn by previous travellers. We could have done it without crampons, but it made the going easier and faster. However, less than a metre (3 feet) away from the trail were deep cracks in the glacier. These would have required ice axes, harnesses and ropes to overcome (or scale down and back up the other side). If it weren’t for the trail that we were walking, I would not have felt comfortable at all with the gear that we had. We knew beforehand that we were only going to walk on the periphery and did not need additional equipment. However hearing it and seeing it are two different things.

Our ultimate goal was the final refuge near the glacier. What we did not realise was that this refuge was also a hotel. What most people do is hike the mountain and then the glacier. They stay in the refuge overnight and return the next day. Another possibility is heading to Glacier Noir on the other side of some of the mountains. We did all of this in one day. In the end, we were racing a setting sun. It was not setting beyond the horizon. It was setting behind the mountains so that the valley lost light earlier than the surrounding area). While we did make it with light, it was very close.

Thinking of going?

If you are thinking about hiking up Glacier Blanc as we did, I would recommend that you rent crampons. Rentals are usually for a day and a half and we paid €12 per pair from King Sports (link in English. The website is also in French) in Vallouise. Rentals of 1.5 days are normal so that you can hike without having to worry about being back at the shop at a specific time.

During our trip, we also stayed at a wonderful AirBnB in Pelvoux, the last town before the end of the valley and the glacier. Usually, we rent a full house/flat (apartment) when we rent with AirBnb (just a personal preference), but as we were going to be hiking most of the time, we decided to just rent a private room. Marie-Noëlle was an amazing, knowledgeable host, a great conversationalist (we used a mix of English and French as no one was completely proficient in the others’ language) and generally an awesome person. Her house is also conveniently placed as this area is great for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. If you have never used AirBnB before, I highly recommend it as the homes that you can rent are usually of good quality (but use common sense. It may not be the best place the pictures are bad and there are very few reviews) and you get better money than you would for staying in a hotel. If you are interested in trying it, register for an account for free.

If you are interested in doing a more intense or multi-day hike around this area, a guide is highly recommended. Please also keep in mind that the glaciers are mostly accessible in summer only. In the winter, it is extremely dangerous at the best of times. Make sure you know what you are doing. If you don’t, take a guide. There are many places in the area to get one; in the last small village at the end of the valley, there is even an association where you can go in and get more information or hire a guide before making your ascent.

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