Ice climbing: first ascent of Oule Falls in Crolles, France

Erwan Lelann, Petzl team manager, talks about ice climbing up Oule Falls, a line that rarely forms in winter, located high above both the Gresivaudan Valley… and Petzl’s worldwide headquarters! The ascent took place on Tuesday, February 14, 2012.

Erwan Lelann.

“I've been ice climbing around Grenoble for almost 20 years, and for at least 10 years I’ve been dreaming of the day when the waterfalls that flow down off the Saint-Hilaire du Touvet plateau would freeze up. In 2001 a cold spell allowed us to climb a number of beautiful lines, but only the upper portion of Oule Falls froze.
 
The consistent and exceptionally cold temps over the course of recent weeks worked wonders! Every day for the last two weeks I carefully watched how the ice was forming… and then last weekend the time had finally come. Oule Falls was frozen and ready… the only problem was that I could not find a partner for Sunday!
 
The weather forecast called for two more frigid days, then a slight rise in temperatures to just above 0°C, which the ice typically doesn’t like too much…

Sunday evening I was going out of my mind. I knew that there was only one maybe two days left at the most to go and have a closer look at this incredible and fleeting ice formation. Late that afternoon Arnaud Guillaume called me from his home in the Hautes-Alpes: “Hey Erwan! Say, there wouldn’t happen to be once-in-a-lifetime conditions in the Gresivaudan Valley, would there?”
 
 
YIPEEEEEE! It didn’t take long to make plans to meet at 7:00 on Tuesday morning at Saint-Nazaire-les-Eymes. As a quick anecdote, Arnaud woke up at 4:00 in the morning that day to make the drive from the Hautes Alpes, at 3:00 in the morning the day prior to do a first ascent in the Hautes Alpes, and at 5:00 in the morning two days prior for another ice climb!
 
We met at 7:00am in order to check out the conditions in daylight. As we made the descent approach down the via ferrata access trail, we were able to inspect the formation from top to bottom before committing to the climb. The entire upper portion looked frozen solid with good adhesion to the rock.

 

ice climbing

The bottom section ended up being a lot more complicated than we initially thought: a large icicle hung dangerously above, forcing us to climb as far left as we could. We climbed fast in order to get out of harm’s way. Next, we reached a steep section of ice that from far away had left us puzzled, and for good reason: the entire curtain of hanging ice proved too rotten and too risky to climb. Since the falls are directly parallel to the via ferrata… we used it to climb past this 10 meter section!
 
Arnaud reached the base of the upper pillar, which was already completely wet; water flowed steadily down its right side. Before starting the climb we agreed upon who would get to lead the upper section… Out of respect for locals, Arnaud let me take the lead, thanks ;-)
 

I take off from the anchor, already a little wet! As I climb behind the pillar trying to move up as high and out of the way of the flowing water as possible, I come to the realization that I don’t have any other option: I’ll have to climb right through the flowing water, making a few precarious moves up a steep section of rotten ice in order to get to (I hope) drier ground!
 
Everyone should take note that an ice axe planted into this type of vertical flowing stream channels the water directly on to your hands, which of course are connected to your arms, themselves connected to your shoulders and to the rest of your upper body. In other words, after 5 moves or so I wasn’t just wet, I was completely soaked!
 

I start climbing up the 80 meter-high pillar, detached from the cliff, on a section that hangs directly over the Grésivaudan Valley, unbelievable and unexpected! I’m soaked to the bone, but both content and in the sun. The ice is sorbet soft, I rarely swing my axes more than once for a good hold, and I easily make haste of the next 10 meters.
 
Just above me, I see a section of dark-colored ice. I place a screw, continue climbing, and start to better understand the composition of the formation to which I cling… This huge pillar of ice is in reality a huge shell, a thin hollow pipe if you will, through which the waterfall continues to flow at an impressive rate. This explains the deep, muffled, and erratic sound of flowing water that has been getting consistently louder. Indeed, this section of dark ice turns out to be a thin layer of translucent ice no more than 1 cm thick, through which I can see both the flowing water and the rock behind it!

In any case, the ice seems pretty solid, although my rear end can’t help but tighten just a little...
 

During the entire pitch I zigzag from right to left in order to take advantage sections of thicker ice and to avoid the patches of thin ice here and there. After about 55 meters of climbing, I come upon a ledge to the right, in the sun, where I can build an anchor. I’m still soaking wet. I bring Arnaud up, and he then takes off up the final, freestanding, and much drier pitch that leads into the forest above; from there we switch from ice to tree climbing in order to finish the ascent.
 
I never actually thought that I would get the chance to climb this waterfall, but I was able to take advantage of the short window of opportunity... and it was totally insane!”
 
Erwan Lelann
Petzl Team manager
 
 

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