La Meije south face (Allain/Leiniger)

Getting a glimpse of ‘La Meije’, the majestic 3.984 meter peak was what always kept me busy if I passed by La Grave.

When will I get the chance to climb this mountain, I wondered… Since my first climbing trip to Ailefroide around 20 years ago, I heard very experienced climbers talking about La Meije’s notorious south face. I recall ‘complicated routefinding’, ‘(un)expected bivy’, ‘wet rock’, ‘lost in granite’, etc…. definitely nothing for me by that time!

The northwest face of La Meije

Late summer 2020 I was for a 5 week family holiday in the Ecrins. I was hoping to sneak in some alpine climbing, in between the biking, hiking and sportclimbing. Luckily Jelle was in the Alps too and called me if I had time to climb something together.. of course I thought yes, but first had to arrange that I got permission.. 😉

We both had La Meije high on our wishlist, so a plan was made quickly: to climb the mythic 900 meter high south face via the Allain/Leiniger route (opened in 1934), a.k.a. the south face direct, followed by the traverse of the sattelite peaks of La Meije to the Doigt de Deu (finger of god).

The south face of La Meije with the Allain/Leininger in red

The logistiscs were a little complex. Early in the morning, I hitchhiked to La Grave from Les Vigneaux. At La Grave I met with Jelle, who came from Chamonix. We parked his van at the start of the path towards Refuge de l’Aigle, close to La Grave, and packed our backpacks. The two huts we were to encounter were closed already, so the packs were a little heavier than usual due to the extra food and stove.

To reach the Refuge du Promonotoire, you have two options: 1) going up with the cablecar and climb to the Breche de la Meije, a full day of hiking and climbing or 2) a gentle but long walk to the hut from the village of La Berarde at the other side of the mountain.

We chose 2, to save energy for the next day. But when you traverse the mountain after climbing it (the more aesthetic option!) the descent is from Refuge de l’Aigle towards La Grave again.. so that’s why we left Jelle’s campervan over there. We arranged a taxi to bring us to La Berarde, a 1.5 hours drive.

At 2 PM we started the long hike towards the Refuge du Promonotoire and at around 6:30PM we arrive at the unguarded refuge. It is inhabited at the time by two other climbers and a hiker. The climbers go to one of the shorter routes on the left side of the promontoire arete, which means we have the whole south face just for ourselves!

Refuge du Promontoire

To be honest I was happy that Jelle, strong guy as he is, offered to walk back to the nearest water stream to get the necessary additional water for the evening and the next day. In the meanwhile, I sorted out my backpack and enjoyed the amazing views from this ‘eaglenest’. We also climbed up above the hut to find the first rappels to the glacier for the next day, eat, drink, prepare our gear and at around 10PM it’s time to go to bed…

Jelle is coming back with fresh water
Views towards the south face in the evening

The next day came fast.

Quickly we rappeled to the glacier in the dark and start to look for the start of the route. Not so easy to find, features are difficult to distinguish and the glacier retreated in comparison with the topo’s and photo’s we have. But after a while we managed to find the correct start and started to climb.

The rock was dirty and wet in the beginning, but this improved as we moved up. At a running belay we quickly covered the not so difficult terrain and as the wall steepens, the sun hit and we enjoyed the morning view over the French Alps.

Start of the route, you can see Jelle’s headtorch

One of the easy sections close to the summit

On top of La Meije

The climbing went without problems and we stood on top of the mountain at 4PM, hugging with the madonna and with each other. The only thing we worry about were Jelle’s coughing, every 15 minutes he starts coughing and it sounds really bad.. luckily he manages to keep himself together!

After an abseil from the summit followed the traverse of the sattelite peakes of La Meije, all around 3.900m high. We put on our alpine shoes and crampons and moved together with an occasional belay. The hardest part was climbing (towards) an ice gully, where the steel cables are hidden by the ice. I have an ultralight skitouring axe with me, but would have rather had an iceclimbing axe here..

It’s beautiful at the ridge, views are terrific but 200% concentration is mandatory..

The ridge that needs to be traversed as seen from the summit of La Meije (not my picture btw)
Summit of La Meije at the background
Jelle descending one of the summits during the traverse
Entering the icy steel cable section

After 3,5 hours of traversing we made a final long abseil and enter the glacier that led to the Refuge d’Aigle. Some people describe this as a 20mins descent to the hut, but we experience something else. First of all we have to traverse some big and long crevasesses. But secondly, the snow is that soft that we often sink away untill our upper legs. Very demanding! So after 1,5 hours of suffering we walk into the refuge…

To our great surprise the refuge is loaded with people! We didn’t expect that at all! As quiet as we can, we heated up some soop and ready-to-go meals, and climbed up the stairs to the second floor, where we fell asleep while thinking about the good climb we did today.. 🙂

Jelle, thanks for the great days we shared the rope!

Last but not least, check Jelles new website, it’s pretty!

Eating in the refuge
Waking up with a view!!
Walking back towards civilization
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