On the 15th of October twelve Cadets from Oxford University Officer Training Corps departed for a twelve day rock climbing and trekking expedition to the Ecrins National Park in the French Alps. The aim of the expedition was to introduce students already familiar with basic rock climbing to more advanced techniques, rope work and routes, and to provide a summer trek with challenging and rewarding walks. The exercise was split into two teams for the duration, with one team trekking and the other team climbing.
After a lengthy drive in two Combi-van Minibuses, we arrived at our first campsite in Ailefroide and pitched up for the night. The next day the climbers went to a nearby crag to practice skills needed for the coming week, and the trekkers completed a day walk to get their legs into gear. That evening the two parties split, with the climbers walking into a hut (Refuge la Bans) in order to be well placed for their first climb of the trip the next day. This first climb turned out to be a very swift and sharp introduction into the world of alpine Rock Climbing, with a long and exposed route on the Dents de CosteCournier which certainly pushed us all out of our comfort zones, and gave a real sense of a achievement on completion. The route took us about 5 hours and was a great starting point for what we would move onto later in the expedition.
Meanwhile, the trekking team set off on their planned 8 day expedition, carrying most of the food they would require with them (apart from the occasional lunch stop in towns along the way) with a great group morale which was to be tested, yet commendably well retained throughout the whole trip. A bonus was having an Officer Cadet from out own unit who was able to lead the trekking team, as he had previously gained his Summer Mountain Leader award.
The next challenge for the Climbing team came in the form of the formidable PillerCheze, on the Tete Sud du Replat. This route had everything: a scrambly two-hour approach, great rock with consistent and technical climbing, and a glacial descent to another mountain hut. This was the biggest day for the climbing team, taking nearly 13 hours to complete, but a fantastic team spirit and great sense of humour led us through to the end.
The final climb that we would attempt would be the iconic La Dibona two days later. This impressive spike has captured the hearts of all climbers in the Ecrins area, and now it was out turn. After a days wait for some rainy weather to clear, we set out from our hut on a short walk to the base of the climb. Looking up the needle stretched far away into the distance, but soon was brought closer and closer as we scaled the Face Sud Classique route, the most technical climb of the trip with a French 5b grade. Reaching the top of La Dibona was pinned as a highpoint (no pun intended) of the trip by most of the climbers, and it really did feel as though we had accomplished something special as we abseiled down the back and walked through the valley.
The trekking team had all the while been unerringly chewing up the ground between themselves and Bourg D’Oisans, their final destination, taking in on their way some of the spectacular scenery that the Ecrins has to offer. On the final day torrential rain and dangerous storms halted their progress, and the walk was called off in its 7th day; still an incredible achievement, and something all of the team were quite rightly very proud of, some of whom had never been on more than a day walk before. Reunited at last the whole group spent a night in Bourg D’Oisans swapping stories and recuperating, before we headed north and back home, stopping in Grenoble on one rainy day to enjoy a brand new climbing wall in the heart of the city.
Overall the expedition was regarded by all as a huge success, but would not have been possible without the incredibly grateful contributions made by the Ulysses Trust and other organisations. On behalf of all who attended I would like to thank Ulysses for their very generous contribution, and wish them well with all their future projects.