Daring Expectations

We looked up, our helmets touching the top of our backpacks, amazed at the natural rock formation which formed a huge domed ceiling above our heads. The slope went up, beckoning…

Feeling small (courtesy of K.Garcia)

The good thing about improvisation is that you don’t have any expectations about outcome. Anything you do will be new and can’t be compared with a preconceived plan. And without any definite expectations, it will be much easier to exceed them. This is exactly what happened on a sunny Saturday morning in March, when Kike and I drove out to the Dévoluy, in the Southern Alps for a morning ski tour. This massif is just at the edge of the Alps, in one of the more rural areas, known as the Triève. Farmhouses and rolling landscapes surround the steep peaks which are only accessible by small, winding roads. It is well worth the extra time to get there.

The original plan was to ski up to the pic de Bure, a large, flat-topped mountain on which there is an astronomical observatory, the IRAM. It is connected with the rest of the world via a cable car, the main station of which being the starting point for our outing. As we put on our gear, a memorial plaque reminded us of the multiple accidents that had occurred in the valley: the original cable car had fallen with all aboard, killing the occupants. This tragedy was followed by another, when the helicopter used in its absence also crashed into the mountain.

Leaving behind the road, we were soon heading up into the valley under the early morning sun. The Devoluy is truly a stunning massif, with vertical walls and improbable shapes. The snow highlighted the sharp rock faces and jagged peaks, making us stop several times to enjoy the landscape. We had not gone far before we crossed some other skiers. They announced their intention to go through the Traversé Heroique, which was just up the valley. I had indeed heard about this strange geological formation before, which is characteristic of the region and known locally as a “chourum”. It consists of a tunnel or arch that cuts through the steep face of the mountain, connecting the valley with an upper plateau. If they are filled with snow they can be climbed or even skied. The most famous is the steep, double arched, Chourum Olympique, which has been on my wish list for several years. So it was a bit of a surprise to find we were so close to the smaller but also very aesthetic Traversé.  We immediately decided to go and check it out, and if possible go up. Taking into account we didn’t have any climbing gear and no real idea of the grade, it was just a tentative foray.

Arriving and the base of a large slope, we could see the entrance in the rock a few hundred meters above us. We changed from skis to crampons. We were almost stopped in our tracks, as big footed Kike only just managed to get them over his boots!

The slope was hard and we were soon at the base of the wall. A small corridor took us up higher. There was a good track in the snow, and we gratefully used the deep steps. At this point we still couldn’t really see into the cavern, just a small rock wall a few tens of meters above us. All was finally revealed as we got to the base of the entrance. A small climb gave way into a large chamber. Snow had fallen through the two huge arches that opened up at the top, covering the slopes beneath. The rock ceiling was high above, meaning the whole chamber was well lit. We could pretty much see the whole climb from there, including the exit through the left arch, so we decided to give it a go. The hardest part turned out to be the small wall at the beginning, which was slightly icy. A fixed rope held by an old piton helped us up. Once past this, it was a straightforward slope towards the sunlight streaming in through the top. The snow was perfect: not too hard to make it dangerous, but with enough consistence to carry our weight and not make it too tiring. The slope took up to the left, gaining a few degrees in steepness. Beneath the arch another fixed rope added some security before attacking the last few meters in the sun. The edge was the hardest snow, so we were a bit more careful, not wanting to go back down!

Getting out onto the top, it turned out we were on a flat plateau. The sun was extremely bright, and we took a few minutes to look down the way we had come. We could see some ski tracks heading off in different directions. No one seemed to have skied down the chourum recently, probably due to the lack of snow at the end. Not having any idea of which way to go, we headed west as that seemed the most logical option. A small slope took us down to a large valley, and from there we were able to descend and find our morning tracks cutting back to the east. There was just enough snow to ski all the way to the car, and we were early enough for lunch.

The Traversé Heroique is a great itinerary to spice up a ski outing in the valley, and if you go early enough it could be combined with other routes, such as our original objective, the pic de Bure. It’s also a good start before doing the more demanding Chourum Olymique beneath the Grand Ferrand too. I’m looking forward to going back to the Devoluy next year for more stunning scenery and steep slopes. It’s going to be difficult though, my expectations are now very high!

You can check out the detailed itineraries and recent conditions by clicking on the names of routes.

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