La Meije sits at the northern end of the Massif des Écrins and towers over the famed ski village of La Grave. Rising to 3.984 meters above sea level, it is the second highest peak in the massif and among the tallest in France.
The peak has long held significance to the inhabitants of La Grave. Its name comes from the Provençal word ‘meidjo’ meaning midday. This refers to the fact that the sun passes directly over La Meije at noon. Villagers used to refer to the Grand Pic as ‘oeille de la meidjour’ or the midday needle, for this reason.
Every year thousands of skiers, hikers, rock and ice climbers descend on the town from every corner of the world. Everyone from all walks of life come to enjoy the spectacular scenery at the foot of the massif.
Best known as a keen challenge for mountaineers, La Meije was the last major mountain in France that has been summited. It was first climbed in 1877 by Emmanuel Boileau de Castelnau, Pierre Gaspard, and his son.
La Meije is also the first major summit in France to have been climbed first by a French mountaineer. The rest of France’s significant peaks were first climbed by other European alpinists, mostly of English heritage.
For some French mountaineers, this is a particular point of pride. An English alpinist, William Augustus Coolidge (credited as the first alpinist to successfully make a winter ascent of the Jungfrau), tried to climb the peak and failed.
La Meije was the eleventh and final ascent that de Castelnau would make before enlisting in the army and later studying medicine. He met Pierre Gaspard, a famed mountain guide who had already climbed several other peaks on the massif. Subsequently, in 1876 the three became a prolific team with several accolades to their names.
For the elder Gaspard, the ascent of La Meije came right in the middle of his prolific climbing career in the Massif des Écrins. Along with La Meije, he climbed 11 other peaks in the range. One in particular now bears his name – Pic Gaspard.
The route by which the three mountaineers made their ascent had previously been tried unsuccessfully by a few other alpinists, including Coolidge, and is now the most common route for mountaineers take on their way to the summit.
What are the Most Common Climbing Routes?
La Meije is composed of an eastern and western summit. The western summit, or Grand Pic, is the higher of the two and therefore the primary target for mountaineers.
Grand Pic is well known in mountaineering circles for having no easy route to the top. However, the main route, summited by de Castelnau and the Gaspards, is considered slightly simpler since it requires less rock climbing.
La Grave La Meije
Both routes, the so-called common route along the mountain’s north face and the route from the south face begin in the same spot. From La Grave, you head up to the massif via the cable car. Once you have reached the terminus, the path will diverge depending upon which route you take.
For the north face route, you will hike for six to eight hours through some rugged and rocky terrain, heading right toward the mountain, until you reach the Refuge de l’Aigle. For the south face route, you will hike for about five hours through similarly rugged and rocky terrain until you reach the Refuge du Promontoire.
Both mountain huts are well taken care of, offering half-board meals as well as running water and comfortable dormitory-style beds. During the on-season, they are frequently full due to the large volume of climbers that the mountain gets each season. As a result, it is best to make a reservation ahead of time.
How Long Does it Take to Climb La Meije?
The climb of La Meije is generally divided into two days. The first day gets you to the refuge and the second to the summit and backs down. Regardless of which route you take, the first day requires some pretty intense hiking. Overall elevation gain for the climb is about 2,250 meters, of which you will gain 1,750 on the first day.
Waking up early on the second day at the Refuge de l’Aigle, on the north face route, you will exit the mountain hut and hike across the base of the Tabuchet glacier until you reach the base of a large, 40-degree snow slope. Here is where you will need an ice ax and crampons, not to mention some calf strength. Once you have gotten up this snowy wall, the rest of the way is a mix of glacial hiking and rock climbing all the way to the summit.
The Grand Pic
As you go to Grand Pic, you will pass the eastern summit along the way. Depending on how much time you have, some guides will make a quick detour to get to the top of this minor summit and snap a few photographs of the Grand Pic.
Meanwhile, waking up early at the Refuge de Promontoire, on the south face route, you have quite an intense day ahead of you as well. The refuge is located at the base of a massive rock wall. To reach the summit, you will spend the lion’s share of your day climbing the western edge steep southern buttress.
After spending most of the day climbing this buttress, you will arrive at the summit after a mix of glacier hiking and a bit more rock climbing. On the way back, you will abseil back down the buttress, which is both incredibly exciting and amazingly scenic.
Something to think about while your abseiling: consider that the first alpinists to climb La Meije via the southern wall did not abseil back down, as the technique had not been invented yet. They climbed back down with their ropes, leaving them tied in some of the trickier places.
Regardless of How You Reach the Summit, You Will be Rewarded with Fantastic Views.
The top of Grand Pic offers panoramic vistas of the surroundings. It highlights some of the other prominent peaks of the Massif des Écrins, including the Doigt de Dieu and Barre des Écrins, as well as the alpine lakes and valleys below.
La Meije can both be climbed individually but is also frequently included in a multi-peak traverse of the Massif des Écrins. One of these traverses, which goes across part of the massif from west to east, is considered one of the most beautiful in the Alps.
This traverse commonly referred to as the East-West branch stretches for 15 kilometers and includes several of the massif’s other high peaks. That includes Pointe Nérot (3537m), Pic Gaspard (3,883m), Le Pavé (3,824 m), Le Rateau (3,809 m), Pic de la grave (3,669 m) and Dôme de la Lauze (3,512 m).
The trek is quite intense but makes for an unforgettable alpine mountaineering adventure.
How Difficult is it to Climb La Meije?
La Meije is not a very difficult climb. Rated PD, or peu dificile, meaning that the climb is only slightly technical. Regardless of the route, you will need to have some basic rock climbing and ice climbing skills.
Most guides will ask that you have previous mountaineering experience before attempting to climb La Meije. They usually do not require previous rock or ice climbing experience.
You should be in excellent physical condition; capable of carrying a light load uphill for consecutive hours with minimal rest. If physical fitness is an issue, your guide may recommend doing some light endurance and core training before climbing La Meije.
It is also recommended to arrive in La Grave a few days early to adjust to the elevation.
Regardless of your level of experience or competence, it is always best to hire a certified guide. Most guides, certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, have been trained under the most rigorous international standards.
An IFMGA-certified guide not only will know the area very well but will also handle all of the logistics. This will ensure that everyone is as safe as possible throughout the climb.
What Equipment Do You Need for La Meije?
While the climb of La Meije is not overly technical, it does require some climbing equipment. That includes carabiners, crampons, a harness, helmet, ice ax, and rope. Depending on your guide, these equipment are included in the package. The rest can be rented pretty easily in La Grave.
Along with having all the proper equipment, bringing all the necessary clothing is also imperative to successfully climb the peak. Temperature and weather conditions can change rapidly as elevation increases. It is essential to bring clothing that will be comfortable at the bottom as well as the summit.
Most guides recommend that you pack clothing in layers. This includes bringing a sweater or windbreaker, light jacket, and heavy jacket, both of which should be waterproof; a regular pair of polyester pants and another pair of wind-resistant and waterproof pants; two pairs of wool socks; outer and inner gloves; mountaineering boots; a sun hat and knit, woolen cap; and a pair of sunglasses.
Guides will offer a list of any other equipment that you may need to bring along on the trip.
When is the Best Time to go to La Meije?
The best time to climb La Meije is from July until September. During the summer, average daily temperatures range from 15ºC to 20ºC toward the base of the mountain and steadily cool down to about freezing and below as the elevation increases.
Coinciding with the warm temperatures is dry weather. During the summer it is rare to receive more than 75 mm of rain each month. That means the chances of having clear and sunny days are quite high.
However, fast-forming storms are not uncommon at higher elevations and something every mountaineer should keep an eye out for.
How to Get to La Meije?
The easiest way to get to La Grave and La Meije internationally is via Geneva. It has the closest international airport. From Geneva, you will drive south for about three hours, going through Grenoble.
If you are flying from within France or closer in Europe, then you might prefer to fly into the Lyon Saint-Exupery Airport and then make the two-hour drive to La Grave via Grenoble.
Due to its small size, you might have some trouble finding accommodations in La Grave. This is especially true during the peak months in the summer. However, there are several nearby towns, such as Grenoble.
If you want to combine climbing La Meije with further alpine adventure, flying into Geneva and staying in Chamonix is also a good option.
La Meije combines all the Essential Ingredients of Excellent Mountaineering Experience.
La Meije requires some technical climbing up imposing surfaces. It also allows you to spend the night in a quintessential alpine refuge and finishes off with spectacular views of the mountain’s magnificent surroundings.
It is the perfect mountain for one of your first ascents or your one-hundredth ascent. La Meije always offers something different depending on how you approach the peak and what route you take.
Ready to tackle this majestic French summit? You can find several options to climb La Meije with a mountain guide at Explore-Share.com, an online booking platform for guided adventures worldwide.
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