The day (8th August 2014) started at 6.30 am in the La Grave campsite with an early breakfast & final check of the rucksack contents, not that there was a lot you can get in a 40 litre alpine pack. These included harness, helmet, crampons, ice axe, walking pole plus a few items of climbing hardware, (plus a light soft shell jacket for warmth, rather than precipitation, and a small first aid kit).
A 15 min walk up through the village the gondola station at the end of the village to catch the first lift up the mountain at 8.00 am. I met Pascal the French alpine guide who I had previously met early in the week & booked a day’s alpine climbing. The objective was to climb Le Rateau (West summit) 3700 metres high, which in theory was a modest 5 – 6 hr jaunt! (Le Rateau has 2 summits both at similar heights separated by a 1 km long ridge).
La Grave gondola station car park was already full with plenty of climbers making the most of excellent weather forecast. The first lift starts at 1450 metres and with a change at 2400 metres, it then deposits you at 3200 metres on the glacier in the Col de Ruillans about 45 minutes later.
We applied sunblock in the small gondola and as soon as we arrived at the top station we put on harness, crampons, roped together on a fairly short line and headed off. The snow was in excellent condition due to the low night temperatures (even in early August) & we made quick progress across the glacier to the first serious climb up a 30 degree snow incline. Pascal lead up the slope with a technique using an ice axe in one hand for grip and placing a gloved fist in the steps with the other hand already made by the crampons.
We paused at the top of the steep section to recover (as Pascal had refused to stop for a rest!) and continued up the wide ridge which fortunately was at a gentler angle. After another hour we had reached the rocky part of the ridge. We kept the crampons on but left the ice axes tucked away behind a large rock to be retrieved later on the away back down. The next section was a mixed snow and rock scramble picking the way up the ridge looking for good snow in the gulleys and secure hand holds where needed.
Finally the snow petered out and we ditched the crampons, tied together behind another convenient rock (Pascal seamed very trusting that they would be there when we returned!). There were 2 short pitches to climb with Pascal leading and placing odd bits of gear on the way. The rock was in good condition, pretty cold but dry. The climbing was fairly straight forward, as long as you could handle the exposure, but really enjoyable conditions with light winds and warm sun. There was only one other pair on climbers on the route ahead of us so there was no queuing!
After the 2nd pitch we had virtually arrived at the jagged summit which was a knife edge ridge a couple of metres wide. Time to chill out, eat some food & take in the stunning views. After 20 minutes we got our gear together and headed back down the ridge. Pascal had selected a descent off the other side of the ridge which involved a short abseil and then down-climbing until we were reunited firstly with our crampons and then further down the mountain, with our ice axes.
From there onwards, we retraced our route back down to the gondola station and an hour later we were sitting in one of La Grave’s bars having a couple of beers, looking back up at Le Rateau stunning ridge in the mid afternoon sun.