Briancon is located in the Haute Alpes, just 20 minutes from the Italian border. 100km to the west by the Col du Lautaret is Grenoble and to the east is Turin via the Col du Montgenevre.
Briancon sits at the top of the Durance valley, the old town is 1500m above sea level and is reputed to be the highest city in Europe. The city is a French national monument and a UNESCO site of world heritage. To discover more about the old town of Briancon follow this link.
From a climbing point of view Briancon and its environs has it all. This destination guide covers the area immediately around Briancon in the north and works its way south via L’Argentiere La Bessee, La Roche de Rame, Fressinieres, Saint Crepin, Mont Dauphine, Guillestre, Queyras, Vallouise and Ailefroide. The extended area would also cover Guisaine, Claree and Embrun but I have not discussed these here as I have not climbed them.
A few facts about climbing in and around Briancon.
- There are over 300 days of sunshine a year.
- There are six different types of rock, Limestone, conglomerate, gabbro, quartzite, granite and gneiss.
- There are thousands of bolted sports routes.
- There is a fantastic spread of grades allowing progression from the easiest 3’s to 8’s and 9’s.
- There is no shortage of routes that can be trad climbed.
20 years ago Ailefroide had 4 developed crags, now it has twenty five crags and over 270 bolted routes, mostly single pitch, but also many multi pitch routes including the Riviere Kwai at 500m long, 14 pitches 5c+ max.
The story of Ailefroide is reflected across the whole valley in both positive and negative ways. Many areas have been developed under the FFME and the locally infamous JJ Roland and his son Yann but at the expense of some classic routes that seem almost forgotten.
The benefits are clear for the climber either way. If you want a dedicated climbing area it has been developed for you in Ailefroide but it gets busy, very busy in the peak months of July and August and as thats when most climbers are visiting the area I would recommend you based yourself in Briancon and searched out some of the quieter classic crags of the area.
Nearest to Briancon is La Croix de Toulouse, just a ten minute walk from the city you are presented with a sheer face of 500m of limestone with six fantastic multi pitch routes. My favorite is Vent d’Est [The East Wind], ten pitches, 5+ max and just the right amount of exposure. You will need some trad gear as, although there are some bolts you will be a lot more comfortable with a few friends.
One of the crags that has suffered at the development of Ailefroide, in that it has been neglected, is the Falaise des Salettes with 30 routes from 4 to 6b+, it is a bit ‘rusty’ in places. Good adventure climbing.
Also on La Croix de Toulouse is a Via Ferrata, mid difficulty and about 500m of climbing, mostly vertical.
There are another ten crags within ten minutes drive from Briancon offering North, south, east and west facing, single pitch, multi pitch, limestone, quartzite and granite and some 400 routes of all difficulties.
Why would you go any further? Well going south, and ignoring Ailefroide, you have to try the big face at Fournel with its stunning features and massive roof some 100m above the first pitches. and if the south facing rock gets to much you can cross the valley to the north facing crag with its 20+ single pitch routes from 4 to 6b+.
Continuing south and stopping off at St Crepin or Champcella for cosy, quite crags, mostly single pitch to Mt Dauphin and its acres of conglomerate.
From there turn east to Giillestre and then north east into Queyras before returning via the Col de L’Izoard to Briancon. The entire grand tour is around 40 miles of driving allowing hours of time for climbing.
Nearly all crags are no more than ten minutes walk from the nearest parking although you can find some much longer hikes if you want to search them out.
When to go
You can climb in and around Briancon all year round, even in the depths of winter through mid January to mid March when the night time temperatures can be minus 20 there are crags that stay dry and clear of snow and ice. Alternatively there are glaciers and mountains up to 4000m for mixed route climbing or ice climbing in many crags and frozen waterfalls.
The main attraction has to be the eight or nine months of the year when the weather is perfect for climbing in shorts and t-shirt.
To be fair, it can be damp on some routes in April and May due to snow melt from thousands of feet above but even then there are too many routes available for a few weeks holiday. In fact I doubt there is anyone who has climbed all the routes available.
At the height of summer it can be just to hot to be climbing in the direct sun but there are always shady west and north facing crags available.
How to get there
The two main ways of reaching Briancon are to drive or fly. Flights by BA or Ryan Air from Gatwick or Stansted usually come in to Turin to the east of Briancon where there is a train and bus service to connect to Briancon or fly in to Grenoble and bus it to Briancon. Once here you will need a car which can be hired locally or from the airport you land at from about €25 a day but if you can get three or four people together then it may be economical to drive.
From Calais it is about 12 hours drive, 700km and usually under €100 in tolls depending on the time of day you are traveling.
Where to stay
I am writing this with a view to proposing you base yourself in Briancon. Many will tell you to drive direct to Ailefroide and stay there but my experience is, although its nice to sleep under the stars, you will be pestered by mosquitoes and climbers who choose to camp their, find they don’t leave the valley and never get to climb the conglomerate at Mont Dauphine or the limestone in the Fournel.
The benefits of Ailefroide are clear, it has been exclusively developed for climbers and has extensive camping, two hotels, fast [for France] food, small supermarket and even a shop or two selling gear. Be warned however as I write this in the first week of June nothing is open yet. and it will all close by the end of September.
You may choose Ailefroide but outside of its narrow season or if you want to experience a greater variety of crags head up to the top of the valley and find a bed in Briancon. Accommodation in the old town varies from a serviced apartment at the Spirit Bar to an entire house that can sleep 18 people [bring the entire climbing club]. The night life in the Old Town of Briancon is buzzing all through the summer months with lively bars, good restaurants and decent coffee houses. In June Briancon hosts the lead climbing championships and in late summer, look out for the Urban climbing festival where the city ramparts are a challenge to any daring free climber. There are many festivals in the adjoining parks and in July Briancon holds a medieval festival which is great fun.
Where to eat
Out of season this part of France is very quiet and it is not unusual to find everything closed. Having said that most every village has a bakery and from seven every morning fresh bread and pastry is available. Equally every village has a bar of some sort and they will usually be open throughout most of the day except Sunday and Mondays, this is an old fashioned but very friendly community.
Out of season evenings can be very lonely but you can use that time to plan the next days climbing.
In season all the bars and restaurants will be open and evening meals are easy.
In Briancon I can recommend the Central Bar as at the time of writing Maria and Ash were open nearly all the time and offer a Sandwich and a drink for €5, fantastic value and very tasty. They also show British TV and selected sports events.
Which guide to buy
“Escalade en Brianconnais – Haut Val Durance – Queyras”. Can be bought locally for around 30 Euro and is a comprehensive guide to sports climbing and some of the via ferratas in the area, see below. Also available from the tourist information office is the comprehensive guide to the local via ferratas.
I can recommend AlpiMat on the lower industrial area of Briancon who sell the above mentioned guide as well as a wallet emptying selection of other guides and a fantastic collection of climbing gear. There are various other climbing shops dotted around.
In and around Briancon you can also paddle, cycle, VTT, parapont or in the winter, ski and snowboard. There is canyoning, hiking and if you have a few hours at the end of the day I can recommend you explore the battlements of Briancon and its surrounding fortifications.