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The Ultimate Route: 700 Kilometers Around the Hautes Alps

Dawn on the last day of traversing the Ecrins Range. The traverse of this range took a full month. [Photo] Christian Guillaume

Climbing is escapism. No matter what we evade, standing atop a single peak–or even being defeated by one–can make the rest of the world disappear, if only for the day.

Climbing also is passion, begging us to explore the limits of what is possible. From April 15 to July 15, Lionel Daudet, a professional climber from the High Alps region of southern France, invoked a challenge for himself: to circumnavigate the entire border of the Hautes Alps province by non-motorized means.

Over ninety-two days he succeeded in traveling 700 kilometers and summiting 292 peaks, 128 of them over 3000 meters. He gained more than 70000 meters of elevation.

Daudet and his companions stayed as close to the province’s border as possible, using the most sensible means–from climbing to sailing to paragliding. The most they strayed from the imaginary line was a kilometer, when the wind determined to pull their paragliding off course. Although many friends helped Daudet with logistics and supplies, he remained on the mountains for all three months except in the very worst weather; two times weather forced him into the valleys, where he found the protection of small towns (no cities exist along the province’s borderline).

Daudet was the only one to complete the mountainous loop in total, but three alpinists–Guillaume Christian, Frederic Jullien and Mathieu Cortial–joined him for large portions of the trip.

Here we present images and reflections from Daudet’s extraordinary journey, with the hope that you, too, may be inspired to plan a passionate escape.

Paragliders on the way from Morgon Peak to Serre Poncon. This was one of the four routes the climbers were able to fly. [Photo] Pascal Rey

Several years ago two friends of mine traveled the entire border of Valais, the province in Switzerland. In much of Europe, particularly in France, there are not many new places to establish routes. To me, my Swiss friends’ idea was inspiring as a new way to link terrain, to create an “ultimate route.” So I planned my own adventure around the border of my home province, Hautes Alps in the south of France.

Every day we were on the move, making the virtual borderline a real one via the most logical, non-motorized means: climbing, walking, skiing, flying, canoeing, sailing, horseback riding. It was a great line that followed sharpened ridges, meandering rivers and powerful updrafts. If there was a deep valley between hills, we paraglided. If a river ran along the border, we canoed. If an intimidating wall loomed, we climbed it.

I always have believed that the approach is as interesting as the climb itself. Mountains are not meant to be viewed only with binoculars or from helicopters. This philosophy guided my logistics, and led me to the greatest reward: adventure.

Looking back on our three-month tour in the southern Alps, it was an astonishing trip, very demanding. Often the winds were strong, the snow and cold rain steady and the visibility poor–there were many times I thought of the weather as “winter during summertime.” But those chilly thoughts are always warmed by the memories of friends who brought us supplies, food, beer and strawberries.

For me, the adventure was a kind of mountaineering rejuvenation, where imagination shows you a different route, where your limits are not defined by a single pitch or wall, but in linking almost 100 days on variegated, insecure terrain that drains you physically and mentally. So now I’ve found that, even in the 21st Century, you can (re)discover lost worlds, worlds so close to home, that come alive with your presence.

–Lionel Daudet, France

For more details and pictures, please visit: Also, many thanks to my sponsors: EIDER, GORE-TEX, BEAL,CASSIN, CEBE, TSL snowshoes, GRIVEL and ALPINA SAVOIE pasta!

Climbing a forgotten ridge of the rocky Cerces. [Photo] Lionel Daudet

Frederic Jullien at the top of Pointe d’Escreins. [Photo] Lionel Daudet

Guillaume snowshoes a ridge in Queyras. [Photo] Lionel Daudet

A climber on the South pic des Cavales in the Ecrins. On the left, the Grande Ruine. [Photo] Christian Guillaume

Moonrise over Bonnet des Cavales in the Ecrins. [Photo] Christian Guillaume

Oliver Charlandie leaving the team on a cold, windy, foggy day at the col de l’Ailefroide in the Ecrins. [Photo] Lionel Daudet

Meije, almost 4000 meters, in the Ecrins. [Photo] Lionel Daudet

Guillaume during a wet climb of the canyon Gorges de la Blanche. [Photo] Lionel Daudet

Guillaume on the ridge just before Pointe de Venise, the Italian lowlands behind him. [Photo] Lionel Daudet

Guillaume and Dod’s first bivy of the trip, near the world famous cycling path, the col du Galibier. [Photo] Frederic Jullien

Encountering icy rock while crossing Pointe des Boeufs, Ecrins Range. [Photo] Lionel Daudet

Guillaume climbs a snowy ridge in the Queyras. Mt. Viso is in the background. [Photo] Lionel Daudet