“A century ago, all the major peaks of the Alps had been climbed. All except for one, the Meije.

This citadel of ice and granite put up even greater resistance to the efforts of assailants than the Matterhorn… “

Henri Issellin

The word Meije comes from the Provencal word meidjo meaning “midday”, referring to the South.

The inhabitants of La Grave used to call this mountain, located to the south of their village, oeille de la meidjour  (the midday needle). The current name of “La Meije” therefore comes from the fact that the sun passes over the mountain at noon.

The Meije has a special place in the history of mountaineering, firstly as it was the last major summit of the Alps to be climbed, following on from many attempts between 1870 and 1877, and secondly, because this “first” was achieved by a Frenchman, whilst most other first climbs in the Alps were made by British climbers, such as Whymper and Coolidge.

For these reasons, and also on account of its aesthetically pleasing shape (described as “perfectly dis-symmetric” by the composer Olivier Messiaen), the Meije is special in the minds of mountaineers. Indeed, it is often called the “Queen Meije” or “Her Majesty”.

The Meije has three main summits, namely the highest point, called the Grand Pic de la Meije at a height of 3 983 m (the second highest major summit in the Écrins after the 4 102 m Barre des Écrins), the Doigt de Dieu or Pic Central de la Meije (3 973 m) dominating the south face, and the large snowcapped rounded peak known as the Meije Orientale (3 891 m).

The first ascension…

The Grand Pic was first climbed on 16 August 1877 by Emmanuel Boileau de Castelnau with Pierre Gaspard, following the Arête du Promontoire on the south face, now known as the “normal” route. They descended via the same route, abandoning their ropes in some places (abseiling was invented later).

“This conquest was a huge achievement as many attempts (around 25) had been made on the mountain…
Emmanuel De Castelnau (aged 19) and a local from the valley in his prime (43 years old), Pierre Gaspard, a guide for only two years, managed to find the way through during an exploratory climb on 4 August 1877. They climbed through the key passage in their socks. Those who follow in their steps today should imagine them climbing in hobnailed boots, at a time when rock climbing was in its infancy. They bivouaced on their way down without any protective equipment. For many years, the Meije was known as “La grande difficile”…”

Extract from “Guide du Haut-Dauphiné” by François Labande, published by Editions l’Envol.

And the others…

The first climb without a guide was achieved in 1879 by Frederick Gardiner, accompanied by Charles and Lawrence Pilkington.

The first transverse of the arêtes of the Meije was completed east to west (from the Doigt de Dieu to the Grand Pic) on 27 July 1885 by Ludwig Purtscheller and Otto and Emil Zsigmondy. They abseiled down, hammering in pitons from the first dent to the breach at the bottom of the Grand Pic (now called the Zsigmondy dent and brêche). They descended via the Arête du Promontoire, following the same slab as the Austrians, which is the only change to the route used today compared to that of Gaspard and Castelnau.

En 1891, J.H. Gibson, Ulrich Almer and F. Boss completed the first transverse from west to east, which subsequently became the standard route and is considered to be among the most beautiful in the Alps. It is one of the 100 finest climbs in the Ecrins massif.

Mountaineering

The Meije is a choice objective for mountaineers and there are many routes up the mountain, covering a variety of styles. The most common route up the mountain is via the southern Arête du Promontoire and generally includes a traverse over more arêtes to the Doigt de Dieu. After the collapse of the Breche Zsigmondy on 15 May 9064, which sank 20 m, the route became more difficult and the passage round the first dent (Dent Zsigmondy) was fitted with cables in 1971 to facilitate and secure the climb for mountaineers.

The South face of the Meije also boasts a number of renowned faces for rock climbing enthusiasts.

Mountain huts

There are two mountain huts for sleeping on the way up to the various summits of the Meije, namely the:

Refuge du Promontoire (3 092 m), located at the foot of the Arête du Promontoire, the departure point for the Grand Pic, for crossing the Arêtes de la Meije and all the climbing routes on the South face.

Refuge de l’Aigle (3 450 m) built at the top of the Tabuchet glacier, providing access to the North face and the less difficult routes up the Doigt de Dieu and the Meije Orientale.