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.
A Challenge
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.