Wednesday 29 August 2012

Chamonix trails 3: Col to Col

You could with not much effort approach the Col des Posettes (1997m) and the Col de Balme (2191m) via the télécabines from either Le Tour - a pretty village spoiled by a massive car park, which we'd walked to on a previous excursion - or our beloved Vallorcine, where torrential rains the day before had driven us to a leisurely lunch in the wonderful L'Arret Bourgnette. Since, however, it was likely that these high pastures above the north-east end of the Chamonix valley would be dotted with more than a few fellow-hikers, I reckoned it might be nice to have a wooded path up from the valley floor at Le Buet more or less to ourselves. We were delighted to be joined on our last full day by Laurence, Bertrand and Ambroise, who'd prised themselves away from their much quieter mountain hideaway near Beaufort (where the most delicious of the Savoie cheeses we tasted comes from).

The way up, after ten days' worth of acclimatisation, was 'pleasant', just as the trail-book described other such forest climbs; in the beginning they'd just been a slog. The reward is always when the vistas open out and the bigger mountains suddenly reveal themselves in greater splendour than from below - or in this case in splendid strangeness, on the track from Vallorcine which our narrow path eventually met. I think this is the Aiguille Verte, at 4122m junior only to the two peaks leading up to Mont-Blanc and, of course, the Alpine king himself. It reminds me of the planet, asteroid, call it what you will, that looms in Lars von Trier's Melancholia.

Passing a lunchtime-dormant télécabine from Vallorcine, we were soon out on the alpages, with residents grazing and clanking

and to my surprise only a sprinkling of other humans in evidence, which made me wonder where all the télécabinistes from Le Tour had gone. So we made ourselves comfortable in the soft turf

and picnicked, as usual, on the excellent rolls from the Boulangerie Saint Hubert in Chamonix's Place Eglise - our local, along with the nearby cafe. Growing lad Ambroise would, he said, be in need of more calories in an hour or so's time, which gave us the pretext to walk on to the refuge at the Col de Balme. Along the exhilarating high way, Bertrand's eagle eye spotted a handful of gentians - the only ones we came across on this trip. As we know from our Italian Apennine jaunts, they should be seen in clusters, but here's at least the ocular proof of a single Gentiana verna.

The refuge seemed to be run by a sour crone, and plastered with prohibitions; I imagine in the mists it could be a rather sinister place. Ambroise had his extra sandwich - sans beurre - and we just about downed some evil coffee, looking across at the bar and a stand stocked, as our absent Chamonix hostess Merrie had told us, with ancient but alas not at all interesting postcards of the slopes in winter.

Anyway, it was an atmospheric, almost deserted change from the swish restaurant descended upon by hordes which I'd for some reason imagined. Then it was back along the Col de Balme, which gave us views towards Switzerland

as well as the Chamonix valley in the opposite direction, and down, at a cracking pace, to Le Buet - a fitting final holiday jaunt.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Chamonix trails 2: Vallon de Bérard

A slightly busier route, this, than the Loriaz way I happily recalled yesterday, as it's part of the mouthfully-named 'Grande Randonnée de Pays du Tour du Pays de Mont-Blanc'. Yet the lovely Bérard valley is quite unlike anything we encountered in the vicinity, not least in its variety of Alpine flowers once you reach the first of several plateaus on the way from Le Buet up to the Refuge de la Pierre à Bérard at 1924m. Before those, there's a shady gorge to climb after the first easy meander.

Then you're out among discreet handfuls of picnickers and a fair few myrtille-gatherers, en plein air with Alpine flowers in abundance.

Very well, so this didn't quite match the botanical wealth of the Lago del Predil in Italy's Julian Alps, but that we saw at an earlier time of year; August may not be the best month for flower-spotting even this high up. But I was delighted to see, in lonely ones or twos, the famed Martagon lily

the brilliance of Potentilla aurea

the Alpine Rosa pendulina - my Predil photo is much better than the slightly out of focus one I took here - and several varieties of orchid.

I misattributed this exquisitely-wrought specimen; if anyone knows better, do let me know.

Wild strawberries are everywhere, of course, refreshing the way

and once you reach the slopes towards the Refuge, nestling attractively directly under the rock which gives it its name and protects it against avalanches, the purple-and-white foreground enhances a view down much of the valley.

We made the mistake of not bringing sandwiches on this excursion; the set lunch was wretched. But it didn't matter so much, sitting at a table outside and commanding the view. And it was no hardship to walk back, with a slight detour along a looser path by the waters.

For those intent on further refreshments - we weren't - there's also a pretty-looking chalet-cafe by the Cascade de Bérard. But by then, of course, the enchanted uplands have long been left behind.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

In the footsteps of Pococke and Windham


Those not especially famous Messrs sidled into history in 1741 as the first tourists to Chamonix, engaging local guides to lead them up to the snaking glacier that is the (now much-reduced) Mer de glace, seen above in the distance from the Grand Balcon Sud in the Aiguilles Rouges national park on the other side of the Chamonix valley. Like Pococke and Windham, we used footpower* rather than the 1908 railway to ascend 867 metres to Montenvers and the Mer de glace, hitting the crowds only at the summit and quickly leaving them behind for the descent. Especially glad we took the Chemin de Montenvers, as there are plenty of view-friendly clearings along the forest climb and a lovely refreshment hut stands at the halfway mark, the Buvette Caillet, run by a charming hostess who evidently takes pride in her food (though we only had crepes with pine-tree syrup, having trusted to a picnic-pack for the rest, the fare looked better than most we encountered).

We also shared P&W’s mid-level ambitions at around the 2000m mark rather than any bolder climbs like the one their successors (Balmat, Paccard, Saussure, Whymper) all essayed to the summit of Mont-Blanc at a daunting 4810m. The subsequently hallowed name of the Alpine mountain king was not so much as uttered by P&W, though like us they could not in clement weather have missed the sight of it and the Glacier de Bosson from any south-westerly facing Chamonix balcony. Our view, thanks to the loan of pals Edwina’s and Merrie’s apartment, was a specially fine one. 

Apart from Montenvers and the surprisingly lovable holiday resort of Chamonix itself, the only other real evidence of August holiday logjams was on the infamously popular hike up from the La Flegère cablecar station to the Lac Blanc, packed with French families (though you had to hand it to the scrambling kids). No wonder we took a longer way back via the much quieter Lacs des Chéserys - this is the highest, approached from the Lac Blanc via a couple of steel footholds and a ladder, the Glacier d'Argentière behind - 

and along the Grand Balcon.

These, and a long hike back from the Glacier d’Argentière, which I can't resist depicting up close

though the labour to reach it was not extreme, to Chamonix, all offered impressive mid-level viewpoints over the Mont-Blanc massif and/or the Aiguilles Rouges on the other side, if a bit short on the Alpine flowers I’d been expecting. I shan't bore you with chapter and verse of all the walks and hikes we managed on each of our thirteen full days in Chamonix – only a couple of which were disrupted by rain or storms - but I crave your indulgence in chronicling the three most memorable. Even that would be to ramble too far in one blog entry, especially after so long a silence, but I'll leave you with the first today. It took us from the cowbell-loud pastures of Le Crot in Vallorcine 

to the Chalet de Loriaz refuge at 2020m, an ascent of 725m. Because much of the forest looked like it had been felled in an avalanche, the way up was mostly airy and bright - viz these larches and the view towards Switzerland - 

after which the Alpage de Loriaz certainly felt like pastures new and high

though none of the far horizons reveals its magnificence on camera. Instead accept this Tarte aux myrtilles in which we indulged at the Chalet before sneaking off to have our picnic on a nearby rock. It's high season for the gathering of these delicious berries. 

The way down to Le Buet was forest walking as usual, with a bit of Alpine suburbia at the end - I'd have preferred in retrospect to have returned the way we came. But it was a great day out, one of many thanks to the replacement bus service for a mostly out of action train which hourly trundles up and down the valleys (free, along with the scheduled buses up to Le Tour, for those booked into hotels, a mere 2 euros a week for the rest of us). Chamonix may be bustling in peak season - the northern reaches much less so - but it knows its walkers, and bends over backwards to make their hikes work. More on a second gem tomorrow.

*Perhaps they went up on mules, as (I'm sure) did Napoleon's Josephine and Marie Louise.