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.


Gavin Plumley said...

What glorious images... we crossed the Alps a bit further East this summer. Heaven. Hope you're having a fabulous time.

Will said...

How very nice to see you posting again! Welcome back and here's hoping the troubles are behind you.

A colleague of mine and I used to take students to Europe for travel/ study in the 80s and 90s. When the itinerary permitted we took them to Chamounix. One year we went up one of the Aiguilles on a cable car even though it was socked in by cloud. That condition proved to be even more exciting because sudden small clearings would race by to frame a soaring eagle, a view of the valley or the sun or climbers. It was all very dramatic. We did the Mer de Glace and even walked into caves within it. Then we went for raclette and good wine!

Susan Scheid said...

How grand, indeed, to see you here, and in such magnificent surroundings. Welcome back, dear David. I look forward to your next report.

Roger Neill said...

Welcome back, dear David.

David said...

Thank y'all for your warm welcomes back.

Will, I wish we'd done the grand Aiguille du Midi cable-car ride - apparently even more spectacular when you continue over to the Italian side. But it's the number one attraction for the summer hordes, so maybe best done out of season. The Flegere situation was bad enough - broken one day (so we walked up to La Charlenon), packed on another.