Glacial Adventure in the Vanoise National Park
Just a snowball trajectory away from Courchevel the Vanoise national park is a stunning playground packed with chamois, bouquetin, marmottes and golden eagles. 1250 km², making the area the largest alpine national park, of protected flora and fauna it’s beauty is something to behold year round. It’s dominated by high peaks and glaciers with the Haute Savoie’s highest peaks, sandwiched between Courchevel and Italy. During spring and summer the region is filled with wild flowers, butterflies and all manner of mountain wildlife, with more than it’s fair share of whistling marmottes. Then as the autumn hits and temperatures start to drop, the snow starts to fall, covering it in a majestic blanket once more.
For hiking fans and wildlife enthusiasts a summer hiking tour of the Vanoise national park comes highly recommended. The area has a large number of mountain huts which offer bed and board, allowing you to experience the joy of hut to hutting. Staying in mountain refuges and walking between night spots each day, you’ll experience the full beauty of the area. Although the beds are often fairly basic bunk style digs, the food is surprisingly good, given the remoteness of their locations. And with multiple courses each night (think soup, hearty mains, bread, cheese, dessert and a carafe of wine) you’ll not go hungry.
For this trip we started in the mountain town of Pralognan, the base for most explorations into the park. Pralognan is a small quintessentially French mountain village, whose tradition lies in farming, and is the source of much of the region’s Beaufort and Tomme de Savoie; two very tasty, and highly recommended, local hard cheeses. With a late start after a day at work, we set off a little after 5pm, in pursuit of the Col de Vanoise refuge. Recently rebuilt a few years ago, this hut has more than its fair share of mountain luxuries including heating, showers and a drying room. Despite its creature comforts though (including draught beer, perfect after a hard days hike) what really set this refuge apart from the rest is its location. On one side is the Grande Casse, a glacial covered marvel, and the region’s highest peak (3,855m), favoured by ski tourers and climbers alike. Then to the other, is the glacier de Vanoise, a plateau nestled at 3000m, covered in a thick layer of ice, striated with jagged crevasses. The glacier and it’s resultant melt is the lifeblood of the national park. And there’s nothing like a foray onto a glacier, armed with crampons and ice axes to remind you of the power of nature.
The excitement of the following day meant our early night never quite materialised as we pored over our glacial travel book, polishing our skills. After a few hours sleep we rose in the dark at the crack of sparrows, and fuelled up with some strong coffee. We could just make out the cloud below us in the valley, blanketing the village below. With a full moon lighting the way we picked our way along the rough path, climbing rocky ledges and dodging icy patches. As the sun rose it brought with it a bright orange dawn, which warmed our slightly sleepy souls.
We arrived at the foot of the glacier a little over an hour later and put on our crampons and harnesses and roped ourselves together. Only about 500ms wide we crossed the glacier first off and looked down into the Mauriene valley and across to Italy. With only a dusting of fresh snow, it was fairly easy work, with any crevasses easy to spot. Glacial crossings require careful observation of the ground, keeping watch for unstable areas underfoot, or crevasses which can often be hidden beneath the snow. Tying together using ropes lessens the risk, providing safety in the form of anchors should anyone slip or fall. Thankfully, this safety measure wasn’t needed on our Vanoise expedition, although we did test…..
From here we headed back across the glacier towards our detination, the Point du Guard, the highest point on the southern area of the glacier. We formed an eschalon as we were travelling with, rather than crossing the crevasses. An escahllon is where you stand side by side rather than following one another, so that if one of us was to fall he wouldn’t pendulum towards the others. We reached the Point du Gauard by 9am and ate our lunch looking out over Courchevel. A tiny speck from that great height.
On our way back across the glacier we spent some time practicing techniques of rescues and glacial travel, putting our gear to the test. For our more techie readers this involved ice screws and prusiks, a knot used to ascend a rope. After sliding around using our ice axes to stop our falls we made our way back to the hut. Another strong coffee later and our work here was done.
If you’re considering visiting the Vanoise national park then check out this link for more information on the refuges. And if you’ve never tried glacier travel or don’t the area be sure to book a guide. Happy hiking!
Or if you’ve got a car on your next visit to the 3 Valleys, summer or winter, the little known resort of Pralognan is only a short jounrney away and a great option for a day trip.