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French alps: autumn walking

Tue 15 Nov, 2016 1:29 am

Autumn is my favorite season to walk in the Alps. Less crowds, fall foliage, the lakes start to freeze, the mountains to be coated with a thin layer of snow. Early autumn is also perfect for glacier viewing. All summer long the remaining snow has melted, so you can really see the seracs and crevasses. This was the first hike I did, at a glacier simply called Glacier Blanc, near Briançon. You first drive to a secretive valley called Vallouise. That region is home to the European larch, arguably the most beautiful tree in autumn. It's related to pine trees, except it's deciduous: the needles turn yellow/orange and fall in winter. So in autumn it's beautiful with a mix of persistants pines and the larch (mélèze in French). That hike to glacier Blanc was quite easy: the elevation gain was less that 1000 m, the track is well defined, and there was minimum scrambling near the glacier. At the refuge, you can climb higher to appreciate its sheer mass. Although it lost a lot of its volume due to global warming (please go see a glacier Mr Trump), it's still impressive. It was also the last week of the year that I saw marmots before their hibernation phase (around the second half of October). On the way back, I stopped at a place where you can observe red deer, at the Vizille castle. They mate during October, so they can be seen up close.

Re: French alps: autumn walking

Tue 15 Nov, 2016 1:36 am

Next I went to the North-Eastern part of Vanoise. Lac de la Plagne is well known from locals, but away from big cities, so it's not likely you'll see many people there in the fall. The larches were gorgeous, the light almost too perfect. The tricky part about autumn photography is of course the sun in your frame. Having a scratch on my lens doesn't help. So I had to go all the way around that beautiful lake, and then climb higher to get a nice shot of the whole scenery doing a nice loop. It is a spectacular valley, and the snow already made an appearance (this was late October). Also an oddity for mountain walking: a duck. I didn't expect to see this little guy so high up, but here he was. The start of this walk is also a nice viewpoint in itself to see the glaciers of Mont Pourri.
Last edited by Hallu on Tue 15 Nov, 2016 2:21 am, edited 1 time in total.

Re: French alps: autumn walking

Tue 15 Nov, 2016 1:46 am

Next I did probably the most popular hike in Vanoise: col de la Vanoise. I never did it before because it starts at a ski resort, and the first third of the hike you basically climb alongside a ski slope and a chairlift. It is ugly and stupid to have this next to the most popular walk in this national park. Once you get away from there, you see an ancient wall, reminiscent of the commercial road used by mules to transport salt, food and other stuff from one valley to the other. It leads to Lac des Vaches, which you can ford on foot: it's shallow and stones have been placed for that purpose. Except that in autumn, this lake only sees the sun for a couple of hours in the afternoon, so it's frozen in the morning. The sounds were quite amazing, cracking all over. Then the track turn to pure snow. It wasn't deep, lucky for me since I didn't have my snowshoes. Then you get why this place is so popular. There are 3 picture perfect lakes in the area, below the Grande Casse, 3855 m high with its well known tumbling glacier. There's also the Vanoise peak, sheer verticallity, and yet some climbers were scaling it while I was walking past. It's a stunning area in autumn.
Pic de la Vanoise
Lac des Vaches
Lac Rond
Grande Casse
Last edited by Hallu on Tue 15 Nov, 2016 2:22 am, edited 1 time in total.

Re: French alps: autumn walking

Tue 15 Nov, 2016 2:14 am

Then I wanted to see the Vanoise glaciers, which form an ice cap over a large area. This was right behind the previous hike. So it meant going to the other valley of Vanoise, Maurienne. It's not a pretty valley by any means. It's scarred by ski tourism, and all its pretty villages but one (Bonneval sur Arc) have been destroyed by the Germans during WW2 (thanks guys...). There are a few forts dating from Vauban and modernized in the 19th century, but that's it. Luckily the walks are beautiful. The first one I did was my first real 3000+m peak, Pointe de l'Observatoire. Quite weird to do it in November could you tell me. And yes you'd be right, but the book said it was one of the easiest. The walk starts easily by climbing onto a grassy plateau, before climbing more seriously. The cold made the track very icy, which is a lot more dangerous than snow. Luckily it wasn't too steep or exposed. Once at the mountain pass, I was walking in 10-20 cm snow. I saw a guy in front of me scaling the peak like it was nothing so I followed in his steps. The views were already amazing. Unfortunately this guy was obviously more experienced that I am, following the hardest path, right on the crest. So I veered off from his footsteps, put my crampons on as it was very slippery and ascended via a safer route. It was still too slippery for my comfort. Not enough snow to cover the boulders, too much to have good footing on them. The summit had a very nice view, but I'm not a climber, and that was a bit too much for me. Climbing down to the pass took me even longer. A bit too scary to really enjoy those views. One side is boulders and slippery snow, some boulders tumbling down, the other is a sheer 500 m cliff.
Last edited by Hallu on Tue 15 Nov, 2016 2:29 am, edited 1 time in total.

Re: French alps: autumn walking

Tue 15 Nov, 2016 2:18 am

The second hike I did the next morning was even more spectacular. It led me first to an absolute jewel of a lake, in which the Dent Parrachée is perfectly reflected. To the right, the glaciers I wanted to see. Being flat, I think they must be more impressive from the air. Then the notes I had told me to go off track to the right to get to another lake. Unfortunately two faded paths led there and I took the most dangerous one, very close to a deep gorge. Soon though I managed to reach the safer path. A few stone houses remain in the area, most of them are in ruins however. It's worth coming here just for that, it's really a shame that the valley itself is so ugly. It's also full of absolute maniacs on the road but that's another issue.

So in case you might contemplate travelling to the Alps, remember that autumn may be your best choice. If you're unexperienced, summer is best. But for bushwalkers from this forum, autumn is definitely the way to go. Also, autumn is already over at the moment I'm writing. I did a hike in Vercors 2 days ago at around 1600 m and even with the snowshoes I had to give up. It was 50 cm of soft snow, it's been a cold and snowy last week, very difficult to walk on, you sink in with each step. Hopefully it'll snow again to harden the bottom layer and make walking more pleasant.
Lac Blanc
Grande Casse, Northern side
Glaciers de la Vanoise
Golden colored larches in their glory

Re: French alps: autumn walking

Tue 15 Nov, 2016 9:32 am

Woops and I forgot about that one I did on early October, called Sommet de la Cavale. A crest hike, off track at first then a bit hairy at times as you may guess from the pictures, but it was fun. The flowering heath was beautiful, as well as the menacing mountains. Got my best vulture sighting, they were simply circling BELOW me as I was descending from the summit.

Re: French alps: autumn walking

Tue 15 Nov, 2016 10:48 am

Thank you Hallu!

I take great pleasure in the armchair travelling you provide for all. Words and images are wonderful.

Many thanks
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