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Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 5:23 am
by Hallu
Hi everyone, it's been a while since I've posted anything here. This winter in the Alps has been a bit of a hit and miss. We had promissing snow in October/November, and then a huge drought well into January. Even then the snow mantle was quite thin, and just like last year, we had beautiful weather in March/April with fast melting, until a new coldwave in late April (right now) and some snow again.

So in the end the first snowshoe hike I did was in January, in the Ecrins. It was an easy walk with not much elevation gain (around 400 m I think). It was a weird mixture of hard compact snow, and fluffy soft snow, not to mention some icy patches, sometimes near ravines or cliffs. I know the area, so knew the views were great. Seeing those old abandoned hamlets in the snow is quite a thing. The views toward the glacier covered Meije peak were good, but in January the light is too low to light those glaciers very well so not ideal for photography.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 5:37 am
by Hallu
The next week a friend of mine wanted to try snowshoeing, so we went for something easy in the Vercors mountains. Low risk of avalanches, but unfortunately not much snow until the final crest. We didn't even need the snowshoes for the way up, only for the way down coz it was slippery. In this region it's very easy to get grand views for little effort (or danger), we went to a place called Gresse-en-Vercors, from where you can see Grenoble and the valleys on one side, and the Vercors range in its grandeur on the other.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 5:47 am
by Hallu
It wouldn't be before April that I decided to get the snowshoes out again. In March I was busy with a conference in New Orleans, and then finishing my work, as my contract as a physicist in Grenoble ended in late March. I'm currently unemployed, it's very hard for scientists in France to find a permanent position. I went for one of my favorite places in the Alps, Queyras. The mountains are high and more easily accessible than elsewhere, meaning you can still get good snow at that time of the year. First I went for a walk near Ceillac, a region I visited last summer, climbing to lake Saint-Anne. I knew it started by steep zig-zags up a gorge, and was wondering how it was in winter with little snow. It was quite treacherous, the worst being ice patches covered in pine needles so you don't see them. I fell on my *&%$#! quite hard on the way back. On the way in, I didn't see a soul. I had the valley all to myself, which was quite incredible. No discernible tracks appart from those left by animals (foxes and mountain goats mainly), but navigation was quite easy. It is a stunning region, the best kept secret of the Alps. I was disappointed not being able to climb to the pass I was aiming for, but no tracks and hard snow meant it is very difficult to climb steep slopes with snowshoes, even high end models like mine. I should have brought the crampons.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 5:57 am
by Hallu
That same afternoon in Queyras, I visited what's called the highest municipality in Europe, Saint-Véran, at 2042 m high. There are higher hamlet in the Alps or ski resorts, but as far as real historical towns go, it's the highest. People have been cultivating wheat and spending the harsh winters here for centuries. It's seperated in different sections, in case of a fire that could destroy the whole town otherwise. Nearby you can also find an old castle, Château Queyras, overlooking the region. They're also known for their sundials painted on the houses, and for their weird crosses, called mission crosses.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 6:06 am
by Hallu
The next day in Queyras I went for an easy hike, towards col Agnel, a mountain road pass that is covered by snow in winter, being 2744 m high, the third highest after the Stelvio pass in Italy (2757 m) and col de l'Iseran in France (2764 m). Lucky for me, the road isn't covered in snow all the way, so I could park further up, saving me a few km of boring walking on a flat snow covered road. The area is quite majestic, and the marmots were already out. At this period of the year, they're with their young, and very active, so it's fun to watch them. The snow was so compacted I didn't even need the snowshoes for this, and there were good tracks made by other people so it was pretty easy. I didn't expect to be so cold and windy though. The pass is a border between France and Italy, so you can see both the French and Italian alps from there, if you're brave enough to stand up in this icy wind. On the drive back, I had a look at the Meije mountain mentioned in the first post, but this time in April, it was much better to admire it, you could really see the gorgeous glaciers.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 6:15 am
by Hallu
The next week I did what I thought was gonna be my last snowshoe walk of the year. Beaufortain is a mountain range famous for its cheese (beaufort) and its good snowpack in the winter. The walk I did started after taking a rough gravel road, right after crossing a big dam. I thought the hike would be fine, it wasn't marked as difficult on the guidebook, but it turned out to be quite tricky. Like an idiot I didn't bring my crampons, and of course on the snow covered forest track I was walking on there had been an avalanche. When it occurs, it covers the whole road, which is made of zig zags, so you get a steep patch of snow blocking the road. Luckily some chaps carved some rudimentary steps on the side of that snowy/icy slope. One wrong step and you're basically sliding down towards a serious injury or worse. After crossing this, it was easier and I entered the valley. It was a beautiful area, but once I tried to get to the mountain pass, called col du Coin, it was way too difficult. It was a succession of hard icy snow, and light fluffy snow on top a hard layer, which meant no traction at all even with my snowshoes. It's already difficult to walk on this when climbing, but I had no choice but to traverse it sideways, and if I slipped it was a long way down. It wasn't worth it.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 6:24 am
by Hallu
In the end the weather did me a favor, and 4 days ago we had 30-80 cm of fresh snow on the mountains. So on saturday I decided to go for another hike in Vercors, because there are less risks of avalanches in this region, being less steep than more alpine areas. You wanna be very careful when there's a big snowfall, you can't just get the snowshoes or skis and go for it, you have to pick the right spot, as the snow is very susceptible to wind and warm temperatures, making it highly unstable.

The walk was quite magical. I was the first there, in which is quite a popular spot usually. So it meant I had to carve the path myself. It's an ingrate job, but in this glorious scenery I was happy to do it. I was also in quite good shape after the other walks I did. The walk took me towards the Hauts plateaux du Vercors, a wild region highly protected for wildlife. Only a few cabins for hikers and skiers, and being a plateau, easy walking. I didn't see any animals, appart from their tracks, but being the first one there felt amazing. On the way back, there were quite a lot of people, and the snow was melting really fast below 1500 m so I was glad I got up early.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 9:59 am
by ofuros
Lovely walks, Hallu....good luck with the job hunting.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 10:17 am
by north-north-west
Gorgeous, stunning, beautiful, brilliant, fantastic, mnarvellous . . . I'm running out of superlatives.

Love reading your reports, Hallu. And your photos are always good. Thank you.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 5:40 pm
by Mark F
Beautiful. I love the Queyras area. Walked through it on the GR5 and a few years ago had a week of daywalks there based in a gite in Pierre Grosse.

Re: Winter hiking 2017: Alps

PostPosted: Tue 02 May, 2017 8:37 pm
by Hallu
Thanks for your comments. Yeah I know Pierre Grosse, Mark, I stayed at the campground nearby once, very cheap (like 8 €). Col Agnel is just further up that road. Queyras is still wild, recently they had problem with the road up Ristolas further North, the paving was cracked and falling, and more recently (before the April snowfall) they had quite a big wildfire.

There is a recent plan to put a cable car up the observatory at Pic du Château Renard though. It was met with outrage, so I hope it doesn't happen... But it's like the last French mountain range that hasn't been plagued by ski resorts. There are a few slopes and chairlifts, but they're so few and far between you hardly notice them in summer.

Thank you Ofuros for your comment on the job hunt, I wouldn't mind going back to Australia, maybe as a photographer or ranger ? haha Dunno who'd be crazy enough to sponsor a Frenchman.