Vanoise: Dome de Sonnailles

With the weather still firmly in check after Pointe de la Réchasse, we decided to take a rest day before our next summit attempt. So, it was in the intense mid-afternoon sun that Friday brought that we found ourselves making the steep and relentless ascent to the Refuge de la Vallette for the Dome de Sonnailles (PD) the following day. The weather forecast was for “unseasonably hot temperatures” of nearly 40C at 1000m, and mid-thirties in Pralognan. Even at 8pm in the evening at the refuge, at an altitude of 2590m, the thermometer in the shade read 25C. It was no surprise then that our bivvy outside it was by far the warmest bivvy I’ve ever experienced in the Alps!

Our route up was straight from the campsite, through the Foret d’Isertan and via the Pas de l’Ane. The forest brought some welcome shade, but we were soon out into the open on a steep zigzagging path, scrambling our way through the seemingly impassible crags bounding the top of the forest on the map. This devious route brought us out to the more open ground through Pas de l’Ane and west of the Cirque du Petit Marchet, bringing striking views of the surrounding mountains.

Marmot

A marmot takes a fancy to Lorna’s leg!

Great views of le Petit Marchet and the rest of the Vanoise

Great views of le Petit Marchet and the rest of the Vanoise

The refuge was in an equally as striking position, commanding brilliant views right down the Prioux valley to the Aiguilles de Peclet and Polset. We were welcomed warmly by the guardian (who was particularly friendly and spoke very good English), and we paid our €3.70 each for the right to bivvy outside and use of the facilities. The refuge was fully kitted out for self-catering folk like us, and we made use of it to boil some water for our couscous. The whole place had a very cosy feel, right down to hand-sewn cushions and decorative wallpaper (it even has hot showers). I have to admit I was a bit disappointed we weren’t staying in the refuge! I would definitely recommend making a point of visiting the place if you’re in the area.

Refuge de la Valette

Refuge de la Valette. The hut on the right is the dining room and also acts as the refuge d’hiver (winter refuge).

We’d spied out a bit of the route the evening before and so we were confident we knew where we were going when we set off at 4am the next morning. I was soon down to t-shirt and rolled-up trousers as we made our way via a well cairned path up the moraines. At around 3000m we eventually reached a steep snow slope (about 35 degrees) that lead up to another patch of scree and boulders and finally the glacier to the rocky summit. The snow was extremely soft, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the slope, which gave the route a proper “mountaineeringy” feeling and probably is what warrants the grade of PD (Peu Difficile).

Early morning on the snow slopes up Dome de Sonnailles

Early morning on the snow slopes up Dome de Sonnailles

An early-morning band of rain passed through just as we were reaching the summit, and we had a few short showers and general drizzle, along with a lot of atmospheric clouds swirling around our summit and neighbouring ones. It all made for very dramatic lighting and it was quite a novel experience to be in bad weather on an Alpine summit – something which is usually to be avoided! After a bit of a walk on the Glacier de la Vanoise, we headed back down before the sun hit the already soft snow to make it more unstable. We were the only ones up on the summit, and we didn’t see anyone else until we were nearly back at the refuge at around 10am, when two others passing us heading for the summit asked how the route was.

Dramatic clouds

Dramatic clouds

Summit of Dome de Sonnailles

Myself on the summit of Dome de Sonnailles

On the Glacier de la Vanoise, with Dome de Sonnailles in the background.

On the Glacier de la Vanoise, with Dome de Sonnailles in the background.

We picked our bivvy gear up from the refuge, and had a coffee and Orangina whilst enjoying the fantastic views. The route down we chose was different to the one we ascended on; via les Béveriers, les Prioux and the long road back to Pralognan.

Back at the campsite

Back at the campsite

Vanoise: Pointe de la Réchasse

After a quick wander up the Rocher de Villeneuve on the day we arrived, and a rainy forest bimble the following day, we finally set off in earnest for our first Alpine adventure on the Tuesday afternoon. The goal was Pointe de la Réchassee from the Col de la Vanoise refuge, a route offering a small amount of glacial travel and a long but not too difficult rocky ridge to a summit offering fantastic views out over the extensive Glacier de la Vanoise, all at the grade of “Facile”. I’ve just completed writing a detailed route description on Camp to Camp, and that can be seen here.

As a rule, camping and bivvying is not permitted in the Vanoise National Park, with the exception that some refuges may permit it outside upon payment of an “hors sac” fee of around €3.50 to cover use of facilities at the refuge. Unfortunately, the Col de la Vanoise refuge isn’t one of the refuges that does permit it, but fortunately being Alpine Club members and being under 25 meant that it was only €7 to stay in the refuge itself. This was quite welcome as it meant we didn’t have to drag heavy bivvy gear up with us as well, just a sleeping bag liner instead.

Regardless of the relatively lighter bags, it was still hard work ascending the 1100m to the refuge. We were rewarded with lovely views back down the valley and dramatic views of the highest peak in the area, La Grande Casse, capped by isolated low-lying cumulus clouds. The clouds didn’t extend as far as our peak, and that allowed us to have a good look at the route we were to take the next morning. From the description it wasn’t all too clear which way our route would actually take us, but we felt confident all would become clear in the morning.

La Grande Casse and Refuge du Col de la Vanoise

La Grande Casse and Refuge du Col de la Vanoise

Pointe de la Réchasse

Pointe de la Réchasse (left) and its voie normale (via the grassy nose and rocky bands)

As we were catering for ourselves, we were placed in the “Refuge d’Hiver” (the winter refuge), a portacabin-like building that serves as a refuge out of the summer season when it isn’t guarded. We had quite a peaceful night after the group of Russian’s we were sharing it with eventually quietened down, and I felt quite awake and rearing to go when we awoke at 3.30am. After a cereal bar and a couple of swigs of water, we were on our way, following cairns across the moraines of the Glacer de la Réchasse on what we thought must have been the correct route.

How wrong we were: The cairns eventually disappeared and as the sun rose we realised that we far too far left on the morraines – the trail of cairns we had followed must have either been for an older version of the route (when the glacier took a different shape), or perhaps a different route entirely. We lost time crossing a snow patch to the bottom of a set of rocky bands, before regaining the main route and ascending the bands to the Glacier de la Réchasse. We’d given ourselves plenty of time, and indeed there were still a good number of people still behind us on the route.

Arriving at the Glacier de la Réchasse

Arriving at the Glacier de la Réchasse

After crossing the glacier, we gained the long summit ridge by a rocky step (around the left of the ridge) that was a little bit tricky. It was then easy scrambling along the initially narrow ridge, giving us plenty of time to admire the view over La Grande Casse to our left and the Glacier de la Vanoise to our right. We spotted a piton half-way along (at a little notch) which was used by a guide and two clients to ascend onto the ridge, in doing so overtaking us. I wouldn’t recommend this ascent, as it is the start of the ridge that this would miss out that offers the best scrambling and hence the most fun. After a bite to eat on the summit we descended back to the notch and decided using the piton to abseil would be a much better proposition than down-climbing the tricky step up onto the ridge.

The beginning part of the long ridge up to the summit

The beginning part of the long ridge up to the summit

Impressive views over La Grande Casse

Impressive views over La Grande Casse

We followed the correct route down to the refuge, which was as simple as could be in the daylight. It is cairned well all the way, though what threw us off must have been a snow patch covering where the path splits in two at the very start of the route – we forked left up a valley, whilst the actual route trends right up a grassy nose.

After a coffee (lemonade on Lorna’s part) at the refuge, we descended on the GR55, passing through the picturesque but crowded Lac des Vaches.

Lac des Vaches

Stepping stones over Lac des Vaches

Parc National de la Vanoise

We got back from the Alps at 3am last Wednesday morning and after a chaotic week of catching up with work whilst trying to sort out things before I go away on a summer school to Grenoble next weekend, I’ve eventually got the time to write a bit about it. I’ll split the holiday across a few blog posts, starting with this quick summary.

When looking at our options for travel, it transpired that the cheapest way to do it would be via coach from Lancaster to Paris, and then train down to the Alps. So that’s exactly what we did. This way, it worked out at a little over £100 return each – pretty good value for money! Upon arriving in Pralognan-en-Vanoise at 9:15am on the Sunday morning, completely worn out after the 31-hour journey, we were regretting that decision. The sleeper train we caught from Paris to Moutiers was quite enjoyable and rather comfortable, but the coach part was completely the opposite, the highlight of which was our driver (who didn’t speak a word of English or French) being threatened by UK border patrol: “If you drive through this checkpoint, the police will come after you”.

We stayed on Camping le Chamois in Pralognan for the two-and-a-bit weeks we were there, which at roughly €5 per night made a nice change from the expensive campsites of Switzerland we experienced the year before. The municipal campsite was just what we wanted – modern(ish) facilities, cleaned regularly and with friendly staff. It’s just a few minutes walk from Pralognan itself, which has two grocery shops – a Sherpa and a Petit Casino. The latter is actually quite big, and you won’t struggle finding all you need food-wise. Camping Gaz was hard to find, and the only place stocking it was a souvenir shop named “Les Campanes”. There are many gear shops in the town, as well as eateries of all different shapes and sizes – I recommend “Le Restaurant du Tourisme” for take-away pizzas at around €10 each. Importantly, there is a Bureau des Guides, who will give information about route conditions and who also sell climbing guides for the local area, usually in the form of photocopies of hand-drawn route descriptions (everything from local sport crags to multipitch rock routes in the mountains).

The weather we had was mixed: The first week consisted of heatwave temperatures in the valley reaching the mid-thirties and perfectly clear skies with only the odd shower; The second week was considerably wetter and we had a good few days of solid rain. All this meant that we only managed two Alpine routes (both in the first week), but this didn’t really matter as we did some fantastic walking, climbing and running in the second week:

All route descriptions I offer in the following posts are solely descriptions under the conditions we found when we were out there and should be treated justly. It is worth at least checking out other people’s trip reports and generic route descriptions such as those on Camp to Camp. I’d be being hypocritical to recommend buying a guidebook, as we didn’t and got by on route descriptions from Camp to Camp, but I would at least recommend having a look at the book Topo de la Vanoise – which can be found in the book shop in Pralognan for €26 (and I confess to checking our routes in the book in said bookshop to confirm what I’d read on Camp to Camp was correct).

After arriving at the campsite

After arriving at the campsite on Sunday morning. Petit Mont Blanc can be seen in the distance.