Vanoise: Sport climbing at La Fraiche

My final post on our trip to the Vanoise is about a great little sport climbing crag that we visited quite a few times in the two weeks we were there. It’s name is La Fraiche and it lies only five minute’s walk away from Camping le Chamois.  This crag is split up into four different sections, the easiest and most frequented being the “Grande Falaise” section, which is literally 10 metres from the road. The ease-of-access does mean the crag is extremely popular with climbing schools, so expect large groups of children throughout the summer months. There are plenty of routes to chose from, ranging from 3 right up to 7b. A guide to the crag (and others around Pralognan) can be bought from the Bureau des Guides for £2.

The crag was in a fantastic location!

The crag was in a fantastic location!

Although most of the routes are actually multipitch, it is commonplace to climb the first pitch and then be lowered back down. We had some great fun on the easier-graded first pitches whilst dodging bad weather on the second week we were there. On the last morning there, we decided to attempt one of the multipitches that we’d done the first pitch on earlier in the week. The route was La Traversée, a four-pitch 3+ route probably akin to a hard British Diff or easy VDiff, and which gets the Alpine grade of III/IV-, AD.

Our bus back down to Moutiers was at 5pm and so with the fact that we still had to pack up our belongings in mind, we made an early start. A few others had had the same idea, most likely to avoid the midday sun, and it certainly wasn’t warm when we started up the first pitch. I took the lead first of all, as I was keen to repeat the pitch which I’d struggled on earlier in the week; the guide reckons it has “one move of 4a”, though personally I felt the entire pitch was a solid 4a. The difficulties arise because of a few delicate balancing traverses one has to make across rocks that jut out. In particular, one sequence of moves has you pulling up on a slightly-overhanging block so that you are balanced with your right foot on a rightwards-leaning slab whilst being thrown backwards by the overhanging rock. Your left foot must then find a foothold that at first seems far-too-far away, and then you must trust this and use the overhanging rock to pull leftwards to gain better handholds to the left of the rock. I enjoy this kind of climbing that isn’t so much about physical strength, but more so about ingenuity and requires a lot of thought about what your next move will be.

Start of the third pitch

Start of the third pitch

I squeezed onto the belay alongside a French couple doing another route, and they kindly waited until Lorna and followed me up and lead the next pitch. The route gets its name for its line that traverses rightwards across the crag, and this line was picked up on this pitch, which comprised a ramp and a few blocks. I took over for the third pitch, and regretted trying to squeeze behind a flake that was probably a little too small for me. The final pitch was technically easy but in a very exposed position, and the view down to the base of the crag was quite dizzying. We reached the top just as the sun was shedding light onto the crag; just in time! We both thoroughly enjoyed the route, which would probably be a classic if it was in Britain. It’s just a shame that it’s bolted!

Belay before the final pitch

Belay before the final pitch

Topping out in the sun

Topping out in the sun

Not a bad view, eh!?

Not a bad view, eh!?

Vanoise: Walking (and running) around Pralognan

The spell of good weather we saw on the first week of our Alps trip wasn’t to last, but that meant we got to really explore the area around Pralognan and do some fantastic walks and runs, a few of which I’ll document here in the hope they’ll be useful for someone travelling to the area. If “trekking” isn’t your thing and Alpine summits are all you’re after, then these ideas would make perfectly good acclimatisation days.

Petit Mont Blanc (2680m)

I’ve been up this mountain once before, on a holiday with my parents in 2005, and I made a point of returning as I remember thoroughly enjoying it the first time around. I’m not sure what gave me the idea to do it as a run instead of a walk, nor why I chose to do it the day after Dome de Sonnailles when my legs were still aching, but it definitely paid off! So, at 6am on Sunday, I found myself running up the track towards Les Prioux with a small bag containing a camera, one litre of water, windproof jacket, gloves, map and 300g of brioche. Similar to the previous morning (when we got rain on the summit of Dome de Sonnailles), a rather heavy shower passed through, but fortunately just as I had reached a particularly tree-covered part of the track, enabling me to take shelter. I reserved the first path up the mountain that I reached for the descent (which me and my Dad had descended 8 years prior), instead choosing the second route – the “sentier du foret” – a path that I hadn’t been up before. The path zigzagged its way up the mountain for what seemed an eternity. It was excruciatingly runable; just at that angle that is too shallow to warrant walking but too steep to be comfortably runable. It took me an hour and forty minutes to ascend, only stopping once to re-tie my shoe laces. I spent a good few minutes on the summit admiring the views over to where we’d been in the previous week, eating my brioche and drinking most of the water, before heading off at speed to return back to the valley just within the “two hours from valley to summit and back” target I’d set myself.

I remembered the descent from 2005 as being steep, but I didn’t remember it being quite as steep as it was! I struggled down in my Inov-8 fell shoes, which after a few years of solid use are becoming a little light on the tread. There was a fair bit of slipping and sliding, and a Lance Armstrong moment when I overcooked a corner and took the “short way” to the next zigzag through some bushes, but I eventually made it down in one piece. It was then just a case of struggling along the valley path back to the campsite for a cup of coffee and breakfast number two. Total time from campsite to summit and back: 2 hours 46 minutes.

Summit of Petite Mont Blanc, with La Grande Casse in the background

Summit of Petite Mont Blanc, with La Grande Casse in the background

Crete du Mont Charvet (2362m) and Rocher de Villeneuve (2197m)

The day after Petit Mont Blanc, the forecast was for thunderstorms in the afternoon and so any Alpine summit attempts were off the cards. Instead, we decided to do a walk and hopefully be off any exposed ground for when the storms hit. The Crete du Mont Charvet, a long ridge running north from Dents de la Portetta, is visible from Pralognan and caught our attention as a possible route earlier in the week. After checking the map it seemed completely plausible to do a loop encompassing Col de la Grande Pierre, Crete du Mont Charvet and Rocher de Villeneuve.

We followed an array of yellow signs from Pralognan to Col de la Grande Pierre, which offered a choice of routes in a number of places. We chose the “sentier du foret” in hope of shade, though it actually turned out to be mainly a large forest track through quite open ground rather than the little forest footpath we’d been hoping for. All the routes converge near “La Montagne”, a little mountain village sitting underneath Crete du Mont Charvet, before making the ascent of the Couloir de la Grande Pierre to the col of the same name.

The “col” is one of those Alpine cols that isn’t really that much lower than its adjoining ridge, and we only had a few more metres of ascent to do to gain the high point of the day on the Crete. We worked our way day the path that wound its way in, over and around obscure lunar-esque terrain, comprising many quartz ridges and craters with pine trees popping up at random locations. Word or photos don’t do justice to how unique and interesting the Crete was; you really have to see it for yourself!

We were soon down at the Col du Golet and quick dashed up Rocher de Villeneuve before the ominous looking thunderclouds reached us. As we gained the summit, huge growls of thunder could be heard and impressive fork lightening could be seen striking peaks ever-closer to ours. In reality, we had plenty of time to get off the exposed ground, but being struck by lightening in the Alps last year was still fresh on my mind and we didn’t hang about on the descent. The rain hit just as we reached a few little chalets, under the eves of which we took shelter. Fortunately, the worst of the storm skimmed past where we were and so we only got a bit of a shower, before enjoying the refreshing walk back down to Pralognan.

Crete du Mont Charvet

Crete du Mont Charvet

Col de Napremont (2185m)

Immediately visible from Pralognan, rising in front of ominous Dents de la Portetta, is an opened topped grassy hill standing at 2185m. Whilst the hill is nameless on the map, the col between it and the aforementioned Dents is labelled the Col de Napremont, and it seems to me at least that this is the name used to refer to the hill as well. We’d been eyeing it up for a while and on one rainy morning I decided it was time to have a quick run up it. The plan was to approach it from the south and descend on the north side. However, after firstly running far too far up les Prioux valley and having to retrace my steps, I found a sign saying my chosen route was “closed” and had been for a number of years; they obviously haven’t updated the maps yet! A good path lead from here up through the Bois de la Cholliere, and I’ll leave it up to you to determine whether I obeyed the sign or not. However, for future reference, I would strongly advise anyone visiting to col to definitely obey the sign – whether I’m advising that from having been up it and regretting my decision, or simply looking down from the col over the extra-steep waist-high grassy slopes to the south, is your guess!

The northern route to the col was surprisingly varied, and a few days later, on another rainy afternoon, Lorna and myself went for a walk up there. It starts off by winding its way up through the forest, before throwing you out onto open slopes above on a zigzagging path that takes everything from boulder-strewn hillside to dense vegetation. We didn’t have much of a view when we reached the top, but somehow that didn’t really matter as the clouds shrouded the neighbouring hills made for an equally as impressive view.

View back down to Pralognan

View back down to Pralognan

Pointe de la Véliere (2467m)

The weather turned good once more for our final weekend in Pralognan, and so we decided to catch the bus to the neighbouring valley of Champagny to attempt Sommet de Bellecote. Unfortunately, however, Lorna’s long-term hip injury started playing up on the walk in to the Refuge de Plaisance, and so instead we opted for a bivvy in the valley and the following morning I went for a walk up Pointe de la Véliere before we caught the bus back.

There was about 1000m of ascent from the valley base to the summit, and so I set off nice and early (4am) to make sure I was down in plenty of time to catch our bus at midday. This also had the added benefit that it was still nice and cool. The entire of my ascent was done under headtorch light, so I haven’t much to say for the view! It was quite a drag with no reference frame other than a few steps in front of me. Fortunately, it started to get light when I reached the Col de la Bauche de Mio, which was at the start of the kilometre-long ridge running south to the summit. The ridge was mainly grassy but with a few rocky exposed steps to add a bit of excitement, and it was in an excellent position with grand views either side. On the east lay the sleepy valley of Champagny-le-Haut, with the ominous backdrop of Le Grand Bec, whilst to the west the view reached far out towards the Écrins. I was treated to a spectacular cloud-inversion to the west, which looked striking in the early-morning light.

Unfortunately I was a little bit too quick on the ascent to witness sunrise on the summit, but that did mean that I could make the most of the walk down and enjoy the views that I didn’t have on the way up!

Looking back down the Champagny valley

Looking back down the Champagny valley

Lovely bivvy spot for the evening!

Lovely bivvy spot for the evening! (Don’t worry, we were outside of the National Park).

Fantastic clouds!

Fantastic clouds! To the east of the ridge.

The ridge itself

The ridge itself

 

 

 

 

Cheese, cheese and more cheese

Today is my final day of a three-week summer school in Grenoble. Our timetable has been hectic at best and so my apologies for the long delay in posting my final posts from the Vanoise, something that I will do over the course of the next week. I’ve also had some pretty amazing adventures in the mountains around Grenoble whilst I’ve been here, so no doubt you’ll hear about them in due course.

Three weeks is a fair amount of time to spend away, especially when coupled with the two-and-a-bit weeks we were in the Vanoise shortly before this, and I’ll admit that I’m definitely missing Britain. So, in a break from my tradition of only writing about mountains, here are my (intendedly light-hearted) reflections on what’s good and what’s not about staying in France.

Why I miss Britain

  • Wholemeal bread. Don’t get me wrong, I love baguettes, but after three weeks of them I’ve had enough!
  • British weather. There, I said it! I’ve always maintained that I enjoy Britain’s weather, and I definitely feeling that more than ever now. I’m longing for a damp and misty day up on the moors, or a wet and windy day scrambling over some ridge line in Snowdonia; you can’t beat it. All this sunshine (ironically it’s just starting raining as I write this) is great for a change, but it lacks the dynamicicity and unpredictability of good old Blighty.
  • British cheese. We’ve been given more cheese in the past few weeks than I’m likely to have for the rest of my life; they definitely lived up to their stereotype! I do like French cheese, and some of my favourite cheese include Tomme de Chevre and Blue d’Avergne, but I still maintain that we have the better selection at the end of the day. Though apparently, no one outside of Britain knows about our great selection – I spent a good part of my three weeks educating people!
  • Driving on the left. I hired a bike whilst I was here, and I never did get used to cycling on the right; it just feels wrong.
  • British mountains. The Alps are all well and good, but they’re still not a patch on our hills. I’m also fed up of following signs and am longing to do some proper mapwork again!
  • Rock quality. Whilst we’re on the subject, I’m fed up of crumbly Alpine rock and having to test every single handhold before making a move. It makes me appreciate how lucky we are in Britian to have such good rock!

Why I’ll miss France

  • Tomatoes. Well, fruit and veg in general, but I’ve picked tomatoes as there’s probably the biggest difference between Sainsbury’s tomatoes (tastless and watery) to Carrefour’s tomatoes (rich, juicy and full of flavour).
  • Croissants and pain au chocolat. I do love a good croissant, and they’re just not the same over in the UK.
  • Good coffee. You’re hard pushed to find a bad coffee in France!
  • Provisions for cyclists. As far as a city goes, Grenoble is really good for cycling around. Cycle lanes are marked out everywhere, for the most part bikes get priority over cars and drivers genuinely seem aware of their two-wheeled counterparts; possibly because there are so many of us.
  • Cheap wine. I refrained from writing “good wine”, because you can get very good wine in Britain, it just costs one heck of a lot more! For around €2, you can get a decent red wine that would probably set you back £5 in the UK.

So, c’est la vie! And until next year at least, adieu la France!

Our group at ESONN, the European School on Nanostructures and Nanotechnologies

Our group at ESONN, the European School on Nanostructures and Nanotechnologies