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

 

 

 

 

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.