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.


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

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.

Back to the fell running: Two days in Wasdale

The Hiking Club’s final weekend trip of the year – the so-called “Big Weekend Out”, from 22-23 June – this year took place in Wasdale. We headed up on the Saturday morning and returned Sunday evening. The drive up wasn’t without incident, the funniest moment being when an oncoming car driver decided his small car wasn’t small enough to “squeeze” through the (very large, at least minibus-width) gap that Alexandros’ minibus in front had left. Eventually, after a small queue built up behind us, Alex had had enough and exclaimed “let’s do this Greek style” (he’s Greek, you see, ergo a little more confrontational than us Brits), and marched over to the car and said (shouted) something that must have done the trick; because after some sarcastic hand-waving to beckon the car through on Alex’s behalf, we were soon on our way again.

After squeezing ourselves onto the already-packed Wasdale Head campsite, walks were announced and after much faff, three groups set off in opposite directions. Jenni lead a walk over Ill Gill Head and Whin Rigg, Jack went for an adventure down Lord’s Rake, and Jim et al. had Pillar plus surrounding hills. I decided that my first “proper” fell run back after injury would be today, and I chose a route comprising Kirk Fell, Great Gable, the Corridor Route and Scafell Pike. I’m not sure why I went for such a long run for my first one back, and it’s probably why I’m still sporting a dodgy knee a few weeks later…

A rather packed Wasdale Head campsite

A rather packed Wasdale Head campsite

The weather wasn’t amazing: Plenty of cloud, a good amount of rain and bitterly cold winds made up most of the run. I was glad to be moving at speed. I had Kirk Fell and Great Gable to myself, only encountering a couple of other runners heading in the opposite direction. This welcome solitude wasn’t long lived, and as soon as I hit Styhead Tarn I found myself battling through crowds of ill-equipped and miserable-looking walkers, with the exception of a small few that looked like they were having as much fun as I was. The situation got worse on the litter-strewn summit of Scafell Pike, as group after group of 3 Peakers appeared out of the mist from all directions. Whilst many groups comprised of respectful walkers fittingly enjoying their achievement, there were just as many raucous parties demonstrating little respect for their environment or their fellow walkers – littering and shouting at the tops of their voices being the main crimes, with some seemingly incapable of having a quiet conversation with their mates standing right next to them without raising their voices to 70dB. Maybe I’m being too intolerant, and I’ll admit that I am biased in the sense that I am set against the contrived 3 Peaks Challenge that bring so much devastation and disturbance to the local communities (especially Wasdale).

Grumbles aside, I enjoyed the fast descent down to Wasdale via the tourist track. I pushed myself not only with a quick pace, but also by keeping my speed up down the more technical rocky sections, and I was very pleased that I don’t seem to have lost any of my descending abilities. I arrived back at the campsite, sorted my gear out and showered just in time for the heavy rain that stuck with us most of the rest of the evening to arrive. That evening, to avoid said rain, we retired to the Wasdale Head Inn and stayed there until kicking out time. The place is apparently under new management, and it definitely seemed an improvement from last time me and Lorna were in there.

The tricky move on Yewbarrow's northern ridge scramble

The tricky move on Yewbarrow’s northern ridge scramble

The weather was somewhat similar on the Sunday, and breakfast was had out of the rain still snuggled in my sleeping bag. I got up and packed away, ready to go for 9am, which is the time we’d agreed for announcing walks. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Hiking Club trips, other people’s conception of “9am” was a little more fluid than mine, and after standing around in the rain for a few hours the last couple decided to eventually get out their tent at 11am. A few of us had decided the evening before that Yewbarrow would be a good option, which proved to be a popular option when we announced the walk. We walked over the ridge-shaped summit from north to south, taking in the lovely but all-too-short scramble from the col between Yewbarrow and Red Pike. It is barely a scramble, but there is one trickier grade-I move that I spotted whilst offering foot- and hand-hold suggestions. Fortunately, the rain stayed off, and we even enjoyed some fantastic views over Waswater.

After getting worried that Jack wasn’t back yet (who went out on his own in the morning and was 3 hours overdue), and subsequently finding him taking a snooze around the back of the pub, we headed back to Lancaster.

Great views back down to Waswater from the descent off Yewbarrow

Great views back down to Waswater from the descent off Yewbarrow

Welsh 1000m Peaks race… kind of

The event I’ve been sporadically training for in the past few months turned out to be a bit of a washout. Rain, rain and more rain was the order of the day, and said rain meant that only two of the five 1000m peaks were actually visited on the day. The race took place on 9 June.

The evening before, all the competitors received an email stating that the summit of Glyder Fawr would be missed out, and instead of the route over the Gribin ridge, the Miner’s track would be taken up Cwm Tryfan and over and down to Pen-y-Pass.

When we arrived on the morning, however, little route cards were being given out which indicated a completely changed route, with a low-level route completely bypassing the Carnedds and heading along the North Wales Coastal Path to Bethesda, before taking the old road up to Ogwen Cottage. Many were not happy and out of the 180 entries, less than 100 started.

Despite the route change, I still enjoyed the first 10 miles of road and trial running and arrived at Ogwen Cottage in just over 1 hour, feeling fresh and still full of energy. I helped myself to some flapjack that was being given out, and headed up to Bwlch Tryfan and onto the Miner’s Track. The rain was pretty ridiculous, and the outflow to Llyn Bochlwyd was more a case of wading across a thigh-high stream, rather than the hopping across stepping stones that it normally is.

The Miner’s Track had became a not-so-small stream and the descent to the Pen-y-Gwryd was quite tricky, both because of the wet rock and boggy grass. My legs still felt okay on the run up the road to Pen-y-Pass and I hit the checkpoint at around the 3 hours mark.

It was then just a matter of weaving in and out of the tourists heading up the Pyg Track (easier said than done!), before branching off to the summit of Carnedd Ugain, where the marhsalls looked to be having a cosy time huddled in a tent, and then along to the finish on top of Snowdon. I finished in 4 hours 24 minutes, about 55 minutes behind the winner and in 30th position.

Pyg Track

Me heading up the Pyg Track

The summit cafe was packed full, which a good number of shivering fell runners and mountaineers. I met my parents there who thankfully had dry clothes and an insulated jacket for me to change into before the long walk down into Llanberis, for a well-earned coffee in Pete’s Eats.

Should the route have been changed? In my opinion, definitely not, but with the death in the 2007 race and the recent death in the Buttermere-Sailbeck fell race, I can understand the organiser’s decision – a decision that must be an extremely tough one to make.

Mud, wind and rain

What a weekend!

Saturday – Parbold Hill Race

I decided on a spur midweek to sign up for Parbold Hill Race on the Saturday, with a group of guys from the Running Club at uni. I’m very glad I did as it was a fantastic race. A great course, on a mix of road, track and muddy fields, with the odd stream thrown in there. The organisers have done a brilliant job of picking an exciting and fun route which made sure – especially with the recent rainfall – that we all returned caked in mud. I was very pleased with my result, 47th out of around 450 and in a time of 50 minutes. Next month I’m in the Edale Skyline Fell Race so this acted as a bit of a warm up (albeit a very small warm up) to that.

Sunday – Haweswater

On the Sunday I went up to Haweswater with the Hiking Club, an area I really haven’t been to much. The reservoir sits in the valley of Mardale and its controversial construction saw the flooding of the two farming villages of Measand and Mardale Green. In times of drought when the water levels in the reservoir are at a low, the remains of the village can still be seen.

The original plan was to walk the whole ridge from Harter Fell up to Wether Hill but no one else wanted to come on my walk so I tagged along with a group with the intention of Harter Fell and High Street. We headed up the Gatescarth Pass before branching off over Harter Fell and down to the Nan Bield Pass. However we had a rather slow member in the group and the progress was so slow and the weather so terrible that no one apart from myself and the two other leaders on the walk wanted to carry on, so we decided to head back down.

The clouds started to clear a bit on the way down and I managed to get a few photographs of the very swollen Mardale Beck.

Haweswater in the distance

Haweswater in the distance

Mardale Beck

Mardale Beck

Walking down the Nan Bield Pass

Walking down the Nan Bield Pass

It really was very foul weather, even my GoreTex jacket didn’t withstand the downpour and in fact my boots are still drying out, nearly a week later (and that’s after being stuffed with newspaper). I think a good Nikwax-ing session is in order.

We stopped off at Bampton in the lovely but quite eccentric Mardale Inn – you’ll understand the “quite eccentric” part if you ever frequent the gent’s toilets in there! Next week (or, as I write this, tomorrow) we’re off to Grasmere and at the moment I’m rather tempted by the snow sitting on the top of Helvellyn, but we’ll see.