Monday, 27 June 2011
Vanoise.Pralognan.Aiguille De La Vanoise.
Another club trip to the Alps saw us,one or two years later,head to the Vanoise area of France.It was an all male team this time...seven guys out for an adventure.The Vanoise National Park backs on to the Paradiso Park in Italy and was also set up to protect these guys,the Alpine Ibex, approx 2000 of whom wander seasonally over the mountains between both countries going where the best pastures and sheltered mountain hollows winter and summer are.
Even getting there from Glasgow was an epic.Night bus down to London...flight to Geneva in Switzerland...train to Annecy in France where we stayed overnight.There was,according to my guide a youth hostel just out of town.It didn`t look far away on the contour free town map I had so we had a couple of pints near the train station first.Annecy is a very scenic town with a large open lake and several streets covered in baskets of flowers overhanging canal like rivers.Like a mini Venice.
The youth hostel was indeed just out of town,only a mile walk away....straight up! It sat on top of a large hill near an amazing cathedral with magnificent views over the entire valley.What more could you ask?
The team struggled up a steep lane,stair after stair after stair,lugging our rucksacks stuffed with ropes,climbing harness,gear racks , tents,sleeping bags, and food.It was hard going as some of us had not packed light.Muttered accusations and curses were heard at first aimed towards the travel arranger but they soon faded away in the distance as I sprinted ahead keen to see the cathedral :o)
It was an OK youth hostel and the next day saw us on the train then a bus to Pralognan La Vanoise,our base for climbing the mountains.
Myself,still in contact friends Brian and John,another two Johns,Stevie and Russell who have scattered and gone their own separate ways in life made up the team.Unfortunately for once the weather throughout this trip was poor.It can happen,even in the alps in summer.
The day we arrived it was bright sunshine and we were keen to get up the hills,but the travel then getting the tents pitched and gear sorted out meant we didn`t have time for anything other than a walk around the village.The next day .... low cloud and rain. Second day.... rain. Third day...rain...and so it went on.
I ended up doing a lot of balcony trails and visiting other hamlets within walking distance of the campsite while the others preferred bolted routes on low down cliffs near the campsite.I was still relatively happy exploring new areas (and taking flower pictures) but for the guys only focused on climbs and big hills it was hard to take.There was a lot of night time snowfall high up and thunder and lightning boomed around the valley.Because of the extra height involved ,unknown serious mountains and risk of stonefall or lightning strike none of us fancied the idea of going up anything high in bad weather.That was just asking for trouble in
alpine regions. Besides there,s no view so whats the point?
After four days however a good morning dawned at last and we set off to bag the Aiguille De La Vanoise.At around (2796 metres) 9000 feet this was an arresting sharks fin of rock sticking up above the valley.It looked impressive and eye catching to say the least.The great needle of the region. For much better photos of the vanoise massif and the scale and shape of the aiguille de la vanoise click on here....Vanoise.A gallery on Flickr......its the second picture down.Some stunning photographs here.
Due to the work of glaciers and the strange geology of this place it had many of these knife edged or fin shaped mountain spires.It was certainly a step up from the range of easier peaks on offer in the Paradiso area.Le Grand Marchet was another fine peak across the valley but that side looked even harder.It looked wild! Brown trouser mountains for most folk..
This was taken during a lightning storm,something we were to grow very familiar with over the two weeks of our trip.
Anyway, off we climbed up our own needle of choice.Brian and myself,John and John.Two ropes of two up cracked slabs for several pitches.It wasn't that bad.Easy V diff climbing throughout and we reached the ridge.Although we knew it would be steep on top this was mind zapping stuff..Imagine a great white sharks fin tilted slightly over to one side at the top as they sometimes are.Imagine us perched near the summit.We looked over the edge.It was a 3000 foot ,slightly overhanging it seemed to us, drop on the hidden side....the steep slabby face we had just climbed on the other.The summit was not far away along a narrow shattered ridge.We swallowed,dry mouthed all of a sudden and carried on.
This is us reaching the top.A memorable moment in our lives.We hoped it wouldn`t be the last moment though! La Grande Casse, one of the classic high peaks of France loomed nearby.Its central Glacier gleaming with a dusting of new snow.
The Guide book called the Aiguille De La Vanoise a useful training climb for aspiring alpine mountaineers.It probably was once you got used to the exposure up here.Creeping along this thin blade we reached the summit which was about the size of a sofa and got out said guidebook.It recommended carrying on off the other side of this arete.Continue without incident was all the information given.Easy stuff.
Our two bold leaders,Brian and John looked over the edge when we shortly arrived at a drop off just past the summit.
Unless we were off route, a hard thing to achieve on a knife edge,it was a blind abseil straight into space.Too much of this mountain seemed to be vertical or overhanging for me to really warm to it as a hill with good intentions towards us.
There might have been an easy ledge leading off it down there somewhere but no one was particularly keen to find out.Although we had prussik loops with us this was mega balls territory and ours had just shrunk to raisins with one peer over that abyss.
We looked at Brian,our best climber but still an alpine novice then like the rest of us,expectantly.
"Cheers guys" he said.
.It was like volunteering someone for the firing squad.
There was a long pause while he consulted with John, our other bold leader who had worryingly managed to get a dollop of suncream in one eye halfway up the route and was blinking like a strobe light, then both read the guide book description again intently.
"We think we should abseil back down the way we came up" they decided.The wave of relief could have filled a swimming pool.
"Good call. lets get off this bugger!".Its ticked!
This is me on the sofa summit.This is as far away as Brian could stand to take the photo without falling over the edge.A bag of chips could be scoffed by the others before anyone hit the deck if they fell off
from this point :0) Anyway we,d climbed it and gave ourselves a wee pat on the back.
Undaunted, we had a go a few days later,after more bad weather, at the towering La Grande Casse.3855 metres(12,900 feet approx) This was technically quiet straightforward but harder than Gran Paradiso requiring proper glacier work and a sharp snow ridge traverse to reach the summit.The weather was not kind to us though, loads of falling rock and melting ice off the cliffs above us started tumbling down and we decided to beat a reluctant retreat.Being serious,a certain degree of cowardice is actually a good thing to possess on mountains anywhere.Folk without any fear at all or those with little regard for the consequences involved in pushing on don`t tend to last very long usually.Simple as that.
This is us turning back.In hindsight just as well as the weather deteriorated further and we would have been caught out high up on the exposed ridge. It was a shame though.La Grande Casse looked a fine hill on the way in.
The last mountain in the area we attempted was a peak reached across the expanse of the Vanoise Snowfields,The second largest all year round snow plateau in the Alps.Its a popular high level ski mountaineering area but today, after only an hour or so of stepping on it the weather closed right in again turning it into a freezing unseen windswept white hell.Once again we retreated beaten back by the elements.
Here`s one I took just below the mist on the edge of the snowfields looking down at the much lower Aiguille De La Vanoise which changes its shape with each new angle you look at it.Pralognan and the tents lie below the second layer of mist deep in the valley.
At the end of our two weeks three of the guys had to go home again.A disappointing end to their holiday.To make matters worse it was a rare two week heatwave back in Glasgow all the time we were out in France.Maybe the weather systems meant for each country got swapped around.
Myself, Brian and two Johns had an extra third week spare.Would our luck change in a new area?
We`d walked up and down the same ancient salt track to the Vanoise col over nine times now.A great scenic area but unlike the variety of walking routes up hills in Paradiso from the campsite most of the main peaks here seemed to be reached up the one central path.There is a spectacular 5 day backpacking trip from Pralognan through the Vanoise massif which looks amazing and I always fancied doing that.Its one of the classic walks of Europe.
But we all felt it was time for a change.When the raw elements of nature are crashing down on your head on an almost daily basis.... well... you can have two many sharks fins circling around you.