Hiking in the Vanoise

The spectacular glaciers of the Vanoise national park are surprisingly accessible as Judy Armstrong finds when she follows the trail of these icy wonders...

The spectacular glaciers of the Vanoise national park are surprisingly accessible as Judy Armstrong finds when she follows the trail of these icy wonders. Pralognan�-la�-Vanoise is asleep. A cat creeps, quiet and shy, a cobweb floats and a dog coughs, but otherwise the streets are silent. I stretch and yawn, cold in the shadows: the morning is yet to breech the high mountains that surround this alpine village. Suddenly the sun pricks the peaks and in the distance I see it: one of the great, frozen rivers of the Vanoise ice cap. The long, lazy tongue of the Grande Casse glacier curls off the highest peak in France's first national park, licking the slopes of the mighty mountain. It glitters white and gold in the slanting light, beckoning like a jewel. This glacier has pride of place in a string of icy pearls stretching across the Vanoise national park. Together they make up the largest ice cap in Western Europe. And they are as accessible as they are spectacular: in less than a week, it is possible to walk around the frozen plateau, close enough to feel the chilly breath of living, moving glaciers. I grab my rucksack and catch up with my husband Duncan, who is already striding up the road. He is heading for an apparently impenetrable cliff, looking for the path which, the map promises, will boost us to altitude and the glaciers. Seeking refuge We have chosen a relaxed option: six days to walk 60 kilometres in a rough diamond around the ice cap. Our destination, this first night, is just four hours' walk away, up the cliff and across a grassy meadow to the Refuge de la Valette at 2,590 metres. Since we are outside the main summer season and the hut guardians are down in the valleys, we are carrying food but our rucksacks are still light enough for the walking to be pure pleasure. The key, we know from experience, is to move slowly, steadily, never running out of breath. And so we leave Pralognan and find the path that corkscrews through the forest and up the rock face. Each zig and zag brings a new view, of rock needles against blue sky and the village far below. There is time to notice the detail: tiny fungi, wet and pink; wild strawberries, leaves damp with dew; a snaggle of tree roots, wild flowers, a black squirrel scuttling overhead. As we pass 2,200 metres the vegetation changes. Now we see vivid blue stars of alpine gentian and walk over bouncy red tussock to startle a marmot, dozing in the sun. The rock changes too. At lower elevations it was bleached and smooth as bone; here it is grey and raspy as a cat's tongue. Beyond a meadow we reach the Refuge de la Valette, a trio of wooden huts straddling a sun�soaked pass. We are the only guests and quickly make ourselves at home. The view is immense, across the Beaufortain Massif to Mont Blanc, and the vast G�broulaz glacier above Val Thorens. Looking up, we see the blue�white walls of the Vanoise ice cap, and despite the day's climb are drawn towards them. After a short distance we reach a lake, fed by melt from these iceberg�like walls. A serac – a shiny tooth of ice – juts out from the main barrier and leans, perilously, toward us. It reflects in our little lake, doubling the effect, making us doubt the scale. At one end of the lake is a derelict stone building about four metres high, wide walls tapering inward. This was the original refuge, built by Victorian adventurers. In the last rays of sunshine, we lean against its warmth and imagine them sitting here, in their woollen breeches, marvelling at the glaciers. How big were these ice cliffs then? How far down to the lake did they tumble?  As majestic as the glaciers look now, how impressive must they have been 100 years ago, before the melting, disintegration and retreat of recent times? We pass a peaceful night at the Valette, warm under a mountain of wool blankets. In the morning, because we have chosen to slice a day into two, we sit for hours at a picnic table, watching the glaciers, wondering at their future. Finally we stir, shoulder our packs and walk down, down to the Chavi�re valley. A small, oval lake seduces us en route: it is a perfect mirror of the G�broulaz glacier, with tadpoles wiggling in the shallows and a sun�warm bank to lie on. We relax completely, and lose the afternoon to its beauty. By the day's close we reach Refuge de la Roc de la P�che, a privately owned chalet on the valley floor. Tucked into a sunny corner, it offers luxury – restaurant meals, a sauna, even a whirlpool bath – at a hefty price. Emptying our pockets for a coffee and slice of cake, we avert our eyes from the bill and stare, instead, at the Glacier du G�n�py tumbling off the valley rim. We share a small room with a French couple tackling the long�distance GR55 footpath. Strangers shuffling in the night sleep poorly and we are all glad to walk into a bright new day. The French couple are heading for Modane, while we stride out towards the Col d'Aussois, at 2,916 metres the highest point on our circuit. A walk on the wild side The pace is slow as we climb out of the valley toward an imposing rock cirque. Marmots, the endearing mountain rodents which commonly live between 1,800 metres and 2,500 metres, are everywhere, sunbathing or standing watch. Some are dark, like chocolate�coated corgis; others have caramel coats but all are baggy and fat, their lives devoted to generating bulk for winter hibernation. Leaving the marmots to their sun�soaking, we climb over rock flakes and slivers of quartz toward the col. Crossing a river which bustles off the ice cap, we startle a pair of chamois. They stare and then bound, beautifully, over the horizon. As we draw breath, Duncan looks up to see an eagle soaring along the jawline of the ice�shelf, its wings motionless. Nearer the col four redstarts flutter, impossibly, on a long�haul flight to the sun. It's hard to believe such small birds can survive these alpine conditions and we cross our fingers for avian luck. When we reach the bleak pass, we encounter other walkers who have hiked up from the Maurienne valley. They are heading for the Pointe de l'Observatoire, a pretty pinnacle 100 metres above the pass, with far�reaching views over the Vanoise and �crins massifs. Leaving our rucksacks behind a rock we, too, make the push to the summit. Pausing to gulp the thinning air, I see a female bouquetin, or ibex, standing stock�still on the near horizon. She is one of ten per cent of bouquetins in the national park with a radio collar. Despite the park being created in 1963 for this animal's protection, surprisingly little is known about them and the collar programme is designed to fill in the gaps. The summit is a tooth of rock, barely big enough for a brave body to stand. I hang on to the edge and peer down to the distant valley, then across to the glaciers of G�broulaz and the Vanoise. It feels exposed, exhilarating, sky�scraping. As we descend in silence, a movement catches my eye. A red kite drifts up the cliff face to float metres above our heads, then soars on a thermal across the pass. We hold our breath until finally it gains enough height to continue its migration, due south. All around is rock and ice. Following cairns – the piles of stones left as route�markers by fellow walkers – we pick our way down the mountain, following the kite, the ice cap now at our backs. Crossing small streams which gather strength as they lose height, we chase the sinking sun, reaching the Refuge Le Fond d'Aussois with the last rays of light. Owned by the Club Alpin Fran�ais, this refuge has been recently built upstream from the original stone hut. It has a rounded wooden roof, vast windows, solar panels and immaculate dormitories. A wooden deck gives infinite views across a glacial�scoured meadow, which drops into the darkness of the Maurienne valley. A stream snakes across the meadow, a silver serpent reflecting the sky. Far above us, in the belly of the cirque, a rock rattles;  a bouquetin, maybe, settling for the night. Star trek Later, stepping outside to taste the air, we look up at a sky shivering with stars. It is dazzling, bewildering, far from any light source. The silence is as colossal as the night, and only the alpine chill drives us inside, to warm sleeping bags and much�needed rest. In the morning, we follow the stream toward the valley's edge. The path meanders past the old refuge, tin sheets patching its roof, and the little chapel of Notre�Dame des Anges. It has a lintel carved with the date 1886, thick stone slabs for a roof and a squat, eroded cross. Nearby a herd of chestnut�coloured cows grazes. One wanders up to me, extends a black tongue and licks my arm in an exploratory move. Her tongue rasps like sandpaper and she slobbers with greed – who would have guessed that cows love the taste of suntan lotion? Jealously guarding our altitude, we sidle across the mountain above the barraged lakes of Plan d'Amont and Plan d'Aval, toward the ski area of Aussois. For an hour or so we are in 'civilisation', but the pylons and chairlifts are soon behind us and we emerge into a wild, wide bowl of tussock grass topped with rock spires. We are below the Dent Parrach�e; the landscape is incredible, a range of fluted rock walls iced with glaciers mark the southern edge of the ice cap. The path dives into the Vanoise heartland, veering north�east along the Termignon valley rim. It skitters across the lips of limestone chasms and over immense scree slopes, carving a steady line below vertical cliffs. Climbing and falling in tight zigzags, it drops into a huddle of small stone buildings on a grass plateau and finally around a corner for the approach to the night's refuge. Above the Refuge de l'Arpont is another glacier, icy fingers reaching over black slab cliffs. Waterfalls plummet all around, forming steep, deep canyons. They are cascading out of Lac de l'Arpont, a polar 'lake' which lies under the lip of the Arpont glacier and has a thin crust of ice for ten months of the year. Unsurprisingly, nothing lives in it. I have seen pictures of this lake and its iridescent blue water, but after eight hours' walking, we can't face the extra 90 minutes needed for a visit. The refuge is glorious, with stone terraces, grassy platforms and picnic tables for enjoying the views and sunshine. Again we are the only visitors, and throw open the wooden shutters to enjoy the last of the day. The panoramas have changed, with the sharp, grey�gravel peaks and a dragon�back ridge splitting two stark valleys. It is immensely impressive and we sit for hours, staring at the mountains. Breathtaking isolation In the morning, after breakfast on the terrace with two bold marmots, we walk over a ridge to a new view. It is a chaotic landscape of red and grey rock, orange�tinged tussock and a sea of glaciers. On every side are cliffs, sliced and rubbed by the ice cap which is always in our vision, a bald, shining head, white in the sun. Far below, the Termignon river is trapped in a vertical�walled gorge that keeps it in permanent gloom. The wild Rocheure and Leisse valleys scour sharply, and the Grande Casse and the Grande Motte – the two highest peaks in the Vanoise – tower above all. The grandeur and the isolation are almost too much to absorb. Negotiating more rocks, we drop into a grassy meadow framed by house�high moraine – a mass deposit of rocks – and with a stream down the centre. Glaciers creak a few hundred metres away, slotted with crevasses now clear of snow. On the far side of the meadow, we stop. A large flock of sheep is grazing, guarded by a huge white patou', a pyrenean mountain dog that lives with the flock and will protect them against all comers. We leave the path and sidle nervously past; the patou rushes at us and barks, and I rush forward in fear. But the encounter is quickly forgotten, because round the next corner is a trio of lakes, their surfaces still as glass. Duncan is pensive, and finally speaks. "In England, it feels as though man and nature have done their work; the landscape is finished, final. But here, everything is on a knife�edge." It takes me a while to realise what he means, but he's right. Glaciers grind and melt, scree slopes shuffle, waterfalls smash their way down red cliffs; the world around us is moving. Later, crossing a colossal scree slope above the Leisse river, we hear a faint clatter and are reminded that movement isn't restricted to the landscape. High above is a herd of chamois; gracefully, they dance to the horizon and disappear. Now it's time to climb again, up rocky slopes to the open plain of Col de la Vanoise. The Grande Casse looms over us, reflected in the lakes that form a blue necklace along the valley. There are many walkers here, exploring the glacial fringes on day�excursions from Pralognan. There are climbers, too, intent on using a perfect weekend weather window to tackle the ice cap and nearby peaks. We had planned to spend the night up here in the French alpine club hut, but only one dormitory is open and it's already full. So, reluctantly, we shoulder our rucksacks and start the march downhill to Pralognan. There are two paths down, both demanding three hours' march. To bid a final farewell to the ice cap, we choose the track that skirts the Grande Casse glacier. This is the long, lazy tongue first seen from the village, licking the slopes of a mighty mountain. Its breath is cold in the early evening; as we begin our descent it glitters white and gold, shining like an alpine jewel. And so the glacier breathes into evening, and the evening sighs into night. Soon we cross the stepping stones on the mirror�like water of the Lac des Vaches; as the mountains turn blue with shadows, the glaciers blush pink with the final rays of sun. The day is done, the sky darkens and, gently, the ice cap sleeps.