With a blink of the eye you’d be forgiven if you missed winter this year in Europe. It’s been an mild and for the most part incredibly dry one. The highlands of Scotland barely saw a snowflake until well into February and snow cover across the Alps was often patchy. An isolated dump in early November got snow seekers excited as the webcams suddenly turned white, but it was not the sign of things to come unfortunately. Ironically, writing this in early May, a cold, damp parcel of air hit the Haute-Savoie just last week with snow back down to around 900 m. Whilst spring was already well-established in the valleys and beyond, this was an albeit brief throwback to the all too sporadic ‘what should have been‘ of the season just gone.
I decided upon a late-season snowshoe trip this year. Rooftops and pine boughs laden with fresh white powder and blazing trail through 50 cm of fresh was certainly not part of the vision for this trip. Moreover, it was an opportunity to explore the Alpine snowpack in springtime and get higher into the mountains than is possible earlier in the season when the avalanche hazard is prohibitavely high. It was to be more of a sprintime walking and snowshoeing combination trip.
Joined this time by Lindsey and Steve at St. Pancras International, we headed for the lovely little village of Les-Contamines-Montjoie. The journey down included an overnight stop in a budget hotel near the Gare de Lyon. Before midday on a sunny 2nd April Sunday, our direct TGV from Paris had deposited us at the Arve valley town of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains-le-Fayet, just a short bus journey from Les-Contamines in the Val-Montjoie. The valley is traversed by by the GR5 and GR Tour du Mont Blanc en-route from the Col de Voza to the Col du Bonhomme and thus is familiar territory for many a summer trekker. The valley has only been modestly developed for skiing, in and around the Col du Joly, but this is complemented by ski de fond in the valley at the right time of year.
According to the meteo-france avalanche forecast, the previous precipitation event of any significance in the area had been more than three-weeks prior to our arrival. Warm temperatures thereafter had resulted in a reatreat of the snowline to 1500 m on north facing aspects and anywhere between 1800 and 2500 m on south facing, depending on angle of slope. These conditions determined that there would be a lot of walking on the summer paths, snowshoes on packs before any significant depth of cover could be found.
Despite the lean conditions, we had some great days out, mostly in fine, sunny weather. On day one, we completed a grand circuit to the NE of Les Contamines, up through the woods to the little summit of Mont Truc 1811 m, spectacularly positioned looking over to the West face of the Domes de Miage, and down via the idyllic Chalets de Miage and the Gorges de la Gruvas to the valley.
After having observed the relatively good remaining snowpack on the ideal nordic-type terrain of the Envers du Truc the day before, on Day 2, we were back out in a similar area, but on snowshoes in a relatively sugary, wet but deep snowpack due to the northerly aspect.
For Wednesday, we headed South and up the valley of the Bon Nant to the Notre Dame de la Gorge. This is the start of the long climb up to the Col du Bonnehomme for the GR5/TMB. It started a little overcast and cool but by the time we reached the Chalet Nant Borrant, the clouds were breaking and sun pushing through. Pushing on up to Refuge La Balme 1706 m for lunch, we then ascended a moraine ridge in the warmth to the spectacular shelf-like Paturages de la Balme for some wonderful open snowshoeing terrain with towering mountains all around.
Day 4 was another one of wall to wall sunshine, but the cool of the morning was welcome for the long uphill haul out of the valley on the GR5/TMB heading NE towards Col de Voza. We detoured from the GR’s however and took a more interesting zig-zag path from the Pont des Places up through mixed forest, emerging at the far less than glamerous pisted area of Les-Houches at the Hotel Bellevue. The view of the Chamonix valley to the east and the Aravis to the west from this spot makes up for the conspicuous development. We headed partway up the steep NW ridge of Mont-Lachat to find a tranquil lunch spot before making a long descent via Col de Voza, Le Crozet and le Champel down to the D 902 road right down in the valley where we managed to hitch a ride back up to Les-Contamines after the non-arrival of the bus.
The final days’ excursion back up from Notre-Dame de la Gorge but via a smaller winding route up the steep, forest-clad eastern side of the valley through some lovely little clearings to the Refuge de Tré la Tête. The route up was largely snow free and the refuge open for tea, beer, chocolate bars etc. It is located on a popular ski touring route into the Glacier de Tré la Tête basin and commands a wondeful position on a prominent flat section of the otherwise sheer ridgline leading up to the Domes de Miage.
After 5 full-on days exploring the valley we were ready for a good rest. Each day had amounted to 15 km or more with an altitude profile of +/- 1000 m, sometimes with a bit of snowshoeing on a dense, thawing snowpack. Hard work indeed. The valley ‘ski bus’ or navette system had been very useful (and free of charge) in helping to cut out some otherwise long and unwelcome tarmac trudges at the start and end of the day.
We headed out of the mountains to Geneva and 20 degree (or more) heat! With the much anticipated CEVA (Cornavin-Eaux-Vives-Annemasse), Geneva crossrail not yet complete we had to load onto a rather packed city bus from Annemasse. After dropping all the heavy gear at our airbnb appartment we were able to enjoy an afternoon stroll around the Lac Léman shoreline to the ‘Jet d’eau’ and a look at the streets of the old town on the south bank of the Rhône. Sunday was a very straightforward journey back via TGV Lyria and the Haut-Bugey line into a warm and blossoming Paris where we spent a few hours awaiting the booked Eurostar in the Jardin des Plantes. Lancaster was comfortably reached by late evening.
April is great month of the year to be walking in the Alps, particularly if you don’t like the heat of high-summer. Most of the walking trails were empty and the wildlife was certainly reacting to the rising temperatures and also easier to spot with the vegetation having not quite yet had the same spring into life and leaf. A few early season Alpine flowers were making the most of the sunshine, particularly in places that in just over a month’s time would be shaded by dense leaf canopy.