This year I headed to the Chablais Alps for some very late-season snowshoeing. So late in fact, that the Portes-du-Soleil ski area was already in full-on shut-down mode on the day of my arrival. Basing the trip in the ski-dominated village of Les Gets, at 1100 m, Sunday 15th April was the last day of the 2018 season. Time to get the mountain bikes out? Well not quite as given the sheer volume of snowfall throughout the 2017-18 winter, the pistes (and much of the surrounding terrain) was still loaded with over a metre of snow right down to the village. Great news for planning snowshoe excursions as from the Monday, the whole valley fell silent and with it came the ability to go-anywhere; up, down and across the pisted area without the usual restrictions on access for the ‘piétons’ that comes with the clatter of chairlifts and the swooshing of ‘la glisse’.
The outward Eurostar and TGV journey via Paris had been planned many months ahead of time to benefit from the usual low fares, but unfortunately the ongoing SNCF strike halted all my intended trains from London though to Thonon-les-Bains. Luckily I had a weeks’ notice and could make alternative arrangements for a flight with British Airways from Gatwick to Geneva, and then onward by bus to Thonon. Arriving in Thonon just a little earlier than according to the original itinerary, I spent a lovely spring evening wandering down early flowering terraces to the marina on the lake front.
Meanwhile, up in Les Gets and arriving at my tiny studio apartment Sunday lunchtime, I set to work exploring the numerous options for snowshoe excursions. There are a wide-range of excellent venues for introductory and intermediate snowshoeing on the periphery of the main Mont-Chéry and Chavannes ski pistes that adorn the west and east slopes of the valley respectively. Les Gets straddles a broad trough on the watershed between the Dranse and Giffre rivers and is on the main thoroughfare through the Chablais from Lake Geneva to the Arve valley (Route des Grandes Alpes). Access to the 1500 m contour, the ideal altitude for setting out on snowshoe excursions is possible with a vehicle thanks to a number mountain roads that are kept clear for winter as they provide access to surrounding hamlets. However, as this was a car-free trip for me, each morning I enjoyed a good warmup ploughing up a piste or through forest with snowshoes on or an arduous plod up one of the tarmac roads (snowshoes strapped to the pack). Typical for the time of year, the temperature plummeted to around zero overnight and it remained cool in the shade of the forest until late-morning. But from midday onwards, the heat of the high sun raised the air temperature to a very comfortable 20ºC!
My snowshoe outings included the north and south ends of the Mont-Chéry ridge, where a lovely mixture of Alpages, forest and clearings can be explored. There are many fine viewpoints and lookouts providing excellent panorama’s of the surrounding summits of the Chablais, Aiguilles-Rouges, Mont-Blanc and Aravis ranges. I also spent a good deal of time exploring the periphery of the expansive Plateau de Lœx. This is a rolling, largely forested and untouched area to the south of the Chavannes ski area. It is an area of special protection under the EU habitats ‘Site Natura 2000’ directive. Specifically, it is a breeding and nesting ground for the Capercaille and as a result there is a central exclusion zone with no-access during the winter and spring.
The main purpose of my visit was to deliver a client excursion with a group from Lancaster University. The group were in attendance at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Liaison Delegate Meeting in Montreux, Switzerland as part of a Management and Sustainability field course. They joined me on the Friday, at the end of their trip, for a snowshoe outing, where we discussed sustainability in the context of the Alpine Environment. The excursion was based on the sun-bathed, southern slopes of Mont-Chéry, the route being a short loop from the hamlet of Les Places up to the Alpages and hamlet of Le Mont-Caly. Through the course of our journey we discussed the geological and ecological story of the Alps as well as the human heritage of ‘la montagne’. While exploring the challenges facing the most accessible and densely populated mountains on the planet, we reflected on the mechanisms required to bring about transformational sustainability in modern society.
Luckily, the journey back to the UK did not coincide with an SNCF strike day, and thus all my connections were scheduled to run as planned. Starting out early from Les Gets on the bus, I trundled down via Morzine to Thonon-les-Bains. After a quick dash across the town and down the steep terrace leading to Lake Geneva, I boarded one of the passenger ferries of the Compagnie Générale de la Navigation sur le lac Léman (CGN). This sped across the calm waters of the lake with superb views of the surrounding Alps and Jura to Lausanne in Switzerland. All in little over 45 minutes. Lausanne was in perfect spring condition, with the floral displays of the gardens around the Château d’Ouchy in full and scented bloom. A perfect conclusion to the trip and prelude to the pretty much non-stop journey via four trains from Lausanne via Paris and London, back to Lancaster. This seamless perfection of European rail was unfortunately only interrupted at the final hurdle; a rail replacement taxi for the final leg Preston-Lancaster due to engineering work (and a late-running and packed train from Manchester missing the last rail-replacement bus)!