Walking French Alps 2015

With the low water levels, I did a bit more walking on the alps trip this year, though the heat did make for rather hazy views. We started off at the top of the Onde Valley, above Vallouise, with a walk up to the Réfuge des Bans. This is past the end of the road, and well beyond any part of the Onde which is paddled, even at grade5+. There are canyons to be run up here, though unfortunately, none which we could see into from our walk, whose main objective was, of course, to justify a cold beer at the Réfuge.

Wild scenery just before climbing steeply up to the hut

The edge of the Ecrins National Park is just at the parking place, so this is a protected area with plenty of wild flowers (probably better earlier in the season this year when there was more snowmelt in the streams) and wildlife.

Lots of butterflies on the alpine flora

The next venture was on a day when I really didn’t want to mess about at the St. Clément slalom site or take part in a mass trip down the Sunshine Run. The Three Lakes Walk last year had made the idea of driving deep into the mountains on steep forest tracks seem rather fun, and I found my way to a considerable height (2380m) above St. Clément, although not without some difficulty, as a couple of the tarmac roads around Réotier were closed for roadworks and the diversion signs weren’t really designed for someone with my destination in mind. Once I’d managed to reach the end of the surfaced road, it all got easier. The road ended at a couple of small buildings very much in the middle of nowhere, so I was surprised to find my phone telling me that there was free WiFi here !

Looking to the Ecrins, and peaks I’d climbed in 1984

The path climbed fairly gently to the west, offering improving views, but nothing very spectacular until a col on the SE ridge of my objective, the Tête de Vautisse. Here a view opened over the Couleau valley, bounded on the far side by some fairly impressive crags. Unfortunately, the route to the peak now involved a descent, as the ridge is not quite continuous. This proved not to be as much of a height loss as the map seemed to indicate and I was soon at the foot of the final ridge. This was steep and somewhat loose, with quite a bit of exposure over the southern side above Le Couleau, so I was quite surprised to find two Mountain Bikers heading downhill towards me from the summit. They did dismount for one or two particularly awkward bits, but mostly hurtled down in apparent control…

I had chosen this peak as the highest in the group of hills west of the Durance valley with almost no higher peaks between it and the main Ecrins Massif to the NW. The only thing distracting me from the very extensive view was a glider (from the airfield at St. Crépin) using the uplift on the south side of my ridge by repeatedly flying past very close to the cliffs. He started out well below me, but after a few passes gained enough height to be well clear of the summits. The summit was soon reached, at 3156m, the first 3000m peak I’d climbed for almost twenty years.

Tête de Vautisse, looking towards the Ecrins

No other path appeared on my map, but it was clear that a way had been reasonably well used off the NE ridge, which split into NNE and ENE ridges a short way down. Although the ENE ridge was bounded by steep rocks, I could see enough to deduce that the path came off that and back down to the valley from which I had ascended, so I varied my route by descending this side. Rather to my surprise, it proved less steep and loose than the main route I’d followed on the way up, though a bit harder to follow. Coming down this way avoided almost all the reascent to reach the col, and I was soon back on the main footpath. The grassy areas had plenty of Marmots to scold me on my way back to the car.

A couple of days later, Mary and I had a shorter walk onto the ridge separating the Guisane from the Clarée, north of Briançon. This time, a surfaced road got us most of the height, leaving only a short way along a rather rough track to our starting point. Since this was, again, at about 2400m, the total climb to the Croix de la Cime, at 2613m, was fairly minimal.

Many well-defined paths and prayer flags on the cross suggest this is a much more visited summit

We continued southwards along the ridge, taking in a couple of smaller peaks, before retracing our steps and then dropping off the western side above St. Chaffrey. This led to a well-defined path traversing below the ridge, but still offering fine views into the Ecrins, where the weather looked a little more threatening.

Cloud boiling over the higher peaks of the Ecrins

There was but a short reascent to the car (still the only one which had made it up to this particular parking spot, though we’d met plenty of people on the ridge).

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