French Alps

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August 30th 2015
Published: September 6th 2015
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French Alps

And now for something completely different.

Hill Climbing and re- acclimatisation.

From Asti in western Italy with an elevation of just 123 meters to Mt Cenis in the French Alps poor Skippy grunted up the steep, winding and narrow S25 to Mt Cenis ( a lofty 2900 meters). The climb did not really start until we got to the French Italian border town of Susa. From there to Mt Cenis is only 30 odd klms. So most of that 2800 meter climb was in that 30 klm of serpentines, switch backs and zig zags.

What goes up can also come down – So then we dropped down the western side to the town of Bessans with an altitude of just 1700 + meters.

Temperatures dropped like a stone over the edge of one of these mountains. After temperatures of 40+ degrees only a few weeks ago in Turkey, overnight the ambient dropped to 5degrees.


The town of Bessans has an interesting sporting facility. It’s the International Biathlon de Haute Maurienne site Vanoise. Its summer here, so there would be no skiing. Not so say the ski mad people of France. Children of all ages were out practising their ski skills and training for biathlon on roller blades. On this site there are slick asphalt surfaces winding through the hills and across the high mountain country. The sport of biathlon involves a sort of cross country ski combined with target shooting. We camped next to the rifle range part of the facility. Well into the evening, and from sun up biathlon hopefuls trained. They “ski” (on their roller blades) with a rifle slung across their shoulders along a cross country course. Then when they reach the rifle range they lie down and fire off a volley at some targets and then get up and “ski” off into the bush.

Col de l’Lsirean

Next morning its back into the mountain climbing again.

We stopped for morning tea at the top of a pass called Col de L'Lsirean (2764M). The road we were now getting to know is the D902. We actually make good time on the road. But the scenery is so jaw droopingly sensational that we keep stopping to admire and take piccies. In fact the other mountains are at similar levels and we felt like we are in the midst of a huge set.

On the road, there is no armour rail or any barrier. If for some reason we slip over the edge, there is nothing but the bottom of the valley hundreds of meters below to stop the downwards descent. Even the motor cyclists slow down. There is no margin for error when meeting on this narrow road. Often its barely wide enough for one wide vehicle like ours. People here want to survive. So they ( even the motorcyclists) slow down , stop if necessary at a suitable place and pass cautiously. Because this is not a shortcut or an express road – it’s a dedicated scenic track- people are constantly stopping at cut out sections to stop and take it all in. So there is no problem with overtaking, when that is appropriate. And then there are the pedal cyclists. Some even carrying their camping gear. I can see the lactic acid kicking in on each tortuous push of the pedals. Only for the seriously fit.

Several days later I spoke with a Yorkshire man who was horrified that we drover there in a truck. He had driven there in a small car some years back, and was petrified at the time – his wife would not let him out of the car to take a photo. After reaching Val d’Isere he had headed down to leave the D902 at Bourg Saint Maurice.

Val d’Isere.

After our break at the top of Col de L'Lsirean we drop down about 900 M to Val d’Isere (1850M). Immediately the scenery is different. We had been gawking at barren mountains with glaciers adorning ravines and gorges on the eastern side. Now we head down and are can see greenery and a softer landscape below the tree line. This is one astonishing facet of travelling in France. After you go around a corner or stop for smoko there is a whole new scene set to admire.

So from the rugged barren icy mountainous outlook of Bonneval-Sur –Arc and Glacier des Sources de L’Arc we soon look down on the pretty town of Val d’Isere sitting at the bottom of a valley entirely ringed by mountains and beyond the town we can see the sparking clear waters of Lac de Chevril.

We camp on the edge of town and enjoy walking through its main street. There is a feeling in this town that we Flat land is scarce – so many of the accommodation buildings are 5 or more storeys high and more are being built. It’s not possible to grow flowers in garden beds but there are pot plants adorning the streetscape. You get a feeling of civic pride about this town. Its near the end of summer season and the shops are discounting big time. Imagine the savings when you see a jacket on sale for only E500 reduced from E1200. What a bargain. It’s like Hastings St Noosa on a quiet weekday morning in autumn.

When we leave Val d’Isere we head downhill again along a nice wide bit of road descending over 700M to Bourg Saint Maurice. But after that it gets really tricky. Good thing we had a practice run on the previous days. This “two way thoroughfare was in many parts less than 3M wide. It was skinny by European skinny road standards but also the steepest bit of road we have so far seen. Driving up we were thankful not to meet anyone coming down on some of the longer skinny sections. Sometimes when we did anticipate meeting other traffic we came to a complete stop well beforehand at a slightly wider part – or in many cases other vehicles reciprocated in similar manner. This hairy drive along the D902 from Bourg Saint Maurice takes us up to a stunningly wild camp spot in Les Chapeaux ( Alt 1560m) – It’s in the Valley of the Glaciers and we get our first glimpse of Mount Blanc.

Cormet de Roselend

What did I say about going down as well as up.

First off after leaving Les Chapeaux we climb to a saddle in the range here called Cormet de Roselend at 1968 M. As we stop we notice that some have camped there the night before and wonder what it would have been like – being on top of the local world with spectacular scenery all around and looking down to some really special bits of rock and ice.

Again the outlook from the eastern side of the pass was wild, rugged and boldly spectacular, while the view to the west had trimmings of softer greenery interspersed amongst the craggy outcrops softer There is a bit of dairying going on here. Farmers use mobile equipment to tend their nomadic herds. They use a tractor to tow a set of milking bails which are equipped with milking machines, vats etc.

Then we drive downhill again to about 1500M at the Barrage de Roselend. This dam constructed in 1962 has a storage capacity of 187 cubic meters.

Les Saisies

Then its uphill again to Les Saisies (1650 M).

There are numerous ski lifts and like Val d’Isere the ski lifts start from in the town. But in Val d’Isere the lifts go up so that skiers glide ( or tumble) back to town. Les Saisies is at a high point and skiers can either ski down from in town or catch a ski lift to go higher. Les Saisies boast 192 klm of cross country ski trails. It appears that in season a 6 day off-piste lift pass is about E200. Val d’Isere has 300 klm of ski runs. While les Saisies has charm and class, its more Mooloolaba than Noosa.

Looking east from slopes of Les Saises and Hauteluce ( about 1600M) we got some uninterrupted views to Mt Blanc ( 4800M) which is only about 30 klm as the crow (or eagle) flies.

Chaminoux Mt Blanc and Les Houches

Vapour trails in the still cloudless sky and quite warm ambient temperatures had been ours to enjoy in Les Saisies. So in a spirit of hopeful anticipation of getting a full frontal of the naked Mt Blanc we set off. We had become accustomed to going downhill before climbing to a new and astonishingly beautiful high. Amazingly though we kept descending. And descending.

The road became wider- with proper lanes for the traffic in each direction with a white line in between. And the gradient was kinder with huge curves at the switchbacks instead of a sudden 180 degree U turn. Then we came to a truly remarkable 4 lane highway approaching the entrance to the Mt Blanc tunnel. High way it really is, suspended above the valley it climbs through. Its as smooth and slick as a slot car track. The 48klm Mt Blanc tunnel goes under the steepest part of the mountains linking Italy with France.

But getting back to our arrival in Chaminoux Mt Blanc. We had been descending and found that Chaminoux is only about 1000M. The town sits in a valley looking south west and UP to the icy Mt Blanc and a swathe of other peaks at over 3500M.

Point in any direction and arch your neck back and you do get a smorgasbord of steep rugged peaks for the eyes to feast on. But somehow its a bit disappointing. While its sort of close its more like you are looking up at some sort of show- that seemed vastly different to the feeling of being on top of the scene and centre stage when we were atop Col de L'Lsirean, Cormet de Roselend, and Les Saisies. To that extent bottom of Mt Blanc was a bit of a disappointment . Chaminoux Mt Blanc is a tourist town. All the usual stuff. With excellent transport infrastructure ( high speed rail as well as superb road right to Paris or Milan etc) to get there and back by and many accommodation options – then its not surprising that so many come to experience what is a truly remarkable array of high sights and rides.

Our camp at Les Houches on the north west foothills of Mt Blanc gave us a great view. But again the visual experience pulled up a little short of our hopes and expectations. Looking up from about 1200M we looked up to the top of the tree line and then there was the glacier on top. Lower level vistas of steep forested mountainside in the foreground visually outnumbered and pushed the snow white top into a sort of insignificance.

We were blessed with fine weather during our trip through the French Alps and following a full moon on the night we camped atop Les Saisies, rain clouds formed on Mt Blanc as we camped at its base. So we move

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10th September 2015

French Alps
Amazing photos, we are jealous as we would love to see more of the countryside of France, as we loved it when we went to Paris, Neimes, Nice and Monto Carlo. Travel Safe J & J xx

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