Finding Refuge in Adventure

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I suppose I inherited my love of adventure and the joys of being alone in nature from my father. We first hiked the third highest ‘mountain’ in Ireland when I was 10 years old with an OS map and a set of instructions that directed us from one pile of stones to the next, in a slightly damp fog, it was summer after all so no rain! Throughout my 20’s, I found longer and higher adventures including the Tour de Mont Blanc which I did in 1998 with my now husband, carrying our own tent and supplies. The cable car from Chamonix to Courmayeur across Mont Blanc remains one of the best things I have ever done and is one of the reasons we moved here eight years ago. 

When we arrived in the area, I had lofty ambitions of climbing Mont Blanc. Our first house had the most amazing view of my ‘spirit mountain’ and having spent many days admiring the view, I came to the conclusion that this was probably beyond my reach, not least because during one of my hiking adventures, I came to the sharp realisation that I did not have what it takes to throw myself off the side of a cliff to save either myself or my climbing partner, let alone the fitness that it would require.

Living in an area where there are people who regularly scale mountains or head out on cycle rides of 100 kilometers or more, it is easy to dismiss the myriad of opportunities open to those with less lofty ambitions. While there is something quite terrifying about heading out with google maps and only a vague idea of where you are going, when you meet people old enough to be your parents, taking it in their stride along the way, it becomes less daunting. I had managed a few hikes in the area on my own, with my children and with a few willing companions but the constraints of coming last in the list of priorities when allocating time on the family calendar, meant I was not hiking as much as I had imagined I might.  

In stepped the Jura Peaks Challenge (http://www.jurapeaks.com/outdoor-adventures.html), which is by far the best thing that I have done since arriving here.  The JPC invites women to take part in a series of day and overnight hikes to peaks in the Jura.  As it turns out, the challenge was not the hiking, but carving out the time and letting someone else take 100% responsibility for all of the arrangements. It is more difficult that you might imagine, not knowing the destination until merely hours before leaving!! 

The challenge is organised by Charlaine Jannerfeldt who is passionate about ‘sharing outdoors’ and led by guides from La Boîte a Montagne (https://www.la-boite-a-montagne-jura.fr/). The guides not only lead the route but are also knowledgeable on the history, geology, flora and fauna of the region. Charlaine also runs hiking adventures with children and La Boite a Montagne offer a range of activities and are open to suggestions, we have used them to help with climbing parties and other Jura adventures. Worth checking out!!

The JPC reminded me that I could hike and I didn’t need to be marathon fit and equipped with the latest kit to do so. It also introduced me to the fun of eating outdoors, staying in refuges and waking up in the mountains which is a truly special feeling.

In June 2016, with all three children safely occupied at residential camps with school,I planned an overnight hike with a friend to Lac Blanc above Chamonix. She had to drop out at the last minute, and with Kelly Clarkson’s ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ blasting on the radio, I set off just as the last cable cars were coming down the mountain.  The hike to Lac Blanc is about an hour and a half from the top of the cable car and is truly one of the most accessible and beautiful hikes in the region. It is a very popular route, not least because it is on the Tour du Mont Blanc but at 4pm mid week in June, I had the route practically to myself and a few Ibex! The lake itself was a little chilly as there was still snow on the ground so I abandoned my plan to have a quick dip and instead, took a leisurely shower and watched the sun go down on Mont Blanc with a glass of wine.

Coming from the UK where a mountain hut or bothy, is likely to be a pretty basic shelter, the refuges in the Alps and the Jura are a revelation.  There are usually a number of dorm rooms sleeping as many as 20 when full, a dining room where the refuge staff prepare an evening meal and breakfast for those still around in the morning. Huts cost somewhere in the region of Euro 50 for half board in France and Italy and closer to 80chf in Switzerland.  They generally open from mid June to mid September and are pretty busy in the summer months so I have tended go in June and September where I can hike without my children and pay only for myself!!  


When planning my adventures, I look for a willing companions who are up for a vaguely planned mini adventure with finer details to be ironed out en route, someone who is around my level of fitness and most of all, available when I am!! Since my first hike to Lac Blanc, I have had mini adventures in Sixt-Fer A Cheval, France; Zermatt,Switzerland; Courmayuer, Italy; and Gadmen, Switzerland.  Next on my list is the Monte Rosa Hutte in Zermatt which looks like something out of a James Bond Movie but does require crampons and a guide to get there… 

There are lots of hikes and huts out there, these are the ones that caught my eye and fitted my requirements. 

Hiking with children is often better if you can find a few friends to tag along or if you can ditch a child or two, wild camping with one child is pretty special! My absolute favourite easy walks in the area are La Ballade a Beatrix above St Cergueand the Bisse du Trient between Martigny and Chamonix. 

https://www.lacote-tourisme.ch/en/V779/la-ballade-a-beatrix

https://www.valais.ch/en/activities/hiking/bisses/bisse-du-trient

Hiking in the snow adds something rather special to the outdoors, especially when the grey cloud hangs over the lake and being high often means blue skies and sunshine.  Most resorts have maps of trails that are accessible from the pistes but it is also worth seeking out ways of getting away from the crowds. The Balcons de Leman above Col de la Faucille has well signposted routes towards Mont Rond, Colomby de Gex and the top of the Creux D’Enfers.

The hike from Col du Marchairuz to Mont Tendre (about 5 hours) is a beautiful walk when the snow is not too deep! If you are lucky, you will be accompanied by a dog called Lily who lives at the Hotel at the Col du Marchairuz and likes to tag along!

And of course, check out the cross country skiing options at La Vattay, Col du Marchairuz and La Givrine, St Cergue.

Hut HikingThere are many huts which are accessible within one or two hours of a car park or a cable car. The joy of being in the mountains first thing in the morning when most people are somewhere far below is truly amazing.  The routes are well signposted and you will come to love the yellow signs. In the hut, you may be lucky enough to have a dorm to yourself or be lined up along a sleeping mattress with 20 others, some of whom may be there on a beery night out with their mates and some will get up at 3am to scale the nearest peak! It’s all fun in it’s own way. 

My advice: 

1: Buy a map, even if the tourist office suggests you will be OK with the trail guide. 

2: The route gradings are there for a reason, the red routes are harder than the yellow ones!

3. Treat the timings on the posts with a large pinch of salt. They help you work out how far along you are on the route, not necessarily how much time you have left.    

France

Jura: https://lerefugeduberbois.wordpress.com/ I have eaten here and it looks like a nice place to cross country ski to.. never managed to get someone to respond to say when they had availability though!! 

https://www.paysdegex-tourisme.com/refuge/refuge-de-la-loge-lelex.html My son has stayed here over night, basic but local! 

Sixt Fer a Cheval: https://www.savoie-mont-blanc.com/en/offre/fiche/alfred-wills-mountain-refuge/153047

We actually camped outside this one. The walk took 4 hours not 2 from the Cascade de Rouget with children and camping equipment. Stunning location, high and was chillier than we expected at night.  

http://www.refugedesales.com/ comes highly recommended by other hut hikers! 

Chamonixhttps://www.refugedulacblanc.fr/  

Views of Mont Blanc and glaciers, accessible in 2 hours plus a cable car.  Very busy in the summer. 

Switzerland

Gadmen: http://www.windegghuette.ch/

Suspension bridge, glaciers, crystals, best outdoor supper ever!

Zermatt: https://www.section-monte-rosa.ch/fr/cabanes/schoenbielhutte

Lots of hiking options from Zermatt.  Food, the cable cars and parking at the bottom all add to the cost but the walk around the base of the Matterhorn was amazing.  

and next on my list… https://www.zermatt.ch/en/Media/Attractions/Monte-Rosa-hut-Swiss-Alpine-Club

Gryon: http://gryon.com/ Chalet Martin in Gryon is a hostel in Le Valais which is a lovely place to stay, winter or summer.  Train in the village takes you to the local ski lifts or great hiking locations.  

Italy: Courmayeur: http://www.maisonvieille.com/

On the Tour de Mont Blanc. Pretty old town of Courmayeur.  Fairly basic facilities but friendly staff and probably the best gluten free food!

The Grand Routes: 

Lots of my mini adventures have centered around some of the epic walking routes in the region, Tour du Mont Blanc, Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, the Grande Traversée du Jura and the GR5 which stretches from Hook van Holland to Nice!  It is nice to be able to set foot on them without necessarily having to complete the whole thing.

https://www.chamonix.net/english/summer-activities/trekking/tour-of-mont-blanc

https://www.chamonix.net/english/summer-activities/trekking/haute-route

https://www.traildino.com/trace/continents-Europe/countries-France/trails-GTJ_-_Grande_Travers%C3%A9e_du_Jura

I am no expert and most of my information comes from researching on the internet but do feel free to contact me if you want any information.

3 comments

  1. Diedre this is absolutely fantastic! You have inspired me to start hiking again (I did a lot before having kids) – I didn’t know where to start but now I do. What an incredible place we are blessed to live in. If you ever want a hiking partner let me know. Thank you!

    Like

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