Walking the High Alps in the Chablais with Headwater Holidays
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These days hiking companies seem to have
reduced the toughness of their walks, perhaps worried they need to cater for an
older market that’s not as fit as it once was. I find this slightly frustrating
as, at 63 I still relish a hard day’s hiking. Headwater Holidays have always served me well in the past and their ten night High
Alps Walk is listed as one of their most challenging. It sounds like it fits my
capabilities so my partner and I fly to Geneva to tackle it.
From there it’s around an hour’s transfer
to the village of Les Gets, the starting point, and I’ve been warned that every
day I will be expected to cover over 20km, with some strenuous climbs and
descents. Fortunately, my baggage will be transported between hotels. The
Chablais region is sandwiched between Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc and straddles
both France and Switzerland and indeed some of my path will follow the
smuggler’s paths between the two countries. It’s a mosaic of colourful Alpine
meadows, mixed woodland and glacial tarns, crowned by dramatic rocky mountain
peaks and surprisingly most of it is hardly frequented by walkers.
Les Gets is a mecca for mountain bikers and
I spend most of my first day trying to avoid being run down by them as I climb
steeply up to Mont Chery at 1826m. From here I take in the mountain panorama
that’s going to be my constant backdrop over the next few days, although the
clouds are stubbornly clinging to the top of Mont Blanc. I descend through
flower strewn meadows, then enter a forest before climbing slightly to the village
of Montriond. The bonus of this hike is that you get to stay in pleasant hotels
every night, rather than mountain huts, and I’m soon settling down to a beer in
Les Sapins, on the edge of Lac Montriond.
This will be my base for two nights, and
the next day I take a circular route via the Ardent Waterfalls up to the
bustling village of Les Lindarets and then along the Super-Morzine ridge before
a long descent, edging through forest to Montriond and then back to hotel.
Spring seems to be late this year and hills are running riot with wildflowers.
Apparently Chablais has more than a thousand species including gentian, orchids
and edelweiss and they all seem to be out at the same time.
I leave the Hotel Les Sapins and start to
climb above the lake, pacing myself as this is going to be my toughest day.
I’ve the option of conquering the highest peak in the region, Mont de Grange,
at 2432m, although it’s a diversion off the main route. As I approach, the
ascent looks extremely daunting and there are patches of snow on the upper
slopes. I reason that I can always turn back if it gets too tough but am
determined to make it.
It’s real slog upwards but finally I
negotiate my way across the snow fields and reach the summit. I’m rewarded with
an amazing Alpine panorama, looking as far as Italy and central Switzerland and
Mont Blanc is suddenly clear of clouds. The mountain is also a wildlife
sanctuary and home to around 500 chamois, along with mouflons and red deer. On
my way down I’m rewarded by the sighting of a lone chamois, motionless on the
snow. After I rejoin the main path, it’s another three hours down to the
village of Chatel, but fortunately Rob, the UK owner of Hotel Le Renard is
there to welcome me with a cold beer. He also makes an excellent dinner.
So far I’ve been blessed with warm sunny
days, but the clouds are gathering as I set off for La Chapelle d'Abondance.
Most days there’s the easy option of catching a cable car to gain height, but I
prefer to walk up to Le Morclan, just short of 2000m. Dominating the skyline
are the jagged teeth of the Dents du Midi, with Mont Blanc to the south and a
sweeping view east of the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. Below I look across Lake
Geneva to the town of Montreux and the path follows an old smugglers route
running the length of the Swiss border. It’s then down through lush Alpine
meadows thick with campanula, daisies and gentian to the pretty village of La
I wake the next day to pouring rain, with
the clouds sitting low in the valley. I’d been looking forward to conquering
the Cornettes de Bise, at 2432m the same height as Mont de Grange, but the
weather is against it. I don my wet weather gear and content myself with reaching
the secluded Lac d'Arvouin, completely surrounded by mist. I take a different
way down and there’s a dodgy section with chains, tricky in the wet, but I
Fortunately the sun is back for my final
few days and I spend a couple of nights in the abbey village of Abondance,
enjoying its tasty cheese, before my last hike to St Jean d'Aulps. I’m now
feeling slightly self-satisfied, having fulfilled my quota of walking with no
ill effects – even my feet are healthy. All is going well, until I suddenly
find my way to Lac de Tavaneuse is blocked, with a sign saying closed because
of a landslip.
I consult my map and see I can head for
Passage de Savolaire, directly upwards. The notes say that the ascent is “steep
and technical” and “only do it if you really have to”. Now I could retrace my
steps and take an easier route but another hiker passes me and presses on
ahead, so I reason it must be OK. Later, as I’m reduced to struggling up the
steep slope on my hands and knees, he shouts directions to keep me on the path.
It’s demeaning and I slightly lose my nerve but, as I reach the top of the ridge,
the maxim “never overestimate your abilities” comes to mind.
It’s all downhill from here and I meet my
transfer in St Jean d'Aulps on schedule. It’s been an exhilarating hike, in
almost perfect weather, and there’s been almost no road walking. Even though
you climb to just under 2500m, the paths are good and there’s no scrambling
required. Staying two nights at each hotel also means that you can take it easy
for a day, if you’re feeling weary, and food is excellent throughout. This is a
beautiful unspoilt area of France and, even better, you have the paths to
yourself for most of the time.
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