Swimming with snowshoes? Traverse of the Chablais, France
“Right!” said Fred. “Six days across the Chablais mountains in winter carrying all our kit and a dip in Lake Geneva at the end?” He’s not one to be overly demanding is Fred, as long as I can come up with a decent snowshoe hike of more than 725 m ascent, and around 10.5 km in length, plus a good hotel at the end of the day with a huge hot-tub with views to the mountains, excellent local food, a masseuse on tap, and a very good red wine then he’s pretty much happy!
But before we head off across the Chablais a bit of beta on Fred and snowshoes in general. Fred and I have, over recent years, spent many a day snowshoeing our way around the French, Swiss and Italian Alps. He’s one of a growing band of mountain folk taking up this ancient winter activity. I would describe Fred as an enthusiastic hill walker who has embraced his snowshoes as his new best friends. They are, by the way, a very fetching pale blue in colour. I digress. Fred is a keen mountaineer andhas discovered that strapping on a pair of snowshoes means he has easier access to a winter wonderland. No more plodding through thigh-deep snow, but skipping instead through powder with all the grace and elegance of a chamois. OK, perhaps at six foot plus and being a strapping chap the analogy to a chamois isn’t quite accurate, but I am sure you get the general idea – it’s much easier with snowshoes than without!
I know you are probably scoffing, because the ‘unenlightened’ always do when I mention snowshoes. Yes, there was a time when snowshoes did indeed resemble ‘tennis racquets’ but no more, today they are made of hi-tech materials and come in many shapes, sizes, and colours. If you are terribly mountain fashion conscious then you can buy them in a suitable colour to match your winter wardrobe. This is a far cry from the original snowshoes, which were made of wood and leather and did indeed look like something, which come in handy for a game at Wimbledon. Their use can be traced back to Central Asia and today some 6,000 years later they continue to prove very effective for travel in a winter landscape. Indeed, recent sales of snowshoes in the French Alps show an increase of around 40 per cent year on year so there is no doubting their growth in popularity. The idea is simple really, the greater the surface area you have attached to your walking boots, the less chance you have of sinking into deep snow. Some say watching hares travelling across the snow pack inspired early humans to copy them in so far as they provided an understanding that large hairy hind feet stopped them sinking, Ok, no hairs on snowshoes, but it does make sense. Instead, the typical modern snowshoe comes with six studs on the bottom, and a front claw for gripping on steeper uphill sections and having pushed my fair share of snowshoes to the limit I can vouch for their effectiveness.
So to the Chablais, an area of France renowned for its marvellous snowshoeing country, a winter playground of high alpine pastures, forests, jagged ridges and peaks. Geographically speaking it is the first chain in the Pre-Alps Mountains between Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc range and more often than not people normally whiz past it en route to Chamonix. Next time I strongly suggest you think about turning left half way along the autoroute and exploring the hidden valleys of what is without doubt a cracking setting for a winter journey.
I guess our six-day winter traverse really came about because I am essentially pretty nosy – always wanting to check out what’s over the next Col, or round the next ridge. Though a kinder description might be to just say that, like most of us who love the mountains, I have a strong sense of adventure and a continual desire to explore a new area. Working as an International Mountain Leader there is also the added push from folk like Fred. “So what’s on the cards next year then?” being his usual query before the current trip has even ended. Part of me dreads the question because I am wondering how on earth I can top the days we have just experienced, but a far greater part of me can’t wait to have an excuse to buy new maps and guide books and dwell on snowy vistas in a still to be visited area.
So after a summer of pouring over maps of the Chablais and attempting to ‘join the dots’ or more accurately the villages and valleys between St Jeoire and Lake Geneva we gathered at our departure point at Megevette. It’s a bit of a one-horse village – and as is often the case with trips on less frequented routes, there is one hotel, and that is your lot as they say! But given that most are family run, and they are keen to encourage trade you are usually guaranteed a warm welcome, even if the owners are a bit bemused by the concept of walking across the Chablais to Lake Geneva in winter. Actually, to be fair the reaction to our endeavour was more often than not one of respect rather than amusement! Several beers later and our pre-trip briefing is going swimmingly. Fred has coerced his good lady Alison, and his friend Jo (that’s Joanne) to provide some company on the trip so we are three women and one soon to be long suffering male. There is much discussion (you have all been there) of how many fleeces, thermals, socks, knickers etc we will need for a week, or more accurately how little we can get away with and still be sensibly equipped for a long journey in potentially bad weather. Then there is the faff over the kit – who’s taking the group shelter, who’s carrying the spare compass, who’s got the spare maps, and does Fred really need a hip flask? The joys of trying to re-stuff the group shelter into its pack in the hotel bar after yet another beer, just because someone wanted to check out whether all four of us could indeed crawl inside – much to the bemusement of the locals who by now have been propping up the bar for around 3 hrs having decided my team are providing the best entertainment in Megevette for some time. It gets even better when the avalanche transceivers get fired up and our newcomer to ‘trannies’ Alison decides a wee practice is in order. At which point ‘diner’ was announced and she beeped her way to the table without incident while muttering that a St Bernard was surely a more traditional accessory.
Being kitted out correctly is of course an essential part of a safe and successful trip such as our six-day traverse of the Chablais. I always carry, and expect my team members, to also carry avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe and to know how to use them. Ok, at the start of day one they often don’t, but by mid-morning I like to have found time to instil the basics, and then throughout the following days we take time to practice. I often draw the analogy of opting for a car with an airbag fitted rather than one without, i.e. I am not planning to have a car crash but the technology is there so - hey, let’s have it thank you very much!
So it’s the morning of day one, and we wave goodbye to our luggage, which we will meet up with in six days time at Evian on Lake Geneva. There is a wonderful sense of self-sufficiency to setting off in winter with just a rucksack filled with the essentials to survive. As per normal at the start of a big journey there is a hot and bothersome first hour while the team work out their layering systems and remove and replace various undergarments, and jackets and squabble about why it takes so long for team member A, B or C to readjust everything.
A few hours later and we are into our stride and en route to our first summit the Pointe des Jottid at 1548m. A quick stop for views across the Chablais to the impressive limestone walls and jagged peaks, which in the days ahead we discover, are a daily feature of this beautiful landscape and then its onwards to our first destination. I have to say its not that easy to find your way through the forests through which you descend each day, with a maze of barely seen paths and tracks, especially as we were more often than not were breaking trail on virgin snow. But, hey ho, what a sense of adventure. By the time we reached Bellevaux at the end of our first day we were ready for a beer and fired up with enthusiasm for the days ahead.
Next morning, as with every morning, it was a steady climb through alpine summer pastures, often passing ancient chalets and farms on our way, before reaching our high point of the day, in this case Tre la Saix at 1486m. A blue sky and a stunning plateau awaited us and as per normal not a single person in sight. Where was everyone else on those perfect alpine days? Three Cols later and we are dropping down into yet another gem of a hidden valley heading for Biot.
There are so many truly lovely little villages in the deep-sided valleys of the Chablais just waiting to be discovered. Most with beautiful squares with impressive stonework and the inevitable elegant chapel with the sunlight glinting off the jewel colours of the stained glass. Although our days snowshoeing on the mountain were the reason we were making our journey, it has to be said that all of us eagerly anticipated arriving at our hotel each evening, not just for the hot shower and the beer, but also for the chance to check out another rural village where the cheese makers were happy to chat and sell us some fare for lunch the next day. At one farm at Biot we spent so much time ‘tasting’ that we really didn’t need to buy any for lunch – we had eaten enough to keep us going all day !
One of the great things of course about a multi-day journey is it provides such a wonderful opportunity to forget about the stresses and strains of everyday life. You get up in the morning, consume several mugs of coffee and several hot croissants with generous dollops of jam, pick up your rucksack and start walking, until eventually you arrive at another hostelry and another opportunity for eating and drinking. Oh, such a simple life if only we could just keep walking forever. Of course on a crossing of the Chablais that’s not possible, because eventually you would need to start swimming! As we headed up Mont Benand at 1284m on our final day I think all of us had a ‘little moment’ when we quietly reflected that our journey was almost over. But a baguette and a lump of Abondance cheese later, we were fired up for the last stretch and after another few hours we catch the first glimpse of the Lake through the trees. What a wonderful sight – a snowy horizon with this massive expanse of water beyond and the knowledge it was all downhill from then on. Well, Fred got his wish to get to Lake Geneva, but I don’t seem to remember him taking a dip! Funny that, maybe something to do with it being February? A short taxi ride and we were ensconced in our hotel in Evian, famed of course for its mineral water and its spas. It always feels strange to descend out of the hills into civilisation again, and this trip was no different. A few strange looks were cast in our direction as we stomped along the waterfront with our snowshoes on our packs looking like the weather beaten team we were but oh boy did we feel chuffed. Next morning we had the perfect ending to our trip. We all caught the early ferry from Evian in France across the Lake to Lausanne in Switzerland and so on to the train to the airport. “Right”, said Fred “What’s on the cards for next year then?” and so back to the drawing board. Actually, I already know…but I’m not telling, just yet.