❄ 'Snowshoeing in the French Alps' - by Lindsay Cannon ❄
What better way to experience the winter mountains in the Alps than a six-day traverse of the stunning Chablais, a true winter journey in an area renowned for its marvellous snowshoeing country? Escape the crowds, climb over high passes and marvel at the winter landscape, sample delicious local food, and just generally have a brilliant time!
Traverse of the Chablais, France
The Chablais is simply a winter playground of high alpine pastures, forests, jagged ridges and peaks. Geographically it lies in the Pre-Alps between Lake Geneva in Switzerland, and the Mont Blanc range in France. And snowshoes are the best way to explore this wonderland. Forget the idea they look like tennis racquets — that was ‘back in the day’. They are a great high tech piece of gear that you strap your boots into, made of light materials, with spikes on the front and bottom which allow you to gamble your way through the snow. Not to mention they come in a dazzling array of colours to suit every wardrobe!
Snowshoeing — what’s it all about?
Well, for starters it is the fastest growing winter activity in Europe — according to the snowshoe manufacturers sales are increasing by 40 per cent each year. Clearly there are people who enjoy walking in the mountains in summer who are realising what a wonderful way it is to experience the winter mountain landscape!
Snowshoes today are a far cry from the original snowshoes, which were made of wood and leather and did indeed look like something which would 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. 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. Okay, there aren’t hairs on snowshoes, but it does make sense. Rather, the typical modern snowshoe comes with six studs on the bottom, and a front claw for gripping on steeper uphill sections. Having pushed my fair share of different snowshoes to the limit I can vouch for their effectiveness.
How much previous experience do I need, if any?
Snowshoeing is open to anyone who likes to walk in the mountains. The great thing about snowshoeing is that you need no prior experience to do a trip like the Traverse of the Chablais, a fabulous six-day journey across the mountain range. You simply need to be able to walk in the mountains with a good level of fitness and be happy to be out for most of the day. Within half an hour of putting snowshoes on your feet you will be proficient, and will walk along quite happily. Typically we leave after a good breakfast at around 9 am, hike up to our highest point where we have our picnic lunch, and then spend the afternoon descending to the next valley, where we check into our cosy hotel.
Will I need to carry a heavy rucksack?
No – you’re spared the ordeal! A trip like this, a six-day journey totalling around 80 km over the week, is much more enjoyable with a light rucksack with just a few items for your use. Your main luggage will be picked up each morning from your hotel and taken to your next hotel by taxi. It makes life simpler, and the walk easier. You will need to carry a small day rucksack of about 25-30 litres in size with some items such as lunch, water, spare warm and waterproof layers, spare gloves, hat, and equipment such as a snow shovel, very useful for digging a seat in the snow for lunch! Your snowshoes, walking poles and all other equipment is supplied for you and included in the trip fee.
What is it like to ‘journey’ through the mountains in the snow in winter?
Quite simply it’s magical! It can also be an effort, as with all mountain journeys, but I’ve never met anyone yet who has done anything other than love the quiet satisfaction of a day well earned, and a summit won. So it’s the morning of day one, and a few hours later we are into our stride and en route to our first summit the Pointe des Jottis 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 it’s onwards to our first destination. By the time we reached the remote village of Bellevaux at the end of our first day you will be ready for a glass of wine or beer and fired up with enthusiasm for the journey ahead. Next morning, as with each morning, it’s a steady climb through alpine summer pastures, often passing ancient chalets and farms on the way, before reaching the high point of the day, in this case Tré-le-Saix at 1486m. A little further on, a stunning plateau awaits us and it is common not to find a single person in sight. Where is everyone else on these perfect alpine days? Three cols later and we drop down into yet another gem of a hidden valley heading for the tiny village of Biot. There are so many truly lovely little villages in the deep-sided valleys of the Chablais just waiting to be discovered. Most have beautiful squares with impressive stonework along with the inevitable elegant chapel, sunlight glinting off the jewel colours of the stained glass. 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 hostel and a further opportunity for eating and drinking. What could be better?
The standout experiences and sights of snowshoeing in the Alps.
1. Standing on a high pass in the winter, taking in a view of sparkling snow-covered mountains that stretch to the horizon. 2. Walking through a landscape that is silent in its winter cloak of snow and ice, hearing nothing but the soft crunch of the crystals under your feet. 3. Leaving the crowds behind, and feeling quietly satisfied that you have chosen a winter activity that means no lift queues, no noise, no terrors on the piste, or the need to hire downhill kit or buy expensive lift passes. 4. Seeing your tracks laid out behind you and realising that you were the first person to set foot on the snow since the last snow fall, a pristine environment there for your enjoyment, but knowing you will leave no trace of having been there when the snow and your footsteps melt away. 5. The food — sampling local cheese from the farms we pass in the mountains is a real treat. Not to mention the local Savoyarde dishes that our small family-run hotels prepare for us — wonderful comfort food to see us through a day in the mountains! 6. The accommodation is really characterful, located in remote valleys in cosy family run hotels where a warm welcome awaits us. So far we have always been the only non-French group staying at these lovely little hotels. A chance to really experience the local culture and way of life.
When to go
The Chablais mountain range in France is best explored from mid-January to the beginning of March. This is usually the best time for snow cover, offering a real winter wonderland experience. It is generally not too cold at this time, but cool enough that the high passes have a plenty of snow: all the better for taking those stunning photographs! Furthermore, the days are getting a little longer — allowing more time to make the journey and savour the ice crystals sparkling in the trees, the snow flying around your feet, and the spectacular mountain scenery.
We supply all the equipment you will need for snowshoeing so you do not need to have the expense of hiring or buying before your trip. This includes snowshoes, walking poles, snow shovel, snow probe, and avalanche transceivers. Do not be alarmed at the mention of ‘avalanche’ – nowadays everyone who spends time off the beaten track in the winter mountains wears a transceiver. After all, we have the technology so why not use it? A transceiver is simply a device that gives out a signal that allows you to be located. It’s rather like buying a car with an airbag — you’re not planning to need it, but having it provides an extra level of security.