Autumn tour of the Aiguilles Rouges

Iain Davidson gives an account of his five-day tour around the Aiguilles Rouges mountains near Chamonix. Close to the end of the season, the trail was undertaken in a fast and light style, staying in mountain huts and camping in the Chamonix valley. The animals, colours and changeable weather made for a short tour of great drama.

The Téléphérique du Brévent ascended rapidly through swirling clouds, swaying alarmingly in the strengthening wind. Somewhere, 1000m below, lay Chamonix, where 30 minutes before I had finished my coffee and croissant to take the lifts to the top of the Brévent peak (2525m).

It was day three of my five-day walking tour of the Aiguilles Rouges, a range of granite peaks west of the Mont Blanc massif, and the weather was beginning to turn autumnal.

The door opened to a world of ice and mist as I climbed to the summit platform.

View summit Brevent on a clear day
View summit Brevent on a clear day

On a good day there is a glorious outlook encompassing peaks in three countries and a fitting final day on the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). My mission this late September was to link several of the Cicerone day walks from the area guides to complete a tour within the three national nature reserves of the Aiguilles Rouges, Sixt Passy and Vallon de Bérard.

I was hoping to see one of the recently reintroduced bearded vultures but realised the weather gods might keep them grounded.

My journey had begun several days before with the morning train to Le Buet, taking the alternative trail of the TMB northwest above Vallorcine to the dramatic lookout of Les Saix Blancs (1660m).

Les Saix Blancs viewpoint day 1
Les Saix Blancs viewpoint day 1

The view south was toward my proposed descent of the wild Bérard Valley, still in deep shadow as the sun rose. Today I would follow the TMB to the Swiss border before gradually ascending L’Aiguillette des Posettes (2201m) and striding down the glorious Les Frettes ridge to the traditional village of Tré le Champ.

By lunchtime I was on the Aiguillettes foraging for wild blueberries, while gazing at Mont Blanc and tomorrow’s high balcony trail.

Winter is coming

Day two arrived with azure skies but with the unwelcome news of a deep weather system scheduled to arrive in the next few days. Winter was coming.

I climbed steadily to tackle the famous ladder section of the TMB, planning on coffee at the Chalet du Lac Blanc and the high trail to Col de la Glière before descending to Planpraz and the ‘télécabine’ to Chamonix. The ladders were enjoyable and the switch from walking to climbing helped me focus on safety.

Passing the cairn at la Tête aux Vents, I hiked by the beautiful Lacs de Chéserys, surprising a herd of ibex and their young. An eagle launched itself from the crags below, searching for a tasty marmot breakfast. I was on my own at the hut and was served a delicious second breakfast.

The high-level route above the valley was spectacular. I soaked up the smoky autumnal colours and looked east to the serpentine Mer de Glace and the surrounding peaks. The final section of cables landed me on the col where I took a gamble on a diversion to the atmospheric Lacs Noirs.

The gamble was the weather. The day had turned and the temperature had plummeted. Black clouds gathered quickly and by the time I had changed to full waterproofs I was enveloped by clouds as a deafening crack shook the mountain. Moving quickly but carefully over the boulder field above Lac Cornu, I finally hurtled down through the rain towards the télécabine and the valley.

By my third day I had a small weather window to complete my tour. I dropped carefully to the Col du Brévent (2368m) and took the famous trans-alpine GR5 route descending north.

This needed a little careful navigation in the fog along the steep and loose trail, far above the spectacular Gorges de la Diosaz. Climbing past several alpine dairy herds, I arrived at the welcoming Ánterne refuge for a hot chocolate and a chat with fellow hikers sheltering in the café.

After changing into warmer layers, I returned to the trail towards the final col before dropping on a rough compass bearing to the haunting Lac d’Ánterne. The visibility was now officially pea soup.

As I approached the lake, I heard bells. A large flock of sheep and goats emerged from the mist and swarmed around me. They were followed by an enormous white and terrifying guardian dog. With the reintroduction of the bearded vultures the local tradition of guardian dogs has been re-established and these large beasts spend the summer attending the herds to ward off hungry predators.

Lac Anterne day 3i
Lac Anterne Day 3

The advice is to stay still and not pat or feed the dogs. He came toward me, sniffing, as I remembered with dismay an especially strong mountain cheese in my rucksack. Fortunately, he changed course, following his charges into the mist.

I finally arrived at the traditional wooden cabins of the Alfred Willis refuge, named after a young English alpinist. The food and the company were, as always, beyond compare and the hard, wooden sleeping platform was, for tired bodies, like a five-star hotel bed. Outside, the first rain hammered on the wooden roof before a deep sleep overtook me.

It was my fourth day and I thanked the guardian and his team before embarking on my longest day of the tour; two high passes and a race against the advancing snow.

The mountains were clothed in the wreathes of the previous night’s rain as I returned toward the col. At the Ánterne refuge I took a new route to follow the Diosaz valley north to the Col de Saletón (2526m), marking the boundary between the soft limestone of the Aravis region and the rugged granite of the Aiguilles Rouges.

By lunch I was at the Chalets de Villy, dining outside on an enormous couscous picnic provided by the refuge. In the distance, warning rumbles heralded the advance of a very lively cold front. It was time to move on.

As I trudged toward my final pass the sun suddenly shot through the churning clouds, just in time to witness a bearded vulture take to the air from high above the pass. It was a fantastic sight but within a few minutes we were both swallowed by the fog and the wind began to roar through the broad pass. The first flakes of snow chased me downwards as I boulder-hopped to the door of the Refuge de la Pierre á Bérard.

The Vallon de Bérard is a wild and beautiful valley and I awoke on my last day to a winter wonderland with several centimetres of snow. A leisurely hike through the silent forest led me to the now cold and wet village of Le Buet and the train back to Chamonix.

I had raced the first winter snows around the Aiguilles and won… this time.

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