Hidden Gem – Ski touring in the Vanoise National Park, Savoie Alps
Known by downhill skiers for the impressive and highly developed resorts of Tignes and Val d'Isere among others, the Vanoise National Park is a glaciated mountain massif dominated by the Grande Casse and the 'Dômes' of the Vanoise glaciers. Ideal for both experienced ski toureres and mountaineers who wish to escape busy ski resorts, this is a superb region to explore. For summer visitors, the walking opportunities in the National Park are exceptional, with hut-to-hut trekking being the best way to explore the area.
Ski touring is about much more than simple skiing ability, as it incorporates the need for additional mountain skills such as navigation, glacier travel and avalanche awareness. Most of the tours described in the guidebook Vanoise Ski Touring by Paul Handerson are multi-day hut-to-hut tours, suitable for competent skiers. Intermediate level skiers would find many routes too challenging.
To get to the Vanoise, trains arrive at Chambéry, then onward train and bus services are available to the larger resorts, although these are often more limited late in the winter season, when ski touring is at its best in the higher mountain areas during April and May. The area is also rich with alternatives to ski touring, such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, should bad weather restrict access to the high mountains.
Three main tours are described in the guidebook that fall within the Vanoise National Park are the North Vanoise, dominated by the Grande Casse, the Glaciers de la Vanoise, and the area around Val d'Isere and Tignes. Below are outline descriptions of each tour, described by author Paul Henderson:
The North Vanoise
The Champagny Valley is one of the most beautiful valleys in the French Alps. The southern side of the valley is composed of a line of forbidding rocky summits and tormented glaciers that, at first sight, would seem to be more the domain of the mountaineer than the skier. Fortunately, there are one or two chinks in the armour that allow the competent skier to penetrate this magical world (namely, the Col de la Grande Casse and the Col du Tougne). The atmosphere of the more open northern side of the valley is much less austere. These gentler slopes, home to large herds of chamois and ibex, encourage a more relaxed approach to skiing. It is difficult to resist the temptation to linger at the summit, while waiting for the best moment to descend, and enjoy the sunshine and breathtaking views. The tour that I have chosen, is of a moderate standard and would provide an ideal introduction to high-mountain ski touring. It uses two huts, neither of which is guarded during the ski-touring season. The Refuge de Plaisance is easily accessible from La Plagne and therefore often quite popular. It can be a little cramped when it is busy, so it is not a bad idea to arrive early to be sure of finding a place to sleep. The Refuge de la Glière is almost the perfect mountain hut. It is small, well equipped without being luxurious and wonderfully situated at the foot of the Aiguille de l’Epéna. It is also much quieter than the Plaisance hut. Although never technically difficult, the tour reflects the contrasting ambience of the two sides of the valley: the open slopes of the Dôme des Pichères are the antithesis of the narrow defile that is the Col de la Grande Casse. It can be done in either direction but, assuming that the avalanche risk for the climb to the Refuge de Plaisance is not too high, the most logical direction is to go to Plaisance then Glières, thus leaving the most spectacular tours to the end.
The Glaciers de la Vanoise
Without a shadow of a doubt, the Vanoise Glaciers are the jewel in the crown of the Vanoise area. Stretching from the Grande Casse in the north to the Dent Parrachée in the south, the glaciers form the centrepiece of the Vanoise National Park and have therefore been protected from the encroachments of neighbouring skiresorts. The area has long been known as the central part of a set of three French ski-touring areas that includes the Mont Blanc massif to the north and the Ecrins massif to the south. The glaciers form a high plateau, from which rise a number of dômes, culminating in the Dôme de l’Arpont at 3599m. The glaciers are surrounded by steep, rocky summits, such as the Dent Parrachée and the Pointe de l’Echelle, which provide a spectacular contrast to the wide-open spaces of the plateau. Floating through this breathtaking scenery on a cloud of perfect powder is an unforgettable experience.
There are several ways to get onto the plateau, although not all of them are easy. The most popular round-trip tour is the Dôme de Chassefôret from the Refuge du Col de la Vanoise as, though long, it is easy and presents very few problems in terms of crevasses and seracs. In the spring, and even in winter if the conditions are reasonable, the Refuge du Col de la Vanoise is often packed with skiers. However, if you have the time and the right weather conditions, the best way to appreciate the Vanoise Glaciers is through doing a multi-day circuit. This enables you to sample the delights of the different combes, valleys and summits that make up this magnificent area. The circuit described is the easiest five day circuit in the area though some of the climbs are quite long. Most of the time you will be on a glacier, so as well as being a competent skier it is essential to have the skills required to move safely over glaciated terrain. The tour uses four huts: Valette, Arpont, Fond d’Aussois and Péclet–Polset. The first three of these huts are never guarded during the ski season, so you will have to take all your own food. The Péclet–Polset hut is guarded during March and April.
The mountains on the south side of the upper Isère valley provide perfect skiing conditions. However, regulations have restricted development within the Vanoise National Park and, fortunately for ski tourers, the spread of the ski lifts has been contained. The happy result of this trade-off between development and conservation is very easy access to some wonderful wild skiing in areas where the presence of the resort is barely noticed. Two tours are described, but are very different, although both should be within the capabilities of most competent skiers.
The first tour visits the cirque at the head of the Isère river and describes two moderately difficult routes to the Pointe de la Galisse and the Grande Aiguille Rousse, which are accessible from the small and quite rustic Prariond hut. This cirque boasts almost a dozen possible ski touring objectives of all levels of difficulty. The two routes that I have described visit the highest skiable summits. The second tour is a small circuit, to the south of Val d’Isère, which, despite the ease of access, has a very remote feel. Both the Pointe de Méan Martin and the Pointe de la Sana summits are great classics, with the latter being one of the most enjoyable easy ski tours in Savoie.
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