The Tour du Ruan - unknown to all but a few

According to David Burrows, there’s something good about walking in circles rather than in straight lines, and the Tour du Ruan didn’t disappoint.

I believe that coming back to the start of a route makes the sense of completion more tangible and the journey more satisfying, and is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed Cicerone tours. My first was the Tour of the Queyras, followed by the Tour of the Vanoise and then the GR54 Tour of the Oisans. These are all less well known than the Tour of Mont Blanc, which has a bit of a reputation (among French walkers I have spoken to) of being too commercial.

Last summer I was looking for another tour when I came across a chapter in the Cicerone guidebook Trekking in the Alps about the Tour of Mont Ruan, written by Hilary Sharp. Described as ‘unknown to all but a few’, it sounded perfect. I booked the refuges and flew to Geneva at the end of June.

A train to Martigny and then mountain railway and bus took me to the impressive starting point, the Lac and Barrage d’Emosson.

Unlike better-known tours, the Tour du Ruan does not follow GR paths for its entire length. Neither is there the comfort of a Kev Reynolds’ step-by-step description in a full Cicerone guide. But Hilary Sharp’s description, the tour’s website and Facebook page, together with the suggestions from refuge guardians and other walkers, meant that the route was relatively straight forward. There were good signposts, some of which even declared that this was the Tour du Ruan.

Counter to the narrative, I decided to do the tour anti-clockwise, following the advice of the guardienne of the Susanfe refuge, who recommended climbing up the echelles, the ladders, to the col des Ottans, rather than descending them.

Day one was a straightforward walk from Emosson, initially through a long tunnel then over the col du Barberine and down to the Lac de Salanfe and the auberge. I had been warned that my evening would coincide with the Inalp, bringing the cattle up to the mountain pastures, and the refuge had apologised beforehand for the noise. Stupidly, I’d thought the noise would come from the cow bells but, in fact, it came from the very jolly gathering of farmers of the Alpage de Salanfe. We walkers sat at a corner table; I chatted to a Spanish banker and a Swedish cryptologist who were doing part of the tour – clockwise.

Day two was a very short walk to the Refuge de Susanfe. Rain and low cloud meant I had to cancel my intended detour up the Haut Cimes. Instead, I was entertained by the goings on in the refuge – a repas gastro là-haut… was underway, starring a flamboyant chef preparing Sunday lunch for a group of gourmands who’d walked up from the carpark to eat in the jolie cabane. I passed the time chatting to a retired scientist from Nestlé, who was spending the night there with his grandsons before doing some peak bagging.

Day three was a day of blue sky. Perfect for the ascent to the col des Ottans.

I now appreciated the advice to go anti-clockwise as the climb was up rock steps, then metal hoops, then ladders to appear, like a rabbit from a hole, onto the col; an exhilarating scramble.

From the col, still snow covered in June, the surrounding peaks shone through the valley cloud, inviting the climb to the top of the Petit Ruan. Described by Hilary Sharp as a ‘short detour’, this was actually quite a trek involving traversing a steep shale slope then following a series of exposed ridges to the summit. But there were rewarding views from the top across to Mont Ruan and its glacier and Mont Blanc beyond.

After a comfortable night in the La Vogealle refuge, day four was a long trek down past the tourist honey trap of the Cirque de Fer a Cheval, then up through forests to the fantastically situated refuge de la Grenairon, with stunning views of the Mont Blanc range. There was a jolly table for supper including a party of young people who I’d passed earlier fixing the path.

The final day started out early along the rocky Fretes du Grenier ridge with its impressive outcrops including La Cathedrale; an ibex was sunning itself on a rocky ledge. I was initially in the company of an elderly but very fit Parisien I’d met the previous night, who bid farewell to bound up to the summit of Mont Buet – described by Hilary Sharp as ‘an optional extra’. I pressed on to the top of Le Cheval Blanc, with more big views including the Lac D’Emosson. There was a tricky descent from the top, assisted by chains, then the path passed the recently discovered dinosaur footprints and finally led onto the tarmac of the road across the Barrage d’Emosson, from where I’d started the tour five days beforehand.

There’s something good about walking in circles.

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