SUM­MER IN THE ALPS

Leave your skis be­hind and ex­plore pas­tures new as Alf Alder­son re­veals his favourite places for hik­ing, bik­ing and climb­ing in this Alpine val­ley

France - - Contents -

Take up hik­ing, bik­ing and climb­ing in the beau­ti­ful Tarentaise Val­ley.

For the past five sum­mers, I have been based in Les Arcs in Savoie, and it is easy to imag­ine read­ers who know the fa­mous ski re­sort think­ing: “Hmm, hardly the loveli­est place in the Alps”.

If you take the high-rise, util­i­tar­ian apart­ments of Arc 2000 as an ex­am­ple, it would be hard to dis­agree; but I live in Le Pré, a dis­tant out­lier of the ski area, which is as easy on the eye as any typ­i­cal Alpine ham­let.

There are many more such set­tle­ments dot­ted among the hill­sides be­tween the Tarentaise Val­ley’s mega-re­sorts of Les Arcs, La Plagne, Tignes, Val-d’isère and La Rosière. Any­one look­ing for adventure among the peaks and crags that rise above pretty vil­lages such as Vil­laroger, Mont­valezan and Granier is spoilt for choice. A com­ment often made by Bri­tish peo­ple and oth­ers who have made the area their home runs along the lines of, “I came out here for the ski­ing, but now I ac­tu­ally en­joy the sum­mers more.” Let me tell you why.

HIK­ING

I have spent more sum­mer days than I can re­call walk­ing the trails above the ham­let of Le Crot. You will have to look hard on the map (it lies be­tween Sainte-foy-tarentaise and La Rosière). While not to­tally de­void of hu­man­ity, Le Crot is never too busy up here, even at the height of sum­mer; in early and late sum­mer, though, you will prob­a­bly see as many mar­mots as hik­ers.

The walk­ing varies from easy, al­most flat am­bles through the forests and lower slopes to full days out in the moun­tains – or even multi-day trips if you want to stay in refuges such as Le Ruitor or L’archeboc, or sim­ply do some wild camp­ing.

The drive to the park­ing area at La Savonne is an adventure in it­self – wind­ing sin­gle-track roads take you up through pine-scented wood­lands, be­side sparkling streams and even­tu­ally into Alpine pas­tures that of­fer spec­tac­u­lar views across to the glacier-draped mas­sif of Mont Pourri.

From La Savonne, at 1,800 me­tres, a range of trails heads up to al­ti­tudes of around 2,400 me­tres, so the height gains are no more than you would ex­pe­ri­ence on a day in the Lake District; if this does not ap­peal you can take it easy with a wan­der along one of the flat­ter walks that take you along­side tum­bling streams or up gently an­gled dirt roads.

For a more stren­u­ous day out (think along the lines of reach­ing the sum­mit of Ben Ne­vis), the lit­tle-known Bec Rouge is one of my favourite op­tions. This unas­sum­ing 2,515-me­tre peak sits be­tween the ski re­sorts of La Rosière and Sainte-foy. The as­cent starts with a steep hike through cool, shaded forests on easyto-fol­low trails, past the spec­tac­u­larly lo­cated La Fal­con­nerie, a small, iso­lated set­tle­ment not even big enough to call a ham­let, and then the trees thin and even­tu­ally clear to re­veal an even more spec­tac­u­lar sight.

The fi­nal 500 me­tres of as­cent goes across a rocky, frost-shat­tered land­scape un­til even­tu­ally you reach the small cross at Bec Rouge’s sum­mit. This is quite a prize, for the moun­tain top stands proud of all around it, with yawn­ing drops of more than 1,200 me­tres down to the val­leys, and mar­vel­lous panora­mas, in­clud­ing the Mont Blanc mas­sif to the north. You re­ally feel on top of the Tarentaise here, as Bec Rouge turns out to be not quite as unas­sum­ing as you thought. As for get­ting home – just re­verse your steps, and ex­pect some thigh burn.

CY­CLING

There is a lovely 22-kilo­me­tre, traf­fic-free cy­cle trail from Bourg-saint-mau­rice down to Aimé and back which runs along­side the River Isère and was my in­tro­duc­tion to cy­cling in the Tarentaise. You will see all ages and types of bikes along the route, and most rid­ers will never need to get out of the sad­dle at any point.

Café stops and fine views up to the sur­round­ing moun­tains make this a per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to the Tarentaise, or a good warm-up for your first day in the moun­tains be­fore tack­ling some­thing more chal­leng­ing. This might well be one of the sunny, south-fac­ing bal­cony routes above Bourg-saint-mau­rice, which vary in dis­tance from around 30 to 50 kilo­me­tres. They do in­volve a bit of

climb­ing, but there are plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to stop in an­cient stone and tim­ber vil­lages such as Les Chapelles and Granier, ad­mire a baroque church or pop into a café or restau­rant.

Then there are the big ones. The statis­tics for the Col du Petit Sain­tBernard look daunt­ing; it has fea­tured four times in the Tour de France, is 31 kilo­me­tres long, in­volves 1,373 me­tres of as­cent and cul­mi­nates at a height of 2,188 me­tres. How­ever, for a fit, am­bi­tious cy­clist this clas­sic col makes a fine in­tro­duc­tion to the ma­jor road climbs of the Alps.

The rea­son is sim­ple – it has a very gen­tle gra­di­ent. If you ride up from Bourg-saint-mau­rice, the av­er­age slope is only 4.4 per cent, which ef­fec­tively means you need never get out of the sad­dle. Even at its steep­est, the climb never ex­ceeds six per cent.

The steep­est bits are at the start as you weave your way up to Séez and the first of the seem­ingly end­less hair­pin bends. Even­tu­ally, you dip into for­est, the trees giv­ing shade from the sum­mer sun and oc­ca­sion­ally open­ing up to re­veal views of the Tarentaise Val­ley towards Tignes.

Af­ter rolling through La Rosière (and a po­ten­tial cof­fee and cake break), you hit open coun­try, the bare rocks of­fer­ing no respite from ei­ther sun or wind, although you may think re­lief is in sight a few kilo­me­tres later as you ap­proach the Hos­pice du Petit Saint Bernard. How­ever, while food, drink and rest can be ob­tained here, you are still a kilo­me­tre from the col and the bor­der with Italy.

Press on – it’s al­most flat from here – and soon you can rest, sat­is­fied that you have tack­led one of the Alps’ great bike climbs.

MOUN­TAIN BIK­ING Route 66, Les Arcs

All of the ma­jor ski re­sorts in the Tarentaise have lift-ac­cessed moun­tain bik­ing, and hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres of ad­di­tional cross-coun­try trails snake around the moun­tains and val­leys, too. In sum­mer, th­ese trails are mostly dry, dusty and sun-kissed, as well as pass­ing through glo­ri­ous scenery, all of which makes this a su­perb place to ride on knob­bly tyres.

You will find ev­ery­thing from easy be­gin­ner runs to se­ri­ously chal­leng­ing down­hill ac­tion, which are graded in the same way as ski runs – green, blue, red and black in in­creas­ing lev­els of dif­fi­culty. One of my favourites is the 32-kilo­me­tre En­duro trail Route 66; it is only graded ‘blue’, but is so much fun that even the most hard-core of rid­ers will for­give the lack of re­ally chal­leng­ing ter­rain.

I reg­u­larly see fam­ily groups and novice bik­ers on Route 66, as well as vet­er­ans who have been rid­ing since the days be­fore full-sus­pen­sion bikes even ex­isted, which says a lot about the all-round ap­peal of this trail.

Route 66 is ac­cessed by lift, start­ing from the top of the Transarc gon­dola at the Col de la Chal, at 2,600 me­tres. Once you start rolling you have al­most 2,000 me­tres of de­scent, all the way down to Bourg-saint-mau­rice – what’s not to like on a hot, sunny sum­mer af­ter­noon?

The up­per sec­tions of the trail are com­posed of invit­ing sin­gle tracks cross­ing open pas­tures and rock fields be­fore you go past Lac de la Val­lée de l’arc and into Arc 2000, then Arc 1950 and Pré Saint-esprit (if you want re­fresh­ment, stop here as there is nowhere else af­ter this).

From here you hit the cool shade of the Forêt de Ronaz, where you de­scend along a mix of for­est trails and quiet roads that usher you all the way down to Bourg-saint-mau­rice.

VIA FERRATA Les Bet­tières

The great thing about this via ferrata climb­ing route – other than its beau­ti­ful set­ting in the Val­lée de Ro­suel be­tween Les Arcs and La Plagne – is that it can be done by vir­tu­ally any­one with a head for heights and a sense of adventure.

Les Bet­tières is a 350-me­tre climb con­sist­ing of three sec­tions, which get pro­gres­sively harder as you as­cend, but each of which has an es­cape route back down to the val­ley. If you do de­cide to bail out while your more ad­ven­tur­ous com­pan­ions scrab­ble ever higher, there is a great café at the nearby Refuge de Ro­suel where you can wait for them.

The ini­tial sec­tion is an easy 50-me­tre scram­ble that chil­dren will en­joy as well as adults (which means it gets busy at times). This acts as a warm-up for the next pitch, which is no­tice­ably steeper (in fact, ver­ti­cal in places) and more ex­posed. It con­tains an ex­cit­ing ‘Nepalese bridge’ – in ef­fect three hor­i­zon­tal ca­bles (your feet edge across the lower one while you grip the two par­al­lel up­per ca­bles with your hands) which take you across a chasm.

The third and fi­nal sec­tion has some stiff chal­lenges in­clud­ing a short over­hang­ing sec­tion. It eases off towards the end, af­ter which you have a pleas­ant de­scent back down to the val­ley through wooded slopes.

ABOVE: Moun­tain bik­ing above Les Arcs; BE­LOW: On the via ferrata at Les Bet­tières

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