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
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.
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.
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