Back to the roots
After 3 years away from France, I decided to surprise my family and head back home for a month during Christmas. I kept it secret so no one knew about it and they had lost all hope about me coming back. When I found myself in front of the family house, ringing the bell, no one replied. The house was totally empty. Luckily Christophe, a childhood friend which joined me in Australia for a few month was here and he hosted me until the next day. The day after, my family was back and so surprised and happy to see me again!
While in Singapore, from where I flew from, it is very hot, here in France, it is the middle of the winter, I haven’t experienced any white Christmas for the last 3 years and it looked like it won’t happen this year either. Everything is cold and grey in Paris. But still, the Christmas vibes are here. Christmas market, mulled wine and family dinners play a big part in it.
If the snow doesn’t come to me, I will have to go to the snow!
And that’s how I planned this adventure just before new year’s eve with two good friends, Richard aka Rico and Maxence to a hut in the French Alps.
The hut we have chosen is Refuge de Presset just at the base of La Pierra Menta. La Pierra Menta is Internationally famous for its shape and used as a background in many outdoor brands advertisement. There is as well a race each year which has the same name. La Pierra Menta. It is a ski/alpinism race. On 4 days, participants have to climb up to 15 summits evolving between 2000 meters to 2687 meters high. Altogether, it’s a total of 10 000 positive meters of climbing up. No need to say that you must be well trained to enroll it. Our adventure will be way easier.
During the winter, there is only one way to go up there and it’s by backcountry skiing. This year, as the snow is old and present only at the very top, we will only use snowshoes.
The first day, a long drive to the French Alps.
While in France, I’m staying at my parent’s house located near Paris, there is a 5 hours drive to reach the base of the French Alps. A long and boring drive which is made nice because I’m with one of my best friends and after 3 years away we have a lot to speak about.
We have been invited to spend the night in Annecy at Rico’s flat. Annecy is a nice city based on a lakeside wearing the same name. In Annecy, we are still in the bottom of the valley and we will have 2 hours drive to the base of the hike. Rico wasn’t sure to join us but he finally did and didn’t regret his decision!
We had a Croziflette for dinner, it’s a special dish coming from this area made with Crozets, they are tiny squared paste made with buckwheat flour. To those Crozets, we add Reblochon cheese, onions, bacon, crème fraiche… it’s very rich to keep you warm and full of energy during the cold winter! I love it and I definitely missed it for all those years. I’m just realising it now.
The second day, hiking up!
In the morning after a good night, we headed to Arêches-Beaufort. 2 hours driving on little windy roads up to the last village. Arêches-Beaufort, is famous for its Beaufort cheese, ski touring, and from where the Pierra Menta race begins and ends. We rented some snowshoes and started the last drive to go over Le col du pré. We parked the cars at the beginning of a track only accessible by 4WD as it is totally frozen.
After packing all the bags, we started to hike at around 2 PM, yes we have been very slow, it’s meant to be a 5 hours hike and as it is the winter the night will arrive at 4:30 PM. We will have to finish the hike at night which makes me happy. I love hiking and climbing under a sky full of stars and the best photos are often made at dusk so it’s better to still be outside at this time!
After the icy 4WD track, there is not much snow anywhere else and we hike with the snowshoes tied to our backpacks for 8km before to have to stop and put them on. We are alone, surrounded by mineral giants, not a single cloud in the sky, this is such a luxury on a more than 7 Billion humans populated planet and it’s free!
Since we put the snowshoes, the sun is setting and the colors are getting amazing! The slopes are more and steeper, the snow is sometimes hard sometimes soft and we all felt down in hips deep holes many times even with the snowshoes.
We reached the first pass and discovered a second one just behind. It’s now pitch dark and we are progressing with headlights on. There is no moon at all to light us up the way and the traverse between the two passes is a bit difficult to manage. It’s slippery and if one of us fall down, it’s going to be a long, long night as the cliff ends far away below us. Once we reached the last pass called Col de Bresson, we can see the hut thanks to its light! Is there someone inside or is it an automatic light on for lost hikers in the dark night like us? We will discover it soon.
On this side of the mountain, there is less snow and I decided to take off my snowshoes to be able to walk either on ice, snow and mud patches. This is the last straight line to the hut, on an inclined slope which makes the walk hard and slippery. The more we walk, the more we go down. We finally arrive at the base of the last cliff to climb up before to reach the hut. It’s icy and very slippery but after that, we will have arrived. I reached the hut first and I’m welcomed by a border collie puppy jumping on me. So cute! He came with a group of 5 people from Belgium. They arrived since a couple of days and plan on staying here until new year’s eve. It’s impressive how much food and wine they have brought with them. We spend a part of the night speaking about mountains and adventure and it is very nice to share such great moments with other outdoors lovers. Especially because here, there is no phone or other forms of connection with the outer world.
The hut is brand new and it’s so far the comfiest I’ve ever been to. After a good dinner and chat with our housemates for the night, we go out again to take some photographs from the frozen lake. Richard, one of my friends is a professional photographer as well and we spent 2 hours outside under the milky way taking different shots from different spots in the cold night.
We played with my headlight to light up some rocks and peaks to create an open photo studio. Such an amazing place! Living in the busy city makes me a bit anxious and right here, I’m feeling great and in peace again.
The second day, Sunrise then sliding down.
The night was great! As the sunset is early and sunrise late, we’ve been able to sleep a good 6 hours before to wake up at 4:45 AM to start hiking up to the top of the Col du Grand Fond to see the sunrise on the Mont Blanc.
The views up there were amazing, we’ve been climbing up 200 meters pretty quickly and this would not have been possible without our snowshoes. The slope is steep and many parts are icy and really slippery.
For me, the best light is before sunrise and this time again it was true. We’ve been walking around for an hour before the sunrise to find different angles and get the best shots possible.
We had such a great time up there! We hiked down back to the hut at around 9 AM and enjoyed some warm sunrays on the terrace of the hut which is exposed full south to get the best sunlight possible.
At around 11 AM, we started to walk down again. The snowy side, still in the shade at midday was very icy, cold and slippery. I didn’t put my snowshoes at first and realised quickly that it was a mistake after a 50 meters uncontrolled slide down on the steep face of the slope. Thanks to the walking sticks and by hitting with my bare hands in the snow, I’ve been able to stop the fall just 50cm before a huge rock which would have crushed me. Straight after that, I’ve put on the snowshoes.
As soon as we reached a less steep slope, we started to have fun and slid on purpose. 5 hours hike up, 3 hours hike down thanks to the slides.
Back to the car at around 3 PM, we drove back to Arêches-Beaufort where we had a beer and pizzas to close well this amazing adventure.
If you have the chance to visit France and especially the French Alps, the best website that I just discovered to plan your hikes is altituderando it’s such a gold mine for all your hikes/climbs/Mountaineering in the Alps. Unfortunately, it’s all in French like many French websites, sorry we aren’t too good in English, but you still can find the list of the different hikes near the city you are staying at thanks to their search engine that you can find under the tab “Topos Montagne”.