06 July 2015

Haut Chablais - June 2015

A chuff soars from the summit of les Cornettes de Bise, the highest summit of the Haut Chablais
After many years of clambering over high mountains and trekking some of the world's classic routes, it's easy to get complacent about the hills.
So, the plan was to do some easy walking in the pretty alpine region of the Haut Chablais, the area just south of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) with mountains a little over 2400m in height close to the French-Swiss border. A few hours a day, then a well-earned beer or two to rehydrate.
Yeh, right.
I hadn't reckoned on a heatwave (31C by 09:00 at 2000m, peaking at 34C a few hours later), nasty little biting flies known locally as taon, numerous paths wiped out by landslides (heavy rain accompanied the usual snow melt back in May), and a number of tracks now closed off by farmers and new ski lift and piste development. Châtel might be a paradise for skiers and mountain bikers, but walkers seem to take second-fiddle right now...

Ah, did I just mention mountain bikers? Yep, guess who was walking during the annual Pass'portes de Soleil three day event? The mountains were teeming with MTB riders, who, it is fair to say, were extremely careful passing us foot-driven types, flashing past with a cheery 'bonjour' as they careered down the mountain. Hmmm. And three helicopters seen during the day of my climb up Mont de Grange meant that some of them didn't complete the weekend either. 
But, cosseted with the travel arrangements made by Headwater, the expert walking holiday company, with great family run hotels and luggage moved from point to point as I circumambulated the region, I was up for the challenge!
The first few days were spent walking from Les Gets to Lac de Montriond, and then on to Châtel. My route took in the summit of Mont Chéry 1826m (and, no, I didn't use the ski lifts...), steeply down to the Col de l'Encrenaz, and then down to the lovely little Hotel les Sapins, at the western end of Lac de Montriond. A good warm up, followed by a ridge route called the 'Super-Morzine,' albeit with a punishing descent through the forest later in the day.

On the ascent of Mont Chéry 1826m, Mont Blanc dominates the skyline
The remainder of the first day's walk seen from Mont Chéry, the valley above Montriond, bounded by Pointe de Nantoux to the north (left of centre)
Lac de Montriond

Lac de Montriond seen from the Belvedere (overlook at 1618m) off the Super Morzine trail
The route from Lac de Montriond takes you up beside more tempting ski lifts (again I eschewed these modern contraptions) and along the GR5 to the Col de Bassachaux, after which the summit of the Mont de Grange comes into view. It's an impressive hill and looks like a demanding route, but a couple of hours later I was enjoying the summit all to myself, a long hot climb to get up there and having crossed some old snow near the summit. Awesome views to Mont Blanc to the south east and the Dents du Midi, and, in the far distance the Swiss peaks of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau, and Dent Blanche and the Matterhorn. Wonderful stuff, bringing back many happy memories.
Getting down to Châtel proved to be bit of a trial though. One path through the forest, used by farmers as a shortcut for their cattle, muddy (and well fertilised) and heavily rutted, and then, right at the end of the day, a path closed due to a landslide, adding another 40 minutes of walking in the heat. Hey ho... 

Lac de Montriond seen from the GR5 on the approach to Col de Bassachaux 1778m 
Mont de Grange, which shares the accolade of Haut Chablais's highest summit with the les Cornettes de Bise, at 2432m
On the start of the climb to Mont de Grange, looking east to Dents du Midi and Mont Blanc 
The steepest section of the summit path 
Summit views, Mont de Grange 2432m

The Eiger. Mönch and Jungfrau seen from the summit of Mont de Grange
The final descent path into Châtel closed due to landslides, adding a 4km diversion 
A 'rest day' in Châtel had me clambering up local hills, although thwarted by new piste construction and new lift systems. And one local farmer who's decided he's had enough of walkers. I can think of better places to base yourself for walking in the Alps...

Châtel - a wonderland for sightseers, skiers and mountain bikers. But many paths for walkers closed and diverted here now :-(
Mont de Grange seen from above Châtel
But, onwards! Leaving Châtel behind, an early start got me to the summit of Le Morclan 1970m, right on the French-Swiss border, and then followed a delightful ridge along it, scrambling over the Pointe des Ombrieux 1978m, before a long descent through alpine meadows lush with flowers to the little village of la Chapelle d'Abondance. Glorious walking, but the heat was starting to build by now.

Route along the Swiss-French border seen from Le Morclan 1970m
Alpine flowers in abundance, late June 
Traverse of the Pointe des Ombrieux 1978m
East face of Mont de Grange seen from the Swiss border
La Chapelle d'Abondance served as the base for a climb up les Cornettes de Bise, which, at the same altitude as Mont de Grange, 2432m, shares the accolade of being the region's highest summit. My route took me up some very steep forest paths to the hidden Lac d'Arvouin, along the challenging little path from Col de Serpentin (1832m) to Col de Vernaz (1615m), and then on to the lower grassy flanks of the main peak itself.
At higher elevations, the route takes you up through outcrops of limestone, steep but never difficult, with the alpine route markers (white/red paint flashes on the rocks) helping you find your way up through the crags and avoiding some banks of old snow. This is a great summit, with airy views down to Lake Geneva, the Rhone valley far below, and a vast array of French and Swiss peaks.

Lac d'Arvouin at 1663m
Tricky little section of path between the Col du Serpentin and the Col de Vernaz 
Mont Blanc still commanding attention, from the approach to the Col de Vernaz
Col de Vernaz 1615m, seen from the first zig zag path on the ascent of les Cornettes de Bise
Alpine glory on the approach to les Cornettes de Bise
The climb up to the summit of les Cornettes de Bise
The final rocky section of the path to the summit 

Summit views from les Cornettes de Bise

Chuffs patrol their domain
Sunset from la Chapelle d'Abondnace
From la Chapelle d'Abondance a walk across the Col d'Ubine (although extreme heat deterred me from scrambling along the adjacent Pointe de Lachau ridge) brought me to the lovely little town of Abondance, with a couple of nights to spend at the delightful Hotel de l'Abbaye.
From here I explored the high alpine pastures and forests around the Pointe des Follys, although the taon were out to get me that day, and my final big walk took me over to St-Jean-d'Aulps via the Col de Tavaneuse 1997m, followed by a very long descent down gravel tracks and then one of the steepest forest paths I have ever encountered, demanding knee surgery and a lot of beer at the other end ;-)

les Cornettes de Bise seen from the approach to Col d'Ubine
 Col d'Ubine 1694m below the north face of Mont Chauffe (2093m) 
The Pointe de Lachau ridge to the left of the Col d'Ubine

Descent from the Col de Taveneuse 1997m,  looking at the north face of the Pointe de Nantaux
View back to the Lac de Taveneuse from the Col de Taveneuse 
This was a VERY steep forest descent to St-Jean-d'Aulps from Brion - the photograph does not do the steepness justice as it's foreshortened, but I won't be coming down that path ever again!
In summary, this is a great area for walking, as long as you choose your routes carefully. Paths are changing rapidly due to MTB and ski route development, so check with your hotel and local tourist information office before you set off. Definitely put the Mont de Grange and les Cornettes de Bise on your 'must do' list though!

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