I’d always wondered what life is like in those high altitude French Refuges, often no more than wooden shacks, nestling in the shade of the mountains. Even better, when I hear about a Tour Gourmand, or gourmet tour, hiking between them, I’m even more interested. So I pack my rucksack and set out to try hiking Ecrins National Park, about a 90 minute drive East of Grenoble.
Ecrins National Park is the largest National Park in France and features some of the wildest and most dramatic scenery in the Alps. And yet it remains relatively undiscovered, its paths less travelled than those famous trails further north around Mont Blanc.
I’m told that the walking is quite strenuous and it’s better to take less rather than more, so I whittle down my load to a change of clothes, a sheet sleeping bag, toiletries, sandals and of course a large water container.
My trail for hiking Ecrins National Park starts at Gîte du Plan du Lac, near St Christophe en Oisans, and we settle down to a hearty lunch with a glass of wine or two for courage, before hitting the road. The weather isn’t looking particularly promising but at least it’s dry and the first few kilometres follow the valley floor alongside the River Vénéon.
There’s obviously been a lot of rain as it’s a raging torrent, and I don’t envy the brave river rafters, struggling to stay afloat as the river takes them in the opposite direction.
I see the village of St Christophe en Oisans, perched high above the opposite bank, and the signpost points me up the steep hillside, directly adjacent to a magnificent waterfall. I get glimpses of this as I climb, but it’s beginning to rain and I’m keen to reach shelter.
Finally, after gaining 600m of altitude the tiny Refuge de l’Alpe du Pin pops into view and I collapse with a beer. It’s been tough, but given me an appetite, so I ask the refuge’s guardian, Sylvie Danjard, what’s for dinner. She replies that it’s soup, made with foraged herbs and I’m worried. I wonder if there’s bread and she just looks at me with a blank expression, but then I realise she’s teasing – they’re used to hungry hikers and of course there’s sausage, pasta and dessert.
At an altitude of 1805m, there’s no electricity, the only toilet is outside and the running water comes out of a plastic pipe snaking down the mountain. The refuge can sleep twenty, packed closely together on two platforms, but fortunately it’s only half full.
Sylvie is an excellent cook and the delicious herb soup is served with her homemade bread and a glass of organic Cote du Rhone. The next dish is Oreilles d’âne, or donkey’s ears, wild spinach, sandwiched between layers of pasta with lashings of cheese.
I’m now thinking I’ve eaten my fill but local sausages arrive, then pieces of Comte cheese and finally her delicious fruit tart. Everyone of course sleeps well, although I do get complaints about my snoring in the morning.
The weather is looking better as we set out early for the next refuge. The path leads through the forest and then starts to descend. I’m worrying that I’m going to lose all the height I gained yesterday but fortunately the path takes a right into the Mariande Valley, then follows the Muande stream up to the Refuge de la Lavey at 1797m.
This is a much larger building than the previous night and can take up to 60. Its situation is stunning, surrounded by 3000m peaks, with a snow covered glacier on the horizon. Facilities are slightly more luxurious as there are inside toilets, although if you want a shower, you have to brave the outdoors and cold mountain water. The refuge is famous for serving world food and dinner is typically Nepalese – rice, dhal and strips of grilled meat.
Next morning it’s cold and crispy and there’s frost on the grass. After crossing the Muande stream, it’s a steep zig zag up the mountainside, climbing to 2350m. At this altitude, I’m feeling short of breath and it’s a bit of a slog, but the magnificent views more than make up for it.
We descend slightly to the Lac des Fétoules, more of a pond really, where people have camped overnight. From here it’s a scramble downhill, icy underfoot, back to the bridge over the Vénéon River. There’s another bit of climbing before we reach the delightful village of St Christophe en Oisans.
The amusingly eccentric Café La Cordée supplies the beers and then welcomes us into their Hamman – just the thing for washing the dirt and sweat of the last few days hiking Ecrins National Park.
The Tour Gourmand continues onwards to a couple more refuges but I’m keen to try some glacier hiking, and I’m also yearning for a bit of comfort. A taxi whisks us 14km to Vénosc and then we take the cable car up to the village of Les Deux Alpes.
After a couple of nights roughing it, the three star Hotel Le Souleil’Or really does feel like a palace and it’s good to have a room of my own. Dinner at their Le Shakisky restaurant is excellent, a good mix of the refined and the local.
It’s wise to start glacier walking early, before the snow begins to melt, so at 8 am, we meet Marc, our guide. He won’t allow us on the glacier without being roped together so we’re equipped with helmets, harness, crampons and ice axes. It’s then a ride in the cable car to 3,200m, then descending in another gondola, before taking the underground funicular up to 3,400m.
At this altitude, even though the sun is shining, my cold fingers fumble with the crampons, but I know they’re essential on the snow. Marc, clicks my harness onto the rope, shows me how to hold my ice axe so I don’t injure my partners, and then leads us in single file, onto the glacier.
Of course I’m the one who keeps standing on the rope, almost tripping the person in front of me, but I soon learn by my mistakes. We climb steadily, across what looks like plain pristine snow, but Marc is ever watchful for crevasses, steering round particular patches which he deems dangerous.
It’s tough walking at this altitude and any cold is banished by a sea of perspiration. Finally the snow runs out, replaced by fragments of rough slate, and I realise we’ve reached out objective, Le Dôme de la Lauze.
At almost 3,600m, the views are stunning, Mont Blanc to the north is completely clear and I can even see as far as Mont Ventoux to the south. In the immortal words of James Cagney, “Made it ma, top of the world!”
Images (c) Rupert Parker
Tell me more about hiking Ecrins National Park
The 5 day Tour Gourmand hiking Ecrins National Park costs 225 € all inclusive.
The Hotel Souleil’Or has B&B from €104 per night.
Visit here for more information about the Vénéon valley
Les Deux Alpes for more information on the region
Visit here for further information about the French mountains