The Ecrins National Park, about a 90 minute drive East of Grenoble, is the largest in France and has some of the wildest and most dramatic scenery in the Alps. Rupert Parker reports
Roughing it is all very well when needs must and certainly, if you want to tackle the mountains, there’s often no alternative. In France they take their food seriously and a couple of mountain refuges are now offering a Tour Gourmand, a gourmet tour, around the heights of the Ecrins National Park. This is one of those places, relatively undiscovered, far less known than the routes further north around Mont Blanc.
The trail starts at Gîte du Plan du Lac, near St Christophe en Oisans, and I 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 and I’m now hungry so I ask the guardian, Sylvie Danjard, what’s for dinner. She replies that it’s soup, made with foraged herbs and says no more. I wonder if there’s bread and she just looks at me, but then I realise she’s teasing and of course there’s sausage, pasta and dessert.
At 1805m, there’s no electricity, the toilet is outside and the running water comes out of a plastic pipe snaking down from 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. Next are Oreilles d’âne, or donkey’s ears, a lasagne-like dish of 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 I set out early for the next refuge. The track takes me 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 and 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 filled 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. They’re 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. away.
The Tour Gourmand continues onwards to a couple more refuges but I’m keen to try some glacier hiking, and I also fancy a bit of comfort. A taxi whisks us 14km to Vénosc and we take the cable car to Les Deux Alpes and check into the three star Hotel Le Souleil’Or. After a couple of nights roughing it, it really feels like a palace and it’s good to have a room of my own. Dinner at their Le Shakisky restaurant is excellent.
Glacier walking always starts early, before the snow begins to melt, so at 8 am, I meet Marc, the guide, who equips me with harness, crampons and ice axe, and am introduced to the rest of the group. It’s then a trip up to 3400m via a cable car and an underground funicular. At this altitude, even though the sun is shining, fingers are a little cold to be fumbling with crampons, but they’re essential on the snow. Marc inspects each of us, checks we’re holding our ice axes in a way that won’t damage our partners, and then leads us single file, all roped together, onto the glacier.
We climb steadily, across what looks like plain pristine snow, but Marc is ever watchful for crevasses, steering us round particular patches which he deems dangerous. My glasses start to steam up and I keep treading on the rope in front of me but finally we’re at the summit. I look down to see the skiers skimming down the glacier, and try to work up the energy for the descent. Strangely we don’t have to be roped and I begin to think all the talk about crevasses has been an elaborate joke.
The Tour Gourmand costs 225 € all inclusive, and can be booked at http://berarde.com/en/activities/hiking/tour-gourmand-eng
The Hotel Souleil’Or has B&B from €104 per night.
For information about the Vénéon valley, see www.montagne-oisans.com.
For information about Les Deux Alpes, see www.les2alpes.com.
For information about the mountains of France see www.france-montagnes.com.