Valais Alps, 8-18 August 2014
It has been quite a while since we last went on a multiday (e.g., longer than 3-4 days) mountain hiking trip. We used to go to the Caucasus mountains when we were students in Russia, and then we once went to the Khibiny mountains with friends - and that's it. So this trip was a realisation of a long cherished dream - and it certainly was a success! It was just like the trips back in those University days...
We were keen to walk on the glaciers, but because we were only one rope team (two grown-ups and an 8-year old girl), we only ventured onto wet (e.g., snow-covered) glaciers where there should have been no crevasses - and we still roped up. It was quite difficult to plan the trip. We wanted this to be a 7 day long circuit, with many mountain passes and easy glaciers. The map shows the trip, and the graph below gives an altitude profile. It was almost a circuit - we finished 9.5 km from the car, so Victor had to go and get it in the last evening. This is our route:: Lac des Places de Moulin - Col Collon - Haut Glacier d'Arolla - Arolla - Pas de Chevres - Glacier de Cheilon - Tete Noire - Lac des Dix - Col des Roux - Col de Prafleuri - Grand Deser glacier - Col de Cleuson - Col du Sarshlau - Lac de Mauvoisin - Col de Tsofeiret - Col de Crete Seche - Bionaz.
Zoom in to see the topo map. The red, blue, green, yellow, light blue, pink and black lines show our tracks for the first, second, third, forth, fifth, sixth and seventh days, and the grey line is the trip back to collect the car. The red line shows the direction of travel. The "P" icon shows the car park.
Walking time includes lunch break (up to an hour) and short breaks.
- Maps and paths. People will probably disagree with me, but I think the 1:25000 maps (paper or digital) are not so good. Some short but steep and rocky pitches are not always shown. If one is to follow marked paths, the maps are not needed at all (and actually we saw a few people walking with guide books instead of maps). The paths which are shown on the maps are always well marked. However, it is very difficult to plan a trip without paths. It is very hard to find description of the passes which do not have marked paths. But these wild, remote places are by far the best to visit! Our trip had one such pass, Col de Cleuson. This was certainly the highlight of the trip.
- Walking day. We found the trip quite tiring. Sonya is a great walker, she didn't winge at all - but our progress was still rather slow. Hence our walking day was rather long, up to 10 hours. We did not have much time for the lunch break (we never managed to cook the planned soup at lunch), and we were often behind schedule (although we managed to catch up and complete the trip as planned). Sonya's backpack was light, below 5 kg. As we were carrying a rope, crampons, carabiners etc, our backpacks were quite heavy, up to 25 kg - even though we were very strict in making them as light as possible. So this was a bit hard on our shoulders. Ideally, we would have liked to have a walking day which is no more than 8 hours long. In addition, the daily altitude gains/losses were quite significant, it would have been better to stay high up rather than go down into valleys so often.
- Difficulty. This was just right, exactly what we wanted: screes, a ladder, snow fields, glaciers.
- Weather. We were definitely lucky with the weather: there was only one weak thunderstorm, we didn't get buried in the snow, there were no strong winds, we had good weather for all key passes. However we also had a lot of rain: it rained during 5 out of 6 nights, and we only had three rain-free days (out of seven). One day we had to walk in the rain for at least five hours. We were well prepared though - nothing got wet. We also had some sun but not as much as we hoped to get. It was fairly warm, the temperature dropped below zero once (and stayed below freezing for quite some time in the morning) but we were not cold at all.
- Timing. We did not have much choice but mid-August is probably ideal time to go to this area. The trip was very compressed, we had 10 days and we wanted not only to go to the mountains but also enjoy the seaside. The first day was particularly long - we woke up at home in England, took a flight to Italy, hired a car, bought some food and gas and had enough time to start walking in the mountains.
- Wild camping. Wild camping is allowed in Valais in principle. However there are areas where you are not allowed to camp. We saw signs prohibiting wild camping near reservoirs and villages. We stayed at a campsite once (the second night of our trip). Once we stopped by a refuge to ask about the weather. The reply was not very useful ("the weather is the same every day") but we were immediately asked where we are going to camp. It turned out that we were in a Nature Reserve where wild camping was prohibited ("camping is very expensive here"- joked the owner wryly). Fortunately we were planning to camp beyond the reserve boundary. It is almost impossible to find out about such Nature Reserves from home, there is no information on the internet. Hence the lesson is to avoid refuges and try to camp high up in the mountains rather than in the valleys.
- Food. In order to make our packs lighter we dried everything including bread and meat. Sonya really liked dehydrated meat, we ate last portions at the seaside and she even asked for it back at home. We planned 650 g of foodstuff per adult per day and 300 g for Sonya. It turned out that this was too much, we could not finish our portions. It must be the first tell-tale of getting old...
- Gas. Surprisingly, this was not straightforward. We have a conventional gas burner which fits Coleman canisters. We first tried to buy gas near Milan but they were out of stock. Then we started driving towards the mountains and stopped at every petrol station. No gas. Finally we got to Aosta, this is the last city with mountains all around it. We asked in one sports shop, in another... Eventually we were shown a specialised camping shop which had gas canisters, but we wasted quite a bit of time on this, quite unexpectedly.
- Transportation. Car hire in Italy is inexpensive and even for 2-3 people it is cheaper than public transport - despite the fact that the car was left at a car park for the whole duration of the trip. The car makes the logistics of getting to/from the airport much faster and simpler. We would have been unable to get to the seaside without the car. During the mountain trip, the car can be left either in a touristy place (which is what we did, we saw car parks on satellite photos), or in large car parks near ski lifts (they are almost empty in the Summer).
- People. Contrary to our expectations, we saw very few people in the Alps. There are obviously some people in touristy places (near lakes, around Arolla, near refuges). Many do not cross the mountain ridges but retrace their steps back to the refuges after climbing. There are very few people far away from the refuges. You will not see a soul after 6 pm if the nearest refuge is more than 1-2 hours away. This is in stark contrast to the Lake District in England where sometimes people have to queue to get on popular ridges. Well, maybe this is an exaggeration.
- Mobile reception. We were surprised by the total lack of mobile reception in the mountains (except in direct line of sight of villages). There is no mobile reception near refuges.
- Electricity. In order to record GPS track, we bought a spare battery and a 500 mA solar panel with a USB output. Although we did not have that much sun, the solar panel easily coped with keeping the spare battery charged.
- A topo map (1:25000) and satellite images can be found here.
- Good webcams make it easy to get a feel for the weather and glacier condition. This site has links to all webcams in Swiss Alps.
- Weather forecast can be checked here or here.
- Here is a discussion of wild camping in Swiss Alps.
- This is the only description of the northern side of Col de Cleuson found on the internet.
- There are more links to Russian-language resources on the Russian version of this site.
We really enjoyed this trip, it was a great adventure. Click the "Next" button and look at the pictures.