Seeking refuge in the Alps

SEPTEMBER 18 — We headed to the cooler climes of the Alps in early August to try out an idea that’s been brewing for a while: a refuge-to-refuge trek. 

Escaping the sweltering heat that hit Europe this summer, if only for a few days, was a welcome relief too.

We had experimented with mountain hiking in the Pyrenees last year — just daily walks from a campsite base — to see if the kids would enjoy it, or complain voraciously. 

Fortunately, all four showed an encouraging enthusiasm, and so began my search for the ideal walk. 

A four-day circuit in the French Alps that crossed into Italy, of “moderate” difficulty and with refuges neatly positioned en route, seemed a good match. Also, a detailed blog called “Jump38” I unearthed on ‘Tour d’Ambin’ gave me the courage to go ahead. We were ready, packed and relatively prepared; not much could go wrong?

Backpacks

I’ve learned two things: one, that living out of a backpack is an art; two, it’s one I’ve yet to master. My shoulders still ached a week after our return to civilisation.

An online quote I had read: “Un sac trop lourd est un sac chargé d’angoisse” (a heavy bag is a bag loaded with anguish — Freud), came back to haunt me on the first day, when, already struggling with my load, my youngest complained his rucksack was too heavy and passed it to me.

Laden with jumbo backpacks front and back, I felt like a Welsh pit pony plodding unsteadily along the hillside, quietly resigned to the punishing job in hand.

Note to oneself: Pack the bare minimum.

Day Two offered challenging rocky scrambles up steep inclines to the snow-robed summit (3,100 metres). — Pictures by Helen Hickey
Day Two offered challenging rocky scrambles up steep inclines to the snow-robed summit (3,100 metres). — Pictures by Helen Hickey

Change

It’s the one certainty about the Alps: changing weather, challenges and scenery.

Day One involved a pretty pine-laced hill walk that chased alongside a busy ice-blue stream.

Day Two offered challenging rocky scrambles up steep inclines to the snow-robed summit (3,100 metres), which also marked the French/Italian border. 

Italy rewarded us with warm, sweet-smelling air, a carefully constructed stone-lined path and grassy patches with clusters of dazzling wildflowers.

Day Three involved a hideously sharp descent navigated with handrails and chains in places. 

But, we were rewarded at the end with tumbling waterfalls, and marching cows with their tinkling bells, that threatened to join us for a dip in Lake Savine!

Surprises

“There are no hot showers!” my eldest yelped on reaching refuge d’Ambin. Two-thirds up a mountain, miles from anywhere; this shouldn’t have been a surprise. 

They were at least memorable ones: taken al fresco, dressed in bikinis and trunks, using ice-cold water scooped from a cow trough.

The surprised look of the refuge keeper when I tried to give him our picnic remains: “What you bring up, you take down!” All lunches were eaten in full after this.

An electrical storm enveloping our refuge at breakneck speed: we watched ghostly plumes of cloud pour down and swallow the bunk room window within minutes, and the thunderclaps had us clasping our ears and squealing with fright.

When the first day’s trek lasted for seven hours, and not four. After that “nasty surprise” we started using the map, not the blog. Silly me.

The steepest snowbanks were tackled through gritted teeth, not looking down and placing our feet in the holes left by earlier walkers.
The steepest snowbanks were tackled through gritted teeth, not looking down and placing our feet in the holes left by earlier walkers.

Snow

Last winter’s snowfall was “exceptional”, according to the lovely guardian of our second refuge. So exceptional, that despite daytime temperatures in the mid-twenties, plenty of the white-stuff still remained in the height of the summer.

We had to skip refuge Levi-Molinari, as without snow crampons and walking poles the route was impassable. 

I’m glad I checked our planned route with the guardian at breakfast: a 300 metres snow ascent up a 40-degree gradient with an iceberg-covered lake at its foot — to catch the fallen — would have equalled a very bad time.

We did, in any event, have to cross several crusty snowfields. The steepest was tackled through gritted teeth, not looking down and placing our feet in the holes left by earlier walkers.  

Being visited by a curious Alpine Ibex (a type of wild mountain goat) with sharp horns and woolly brown coat, while chilling in our cabin.
Being visited by a curious Alpine Ibex (a type of wild mountain goat) with sharp horns and woolly brown coat, while chilling in our cabin.

Luxury

Staying in a refuge where delicious and wholesome four-course dinners were served, breakfasts and picnics prepared, and NOT camping as did one troop of brave hikers. 

My kids said they’d do it one day; but that will be with their friends, not me.

Internet coverage

None! Or, let’s just say you had to be quite innovative. Like trekking two kilometres from the first refuge to the “wooden telephone box” situated close to a telegraph pole, and braving the biting wind to let the outside world know all was well with the team. 

Great though, for without any screens, the kids ended up READING BOOKS!

No internet coverage in the Alps meant the kids ended up READING BOOKS!
No internet coverage in the Alps meant the kids ended up READING BOOKS!

What not to take

Ahem, a make-up bag (yes, I am embarrassed to admit this). Then there was that dress and jewellery... I’ve much to learn.

What to take

Another adult. I had to leave my husband Tom behind in London to recuperate with his parents after having had an unexpected heart operation. 

In a bid to keep things as normal as possible for the children, we decided that the show must go on. He was with us in spirit, if not in body.

Map, cotton bed liners (a must as the fitted under sheet, pillow and woollen blankets are probably not washed until the end of the season), penknives, emergency foil blankets and a small tent, a compass (although the paths were very well marked and I only used it once). 

Walking poles: Definitely on my list for next year for safety reasons, particularly for crossing snowbanks. Anti-blister socks, decent walking boots: two of mine insisted they didn’t need them, since their Nike trainers would be “fine.” Just fine.

Earplugs! We shared one cosy bunkroom with a super fit granddad. The hard-core walker (who had previously crossed the entire Alps in just 17 days) spent the night farting, to quote the kids “like a machine gun.” Must have been the chickpea soup.

Despite the challenges and surprises, the trek was a success!
Despite the challenges and surprises, the trek was a success!

History

Good to have a bit to chew on while walking, and my youngest had studied (and remembered ) this much celebrated ancient military feat: we were tracing the steps of the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who took his army of 25,000 men and herd of 37 elephants across this part of the Alps to fight the Romans back in 218 BC (according to the information boards). Brave soul. Poor elephants.

Despite the challenges and surprises, the trek was a success and we will be returning next year for another wilderness pilgrimage.

I’d definitely recommend it: just take a map, pack light but cleverly, and go the refuge route: glamping not camping!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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