Wednesday 23rd August: Day 4, Tour des Glaciers de la Vanoise, Refuge de l’Arpont to Pralognan

After a refreshingly better night’s sleep, with no snorers, we set off on what was to prove to be an epic day for seeing the local wildlife, as well as more stunning scenery. This is rather a long blog entry because it was such a good day, and there are lots of photos because it was so difficult to summarise what we saw in just a few!

Immediately after leaving the refuge, we spotted a marmot up close, with his head poking out of his burrow. Most of the wildlife photos are taken on phones because I didn’t have time to get the camera out and fiddle with settings!

The path wound its way up and down and around the hillside. It was rougher than yesterday but still not too strenuous, contouring the hillside, crossing rocky gullies with the valley far below. We were amazed to see a young ibex just a few metres in front of us as we entered a glacial valley. It wasn’t scared of us at all, just strolling casually across the path.

We didn’t see anybody for about 2 hours, until after we’d stopped for a snack. It was lovely and peaceful!

After this, we crossed an enormous glacial valley, of quite stark scenery, with lots of streams running from the glacier.

Shortly afterwards, we watched a shepherd herding a flock of sheep with three sheep dogs, near a small lake. Not a bad job on a day like today, but it must be difficult in this environment when the weather is poor.

There were more people around now, coming in the opposite direction as we neared a path down to a refuge, and the valley beyond. We stopped to take pictures of an amazing hanging valley, where the river just dropped over the edge into the gully.

After stopping for yet another snack, we turned into another valley. The path here was difficult in places, uphill over boulders and scree. At one point, the boulders either side of the path were higher than me. We had to watch out for the cairns marking the best route.

Just before we turned again into yet another valley, we came across a fort built into the hillside, with several observations windows. We took the time to have a nose around inside.

There were windows in two sides, looking down different valleys, including the one in the photo below, to our right as we walked. We’re not sure when the fort was built or what it was for.

As soon as we turned into the valley to our left, we were delighted to see ibex on the path and in the stream, immediately ahead of us. We stood and watched as they crossed in front of us and went upon to the hillside. I even had time to get my camera out. Fantastic!

A little further along the path, the valley opened out and the river widened. People had built hundreds of rock sculptures. It was quite surreal!

There were lots of people around now as we passed two pretty lakes and approached the Refuge du Col de la Vanoise where we were planning to stay. Another walker pointed out some chamois grazing in the distance.

The refuge was at the col, at the foot of yet another impressive glacier. We were surprised to find it was only 2 o’clock and the walk had only taken us 6 hours, in spite of all the exploring, wildlife-watching and photo-taking we’d done. John went inside and was advised we couldn’t check in and shower until 5 o’clock. We decided to continue down to Pralognan, where the camper van is parked, because this would only take another 2-3 hours. It would be nice to have our own bed, and the money we saved on the refuge could be put to a meal out instead.

We chose the longer, quieter path to Pralognan, but it was still very busy. Having been in the mountains for 4 days, and not seeing anyone for hours at a time, this was a shock to the system. Using our poles for balance, we dashed down the steep, rocky path, skipping past people moving more slowly, trying not to slip on the well-worn, shiny rocks. It was a 1100m descent from the refuge to the town… hard on the knees!

We reached a turn off to the left, which we intended to take, thinking it would be quieter. A sign there advised that this path shouldn’t be used in the afternoons because of the risk of glacial melt swelling the torrents, making them dangerous to cross. We took a gamble that it hadn’t rained for several days and that, late in the season, there wasn’t as much melt water coming down.

The gamble paid off. We had no trouble crossing the waterfalls, although we could see why the warning sign was there. After rain, the various small channels would become one, and the waterfall would become very wide, and the ground very unstable. When we finally reached the bottom, we took our shoes and socks off and cooled our feet, before the final descent to the campsite.

There was one final surprise for today. As we followed a steep path downwards through the forest, there was a sign for a waterfall. We passed right next to the viewpoint… beautiful! We arrived back at the campsite by 4.30, had a cold beer, unpacked and showered. I managed to blow the fuse for the electric hook up but the man on the campsite was very nice about it! He’s been very helpful. This campsite is lovely and we’ll definitely be back.

Having dinner in the village, we were pleased to see the Dutch couple who we’d said goodbye to at the refuge. They were surprised to see us thinking we were staying up there! After dinner, I attempted some pictures of the starry sky. This is the best I managed because the campsite is surrounded by mountains on all the other sides, and it was difficult to find something high up to focus on. I’m quite pleased with this one though.

Our holiday is coming to an end now and we’ll soon be making our way home. It’s been a good one.

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