Planning a route: things to consider

Currently, I am planning a trip to the French Alps for later this year (2022). I love planning, and I believe in thorough preparation. However, I don’t plan every detail. Things go as they go and some surprises are good. Any negative surprise though that could be prevented by proper planning should be eliminated. Without risking the elimination of good surprises!

So for my route, I am considering multiple things, not necessarily in the following order:
1. What do I want to see or accomplish?
2. How much time do I have?
3. Which period of the year?
4. How exhausted do I want to be?
5. Where to sleep and eat?

What do I want to see or accomplish?

The first determining factor I guess is: what do you set out to accomplish? Is it a certain distance or elevation that you want to reach? Or a particular experience, such as camping out in the wilderness next to an alpine lake? Or is it a particular view you want to have when you wake up?

How much time do I have?

As I live in the Netherlands, I need to count on a 10 hour drive to most locations in the French Alps such as Chamonix. Most locations in Wallis are also about 10hr drive, the Berner Oberland is about 8,5 hours and Austria again roughly 10. In other words: consider a day driving. So for a 3-day hike, I need 5 days. Leaving Thursday evening and drive a few hours, catch some sleep and drive some more on Friday morning is an option. This leaves the Friday to start a hike, and drive back on Monday. Ok. Check!

Which period of the year is suitable for your goals?

It might sounds obvious. It is obvious: the time of year matters a lot at higher latitudes ánd altitudes. The Alps are roughly 46 North and have a strong seasonal component to it. In the winter time it’s cold and potentially a thick snow cover. But with all due respect: in terms of hiking, a snow depth of 100cm or 500cm does not matter. In both cases, hiking is not an option. Snow-shoe trekking or ski-tours are.
In the spring time, the nights are still very chilly and the snow cover reaches its maximum depth usually mid-April. From then onwards, the snow pack starts to melt. This opens up possibilities, but the higher grounds are still snow-covered and small streams can be monstrous mounter rivers during day-time. During the night, temperatures plummet and the water levels drop (depending on the distance from the main source, when further away, the effect is less noticeable).
In June, the sun is at its highest points, but snow fields can be substantial. On north-facing slopes, they will be substantial. It’s for this reason that most huts don’t open up before June 15 and close again mid-September. From the end of September, snowfall is a potential issue at higher altitudes. Do bear in mind: fresh snow is always an option above 2500 meters in the summer.

How exhausted do I want to be?

Some people like to inflict pain on themselves and aim for long and hard trips at high altitudes, with large distances per day. They don’t mind being absolutely knackered in the evening. This does depend on what type of route you are doing. Bear in mind to keep a close watch on “the weakest link”: the exhaustion level may never exceed the largest level that the weakest link can withstand. So if your hiking partner is less fit, he or she should set the level – not you!
It also depends on how many days you will be hiking and where you sleep. Arriving at the campsite too exhausted to cook, put up a tent or create shelter and not being able to take care of yourself is not “being tough”. It’s potentially dangerous.
The person least exhausted is, when advice is followed, not the person that has set the pace and distance. This person should therefore always be fit enough to create camp, care and food.

Where to sleep and eat?

Related to the previous points: where to sleep and eat? If the choice has been made to sleep in a mountain cabin, this is taken care off. Just make sure that you arrive in time to get the food and rest you need.
If you are sleeping in the wilderness, you need more preparation and gear. Not necessarily a tent: a bivouac bag could be equally fine. Nevertheless, one of the two makes sense. Also cooking equipment, sleeping bags etc. need to be carried.
It’s also wise to consider upfront where you aim to sleep that night. Do leave room for deviations, as days could go down differently than anticipated.
Things to consider when chosing a place to sleep:
1. Check if it’s legal. Camping out in the wilderness is illegal in Switzerland, but in France it is allowed to make a bivouac above 2500m. There are also official camp grounds along popular tracks.
2. Make sure it’s flat, or flat enough to sleep
2. It should not be next to a stream. Water levels might rise during the night.
3. Be aware of cattle or wildlife. There aren’t many large predators in Europe, but a large herd of cows or sheep isn’t strange and not always fun.
4. When you have a choice: camp on an east-facing slope (or better yet: Southeast). This allows you to heat up in the morning. Although it’s tempting to capture the nice warm evening sun rays when setting camp and resting, you will regret this in the morning. Your tent might be frozen and getting out of your sleeping bag is more challenging. Getting into damp, cold clothes and shoes is also considerably less motivational.
This is the worst on a northwest facing slope.
5. Check for avalanche risk

Planning the route in practice

Characteristics of our route: I have 5 days available, including 2 travel days. This leaves me 3 days to hike. My hiking partner has an equal fitness level but is less experienced in the mountains. I should consider this when crossing snow fields, that might give some more anxiety. I want to see the sunset on the Mont Blanc and the sunrise behind it. The period of the year is slightly flexible, but definitely June or early July.
Being exhausted is OK, but we must retain some extra juice in case we need to make a change in the plan.
We take a tent and cook our own meals. For this, we should consider carrying another 10kg per person.

In the old days, and actually still, I like to look at actual maps. I collect these maps, and have been look at map 3530ET from the “Institute Geographique National” or IGN.

Map 3530ET IGN, or at least the relevant part of it.
Photograph of a part of map 3530ET IGN

This area should give me a good view in the morning towards the Mont Blanc area in the south/southeast.

The broader picture: location of our hike, relative to the surroundings of the Mont Blanc massive
The bigger picture: in red the part of the map that I’ve shown

I’ve marked the route that I would chose based upon the map:

Planning a route and assessing risks along the route: in practice
The route, with the various remarks as described below

The above route will bring us through very diverse terrain. Starting in Salvagny at 842m, the route starts sloping upwards from the very beginning. After 6.5km, we reach Refuge du Grenairon le Buet at 1942m. 6.5km sounds very doable, but bear in mind: it goes uphill with no place to catch a breathe. (Well, you can pause of course for a short while.) When in good shape, this climb takes the better part of 4,5 hours, at least according to Komoot.

Shortly after the Refuge, the climb continues, but considerably less brutal. However, it’s an exposed balcony. The last part of this first day is almost flat. The prospected campsite is close to a lake at 2600m and is at 12km after the starting point. During this 12km, we have gained 1700 meters altitude and should take 8 hours according to Komoot. Note that this campsite would be in the shadows of the mountain early morning, regardless of what we do.

In the next morning, we would start early to climb to the summit of Mount Buet (3096m). This should take approximately 2 hours, across alpine terrain: block fields, gravel, snow fields. From there, it’s downhill and flattens out: there is a 5km stretch that is barely sloping at all, just following the balcony on which it’s located. This means easy kilometers.
At the end of these easy kilometers we will find Refuge de Moëde Anterne at 2002 meters, followed by a short climb to Col d’Anterne (just above 2250m). From there, it’s basically downhill to the lake, where we would stay after a 15km hike in 6 hours.

The total route should be 38km, gaining 2770 m (and descending, as start and end point are the same).

This route seems feasible for 3 days. The pace seems slow, but we are carrying our own back packs. Also, quite literally: it is not a walk in the park. There is a potential short cut just after the second lake, making it possible to descent into the woods.
The largest issues in this route can be found in the earliest part: the exposed balcony between Grenairon and Lac du Plan du Bouet. With my current planning, it means crossing this area later in the afternoon. There is no place to hide on this balcony. The path goes across the highest ridge and opens up towards the southeast, leaving a potential for moist to build up to clouds.

The next issue is the potential of snow fields. Mount Buet will be snow covered to a large extent, but hopefully not the path. The path follows a quite exposed ridge, clearing the snow by wind force for a large part. There is no risk for avalanches on the top of a mountain or a ridge, so any snow accumulation is the result of winter (or recent precipitation). 3000 meter altitude should be well below the freezing level, allowing for snow to be melted. On the SE-side of Mount Buet, not much snow is to be expected as its exposed to the sun.
In case it would be too bad: we simply turn-around.

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