Planning an early-season multi-day hike

It’s January and the days are getting longer rapidly. There is an itch in my feet. My legs are tingling. Summer is approaching! Ok, I do realize that the coldest part of the winter is yet to come. I also realize that the deepest snow cover is usually only realized mid-April. But, the feeling remains the same: it’s time to start with some early-season planning.

First: let’s determine “early season”. I am looking at the period between mid-May and Mid-June. This is a timeframe which is truly off-season. It’s too early for refuges to be open, and too late for winter activities. My eye has fallen on the Vanoise-area for this hike. We plan to start the hike on a wednesday afternoon and return on saturday end of day. This gives us 3,5 days of hiking time. We are quite fit, so should be able to cover 15km per day in alpine terrain.

The Vanoise Area

The Vanoise area is in the French Alps, just south of Bourg Saint Maurice. It’s enclosed by the Tarentaise and Maurienne Valleys and is home to the oldest French National Parc. This parc crosses into Italy as it’s connected to the Italian Gran Paradiso National Park. Below is the map, as a screenshot from Google Maps and with the added red-lined area which is called broadly “Vanoise”. The National Park is considerably smaller and is located in the east of the area.

The Vanoise area is extremely popular: it might be the Number 1 destination of France after Paris. Why? Basically it holds most of the French high-altitude ski-resorts: Val Thorens, Courchevel, Meribel (Trois Vallées), Les Arcs, La Plagne (Paradiski), Tignes (Espace Killy), Val d’Isere (Espace Killy). It’s all here (broadly in the yellow lines below).

When planning the trip, this is something we need to consider: ski resorts are to be avoided. Not necessarily because it’s too busy or because of the lifts. In fact, lifts sometimes come in handy. But ski slopes are coved with artificial snow, and this snow can persevere into the spring season, leading to unnecessary crossings of snow fields. This isn’t dangerous, but it isn’t fun either. The snow gets sloppy and wet and slows us down.

Another thing to avoid is high alpine cols or mountain passes. Underneath in purple the area above 2000 meter. This 2000 meter is more or less arbitrary; yet it isn’t. It’s the altitude where until now there is hardly any snow cover. This reduces the chance of snow fields in the early hiking season. However, when going higher, the snow level will increase significantly as the snow is present there already since November and is very compact. Above 3000 meters, the snow cover is persisting since September.

As you can see: there are not that many options available with sufficient long trekking opportunities (for multiple days) without going into high alpine terrain (which sounds like an oxymoron anyway, when planning a mountaineous trip).

Time for a closer look

With the above in mind, we can identify an area which is mostly free of ski-slopes. Yet, could be high-alpine:

For a better look and planning, Google Maps is insufficient. It’s only a first selection tool to eliminate options. Not to chose routes. The above area is covered by 3 different maps: IGN 3532ET, 3534OT and 3633ET (all for sale at local stores).

From these maps, I’ve taken the routes and plotted these below. There are a few starting points: on the north side from the Peisy-Nancroix Valley. On the east-side, at the Tignes reservoir or from Val d’Isere and on the west side from Champagny en Vanoise or Pralognan.

Although all of these routes are beautiful, one thing stands out: the potential circle you can make around the Grande Casse and Grande Motte. There are a few things to consider though:

  1. Camping and bivouac is forbidden in the National Park (which is the complete area, more or less, except the ski slopes). Most if not all refuges will be closed.
  2. Altitude versus season. Most of the above is >2000 meter and considerable parts are >2500m.
  3. It’s 63kms (roughly) with a 3500m descend and ascend.

The above route looks beautiful, and depending on the rest of the winter season, even plausible. Yes, some parts are in very high terrain. However, that’s mostly on the south side which is more exposed to the sun and should have considerably less snow cover.

Let’s start the training and preparations!

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