… many thanks for your knowledge, time and effort last week it was much appreciated. Despite the weather the trip was a great success and will have many lasting memories long after other holidays have been forgotten.
Unqualified walking guide in France – the risks
The immediate risk is that your unqualified walking guide or hiking leader could be arrested at any time leaving your holiday ruined. You may then find yourself required to give a statement to the police as part of their investigation. Clearly not how you wish to spend your holiday.
An unqualified walking guide – your safety at risk
Most importantly your safety and well-being could be at serious risk. What if the weather suddenly changes? Can your leader navigate in difficult conditions? If your route crosses steep, rocky terrain or even makes use of steep ladders and wire protected passages does your leader have the skills and experience to keep you safe? Early summer in the Alps large areas of old snow can make normally easy routes very serious with a trip or a slip potentially having serious or fatal consequences. Can your leader protect your safety?
The benefits of using a qualified walking or trekking guide
No. 1 ? Your safety & well-being.
- Your leader will have been assessed on their navigation and map reading skills. In good weather finding the right route may be easy but even in summer in the Alps snow can rapidly cover footpaths and way marks. Low cloud may suddenly make route finding more challenging.
- Your leader will have been trained and assessed in the use of the rope to protect you on steep ladders, wire protected sections of the route or even large areas of snow lingering from the winter. These can look innocuous but a slip and an uncontrolled slide may have very serious consequences.
- Your leader has to undergo regular refresher training or ?Continued Professional Development? to ensure their skills are up-to-date.
- Your leader is required to have a good knowledge of the flora and fauna helping you to get the most from your holiday.
- Your leader will have been trained in First Aid, usually a course specifically for remote environments in the mountains.
- Your leader is required to hold Professional Indemnity Insurance.
By insisting on only using a qualified Accompagnateur en Montagne (AeM) or International Mountain Leader (IML) you are assured of a leader who has gone through a thorough training and assessment programme.
It is also worth checking how your holiday insurance may be affected. In some cases your insurance may be invalid if you are injured when in the company of an unqualfied leader potentially leaving you with a large bill.
The Legal Situation in France
France has strict laws (references below) on who can lead walking, hiking and trekking tours. Indeed this applies to other outdoor sport professionals such as mountain guides (guide de haute montagne), rock climbing and ski instructors. There’s no requirement for leading genuine friends or family. The purpose of the laws is protect the public.
Consequences for an unqualified walking guide or mountain leaders
Regular checks (or contr?les) are carried out by inspectors from the DDCS or the Peleton Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne (PGHM) who also carry out mountain rescues. If they suspect someone is leading a group they will ask for proof of the leaders qualifications and to see if they have registered to work in France. Should they discover that a person is not qualified they may arrest them on the spot. These unqualified leaders face up to 1 years imprisonment and / or up to a Euro 15,000 fine.
A person who is remunerated for leading walks or hikes for (which includes payment in kind) is required to hold the relevant qualification or its recognised equivalent. They are also required to register with the French Sports Ministry. Those who work on a regular basis or are resident in France will also be issued with a ?Carte Professionnelle? with their photograph and a link to the qualifications they hold.
It’s often decried as France being protectionist. Not true. Any person who holds the recognised qualification or equivalent may work in France regardless of nationality. As a UK national it was a straightforward administrative matter to have my International Mountain Leader qualification recognised. The same is true for IFMGA Mountain Guides and ski instructors. There are at least 350 British ski instructors working perfectly legally in France with no hindrance.
Code du sport – Article L212-1 (in French)
Tour of the Vanoise – Article for “Mountain Passions”
The Vanoise National Park was France’s first national park created in 1963 covering an area of 520 sq km. The culminating point of the Vanoise is the Grand Casse which rises to 3855m which was first climbed by William Matthews in 1860. The Park shares a 15km common boundary with the Grand Paradiso National Park in Italy. There are over 107 summits that exceed 3000m. The Vanoise, located in the department of Savoie, stretch from the border with Italy just beyond Val d’Is?re and Bonneval-sur-Arc to the Col de la Madeleine bounded by the valleys of the Tarentaise and Maurienne. The Savoie department formed part of the independent kingdom of Savoie Sardaigne that only became part of France in 1860. Savoie’s administrative centre is located in Chamb?ry.
The Vanoise National Park remain unspoilt due to strict controls on construction and development.
The route described here is sometimes known as the Tour des Glaciers de la Vanoise.
One of the great beauties of this tour, apart from the superb scenery, is that you don’t drop down to a valley again until the end of the tour. Likewise you will not pass through villages, and walk close to roads. Having said this the tour is well provided with mountain refuges that provide simple accommodation and where you meet like-minded people.s
It is, in my opinion, a better tour than the one described passing through the village of Val d’Is?re and Tignes with the cancerous protuberances of the ski industry. Compared with the Tour du Mont Blanc you stay at altitude during the whole tour and need only touch tarmac road for 50m from start to finish.
There’s a choice of natural starting points, either Pralognan-la-Vanoise, (accessible from Moutiers in the Tarentaise valley) or Modane (in the Maurienne Valley). The route I will describe starts from Pralognan-la-Vanoise.
If you take the route in a clock-wise direction the first day is a gentle one that leads via the Lac des Vaches to the Col de la Vanoise; at the foot of the Grande Casse. The route follows the ancient ?Route du Sel?; an old trading route going back 100’s of years. The col, with the refuge Felix Faure, makes a wonderful spot to spend the night. The marmottes here are particularly friendly. If you have energy to spare you can explore the area around the col and perhaps walk up to the edge of the glacier.
The path now heads past Lac Bond and the Lac du Col de la Vanoise, only losing a little height, before contouring right around the hillside. There’s a junction here with the path to Entre deux Eaux and a road to Termignon in the Maurienne. The path climbs gently but in general it follows a natural balcony passing below the glacier de Pelve above and the deep gorge of the Doron du Termignon. The views to the south are outstanding, a panorama of mountains that form the Italian frontier. The only road across this range passes over the Col de Mont Cenis. Soon the Arpont refuge comes into sight, built into the moraine and thus protected from avalanches.
The journey continues high above the Maurienne crossing tumbling streams on the steep flanks of the mountains below the Dent Parrachee. The shepherd’s huts of La Loza perched on a spur are passed before a zig-zag descent crossing some steep ravines brings us out above the village of Aussois. Here two lakes, the Plan d’Amont (higher) and the Plan d’Aval (lower) provide hydro-electric power. A few ski lifts make their appearance as the national park’s boundary bends inwards. There’s a choice of refuges, Plan Sec, La Dent Parrachee or the Fond d’Aussois. Take your pick but I like the traditional, rustic, Dent Parrachee with Franck the friendly guardian.
Today’s ?normal route? crosses over the valley and passes via the Col Barbier (2287m) sharing the line of the GR5 on it’s journey south, before traversing more alpine pastures. Be aware of the ?patous? who may be guarding the herds of sheep (the best advice is to stop and wait for them to see that you are not a threat and then to move slowly). The route now drops down through pine woods and passes through the edge of a boulder field before regaining height to reach the L’Orgere. Here there’s the first sight of tarmac since leaving Pralognan-la-Vanoise and a chance for a bit more comfort if you wish. For those wanting more of a challenge you can take the ?direct? route via the Col de la Masse (2923m) with an equally challenging, for the knees, descent to the l’Org?re. This area is often frequented by chamois.
The next section climbs in a few zig-zags above l’Orgere before easing off and eventually passing the lac de la Partie. Above and to the left is the Aiguille Polset and the Glacier de G?broulaz however the route makes for the natural crossing point, the Col de la Chaviere (2796m), the highest ?obligatory? col on any GR in France. A short steep descent on loose ground leads to a meandering route through old moraine and boulder fields. Soon the refuge Peclet-Polset is reached, a very modern refuge, the old one burned down in a fire. If you want a little more exercise you can reach the Lac Blanc in about 15 mins from here.
The valley that extends below is the start of the Doron and soon you are amongst the pastures again on a well-defined track. Make a choice at the farm of Le Ritort either to carry on in the valley bottom or you can climb up and traverse below the Glacier de Genepy before regaining the valley floor near the hamlet of Prioux. Here the tarmac commences again but leave the end of the hamlet and walk down the left-hand bank to reach the road that’s crossed to immediately to follow a track all the way to Pralognan-la-Vanoise, and the end of the Tour.
Keep your eyes peeled for the relatively rare Bearded Vulture (Gypaete Barbu) with it’s wingspan approaching 3m! It feeds on carrion so is one of nature’s recyclers! It has the habit of dropping large bones from altitude to smash them open on rocks. There is a pair nesting not far from Peisey-Nancroix and the vultures have a territory of between 100 and 700 km2.
The park is famous for its large population of Bouquetin (Ibex) who were almost hunted to extinction. Now there’s approaching 4000 and they are relatively approachable. The males are identified most easily by their large, almost 1m long, scimitar shaped, knobbly horns. The females have shorter horns that are less ?knobbly?.
Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) are highly agile and have hooves adapted to their preferred terrain of steep rocky ground where they feel safe from the threat of two-legged hunters. They have a white ?blaze? on their cheeks and short horns that curve just at the top. If you’re lucky you may see a young chamois (cabri) with it’s mother.
You will undoubtedly encounter the cuddly looking Marmotte but your first awareness of it’s presence is likely to be a shrill whistle. This whistle is their warning cry to alert other members of their group that there’s a threat. The nature of the whistle changes to reflect whether it’s a ground or aerial threat.
Wild flowers are probably at their best in June and early July. This depends on how quickly the winter snows melt. Keep your eyes open for the iconic edelweiss and the g?n?py that gives it’s name to the pale-ish liqueur. Naturally you should come across the stunningly beautiful blue gentiane. Please note that in the Vanoise National Park that picking the flowers is forbidden.
The main limiting factor is availability of the mountain huts (refuges); the second, in the spring, being the snow remaining from the winter. The refuges normally open around mid-June (exact dates can be found on www.refuges-vanoise.com and they typically close in mid-September despite the weather often being good at this time of year.
You should only require ?normal? mountain walking attire plus a sheet sleeping bag for using in the refuges. You can read an article here on staying in mountain refuges (Link to Simply Savoie).
The principle airports are Lyon, Geneva (in Switzerland), Grenoble. Chamb?ry’s airport is principally a winter point of entry for skiers flocking to the ski resorts.
By rail the TGV gets you quickly to Chamb?ry (only 2hrs 30 from Paris) and then you can easily get to either Modane or Moutiers. From Moutiers buses or taxis are available to Pralognan-la-Vanoise.
Staying in a Mountain Refuge
Staying in a mountain refuge high in the mountains!
Spend a night in a mountain refuge high in the mountains!? Watch the sunset like you’ve never experienced it before.? Don’t let the word ?refuge? put you off.? Staying a night in a mountain refuge (or hut) is a great experience.? It’s a great way of ?bonding? together as a family, group of friends or work colleagues.? Meet people with people from all over the world with one thing in common; a love of the mountains.? At the end of the day the mountains become even more special as the majority of walkers head back down to the valley; but not you. The French Alps have a network of mountain refuges many owned by the French Alpine Club (Club Alpin Francais) or in this area by the Vanoise National Park with a few being privately owned.? Staying in a mountain refuge allows you to complete hut-to-hut treks like the Tour of the Vanoise.
It is always best to reserve the refuge in advance.? Firstly it avoids finding the refuge full.? Although you’re unlikely to be turned away (if it’s a remote refuge).? However you may find yourself sleeping on the floor in the dining room!
You should be able to contact the guardian of the refuge either by phone or email.? If you’re currently staying at one refuge the guardian there may be happy to phone ahead for you to the next refuge.? In some areas, like the Vanoise National Park, the huts have their own online reservation system where you can reserve all the refuges for a particular trip in one place; saving time and a lot of phone calls.
If for whatever reason you can’t make it or change your route do remember to contact the hut to let them know.? First of all the hut may be full and others may be turned away and secondly there may be concerns for your safety.
At the time of writing (2014) the cost of half-board in French huts is typically around Euro 45.? If you want to self-cater some refuges have an area for self-catering.? If you are a member of the French Alpine Club, or a member of another club with reciprocal rights? you will normally have a discount on the hut fees. It’s worth remembering that the vast majority of mountain refuges do not accept credit cards!
Arriving at the Refuge
At the entrance there’s normally a boot room with ?hut? shoes, sometimes like ?Crocs?, to change into.? Don’t go into the main part of the hut in your walking boots unless you want to upset the guardian.
The first thing to do after making sure you’ve changed your footwear is make yourself known to the guardian.? He or she will then allocate you your bedspace.? They are also likely to ask which refuge you’ve come from and which refuge or route you intend to do the next day.? Now’s the time too to request a packed lunch for the following day and if asked tell them what drink you want for breakfast from the choice given.
The guardian is the most important person at the refuge.? It is him or her, who manages the refuge and ensure it functions efficiently.? No easy task.? Remember refuges are not hotels and doing your bit to help by following the ?etiquette? of the hut will make your stay, and that of others, more pleasant.? Frequently the guardian manages the hut on behalf of the owner be it the French Club Alpin Francais (CAF) or another body.
What to expect
Refuges have become more luxurious than they once were reflecting changes in society.? However refuges in the high mountains may still be pretty basic.? Plugs / sockets for charging mobile phones or other portable electronic devices may not be available or very limited in number.? I’ve not come across wi-fi either and the mobile (or cellular) network may be poor or non-existent so plan accordingly.? If you need to contact another refuge on your trip ask the guardian and they will usually make it for you if you ask nicely.
The more modern huts have relatively small dormitories now with may be 8 to a room however you may still come across the older style multi-occupany bunks with maybe 20 to a room on two levels with narrow single mattresses side by side on the base.? Cosy!
Most refuges on trekking routes have showers.? The high mountain refuges typically will usually not, as water is at a premium.? Some refuges make an additional charge by selling a token that also limits the amount of time you get with the water so make sure you’re organised before putting in the token.? It’s not much fun being all ?soaped up? and running out of water!
If you are staying on a half-board (demi-pension) basis then there will be usually a copious set evening meal.? Typically there’s soup; a main course with plenty of carbohydrate in the form of pasta / polenta and a desert of some type;; may be cheese.? I have had the experience where I’ve eaten fresh salmon!? Guardians are sometimes generous with a digestif like the regional genepy in Savoie / Haute Savoie.? Breakfast is typically? a? choice of coffee, hot chocolate or tea with bread, butter and jam.? Most refuges will also offer packed lunches but remember to order this on arrival the night before.
Remember that all the food and provisions for the hut are brought up from the valley; quite frequently by helicopter that explains that the prices are a bit higher and that there may not always be a great choice.
The huts guardian is normally at the hut from mid-June to mid-September.? It is clearly a good idea to check!
Outside of the main summer opening period there may be occasions when the guardian mans the hut.? Typically this is during the winter ski-mountaineering season.? If the guardian is not there huts usually have a ?winter? room that is left unlocked.? Here you will find bunks, blankets, and pillows plus limited cooking facilities.? So you will need to bring all your own food with you.? Hut fees are usually put in a ?letter box?.
When you arrive at the refuge it is normal to leave your walking boots in the boot room and here you will also find hut shoes (Croc type things or similar) for wearing in the hut.? You can if you wish carry some simple flip-flops of course in your sack.
Sheet Sleeping Bag
Don’t forget to bring a sheet sleeping bag or ?sac a viande? as it’s known sometimes.? These are now available in really lightweight fabrics including silk so take up very little space and weigh next to nothing.? It helps keep the bottom sheet and duvet / blankets cleaner.
Blankets or increasingly duvets and pillows are provided in the dormitories so there’s no need to carry a sleeping bag.
It’s worth having some ear plugs with you in case there’s some snorers in the room with you.
If you’re leaving early in the morning before day break it’s worth doing a reconnaissance of the departure route to avoid wasting time in the dark in the morning.
Rubbish – you should take your rubbish with you as all rubbish has to be taken down to the valley or less usually now burnt.
“Out of Africa” – Kenyans in the Vanoise
I recently organised a private four day walk in the Vanoise National Park for an extended family from Kenya. They wanted to spend three nights in more comfortable mountain refuges with walks that weren’t too taxing. The youngest child was nine years old and grandfather eighty years old. Quite a challenging requirement. It was particular interesting for me to chat about Kenya a country where I worked on two occasions for over six months and where my mother grew up.
We met at the station in Modane in the heart of the Maurienne valley with close links to Italy thanks to the Frejus tunnel and parallel rail tunnel. The weather had been extremely hot, in the mid-30’s, and the forecast threatened thunderstorms for the late afternoon. With this in mind and the fact that we couldn’t leave until lunch time I decided that it was a wise move to adjust the starting point to give more flexibility should the storms arrive.
We spent our first night at the welcoming Refuge l’Aiguille Doran close the the valley d’Orgere where Fabienne the guardienne made us at home. Dinner, as I’ve come to expect, was excellent and you would be happy to eat as well in a restaurant.
The following morning the forecast was so far correct with thunderstorms dying out. The forecast indicated that residual showers would die out by midday and the forecast for the afternoon was for the weather to continue to improve with blue skies forecast the following day.
We set off with light rain falling as we passed the L’Orgere refuge, a ?gateway refuge? to the Vanoise National Park. Climbing in zig-zags in the pine woods a rumble of thunder announced it’s presence. Clearing the tree line faint glimmers in the sky looked promising and as we started the rising traverse towards the Lac de la Partie big blue patches of sky developed. It appeared that the forecast was spot on.
Reaching the path junction with the variation that drops down to the hamlet of Polset at about 2500m clould rolled in again with light rain falling. It seemed it was simply the valley clouds rising up and dispersing.
We could just still make out the Col de la Chaviere at 2796m, and the highest col on a GR in France with some large patches of neve (old consolidated snow) beneath. We moved on at a slow but steady pace. At about 2600m the ?rain? started to become ?lumpy? and soon it was snowing!
Given that we were only a short distance below the col and the Refuge Peclet-Polset an hours downhill walk beyond it was clear that the quickest option was to get over the col and start losing height. I took the children and Mum on, kicking steps in the snow. We got to the col and I got out my ?Bothy Bag? (like a tent without poles) to provide shelter from the cooling wind and increased warmth. If you’ve never used one they really are a God-send in poor weather. I glissaded (skiing on the soles of my boots) back down to help Dad and father on the final snow slope.
The descent on the Peclet-Polset side of the col is quite steep and on relatively loose and unstable ground, made more so with the recent overnight rain and snow. I guided Mum and the children down to where the ground eased and got out the ?Bothy Bag? again whilst I climbed back up to help guided Dad & father down too.
Despite all being well clothed the children were feeling cold and I moved on with them to generate some warmth and to reach relatively warmer altitudes.
Finally we arrived at the Refuge Peclet-Polset and I order hot chocolates and some crepes with Nutella for the children and honey for myself.
I reflected on the day and how the weather forecast and how the observed weather led us on into a situation that could have been potentially have turned out less favourably. As I say to people, ?There’s a fine line between adventure and mis-adventure?. Clearly, as a professional guide / leader it’s a judgement.
The following day dawned with blue skies and a dusting of snow on the Pointe de l’Echelle (3442m). Today’s itinerary was an easy one as we were booked into the 5***** Refuge Roc de la Peche complete with steam room and jacuzzi! It’s a ?Courchevel? refuge that caters for ski instructors and mountain guides in the winter who arrive off-piste from the ski resorts of the 3 Valleys and notably Courchevel; the ?Disneyland des Alpes?.
Leaving our sacks at the refuge we made a short detour to see the spectacular blue-turquoise waters of the Lac Blanc below the Col du Souffre. Marmottes were out warming themselves in the early morning sun but sadly I couldn’t make out any chamois or ibex that often frequent some of the slopes.
On our way down the valley we stopped off at the Alpage de Ritord where the farm makes cheese using a huge copper cauldron heated by a wood fire beneath. I explained the process and how Beaufort d’Alpage is made. We enjoyed a drink before heading on to the Roc de la Peche. Naturally I made full use of the steam room and jacuzzi!
Our last day took us on down the valley to the hamlet of Prioux where I’d arranged for a taxi to take us to Moutiers for our onward journeys, the family to Geneva for their flights and me to Albertville to pick up my car again.