What you've done becomes the judge of what you're going to do--especially in other people's minds. When you're traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don't have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.
--William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways
--William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways
Apparently this winter has recorded some of the worst snow conditions in at least the last forty years. I've seen other articles that mention the worst winter in "living memory," "recorded history," and in the last 1,000 years. Not sure what all of that means, really; all I know is that while it was bad it still beats the winter I spent in Washington, DC, and that includes the winter I spent in Guadalajara, Mexico. So while it was bad, and while I sure hope it will be better next year, this year has provided many good memories, the latest (and maybe last for the ski season) came over Easter break in the Haute-Maurienne.
Where is the Haute-Maurienne? I'm not exactly sure. It's in France. It's in the Savoie. It presses up against Italy. Several little birds chirped to me that of the devastating winter the Haute-Maurienne was the northernmost region that was able to cash in on all the southern-tracking storms that evaded much of the Alps. So we packed the car, drove down to Chambéry, made a big left turn and headed for the wall of mountains that divides France and Italy.
We drove into the town of Modane and while I still wasn't quite sure where I was, I knew I had been equally lost there at some other point in my life. Then I saw the train station and a sign for a camp ground and then I knew. In early May of 1995 Wendy and I were bumming around Europe, hitchhiking and trying not to spend the few hundred dollars we made the previous winter while teaching skiing and running lifts in Berchtesgaden, Germany. The following is my diary entry for 02 May 1995.
I'm in France.
We left Cannobio and had a difficult time hitchhiking out. Our spirits grew weak. Our theory is something like this: the Italians are weary of everyone who is not Italian--and obviously we don't look Italian. Also, the Italians are very much into their own fashion, music, social scene; they are very aware of themselves. They're not quite as active as the Germans, Swiss, etc. so they might not appreciate traveling as much. Regardless how accurate our assessment is we found hitching difficult, so after we found a ride to Novarra from an African from Ghana we opted for the train. One train to Torino, one train to the French border: Modane. I'm in France. I'm happy to be here.
We found a campsite, very nice, clean, uncrowded, took showers, very nice, we're clean, found a not so cheap restaurant to eat not so great food. Wendy put it on her credit card. Remember: do something to pay her back.
The town itself is rather miserable. It looks like at one time it was prosperous: many shops, bistros, restaurants. Now, most everything seems closed or abandoned. The surrounding area, however, is beautiful. The town is completely surrounded by the French & Italian Alps, snow-capped and ominous. The mountains don't look quite as 'kept' as the Swiss, German, Austrian Alps.
Wendy needs to meet her friend Sonja in Aachen, Germany on the 9th, we have to go to Barcelona first, so I'm thinking these next few days will be a mad rush to Spain. I hope I'm wrong. I would like to spend more time in France.
And so it was that we were about to spend more time in France and, specifically, in a part of France where roughly two weeks and sixteen years earlier we felt a little bit lost but also full of wonder. This time, some birds hinted at decent snow, we now have a better idea of the wine and food of the Savoie, and, anyway, no matter what the weather conditions, when in the French and Italian Alps you're never far from something good. We had little to fear and continued to proceed up the valley.
We set our sights and kept our expectations at a controlled low. I really had no idea what kind of skiing to expect. The views from below, while beautiful, didn't look promising.
We chose the village of Bessans for no other reason than we found a good deal on an apartment that allowed dogs and that it was close to the top of the valley. In the winter Bessans is famous for its Nordic skiing and training grounds for Olympic Biathlon teams. At 1,700 meters Bessans and the valley floor were free of snow though spring had yet to break the surface. Temperatures still dipped below freezing at night and human life throughout the valley seemed at a standstill.
The first couple days were spent gathering information and hovering down by the rivers. The trout were fast and fat and the water seemed at mid-summer levels rather than spring runoff season. I grumbled for not bringing my fly rod.
We hiked, we climbed. We found rocks with strange formations, and explored their caves. And we ate well, too.
Rested and restored after a previously busy two weeks it was finally time to push higher and farther. I woke up early and alone. My job for the day was not only to get in a tour for myself but to check that the conditions at Bonneval-sur-Arc were worthy enough for a six year-old and his mom. I found the ski tour but did not find the pistes worth writing home about; at noon any slope mellow enough for a six year-old was sort of like skiing on a water bed. I also found that I forgot my camera and so determined that if I could acquire another free pass I would return to the same tour. Mom and six year-old found a public swimming pool at another village. Thus, I found myself with another free pass.
Bonneval-sur-Arc, designated as one of the "Plus Beaux Villages de France" sits at the head of the Maurienne valley and is squashed between the Graian Alps to the north and east and the Dauphiné Alps of the west and south. It is also hemmed in on the west and north side by the massive Parc National de la Vanoise and on the east and south side by the glaciers along the Italian border. A good prescription for fine ski touring. Directly above the pistes at Bonneval-sur-Arc is the Glacier Superieur Vallonnet and if anything promises to hold good snow it's a high altitude glacier. So up and away I went.
Access is pretty straightforward and easy. Just duck underneath a bunch of poles and wires and wheels and you're free and clear. It also helped to start out by following a guided group of five.
The first trick, especially in a low snow year, is traversing around the south facing Pointe d'Andagne. Looking back to the village of Bessans:
As soon as you stop traversing on the sides of your skis and feet, losing elevation to avoid exposed rock and avalanche debris, you turn straight up. Cresting a saddle, you finally feel like you've entered the ski tour proper and left the world of rock scrambling and ski slipping behind. The map labels this valley the ancient glacier Andagne (Ancien Glacier d'Andagne). I'm not sure what qualifies as an ancient glacier but it looked pretty good to me.
The far pass constituted the goal for the second phase of the journey so for most of the next hour I slogged up the ancient glacier with the Col de la Fourche as my destination. Here is also where I left the group of five far behind. Closing in on the Col with a different sort of twelve-step program in my near future:
Of course a good twelve-step program never really concludes; along the crest there was more traversing under the Pointes du Grand Fond with occasional peeks off the other side into the Crêt de la Terre and the Avérole valley. Somewhere at the bottom is the Refuge d'Avérole where skiers access the Glacier du Grand Fond, Vallonnet, and Glacier des Evettes from the south.
Winding around the Pointes du Grand Fond you eventually climb up to the Dôme du Grand Fond (3,460 meters) that overlooks the Col du Grand Fond and, at 3,637 meters, Albaron peak. L'Albaron and my traveling companions:
At noon I was less interested in losing 150 meters only to climb another 300 meters to gain the peak so I turned my attention down.
And down. And down. And down. Sixteen-hundred meters in all through a series of light, powdery snow to transformed spring butter to chunky, icy nastiness to a long finish of European sweet corn. In other words, the top was good, the choke was bad, the bottom run-out was good again.
With that accomplished (twice), it was time to turn back to family, food, hiking, and enjoying Easter break on much greener pastures.
I feel safe in saying that while now I have a better sense of what and where the Haut-Maurienne is, it also might take another while to return. There is something attractive about the sensation of feeling lost. Something is lost once you feel found; something of the adventure feels more routine and safe and familiar. When you're hauling kids and dogs and you're worried about logistical complications like apartment rentals and car problems the familiar is good. But with skis and snow and high places there is always the temptation of the new, the uncharted, the constant search for the hidden.
On skis, unlike, say, traveling across half a continent, time and space is reduced to a smaller scale--a single canyon or a traverse around a peak--so that you're able to soak up all that differentiates one landscape from another. That you've never been to the top of a mountain pass or down a great couloir is half the reason for the desire. It's the "because it's there" philosophy of living a life that is not unlike the reason for traveling great distances by way of your thumb or the cheapest, most uncomfortable seat on a train. The differences are slight and might be summarized only as a matter of scale: the time it takes to hitchhike and travel by train from Cannobio, Italy to Chambéry, France might be the same amount of time it takes to ski tour around the northeastern side of peak Albaron.
I don't know when I'll return to the Arc river valley or Bessans or Bonneval-sur-Arc. I know when I do, though, I'll probably do so without the need for road maps. I'll probably be able to save some time driving more directly and with confidence. The distance between point A and point B will shrink. While there, a new world will appear; I will feel more comfortable and eager to discover the unknown. Maybe next time I will fish the Arc River and seek out new landscapes below the surface of the water. Or, then again, maybe I will head up to one of the other high mountain passes I didn't make it to the first time. One thing is for sure, nothing will be the same as the first time I traveled through.