Discovering the Kingdoms in the Clouds

In times of economic crisis and climate change, Alpine tourism is turning back to hiking boots and leaving a small carbon footprint

On the way up to the ­Refuge du Col de la Vanoise | Photos: Christian Cummims, Simone Bobbio

the Laisse valley headed towards Tignes on the glacier of the Colle de Teleccio with guide Gianni Predan | Photos: Christian Cummims, Simone Bobbio

On the glacier of the Colle de Teleccio with guide Gianni Predan | Photos: Christian Cummims, Simone Bobbio

Refuge du Col de la Vanoise

On the way up to the ­Refuge du Col de la Vanoise | Photos: Christian Cummims, Simone Bobbio

In these austere times, it’s refreshing to realise that sometimes the most valuable European travel experiences are also the cheapest – such as trekking across the Alps and staying in mountain refuges. These huts stretch in a long chain from Slovenia and Austria in the east to the Maritime Alps of France in the west. They’re nestled high up in some of the most spectacular nooks and crannies of the high Alps and you get a bed for the night as well as a hearty three-course set evening meal usually for less than €30.

It’s not luxurious, of course. You’ll be huddled together elbow to elbow at the wooden dinner benches and often you sleep flank to flank in large dormitories. The air at night is thick with the pungent odour of well-walked socks. There’s no running hot water – in these extreme environments, electricity, which is created by solar panels, is strictly rationed and most people cat-wash from a mountain spring. But when you wake in the cold mornings and drink steaming milk and coffee from wide bowls, while the sun rises over the peaks and turns the glaciers pink and you contemplate another day in the pure air, it’s hard to think of a better way to escape from the worries of the plains.

For five days, I hiked with my Italian friend Simone from Pralognan in the Vanoise, France’s first national park, to Cogne, in the Gran Paradiso, Italy’s national park. Both villages are part of the Alpine Pearls network, an ecological labelling project aimed at promoting sustainable, carbon-conscious tourism in the fragile and precious Alpine environment.

Every day we rose at dawn and hiked in almost continuous isolation over the high passes. Wiry Simone led the way in unhurried, efficient chamois-like steps as we passed through easy flower-strewn meadows, tricky boulder fields and over snowfields that had been streaked with blood-red lines by a form of high-mountain algae.

I loved the feeling of travel – waking up each day to a different landscape, a different amphitheatre of peaks and a unique atmosphere in each distinctive hut. On the first night, we stayed at the large Refuge du Col de la Vanoise at the foot of one of the Savoy Alps most emblematic peaks, the 3,855-metre-high Grande Casse. From there, in the early morning mist of the next morning, we followed a path up the isolated, steep-sided Laisse valley, a route once tramped by salt traders, which took us to Tignes then over to the Isère valley where the river forced itself in a white roaring fury through a narrow canyon.

Laisse valley

The Laisse valley headed towards Tignes | Photos: Christian Cummims, Simone Bobbio

Eventually, we came the more homely Prariond Refuge, which was perched on one side of a green, flat high-mountain riverbed. We flopped down next to fellow hikers, before washing away our fatigue with jugs of red wine and meals of thick vegetable broths, polenta and oily stews in a room warmed by log-burning stoves. Here, as indeed every night, we fell asleep in our bunks, dead tired, at 21:00.

The next day we climbed over to Italy. Close to its source now, the Isère meandered wildly, separating into several white-running channels, which joined, crossed and separated again, like a tangle of spaghetti. The only way out of the valley was up and over a glacier. On the ice sheet, we met a companion from dinner the night before on his way back down. Jean-Marc, a ranger from the national park, had set off at 5:00 to count mountain ibexes. Nice work if you can get it. We rested in the sun on the Col de la Vache, the pass that marks the Franco-Italian border, and looked over to the square snow-capped peak Gran Paradiso. On its lower slopes, between the patches of snow the grass was a rich green.

“It was only with the birth of the nation states than mountains were seen as a barrier,” remarked Simone, as we munched on our sandwiches enjoying the view at the border. “For centuries people from Val d’Ìsère on the French side and Ceresola Reale on the Italian side would cross this path, not just to exchange goods, but for religious festivals and parties. They felt much closer to each other than to people in the cities of Turin or Grenoble.”

The next day over breakfast in Ceresola, another Alpine Pearl, Simone had a dreamy look on his face. We were headed up to the Refugio Pontese, which was run by his old friend Mara Lacchia. “You will taste the best food at any refuge in the entire Alps!” Simone proclaimed. It was a hot day and although the wind-blown spray from a close-by mountain cascade offered some refreshment, I was red-faced and sweating as we clambered up the steep and rocky final stretch of path up to the refuge, a grey stone building with a yellow roof and yellow shutters that glinted in the sun. The towering grey cliffs of Valsoera arced a semi-circle behind the hut and, to the left, encircled by playful, fast moving clouds, the triangular peak of Monte Tribulazione stood like a witch’s hat. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Mara, raven-haired with skin smoothed by the pure Alpine air, had been hanging out washing on the terrace and, with a squeak, she came running over to Simone and threw her arms around him with that spontaneous tenderness that seems to come so naturally to Italians. “You’re just in time! I’ve just put on the pasta for my boys,” she said, gesturing towards two long-lashed teenagers smiling shyly on the terrace.

Colle de Teleccio glacier

On the glacier of the Colle de Teleccio with guide Gianni Predan | Photos: Christian Cummims, Simone Bobbio

We stepped into the low ceilinged, wooden-panelled, book-lined interior and sat down at a wooden table with Mara, her boys, her mountain-guide boyfriend Gianni Predan, who’d agreed to take us over the glacier the next day, and two wind-burned Italian climbers. After the pasta came tea and homemade cake with pears and chocolate. After a brief respite for reading books and plucking at an acoustic guitar in a room heated by a wood-burning brazier, it was already time for a dinner of ravioli soup, followed by roasted polenta and beef escallops, the juices mopped up with Mara’s homemade walnut bread. Simone, pouring out another glass of local wine, looked at me smugly: “I told you!”

Our last day of hiking took us to our highest point – the Colle di Teleccio, a mountain pass at 3,304m that separates a crevasse-ridden glacier. I was glad to have Gianni, a guide of 19 years experience with us. At the foot of the snowfield, he showed me how to attach the sharp-teethed crampons to my boots. “Remember to walk with your legs wide apart and your toes pointing outwards,” he advised me, “or you might stab yourself in the leg.”

So, armed now with an ice axe, I waddled up the mountain while Gianni pointed out how much the glacier had retreated in the 30 years he had been hiking there. “It is happening everywhere in the Alps,” he said. “In so many places, where there was once snow in August, now there are only rocks.”

There was still plenty of snow this day, and coming down the other side, roped together, we bounced down the steep slopes on our crampons, sinking at times to our knees when the strong sun had warmed the snow.

Down in Cogne, in the Valle d’Aosta, our feet were aching for a rest after five days of hiking. Yet while drinking beer on a terrace in a café in the quiet village, despite the fatigue, I looked longingly back up at the snow-capped mountains. This has been a trip that I had never wanted to end.


Christian Cummins travelled from Pralognan in France to Cogne in Italy with the sustainable mountain tourism project Alpine Pearls, a network committed to low-carbon travel.

Alpine Pearls Network
Weng 42, A-5453 Werfenweng
+43 (0)6466 20020

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