The village of Vallouise (1200 metres above sea level) was our family summer holiday haunt for many years. Apart from hiking and mountaineering, the area provides many outdoor activities such as kayaking, rafting, horse-riding on mountains tracks, canyoning in mountains rivers and gorges and plenty of via ferratas with spectacular zip-lines within ten miles from the villages at most. It benefits from a mostly sunny climate with cool nights and hot days.
The village is situated in the southern Alps in the Ecrins national park which was created in 1973. It is the second French mountaineering centre after Chamonix. The valley boasts many mountain peaks with heights between 3500 and 4102 metres, the highest summit in the area. The British and American alpinists Edward Whymper and William Coolidge were the first to climb some iconic peaks of the area.
The name of the village has changed over the centuries.
In 739 it was named Vallis Gerentonica – the valley of the rocks. In the thirteenth century, the name changed to Vallis Putas – the evil valley — as it was the refuge of the Vaudois, a protestant Italian religious order founded by Peter Waldo. Protestants were then persecuted in Catholic France.
At the end of the fifteenth century it became Vallis Loyssa. The name was chosen as a tribute to the French king Louis XI who momentarily put an end to the religious persecutions of the Vaudois.
The village is a typical mountain habitation with former farms featuring vault and arches. They are usually built on three levels. The ground floor was usually used as a barn area for cattle in winter. The family normally lived above the barn on the first floor. The second one was used to store hay to feed the cattle in winter. The cattle spend summer on higher ground and are kept in stables in winter.
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You also find many water fountains in the village, usually made of wood. The narrow strip of flat land in the village is used to grow vegetables and fruits during the short and hot summer season while some parts remain uncultivated to provide cattle with hay in winter. The flatlands turn into cross-country ski trails in winter.
The shepherd hut in Jas Lacroix
This walk starts at the end of the road leading to the mountain hut up towards Les Bans, a 3669 metres peak. A few hundred yards after the carpark a path forks left and allows you to reach the hut. The path overlooks a mountain river. Once you hear the flight of horseflies you know you are close to the shepherd’s hut as sheep and cows are still grazing at this altitude.
Reaching the hut is not the most exciting part of the path. You have to pass the hut, cross a mountain river on a few wooden planks and go up a steep slope on a zigzag path.
Then comes the reward. A huge glacial cirque awaits you with waterfalls and streams all over the place. The bottom of the cirque looks like a relatively flat playground according to mountain standards. If you are not too tired after a three-hour ascent, you can reach a mountain pass. Unfortunately, the path to the upper end is made of tiny black shale and snow patches which makes it very slippery and dangerous if you’re not an experienced walker.
Pelvoux Mountain hut
This one is a strenuous walk, climbing over 1,200 metres. You need to start early from Ailefroide. In the summer, a start around 5.30 am or 6 am is essential. In the lower part of the path, you are bound, literally, to stumble into chamois and marmots.
Before the steepest part of the walk begins there’s a spring where you can refill your flask. The path rises through a larch wood and then you’re on open ground. One of the last times I went up there was with my son. The weather was rainy and foggy. Fortunately, the rocky ledges are well marked, which makes thing easy in misty weather. Going up in such conditions is quite eerie as the surrounding summits appear and disappear in shrouds of mist or clouds.
On a sunny day, the sound of the mountain rescue helicopter can be heard daily. The landing platform is a semi-circle with a dry stone wall. Unfortunately with global warming, the thawing permafrost makes it dangerous to reach the mythical summit of mount Pelvoux as big rocks break away from the mountains. I’ve been there dozens of times and every time the mountain rescue helicopter was there to pick up wounded mountain climbers. My son did try a winter ascent but had to give up as the ice was not hard enough in ice gullies.
Glacier Blanc and la Barre des Ecrins
Le Glacier Blanc or white glacier is one of my favourite mountain hikes. I must have been there on my father’s back when I was hardly four years old. The glacier has receded by five hundred metres over the past 56 years. The lake before reaching the glacier is beautiful, with the mouth of the glacier reflecting in the water.
The last hike in the mountains
Some ten years ago my son and I planned a hike to the Ecrins mountain pass, a small rocky notch at the end of the glacier under la Barre des Ecrins. My wife dropped us just after midnight. We started in the dead of a moonless night with just our headlamps to light our way. We reached the glacier around 5 am while the sun was almost rising.
The view was absolutely breathtaking, with its purple skies and still dark mountains. There was nary a sound apart from the shuffle of our feet and our breathing. Sometime around 6 am we spotted the first rope party on the glacier. We set foot on the glacier at about thirty minutes later.
Time for a couple of snapshots of my son and me. We walked for another couple of hours on the glaciers but never reached the pass as the temperature was rising. The snow bridges over crevasses became fragile and continuing would have been too dangerous We didn’t fancy ending our lives at the bottom of a crevasse. By the time we reached our starting point after twelve hours on the hoof, we had covered almost a 3000-metre difference in height. I definitely think I would not be able to do it now.
Apart from the ever-changing landscapes, one of my greatest pleasures is to look at and take pictures of flowers. The Ecrins National Park boasts many endemic flower species that can be found only in the Alpine regions.
The first image of the article was taken with the Leica C-Lux 2, my first-ever digital camera. Most images of hikes were taken with my now-departed M8 and the Elmarit 28mm ASPH. I did miss a slightly wider field of view with the 1.33 crop factor of the M8, but I loved the colours the camera produced. The images of my last hike and flowers were taken with the Ricoh GRD 3. This small camera, despite its tiny sensor, is perfect when mountaineering. It’s light and resists the cold if you are careful. I’ve passed it over to my son. He still uses it almost every week when he goes mountaineering. So far it is still a reliable tool.