February is the busiest month of the whole winter season, what with most of Europe being on half-term holiday.
Today I went on a snowshoe hike with Raphael from Happy Tracks up amongst the snow covered pine trees of the Vallon de Bérard. He picked Nick and I up from Chamonix and off we all headed to Le Buet, a small village in between Argentiere and Vallorcine. Setting off from the train station car park we crossed the road, strapped on our snowshoes and tramped off into the woods towards the Cascade de Bérard. The narrow path skirts round the edge of the Poya ski area and winds its way up through a tiny hamlet of incredibly pretty stone chalets, half-buried in the snow.
We climbed up for about 15 minutes until we reached a little wooden bridge where Raphael helped us get our bearings by pointing out the summits and ski areas of the mountain range opposite. The view is impressive; you can see the slopes and couloirs of the Grands Montets, the glaciers that spill down from the Mer de Glace and the jagged peaks of the Massif du Mont Blanc.
We continued onwards and padded deeper into the forest, occasionally having to jump to one side as a skier glided past us on their way down from having completed a touring route. The river ran beside us, sparkling with icy crystals and dotted with great big snow-covered rocks that looked like giant marshmallows. Aside from the odd ski-tourer and occasional fellow snowshoer, we were perfectly alone.
The path got narrower and the snow got deeper, the further into the forest we went. Raphael went into Bear Grylls mode, pointing out different animal tracks and teaching us a few little outdoor tips such as how to refresh stinky trekking clothes by smoking it over pine resin. I imagine the freshness is probably relative to how stinky the clothes are to start with though… He also gave us a quick demo on how to assess the safety of the snowpack by digging a hole and inspecting the difference between the layers.
After an hour or so we found ourselves in a small clearing looking out over the Swiss border. We settled down beside a little wooden house and got out our sandwiches, Raphael even fired up a primus burner and got a brew on - lovely! You can keep your fancy restaurants, nothing tastes nicer than a cup of tea and a sarnie when you’re in the mountains on a beautiful day like today.
After lunch we carried on and started to descend again through the forest, crossing some small streams fringed with icicles. We eventually came back round in a loop, passing through another small hamlet before making some fresh tracks through untouched snow to reach the Poya ski area where we had started. The whole trek took about 4 hours, including our pause for lunch. The pace was steady enough to count as exercise but definitely exercise of the “leisurely” variety! The beauty of snowshoeing is that you can make it as tough or as easy as you like, just have a chat with your guide when you make your booking and they’ll plan a route to suit your needs.
I did a half day tour but Happy Tracks also offer full day and even week-long tours including the Tour du Mont Blanc, which must be a fantastic experience in the snow. For the full Alpine theme you can top it off with a fondue party in their igloo!
I love a bluebird day on the hill as much as the next person, but I’m more than happy to leave the skis in the shed at the moment and trek the snowshoe trails instead.
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