Snowshoeing, what is it all about?
It is one of the fastest-growing winter activities in Europe. So clearly there are people who enjoy walking in the mountains in summer who are realising what a wonderful way it is to experience the winter mountain landscape.
And snowshoes today are a far cry from the original snowshoes, which were made of wood and leather and looked a bit like a tennis racquet! Their use can be traced back to Central Asia, and today some 6,000 years later they continue to prove very effective for travel in a winter landscape.
The idea is simple, the greater the surface area you have attached to your walking boots, the less chance you have of sinking into deep snow. Some say watching hares travelling across the snow pack inspired early humans to copy them in so far as they provided an understanding that large hairy hind feet stopped them sinking.
The typical modern snowshoe comes with six studs on the bottom, and a front claw for gripping on steeper uphill sections and having pushed my fair share of snowshoes to the limit I can vouch for their effectiveness.
How much previous experience do you need?
Snowshoeing is open to anyone who likes to walk in the mountains. The great thing about snowshoeing is that you need no prior experience to do a trip like the Traverse of the Chablais, a fabulous six-day journey of the mountain range. You simply need to be able to walk in the mountains with a good level of fitness and be happy to be out for most of the day. Within half an hour of putting snowshoes on your feet, you will be an expert and will walk along quite happily.
Typically we leave after a good breakfast at around 9 am, hike up to our highest point where we have our picnic lunch, and then spend the afternoon descending to the next valley where we check into our cosy hotel.
Do you need to carry a heavy rucksack?
No, you don’t. Trips like the Chablais one, with a journey totalling around 80 km over the week, is much more enjoyable with a light rucksack with just a few items for your use. Your main luggage will be picked up each morning from your hotel, and taken to your next destination by taxi. It makes life simpler, and the walk easier.
You will need to carry a small day rucksack of about 25-30 litres in size with some items such as lunch, water, spare warm and waterproof layers, spare gloves, hat, and equipment such as a snow shovel, very useful for digging a seat in the snow for lunch! Your snowshoes, walking poles and all other equipment are supplied for you and included in the trip fee.
Your journey through the mountains
Quite simply it’s magical. It can also be an effort, as with all mountain journeys, but I’ve never met anyone yet who has done anything other than love the quiet satisfaction of a day well earned, and a summit won.
So it’s the morning of day one, and a few hours later we are into our stride and en route to our first summit the Pointe des Jottis at 1,548m. A quick stop for views across the Chablais to the impressive limestone walls and jagged peaks, which in the days ahead we discover are a daily feature of this beautiful landscape and then it’s onwards to our first destination. By the time we reach the remote village of Bellevaux at the end of our first day, you will be ready for a beer and fired up with enthusiasm for the journey ahead.
Next morning, as with every morning, it is a steady climb through alpine summer pastures, often passing ancient chalets and farms on the way, before reaching the high point of the day, in this case, Tre la Saix at 1,486m. A little further on a stunning plateau awaits, and it is normal not to find a single person in sight. Where is everyone else on these perfect alpine days? Three cols later and we drop down into yet another gem of a hidden valley heading for the tiny village of Biot.
There are so many truly lovely little villages in the deep-sided valleys of the Chablais just waiting to be discovered. Most with beautiful squares with impressive stonework and the inevitable elegant chapel with the sunlight glinting off the jewel colours of the stained glass.
One of the great things of course about a multi-day journey is it provides such a wonderful opportunity to forget about the stresses and strains of everyday life. You get up in the morning, enjoy breakfast, pick up your rucksack and start walking until eventually, you arrive at another hostelry and another opportunity for eating and drinking. What could be better?
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. Enjoying the views
Standing on a high pass in the winter taking in a view of sparkling snow-covered mountains that stretch to the horizon.
2. The sound of silence
Walking through a landscape that is silent in its winter cloak of ice and snow, and hearing nothing but the soft crunch of the crystals under your feet.
3. Going against the crowd
Leaving the crowds behind, and feeling quietly satisfied that you have chosen a winter activity that means no lift queues, no noise, no terrors on the piste, or the need to hire kit or buy expensive lift passes.
4. Leaving no trace
Seeing your tracks laid out behind you and realising that you were the first person to set foot on the snow since the last snowfall, a pristine environment there for your enjoyment, but knowing you will leave no trace of having been there when the snow and your footsteps melt away.
5. The food
Sampling local cheese from the farms we pass in the mountains is a real treat. Not to mention the local Savoyarde dishes that our small family-run hotels prepare for us each day.
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
The Chablais mountain range in France is best explored from mid-January to the beginning of March. This is usually the best time for snow cover offering a real winter wonderland experience.
It is generally not too cold at this time, but cold enough that the high passes have a plenty of snow, all the better for taking those stunning photographs.
Also, the days are getting a little longer allowing more time to make the journey and savour the ice crystals sparkling in the trees, the snow flying around your feet, and the spectacular mountain scenery.
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