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Copyright: © 1998 - 2016 John Gardner

A Walking Guide to the Massif de la Chartreuse

l'Alpe via the Sangle de Fouda Blanc

Starting point: les Varvats Difficulty: 3 Ascent: 825 m Time: 6 hrs Quality: ***

This walk is an absolute cracker. This is sangle walking for its own sake, and it follows a spectacular line for some 2 km, high amidst les Rocheurs de Fouda Blanc which form the south-east corner of l'Alpe (map). Whilst the route has no scrambling to speak of, it is the most exposed described in this guide, and it is strongly recommended that you refrain from sampling its delights until you have gained experience with less extreme sangle paths - such as that traversed en route to the Roman Inscription - and that you are confident in your ability to cope with exposed situations. Some steep exposed vegetation needs to be crossed, so it is a place to avoid in wet weather. It isn't a long day, so you can take your time, and make the most of the awe-inspiring scenery.

The starting point is les Varvats (1042 m, grid ref. UTM 31T 72587 50328) - a small group of houses elevated 250 metres above St. Même, with the advantage of a small parking area (if you get there earlier enough). There are splendid views across the cirque towards the Guiers Vif resurgence waterfalls.

Follow the main track out of the car park to the south-east. This is a well contoured forest track, and easy going. After about 30 minutes, the path rises to pass a reservoir and crosses a stream (a source of drinking water). Twenty minutes later there is a junction. The TOP 3333 OT map is a little misleading at this point, as it appears that the main path (GR9) continues to contour to the right under the Roche Blanche - the obvious route, however, rises up into the Vallon de Pratcel.

This is reached an hour or so after leaving the car. The Vallon de Pratcel follows the line of a prominent geological strike-slip fault, with the gorge formed by the erosion of a graben formed by subsidiary faulting. It's a lovely valley - flat floored with cliffs rising on either side, and covered with forest intermingled with exquisite clearings and meadows.

In a further 10 minutes the path diverges with the smaller path continuing along the valley towards the col de l'Alpe, and our path rising to the left towards the Pas de l'Echelle. We follow this for about 15 minutes almost to the top, until level with the base of a cliff to the left, easily identified by its prominent overhang. The sangle path follows the base of this cliff, and is vaguely way-marked with ancient orange markings.

This path is little used, and the line isn't always immediately obvious as the first part traverses some fairly wide grass terraces. At one point it ascends a grassy slope which would be dangerous in wet weather. Initially, the going is merely pleasant, but once round the southern nose, the exposure starts for real. After 15 minutes or so, the path contours round a wide gully, and past a large rock shelter, which gives some relief. Here, or on a small col a few metres further on, is the last opportunity to sit down in comfort before the summit ridge, so it's a good time to take a meal break. The view from here over the Guiers Vif waterfalls, across the Aup du Seuil to the col de Bellefond is spectacular.

For the next 30 minutes, the path is narrow, the exposure sustained (Difficulty 3), and it provides a memorable experience. It follows the higher terrace in the photograph (above the one with the obvious path).

Finally, we contour into a gully, with a path rising to join us from the left. This is the same path which is climbed by the other walk described from les Varvat (the cave with the ladder leading into the roof is just a few metres below). Turn right, and ascend the gully to a crack. This is an awkward, but not exposed, scramble which is a lot easier if rucksacks are taken off first, and passed on up.

The scramble takes you onto a beautiful terrace path, which you follow for a few minutes, the rocks above you being the final obstacle to the crest. From here you get a fine view of the sangle which you have recently traversed. The path eventually plunges through the cliff by means of a rock corridor. This is followed around a couple of right angles to arrive on the summit crest, attained some three hours after leaving the car.

Descents

Reversing the ascent is not recommended. To return to the car, it is preferable to descend via the Vallon de Pratcel, reached from the Pas de l'Echelle which is well way-marked. This path may be found by taking a line to the south-east towards the Chalet de l'Alpe, a bergerie. You will soon pick up a path which is going in the right direction. The GR9, with its red and white way-markings will be encountered on the far side of the valley floor. Turn right, and follow it across an area of limestone pavement to the Pas de l'Echelle. This soon descends past the start of the sangle path where we were a couple of hours earlier, and drops into the Vallon de Pratcel. It is now a simple matter of retracing your steps to les Varvats, reached within a couple of hours of leaving the crest.