Seven days in the Parc National de la Vanoise

Having spent a week in April skiing in the Vanoise, we decided the scenery looked so good we’d spend a week hiking from hut to hut in the summer. Fortunately, there’s a fantastic loop – the tour of the Vanoise glaciers, with huts about 6 hours walking apart, and it’s relatively easy to get to by public transport too: we flew into Torino, caught the train to Bardonecchia, and then a bus through the Frejus tunnel to Modane to start the walk.

Day one saw us climb around 1600m from Modane, through pine forest filled with wild strawberries, and then across alpine meadows with flowers, to the Col de Chaviere, and then descending to the Refuge de Peclet Polset on the other side. The views were good to start with but as we approached the pass the cloud came in and it rained for a while. Fortunately we found an overhanging rock to have our lunch under, and by the time we’d finished the rain had too, although we still missed out on the promised views to Mt Blanc from the col.

Looking towards Peclet Polset from the top of Col de Chaviere.
Looking towards Peclet Polset from the top of Col de Chaviere.

Peclet Polset is a new refuge in a spectacular location, but we didn’t get to enjoy the views much as the rain came back shortly after we arrived. We did, however, enjoy the first of the fabulous four course meals that were to become a feature of staying in the Refuges: soup, followed by lasagne, then a cheese course, and fromage blanc avec myrtilles for desert!

Butterflies.
Butterflies.

Day two saw us travel down the valley from Peclet Polset to Refuge du Roc de la Peche before climbing 800m back up the side of the valley to the beautifully sited Refuge de la Valette. With better weather we were able to enjoy the huge variety of alpine flowers as well as watching bearded vultures soaring over the valley and a peregrine falcon hunting. The refuge came with a mysterious ruin that we never discovered the story of, a couple of attractive lakes, and friendly marmots, as well as lovely views down the valley.

The Refuge de la Valetta, with the donkeys used to haul all the food up there.
The Refuge de la Valetta, with the donkeys used to haul all the food up there.

On Day three we were up to watch the sunrise over the valley as we got our first clear day of the trip. We started with a series of ups and downs into glacial cirques hanging above the main valley, and views of the town of Pralognan far below. At the second cirque (Cirque du Petit Marchet) we decided to leave the marked path, scramble down into the cirque, then climb up to the col between it and Cirque du Grand Marchet. At the col we met a group of Bouquetins (Ibex) who kindly posed for photographs, seemingly unconcerned by our closeness.

Close encounters with Bouquetins.
Close encounters with Bouquetins.

From the col, we followed a faint trail down into the next Cirque, skirting an impressive band of cliffs, before traversing around the cirque underneath three magnificent waterfalls. We rejoined the main path on the way up to the next col (Col du Grand Marchet), and then had a precipitous descent featuring climbs with chains on them and scrambles down crags until we felt we were almost in Pralognan, before climbing all the way back up to the Refuge du Col de la Vanoise, another new refuge.

Rachel under the falls in Cirque du Grand Marchet.
Rachel under the falls in Cirque du Grand Marchet.

Unfortunately, day 4 dawned with rain and cloud to ground level. We set off down the East side of the col, with our initial plan to be to go to Refuge de la Leisse and then on an unmarked route over Col de Pierre Blanche to Refuge de la Femma. However, it rapidly became clear as we descended to the Torrent de la Leisse that we wouldn’t even be able to see the col in the cloud, so we opted instead to aim for Refuge du Plan du Lac for lunch and then on to de la Femma. Happily, the weather broke after lunch and we got views and some sun as we walked the rather nice path from Plan du Lac. The valley floor was absolutely filled with marmots and wildflowers, and we again watched falcons hunting as we approached the Refuge. Refuge de la Femma is an older refuge in a lovely spot with a large cliff behind it and a waterfall, and we thoroughly enjoyed adding it to our itinerary, despite the fact we’d have to walk back down the valley the following morning.

A young marmot pokes its nose out of its burrow.
A young marmot pokes its nose out of its burrow.

Day 5 was the best weather of the trip, with sunshine most of the day. The walk down the valley was just as nice as it had been on the way up, and the big climb back to the main path from Col de la Vanoise brought lovely views of La Grand Casse. The walk to Refuge de l’Arpont was fantastic, with glaciers looming above us, lovely lakes, and encounters with Bouquetin and Chamois. After reaching the refuge we hiked the hour or so up the hill to the beautiful Lac de l’Arpont, a glacial blue lake with the end of the glacier just above it – a fantastic spot to laze away a couple of hours.

Lac de l'Arpont with the Glacier de l'Arpont behind.
Lac de l’Arpont with the Glacier de l’Arpont behind.

Day 6 dawned with cloud in the valley and on the peaks, but clear skies at the refuge. Unfortunately, the trail immediately dived into the cloud and we spent most of the day without views as we traversed around La Dent Parrachee. After lunch the sun came out for a while, but by the time we reached Refuge de la Dent Parrachee the rain had started and it continued all evening. Dent Parrachee is another older refuge, but as it’s half an hour off the main track there were only twelve guests, and we had a very amusing evening talking in a mixture of French, English and German. The evening meal was great, and featured no fewer than five courses – Dent Parrachee really is an excellent place to stay!

Rachel walking through fields of wildflowers.
Rachel walking through fields of wildflowers.

Our last day started in thick cloud and rain, which didn’t let up for most of the day. We chose to climb over Col de la Masse to Refuge de l’Orgere, and then return to Modane. Sadly, we never got any views, and somehow we missed the main col in the cloud and ended up trekking along the ridge for a while looking for a reasonable descent before backtracking. We got to Orgere wet and cold, but fortunately they had a roaring fire going, so we sat and dried out before having lunch and descending in the now improving weather to Modane.

A Bouquetin checks us out.
A Bouquetin checks us out.

Overall, it was a great trip – we saw lots of wildlife, spectacular mountains and amazing wildflowers, ate great food, and generally enjoyed ourselves (even if it was perhaps less strenuous than most of our holidays). We’d thoroughly recommend the Tour de la Vanoise to anyone.

Flowers in front of La Grand Casse.
Flowers in front of La Grand Casse.

On the tourist trail at Milford Sound

After a big day in the mountains I decided it was time to enjoy some more relaxing activities and check out the tourist trail in Milford Sound.

So we drove down to Milford Sound and took a boat trip through the sound and out to the Tasman sea.

The Iconic Mitre Peak in Milford Sound (Photo Adrian Camm)
The Iconic Mitre Peak in Milford Sound (Photo Adrian Camm)
Seals sunning themselves in the Sound
Seals sunning themselves in the Sound
Dolphins (Photo Adrian Camm)
Dolphins (Photo Adrian Camm)
Curious Kea
Curious Kea
Camera's at the ready (Photo Adrian Camm)
Camera’s at the ready (Photo Adrian Camm)

We saw lots of wildlife and jaw dropping scenery, Milford Sound is definitely worth the hype!

After an amazing and relaxing day, we decided to watch the tourists from above, so we headed up to the Homer Saddle.

The main road to Milford Sound cuts through a tunnel, and above lies one of the most nauseatingly exposed ridges I have ever crossed- The Homer Saddle Traverse!

The Homer Saddle Ridge
The Homer Saddle Ridge
Don't look down!- The Milford Road
Don’t look down!- The Milford Road
Balancing on a knife edge!
Balancing on a knife edge!

The ridge was lots of fun, and a nice short day out, allowing us plenty of time afterwards to enjoy the long drive back to Wanaka

Hunstanton

North-west Norfolk is just a 90 minute drive from Rutland so on Saturday we visited the Norfolk coastline. We drove to Hunstanton and then got the local bus to Thornham and walked back along the beach.

The beach was empty, except for the large numbers of birdwatchers. We asked one of them what they were looking for and apparently there had been a big storm at sea, which meant that a wide variety of birds could end up on the beach. We couldn’t see any birds, so we carried on along the beach.

The beach of Hunstanton
The beach of Hunstanton

Along the way we saw some cool sand formations… and also some dead starfish and loads of razorshells on the beach

Cool sand formations
Cool sand formations

Soon we caught sight of the main chalk cliffs of Hunstanton…

Chalk cliffs
Chalk cliffs

But we also saw many more starfish, snails, crabs and razorshells. There were literally 10s of 1000s starfish on the beach.

A wreck of starfish
A wreck of starfish

A sun star starfish
A sun star starfish
A sea snail
A sea snail

After saving a few half alive starfish and snails by putting them in water, and after playing with a few crabs, we headed back to the car in Hunstanton, just before the rains came.

Back at home, I looked up the starfish phenomenon and apparently this happens about once a year when a large storm dislodges sea creatures from the ocean bottom and hurls them all onto the beach.

Hiking over Fimmvorthuhals Pass

Since the weather forecast was at last promising at least a small amount of sunshine, we planned a two-day hike over Fimmvorthuhals Pass, from Skogar to Thorsmork and back. The walk passes between two of Iceland’s ice sheets, Myrdalsjokull, and the recently famous (but still unpronouncable) Eyjafjallajokull, source of that ash cloud in 2010. It’s also, supposedly, one of the best hikes in the world.

The Skogafoss waterfall, where our hike began and ended.
The Skogafoss waterfall, where our hike began and ended.

The walk starts at Skogafoss, a seriously impressive waterfall where the Skogar river plunges over a 62m lava cliff. From there we climbed up beside the river for a couple of hours, passing waterfall after waterfall, as well as some impressive gorges. Happily, the weather forecast had been right, and we got to enjoy sunshine for all of the climb.

A pair of waterfalls further up the Skogar River.
A pair of waterfalls further up the Skogar River.

Yet more waterfalls as we headed up toward the pass.
Yet more waterfalls as we headed up toward the pass.

We had lunch at the only bridge across the river, at which point the character of the landscape changed, with green mossy tundra giving way to ash, cinders, and rocks. The climb continued past a small shelter, to cross a series of snow fields, at which point it was getting noticeably colder as we’d now climbed over 1000m up the mountain. The weather also started to turn, but it was still clear as we reached the summit of the pass and started our descent.

Bizarre snow and ash formations were a feature of the walk.
Bizarre snow and ash formations were a feature of the walk.

The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull actually started on the pass, with an impressive lava eruption from a couple of new craters, Mothi and Magni. The lava from these craters has spilled down the far side of the pass, and the path passes right past the two craters and over the brand new lava flow – some of the youngest rocks in the world! In fact, the craters and the lava flows were still steaming in places, and we warmed our hands on the hot rocks!

Looking across the fresh lava flow to Magni, one of the new craters on Eyjafjallajokull.
Looking across the fresh lava flow to Magni, one of the new craters on Eyjafjallajokull.
Looking from Magni across the steaming lava flow to the glaciers from Myrdalsjokull.
Looking from Magni across the steaming lava flow to the glaciers from Myrdalsjokull.
The steaming summit of Magni, with Mothi behind.
The steaming summit of Magni, with Mothi behind.

From the new craters the path descends very steeply to an amazingly flat plateau, Mornisheithi, by which stage it was pouring with rain. Happily that didn’t last too long as the views were amazing, with icefalls, lava falls, and steep grey ashy slopes adorned with vivid green streaks of moss.

Looking down from the plateau at the long ridge leading to Basar hut.
Looking down from the plateau at the long ridge leading to Basar hut.

We continued to descend along a narrow ridge on the edge of a spectacular canyon, to eventually reach the valley floor at Basar Hut in Gothaland, where we camped for the night. Thorsmork is unusual in Iceland for the fact that it is mostly covered in birch forest, although admittedly most of the trees are less than head height! The forested setting next to a huge braided river makes for a lovely place to camp.

The rugged landscape to the West of Thorsmork, with glaciers spilling down from Myrdalsjokull.
The rugged landscape to the West of Thorsmork, with glaciers spilling down from Myrdalsjokull.

The next day we did it all again in reverse, but the weather was strangely reversed as well, with mostly clear weather on the climb, where it had rained the day before, but rain and bitter cold on the pass and the descent back to Skogafoss. We took a slightly different route over the pass, visiting Fimmvorthuskali Hut and crossing a number of snowfields where the combination of snow, freeze-thaw and ash had produced bizarre landforms.

Looking across at the steaming summit of Magni.
Looking across at the steaming summit of Magni.