Alpine Roadtrip Part #1 – Back to Basics

For the first time since our honeymoon last November, we booked ourselves two weeks off work and planned a holiday. The first year of marriage has been wonderful, but also stressful with more house renovations including the biggest work yet of having a new kitchen fitted. What we needed was to get back to what we love – the great outdoors, beautiful scenery and fresh air. As I’ve never been to the Alps before, we decided on a three-in-one trip across France and Italy, with a mini family reunion in the middle.

After a stopover at my parents in Surrey (including a luxurious spa day), every good roadtrip starts with the Dover to Calais ferry, driving on to Lyon to establish ourselves in France. The first part of the holiday was camping in beautiful Ailefroide, and the drive down was enjoyable with motorways leading into winding mountain roads with scenery getting more and more dramatic. Surrounded by stunning mountains, the campsite is a sprawling field, with informal pitches interspersed through woodland next to a flowing glacial river. With so much space, it’s easy to find a spot with no neighbours and set up your perfect home.

Ailefroide campsite
Not a bad view to wake up to

Our first three days in Ailefroide had absolutely no phone signal of any kind, ideal for a full detox and indulgence in the simplicity of camping life. Plenty of cheap French wine, lots of card games, and sitting out in a down jacket watching the Milky Way appear overhead. Time to talk and reconnect was invaluable, and meant that we could enjoy our holiday having got back to the basics of what we loved.

Since moving to the Peak District we’ve been extremely busy with house buying, renovating, and a wedding – this has meant that our passion for climbing has been sorely neglected. Hoping to remind ourselves how it all works, we thought we’d ease in slowly with some single pitch climbs just a short walk from the tent. Turns out, two years of office jobs makes for soft feet, no bravery, and a return to being beginners! Both of us felt terrified even on the easiest grades, and our feet were bruised and battered from our stiff climbing shoes. Needless to say it was a shock to the system seeing how bad we’d got, but a bit of a laugh anyway and motivation to get back on it!

Above the village lies several mountains and glaciers, one of which is the Glacier Blanc. A 10 minute drive from the campsite you start out at the Pré de Madame Carle, aiming for the glacier refuge at 2542m (the joy of alpine refuges! Beer and chips before, during and after a hike). It’s a very civilised hike along well-worn gravel paths, but this doesn’t detract from the wildness of the mountainside. I haven’t been at altitude since my hike up Kilimanjaro, and I must admit I found it hard, feeling wheezy and fuzzy-headed far sooner than I’d expected. It’s always worth bearing in mind that you don’t know how you’ll respond to altitude, and to take it slowly as you can be affected from as low as 2000m. Nevertheless, we were able to get to just shy of 3000m having gone beyond the refuge in order to stand on the edge of the glacier. Unsurprisingly it has retreated a lot in the last few decades – in some places going from 200m to just 10m in depth – which is distressing to see and drills home the need to be more aware of the way our lives impact the natural world. Never doubt that what we do as humans will have ramifications long after we’ve died out…

For those who are more adventurous you can make your way up to the next refuge and from there on to the top of the mountain. We however headed back, with a little stop off to refill our water. It’s a perfect day out (around 6 hours walking time) for those who aren’t well-versed in hiking, as there are plenty of places to rest and take in the surroundings.

Glacier Blanc, Pelvoux
Blue skies, white glaciers, and only slightly dizzy smiles

The French Alps have so much more than climbing or hiking to offer, with via ferrata in the Ailefroide gorge built specifically for entertainment and exercise. Hiring kit from the village outdoor shop was super easy, and as my first foray into the activity it made sense to hire not buy. For those that don’t know, via ferrata is the name given to man-made routes up or along cliff edges where you clip into a steel cable and follow a series of staples, ladders and wires. Like Go Ape, you attach yourself to the cable with springy slings, but the idea being that you shouldn’t ever really fall off. Turns out, I’m not a massive fan – perhaps it was not being used to the equipment, but the first route (with an intermediate grade) was enough to make my palms sweat and put me on edge. Our attempt at the next route – which Simon hadn’t told me was the hardest in the area – was too much for me, so in the end I hiked my way along the top to the finish point and Simon completed it on his own. Still a great activity that families can do – if you choose your difficulty wisely – with an easy walk back to the car and spots for picnics.

Via Ferrata, Ailefroide
Taken shortly before I had a sobbing meltdown attempting an overhang which turned me back…

We decided to have another go at climbing, and a friend of Simon’s happened to be staying in nearby Vallouise for the Alpine Velofest (hosted by another friend). With a team of three we set out to do a multipitch route, tackling the Remonte Pente Directe – 200m of not too difficult climbing over 7 pitches, and I’d hired some kinder rockboots to give myself a chance of getting up it. It was still tricky getting back into the swing of climbing, and reminding ourselves of what we’re actually capable of, but it was a great half-day of good-quality rock, lovely views and excellent weather, topped off by a gelato treat on our return. That was enough for me for the day so I stayed at camp reading, relaxing, doing some yoga and generally allowing myself some headspace, whilst Simon and Paul headed up the A Tire D’Aile Froide  on the other side of the valley. Overall, our multipitch day was far more successful than our first days’ climbing, and we were able to remember how it felt to have burning forearms but a sense of satisfaction of reaching the top. And we were treated to a fantastic home-cooked meal back at the AlpBase chalet, a great round off to the camping part of the trip.

Sometimes all you need is to get back to basics – face to face conversations with your other half, without the distraction of technology. Simple food cooked on a gas stove that’s enjoyed with mugs of wine. The space and peace to read as many books as you can fit into your bag. As a way of starting the holiday and shaking off the worries and stresses of modern life, this was ideal. Resetting our minds and relationship, getting back to what had brought us together in the first place, and being reminded of what’s important. To do it in such a beautiful location made it even better.


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