From the snack hut at the Barrage de St-Guerin our proposed walk looked terrifying. It began gentle enough, across the dam and around the lake, but then it shot upwards at a distressing angle into a dropping valley with no form of shade or flatness. We ate our frites and supped panaches laughing at the absurdity of what looked so easy on the map.
There were five of us in the group, of varying levels of fitness and hill-walking experience, and we’d set ourselves the task of climbing up to 2100 metres to a cluster of Alpine lakes known as the Lacs de la Tempete, where we planned to camp overnight. We’d hoped to start early, so we could break the back of the climb before the afternoon heat really kicked in, but due to being on holiday we’d woken with hangovers. In the baking glare of the early afternoon sun, those panaches tasted especially good.
With such a varied group, we’d decided to go at an easy pace and rest whenever anyone needed to. We knew the path up followed the course of a stream so we knew we wouldn’t have to worry about water, but it was always going to be hard going once we got on the exposed slope. It was going to take a bit of teamwork to get up to the lakes, we’d have to keep our spirits up and make sure no-one felt like they were slowing the rest down. As it turned out, the bonding experience of the walk up was to prove invaluable for the challenge that came at the end of the day.
Frites eaten and panaches drained, we donned our packs, adjusted straps and set off. Once across the dam the path skirted the lake below a forested mountainside and shade was already welcome. The path turned to the southwest and we began the long slog up the mountain.
The first bit was surprisingly kind to us. Although our path led steeply upwards it passed through thick bushes giving us more much welcomed shade, and frequent stream crossings gave us plenty of opportunities for water breaks. Our late start was already beginning to show as we passed quite a few groups coming down the mountain and none going up. They offered tired words of encouragement and a 50 year old Frenchman, soaked in sweat, warned us at length about “no shade”.
Once we got out of the bush, the path steepened to 50 degrees and vanished over several obscuring ridges, and, without any shade as the Frenchman had warned, the going was instantly hot. We adjusted packs and headed up on an arduous 350m climb to the saddle in the mountain which marked the end of it. Stops were frequent and plentiful as expected, but what we didn’t expect was the slowly emerging view of Mont Blanc over the Barrage du St Guerin and the mountains behind it. Each time we stopped more of the spectacular view unveiled itself as we gained altitude. On one such rest we saw a marmot lolloping across a scree field. It’s during the stops that you really experience the joy of walking.
Eventually, after much cursing and sweating, we made the Col de la Louze. It was marked with a cairn and a sign which told us we were at 2119m. It was only a pile of stones but to each of us it felt like a welcoming party, congratulating us on getting this far. The view from the Col de la Louze was spectacular, with a breathtaking view of Mont Blanc to the northeast and the glaciated peaks of the Vanoise National Park away to the south. We unslung our packs and took a welcome break. Photographs were taken and views marvelled at.
The last leg of our journey contoured around the southern slopes of le Grand Mont and into the high valley where our goal, the Lacs de la Tempete, nestled. We were gutted when we saw where the path lead. More climbing, only this time rockier with sharp descents, and crossing a wide, steep scree slope that dropped away for over a hundred terrifying metres, with the safest path marked with little cairns. We came to know this stretch as the Valley of Death. Judging by the grumbles, and in one case shrieks of actual terror, from the people we passed on the way down the next morning, we weren’t the only ones who gave this stretch such a nickname.
Soon after the Valley of Death, we came upon the Lacs de la Tempete and the walk up was suddenly worth every step. The Lacs are a chain of three lakes which lie along a high east-west valley about 500m below the summit of le Grand Mont. The valley is almost impossibly craggy, and the lakes hang there in its stepped floor with 50m elevation between them. Framed by the valley’s ragged walls there are spectacular mountain views both east and west. Knackered after a long day, we picked a camping spot by the shore of the nearest lake and set up camp. To the west a beautiful sun was setting, but to the east something entirely less benign was brewing.
While we were rounding the Valley of Death, we’d noticed some dark cloud high in the southeast. Rain had been forecast for 24 hours time, but as we brewed up the sky was quickly blackening over the Mont Rosset range to the east. By the time the Jetboil had boiled up a second time we could hear thunder rumbling over distant peaks, accompanied by flashes of fork lightning. As we watched we noticed that the blackened sky was sweeping round and creeping over le Grand Mont to our immediate north. Lightning flickered disturbingly close by and a crack of thunder soon followed it.
There’s a kind of primal fear that rises up in man when faced with the power of nature at its most elemental, as if 3 million years of evolution and a backpack full of space-age technology are insignificant in the face of it, and we all felt it as the storm closed in on us.
We decided to move the camp to a slightly higher spot nearby, a spot that had already been rejected for its uncomfortable looking ground, but our current site would likely flood if the storm were to last for more than a few hours. And this is where the teamwork we’d practiced during the ascent paid off in spades. Everyone hurriedly moved as one, unpegging and carrying tents, and gathering up the kit we’d already unpacked, knowing and doing what needed to be done without being asked. Each second that passed the sky grew darker overhead, and peals of thunder echoed through the high passes around us. Amazingly we got the whole camp moved and secure just as the first fat drops of rain began to fall.
The lightning became more frequent and thunder was an almost continuous mix of echo and crack. We had three tents between us, two two man tents (including my Marmot Grid 2) and a one man tent which belonged to Johan, one of the two Swedish guys in the group. As soon as they were up we were in them, and just as that primeval fear rises in the face of nature’s power, so it is soothed once the Neolithic desire for shelter is satisfied.
The storm lasted maybe two hours and the lightning was spectacular throughout. Its flashes lit up tent walls, and occasionally you could even see the jagged lines of the lightning itself through them. Cut off in our little betented worlds, we huddled against groundsheets against the instinct-exaggerated danger of being struck by a stray thunderbolt, while thumb-tip sized rain drops lashed down on our flysheets overhead. The thunder was so powerful you could feel it through the ground.
It had hit us at around 9:45pm and by midnight the storm had passed, its rain turned to occasional spits and the lightning falling distant and quieter. By 1:30am the sky was perfectly clear with ten billion stars and the Milky Way enclosing us as if they were an unimaginably vast cosmic cage.
We weren’t the only ones caught out by the storm. We emerged from our tents just after dawn and a pair of guys who had camped below the ridge behind us were already busy fishing, and a couple with a dog were drying kit on rocks at the far end of our lake. Despite the wind and rain, and the fact that we’d hastily repitched the tents in near darkness, none of us got wet. All our tents passed the Alpine thunderstorm test, and my Grid 2 performed so admirably that I’m starting to refer to it as she.
We packed up at length and reluctantly put the Lacs de la Tempete behind us. On the way down we offered tired words of encouragement to the people who were coming up earlier than we did the day before. During the descent none of us could quite believe that we’d come up this way and each of us was quietly proud that we had – and that we’d experienced an Alpine storm into the bargain.
We got back to the snack hut at the Barrage de St-Guerin at about noon. Those panaches tasted especially good.