A short Ecrins winter trek

Early December and I had a few days time to make a winter trekking. Not that much snow yet this year in the Alps but the weather seemed to stay splendid in the French Alps and so I decided to pay a visit to the National Park of the Ecrins. Due to the cold spell since last episode of snowfall a week earlier, snow was lingering to even the bottom of the lowest lying valleys. The south facing slopes that usually bath in the sun for most of daytime near Prapic (1550m), the mountain hamlet where I started the trip, had become snow free again but once above about 2300m a nice white wonderland seemed to be awaiting me.

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The mountain hamlet of Prapic (1550m) down below.

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Not yet that much snow in the mountains.

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Looking back to frozen Lac des Estaris (2560m) from Col des Freissinières (2782m).

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View back to Col des Freissinières (2782m) while climbing Roc Diolon (3071m).

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The way to the summit of Roc Diolon (3071m).

I was experimenting with a pair of neoprene cycling overshoes over my trailrunners on this trip to keep my shoes dry and my feet warmer. The top of the overboots don’t have a close fit around my lower shin. Not enough time anymore before I left to sew an appropriate gaiter onto the overboots and by coincidence (or I can better admit that I’m not that organized) I didn’t find my second gaiter in my closet at home to wear over the overboots and so I eventually left without gaiters. I would be walking on snowshoes for most of the time and seen the recent weather evolution and the limited amounts of snow, I was probably not going to be missing my gaiters that much. It was not ideal but I wasn’t really worried. I still could bent my socks over the top of the overboots, a makeshift that seemed to work sufficiently.

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The bivouac spot on the ridge at around 3040m altitude.

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The Champsaur valley and the ski resort of Orcières-Merlettes from the summit at night.

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Melting snow for supper in the tent after the avoided disaster.

I gained altitude on the zigzag path above Prapic, then headed north over the snow covered terrain near the closed ski resort of Orcières-Merlette to reach the frozen mountain lake of Grand Lac des Estaris (2560m) around noon. I had been walking on microspikes since I touched the first crusted snow, but from here I had to put my snowshoes on to reach the Col des Freissinières (2782m) over the deep wind driven snow accumulation that had been blown trough the mountain pass. The climb to the mountain pass ended in a short steeper section with a slope up to around 35°. From the pass I looked down into the deeps in the valley head of Val des Freissinières at the other side. Descending the pass over here looked steep and didn’t seem to be without avalanche danger, but that would be for tomorrow.

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The highest peaks of the Ecrins including Barre des Ecrins (4102m) from Roc Diolon just before sunrise.

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Awaiting the sunrise at the summit cairn.

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The modest sunrise behind a veil of high clouds.

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First sunrays hitting the highest peaks of the Ecrins.

I exchanged snowshoes for microspikes again and turned south on the pass to continue to gain altitude on the mountain ridge over hard icy snow. After a while I reached the summit of Roc Diolon (3071m) without much effort. The sun was now already low above the horizon. I enjoyed the summit views for a while with especially the 4000m peaks of the Ecrins in the north that impressed the most.

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The east ridge of Roc Diolon with Tête de Soulaure (3243m) in the background.

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The perfect spot for a ridge bivouac, Vieux Chaillol (3163m) and the Devoluy mountains in the back.

Hardly a breeze on the summit, ideal conditions to make a high altitude bivouac as planned. If possible I would have pitched my tent on the summit but that seemed to result in an uncomfortable nights sleep. About 30m below the summit I found a perfect spot and pitched the tent while the sun went to sleep behind the horizon. The wind picked up at night to a steady moderate breeze and maintained a constant -8°c inside the tent.

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The view while descending down Col des Freissinières into the valley with the same name.

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Looking back to Col des Freissinières and Crête du Martinet (3104m).

While melting snow for supper it started to smell suspiciously like propane gas inside the tent after a while. I checked my burner and gas canister and then suddenly noticed that liquefied gas was squirting out of the rotary valve on the gas canister. I was using my MSR Windpro burner in inverted liquid feed as I had always done before without problems. While turning the canister to close the valve, the leaking gas caught fire and I now had a burning bomb of a gas canister in my hands! In panic I started to knock the flame with my hands (while wearing mittens luckily) but the flame only got extinguished once I realized after a few seconds that I better just could close the valve. What a relief when the flames died, my heart yet beating as hell. Fortunately I had left the tent door opened. If not, the tent fabric could have caught fire. I had checked the gas burner at home before the trip and it had worked fine than. When I lit the burner again I found out that the rubber around the lever seemed to have worn too much and did not entirely seal the valve anymore. As long as I did not turn the lever too abruptly the leaking hold off. Still this is unacceptable for me. A gas burner should remain safe at all times, even when some sealing rubber would start to wear off. Anyway, I eventually had a good meal that evening but a few holes had been burned in my mittens though.

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Down Val des Freissinières.

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The frozen river at Val des Freissinères while approaching Dormillouse.

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Reaching the tree line again while climbing to Cabane de Palluel, Pic de Rochelaire (3108m) and Tête de Couleau (3038m) in the background.

I climbed to the summit again during the morning and awaited the sunrise which led to a very short lived morning glow on the surrounding peaks. The nocturnal breeze faded away as the sun rose and I packed my stuff in a deadly silence… as long as there was no jet plane flying overhead at least. When again arrived at the Col des Freissinières I put crampons on my feet and took my ice ax from my backpack and descended steep down into the valley over crusted snow between outcrops of rocks. Finally on flatter terrain I continued over mostly portable crust but suddenly fell through the snow in a deep hole onto what seemed to be a boulder field underneath and while hitting ground a point of a crampon pushed into the femur of my other leg. I climbed out of the hole and checked my leg. Despite there was no hole torn in my pants, I still felt a lot of pain for a while and noticed a wound on my leg, slightly bleeding but not troublesome enough to stop me from walking deeper down the valley.

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Morning at Canabe de Palluel (2173m).

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The mountain stream slowly freezing, Le Tuba (3008m) and Petit Pinier (3100m) in the background.

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A steep climb out of the valley, Le Tuba (3008m), Petit Pinier (3100m) and Grand Pinier (3117m) at the horizon.

Val des Freisinnières is yet one of those quite wild and remote looking valleys in the Alps which you don’t find that much anymore these days. Deeper down the valley the winter sun didn’t reach the valley bottom and progression became more tiresome through a half a meter of powder. It took me till late afternoon to reach the hamlet of Dormillouse (1727m), now abandoned during winter. From here I crossed the river and climbed over the summer trail in the forest which leads to Lac Palluel. I climbed above tree line and stopped at Cabane de Palluel (2173m) before reaching the mountain lake. The shepherds cabin was now locked for winter but I found an easy way to get in. I cautiously melted snow with my own burner inside the cabin and now managed to limit the gas squirting of the burner to a minimum.

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Overlooking the terrain towards Col des Terres Blanches (2721m) and Tête de Couleau (3038m).

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Peculiar footprints.

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Watching the night sky.

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Moon and star trails at the bivouac spot near Col des Terres Blanches (2721m).

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Polaris found.

Later during the night I was mostly awake in the cabin, too warm inside and the usual uproar of mice kept my out of my sleep most of the time. The next morning I left early after sunrise and created my own traces in the snow while searching a route to Grande Cabane de Faravel (2204m). From there I could descend down to the valley bottom and climb along the eastern slope of the valley passed a steep rock face to reach a high mountain valley under Col des Terres Blanches (2721m). I pitched the tent just below the col that evening and enjoyed the starry sky for almost two hours before searching for my sleeping bag in the tent.

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Local zastrugi formation at Col des Terres Blanches (2721m).

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Footprints of chamois and snow grouse lead me towards the summit of Le Tuba (3008m).

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Pic de Rochelaire (3108m) and Tête de Vautisse (3156m) seen from le Tuba (3008m).

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Ridge walk back to Col des Terres Blanches (2721m).

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A distant view to Monte Viso (3841m).

The last day included a long ridge snowshoe walk towards the summit of Le Tuba (3008m) where I enjoyed a long pause to admire the surrounding peaks. Back at Col des Terres Blanches I started the final and long descend back down to Prapic. Along the way I encountered a couple of chamois that seemed to be playing tag with each other. When I arrived at Prapic it was already dark and night while the stars started to appear in the sky. The beautiful trip had come to its end.

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Snowshoe hare, where are you?

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Following the deep incised Torrent de la Bruyère below Col des Terres Blanches.

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The last bits to Prapic (1550m).

Packrafting the Swiss Grand Canyon

End of August and I receive a last minute invitation from Waluyo to join him on a yet to define packrafting trip in Switzerland. By chance I can take a few days off. Same so for Eraz. The three of us are heading to the Swiss Alps September 1th and decide to take the alpine headwaters of the Rhine river as our target. The Hinterrhein and Vorderrhein rivers join near the village of Bonaduz to form the upper Rhine upstream of Lake Constance. The lower part of the Hinterrhein looks like a nice warming up for the somewhat more challenging whitewater of the Vorderrhein, the latter wriggling itself through a 20km long canyon before meeting the Hinterrhein. The canyon bears the local name Ruinaulta and is also known as the Swiss Grand Canyon because of its size (of course by far not to be compared with Arizona standards).

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On late Sunday we meet each other in Bonaduz. Our trip starts at the confluence of the two rivers. We hike upstream along the Hinterrhein at dusk and soon it is too dark to keep our head lamps in our packs. Waluyo has found a perfect camping spot on a small strip of meadow surrounded by woods and at the edge of the abysm to the river. We put our tarps and inspect each others lightweight gear, but it is Eraz his super light MYOG that receives most attention. We talk till almost midnight and finally creep under our down bags while some light rain is tapping on our tarps.

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The morning is dry again. We warm up after breakfast with an hour playing frisbee, something we will repeat for the next mornings… and not only during the mornings. We continue our hike upstream and soon we encounter the rocky rapid in the Hinterrhein near Rothenbrunnen. We decide to inflate our packrafts on a small gravel bar in the river bed just below the rapid. The lower Hinterrhein reveals itself as a rather fast flowing river with some rather modest wave trains and a few easy swift currents. The water level in the river is lower then average and so it becomes a relaxed ride on the river. After about one and a half hour we reach the confluence with the Vorderrhein, put out and let dry our gear on the river bank with the noon lunch.

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For the remainder of the day we hike to the west, climbing to the forested south rim of the Vorderrhein canyon with from time to time some budding views down to the river. Eraz suddenly stumbles upon an edible mushroom and is already dreaming about its delicious dessert for this evening. We eventually descend into the canyon to reach the narrow side canyon of the Rabiusa creek. Here we make our camp on the gravel bottom of the canyon and lit a camp fire. Soon the sky is dark with countless stars flickering above the chasm. A curious fox pays us a visit in the dark.

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The sun rays take a long time to reach our cold camping spot at the bottom of the canyon during the morning. In order not to get cold, this means frisbee morning!

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The day becomes warm as we continue our trip hiking to the west. After some views over the canyon, we mostly continue inside the canyon near the river during the afternoon, scouting some of the rapids. At Schwarze Loch, the most impressive rapid in the canyon, we keep a long break and discuss the ideal line to be followed through the whitewater. Afterwards we hike all the way to Ilanz and finally put in on the Glenner before its confluence with the Vorderrhein.

The water level we encounter on the Vorderrhein has become very low however. Unfortunately that’s what you can get with regulated flow by hydropower dams upstream. However, the river gains some discharge again as we float downstream and the rapids we encounter offer already quite some fun. When we finally reach Schwarze Loch, the river its water level suddenly rises with about half a meter. We decide to take our packs from our packrafts and try to run this longer white water section. None of us has issues with taming the waves.

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We camp at a barbecue area next to the river near the entrance of Schwarze Loch and continue on the river the day after. The rapids that follow after Schwarze Loch also make the cruiser decked packrafts of Waluyo and Eraz swallow a few buckets of water repeatedly. We regularly stop to empty the rafts, except for me. The white water spray deck on my packraft proves its functionality once again. We reach Reichenau at the confluence with the Hinterrhein before noon and decide to leave our backpacks with camping gear behind at the confluence to head to the nearby train station with only our packrafting gear for another run on the Vorderrhein, but now obviously without excess gear stowed on the bows of our rafts.

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Once again in Ilanz, the water level now shows a decent level. The second run becomes pure joy. We play, try some harder lines and linger for a moment on a nice wave surfing spot. After only a few hours we reach the confluence again and leave the river, this time permanently.

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After a camp in a small meadow in the forest above Bonaduz, we hike back to our starting point the next morning and say goodbye. This has been such a great adventure that we definitely should make a similar trip again in the future. Who wants to join next time?

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A getaway on the Escapardenne Eisleck trail

Few weeks ago I had a relaxed hike on the Escapardenne Eisleck trail (EET), a 104km long and new hiking trail in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the south of Belgium. A friend joined me on the trail during the first day. For the remainder of the hike I walked solo, making wild bivouacs in the forests. Deer and wild boars passed by during most of the nights. The trail made me enjoy some corners in the countryside of the Ardennes that were completely new to me, even though the trail coincides a lot with the GR57 trail which I already section hiked several times in the area before. The pictures give you some further impressions of the trail.

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The west entrance of the tunnel of the Channel of Bernistap. This channel was build in the 19th century to make a connection between the watersheds of the Meuse and Rhine rivers. However, the project was never completed due to the growing benefits of rail transport at that time.

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The countryside on the plateau of the Ardennes around the border between Belgium and Luxembourg.

Foxes playing on the banks of the Channel of Bernistap.

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One of many small frogs at the Weiler ponds.

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Nice evening in the forest under the trailstar.

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Backlit in the forest.

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Somewhere on the plateau south of Clervaux after a rainy morning.

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Approaching Kautenbach through a nice valley.

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Pink colors in the Ourthe valley where I followed the GR57 trail from Gouvy to Houffalize to join the EET again.

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Following the markings of the GR57 trail.

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Crossing the young Ourthe Orientale.

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First time I encountered such a big one in Belgium.

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On the plateau above the Ourthe valley.

My thru-hike of the Tour du Mont Blanc

Ever wondered what would be the most popular, the most frequented hiking trail in Europe? I think the answer is simply the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). Eleven years ago after I finished the Stubaier Höhenweg in Austria, that was my first multi day hike ever, I was indulging in the TMB as a possible next destination but soon lost my interest in it. During the last week of June I had eight days off but I did not found any inspiration to search for a possible trip and decided to better stay home. At the last minute I changed my mind and decided to go for the TMB. I was unprepared, even did not have a map of most of the Italian part but I thought this trail would be so well marked that in fact I should manage to thru-hike the entire trail unprepared. Fortunately that perfectly proved to be so. The TMB is a very easy hike (except from the Arpette variant) and also quite varied. Because of the large amounts of snow that were still lingering in the mountains this year, I took ice axe and crampons in my pack even though I was not sure I would need them.

I was surprised how many people actually hike this trail. I knew it would be many, but I had never thought it would be this many! There were days I passed over 300 people! Americans, Englishmen, Russians, Poles and Japanese were the most notable nationalities I encountered during the hike. I did not hear a lot of French and sometimes I even did not feel to be still in Europe.

I took all higher variants of the trail, except from the variant over Tête Bernarde at the Italian side (obviously because I had no map of this area). That means I hiked over Fenêtre d’Arpette, passed Lac Blanc, over Col de Tricot and Col des Fours. It was striking that these variants were not well marked or even not marked at all compared to the main route. As a result almost nobody seemed to hike the variants, which is a shame I think because all the variants have more interesting views to offer.

I thru-hiked the trail with a more leisurely pace than usual and finished in 7 days of which I hiked only a few hours on two days because of bad weather conditions. A lightweight or ultralight hiker in good shape will be able to thru-hike the trail in 4 to 6 days I think. I started in La Fouly in Switserland and hiked the trail counterclockwise. Landscape wise the trail has beautiful parts to offer, but it is certainly not more special than elsewhere in the Alps. This trail is much overrated internationally, though I’m still glad I did not stay home.

You can have a look at my TMB gear list.

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Cold morning in Val Ferret just after the start in La Fouly.

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Through cozy alleys of the Swiss village Praz-de-Fort.

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Flowers abound at the end of June.

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First snow on the trail in Val d’Arpette.

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Climbing towards Fenêtre d’Arpette.

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The east side of Fenêtre d’Arpette (2665m), a rather steep slope still completely covered in snow in June.

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Looking back down while arriving at Fenêtre d’Arpette.

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Markings at Fenêtre d’Arpette. It was freezing with light snowfall when I arrived at the col.

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Ibex playing on the snowfields.

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Who’s the strongest?

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The dominant male of the group.

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Looking back at Glacier du Trient.

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Improving weather after ten hours of continuous rain in Val de Trient.

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At the Trient river and it is raining again.

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The stone stairs at the Arpette variant.

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A lot of snowfields on my way to Col du Balme (2191m).

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Frosty sky clear morning after a windy and rainy night above Col the Balme, Aiguille Verte (4122m) in the background.

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I encountered this marmot along the trail. He remained so quiet I almost did not notice him.

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Aiguille Verte (4122m).

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Mont Blanc (4807m).

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Descending from L’Aiguillette des Posettes with the suburbs of Chamonix visible in the valley.

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Lac Blanc still well covered with snow and ice.

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A view towards Grandes Jorasses (4208m) and a Mer de Glace.

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The Aiguilles Rouges massif and Mont Buet from Le Brévent in the evening.

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Evening glow on Aiguille du Chardonnet and Aiguille d’Argentière.

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Aiguille Verte just before sunset.

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Mont Blanc at sunset.

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A night under the stars in my bivy bag at the mountain station of the gondola at Le Brévent (2525m), Mont Blanc in the back.

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Sunny day on the trail with splendid views onto Mont Blanc massif.

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The trail through the snow at Col du Bonhomme (2329m).

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Flower fields in Val des Glaciers.

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Looking back at Col des Fours (2665m) which was very easy passable through the snow.

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Arriving at Refuge des Mottets with Aiguille des Glaciers (3816m) in the background.

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The dirty trail in the snow at Col de la Seigne (2516m).

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The flow of debris from Glacier du Miage.

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Through the narrow alleys of the Italian village Courmayeur.

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Finally Mont Blanc becomes visible at the Italian side after a rainy and foggy day in the mountains.

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Under the countenance of Grandes Jorasses.

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Delipidated mountain cabin from ancient times under the face of Pointe Walker (4055m) and Aiguille des Leschaux (3759m).

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Through the Italian Val Ferret.

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Looking back at the rolling terrain around Grand Col Ferret (2537m) before the final descent to La Fouly.

This trip took place June 28 till July 04, 2013.

The Hochschwab Salza loop – tramping through snow thunder and rain

Where did the crystal clear water go? Opaque grey silty water flowed past by through the Salza river when I inflated my packraft. Warm temperatures, high amounts of snow melt and the rainshowers of the days before had caused rather high water levels.

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Ready to hit the Salza just downstream from Gusswerk village.

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Flowers abound around the snow line.

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The Ennstaler Alps as seen from the Goss mountain pass above Hinterwildalpen.

The desolate Klausgraben canyon presented itself as a delight to the eye. Passed through the canyon several heavy rainshowers teased me on my float, but I paddled on till the evening when a layer of fog formed and draped the river bed. Now I could only hear the next white water coming and throw myself into it blindly. That wouldn’t be so clever, so I put out and hiked the remaining distance till close to the village of Wildalpen where I tarp camped in the forest. Distant lightning strikes lit the sky at dusk, soon it started to rain, often it rained heavy and it didn’t stop till late forenoon.

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The snow covered plateau under the scraping clouds.

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Wagnergraben from the Römerweg trail.

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Fobisbach down Hinterseeaugraben.

With the last rain droplets that fell in the morning, I made a cache in the forest to leave my packrafting gear behind for the remainder of the trip. The Salza river had swollen too much overnight so that any packrafting was irresponsible now. I climbed out of the Salza valley and wandered through vast mountain forest and some more heavy rainshowers that got my legs soaking wet until I reached the west part of the Hochschwab plateau in the evening. The sun broke through and I enjoyed watching the towering clouds over the mountains in the distance building the next thunderstorms.

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Looking down Hinterseeaugraben with Pfaffenstein (1871m) in the background.

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The bridge over Fobisbach appears from under the snow.

The plateau still had an almost 100% snow cover once above 1200m, but the snow had hardened enough during the last days thanks to all the rain that my snow shoes where now useless weight in my pack. Except from a few frightened chamois I seemed to be all alone on the deserted plateau. The weather improved on day four so that I chose to climb to the summit of Brandstein. A glider suddenly scared me while standing near the summit cross. Even though you can have the feeling to be all alone up in the mountains in the early season, suddenly there might always appear some company from an unexpected side in the Alps. It’s so typical.

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The plateau seen from Brandstein summit (2003m).

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Looking back onto the south face of Brandstein (2003m) from the plateau.

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Entering the flowery Trawiestal valley.

The nice weather window only lasted one day as the next day I had to race against an advancing coldfront. I was now under Hochschwab’s summit but the mountain remained in the clouds all the time so that I had to leave the plan to climb any higher. The marmots were deserted looking around while keeping close to their den. With still so much snow cover everywhere around their den, there was not yet much delicious to find to satisfy one’s hunger.

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I just woke up after my half year sleep.

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And I stretch my legs for every photographer.

While I crossed the mountain pass on its south side it started to rain, cloud base lowered sustainingly and soon the first lightning strikes were flashing. I reached the valley bottom of Dullwitz valley just in time. The roaring thunder behind my back became loader and loader. Not much later I smiled and enjoyed the hailstorm that bombarded me. Lighting strikes hit the valley ridge above with for several times only two seconds that I could count between flash and the bang. It had been a long time since I got to experience a decent thunderstorm in the mountains.

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Descending deeper into the Dullwitz valley whith the thunder approaching behind my back.

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Rainy forest bivuoac.

I pitched the tarp in the forest while it kept raining in the evening and so it did during the night… and the next day… and the next night… Well, I just hiked through rain and fog the entire day after. Fortunately it became dry the last day after about 42 hours of continuous rain. I hiked upstream through the attractive Klausgraben canyon and soon finished the loop. Late spring is a beautiful time in the mountains as proved this trip again.

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Hiking through the Klausgraben canyon…

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… with the Salza river now showing its green waters.

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Timid forest dweller.

This trip took place May 06-12 2013.
Watch the gear list for this trip.