Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Randonnée in Vallée de la Manche ...

As usual we did not get away from the house until about 10.30 and at 1180m altitude or so our randonnée started later than we would have liked; it was no less beautiful for that and as the old guy, waiting with his impatient dog for his elderly wife to catch up on her randonnée skis, said, "C'est féerique, ça!"
We slid slowly upward past a small chalet almost buried in the snow amongst the pines and nesting warmly if one imagines the logs licked by flames in the stone fireplace inside. We were below the cloud which hangs like a mist at this altitude and climbing steadily up into it towards the Chalet des Mines-d'Or passing the lone cross-country skier on her tenuous descent. She stopped for a chat, a chew the cud if there were any underneath the thick snow, and she was soon self-satisfied by telling us she was 78 years old, and becasue of that she didn't want to complete le petit tour her friends were making; and as it later became evident a good few years younger than she. Not easy descending sharply on thin cross-country skis without heel attachment however proficient or experienced one might be.
Just above the Mines-d'Or, where the lake was covered and the snow heavy on the surrounding trees completed a postcard scene, I found a pine branch leaning out towards the path edge; heavy with snow and beautifully stuck on one side with the hoare-frost made by the frozen cloud. It was then I realised that although I know this mountain well, in snow the topography changes and I was not making my way up the path which in truth was filled with snow but by the right hand side and across a small open meadow; in summer fenced off for grazing cows as they are gradually led up the mountain to summer pastures.

People on raquettes, snow-shoeing upward passed us as we climbed, stopped to take a breath along with a photograph; randonneurs skied down from out of the cloud descending from the Col de Coux, some skiing in terrain far above their level of competence and this time descending safely. We passed a family of three, sitting on weather proof jackets in the deep snow eating from thermos flasks the steam rising with their spoons. A greeting passed and then we see we have arrived at an altitude of 1500m and not far to go on until we arrive at our picnic spot...

Chalets de Fréterolle (1533m); a lovely little farm, opened up in summer as a 'restaurant' although 'Auberge' is probably more accurate. It serves many people, locals and tourists alike and often places have to be reserved. The carte usually contains all the usual suspects of this region; melted cheese dishes, omelettes, cured and smoked ham, salads, beignets des pommes... often as coffee rounds off the meal, the patron tours the paying tables with unmarked bottles of a local distillation, handing out small glasses of génépi, or poire william; my mouth waters as I write this with memories of summer hikes here.

Today though, the chalets are closed against the winter, and after nearly two hours climb, as we near, we can see that others have already had the same idea and underneath the corrugated iron roof held up against the encroaching snow by strong pine beams, four people are packing away their picnic debris and we take out turn. And in the cold we eat our sandwiches, dried figs and drink our cold juice and resolve to bring hot drinks next time...

Fed and watered, we removed our cold 'peaux des phoques', adjusted our bindings and change any climbing clothing for those for descent. As we climbed out of our lunchtime refuge we saw the cloud had come down and the visibility was just a few metres, this somewhat concerned my Missus who doesn't care too much for deep snow skiing at the best of times but without a fall she made it down and the thrill of 'skiing back-country' through knee deep fresh powder although for only a short descent was heart lifting. The silence, the calm, the beauty; all there. 10 minutes later we reached our starting point. And nearby was little refuge, a restaurant, café-bar where we were served delicious crépes & chocolat chaud.

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