Since we weren’t catching a train back to Lyon until mid-afternoon, we figured we had enough time to hike up a mountain – and if needs be, we’d simply catch a ski lift back down. After deliberating over Planpraz (1,999m) and La Flégère (1,894m), we decided on the former and then thought we may as well ask our Airbnb hosts roughly how long the ascent would be. “Ten minutes,” they replied confidently. Laurence and I exchanged a confused look, Our Airbnb hosts may be into trail running, but surely even they couldn’t run up this beast in ten minutes? “On foot?” we queried. “Oh,” they said, upon realising we didn’t intend to catch the ski lift up, “In that case, around three hours.”
That morning, we were up bright and early, breakfasting on toast slathered in Marmite, marble cake and pomelo. We took a different (and very icy) route into Chamonix, passing the semi-frozen Lac des Gaillands and Lac Sinclair, the latter overlooked by the crumbling remains of a chapel. By the ski lift to Le Brévent, we turned onto Chemin de la Pierre À Ruskin and picked up signs to Planpraz, complete with a suggested ascent time of three hours and five minutes. There are several other trails you can do here, including the Petit Balcon Sud, so be sure to keep an eye on the signs to make sure you’re on the right path.
Gingerly sidestepping the icy patches of compressed snow, we made our way through the forest, occasionally stopping for a slice of pomelo to lighten the load. From time to time, we came across avalanche nets anchored into the forest floor; neither of us had seen one before, so it took us a moment or two to work out what they were. When the conifers cleared, we had unobstructed views of Mont Blanc; a vista I could never tire of.
Shortly after reaching Plan des Chablettes, at 1545m, our path led us out of the forest and onto an exposed slope covered in snow. (It doesn’t look all that snowy in the photos, but rest assured there was a lot of it.) Wading through knee-deep snow with the sun beaming down on us was hard work – and Laurence’s continuous tumbles were testament to this. (There were a few occasions when we thought we might actually end up rolling down the hill. Fortunately that didn’t come to pass.) We quickly discovered that it was easier to follow others’ footsteps, as that snow was more stable.
Without the shade of the conifers, we began to feel uncomfortably warm in our long trousers and microfleeces; we soon bundled the fleeces into our rucksacks. Trail runners zipped past us, descending the mountain at breakneck speed; paragliders soared above us, occasionally waving to us as they descended.
After endlessly zigzagging up the slope, we eventually came to a fork in the path, only to discover that the sign had blown down. Luckily for us, at that moment a couple of friendly hikers came up behind us and after a quick exchange in French we were on our way, following them up the less snowy but still very snowy slope. (According to them, the trail to the left of the fork would have been even snowier, and would have taken much longer to complete.)
Around noon, we finally made our way up the final stretch to the summit. It was hectic and busy, with skiers and snowboarders careering around all over the place, so we retreated onto the path for our picnic lunch. From our vantage point, we could see across to the Mont Blanc massif and up towards the slopes of Le Brévent, speckled with multi-coloured skiers.
We knew we wouldn’t have enough time to descend the mountain on foot, so decided to take the ski lift back down. Back in Chamonix, I picked up a pineapple macaron from Chez Richard before we stopped off at Cham Coffee for a drink in the sun; the perfect way to wind down after a morning sweating it out on a mountain. There was just enough time for one final circuit of the town, including a trip to the supermarket for supplies for the journey home, before it was time to locate the station. We ended up in a right pickle trying to find it, and I’m still not quite sure how!
We caught the 15:15 train to St. Gervais-les-Bains, transferring to another train at Bellegarde. All was going smoothly until we boarded the train to Lyon, which ended up delayed in Culoz due to an accident on the line between Ambérieu-en-Bugey and Lyon. Announcements were infrequent, and nobody seemed to have any idea if our train was ever going to make it to Lyon; at one point, it seemed as though they were genuinely contemplating abandoning the service and chucking us off in Culoz. Fortunately, an hour and a half later we were on the move, arriving into Lyon just shy of 21:00.
- On very snowy trails, you may find it easier to hike in snowshoes. There are plenty of outlets in Chamonix where you can rent or buy a pair.
- When hiking at altitude and exposed to the sun’s glare, it’s worth having some sunblock to hand. We didn’t, and consequently ended up looking like two little lobsters by the end of our hike.