In the Alps there are some great 2000m (6,561 feet) summits that are accessible on snowshoes, providing amazing views and great stashes of powder. I live in the Alps in the winter months, and guide groups on snowshoes for nearly 100 days each year. Mont de l’Arpille is a favorite, as it keeps good snow late into the year, and the summit panorama is stunning. Ahead of you is the Mont Blanc massif in France, to your left is the Trient glacier, and behind you the whole Rhone valley is laid out like a map.
To access this area, the closest train station is Martigny in Switzerland, and from there you can drive or catch the bus that crosses the Col de Forclaz on its way to Trient. Turn off right and follow the switchbacks to reach La Ravoire. The road is well marked, and there is ample parking at the trailhead. One of the delights of this summit is that you can follow the well-marked trails, or you can take a quick look at the map and work out where to cut through the forest on untracked snow.
The mountain of Arpille were naturally covered by forests, until a few hundred meters below the summit, but the traditional farming method in the region of felling trees to create clearings for grazing animals has prevailed. These areas are called alpages, and their abbreviation is where the Alps name comes from. I always look for a route linking up these alpages, well away from the trails, when snowshoeing as we can then benefit from deeper untracked snow.
In the alpages you often find old farm building chalets, which are usually uninhabited during the winter months when the livestock are taken to lower pastures or barns. Each autumn there is a ‘desalpes’ festival in each village, where all the farmers celebrate the animals being brought down to the valley, having fattened them up on all the lush Alpine vegetation during the summer months. Once the snows fall, the alpages are the preserve of those snowshoeing or ski touring.
One advantage of snowshoeing between the alpages is that you are using the forest as natural protection against avalanches, and you don’t need to worry about the risks of these until higher on the mountain. Also as this route is south facing, the extra shade of the trees keeps the snow cooler and less transformational, as it is shielded from the heat of the sun. Keep an eye out for squirrels and pine martins, as well as the occasional mountain goats. I’ve spotted both Chamois and Ibex in this region, so keep your cameras handy just in case.
Snowshoeing up through the forests you are unlikely to see anyone else, and I always seek the solitude of this route. Skiers and unimaginative snowshoers tend to stay on the main forest tracks, so by avoiding these trails you have the mountain to yourself and don’t need to worry about skiers speeding around corners.
As you climb higher on the mountain you emerge into the open upper alpage, with the small cluster of farm buildings at the far end. Here you need to consider the avalanche risks for the next section, along with the snow history, recent weather, and prevailing wind direction. Generally the safest route is to veer slightly right to gain the main ridgeline, and to avoid the exposed bowl to the left of the summit. The route meanders up steeper gradient slopes, and onto the north facing slopes in sections.
The snow on the upper ridge is usually excellent, and again it’s worth keeping off the skiers’ tracks to explore some of the subsidiary summits in the region. There are a couple of small peaks nearby as well which always hold great powder stashes, and you can run down the champagne snow on their north slopes, with the ice crystals glistening in the crisp winter air, sparkling against the clear blue sky.
When snowshoeing for myself, or when guiding groups, I always take my Bernese Mountain Dog with me. He’s called Maximus, and he loves the snow more than anyone I know. He’s built for the mountains, and copes really well in the cold. As with most mountain dog breeds, his paws are tough, and his claws act like crampons. On this snowshoe route, he loves sledging down slopes lying on his back!
Around the corner lies the main summit of Mont de l’Arpille, and the signpost shows its height as 2085m. There’s also an orientation viewing table that is normally buried under the snow, though you can use your avalanche snow shovel to dig down and find it. I usually stop on the summit to have some lunch, and to take in the views. What I like about this route is that the views on the descent are even better than they are on the ascent, so I know there’s always more to look forward to.
Soon it’s time to set off again, and to start the descent. Usually I retrace my route on the upper section of ridge, before picking out a different route for descent. There are many options, and I try and select where the snow is deep and fresh. Just before leaving the summit, it’s worth taking one look behind you to the gleaming dome of Mont Blanc. It’s always strange in this part of Europe, to be close to so many borders and to think that you are snowshoeing in Switzerland with Mont Blanc seems close enough to touch, yet it straddles the border of Italy and France.
In the afternoon, I descend via the alpages and forests, making tracks and gaining views ahead down the length of the immense Rhone valley. The flat alluvial plain of the mighty Rhone River is in marked contrast to the steep valley sides. As the time creeps by, puffs of convective cloud bubble up on the slopes, reminding you just how large these mountains are.
As you near the car you’ll hear the barks of the twenty or so Saint Bernard dogs that are bred in one of the farms in the forest here. My dog always looks a little nervous at the sound of their deep barks, despite weighing 43kg (94 lbs) himself, as he knows they are over twice his size. We soon reach the car, and take off our snowshoes, happy at having ascended a 2000m peak and having been able to see the mountain tops in three countries from the summit.
There are hundreds of summits similar to Mont de l’Arpille in the Alps, which as accessible on snowshoes to those with a good level of avalanche awareness, and who desire to get away from the crowds. When I’m guiding, people always ask me how I manage to find such quiet and unspoiled routes. The answer is that I avoid routes favored by the guidebooks, as I know that nearly everyone on the mountain will be following these, and I look at my maps carefully in conjunction with the avalanche forecasts to work out a safe and untracked route.
It is busy in the Alps compared to some regions of North America, yet there is a wilderness out there just waiting to be discovered. That’s what I try and show all those clients I guide. If you’d like to join me snowshoeing, please take a look at the snowshoeing trips I offer at: http://www.icicle-mountaineering.ltd.uk/snowshoe.htm, or contact me via Twitter @KingsleyJones. I hope that this article inspires you to look at how you can plan a snowshoeing route slightly differently, to explore the sights that no one else will find, and to enjoy the best snow.