There are honeypot locations in the Alps, where it’s hard to avoid other people snowshoeing, and then there are other regions where you’ll struggle to find anyone else all day long. Some of this comes down to how much marketing the local tourist office has done, and some is related to which areas are loved by the guidebooks.
I always imagine this as a Venn diagram, and I look for the regions where that tourist trade is not overdeveloped and where there are not many well-publicized trails. Where there is an overlap of those two factors, then I know that I’ve found a real gem of a snowshoeing region.
When working as a snowshoeing guide in the Alps, each day I’m asked by clients where my favorite region is for this amazing sport. The northern Aosta valley of Italy is always my answer, as it offers fairly reliable snow conditions, solitude and great cafes and restaurants to relax in at the end of the day. One area that never fails to deliver is the Punta della Croce, which translates as the Mountain of the Cross. It lies in a former disputed border region of Italy and France, and once was part of the Savoy Kingdom before it was split up. The highlight of this snowshoe route is the ruined ramparts of the fortified castle on the summit, which overlooks the vast south face of Mont Blanc.
After stopping for a coffee at my favorite café in the center of Courmayeur, I drive down the valley through Pre-St-Didier to Morgex, before turning up the road to Arpy. This road is kept open all winter, but after fresh snow it’s safest in a 4×4. There is a choice of starting points for this route, depending on the snowfall and avalanche risk, and all converge on the Lago d’Arpy. In the summer months this is a sparkling mountain lake, surrounded by an amphitheatre of peaks. During the winter months the lake freezes over and is hidden by a mantle of snow. It’s not uncommon to see tracks leading across the ice, but make sure it’s well frozen before venturing onto the lake.
The snowshoeing routes to the lake all cross a major gully, and it is essential to choose wisely which route is safest in terms of avalanche risk. Factors to consider are the slope aspect in relation to the historic prevailing wind direction, the amount of solar heating expected on different areas of the slopes on the day you are snowshoeing, and which routes will provide you the least time in the areas which you identify as being most exposed to risk of avalanche. Snowshoeing can be a very safe winter sport, if you take the time to consider the avalanche risk areas and manage this risk. If you are unsure about this then consider hiring a snowshoeing guide to lead you, as they can help educate you in the safe selection of snowshoe routes for the future.
Once you have reached the far side of the Lago d’Arpy you soon leave the treeline behind you, and snowshoe upwards through deep snow, heading across the mountainside. Behind you rises a wall of mountains, which curves around to hem you in from the left. Ahead is the pass, and you work your way up toward it. An early start is key for this route to ensure that the snowpack is well frozen. If you start too late, after the sun has been on this slope for a few hours, it reflects and the crucible of snow feels as hot as an oven, making upward progress a hard and hot slog. Timing is key, hence my caffeine fueled early start.
Just before you reach the ridge crest you snowshoe past an old barrack building, which has fallen into ruin. The ground soon eases off, and as you arrive at the saddle you suddenly are rewarded by the breathtaking view ahead. Down to your left in the valley floor is the village of La Thuile, but your eyes are drawn upwards to the south face of Mont Blanc, which is nearly 4 kilometers (13,123 feet) high. This is the highest summit in the Alps, but no less majestic is the Grandes Jorasses to the right. The mountain wall between these peaks forms the edge of the Italian Val Veny and Val Ferret. It seems an impenetrable barrier, yet there are many hard mountaineering routes which scale these faces.
Don’t linger too long, as there’s still the summit to take in and the views just get better and better. As you ascend from the pass, you soon see the wooden cross marking the summit ahead, and the views beyond to Mont Blanc are uninterrupted. Look further along the ridge, and you can see the ruins of the castle beyond. The snowshoeing becomes easier here, as you cross the broad shoulder, and it’s possible to look around the ruins. Take care, as the castle is perched atop cliffs, and the drops are steep. Despite having fallen into ruin, the castle retains an aura of impenetrability, and if anything it looks mysterious and grand in its current state, a lone sentinel in the winter snows.
Every time I have been snowshoeing to this summit, I’ve found a nook in the castle walls, sheltered from the winds, in which to eat my lunch and contemplate where I am. The history of the place doesn’t seem weathered by time, and it’s easy to imagine soldiers huddling inside, escaping the winter storms. This castle must have been an easy place to guard, and despite being so remote I can’t imagine it ever being a lonely outpost. To watch the seasons change, and the constantly changing light on the mountains, must have been a privilege to witness.
Eventually it’s time to start the descent, which is usually made by the same route to the col, and from there you can pick a different route down. What makes this route especially attractive is the constant change in slope aspect and altitude; you will encounter a wide variety of snow types and conditions. Usually these vary from wind crust, to seemingly bottomless powder, and everything in between. A versatile snowshoe type is essential to adapt to this wide variety of snow conditions, providing good flotation in powder and also traction on icy traverses.
After returning to the valley, don’t forget to head into a café to sample the amazing Italian hot chocolate. It is served so thick here that you can stand a spoon upright in it, and it’s the best reward after a great day out snowshoeing.
At the start of this article I described the Venn diagram that I imagine when searching for my snowshoeing mecca. I really don’t think there is anywhere that comes close to this part of Italy. The snowshoeing is great, the people are friendly, and the food and drink are legendary. What more could anyone want?
My ambition in writing this article was to offer a brief insight into my favorite snowshoeing area in the Alps. I have focused on one snowshoe route here, but it is only one example of the hundreds of great days out that can be enjoyed here. 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 come snowshoeing in the Alps, in the sure knowledge that there are secret corners where you can revel in the solitude.