Whether you are a beginner, or a seasoned pro, snowshoeing in the Vercors needs to be added to your bucket list!
All the ski resorts in the Vercors offer groomed and signposted trails across rolling terrain for snowshoe beginners. Villard de Lans offers the biggest area, with over 50km of signposted trails.
However, for seasoned snowshoers, it’s away from the resorts that the Vercors Massifs mythical wilderness really comes into its own. Particularly the High Plateaux Natural Reserve, the largest reserve in mainland France. The High Plateaux is a 17,000 hectare area of wonderful wilderness. No houses, no roads, no phone reception. It only has minimal avalanche danger, and there are a number of small simple huts to take refuge in. Who could want for more for a winter adventure?
Here’s a little account from my first winter visit to the Vercors…
On the 3rd of January, we set off to the Vercors to explore the High Plateaux Natural Reserve. …and yes, I might have mentioned the Vercors once or twice over the years on my blog, because I LOVE it, but this was my first winter foray. Despite only being 2 hours down the road from my home, it has a very different feel from the Alpine mountains, as if I had travelled to a new country in a very different part of the world.
The days ahead had been forecast to be cold, so we set off with heavily laden pulks (well they are actually cheap kids sleds turned into little pulks). Winter camping is more difficult to do ultra-light, so pulling your kit along behind you rather than carrying it makes life a little easier. By making them out of lightweight plastic kids sleds, rather than using a purposely designed pulk with solid traces, means they are light enough that if the terrain gets too steep you can just attach them to your backpacks and walk with everything on your back.
It was snowing lightly when we began along the GR91 trail. Thankfully a few people had gone before us so a track was already in, making navigation and the physical effort of snowshoeing a little easier. We weaved our way through forests of trees heavily laden in snow. By lunchtime, the snow had stopped and we were treated to occasional views, as the mist came and went.
Our sleds were quick to be named. Anna’s sled (something she had borrowed from a neighbour last minute before we left), was a slightly peculiar ‘Manta Ray’ shape, which on first glance we didn’t hold out much hope for! Within the first hour, it had affectionately been nicknamed ‘Fatty Lala’, as its random wing shapes on the side were too wide for the track. However, I take it all back, although how it moved through the snow was far from elegant, ricocheting from one snowbank to the next, it had an amazing knack of re-righting itself. Unlike my sled, ‘Speedy’! Speedys sleek design was fine on the flat, but with even the slightest downhill it would career into the back of me or shoot straight past me before tumbling into a roll. (This is when you do wish for a proper pulk with trace’s – solid poles that stop the pulk catching you up and hitting you on the back of the legs.) Solution… was my sledge goes first and I follow on descents.
By 5pm, as the sun set over the tops of the trees we arrived at our little two-man hut for the night, ‘Abri de Tiolache du Milieu’. The huts in the Vercors are more like a Scottish bothy than a typical French refuge; they have a couple of wooden boards as beds, a table and chairs, and a little log burner…but no wood or gas etc.
The light was fading as we arrived and the temperature was plummeting. Anna was quick to get a fire on with a few scraps of wood and twigs we found lying around, but sadly the wood was damp and green so didn’t burn that great. After a couple of hours, we concluded that the fire had only turned the room from freezing to cold, but that was better than nothing, plus it added a little ‘ambience’ to the evening haha! After a big meal to warm our bones, we sat wrapped up in down jackets and sleeping bags to play cards for a couple of hours before heading to bed to listen to an episode of the podcast ’No such thing as a fish’. (So rock n’ roll).
Amazingly we overslept! It was nearly 8am when Anna woke me, so breakfast was going to have to be on the move, as we had a long day ahead.
As we stepped out of our little cabin we were met to clear skies, and as we already knew that we were entering into the most beautiful section of the route, we headed off with a spring in our step.
Wowee, what a stunning morning …although we were getting nowhere fast, as we just couldn’t stop regularly pausing to take pictures. Just before lunch, we turned off the GR91, and this is where the physical workout began. No one had broken trail before us. Having to lift your knees up high with every step to bring each snowshoe out from the deep powder to take another step forward, plus dragging the pulks, is a real glute burner. Bums of steal here we come! Up and down little rolling hills we went. In the forest we were having to stop every few hundred metres to check our navigation, which was incredibly time-consuming. Our average speed dropped drastically to 2km an hour!
As the light of the day started to vanish it started to snow…time to get the tent up! In no time at all we were snug as a bug, tucked up in our tent, listening to an audio book. We went to sleep to the gentle pitta-patter of the snow falling on tent. However, the sky must have cleared in the early hours of the morning, as by 5am we both woke feeling pretty chilly and there was a lot of ice on the inside of our tent caused by the condensation from our breath. We tried to sleep a little more, but by 6am, too cold, we thought we might as well get moving to get warm.
Winter camping isn’t for everyone… and for good reason! Attempting to wriggle out of your toasty sleeping bag and get changed into your clothes without causing a shower of ice and water from the ceiling of the tent, is an art form! Trying to get your feet into boots that have frozen so solid overnight feels like a torture device. Having no hot drink or hot breakfast because you forgot to put the gas bottle in your sleeping bag overnight so now it freezes up is a bit of a morale dampener…but somehow I still love it!! I love that winter camping forces you to find a solution, to be a little ‘MacGyver’ you can’t exactly curl up in the snow and just give up. Before you know it you will have a gas bottle down your trousers to warm it up or you’ll have more batteries tucked inside your bra top than you do boobs! Winter forces you to adapt and overcome. You can read my Top Tips for winter camping here.
Once camp was dismantled and packed into the sleds, we set off at a good pace in the hope of warming up enough to at least get some feeling back in our extremities. Unlike yesterday, we were now surprisingly thankful for the effort it takes to break trail, it get the blood pumping and slowly but surely we had fingers and toes once more! It was a flipping freezing morning, all our water bottles were frozen, our food was frozen and our stove was frozen, as it was considerably colder than the ‘cold’ weather the forecast had predicted.
By late morning we emerged out of the cold deep forest and into the suns warm rays (relatively speaking) and finally defrosted properly. Once warmer, the chatting and laughter quickly returned, and we were able to soak up the beautiful views once more rather than be buried inside oodles of hoods.
We arrived back at the car by mid-afternoon. Another adventure over, another pocket full of wonderful memories banked! Big thanks to my adventure buddy Anna for making it so fun.
Feel free to ask me any questions, happy to help where I can.
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