September 14, 2007

Dispatch from Cabane de Prafleuri

Today was the first full day above treeline. It provided just what I came all this way for: sustained, high country travel, big views to big, snowy mountains, and wildlife sightings.

The route took me up onto the slope south of Mont-Fort and out to the point, where views of the cabin end and views of the huge and beautiful Grand Combin begin. The route continues across steep, lush meadows, to Col Termin, where we turn to the east and work our way up to Col de Louvie, and then down and back up to Col Prafleuri, and then down to the Cabane de Prafleuri.

It was a tough day. The distance wasn't huge and the elevation gain was certainly less than yesterday, but often the trail was bad. At first, it was nice trail sliding along steep meadow slopes, but in the climb to Col de Louvie, the trail started to become little more than a set of marks thought boulder fields. This became the norm for the rest of the day. That's tiring.

But to start at the beginning: breakfast was the usual bread, butter, jam and coffee, in quantity. The day started in the shade and with a bit of frost on the grass.

On the way to Col Termin, the views of Grand Combin were stupendous. In addition, we could also still see the Mt. Blanc group. The best, though, were the several chamois and ibex that we saw along the way. One ibex tolerated my efforts to get close enough for a portrait, so that I might have a good photo.

At Col Termin, we could now look to the east and see some of the peaks we'd work around though the day, most notably Rosabranche. Lac de Louvie was below, along with its Cabane, which looks right up the Glacier de Cobassière to the Grand Combin.

For a time, the traverse up to Col de Louvie was like the morning's traverse -- smooth trail, sloping meadows, ibex and chamois. But below the pass, it became a route, not a trail, and more difficult for that.

At the Col de Louvie, we entered the heart of the mountains, in a way that we hadn't been before, traversing along a high wall of a broad, inhabited valley. Behind us, down the valley, we glacial slabs and broken rock ridges, and less and less meadow. Ahead of us, only the leavings of a glacier in retreat -- a moonscape of piles of rocks and debris, with a couple of turquoise lakes in the bottoms. The Grand Désert glacier is clearly dying. Its terminal moraine is, literally, a couple piles of rocks two meters high and five meters across.

There were people here, again (we hadn't seen anyone close all morning, though a helicopter did land and then take off from the Cabane de Louvie at the lake below), most of whom had come up the river from lower in the Val de Nendaz.

Our goal was to leave this valley for the next one, the Val des Dix. So, we crossed the moonscape. Again, the trail was clear, but not real smooth. But as we got close to the Col de Prafleuri, which would get us to that valley, the trail became, again, only a route through rock piles. Tough.

Having reached the Col de Prafleuri, we were greeted by another moonscape, this time human-created. We saw a giant quarry, developed to build the huge dam just over the hill, which creates the Lac des Dix. One moonscape to the next, we plunged down the hill, this time on proper trail and made our way to the Cabane de Prafleuri.

The Cabane is in an ugly place, at the bottom of the quarry, but it enjoys the benefits of location. It's easily reached from below and offers easy access to some good climbing above. There are about 20 people here tonight -- hikers, climbers, and weekenders. It's a lively contrast to last night.

The dormitories are large and beautifully arranged. The present hut was completed in 2000, so it's very clean. Again, showers available and taken advantage of. Dinner was great: soup, mixed veggie and potato salad, macaroni, a savory stew of beef and mushrooms, and red cabbage, with fruit cocktail and wonderful whipped cream for dessert. I even had a couple of beers.

Just after sunset, a couple of ibex approached the hut and spent several minutes playing with the keepers' dog. The dog would approach the ibex and jump around and do a play bow. The ibex would reply by stamping its feet or making a little rush at the dog. At which point the dog would rush back to the terrace and dance around like it was all great fun. Then, they'd do it again. Very cool.

Sept. 12 from Cabane de Prafleuri, Switzerland: map, 2662m; accum. 71 km, 4962m gain, 3375m loss (8734'; accum. 44.1 mi, 16,280', 11,073')

Updated for spelling, links, and photos on 11/4.

Link to photo album

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