TRAVEL GUIDE: Grand Casse
On August 8, 1860, three jaunty-looking fellows in wool suits and hob-nailed boots made the first ascent of the Grande Casse, at 3,885 metres the highest mountain in the Vanoise range in France. Some 150 years on and another jaunty-looking fellow (me) retraced the footsteps of those early pioneers.
British climber William Mathews, along with French guides Michael Croz and Etienne Favre, climbed the mountain near the village of Pralognan in 1860 becoming the first people to do so.
As part of the 150th anniversary of their achievement, Mark Mathews, a descendant of the early climber, was invited to climb the Grande Casse along with members of the British Alpine Club, of which William Mathews was a founding member. There were around 40 people taking part in the climb with the group including veteran mountaineers, expert guides, Alpine Club members and some aspiring climbers such as myself.
The climb required a two-stage approach which involved travelling to a mountain hut at 2,517m on day one with an overnight stay and the summit climb on day two. Handily we started off from the valley with a chairlift at Les Fontanettes (how foolish was I to think it was all going to be this easy) followed by a two-hour walk up to the refuge Col de la Vanoise at the foot of the main climb.
The refuge is a stone-built mountain hut which offers mountain climbers and trekkers a welcome bed and warm meal. The accommodation is basic but typical, with dorms accommodating 12 people per room. Following dinner it was off to bed as we had a 3am wake-up call to take advantage of the hard snow which freezes overnight and is less prone to avalanche.
After a less than decent night’s sleep thanks to the altitude, there I was at 4am standing in the dark with my trusty French guide Lionel Dudet (who happens to be a world famous mountaineer) ready to embark on my summit bid. We set off in a trail of headtorches snaking up the mountain and, while we moved quite slowly, the steepness soon had me breathing hard.
Setting the pace were three local guides dressed in traditional clothes and with the same basic climbing equipment as used by the Mathews team. It took me four hours to get to the summit — largely thanks to Lionel's ‘No stop, no stop!' policy. The view across the Vanoise and beyond from the precipitous summit was definitely worth the effort and the early start made perfect sense as the sun rose in the sky.
In mountaineering terms the summit is only the half way point, and negotiating the steep and icy slopes back to the refuge demanded all my concentration. Back at the refuge when I looked back up the mountain while having a well deserved pint of beer, I couldn't help feeling a sense of achievement.
The guide time for the climb is four to five hours (1,400m height gain) which requires a reasonable level of fitness plus experience using crampons and an ice axe. An excellent way to get the crampon experience is to take a walk on La Rechasse glacier which leaves from the same refuge with a slightly later wake-up call.
At the foot of the Grande Casse and right in the middle of the Vanoise National Park is the picture postcard village of Pralognan, the perfect base from which to explore the mountains at whatever level you desire. With a population of only 760 people the village has the capacity to accommodate more than 7,000 visitors and offers a wide range of activities in both summer and winter. If climbing the Grande Casse is something you feel is best left to mountaineers, but you still enjoy the great outdoors, there is plenty to keep you occupied with over 250km of waymarked trails and an abundance of wildlife. Combine that with glacier walks, rock climbing, via feratta and 400 meter zip lines, there is plenty to do for all the family and everything within walking distance of your accommodation.