Hike in French Alps repeats couple's trip from 25 years earlier

By Sol Hurwitz
Sunday, March 14, 2010

We paused on the trail to catch our breath. "I'd forgotten how exhausting this was," I gasped to my wife, Nina.

"We're almost there," she reassured me. "We're almost at the top."

It was July, and we were on the final, heart-pounding ascent to the top of La Tournette, a 7,700-foot mountain in the northern French Alps. It was a strenuous journey -- but a sentimental one.

We'd first scaled La Tournette, the highest point in the Lake Annecy region of the mountainous Haute-Savoie, nearly 25 years before, in 1986. The guidebooks had described the view from the summit as one of the most stunning in the Alps, but the day we had made the climb, there was no way to tell if this were true: The top of the mountain was shrouded in a pea-soup fog.

After that, we'd often talked of returning to La Tournette to claim our scenic reward. Finally, last summer, we decided it was time. We would celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary with a trip to France and a replay of that hike.

We knew that there would be risks. The weather could be poor, and the trails are treacherous in the rain. Clouds might again obscure the view. And although we're both healthy, seasoned hikers, we're now in our 70s, and climbing La Tournette is a slog even for the young. The ascent involves scrambling up steep and sometimes slippery limestone boulders, navigating narrow ledges and rocky cliffs, clutching chains and climbing ladders. Mountaineering experts rate the trek "difficult" (the vertical gain is 3,000 feet over a distance of 3.4 miles), and though no special equipment is needed, the ascent is meant for experienced hikers.

We had managed the climb alone in 1986, but this time around, we decided to hire a professional guide for added safety and found Christophe, a wiry, English-speaking 35-year-old who was raised near La Tournette in Talloires and still lives there. He first hiked to the top of the mountain when he was 7, and he skied it at age 9. Clearly we were in good hands. What's more, the météo -- France's national weather forecast -- called for a perfect day: clear and sunny with light winds and temperatures in the 70s.

Christophe met us in the morning at our hotel, L'Auberge du Père Bise in Talloires, a nostalgic choice, the same place where we'd stayed on our earlier trip. It was a half-hour drive to the trail head at Chalet de l'Aulp, a farm where the creamy, aromatic Reblochon cheese is made. Cows were grazing in the pasture, and we could see hikers, young and old, starting the climb through the meadow's high grasses.

Full of anticipation, we hit the trail at a rapid pace. Christophe warned us to slow down: "Doucement, lentement, this is not a race." He led us on what became an unhurried, all-day adventure with frequent stops for drinks, snacks and conversation.

The early ascent was gradual, with numerous switchbacks and scattered rock formations. Visible behind us was the crystalline Lake Annecy; ahead in the distance was the stern rock face of La Tournette.

After an hour and a half, we reached a grassy plateau with a hikers' shelter, the Refuge du Casset, from which we had a commanding view of the fortress-like Massif des Bauges, home to a national forest and wildlife refuge. The trail then curved around high cliffs and became rockier, steeper and narrower, with occasional sheer drop-offs. (Christophe always positioned himself closest to the precipice.) We stopped to admire the agile footwork of a mother and baby ibex, mountain goats that inhabit the region's higher elevations.

A striking variety of alpine wildflowers and other plants, some hiding in rocky crevices, others in plain sight, brightened an otherwise harsh landscape. Christophe identified great yellow gentians (whose roots are used to make Suze, the French aperitif); medicinal yarrow and poisonous wolfsbane; purple thistles, bellflowers and mountain buttercups; wild thyme and oregano; and a rare delight, a lavender-colored fragrant orchid.

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