Although we can see many mountains from our balcony here in Lausanne-Vennes, there is one range which I find particularly attractive, called the Muverans.
Partly, I think it is because they appear to be framed by the two, ugly white blocks of flats that stick out from the trees facing the eastern side of our balcony, thereby making the mountains a focal point on the horizon [by the way, do not hesitate to click on any photograph should you wish to see an enlarged copy of it].
Partly, it is because I find the mountain in the middle, the one whose shape resembles a mini-Matterhorn (but as seen from the Italian side) and which is called Petit Muveran, so beautiful. So much so that ever since I stumbled across the name of this mountain range in a book (Ric Berger’s Les Alpes vaudoises: histoire et toponymie) towards the end of spring, my mind was set on visiting the ridge between the two mountains, called Frête de Saille. In fact, it even almost verged on being an obsession: I borrowed books from libraries in Lausanne and in Geneva on the Muverans. I even traced out-of-print items in Switzerland thanks to the Internet and paid the booksellers a visit to inspect the books and acquire them (as I recounted in an earlier entry).
But before that, on 15 July after having come back from our holidays in Singapore, my wife and I managed to kill two birds with one stone by visiting the alpine garden of La Thomasia at Pont de Nant (1,253m) and then the small valley of Nant, which lies at the eastern foot of the Muveran range. Although this one-day excursion in the area had definitely whetted my appetite for climbing the mountain to Frête de Saille, I feared it would be too steep a climb to do it with my Singapore-born wife as, for instance, there is a vertical drop of more 1,500 metres from the top of Grand Muveran (on the left) to where this picture was shot in vallon de Nant.
My friend of over 35 years, Jan, an experienced mountain climber, who had missed out on a ski trip to the nearby Dents de Morcles a little over 2 and half years ago, was the obvious companion for my little endeavour. I had managed to spark his interest by mentioning a possible visit to the nearby glacier des Martinets, a now 2km-long patch of ice that seems to be sliding down from the base of the Dents de Morcles (see picture just below as well as the sixth from here) — I think he must have been thinking of reaching the Muverans from there (see the detail of the map photographed in vallon de Nant on the left, courtesy of http://www.tourdesmuverans.ch). However, as Jan works irregular work weeks, as he has only two weekends off each month and as he also helps out his wife with her catering business, it was hard to manage to squeeze in a trip to Muverans, especially since the weather had proved somewhat unpredictable since September. In fact, it had rained on the Thursday before the Saturday we had been thinking of doing the trip. To the extent that on Friday morning I received a text message from Jan requesting that we postpone the excursion on safety concerns. To which I replied that I was thinking more of following the trail to Frête de Saille, which lies between Grand and Petit Muveran, and that I thought it should be safe to take this route as the area would be dried up under the sun that was forecast from Friday noon.
I guess that the prospect of visiting a famous area he had never been to before proved to strong a call for Jan to be able to resist it. So he sent me back a text message stating that he would be calling me in the evening to discuss the possibility of making this trip. Once I heard him on the telephone I could tell that he was really interested in doing the excursion to the Muverans and it was not long before we arranged that we would be meeting in Lausanne the following morning at about 6 am.
Because we took a wrong road twice near the valley of Nant, we only arrived at Pont de Nant slightly before 8 am. However, it was still a bit dark, so that there was no point paying a quick visit to the alpine garden of La Thomasia. I nevertheless managed to get Jan to park the car near the commemorative stone bearing the names of three nineteenth century Vaudois who had celebrated the region in their writings: Eugène Rambert, Jean Muret and Juste Olivier. Notice how glacier des Martinets stands out on the picture on the left.
The white and blue alpine sign indicating that one should expect narrow paths and ice in addition to ordinary mountain terrain. The warning ‘only for experienced hikers without vertigo‘ would prove ominous as you will find out later on.
Heading upwards through the woods to La Larze, a pasture for sheep in the old days (the log cabin you will see on your right after leaving the woods is more than a hundred years’ old, altitude 1,584m). By the way should you click on the picture to enlarge it, you will notice that Jan was carrying two ice picks. Jan had taken the preparation of our one-day mountain outing seriously and had brought proper mountain equipment (50-metre long rope, including a spare harness for me) with him.
At this point, I recalled this description of François Gos (Au Pays des Muverans): This is the last meadow, leaning on the flank of the massive mountain whose walls just above seem to belong to some Cyclopean fortress [my translation].
The panorama of the Rhône valley, the Chablais mountains, Lake Léman and the other pre-alp mountains of the canton of Vaud was simply beautiful. Only a couple of weeks earlier, my wife and I had tried to climb the first of the two spikes emerging from the clouds on the right (Tour d’Aï). The difference was that for our trip Jan and I had taken no cable car to go uphill …
Vallon de Nant with l’Avançon flowing through it and, much higher above, the thin line made by the glacier des Martinets below the two Dents de Morcles. I could barely see the cowshed and log cabin of the alpage (alpine grazing area for cows) used by the vachers (cowherds) in summer which we had come across in July.
A little further along on our way up from the previous vantage point, we even got to see a lone chamois (a behaviour more typical of male chamois apparently — but I could not tell whether it was a male or a female chamois), which did not seem too frightened. Some claim that these animals can distinguish hunters from harmless hikers. Maybe this explains why at one point the chamois must have been less than 15 metres away from me while it carried on moving towards more appetising patches of grass (‘lovely creature, fear me not as I am also a vegetarian’ was I tempted to say to ensure it would not move while I was taking pictures).
As I had been busy trying to capture good shots of this hungry chamois, I did not notice that Jan had continued apace and that I would have to speed up to catch up with him — little did I know then that he was in a hurry to get back home in Geneva by 6 pm. As you can see from this picture, the path we were walking on was quite narrow — such paths are called vires in Suisse romand (Swiss French).
So I hurried along and finally caught up with him. As you can see from the picture, the terrain had become much more rugged. It was serious business now … In fact, not long after taking this shot, while having to walk across what looks like to have been the second protuberance from the right (i.e. the pyramidal one jutting out against the skyline), the gushes of wind blowing were so strong that I was almost blown off the ridge. This is when it dawned on me that there was a risk, albeit remote I was still thinking, that my life might end on that day. So I told Jan that I was not feeling confident about my mountaineering abilities to be able to undertake the rest of the journey to Frête de Saille. He replied that once the path became wider we would rope up and that in the meantime I could hold onto the safety chain on the left which I had not noticed (probably because fear was putting blinkers on my eyes).
Although we did not rope up immediately, the fact I knew that there were some safety chains at strategic points along the path was for me not a shot in the arms, but a shot in the legs …
And a little later on I felt even bold enough to take on a particularly vicious stretch that had several patches of ice (precisely because there were chains).
However, most of the path was not secure. To the extent that I only took two pictures in between this picture of Jan (who was probably wondering whether he would make it back on time to Geneva) and the one above as the pathway was so dangerous that I needed both hands … The venerable Eugène Rambert, the co-founder of the Swiss Alpine Club and a man who had climbed many a mountain during his lifetime, claimed that this particular vire (natural path) was one of the most impressive he had seen in Switzerland (mais je n’en ai pas encore vu de plus accidentée, de plus riche en effets saisissants). The rocks on the mountain were no longer limestone but schist.
A sweeping panorama of Grande and Petite Dent de Morcles (with glacier des Martinets below), Roc Champion, Col des Martinets, Pointe des Martinets, Col des Perris Blancs, Pointe des Perris Blancs, Pointe de Pré Fleuri, Dent Rouge, Col des Pauvres and Pointe des Savolaires. However, one had to be careful and not let oneself be overwhelmed by the beauty of the scenery in front because the slopes were very steep — there were times I had the impression that a fall would take the hapless hiker right down to the valley of Nant some 1,000 metres below …
On Tuesday, as I was working from home, I was able to see the Muverans covered in snow. The more I looked at the mountains, the more I marvelled at how I had been able to walk along these massive slopes sliding towards vallon de Nant. From far, they certainly look impressive, I would say.
The geology of Muveran is fascinating (the oldest layers are on top, the youngest at the bottom as the mountain was formed from the collision of two huge tectonic plates). Look at this picture, do the zigzagging folds not give you the impression that the mountain was made from scores of layers of rocks and other materials having been squeezed together by a pair of really giant hands?
Amazed at the patterns I was discovering on what I had expected to be a pretty plain type of mountain, we continued our climb along Truche du Liapay until we reached a point where we could take pictures of ourselves with Grand Muveran in the background. Yes, as you can see from the expression on my face, it was indeed a pretty tiring climb!
But finally we were there, on Frête de Saille (approx 2,600m of altitude), with Grand Muveran (3,051m) on our left and, below us, Plan Salentse and the canton of Valais …
… with the main reason why I had wanted to go on this hike: Petit Muveran protruding proudly on our right, some 2,810 metre above sea level.
As we reckoned that it would take us a least another hour to reach cabane Rambert, the mountain shelter named in honour of Eugène Rambert (there is also an alpine garden named after him — see my wife’s entry), we decided to stop our descent onto the slopes of Plan Salentse and have our lunch.
I was really amazed when I noticed this trail runner speeding down from Frête de Saille into Plan Salentse. Could it be that he had come from a different route? But there was no other! (In fact, there is another one, called vire des Encrennes, which is higher but probably safer as it does not overlook the valley of Nant for most of its course — see pages 439 and 445 of Maurice Brandt’s Alpes et Préalpes Vaudoises, Club Alpin Suisse, 1985) This certainly seemed to belittle our own little climb …
Minutes later I spotted another trail runner, this time going up towards Frête de Saille. Upon seeing that we were roped up (we had not bothered to remove the rope — I have forgotten how to do knots …), he enquired about the condition of the path. I warned him about the plates of ice, but he almost dismissed the danger, saying that he would put on his crampons. I nevertheless wished him good luck, he wished us a nice day and carried along uphill.
Just before leaving, I asked Jan to take a photo of me posing in front of my beloved Petit Muveran. I was wearing my bicycle helmet as I do not own a mountain climbing helmet. I would strongly advise anybody tempted to reach Frête de Saille from Pont de Nant to wear a helmet as there were times (just before reaching the foot of Grand Muveran — see the photos above) that the mere steps we were taking would cause stones or rocks to come rolling down the slopes at impressive speeds. Fortunately, this happened at some distance from us. However, the path to Frête de Saille crosses at least four screes (pierriers) and hence it is better to wear some head protection (even a bicycle helmet!).
On our way up, I could not resist taking this shot of the ruins of the first cabane Rambert, built in 1895 by the Lausanne section of the Swiss Alpine Club, as I could remember this nice photograph of the interior displayed in an old book I had recently bought. I felt a little saddened at the thought that this was all what was left of a shelter which had been quite difficult to erect (apparently, it took more than 400 journeys to carry the pre-built elements up to Frête de Saille).
So as to cheer myself up, I decided to take a few more pictures — including this panoramic shot of the mountains above the valley of Nant, with Dent Favre (2,916m) on the far let, the two Dents de Morcles (almost in the middle) with the white stretch being the glacier des Martinets.
And also this picture, just so as to show that there were some patches of snow here and there.
However, it was time to down again. To me, it almost felt as if I were about to take a dive down to the valley … By the way, can you notice Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) in the far distance? If we had had a telescope at home, I would certainly have called my wife in Lausanne and we would have waved at her …
As you can see, the vire we had to follow would pass along some very steep slopes, some falling really precipitously. Is it not strange that a path looks far less inviting when you have to go down on it rather than up?
In addition, the vire (natural path) was at times so narrow that it was barely visible ahead.
But my major concern was that the patches of ice had started to melt under the sun, so that the narrow vire had become slippery. However, we carried on downhill until we reached a particularly treacherous bend (no photo available as I was desperately trying to make sure that I would not fall for fear of dragging both of us down) about an hour after having left Frête de Saille. Jan managed to latch the rope onto a protruding rock above the bend so that I was able to pass this obstacle semi-abseiling my way through. But enough was enough! As I could not see myself going through again some the other dangerous stretches further down, I finally managed to convince Jan to return to Frête de Saille.
Even though we did not stop at all, it took us almost an hour to get back to Frête de Saille as were both tired. The idea was that we would go down to Ovronnaz in the canton of Valais, take the postal bus from there and then the train to Bex and finally a taxi to Pont de Nant. But this was not to be.
To find out how Jan managed to reach Geneva a little after 8 pm and me Lausanne railway station at 10:15 pm, you will have to come here again in a week or 10 days’ time … [Still to be written, as at 20 July 2013!]
Entries on Swiss mountains published on this blog [added 20 July 2013]
- Running in the mountains (Alpes vaudoises) after work
- This time, thousands and thousands of narcissi at Les Pléaides
- Aletsch half-marathon, 30 June 2013
- Running on ski slopes … part 2
- Running on ski slopes … part 1
- Outline of my trail on the Panoramaweg, from Belalp to Oberaletschhütte and back to Belalp