A week after our Ste. Victoire adventure, I was fortunate to bring my children and husband to another favorite peak of my past–La Tournette, in Haute Savoie, France.
I had discovered this corner of France 15 years earlier when David Parry, ATA’s chairman, and I conducted R+D for a hiking tour I had designed for the Smithsonian. Few foreign travelers visiting France head to this region, nestled below Lake Geneva. Few French who are not Savoyard venture into Savoie. (My sister, who has lived in Provence most of her life, has never been nor even considered it!)
And yet there lies this turquoise jewel of a lake, the Lac d’Annecy, touted as the cleanest in Europe, set amid ridges and peaks, high verdant pastures, and ringed by inviting towns like Annecy, Talloires, Duingt, Menthon St Bernard, and more. The tableau created by this Tahitian-blue lake, its mountains and low lying, fast-moving cotton clouds evokes the South Pacific, not the Alps.
Turning our attention to La Tournette (or, as my son dubbed it, after our expedition–the “Never Retournette”), I did little to prepare my husband and two children for the rigors of the hike, knowing that the rewards would be great and seeing little value in discouraging them beforehand. A locally produced hiking guide rated it “pour randonneurs experimentes” (for experienced hikers) and my troops had only done Sainte Victoire. I am a firm believer in pushing the limits of what one thinks one can do. So all I said was, “This is a great 6-hour hike–you’ll all love it!”
La Tournette is a peak on the east side of the Lac d’Annecy, sitting high above the gorgeous lake. Towards the center of the peak, a rocky outcropping takes the form of a giant armchair (“le fauteuil”)–that is our lofty 2,300-meter goal.
View of La Tournette
After a winding drive up from Talloires, we reach the Col de la Forclaz, one of the main launch points for the avid paragliders that fill the skies above the peaks and the lake. Not far from here, we take a sharp left on to small country road and pass a chalet restaurant. Some hardy hikers disembark their cars here, adding another 40 minutes to their hike. I assure my crew that I am sparing them the extra steps and hit the dirt road that leads onward in our awful rental (a Citroen Picasso) to bump our way up the mountain to the Chalet de l’Aulps.
The Chalet is a cheese farm cum restaurant/bar on a piece of land that brings memories of the Sound of Music rushing to the fore. Walking past the barns, cheese-making rooms, restaurant and terrace, you find yourself standing in a green open pasture that juts out like the bow of a ship over the valley below. To the north are the Dents de Lanfon, jagged stone teeth that form a surreal frame to this idyllic scene. To the south are sloping fields full of wildflowers and moseying cows whose imposing bells resonate with a pleasing cacophony across the landscape.
I can tell from my children’s faces that they are already impressed. My son Nick was the first to walk out as far he could to the edge to view the scene below. He notes how high we are, and I refrain from pointing out how much higher we have to go.
We watch a group of fellow hikers start up the path. They have brought their silky-haired dog with them, and he lunges ahead with an ease that would make any human jealous.
Our turn: we begin our ascent. It’s 9:45am. The morning and altitude bring us cool, sweet air. Perfect weather for a hike. The path is a trench dug out of the pasture, with thick tufts of grass lining both sides and occasionally forming islands in the middle. The pitch is steep and the path is straight. We can see the hikers in front of us disappearing as they make seemingly easy progress upward.
After an hour and a half, the path has changed, and we have begun to climb wide, dirt paths filled with loose rocks that make us skid downward every once in a while. After a few long switchbacks, we come around a corner to behold a surreal landscape. A small valley is home to the Refuge de la Tournette where hikers can enjoy a refreshing “panache” (sparkling lemonade and beer) while taking in glorious views. Behind it lies a scattering of huge, truck-size boulders strewn across a meadow where some goats bleat in the distance. As a backdrop, an imposing wall of sheer cliffs isolate the scene, making it look eerily like a stage set. As we wind our way down and through this secluded vale at a happy pace, we note a large patch of white.
Nick & Sasha in mini-glacier
My children speed up–snow in summer! Their delight doubles when they discover it’s a mini-glacier that one can actually enter as a cave. The refrigerator effect on the inside is a hit after our climb, and the oddly shaped roof (as if a giant melon baller had scooped out chunks) makes the experience particulalry “awesome,” in the words of my daughter.
The hike continues, and the vistas and altitude do not fail to stun each one of us. The terrain becomes a little tricky in parts: narrow, rocky paths with sheer drops to the right; a huge steep slope of slushy, slippery snow that makes it hard to avoid hurtling downward; some rock climbing portions where loose stones pose a threat to those following too closely and more.
I knew we may be in jeopardy of not making it to the top when my daughter, who is a hearty soul, started trembling and shielding her eyes with her hand on the drop side of the mountain. Finally, she uttered shakily “I think I am going to die,” bringing our progress to a halt.
We took a rest, assuring her we could turn down. She looked to her father for guidance. He smiled and said encouragingly “I think we can do it, Sasha.” That’s all she needed. Up she got and onward we went.
Sasha's close-up of a chamois
Soon we were in chamoix country–where delightful mountain goats prance gracefully across vertical slopes and rocky voids. This is their territory, but they share it willingly, coming rather close to hikers. We picked a spot surrounded by the chamois in a field of “trolles d’Europe” (golden globe like wildflowers) for a picnic of jambon beurre sandwiches.
Looking up from our picnic site, my son Nick noted how unattainably high and far the “armchair” seemed. I reassured him that the hike really became fun now…
Sure enough, we embarked on a hike dominated by basic rock climbing, aided by chains and ladders nailed into the rock. The variety of challenges made this more of a game, so we all tapped into new energy and pushed upward.
Along the way, a hearty French “montagnard” descending the mountain stopped to address my daughter. He said he was proud of her for attempting the climb and spoke of the rewards ahead–the views of the Aravis chain, of Mont Blanc and even of Lake Geneva in the distance. Sasha smiled politely but clearly wanted to move on.
Finally, we reach the last leg of the journey–the base of the armchair. The children are delighted they’ve made it. We skirt a bank of snow and ice and some boulders and find ourselves in front of the final ladders. My daughter is reading one of three plaques on the back side of the gargantuan boulder that forms the “armchair.” Her eyes widen. She turns to me with a swish of her red-haired pony tail: “Mommy, someone DIED here?!” Well, yes, I confirm, “but they came here in March, which is really not smart.” Sasha points to the other plaque–“That person died in July!” Touche. I re-direct her and the gang to the ladders.
Up we go, and within minutes we are standing at 2300 meters, sitting in the grandest armchair of our lives. We head toward the cross and have to excuse ourselves as we pass across the picnic spread set out by a family with three children (there is limited room on this high armchair).. Stuart whispers to me “Did you notice–they roped their kids together?!” I shrug the comment off. I pointed out there had been a couple of young children coming down the mountain who were not attached to their parents.
View of Lac d'Annecy from atop La Tournette
We breathed in the fresh air, soaked in the tininess of our once-extensive lake of Annecy, observed the insanity of the para-gliders filling the afternoon skies, and captured the majesty of Mont Blanc on our digital camera. We basked in our accomplishment.
The descent was speedy–a little too speedy at times, as scree created a conveyor belt of pebbles that carried us down several feet at a time. But euphoria had set in after five hours, and we felt like flying! So we did.
Only once did my heart stop, as I led the pack down and heard Sasha scream “Mommy!” behind me. I could hear the movement of rock and turned, fulling expecting a boulder to be coming my way. I felt something brush past my hair and looked upward to catch glimpse of a hoof. I had startled a chamoix who had been sleeping on a ledge to my left. He’d bolted up and over me, barely missing my head, and had landed on an outcropping to our right. He was trembling with fear and immediatley proceeded to empty his bowels, much to the delight of my son who announced I had scared the poop out of the poor creature.
We returned to the Reblochon cheese farm at the base of La Tournette and bought ice cream to reward our efforts and celebrate the day. As we passed the display of massive decorative cow bells on their studded leather belts, my husband resolved to possess one as a trophy for our ascent to la Tournette’s grand armchair.