Le Refuge Albert Premier et le Glacier du Tour

On our first trip to Chamonix in 2011 we were shocked at the French idea of “Wilderness” in the mountains – everywhere we looked there were ski lifts, access roads, and refuge huts that made most places in the mountains more accessible than a family trip to Disney World in the United States.  As we meandered through the high alps we were shocked by the juxtaposition of complete solitude in the high mountains with the experience of pushing through a refuge packed full of people for a cup of coffee.

Contemplating life at Le Refuge de Lognan

And yet, at the same time, these refuges allowed us to thru-hike the entire Grand Randonnée 5 (GR5) from Lac Léman to the Méditerranéen coast with a 20 month old baby.  We planned the route realizing that even though we would be camping most of the time, we would always be within a day’s march of a refuge, and the warm bed, food, and rescue capabilities that came with it.  This became incredibly valuable during our week of July snow while crossing the Vanoise National Park, where we did shack up for a few nights in nearly empty refuges and enjoy all of the subsequent perks (chocolat chaud!)

Chocolat Chaud at 3200 meters

Now, on our fourth trip back to the Chamonix Valley in 7 years, we have come to peace with the French idea of Wilderness.  It’s not protected in the same way we “protect” things in the United States – making it illegal to construct buildings, make roads, or live within the park (with some notable exceptions of course).  Rather, French wilderness land is protected in such a way that also allows “easy” access to it for the citizens old and young.

Maybe there’s a reason why this path felt crowded at times

Yesterday we decided to run up to one of the Grand Refuges we had yet to visit – Le Refuge Albert Premier, situated on the Glacier du Tour and a major staging point for glacier exploration and folks learning how to navigate on the ice.  The run itself was a prime example of the “up, then down” topography of the area – we climbed more than 3,000 feet in less than five miles as we hoofed it up to the glacier.  This was by far the most crowded of the routes we had done thus far, and I was most impressed by the diversity of folks climbing up to Albert Premier in rented boots.  Kids as young as 8 years-old, septuagenarians, and mountaineers from all over the world were headed up the path, all trying to get there for the sacred “midi” lunch time.

Le Glacier du Tour

In our mind we were climbing up to a quant, seasonal, petit refuge on the glacier.  In reality we were joining the masses in a pilgrimage to one of the CAF (Club Alpin Francais) Flagships – an extremely modern hut capable of sleeping 150 people at a time, with a full service bar, restaurant, bathrooms, and multiple terraces to enjoy the view.  It was the epitome of the French Wilderness Experience – and rather than being disgusted with it, as we might have been in 2011, we embraced it and ordered carrot cake, coffee, and “Brownie New Yorkais” for ten euros total.

Preparing for the descent

We gained some space on the descent and I was finally able to open it up a little bit, hitting a 6:00 minute pace and nearly crashing into a berger fence that I thankfully saw at the last minute (oops – zap!).  The views were just as stunning on the way down as they were on the way up, and we were again thankful for the télécabine descent to Chamonix, sparing our tired legs 2000 feet of vert that would have made our conditions questionable.  Mont-Blanc Téléphérique multi-pass in hand, we had finally mastered the art of French Wilderness; where it is not always about purity, or aesthetic, but rather about getting up into the mountains time and time again.

Les Alpes


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