Summer walking safety

When you’re walking in Chamonix, you’re going into a high mountain environ­ment and it’s best to be prepared. For a thorough overview, I recom­mend a visit to the Office de La Haute Montagne in Chamonix when you arrive, to get the latest infor­ma­tion. There is a new exhibi­tion on safety upstairs, and they will also be able to give you the current state of the paths, advice on where to go, and you can regis­ter with them if you need to tell someone where you will be walking. It’s in a nice stone build­ing, opposite the tourist office, beside the church.

This isn’t intended as a complete guide for safety, as it’s a huge subject.…just it’s a compi­la­tion of tips I follow myself.

Start small

It’s best not to begin your time in the Alps with a full day at high altitude. There are many wonder­ful easy walks to get warmed up on — the Vallot path, Chalet Floria, the Petit Balcons…some accli­ma­ti­sa­tion will pay off well.

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Le Lavancher is a beauti­ful and easy walk

Timings

If you are going at a relaxed pace, taking photos and stopping for a picnic, many walks that are signed as two or three hours can take a full day. You don’t want to miss the last lift down or possi­bly have to walk down in the dark. Set off in good time — the mornings are often the best part of the day anyway, while it’s still fresh. Make sure someone knows where you’re going.

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Always check the time of the last train down!

Weather

The weather can change very quickly in the mountains. Always check the forecast before setting off — a common weather pattern in summer is clear mornings and late after­noon storms. We British in partic­u­lar tend to have a robust attitude to walking in bad weather, we get enough of it! But it can be highly danger­ous to be caught on an exposed balcony path in the Alps with no visibil­ity, slippery slopes under­foot and high winds. You can get snow on the high trails at any time of the year, and serious accidents do happen. If the forecast is bad, exercise caution. Ideally, bring a laptop to check the official site, but you can also call 0892 70 03 30 for an English forecast, and you will find it printed out at the lifts.

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Clouds over the Mont Blanc Massif — looking from Brevent

Cloth­ing and equipment

I always take, as a minimum, a small backpack contain­ing a light water­proof, water, some food (I like to take a pack of dried apricots, trail mix is also good), some money (in case I want to stop and eat or drink at a refuge or café), first aid kit with survival blanket, Compeed blister plasters, plastic bag for rubbish, small light­weight headtorch, whistle, map, compass, sunblock, sunglasses, hat and phone — fully charged with emergency numbers:
PGHM Chamonix — Emergency mountain rescue +33(0)450 531689
European emergency number  -  112
This might seem a lot, but takes up very little room.

It really is best to have strong walking shoes — it is surpris­ingly easy to twist an ankle in train­ers.
For a long time, I was not a fan of walking poles, but they really do help on long descents. Light, collapsi­ble ones can go on a backpack, or, more tradi­tion­ally, you can buy a nicely carved walking stick inexpen­sively (less than 10 euros) at many shops, includ­ing some lift stations. We have some at the chalet that you’re welcome to borrow.

I find the best cloth­ing for walking to be fine Merino wool — a natural fibre, dries quickly, keeps you warm even if it does get wet and doesn’t get itchy like normal wool. It’s not cheap, but lasts really well. There is an Icebreaker shop in Chamonix which has an excel­lent range, also look out for online sales which make it more afford­able.
I use a light Goretex cycling jacket to pack as an emergency water­proof, and often take a bandanna — very useful as it can be made to protect whichever bit of you needs it, can be soaked in water to cool you down, etc

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Pack it in, pack it out

There are lovely flowers along the paths — let them stay there! On a less taste­ful note, please be consid­er­ate with use of toilet paper. There are toilets at all the refuges — try and use these where possi­ble. If not, go far from the path, bury it well, and consider taking a plastic bag along and packing out your paper to dispose of in a bin.
Try to use minimal packag­ing for food and take it all back down with you to dispose of or recycle.

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A sea of orchids and butter­cups at Le Tour

Rivers and water

The official line is that caution is recom­mended when drink­ing from streams, as they may have bacte­ria from animal droppings etc in them. I have to say I do it all the time and haven’t had any trouble. Pools however, are best avoided and if you find a drink­ing trough, drink from the tap rather than the basin, as wild and domes­tic animals may drink from the troughs. I do carry most of my water with me, and have a purifier for longer walks.
Some rivers in the area are used for hydro­elec­tric power and can flash flood as a result of the barrages. These are gener­ally well signed, so do exercise caution — they really can rise very fast. They are gener­ally most unsuit­able for drink­ing as they’re pale, opaque green from the glacier deposits in them.
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Snow

Packed snow (névé) can linger in some areas well into July, and it can be slippery and danger­ous. If you encounter steep névé, use a lot of caution cross­ing it and don’t hesitate to turn back if it looks unsafe — I have done, many times. The high route to Lac Blanc can often have it — ask at the Flegere lift base or at the Office de la Haute Montagne about conditions.

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Cross­ing névé at Le Tour, late June

Dogs

Dogs are not allowed in the nature reserve which forms much of the south side of Chamonix, and you can be fined heavily for taking one there, so look out for warning signs. There are plenty of trails that are fine for dogs.

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Molly near Bel Lachat

Kids

There are always families enjoy­ing these walks, but parents should be vigilant as there are some steep dropoffs. The flat valley bottom is ideal for pushchairs but none of the higher walks are acces­si­ble — however, child carri­ers can be rented at Snell sports in Chamonix. Check that the altitude is suitable for the child’s age — the BMC have a useful paper on children at altitude.

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Looking over Flegere