An Autumn Week in the Ecrins National Park - La Berarde

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Tuesday 17 October 2017

An Autumn Week in the Ecrins National Park - La Berarde

The Ecrins National Park in the French Alps, lying roughly between the triangle of Gap, Briancon and Grenoble, is one of our favourite places on earth. Many of our hiking and cycling adventures over the past few years have either been in or around this area, but there was one place above all of the others that really captured our hearts and that was the remote, peaceful mountain village of La Berarde. Our first, and only, visit was way back in 2014 when we pretty much tossed a coin and followed the tortuous road which leads there almost by chance but went on to spend 3 days in what we considered to be near perfect hiking territory. We would have stayed longer, but a week of storms were forecast and we decided to chase the warmth....but we always vowed we'd come back when we got the chance, which is exactly what we have finally done.
Deciding to head to a village at 1750 metres altitude in mid-October wasn't necessarily a trivial decision for us. Previous experience in Switzerland (Val d'Anniviers in September) and in other mountain locations had taught us that altitudes over 1500 metres in autumn usually means cold temperatures, especially at night. Not that this is a huge barrier, but when added to the fact that we had no way of checking a weather forecast for the area and bearing in mind the tricky driving required to reach La Berarde, we knew there was a chance it just wouldn't be the same as we remembered. We didn't like the idea of heading up there at the 'wrong' time of year and not enjoying it. Also, not to harp on about it, but the road to La Berarde is pretty much the one road in all of three years of motorhoming that I was nervous about revisiting. My memory told me that in places it was barely wider than the motorhome with a vertical rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other (no barrier) and I dreaded the prospect of meeting something coming the other way. Not that it was like this all the way, but there were enough parts like that to make me nervous going back.

Anyway, after our cycles up Col d'Ornon and Alpe d'Huez from Bourg d'Oisans we were so close to the road leading up to La Berarde that we decided to get a little closer and see how we felt. It is roughly a 27 km drive from the 'main' road, which runs between between Bourg d'Oisans and the Col du Lauteret, up to La Berarde. Around 5km along this road (the D513) is the almost non-existent hamlet of Les Ourgiers where, we knew from past experience, there is a motorhome service point that we planned to sleep nearby and so that is exactly what we did.

Les Ourgiers is really on the fringes of the Ecrins National Park, not quite in the heart of the park proper, but still surrounded by magnificent rock faces with plenty of challenging and beautiful hiking opportunities. We didn't really have a plan when we arrived late on Sunday evening, but ended up sleeping there for three nights, enjoying 2 very different days beneath the cloudless, sunny skies. On the first day (Monday) we decided to take it easy, enjoying an hour long run with Leela along the banks of the river in the morning, exercising the pups in a nearby wooded area and generally relaxing after our busy time at Ventoux, Gap and Alpe d'Huez.

The second day (Tuesday) was much more active. Taking a short drive a little closer to La Berarde, we parked in the village of Bourg d'Arud and went for a magnificent fell run up to Lac Muzelle at 2100 metres altitude. Powering up 1200 metres through the autumnal forests in crisp, clean air surrounded by fiery red and golden yellow leaves was exhilarating. Towards the top the route emerged onto much more open ground with a lingering ground frost that added to the autumn feel. Arriving at the lake after 2 hours of running/fast hiking was a big thrill and it was so beautiful in the early afternoon sun. Our legs hurt like stink the next morning though.

It was on this third day (Wednesday) that we decided to bite the bullet and drive up to La Berarde. Well, I say drive. Esther decided to cycle up. I took Leela for another morning run along the river while Esther exercised the pups in the woods and then she set off. The cycle to La Berarde is a 'categorised' cycle (if that is the right word) in the sense that it has gradient markers every kilometre. Overall the road rises about 950 metres, from around 900m up to 1750m over 27km, meaning the average gradient is only 3.5%. What this means in practice is that it is very, very steep (8-10%, including one section at 11.2%) for about 10km and almost flat the rest of the time. She made it though, as did I in the motorhome feeling very lucky not to have met any other vehicles on the hard parts. It was just as scary as I remembered in places, but on arriving and seeing several other motorhomes up there I was reassured once more that I wasn't an idiot for doing it. There is also a campsite so it must get a lot more visitors in summer (I don't want to put anyone off, I just want to suggest people consider what time of day they drive up at perhaps and go with the overall flow of traffic. Heading up at 8pm on a summers evening will likely see a lot of day hikers coming the other way).

We went on to stay for four nights in La Berarde. Every day we woke up delighted to find another clear, blue sky. It was cold at night, but not freezing and when the sun finally reached the valley floor it was warm, albeit for just a few hours. The parking in La Berarde basically got direct sunlight between 10.15 and 13.45, which did make it hard to use our blown air heating (which drains the battery) when we were getting so little solar power, but we survived the chilly parts. More than that, in fact, we had an awesome time.

On our first day in La Berarde, Thursday, we took a gentle jog/hike up to Refuge Chatteleret at 2250 metres which nestles beneath the incredible eastern face of La Meije (39XX metres). This was a hike we had enjoyed in 2014 and returning with the autumn colours bringing the valley to life was wonderful. In total we were away for just under 3 hours (the maximum time we would leave the pups for) but it really re-energised us. Having mostly cycled this summer it is a long time since we enjoyed such a remote, wild hike together.

The next day, Friday, we took on a much more strenuous challenge by visiting Refuge Pilatte at 2585 metres. With the waymarkers suggesting it was 3 hours 45 minutes just to get to the hut, 9.5km and over 800 metres uphill away, we knew we couldn't walk there and back together and keep to our dog routines. What we did instead was that Esther set off first to hike quickly while I set off an hour and a half later with the intention to run there and back. Sounds crazy doesn't it, but it worked. Esther took several breaks so that we timed our arrival at the hut perfectly, ideally positioned to take in the majesty of Glacier Pilatte, where we sat in the sun for a short while together before I ran back, arriving in bang on 3 hours, and Esther hiked to arrive a short while later. Again the autumn colours and the fact we had the area almost entirely to ourselves made the day that much more special, even better than our August visit in 2014.

Saturday saw us relax in the brief sunshine interval at the motorhome with the pups lounging outside with us, before taking a gentle evening stroll to the Refuge Carrelet. After the leg busting effort up to Refuge Pilatte we wanted a physically easier day, but mostly we just wanted to appreciate the scenery. The route to Refuge Carrelet is the same as the opening hour towards Refuge Pilatte, but moving at walking pace we found that we took in so much more than the previous day. Dozing in the afternoon, which stays longer at this point of the trail, we felt we could have stayed all night. The pictures say more than I can.

Which brings us to our final day in La Berarde, Sunday. We would have stayed longer, but we ran out of food. The fridge was bare, the local store had little stock left beyond cake and biscuits and the morning chill was telling us it was time to go. We originally planned to drive down in the morning but the weather was so fine yet again that we couldn't resist a rapid hike/fell run up to the 2529 metre viewpoint of Sous l'Aiglle la Berarde before we left. We didn't realise beforehand quite how steep the rock face that this route zig-zags up was, real vertigo inducing stuff in places, but the view was well worth the dizziness. Wow. Looking out over the Barre des Ecrins from an angle that emphasises just how much higher Europe's southernmost 4000m+ summit really is compared to it's neighbours as well as the two valleys we had hiked together over the previous three days was a perfect way to say farewell, for now. Again, I'll defer to the pictures to show how amazing the view was.

It was still a sad moment to leave La Berarde on Sunday evening. We had fallen in love all over again with this pristine mountain village. Having been a little nervous about heading up in mid-October it was actually the time of year that really made it special. Although the weather can be bad in autumn, when the weather is as good as it has been it makes it even better than summer for me. The colours are vibrant and ever changing, every day it seemed the leaves were more red and golden and the floor covered in deeper piles. The blue of the sky was so vivid against the mountains it made us feel like we were living in a postcard. There were hardly any people around, especially on the weekdays. Every morning we had been able to take the dogs for a run in some nearby woods and enjoy watching them run, chase and dig in safety without hundreds of people and cars passing by**. The nights had been silent and the stars brighter than we've ever seen them. It was, dare I say it, perfect.

We'll definitely have to go back again now won't we!

To see all of our photos from the La Berarde, here is a link to our Google album....

or just check out some of my favourites below.

**Dogs are not allowed with the boundaries of the national park, even on a lead. We respected that by exercising them in the woods and on the river banks of La Berarde instead of taking them into the park.

p.p.s Due to Esther falling ill we ended up returning to Les Ourgiers and spending another four nights there as she rested up on the fringes of the park, walking the dogs, reading and taking just one short fell run/hike up to Lac Lauvitel at 1515 metres.

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