Our guide Boris prodded the patchwork of ice and wet snow ahead with a ski pole then turned and said: “Be careful here. Follow my tracks.”
A second later, his leg disappeared up to the hip, as he stepped into a narrow crevasse.
“So maybe not these exact tracks,” he grinned sheepishly, hauling himself upright.
A hike on the Grande Motte glacier in the French Alps is no walk in the park. At 3,000m above sea level, the air is thin and dry, and the sun is dazzling. It’s hard to move quickly without inducing breathlessness.
Nor is it easy to move quickly when your boots are strapped into crampons and you are roped up to the other climbers in your group.
We had started the day in the lakeside resort of Tignes, 1,000 metres below. From there, the Grande Motte glacier looks like a dusting of snow on the mountain peaks. But up close it’s very different: the landscape is otherworldly, rugged and pockmarked, a starkly beautiful sea of greys, blacks and icy blues.
It was 10am on the first day of August and when we stepped off the funicular, the wind was so strong that we struggled to stand up straight. Once we got onto the glacier itself, the wind dropped and we started a slow march toward the crevasse field, the ice cracking and crunching beneath our spiked feet.
Water gushed all around us. It felt as if the glacier was melting beneath our feet. Which it was. “See that whole section of rock,” said Boris. “Five years ago at the beginning of August that would have been completely covered in ice. We are losing the glacier fast.”
Far from being a hairy-chested expedition, this was part of a week-long family adventure holiday organised by the tour operator Explore. I was with my 13-year-old daughter Helena, along with four other families with teenagers. We took over a small hotel overlooking the lake, where we ate breakfast and gourmet dinners and could unwind in the hotel’s own pool, sauna and steam room.
Tignes in summer is a frenzy of sporting endeavour where most visitors spend their days immersed in some kind of energetic, wholesome activity. All tourists are given a card, My Tignes Open, that entitles them to free sessions of airbag jumping, zorbing, beach volleyball, stand up paddle boarding, air rifle shooting, archery, and so on.
Personally, I could have spent a week hiking in the peaks, but that wouldn’t set a teenager’s heart racing. So we plunged into the adrenalin sports. First up was a white water rafting trip down a 20km stretch of the Haute-Isère, one of the most exciting – and reliable – rivers of its type because the flow is controlled by releasing water from a dam below Tignes.
We were suited and booted in the village in Landry where we were given a thorough briefing (if you fall out the raft, don’t reach for the bottom with your feet – you’ll be travelling so fast that you can break a foot on a rock). Feeling nervous (the adults) and excited (the kids), we carried our inflatable into the ice-cold river and pushed off.
The rapids, we were told, were categories 2, 3 and 4. That didn’t mean much until we plunged into the first section and were soaked from head to toe as we struggled to cling on board by wedging our feet under straps on the bottom of the raft. “That was category 2, the easy one,” yelled our guide.
As the rapids got more rapid, we bounced off rocks and ducked to avoid overhanging tree branches. Then, to make things more interesting, we entered the epicentre of an electrical storm, thunder reverberating off the sides of canyons and hail pummelling our faces. It was actually a surprisingly exhilarating experience.
On the second day we hiked with a local guide, Olivia, who took us down the valley to the Cascade de Salin, a scenic waterfall, and stopped to point out all the wild flowers, many with medicinal properties, and local fauna – marmots, moths, crickets, and peacock and swallowtail butterflies.
Next day was glacier hiking in the morning then a high-ropes adventure park in the afternoon in nearby Val d’Isère. After that it was a free day when Helena and I signed up for a day of canyoning. We’d done this before, in Italy, or so we thought. It turned out we’d only done a gentle introduction, not a “real” canyoning course.
To get there, we were driven over the Col de l’Iseran, the highest col in Europe at 2,770m and a legendary Tour de France climb. The journey down the other side into the Maurienne valley was as beautiful as it was dramatic. We met up with our instructors on a patch of grass by the side of a river where we changed into wetsuits and were kitted out with life jackets, helmets and harnesses. Canyoning is a serious business and needs a lot of kit.
The setting was absurdly picturesque, with meadows on either side rising to jagged peaks, and stone-built villages on the valley floor. We spent the next three hours jumping off rocks into pools of icy clear water, scrambling over boulders and sliding down gulleys made perfectly smooth by millennia of erosion. The jumps got progressively higher. Helena, the youngest in the group, managed 7 metres. I managed the highest: a 10-metre drop from a cliff edge into a narrow deep pool. We barely stopped grinning the entire time.
The last day was another hike in the Vanoise National Park, but this one more spectacular, leaving behind the lush vegetation of the valley and climbing into the rugged alpine terrain. There, we found patches of snow, narrow paths hugging the sides of hills and vast panoramas where we saw and heard few signs of life beside herds of dairy cows in the far distance, the ringing of bells rising on the warm air currents.
We ate a picnic lunch beside a lake and then the kids took turns navigating with a map and compass (no smartphones allowed). It was a glorious day and perhaps enough to persuade our teenagers that merely walking in the hills can be a wonderful experience. Well, let’s hope so.
How to do it
Explore’s Family French Alps Adventure will run in July and August 2018 with prices from £809 per person excluding flights.