A walk in the mountains – Pas de l’Œille

The A Walk in the mountains series

Before diving into 2016, and while a few pictures from past holidays await treatment on my hard drive, I want to head back to the month of August. I was back from my road-trip in Scandinavia, and a few days away from leaving to Copenhagen. My father and I drove to Villard-de-Lans, in the mountain range of Vercors. From there, we walked up to a pass called Pas de l’Œille. We barely saw the sun, but sometimes clouds create such dramatic sceneries that we can’t really miss the astral disc.

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A walk in the mountains – Col vert

The A Walk in the mountains series

French word of the day: canicule = heat wave

These days, Europe is suffering from a heat wave. In France, temperatures have reached at least 40°C. What is really hard to bear, and also is a characteristic of heat waves, is the night temperature, which doesn’t decrease very much. As Wikipedia says, heat accumulates more in daytime than it evacuates during nighttime. There is no universal definition for heat waves, as it depends on the climate of a certain area. For instance, in Toulouse, in the south-west of France, we say that there’s a heat wave if the temperatures reach 36°C during the day while not going under 21°C during the night. I guess it’s more or less the same in Grenoble.

At home, we really take care of opening windows during the night and closing everything as soon as the outside temperature overcomes the temperature inside the house. To escape the heat, I also try to go out early in the morning. This Saturday, I woke up at 3.30 to go walking in the mountains. I met a friend in Vif, and together we headed to Col vert (“the green pass”, literally). The area is supposed to be a really good spot for mountain species while being quite easy to access. In the car, along the road, we saw two roe deers (Capreolus capreolus) and a Beech marten (Martes foina).

The walk (I tried to made it clear so that you understand it with the text; feel free to ask if you have any doubt)

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We started to walk at 5.30 with the rising day. Even if we were quite high in altitude, the air was abnormally warm, and it was an unpleasant hike. Still, there were some birds around, among them thrushes and blackbirds on the path and Eurasian blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) singing in the trees. We visited a tree formerly occupied by a Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus), but the holes in the trunk were empty. Afterwards, we left the forest for open meadows covered by Apiaceae plants, these flowers sheltering countless insects, including bees. Above us, we spotted a male Common rock thrush (Monticola saxilis), displaying from a rock, but it was far away. In the sky, a Common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) was circling, and we also saw a Rock bunting (Emberiza cia) singing. What a beautiful bird!

An Apiaceae flower

An Apiaceae flower

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We stopped in a field, overlooking Saint-Paul de Varces and the urban area of Grenoble. We were waiting for the Ring ouzel (Turdus torquatus), a close relative to the blackbird which is very common in the area. However, we could not see any, and the area was not very active anyway. Were the birds stunned by the heat? The Tree pipit (Anthus trivialis) was however omnipresent.

Tree pipit (Anthus trivialis)

Tree pipit (Anthus trivialis)

When we were getting dispirited, an Alpine marmot’s (Marmota marmota) cry woke us up. We turned round and discovered a gorgeous Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) patrolling above the ridge. The kestrel attacked it a bit later, probably trying to move it away from its younglings, but the eagle, unshakeable, simply followed its course. We saw it go to the south, then north again, but I failed my picture attempt, for I was not in “animal photography” mode. What a shame, but what a sight!

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We decided not to go to the pass, but to go to a spot renowned for the presence of the wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria). We climbed in boulders to close on the cliff, sat and looked up. After some time it showed up but did not stay long. The sun was already high in the sky, the stifling heat of the last days back, so we went down the mountain to find shelter at home. On our way, we visited the Tichodrome, a fauna shelter healing a lot of injured birds, including many birds of prey. By the way, tichodrome is the French name of the wallcreeper…

> Full gallery of the day

A walk in the mountains – Grand Veymont

The A Walk in the mountains series

Now that I am surrounded by mountains again, it is time to pay them a visit. This week-end, I went to Grand Veymont with my dad. This summit is the highest mountain in the Vercors range, which lies to the west of Grenoble.

I have made a map showing the path we took.

Gresse-en-Vercors

Gresse-en-Vercors

The walk started in Gresse-en-Vercors, down the slopes of the ski resort. The village resided down high cliffs created by erosion. It was intimidating, especially since I knew we had to go up these very cliffs. In the beginning, we were sheltered from the sun by the forest, but we were assailed by hords of flying insects. This, and the quite warm atmosphere, made it an unpleasant walk. Oh, and it was steep. Very steep.

Grand Veymont

Grand Veymont

We left the flies behind us when we reached the line between forest and pastures. The path zigzaged on the mountainside, between some scattered fir trees. Soon, as we approached the pass named Pas de la ville, it turned abrupt again, but it was nothing compared to what awaited us after the pass. We turned left and followed a rocky path wandering not far from the ridge. It was steep, and I often needed to grasp rocks with my hands to secure my ascent. The wind turned nasty, especially in some kind of natural corridor that preceded a flat area from which I got nice shots of other mountain ranges, including Ecrins, Belledone and Chartreuse in the distance.

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The last ascent was much easier, as we were on the side of a slope. Our efforts were rewarded by a band of Alpine ibexes (Capra ibex), youngs and females altogether, grazing in the fields a few meters from the path. They were obviously used to human presence, as two of them crossed the path right behind us. It was not too hard to take pictures!

Alpine ibex

Alpine ibex

Even ibexes use paths

Even ibexes use paths

Griffon vulture

Griffon vulture

At some point, I saw a bird of prey high in the sky, gliding in the warm air above the cliffs. Another one then many others followed it, flying north in quest of a carrion. These were obviously Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus). It had been a long time I had not spotted this species, probably one year, so that was an appreciated sight. No Golden eagle (Aquile chrysaetos) this time, unfortunately.

Alpine chough

Alpine chough

The summit of Grand Veymont was chilly, because of the wind, but we ate our pic-nic nonetheless, enchanted by the vista and by the aerial ballet of Alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus) and Alpine swifts (Tachymarptis melba). The former were playing in the wind, folding up their wings to go against it and unfolding them when it was blowing from behind. They were no wilder than the ibexes, and clearly expected some food from the hikers. They got none from us, food is too precious!

We did not linger too much in the descent. It was steep and rocky, therefore very hard on knees and ankles. We crossed path with another ibex at the pass, where it was grazing next to the path, standing on it. It barely moved when walkers passed by; had I extended my hand, I could have touched it.

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Click here to see the full photo album.

BONUS

The Mont Aiguille is a mesa separated from Vercors situated in the area. It is quite unusual to see the meadows topping it, but from the summit of Grand Veymont, we were above.

Mont Aiguille

Mont Aiguille