Col de L'Iseran a lonely, desolate summit


Heavy still marks the summit of Col de L'Iseran on July 4th, 1988

The French alps consist of a series of ranges that have deep valleys running east-west; separating these valleys are towering ridges, which gorw ever higher as you northward toward the Swiss border. These ridges can only be overcome with major climbs of several hours, at least. The col de L'iseran, which lies at the end of the Maurienne valley, is one of the more isolated and desolate Alpine passes, with no friendly cafe or table d'orientation at the summit. Only the chill wind hissing over the snowfields, and a steep descent into Val D'Isere, await you.

As I say on my photo of col de Galibier, this pass lies in the upper Maurienne, which is scenic and rural. To get to it you must suffer the traffic and congestion of the lower Maurienne, but once you pass the turnoff for Mt. Cenis tunnel near Lanslebourg, the riding becomes much more pleasant. The real ascent to the pass begins at Bonneval sur Arc; no facilities are available until the town of Val D'Isere itself, so make sure you have any munchies you need by then. There is a small wild camping site (gite d'etape, in french) just south of Bonneval. The town itself is small and old, with chickens running loose in its narrow streets. I barged in on a french family just sitting down to dinner, thinking it was the Boulangerie; they gave me bread, local cheese, and a fine bottle of French wine for my camp the night before the pass.

The climb is steep in spots, but nowhere difficult, despite its height. The steady work brings you soon to walls of snow, and often the pass is 'closed' to traffic because these heavy bankings fall onto the road surface. If you are told the pass is closed, inquire as to the reason. I was told it was closed, way back in Lanslebourg; it turned out a substantial (30 meter) chunk of the road was covered with deep, wet snow. But I was able to hoist my bike onto my shoulder and hoof it over the snow, and keep going---the only person to make it over the pass that day, and I was a minor cause celebre on arrival at Val D'isere. I had to twist a few bungie cords around my sneakers to make them bite on the slippery snow; but the reward was that I had a major Alpine pass all to myself that day.

In the picture, my fuji s-12-s, which has been souped up to 18 speeds and appears heavily loaded with gear, actually has very little in the rear panniers. They are normally full of clothing; but this day at the summit was cold and windy under mostly cloudy skies, so I took almost all my warm stuff and was wearing it. Even so it was a cold descent to Val D'Isere, and the wet roadway wrecked havoc with my brakes and sprayed me with water. I arrived in Val D'Isere chilled but happy.

Landslides and avalanches are common in this region: i saw an avalanche fall silently in a distant valley while at the summit; only to be stunned when the long, dull roar arrived almost 20 seconds later. The town of Val D'Isere was nearly wiped out by a landslide some decades ago.

By the way, the picture appears black and white because there was so little color in it, the scanner assumed it was a B&W photo!

1