Spending a night in the middle of nowhere in the Alps? Done.
As most of you who regularly follow my social accounts know Paul and I have been doing lots of hikes this summer and we wanted to end the season with an epic – read hard one – to remember.
So naturally we picked the tour around the highest summit of the Maira valley – one of the most beautiful and uncontaminated valleys near my birth town, Cuneo. The Brec de Chambeyron is 3,389 m high and is a mountain of the Cottian Alps (Alpi Cozie) range at the border between Italy and France.
To go on longer treks – and especially with a sleeping bag and food for 2 days on my back – the organisation is key and I definitely had to add a new word to my packing vocabulary: minimalism!
In order to lighten the pressure on my back but also to be able to enjoy my walk as much as possible, I had to really try to limit the weight I was carrying.
Here is my essentials list:
- A sleeping bag
- Small toiletry bag: travel toothbrush, toothpaste and wet wipes to refresh a little (some shelters offer showers but this is very rare)
- A change of clothes: given that you read THIS ARTICLE and you are wearing all of your layers, ideally you should also bring something to change into in case you get wet. Personally I took a spare pair of leggings and a vest. The leggings can also act as pyjamas in the refuge.
- Earplugs: If you are a light sleeper, it is better to plan for it…
- A Headlamp, to go to the toilet at night or if find yourself having to walk in the dark
- A power bank to charge my phone/camera (electricity is rarely available in mountain huts).
Thursday 12th September 2019
We set up the alarm for 7 am and we are out on our way soon after. The hike starts from the little town of Chiappera – from the Italian side – and we park the car at the Base Camp (“Rifugio Campo Base”) – 1650 meters a.s.l.
It’s a chilly morning of September and despite there’s no clouds in the sky, I am wearing a jumper and several layers.
Our hike really begins at the Piana di Stroppia and goes up towards the homonymous waterfalls (Cascate di Stroppia) which are pretty dry after the summer months.
We follow the signs for the Stroppia Refuge (Rifugio Stroppia) and the blue-yellow paint indicating the Dino Icardi Path – and we’ll stay on it up to the Barenghi Bivouac, just on the French border.
The trail is a climb up through lovely larch trees and with stunning views of the Provenzale-Castello massif, iconic of the valley, behind us.
Soon after a short flat walk through a green valley, the path climbs again up a steep slope by a cliff and on precarious debris and reaches the rocky bastion shaped by the Stroppia waterfalls.
Our trail is now all on rocks and at times we need to use our hands to help us up. Despite being quite sketchy the view is truly striking and after a bit of effort we reach a grassy ledge where we find the Stroppia Refuge – 2260m – our first milestone.
We take a short break here to take off some layers – it’s now 10am and the sun is fully up and hot.
We then continue south up the jump of the Stroppia waterfall and through the flat “Donkey Pass” (Passo dell’Asino – 2309m) entering the suspended Valley of the Vallonasso di Stroppia, with a beautiful view on the tall peaks which surround it.
With a very short descent the path leads us to the western shore of Lake Niera – sadly completely dry – then it winds on the undulating and detrital terrain of the long valley.
We then reach a sign post and we leave the Colle dell’Infernetto on our right to progress towards the Barenghi Bivouac.
The upper part of the Vallonasso is more rocky and with lots of up and downs, with parts of the path on boulders. We now have a clear view of the great wall of reddish and vertical rocks that, from the Brec de Chambeyron remaining at a height of more than 3000m, extends compact for about 2km up to Buc de Nubiera – 3215m.
After leaving behind another trail sign – where we leave the path for Col di Nubiera to our left – we follow for Col di Gippiera and we soon arrive to a flat piece of land where we can finally see the colours blue and yellow of the small Barenghi Bivouac – our second milestone.
It’s 12 pm and even if I am not feeling hungry the rumbles in my tummy suggest is time for some food. We find a big boulder where to sit on just by the bank side of the beautiful Lake of the Vallonasso. We look around and the landscape is pretty epic: the east wall of the Brec de Chambeyron stands out on our left, normally the side from which alpinists climb up to the summit; in front of us there’s the Tête de la Frema – which we’ll try to summit today 3,142m – and on our right we can see the peak of the Finestra (Cima della Finestra) which take its name – window – from the curious hole in the rock right on the top.
We soon start walking again: we make our way towards the Col di Gippiera first down between boulders and on scree and then up a steep path. From the Gippiera (2948 m) starts a clearly visible zigzag track that steeply climbs the western ridge of the Tête de la Frema.
I feel a little intimidated by the fact that on the path we see snow – I am generally quick on the way up but a little nervous on the way down and snow doesn’t help – but we decide to summit it anyway.
The climb up is steep and on shingles, and I try not to look back to not change my mind. We bypass the last rocky spikes, and we get to the metal cross which marks the peak (at this point we gained 1,492m altitude in total from our starting point – the biggest we ever done on a hike so far).
From here we take few moments to grasp the spectacular view before our eyes. We look back at the Barenghi Bivouac, now reduced to a dot, and at the Lake of Vallonasso, which stands out turquoise among the rocks. On the French side we see the famous – amongst Italian/French excursionists – Lake of Noef Coleurs, which resembles the shape of a heart. We can also see the Col dell’Infernetto – which name “hell” might be descriptive of what walking through it might be like – and its lakes, as well as other peaks-symbols of this area.
The way down from la Frema’s peak confirmed the fear I had on the way up: it was a challenging descend on scree and part of the path was slippery due to snow. After all “nothing great comes easy” – right?
We now crossed the border and we need to descend the Col di Gippiera to get to the refuge du Chambeyron (2681 m), where we are staying for the night.
The path down is all covered with snow and therefore pretty troublesome. The view on the beautiful Lake of Nine Colour makes the pain in my quads – which are constantly tensing to not let me fall off the cliff – more bearable.
Finally we get to the lake and on fairly flat ground we take few moments to breathe. We then follow the indication for Lac Long which we reach without any problems in 30 minutes.
On top of this lake – which it’s named after its shape – strikes the eye the big rock of the Brec de Chambeyron. We now walk in an exquisite valley across grassy lands and lots of funny marmots warning each other of our presence with their distinctive whistle.
After another 30 minutes walk we glimpse the outline of our refuge and right next to it the beautiful basin of Lac Premier. We lose several meters of altitude to reach the hut, but our legs are sore and we are looking forward to sit in front of a nice hot cuppa.
The hut is very simple, and comprised of two main rooms: the dining area and the dormitory. We drop our bags by a not-yet-claimed bunk bed and change into non-so smelly clothes.
Typically on a day hike you want to be off the mountains before it gets dark, so being up there for sunset is pretty special. After a brief exploration walk around the lake, we sit on top of a hill to fully enjoy the golden hour.
The view on the underneath valley is eye-popping and the sounds of nature around us are so relaxing, I kind of wish I could stop time and be there forever.
At 7 pm we head for our dinner: vegetable broth, meat and veggies stew and some cheesecake. We sit at the table with the other inhabitant of the hut, all French. Now I understand how Paul must feel surrounded by my family – all Italians. I speak a little French to go by and I can read it, but keeping up with the conversation is a different kettle of fish.
From what I can catch though, I am sitting next to an interesting old man who is going to climb the summit of the Aiguille de Chambeyron (3419 m) the next day. He is also entertaining the table with compelling stories of his hikes on Mont Blanc and beyond.
After dinner we head out to look at the sky: the full moon is so bright is actually casting our shadows and therefore masking the light of the stars.
It is a beautiful view, but the cold air means we soon find our way to our sleeping bags.
It’s my first time sleeping in a refuge and I’m not gonna lie, I have trouble falling asleep and I feel super conscious of the other 9 strangers in the room. So I don’t feel super well-rested when the alarm rings the morning after – I guess I need to work on this.
Friday 13th September 2019
We are out and on our way at the crack of dawn. The beauty surrounding us is striking even if the sun rays haven’t yet reached the valley. Maybe it is a good thing because our path starts again with a climb up to the Pas de la Couletta – 2752 m. We wave a final goodbye to the refuge and to the Brec’s peak – this is the closest we’d get to it in our walk – which we’ll leave behind to start a long descend in the Vallon des Aoupets.
The way down begins on boulders and we need to be careful not to lose the trail, but from here we manage to spot some antelopes and of course more marmots.
As the well marked trail starts again we descend to the bottom of the valley without any troubles – we lose 400 m altitude – and we get to a sign post which inform us we are only 40 minutes away from the Col du Vallonet, first milestone of the day, where we’ll have an early lunch by the shores of the homonymous lake.
From the Vallon de Plate Lombarde starts the steep climb up to the Col di Nubiera (Col de Stroppia for the French) – 2865m – which will take us back on the Italian side.
This feels like the steepest climb out of all our walk – we have to regain 350m altitude in a short distance – my ankles are on their max dorsiflexion and the last 80 meters are all on rocks and scree. At the top we meet a nice French guy who is doing the tour of Sautron – another impressive mount of this valley, above 3,000m – and he invites us for a beer once down at Base Camp to share more hiking stories.
He’s stopping here for his lunch whereas we choose to descend the now Italian slope, which – thank God – is much less abrupt.
Our quads are sore from the previous day but having had a stop in the middle has definitely helped to recover, allowing them to support us on the long way down. We join part of the Blue-Red path Roberto Cavallero. At a trail sign we ignore the indication for Col de Sautron and we continue towards the Vallonasso di Stroppia.
Here we close the ring around the Brec de Chambeyron rejoining our footsteps from the day before. The now familiar yellow-blue paint take us to the Refuge of Stroppia where we catch our breath before descending the last leg of the path. This part downhill is pretty sketchy – same as on the way up but more slippery on the way down – again on rocks and scree.
We take quite some time to come off it, but once the path takes us through the larch trees and wooden bridges we pick up pace again. It’s almost 4 pm and we get to Chiappera just on time for sunset. We head for dinner at La Scuola di Chiappera – a restaurant/hotel where I did my first ever retreat in 2016.
With our bellies full of food and wine we look at photos of the trip and – knackered but happy of this epic tour we plot about where shall we go next.