September1, 2023. The end of summer is approaching and I can feel the mountains calling me. A new adventure awaits me in the heights of the Valais. Before the wind changes, bringing with it the first snows of autumn. Accompanied by my guide, Johann Filliez, I decide to head for the edge of the Swiss Alps, in the Haut-Giffre massif, to traverse from Tour Sallière to Mont Ruan. A timeless journey to the peaks overlooking Lac d'Emosson, to summit these giants of rock forgotten by the world. Where there are no paths to follow, only a few cows enjoy this paradise lost between earth and sky.
Ascent of the Tour Sallière | By the light of a supermoon
The Tour Sallière, this bewitching yet little-known pyramid, has been inspiring me for a long time now. On August 29, 2015, I set off to meet it with some friends. Our goal was to sleep at its summit to be able to photograph the expected supermoon rising that night. But we lacked experience. On several occasions, we lost our way, and by the time dusk had settled over the mountain, we were still a long way from summit. So we bivouacked in the shelter of its flanks, lulled by the splendid panorama before us. At the far end of the Val de Barberine, the jagged ridges overlooking the lake flashed before our eyes, illuminated by the reflections of the setting sun. Ever since that day, I've kept in the back of my mind the idea of returning to this marvellous combe to finally reach the summit of Tour Sallière.
Are you one of those people who believe in serendipity? When Johann and I planned our crossing from Tour Sallière to Mont Ruan, we relied more on the weather than on the calendar. But, you see, nature too has its secrets that reason ignores. Yesterday, the supermoon was back to set the sky ablaze. So I'm getting ready to return to the Valais Alps, in the heart of the Haut-Giffre massif, eight years almost to the day after my first attempt. Will history repeat itself or, on the contrary, is this an opportunity to ward off fate? The next few hours will tell.
From Lac d'Emosson to Combe des Fonds | Treasure of the Valais Alps
5 o'clock in the morning. I join Johann in front of the Émosson dam. Its lake is magnificent but stretches 4 km from north to south. To save our strength, we have to do it the hard way. We get on our electric mountain bikes and ride along the lake to the Combe des Fonds. Here we are, both of us, extreme adventurers, cycling over chaotic ground lit only by the jolts of our headlamp. Frenetic fireflies exploring the depths of sleeping mountains. Alone on the shores of Lac d'Emosson, a fabulous mirror in which the sparkle of the stars is reflected. Enveloped by the grandeur of summits , delicately illuminated by the supermoon. It's an extraordinary experience. And even if our journey were to end here, I'd be happy. My heart would be filled with the splendours of a prodigious natural world.
As dawn breaks, we reach the Combe des Fonds. It's still dark when we start our ascent, but I let myself be guided by Johann, whom I trust completely. We make our way through the tall grass of the pastures to summit de la Tête des Chaux Derrière, at 2395 meters altitude. What a funny name for a mountain! And then the Tour Sallière summit appears in front of us, a fascinating peak whose rock is dusted with snow. We're surprised to see that the winds of recent days have whitened it so much. It was because I thought it had been spared by the storm that I had chosen to go there today, when the giants over 4,000 metres above sea level are still inaccessible. But as I gazed at it, exposing its white-mottled rock to the first rays of the sun, doubt crept into my mind. Is the shadow of the spell cast eight years ago really hanging over us? Yet I decide to believe in our luck.
Gradually, pasture gives way to rock, and warm greenery to cold grey stone. From the dark limestone and schistose marl of the Morcles nappe, a field of boulders lies on the slopes of this forgotten valley. As I walk, I taste the immense pleasure of being alone up there. Alone, feeding on the silence of the mountains and the depth of the skies.
The higher we climb, the better the view of the surrounding mountains. While summits enjoy the warmth of the morning sun, we remain in the shade, gripped by the biting cold. But our attention is elsewhere. Our attention is on the exceptional view of Lac d'Emosson and the Mont-Blanc massif. An awe-inspiring landscape from time immemorial, when there was no man. As if on another planet, as if in the hollow of another paradise. One mountain after the other, shouting their grandeur to the world. Bare rock and eternal snow seem to unite with the crystalline sky to reveal nature's most beautiful secrets.
Ascent of Tour Sallière | In the Haut-Giffre massif
Once we reach summit de la Tour Sallière, the snow becomes more present. The snow I missed so much in 2015 helps us to make faster progress towards the Épaule. What a pleasure to feel the fresh snow beneath my feet! Sufficiently dense, it allows us to climb more easily than through the stone gullies that punctuate the rock face. This compacted schist as hard as concrete, with gravel rolling along underfoot. As if the mountain, demanding and rigorous, were testing our will to reach its summit. At the foot of Mont Ruan, we catch a glimpse of the glacier des Fonds, and I note with sadness how much it has regressed in recent years. The tragic fate of Alpine glaciers, which are bearing the full brunt of climate change.
Carried along by the whitened ground, we reach the very spot where my expedition ended just eight years ago. But this time, twilight is far away and the constraints of bivouacking give way to the intoxicating sensations of mountaineering. I'm now making headway into uncharted territory, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the traverse. A 200-meter vertical drop separates us from l'Épaule, at an altitude of 3011 meters. Then the difficulties begin. Snow prevents us from taking the classic route. Johann leads the way and finds a passage where the rock is dry and welcomes our footsteps. We then head for the Tour Sallière ridges, sculpted by the winds from fine limestone with a grey patina. The very essence of the mountain, laid bare by time and the glare of the sun.
At summit de la Tour Sallière, we catch our breath, gazing out over the celestial horizon. A breathtaking view of Lac de Salanfe and the Dents du Midi mountains, which loom over us like a titanic fortress. I think back to our ascent of the Haute Cime just a few weeks ago. Before our dazzled eyes, the most beautiful summits over 4000 meters in the Valais Alps, the Mont-Blanc massif, the Emosson lake, the Haut-Giffre massif. One shot follows another, blessed by a bank of clouds that filter the light. All around us, the absolute stretches to infinity. Without the shadow of a man, without the slightest echo of the tumult below. The austerity of the rock, the brilliance of the snow, the depth of the sky and the turquoise softness of the lake below. Everything here is serene splendor. As if nature had poured its soul into this landscape.
Crossing from Tour Sallière to Mont Ruan | On the edge of the Swiss Alps
Climbing Mont Ruan promises to be more complex. From the Tour Sallière, the mountain looks like an impregnable bastion. But despite the doubts that always creep up on me when I take on such challenges, I can't wait to take on this inaccessible peak. It's almost 10 o'clock, time to get started. We descend the mountain along its northern ridge to reach the Col de la Tour Sallière via the Mont Ruan glacier. It's a tricky ordeal, as we have to cross the glacier in the direction of the crevasses, which for the time being have been rendered invisible by the snow covering them. So Johann takes every precaution to locate the safest passage, probing the snow to detect the location of underlying faults. And slowly we make our way over this perilous stage to the eastern ridge of Mont Ruan.
It's time for our second ascent of the day. But at the foot of the Ruan, we've lost our bearings. It's hard to know which route to take. Very little information is available on this traverse, and the glacier has shrunk so much that the area is unrecognizable. After searching for the start of the route without finding it, we finally decide to open a passage so that we can join the classic itinerary higher up. Climbing over slabs of dark limestone, dolomite and breccia, we arrive at the key passage of the traverse. The steep, compact rock face I'd been dreading as much as I'd been expecting it. A few spits give us some security, so I climb Next with Johann. Focused on my objective, I take it upon myself to suppress my visceral anxieties and release the energy that allows me to move forward. I push myself and climb at all costs, in harmony with the mountain and in tune with myself.
Behind us, the Dents du Midi mountains display their whitewashed walls in the morning sun. The lines of the landscape are pure, the colors deep. Nature exults, playing with shapes and textures as the brush sculpts the material of a master canvas. Sublime tranquility that soothes my soul and helps me to soar.
Until the mountain tests our tenacity. The terrain becomes more unstable and our footsteps cause rocks to fall. Even the rope, as it slips between us, unleashes rocks. I dodge and try to protect myself, but rockfalls are unpredictable. And a rock nearly hits my face. That was a close one! Clinging to this vertiginous wall, the mountain confronts us with its omnipotence. It reminds us how important it is to wear a helmet and stay focused, because in a split second, everything can change. From light to darkness, from effervescence to chaos, from plenitude to nothingness.
At summit du Mont Ruan | Exceptional panorama of the Alps
Barely recovered from our emotions, we reach the ridge leading to Mont Ruan. A ragged but easily accessible route leads to the snow ridge that guides us up to summit . From the peak of Grand Ruan, which rises to an altitude of 3,057 metres, we gaze out over the Alps. Our gaze plunges along Lac d'Emosson to the Aiguille Verte. The view is so magnificent that I have the almost unreal sensation of no longer being on Earth. We then head from Grand Ruan to Mont Ruan, which stands on the border between Switzerland and France. Here again, the view over the Giffre valley, from Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval to the natural cirque of Le Bout du Monde, below the Tour de Saint-Hubert, is exceptional. This valley evokes so many memories for me. I love going there in spring when its waterfalls awaken, bubbling with freshness. I love to wander through it in autumn, when the leaves of its trees warm the landscape with their flamboyant hues.
But it's already time to leave summit and return to the valley. Here again, the path to take is by no means obvious. Concentrating on our steps to avoid toppling into a ravine, we make our way between stone slabs and persistent névés. Our attention never wavers until we finally reach the pastures. Back on the plain at around 2.30 pm, we take a break in the glorious sunshine. Alone at the foot of Lac d'Emosson, we enjoy this moment suspended between two worlds. From the queenly mountains to the bountiful plains. All around us, the bells of cows grazing in the open air seem to sing of the magnificence of the Swiss Alps. My soul is nourished by these incredible landscapes and our fantastic climbs. And I thank fate for having brought me here one day, inspiring me to discover the high mountains, to bring them to light and to preserve their memory through my art.
Taking one last look at our journey, we pick up our bikes and set off again for further adventures. The curse is lifted, and I'm glad. I have now climbed the highest summits in the Giffre massif: Haute-Cime, Mont Ruan, Tour Sallière, Pic de Tenneverge and Cheval Blanc. I still have to climb Pointe de la Fenive and Dents Blanches to complete the list. But my attention is already focused on a more ambitious quest. The dream of a lifetime. The Dents du Midi traverse. Johann and I have been talking about it for two years. But the challenge is immense, and requires the perfect conditions to be in place. Next year, I hope, will be the time for this formidable odyssey.