UKH

SKILLS: Family Trekking in the French Alps

Kate and Ross Worthington juggle work as Mountain Leaders with the usual demands of parenthood. How would these two skill sets combine when they took daughter Libby trekking in the Alps? How would she cope with the ascent, the heat, and a night in a mountain hut? And more to the point, how would they? Most of us aren't MLs of course, but there's loads of advice here for families with similar ambitions.


Mountain Leader; Mum. For me these roles are inextricably linked - I'm not one without the other. I cant divorce myself from who I am or from my responsibilities. I hope I am doing enough of a good job to make sure I still set myself personal and professional goals (and achieve them) and still aim to be an inspiration, an education, a role model and mum to our daughter Libby.

Introducing Libby to the grandeur of the Alps, 107 kb
Introducing Libby to the grandeur of the Alps
© Ross Worthington

"What if we exhausted her? What if she had a fantastic temper tantrum when it was time to descend? Had we bitten off more than we could chew? Would this turn into a mini family disaster?!"

In running RAW Adventures, a mountain activities business and sole income for our family, lines can become a little blurred between family and professional aspirations. We have planned family trips around gaining Quality Mountain Days, because we had that weekend of work planned, or attending a training or assessment course (Libbys first skiing experience was on a windswept and snowy Aonach Mor, a truly Scottish and very enjoyable experience for her still). August 2015 was no different with Ross plans to attend an assessment course for the summer element of the International Mountain Leader award in Samoens, France.

So this set us on the path of thinking wed love to tie this in to a family holiday and take Libby trekking up to an Alpine mountain hut, something that Id not done in the Alps since a Mountain Training Association CPD Alpine Mountaineering course back in 2011. Cue me then enjoying the process again of finding out some more about huts in the area around Samoens and thinking on how we would manage this little adventure with our littlest adventurer. And its not as if Libby has done a serious amount of longer day treks in the UK to date, so I was wondering how she would manage it too.

I thought I would note some ideas down to share how we approached our mini project, with a view to inspiring and motivating others in a similar position.

Everyone's still smiling, 130 kb
Everyone's still smiling
© Ross Worthington

Libby does enjoy being in the mountains, though, and has had her fair share of exposure to different terrain, steep ground, little scrambles, nature hunts and random jaunts off path to find that Dragon Cave or Witchs Lair. She has helped us bring down litter from Snowdons Llanberis Path and made it up to Halfway House when she was two in doing so. Shes enjoyed searching for the Wizard of Ozs Scarecrow on Catbells and Grey Knotts in the Lake District, when she was three (and mostly wanting to scramble off the path which pleased us more, too).

"We had begun mentally prepping Libby a couple of months in advance for our little adventure, so she knew we had plans to walk up a mountain for a sleepover. We had looked at photos and maps together and shared our experiences in other mountain huts. She was keen to see the bunk beds and take Bunny to see the Hut Guardian"

So would we be ok being out for two days, with steep ascents and descents and an overnight experience in a high mountain hut? Im not surebut lets do it.

A little detective work via friends, the internet, tourist information and studying local maps, and we come to rest on a route leaving the Sixt-Fer-a-Cheval in the Sixt valley and ascending up to Le Refuge du Grenairon the start of which is only a 15 min drive from our base in Samoens. Our original plan of taking an uplift from the valley to a more pleasant looking break of slope above the forest was marred by the non-operational lift during that week: OK, look at Plan B. So we reversed the route to ascend via a zig zag track through forest (thatll keep the sun off our backs for most of the afternoon) which looked more preferable than climbing up the steep sided slopes we were hoping the uplift would cancel out for us.

Learning to handle poles - more than just a toy, 213 kb
Learning to handle poles - more than just a toy
© Kate Worthington

We had begun mentally prepping Libby a couple of months in advance for our little adventure, so she knew we had plans to walk up a mountain for a sleepover. We had looked at photos and maps together and shared our experiences in other mountain huts in Europe and the rest of the world. She was keen to see the bunk beds and take Bunny to see the Hut Guardian. We had bought and worn in a new set of trekking trainers and bigger rucksack previously, and took them for a walk round the varied trails surrounding Llyn Padarn in Llanberis for a practice walk (er, yes, that was it for practices).

On the walk itself, the switchbacks of the path gave us ample opportunity to measure out distances and timings, to give Libby little goals of five mins walking and then its corner six. She could see on the map how the zig zgs got shorter and shorter as we neared the hut, or when we would pop out of the forest and into more heathery, rocky terrain. There was a crocodile sweet on offer for every even number corner. There was a lot of make believe play, granted, but we did make sure we stopped at various points to break her Hogwarts bubble to capture a waterfall or look into a deep valley below us, as the opportunities presented themselves. I dont think Ross or I stopped talking for the whole six hours of travelling.

"With children, theres the very real factor of keeping them happy and healthy, with enough food and drink to last double and enough protection from the strong sun that were not acclimatised for. Libby doesnt fare well in very hot sun; we knew that already and could plan around it in terms of the route chosen"

With children, theres also the very real factor of keeping them happy and healthy, with enough food and drink to last them double and enough sun cream and protection from the strong sun that were not acclimatised for in North Wales. Libby doesnt fare well in very hot sun; we knew that already and could plan around this in terms of the route chosen. We had lent Libby a trekking pole, a perfect distraction and something to use to give her a sense of being like mummy and daddy and an article to look after and master. Little snack/drink breaks and plenty of them - every 25 mins for us. And I timed this on my watch, unbeknown to Ross and Libby. Outwardly, this little walk seemed very relaxed and fluid but there was a lot of structure planned and executed from myself and Ross. And all the time reading the signs from the child we know.

Forests - good for shade in an Alpine summer, 223 kb
Forests - good for shade in an Alpine summer
© Kate Worthington
Keeping Libby in the middle on steeper sections, 139 kb
Keeping Libby in the middle on steeper sections
© Kate Worthington

What if we exhausted her? What if she had a fantastic temper tantrum when it was time to descend? Had we bitten off more than we could chew? Would this turn into a mini family disaster?! I worried in advance and yet it didnt. And I can honestly say a lot of this is down to how we approached and executed the little adventure just as we would if we were with a client group or with adult friends (minus the Harry Potter characters, granted). It really felt like we were able to use our skills as Leaders and parents all rolled into one, which was very satisfying.

The feeling of being up high, just under 2000m, for sunset; of climbing into our communal bunk beds and all giggling like children at old men passing wind; of Ross and I being able to share a carafe of wine over a very civilised dinner and listen to Libby ask for food in French and speak to other hut visitorsit was all priceless.

A beautiful cool morning greeted us the following day. We were the last to leave the hut after breakfast, as most others had departed very early to make the common route up to Mont Buet from this particular hut. I had my eyes on Mont Buet when Ross and I travelled to Chamonix in 2006, but some really poor weather knocked my psyche for that objective and we spent some lovely days amongst the Aiguilles Rouges instead. But my eyes still flirted with the summit of Mont Buet, amongst so many others in the area, and I will return and well achieve that one another time. Give it a good few more years of appropriate experience and Libby can come too, as a young mountaineer!

"The feeling of being up high for sunset; of climbing into our communal bunk beds and giggling like children at old men passing wind; of Ross and I being able to share a carafe of wine over a very civilised dinner and listen to Libby ask for food in French and speak to other hut visitorsit was all priceless."

photo
Taking a well earned breather at the hut
© Kate Worthington

Our descent route took us over interesting rocky screes, a lot more alpine flowers and shrubs and with wide open views over the Sixt valley, towering limestone cliffs and into an impressive valley and natural reserve, Cirque du fer a Cheval culminating at the valley head Bout de Monde (End of the World). Note to self: another journey into there some day. It was great to be able to wander through this high section of path on fresh legs, experiencing another aspect to the slopes we were on and starting early to avoid the suns heat. It was definitely the right decision to descend via this way, as the route is very steep and has a lot of switchbacks to compensate. A tough route up for sure. A lot of playing A-Z games and making up stories ensued in the lower sections, and we could see Libby wilting slighty in the increasing heat as we neared the valley again and the path would pop out of the shade of the trees from time to time. No bother: more water, check sun cream and let her wear my scarf like a princess, to cover her neck. Job done.

It took another six hours to descend, as much as to climb up the day before, with little breaks along the way and steady progress down around steep corners and greasy roots in the forest. Always with one of us in front and one behind Libby, especially on the steeper sections on very narrow paths! Upon reaching the car we had water left over, still had food on board and had successfully walked with Libby up and down 1000m in height each day. I was super proud of her, and even more pleased that she said she was proud of herself. She had enjoyed her adventure and not a tear or tantrum in sight - a secret sigh of parental relief from Ross and I. But also a satisfaction in knowing that our preparation, patience, support, leadership skills and management of this little outing had aided a successful outcome. I love it when a plan comes together.


Kate Worthington head shot, 138 kb

Who's Writing?

Kate Worthington is a Summer and Winter Mountain Leader, a committed member of the Mountain Training Association, and Director of mountain activities company RAW Adventures.

Based at the foot of Snowdon, RAW Adventures provide both Hill and Mountain Skills Scheme courses, as well as other mountain training, Duke of Edinburgh training and expeditions, challenge events and popular Climb Snowdon days.

Kate has been exploring the UK hills since the age of four and is particularly fond of the Central Fells in the Lake District after so much time spent there during school holidays.

Find out more about RAW Adventures' Hill and Mountain Skills Courses here

UKH Articles and Gear Reviews by Kate Worthington



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