Col de la Vanoise, French ALPS

Whether you are doing the self guided trekking tour of the Vanoise or the guided walking holiday in the Vanoise you'll discover a beautiful route leading you under rocky spires to the Col de la Vanoise

The Col de la Vanoise is one of the oldest and most frequented passes in the massif, traversing between the Maurienne and Tarentaise in the French Alps, and has been used from the bronze age, 3000 years ago. It later became an important trading route between regions and today is one of the most popular walks in the Vanoise National Park.

The passage through history

The route was abandoned by the Romans who preferred the Petit St Bernard mountain pass to cross from Rome to Lyon, which they judged to be more secure. It was not until the 8th century that this passage regained popularity as the main route between Chambery and Turin, the two former capitals of the Duchy of Savoy. Although salt and cheese were the main products transported along this route, there were many other items going each way, such as rice, sweetcorn and spices from Italy, with tanned leather, honey and cattle passing in the other direction. This trade reached its height between the 17th and 19th centuries, but ended abruptly with the end of the salt trade and the opening of routes in the lower valleys.

Salt and cheese route

The trading of salt, the only product available to conserve food, was highly regulated. During the 18th and 19th centuries the Duchy of Savoy exported salt from the salt mines of Moutiers, whilst it imported salt from Aigues-Mortes and Gênes. This added to additional traffic with the Swiss and the contraband heading towards France. Once Savoy became part of France in 1860, the salt mines shut.

The Beaufort cheese was created around 1630 from the milk production from upland mountain pastures and quickly became an essential food item for soldiers and marines being exported to the Dauphiné in France and the Piedmont. The cheese was made in the pastures in Beaufortain, Pralognan, Champagny, Mont Jovet and Col du Palet and transported by mules via the col de la Vanoise to be bought by merchants who re-sold it in the Piedmont.

Conditions of passage

During the mini ice age (1550—1850), walking via the col de la Vanoise was mainly done during fine weather days. Those who ventured across in winter or during storms were guided by wooden posts which were planted in 1833-34 and are still visible in certain places. Up until 1950 they were also guided by a horn at Barmettes, which worked via a wind mill. Even in summer, during the mini ice age it was necessary to cross the glacier of Grande Casse which had reached a point just above the lac des Vaches, blocking the valley. By the end of the 19th century the glacier had retreated to allow easier passage to the col.  

New arrivals

During the 1850’s, the alpine pioneers started exploring and climbing the mountains of the French Alps. In 1860 William Mathews climbed the Grande Casse for the first time. He was guided by Etienne Favre (Pralognan) and Michel Croz (Chamonix), who was to lose his life five years later following the first ascent of the Matterhorn with Edward Whymper. In 1887 the Reverend Coolidge climbed the Grande Glière and in 1990 Henri Mettrier and his guides climbed the Aiguille de l’Epéna, the last major summit to be climbed in the Vanoise mountains.

Your walking route on both on self-guided tour and guided trek to the Col de la Vanoise in the French Alps passes underneath the dramatic Aiguille de la Vanoise, crossing a series of stepping stones across the wonderful Lac des Vaches (picture opposite). The Col de la Vanoise itself sits at the base of the majestic glaciers of the Grande Casse, the highest peak in the Vanoise, which reflects in the lakes at its base, offering an exceptional sight.

Find out more about the Vanoise region in France 

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