Climb a glacier in the French Alps

Plowing through the snow, over meters thick layers of ice and with wide views where the sun is reflected by countless ice crystals. Little is as magical as a summer hike on a glacier. The vast space, the creaking ice masses and the deafening silence make it an absurd combination of sensations and experiences and an activity you will never forget!

In the summer it is already wonderful to stay in the French Alps. The rugged mountain ranges where you can make wonderful hikes or day trips depending on what you wish, or enjoy the many other activities on offer. But above all, it is a place for adventure and fantastic experiences. And that includes exploring the immense glacier, of course!

Glacier tour

Val Thorens: snow all year round

The Val Thorens region in the French Alps will sound best known as a fantastic winter sports destination. This area has been chosen as the best winter sports area many times and it is therefore not surprising that it is a renowned region for snow fun. Nevertheless, there is also a lot to do in the summer and the great thing is that you don’t even have to miss the snow! With a phenomenal glacier tour you have the best of both worlds; a snow walk in the French sun.

The glacier is located on the Vallée des Belleville, a beautiful valley where there is really something cool to experience for everyone. From ziplining and paragliding to bouldering and mountain biking. Of course you can go out on your own, but it is also possible to hire a guide through the local guide bureau, something that is definitely recommended for the glacier walk. Not only is it much safer to set out with a guide, you also learn a lot more about the glacier and the environment. Moreover, you immediately know where you stand and what is needed.

Glacier French Alps

Glacier Val Thorens

The start of the glacier tour is a bit gray and dark

The afternoon before, we pick up the necessary materials from the outdoor shop next to our hotel, in the center of Val Thorens. Armed with crampons, good shoes and an ice ax we head the next morning – in the wonderfully cramped car of guide Jean – towards the foot of the glacier for an unforgettable trip.

Endless snowfields

Guide Jean turns out to be a real fun letter, something you can use if you set out before 7 o’clock in the morning with an improvised breakfast (we were able to secure some croissants and chocolate bread before our departure) for a brisk walk. With the five of us in Jean’s car on the winding and bumpy road – a jeep is not a luxury – the tone for the rest of the trip is quickly set. Once we arrived at the foot of the glacier, we check whether we still have all our belongings with us, and we immediately went onto the snow plain.

Glacier French Alps

The start of the walk is not very impressive, the route is clearly on the shady side of the mountain and due to the heavy Sahara storms this summer, there is a grey, sandy haze over the otherwise crystal clear white snow. The fact that the glacier continued here until about 15 years ago does not make it any better. When Jean talks about how immensely larger the glacier was years ago, you can feel the chills going through your body. And that’s not because of the tour itself, because it immediately started with a climb to the real glacier foot, meters higher than it should have been originally.

Once at the top, however, the beautiful expanse of the glacier is still overwhelmingly beautiful. The expanse of snow and ice glistens in the morning sun and it’s incredibly difficult to really envision the size and distances you’ll be traveling on the glaciers.

Climbing on the glacial ice

Climbing on the glacial ice

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Glacier walk on ice

A real glacier walk

Now the real work begins. Halfway through the first climb Jean had already ordered us to strap on the crampons – not necessarily an easy job for the layman, but with an amazing result. Now we also go on a leash, in other words, everyone is tied together by means of a rope so that we can continue walking like a train. From now on we are going to really need that and those crampons, because once on the glacier, Jean leads us directly to some crevasses – huge cracks in the glacial ice. With some jumping, climbing and flying work, where the ice ax also comes in handy, it is above all a very fun and exciting course to take against the backdrop of the beautiful rugged and snow-capped mountain peaks in the background.

Jean’s cheerfulness makes every complicated climb up a sheer ice wall all the more fun. And we also need some cheerfulness, because despite the fact that it is a beautiful environment, it is also at an altitude and the climb is sometimes steep through the thin air. A light-hearted atmosphere certainly can’t hurt!

Ice climbing - Friso van Wassenaer

The guide teaches everyone how to climb well with the crampons. Photo: Friso van Wassenaer

The surface of the glacier continues to change. From sandy snow in the beginning and the large cracks in the ice a little higher, you also end up on rock masses where the snow has melted away. But the eventual walk to the top is really over a thick layer of snow white. We approach the top slowly, literally stepping foot for foot just to keep going and plowing on.

With the rope around our waist, we really do form a beautiful, iconic-looking train on the otherwise completely deserted glacier. And when the moment comes, namely when you have actually reached the top of the glacier, the euphoria is only greater. What an immensely beautiful environment it is here and what a fantastic experience to be able to do this in the radiant sun.

Glacier Val Thorens - Friso van Wassenaer

Photo: Friso van Wassenaer

Sledding down

After a short break at the top, it’s time to head back. Because although the trip down is a lot less difficult than up, you have to be careful that you don’t slip on icy parts. We also have to climb a huge snow wall that goes up almost vertically. On the way there was noticed as a very steep descent, but only now do you see what kind of wall – Game of Thrones is nothing – there is actually in front of you – you have to climb on that! Fortunately, the techniques we learned earlier from Jean come in handy here!

The real bonus of the walk comes down on the big last snow plain. With a laugh, Jean indicates that we can carefully step down here, but that you can also slide down, as long as you use your ice ax in time to slow down. Of course that is easier said than done, but it gives snow fun for 10 and gives you a very small impression of how cozy it can be in the snow in winter!

Glacier climb - Friso van Wassenaer

Photo: Friso van Wassenaer

Wall of ice and snow

Imagine climbing this wall of ice and snow! Guide Jean already shows it.

Tired and satisfied we return to the car. No one is able to squeeze into the cramped backseat anymore, so with half the group on the back of the 4×4 bed, we leave the glacier behind us again. Slowly the snow disappears from sight again as we drive on the winding roads towards the green Vallée des Belleville; an exhausting but unforgettable experience.

Practical tips for the glacier tour

The glacier tour is best done with a guide. You learn so much, but you also have the right information and materials, and it is also much safer by being guided by someone who knows the mountain and the risks well. You can hire a guide through Bureau des Guides des Belleville and a glacier tour for beginners costs €52 per person for a morning. An early departure is ideal for the tour, so be prepared for that. The walk is brisk, so make sure you have a good breakfast and also that you have enough water with you for the walk.

Glacier view

View over Vallee des Belleville from the glacier

The weather can be really beautiful on the glacier, despite there being a lot of snow, so keep that in mind in your clothing. You will want to wear long pants for the ice, and it can be very cold at the top, but if the sun is out you will get very hot on the climb, so make sure you wear layers that suit the temperature can pull out.

Finally, make sure you enjoy! How Jean talked about the rapid disappearance of the glacier makes you realize that this won’t be there forever. It emphasizes how special nature is there, something you can only fully confirm there. Admire, enjoy and just go; that glacier tour is fantastic!

The retreat of the glacier

The retreat of the glacier

Hungry for travel visited Vallée des Belleville and La Plagne at the invitation of Atout France.

Cover photo: Friso van Wassenaer.

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