Forgive me for stating the obvious, but hiking to a glacier with four young kids is not a particularly straightforward thing to do. We know: we had tried before… and failed.
Norway, August 2017. It was an unusually clear and fine day during a spell of relentless cold and rain, and touching the Folgefonna Glacier was our objective. Turning off the main road near Odda, we drove Daisy the bus as far as we could, then set off on foot towards the gleaming ice field looming above us.
Our mission started off promisingly enough, with a wide, clear path meandering through a pleasant mountain forest. A roaring glacial stream to our left was a constant reminder of the power and beauty of our environment, and the balancing rocks lining the route stood testament to the implacable human desire to tame this wild, wild nature.
The glacier, however, did not wish to give up its secrets so easily; as we got closer our route became steeper, rockier, less obvious and, in places, downright dangerous. Guidance ropes began to appear in trickier sections, delighting our eldest son but stretching our four- and six year olds to their physical limits. Finally, on a wildly swinging rope bridge over a gushing ravine, I made the reluctant but correct decision to abandon the expedition. Glancing upwards, the brooding bulk of Folgefonna seemed closer than ever, yet tantalisingly out of reach for our young family.
Fast forward two years and almost 2,000km further south, and we’re trying to touch a glacier once again.
Miage Glacier is a monster of ice and debris in the Italian Alps, flowing down the south-west slopes of Mont Blanc itself. But consider this – since Italy is so much further south than Norway, we are at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to glacier hunting. In short, we need to climb higher. Much higher. Whilst Folgefonna sprawls over a plateau between 500 and 1,660 metres above sea level, Miage only starts (technically, ends) at around 1,750 metres, and that particular section of the glacier is practically inaccessible. So if we wanted to fulfil our glacier dreams in Italy, we’d need to break 2,000 metres to stand any chance.
Luckily, the path up to Miage is considerably more family-friendly than its Norwegian counterpart (although nowhere near as much fun): after a brief steep section on forest trails, we emerged onto an asphalt path stretching forever upwards at a constant gradient. As in Norway, a mountain stream frothed and churned its way down the hillside to our left, bordered by the brilliant purple of late-summer fireweed. It was a bit of a slog; a beautiful slog, but a slog nonetheless.
Our efforts began to be rewarded at around 1,900 metres altitude, where the Val Veny valley opened up to reveal an unexpected wetland paradise, where the brilliant turquoise blue of glacial streams reluctantly mingled with milky green mountain water. Above us, snow-capped peaks soared in every direction (though the summit of Mont Blanc itself remained stubbornly under cloud) and weary hikers soaked up sun and beer outside a busy “refuge”. For the first time, we could fully appreciate the grandiosity of our surroundings, we could turn to each other and sincerely say “it was worth it”.
But, of course, we still hadn’t reached our glacier. We steeled ourselves for one final push over a steep ridge and – there it was! – almost within touching distance. And everyone’s first thought was…
Is that it?????
You see, I did mention earlier that Miage is “a monster of ice and debris“, and the debris part is certainly what you notice first. Whilst Folgefonna shined with dazzling Arctic brilliance, Miage looked more like a hastily abandoned quarry. It’s not going to win any glacial beauty contests, but we had got there.
Right next to the glacier – indeed, forming part of its southern boundary – lies the curious Lake Miage. Fed directly by the glacier, it tends to grow and shrink in a manner which scientists haven’t quite figured out yet. During our visit, it was certainly going through one of its shrunken phases but, nonetheless, that colour!!!
We stood strangely transfixed between the lake and the glacier, the brilliant turquoise jewel worn by the scruffy grey monster. The scene looks static and timeless, but stand still and you’ll soon notice that stones are falling – seemingly unassisted – down the scree slopes of the glacier to plop into its murky grey meltwater. Miage is moving, Miage is alive; we had done it – we had finally hiked to a glacier and exorcised the ghost of Folgefonna.
Coincidentally, our visits to central Norway and the high Italian Alps were both illuminated by stays at excellent campsites. We’ve written about Hallingdal Camping, Norway in this separate article. If you are planning a camping trip to the Alps, we heartily recommend Camping Val di Rhemes, snuggled high up in the valley of the same name (a quiet sideshoot of the Aosta Valley). Excellent facilities, very helpful owners and big, close-to-nature camping spots: just take a look at where we pitched our tent! (NOT an advert)
Practical info (applies in summer only)
To get to Folgefonna Glacier from Odda, take the road towards “Jordal”, skirting the north-west corner of the Sandvavatnet lake, then up the valley leading to the glacier (you’ll see it). Continue to the car park (payment required), then continue on foot. Mountain footwear / clothes required. No food or drink possibilities.
Miage Glacier is more accessible. From Courmayeur, follow the signs for Val Veny / La Visaille. Plenty of parking on the right hand side of the road, but you’ll be further back in busy periods. Once on foot, follow signs for the “Combal” refuge and “Lago de Miage”. Good footwear and sensible clothing required. Possibility to eat / drink at Refuge Combal. Return the same way for a +/- 8km tour (depending on where you parked).
Daisy the bus visited Norway in August 2017 and Italy in August 2019.
(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr