Downclimbing and Descending in the French Alps

GR 96-1A few summers ago, I set out by myself on a hiking and cycling journey through France–from Calais to Chamonix–in the footsteps of British Romantic poet William Wordsworth. In all, it took me forty days to complete the journey, and on Day 39, I had to make a steep descent down my final big mountain pass on GR 96, the trail that I was following into Sallanches for that night and then onto Chamonix the next day.

The weather wasn’t great that morning, and I’d spent several stressful hours traversing high alpine meadows covered in low clouds. Route-finding was difficult as the trail became faint through the meadows, and it was difficult to plot out my route through the low clouds, mist, and fog. And then, I came upon one of the steepest sections of hiking trail I’ve ever descended (pictured above right and below):

GR 96-2

The trail threaded down through a massive cliff face, entirely exposed. But it was equipped with a rope in the most difficult sections. I was hiking alone, and in this moment, I wished that I had on a pair of climbing shoes instead of my hiking boots for better traction. Better yet, I wished for a climbing partner and a rope!

GR 96-3

But I somehow kept my wits about me and remembered all of my downclimbing skills to stay safe. As I got further away from the exposed trail, I could fully see how steep the terrain was that I’d just hiked through.

GR 96-4

I think that rock climbing and the practice that it gave me with downclimbing helped me stay calm when I reached this section of the trail. I proceeded carefully but with confidence once I got going…even though my first sight of the descent route filled me with dread.

Want to know more about how to build your downclimbing skills?
Read my article on the Survival Skills website:

“How to Downclimb Safely on Steep Terrain”

Photos © Traci J. Macnamara.


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