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Bivouac du Dolent (La Maye)

This hike is featured in the book

Randonnées pour Grizzlys

Alpes valaisannes

published in 2013 by the editor Slatkine. Livre 'Randonnées pour Grizzlys - Alpes valaisannes'

The book can be ordered online at the Slatkine website or bought in any good bookstore of French-speaking Switzerland

The terms "bivouac" and "refuge" do not mean the same in Switzerland and in France. In the Swiss Alps, both of these terms mean a basic unmanned shelter. In France, a "refuge" is a mountain hut, whereas the latter are called "cabanes" in Switzerland.

Bivouacs are therefore not meant for walkers and, because of their very limited number of sleeping places, should be left for the alpinists who need them. However, nothing stops you from going to have a look. With no cheery keeper serving drinks and snacks or sunny terrace to rest on, bivouacs don't generally attract crowds, and therefore can make a good destination for loners. Nevertheless, a trip to a bivouac needs proper planning because not all can be reached by a normal walker without mountaineering techniques. This guide describes two exceptions which are easy(ish) to reach, and if alpine glaciers keep retreating at the current pace, several more should become accessible in the years to come.

Compared with the Cabane de l'A Neuve, a typical 20th century mountain hut, the bivouac du Dolent looks more like a lunar module or a futuristic "hotel capsule". It has landed on the east ridge of Mont Dolent, the only entirely Swiss ridge on this mountain. The inside also seems designed for immediate launch. This bivouac is used as a halt for alpinists heading up Mont Dolent via the Gallet ridge.

Bivouac du Dolent, Pointe Allobrogia, arête du Grépillon, glacier du Dolent
1 - Bivouac du Dolent, Pointe Allobrogia, arête du Grépillon, glacier du Dolent

The way up to the bivouac is easy to find and follow, and is marked out in red on white. However you do need to be sure-footed as the path is narrow and crosses steep ground. Owing to the nettles along the path, long trousers are preferable over shorts. As for the route up to the Cabane de l’A Neuve, the starting point for this walk is the village of La Fouly. Immediately after the bridge across the Dranse de Ferret, track the forestry track to the left that follows the stream. The tracks crosses the A Neuve flatlands at the bottom of the valley and heads towards the lower slopes of La Maye, the last summit on the east ridge of Mont Dolent. The track passes a football field which probably isn't up to the latest FIFA standards! After 20 minutes on the track you will come to the start of the path which is clearly marked by a sign from the local La Gruyere section of the Swiss Alpine Club, the owner of the bivouac.

From there on the path simply leads to the bivouac. The climb is steep but steady all the way up to the bivouac as can be seen on the elevation profile. Unsurprisingly, the path is a little overgrown. It is narrower and less well-trodden that paths up to mountain huts. Chains have be added on a short, potentially wet and slippery portion.

Chains and ladders
2 - Chains and ladders

As soon as you come out of the trees at the very beginning of the climb [1760 m, 35 min], the route heads up a couloir equipped with 5 or 6 ladders. This is the crux of the climb but is in no way insurmountable for a hardy walker: the slope is close on 45 degrees and chains are provided for extra help. However, if in doubt, you can still turn around and head back down. If necessary, a good alternative is go back down and find the path leading to the Cabane de l’A Neuve that continues north over the A Neuve flatlands below the woods. You need to remember that if a climb seems difficult on the way up then it'll be worse on the way down.

The last ladder brings you over the cliff and into the steep but flower-rich Sur La Li mountain meadows. The path is more comfortable from here on and only requires a brief description. The path rises through the grassy slopes to the south of La Maye. Little by little the grass gives way to scree, and then to a former moraine. Some descriptions of the route indicate a little visible path but nowadays the path to the orange space bivouac is easy to follow and well-marked out. You only sight the bivouac at the very end [2667 m, 3¼ h].

It looks out over the Dolent glacier, the Pointe Allobrogia, Mont Grepillon and Mont Dolent. Towards the East, the Grand Combin towers above all the other peaks. Close to the bivouac, a notch in the East ridge invites the adventurous to climb higher still. A short but fairly easy scramble up the steep rocky slope will take you to a small pass identified as the Col de la Rossette in some guides. The way back down follows the same itinerary.

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