The stars and the storm on the Plateau des Lacs

Last July, I happily joined an impromptu overnight bivouac in the nearby Alps, planned haphazardly by my lab mates.

The plan: leave together from work with whatever gear everyone had, drive an hour and a bit, hike an hour and a bit, sleep à la belle etoile by a lake, and return to work in the morning. 

I was only vaguely aware of the debate, (which was happening in French in the other office), about the model probabilities of the forecasted storm. The optimists won out, provided we bring tents.

The hike

Grenoble, on the valley floor, is only 200 meters above sea level. The drive switchbacks up another 1500 meters, and we had 400 more to climb on foot. 

With the worst of the day’s heat already behind us, we sweated up the ridge in mild evening air instead of the pounding sun. In the hazy, expanding view over the wooded mountainside, with pastures layered with the trees, rooftops nestled on slopes. Near the top of the ridge, two chamois—intrepid alpine goat-antelopes—sauntered straight up the nearest rocky outcrop. 

When the trail crested, finally peering over into the Plateau des Lacs, I realized why we had come here. We were entering a new dimension, cusping over treeline onto an expanse of glacier-leveled rock slung between peaks, where glacier-melt pools in lakes and lush sedge carpets the floor, where only shrubby dwarf pines and low-lying alpine rhododendron make it above grass-height. 

It wasn’t truly remote, but once over the edge of the plateau, we seemed to leave the hazy human mosaic behind. The fairytale continued to unfold as we proceeded single file through the marshy land, past dusk-velvet pools shimmering placidly among the hummocks, trailed with flat, rocky streams. 

Then, the hollow where we would camp: a little dark lake fed by twin waterfalls cascading down a craggy cliff from the glacier above, filling the dimming air with hushhhh.


It was entirely dark when we set up the collection of two-man tents. I heard the word sardines enough times that I began to think everyone was worried about the tight fit, only to learn that sardine is the word for tent stake. 

The sky was utterly clear. Before turning in we sat under the stars, speculating about the various moving lights, pointing out constellations, marveling at the Milky Way, and listening to the waterfalls.

Plateau des Lacs

The storm

Sleep was patchy thanks to the rising wind that flapped and nudged the tent. But when the gale arrived at 5 am, my eyes were heavy; whether it came on gradually or with a sudden edge sweeping over the plateau, I don’t know. 

I opened my eyes to chaos: flashing light, the tent rocking and shuddering around us. Within seconds I could feel the pelting hail through the tent wall. I imagined the whole tent uprooting or tearing open. I began to process the fact that lightning flashing every few seconds was not good. 

But all we could do was lie in the tent, listen, wait. The roar and our bodies and the thin shell of polyester between them were the only things.

Plateau des Lacs


Within fifteen or twenty minutes, it was over. Our tent held beautifully. Voices were incredulously cheerful in the light patter. I looked out into the pale morning to see the aftermath, and all there was to show for it was a scattering of pebbly hail. The sedge carpet wasn’t even very wet. 

When we told and retold the story to each other later, I would learn the word grêle, and would be repeatedly asked for a reminder of the word “hail.” I already knew l’orage (storm) and l’éclair (lightning).

The danger we had been in didn’t truly sink in until a more experienced alpinist informed me that above treeline, it doesn’t matter how low-lying the ground is (a feature of our site I had comforted myself with). Lightning will leap anywhere. We were lucky.


But when I left the tent, oh did the storm feel worth being in that morning. The sky was gentle, the sun gilded the rockfaces and glowed in the sedge, the waterfalls were white ribbons down the rock, and somewhere a wren was insisting on the day with its frenetic trills.

My friend and I ventured over the hill further into the Plateau, and we were rewarded with more rolling green scattered with glacier-ground boulders, water flowing from lake to lake, charming plants popping out of the sedge, and small trees full of busily peeping whinchats. 

When I ambled far enough to see the plateau’s farthest horizon, I gasped with elation at the Alpine fairy tale I saw there, pale blue piles of jagged peaks above the water and the green. The heart of Ecrins National Park.

Over another hill, we looked down on the biggest lake on the plateau, Lac Fourchu, a Y of sky couched in green. Beyond the near edge of the plateau, we could see the hazy top of the “balcony” of the Vercors massif running parallel to the Belledonne, the other rib of another Y, Grenoble’s valley. 

We had gone off trail to see this, and, feeling like a bad ecologist, I apologized to every square inch of marsh vegetation I stepped on. But, like the storm, this felt like an unavoidable sacrifice under the spell of such a view.

Needless to say, we were late for work.

Have you ever been to the Plateau des Lacs? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.


About the Contributor

Anne Thomas

I'm an American ecologist living at the base of the French Alps. Grenoble is an ideal place to research alpine ecology (my job) & to explore a diversity of natural and cultural landscapes (my favorite hobby). I began writing about my forays on Substack when I arrived in France in March 2023. I enjoy learning French & reading all kinds of books—a few in French!

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