GR5 or Grand Traverse des Alpes
Key information: GR5 or Grand Traverse des Alpes
This is a long walk taking some 28/29 days of walking some 385 miles, with 112,000 feet of ascents depending on the precise route as there are several alternatives including the GR52 to Menton as opposed to the GR5 proper to Nice. The GR5 itself is longer and I am only talking about the section through the Alps described by Paddy Dillon in the Cicerone publication "The GR5 Trail Through the French Alps: Lake Geneva to Nice". It isn't particularly difficult provided you are fit although there were one or two sections which required scrambling and one section using steel ladders (these can be easily bypassed). It is a fantastic walk with mountain views, wild flowers, chamois, ibex, marmots and vultures but more importantly excellent refuges with superb food, beer and wines and excellent company - on a walk of this length, one invariably meets many interesting people. There is a new Cicerone guide to the GR5, just out. Received with many thanks from Richard Everard. Any further thoughts or photos gratefully received!
- Walkopedia rating82
- Natural interest15
- Human interest5
- Negative points0
- Total rating82
- Note: Very Provisional Rating!
- Length: 385 miles
- 28/29 days in total
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
This walk description page is at an early stage of development, and will be expanded over time. Your comments on this walk, your experiences and tips, and your photos are very welcome.
COMMUNITY COMMENTS AND PHOTOS
Name: Dick Everard
Posted on: 04/03/2011
FRANCE’S GR5 – AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2010
This is the diary of Dick Everard who walked the GR5 from St Gingolph to Menton between 16th August and 17th September 2010 with his brother-in-law, Michael Thompson. We were 62 and 74 years old respectively and had spent some time getting into condition before we attempted the walk. Training included doing some long-ish distance walks of 18 miles, a lot of walks of around 10 miles and doing some uphill walking carrying increasingly heavy rucksacks, ending up carrying some 15kgs. We were joined by my son, Thomas, for the first week between St Gingolph and Les Houches and again by friends Jeremy and Patsy who joined us for four days between Modane and Ceillac, although not the day over the Grand Peyrolle.
On the walk, we carried about 10kg plus water and lunch or lunches, which consisted of bread, saucisson, cheese, dates, dried apricots and dark chocolate. We sometimes had to carry enough for two or three days although the bread would not really last this long. We found enough places along the route to replenish our supplies every two or three days. We generally stayed in mountain refuges but occasionally in Auberge, Gîtes or Hotels - the latter when joined by a couple who weren’t perhaps used to staying in refuges; when joined by our wives; and when in towns or cities where refuges weren’t available.
I carried walking poles but Michael surprisingly didn’t, something about being an eccentric Englishman. We carried sleeping bags but these were really unnecessary, a sleeping bag liner would have been sufficient. As much of my clothing as possible was lightweight and hi-tec. It wicks moisture away keeping one dry when walking in the heat and is easy to wash and dry.
To avoid me repeating what we had for breakfast everyday, we generally had bread, butter and jam with coffee, tea or hot chocolate. Occasionally we were offered cereals and / or yoghurt, more often than not fruit juice. In the occasional more expensive hotels, we might have croissant or pain au chocolat and fresh fruit.
One of the joys of undertaking such a walk in Europe was that, despite mountain refuges sounding austere, they were comfortable, warm, had plenty of beer and wine and provided good quantities of excellent food. They also allowed one to meet and talk to fellow walkers in convivial surroundings. Hot showers were the rule rather than the exception, although occasionally there was a charge of a couple of Euros. Toilet facilities were adequate although not always savoury and often asian in style.
We chose the shortest route possible except for the fact that we finished at Menton not Nice. This often meant choosing the higher level variants, and in particular the one bypassing Tignes-Le-Lac and Val d’Isère: taking the GR55 then the GR5C over the Grand Peyrolle. We normally stuck to our original plans only diverting once between Les Houches and Les Contamines where we took the lower level variant because of threatening bad weather, and in this case it allowed us to walk another few miles to a refuge other than that planned. On a couple of occasions, we decided to stop early. Once, because we had stopped for a beer and liked the refuge so much we stayed for the night; and on a second occasion where we were uncertain whether our planned refuge was open (having tried to phone ahead and visited the local tourist office), and we needed to be certain that we would have somewhere to eat and sleep. On a third occasion, all of the available accommodation was either closed or full and we had to walk for an additional three hours to find accommodation but still arrived in time for a beer, shower and dinner.
Most of our planning had been based on the Cicerone Guide The GR5 Trail Through the French Alps: Lake Geneva to Niceby Paddy Dillon hereafter referred to as the “Guide”. We also had the TopoGuides published by Fédération Francaise de la Randonnée Pédestre. The only maps we carried covered the GR5C, not covered by the TopoGuides. One could probably do the whole walk with just the guide but it is sometimes reassuring to refer to a map and, of course, they do show the surrounding areas not shown in the guide book.
The walk covered a total of some 387 miles with ascents totalling 112,000 feet. We completed the walk in a total of 33 days having taken four rest days (about one day every week), so 29 days walking in total. The average distance was 13.4 miles with average ascents and descents of 3,877 feet and 4,000 feet respectively.
France GR5 Day 1 – Monday 16th August 2010
St Gingolph (1,230ft) to Novel (3,115ft)
Ascent 1,885ft; 3 miles
Awoke at about 3.45am, cup of tea and got dressed and left the house at about 4.30am with Susie and Michael. Arrived at Luton Airport at 5.30am and queued for Easyjet check-in until 6.30am. Through security and almost immediately to Gate 14 where we waited 10 minutes. Plane took off on-time around 7.30am and arrived early at Geneva around 10am (local time). Collected our rucksacks and were in the queue at the train station by about 10.30am. Caught the 11.01 to Lausanne where we took the Underground to Ouchy where we caught the wrong boat! To Evians les Bains not St Gingolph, so had to catch a taxi to St Gingolph. Had a beer and a ham sandwich on the boat. There was Swiss girl on the boat with two dogs who we met later on the walk.
Arrived at St Gingolph around 1.30pm at Creperie Bretonne to find it closed so phoned Tom who was in the Bellevue in Switzerland, which took us a couple of minutes to reach.
Tom was finishing his lunch so we all had a coffee before starting the GR5, leaving the café at about 2 o’clock. Cloudy with some drizzle but soon took off our anoraks and then our fleeces. Climbed from 1,230 feet to 3115 feet reaching Novel around 3.30pm. Had a beer, bath and unpacked. Very nice Gîte d’Étape. Our hosts for dinner were Claudine and Alan Debens. We had soup, followed by Saucisse and boiled potatoes, then ice cream and then cheese all with sufficient red wine followed by coffee and Genepi. A very convivial evening. Total price was €45 for dinner, bed and breakfast.
France GR5 Day 2 – Tuesday 17th August 2010
Novel (3,115ft) to La Chapelle d'Abondance (3,350ft)
Ascent 4,250ft; Descent 4,020ft; 8 miles
Woke just before 7am, cleaned teeth, shaved, packed rucksack and had breakfast. Started walking at about 8.30am. Weather not too bad, no rain, lowish cloud and the odd spot of blue sky. The morning was mainly a continuous uphill climb. We stopped every 30 minutes and a little longer at 10.30am. We reached the Col de Bise (6,283ft) at 11.15am almost exactly as in the timings in the guide.
Then onto the Chalets de Bise (4,941ft) where we arrived at about midday and stopped for a beer, galette with ham, chevre and an egg plus a coffee. Left the Chalet de Bise at about one o’clock climbing up to Pas de la Bosse (5,958ft) which we reached at about 2pm, then another steep descent to La Chapelle d’Abondance which we reached a little after 3.30pm. Having found the Gîte au Gai Soleil, we had several beers in a bar opposite the Gîte before having a shower and washing some clothes.
A hard day’s walk, especially the two descents, although the ascents weren’t exactly easy. My muscles were more used to going uphill than steeply downhill. Michael found it tiring but recovered after a couple of beers and a cigar. Tom, of course, didn’t have any trouble and nor did I but I was a little slower going uphill. We had a simple dinner in the Gîte, Tartiflette which is potatoes, cheese, onions and lardons plus a salad and then fruit salad all with a bottle of wine. Price of dinner, bed and breakfast was €32 plus €3 for wine.
France GR5 Day 3 – Wednesday 18th August 2010
La Chapelle d'Abondance (3,550ft) to Refuge de Chésery (6,470ft)
Ascent 4,905ft; Descent 1,790ft; 13 miles
Got up at 6am and had a nice simple breakfast at 6.30am. Bought some bread, cheese and saucisson at the Boulangerie and started walking at about 7.45am. Started off on a level path beside the river and eventually crossed a bridge and started climbing through the forest reaching Sur Bayard (4,000ft) at about 9am. Continued up to Les Crottes almost missing the path at one point. Reached Les Crottes (5,016ft) at about 11am, continuing on to the Chalets de la Torrens (5,702ft). Then climbed steeply to Les Mattes (6,332ft) which we reached at about 11.15am. Then steeply downhill before a long climb up a winding track reaching Lenvelay (5,686ft) at about 1pm where we stopped for lunch.
Despite everyone saying the sun was going to shine, it hardly did, and threatened rain occasionally. It was also cold most of the morning and again in the afternoon. A level easy walk to Col de Bassachaux (5,833ft) except for the last 30 minutes which climbed through alder scrub and was very muddy underfoot. We stopped at the Gîte / Restaurant at Col de Bassachaux for beers and hot chocolate whilst it rained outside more heavily than at any time we were walking. Quite a lot of mountain bikers in the area some using the ski lifts to gain height.
We left the Gîte at about 3pm on a relatively easy walk to the Refuge de Chésery (6,470ft) which we reached at around 4.15/4.30pm. We had a pleasant evening at the Refuge where after a hot shower and unpacking, we had a few beers and a meal of pasta and lamb although one would be hard pressed to know that it was lamb. There was a wood stove in the dining area which was very welcome.
There were three Swiss men and a French Canadian couple at the Refuge followed later by two Swiss girls who had walked up from Morgine, one a primary school teacher and the other a midwife. We had some wine with the meal and the two Swiss girls shared a bottle of white wine that they had carried with them plus some chocolate with chilli! We were also given coffee and Genepi on the house. About €45 for dinner, bed and breakfast, beer, wine and shower.
France GR5 Day 4 – Thursday 19th August 2010
Refuge de Chésery (6,470ft) to Samoens (2,306ft)
Ascent 2,200ft; Descent 6,365ft; 15.5 miles
Up at around 6.30am for a simple breakfast and set off at 7.55am after having photos taken outside the Refuge. We had a short but steep ascent to Portes de l’Hiver (6,877ft) and then downhill to Chaux Palin (6,047ft) and then a long easy and mainly level walk past Lapisa (5,870ft), La Pierre and La Poyat (5,397ft) before a steep climb to Col de Coux (6,300ft).
We met up with a Swiss girl (Sibylle) and her two dogs on the way up to the Col. We had first seen her on the boat from Lausanne and she had walked from Evian les Bains and was camping. She had put her head round the side of the door at the Refuge the previous evening but hadn’t stopped. We then had a short descent to Torrente de
Chardoniere (4,920ft) before a long stiff climb to Col de la Golese (5,453ft). We stopped at the Refuge de Golese for a couple of beers before stopping again for our shared with Sybille and her dogs. We then had a long and often fairly boring descent through Les Allemands (3,373ft) and Le Chevreret (2,454ft) to Samoens.
We arrived at Samoens at around 4.30pm and missed the Gîtes des Moulins where we had planned to stop so went to the Tourist Office (TIC) and tried to book some accommodation. Everywhere was full including the Gîte des Moulins. We were rescued by an English couple, Peter and Joanne with their two children Matthew, 9 and Charlotte, 11. They not only offered us a bed but a hot shower, dinner of spaghetti bolognaise and breakfast.
France GR5 Day 5 – Friday 20th August 2010
Samoens (2,306ft) to Refuge de Moëde Anterne (6,549ft)
Ascent 5,905ft; Descent 1,655ft; 14.25 miles
We set off from the chalet at around 8.30am luckily on the right side of town for the GR5. We went across to the path beside the Clévieux Torrent to Pont de Perret (2,398ft) before crossing the river and then climbing up through the Gorges des Tines, ladders and steps and some rough wooded paths. Then onto Pont des Nants (2,520ft) where we again crossed a river and then walked up a broad track to Cascade du Rouget (3,150ft) where we had a hot chocolate and ice cream. On up Chalet de Lignon. Met up with Sibylle again who had camped near the Gorge des Tines and had swum in the river the evening before. She had to carry one of her dogs up the ladders!
Thereafter a long steep climb to Cascade de la Sauffaz (4,760ft) and up to Collet
d’Anterne (5,892ft). We reached the Collet around 1.30pm in light fog, stopped for lunch again with Sibylle. French Canadian couple, Jean and Andrea (from Refuge de Chésery) also having lunch at the Collet. Walked along a pleasant valley with nice looking river to Chalets d’Anterne (5,932ft) where we stopped for a couple of beers. We met a Frenchman, Olivier who was a drummer with a travelling theatre and was walking to Nice. He had done the trip to Menton in 1997. We left Chalets at around 3.30pm.
A steep climb up to a col then a short descent before walking beside the Lac d’Anterne where Tom saw Bouquetin (Ibex) but I was someway behind him and Sibylle. Then a steep ascent to the Refuge de Moëde Anterne which I reached around 5.30pm but both Tom and Sibylle had reached earlier. Drank a few beers some bought by Sibylle whose 33rd birthday it was.
Sibylle was leaving the GR5 at this point as we were about to enter a National park where she couldn’t take her dogs so we wouldn’t see her again although we did here from her many days later.
Michael arrived at 6.30pm just in time for dinner at 6.30. Tom and I had Polenta and
Saucisse while Michael had Cheese Fondue. Joined at the table by Olivier and we shared two bottles of red wine. Beautiful sunny evening with views of Mont Blanc (but not quite the summit). The Refuge was large with a large restaurant and charged about €55 for dinner, bed, breakfast, beer and wine. Good nights sleep with very few people in our particular dormitory.
France GR5 Day 6 – Saturday 21st August 2010
Refuge de Moëde Anterne (6,549ft) to Les Houches (3,308ft)
Ascent 3,280ft; Descent 6,530ft; 13miles
Awake at 6.30am with magnificent views of Mont Blanc which we had for most of the day. No clouds and sunshine almost all day. We left the Refuge at about 7.50am dropping down to a river crossing at Pont d’Arlevé (5,240ft) which we did in under guide time. We then had a long and sometimes steep ascent to Col du Brévent. The time given in the guide 2 hrs 15mins but Tom reached the col at 10am after 1hr 15mins and me at 10.30am so both faster than the guide.
Michael found it hard going and took until 11.15am but even then only 15 minutes more than time given in the guide. After allowing Michael to rest for about 15 minutes, we set off to climb and it was around 12.30pm or so before we had all got to the restaurant at Le Brévent, which at 8,284 feet was the highest point that we had climbed so far. Here we had some beers and a plate of Jambon Cru each, we ate inside as it was a little too hot in the sun. After several phone calls, we managed to book a room at the Hotel des Meleze in Les Houches. In order to make sure that we didn’t lose the room, I set off at 1.30ish to walk down to Les Houches which I did by 4.30pm (one hour less than the time in the guide) non stop. I had an Orangina and a beer at the very first bar that I came to (Le Delice) and then found our hotel where I showered, shaved and washed some clothes. I headed back to Le Delice and had a happy hour pint (75ml) for €4 with Michael arriving at about 6.20pm to have a couple of small beers. Tom had walked from Le Brévent directly to the chalet where he was staying in Chamonix with friends, Mark and Jess.
I bought a couple of bottles of wine whilst Michael shaved and showered and we were
picked up by Mark and Tom at around 7.40pm to go back for a barbecue at Mark’s chalet where Tom had been staying the previous week. We had an excellent meal with sausage, beef kebabs and marinated lamb and various salads plus more beer and red wine. Michael and I then returned to our hotel by taxi, very expensive at €40. Slept like a log until 8am.
France GR5 Day 7 – Sunday 22nd August 2010
Rest day at Les Houches
After breakfast, I walked down to the shops to check what was available and when and if they were open. Then caught a bus at 9.32am to Chamonix (free as staying at the hotel without a car) where I met Tom and we went for a hot chocolate as well as buying liquid plus dates, dried apricots, post cards and paracetomol. Tom then left for his chalet where he was collecting his rucksack and bicycle before returning to the UK. I left to return to Les Houches.
Met up with Michael for a pleasant beer, omelette and coffee. Lazy afternoon and then out for dinner at Le Delice where we had a very enjoyable meal sitting outside with a glass of white wine each and then a carafe of red. I had a starter of marinated beef and then a lamb Kofta with couscous followed by coffee. Back and in bed by about 10.30pm.
France GR5 Day 8 – Monday 23rd August 2010
Les Houches (3,308ft) to Chalet de Nant Borrant (4,787ft)
Ascent 4,413ft; Descent 2,935ft; 14.25 miles
Up for breakfast at 7.30am and started off about 8.15 having bought two loaves of bread from the Boulangerie. We started off up some steep steps before climbing up a road which was occasionally quite steep. We arrived at Col de Voza (5413ft) and had a couple of hot chocolates at the bar beside the station for the Mont Blanc funicular railway. The GR5 at this point said 4hrs 5 mins to the Chalets de Miage whereas the guide said only 2hrs 30mins. This and the fact that two Australians that we had met earlier said that rain and thunder were forecast for the afternoon, made us decide to take the low GR5 route and not the high level variant that we had thought we might take. Rather a boring stretch and rain kept threatening meaning we were putting on our anoraks, getting hot and then having to stop to take them off again. No bars until Les Contamines as the hotel/restaurant at La Tresse was shut up.
We stopped shortly after reaching La Tresse (3,412ft) at 12.45pm to eat our lunch. We reached Les Contamines (3,819ft) at about 2.15pm where we stopped for a couple of beers. At some stage, we had decided not to stay at les Contamines and head up to the Chalet de Nant Borrant.
Left les Contamines at about 3.30pm and had an hour on a flat track beside the river to Notre Dame de la Gorge (3,970ft), again rain threatening but nothing to worry us just annoy us. Reached Notre Dame de la Gorge at about 4.30pm and then climbed up an easy but rocky road to the Chalet de Nant Borrant (4,787ft) where I had a large beer and Michael a café au lait. Had a reasonable shower although not particularly hot and then wrote up diary before dinner at 7 o’clock. Simple but excellent dinner of soup then lamb with dauphinoise potatoes, apple tart, cheese, red wine and coffee. Early to bed and read for a few minutes. Slept very well.
France GR5 Day 9 – Tuesday 24th August 2010
Chalet de Nant Borrant (4,787ft) to Plan de la Lai (5,978ft)
Ascent 4,067ft; Descent 2,705ft; 11.5 miles
Up at 6.50 for breakfast at 7am, packed and ready to leave by 7.50am. Walked uphill for a while before reaching the Refuge de la Balme (5,596ft) and then an easy level walk with some ascents to Plan Jovet (6,300ft). Here we saw a couple of Marmottes and seven Bouquetin (Ibex) including one male. We walked with an Italian family with four children occasionally overtaking them and them us. Reached the Col du Bonhomme (7,641ft) in about 2hrs 15mins and Michael in 2hrs 45mins. It had threatened rain at times meaning we put on and took off our anoraks at times. On reaching the col, it rained somewhat harder and there was a cold wind with cloud and no sun. We took shelter in a little hut with the six Italians who kindly offered us some chocolate.
Then on downhill towards the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme (7,982ft) which we again reached in less than the time given in the guide. It was still raining and we stopped for a hot chocolate and a small beer. At about 12.30pm, we set off on what turned out to be the TMB variant although carrying the same red and white waymarkings as the GR5. Most annoying as we had to climb back several hundred yards (altitude) in thick cloud and rain and it was about 1.45pm before we again took shelter in the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. We stopped for lunch and I changed my very wet shorts and put on my waterproof over trousers although Michael stayed in his shorts before we set off on the correct route along the Crête des Gittes. Easy walking but due to the cloud, we didn’t see very much although occasionally the clouds cleared to show us some scenery.
Having reached the Col de la Sauce (7,569ft), the cloud cleared and we had a relatively easy walk down to the Refuge du Plan de la Lai although some paths were narrow tracks worn by cows and not particularly comfortable to walk on. We arrived at the Refuge at around 4.30pm and had a couple of beers before taking a shower (not very good) and doing some washing. Dinner at 7 o’clock of soup, pasta and sausage (again) then yoghurt with berries, coffee and red wine. Off to be at 9pm, slept reasonably well but we had a snorer in the room.
France GR5 Day 10 – Wednesday 25th August 2010
Plan de la Lai (5,978ft) to Valezan (4,068ft)
Ascent 3,335ft; Descent 5,245ft; 13 miles
Set off about 7.50am on a beautiful morning with not a cloud in the sky. The first part of the walk was relatively easy and only some climbing but we weren’t allowed to take many of the shortcuts (pour preserver Les Herbes) and the information given in the guide is poor encouraging taking of shortcuts. There was a long climb of almost two hours to the Col du Bresson (8,100ft) which I reached in a total of 4 hours from the Refuge i.e. at 11.50am but it was 12.40 by the time that Michael arrived who normally equals the times in the guide but this was way over as he should have arrived by 11.35am – maybe something wrong especially as walking conditions were so good – maybe it was the lack of shortcuts.
I had my lunch and lay in the sun for an hour. Michael didn’t want to eat and we set off for the Refuge de la Balme at about 12.55pm and arrived at around 1.45pm. We had a beer and a coca cola and left at 2.30pm. We then had an easy descent for a couple of hours arriving at Les Fours within the guide time of two hours. The path to Valezan was badly signed and we spent a long time walking down a road with many hairpins bends.
We arrived in the village about 5pm and both Michael and I had a large beer followed by showers, shaves and clothes washing. Booked hotel in Fourneaux for 29th 30th and although closed for the holiday so we are going to have to let ourselves in with a code! Sent a text home and wrote diary before dinner at 7pm. Highlights of the day were the enormous numbers of butterflies including swallow tails and hundreds of Adonis Blues. Nothing memorable about dinner!
France GR5 Day 11 – Thursday 26th August 2010
Valezan (4,068ft) to Refuge d'Entrée-le-lac (7,070ft)
Ascent 5,190ft; Descent 2,385ft; 16 miles
Had an excellent breakfast and left the Auberge at about 8.50am. Total cost for dinner, bed and breakfast plus beers was €55 each. Walked down through the woods on a nice path to Bellentre where we bought provisions and stamps. Continued down to the bridge on the L’Isère River and then climbed very steeply for Montorlin where there was nothing and then to Montchavin (3,935ft).
We stopped at a café where we had a coca cola and tarte de fraise and tarte myrtle. I visited the Tourist office to find out about the Refuge Entre Deaux Eaux, without any luck – there seemed some doubt as to whether it was still manned and no one was answering the phone. Then headed up through La Jacottaz (4,920ft) to Moulin (4,147ft) which although steep in places (mainly down) was very pleasant through Larch trees with steep drops on one side. Nothing in Moulin so we stopped on a bench beside a bridge and had lunch. After lunch we moved off to walk up past the Palais de la Mine and onto Les Larches and then the Chalet Refuge de Rosuel where we encountered Francois (the Belgian), who was stopping there. We had a couple of beers before heading up to the Refuge d’Entre-le lac.
Very pleasant walk and the sun continued to shine which it had done all day without a cloud in the sky. Climb quite steep in places but quite easy walking including a stretch along a meandering river with rising trout. There were lots of wild raspberries on the climb and large quantities of what I think were wild red currants but these were mainly out of reach. I suspect the hordes of day walkers had eaten all of them in reach.
We reached the Refuge at about 5.50pm (10 hour day) where we had a large beer before taking a hot shower and then a second smaller beer while watching the Gardien milking a cow so fresh milk for breakfast.
Dinner was quite late but very good, consisting of soup, turkey cooked with olives, rice then cheese then a kind of yoghurt pudding with fresh cream (from the cow) and a very sweet cinnamon tasting jam. Followed by coffee and Genepi on the house; and so to bed about 10 o’clock. Total cost of €46 for beers, wine, dinner, bed and breakfast.
France GR5 Day 12 – Friday 27th August 2010
Refuge d'Entrée-le-lac (7,070ft) to Refuge de la Leisse (8,159ft) -GR55
Ascent 3,886ft; Descent 2,866ft; 13.25 miles
Up at 6.50am to an excellent breakfast including cereal with fresh milk. Set off at about 7.55am to reach the GR5 path about 8.20am and then a nice climb up to the Refuge du Col du Palet (8,530ft) which we reached in less than guide time of 1 hr 30 mins from the path junction despite stopping to take photographs of Marmottes and Chamois. Dozens of Marmottes about and saw two herds of Chamois (about 15 head in each) quite close to each other. Poor service at Refuge as they didn’t want to serve us coffee before they had finished their morning chores – waited over 20 minutes. Toilet facilities for the disabled at over 800 feet!
Whilst talking to a Englishman that we had met the previous evening, it started to rain so we donned waterproofs and set off up to the Col du Palet (8,710ft) only 5 minutes away. By then the clouds had enveloped us and we set off down to Tignes and Val Claret in the rain. Neither difficult nor enjoyable walking mainly because of the rain which although it cleared to give good views of Tignes at times and enabled us to take off our anoraks, it started raining again and continued for several hours. Stopped to text home but my SIM card seems to have stopped working (maybe due to the wet).
Went into Val Claret (ghastly) as on the path but although a beer or hot chocolate would have been welcome almost everything was closed and deserted with just a few specialist ski shops open. Michael tried to replace the torch that he had lost but no luck. Gave up and headed up the path to the Col de la Leisse.
It took about two hours of fairly horrible weather to reach the Col de la Leisse around
2pm and stopping for a short break for dates, dried apricots and chocolate. My water
platypus had broken the previous evening so I had been given a bottle of water by the
Gardien at the Refuge d’Entre-le-lac so now carrying water in a bottle. Took quite a few photographs of wild flowers on the rather barren alpine slopes walking down to the Refuge de la Leisse. Had a small beer and decided to stay the night. Had some bread, saucisson and cheese for a lat lunch. Then washed some clothes and sat down to write my diary. Excellent dinner at 7pm of soup, Lasagne (Tuna), apricot tart with wine. Talked to a couple of Dutch men (one from the Ministry of Agriculture). Jean and Andrea who we had first met at the Refuge de Chésery on the 18th August were also staying at the Refuge. Turned in early and read for a while. Slept well despite a cold and windy night. Total cost for beer, dinner, bed and breakfast was €43 each.
France GR5 Day 13 – Saturday 28th August 2010
Refuge de Leisse (8,159ft) to Les Prioux (5,627ft) -GR55
Ascent 2,472ft; Descent 5,235ft; 13.75 miles
Up at 6.30am, still windy! Had breakfast and started off walking at 7.50am with full waterproofs, warm hat and gloves. Pleasant downhill walk to the Pont de la Croé Vie (6,886ft) and then steeply uphill for about 45 minutes after which the path levelled out but we were walking into a very strong wind and driving rain. Saw a Chamois on the way up and Jean and Andrea saw two Bouquetin (Ibex) and photographed them in the mist (they were a little behind us). Quite a long and very cold and windy walk to the Refuge du Col de la Vanoise (8,258ft) (run by Club Alpin Francais). Pretty inhospitable although we did manage to have a hot chocolate and eat some chocolate. Also dried our clothes a little although they seemed to have turned off the stove before we arrived despite the cold and wet. Typical of the Vanoise, we were told and also typical of the CAF.
The valley approaching the col would have been beautiful but because of the weather we could see very little and it was too cold and windy to stop and photograph anything. We left the Refuge and walked down and across the Lac des Vaches (7,608ft), on stepping stones or causeway. We reached the Refuge des Barmettes (6,595ft) at about 1pm where we stopped for a beer and a very good omelette with lardons and salad.
Still cold when we left but got increasingly warmer as we got to Les Fontanettes (5,413ft) and eventually to Pralognan (4,652ft) where we stopped for a coffee. Michael bought a new head torch and posted some post cards. Left Pralognan at about 3.30pm but had some difficulty finding the correct path. Eventually ensured that we were actually on the GR55 but first official sign was after some 45 minutes of walking when we reached the Pont de Gerlon (5,223ft).
Reached Les Prioux (5,627ft) at about 5pm (it was meant to be 20 minutes from the Pont de Gerlon) to have a beer but meeting Jean and Andrea again and finding the Refuge des Bergerie to be so excellent , we decided to stay the night. After our first beer, we had an excellent hot shower, washed some socks, then another beer and then a good wholesome evening meal of soup, pasta and saucisson followed by crème fraiche and coffee together with a bottle of wine. Totals cost for the night of €46 each.
The restaurant attached to the Refuge was very busy late into the night and was obviously very popular locally. It could be reached by car up a track from Pralognan.
France GR5 Day 14 – Sunday 29th August 2010
Les Prioux (5,627ft) to Fourneaux (3,445ft) -GR55
Ascent 3,758ft; Descent 5,775ft; 16 miles
Up at 6.30am for a self-service breakfast. Set off at 7.40am. Sun shining but very cold as we were in the shadow of the mountains for the first hour, the walk was a pleasant, flat and slightly uphill. For the first time, we saw a ground frost above what was about 6,000 feet. There was a slight climb up to the Refuge du Roc de la Pêche (6,270ft) which we reached in about 45 minutes. Continued slowly and surely up to the Refuge de Péclet-Polset but did not divert to the refuge which was off the main path but continued slowly climbing, taking the occasional rest and some photographs of wild flowers. We entered a very barren and rocky area before the final, steep and slippery (some ice) ascent to the Col de Chavière which at 9,173 feet is the highest point on our Grand Traverse des Alpes. We crossed a little snow and the path was icy in places. Saw a vulture very clearly flying near the col. We had reached the col before 11.30am which was less than the guide time.
Rested briefly taking some photographs of Mont Blanc behind us. Then steeply downhill crossing some more snow on which I damaged my knee (don’t know how as I didn’t slip or twist it in any way). We continued on relatively flat ground to the junction of the GR55 with the variant route past the Refuge de l’Orgère but we took the main GR55 direct to Polset. Stopped for lunch beside the path. Nice and sunny but coldish wind and some cloud building up. Continued slowly downhill but not too steep and then entered the trees where there was a beautiful level but narrow path for about a mile, then downhill to Polset (6,035ft) where there was no sight or sign to the Chalet d’Alpage so no afternoon beer! We then entered the forest down a steep winding track covered in pinecones.
I was being careful not to do any more harm to my knee but also trying to walk normally and not limp. Then onto a very steep and stony track going straight downhill to the point where the GR55 meet the variant and then into Loutraz (3,575ft) and through the streets to Modane arriving at about 4.30pm. Searched for a bar in Modane for about 30 minutes but the whole town was dead so ended up near the station in Fourneaux where we found several bars and our hotel. Had a large beer at the Hotel Chez Arrive and then onto our hotel (des Voyageurs) for a welcome bath and shave.
We then had an excellent dinner at the Hotel de Perce Neige where once again we met
Jean and Andrea who were staying there and unlike the Auberge at Valezan, the hotel restaurant was very busy probably because it was the only one in town that was open.
France GR5 Day 15 – Monday 30th August 2010
Rest day in Fourneaux
Up at about 7.30am after a very good nights sleep. Had breakfast at a small café near the hotel. Back to the hotel and washed a full set of clothes and then walked down to the far end of Fourneaux. My knee was giving me trouble so I bought a knee support at the pharmacy. Had a coffee and then a hot chocolate whilst Michael wrote postcards in our room. Met both Jean and Andrea and the American couple, Luke and Ronda that we had seen in our first week, walking past the bar. The bar man asked me if I knew everyone in Fourneaux! Walked up to Modane with Michael to get provisions at the supermarket but found that the walking shop had closed at midday, it was now 12.15pm. Walked back to Fourneaux and bumped in Jean and Andrea who told us of a little restaurant which might be good for lunch. Booked a table at the Italian Restaurant Pulcinella for 8pm and went to the little restaurant where we had a really excellent lunch, three courses plus wine and coffee for €13.5 each.
I then went back to our room to sleep and rest my knee from 2pm to 3.30pm whilst
Michael went back to the walking shop. Although a sign outside the shop said that it would open at 14.30, it decided to close for the whole afternoon! I read and had a beer outside the hotel. Met up with Francois who was on his way to meet his wife at the station. He recommended ointment de choux (cabbage) for my knee so I went to the pharmacy who hadn’t heard of anything made from choux but I came away with an
Arnica ointment which I used twice a day until almost the end of the walk and did wonders by reducing the swelling.
Had a bath at about 6 o’clock and went down to find that Jeremy and Patsy had arrived so I joined them for another beer. Then off to the Italian Restaurant at 8pm where I had stuffed olives and jambon sec and the Spaghetti with sea food then coffee. Couldn’t finish the spaghetti, probably too much lunch! To bed at around 11 o’clock but didn’t sleep particularly well.
France GR5 Day 16 – Tuesday 31st August 2010
Fourneaux (3,445ft) to Refuge du Thabor (8,209ft)
Ascent 4,920ft; Descent 165ft; 8 miles
Up at 6.45am and packed. Breakfast was supposed to be at 7.30 but not ready for us. It was 9 o’clock by the time we had had breakfast, paid bills and sorted out Jeremy’s car. An agreement had been reached the previous evening for Jean and Andrea to drive it to Briancon. Andrea wasn’t feeling well, very exhausted, and was in fact worse on Tuesday morning. They had decided to skip a section or two and rest up in Briancon.
We bought some bread at the Boulangerie and we were soon climbing steeply out of Fourneaux. The guide had said 5hrs 45mins to the Refuge du Thabor and the signs said 6hrs but we found that we were generally ahead of schedule despite the presence of newcomers who weren’t quite so inured to the rigours of walking in the Alps. The weather was fine but with some cloud although because we were generally in shade from overhanging mountains and the trees, it wasn’t hot. We stopped for lunch about 30 minutes (quite steep) beyond the Fort du Lavoir (6,250ft) at 1pm. Sat in the sun above a small river and didn’t leave until almost 2 o’clock.
We continued up the steep track which eventually levelled out before a relatively steep ascent to the Refuge du Thabor. We arrived ay about 3.30pm. We had a couple of beers with glorious sunshine and clear skies and fantastic views. No showers! Good dinner of soup, sausage and rice, chocolate brownie, red wine and café. To bed about 9pm and read for 30 minutes. Reasonable night although stomach slightly upset. Total cost for beer, dinner, bead and breakfast was €43 each.
France GR5 Day 17 – Wednesday 1st September 2010
Refuge du Thabor (8,209ft) to Roubion (5,325ft) -GR5C
Ascent 1,720ft; Descent 5,070ft; 11 miles
Up at 6.30am, breakfast at 7am and left at 7.50am on a bright sunny morning although it was some time before we were in the sun. Walked back up to the Col de la Vallée Étroite (7,986ft) which I had almost reached the previous evening and then a pleasant descent, but still with no sun, to the Pont de la Fonderie (6,266ft).
Then an easy walk down to the hamlet of Les Granges de la Vallée Étroite (5,790ft) where we stopped at the Refugio I Re Magi for hot chocolate, myrtle and a beer beneath the peaks of Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspard. We had arrived at about 10.15am and stayed a good 30 minutes. Then up once more on an easy zig-zag track up to the Col de Thures (7,198ft) and then the Lac des Thures.
I arrived at about 12.15pm and the others arrived about 12.30pm. We sat in the sun beside the lake and had a leisurely lunch. Started off again after about an hour and reached the Chalet des Thures (6,909ft) at about 2.15pm where we stopped to get water and for Patsy to attend to a blister. The walk from the col was across wide grassland as was easy going with mountain views either side. Saw a vulture whilst having lunch and a lark which sat between my feet before flying away.
Then down a relatively easy zig-zagging track to the Chalet Forestier des Combes (5,740ft). Rested waiting some 15 minutes and then set off down the track which brought us to the Chappell des Ames (5,325ft) near Nevache. I looked after Michael’s rucksack whilst he went off to look for accommodation. Had a couple of beers, a shower and then a sauna and Jacuzzi. Then washed clothes and sat down and wrote my diary with another beer.
Had a nice dinner of soup, agneau provencale with fennel, cheese and a selection of desserts. Bottle of red wine between the four of us – no house wine, coffee and a pear liqueur and so to bed. Total cost of €101 each!
France GR5 Day 18 – Thursday 2nd September 2010
Roubion (5,325ft) to Briancon (3,870ft) -GR5C
Ascent 4,530ft; Descent 5,990ft; 17 miles
Set alarm for 5.50am so as to get an early start. Self service breakfast at 6.30am. including fresh fruit. Left the hotel at about 7 o’clock and walked down to the bus stop so that Jeremy and Patsy could catch the Navette (school bus) to Briancon. The bus left at around 7.15am and Michael and I set off shortly afterwards. We crossed abridge over a river.
Walked up the river through terraced fields before we joined the GR5C crossing from
Nevache across the Pont de Fortville. Then steeply uphill for a further two hours to
reach the Lac de Cristol (7,365ft) taking 2 hrs 30mins from the hotel at Roubion with the book saying 2hrs from Nevache which seems to be slightly wrong. We stopped briefly at the Lac before heading up to The Porte de Cristol and the Col de Granon. The last 30 odd minutes to the Col de Granon was on a level gravel road and although fast walking was rather boring. We reached the Col de Granon (7,917ft) around 11am to find Jeremy and Patsy in the café where I had a beer and Michael a coffee. Jeremy and Patsy had driven up to the Col from Briancon there being a good tarmac road and a large car park on the Col.
We set off again for the Col de Barteaux and the Crête de Peyrolle. Relatively easy walking until we reached the short climb to the top of the crête. We reached the Croix de la Cime (8,540ft) at about 1 o’clock. Continued on for about another hour before stopping for lunch. Then further along the crête to a second cross (no name that we could find) and then down a sharp and difficult descent from the Serre des Aîgles (8,422ft).
Thereafter long but easy walk on long zig-zags to the Croix de Toulouse (6,437ft) overlooking Briancon in the valley below. We only saw two people from leaving the Col de Granon and reaching the Croix de Toulouse which we reached about 4.15pm. Saw an eagle flying at the same level as the path which then folded its wings and dived out of site. Then more zig-zagging down through the woods to the Fort des Salettes (4,764ft) and then to the Cité Vauban (4,365ft) which we reached at about 5.30pm to be met by Patsy and did a little shopping.
Then in the car to the hotel near the centre of Briancon – Hotel de la Chaussée. Very nice with a good shower. Had a beer outside the hotel then walked down past some shops and restaurants to have another beer in the sunshine. Back to the hotel for a shower, shave and change and then out to dinner at 8pm. Excellent dinner of smoked salmon and prawns, followed by a steak with chips and cèpe sauce and then profiterole all with a rosé (very feint) and then a red wine (€35 each). Then back to the hotel for bed. Stomach upset again so took an Imodium. Hotel was €44 each including breakfast.
France GR5 Day 19 – Friday 3rd September 2010
Briancon (3,870ft) to La Chalp (5,728ft)
Ascent 4,675ft; Descent 2820ft; 14 miles
Up at 7 o’clock with breakfast at 7.30. Took the car up to Villard St Pancrace i.e. avoiding the city and suburbs but only just as the car was giving trouble.
Started walking at about 9.20am. The first half of the walk up to Chalets des Ayes (5,614ft) was through woods where we stopped at the lovely Le Lauzin (a house that had apparently been in the same family for 200 years). After that the path went along a gravel track. No Buvette in Chalets des Ayes (closed) so we stopped by a stream for a short rest. After that a very steep climb, still in the trees before the path eventually eased before reaching a bridge over the river where we again had a short rest. Continued up past the Chalets de Vers le Col (7,096ft) before stopping for lunch at about 1.15pm and stayed until 2pm. We reached the Col des Ayes (8,127ft) at about 2.30pm where we stopped briefly and lay in the sunshine.
Then downhill quite steeply but relatively easy path down to some houses above Pra Premier (6,725ft) where I stopped to wait for the others then downhill mainly on the road both gravel and tarmac. To Brunissard. Reached the first bar at 4.15pm where I had a couple of beers and then others one (arriving a little later) and then continued to La Chalp arriving at around 5 o’clock where we booked into La Borne Ensoleillée.
Showered, saved, washed my socks and then wrote up my diary before heading down to the bar for a glass of wine. It rained quite heavily whilst we showered but it had stopped by the time I got downstairs. Strange dinner! First course consisted of some mussels (about three), a nice piece of white fish together with tinned carrots, French beans, cauliflower and broccoli with garlic mayonnaise. Followed by cheese and then ice cream and coffee. Washed down with a bottle of rosé and a carafe of red wine. Total cost of dinner, bed and breakfast including wine and beers was €125 each.
France GR5 Day 20 – Saturday 4th September 2010
La Chalp (5,728ft) to Ceillac (5,377ft)
Ascent 4,280ft; Descent 4625ft; 15 miles
Up at 7am in time for breakfast at 7.30am. Left the hotel at about 8.30am and up a
steepish climb and then a gentle contour walk around to Les Maisons (5,554ft). We then lost the correct path (it wasn’t signed and we looked carefully) and headed up the hillside eventually finding where the GR path crossed the track. Headed up the path and soon reached the Lac de Roue (6,070ft).
Had a short rest before crossing into some trees and then descending to Chateau-Queyras (4,541ft). A short walk on a narrow mountain road (slightly dangerous) brought us into the town and a strategically placed café where we all had a coca cola and coffee. Also bought some provisions.
We left Chateau-Queyras at about 11.30am (it had only taken the guide time of three hours from La Chalp and that included stops and getting lost). We had quite a long and hard walk uphill to firstly Le Pré Premier (5,775ft) which we reached at about 12.30pm. Patsy was finding the climb up quite hard but nevertheless our times weren’t slow. Stopped just short of Fontaine Rouge for lunch.
Then headed up past Fontaine Rouge (6,970ft) and then a steep ascent before we reached level ground and quite an easy walk past the old gypsum pits and the Ravin de Ruine Blanche before reaching the Col Fromage. It was 4 o’clock by the time that we reached the col and 5 o’clock before I reached the first bar in Ceillac. The others followed over the next twenty minutes or so. We had a few beers and then went to find our hotel which we had booked the previous evening.
We arrived and organised another beer before going to our room for a shower, shave, change and sock wash. Down for dinner at around 7.30pm. Dinner started with a very nice salad – a salade paysan, followed by a fantastic rabbit stew and then a tarte framboise all with a bottle of red wine and finished off with coffee. Patsy and Jeremy had some trouble paying their half of the bill as the only person serving more than a dozen people at dinner and doing everything else was rather slow if not that old. Eventually they succeeded and we had a Genepi at the bar before going to bed.
France GR5 Day 21 – Sunday 5th September 2010
Ceillac (5,377ft) to Fouillouse (6,257ft)
Ascent 4,537ft; Descent 3,660ft; 17 miles
Up at 6.40am and quickly dressed in order to go downstairs to say goodbye to Jeremy and Patsy who were catching the Navette at 7.15am in order to meet a train connection and collect their car from Villard St Pancrace (near Briancon) before driving to their home in the south of France. Back to my room to pack and down for breakfast at 7.30am when Michael got back from the bus stop having bought some bread.
Started off walking at around 8.30am. Both of us feeling fit and with the sun beckoning. We crossed the river after the camping site at Les Moutits and before reaching the Pied du Mélézet (5,545ft) and not before the camping site as stated in the guide. We were at the Lac Miroir (7,264ft) by about 10.45am (less than the guide) and after a short break continued on. We reached the Lac St Anne (7,923ft) at about 11.30am where we stopped briefly and headed up towards the Col Girardin (8,878ft) stopping to take some photographs of the lake with reflections of the mountains. It took us less than an hour to reach the top. We met the American couple (Luke and Ronda) from Sacremento CA on the top, who told us that the refuge at Maljasset had closed for renovations on 31st August and also the Maison d’hote was closed and the Gite d’Etape was full! They were going to catch a sherpa bus from Maljassett to Fouillouse where the Gite d’Etape had some spaces. Michael and I decided that we would walk it and asked then if they would book us into the Gite saying that we would arrive before 6pm.
We decided to delay lunch and set off from the top of Col Girardin almost immediately but held up by a guided party of walkers some of whom were a little slow and elderly. As we passed them, their guide pointed out some chamois on the crêtes to our right which we quickly saw very clearly in our binoculars. We continued downhill until we reached the junction of the paths to La Barge and Maljasset where we stopped for a quick lunch only taking 15 minutes rather then our normal 30 minutes.
I reached La Barge (6,150ft) before 2.45pm followed a little later by Michael. We both stopped to fill our water bottles at a village fountain. We started off on what the book said would be a 2hr 45min walk agreeing to stop every hour. It was mainly downhill or rather it was as far as the junction of the road St Paul/Fouillouse (5,330ft). It was all on road and the only time we tried to follow the instructions in the book to walk off the road, the path disappeared. I had reached the Pont Chatelet by 4.30pm more than 15 minutes ahead of guide time. Michael was a few minutes behind. Just beyond the bridge the GR5 left the road but we agreed that we would stick to the road after our last experience ending up climbing through juniper bushes and scrub.
I continued on up the road which was by now quite steep with several hair pin bends reaching the Gite d’Etape Les Granges at Fouillouse (6,257ft) at 5.10pm. Meeting Luke and Ronda and sitting on a delightful veranda in the sunshine, I ordered a large beer. Michael failed to appear until almost 5.55pm, he had decided (stupidly) to take the GR5 path which was not only longer but we didn’t know where he was.
Anyway he was safe and we ordered two small beers and sat in the sun resting our feet and chatting to Luke and Ronda. We then showered, shaved, washed some clothes and changed for dinner. Very nice dinner of soup, beef stew with rice and then cheese and an apple tart. Red wine, coffee and a Genepi before a well earned sleep. Total cost for beer, dinner, bed and breakfast including wine was €49 each.
The evening before after Michael had arrived at the Auberge, the waiter asked us if we were Michael and Richard and on being told yes, passed us a postcard from Sibylle. She had passed through Fouillouse (the day before or so).
France GR5 Day 22 – Monday 6th September 2010
Fouillouse (6,257f) to Larche (5,512ft)
Ascent 2,913ft; Descent 3,755ft; 10 miles
Up at 7 o’clock, dressed and packed for breakfast at 7.30am. I had found a small blister on my right heel on Saturday night so I started using moleskin on Sunday and again on Monday – not getting any worse so hopefully it will survive until our rest day on Tuesday.
Started walking at 8.30am with a pleasant and easy going track up past the ruins of Fort de Plate Lombarde where we stopped briefly and then continued up to the Col du Valonnet (8268ft) which we reached at about 10.30am. One lone girl at the col but we had seen no one else all morning. We then continued on across bouldery sheep-grazed moraine towards the Col de Mallemort passing quite a large guided party heading up towards the Col du Vallonet.
A climb up an old military track to the ruined Baraquements de Viraysse and then a few zig-zags to reach the Col de Mallemort (8,392ft) which we did about midday. As Michael reached the col, we saw about six vultures glide past the col from the Tête de Viraysse and also a lot of Choughs. We were also joined by a cyclist who had been staying at Fouillouse and he had apparently started off with two companions crossing the Alps by bicycle from Slovenia – making a film which accounted for the Gallic moustache!
Headed down a steep path for an hour before stopping for lunch at a path junction where both Michael and I took off our shirts and lay back in the sun whilst our usual lunch of bread, saucisson, cheese and chocolate. Passed by the French cyclist who headed off towards Saint Ours. The grassy surrounds had many Alpine Saffron (very similar to Autumn Crocus) which we had seen quite often over the previous two weeks.
Headed back down a relatively easy path although occasionally steep as we descended to Larche. We arrived about 2pm to find the hotel closed so we headed up to the Gîte
Auberge du Lauzanier where we booked in for two nights and had a very welcome beer. I then changed and walked back down to the town centre having ascertained that there were no shops. Found the office of the Parc National de Mercantour closed all week – meant to be helpful about accommodation etc. Found someone at the Marie next door who said the Refuge de Bousieyas should be open on Wednesday – not very helpful! In fact the Topoguide says should be open (fully guarded) until 15th September and has 16 places.
Met Luke and Ronda walking into Larche. They had pre-booked the hotel but it was still closed so they went up to our Gîte Auberge for a beer where they were joined by a French climber who they had met on the way down, I also joined them for another beer.
Went up for a shower, shave and washed some clothes (socks and my shorts). Went back down to the centre of Larche where the hotel had opened but found the other hotel (one star) completely shut up – maybe closed out of the skiing season but looked a little derelict. Back to our room to tidy up and down for dinner at about 7.15pm. Excellent meal of a very good melon with Jambon sec, followed by chicken and ravioli with a very tasty sauce and finished off with a Creme Brûlée. Had a pichet of rosé (not brilliant) and a pichet of red wine (quite good) and then a coffee and bed.
France GR5 Day 23 – Tuesday 7th September 2010
Rest day in Larche
Up at about 7am. I had rained for most of the night as forecast and we heard at breakfast that it would continue raining for three days. Had breakfast at around 7.30am and we wrote up our diaries. At 11.30am, Michael and I donned our waterproofs and walked up the road to the camping site which was only about 10 minutes away.
We bought some saucisson, cheese and dried fruit and ordered some bread and pain au chocolat for tomorrow morning. We then walked for another 15 minutes up the road on the route of the GR5 and returned for the camping site for lunch. We had omelettes, lardon for me and champignon for Michael plus a green salad, a tomato salad plus a 50ml pichet of red wine. Total cost €7 each.
Returned to the Auberge where I had an hour's sleep and read my book. Then showered and shaved and down for supper at 7.30pm. An excellent tart to start, leek, cheese and onion, followed by a lamb shank and ratatouille and then myrtle tart. All with a litre of red wine and then two Genepi each (on the house). So to bed sometime after 9 o’clock where I read for a short while. It cost us €122 each for the two nights including beer, dinner, bed, breakfast and wine.
France GR5 Day 24 – Wednesday 8th September 2010
Larche (5,512ft) to Bousieyas (6,178ft)
Ascent 4,070ft; Descent 3,395ft; 13 miles
Up at 7.10am, dressed and packed and down to breakfast at 7.30am. Left the Auberge at about 8.10am and called in to collect our bread and pain au chocolat at the camping site. I had put on full waterproofs mainly for warmth as although it had been raining at 6am, it had now stopped but was still cloudy. Continued up the tarmac until we reached a car park at the Pont Rouge after about an hour.
I had taken off my waterproof trousers after about 30 minutes but kept my anorak on until it had warmed up a little more. We had seen fresh snow on the mountain tops as we had also seen from the Auberge.
We reached Pont Rouge (6,257ft) and the entrance to the Parc National du Mercantour and continued up the path through the Vallon Fourane with a beautiful river. The ascent was slow and easy going until we reached the bottom of the waterfall where we stopped for some chocolate at around 10.15am. Then a fairly steep but relatively easy ascent to the Lac du Lauzanier (7,493ft) which we reached around 11 o’clock. We saw some workmen repairing the path in several places on the way up and also saw several vultures, some on the ground which I attempted to photograph.
Then up past the Lac de Derrière la Croix and up to the Pas de la Cavale (8,763ft) which both Michael and I reached about 12.30pm. The Swiss couple also caught us up again. Saw nine vultures glide across the col while we were at the top. We didn’t stay long at the col because of the cold wind and did the worst of the decent before stopping for lunch at around 1.15pm. Lay in the sun behind a large rock to keep out of the wind. .
Set off again around 1.45pm continuing down before starting a further ascent which we reached at about 3 o’clock. Had a short rest lying in the sun. Reached Bousieyas at around 3.30pm where we checked in and then sat in the sun drinking a couple of beers before having a shower and washing etc. Dinner started with a dish containing fresh melon, tomato salad and two pieces of toast one with a spread plus tomato slices, the second with a spread plus a slice of cheese. I thought the spreads were a type of pate but as the Gîte was reputed to be vegetarian. Then followed a rice cake (cooked like an omelette) together with petit pois and a dish of carrots, courgettes and olives. This with a couple of 500ml pichets of wine followed by cheese and a dessert (can’t remember what) and coffee. To bed shortly after 9 o’clock and read for a short while. Dinner bed and breakfast including beer and wine was €52 each.
France GR5 Day 25 – Thursday 9th September 2010
Bousieyas (6,178ft) to Auron (5,255ft)
Ascent 4,150ft; Descent 5,035ft; 16 miles
Up at 6.30am, packed and ready for breakfast at 7 o’clock and left the Gîte at around 7.40am, wearing hat and gloves. A short climb up through the forest before we had reached a grassy gap at 6,965 feet and then continued the climb to the Col de la Colombière (7,339ft) which we reached about 9.20am. We continued on the path downhill to St Dalmas le Salvage (4,920ft) where we arrived at about 10.45am to find the bar/restaurant closed but the shop open and it served coffee.
After or leisurely coffee we continued our walk up to the Col d’Anelle (5,705ft) which we reached shortly after midday and then descended quickly into St Étienne de Tinée
(3,753ft). Both Michael and I were at this point almost out of cash so the first point of call was a bank. We bumped into Luke (the American) briefly – they had caught a taxi again – mind you he and Ronda had been walking since mid May and had done most of the GR5 from its start in Holland. We decided to stay and have lunch and found a small restaurant which happened to be right beside the GR5 in the centre of town. Had a beer and then a glass of rosé with an omelette and shared a mixed salad with Michael.
Set off again at about 2 o’clock to climb past a chapel at St Maur (3,935ft) and then a longish climb up towards Auron. It started raining around 3 o’clock which got heavier as we climbed. Stopped to put on the plastic cape (a gift from Patsy) and continued upwards. Stopped short of the high point (5,580ft) above Auron and took shelter under a fir tree to await Michael with thunder and heavy rain. Then down into Auron (5,255ft) in the heavy rain to find almost all of the hotels closed.
However, we found one open, rather old fashioned but it had a bath. Having had a bath, shaved and washed some clothes, I went to the Brasserie for a couple of beers – still raining. Michael joined me and we went up to the Casino (supermarket) where we bought some provisions.
Back to the Brasserie for another beer and dinner. Limited menu with starters at over €15 so had a steak followed by a banana split. Michael had duck followed by a citron ice cream. Coffee and a very good bottle of claret. Back to the hotel and so to bed. Dinner was €84 for two and the hotel was also €84 for bed and breakfast.
France GR5 Day 26 – Friday 10th September 2010
Auron (5,255ft) to Refuge de Longon (6,178ft)
Ascent 5,890ft; Descent 4,790ft; 19 miles
Up at 5.30am, packed and at breakfast by 6am including hot croissant. The proprietor had got up himself to serve us. On the road by 6.30am but still dark and we lost about 30 minutes finding the right path. Badly signed but probably the dark which confused us. Well on our way by 7.30am up towards the Col du Blainon (6,608ft) which we reached by 8.30am.
Off down to Roya (4920ft) which we reached about 9.30am to find the Swiss couple
(Marianne and Urke) having a coffee but the patron had left three mutes earlier so we missed out but rested for about 15 minutes or more and ate some chocolate. Left Roya at about 10 o’clock and headed up towards the Cabane de Salleville (6,414ft) which we reached about 11.30am, Michael a little later. Two shepherds were living at the Cabane with a large flock of sheep and some goats. They had four collies and at least one Pastous sheep dog. Rather incongruously they were using their mobile phones whilst we sat and rested.
Then on up to the Col de Crousette (8,136ft) and we stopped for lunch just short of the col at about 1.15pm and had about 30 minutes rest. Then continued up to the col which we reached about 2 o’clock i.e. 2½ hours after leaving the Cabane de Salleville. Then climbed again for 15-20 minutes to the monument at La Stèle Valette – a monument to a 2nd
Lieutenant killed in January 1936 whilst on ski reconnaissance. Then a long but
sometimes very easy walk down to the Col de Refuge where we had a short rest and then on past the Col des Moulines (6,499ft). Continued on down to the Démant Torrent (5,940ft) before climbing steeply from the Vallon de la Gorgette up to the Portes de
On reaching the top, we had a beautiful level walk on grassy terrain – menaced slightly by a Pastous sheep dog as I passed a shepherd’s hut. Reached the Refuge de Longon at about 5.40pm where I had a beer before Michael arrived. The Swiss couple had kindly booked us into the Refuge but there was plenty of room but no hot water so didn’t shower!
It had been a long day almost 11 hours on the road and a total of 19 miles, but while I felt alright I think Michael was a little tired. Started dinner in the room next to the kitchen finishing a beer once the sun had gone down. Helped light the fire and were offered a bottle of rosé between eight of us plus an appetiser made (we think) of chick peas.
Moved into the main dining area (no fire!) to have pizza followed by beef stew with
dauphinoise potatoes all served with red wine. Then cheese and yoghurt. There were two women and a (?) husband running the refuge plus three young children – one of school age who normally spent the week in the valley. One of the women looked after a herd of cows and some sheep. So to bed, used a sleeping bag as just blankets. Slept well.Total cost including beer, dinner, bed and breakfast was €41 each.
France GR5 Day 27 – Saturday 11th September 2010
Refuge de Longon (6,178ft) to St Dalmas (4,232ft)
Ascent 3,545ft; Descent 5,495ft; 17 miles
Up at 6.30am, packed and ready for breakfast at 7 o’clock and left the refuge at 7.40am, quite cold and wore my anorak, warm hat and gloves to begin with. Reached Rougios (4,813ft) at about 8.30am after a steep descent. Stopped briefly shortly before Rougios and then continued on a long but almost level track and then another descent to Roure (3,596ft).
Nowhere open in Roure for coffee so continued steeply down a good mule track to reach St Saveur sur Tinée (1,627ft) and stopped at a bar where we met Francois where we had a beer and a pastry. Then up a steep slope to reach the Chapelle St Roch and then a long winding track up to Rimplas (3,333ft) with only about three GR5 signs (or waymarks) in 90 minutes. Found a small but super bar where we stopped for a beer at about 1 o’clock.
Walked down a hot and exposed path and found some shelter under a fir tree where we stopped for lunch finished off with the remains of the heavy pastry that Michael had bought in St Saveur sur Tinée. Then a steepish ascent up a shaded mule track before reaching the edge of La Bolline. – no bars within reach and having waited for Michael at the Lycée we continued up to La Roche (3,675ft) to find the bar/restaurant also closed.
So we climbed up a hot track with little shade to reach St Dalmas at about 4.15pm. I had a beer whilst waiting for Michael and another when he arrived. We walked up to the hotel for a bath and shave to await Pam and Susie who arrived at about 5.45pm.
France GR5 Day 28 – Sunday 12th September 2010
Rest day in St Dalmas
Had a lazy day but had to drive to the nearest bank in St Martin de Vesubie to get cash. Then went up to Rimplas around 12.30pm and managed to park but only just. We found the little bar/restaurant that Michael and I had stopped at the previous day. We sat in the sunshine drinking beer and wine and eating our lunch. Spent the afternoon reading and were joined by some friends for tea.
They also joined us for dinner of soup followed by chicken and potatoes and then a Tarte Corse (Corsican tart), all with carafes of rosé and red wine. Coffee and then to bed about 9 o’clock.
France GR5 Day 29 – Monday 13th September 2010
St Dalmas (4,232ft) to Le Boreon (4,840ft)
Ascent 4,760ft; Descent 4,150ft; 1,325 miles
Up at around 6.30am, packed and at breakfast by 7am. Said goodbye to Pam and then Susie drove us both down to the Boulangerie and the start of the GR52 to Menton. Bought some bread and then started steeply uphill at about 7.45am. It was quite a steep climb up to the Plan de la Gourra (6,070ft) but luckily we were in shade al of the way. We reached the path junction at about 9.15/30am slightly over guide time having had a least one rest on the way up.
Photographed Rimplas from above the Plan de la Gourra. Continued up to the Col de Veillos (7,198ft) which we reached at about 10.30am, well under guide-time. Stopped briefly before heading up to the Col du Barn (8,045ft) which was a relatively easy climb even though we had climbed some 3,800 feet in four hours. I reached the Col around
11.45 am. We had a very pleasant walk down towards the Vacherie du Collet walking through sparse pine forest with juniper and bilberry. Stopped at a footbridge over a stream at 1 o’clock just short of the Vacherie for lunch. Weather looked a little threatening with clouds building up so we didn’t wait around and headed on down to the Vacherie du Collet (6,043ft) and then up an easy track to Col de Salèse (6,663ft) which we reached around 2pm. Then a pleasant track down to Parking de Salèse (5,480ft) which we reached at about 2.45/3.00pm. Then on down to Boréon, the last bit a little boring being on the main tarmac road. I arrived at the Hotel Le Boréon at about 4pm – it wasn’t going to open until 5 o’clock. We had established when telephoning the previous evening that the Gîte d’Etape was closed.
Waited for Michael beside the Hotel Le Cavalet which was closed so no beer, until about 4.25pm when he eventually arrived. Walked down to the Hotel Le Boréon which was just opening up, a little early so we checked into our room and went up for a couple of beers before having an excellent shower, shave and also washed my socks. Then wrote up my diary until 6.30pm. It had rained quite hard in the valley below but luckily not at Le Boréon. The reservoir dam was undergoing major refurbishment work and had been drained.
Dinner at 7.30pm with a starter of tomato, mozzarella and jambon sec followed by lamb, mashed potato with garlic and courgettes with a 500ml pichet of red wine, followed by tarte myrtle and then coffee. So to bed about 9 o’clock and slept very well except for getting an itch – was it the myrtles? Total cost for beers, dinner, bed and breakfast was €81 each.
France GR5 Day 30 – Tuesday 14th September 2010
Le Boreon (4,840ft) to Refuge de Nice (7,323ft)
Ascent 5,955ft; Descent 3,480ft; 11 miles
Up at 7.15am, ready and packed for breakfast at 7.45am with croissant, pain au chocolat and Danish pastries. Away at 8.30am, retracing our steps for a short while to walk past the Gîte d’Etape (still closed). The walk was very pleasant for the first couple of hours climbing up through a sparsely forested area similar to that we had experienced the previous afternoon. We reached the Lac de Trécolpas at around 11.00am and rested briefly.
Then on up to the Pas de Ladres (8,030ft) which was a relatively easy ascent. Then on down for an hour to reach La Modane de Fenestre (6,243ft) at about 1.15pm where we stopped for a beer before stopping for lunch about 15 minutes on route to pas du Mont Colomb. A lot of cars at Modane de Fenestre and it was obviously popular with day walkers.
We started off again at about 2.20pm and then climbed steeply for over 2½ hours to reach the Pas du Mont Colomb (8,360ft) at about 5pm. It took far longer, about 3½ hours from Modane de Fenestre than the book which said 2½ hours taking into account the time we spent having lunch. The path was very difficult crossing boulders and scree and late lying snow. We did, however, see and photograph several Chamois on the ascent. Then followed an even more difficult descent sometimes almost vertical to La Barme. Much of the path was over large boulders and both difficult to walk and find the way. It took me over an hour to reach La Barme (7,055ft) so only 1305 feet in total whereas the book said 45 minutes when I nearly always walked quicker downhill than the guide time. It took Michael nearly 80 minutes to get down.
Thereafter it was a relatively easy walk to the Refuge de Nice although by this time, we were very tired. Again the time in the book was way out, taking at least 30 minutes compared with the book’s 20 minutes. Anyway I arrived at the refuge at about 6.30pm to book us in for demipension and ordered two beers. I drank my beer whilst waiting for Michael who arrived about 6.50pm. More Chamois below the Refuge.
Dinner was at 7pm, so no time for anything other than to dump our bags in our room and finish our beers. Excellent dinner of soup followed by rice and beef casserole, cheese and tinned fruit salad plus tow pichets (500ml) of red wine. Michael had a second beer. Then two coffees and off to bed around 9pm.
Slept well except for a French lady who had arrived at the Refuge in the dark during dinner who was sleeping next to me and snored quite loudly. Total cost fore beer, dinner, bed, breakfast and wine was €52 each.
France GR5 Day 31 – Wednesday 15th September 2010
Refuge de Nice (7,323ft) to Refuge de Merveilles (6,990ft)
Ascent 2,250ft; Descent 2,575ft; 6.5 miles
Up at 7m, packed and ready for breakfast at 7.30am and left the Refuge at about 8am with a walk up to Lac Niré (7,720ft) and then the Baisse du Basto (8,835ft) which we reached at around 9.50am. Quite a steep climb over bouldery ground but at least we were rested after a good night’s sleep. Fabulous sunny day (as was Tuesday) with not a cloud in the sky. Saw and photographed some Bouquetin (Ibex) on the slopes of the Col using a lot of digital zoom. Rested briefly waiting for Michael and then set off again after a good 15-20 minutes rest.
A steepish descent but the path was much better than that below the Col du Mont Colomb. Reached the bottom at about 11.30am and more Chamois, father, mother, yearling and a young calf. Waited about ten minutes for Michael and then set off up a relatively easy but sometimes steep path to the Baisse de Valmasque (8,363ft) which I reached about midday and Michael not long after.
Had a short rest before descending into the Vallée des Merveilles and stopped for lunch at around 1 o’clock – hungry for shade. Our bread was very hard (it was three days old). Started off again at about 1.30pm and reached the Refuge shortly after 2pm. Had a couple of beers. Michael and I then wrote up diaries and washed some socks and put them out in the sun to dry. We couldn’t get into the dormitory until 5 o’clock so went up behind the Refuge and lay in the sun for an hour.
Had very good dinner, at least three bowls of soup but can’t remember what we had for the main course but as usual something substantial washed don with red wine.
France GR5 Day 32 – Thursday 16th September 2010
Refuge des Merveilles (6,990ft) to Sospel (1,150ft)
Ascent 2,690ft; Descent 8,530ft; 19 miles
Set off early in the morning having had breakfast left out for us the night before. We got away at about 7am just after sunrise and were over the Pas du Diable (7,972ft) by 8 o’clock.
We walked down a gentle and sometimes contouring grassy slope seeing a number of Chamois on the way. Then a gentle climb across the Baisse Cavaline (6,913ft) and across the slopes of Col de Raus (6,558ft) and a gentle downhill traverse to the Baisse de St Veran (6,024ft). We stopped just beyond the Baisse de St Veran at about 10 o’clock and took some photographs looking back to the Pas du Diable.
We then climbed on a track up towards the old Redoute de la Pointe de Trois Communes at L’Authion (6,825ft) which we reached around 11 o’clock. It was at this point that we discovered that the true GR5 had been diverted to Baisse de Camp d’Argent where signs indicated that there was refuge or gîte.
However our day was already planned as 8hrs 45 mins walking so we had no wish to make a long detour so we used the instructions in the guide book but had no waymarkings as these had all been removed.
It was wasn’t particularly difficult finding the right path as much of it was on a road and then track, so it was just a matter of ensuring one took the correct turns off the road and onto the right track. We continued on to Baisse de Ventebren (6,109ft) losing height gradually. Then past Cime de la Gonella and past Mangiabo where the waymarking was distinctly poor and we weren’t certain of the correct path but managed to find a well worn track which turned out to be correct.
It was after this walking on a level traverse through some forest near Baisse de la Linière (4,403ft) that we came across some old gun barrels which had obviously been left after the 1939-45 War. There were a lot of butterflies especially on the wild lavender which was becoming more prevalent the nearer we got to the Mediterranean. After that it was downhill all of the way past Baisse de Figuièra (2,460ft) to Sospel at (1,150ft). When we reached Baisse de Figuièra, I went ahead to find accommodation in Sospel leaving Michael to follow at his own pace. Found a very pleasant but small hotel in Sospel opposite the Vieux Pont run by an English lady and her ex Rugby league playing husband. I met Michael at a bar in a little square opposite the Vieux Pont. They didn’t do dinner but had an arrangement with another hotel where we had a very enjoyable dinner. We had a good hot shower and a penultimate sock wash!
France GR5 Day 33 – Friday 17th September 2010
Sospel (1,150ft) to Garavan/Menton (0ft)
Ascent 3,840ft; Descent 4,990ft; 12.5 miles
It had rained quite heavily during the night and the roads and vegetation were wet which made the first few hours rather damp as water was dripping from all the trees and grass and I spent the time with my walking poles ahead of me, knocking water of the vegetation. We got our first glimpse of the Mediterranean when we reached Colla Bassa (3,632ft) at about 10.40am.
Here at last the sun shone briefly but before we set off after a brief rest, the clouds rolled up from the valley below. Thinking it would be cold in the clouds, we donned anoraks but after a few minutes walking, we realised that we were walking in a sauna and quickly removed or anoraks. On up to the highest point of the day at the Col du Berceau (3,575ft) where we had lunch on terraces covered in wild flowers. Then on down into Garavan on the last leg of our journey.
The path down from the Col wasn’t particularly easy being steep and the path covered in loose rocks and gravel, furthermore we were walking in cloud for most of the time. We arrived at the sea just before 4.30pm for a well-earned beer whilst we waited for Pam and Susie to collect us.
Name: Christopher MacRae
Posted on: 10/07/2013
This great account of walking the GR5 has kindly been sent into us by Christopher MacRae; some pictures accompanying his account have been added to the walk gallery.
A Long Stroll through the French Alps: the GR5 Trail at 74
This project started off as something altogether different: another “short walk in the Hindu Kush”. Towards the end of 2010, I felt that in the next year I should put together another trek in the Hindu Kush. I’d organised one there in 2000, along the Pakistani side of the frontier with Afghanistan and round the corner south of the Wakhan Corridor; and had persuaded six of my friends to come with me. It had been an amazing experience, in very remote mountain areas seldom visited by outsiders, sometimes at well over 4,000m. Since I was now about to turn 74, unless I repeated some variant of this trek now, I might never be able be able to do so again. But on second thoughts, this was obviously a mad idea: for in the intervening decade, the security situation there had greatly deteriorated, and I didn’t want to put at risk the lives of anyone who came with me.
So what equivalent challenge could I think of among mountains closer at hand? Suddenly the GR5 from Lac Leman to Nice (also known as La Grande Traversée des Alpes, GTA) sprang to mind. I had been invited to join for a few days a former colleague (Michael Thompson, then also 74) and his brother-in-law (Dick Everard) when they did this long walk in 2010, but I hadn’t been free to do so. They, however, had completed it and were enthusiastic about the experience.
Was I still up to this physical challenge? The entire GR5/GTA is a long walk of at least 620 kms with over 30,000m of climb and descent including about 50 cols of which half are over 2000m, and a dozen more over 1900m. So although in summer it presents no technical difficulties, it is clearly not for the inexperienced or faint-hearted. At once I borrowed a copy of Paddy Dillon’s first-rate Guide to the GR5 Trail, and read it through carefully. Yes: given that I could still run marathons and walked a lot in hills, at first sight it looked feasible. My next step was to contact Michael and Dick to seek their advice and comments. They were extremely generous with their time in answering all my questions. I soon concluded that I was up for this adventure.
Next, I wrote out a short note on how I proposed to structure the walk. This was not in the slightest original: basically, I followed Dillon’s general approach, modified by what Michael and Dick had told me. Nevertheless, there were choices to be made. As Dillon notes, “the GR5 is not just a linear walk, but bristles with alternatives”. The first is where to start from Lac Leman: St. Gingolphe (on the Franco-Swiss border) or Thonon-les-Bains? The first route is more direct but climbs straight up into the mountains; the second allows for gentler acclimatisation, but takes a day longer. Then, where to end the walk: at Nice or Menton? The GR52 to Menton is generally considered more beautiful than the route to Nice but also takes an extra day. In both cases, I chose the more direct alternative. Equally, from Valezan/Landry after the first nine days of walking, I proposed to take the GR55 to Modane, which is not only shorter but also higher and through wilder country. The same went for the section from Névache to Briançon where the high-level alternative (GR5C) is more spectacular, if slightly longer. I decided to divide the walk into four sections of roughly a week, with a rest day at the end of each (i.e. three in all), planning for these days off to be on a week-day in a place where we could stock up with provisions (although in fact, there were almost no facilities at Larche for Rest Day 3). This resulted in a walk of 27 days (or in fact 25 full days, with two half-days at the beginning and end), plus 3 rest days, i.e. lasting 30 days in all. Had I been 40 or 50 years younger, I would no doubt have dispensed with all this planning and just taken each day as it came; but at my present age, I wanted no surprises.
Timing was the next thing to settle. I decided to go for exactly the date on which Michael and Dick had started their walk a year earlier, 16 August (a Tuesday), having accepted their logic that the pressure on accommodation then would be less than in July or the first half of August, while the weather was usually quite good. In any case, this fitted with the dates of our daughters and their families who would as usual be spending their summer holidays with us in Provence. Since Monday 15 August was a public holiday in France, I chose to start next day.
If necessary, I reckoned I could complete this trail on my own. I certainly didn’t want to do it in a big group which, apart from anything else, would greatly complicate the logistics. But it would be much more pleasurable to have a walking-companion with whom to share this experience. In any case, at my age it was all too easy to trip over and have an accident: so common sense suggested it would be safer to walk with one or two other friends. I asked Steve Stuart (husband of my cousin Liz, ten years younger than me and an experienced mountaineer and hill-walker with whom I had trekked to Concordia in the Karakoram) if he would join me. He accepted at once. Later, Liz agreed to join us for the first six days. Also, my French friends Michèle and Jean-Yves Chambon who live in the village next to ours in Provence (also fellow-trekkers in the Karakoram and Hindu Kush), decided to join us for the five days between Modane and Ceillac, during the third week.
With all that settled, the next thing to think about was accommodation. Steve was keen to bivouac wherever possible; but I saw no point at all in carrying extra gear when there were refuges (mountain huts) and gites d’etape available all the way along the trail. Liz was not keen on camping either. So I spent some time working out where we could stay, and decided to book ahead for the first eight days of the walk, on the grounds that this would still be in the holiday season as well as being near or on the popular Tour de Mont Blanc trail. I would also reserve for our second rest day (at Modane). Apart from that, since we could always be blown off course by bad weather or an accident, I would try to book only two to four days ahead by phone. With one notable exception, this worked. Steve managed to bivouac nine times.
I needn’t record my physical preparations, except to note that since I live almost at the foot of Mt. Ventoux (1910m), it was easy for me to work out there: I climbed to the summit seven times in the two months before setting off for the GR5. As for my kit, I carried an old rucksack I’d had for years. When fully packed, this weighed about 12 kgs, plus the water I carried (2.75 ltrs each day, which weighs about 2 ½ kgs). My one extravagance was a tub of 1 kg of sports energy-drink powder which I mixed with water to drink every evening; there was enough to last two weeks and the Chambons brought me a replacement at half-time.
Short notes on each day of the walk follow in the “Carnet de Route” below. I didn’t take a camera with me, so am extremely grateful to Liz and Steve Stuart, as well as Michele and Jean-Yves, who took the pictures (Steve most of all).
Carnet de Route.
NB: the numbering of the days refers only to walking days; rest days are not counted. The estimated distances, climbs and descents (mostly taken from Dillon) are just that: rough estimates only. I soon learned to be sceptical about taking them too literally. Moreover several of our days did not follow the routine set out in Dillon, going further, less far, or somewhere else altogether. I’ve left these estimates in nevertheless just to give a very general idea of what each day involved. By a “high col”, I mean over 2,000m; but there were also at least a dozen others over 1900m. The names of the places where we stayed are in bold italics.
SECTION 1: ST. GINGOLPHE TO LES HOUCHES.
Day 1, Tu 16 Aug: arrival, and St Gingolph to Novel. [Estimated at only about 4 kms in distance, but with 600m of climb.] The Stuarts and I had agreed to meet at St. Gingolph in the early afternoon: they were coming from Britain by air to Geneva and then by train to St. Gingolph, whilst I was arriving by train and bus from Avignon. My friend Chris Prendergast picked me up at 05.15 and drove me to the TGV station. Glimpses from the train of a dramatic sunrise over Mt. Ventoux with streaks of shocking-pink vapour trails. Pretty ride in the slow train through the hills between Lyon and Thonon-les-Bains. Bus on to St. Gingolph. Clear blue sky, with white clouds sailing over Lac Leman. Ate my picnic lunch and wandered round this border-village until the Stuarts’ train pulled in a couple of hours later. We strolled down to the lakeside for foot-dipping and ritual photographs; ate a leisurely snack in a Swiss cafe; then, after crossing the invisible border into France, started trudging up the hill to Novel. A straightforward climb mostly on roads and tracks, which took about the predicted hour-and-a-half despite a tiny navigational error near the beginning. Arrived soon after 17.00 to be warmly greeted by our hosts, Alain and Claudine Debens (he a retired senior librarian in Montpellier, she a former Montessori teacher) at their gite/chambres d’hotes, Le Franco-Suisse. Hearty dinner of sausages and potato, with plenty of good red wine from Languedoc. Novel, an attractive hamlet, hanging from the steep forested hillsides above the lake at about 950m, also boasts a hotel-restaurant and a boulangerie.
Day 2, Wed 17 Aug: Novel to Chapelle d’Abondance. [Estimated at about 15 kms; about1200mclimb; 1225m descent; two cols.] Rose by 06.30; breakfast at 07.00; and we meant to be off by 08.00 – the rhythm we were to follow, more or less, for the next month – except that in this case our departure was delayed by 15 minutes because of the surprise arrival of Stefan Meister (see below) who dropped in unexpectedly for breakfast, followed by long farewells to the charming Debens couple... A perfect blue sky; soon became quite hot. Occasional glimpses of Lac Leman behind us.
A long, stiff climb up, mostly through pastures and woods, to our first col, the Col de Bise (1950m) for a preliminary glimpse of the high mountains ahead. Stopped for a snack. Steep, but pleasant descent to a grassy valley where we discovered why we’d been seeing so many families with small kids: there is access by road to the Chalets de Bise with their refuge and small restaurant... We didn’t stop, however, but started toiling up the hillside above, again quite steep, to the next col, the Pas de la Bosse (1816m) where we stopped to eat our picnic of baguette and pâté as we admired the view. Reached Chapelle d’Abondance, a large village at about 1,000m down in the valley, by 15.00. It must be a busy little family ski-station in winter. Settled into the Gite au Gai Soleil, quite a large place catering mainly for skiers, where the only other person staying was the ubiquitous Stefan, a Swiss train-driver from Zurich whom we’d already met several times earlier today. Explored the village before sitting down in a cafe to drink a panaché (shandy), as we gazed over the meadows to a stream in lovely evening sunlight. Excellent, copious meal – the wife of Denis Miliet, the owner, turned out to be from Alsace and served an Alsatian dish of pork, potatoes, leeks etc., plus a salad from her garden and heaps of Abondance cheese. A relief to have found this first proper day of our walk quite easy, since Michael Thompson had described it as having left him “shattered”: I now felt confident that, barring accidents, I would be able to complete the GR5 without difficulty.
Day 3, Thurs 18 Aug: Chapelle d’Abondance to Refuge du Lac de Chésery. [Est. 21 kms; 1495m climb, 545m descent; three cols]. A copious breakfast too! Set off at 08.15. Still mainly clear sky and already warm. Another pleasant day’s walk, if with rather more ups and downs than I’d imagined, as we went up and round a bulky mountain, the Mont de Grange; but not too hard. Started along the Abondance valley before crossing the river and turning uphill through woods and occasional pastures. Sometimes steep. Stopped for our picnic with brew-up somewhere beyond Col des Mattes (1930 m) surrounded by a herd of Abondance cows with their brown “spectacles”. Later stopped for a panaché at the Col de Bessechaux, surrounded this time by downhill mountain-bikers – also with spectacles!.... A rather boring track for a while after that, with (for my taste anyway) too many day-trippers who’d got up there by chair-lift. But once past that, and near the Col de Chésery on the Swiss border, we were almost on our own again. We reached this small, simple refuge (Refuge du Lac de Chésery) at about 17.00. It lies just over the (invisible) border in Switzerland, beside a small lake (Lac Vert). Being at 1972m, I’d expected it to be quite cold – and so it was.....
Cramped dortoir, mountain-hut style. Paid extra for a hot shower. Watched the 850 sheep belonging to the tenant farmer running the refuge, being herded expertly around the hill opposite by four sheepdogs (smaller that pastous). A good dinner of lamb cutlets (3 each!) made from their own sheep, with pasta and carrots; and we treated ourselves to a carafe of red wine. The girls who served us excused the fact that their prices had gone up because of the current sharp rise of the Swiss franc against the Euro – it was indeed a bit pricey for what it offered. Magical night-time mountain scene, with stars twinkling above the lake.
Day 4, Fri 19 Aug: Chésery to Salvagny. [Est. 32 kms (?); climb 750m; desc. c.1800m (?) – see below; 3 cols.] I had originally planned to stay at Samoëns. But Michael and Dick had found it hard to locate anywhere at all there, and the obvious place (Gite de Moulins) was already full when I’d tried to book in mid-May! So I’d decided to reserve instead at Salvagny, just beyond Sixt Fer-à-Cheval - which turned out to be the best part of two hours walk beyond Samoëns. In addition, Dillon had made an error in his estimations for this day: it cannot possibly include only 194m of descent since Chesery is at 1972m and Samoëns at 703m! (Maybe it’s a typo, and the correct figure is 1940m?). Anyway, I had underestimated the difficulty. As a result, this turned out to be our longest day; and for me at least the most tiring – not helped by the fact that the weather was rather too hot for comfort; and the descent into Samoëns long, tedious, and often on tarmac. We started off well, with a fine sunrise over the Lac Vert, as we walked gently up to the col of the Portes de l’Hiver (2,096m – the first time we’d been higher than 2,000m) with its great ski-slopes below. Then a long traverse on a track across to the Col de Coux (1920m), our first stop for a snack – just beyond the (still-invisible) border and back into France. Great views ahead to the Dent Blanche and Dents de Midi etc. On, down and up again, to the Col de la Golèse (1662m): another stop for our rather basic picnic. So far, so good. On the way down, however, the path became first a dirt track, and then a road leading through a forest, going on and on. We stopped to look at Les Allemands, a picturesque hamlet. But this was all taking much longer than expected. At last we trudged into the outskirts of Samoëns, bypassing the centre, and again picked up the GR5 which now turned left along the Giffre torrent. Perfectly pleasant walking through trees beside the river: but I for one was beginning to feel I’d had enough. Then came the Gorges de Tines (and I must confess that I’d failed to do my homework properly, since I’d expected this stretch to be next day – as it would have been had we stayed in Samoëns). It involved climbing up several near-vertical iron ladders, as well as scrambling down a steep rocky path down and back to the river near Salvagny. Quite an obstacle-race – that would
Day 5, Sat 20 Aug: Salvagny to Moëde d’Anterne. [Est. 20 kms; climb 1800m; descent 550m; 1 high col.] A perfect day’s walk in perfect weather – and because we had walked so far yesterday, agreeably easy. Started up through forest, past the spectacular Cascade de la Sauffaz. Eventually reached the famous Refuge Sir Alfred Wills, founded by a well known 19th-century British climber and President of The Alpine Club, lying below the massive, imposing cliffs of the Rochers de Fiz and Pointe d’Anterne. There we sat down to enjoy a “proper lunch” – i.e. a warm cheese dish provided by the refuge, able to admire at our leisure this amazing, wild mountain scenery. Blissful! Then off we set again to climb up to the Col d’Anterne (2257m) with a first, fantastic view of Mt. Blanc, right opposite us. We could also see the Refuge de Moëde Anterne far below us – down a steep stony descent. We arrived in good time to find that Stefan was, inevitably, there before us; he and I then sat together on the terrace outside for a while, downing a couple of beers as we gazed over Le Brévent towards the magnificent panorama of the Mont Blanc massif with its famous peaks. An awesome sight for ageing mountaineers like Steve and me, bringing back memories of climbs long ago! This large, classic refuge, evidently much patronised by walkers starting from the Chamonix area, has been owned by the same family (Didier) since 1906, I think; and is still run with an iron fist by the elderly matriarch who must have been in charge for decades. What an institution! When she came into the crowded dining room to announce the weather forecast, and to point out various peaks and routes to newcomers, she was greeted by the regular clients with a round of applause! Despite its size, the refuge was very full, and we shared our dorm with half a dozen earnest, middle-aged French walkers: a good thing I’d booked three months in advance!
Day 6, Sun 21 Aug: Moëde d’Anterne to Les Houches. [Est. 22 kms; 1000m climb; 1990 descent; 1 high col]. Although we started off earlier than usual, this was another fairly long day – though again an excellent one. Mostly round, up, along and down a large, ungainly mountain, Le Brévent, right opposite Mt. Blanc. First down into a steep wooded valley. Then up and up and up to the Col du Brévent (2368m), before scrambling to the summit (2525m) – serviced, alas, by a télépherique, thus swarming with trippers. But this couldn’t take anything away from the breathtaking views of Mt. Blanc and all the surrounding peaks rising from the Chamonix valley below our feet. Incredible! Dozens of parapents in gay colours floated and soared over the void between us and Mt. Blanc. The visibility could not have been better. This view was so stunning that we decided to have lunch (offered by Liz to celebrate completing her first-ever 6-day walk) at the restaurant under thetélépherique station, where we could continue to gaze at that amazing scene before us.
The route down wasn’t quite as easy as it had seemed from up there. It started along a rocky ridge, before dipping down to traverse a long stony slope. Further down came a “jim-jam moment” for Liz where the airy path passed under a cliff equipped with iron handrails as it curved round a torrent-bed. Then into a forest and past a huge, hideous concrete statue of Christ-Roi, before finishing down in the valley close to Les Houches. We didn’t reach the Chalet-Refuge Michel Fagot until 18.30; but my choice (found via the Web) suited our needs well. It was a very relaxed sort of self-service gite, run by the amiable Olivier Chambon – originally a school set up and run by a Belgian priest. We had a 4-bed dorm to ourselves, as well as the run of the well-equipped kitchen and living/dining room. Right next door there was an excellent bakery; and two steps further on, a small supermarket. The Stuarts at once went shopping; and Liz made us a delicious roast chicken, couscous and salad dinner.
First Rest Day, Mon 22 Aug: Les Houches. Got up relatively late. With such a good bakery next door, breakfast was bound to be delicious. Lazed around before Steve and I accompanied Liz in the (free) bus to Chamonix where she was catching her train to Geneva (then home to England by air). Sad farewells. After we’d seen the train off, we wandered round Chamonix for a while (too fashionable and touristy by far for scruffy long-distance trekkers like us!) and ate a snack before catching a bus - still free, back to Les Houches. Or so we thought: in fact, it was heading to the other end of the valley (past Argentière) first! However, that didn’t matter to us; on the contrary, since we were simply filling in time, we thus had an interesting ride along the entire valley.
That evening, we had to cook dinner for ourselves. I persuaded Steve to sample my favourite stand-by: a tin of good old cassoulet washed down with some decent red wine! Time to chat to Olivier (originally a Parisian who, largely by accident, had been running this place for nine years), and to other people staying who included two Belgian teams about to compete in “Le Petit Trot de Léon”, part of a week of long-distance races round Mt. Blanc. This one was being done in teams of two or three runners; it was 300 kms long; included 25,000m of climb/descent; and had to be completed in 138 hours! Sleeping, eating, etc was up to the competitors who were allowed to catch some sleep in refuges/gites if they wanted, or bivouac, or whatever. At half a dozen check points, teams who were not keeping up would be eliminated. “Our” two teams called themselves “La Guinche Céleste” (i.e. the star constellation “The Dancer”) – who finished the course; and “Les Pieds Nickelés” (“Nickel” being a slang adjective used in France to denote excellence) – who didn’t. We watched the entire field run through Les Houches at about 23.00, in the dark and wearing head-torches, having started the race at Chamonix an hour earlier in a rainstorm.... Mad! Oh yes: I should also mention that the first touch of bad weather occurred this evening: a thunderstorm which lasted four or five hours, with some quite heavy rain. Since it was our rest-day, however, we didn’t mind in the slightest; and by next morning it was but a distant memory.
SECTION 2: LES HOUCHES TO MODANE.
Day 7, Tu 23 Aug: Les Houches to Refuge de Nant Borrant. [Est. 24 kms (?); climb 1800m; 1300m descent; 1 col, 1 high col, plus an uphill finish.] The few low clouds left by the storm soon cleared away to leave another largely fine day – if anything still a little too warm for comfort. For the second time, I had decided to make this day’s walk slightly longer than originally planned, since I hadn’t been attracted by the accommodation I found on offer at Les Contamines/Montjoie when I researched on the Web; instead, we would continue up to the Refuge de Nant Borrant. I had also decided, weather permitting, to take the high-level variant of the walk . We set off later than usual (c. 08.45) after another big breakfast – and were almost at once about to make a minor navigational error on the way out of Les Houches before being saved by a young Good Samaritan who noticed our mistake after only a few metres off-course and set us right. Up steeply through pastures, woods, sometimes past chalets or under ski-lifts. After almost two hours, reached the Col de Voza(1650m) with its large hotel at the top of another ski-lift, and cogwheel train up Mt. Blanc. Fine views back to where we’d been earlier on: Le Brévent, the Col d’Anterne, etc.; and ahead to the western flanks of Mt. Blanc. Traversed slightly downhill to pass close under the snout of the Bionassay Glacier and cross its torrent over a swaying suspension bridge. Then uphill again to theCol de Tricot (2120m) where we stopped for our picnic. Slowly down again about 1000m to Les Contamines, a small touristy town which we didn’t much take to – so were glad to continue on, at first through a large wooded area devoted to holiday sports, campsites and chalets (maybe the “Montjoie” part?), then up along an old Roman stone-paved road beside the river - always a strategic route. Reached the Refuge Nant Borrant some time after 17.00. Picturesque old chalet dating from the 1840s and always belonging to the Mattel family (present owner Patricia Mattel). Shared a dorm with a youngish Dutch couple, he a medical instrument engineer/designer, she a kidney dialysis specialist. Delicious dinner included vegetable soup, mutton, potatoes, plenty of local cheese, etc.
Day 8, Wed 24 Aug: Nant Borrant to Plan de la Lai. [Est. about 18 kms; 1200 m climb, 825 descent; 2 high cols.] Another brilliant day’s walk ! Fine weather but a bit cooler. Fabulous views; and the day a bit shorter than I had expected since we had done an extra few kms yesterday. Started by climbing gently up again through pastures and some woods until the scenery became wilder in schist and shaley mountains. Final slog up the Col du Bonhomme (2329m) which marks the boundary between Haute Savoie, and Savoie – quite a landmark for us: first department passed, four to go! Then came the airy Crête des Gittes, the highlight of the day. We ate our plentiful picnic (provided by the refuge) half way along: splendid views back to Mt. Blanc and forward to the peaks of the Vanoise. On to the Col de la Sauce (2307m), then gradually down. Reached theRefuge du Plan de la Lai early (14.30) which allowed us to wash our clothes properly, etc. A Club Alpin Français (CAF) refuge, not at all bad; Steve had decided to bivouac for the first time, just behind. We witnessed the end of a cycle race (a two-day event) as it swept past on the way to the Col du Petit Bernard. Meanwhile, among others staying at the gite were three Brits in their 30s/40s (from Cambridge, Northampton and somewhere in N. Yorks; all working with IT, and one a professor of computing) who were doing the GR5 on mountain bikes! (Or rather, approximately doing it, since in some places – including the Vanoise National Park they were about to enter, they weren’t allowed to ride their bikes at all.) We met them again next day carrying their highly specialised bikes over the first col...... Also staying were a two “parapenters” from Lyon with their wives; plus the inevitable retired Dutch couple filling in bits of the GR5 they hadn’t completed in the past, starting from Rotterdam! Another good dinner including chicken in a morille sauce.
Day 9, Thurs 25 Aug: Plan de la Lai to Valezan. [ Est. 26 kms; 1075 climb; 2120 descent; one high col.] Another really excellent day’s walk in fine weather: not too hard (PD’s warning of this being the muddiest part of the GR simply didn’t apply) with magnificent mountain scenery, including glimpses of the beautiful Lac de Roselend A gradual climb up to the Col de Bresson (2469m), ending in a rugged ascent. More great views. On for an hour, dropping some 400m down to theRefuge de la Balme where we stopped for lunch (plus the traditional panaché!), in perfect weather. Bliss again! Then on down towards Valézan. Steve decided to camp for a second time and chose a suitable place beside a small stream in a meadow about 1 km above the village. I went on and found the Auberge-Gite Le Valézan quite easily, below the church. It turned out to be quite a large, efficient and spotlessly clean place, owned by the commune but run by an engaging couple, Boukar (originally from Niger) and his wife Anne-Laure. They have three lively young daughters , the youngest of whom kept turning cartwheels on the terrace. Beautiful views across the Isère valley below. No one much else staying except for six young Parisians with whom I shared the dorm: in their late 20s/early 30s and apparently the product of some Grandes Ecoles, who were doing a week’s walk in the area. Excellent dinner of a gésier salad to start with, then an ample dish of poulet-aux-écrevisses, followed by a myrtle tart. Discussed West African politics with Boukar for a long time. I was at last able to ring Mette after a couple of days when my mobile had shown no signal.
Day 10, Fri 26 Aug: Valézan to Refuge d’Entre-le-Lac. [Est. c. 20 kms; 1950m climb ; 205m descent (I don’t believe it! Surely a lot more...) ; no real cols, just uphill much of the way......] Steve turned up at the Auberge just before 0800 hrs as planned. We plunged down into the Isère valley towards Bellentre (some minor navigational problems). No need to go into Landry; so we took the more direct, steep climb up the other side to the gentrified little ski-village of Montchavin where we stopped to buy food for a picnic and eat a snack. We lost our way getting out again (much building development going on), but lost little time. Up into larch woods, along a pleasant track, before a sudden – and unwelcome – sharp descent to Moulin. Soon up again into the Parc National du Vanoise. Thereafter a steady, pleasant climb to the Refuge d’Entre-le-Lac, up at 2155m, beside the Lac de la Plagne, set in wild mountains. It is owned by the commune of Landry; and as we arrived, the current gérant Jean (a ski-instructor in winter) was just finishing milking the two cows. It turned out that these were lent to the refuge in summer in return for occasional free lodging for the cow-herd, a sensible swap. Or was the real gérant his mate, Jean-François, of whom we saw less? Or the girl-friend of one of them who also hovered in the background? The building was, as Michael Thompson and Dick Everard had told us, unusual: a large old sheep-shelter which had been rescued from ruin and restored 24 years earlier by some local who liked to go fishing in the lake. Long and built on a distinct slope (to get rid of the sheep excrement....). Two other walkers were staying: Roef (sp?) a bearded Dutch philosopher-turned-NGO-accountant who was another one filling in bits of the E2/GR5 from Rotterdam; and a shy young man from Nantes. Soon after we arrived, it started to rain lightly – and apparently continued to do so all night. Strong wind too. So we huddled indoors until dinner was served: vegetable soup followed by blanquette de veau plus rice and veg, then a cream-and-jam desert. Followed by a free genapi offered by Jean who stayed to chat. There was a primitive hot shower in an outhouse which both Steve and I used. But a major drawback of the refuge was the smelly squat-loo next to the shower-room – even less inviting when one had to tramp out into the cold, wet, windy, muddy night to reach it. Nevertheless, slept like a log as usual.
Day 11, Sat 27 Aug: Refuge d’Entre-le-Lac to Refuge d’Entre-Deux-Eaux. [Est. 27 kms; 1205 climb; 1240m descent; three high cols.] The light rain during the night had turned to snowy sleet, and at dawn a light white-ish layer was still lying, although by then it had stopped snowing, when we set off next morning up to the Col de Palet (2652m). There we found a smart, modern refuge, complete with clean, modern sanitary fixtures! Steve availed himself of these since his stomach was badly upset all day – which he put down to badly prepared food the evening before. By then, and for the next half-hour, the “snow” had started falling intermittently in the form of tiny frozen balls, which melted almost at once. But by the time we had got down through all the ski-runs to the outskirts of Val Claret, it had eased. Val Claret is a modern sort of suburb of Tignes: horrid, like all big ski-stations out of season! We had no hesitation at this point about quitting the GR5 for the GR55 to avoid any more of the same! Skirted Val Claret to the west, and climbed as fast as possible up the other side to escape this unwelcome intrusion of “civilisation”! To start with, still in very light “snowfall”; but this soon stopped, giving way to quite pleasant, cooler weather, with the cloud only a little lower than for the last few days. Increasingly dramatic scenery as we approached the Col de Fresse (2531m) and then the bleak Col de la Leisse (2758m). Down the other side for an hour-and-a-half to the high Refuge de la Leisse where we stopped for a sandwich andpanaché served by two youngsters running the place. Then on down into the Leisse valley and the heart of the Vanoise – more magnificent mountain scenery. At a fine old stone bridge, turned off from the GR55 for nearly half an hour to reach the Refuge d’Entre-Deux-Eaux (2120m), a pleasant and quite simple place run by the same family (Burdin) for over a century. Almost completely full. Good meal: vegetable soup to start with as usual; then a slice of lamb plus rice and veg; followed by local cheese and a desert. We sat next to three women from Paris on a walking holiday. It soon became cold and actually froze overnight outside.
Day 12, Sun 28 Aug: Refuge d’Entre Deux Eaux to Refuge du Roc de la Pêche. [Est.24 kms ; climb 950m ; descent 1750m ; one high col.] Another terrific day’s walking through wonderful scenery. Up quite early – still freezing outside, but fine and clear. Retraced our steps to the stone bridge before climbing up into more wild, dramatic country; then as the slope eased, past some small lakes. Beside one of them we spotted one lone chamois. Gently up to the Col de la Vanoise (with its large CAF refuge Edgar Faure – rather ugly, but no doubt a great place from which to explore these imposing mountains). Then down the other side, past the beetling cliffs of the Auguille de la Vanois to the Lac des Vaches, where the water was so low we scarcely had to use the rock-slab stepping-stones. As we drew nearer to the little town of Pralognan with its modest ski-station, started meeting Sunday walkers out for a stroll. Reached the shops just in time for Steve, who’d walked ahead, to buy a baguette and some pâté which we munched sitting in the shade on a bench beside the (closed) mairie. We set off again uphill, now changing direction to head south, to reach the Refuge du Roc de Pêche (1911m), a large, modern, comfortable place, more like a hotel than a refuge, and certainly the grandest we’d encountered so far. It had been another warm day, so we soon downed two panachés each. A good dinner which included four different types of sausage each served on a skewer, and a crème brulée. Sat next to the lady with who we were sharing our 4-person dorm (Mme Belhomme) and a lively family from Dijon (mum, dad, and two small boys Thomas and Matthieu, with whom we had a hilarious conversation in Frenglish).
Day 13, Mon 29 Aug: Refuge du Roc de la Pêche to Modane. [Est. 21 kms ; 950m climb ; 1750m descent ; 1 high col.] Another great day. After a more ample breakfast than usual, we started the climb up to the highest point on the whole trek: the Col de Chavière (2796m). Very fine weather still. At first quite a gentle gradient, getting steeper as it entered strange schist formations which included a “sculpture park” made by people who had piled the stones into weird shapes. A rugged, crumbly final ascent. The view from the col was simply incredible: backwards to the Mt. Blanc massif and forwards to the Barre des Ecrins, and closer by to Mt. Thabor etc on the other side of the Arc valley
Second Rest Day, Tu 30 Aug: Modane. Got up late (08.30...) Heavy dew overnight, and chilly until the sunlight reached our little clearing. Michèle and Jean-Yves Chambon arrived at 11.00 to discuss plans about how they would join us tomorrow for the next five days. After they left and before we started our domestic chores (i.e. washing our clothes etc), Steve and I decided to locate and follow the GR5 from the centre of Modane to Notre Dame de Charmaix, a pilgrim site far above us. The reason was that the Chambons’ friend, Martine, was proposing to give us all a lift tomorrow morning right up to this point, some 400m up-hill; and we did not want to miss out any part whatever of the GR5, however short. It turned out to be time well spent since the route was not easy to find, and quite tedious: so we were spared that next morning. Later we went down to Casino one last time to stock up for dinner and the days ahead. Still no-one else sharing my “palace”, thank goodness. And hurrah! We’d reached just about the half-way point of our walk without problem.....
SECTION 3: MODANE TO LARCHE.
Day 14, Wed 31 Aug: Modane to Refuge de Mont Thabor. [Est. at only about 13 kms, since some already done yesterday; 1200m of climb; 50m of descent; 1 high col.] The Chambons arrived as planned at 0900 (we weren’t in a hurry because yesterday Steve and I had already done more than the first hour). They drove us up to just before Notre Dame de Charmaix where, in a change of plan, they left their car to be picked up by their friends before it was driven on to Ceillac. As a result, it turned out to be quite a short day, and we reached the Refuge du Mt. Thabor by 13.30; in fact we ate our picnic lunch there. The weather started well, but the sky clouded over somewhat in the afternoon. The fine Sanctuaire Notre Dame du Charmais is perched on a cliff beside a torrent crossed at this point by a stone bridge. It took a good hour and a half more climbing to reach Le Lavoir – where most local walkers going up to Mt Thabor or beyond, leave their cars (les feignants– see below!) After that, it was easy climbing up to the Col de la Vallee Etroite (2434m) where we didn’t linger since we’d be passing by again next day. The CAF Refuge de Mont Thabor (at 2502m, the highest place we stayed overnight) may have been enlarged and improved in the last year, for it seemed a much better-equipped place than that described by Michael Thompson and Dick Everard.
We were given a dorm by ourselves (although it could have slept 8). I promptly benefited by taking a siesta after lunch, the only time I did so during the whole month! The others went on walks of varying lengths - Steve climbed right up to the ridge above to get an idea of the whole Mt. Thabor massif; when I woke up, I followed suit though only as far as the first two lakes above the refuge, to glimpse this savage scenery. A very different clientele from last night: quite a number of serious climbers and walkers were staying at this refuge. Despite its remote location, an excellent 5-course dinner (vegetable soup, cabbage salad, sausages and rice, local cheese, desert) was served by a couple of energetic young women. Steve bivouacked for the fourth night – during which two separate thunderstorms broke, with some heavy rain. He survived.....
Day 15, Thurs 1 Sept: Refuge de Mont Thabor to Refuge Buffère. [Difficult to estimate, since our route was not listed in Dillon or Topoguide: maybe about 27 kms, with over 1000m of climb and 1500m of descent; two high cols.] Yet another outstanding day. We departed from the planned route along the GR5, which would have ended in Névache. This was first because when Michèle Chambon (who had undertaken to do this part of the booking ahead for accommodation) had rung the Auberge les Melezets near Le Cros, it was already full. The Chambons had then thought that anyway, a better alternative might be to stay at the Refuge Buffère, some way up the valley above Névache, which they had visited in winter only a few months earlier. I had agreed, not least because we already planned to taking the higher, more sporting GR5C route on to Briançon the day after, rather than the GR5 further east: so this fitted well. Once that decision had been taken, it then made good sense not to follow the GR5 all the way down the steep-sided Vallée Etroite towards Névache, only to have to turn west and climb all the way up again, but instead to take an entirely different route: the GR57A. This little-used path over the Col du Vallon west of the Valleé Etroite, was for some reason not even mentioned by either Dillon or the Topoguide. It passes through much wilder, remote country with far finer views. Started walking in cloudy but by now dry weather, crossing the Col de la Vallée Etroite again, and then on down for about 30 minutes on the GR5. Then turned right (west), and climbed a long way uphill, often quite steeply, following a small but fairly well-marked path to the Col du Vallon (2645m). Then gradually down, past the pretty Lac Blanc bounded by rocky crags. Met no one. Picnic very much on our own. Near the bottom of the valley above Névache, we might have taken a variant of the GR57A to take us further above Névache and thus spare us some trudging along a tarmac road: but later we learned it was in any case closed for now because of a landslide. The final steep haul up to Refuge Buffère(at 2076m) was mercifully fairly short! Arrived at c. 16.30. Another excellent private refuge, which was almost full with a group of 22 hikers from Gap. Steve again bivouacked, while the Chambons and I shared an amusing little up-and-down dorm. Rather a noisy supper; but good food again, with pork stew cooked in ginger with rice, as the main course.
Day 16, Fri 2 Sept: Refuge Buffère to Briançon. [ Again difficult to estimate since part of this route as not even shown as a path on the TOP25 map! But maybe about 25 kms; 1000m climb; 1825m descent; 4 high cols plus an airy ridge-walk.] At the risk of repetition, another really excellent day’s walk. Some scattered cloud later; but good visibility and dry throughout. We started off rather adventurously. Having consulted the owner of the refuge, instead of taking the obvious route to connect up with the GR5C south of Briancon (which would have been to take a GR Pays “la côte rouge” with yellow marks, contouring eastwards round the hillside in a forest), we climbed up the well-marked GR57 track northwards for about 20 minutes. Then came the interesting part! Following the advice we’d been given, we plunged off eastwards into boggy ground without any path at all. Nor was there any sign of one on the TOP25 map we’d glanced at in the refuge. The ground soon sloped up towards an obvious rocky ridge (l’Echaillon, at about 2600m I guess) which we reached in about 40 minutes, leading towards a peak above the Porte de Christol – this is clearly an area well-known in winter for raquette and cross-country skiing. We walked southwards along this ridge for a while until we reached the remains of some concrete bunkers (Italian? French? From WW2?), searching for some way down to the Porte de Cristol, a col at 2453m and the GR5C which we could see below us. Eventually we scrambled safely down a tiny exposed path– only to find we were now not only back on the GR5C trail but also on some sort of hikers’ highway: for three large guided groups of day-walkers were plodding up from the Briançon direction! We hurried off along a former military track which wound diagonally eastwards to the Col de Granon (2413m), and later the Col de Barteux (2380m). Now came the major challenge of the day: the steep and rugged limestone ridge of the Crêtes des Peyrolles which is several kms long, mostly over 2000m. The first peak, the Croix de la Cime is at 2606m; and the Serre des Aigles at the other end is still at 2567m. Amazing views in all directions: down to Briançon far below, to the Ecrins towards the west; and right at our feet on the other side, the Val Clarée (written about with such passion by Emilie Carles in Soupe aux Herbes Sauvages). We ate our picnic in this extraordinary place. Getting down from the ridge was quite a sustained scramble and in some places rather exposed. Eventually we reached a more ordinary sort of path that turned first into a track then a small tarmac road. Briançon lay below us, we were walking fast, so we must soon be there – or so we thought. But at this point we made a navigational error – the only significant one during the whole month’s walk: for we missed a turning to the left (south) down to the old part of town with its famous Vauban fortifications. By the time we realised this and fortunately found a track lower down leading to the same place (where we rejoined the GR5 at last), we had lost perhaps half an hour. Annoying, but not a disaster, though this made it rather a long day. Moreover, we found that where we were staying was right at the bottom of the long main street leading downhill from the fort to the commercial town-centre. But what good choice! The Hotel de la Chaussée, turned out to be an old-fashioned family hostelry, owned by the same family for a century, and apparently recently restored. After a long, luxurious bath, we were served a delicious dinner too, in an amusingly decorated dining room. The menu at E23 provided fantastic value for money, with canard aux griottes; and the Chambons offered a 2005 Corbières red which slipped down extremely easily!
Day 17, Sat 3 Sept: Briançon to Bruinissard. [Est. 22 kms; 1426m climb; 860m descent ; 1 high col.] During the next two days, we encountered the only really poor weather during the whole trek. After a good breakfast, we bought fresh bread and charcuterie, and set off in cloudy weather. First diagonally up through woodland up one valley; then down through chalets and a village; then steadily up into a second valley further west, through prairies towards the Col des Ayes (2477m). Soon after noon, however, it started to rain, though not hard nor for long. So we put on our waterproof kit – which of course caused the rain to stop..., ate a rather hurried picnic by some rocks and started off again, trudging up towards the col which was by then well within sight. But it started to rain again. There was no sign of the rain letting up, so we covered up again and continued to the summit of the col, and over the top. By then soaked! Cloud now right down, so we could see rather little – a pity since the Col des Ayes is reputed to have particularly fine views. Down by a shaley path, then into larch woods. At last (in 7 hrs 15, minus breaks, rather than the 5hrs 30 predicted by PD – he must be wrong!) we reached Bruinissard, a largely new village meant for Nordic skiing in winter. The Gite d’Etape des Bons Enfants, a restored farm, was fine: so our morale soon restored. Not to be discouraged by some piffling rain, Steve bivouacked again nearby! Soon a group of eight French hikers plus guide arrived who told us they were doing the GR5 from Briançon to Menton. Aha! But how? With a Sherpa minibus, it transpired, which transported most of their luggage from one overnight stop to another, as well as taking them along any roads/tracks at the beginning and end of their day..... So although they proved friendly and good company, I privately called them “les Feignants” (the slackers) – totally unfair since they were simply taking a different kind of holiday to us masochists! The gite, run by an efficient lady, was full so it was just as well we’d reserved ahead. Another good meal which included lamb again as well as local cheese. I offered a litre of red wine to share between us four and a British couple at our table (Stuart and his wife from Bury, he a physics teacher for 30 years, she a retired primary school teacher).
Day 18, Sun 4 Sept: Brunissard to Ceillac. [Est. 25 kms; 1305m climb; 1410m descent ; 2 high cols.] Disappointing weather for our last day’s walk with the Chambons, in the heart of the Quéyras. It rained on and off, though only lightly, for much of the day; and the cloud was often quite low, hiding the fine views. We put on our waterproofs to start walking down the road to La Chalp, then struck off to the left along a path contouring round the wooded flank of a mountain. Eventually reached the Lac de Roue, hidden in forest. Then down towards the extraordinary Chateau-Quéyras, with its impressive old fort (reworked, inevitably, by Vauban!) guarding the strategic road along the narrow valley carved by the Guil torrent. No time for tourism, alas. Instead we pressed on and up the other side of the valley in forest again. Ate our ample packed lunch using the veranda of an uninhabited rustic chalet for protection. But the countryside was changing, for when we reached the Col des Prés-des-Fromage (2121m) we were still surrounded by trees, and the mountains and valleys ahead of us were still mainly covered by forest – much softer and less wild than what we’d left behind. By then the rain had stopped though there was still some cloud around. Turned left to contour along behind the mountain we had been climbing up, and over the top of strange, eroded rock formations (with gullies carved out of gypsum). Reached the Col Fromage (2301m), a grassy area with sweeping views over the two valleys it separated (Riou-Vert and Cristallin). From there it took only an hour and a quarter to descend to Ceillac, which we reached at about 16.00. We soon found the Auberge-Gites Les Baladins, quite a large, modern place probably mainly catering for ski-ers. The Chambons’ car had duly been left there too: all in order! The delicious dinner included a main course of veal served in cooked celery with potato fritters; the Chambons offered a nice bottle of Fitou red as a farewell. Earlier on, Michèle, Jean-Yves and I had wandered round the village: an odd mixture of a quaint, old, slightly dilapidated centre (with a highly original bell-tower over the 13th-century church) and a small modern family ski-resort. Bought myself a sturdy plastic mug, which I’d been lacking for mixing my energy-drink, at a sports shop. At 18.30, as visitors we unexpectedly found ourselves given a free glass (or two...) of rosé wine offered by the commune. This took place between the mairie and church – apparently a tradition on Sunday evening, a nice way of welcoming tourists. We discovered that a previous mayor, Philippe Lamour, had been the main pioneers of the GR5/GTA, created in 1971. (Why, I wondered, had not more been made of this 40th anniversary?)
Day 19, Mon 5 Sept: Ceillac to Maljasset. [Est. 17 kms; 1100m climb; 865m descent ; 1 high col.] Weather slightly hazy to start with, but soon became fine again. After farewells to the Chambons, Steve and I set off alone again, climbing gently up the Mélézet valley before a much steeper section brought us up to the beautiful Lac Miroir. Then up again into barer mountain country, mainly schist, until after another hour or so we reached the even more stunning Lac Ste Anne – bright blue among these severe, grey, rocky peaks. From there we had to zig-zag up a steep shale slope to the Col Girardin (2706m), one of the highest on the GR5, and the boundary between thedépartments of the Hautes Alpes, and the Alpes de Haute-Provence; also the frontier for the Parc Regional du Quéyras, which we now left. Fantastic views both forwards and back. Descent at first steep but then gave way to a good path through grassy pasture-land. We ate our picnic (provided by the auberge) enjoying the views from the hillside just after the GR5 had split from the path leading to Maljasset. The latter turned out to be no more than a hamlet down in the steep valley – but with three places to stay. I had preferred to reserve at the Auberge La Cure rather than the CAF refuge: and we were delighted by this choice. When we arrived (about 14.00) no one was around, so we just sat in the sunshine the garden with the river running past. Half an hour later, the owners appeared: Hubert and Klyte Longeron, an attractive young couple: she Australian, he a local whose parents had restored this old farmhouse, with their small daughter Aurelia (2 ½ years). Only three other people staying: an elderly couple from Essex (he a former Alpine climber), and a single man from northern France. A Marseillais who worked in the port there, popped in for meals (was he bivouacking, or in a camper-van?). Meanwhile, “les Feignants”, who were staying in the CAF refuge, looked in for a drink and chat – agreeing that we had the easily best deal over accommodation. Dined in an old, vaulted room downstairs that must originally have been a farm-cellar or barn. Hubert who had been a chef around the world, made us a tasty onion soup, followed by “allouettes sans têtes” (stuffed beef rolls) served with peas and shell-shaped pasta. We treated ourselves to some red wine...
Day 20, Tu 6 Sept: Maljasset to Larche. [Est. 27 kms ; climb 1170m ; descent 1395m ; 2 high cols.] Fine, clear weather all day. Had to start by plodding along the road towards St. Paul-sur-Ubaye for several kms – but this was enlivened by chatting to yet another Dutch couple gradually doing the long GR5 from Rotterdam in sections over several years. Turned off to cross the extraordinary old stone bridge le Pont de Châtelet, spanning a gorge between near-vertical cliffs, 108m (354ft) above the Ubaye river! Shortly after, we branched off the road at last, to climb steeply up through woods to reach the village of Fouillouse (where, we later learned, our friends “les Feignants” had been dropped by their Sherpa bus to start their walk.....).We passed over the two cols (Col de Vallonet (2520m) and the Col de Mallemort (2558m) in a strange lunar landscape, meeting a lone elderly Frenchman heading for another col. This is very close to the Italian border: so not surprisingly, the area contains many remains of military buildings, old barracks, forts, bunkers, and so forth. We ate our picnic, again provided by the auberge, somewhere between the two cols. From the second, we could see Larche down in the valley from quite a long distance away. During the often steep descent, sometimes stony, sometimes hummocky grass, we overtook “les Feignants”. Reached Larche at about 17.00: a small sleepy village near the col of the same name leading to Italy. TheGite-Auberge Le Lauzanier where I’d booked proved functional and clean rather than cosy, but perfectly fine for our needs. No one else seemed to be staying, though a few people did drop in for dinner. “les Feignants” also looked in for a drink and chat with us again, though this was the last we saw of them since they were not about to take a rest day as we were. A leek tart and cuisse de canard were on the menu that evening.
Third rest-day, Wednesday 7 Sept, Larche. Weather cloudy with sunny spells, and the temperature down to 22C. As Messrs Thompson and Everard had warned, although Larche features prominently on maps, it offers neither a cash-dispenser nor shops. Nothing, in fact, except a small hotel, the auberge where we were staying, the GTA Gite d’etape where “les Feignants” had stayed, and a campsite – plus a surprisingly well-arranged tourist information office which was quite helpful to me. The only minor exception was that the campsite about half a km beyond where we were staying did have a tiny “shop” with a very small amount of food as well as a little bread: so we stocked up there as best we might. The fact that the villages had been razed to the ground by the Nazis at the end of WW II didn’t quite explain the fact that the population seemed to be shrinking again now. So in a way, it was a curious place to take a rest day. But there was really no sensible alternative. In any case, the lounge of our auberge was equipped with a large TV screen: so we spent a good deal of the time watching tennis (Flushing Meadows) and golf – which was perfectly restful. Also, the signal for our mobile phones was strong, so I was able to ring the family. Otherwise, we lazed and snoozed, eating a primitive picnic-lunch gleaned from the campsite on the grass beside our lodgings, and virtuously washing our clothes. I also spent some time trying to tie down accommodation for those nights of our last week ahead which I’d not already booked; the two places where I could get only recorded messages were St. Dalmas-Valdeblore and Utelle (see below)..... Dinner included melon and smoked-ham as a starter, with chicken and polenta as the main dish. Our host, who seemed to run the place single-handed, and had been helpful over ringing Bousiéyas, offered us a genapi on the house.
SECTION 4: LARCHE TO NICE.
Day 21, Thursday 8 Sept: Larche to Bousiéyas. [Est. 21 kms; 1240m climb; 1035m descent; two high cols.] Another fine day – in terms of weather as well as the walk. Started gently up beside the river towards the Col de Larche, before turning right into the Réserve Naturelle du Lauzanier and on up towards the Pas de Cavale. Increasingly wild country – infested by marmottes since they are protected here. Past the pretty Lac de Lauzanier. A final tough haul yet again up a steep bouldery scree to the rocky and aptly-named Pas de Cavale (2428m), the fourth and last col marking a frontier between two départments, this time the Alpes de Haute-Provence and the Alpes Maratimes. The view ahead suggested that we were now really reaching the south – subtly different. A steep, tricky descent through ledges, boulders and stones until we reached meadows being grazed by sheep, in the Salso Moreno valley occupied by Spanish troops in the mid-18thcentury. We stopped beside a stone shelter for our picnic (and were soon overtaken by two young women – running, and later to become known to us as “les Lièvres” – see below). Then another climb, this time somewhat easier, to the second col, the Col des Fourches (2261m) with abandoned concrete fortifications on top. A little further on we passed through a whole abandoned barracks (Camp des Fourches) built in the 1890s on a commanding ridge to house Les Diables Bleus, French soldiers who patrolled the border with Italy. Rather spooky! Down the other side, first gently, then diagonally along the flank of the mountain, then steeply into Bousiéyas, a picturesque little hamlet whose few houses had wooden or tin roofs. As described by Michael Thompson, this refuge was indeed an extraordinary place! The Gite de Bousiéyas itself, containing the dining room and roadside café, was a modest building belonging to the commune of St. Etienne-de-Tinée. The dorm, however, was a large old farmhouse some 50m away and higher up, a fine old timber-frame structure on four floors, simply but tastefully furnished with objects reminiscent of its former vocation. Most atmospheric! I wasn’t clear if it belonged to the young lady running the outfit or not. She was Régine Brun, an original person. Another girl helped her prepare and serve dinner which, as we’d been warned, was strictly vegetarian but copious and delicious, including hummus, tapenade on toast, Lebanese-style tabbouleh, plenty of local cheese, etc etc. Memorable! Also at our table were two young women from Briançon, ski instructors in winter, who were walking from their home-town to Nice: we privately dubbed them “les Skieuses”.
Day 22, Friday 9 September: Bousiéyas to Roya. [Est. 33 kms (?); 1650m climb; 1535m descent; 3 cols, two of them high.] This was bound to be a tough day. For I decided that rather than stay at Auron, a modern ski-station, we would push on for over two hours more, over another high col, to reach Roya: so what was already going to be a long day would become even more so. We left as early as possible (about 07.30) only to remember some twenty minutes later that we’d forgotten to collect the picnics we’d ordered and paid for! Too bad: we could waste no time, so pressed on. Pleasant climb, gradually up through larch forests to open ground and on the Col de Colombière, at 2237m one of the highest left. Then down 700m uneventfully to the picturesque village of St. Delmas-le-Selvage, at 1500m said to be the highest village in Alpes Maratimes, where we found some bread and pâté to replace the lost picnic. On up the next climb, quite easy this time, to the Col d’Anelle (1739m), and down the other side to St.Etienne de Tinée an attractive little town near the head of the Tinée valley. By then it was shortly before noon, so Steve stopped at a bank to withdraw cash. We decided to stay right where we were to eat our baguette, sitting on a bench in the main square under a canopy, after we’d bought nearby the beer and lemonade needed to mix refreshing panachés. The colourful weekly street market was just drawing to a close, and the whole atmosphere of the place was cheerful and welcoming. We had to get on, however. Started along the road towards Auron which is perched on the side of the valley almost 500m higher up. After a while, we began to climb, persistently steeply, up the hillside, mostly in woods: tiring.... When at last we reached the outskirts of Auron, we knew at once we’d been right not to stay there: like most ski-stations of any size out of season, it looked hideous! Luckily, we’d been warned by Mike Thompson and Dick Everard that the GR5 marks were hard to find (not helped by all the building activity going on): so although we proceeded cautiously through the middle of town, and sometimes hesitated, in the end we avoided making any navigational errors. But there was still a long way to go, and a high col to cross! Up under several ski-lifts into interminable forest, emerging eventually at the Col de Blainon (2014m). The other side of the mountain (south-facing) was quite different with largely abandoned dry grassy sheep-pastures and bergeries taking the place of ski-slopes and trees. It seemed a long way contouring the hillsides down to Roya, another pretty little hamlet nestling in the valley far below, where we were soon installed in theGite d’Etape Ma Vielle Ecole. It had been rather a long day (we must have arrived at about 17.30), though with not a cloud in the sky: so we soon followed the example of some locals already installed on the terrace and downing beers – though in our case, it was two panachés apiece... Dorms rather cramped: there were six sleeping in ours (meant for eight) but there was still little space for our gear. Copious dinner, however, including filet de porc. Sat near two more young women from near Briançon (this time colleagues in the Briançon Tourist Office) who were running/walking from there to Menton and whom we’d already seen rushing past us the day before. We dubbed them “les Lièvres” (i.e. the Hares – you can guess who were “les Tortues”, the Tortoises!.....)
Day 23, Sat 10 Sept: Roya to Refuge de Longon. [Est. 22 kms; climb 1400m; descent 1000m ; 3 cols, one high.] Another very fine day although a few cumulo-nimbus clouds rolled in at about 17.00. Another very agreeable day’s walk too – and not too long since we’d had such a hard slog yesterday. Started with a slow, steady climb up to the Col de Crousette ( 2480m) This seemed to be the last really high point left – except that the path proceeded to traverse on up to a monument (Stèle de Valette) on the flank of Mt. Mounier, at 2587m! The GR5 still had a kick left in it... A pleasant path down, first through shale, then scanty grass, past a flock of goats and sheep. We picnicked at the Col des Moulines (a mere 1982m!), not far from “les Lièvres” who had set off from Roya earlier than us - but since they were running, they had soon overtaken us again...). Then pleasantly down an easy path towards the Portes de Longon, only to climb again, through weird limestone rock formations, up into a high plateau with grazing for both sheep and cattle. Gently down to the Refuge/Vacherie/Alpage de Longon, which we reached at about 14.30. As Michael Thompson and Dick Everard had told us, an extraordinary place: until fairly recently a real cow-shelter. Although now belonging to the commune of Rour, it is actually run by Manuel and Sandrine Rogeri who still apparently make their living mainly through their herd of cows and flock of sheep. The wife was away selling cheese down in the valley; but their three children helped serve dinner. Steve and I drank a beer (no lemonade left at the end of the season...), and chatted to the two pairs of young ladies from Briançon walking or running to the coast, “les Lièvres” and “les Skieuses” who had apparently never met before: it took two elderly Brits (plus the GR5) to effect an introduction..... The picnic tables outside where we sat were soon invaded not only by cows and sheep, but also by two donkeys, a horse, three grand white pastous and a couple of other dogs – quite a menagerie! Dinner was equally singular. It started with an appératif outside (although it was by now getting chilly) consisting of rose wine (lots!) and two tin trays of a local dish I’d never tasted before (socca?) consisting of a sort of pastry made of chick-peas and cut into ribbons on the tray: delicious! Then we all trooped indoors for a copious meal of soup, tartiflette, cheese and plenty of red wine. Slept well after that in the rough bunkhouse (mattresses on a wooden plank floor). Steve bivouacked nearby. Interesting that when I got up during the night for a call of nature, one of the pastous keeping guard over the sheep and cows, at once came barking up to me - although once it had identified me as non-threatening, it then wanted to be stroked. A favourite cow had been killed here by wolves only a few years ago, we learned. Moreover, a fortnight later Le Monde reported that over 60 sheep had recently been killed by a wolf pack in two separate attacks not very far away.
Day 24, Sun 11 Sept: Refuge de Longon to Saint-Dalmas-Valdeblore. [ Est 27 kms; 1080m climb; 1670m descent ; no real col, though you might say that Rimplas itself (1016m) constitutes one.] After things had gone so smoothly for over three weeks, this was the only day where we came unstuck! The weather was fine; and the walk started that way too. The descent from the Longon Vacherie down into the steep-sided valley of the Tinée was varied and interesting. We encountered “les Lièvres” several times, for by then one of them had twisted her ankle and was limping. My first- aid kit contained nothing she thought would help her. In Rour, a charming village hanging precariously to the steep-sided hillside above St Saveur-sur-Tinée, she tried soaking foot in the cool water of a fountain. Later, when we got down to St. Saveur, a surprising little town on the floor of the valley, we met “les Lièvres” and “les Skieuses” conferring together as Steve and I munched a snack in the main street, sitting beside another fountain. By then, the damaged ankle was so painful that “les Lièvres” had decided to hitch-hike on to Saint-Delmas, though we did encounter “les Skieuses” a couple more times – see below. The walk up from St. Saveur to Rimplas was along an old mule track through a forest, so the gradient was easy (not at all well-marked as the GR5, though we managed not to lose our way). But along the way we were buzzed and showered with dust by off-road motor bikers no doubt connected with the event being held in Saint Delmas all weekend. Stopped to picnic shortly after Rimplas, a perched village; “les Skieuses” overtook us again..... Then, frustratingly, the path plunged once more down into a valley (the main road would have been shorter and lost much less height!) and up the other side past, but not into, La Bolline, a village mainly consisting of modern chalets. Thoroughly tedious. By the time we finally reached Saint-Dalmas-Valdeblore (which seems somewhat schizophrenic as to whether it’s called “Saint Dalmas” [not “le Selvage.”....] or “Valdeblore”, I was beginning to get tired. Moreover, there was still uncertainty about accommodation. Two days earlier, I had at last been told over the phone that not only was the gite d’etape where I’d hoped to stay full, but so was the only chambres d’hotes as well as the only hotel-restaurant (where Messrs Thompson and Everard plus their wives had stayed last year). This was put down to the fact that a national motorbike competition of some sort had been held there over the week-end. As a last resort, a camp-site whose telephone number I found had agreed that Steve could bivouac there and they would lend me a tent and sleeping bag. Fine. Just before we trudged wearily into Saint-Delmas, Steve spotted a private camp-site called Camping à la Ferme. Forget it, I said: I’m sure I ‘phoned a municipal campsite. So we plodded on up through the village to the municipal site, at least 1 km further. It was full of caravans, and perfectly horrid! The manager was distinctly unhelpful too... So we decided that it must have been the first place after all, and plodded back again. Indeed it was; and the owners (M. et Mme Le Duff) were most welcoming. Steve put up his bivouac yet again, while even I managed to cope with my easy-to-erect tent. Things were looking up; but we still needed something to eat. We walked back into town. The only grocery had closed; the pizzeria/restaurant ditto; the cafe-bar would serve us no food; and we were told the only place to eat would be the hotel-restaurant at the top of the village near the municipal campsite. Back we went, only to be given a summary and admonitory brush-off (“Why didn’t you book?”). So back we went to the cafe-bar where the surly barman seemed loath even to serve us a panaché! But that is what we had to put up with for dinner, although Steve managed also to scrounge an ice cream and two small Mars bars .... Back at our tents, I found a bit of chocolate and an energy bar, whilst Steve cooked himself a pack of quick rice with cheese. He offered to share this but by then I'd lost interest in food. With that, we turned in. Problem: the inflatable mattress I’d been lent had a leak and deflated every 15 minutes: so I spent most of the night pumping it up again. After I’d mocked “Dosser Steve” for the last three weeks for his camping tendencies, it was game, set and match to him! Valdeblore, I should note, means “Vale of Tears”. Very appropriate, we felt: in our book, it deserved a black mark as a most inhospitable place, containing – with the honourable exception of the Le Duffs who ran our campsite, the only unhelpful people we encountered at all during our whole journey. Thank goodness we hadn’t been tempted to take an extra rest-day there!
Day 25, Mon 12 Sept: Saint-Dalmas-Valdeblore to Utelle. [ Est. Est. 29 kms; climb 1055m ; descent 1525m ; 8 cols! - 3 of them over 1900m]. Campsites in France don’t provide breakfast (any more than they do loo-paper!) – and we had no food left, so were keen to get going. At 08.05, the mini-supermarket of the “Vale of Tears” still seemed reluctant to serve us. However, we bought enough food to get through the day, and set off up the hillside until, after about half an hour, we reached a picnic table in the woods where we could at last sit down to a spartan breakfast of bread, jam – and water. Better than nothing! Thereafter things improved: the weather was fine and the route soon became splendid. Before we had finished munching our baguette, we were overtaken by a large party of middle-aged day-walkers (no doubt the very dastards who had booked all the available places at the Gite d’Etape last night!.....). They were already showing signs of flagging and we quickly sprinted past them as they puffed uphill. Eventually we reached the Col du Varaires (1710m), still in the forest; and later the Col des Deux Caïres (1921m) from which there was a fine view ahead of the Mercantour country. Since there was a phone signal there, I anxiously tried to ring the Utelle gite d’etape yet again, since the Hotel de la Madonne d’Utelle perched high above the village was already booked up; but still got only a recorded message.... Thereafter followed a most enjoyable walk, along a high path leading under several ridges, yet over 2000m for the last time. La Baisse de la Combe was the next col (1910m), followed by the Collet des Trous (1982m). Thereafter, it was mainly downhill and through woods, before reaching the Col d’Andrion after almost 2 kms on tarmac. We decided not to stop for our picnic there (though would have been wise to have topped up with cool water from a spring) –“les Skieuses” whom we hadn’t seen for two days, were eating their picnic there and chatting to a German walker who had come all the way from Trieste and was aiming for Seville. Instead, we plunged on down through forest to the unremarkable Col de Fournes (1356m) and along the ridge to the Col de Gratteloup – where we didat last eat our picnic, troubled by flies, and were soon overtaken by the other three walkers. The route then only got better and better. Along the ridge to the Brèche de Brec and Col de Brec, both rocky cols in fact on the same rugged, limestone mountain, followed by quite a lot of scrambling, sometimes needing hands and quite exposed. There should have been great views down to the sea at some points, but by that time cloud was swirling round us making this part seem more baroque and adventurous. Next we reached what was clearly a fine old mule track cut into the rocky hillside and twice held up by small metal bridges, leading to the Col du Castel Gineste. Soon we could see below us the beautiful, historic hilltop village of Utelle. As we approached it, I looked round nervously for places where we could bivouac if the communal gite d’etape was full. But there was no need to worry. We soon located the smartly-dressed lady (a primary school teacher, apparently) who looked after the gite part-time, and she showed us the way the Gite d’Utelle. It was in a fine location, right next to the mairie with a stunning view over the Vésubie valley towards the Mercantour and Italy – and only two other people were staying, a congenial British couple on a week’s walking holiday. What a relief! Since the gite was self-catering but with good dining and cooking facilities (at €12 a night, it was remarkably cheap...), we returned at once to the one and only épicerie (small and old-fashioned) in the village to buy something for dinner. I persuaded Steve to try a tin of chile con carne, which he gallantly cooked. Raspberries and cream for desert. What a contrast from “The Vale of Tears”! Utelle was truly delightful village in an amazing setting, where everyone we met, without exception, was friendly and helpful – a completely different atmosphere from yesterday.
Day 26, Tu 13 Sept: Utelle to Aspremont. [Est. 25 kms; 900m climb; 1220 descent ; no real cols.] I had expected this to be a dull day, going through dormitory villages in the arrière-pays of Nice. But except for a slightly disappointing section in the middle, it exceeded my expectations. Made ourselves breakfast, and still managed to be on our way by 08.00. The first section, leading gently down to the Vésubie river, was along a lovely old mule track – for Utelle had once been a prosperous little town on the route linking Nice to the Upper Tinée hinterland. Fine views back to the village. We stopped at the little Chapelle St. Antoine (open; colourfully decorated inside; and still lovingly maintained by someone). Through one or two hamlets to a grand old stone bridge over the Vesubie: we could have swum in clear pools there, but preferred to press on. Up the other side of the valley to Levens – just the sort of Mediterranean dormitory town I’d feared, with its suburban sprawl and lotissements. Some minor navigational problems getting through it; but at last emerged on the other side in dry pine woods and maquis. The next section proved longer than I’d expected, much of it along roads and tracks – and by now it was getting quite hot. We stopped to eat our picnic in the shade of some evergreen oaks beside the road. At least we were still in the hills, with extensive views over the valleys below. Somewhere just above Aspremont we made a slight navigational error (our guide books were not much help here), but soon got back to the GR5. Aspremont is an unexpectedly pretty perched village with views down to the Mediterranean and the outskirts of Nice. And the modest hotel where we’d booked, run for the last 8 years by a German lady, proved absolutely fine. Showered and washed clothes as usual, before sitting in the garden for a traditional panaché. Then Steve had a swim in the hotel’s pool, whilst I wandered round the narrow streets of the old village (fortified in the Middle Ages, like Utelle, against the Saracens). Nice, simple dinner. As Steve and I indulged in nostalgic chat about our walk, as we sat on the terrace looking down on the Var valley in gathering dusk and all the twinkling lights around Nice, we shared a last bottle of red wine!
Day 27, Wed 14 Sept: Aspremont to Nice. [Est. 13 kms; 210m climb; 720m descent ; 1 col] This was planned as only a half day of walking to enable us to get home. That worked well for me, since I only had to catch a train back to Avignon. But by the time it became clear that we would be able to reach Nice precisely as planned, the flights back to Liverpool had quadrupled in price since Steve originally enquired: so he decided to spend an extra night in Nice and fly out next morning. Instead of this last section being entirely through the streets of the city and its suburbs, the GR5 sprang a final surprise. On leaving Aspremont, we had one last time to climb up to a col, the eponymous Col d’Aspremont , over a bare hillside showing signs of having suffered a few years back from one of those terrifying forest fires that regularly ravage the hinterland of the Cote d’Azur. We even passed three hunters with their guns folded over their arms; they didn’t seem to have had any luck! From the col, there was still a long descent along a spur of scrubby hillside until we reached the first houses. The rest must have taken us less than two hours – though we had to be very alert for GR signs once in the streets. The official GR5, however, doesn’t go right.to the sea, but instead ends abruptly at 31 avenue de Castellane – which just happens to be Nice’s Maison de l’Environment. We didn’t need Dillon to tell us where to go next because it had been obvious, looking down from the hills above, that from that point on we should simply head for the sea, past the railway station, along a long and completely straight street mostly called Avenue Gambetta. This we did. And so we finally reached the Promenade des Anglais (bien sur!), and stepped down onto the pebbly beach, littered with bronzing bodies in bikinis, feeling distinctly out of place in our well-worn trekking clothes, complete with rucksacks and walking poles! Ritual photograph taken, Steve insisted on swimming; I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to do so. We had reached the finishing line, in fine shape and precisely on time; so it was time to celebrate. We spotted a bistro beside the street leading back to the train station; however corny, I couldn’t resist a Salade Niçoise, and Steve had tasty omelette – and inevitably we both savoured a final panaché of course. It was an unfamiliar sensation to watch the crowds of people swirling past. I soon managed to book a train ticket and see Steve installed in a very modest hotel nearby. And so, home in time for dinner after my friend Brian Collins had kindly fetched me from the Avignon TGV station. A great end to our adventure....
It’s hard to sum up such a major walk, or to convey any impression whatsoever of the absolutely magnificent scenery we passed through. The GR5 provides a whole visual geography lesson on the French Alps. It not only passes through the five different administrativedépartments, but also many regions, however defined, including the Chablais, the Abondance valley, the Mont Blanc National Park, the Beaufortain, the Vanoise, the Briançonnais, the Tarantaise, the Maurienne, the Ubaye, the Quéyras, the Lauzanier, the Tinée and Vesubie valleys, the Mercantour etc etc. So many regions, so many cheeses, many of which we tasted with pleasure!
Steve Stuart and I were experienced, fit, and well-enough trained not to have any physical problems at all. We could usually stay comfortably ahead of the times predicted. Steve could – and did! –charge downhill twice as fast as I was prepared to do (although I could usually keep up with him uphill), so would have gone significantly faster on his own. Moreover, we were incredibly lucky with the weather. It was an extra bonus to have had Liz with us for the first six days (a big achievement for her since it was the first time that she’d walked that far, day after day, in mountainous terrain). As for the five days with Michele and Jean-Yves Chambon, not only did we enjoy their company, but they were most helpful over booking accommodation ahead as well as being able to suggest a whole new section of the route which turned out to be far better than the one originally planned. The only problem we met over accommodation was at “The Vale of Tears”. Otherwise our hosts were generally most welcoming; and several of the places we stayed were truly memorable.
What we ate for dinner takes up disproportionate space in my notes above This is partly because by the end of the day we were generally very hungry (I lost 4 kgs during the 30 days!), but also because gastronomy is such an important part of life in France. So even in quite remote mountain huts our hosts did their best to feed us well, if simply – and generally succeeded.
If you complete the whole GR5/GTA in one go, you are bound to meet many other walkers and become interested in their stories. We certainly did – and again, I have mentioned a few of them. However, we encountered no one else who was in fact walking the whole GR5/GTA in one, except just possibly Stefan Meister, the Swiss train-driver mentioned several times early on in my narrative. There were the three British mountain-bikers we met at Plan de la Lai: but they could not stick to the GR5 route in places – and anyway, their sport is something completely different. Otherwise, fellow-walkers we met fell into four categories:
• those doing the GR5 for a week or ten days (e.g. from Briançon to the sea) who might or might not see this as part of a larger project to complete the whole trail, which might take them several years;
• those doing a walk of several days (e.g. the Tour de Mont Blanc, de Mont Thabor, de l’Ubaye, etc) whose route happened to coincide for a while with the GR5;
• and finally a few doughty Dutch people who were filling in parts of the E2 they hadn’t already completed during the several years they had already devoted to this project. I should explain that for them, the GR5 starts in Rotterdam where it is considered part of the European E2 trail which passes through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Jura before it reaches Lac Leman!
Navigation wasn’t much of a problem for us: for usually, the GR5 is well marked. But the walker must always remain extremely vigilant to spot those vital little white-over-red signs! On some stretches, especially in the Vanoise, the GR marks disappear almost completely, to be replaced by signposts. Otherwise we relied on Paddy Dillon’s guidebook; the four Topoguides covering the GR5 (produced by the Federation Française de la Randonné Pedestre (FFRP) in conjunction with the Institute National Géographique (IGN) and the five départments through which the GR passes); and the four relevant IGN TOP-100 maps. If you’re sticking to the GR5, there’s fortunately no need to lug around the twenty one IGN TOP-25 large-scale maps needed for the whole walk!
Finally, my thanks to those who contributed to making this great experience possible. They include, in chronological order: Michael Thompson and Dick Everard who (via our common friends Patsy and Jeremy Ainslie) originally alerted me to the allure of the GR5 and then gave invaluable advice; Paddy Dillon whose guidebook was so useful both in planning the walk and then in finding the way, that Steve and I referred to him in reverence as “Saint Paddy”; Steve Stuart for agreeing to join me and then proving (yet again) such a stalwart companion; Liz, Michèle and Jean-Yves for coming along with us and being such good company; scores of people along the way for providing excellent service and sometimes their friendship too; and especially to Mette, my wife, for putting up with my absence for a whole month when she was not at all well. Last but by no means least, I pay tribute to that army of anonymous FFRP volunteers who had spent hours of their time in painting or fixing the essential GR marks to rocks, trees, posts and buildings along our way. Without their efforts, we would have been lost, quite literally, many a time. Whenever we spotted one of their white-over-red signs, Steve and I soon adopted the habit of saying “Merci!”. Whoever was leading in front would shout this out to indicate that we were on the right track; whoever was behind would also express or mutter our thanks. We must have repeated this ritual thousands of times – and passers-by who heard us may have concluded we were probably harmless lunatics! No, we were simply grateful to all those unknown folk who helped us reach the end of our journey safely.
10 December 2011
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