FRANCE 2017 GR5

France. 2017. A repeat of the GR5 from Chamonix, heading south.

Now that my husband’s condition is worsening, I am restricted to four weeks in Europe, two of which I swallowed finishing the Wainwrights in England’s Lake District (http://www.natureloverswalks.com/lake-district-2017-1/). What delightful place should I choose for my other two weeks? Oh the agony of such a choice. France won out. I had walked the GR5 from Chamonix to Modane in 2015, and had been bitterly disappointed with my photos. I hadn’t brought the best lens, and had saved weight by not bringing a tripod. So stupid. Some weight savings are going too far. This time I was there to repeat this beautiful section of the walk, armed with better equipment. I had my lightweight, travel tripod (not nearly as sturdy as my home one, but much better than nothing); I left my stoppers behind, but had GND filters, remote shutter control and my favourite landscape lens (16-35mm).

I never mind repeating things I have done. The scenery is always different, the new weather offers alternate perspectives on a place. The exact lighting never reoccurs. My expectations and hopes for beauty were fulfilled. I must say, however, that it was not with the same feeling of freedom that I wandered.  All of a sudden, the mountains are becoming full of tour groups who fill up the huts and who don’t talk to independent walkers like me. On several occasions, I found myself the only “freedom walker” in the hut, and sat at table with people who talked and laughed amongst themselves, but didn’t want to meet or engage with an “outsider”. Fortunately, this didn’t happen in all the huts, but it is certainly a change in hut life that I do not welcome!

Some huts were so booked out with tours that I had to keep walking – on one day, ad infinitum, until I could find a hut that would accept me. When talking to the tour people, I did not meet one person who was actually carrying his or her own full pack, or who was walking the whole route. They are being offered dumbed down, attenuated versions of the route (buses for valley sections, transport vehicles to carry their luggage so they can dress up for dinner at night and not be burdened by their packs by day). These are not my kind of people, and we are not on the same pilgrimage, even when our paths do cross. Too many of them are ticking the “done that” box – Terry Eagleton’s “commodified experience”, whereby experiences are now for sale in our rapacious, grasping world where everything gains value only through its market price.

BUT, there are still some wonderful people to be met out there in the mountains. Let me tell you about two experiences, both begun on the same day, to furnish you with examples. The first was my meeting with Francois, with whom I had sat at table in the Refuge de la Valette. This had not been a pleasant refuge, despite its ideal location. It had been filled with screeching mobs of children who were using the beds as a gymnastic playground. I arrived exhausted after a big day, and needed a rest. I had to lie on a hard bench in the dining room to get some repose. I was not enjoying them. To make matters worse, after dinner, while shooting sunset, I had a bad fall that re-cracked my sternum – an old injury from four years ago. I was stunned that the fault line was still weak. Whenever I tried to use my arms, pushing or pulling, I was in agony, but had to have a top bunk to protect the children who had climbed up and were swinging from them in their spare time.

Next day, I has half an hour below the hut, and reached a flooded stream. The rocks were submerged and I hunted around for quite a while, trying to find a place where I could cross. I was feeling very vulnerable with no arms, and pain was tiring me. Along came Francois, and he helped me across. We walked along together for the next three hours, with him making sure that I had no trouble in the flooded sections. Eventually we parted. It was raining. He went down, and I turned my face to the Col d’Assois high above, my next goal.

I had now been going for three and a half hours without water. I wasn’t thirsty, but thought I should drink, and I also wanted to look at my map before I set out climbing. I saw a shepherd’s bothy ahead and hoped its awning might offer me a chance to both find a source of water and look at my map in shelter. Alas, it offered neither.

I had a tiny glug from a small stream nearby, but knew I shouldn’t. There were too many cows in the area. I was eyeing my bottle, telling myself not to be so stupid as to have another gulp when over the brow of the hill came three smiling, bouncing people: a woman, her husband and their grandchild. The woman, Chantal, offered me a cup of tea! Boiling, clean water. You bet. Not only did I get a cup of tea, but also two slices of heavenly, wicked (Hm. Do those two words go together? You  know what I mean) chocolate hazelnut cake. I was also offered lunch, but a look at the ever-worsening weather outside made me decline this generosity.

Off I set into the grey yonder, the clouds swirling, the col no longer visible, the rain now lashing down. The higher I went, the fiercer the wind became, so that near the top, I was being blown off the path. My memory of this col is that it has a long section up the top, which would act as a huge wind funnel in these conditions. I also remember that the other side had some sections where I would need to use my (now useless) arms. If I slipped and hurt myself in these conditions, no one would be there to rescue me. I’d die of hypothermia. The higher I climbed, the more aware I became of how silly it was to be up there alone when already injured. Eventually, I backed out. On the way down, I called in at the bothy to tell my friends I was safe, and retreating, and went on my way.

 The first place I had hoped to stay at didn’t seem to have accommodation on offer. The second said he was full. By the time I got to the third, I was fed up. I had now walked so far I was back in the realm of cars and a road. I decided to hitch to a village and stay at a hotel, away from screaming children and snorers, to have a thick towel and a warm shower, and space to myself. Truite aux amandes did not go astray either! Neither did a real breakfast the next day – muesli, fruit, cappuccino (even if it was French style. Call me biased, but no one on earth other than the Italians can go near to equalling Melbourne coffee, and every traveller I met who has tasted the latter agreed).

Now begins phase two of this amazing new friendship. I was walking down the street of Pralognan next morning, and I heard my name called. It was my friends. They wanted me to have lunch with them, but I was not interested in food (What??? Is this Louise writing? I should have smelled a rat). But I wanted to spend time with them, so sat with them while they ate. At the end, Chantal gave me her contact number. That afternoon, I popped myself in bed and had a sleep. (BIG rat now). That night I didn’t want dinner, and the next day I booked into the hotel for another day, and didn’t eat again. On the third day, I saw a doctor, who said I had a high fever and a throat infection, and gave me antibiotics. Perhaps it was the empty stomach? They made me feel quite sick.

At 4.20 a.m next day, I awoke, feeling more than woozy. I decided I needed a probio tablet (acts like yoghurt). I had it, but then felt really dizzy. The next thing I knew it was 5.30, and my bed felt strangely cold and hard. I was lying on the unforgiving tiles of the bathroom floor. The soreness of my skull told me I’d crash-landed face first on said floor. It just didn’t seem like a good time for calling people, and my wifi-only phone wasn’t working anyway (they kept changing the code during the night), so I just went back to bed. When real morning came, I texted Chantal to tell her what had happened. “I am in my car and on my way to collect you. There in one and a half hours”, came the immediate reply. She was going to drive three hours to collect a stranger and take her home!

The psychological effect of her coming was wonderful. I managed to eat some breakfast, and by the time she’d given me lunch, I was heaps better. I presume I’d passed out due to lack of blood sugar (a talent I have), and that’s still the way I see it. By the next day, I was swimming with the children, walking in the mountains with Chantal and Guy, and on my way to recovery. I only opted for a brain scan because it was now time to fly home, and I feared that if there was swelling on the brain as a result of my crash-landing, it could swell further during the flight, and that this could be bad in the confined space of a skull. (My face was swollen and black on the outside). I looked awful.

Chantal took me to the hospital. Not surprisingly, they found a pinprick of haemorrhaging inside as well as out, so wanted to keep me in hospital for a week. They succeeded in an unwilling overnighter. Next morning, I phoned Chantal using a doctor’s phone and asked her to rescue me again, which she did, of course. The doctor was not pleased, forecasting all manner of dire consequences if my condition worsened, but why would my head start bleeding again if I didn’t go crashing it against more tiles? I felt the danger was minimal, and insisted on my right to take risks with my own body, so ran off with Chantal, and spent the next two days having lovely long (but gentle) walks in the mountains with her and Guy, and having fun meals with the family before flying back home. Chantal is my guardian angel, and we have each found a friend for life.

FRANCE GR5 2012 Lac Léman to Chamonix

GR5 (French section) Stage 1. Lac Léman (or Lake Geneva) to Chamonix
Now that wordpress lets me see what I’ve done at a glance, I could note that I had omitted the first stage of the GR5. Here it is as my memory has it.
Day 1.
As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I never post pictures of food. But as you will also know if you read me enough, I am VERY partial to a delicious slice of cake. Now, the dinner with which we began this trip at Évian-les-Bains put me in the very best of moods. Every part of it was great – but hey, just check out this for dessert! (We each got one that size – it was not a ‘dessert for two’).


With that to energise our monster climb (over 2000 ms for the day), we were pretty well set, and climbed efficiently considering how formidable the mountains appeared from the opposite shore in Switzerland, from where we’d come, and two thousand metres’ climb is not undertaken lightly.


This starting point was not the official one (St Gingolph), nor the official first reserve; however, I had read a blog that said it was the prettiest way to begin, so that’s what we did. We weren’t doing this to prove any points – merely to enjoy ourselves – and beauty wins over all other factors each time. We thus wouldn’t meet anyone else doing the walk until the first night. (And not then, as they were actually all asleep by the time we arrived).


After the storm.
We were at a fairly nice village called Bernex in time for a picnic lunch by their fountain before setting out for the final stretch to our destination: Chalet Bise. Up we climbed, following a téléphérique … and as we climbed, the sky got darker and darker and darker until it exploded with an almighty bang, right onto us. Luckily, we were near the top of the lift by this stage, and spotted a little booth the size of a broom cupboard or single toilet. In we dashed, only half wet at this stage, and not wanting to get any wetter. We stood out the rather long storm, by the end of which things seemed rather tenebrous and gloomy. My watch said we had about an hour of light still left. The map said that should be sufficient. But the map didn’t know, and I didn’t reckon with the fact, that at that stage of his life my husband was severely under-medicated with his Parkinson’s disease. We were walking a ridgeline which I happened to know had a 400m drop each side. Luckily, there was mist and Bruce couldn’t see how far he’d roll should he fall, but he was still scared (Parkinson’s does that to you) and walked in tiny pinprick little steps. I realised after half an hour that we would never make it. I saw a farmhouse below, and thought I’d ask if we could sleep with the cows in a shed or something. Any shelter would do.


My husband by this stage looked the picture of utter exhaustion. If anyone put on that look you’d say they were over-acting, yet the farmer turned us down. It was still raining, albeit lightly now. We were not allowed to sleep anywhere on his property. Luckily for us, there were two people there who were nice to us, and told me where I could find an old barn for shelter. Off we set. It was still 30 minutes away, downhill and in the wrong direction, but we were desperate.


Just as we arrived (miraculously – the instructions were not exactly clear, or maybe my French wasn’t good enough to have picked up some subtleties), who should approach but these two people, from below. They said they didn’t want to offend the farmer, but now they could offer us proper help. This amazing couple drove us about 60 kms around the mountain to get to a place that was only about 4 kms as the crow would fly. They were, however, 4 kms that my husband was incapable of doing that night. Not only that, but they plied us with fabulous farm bread and cheese in huge quantities, explaining that Chalet Bise did not serve food. From rejection to a feeling of incredible warmth we swung, soothed to know that there is still human kindness out there in this world where most are terrified of, and hardened by the prospect of, litigation. When we did meet people doing our route later, they said that the descent from the mountain to the Chalet was an absolute nightmare, sliding down metre after frightening metre of slippery red mud. They hated it. Bruce had been spared in more ways than one.
Day 2.


Warm from the events of the previous night, and elated by a pink dawn, I was floating as we left the chalet to begin this day’s climb.

Chalet Bise, nestled in a quiet farming valley with cows all around.



A lovely early start, through fields of dewy flowers and with light that still had a golden hue.
Off we set, full of cheese, through pastureland lavishly sprinkled with dewy wildflowers to do the climb of the day, Pas de la Bosse (1816 ms asl), which only took us 33 minutes. From being exactly according to the book’s times the previous day, we cut them dramatically this day, arriving at our destination only one and a half hours after leaving the chalet. But this was good. Lack of both the kind of food I like, and of sleep, was catching up on me. We found a gîte d’étape, I had a snooze before lunch, and then we explored Chapelle d’Abondance, eating magnificently that night, and meeting other walkers doing our route. The good food helped me regain my equilibrium. I feared at once stage that I was getting the flu.
Below, you can see the pass we climbed to before the long descent to our lodgings.

Day 3.
My diary reports that we really enjoyed this day, being fully refreshed by the lightness of day 2. We bounced over the ground to cut a 7-7.5 hour day (depending on your source) to one that was a bit less than 4. I also seem to have been very impressed by the food we got at our destination, which rather seems to be a theme of how I respond to walking in the mountains. I do like good petrol. I also remember, however, that we were pretty hot and tired by the end; we had had lunch in a pass replete with yellow flowers all over the ground and views as far as the Matterhorn, but were very grateful for the delicious afternoon tea of fromage blanc aux myrtilles and banana bread at our lodgings, the refuge du haut Bise at Col de Bassachaux – sustenance that helped us last until dinner time. We sat on the verandah eating and reading, and watching the light change on the mountains around us while we waited for the next meal.


You can see from the above that climbing midst fields of flowers was a theme that was pursued this whole trip.
Day 4.

Like its predecessor, this was another hot day. Writing this from Tassie and a fizzer of a summer, that seems a very pleasant idea. I believe we felt the heat at the time, and were very glad to arrive at our destination, Mines d’Or, by 2.20 in the afternoon, giving us time to explore the lake there and relax. It had only taken us three and three quarter hours’ walking. Days like this are always welcome, as I love to explore my destination.


One hour from the start, we arrived at Lac vert and a little booth there, where Bruce enjoyed an iced peach tea. Much nicer than drinking from a suss lake!

The views along the path on this day really thrilled us; it seemed like Heidi country.

This was perhaps my favourite sunset so far.
Day 5.

Well, you don’t stay near a lake without getting up early to see what sunrise does. It did not disappoint.
But meanwhile, this was a more challenging day, so we needed to get started straight after breakfast. It would take us 4 hours 35 walking (plus breaks) to reach Salvagny, hot and bothered. In fact, this was another time that Bruce exuded consummate exhaustion at the end of the walking day, and, on this occasion, that stood us in good stead, as the gîte we wanted was full, but taking one look at Bruce, they phoned around and found us a place to stay that was not expensive at all (Le Petit Tetras), and that had – oh joy of joys on a day like this – a swimming pool. Boy did we love swimming and staring up at the mountains while we did so!! The gîte had us for dinner, as our place was actually closed, so served no food. The people at this gîte were amazingly considerate and kind; their food was fantastic, and plentiful. No wonder it was full.


A walking highlight for me on this day was a series of ladders up a very beautiful gorge – Gorge des Tines.
Day 6.
The trek from Salvagny to the refuge at Chalets d’Anterne took us less than 2 hrs 30 of walking time (with many stops to examine waterfalls and cascades and to eat crepes), which meant that this day operated as a kind of rest day, which is always a bonus.
We knew the day would be short, so lazed around our more upmarket accommodation, whose space and comfort we really appreciated after a few days of simple refuges. Rain looked imminent, so we read books and stalled off the leaving process.


Cascade de Rouget

Where the main falls were, Bruce must have been looking very tired, as the people at the cafe where we stopped for a crepe, Le chalet du Lignon, gave him lumps of sugar to try to get him to his destination.
Soon thereafter, rain set in, which rather interfered with any ideas of a pleasant picnic lunch in the forest. The route was certainly very atmospheric in the rain, and the flowers absolutely wonderful, but there is no point in lingering in such weather. The mist was so thick by the time we arrived at the refuge, that we only saw its silhouette at the very last minute, appearing from nowhere out of the grey. Only much later that evening did we get any sense of our surroundings. Meanwhile, we ate our stale bread and cheese for a late lunch at the hut, and met other, very nice walkers who’d also called it quits here, and so whiled away the afternoon in chatter.
Day 7.

Ah. So this is what our place looks like. Well, well. The morning revealed almost all.

This day was another very short one. There was mist and rain, which made Bruce disinclined to proceed a great distance, but, probably more to the point, all our new friends were only going to move on the short distance to the next hut (one and a quarter hours away), and we didn’t want to ruin the party, so agreed to only go that far too. Same party, new location. different food. This location was the Refuge de Moëde.


The food here was terrible (I remembered it from when I did part of the Tour du Pays du Mont Blanc, and it hadn’t improved), but the company was fun – and the location is splendid. We also made new friends – frustrated / thwarted climbers, retreating into comfort from the rain.
We hung out for yet another afternoon.
Day 8.

An early party, before we climbed into the snow. We were all trying to make this final day last longer.
Off we all set. My main memory of this day is of the incredible kindness we encountered from our fellow travellers. I was walking out the front with the British climbers when we crossed a narrow, sloping section of ice. I said I’d better wait here, as I always had to carry my husband’s pack in sections like this, and explained about his Parkinson’s. “Hell”, they responded, “but he’s one of the fittest people on the track.” They offered to wait with me and use ropes if he needed them. What wonderful people. He didn’t need ropes, but how lovely of them to make such an offer to a virtual stranger.


Bruce, inching his way across a section of icy snow.
We had a kind of party together in the saddle below Brevent, where I kept looking up at the snow and ice and thinking Bruce couldn’t do this. I explained to the others that we’d go on ahead, as I didn’t believe he was capable of what lay ahead, so would probably have to backtrack and descend a different way. They all jumped up. “No, no, we’ll help you.” One meets so little kindness these days it always makes me feel like crying when it comes my way. They placed Bruce in the middle of our little queue across the ice, and Raoul put out his stock as a visual barrier to help him, and Cor insisted on taking his pack – a job that I normally do, doing each section three times to make it easier for him. Slowly he inched his way through the terror, emerging successfully out the other side.

Made it.
Hoorah. We had another celebration party at the refuge on the other side before saying our fond farewells and descending to Chamonix. The others were continuing the journey in the offical direction of les Houches, but we wanted to pop into our old hub, Chamonix, and at this nexus, we were going to switch from the GR5, heading south, to the Haute route, heading east to Zermatt. The GR5 saga would continue in 2014. Meanwhile, this party was over … but we had so many happy memories to buoy us as we dropped steeply to the valley below. They linger still, the human kindness even outweighing the beautiful scenery.

FRANCE Chamonix from south 2016 July

Chamonix Mont Blanc area: south of the valley.

 

Refuge Plan de l”aiguille, back up nice and high. My new friend, Leslie.

Evening light, patiently waiting for sunset and chatting. The Mont peeping out shyly.
Thanks nice clouds.

Up above the palisade of steep rocks and into the fluffy white. It’s “wild”, but is this wilderness? Whatever, it’s beautiful.

“My” beloved Mont Blanc, up nice and close. This is with a wide-angle (distancing) lens, not a zoom one!

White on white, heart aching heartache, white on white, you are may respite.

Storm clouds gather. I hope to climb to your summit one day, my fair lady.

FRANCE Chamonix from north (2) 2016 July

Chamonix, north side of the valley, part 2.

A scene descending from Lac Blanc

My descent from Lac Blanc was slow (for those just popping in to this one blog, my story of the Chamonix region is continuing from previous posts). I was in no hurry to leave – and I wanted the ice to soften to allow me to kick steps in the snow rather than slide perilously down it. I stopped en route to take quite a lot of photos of this lake here, even though the sun was already too high for the sort of photos I favour.

Such a great camping spot!
In another drop and rise manoeuvre, I descended to the Col des Montets and then further, down on the eastern side, to Le Buet, before climbing back up (north) to the Refuge de la Pierre à Bérard, arriving in time for a late lunch. I was so glad I hadn’t brought food with me, as the lunch I ordered was absolutely delicious. I had nothing special I wanted to do before sunset (other than eat more and explore), so I just hung around eating and chatting to the other walkers. Eventually I did manage to leave food, and people, and go and suss out the waterfalls and pay a visit to the Ibex playing in the névé up higher. I had friends up there camped by the snow to chat to later. The afternoon passed quickly.

The descent next day was quick. I was getting quite used to this pattern, and dropped and rose once more to my next lodging for the night, Refuge de Loriaz, where I had some soup for lunch before exploring. Some of the ruins of this ancient alpage date back to 1250. It was very quaint. Dinner later that night was excellent.

Sunset, Loriaz
I slept in a converted animal barn, which I had all to myself, and I loved it. It is off in the shadows to the right of this picture above, too small to be seen properly.

This shot is of dawn, but the evening before, while I was out shooting cows at sunset, they got rather excited to be photographed – famous at long last – and came rushing over to check that I’d taken some flattering images off them, and thought they’d show their love and affection for me by licking the beautiful GND glass in front of my lens. I was in the middle of a long exposure shot that was now being ruined, so I don’t know why I didn’t move earlier. I guess I just expected them to stop. They didn’t. I had cleaning agents for the glass with me, but found that hot water worked better than anything else for this job, so I had to abandon my shooting. They all followed me towards my barn. I am not normally at all afraid of cattle, but they were crowding me out, so I had to act severe and shoo them away lest I get knocked over and trampled in their enthusiasm.

You can see the little barns in this photo

At dawn on this day, I was glad to see that they were a-mooing and a-chewing a bit further away. I no longer thought that cows would make an interesting foreground to the mountains.

After the shoot, I returned to find that the guardian had set up a table outside in the sun for me to have breakfast looking at the mountains. How beautiful. I loved the tranquility of this place.

FRANCE Chamonix from north (1) 2016 June

Chamonix, north side of the Valley, part 1.

Alpen glow to begin a superb day at Bellachat. The weather had been very ordinary the day before climbing up, but this day was perfect. 
 Once it transpired that I needed to escort my sick husband north, I made the seemingly obvious decision to abandon my GR5 quest. Chamonix was en route to Geneva airport, and I know it well. It seemed a perfect location for a new base once Bruce had gone home. I was sure I could devise a wonderful programme of high walking and climbing and photography that would keep me moving and happy. As you can tell from these photos, I really love being high, especially to sleep. Well, I don’t actually like wasting too much time on that. A philosopher I spent quite a bit of time “with”, Immanuel Kant, called sleep “das tote Drittel” [the dead third] and I am inclined to agree with him. On many, many nights this trip, I just didn’t want to waste my time dead to the world when there was so much beauty out the window, so lay there staring at the mountains in the moonlight (or starlight) until sleep crept up on me unawares.
I was so excited when an Ibex came and photobombed my shot aimed at Mont Blanc. We are dealing with exposures of up to five seconds here, and this marvellous animal understood that she needed to be very still for me.

My first choice of mountain hut was Bellachat on the northern side of the Chamonix valley, high above the town and looking directly across at Mont Blanc. We must have been around about 1100 ms above Chamonix, as whenever the French told me Abels were unimpressive pimples, I told them that if Chamonix was the ocean, they were now on an Abel. If they thought they were high, then our Abels have the same feeling. I find the notion of judging a mountain’s worth by its height to be nearly as nonsensical as judging people by the size of their bank accounts. In fact, if I’m looking for nice people, I’d go directly to the opposite if I want to increase my chances of finding what I want.

It is not at all necessary to drop down to Chamonix to get from where I was to my next destination, Lac Blanc, but I am not in the mountains to be efficient. I enjoy exercise, and did not intend spending the time between dawn and dusk (the two times I love) being idle, so I descended to Chamonix, then went to Argentière and gained all my height back again and a bit more. The climb up to the lake was in full snow that looked rather forbiddingly steep from afar, but was fine in reality. Things always look worse than they are from afar, I find.

My glorious path leading downwards …

 

which eventually dropped below the clouds, giving me a magical mist to walk in.
The slope off to the side is a little steep.
How I love Lac Blanc

Lac Blanc was as beautiful as ever. I sat on a rock just staring at the majesty for over an hour, waiting for dinner time. In that time, a man approached who looked oddly like my husband did before his disease changed his posture and gait. His hair was wild, bushwhacker hair, like Bruce’s of yesteryear, and he seemed to stride towards me with purpose. Absurdly (seeing’s he was then on a plane to Australia), I thought: “Ah, here comes Bruce to meet me.” My heart leapt for joy, until reality crashed into me, and I sobbed. He will never come to meet me with a bounce like that, or in the wild again.

The beauty of the white snow with steely blue patches helped soothe me in this nasty rubbing of my nose in the state of things as they actually are. In the quiet and majesty of the mountains I find it easier than anywhere else to find peace.

The following night I would spend at a hut in the next valley to the east, but to get there, I would drop all the way down to the main Chamonix valley yet again, and climb back up, as there is no direct route connecting both locations, and, even if there were, I would possibly not use it, as that would make the day too short, and I wanted both a decent workout and to sleep in that particular valley.

A new day dawns. This world is breathtakingly, poignantly beautiful.
The next post will deal with the next two valleys on the northern side before I move my attentions south.