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 ( 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.

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