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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.