I want to write stories, giving you an idea of life on one of these trails rather than a day by day account of where I went, and I have done that below the itinerary that follows. However, I know that I have found other people’s itineraries helpful when planning, so I will give you mine before I paint my pictures. My route is not the official GR5, as the exceptionally helpful assistant in the visitors’ centre at the entry to the Vanoise National Park advised that GR55 was nicer than GR5, and that the route she then offered was even nicer – she said to stick as high as it’s possible to do whilst traversing the park; this would be challenging but worth it. How right she was! In my mind, I kept offering her thanks as each new delight was exposed. You’ll need a good map to convert what I say to a route – but trying to do the GR5 without one would be madness. I carried both paper maps (IGN’s Carte de randonees 1, 2 and 3 [1:50,000] and the randoneur’s “Bible”, the official GR5 book in French that contains maps, a route description, and expected splits so you can plan your stages appropriately.
Along the route next morning, day 2.
Day 1. 19 July Chamonix to Les Contamines by public transport, having already walked this section last time, and thence to the refuge du Croix du Bonhomme. (3 hrs 11 mins). The public transport part took a very long time indeed, so we didn’t get started until around 3pm, so we had to push it hard to make it to the refuge in time to order dinner. After a yummy cake on arrival, we had a delicious dinner of pea soup, then Boeuf Bourginion with cheesy polenta, and choc cake for desert. At last my hunger was appeased.
Day 2. 20 July Refuge du Croix du Bonhomme to refuge de la Balme (5 hrs 37 walking). This day was was not of any particular photographic merit until the mid afternoon, when near the hut, when it became photographically splendid. My lens, however, was dirty, and I got too much flare. I have to go back to do this place justice. The food here was also wonderful, and going back will not be any kind of hardship. For dinner we had nettle soup (yum), penne carbonara and a delicious cake that was so good I got the recipe, but it was so rich (I realised, once I had read the ingredients), I have been reluctant to make it.
Day 3. 21 July Refuge de la Balme to refuge Pont de Rosuel. This was an exhaustingly hot day. I’ve never felt the heat so badly, but the river was too cold for swimming. Rested in the shade for several hours, as walking was impossible in that heat.
This was not a photographically appealing day at all. I took two images, neither of which was good, but the exercise got us into the fabulous Parc de la Vanoise. The refuge was modern and very comfortable, with excellent food and good books to browse through.
Day 4, the Refuge du Col de Palet as seen from above and beyond on my route to climb other things in the area after arrival.
Day 4. 22 July Refuge Pont de Rosuel to refuge du Col de Palet. This was an annoyingly short day – I was there by 10 a.m. – but I had agreed to stop here.
After I secured my bed, I climbed Point de Palet and other interesting lumps and bumps before descending for lunch, by which time the glorious day had clouded right over. I met a lovely man on the mountain, and we came back down singing together. His wife, sitting down there waiting for him, had fun listening. I joined them for lunch.
Day 4: the Point de Palet – a fun little climb.
Day 5, 23 July Refuge du Col de Palet to Refuge de la Leisse – possibly even more annoyingly short; I was getting restless, but I wanted to spend a night at each of these wonderful, high locations. I was disturbingly near the end of my book. This refuge was also a family farm, so I had fun observing the way it worked.
This is the refuge that evening, and please don’t accuse me of overcooking my image. The sky really was like that, and I was delighted to see it on my screen after taking it. On the computer, however, it seems as if I’ve just been turning on some red function.
Long after that colour and deep into the night, my new friend, Mathilde and I watched the stars come out. It was such a wonderful evening, and great to share it with her.
Day 6. 24 July Refuge de la Leisse to the refuge Col de Vanoise. This, too, was a very short day – only 2 hrs 15 – but this col was so beautiful the time there was well spent. This was maybe my favourite refuge, but they were all so lovely it’s hard to be sure.
Leaving the valley below the refuge.
This photo took over an hour in the making. I had to lie down in the pasture, pretending to be a blade of grass and being exceptionally still and quiet, hoping a marmot would come by, lured by the smell of a crust of bread I had placed there. I think this one is very old, as he was silly enough to be fooled. This is not a zoom lens – quite the opposite. We were up close and cuddly.
In the evening, we had a truly fabulous storm. Oh boy was I glad of the comfort, security and safety of the hut! It was a really wild one. After it had finished, shafts of light would break through the clouds to light up sections of the mountains. There was a lot of damage done by this deluge, and several bridges collapsed, inter alia. My route for the morrow became impossible.
Day 7. 25 July Refuge Col de Vanoise to Refuge de la Valette. This was possibly also, normally, a short day, but I turned it into a 4 hrs 15 one by dropping and rising 1400 ms extra – not to be silly, but because the bridge on my chosen route had been washed away in the storm. I had to go right down to the valley floor and rise up again, as this was the only way of safely crossing the very flooded stream. Even that route on this day was full of hazards. When I say “flood”, I really mean it: it was exciting.
Mist on arrival
Sunset that night
Day 8. 26 July Refuge de la Valette to Refuge de Fond d’Aussois. I had been warned often that this day was hard and long and confusing, and that I may not make it. It was harder and longer than any of the other days, and certainly had its confusions, but the ten hours on the trail I had been promised was five hours fifteen in reality, so bear in mind that the parameters for this day probably lie somewhere in between these times. Julian took even less time than I did (which would have been less again had he not got lost). Two other guys maintain it took ten hours of consistently strong “marching”, with only a single twenty minute break for lunch. Choose your own time.
Combining our best efforts we manage to communicate. I am shown a tiny wooden building (outhouse dimensions) which is my shower should I require it. It has cold water, and is free, the boy proudly tells me. Below me is an equally tiny shed, a toilet apparently, which I will need to walk to during the night should I need it. For exactly this purpose I carry a headtorch. I’m fine.
The sleeping room, which contains an inordinate number of bunks smashed in on top of each other, is also wooden, and is very dark. The only light comes from a hole in the door at the far end. I am told that the darkest bed, bed number 48, is mine. I say I don’t like it; can’t I choose? I want light. He says people don’t choose. I ask why not and he can’t think of a good reason other than that’s the way it’s done, and, realising that is not an adequate justification for anything, acquiesces, and lets me have my bed near the light.
Leaving the refuge at the Col Vanoise (day 7).
Outside, the family is back, attending to the horses; an array of hens and chickens cluck around me as I plomp myself at a table in the sun. Ducks are dozing in the shade of the Salle à manger. I am in a verdant green bowl of grass and flowers, encircled by towering eroded mountains; there is a stream far below, which I intend to explore later, but the wildflowers have a greater claim on my attention. Clouds are gathering around the tops; we may have another storm this afternoon (which will once more ruin my chance of a beautiful sunset to photograph). The wind is picking up force, so I think I’m right.
While I sat with the dirty dish of my crêpe au fromage et jambon before me, staring at the peaceful scene, two parties of walkers from last night’s hut came through. We greeted each other but also said farewell, as they are going further. I have played hare and tortoise with these friendly people who have dubbed me The Singing One “celui qui chante”. They are lovely, but now our paths have parted, which is always the sad but eventual way of the mountains.
Now it is several hours later. The tiny hut is filling up to an alarming degree as walkers continue to trickle in from the variety of possible directions, some looking fresh, others exhausted. Ones I recognise from previous huts greet me and we exchange stories of the route. Others, travelling in reverse directions to ours, tell us of what is to come.
After dinner, there was not much time before sunset. I couldn’t see many possibilities for a good shot, so just climbed a hill to sit in a hollow out of the wind and watch whatever was going to happen, without any particular photographic ideas in mind. Luckily for me, when drama began, I discovered I had pleasing foreground interest, and was satisfied with my results. I returned to the hut, thinking everything was finished, only to discover that the sky behind the refuge was turning pink. I looked at my result on the screen and let out a whoop of joy. Others from the hut came scurrying up to me. “Montrez- moi s’il vous plait”. Suddenly I had new friends. It was all too beautiful to go to bed. The others turned in, but Mathilde and I stood there together as the sickle moon and stars became brighter and the sky turned to ink. The moisture in the air condensed to clouds in the valley below.
Uncharacteristically, I needed the toilet twice during the night. The first time was at midnight. To my amazement, the clouds had risen, and mist enfolded me as I mooched my way over the terrain to the tiny building that served my needs. At 4 a.m., on the other hand, the clouds had gone, the moon had sunk just below the horizon, leaving a mild glow as residue, and the stars were shining. The mountains around were dark silhouettes in the sparkler sky. I stood on the balcony, leaning on the railing, admiring.
Soon enough after leaving next day, I caught three friends whose route had run parallel to mine for a while, but now it was time to say a sad goodbye. Our paths would diverge forever around the next corner. Life in the mountains is full of these warming yet temporary meetings of kindred spirits. We gave the standard French double kiss and bid farewell, each promising to write. Parting is always such sweet sorrow, a microcosm of life. On I continued alone, in song, rising up to the next Col where I would be greeted by plentiful flowers, a quiet, rippling stream and countless marmots.
In fact, as it turned out, our paths did cross one last time. In the Col, I decided to climb an extra little something off to the side. On my return, I found a little bunch of flowers attached to my pack. I knew the donors. When I passed them for the really last time, we hugged warmly. It’s amazing how small gestures can fill you with such a glowing feeling of human connectedness. Bring on the next hut.
Second Story. Last full day.
I look out the refuge window – another huge one – and watch the colourful ants (daytrippers) scurrying in busy lines, disappearing down the valley to the towns way below, and as I watch I reflect on another wonderful day – beginning with a wonderful sunrise and clear skies. For the first three and a quarter hours, I descended, traversed and then climbed again, on a path with fabulous views – a narrow path, kind of contouring and dropping in turn along a steep spur. Even more dominating in my thoughts were the myriad clear, cascading streams and the multiplicity of flowers. It was very green and colourful.
Today was typical of randoneur life. I had made new friends sharing dinner the night before, but had to leave them as our routes diverged. Julian, whom I had met yesterday, and I were the only ones doing our route, and he had left before me, promising to write. I set out alone. A few hundred metres along my way, however, I heard my name being called, but decided I couldn’t be hearing that, or that some other Louise was being summoned. Eventually I turned around. There outside the dortoir was the artist I’d had dinner with, calling to wish me a happy day as I departed. I waved and with a smile continued past “marmot rock”. The drop to the valley was monstrous: rocky shapes stood out in stark relief. The sun blessed the tops of the surrounding mountains with its warmth and light. The plants I passed were frozen. I wondered if Julian had noticed.
An hour or so passed by – during which time I had actually seen Julian, he’d made a wrong turn in a very confusing section, and was now hurrying along to make up lost time.
Before I say this next bit, I must stress that we were in a highly remote area of a foreign national park, and that I had now farewelled every friend I had made, all of whom were heading in different directions to me. It was now time to climb the Col d’Aussois, which undertaking the sign said would take 2.5 hours. Given how hot and now tired I was, I couldn’t count on my usual trick of halving the numbers.
Up I went. There ahead was a colourful group, snacking on a rock. There was a man waving at me. Yes, I know this group. “Bonjour encore, encore, encore,” I called, and they called the same back (the multiple encores being a joke we shared, as I kept passing them , but then stopping to climb an extra this or that, and so passing them again). I very willingly shed my pack to tighten my plait and chat with them, and work out how on earth it was we were seeing one another again.
Up I climbed again, lost in a world of rock and heat and sweat, moiling my way up the steep slope. “Louise,” I hear yet again. This is getting funny. Again I ignore it. The call cannot be for me. Louder it comes and repeated. There is Mathilde, farewelled several days ago after the cute refuge de la Leisse. She was coming down while I ascended. We greeted with hugs and kisses, and once more sloughed off our packs to chat for a while and catch up on each other’s story of the journey, our individual pilgrimages south.
Off I set again, and at last the col was reached. It seemed to be the longest and steepest so far, but maybe it was just the heat of the day that gave that impression. I dumped the pack by the cairn in the pass and set off to climb to the Observation Point, a rocky spire that looked about ten minutes away. This was a real climb, and there were endless possible ways to “attack” it. Yet again, I hear “Louise” called. Yet again I ignore it. Yet again it is called repeatedly with increasing loudness. It was Julian. Unbelievable. What was he doing here? He explained. We chatted and then separated for the final time.
The rest of the journey was fairly quickly dispensed with – a steep descent lasting an hour that brought me to my chosen refuge for the night. Now I am sitting by the window smelling fabulous smells as the friendly staff members prepare dinner. If the rhubarb tart I had on arrival is any indication, it should be a memorable meal, which is fitting. Tonight is my last night of this (for me) three-stage journey from the north to the south of France on foot (GR5). How sad.