2017: Evian to Les Houches (GR5)

Evian- 7th August 2017

The official start of the walk is St Gingolph, but from there there is a monstrous first day with 1870 m (6135 ft) of ascent and 1225 m of descent with 18km in between. The guide book offers an alternative start from Thonlon taking 2 days to reach the same destination, but while this gives an easy first day, the second day fails the ‘not too much effort’ clause. So we are starting from Evian and are going to take 3 walking days instead of the guidebook’s one.

Today didn’t get off to a perfect start, when we discovered that the train we were catching from Oxenholme had been cancelled -something to do with a lack of staff at Glasgow, apparently. The next train (on which our tickets may or may not have been valid) was going to be cutting it a bit fine, so daughter Catherine was persuaded to drive us to Manchester Airport in her pyjamas.

From there we flew to Geneva, and then caught a train to Lausanne, which thankfully conformed to national stereotypes and worked with luxurious efficiency. A ferry across Lake Geneva under holiday-blue skies took us to Evian and the start of our walk.

Approaching Evian on the ferry. The mountain is La Dent d’oche, on the top of which there is a refuge where we will spend a night.

A Day in Evian- 8th August 2017

After all the hard work yesterday sitting around in various forms of transport, it was necessary today to have day off. It was a day of sightseeing in the very pretty town, while trying to avoid the most torrential of the rain.
It was also necessary to mark the start of the walk to the Mediterranean by dipping at least a bit of body into Lake Geneva.

Evian to Bernex- 9th August 2017


Soon after setting we filled our water bottles – with the Evian water. This was a curious site of secular pilgrimage.

We found a very pleasant route to the village of Bernex, walking steadily uphill though fields and forest on paths and minor roads. En route we visited the village of St Paul en Chablais in search of a cafe which would give us a cup of coffee. What kind of French village is big enough to have a hairdresser and a butcher but doesn’t have a cafe, or indeed a bakery for that matter?

The weather was much better than yesterday- no rain and not too hot.

We are staying in a little apartment, courtesy of airbnb. When we got to Bernex we had to telephone the owner of the apartment, who came to meet us. Unfortunately, she immediately dropped the apartment keys down a drain. Thankfully, and rather surprisingly, the village shop was able to provide her with the perfect tool, a pole with a little hook and the key was retrieved.
We bought our supper from the village shop.

Everything in the apartment is a bit flimsy, which means that Judith doesn’t want me to sit down for fear that I will break something.

To the Refuge Dent D’oche- 10th August 2017

The Dent D’oche was in cloud most of yesterday, but late in the evening it briefly appeared, towering above Bernex. Near the top was a single spot of light, presumably the refuge.

We had wondered about not taking the direct route up the mountain, and approaching by a longer ridge, but the day started very wet and cloudy and was not one to be extended unnecessarily. It wasn’t a particularly long walk- an hour uphill along the road and then 3 hours steeply up the mountain. But a lot of height was gained.

The Refuge is not in any obvious route to anywhere, so tomorrow we will have to retrace our steps for a while, to get going again. The idea of stopping here was to break the journey a bit, but the approach is very steep indeed and, in the wet, slippery, so staying here may be a false economy, and was a definite failure on ‘not too much effort’ front. The last 15 minutes of ascent were the steepest, and the climb was aided by a metal chain, which was useful in the slippery conditions, but, like the rocks, was extremely cold to ungloved hands.

The Refuge is perched improbably on the mountain, about 20 minutes below the summit. It isn’t even on an obvious ledge. When we arrived the cloud cleared briefly to reveal an extraordinary view.

The Refuge is very basic and the two chaps resident here are friendly and will provide us with a meal. Because the weather is poor, there is hardly anyone else here. Just Rob from Lincoln, who lives in Estonia, with whom we played Pictonary.

As the weather improved a bit Edward and I climbed to the top of the mountain, from where we could see the whole of Lake Geneva but not much of the Alps to the south and East.

Writing a little later, the Refuge produced a surprisingly good meal, given that the last helicopter delivery had been in June and since then all deliveries have been carried up the mountain in backpacks (cheese though can be acquired without going right into the valley).

In the evening, the cloud cleared wonderfully. Maybe the clamber up here was worth it after all.

Below is a screenshot of the refuge’s facilities.

Photos from yesterday

We are now at La Chapelle d’Abondance. Here are some photos from yesterday (no wi fi to post them yesterday). They are in the wrong order- the weather was generally improving.

Rob, the other person staying
The Refuge from above
At the top of the Dent D’0che
Edward arriving at the Refuge Dent D’Oche
On the way up to the Refuge
Me with Bernex behind

Refuge Dent d’Oche to La Chapelle d’Abondance- 11th August 2017

The weather forecast for today was not good, but when we got up, although we were in cloud, it wasn’t actually raining. But over breakfast the precipitation started. Not rain but snow! And the weather remained miserable nearly all day. When our altitude lowered a bit it would turn to icy rain, which I suppose counts as an improvement, but then we would climb to another col and it would be snowing again. Not settling but definitely snowing.
The departure from the refuge is not far from vertical, and we slithered carefully down, grateful for the security of the fixed chains. We used spare socks as makeshift mittens. I tried to persuade Judith it was fun, but I’m not sure she was convinced- and I concede that had it been any funner it would have been a nightmare.
We retraced our steps from yesterday as far as an absurdly remote cheese shop, and then it was a long way to La Chapelle, where had a hotel booked. The route took in a couple of high cols and some long descents. These were made problematic by long sections of extremely slippery mud. Edward’s technique was to ski down without skies, while Judith and I adopted a more ‘thoughtful’ approach, which was considerably slower. We walked through beautiful and dramatic scenery. It would have been good if conditions had been more conducive to pausing and enjoying it.
We were to pass something called Les Chalets de Bise, which said it was a refuge, and we fantasised about being able to eat lunch somewhere warm and dry and order a hot chocolate, but there seemed to be nothing on offer to wet traversers of the alps. There was an American hiker who seemed very cross about the whole thing. So we set off again, and to rub salt into the wound, the path went unexpectedly steeply up to another col, 3 hours from La Chapelle.
Eventually the Abondance valley came into sight a long way below us. More slippery descending eventually got us there. Approaching our hotel, the people coming and going all seemed very neat and clean, which was worrying, but we managed to get ourselves sorted out a bit before checking in.
We are here for 2 nights, so perhaps tomorrow we might be able to reclaim the ‘at ease’ status of the trip, which has been rather compromised by today.
We have had a delicious meal, been able to wash clothes and the weather forecast is good, so going to bed happy.


La Chapelle d’Abondance- 12th August 2017

A lovely quiet day by the river and wandering about the village (albeit rather stiff wandering by the 2 older party members). Warm sunshine.

La Chapelle to Refuge Trebentaz- 13th August 2017

What comes down must go up, and having come a long way down into the valley a couple of days ago, today was the inevitable climb up the other side, which I suppose was good, because Judith was a little worried about her going downhill muscles.

Our walk this year is neatly divided into 3 groups of 3 days. So the first group was Evian to La Chapelle and now we go to Samoens in 3 days, where we will have another day off.

We had a good breakfast at our little hotel, La Jolie. La Jolie is run by a friendly Dutch family, who were obviously used to hikers and were very accommodating.

After setting off, we stopped for bread and bought some with bacon impregnated in it -a very promising concept, but not quite as delicious as one might have expected.

There was a gentle stroll along the valley bottom and then steeply up, initially through trees, and steep enough for the guidebook to use that faintly euphemistic phrase, ‘care required’. But it all seemed straightforward enough, especially as the ground was a lot less slippery than it had been a couple of days ago on the other side of the valley.

The weather was perfect today, a few clouds about, but mainly bright and sunny.

The Refuge for the night is a little way from the GR5, but tomorrow we can climb over a little col to get back on the route with the diversion just adding 15 minutes to the overall time.

Despite the height gained, this was quite a short day and it was still lunchtime when we arrived, and the tiny Refuge was bursting with people, but after lunch most of them headed down, leaving the mountains to us. There is a spectacular view taking in dozens of peaks, mainly in Switzerland.

Half way up- the view back into the Abondance valley.

Edward makes a friend

Into Switzerland- 14th August 2017

Last night we were joined by a large group (12 of them) of older French travellers, who I think were just out for one night. Our hearts sank a bit at the thought of sharing a dormitory with them because we thought they might misbehave in two possible ways: they could giggle all night, or snore. Or both. But we did them an injustice; the giggling had stopped long before lights out at 10pm and the snoring was not too bad.

The family who ran the Refuge were extremely hospitable and we left with about a ton of mountain cheese and ham.

It turns out the large bovine creatures near the Refuge are Yaks.

Today was a long walk, but for a lot of it the going was pretty easy- for one or two sections it was almost flat. There were, of course, steeper sections, some steep enough for Judith to adopt her (surely unique) uphill walking strategy- head down, earphones in listening to an audio recording of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The views all day were sensational as we visited a number of different valleys without having to descend too far into them.

It was another day of very fine weather. We were entirely on our own for the first 2 1/2 hours, but when we reached the col de Bassachaux, where there is road access and a high car park, we were joined for a while by lots of day walkers.

We crossed into Switzerland at the Col de Chevery and eventually arrived at a high farm called Lapisa, where they make cheese and have small dormitory and we are having a local cheese fondue for supper. We are the only guests here.

The view back to the Refuge this morning

To Samoens- 15th August 2017

It wasn’t long before we were back in France. A stiff climb to a col brought us to the border, complete with border guard post. There weren’t any border guards, though; just a couple of chaps running around barefoot with the goats. Turns out they were Exeter University students, living in the guard post for 2 months researching the migrating habits of hover flies. Apparently hover flies go between England and Africa, through high sided valleys like the one we had climbed out of. The students must have had an awful long way to go to get provisions and must be eating a lot of cheese.
On the way to the next col, Judith put her walking poles down somewhere and accidentally left them behind. When we realised, Edward heroically ran back, but unfortunately they were lost.
After one final col, Samoens appeared in the valley. And all we had to go was go down and down and down and down, accompanied by rising temperatures and humidity. When we got here- and I can’t exaggerate how far down it was (why on earth did thy build it so low?) we found a bustling busy tourist town.
We have rented an apartment here for a couple of nights through airbnb- much cheaper than the hotels. When we found it there was a key box with combination lock. We realised that the system probably was that the owner had texted the code to us at about the time we said we would arrive. Unfortunately, even with a portable charger, two nights without electric plugs, and using my phone to write this and occasionally as a gps, had killed the battery. Luckily and rather surprisingly we found an electric socket in the wall on a balcony outside the apartment, and we were able to let ourselves in to a very cosy little place, complete with balcony.

View of Dent du Midi last night

The border post/ hover fly research station


Samoens- 16th August 2017

A very quiet rest day.
Last night there were festivities in town, which I assume were to do with the Feast of the Assumption, but we too tired to investigate.
And a combination of still being a bit tired and it being very hot has meant that we haven’t done much today. It has been good to relax and read and make use of luxuries such as wi-fi and bins.
We did explore the market this morning though, and bought our supper, managing to avoid buying any more cheese- we’ve been having a lot of cheese based meals. The town was very busy again and brightly coloured which is attractive but all a bit of a shock to the system after the mountains. It’s like Keswick on steroids. Our apartment is just one room with a kind of mezzanine on which there is a bed. The climb up to the bed is among the most challenging ascents in the Alps.

To Salvagny- 17th August 2017

A very short walk today. We had a (planned) late start to allow Judith to check her class’s A level results and send some related emails. All seems to have gone quite well.

After buying some food we set off along the river on an attractive path, through meadow and forest, which offered some welcome shade after our late start.

Our route also took us through a dramatic gorge- Gorges des Tines, which was ascended with the help of some ladders, which were at a nicely civilised angle. At one stage we met a Dutch couple, who announced that they had tried to go the way we were going, but had had to turn back because you needed a rope. We continued anyway, with a little more nervousness than previously, but although a little care was required in places, you certainly didn’t need a rope. Either they had gone the wrong way or they were very cautious- it is very flat in Holland after all.

The Gite d’etape at Salvagny is just a little off route. Even with our late start we arrived way too early for its 5pm opening time, so we wandered down into the next village, Sixt-Fer-a- Chevel and had a drink and went in search of a ‘nice shady glade’. There was a danger that we were going to end up walking as far again, so after lowering our expections slightly we found a perfectly adequate shady spot and it is there that I write this.

We haven’t seen any other long distance walkers today, which is a shame because we were beginning to suspect a ‘distance paradox’. A few days ago we met two separate individuals doing the GR5 but they were both going much further than us that day. We then met them individually every subsequent day, until today. Each time they were going much further than us, and yet, sure enough, we would meet them again the next day. Hare and tortoise, but I think the hares are finally ahead.

A lot of uphill tomorrow.


To Refuge de Moede Anterne- 18th August 2017

We had a comfortable night in the Gite d’etape, which was very like a British Youth Hostel.

We spent a lot of time today walking uphill, at first following a road with the path taking a direct line through the road’s zig zags. Eventually we reached the road’s end, where there was a car park and lots of people starting their day’s walk. There was a cafe which sold the ancient mountain medicine, Coca-Cola.

The path continued up and up, through various different eco-systems. The air got cooler and the scenery more and more spectacular, and the bright sunlight more otherworldly, all of which occasionally went some way towards relieving the pain of the ascent (total ascent today something like 1700m or 5100 feet in old money or very nearly 2 Scafell Pikes). We had a lunch with challenging bread, followed by a visit to the delightful and isolated Refuge d’Anterne, complete with its own waterwheel, where we had more medicinal coke and cake.

This helped with the next section, which was steeply uphill, until we came to a beautiful lake- Lac D’Anterne. Judith and I put our feet into the icy water and Edward went for a full swim, for at least 30 seconds. I wasn’t going put that much strain on my heart, after climbing more or less the equivalent of 2 Munroes.

A final steep climb took us to the Col d’Anterne, which was rather windy but had a magnificent view of the the Mont Blanc massif, revealed in all its glory.

A steep descent brought us to the Refuge for the night, which is busy and friendly. The weather, which has been glorious all day, has deteriorated a bit this evening and I think we will be sharing a room with a day walker without much equipment, who is trapped here. Judith, who is a little tired, has been doing sterling work speaking with her in French.

I’ve got more photos, but that one took a really long time to upload, so I’ll wait until tomorrow to put some more on.

Photos from Yesterday

Now that we are safely in Chamonix and have wi-fi, I can  upload photos of yesterday’s big uphill walk from Salvagny to Refuge de Moede Anterne.

You can see how far we have come up from the valley way below

On the Col d’Anterne with Mont Blanc behind.

A Chamois

To Chamonix- 19th August 2017

The person really in charge of the refuge last night was an elderly matriarch, who appeared towards the end of dinner and gave a little speech, which included some sort of weather forecast, a description of nearby mountains and routes, and the fact that because it was raining we were all let off the group post-dinner visit to a nearby mountain lake (not too disappointing). Dinner was a little meagre compared with, say, the proud hospitality of the Refuge Trebentaz a few days earlier.

It was an early start because if Madame says ‘breakfast is at 6 then away you go’, that is what you do- all no doubt bewildering for our roommate who had wandered up the mountain the previous afternoon without a coat and got trapped by a turn in the weather.

The weather today, at least in the morning, felt quite familiar to people used to British mountain walking- it was damp and cloudy and wet under foot, almost a relief after the relentless sunshine yesterday. And thankfully it wasn’t nearly as cold as in the bad weather we had experienced early in the trip.

The first hour or so was downhill, and then it was uphill again for a little more than two hours, first traversing steep bilberry slopes before zigzagging steeply up and finding an improbable way through mysterious rock buttresses looming out of the mist, and eventually arriving at the Col du Brevant. Here we had a choice: follow the GR5 up the Brevant, or descend directly to Chamonix. As everything was still in cloud, it wasn’t a difficult decision and Chamonix direct it was.

Unfortunately Chamonix was 1300m (3900ft), directly below us, more or less straight down. There was also a temptation to overcome: after going down a little way there was the possibility of catching a gondola down from Plan Praz. I had met a guide at the col and asked him about the path down to Chamonix and his opinion, quite forcefully expressed, was that we would be quite mad to walk down when there was the option of riding down. I might have been persuaded, but Judith wondered where such actions would end- I gather it is, after all, possible to get to the Mediterranean without crossing hundreds of high mountain cols. So walking it was, and by making use of a zillion zigs and the same number (or very nearly the same number) of zags going down wasn’t nearly as bad as it might have been. And the weather was improving, which meant that every now and then the extraordinary glaciers of Mont Blanc would emerge on the other side of the valley.

We changed out of our boots in the main square in Chamonix, and walked a short distance to find the very nice little apartment we have booked for two nights.

One final blog entry for this year tomorrow I imagine.

Down to Chamonix

A final day of the 2017 walk (to Les Houches)- 20th August 2017

Edward and I took the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi and then the gondola right across the glaciers into Italy. An expensive but hugely spectacular and unforgettable trip.

Then in the late afternoon Judith and I walked to Les Houches, which took a couple of hours. If and when we continue our trip to the Med, we can continue from Les Houches rather than Chamonix.

This has been a very successful trip, although every now and then the ‘with ease’ element has taken on various levels of irony. I just asked Judith and Edward whether I could say that we had successfully travelled from Lake Geneva to Les Houches with ease. They said ‘mmm’. But we are all smiling and can all still walk, so that can’t be bad.