2018 Les Houches to Modane (GR5 and GR55)

2018 Plans

We are getting ready to continue our north to south trek through the French Alps. We finished last year at Les Houches near Chamonix, and we will travel there on Monday 30th July to start walking on Tuesday. This year we will walk as far as Modane, which is a walk of a little more than 100 miles. I don’t think that sounds too much for a 2 week holiday. But we couldn’t help noticing last year that those pesky Alps are very hilly and those miles will include 9500m (31,100 feet or so) of ascent and descent, which is rather more than climbing Everest from sea level. We’ll take it nice and slowly though and hope for good weather. It is meant to be a holiday after all. The snow which lead us to use spare socks as emergency mittens last year was early enough in the trip that it has now dropped discretely below the ‘older posts’ button. So all sunshine and blue skies.

This year Edward is doing other things, but we will have our daughter, Catherine with us. As in 2017, I’ll post progress here when mobile phone reception allows.

Everything nicely organised!

Ready to Start again 30th July 2018

Catherine had been working at the Kendal Calling Festival so we had arranged to pick her up and her little tent at 5.30am in order to get to Manchester airport in time for our flight to Geneva. It turns out at that for festival goers 5.30 in the morning is late at night rather than early in the morning and we collected her straight from the staff party. As a result she has been falling asleep at every conceivable opportunity and seems to have trouble grasping what the word ‘today’ means.

In fact we needn’t have been so early as the plane was 2 hours late leaving Manchester. We got a Chamexpress bus, which, with an ironic nod to the convenience of motorised transport, dropped us at our hotel door. The Chamonix valley is as dramatic as we left it, and the hotel is more or less exactly where Judith and I finished last year. So we can start again where we left off, but now with our narcoleptic daughter.

Les Houches to Les Contamines 31st July 2018

Despite a rather hot night, we all got some sleep, which meant that Catherine was awake for the walk, which helped.

A steep plod up an easy track took us to the Col de Voza, with great views of Mont Blanc. From here we had a choice of routes and Catherine threatened to undermine the whole concept of the expedition by beginning to hint that maybe we should take the harder option. Needless to say we didn’t.

So back down the other side it was, and then up the valley to Les Contamines. It was extremely hot and Les Contamines seemed a bit further away than was strictly necessary. The route took us on some steep wooded paths and minor roads, and, although very attractive, seemed at times to be taking the line of most resistance. 12 miles or so today with a Scottish Munro of ascent (and nearly descent). Very easy paths, the only real problem being the heat.

We have used Airbnb to get a tiny apartment, which is really set up for walkers. There are loads of them here as the Tour du Mont Blanc goes through here. In fact our route has coincided with that extremely popular trek all day. The supermarket is just 2 minutes walk away, which should be manageable.

Les Contamines to the refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme 1st August 2018

I appear to have lost my penknife- it must have fallen from the top pocket of the rucksack when taking something else out of it. This meant that opening a bottle of wine last night required invention, fortitude and courage. But everything else has gone well.

The deal with the Les Contamines apartment was that it wasn’t cleaned between visitors and you leave it as you found it. We found it immaculate and so that is how we had to leave it.

Easy walking along the valley lead to Notre Dame de la Gorge, a pilgrim church. From there it was uphill for more or less the rest of the day. To get that big a sustained uphill in Britain you would have to dig a big hole next to Ben Nevis and start from the bottom of it.

This was a very beautiful day’s walking, especially once we got above the trees (we went through various different eco systems). It was also very varied, apart from being relentlessly uphill. And it was very busy, as we were still with the Tour de Mont Blanc.

The refuge is very busy and really quite noisy but we are looking forward to an evening meal and a pretty easy day planned for tomorrow.

The weather has been glorious again. I’ll try and add photos but they may have to wait because mobile phone reception is not that good.

There was some old snow to cross

Croix du Bonhomme to Plan Mya 2nd August 2018

We had a little room in the refuge with 4 beds (2 bunk beds). The place was very crowded and we were told there were to be 5 people in this room. We’re not sure what happened, but thankfully it was just the 3 of us. Given that it was so crowded the evening meal was fine, although even the most sentimental of Alpine traveller is never going to say ‘Goody, polenta for tea’.

The Tour du Mont Blanc procession went off down the hill towards a valley, but we went a different way, finding our way on to a fine ridge, the Crete des Gittes.

We have had a very short day today. The ridge was spectacular, but not difficult (the guidebook has a far longer and less interesting alternative in case of high wind or ice). We were able to choose between following a path or sticking more closely to the airy crest.

Then there was a descent through alpine flowers and butterflies and extremely vocal crickets, ending up on the minor road pass over the col de Roselend. We have been here before (by car) and it is a very lovely place. Having started walking at 8am we were here by late morning and have been relaxing and reading in the sunshine since then.

We are about to go and find our refuge for the evening. Apparently they have their own snail farm, so supper tonight might be interesting.

Very little mobile reception so even if I can post this, I can’t post any pictures yet.

ps I couldn’t get enough phone signal to post this yesterday, so I’ll keep an eye out for signal as we walk today.

Catherine was often a little way ahead.

Plan Mya didn’t look like much from outside, but was a lovely place to stay.

Plan Mya to the Refuge de la Balme (Tarantaise) 3rd August 2018

Plan Mya didn’t look very promising from the outside but it was a lovely place to stay, with good food. Again we had a bedroom to ourselves, with, slightly surprisingly, our own shower in the corner. Unfortunately to go to the loo we had to go out through a store room, through another dormitory/dining area, then outside before coming in again- all delightfully higgledy piggledy.

There was a French group there-2 men and a woman with numerous children and a donkey to carry their stuff. The adults weren’t very convincing about the advantages of a donkey- at one stage yesterday it had got frightened by cows and run off. It must be pretty sure footed though because they’ve followed the same route as us today, which has been steep and rough in places (mind you, they are not here yet).

The day started with a long traverse of hillside above Lac de Roselend. The path preferred to go up and down rather than along the flat. But, being so dry, it was easier than it might have been because the guidebook warned of mud and we know from the 2nd day’s walking last year how tiresome steep alpine mud can be.

The big ascent of the day was steeply up to the Col du Bresson. The skyline comprised crazy Dolomitic spires of rock, and the path made an improbable route to the hidden col through boulders the size of houses. The gothic rock architecture continued as we descended, steeply at first, to the Refuge de la Balme. Having been another hot day, even at altitude we are glad to have an unlimited supply of water.

I’ll try to post this this evening but I doubt it will work so may have to wait until tomorrow again. I’ll be able to add pictures for the last 3 days tomorrow. All this must be pretty boring without pictures.

The party with the donkey have turned up. One of the men seems very irritated with the donkey.

The picture above is in the morning- we’ve already gone quite a way from our start at Mont Blanc in the background.The prominent pillar of rock on the skyline in the picture above is La Pierre Menta. Col du Bresson is to the left of it.

Pierre Menta from the refuge de la Balme

Refuge de la Balme to Landry 4th August 2018

Now that we have reached civilisation I have had a chance to add photos to the entries for the previous 4 days.

We had soup followed by beef stew (although thankfully without the polenta) followed by cheese for the 3rd night running. When at home we don’t normally add much extra salt to food, but all 3 of us discovered in ourselves a craving for salt and added it to the soup.

There were 7 of us in a small dormitory, which resulted in an interesting unspoken argument about whether or not the window should be open. The unspoken compromise was that it was left open a crack, which arguably wasn’t enough to counter the effect of all those socks.

Today we left the Beaufortaine region and entered the Tarantaise. The Beaufortaine is beautiful and fairly remote, and not scarred by skiing development. It also produces very fine cheese, which I imagine is very expensive in Britain, but is a staple of the mountain diet.

Today we went down and down and down, leaving a high mountain world, though forest, pasture (with dozens of grasshoppers springing away with every step) and then though orchards and little mountain villages.

As time went on and we got lower, so the temperature rose. Now we are at a campsite in a place called Landry. We have stayed here twice before, but this time we are not in a tent but in one of the chalets. In the past my impression of people in the chalets was that they came out wearing bright white dressing gowns and fluffy pink slippers. I’m not sure we are going to achieve that but we’ll do our best.

Partly because we’ve been walking for 5 days and partly because it was a condition of booking, we are going to be here for 3 nights so plenty of time to recover.

Early in the morning, an easy path leads away from the more rugged paths and pointy mountains of the Beaufortaine.

Landry

I imagine many long-distance trekkers have problems with footwear at some point. Today we were able to solve our own slightly unusual issue. We each have a pair of boots (obviously) and they are all fine; but we each also have a pair of light sandals/ flip flops, for those times in life which don’t involve walking on rough mountain paths. It was Catherine’s flip flop which broke. So yesterday, once we had finished proper walking, with only 2 pairs of shoes between 3 people, life became like that puzzle about getting a fox, chicken and grain across a river. For us the solution was usually for me to go backwards and forwards carrying Judith’s sandals. Today, Catherine was able to use one of the campsite bicycles to go to nearby Bourg St Maurice and buy some new flip flops.

I got some supplies from the little shop in Landry. Luckily it was still there, but unluckily it hadn’t changed much, which means that it doesn’t really seem to sell anything at all. Enough though, to cobble together some food for a couple of days.

It has been another very hot day, but is raining and thundery and cooler now. Tomorrow will be one more not walking day. Not walking is really quite pleasant.

 

Still in Landry

A very quiet day today, and another very hot day. It is still nice to not walk. I notice that down here in the valley not walking is quite a popular activity.

But we’ll be ready for tomorrow which is a big uphill day. One of the things you notice when walking north to south through the French Alps is that the really deep valleys go east to west, so there is no avoiding going a long way down into them and a long way back up again. The one we are in is the home of the Isere river.

We’ll have a meal out this evening, it being our wedding anniversary. There are two places to eat in Landry (other than the campsite). One is really quite expensive, the other much cheaper. Providentially, the expensive one is closed on Mondays.

Landry to the Refuge Entre le lac- 8th August 2018

Yesterday afternoon there was a spectacular storm that went in into the evening. For some reason we use the French word orage for this kind of violent mountain storm- perhaps to distinguish it from anything prosaically British. Luckily we were in the safety of the campsite.

Another orage was forecast for this afternoon, so we were keen to get away as soon as possible in the morning. It was a shame to leave Camping l’Eden de la Vanoise, but it was good to be going again.

Today was to take us up a side valley and back into the mountains. Having stayed at the campsite before, we had driven up this valley a few times, but for very obvious reasons it had never occurred to us to walk up it.

The GR5 in the first part of the day had been re-routed from what the map and guidebook described. But it was well provided with the red and white markers that are a feature of GR routes. The new route avoided the road by means of a long steep ascent up the side of valley and then a traverse to Peisey-Nancroix, an attractive mountain village. The re-route had the advantage of avoiding the road, but the disadvantage of being steep and I think it was considerably longer than the old route up the centre of the valley, reminding us of the pleasures of not walking.

After about 4 hours we reached the car park at the end of the road, from where nearly everybody else, including us in previous years, starts their walks. We still had 2 3/4 hours uphill to reach the refuge. Now above the trees a whole new range of mountains opened up in front of us as we climbed the steep rocky path. The day, having been quite fresh early on was getting hotter and very humid.

We were hurrying to avoid getting caught in the orage. I admit, though, to the untrained eye it might not have looked like we were hurrying. The untrained eye would have seen 3 people plodding incredibly slowly, having climbed 5000 feet or so.

A rough bouldery path eventually brought us to a small lake, with the refuge at the far end of it. It seems to be one of the more basic ones we have stayed in with one big dormitory and a stony path up to toilets which are the old fashioned hole in the ground variety.

The promised orage amounted to a single rumble of thunder and a couple of minutes of very light drizzle. I am writing this in warm sunshine, but won’t be able to publish it until tomorrow.

Refuge Entre le lac to Val Claret- 9th August 2018 (edit June 2020)

When I was sorting out these posts to put them in chronological order, I discovered something rather odd. There was a day missing. I must have forgotten to post something. Obviously nobody was following the blog closely enough to notice!

So 2 years later, my memory is a bit hazy but here goes…

The day started with a walk across some rough mountainous terrain. Probably.

I don’t think it was a particularly long day, and it was early afternoon that we arrived at the ski resort of Val Claret, which is a deeply surreal place. In the midst of a remote mountain wilderness, you come to the brow of a hill and suddenly below you is a city, looking as if it has been superimposed onto the landscape and is part of a science fiction film.

We stayed the night in a tiny Airbnb apartment.

 

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Val Claret to the Refuge de la Laisse 10th August 2018

We have a choice of three routes to cross the Vanoise. There is the GR5, the lower and longer GR5E, or the higher and remoter GR55, which is the one we have chosen. It is about 2 days shorter than the GR5 and will take us to Modane in 4 walking days with a day off in the middle at Pralognan.

The little red and white markers of the GR route, were initially a bit obscured by the skiing and downhill mountain bike paraphernalia, and it was necessary to resort to the map!

Once we’d gained a bit of height, though, we gained a delightful path traversing flowery hillside towards the Col de la Leisse. The chic urban sprawl, where had spent the night was very quickly behind us (our apartment was next to the ‘Blue Girl Disco, which didn’t seem to be operating).

The weather so far on this year’s trip has followed a definite pattern: cool and clear in the morning, gradually warming up and being hot by late morning, and then clouds bubbling up in the afternoon, which may or may not produce rain. Today was obviously going to be different. First thing there was a cool breeze, which got stronger as the morning went on and by 10am it had clouded over and rain was not far off.

As we gained height the landscape became more barren, until we were walking through a sort of moonscape, albeit a moonscape increasingly marked by old snow. Only the bravest of flowers were venturing through the scree.

After the col, on our way down, the rain inevitably came, and it didn’t hold back- shards of icy rain with a bit of hail mixed in blowing straight at us.

At one stage we found ourselves in the flat base of a valley but struggling in deep glacial mud, before realising that the snowfields at the side would be much easier.

Although dramatic, today was another quite short day, and because we hadn’t been hanging about, we were at the refuge by lunch time. We opened the door and discovered that apparently everybody within a 15 mile radius was taking shelter inside, but we squeezed in and we able to eat our picnic lunch in the dry. We have now been shown our beds in the dormitory by the extremely nice family who look after this remote place.

Soup and beef stew for dinner, we imagine

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Just before the weather turned really nasty and phones were put safely in dry bags.

The crowded refuge

The weather cleared in the evening

Refuge de la Leisse to Pralognan-la-Vanoise 11th August 2018

The weather was much finer today. There was some early cloud which mostly burned off during the morning to leave a fresh and bright day.

The family running the refuge were a delight and coped with lots of people with wet gear with good humour. We didn’t have beef stew, but Pork stew with the ubiquitous polenta. Come back beef stew, all is forgiven (apart from the beef stew at the Croix du Bonhomme Refuge- that can’t be forgiven).

The first hour and a half were downhill following the valley from the refuge. Any snow patches had hardened during the night.

Eventually we had gone far enough down to allow a path to find a way up the steep right hand wall of the valley. We zigzagged up for half a Scafell Pike (I don’t think our measurements of height gains and losses are likely to catch on internationally) until the path levelled out in a high valley full of marmots and a few chamois. This took us to the Col de la Vanoise from where it was downhill 1 1/4 Scafell Pikes) all the way to Pralognan. This is a very popular path and there were loads if people, descending first though moraine, then across a shallow lake via stepping stones, and then down into the trees.

At Pralognan we met with a problem. We were looking forward to the hotel, but when we got there we discovered that the stupid website had booked a hotel of the same name somewhere else (more than 2 hours drive away, which would have been difficult even with a car). Anyway, after a bit of anxiety, we got things sorted out and have 2 rooms. We were warned that the rooms were small, but we are very undemanding- ‘What, two whole rooms with showers for 3 people?’ What, the beds have their own sheets and everything?’

The view from the toilet queue in the morning.

Edelweiss just outside the refuge door.

Leaving the refuge (perched on the hill) in the morning.

Looking back at the valley we had walked down in the morning.

Catherine meets a chamois.

Pralognon

A lovely day off from walking, although not entirely sedentary. In the morning Catherine and I hired the necessary equipment to climb the local via ferrata. It went extremely steeply up the left side of a dramatic and extremely noisy waterfall. Near the top, the gorge was crossed by walking along a single wobbly wire with another for the hands (and thankfully rope lanyards) before a traverse on the other side of the gorge. Although amply equipped with artificial aids for both hands and feet I found it rather strenuous. At the top Catherine announced that she wanted to do it again. I really didn’t want to and so offered to photograph her from the bottom instead. Some photos below.

Meanwhile in a bizarre echo of Catherine’s flip flop crisis in Landry, the strap of Judith’s sandal broke. Luckily there are sandal shops here and no trip by bicycle was necessary.

The afternoon has been very relaxing, making ourselves ready for just 2 more Alpine walking days this year.

At the start of the first lap, before my hands were too busy holding on to take photos.

Pralognan to Refuge Peclet Polset- 12th August 2018

One very minor ailment our exertions have caused for all of us is cracked lips, so as we set off this morning and bought bread, we also bought some lip salve. Unfortunately, while apparently being good for lips, it is a ‘pearly pink’ variety, leaving lips shiny pink. It is an odd look with my holiday beard, so I plan to stick with the cracked lips.

Today was all uphill, although never particularly steep. In fact more or less the whole walk today would be drivable in a 4×4.

After leaving the pleasant village, the walk started with a forest track, which, by the admittedly very high standards of the walk so far, was a little boring. As tends to happen, it took us more than 2 hours to reach the large car park at the end of the road, from where most people begin their walks. From here the track was very popular and as it continued to gain height the scenery became very dramatic. The weather has been glorious today- warm sunshine and a slight breeze.

Eventually we reached the refuge, which seems very modern and spacious, with small dorms and plenty of space for rucksacks.

Catherine is sitting on the top of a nearby hill, next to an enormous aerial, because there is mobile phone reception there. I’ll go and join her and see if I can post this.

I’m now at the top of the hill (and disconcertingly close to an enormous precipice). I may be able to post the words but the signal is not good enough for pictures, which I’ll add tomorrow).

Photos now added.

Above, first glimpse of the rather plush refuge.

Refuge de Peclet Polset to Modane 13th August 2018

The meal last night was the best refuge meal we have had, a local pasta called Crozets. But the breakfast bread was challenging to say the least.

The weather forecast for today was not good, and it started raining soon after we set off. The col for the day was the col de Chaviere, which was the lowest point on an impressive saw-toothed rocky ridge. The approach was dramatic and a bit intimidating in the bad weather. Cairns led through slabby rock before a final steep haul up loose scree to the col. It was all quite exciting (type 2 fun, maybe).

From here it should have been possible to look back and see Mont Blanc in the distance, which would have given a useful summary of this year’s holiday, but all we could see was black cloud.

The col is the highest point on the route at 2796m (9173 ft) and it was necessary to descend from there to Modane (1050m, 3345ft). Initially it was very steep on shale and snow, but it soon became easier going (although it was a rough path all the way down). The weather improved to a drizzle, and phones for pictures could come out again.

Further descending led to a long traverse of a grassy slope and then the high buildings of the valley, an attractive small collection of houses called Polset, by which time the rain had stopped.

This was followed by a steep slippery path through forest which seemed to go on forever. Every now and then the valley floor could be glimpsed through trees, but it never seemed to get any closer. But eventually we were deposited in the distinctly untouristy town of Modane, where we have an attractive apartment for two nights before travelling home.

Tomorrow is a day off, but it is possible we might walk up the other side of the valley for a couple of hours and get a bus back, just to take the edge off the first day next year. We’ll see how we feel.

Looking back at the tamer side of the Col de Chaviere

Modane- the end of the 2018 leg of the trip.

The vague plan to do an extra couple of hours today to save us doing it next year didn’t come to anything. The timing of the bus meant that an early start would have been necessary, and none of us were particularly enthusiastic. So a day relaxing before travelling home tomorrow.

This has been a fantastic leg of the journey, through sensational scenery, and apart from a couple of hours on 2 days, we have only walked in fine weather. Some days were hard but never cripplingly so, which means that the philosophy of the trip has not been compromised.

We have met plenty of other people doing multi-day walks, but hardly anyone doing the same route as us- just a couple of young men, who were going from Lake Geneva to Modane in 2 weeks i.e. twice our speed.

This has meant that on some days the paths have been shared with lots of other walkers and sometimes we have seen virtually nobody. If you were planning a 3 or 4 day walk, you would probably try to avoid one of those very long ascents or descents between the valley and the mountain, but for us these have added variety to the trek, although they have also been hard work. The walk has been consistently interesting, with hardly any of it being on roads.

We have had good rests when down in the valleys, and the refuges have always been interesting- it is amazing how much the atmosphere in them varies. And then there is something deeply appealing about a journey, travelling with only what you can carry.

Tomorrow we get a train and bus to Lyon airport and fly home. It is good that we have walked far enough that to get home it is best to use a different airport from the one we used at the start of the walk.

Next year we will move closer still to the Mediterranean, and there will be new adventures. But here ends the 2018 epistle.

Our 2nd floor apartment in Modane.