Saturday, September 08, 2007

Stage 58 -- Nevache to Briancon

<reminder: photos now available at:

Friday, Sept 7th, 2007

We left Nevache, and our lovely hotel -- Les Chalets d'en Ho -- with some regret today, but with the weather once more near perfect (excepting the thick coating of frost, which, however, quickly burned off) and a great hike ahead, we weren't too upset.

The views when climbing out of the east/west valley were striking, with the low morning sun casting long shadows from the many piles of stones in the fields. After passing a beautiful lake, of which the valley apparently has over 200, we crossed the pass of Porte de Cristol at 2483m.

The next part of the hike took us several kilometers along a balcony path with increasingly dramatic vistas of the glaciers and peaks of the Parc National des Ecrins, which we won't visit on the H2H, but which looks well worth a return trip at some point.

We then climbed steeply up to the Crete de Peyrolles, at which point problems started. Christine had developed a couple of nasty blisters on her heels, which made climbing uphill very unpleasant (I knew exactly what she was feeling, having been in the same situation with the cruel shoes a couple of weeks earlier). And Mel discovered that his minor case of vertigo was not quite as minor as he had hoped.

A funny thing, vertigo: completely inaccessible to rational thought. The crest was anything but knife-edged along most of its length: I'd guess that the upper slopes of the sides were between 30 and 45 degrees, so gentle, in fact, that, as I said to Mel, I'd be hard put to hurt myself even if I intentionally threw myself to one side or the other. But, as expected, this made no difference at all to how he felt.

However, Mel is not one to give up because of a little terror, and so he soldiered on, albeit slowly, with great caution, and focussed solely upon the path ahead of him.

After a couple of kilometers, we started to descend (still on the crest), and further problems arose. For one thing, Christine's knees were now what was slowing her down, and for another, after about 200m of descent (out of a total of 1300m), Mel's knee started to complain vigorously once more (the same one that had given him trouble when going down into Modane a couple of days earlier).

Between Christine's eloquent grimaces, Mel's involuntary groans of pain, and me oscillating back and forth between them to check on and encourage each in turn, we must have made a tragi-comic sight, or would have done so if we had met anyone along the way.

The views from the Croix de Toulouse, a micro-chapel vertiginously located some 700m above Briancon were remarkable -- and the many and complex fortifications visible bear witness to the historical importance of the town's role as a strategic point of control in the French Alps. However, by the time we reached the chapel, both Mel and Christine were sufficiently tired so as to be unwilling to take the extra 50 steps required to look down!

But writing this in the afternoon of the next day -- a free day -- I sympathize completely with their decision. For despite the fact that I'm quite interested in military architecture, and that Briancon is supposed to be the crowning masterwork of one of the all-time great military architects (Vauban), I have not been able to summon up the energy to go back up the main street of the town to see the old city in the main fortress.

We finally made it to the hotel around 7:20PM: a very long day considering that we had started at 8:20AM that morning. I still feel tired some 24 hours later. But although I may be alone in this assessment, it really was a great hike :-).

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Second Anonymous Post

The anonymous poster, who shall remain anonymous, has sent in another installment of his piece of investigative journalism about the epidemic of pork pilfering in the Alps....

Strange Things Continue to Happen in the Alps
by Urs Ruefli, Alpine Alien Agency, Lausanne

We knew it from the start. Now we have proof. Kind of. Almost. We can track by now 12 events that have two things in common. They all are related to pigs and pork. And they all happen in a line between Munich and Vaduz. What do we want to indicate with that? Well, there is only one logical conclusion: Aliens that hate pigs. As a regular reader of our publications, you might recall that we had somewhat similar conclusions last year when it was hot and sunny for 3 months straight. We might have been wrong then when we assigned that to alien activities. But we are right this time. There is no doubt left in our small heads. Let us simply list further facts.

August 2007: Altogether, 14 pigs (small and medium sized) disappeared just in the Alps. That confirmed number might be just the tip of the iceberg. We estimate that as many as 317 pigs might be missing.

But now we have more evidence. We spoke to the owner of a mountain cabin near Griesalp. He reported that a number of human-shaped beings spend the night in his cabin. That alone might not be so suspicious, he said. But he noticed some strange behaviour. The beings did never speak, neither to him nor to each other. They always walked in a line, even to the toilette, led by a fearless leader, marked by some red raincoat. They never smiled. Not even when he offered his best joke. He was not sure that they breathed. At least he could not confirm that they breathed all the time. But now the most interesting part of his story. They sat down at the table and made clear by their glances that they expected him to feed them. That alone might not be so suspicious, but they declined five plates that he put in front of them. Only when he offered them some pork, they accepted. He stated that he often has guests that love to eat two plates full with his pork, as it is one of his specialities. But he could not remember that any of his guests ever ate 14 plates full with pork. I trust he would remember that, wouldn't you? After the dinner, they went to the sleeping place. The next morning, when he woke up, they were gone. As well as all his remaining pork. He said he didn't mind, because they left a lot of money. But he had to disappoint the party that was arriving the same day and that had ordered all the pork in advance. It was a party of 19 strong men. Imagine that. I will start more field explorations as of tomorrow.

Stage 57 -- Les Granges de la Vallee Etroite to Nevache

<reminder: photos now available at:
Thursday, Sept 6th, 2007

Dinner yesterday night at I Re Magi was excellent, and thanks to Carcassonne we managed to stave off tiredness until around 9:30 when we went to bed. The night was marred slightly by a softly banging door, which I fixed by using a blanket to keep it open, and a snorer in the bunkroom, who I suffocated with another blanket. Useful things blankets.

Just kidding: I used a pillow.

As expected, both Chris and Mel felt that with a long day to Briancon coming up on Friday, it would be wiser to take the shorter route to Nevache over the 2420m Col des Thures, which we duly did.

The only problem was that, although it was a very nice hike, short turned out to be really short -- 2.5 hours -- and so we arrived at our hotel before 11AM. Fortunately the staff at Les Chalets d'en Ho were very kind and accommodating, giving us a couple of rooms straight away and promising the third by midday. We decided, however, to walk about 2km up-valley to the center of Nevache to have lunch rather than wait around.

It was another beautiful day (blue sky, sun, etc., etc.) and the valley and its villages are quite lovely. Read the website entry for this stage if you are interested in more background, but the short version is that this is a valley that is rebounding from almost complete depopulation and is now doing very well. Most of the old buildings have been renovated and many, for the most part tasteful, new ones have been built.

In sum, Nevache and its surrounding hamlets have a very nice feel to them, and both the lunchtime restaurant (Aux Creux des Souches, or something like that) and our hotel were excellent and welcoming. The upper valley (which we would not have seen even if we had taken the long route) is supposed to be quite beautiful, so this is a place to come back to.

In the afternoon we had a sauna and then split up to do our various things -- Mel probably to snooze, listen to music, and watch TV, Christine to read a book, and me to handle email and write this.

Tomorrow the weather is expected to be a little warmer and a little less windy (the Mistral is blowing today), but otherwise with the same cloudless blue sky. Perfect for the long ridge hike (up to 2600m) that we plan to do into Briancon. Of course, first we have to have dinner, perhaps play some Carcassonne by the fire, and then sleep in our charming and well-appointed rooms.

Just another rough day on the H2H.... :-)

Stage 56 -- Modane to Les Granges de la Vallee Etroite

<reminder: photos now available at:

Wednesday, Sept 5th, 2007

After a productive rest day in Modane (I bought a pair of gloves, because it is supposed to be very cold over the next few days (but no snow, fortunately), did laundry (well, Christine and Mel did my laundry for me at the laundrette, but I did hang it up to dry afterwards :-), posted off old maps to lighten the pack, picked up money, reserved the next several days' accommodations, wrote and responded to emails and faxes, wrote up and posted a couple of blogs, made and received a couple of telephone calls, ate an enormous lunch at an excellent Italian restaurant, and played a couple of games of Carcassonne), we set off today a diminished group.

As previously reported, Russell and Sally are taking another couple of days off to try to heal their various injuries. They have plans to go to Grenoble to look around and then will come to meet us in Briancon in three days. So Mel, Christine, and I set off around 8:40. It was very cold -- a little above freezing -- but clear and sunny as soon as we got out of Modane's deep valley.

Modane, I should note, lived up to it's reputation, and initial impression, of being a rather unattractive little town, but the hotel owner and personnel were very friendly, the Italian restaurant excellent, and everyone else I came into contact with efficient and helpful, so rather to my surprise I came away with a good impression.

Nevertheless the only regrets I had on leaving it were that I was also leaving Russell and Sally, who had been with me from the beginning of the hike now so long ago.

The hike itself was rather unexciting, and cold, until we crossed the Col de la Vallee Etroite and descended into the very pretty eponymous valley. As with the descent into Modane, one feels here as if one is in a Mediterranean clime (and the fact that everyone speaks Italian only strengthens this impression). The marmots are the same though.

On the injury front, Mel's knees gave him no problems today, despite it being a 6 hour hike with several hundred meters of descent. Perhaps it was because he used two poles (borrowed from Sally), instead of the one he had used before. Or maybe it was the Ibuprofen prescribed by Russell that he took prophylactically, but whatever it was he was much happier than he had been on the descent into Modane. Bodes well for the next couple of days to Briancon.

Christine on the other hand found out that the knee she had thought healed was still weak on steep and rough descents, giving her various twinges and causing her to move carefully and slowly. We'll have to talk at dinner about which of the options (long with more ascent and descent, or short) we should take tomorrow, and since we have some steep and high passes coming up while she plans to hike with us, I'm somewhat concerned.

But that is a worry for later. Right now I'm going to go outside into the bright sunshine under a cloudless blue sky, and sit in one of the reclining deck-chairs that our "refuge" (more like a hotel) for the night -- the charmingly named I Re Magi (the Mage Kings, so named because the three peaks to our east are Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspard) has put out on their terrace. I am showered, changed, and looking forward to the "Apero" that we have been told will be served at 6:50 before dinner at 7.

Don't let anyone tell you that the H2H is all about exertion and suffering! This is the life....

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Stage 54 -- Refuge du Plan Sec (Chalet Montana) to Modane

<reminder: photos now available at:

Monday, Sept 3rd, 2007

Low clouds and cold at first, clearing later and warming up somewhat, today's hike was another nice balcony hike followed by a 1000m descent into Modane. After an initial steep climb, the rest of the day provided no obstacle to conversation and we chatted merrily.

Lunch -- in another refuge -- was excellent (have I mentioned often enough that one really does eat remarkably well in France?) and then as we headed down to Modane it happened: Mel's left knee started to give him trouble, a lot of trouble.

Apparently he had felt a twinge after a training hike a couple of weeks earlier, but now it was much more than a twinge. Those of you who read my C2C report from last summer's hike across England (you can find it at if you like) will remember how my cousin Oliver walked; that was how Mel was walking now.

We made it down to Modane, but it wasn't fast (which is ok) nor pleasant for Mel (which is not). Oddly, as soon as we reached the flat ground at the bottom of the descent, the pain went away, so it seems as if no harm was done. As a result he plans to hike on with us on Wednesday, after the rest day in Modane. Both of the next couple of stages either have little descent or have options with little descent and so we hope he'll be ok.

In Modane, which is another place that was left out of the lists when urban-planning skills were distributed, we find our hotel and with it Russ, Sally, and Christine! By a process of elimination Christine found out in which hotel we were staying and had met up with Russ and Sally at midday.

We are now complete, but it is soon clear that this is only temporary: Russ and Sally have decided to take the next three stages off as well to give their injuries more time to heal. They will rejoin us in Briancon, where we have another rest day, and will thus have six days in a row without hiking. I am crossing my fingers that this will prove sufficient....

It had been a relatively easy day and a merry dinner provided me with enough energy to stay up until the midnight hour of 9:45 :-).

Stage 54 -- Refuge d'Entre-deux-Eaux to Refuge du Plan Sec (Chalet Montana)

<reminder: photos now available at:

Sunday, Sept 2nd, 2007

Chalet Montana had closed for the season, so we hiked to Refuge du Plan Sec instead. Or rather I should say that I hiked there. As feared, Russ and Sally's injuries proved to be severe enough to stop them hiking, at least for now. The plan at breakfast was for them to hike with me for the first 4 hours, to Refuge d'Arpont, at which point they would decide if they could continue.

However, by the end of the first 10 minute (gentle) descent it was clear that neither would have any fun on the trails today. They therefore decided to go straight down to the village of Termignon, and from there take a taxi the 17km to Modane. I would continue on the planned hike, meet up with Mel and Christine at the Refuge du Plan Sec, and then come down to Modane the following day.

As it turned out, given their injuries, it was an excellent decision not to do the hike as planned. Although beautiful (a gorgeous balcony hike underneath a glacier, round two 3000+m peaks, above a 1000m deep gorge, and then along a trail high above the deep valley of the Arc River), the hike was very strenuous and very long. Realistically signposted at 10 hours, it would, I believe, have taken them at least that long, and even hiking at my top speed it took me over 7.5 (and I was as a result more tired afterwards than if I had hiked 10 hours at a normal pace!).

But it was a beautiful hike! Bright sunshine, although cold enough so that even at midday I could see my breath, with marmots everywhere, crickets and grasshoppers hopping in all directions, flocks of butterflies and mountain crows, two chamoix deer who didn't see me until I was 5 meters away from them, and all day long those stunning views. I was exhausted at the end of the day, but it was a very happy exhaustion.

And, as luck would have it, just as I turned up the last slope to walk to the refuge, who do I see but Mel hiking in front of me. Excellent timing! We walked the last 5 minutes together and arrived at the refuge shortly before 4:30PM.

After a shower (warm :-), always the first priority at the end of a hike, I wolfed down a sandwich (in order to avoid hypoglycaemia before dinner) and while sitting outside in the setting sun we caught up on what he and his family had been doing over the past couple of months.

As our butts slowly froze, I was also keeping a vain eye out for Christine, who had unaccountably failed to show up at the Modane railway station that midday to meet Mel. The following day I found out that she had missed her planned train and hence arrived too late to come up to the refuge. She had left me a message, but due to limited connectivity I did not receive it. She ended up staying in the hotel from hell in Modane... but that's another story.

Although saddened and concerned by Russ and Sally's injuries, it had nevertheless been another excellent day on the H2H.

An Anonymous Post

Now, this is something different! Someone who wishes to remain anonymous sent me the following and asked me to post it on the blog as a public service And it looks like this won't be the last such post, which is good because it has a bit of a cliff-hanger feel to it....

Strange Things Happen in the Alps
by Urs Ruefli, Alpine Alien Agency, Lausanne

During the past weeks, reports about strange events could be found in various publications. We at Alpine Alien Agency believe that there is a connection between these events. After all, for 14 years we are experts in observing the Alps to identify unusual happenings that could be attributed to alien activities. Let us summarize what we have found so far.

June 28, 2007: The Münchner Merkur reports that two young pigs disappeared from a farm close to Oberammergau. The theory was that they escaped and drowned in a nearby river.

June 30, 2007: Allgäu Online has a short article about a supermarket that was broken in at night. The only missing items were about 5 kilogram of pork meat from the freezer. The theory was that a temp from Middle East had removed them for religious reasons.

July 7, 2007: The Allgäuer Zeitung lists in his weekly police activity summary, that three newborn pigs were reported as stolen by a local farmer. The theory was that the father of the pigs disliked their noise and ate them, just to get back to sleep.

July 10, 2007: An inn at the foot of Grosses Walsertal reported that someone broke into the Speisekammer and stole half a pig that was just put into the freezer. The theory was that the pig was not completely dead and had escaped.

Now, why would half a pig want to escape? And there was no indication that any dead piggies' bodies were found at the bespoke river. That all doesn't impress us a bit. But why do we feel that these events are connected and meaningful? We can't say. We just do know. And we will find out more. Stay tuned.

Second part of Stage 53 -- Refuge du Col Palet (Val Claret) to Refuge d'Entre-deux-Eaux

<blog post issues again...>

The hike was a fairly easy one: up a short distance to a 2600m pass, down to 2100m at Val Claret (an ugly-as-sin, purpose-built ski resort consisting of a jumble of high-rise buildings in a barren valley), then up to a 2760m pass, before a long and gentle descent to our refuge. Took me about 5 hours (not counting breaks), took Russ and Sally about 6 because of some nagging injuries that seem to be getting worse.

In Russell's case it is the meniscus in his knee -- the same one he injured when he slipped on ice while in college and that he reinjured when he hiked in stiff-soled (Alpine class) boots for five days to Samoens. It has swelled up the last couple of days and he has been forced to take Ibuprofen during the hikes to manage the pain.

In Sally's case it is shin-splints (not sure what the technical term is), and she reckons she injured them while running through Chamonix in flip-flops in the rain a week or so ago. Similarly she had to take pain-killers during the hike today.

Both injuries are unfortunately not the type that tends to heal quickly, so I'm apprehensive about whether or not they will be able to hike much further. We will see....

Had a nice lunch at the Refuge de la Leisse, accompanied by a tame marmot and friendly chickens, before continuing on to the Refuge d'Entre-deux-Eaux, which seemed like a palace to us because it had both warm showers and real (as opposed to Turkish) toilets. It is funny how quickly one's standards and aspirations adjust: a couple of weeks ago we were at the 6 star Montreux Raffles Palace Hotel, now we are overjoyed when a place has showers and normal toilets, even if said toilets are located a short walk away outside!

Perhaps in consequence of the perception of luxury, we all felt strangely compelled to make the cold trek to the toilets during the night... in some cases more than once. At breakfast the following morning the gardienne asked us if we were the ones who had been up and down the stairs all night, and when we compared notes we realized that the answer was probably yes. I had been once, Russell twice, and Sally a record four times :-).

There are days when the H2H produces deep thoughts and sublime impressions, but this was apparently not one of those days.


Stage 53 -- Refuge du Col Palet (Val Claret) to Refuge d'Entre-deux-Eaux

<reminder: photos now available at:

Saturday, Sept 1st, 2007

A cooold morning -- 3C when we left the hut -- in part because the hut was at 2550m, in part because the weather has turned markedly colder. It was sunny, however, and as long as it doesn't rain or snow, I don't mind too much