Saturday, August 04, 2012

Wrap-up and final thoughts

Sorry for the delay. Saturday, the day after the last hiking day, I couldn't summon much more energy than that required to lounge in front of the television watching the Olympics. Sunday, Bea and Arnulf drove us back home to Bavaria (which took all day). Monday and Tuesday I was preparing for a presentation I gave Tuesday evening to about 50 people here (including the mayors of our village and the one next door) on why they should support a geothermal project that is about to begin in our area. And so it is only today that I have both the time and the energy to write this. <And now it is a few days later… blame the Olympics!>

So, overall, and I doubt that this will come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the blog, I'm very pleased with how the hike turned out. I walked the whole way as planned, the weather was improbably fine (we put on rain gear only three times… and it never rained hard), everybody showed up as they had said they would, everyone seemed to have a good time (within the limits of blisters, sore muscles, exhaustion, heat, long days, and snoring bunkroom mates!), the scenery was beautiful, most of the time we ate well, the accommodation was generally fine, there were no accidents or injuries (other than the aforementioned blisters), no-one got lost, no-one abandoned the hike, people got along well with one another… all in all, I think it went very well, and for my part it's an excellent sign that I finished up with the thought that I was actually already looking forward to the Part Two in two years time.

That being said, not everything was perfect, at least for me. There were the two toe "issues", and the near heatstroke on stages 2 and 3. The boot problem could have turned into a catastrophe (by the way, I don't think that I reported what happened with it -- not having good replacement possibilities (no wide-toed boots in Modane, no replacements in Provence for Lidia to bring), I decided to push on, adding glue from time to time when it looked necessary, and as it turned out the boots made it to Courmayeur… where they were unceremoniously dumped in the hotel rubbish bin!). But none of those things turned out to be major -- it may not have been perfect, but it wasn't too far off.

I was also pleased with a couple of the changes that I made from the H2H:

o Booking ahead worked well. I did have to make a couple of changes on the fly when people stayed longer or left a little earlier than expected, but my overall reservation workload while on the hike was dramatically reduced and I certainly didn't miss the ongoing uncertainty of whether or not I'd be able to find rooms at the places I wanted to hike to. Actually, given the numbers of people who came along on the hike (up to nine at one time), the time of year (summer vacation season), and the paucity of accommodation in some of the areas we hiked through, I think it would have been nigh on impossible to reserve on the fly. As it was, even when making reservations a few months before the hike there were a number of places that were already booked out, and in a couple of cases I had to change destinations as a result.

o Another thing that worked well was not having double rest days. I didn't feel like I suffered physically by only having single rest days… although having that week off after the first week of hiking was definitely helpful (and I intend to do a warmup hike of 3-4 days a couple of weeks before the start of Part Two). I also never felt bored, as I did on occasion (during the second of two rest days) on the H2H. The iPad was also excellent (even if I did stay up to 3AM one night reading Ender's Game on it, despite needing to hike the next day :-).

And now for a more controversial subject, one that came up several times in conversations with some of the other hikers: what kind of hike should the H3H be? Some people felt that some of the hikes were too long or too difficult. There were some comments made about people hiking ahead, rather than walking with the others. Some felt rushed, others commented that some hikers were slower and that as a result the days were longer and therefore more tiring than they could have / should have been. And sometimes contradictory comments were made by the same person on different days depending upon whether that day they were in front or behind! Add it all together and it seems a topic of general enough interest that some clarifications of principle are in order.

Length of hikes.

Much as I like hiking, I don't want to spend the rest of my life getting from Eygalières to Icking. That's an exaggeration, of course, but it does point to an underlying truth: at its heart, the H3H, like the H2H before it, is about getting somewhere. And so given a choice between two four hour days and one eight hour one, I'm generally going to choose to do the long day. That being said, even I don't want to spend every day hiking from dawn to dusk… my preference is to have a mixture of hike lengths: some longer ones mixed in with some shorter ones. But that isn't always possible… and in the high Alps, where it takes the whole day to go over a pass from one village to the next, it usually isn't possible.

There is another reason why sometimes the hikes are longer than they need to be: because the longer hike is more beautiful or interesting or challenging or avoids roads or is better for some other aesthetic reason. This was also a point of contention on the H2H, and I'll say the same thing now that I said then (even if it seems to contradict the previous paragraph!): the H3H is not only about getting from point A to point B. If I just wanted to do that, I'd walk along valleys! It's about enjoying the beauty of the Alps… and sometimes there is significantly more beauty if one takes the longer option. If they exist, I'll always list shorter options, and others are always welcome to take them (just as they are always welcome to take taxis or other transport, if available, at the beginning or the end of days that they find too long), and sometimes even I'll be taking the shorter option (bad weather, tiredness)… but I will continue planning and taking longer options when they are, in my very subjective opinion, "better".

Hiking together… or not.

This is a simple one: everyone should do as they wish. People have different hiking speeds and rhythms that they feel comfortable at, and of course different fitness levels. It isn't as if there isn't a lot of conversation that goes on (heck, Jorge even talks on vertical up-hill climbs :-). If someone wants to talk more, it is generally not difficult to find someone else to talk to. Most of the time an individual wasn't left to hike at the back alone… generally people watched out for one another and someone would drop back to accompany a trailer. But if someone feels like hiking out front, whether because that's what is natural for them, or because they want to push themselves, I don't see anything wrong with that. The only thing that is important is that whenever there is a possibility of error as regards the path, then those at the front should wait for those at the back to arrive to make sure that all are on the same trail. Other than that, I don't think that there should be any rules about this sort of thing… frankly, the fewer of those the better.

Rushing vs. waiting for slower hikers.

This is an interesting one, because it is so subjective, and because there was no consistency. As a general rule, those who felt that they were being rushed when they were the slowest in the group, had no qualms about hiking ahead when someone else was the slowest. And there was even a case of someone who normally hiked near or at the front having a weak day and then commenting that the one at the front that day clearly regarded hiking as a competitive sport. On the other hand, there were those who observed that they had to wait a lot for the slowest hikers, raising the risk of being caught in an end of the day thunderstorm and still being on the trails at the end of the day when they would have preferred to have been showered and putting their feet up with a beer. I'm not excluding myself here.

Long hikes can be pretty stressful, group dynamics are often difficult, and there is plenty of opportunity to stew over things while hiking and as a result to lose a sense of proportion and objectivity… it has happened to me many a time… but next time you find yourself thinking such thoughts, try and see things from the other person's or people's point of view. If you are at the back, imagine how it is for those at the front -- unless the weather is bad then generally they will just be hiking at the pace that is normal for them. They probably aren't rushing -- they actually have more time to look around because they will wait for you from time to time. And so when you arrive, they might be chilled and ready to move on, or just ready to move on because they've waited long enough… don't reproach them for it. And if you are one of those having to wait, chill out -- most of the time it will be a beautiful day and you will be in beautiful surroundings. So the day is a bit longer and you are a bit more tired at the end… big deal (not).

And that being said, there are three general principles that I believe that people should respect.

o First, not everyone is going to have the same fitness level, but every good person even if they hike somewhat slower than the rest contributes to the overall enjoyment of the hike. The social dimension of hiking is one of the nicest things about it -- both on and off the trail -- and up to a certain point, the more the merrier. So yes, if you are one of the faster hikers, you will have to wait, but the benefits of being able to talk and spend time with the one at the back should outweigh minor frustration.

o Second, if you are the slowest on any given day or at any point during a day, then I think that you have a responsibility to the rest of the group not to dawdle. Don't hike faster than you feel comfortable with, and by all means take a reasonable amount of time to look around, take pictures, and recover after hard climbs. But don't waste time unnecessarily or just decide to go slow for the hell of it -- the others are waiting for you, so respect their time too. And this counts double if the weather is unstable.

o Third, you really shouldn't show up without training or out of shape. You don't have to be able to run a marathon, but you should be fit. This is partly so that you don't get so tired or sore so that it isn't fun for you, but it is also a question of respect for others.

The last point led to an interesting conversation between Lidia and me. In the past Lidia has been remarkably fit without training much… but she has trained some. This time, for various reasons, she didn't train at all, and, let's face it, age catches up with us all… even those of us who grew up hiking every weekend in the Carpathian mountains. Astoundingly, Lidia was still remarkably fit even without training. She didn't develop incapacitating muscle aches after her first hard day, and the day we hiked by the Pierra Menta, when I sent everyone else on ahead, she was primarily slow because of a stomach upset -- when that had cleared up we actually caught up somewhat with the others on the downslope. But the fact remains that she was not as fit as she could have been with a little more training, and that as a result everyone had to wait for her more than they would have had to do otherwise.

So we talked about this, quite amicably, and Lidia decided that training isn't a high priority for her… if circumstances permit, she'll do some training hikes, but they might not permit. And so I suggested that I try to find a stretch of days, if possible, during the next part of the H3H, when the hikes will be shorter, not as difficult, and where the expectation from the beginning will be that we will walk fairly slowly. Actually I kind of like the idea, because it might make participation more attractive to some of our friends for whom the big hikes are too much. But I'm making no promises yet! I haven't plotted out the route, and since it is almost all in the high Alps, it simply might not be possible to find more than two or three short hikes in a row that nevertheless advance us towards home.

So, there you have it: that's my view of what sort of a hike the H3H should be. Not a competition, but more like an expedition than a casual stroll, strenuous and a challenge that demands a lot of effort from its participants, but is nevertheless doable by anyone who is reasonably fit and willing to do a few comparably long training hikes beforehand. Just as important, conversation and interaction with other hikers are one of the great joys of hiking, as is time to enjoy the beauty of the regions we walk through, and so those elements will never be sacrificed.

This was clearly a topic that needed clarification, but that is more than enough moralizing and high seriousness! I had a great time, those who came on the hike are great people, I really enjoyed the time we spent together, and I hope to see you all again on the next part of the H3H in a couple of years time. And now I'm going back to being an Olympic Couch Potato!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

One last glacier

Somewhat thinner than a month ago!

Down valley towards the Grandes Jorasses

Mont Blanc, wreathed in clouds

One of the many glaciers

View back up valley towards France

Stage 27 -- Refuge Soldini to Courmayeur... last day!!

Short summary -- beautiful balcony trail.

Rifugio Soldini was OK, but not great, but we did have a piece of good luck: I had been unable to reserve for Père Ephrem (a combination of poor network coverage in the Alps and apparent chaos at the refuge) so I asked Lidia to reserve another space as soon as she arrived. The result was that instead of 8 of us being in a 30 bed dormitory with many others, we were put into a 7 bed dorm room and a double. Much better!

The last day's hike turned out to be shorter than expected because Beatrice found us a shortcut into Entrèves that allowed us to avoid an extra hour along roads to and from Courmayeur. We set off around 8:15 and arrived around 2:15. After a pleasant stroll along the bed of a dried out glacial lake we climbed a few hundred meters up to a beautiful (there's that word again) balcony trail with superb views across the valley to the Mont Blanc massif and its glaciers. I'll post a couple of photos, but I could post a hundred.

The final descent into Entrèves was hot and dusty... but not only was it, as mentioned above, shortened thanks to Bea, in addition she camed out to meet us so we didn't have to search for the hotel, and to top it off she had the hotel lay out champagne and orange juice and some sandwiches as a welcome buffet! A delightful finish to the first part of the H3H!!

Some final thoughts tomorrow....

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Rifugio Soldini with Mont Blanc


Crossing the frontier

The Black Wall

Crossing a stream

Postglacial landscape along the trail

Crossing scree

After the ascent

Climbing to Refuge Robert Blanc

Some mountain or other

Southwest view

End of July, 2500m

Down under clouds to Mont Blanc

Lidia makes it up to the pass!

The way ahead

We went over the lefthand pass...

Lidia and Arnulf arriving at the Pierra Menta

Christophe and Roxane arriving at the Pierra Menta

Ioana arriving at the Pierra Menta

Sofia arriving at the Pierra Menta

Père Ephrem at the Lac d'Amour

View forward to Pierra Menta

View back to Refuge de la Coire

Stage 26 -- Refuge de la Nova to Refuge Elisabetta Soldini

Short summary -- exhilaration instead of disaster.

Earplugs!! I love them and hug them and squeeze them and call them George.... In other words, I slept well. We were all in a single bunkroom just off the shower room (except for Père Ephrem, because I had booked for him later) and it wasn't conducive to a good night's rest unless you had earplugs. Dinner had been excellent, by the way... but the bunkroom causes the Nova's overall rating to slip.

At dinner we had discussed what to do with the next day's hike. The dilemma was that there were two options: one shorter, and a second much longer and more difficult. Having seen how Lidia and Christophe and Roxane had done with the previous day's hike, it was pretty clear that they should take the shorter option. Père Ephrem, Sofia, and Arnulf were all experienced enough to handle the difficulty and in good enough shape to keep the day from getting too long. The tricky decision was Ioana. I felt that she would be able to handle the difficulty, but her stamina and fitness, as has been mentioned in earlier blog posts, are not back to where they used to be, and I felt that she would need much longer than the rest of us... and it was already going to be a long day. To her credit, she took the decision well, although I'm sure it must have irked her given her love for the mountains. So we split into two groups of four each.

My group set off around 8AM. The first part of the hike was about an hour and a half up a road... generally not my favorite thing to do, but in this case with very little traffic and beautiful views. And then, as Sofia put it, the good life ended. We began to climb steeply towards the Refuge Robert Blanc -- very steeply. We had about 700m of ascent to do, and after we had done about half I called a halt and we sat for a few minutes to recover. The second half was worse. Whereas the first half was a trail, albeit steep, the second half was rather a combination of suggestions and confirmations.

We were going up an area of rock that had probably been under a glacier not too long ago and was worn smooth in places, scored in others. and steep most of the time... difficult to walk up, and even more so when you are looking around for badly worn trail markers and cairns. By the time we reached the refuge (around midday) the other three were near exhaustion... at any rate, their postures strongly suggested this (for example, Père Ephrem had his head in his hands lying on the lunch table, Arnulf was lying down on a bench), as did their lack of desire to order lunch (I mean, hello? Midday = lunch, people! :-).

However, an hour later, after some good omelettes (with Beaufort cheese and sausage), a fresh salad, bread, hot chocolate, coffee, and a few liters of mineral water had done their usual magic, they were ready to go on. We had a difficult traverse ahead of us to the Col de Seigne -- the border with Italy -- which didn't look very far on the map, but according to the signpost would take us three hours... in other words the implication was that it would be very difficult. And so it was.

Very steep ascents and descents, lots of scree, lots of glacier-polished rock, tumbling streams to cross, a twisting and turning trail, cables, pitons to step on, a single beam bridge... challenging! A very good thing actually that we went up that pass next to the Pierra Menta yesterday, because as a result it was clear who should and shouldn't come on the difficult hike today. Without that experience yesterday, and not knowing how difficult the trail would turn out to be, it could easily have happened that we all (or almost all) would have taken the difficult hike... with disastrous results. Either people would have had had to turn around (but the way back to the Robert Blanc hut, the descent from it, and then the rest of the standard way over the Col de Seigne would have taken an age), or we would all have soldiered on and it would have taken until evening (at least).

And I haven't yet mentioned the final barrier: we came around a corner after over two hours to see a black wall ahead of us that must have been 80m high, and a faint zig-zag trail visible climbing up it. Urk. And almost simultaneously we heard then saw a rescue helicopter fly into the ravine between us and the black wall. It hover landed (one side on the ground, the other in the air, the rotors turning) and someone was helped/carried in from a group on the ground. After a quick stop in a flatter area downslope (probably to stabilize the person injured), the helicopter flew off. A short time later as we were going down to the ravine we saw a lot of blood on the trail -- perhaps a falling stone had hit someone on the head? A sobering reminder of how quickly things can go wrong in the high mountains.

And we still had the wall to climb. Fortunately it was well-secured with cables, but by the time we got to the top we were ready for the day to end. But it didn't, of course: we still had over 500m to go down to our refuge for the night -- Elisabetta Soldini.

Phew! A lot of fun, but I'm glad we don't have to do hikes like that every day.

PS The other group reported that they had an exceptionally nice day -- quite relaxed and unpressured: they arrived around 3:30, and we, surprisingly, only about an hour and a quarter later at 4:45PM.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stage 25 -- Refuge de la Coire to Chapieux (Refuge de la Nova)

Short summary -- stress test.

Dinner at the Refuge de la Coire was OK. The soup was so-so, as was the dessert and the wine, but the main course was excellent: pasta with cheese and sausages and zucchini and cream and there was lots of it... fortunately... because we were all very hungry (except for the Day One-ers -- I may have mentioned before that it seems to take a day or two for the natural post-hike state of near starvation to manifest).

There was not much doing after dinner -- a little desultory conversation, and then to bed. But not, at least in my case, to a full night's sleep. Unfortunately there were two snorers in our bunkroom. Murder was narrowly averted, but I DIDN'T SLEEP VERY WELL.

The following morning the bunch managed to be ready to leave only seven minutes later than the requested 8:15... not perfect, but an improvement. Not a cloud in the sky. The hike started off with a bracing climb of 400m or so up to the Col du Coin, from which we had immense views, especially of the Pierra Menta (a huge monolith we were heading for). Then we traversed to the beautiful and seemingly aptly named Lac d'Amour (there were a couple of tents pitched next to it from which, despite the late hour, people were only just appearing). And then there followed a second, longer, and steeper climb to a 2600m pass next to the Pierra Menta with the odd name of the Col de Tutu. This proved to be very difficult for most of the group, and I took candid photos of each as they arrived (which will be shared later once I have Internet access again).

Lidia in particular was exhausted (although in her case it seemed to have as much to do with an unruly tummy as with the climb), but Christophe and Roxane were not much fitter. In fact Christophe had to stop about 60m down from the pass to catch his breath and eat something... during which rest break he yelled up to me that he hated me and my mountains because we made his legs hurt :-).

Then came a steep little descent (marked on the map as being difficult) and this was exceedingly challenging for the three mentioned above. Lidia came last and by the time we had finished the descent and a tricky following traverse we were probably 10-15 minutes behind the others. We caught up with them because they had sat down to have lunch, and while we ate I pondered what to do.

Lidia was not in good shape. We could see the pass we had to cross (over 2650m) ahead and she wasn't sure that she would be able to do it (it did look pretty imposing). She had asked whether there was any other way down (which there wasn't really, or rather, the other ways down would take pretty much the same time as the planned route). It was clear that she wouldn't be able to keep up with the others, and moreover, since clouds were in the meantime gathering, it seemed unfair to ask them all to wait around if it meant that they would get caught in a rain- or thunderstorm.

So, I called Arnulf over, gave him the map, explained where they needed to go, and sent everyone on while Lidia and I came after.

The climb to the pass was... difficult. And slow. But fortunately Lidia's stomach began to settle and some time after crossing the pass and after a while we started to make better time. But we were over a half an hour behind the others... and the clouds got darker and thicker. Eventually it becan to thunder and the first raindrops fell. But we were once again lucky and none of the thundershowers that were around did more than brush us. (Side note: 25 days hiking on the H3H so far, and this is only the third time I have had to put on raingear... and in all three cases the rain was very light. How's that for weather planning?)

We eventually arrived at the refuge around 6:15PM... oddly enough only 15 minutes after the others. They had also had a few problems -- in particular, Roxane's knee had not been reacted well to the 1500+m of descent, so they had stopped to bandage it and for the last couple of hours Père Ephrem carried both his pack and hers (Christophe's conjugal failure due to his not being in much better shape than Roxane!). Pretty impressive of Père Ephrem, who is not a big man and of undisclosed, but clearly not particularly young, age!

All in all, a challenging day, in many ways and for many people.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Stage 24 -- Montchavin to Refuge de la Coire

Short summary -- downs and ups.

You know how you can tell that you've got a group of new hikers? You give them 8:30 as a departure time and you finally get underway around 9. Fortunately there was no reason to hurry today: 7.75 hours of hiking and fine weather. An added benefit: Beatrice (who isn't hiking) offered to take everything that was not needed for the next two days with her in her car (two days because we'll see her again two evenings from now at the Refuge de la Nova). You wouldn't believe the amount of stuff that suddenly was unnecessary -- the back of the car was full. Me, I wonder what they all have with them that they'll need the last two days but not the first two???

Eventually everyone was suncreamed up, provisioned, packed and repacked, hats adjusted and I don't know what else and we set off. The first part of the hike was a little dull -- a fairly steep descent of about 500m through woods down to a bridge over the Isère River. But the ascent on the other side was much more pleasant -- woods and fields, quaint Savoyard villages, beautiful views back to the high peaks of the Vanoise. It was warm though, and lunch shortly after midday in a dark shady spot was very welcome.

After lunch we were immediately confronted with a steep climb of about 100m up to the road leading into the village of Granier. Several people were leaning on their poles at the top (but no names will be divulged out of respect for their egos!). Then... disaster -- walking along the hot road one of Christophe's soles suddenly separated from the rest of his boot. I tried a quick repair with glue... which might perhaps have held if we had been able to leave it to set overnight, but under the circumstances it was at once clear that it was useless -- he would have to go back down into the valley to a larger town to find a sports store and buy new boots.

Père Ephrem quickly flagged down a passing car, Christophe was bundled in, and the rest of us continued on the hike. By now it was getting quite hot and Lidia started to flag <Lidia speaking: not true, I was hot, not flagging> <Guy speaking again: walking slower than before is flagging, regardless of the reason, IMHO, but what do I know?>. It is only her second day and, as has been mentioned, her "training" was quite limited. After one particularly slow stretch I doused her arms and head with a little cold water, which seemed to help some, but only temporarily.

Around 4PM we saw a taxi go by on a parallel road -- undoubtably Christophe. And whether by luck or design, it let him off a km up the road... where he decided to wait for us rather than walking back down in our direction. The thought occurred to more than one of us that things had worked out suspiciously well for him. Said suspicions were only strengthened when we heard about the beer he had enjoyed in Aime while waiting for the sports store to open.

I find climbs at the end of a long hike to be difficult... very difficult. Just when you are ready for a shower and some horizontal time, you have to exert yourself again. Well, the climb at the end of the day up to the refuge was... difficult. And for some more than others. At some point Lidia decided that she didn't feel like rushing up (her words) and sat down on a rock for twenty minutes to admire the view. Since, however, she had neglected to tell anyone why she was sitting on the rock, the rest of us became concerned and I dropped my pack and walked back down to see how she was. Fine, she said. Can I take your pack, I said. No, she said. It would be faster, I said. I don't want to be faster, she said. And so it went. So, I walked back on ahead... to find Christophe and Roxane kindly watching over my pack. And then I walked the final 20+ minutes to the refuge, to find the others waiting patiently for me to decided how they should divide themselves up between bunkrooms. Ah, the many and various tasks of the H3H organizer! So I told them to choose, which they did, and then 10 minutes later Lidia arrived and told them that they had chosen wrong. So some of them got moved.


Ups and downs.

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Rest day in Montchavin

Relaxing! Carcassonne in the morning, Ioana mare and Jorge and Erik left around 2PM, laundry and blog and organizational things in the afternoon. Arrival of replacement hikers (Christophe and his wife Roxane, Arnulf and his wife Beatrice (who will however not hike due to knee problems), and Père Ephrem), and our friend from Eygalières, François (just for dinner). Good dinner, early bed.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Stage 23 -- Champagny to Montchavin

Short summary -- first day, last day... and Mont Blanc.

Dinner at the refuge was the polar opposite of the previous night -- copious and very good (we all had Tartiflette). However, since I hadn't slept well the night before, it was one of those evenings where I struggled to stay awake after dessert (the 100ml of pear brandy that I was served when I asked for a digestif may have also played a role)... and in fact I was in bed by 9PM. I'm not sure when the others retired.

The following morning I was responsible for a little comedy of errors. To begin with I realized that the night before I had forgotten to ask for picnic lunches to be prepared. But in the morning only the hut warden was there, and he apologised but said that he had too many other things to do preparing breakfast and taking payments. So I was fortunate that another hiker, overhearing my problem, offered to drive me down to Champagny-en-Bas (where there was a bakery and an épicerie) to buy stuff. Then during breakfast I managed to spill a large quantity of rice crispies on the floor when the dispenser malfunctioned... which the by now thoroughly harried hut warden cleaned up. I let Jorge pay and snuck out... I figured the warden probably would be happier if he didn't see me again :-).

Today was Lidia's first hike, and the last day for Erik, Jorge, and Ioana mare. I should perhaps explain -- half of all Romanian women are called Ioana, at least in my experience, and we have two of them on the hike... one smaller and thus "mica" and the other large, thus "mare" (Romanian for small and big, respectively). Ioana mare is Jorge's partner, and Ioana mica is the one whose pack I carried over the high pass a couple of days ago. Ioana mare has been suffering from a bad cold that Jorge thoughtfully passed on to her just before the hike... and it has been very impressive to see her, despite the illness and sleeping very poorly, march up and over each pass along the way. I'm pretty sure that, in her circumstances, I would not have done as well.

The hike started out with a bang -- climbing steeply over 600m before changing to a more gentle incline most of the rest of the way to the almost 2500m pass. Even Lidia's second set of lungs (which she normally uses to talk with, while the first set are used to gather oxygen for her legs) were pressed into service during the steep climb (I could tell because she stopped talking for a while ;-). But the extensive training she did yesterday when she climbed up to meet us on the way down to Champagny was clearly suffiicient, and she made it up to the pass without undue difficulty.

We had lunch shortly before the pass and then spent almost four very pleasant hours walking down to our hotel in Montchavin, talking in various configurations and languages. We'll miss all three of them when they leave during the rest day tomorrow... a rest day, which, I should add, I'm very much looking forward to -- I've spent 28 hours on the trails over the last three days and my body needs a break!

And Mont Blanc? Well, on the way down Lidia pointed it out. Erik and I were sceptical, thinking that it lay in another direction, but we both figured that expressing doubt would not be the wisest course of action towards the end of a long day of hiking. And just as well -- at dinner our charming waitress (an English girl from Cambridge) confirmed that it was indeed Mont Blanc. A narrow escape :-).

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Stage 22 -- Roc de la Pêche to Champagny-le-Haut

Short summary -- lovely balcony trail.

We were not overly impressed with the Refuge du Roc de la Pêche... well, actually it was the worst place that we have stayed at on the trip. Which didn't make it truly awful... accommodation has been excellent in general... but it wasn't very good.

The bunkroom assigned to the six of us did indeed have six beds, but when all were pulled out from their storage places there was hardly room to turn around. We asked if it would be possible for some of us to move to another bunkroom, but were informed that they were all full. However, this was clearly not the case as there were only four groups at dinner... and there were several bunkrooms. The blatant lies continued when we asked if there was a wireless LAN... no, they said, although we subsequently saw on our iPads/iPhones that there was.

Then dinner was so-so (with the appetizer being skimpy and bland, and dessert frankly inedible). Throughout it all the service was a little grumpy -- the general impression we got was that they didn't really want to have anyone staying there overnight. And to top it all off, it wasn't cheap either (for a refuge). So, a place to be avoided. They clearly haven't heard of the power of the Internet... I intend to make some honest and uncomplimentary posts on a few travel sites once I'm back home.

It rained, at times quite hard, during the evening and overnight, and morning arrived cold with fog and drizzle. So, for only the second time since leaving Eygalières on June 19th we broke out the rain gear. Pretty amazing when you think about it. The morning refuge chap told me that it had snowed overnight up at the pass we took yesterday....

We hiked for a couple of hours down roads, tracks, and trails to the town of Pralognan where we bought a few things for lunch (we hadn't felt like trying our luck with picnics from the refuge :-). And then the strenuous part of the day's hike commenced -- with a steep climb up to a rolling balcony trail, followed by a further climb up to a mountain shoulder at over 2000m (Pralognan was around 1599m, if I remember correctly). The drizzle had stopped before Pralognan, so at least we were unencumbered by rain gear during the climbs.

We had lunch at the shoulder then descended, at times steeply, to another balcony path, while enjoying some wonderful views of waterfalls, villages in the valley below, and of course all around the mountains of the Vanoise. In the mid-afternoon came another steep climb of almost 500m that was almost too much for Ioana mica... but only almost: this time she made it up with her pack. And we were in no hurry -- the weather just kept improving.

Midway through the final descent we came across Lidia, sunning herself by the trail. She had arrived in the early afternoon, and decided that, since she needed some training (never too late to start ;-), she would walk in our direction. She even had her full pack with her! Hugs and kisses ensued and we were all presented with wildflowers before continuing on down to the refuge, where we arrived shortly after 6PM (we didn't hurry today :-). Fortunately the refuge seems far nicer than the previous night!

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Stage 21 -- Modane to Refuge Roc de la Pêche

Short summary: big day, fine weather, shrapnel and rock piles.

Given the favorable forecast I didn't push for a quick departure, so we left around 7:30AM. The first part of the hike was a bit of a slog, first up steep forest roads, then up steep forest paths. After a couple of hours, however, the sun burned off the low clouds and we came out into an area of high meadows and, later, alpine pastures. Beautiful views back across the valley, and imposing rock walls on both sides, with streams flowing down from snowfields and glaciers on the upper slopes of the Vanoise mountains.

The only somewhat incongruous thing was the shrapnel lying around -- second world war vintage, I'd guess, from various sizes of ordinance. Apparently there was no area so remote that it was not fought over.

The hike itself consisted of a long climb of almost 1800m to a pass at 2800m, followed by a less formidable descent to a refuge at around 1900m. Our new hikers did pretty well. Sofia was as advertized: fit and fast. Ioana gave her best effort, but she doesn't seem to have regained that indefatigability that she had before her operation last year. In addition she was carrying her customary pack -- almost as large as she was -- filled with various necessities (;-) such as a dozen plums and a pack of endives. She assured me that it had weighed only 8kg prior to the addition of food and water... but I'd guess that it was around 14kg once those were added. And that was simply too much.

As we worked our way higher Ioana got slower and stopped more and more frequently. I was playing sweep (hiking last) and observing what was happening I suggested to her that I could carry her pack at some point if it became too much for her. Not something she was particularly happy to contemplate... but at some point it just became the sensible thing to do: she was having to stop for breath every 40 paces. So I carried two packs up the last couple of hundred vertical meters to the pass. It was actually quite difficult because the ascent was steep and rocky... and you can't see your feet when carrying a pack in front of you. I was pretty tired by the time I got to the top... and glad that Ioana had persevered as far as she did!

From the pass we could see, in the distance and partially obscured by clouds, a very large and high mountain. With lots of snow on it. Was it Mont Blanc? I think so. The end of this section of the H3H is finally in sight!

On the way down we went through an area of artistic cairns -- sort of like a field of hoodoos or stalagmites (for those who know either) -- surrounded by many large areas of snow left over from the past winter.

Another lovely hike....

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Rest day in Modane

A nice hotel in Modane!! Hitherto unsuspected!! We stayed in the Hotel du Commerce and... it was modern, clean, very friendly owners, great breakfast, rooms not large but large enough, great showers... well, perhaps I shouldn't oversell, but in comparison with the other hotels "we" (i.e., those of us on the H2H) stayed in in Modane, this was great.

Otherwise, a typical rest day: laundry, a couple of errands (including buying some rubber glue to try to keep my boot together -- the local sports store not having any wide-toed hiking boots), some Carcassonne, arrivals (of Ioana and Sofia), naps, various calls and emails, and a conference call.

One piece of good news: the weather forecast for tomorrow has improved... looks like there will be no thunderstorms or wind, and only a possibility of late-afternoon showers. We still plan to leave shortly after 7AM, however -- better safe than sorry.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Looking back to the Vallée Étroite

Looking forward to the Vanoise

Stage 20 -- Les Granges to Modane

Short summary -- adieu les Alpes de Sud.

I Re Magi, the refuge we stayed at last night, is a nice place. Deck chairs to lounge in the sun after you arrive, aperitifs on the house a few minutes before dinner, plenty of reasonably inventive food, free WiFi, friendly and humourous staff... now, if only they could solve the banana bed problem! The past couple of nights I've had the misfortune of having to sleep on beds that sag... or perhaps I should say, having to try to sleep on such beds. I hope I'll have more luck in Modane.

Another beautiful day -- not a cloud in the sky. We got underway around 9AM and hiked up to the 2450m pass through lovely woods and meadows surrounded by impressive mountains. There were a fair number of other hikers and walkers around -- Nevache and the Clarée Valley have become much more popular in the last five years, and so there are a lot of French people on day hikes, ditto for Italians who can drive up from Bardonecchia, and lastly the GR5, the primary north/south long-distance hike through the French Alps, also goes over the pass, so there are a lot of long distance hikers too. Not to say that it felt crowded, but just that there were more people around than has been typical for most of the H3H so far.

We got to the pass around midday, and saw the massive bulk of the Vanoise peaks ahead of us across the Modane valley... we'll be going up through them in a couple of days. It won't be easy, because we'll have to climb almost 1800m up from Modane to the first, and highest, pass....

But for today all we had to do was walk down the long and, for the most part, gentle descent down to Modane... which we did, arriving around 4PM. An easy day, except perhaps for Ioana, who has been battling a cold and lost her voice sometime during the hike. Hope she recovers sufficient strength during tomorrow's rest day.

And with today's hike, we are finished with the southern French Alps. This is of interest and importance because the weather patterns in the northern and the southern French Alps are often quite different: the southern Alps being more influenced by Mediterranean weather patterns, and the northern Alps having weather more typical of Switzerland. Since the weather has been hot and dry in the south, and wet and cool in the north, we might see less perfect weather than we have had so far... :-(.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Stage 19 -- Nevache to Les Granges de la Vallée Étroite

Short summary -- you can have anything you want...

We were all pretty stiff and tired yesterday evening after the hike to Nevache, so we all went to bed quickly after dinner. All, that is, except for Jorge, Valentin, and Erik, who played Carcassonne until midnight. But that was OK because Valentin was not hiking the next day (he and Reinhard having come to the end of their marathon participation -- 12 stages!). And Erik had decided to take the shorter pass with Ioana -- a mere 2.5-3 hours. And Jorge... well, he doesn't need sleep, or food, or proper hiking gear (he hikes in jeans... I'd die if I tried to hike in jeans... but Jorge doesn't sweat... and so he doesn't need showers either)... basically Jorge is a bit of an enigma: is he really human?

In the morning around 9AM we said goodbye to Reinhard and Valentin, and then Jorge and I, following the advice of our hostess, bushwacked up to a balcony trail, followed by a steep climb to an isolated area where she assured us we would a) be alone, and b) see chamois deer. Neither turned out to be true, but the views were excellent and who can be unhappy about adding an extra 150m up and down to a hiking day?

<Irony off>

After that escapade we hiked up the valley called "the valley" to the pass called "the pass of the valley" at some 2670m or so. A dramatic hike, overlooked by huge rock walls and majestic scree slopes, and it was another lovely day, although a bit windy and increasingly cold as we got to the top. Actually, windy doesn't quite describe it -- it was blowing a gale and we were freezing, so we spent all of about 10 seconds at the pass before going down the far side.

We had a few snow patches to cross but it soon warmed up again as we descended into the sheltered valley of the Three Kings (as the mountain peaks on the other side from us are called). The high point of the day was probably the conversation, as we talked about many things (Jorge, of course, being able to converse even while climbing a steep slope :-).

And we arrived at our mountain refuge around 4PM... well pleased with our day... to find both Erik and Ioana asleep... well pleased with their day. The H3H is a little like Alice's Restaurant at times :-).

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The beautiful Clarée valley

Down to Nevache

The shoulder

More views from the shoulder

Les Écrins... Wow

The trail becomes interesting!

Les Écrins with Hikers

Descent to Le Monetier

Says it all

That way to Le Monetier

Lovely Vallouise

Stage 18 -- Le Monetier to Nevache

Short summary -- the most beautiful hike so far?

After a gourmet dinner in our hotel (classic quote from waiter, when he was asked which cheeses from the large selection on offer he would recommend: "I don't know -- I like them all!"... and he had the belly to prove it :-), and an excellent night's sleep, we hiked off around 8:45AM. The initial part of the trail was a steep climb, but after a while it became less steep and wound its way through Alpine meadows. At about 2200m we switched to a lightly marked and lightly travelled secondary trail that traversed steep mountainsides and scree slopes to get to a shoulder at 2715m.

Along the way the views just kept getting better. Over Modane to the slopes we came down yesterday, then, as we rose higher, further and further into the Parc National des Écrins, with glaciers and snow covered peaks up to almost 4000m. Absolutely stunning. And then from the shoulder: to our left views into a wild region of peaks and gorges, and to our right the long descent through beautiful countryside with Nevache visible in the far distance. Pictures to follow!

We had not been hiking fast, due to Ioana's nervousness about the footing on some of the slopes we were traversing, and then on the descent a new problem arose with her ankle. And Reinhard was having his usual painful relationship with his hiking boots. So, the two of them and Jorge decided to take a trail down to the valley road and hitchhike, while Erik, Valentin and I took a series of paths several kilometers through woods down to and along the, well, I hate to overuse a word but sometimes I have to... down to and along the beautiful Clarée River.

The three of us arrived at our Gîte just after 6PM. The others were already there, having successfully dangled Ioana as bait to snag a passing car. Except for the last 1.5km we had walked the entire way along trails... one more beautiful (there's that word again) than the next.

Aside from Ioana's ankle, which however looks like it is more a question of pressure from her boot than any serious injury, the only downside to the day is that the sole of my left boot has started to separate from the upper... which is NOT A GOOD THING. I borrowed some rubber construction cement from our Gîte, and some duct tape from Erik, and have tried to stick it back together, but I'm not particularly optimistic about whether or not it will hold for long. However, if it can hang together until Modane there are a couple of sports stores there -- perhaps I can buy a replacement. This is normally a really stupid thing to do during a hike, but what other options do I have? Lidia won't be coming until Champagny -- two stages beyond Modane -- and I'm not sure that I have any backup boots in Provence (where she will be coming from). I'm also not sure that my boot will last until then.

Hmmm. And I thought that I had planned the H3H so well....

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stage 17 -- Puy Saint Vincent to Le Monetier les Bains

Short summary: a great pass day.

Toe not a problem! We said goodbye to Russell and Thomas and headed off down the postman's trail into Vallouise. A lovely little village, albeit a little busy with visitors... perhaps we were fortunate to stay up in the peace and quiet of Puy Saint Vincent.

And the hike? Well, we walked north up a valley with increasingly impressive views westward to the Écrins. At first Erik strode out ahead... but later, as the slope got steeper and the air thinner, he started to flag and we knew that we had not yet found our Thomas Bily replacement. I think a combination of jetlag, his long hike yesterday, a heavy pack, and a few extra years since his last hike in the Alps took a toll. He'll be fine overall, but he won't be out front all the time as it looked might be the case.

Ioana reached the pass at 2425m a few minutes ahead of Erik -- revealing surprising stamina (all the more surprising since at the beginning of the hike she had announced that she didn't have any stamina!). Her problems started on the far side as the trail went downhill. It turns out that she has a slight knee problem... and it made her a little uncertain. So, she brought up the rear during the descent.

And Jorge? Well, I can perhaps best give you an idea of his general state of fitness by saying that after dinner he went out for a walk. He is in fact our next Thomas Bily (or would be if he were a less perfect gentleman... but he is not and so stayed with Ioana most of the time!). Perhaps we will not find a Thomas Bily replacement?

Valentin was as strong as ever, and Reinhard was first to the pass... so the Sattinger contingent did well today. At least until Reinhard's boots began to give him trouble again on the descent, and he decided that it would make more sense to take a cablecar down (there was one running). He missed out on a beautiful trail down through flower-bestrewn woods... but he also ensured that he'd be able to hike tomorrow -- their last day. So, a wise decision.

Beautiful weather, and most of the way absolutely beautiful surroundings (only marred by the ski lifts and trails at the top on either side of the pass). A great hike.

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Rest Day in Puy Saint Vincent

First, the Hotel Aiglière is a nice hotel... and excellent value for money. They offered a superb buffet of appetizers (all you can eat) plus main course (garni) with cheese or dessert for 18 Euros. And the rooms, at 35 Euros per person, although not large, were perfectly acceptable and had balconies. Nice common areas, including a man cave with leather sofas and a wide screen TV, and a sauna/hottub. A good place for a rest day.

Second, the night we arrived the village was kind enough to put on quite a nice little fireworks display at 10PM, which we watched from our balconies. There was another display in Vallouise (down in the valley) the following night, but we forgot about the time and would have had to have walked at least 200m to see it... which, as I'm sure you'll all understand, was out of the question.

Out of the question for some of us... but not perhaps for Thomas, who went on a medium hike during the rest day (???), and certainly not for Erik, who arrived while we were having dinner the first night and who was too full of energy to sit around with the rest of us the following day and instead went out on a six (6!) hour walk by himself. He may be our Thomas Bily replacement!

Let's see, what else happened? Well, I took a nap, washed some clothes, played some Carcassonne. Others did similar things. We had a large lunch (and as a result later had little appetite at dinner... it's surprising how little you need to eat when you don't hike ;-). We watched the end of a stage of the Tour de France in the man cave. Oh, and we took a sauna... during which I managed to badly mangle a toe (blood all over the place). Hope it isn't broken. That might put a little crimp in my hiking pleasure....

And in the evening Jorge and Ioana arrived and joined us for dinner. All was set for the next stage of the H3H.... Except for that pesky toe.

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Who is the Guy in black?

No longer too hot!

View forward at Col de l'Aup Martin

Views around Pre de la Chaumette (2)

Views around Pre de la Chaumette

Views around Pre de la Chaumette

The path ahead (gulp)

Waterfall on way to Pre de la Chaumette

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Stage 16 -- Pré de la Chaumette to Puy Saint Vincent

Short summary -- heat not a problem.

However, cold was another matter! After a so-so dinner and a restless night in a dorm room with the other three (although not due to them... I don't know why I couldn't sleep -- the altitude maybe?), we set off around 7:30AM. The weather was cloudy and cool, and after a few minutes it began to rain softly... and it continued to do so for almost all of the rest of the 940m climb up to the Pas de la Cavale. Climbing while wearing raingear is never my favorite thing... but it was cool enough that I didn't sweat too much. The climb took a little over two hours... for all of us other than Thomas, who rocketed up in an hour and forty minutes (thirty minutes ahead of the rest of us). He was, however, appropriately rewarded for his hubris: he got to wait in the windy cold until we arrived, and by then he was shivering. We all felt quite sorry for him. Honest.

It was so cold up top that we left as soon as we could. There followed a short 20 minute traverse to the 2760m Col d'Aup Martin, around the steep mountainside that I has been worried about the day before... but it turned out to be quite easy. I think that it was indicated as a difficult passage on the map because if it had been covered with snow, it would have been deadly. The far side of the Col was a very steep descent down a slope of fine shale that appeared dangerous and would have very much bothered any one with even a light touch of vertigo, but that in fact was quite firm underfoot.

And then the path went down... and down... and down.... After a few hours we got to a road. Valentin -- having dented a shin on a rock a few minutes earlier -- accepted a lift offered by a friendly French couple -- said lift being heroically declined by Russell, who in the absence of Valentin's injury would have accepted it in a split second! Thomas, Russell and I then followed the road down for another couple of hours. Then a path that led even further down. And finally, at around 1160m we hit bottom, and "enjoyed" a steep climb of about 250m up to Puy Saint Vincent... arriving at 5PM, after over 8.5 hours of walking.

Phew. About time for a rest day.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

That should have been...

Sateg 15 -- from Pont du Fossé to Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette (and not Puy Saint Vincent... that's the next day)

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stage 15 -- Pont du Fossé to Puy Saint Vincent

Short summary -- vilely misled!!

Dinner yesterday evening was a little mixed -- so-so main course, smallalthough excellent dessert -- but the hosts were nice and the conversation at dinner interesting. They were French, but not from the area, and had moved there four years ago to open a B&B... and for the first three years nobody local spoke to them, despite seeing them every day on the street. Even at school their five year old child was only spoken to by the children of other "immigrants". Apparently this is not unusual in the more remote regions of France -- there was nothing personal, nor were the locals irritated by their opening a B&B... they just didn't want to interact with people who were not from there.

Another interesting thing -- our host told us that it would take no more than two hours to get to our lunch place, and then another two hours to get to the refuge. So we set off around 9:30, in excellent spirits since in the meantime four hours of hiking is almost like a rest day!

As if.

It took three and a half hours to get to the lunch place (although in defense of our host, 45 minutes of this was due to a bridge having been washed away by a river, so we had to go to the next one). And then it took another two and three quarter hours of tough hiking (over scree and rocks of varying sizes) to get from our lunch place to the refuge. Frankly for most people I think it would have taken closer to four hours. And since it is always all about expectations, we were suprisingly tired at the end of the day (5:30PM)... and a little pissed off at our host!

Beautiful countryside, though. Very steep mountains (like in Ticino, for those who have hiked there), narrow valleys, high peaks (2500-3500m). Still scattered patches of snow around -- looking out of the window here in the refuge I can see a couple that are lower than I am (1810m)! Tomorrow we go over a pass at 2760m, and having seen the low-level snow I was a little concerned, but we heard at dinner from some other hikers who had been over the pass today that there was no significant snow. In addition, the weather is supposed to be fine. So, it may be a long and tiring day, but there appear to be no major risks, other than that there is a 1km length that is of particular difficulty. How difficult we will find out tomorrow!

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stage 14 -- Les Brés to Pont du Fossé

Short summary -- halfway day!

At least for me -- 13 stages done, 13 still to do after today. Funny thing: today was the first day that I started to feel like I am getting stronger and fitter. Up until now I have been tired the shorter (but still six hour long!) days and have survived the longer ones... but today, which was six hours of hiking, I didn't feel particularly tired at the end of the day. Just as well -- the day after tomorrow is a huge day crossing the almost 2800m high Col de l'Aup Martin!!

The hotel last night -- La Pastorale -- was very pleasant, and the owner was helpful, organizing a taxi for us to go to dinner in the nearby town of Chorges (the hotel not having a restaurant). We ate well and went to bed early.

The hike today started with a stiff climb of about 630m up to a balcony trail along a forester's road. Although not particularly hot, we were dripping by the time we got to the balcony... and surrounded by flies. I think that flocks of sheep must have passed through a few weeks ago, and we were the beneficiaries of the resultant bumper crop of flies. Most irritating.

But the flies were not of the biting sort, the view from the balcony was a superb panorama (a bit hazy though, so no photo), there was a nice breeze, and some time later the flies suddenly just disappeared, so overall it was a fine morning.

Lunch in Ancelle was excellent (I had a tartiflette -- a classic Savoie dish of cheese, potatoes, and ham), and we shortened the afternoon hike due to popular demand ;-). As a result we got to our Maison d'Hôtes around 4PM... an unusually early time! And then our hosts were kind enough to wash our clothes.

It was a good halfway day....

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Notre Dame de Laus from above

Stage 13 -- Jarjayes to Les Brés

<sorry about that... touched the screen in the wrong place and swoosh the blog post was on its way>

I think that I was in the midst of saying that I felt a little out of place in the refectory, surrounded by people radiating one or the other variants of devotion that I find hard to describe but easy to recognize. However, clearly neither Reinhard nor Russell were affected in the slightest... at least judging by the two liters of red wine that they ordered and (with a little help from Thomas and Valentin) consumed with lunch (which was, by the way, very tasty)!

Afterwards we climbed a steep trail -- appropriately enough a Via Dolorosa with 15 stations -- to a pass to the north, arriving at the top hot, sweaty, and (I suspect) in some cases more tired than would have been the case without wine at lunch ;-). Shortly afterwards we noticed that Reinhard had begun to lag behind dramatically. When asked he said that he was OK, but wanted to take photographs of the huge vistas and lovely countryside. So we split into two groups -- Reinhard and the rest, who were more interested in finishing the hike earlier rather than later.

There remained a long and increasingly dusty descent into a wide valley, crossing a busy road and the railway line from Gap to Briançon, and then a shorter but even less enjoyable ascent of 4km or so along a moderately busy road to the very nice hotel that was our destination for the night.

About an hour later Reinhard limped in, having developed serious and deep blisters on the bottom of at least one foot: his hike, at least for now, was over.

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Stage 13 -- Jarjayes to Les Brés

Short summary -- saints and martyrs.

The saints being encountered at Notre Dame de Laus, one of the top pilgramage sites in France, and the martyr being Reinhard Sattinger as will become clear below.

We were in no hurry to depart from our yurtish paradise, and since Notre Dame de Laus, where we planned to have lunch, was not far away, we also had no need to depart early. So, we ambled off around 10AM.

The day was... well, probably hot, but to be honest, I'm so used to heat by now that unless it is extreme I'm not overly bothered. We walked a while along a quiet road through fields and forest, then up an ever steeper and ever less well marked trail to the Pas de Lièvre (Pass of the Hare). There we found out why the markings had gotten so sketchy -- the trail down to the sanctuary was quite precipitous, and my guess is that the Church wanted to avoid too many pilgrims arriving, or rather trying to arrive, by that route.

However, experienced hikers that we are, we came down without misadventure, after having enjoyed almost a bird's eye view of the sanctuary (photo to be posted shortly).

As we arrived coming down, Reinhard and Valentin arrived coming up, having speed hiked for three hours from their B&B in Ventrols, and we all went in to lunch. I must say that I felt a little out of place in the refectory, surrounded by a mixture of older couples and groups, and younger families, all radiating (at least to my eyes) one or the other variants of

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Jarjayes postscript

I wrote the blog entry before dinner, before getting to know the owners, and before the night spent in the yurts... and all three are worthy of comment.

First, dinner. Best we've had on the trip so far (and we have in general eaten well). A salad of beans and other garden vegetables that had just been picked, followed by lamb slow-cooked for four hours in the oven with "Oreilles d'Ane" -- pasta with cheese and spinach -- and finishing with apricots cooked with thyme and honey. The lamb in particular was heavenly. And as a further indication of how good the meal was, I'll point out that I don't normally like beans much, spinach at all, or apricots except as jam... and here I loved all three.

Second, the owners. Charming, engaging, helpful, he with a fine sense of humour, she with her genius for cooking... it was a pleasure to talk with them.

Third, the night in the yurt. Thomas Bily said he had never slept as well, and while I wouldn't go quite as far, they were very romantic (although for us this night only theoretically, of course, given that there was a notable lack of female company :-), with candlelight and spectacular views out over the vast valley to the mountains on the other side.

Definitely a place to go back to... and soon!!!

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