Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lush hiking towards the end of the day


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The Alps in the distance, Montagne de Lure to the left


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Day 6 -- Chaloux to Forcalquier

Short summary: long day.

The gîte we stayed at last night was a lovely place -- built in 1776 and apparently hardly renovated since, it had lots of atmosphere. I should have taken photos... but somehow didn't (fatigue may have played a tiny role ;-). Here's their home page if you are interested: http://www.gite-chaloux.com/ An excellent lasagna at dinner was followed by an early night.

We left in the morning at around 8:45AM, followed by a massive but friendly dog (that belonged, we were told, to a neigbour who lived 3km distant... our gîte was a little isolated). At first we assumed that the dog knew the countryside and therefore thought nothing of it following (well, usually leading) us. But by the end of the second hour of hiking we were starting to get a little concerned. Then we passed a group of road workers with some heavy equipment... and when we turned around the dog had disappeared. Hope he made it back ok... but I suspect he did: we can't have been the first group of hikers he followed (the gîte sees a lot each year).

The day was breezy and with a few clouds... so although it was hot, we didn't really feel the heat most of the time. Beautiful countryside -- rolling hills, each higher and rougher than the next, among which the trails twisted and turned, sometimes between or next to fields, sometimes in woodlands, occasionally along back roads. A fair amount of up and down, but split into manageable segments. At times it felt like Provence (lavender, olives, fruit trees...), at times the Alps (cows, fields of lush grass, sweet chestnut trees...). We came over the a rise in the mid-afternoon and to our left was the Montagne de Lure (1830m high... we'll cross it the second day after leaving Forcalquier) while in front of us, looming ever higher in the distance, the true Alps began -- it sent a shiver down my back: we'll be hiking there soon, I thought. I'll include a photo, but I'm not sure it does the panorama justice.

Around 3PM we dropped down into the lovely old village of Limans and stopped at a restaurant / café (the first we had seen all day) for a bottle of mineral water. We had been drinking water frequently (we each had 3 liters in our packs) but were nevertheless very thirsty. Over the course of the day we drank 5-6 liters each... almost all of which departed in the form of perspiration. Thank goodness for the wind... without it we would have really struggled to finish the hike. Even so the last couple of hill climbs during the heat of the late afternoon almost did me in (Jean-Paul was in somewhat better shape... partially because he _is_ in somewhat better shape and partially because he was only carrying a day pack -- between the extra weight on my back and the extra weight on my front (tummy :-( ) I reckon I was carrying something like 18 kilos more than him...). At around 5:30PM we arrived, very tired, at our hotel in Forcalquier, having hiked for about 7.5 hours. Can't have been too bad though -- I was still able to joke that if we couldn't find the hotel quickly, there was always the local undertaker (which we were just passing). :-)

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It is now the following day and I'm back in Eygalières for a day before heading up to the UK tomorrow for Madeleine's graduation (she did well enough on her final exams to get a 2-1, the second highest grade, which I found quite impressive given that she had only done two years of the three year course (having switched in mid-way after starting off with Classics). Anyway, I've been thinking about the hike so far, and I think I know why it has felt so difficult. There are two factors:

o the first is, unsuprisingly, the heat. When we went through Provence at the end of the H2H it was October... still hot, but nothing like it has been the last few days. Particularly days 2 and 3 were among the hardest hikes I have done ever... although nowhere near the longest that I've hiked in recent years, and quite tame in the up and down department. The heat really takes it out of you (it = energy and water). If it continues this hot, then on long days we'll have to request a picnic breakfast, pay the night before, and leave at 6AM so as to get most of the hike done before the heat of the mid-afternoon.

o the second is that I think that I'm not in as good shape as I was prior to the H2H. And the reason for that is something that I had forgotten until now. About three weeks before the start of the H2H I did a five day training hike through the Alps along the same paths that we took on the H2H -- both to get in shape and to check that my hiking time estimations were correct (they were... and they have been so far on the H3H, despite the heat). Anyway, I remember that I was absolutely exhausted at the end of each day... quite literally hardly able to move. And yet, three weeks later on the H2H when hiking the same trails I was tired but not ridiculously so. This year I did a few warm-up hikes, but nothing like that five day hike prior to the H2H.

And the second factor leaves me cautiously optimistic about how things will be on July 3rd when I restart the hike in Forcalquier. By then I'll be well-rested... and in much better shape than I was when I started a week ago. Of course, that's only encouraging for me... the rest of you who are coming to join me on the hike will not have had the benefit of a tough week of preparation! Unless, that is, you have followed my training recommendations to the letter (unlikely, I know... I mean, not even I followed them this time :-)! But look on the bright side -- at least _I_ will be in a good mood, and so will have the energy to check the map when I should, encourage you while we hike, tactfully resolve any little disagreements (you know, like: "let's take the shortest possible route today!!!"), and take care of things upon arrival at our hotel / refuge each afternoon. That's good, isn't it? <ROFL> (honest, Oliver, if you were here you'd see me :-).

In conclusion, for those of you who will be joining me in July: if long days (say 6.5 hours and up) are planned during the time you are with me, then, unless you are sure that there will be water available during the hike (because we pass through villages with stores / cafes, or stop for lunch at refuges), bring lots of water bottles (at least three liters worth per person). And try not to complain too much if I call for an early start... I have your best interest at heart! (...must... stop... grinning...).

And that's it for now -- back on Tuesday July 3rd after the hike to Cruis!

Climbing out of the gorge


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Jean-Paul heads off down into the gorge...

...along his first Klettersteig (Via Ferrata)!


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Les Gorges d'Oppedette

...suddenly appear as if from nowhere...


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Entering the Alps!

...or at least the d├ępartement of les Alpes de Haute-Provence.


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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Day 5 -- Rustrel to Chaloux

One or two word summary: Ooops.

It started off well. We were hiking before 9AM and the temperatures were pleasant with low humidity. No wind, though, so we were glad to get out early. After climbing up through the huge open-cast ochre mines of the Colorado de Rustrel (which once produced 40,000 tons of ochre a year), we walked through a lovely but silent and empty countryside towards the large village of Viens.

It has been a recurring theme of the hike so far: no-one, or practically so, on the hiking trails. And it isn't as if we have been hiking along unknown paths -- they are for the most part Grandes Randonnées... well-maintained national hiking trails. You'd think that everyone else knows something we don't (like maybe that it is hot?). Today was actually a little more populated -- we saw two hikers in the morning, and a few more at the Oppedette Gorge in the afternoon.

Ah yes, the gorge. The idea was to hike along the western rim trail, with intermittent views down, and a signpost that said 3.5km to the far end (at around 1:45PM) left us feeling pretty optimistic. However the trail went up and down continuously and was extremely rough, with loose rocks and karst pavement (think a field of toadstools... made of sharp-edged stone) everywhere, so going was tiring and slow.

Perhaps that explains why, when we came to a signpost that seemed to suggest that in order to get to the end of the gorge we should climb down a steep ladder into a cave, we followed instructions and got onto the wrong path. Instead of a gentle walk out to the end of the gorge, we went down an incredibly steep trail with ladders and iron bars and rails to the bottom of the gorge. It was a good thing we both have good balance and upper body strength, because it wasn't easy. On the other hand, if someone had been with us for whom the descent presented serious difficulties then I would probably have looked at the map and seen that there were two alternatives.

But I didn't, so we found ourselves on the bottom of the gorge walking up the (mostly dry) riverbed, and every 50 meters or so being directed by trail-markers to climb up the near vertical walls to avoid stagnant pools. It was exhausting... and that was before we had to climb (along a similarly challenging Klettersteig / Via Ferrata (climbing trail)) out of the gorge up to the eastern rim trail... which was significantly higher than the one we had been on.

At around 4PM we staggered with shaking legs into the village of Oppedette and bought mineral water from the wise-cracking grandmotherly owner of the local bar/cafe ("Oh yes, people come here all the time saying they aren't going to walk another step..."). We finally got to our Gîte (like a mountain refuge but not in the mountains) at around 5:15, considerably more tired than planned.

As I said, ooops.

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