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