Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Verdon Gorge --- Sentier Bastidonne and ridge walk to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie

After three days of summer, winter returned:  it was 6C in the morning when we started our fourth and last hike... and it would get much colder before we were finished.  Once again Françoise dropped us off at the edge of the gorge, this time at the start of the Sentier Bastidonne, a mid-level trail about two hours long.  The forecast was for rain showers and possibly thunderstorms later, so we arranged to meet Françoise at the end of the Sentier before deciding whether or not to continue with the climb to a plateau/ridge walk to Moustiers, our final goal for the hike.

Frankly, given yesterday's experience, and with the bad weather in the forecast, I wasn't sure how much interest there would be.  And the team's resolve hadn't exactly been strengthened by the reaction of the baker from whom we bought our lunch.  After we told him our hiking plans, he looked at us with what seemed like a tinge of disbelief and then started to laugh.  Not quite what one would call a vote of confidence.  But at least he wasn't polishing a scythe while laughing at our plans, something which happened to me once several years ago in Ticino in the Swiss Alps!

The Sentier Bastidonne is, like the other hikes in the Verdon gorge, beautiful, but unlike them, doesn't go near the water.  There were a few passages secured with cables, but overall it was much easier than the Sentiers Imbut and Vidal.  Here's one of the more difficult moments:

After lunch, which we ate in the car while a light drizzle fell outside, I asked Jean-Paul and Joseph what they wanted to do:  hike up to the plateau as planned (risking a worsening of the weather), or drive off with Françoise to the hotel.  After an ambiguous pause (possibly because each was waiting for the other to say, let's go back with Françoise), they both said they wanted to hike, thereby relieving me of all responsibility for what subsequently happened (a stance I'm prepared to defend in court if needed ;-).

About 5 minutes into the 450m climb up to the plateau (at 1250m) the drizzle turned into light hail... which continued for most of the next four hours:

At times it was more heavy than light, and it eventually got cold enough to settle on the ground without melting:

We got cold too, and when the plateau turned into a roller-coaster ridge walk, with some fairly steep ascents and descents over largely bare, and slippery, rock, the wind picked up, the hail intensified, and I got a little worried.  I had done the hike before, so I knew the trail wasn't too tough, and it is hard to get lost on a ridge, but I didn't know how far we still had to go and the conditions were pretty bad:  if anyone had injured themselves, it could have been a serious situation (although I did have a bivvy sack and other emergency gear with me).

In the midst of one of the most difficult stretches, Joseph was heard to mutter "Ça me fait chier!", which translates, more or less, as "This sucks!"  He was right, by the way:  it was pretty unpleasant.  And on top of that, his feet were killing him (blisters, Morton's), he was exhausted (from the cold and poor hiking technique due to inexperience), and he was slipping all over the place.  He said afterwards that he either thought he would die, or wanted to die... he wasn't quite clear which.  But when he saw that Jean-Paul had overheard him and was cracking up, he laughed too... so it can't have been too bad.

We finally came down to Moustiers around 5:30PM, having started hiking at 9:45AM, soaked and cold, but in good spirits, as the following photos show:

A pretty awesome four-day hike, actually.  And a pretty awesome pair of people to hike with.  Jean-Paul, an iron-man, always in good spirits, always looking out for others, and Joseph, on his first long hikes for decades, doing trails that would have made many experienced hikers blanch, and despite serious foot problems neither complaining nor quitting.  As they say in France, "Chapeau!".

Verdon Gorge --- Sentier de l'Imbut and Sentier Vidal

So, we learned something interesting overnight -- the road to the Chalet de la Maline, where Françoise had picked us up after yesterday's hike, had only opened four days ago on April 15th.  Despite my reputation for detailed research and planning of these hikes, I didn't even know it closed for the winter!  Had we started the hike a week earlier (which was an option), we would have arrived at the Chalet to find... nobody, and with 8km of road to walk along to get to our B&B.  I believe I can say with some high degree of certainty that in that event I would not have been been voted "Most Popular".

But the road was open, and so around 10:15 in the morning Françoise dropped us off once more at the north edge of the gorge at the Chalet.  Our plan was to do the continuation of the Sentier Martel, called the Sentier de l'Imbut, which goes along the river to a place at which the waters disappear under a jumble of huge boulders from some antediluvian landslide.  L'Imbut is wilder and technically more difficult then the Sentier Martel, and, if anything, even more beautiful.

Once at the landslide, we would have two options:  we could either return the way we had come, or we could climb out of the gorge on the south side via the Sentier Vidal, walk back to opposite the Chalet de la Maline, go down once more into the gorge, and then climb back up on the north side to the Chalet.  I had never hiked the Sentier Vidal before, and knew only that it was supposed to be difficult, so I wanted to see how everyone did with the Sentier Imbut before deciding which way to go.  In addition, the forecast was for showers and possibly thunderstorms in the afternoon, and in that case we would probably opt for the shorter hike.

To begin with, we walked down to a footbridge across the river (the only crossing for many miles in either direction), where I took the following photos:

The unusual emerald green colour of the Verdon River comes across particularly well here.

Then we walked along the Imbut trail, at times close to the river, scrambling over and around huge boulders, at times climbing up to walk on natural ledges underneath overhangs, or unnatural ledges cut out of the cliffs, as in the following couple of photos:

We stopped for lunch and considered our options.  Jean-Paul and Joseph had had no difficulty with the hike so far, despite Joseph having a slight fear of heights, and the weather was holding up, so we decided to give the Sentier Vidal a try.

Well, we managed it, but it was MUCH more difficult than the Sentier de l'Imbut.  The first part was a steep zig-zag climb secured with cables cut into a cliff.  There followed a steep and exhausting trail through woods, and then came the most difficult part:  a section without cables or other aids that required some climbing skills and the traverse of a narrow ledge across a vertical rock face that even I felt quite uneasy about.  Major kudos to Joseph for having crossed it without hesitation or complaint!  Then there was another steep climb through woods that left our legs quivering, and one final 10 meter rock face with cables that we just had to pull ourselves up.  Definitely one of the more difficult "hiking" trails I've done.

I took a couple of photos on the first cliff, but thereafter was too occupied with getting oxygen and watching / advising the other two, but even the first two photos make clear the difficulty of the trail:

You can tell by Joseph's face and stance that it wasn't really his favorite place to be :-).

The rest of the hike was less challenging, although because our legs had been stressed by the steep climb up, the ensuing descent was exhausting.  By the time we got back down to the river again, I think we were all a little wobbly.  However, we gathered our remaining strength and raced back up to Chalet de la Maline... doing a signposted 1 hour in 45 minutes... arriving around 6PM.  For a day that had been billed (by someone or other :-) as "an easier hike", it had turned out to be quite a challenge!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Verdon Gorge --- Sentier Martel

Joseph and I, who were sharing a room, woke up the next morning somewhat the worse for wear.  Joseph because his bed was uncomfortable, me because of Joseph.  I don't know why, but more often than not I seem to end up sharing a room on a hike with snorers.  Because of this I've taken to checking beforehand whether or not people snore... but Joseph wasn't aware that he did.  It was a close-run thing, but I didn't kill him.

After breakfast we walked down a few hundred meters to the start of the trail through the gorge.  Named after the leader of the first expedition to traverse the gorge (in 1905), the Sentier Martel was created in 1928 and is justly renowned as one of the finest hikes in France.  Here's a view of the start of the hike (you can just see stairs to the right of the river where it seems to disappear):

Thereafter the trail goes into a series of tunnels, with fairly rough floors, occasional rocks, and many deep puddles.  The longest tunnel is over 650m long and very dark... fortunately I had a headlamp with me, so we were able to avoid falls and the deepest puddles.  Here's a view of the river in the tunnelled section:

And then we were in the main body of the gorge, which is just beautiful.  Here's a typical view:

The trail went up and down, with occasional cables and ladders, of which these were the largest:

The weather was warm and sunny but not too hot, there were a fair number of other hikers, but not too many... it was a perfect day.  Or at least it would have been had Joseph not bonked.  Bonking, also known as hitting the wall, happens during sustained exercise when one has used up all of one's stored glycogen.  At that point, all stamina disappears -- regardless of how well trained you are -- and walking 50m up a moderate incline is about all one can do before one needs to stop to recover.  Joseph was in good shape, but he had never hiked on rough rocky paths, nor used hiking poles, and there's an art to that, so he didn't walk efficiently.  As a result, although all three of us ate more or less the same amount for breakfast and lunch, Joseph was the only one to bonk.  And unfortunately, his idiot guide (who shall remain nameless) hadn't thought to arrange any source of back-up energy.  Which left Joseph doing this a lot:

Fortunately soon after this photo was taken we came across a young family who gave us some biscuits... and ten minutes later Joseph's energy levels were trending upwards again.

We emerged from the gorge around 5PM, having started the day's hike at 8:45AM, tired, but happy.  And this time Françoise was waiting for us :-).  She drove us 8km to the nearby village of La Palud sur Verdon (the Refuge de la Maline, at the edge of the gorge, being closed for repairs), where we checked into our charming B&B, Le Perroquet Vert.  A shower and a good dinner later, at around 9:15PM, we were in bed and falling asleep....

The gorgeous Gorges du Verdon

So, I just got back yesterday from several days hiking in and around the gorge of the Verdon River between Castellane and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie in Southern France.  I wasn't originally planning to blog the trip, but there have been many requests for photos and a description.  And, of course, your wish is my command... <sweeping bow>.

I'll probably split it up into several posts so as not to stress the blogging application.  So, without further ado...

The raison d'être for the hike was threefold:

o   I wanted to get in hiking shape before the upcoming CMT (Coast Moor Twinhike) in England in May, having found out the hard way that it is better to give the body a few days to recover from the first couple of big hikes in a season.
o   a couple of French friends were interested in hiking the beautiful Verdon gorge,
o   as was I.

I've hiked the gorge before, on the H2H, and have since then sung its praises to anyone who would listen -- it is quite something, over 40km long and with cliff walls up to several hundred meters in height.  Here, for example, is a view of the entrance to the most spectacular stretch -- taken from the village of Rougon:

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  We arrived in Castellane Tuesday, April 16th.... we being Joseph, Jean-Paul and Françoise, and myself.  Françoise didn't hike with us, due to knee problems, and instead played the most welcome role of Sherpa Deluxe, driving our luggage from place to place and picking us up and dropping us off as needed.  Her help was hugely appreciated, sparing our backs from several extra kilos, and our legs from many extra kilometers (mostly due to the main accommodation option in the middle of the gorge being closed for renovations).

The first thing we did, after dropping off our bags, was to go for a short hike up to the chapel of Notre Dame du Roc, which is perched on a monolith 200m above Castellane, and parts of which date back to the 12th Century.  Here's a picture (not taken by me -- the day was a little hazy):

It's a stunning location with tremendous views over the town and the mountains around about.  And then it was back to our hotel, dinner, and an early bed.

The next day was a warm-up hike of around five hours, from Castellane (725m) to the village of Rougon (930m).  It was an easy trail, with nice views of the hills and mountains around, for the most part gradually ascending, up to a large bowl-shaped pasture at 1250m, and finishing with a short descent into Rougon.  The day was almost mid-summerly hot, but we had sufficient water and our legs were fresh.  Or at least, they were fresh for a while... by the end Joseph's right foot was giving him some trouble (a variant of Morton's neuroma, I think), and the tail end of a gout attack was bugging me too.  Jean-Paul, our iron man, was of course fine :-).

Upon arrival in Rougon we saw Françoise's car in the parking lot but no Françoise.  Thinking that she was probably at the gîte (a sort of basic hostel) where we would be spending the night, we walked off to find her... but she wasn't there either.  So we walked back to the car... but it was gone, and with it our bags and thus any hope of a quick refreshing shower.  Sigh.  A little mix-up as to expected arrival time.  Instead we spent the next hour sitting on the kerb waiting for her and her phone to get to a place with a functioning cellphone net so we could tell her we had arrived.  The delay made the shower even more appreciated though!

Dinner, at the local creperie, was very good, and we turned in early.