GR5/GR55 - The Northern Alps (Lake Geneva to Briançon)


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Europe » France » Rhône-Alpes » Mont Blanc
October 21st 2009
Published: October 28th 2009
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Welcome to the penultimate entry in my trek across Europe. This blog describes the route my friend Billy and I took through the Northern Alps from Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman) to Briançon in a little over two weeks, a journey which almost certainly is the hardest but one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. If at times I descend into hyperbole or exaggeration then please forgive me for the landscape was truly spectacular whilst you have to (or certainly I had to) dig deep to find the determination and resolve to endure the many setbacks, fatigue and discomfort which is part of trekking through a terrain as difficult as the Alps. I've included details of the stages that we did to illustrate the effort that went into completing this section of the GR5 although perhaps the profile picture is more striking. It certainly got my attention!

Day 1: Thonon-les-Bains to Chevenoz (25km: 1090m ascent / 545m descent)
Day 2: Chevenoz to La Chapelle d'Abondance (22km; 1730m / 1625m)
Day 3: La Chapelle d'Abondance to Chésery (21km; 1495m / 545m)
Day 4: Chésery to Samoëns (25km; 670m / 1500m)
Day 5: Samoëns to Refuge de Moëde Anterne (23km; 1800m / 505m)
Day 6: Refuge de Moëde Anterne to Les Houches / Chamonix (21km; 1000m / 1990m)
Day 7: Les Houches to Les Contamines (19km; 1500m / 1345m)
Day 8: Les Contamines to Plan de la Lai (24km; 1535m / 825m)
Day 9: Plan de la Lai to Landry (29km; 1075m / 2120m)
Day 10: Landry to Refuge du Col de Palet (26km; 2400m / 515m)
Day 11: Refuge du Col de Palet to Refuge d'Entre Deux Eaux (22km; 750m / 1240m)
Day 12: Refuge d'Entre Deux Eaux to Roc de la Pêche (24km; 950m / 1250m)
Day 13: Roc de la Pêche Modane / Forneaux (21km; 950m / 1750m)
Day 14: Modane / Forneaux to Refuge du Thabor (16km; 1500m / 50m)
Day 15: Refuge de Thabor to Nevache (16km; 525m / 1200m)
Day 16: Nevache to Briançon (27km; 1380m; 1825m)

Having taken the boat from Nyon to Thonon-Les-Bains (I hope nobody considers this to be cheating - after all only Jesus can walk on water), I met up that evening with Billy, a guy that had been part of my tour group in South America a couple of years earlier and who is a bit of a keen walker - he had been treking in Nepal only a couple of months earlier. We had decided on the 'easier' two day route to La Chapelle d'Abondance starting in Thonon rather than going direct from St Gingolph. All I can say is that if that was the easier route than god help those who do the one day trek, it must be a killer.

To be fair the first day's walking was pretty comfortable. You leave Thonon through a series of quiet residential streets leading uphill away from the station before a pleasant stroll through some woods on the edge of town. Thereafter, you pass through sleepy little villages which lie between the lake and the mountains, steadily gaining height as you walk along empty rural roads. Only a couple of times did we encounter some short steep climbs on loose rock, which made climbing difficult. We arrived in Chevenoz in good time only to find that the gîte d'étape was closed - fortunately we could still sleep there but it no longer provided food. Things soon got worse as the main water pipe for the house burst meaning we couldn't take a shower, use the toilet or get a drink. So hungry, smelly and thirsty we set about finding a meal, which was surprisingly difficult to do. Since my return to the UK, people say that I look stress free and relaxed. It's true that whilst trekking I didn't share the worries of most people - mortgages, jobs, family etc - but for the first time in my life there were times when I genuinely didn't know where my next meal was coming from, which for those of you who now me well is a scary prospect. In Chevenoz itself one bar had closed, one was closed for the owner's holidays and the village shop had long since disappeared. So that is how we ended up walking 3km in flip-flops along a major road to the next town, as we heard it had two hotels open where we could get a meal. It was quite a relief, therefore, to finally be able to sit down to a substantial meal and a few beers. The owners were good enough to provide us with breakfast and lunch the next day, and even gave us a lift back to where we were staying. I include this in the blog because we had seriously considered the bleak prospect of having to do the next stage without any food. It was very fortunate that we sorted something out because the next day's stage was so tough, I doubt I would have made it without food.

The stage from Chevenoz to Chapelle d'Abondance is described in the guidebook as a day of “high forested slopes, grassy crests and rugged cols”. In 9 hours of walking, we covered 22kms, climbed 1730m and descended a further 1625m and crossed the high points of Le Grand Chesney (altitude 1414m); Tête des Faux (1772m); Col de la Case d'Oche (1812m); Les Portes d'Oche (1937m); Col de Pavis (1944m); Col de Bise (1915m) and Pas de la Bosse (1816m) before finally dropping down into the town of La chapelle d'Abondance (1021m). From the beginning of the day, the GR5 takes you steeply uphill through forest and open alpage before an almost vertical slope takes you up the flank of a crest in the shadow of a cable car to the top of the Tête des Faux. From here there is a panoramic 360° view back to Lake Geneva, Switzerland and in the far distance the Jura, whilst in the opposite direction it is possible to look out on the Alps to come, including Mont Blanc. After four hours or so of solid walking, we stopped for lunch at a small lake. It was at this point that I understood perfectly what people mean when they say that a boxer's legs have gone or that they are out for the count. I was shot. My legs felt hollow and whilst I was carrying on, I was stumbling and swaying slightly from side to side. It was my toughest day in the Alps and a real challenge to complete that day's stage. After lunch progress was steady as we passed high mountain slopes covered in scree and large rock formations, slowly counting down the hours. Later on we bumped into a walking group which contained a large number of ex-pat Brits and saw a herd of Bouquetin grazing on steep, inaccessible slopes. By the time we left the Chalets de Bise where we had sought some refreshment, everything was hurting. Climbing the last col was tortuous - I must have stopped every two minutes for a short breather and to regroup but eventually I was over the top. From the Passe de la Bosse, it is a long and arduous descent along a rocky path through alpage and then forest to the ski resort of La Chapelle d'Abondance, which was only enlivened by the sight of a young bull chasing Billy down the slopes because of his red t-shirt. Finally stumbling into town, we were very glad of a(nother) substantial evening meal in a local restaurant.

By this point in the trek, I had developed a simple rule - it doesn't matter how much it (a particular injury or sore spot) hurts at night, as long as it ok to continue the next morning. So it was that I was feeling pretty good as we set off for the stage to the Refuge de Chésery. The stage starts with a casual stroll along the riverbank before a hard 2 hour climb round the slopes of Mont de Grange, initially through forest and then open alpage on the higher ground (watch out for the electric fences!). From the top of Les Mattes (1930m) there were good views of the Dents du Midi and Dents Blanches, as well as the sheep, cattle and goats grazing the summer pastures. After an interesting lunch where we had to fight off a herd of inquisitive goats who seemed set on eating our food and belongings, the afternoon was relatively straightforward as we crossed a couple of valleys and cols, to enter Switzerland. We stayed the night in one of the many excellent refuges in the Alps, which offer bed, breakfast and an evening meal in what can be described as the middle of nowhere, and whose existence make it possible to do a trek like the GR5.

Thankfully, the stage to Samöens was an easier day, crossing the high points of the Col des Portes de l'Hiver (2099m), Col de Coux (1920m) and the Col de la Golèse (1662m). The first couple of hours in Switzerland were spent walking on good tracks through alpages and over high passes with views early on in the day of the glaciers on the Dents Blanches, a set of jagged peaks. Frequently we would pass little restaurants known as buvettes, which are essentially farm outbuildings with grey tin / metal roofs slowly turning red as they rust. The afternoon was spent on a long descent down to Samöens along some steep and rugged paths, often in the shadow of towering cliffs. Samöens itself is over 500 years old but in recent years it has expanded rapidly into a rather souless ski resort. It took us several hours to find somewhere to stay. At one point we even surprised a man coming downstairs to find us on his porch watching the tennis through his conservatory window (we had rung the bell several times). As it was we were able to find space in one of the gîtes when it finally opened late in the evening - they are often run by people who have day jobs as a sort of community service so it pays to keep trying if as we found they are closed in the afternoon.

Samoëns to Refuge de Moëde Anterne involves a 1800m ascent during the day through forest, alpage and high passes. It is a good day's walking which was spoilt slightly by the first day of cloudy and misty conditions which meant some of the apparently stunning views in the afternoon were obscured. That and the fact that the taxman was chasing me across France for having failed to the notify the student loans company that I was leaving my job and the country. From Samoëns there is a nice walk along the river (like many rivers in the Alps it had a milky white appearance), followed by an interesting section through a gorge complete with metal ladders and then a tricky walk along a steep and narrow woodland path where you have to use hand rails at times. There is a brief respite before beginning the day's climbing. Before lunch we had passed the waterfalls of Cascade du Rouget and Cascade de la Souffaz. The GR5 then stops climbing up the valley and instead loops round underneath some cliffs and electricity pylons (there is some really impressive engineering in the Alps) before finally reaching the Collet d'Anterne (1796m) where we had hoped for views back over the Gorges des Tines but the cloud had come in at that point severely restricting the visibility. So we ploughed on across a boulder strewn area and alpage where there are apparently “magnificent views of sheer cliffs”. I couldn't tell you, we couldn't see anything. At one point we stopped to dip our feet in the mountain stream flowing along the plateau. The discomfort I was feeling in my feet soon disappeared as it was freezing - they were just numb by the time I start walking again. Still it did the trick. After passing the isolated refuge at the Chalets d'Anterne (1808m), we had a zigzagging climb across crumbling rock to reach a higher plateau where we could just about make out the Lac d'Anterne. Finally we crossed the highest point of the day - the Col d'Anterne (2257m) - where once again we had disappointing views ahead towards the Aiguilles Rouges and the Brévent. All that was left was to join a number of fellow long distance walkers in the refuge where naturally talk was of what treks people were doing and on the stages to come. The prospect of bad weather and the imminent 15th September (when many refuges in the Alps close for the summer season) were looming over us and meant we were seeking the advice of the people who have been walking the Alps for years.

The next day was a big one - we were passing opposite Mont Blanc (4807m), the highest mountain in Western Europe. We were fortunate that in the early morning that the cloud had lifted sufficiently to reveal the views that were obscured the previous evening. From the refuge there is a 400m drop over boggy ground before a lengthy and hard climb to the top of Le Brévent. It was a very bare landscape with small bushes and some abandoned buildings. Higher up it became increasingly rocky, as the GR5 zigzags past the base of some large peaks before passing some huge boulders to reach the top of the Col du Brévent (2368m). We had to wait patiently to get a clear view of Mont Blanc as the cloud drifted across the valley. The climb up to the summit of Le Brévent was a tough one - the path narrows sharply before disappearing and you have to scramble over rock, carefully choosing your footholds and using a series of metal ladders, handrails and footplates. The GR5 is not dangerous but there are times when you really need to concentrate and keep a calm head as the mountainside drops steeply away from the path and you feel pretty exposed. The final ascent to the top of Le Brévent (2525m) is much easier along a broad dirt road, which leads to a restaurant, viewpoint and téléphérique. Once again we had to wait for half decent views of Mont Blanc, Les Aiguilles Rouges, the Dents Blanches and the town of Chamonix deep in the valley. It is a long hard descent over several hours down into the valley, initially along the top of a crest before dropping steeply through forest along a tricky and rocky path. Having finally reached the town of Les Houches it was hard to imagine how we had dropped a thousand metres along what looked like a vertical mountainside. In the late afternoon, we caught the train to Chamonix (a paradise for walkers, mountaineers and skiers) to stock up on provisions. That evening we had to shelter from a tremendous rainstorm where we bumped into a young Dutch couple who were in the same refuge as us the night before. They too were walking parts of the GR5 but had exciting plans to cycle to China when they had finished. Clearly crossing the Alps isn't exciting or challenging enough for some people. It is just fine for me.

From the Les Houches the GR5 winds up a road in the shadow of several ski lifts before the path becomes very steep as it follows a ski run up to the Col de Voza (1650m). We had chosen to take the high-level route to Les Contamines which initially runs alongside the Tramway du Mont Blanc before following a path that cuts across a steep slope and heads towards the Glacier de Bionassay. The path drops down to a suspension bridge that crosses a fast flowing river fed by the glacier. Another steep climb leads to an open alpage where once again we could only get a partial view of the glacier before a long slog brings you out at the top of the Col de Tricot (2120m). It is an even longer descent along a steep, stony zigzag path to reach a group of chalets before a final climb leads to an alpage and then a path that drops through forest to the town of Les Contamines, one of many communities squeezed into a narrow valley between high mountains on either side. We stopped in a bar to ask for details of the local hotels and watched as the barman arranged for us to stay at the hotel where his wife works. As it turned out it was a good choice - a 5 course meal (including frois gras, very suspect ethically but delicious), a hot bath and the chance to wash our clothes.

The next day saw us tackle the Col du Bonhomme (2329m), which was followed by an excellent ridge walk along the top of the Crête des Gittes. Initially, there was a nice riverside walk out of Les Contamines before a steep climb through woods to a waterfall and then out into open meadow. After passing several refuges, the GR5 climbs through a landscape dotted with large boulders before finally reaching the top of the Col du Bonhomme. It was surprisingly cold in the wind and we sought shelter in a small hut as we had lunch and tried to dry out (my shirt was as usual drenched in sweat). Crossing the col meant we left the Haute Savoie and entered the department of Savoie. The highlight of the afternoon was the walk along the Crête des Gittes, a very fine path that goes along the top of a ridge, which is exhilarating (it is quite narrow and exposed to a strong cross wind) and offers great views on either side. Another long descent leads down to our refuge for the evening, which whilst offering perfectly adequate accommodation seemed to be run by a vegetarian. Normally this wouldn't concern me (I'm very open minded as you know) but I think most people can recognise that after a 7-8 hour walk that there is something slightly unsatisfactory about a main meal based almost entirely on courgettes. The other amusing (and equally puzzling) thing that caught our eye was a sign in the toilet that asked guests to not flush ham, paté, cheese, sausage (including specifically garlic sausage) and cheese down the toilet. Now at what point do you think this became a major issue for the people running the refuge? True, there are usually signs asking hikers to take their rubbish with them back down into the valley as there are few bin collection services high in the mountains. But its still hard to imagine a queue of hikers waiting to dispose of slabs of uneaten and mouldy cheese down the bog. Anyway, we heeded the advice, content that our stomachs were as good a place as any to put our food.

That night we were joined by a group of middle-aged French walkers who were very fretful about the weather - they were convinced that it would snow the next day and were anxiously making contingency plans. We had no such luxury - unless it was dangerous we were pressing ahead with our trek. From the refuge we cut up a small hill before following a muddy path along grassy slopes around the flank of a mountain. There were good views back to the Crête des Gittes and down to an artificial lake. After passing a few farm buildings, we climbed past grazing cattle and a waterfall before coming out at a higher, flatter plateau covered in boulders and which is dominated by two prominent peaks. A slow but not too difficult ascent leads to the Col du Bresson (2469m). At this point the weather really closed in, as the wind started to pick up and the rain lashed down. We decided to get down as quickly as possible, picking our way through a bouldery mountainside to the Refuge de la Balme, arriving cold, wet and hungry. After a good lunch and in better spirits, we made the most of the break in the weather to push on towards the village of Le Valezan.

As if almost on cue (it was the 16th September), the refuge where we were planning to stay that night had shut down for the season - it was still open but what the French called “non-gardé”. This means you fend for yourself as there is no guardian to provide an evening meal and frequently no showers. So we had no choice but to stock up with provisions making our packs a few kilos heavier (which trust me makes a difference!). Having dropped steeply to the bottom of the valley, we had an equally steep climb back up to the deserted ski village at Montchavin - truly it was like a ghost town, everything was shut awaiting the winter season. Having crossed a few ski slopes, the GR5 wanders along the mountainside before a steep descent through forest and between gaps in the cliffs to reach a few hamlets by the river. There follows a much gentler climb up the valley to enter the Parc National de la Vanoise - a poster advertising the park has a family of Marmots sitting infront of a glacier covered mountain top, and this is pretty much what you get (it is truly beautiful). On entering the park, the path begins to rise through trees, scrub and in between boulders. On our way up we passed several pairs of hunters with their rifles casually slung across their shoulders. As the path began to level out into an alpage, we got caught in a heavy rainstorm, which soon left us very wet and cold. After a couple of pretty miserable hours we finally reached the refuge, where we spent several hours nursing a fire in an attempt to dry our clothes before spending a cold night tucked up in several layers of blankets. I'm sure you realise by now that there isn't much glamour in this sort of trekking and you have to be prepared for some pretty monotonous evenings stuck in the middle of nowhere. Billy and I had several such evenings sat around the fire reading Montagnes, the monthly magazine for people who can't seem to get enough of mountains, even when their bloody stuck at the top of one. That night was one such evening.

After a breakfast of leftover pasta, we soon crossed the Col du Palet (2600m) and had a slow and steady descent to the ski villages of Tignes and Val Claret. They sit in a very attractive setting by the Lac de Tignes, in whose still waters are reflected numerous snow covered mountain tops. Unfortunately, Tignes has been described as a “Benidorm-like resort” and you can see why - it is made up of identikit ski-chalets and high rise hotels. Once again there was an eerie atmosphere as it was still out of season. At this point we chose to split from the GR5 and took the GR55, a high-level but shorter varient that remains in the Vanoise and crosses several high passes. After a two hour climb to the Col de la Laisse (2758m), we re-entered the national park and crossed a bleak landscape with little vegetation heading towards the impressive glacial peak of La Grande Motte. We passed a few lakes surrounded by rock and scree before walking down some grassy slopes to reach a reservoir. The whole afternoon was a real pleasure - we were flanked by cliffs, snow capped peaks and jagged mountain tops. The colours were particularly notable with the autumnal colours of the vegetation, the sharp contrast between the snow and the rock and the changing colours of the rivers and lakes. We spent the evening in the Refuge d'Entre Deux Eaux, a place that has been run by the same family since 1908. I was struggling at this point - my feet were in a bad state. The soles of my feet were marked by red patches and it was difficult to walk around that night. So I spent most of the evening chatting to two French guys who had headed into the mountains for a day's walking and were debating what to do that night. They wanted to rough it outside in bivy bags but we thought that they were crazy - at that height it was pretty cold at night and the choice of a bed and blankets seemed a no-brainer. Instead, they decided on the even crazier idea of hiking back down to town with just torchlight to guide them. I assume they made it back ok but we were half expecting to see a mountain rescue helicopter the next day.

The next day we were able to enjoy the “wonderfully scenic” high mountain passes of the Col de la Laisse and the Col de La Vanoise. After a half hour climb to a blockhouse (military bunker), the path opens out onto a flat plateau dominated by glacial peaks on all sides. We passed a herd of chamois, which fled at lighting speed up slopes covered in scree and loose rock as we approached. At the Refuge du Col de la Vanoise we stopped for a break and ended up helping two women to shift 15kg sacks of heating material and 25L plastic cans but only after we had finished eating our mid-morning cake - there is definitely a place for chivalry in this modern world but clearly not at the expense of cake. We were rewarded for our efforts with a welcome cup of coffee and we got chatting to the women who guard the refuge. They said it had been an unusually good summer in the Alps this year. Their logic was that it had snowed only once in both June and July (it is a different world). From the refuge we followed a rocky path downhill where the view was dominated by high mountains and glaciers. We crossed a dried out lake bed on stepping stones and watched with admiration as a driver guided his 4x4 up the mountain. We then descended along ski runs and through forest to reach the ghost town of Pralognan. After the (relative) excitement of the morning, the afternoon involved a slow climb up the valley back into the national park and our refuge for the evening. We often found that we suffered from last hour syndrome - you've done most of the hard work and your level of effort naturally drops off in the final hour of the day's walk as your thoughts turn to a hot shower, good feed and some refreshing beers. The trouble is that the walk can really drag on if you're not careful and it felt like that as we headed to the refuge. The night's stay was really only memorable for the huge St Bernard dog that was lounging on the floor - it was massive.

From the refuge we climbed to steep and stony slopes up to the Col de Chavière, at 2796m the highest point on my trek. The day starts by crossing an alpage with views of the glacial peak of Péclet-Polset before passing a set of “saw-tooth” peaks, an interesting but fair description of the mountain flanking the valley. Higher up, the path crosses grassy, bouldery slopes which are covered in cairns - piles of rocks placed by fellow hikers to guide your way. Towards the top of the col the path disappears and you have to scramble over slabs of limestone and across loose rock and schist. One final effort brought us out at the top of the col and we indulged in a series of self-congratulatory photos (surely all the hard work was now done - er, not quite!). The descent on the other side was much easier, notable for the views of three waterfalls across the valley and passing the misnamed Source du Vin, one of many springs that flow out of the mountainside and provide ice cold water but are very refreshing. A long descent leads through forests and passed quaint little hamlets before you enter the built up urban area of Modane / Fourneaux. The best way to describe this town is that it is a giant railway siding - it services the main freight line between Italy and France. We managed to find a hotel opposite the railway station where rather curiously each room had padded doors like you might find in an asylum. During our brief stay, I scoured the local newsagents and bookshops in search of the topo guide for the next leg of the trek. In each shop I was met with the same response - “yes we sell the guides”; “yes, we have the one to the north of here” (the bit we had just finished); “no, we don't have the one to south”; “now you come to mention it, we should probably think about restocking it, we do get quite a lot of walkers coming through here asking for it”. All rather frustrating.

The next morning started with a bit of a debacle as we tried to get the hotel owner to phone ahead on our behalf to book that night's accommodation. The complication was that we were now right next to the Italian border and the refuges were now rifugios. Having watched her unsuccessfully dial an international number for about half an hour (it was very painful viewing), we decided to play it safe and do a short day up to the Refuge du Thabor, which we knew to be open but non-gardé. From Modane, you follow an old pilgrim route that takes you past numerous shrines up steep, narrow paths until you reach the Sanctuaire Notre Dame du Charmaix, a chapel dating back from 1401, which you reach by crossing over a stone bridge which spans a narrow gorge. After passing another empty ski village, the GR5 heads up the valley, initially through forest and then it opens out to reveal a couple of hydroelectric plants and isolated chalets. The day's stage ends just before the Col de la Vallée Etroite (2434m) with views of Mont Thabor. In the refuge we set about getting a fire going and cooking diner.

We were joined during the afternoon by several groups of walkers who were more than happy to join us around the fire. One French guy sticks in my memory - my best description is that he looked a bit like a hippy, with flowing long hair and dressed just in a shirt and rolled up trousers. He had been bumming around France for 6 years hitch-hiking and doing odd jobs - I think he genuinely got by with no money. It looked like he hadn't had a decent meal in days - he devoured some spare pasta and then started cooking some wild roots / leaves that he had picked on the way up the mountain. He had decided to do the Via Alpina, a crescent shape walked through the Alps that takes you from France to Slovenia via Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and potentially even further afield. The amazing thing is that he had waited until the end of summer to set off. More bizarrely, he had ambitions to walk all the way to India, although he recognised that this might be tricky! - for example getting across Iran before his visa expires. The thing is, I could imagine he doing it. As for me, I was thinking no further ahead than Briançon, which we were due to get to in a couple of days and which marked the half way point across the Alps.

I was suffering a bit from man flu at this point - the damp conditions in the refuges meant I couldn't get my clothes dry from the day's walking and it was leading to me feeling a bit run down. I had a broken night's sleep and awoke with little appetite for breakfast or for the day's walking. The stage to Névache involved a gentle walk down the Vallée Étroite, before a steep climb to the top of a col and then a long descent to the villages below. Early on we crossed the Col de la Vallée Étroite, which marked the old Franco-Italian border and is now the departmental boundary between Savoie and the Hautes-Alpes (an amusing title because there was no discernible difference in height in the mountains - they all look bloody high to me). The Vallée Étroite is a curiosity - it is culturally and historically Italian but is now officially French. Having reached the rifugios (which were closed), the path enters forest and zigzags steeply uphill before crossing gentler grassy slopes. The highest point of the stage is the Col des Thures (2194m) and from there we dropped down past a lonely shepherd's cottage and then through pine forest to reach a rock tower known as La Demoiselle. Unfortunately, my heart wasn't it. It had been drizzling most of the day and I was cold, wet and fed up. We made it down to the collection of villages known as Névanche and had the usual rigmarole of trying to find a hotel. Having eventually found one, I ended up sleeping for hours trying to regain some strength. I knew things were pretty bad when I could barely make a dent in the 'mountaineers' buffet that evening. My spirits weren't lifted by the sight of two sisters just out of university who were on French TV because they were about to set out on a ten month, 8000km trek around Europe. They didn't even know what they were doing - for a start you saw them packing a bottle of champagne into their rucksacks. Yeah right. There's no way you would walk with all that unnecessary weight. It was either done for the TV cameras or because they are really naïve. Either way, I bet that it was drunk before the end of the first night. I guess that I was a bit irritated because no-one had shown an interest in my walk and I had a fundraising site that I wanted to publicise. Maybe its because I'm not two attractive 20 something French sisters (after all every story needs an angle). Or maybe its because I hadn't made much (any) effort to get in touch with newspapers or TV stations.

The GR5C to Briançon is an excellent day's walk but hard. The variant passes over a number of mountains and along a high crest with birds-eye views over Briançon. From Névanche the path climbs uphill through forest for two hours to a lake with views back across la Vallée de la Clarée and the Vanoise in the far distance. The path then climbs up to the Porte de Cristol (2483m) and then along a flat track to the Col de Granon (2413m) where there were numerous barracks, military vehicles and soldiers scattered across the sunny slopes. Along the way there were great views towards Briançon, the Col des Ayes and a number of glaciated peaks to the west. The walk along the exposed Crête de Peyrolle was truly wonderful although at the time I'm sure that I was more concerned about self-preservation than taking in the magnificent 360° views. The GR5 takes you up a narrow path that hugs the top of the crest, which you follow for a couple of hours passing La Grande Peyrolle (2645m) and finishing with the Serre des Aigles (2567m). The next problem was getting down. It is an incredibly tricky descent from this point on bare rock and loose stone - we had to faithfully follow the red and white markers as they picked a route down to a derelict fort. From there we could follow a proper path that had been cut into hill. It took over three hours to drop down a thousand metres to enter Briançon as we endlessly zigzagged our way down through forest until we finally got a view of the numerous forts that encircle Briançon. Having made our way past the Fort des Salettes and entered the old, historic Cité Vauban, we were able to celebrate the end of a hard and incredible journey - I was to take a short break and join my family for a week's holiday in the south of France whilst Billy was going to press on with the GR5. That evening we were joined in the gîte by a large group of outdoor education students from Grenoble who were doing three days trekking in the local area. After diner, we decided to listen to their debriefing session to see if there were any tips we could pick up. All the students had to do various calculations including speed (easy - slow), height gained and recovery time (another easy one - 9 to 12 hours depending on how tough the stage is).

As an after thought, I should probably add a word or two about my appearance at this point in the trek, especially my facial hair. After three and a half months it had grown into a wild and uncontrollable tangle of hair and has been referred to as my Al Qaeda * beard on three separate (and independent) occasions. My family with its usual dry humour asked me if I was now walking to Mecca. I had decided to grow the beard in the first place because shaving was just too much hassle and I thought it would be proof that I'd actually been away travelling and not just sitting in some retreat in the south of France for four months. Want I didn't know, which has become evident since I've returned back to the UK, is that I am now part of a new community. Bearded men who pass me in the street seem to give me a nod of approval for my efforts. The beard is a topic of conversation in itself and some guys will defer to me on the subject as if I am some sort of expert. I'm tempted to proclaim “but I'm not one of you” but that would be giving the game away. Apart from the beard the obvious things to note in my appearance is the gradual weight loss and the really marked tan lines. Its why I cant immediately shave the beard off now that I'm back as I will look silly with a two-tone face.

What wasn't so apparent but much more striking was the smell that seemed to follow me (apologies if this section is a bit crude but I think it gives a fuller description of my trek and it is the sort of issue people have to deal with if they fancy walking the GR5 themselves). By this point I had become oblivious to the smell of dry sweat which was deeply engrained in my pack, clothes and boots. Its only when the people who joined me all described this sort of “wall of smell” that hit them when they got near my kit that I realised it was an issue. Which is a bit unfortunate as we had quite often to share hotel rooms or dormitories and I had happily been eating lunch in cafes and restaurants along the route oblivious to the (probably very real) concerns of my fellow diners. What I will say is that it is unavoidable. I defy anyone to get up and down those mountain climbs in the Alps in decent time and with a full pack and not reek like the rest of us. You can do all the handwashing you want and use a deodorising spray on all your gear but just that half an hour into the next day's walk your sweating again and back to square one.

So just the final blog to go covering the Southern Alps from Briancon to Nice.

Please don't forget my fundraising efforts - I'm still trying to raise money so please visit: www.justgiving.com/matthewmellor.

* For those of you in GCHQ now reading this piece because of the Al Qaeda reference, I just want to assure you that is a purely descriptive term for my rather wild appearance after 4 months walking, and in no way does this blog represent a threat to national security.



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