Today was a beast! I thought I would add in some extra mileage by taking the longer tougher variant called the 5b through Italy to make up for some of the distance I lost by skipping the Col du pallet! So I climbed a mighty 2200 metres over four different steep Cols over 41k!
It was a beautiful crisp morning watching the sun come up! I was up at 5.45 without much sleep as we had another snorer in our dorm – a hazard of refuges! I inhaled three cups of strong coffee as my route wasn’t passing any commerce at all for the whole day and set off. It was a stunning alpine morning at 2500m
I descended 700 metres down to the Vallee etroite and then climbed 500m straight up the Col du Thur, then up another Col to the tete noire, and down to Blockhaus, and then another 700m up and over towards to Col Acles. This part was a wonderful test of my mental endurance as I hate heights and the path was badly eroded and really slippery. The path also wandered into Italy, and you can see the remains of the border fortifications from when relations weren’t so strong. Then it was back down to the valley again, with a final climb up to Col de Lauze at 2600m followed by a knee punishing 800 m descent into Montgenevre. It was a stunning day but my legs properly gave up on the final Col. I was stumbling around like a drunk person as I tried to climb, as while I tried to put on the gas, my legs refused to respond. I slowed down a bit and ate a clif bar, some trail mix and drank a litre of water and eventually made it for some stunning views
I am knackered! Ideally I would eat and go to bed but there is no supermarket and restaurants don’t open until 7.30. Managed to keep my eyes open and stumble to Caesars for salad, steak and icecream!
Up at 5.30 and the lovely folks at the refuge de plan sec had left out an early breakfast for me.
It is a fairly repetitive routine when through hiking! Get up, eat, down as much coffee as you can and get walking within 30 minutes of waking. The first hour or two of any day is making sure that the body is still working ok and warming up the muscles. My first hour was a 300m descent straight down a hill followed by a 300m climb up the other side. Happily the standard aches and pains were no more than normal. It is a fact of hiking life that something will be in pain at any point of the day. In the morning my shins hurt, my glutes yelp when I go up too many hills and my knees begin to groan when I have been descending for too long. My shoulders start to hurt from my pack by the end of the day and my feet are usually troublesome at some point – whatever the pain is, the upside is that it will probably move somewhere else at some point.
After traversing the side of a misty hill for several kms, I began the knee crushing 1500m descent to Modane. Ouch! Enough said. It was odd to be in a town, so I stocked up on nuts and babybels (my standard eat as I walk lunch), sent a couple of things I didn’t need home from the post office, called home, and had two espressos!
The view down into Modane
I really needed those two espressos, as the rest of the day was pretty much an unrelenting steep uphill climb of 1400m to the refuge at mont thabor. I was running out of caffeine propulsion by the end. At least there is very little snow up here, even at 2500m, and apparently it is all clear to the south. I met Martine and Francois up here who have detoured all the way from Contamines to Modane to avoid the snow, so I am not the only one who is being flexible and at least I got to see more than they did!
The refuge barely visible on the mountain
Felt like I needed some carbs so I tried the local specialty of blueberry tart and felt somewhat restored.
The view up the mountain with my tea and tart
And then I had to attend to the routine hiking chores – wash stinky clothes, figure out how feet are doing, sort blisters, stretch everything you can, and grab a good bunk.
Had a robust French communal mountain dinner with plentiful stew, soup, bread and cheese. A side benefit of this trip is my French must be improving as there are no anglais here! I had a delightful chat with Regis, who was kind enough to give me his dessert (yup I ate two).
Another amazing day in the mountains! Up at 5.30 for apple cake, cereal and coffee strong enough to put hairs on my chest! A lovely walk down the valley to the refuge entre deux eaux, through a bit of snow but not much!
Then I headed up the hill traversing a series of tricky high ‘neves’ (snow blocks) and some incredible paths through the boulders (that’s the track below), for 3 hours without seeing a single soul, and mostly being in the fog with less than 50metres of visibility, although I saw tonnes of cute marmot butts hopping away from me and a lovely antelope of some sort.
I arrived at the refuge arpont around 11, it was extremely flash and even had power plugs. After two coffees I headed off along the ‘balcony’ for the long walk to the next refuge (which was supposed to be six hours away).
The gr5 runs through the Vanoise, and for some reason they have adopted much more patriotic trail marking than the standard white and red. The tricolour kept me on track more or less. and I arrived four hours later to the lovely refuge plan sec to a cold shower and a hot tea. I washed my stinky clothes – they don’t smell great now so I can’t imagine how bad they will be in another few hundred kms.
I sat by the fire to warm up and then had the usual refuge communal dinner of soup, polenta, chicken, veg, cheese and creme brûlée. I was entertained by my 7 French dinner companions – all male, all having left their wives at home. They were a bit surprised my husband let me out by myself! I love the French.
Today was an excellent lesson in going with the flow! So, I was planning to traverse the Crete des Gittes – a high exposed ridge – but it was covered in clouds! So I sensibly descended to Chapieux through the most and walked into the nearest main town by road (a boring 15km).
I stopped by the tourist office who told me to avoid the next two big passes and instead head due east to pick up a lower variant of the GR5 in Bonneval. I felt OK with this option as the distance I would cover to the Mediterranean would be the same! She said there wasn’t a bus until Monday so I should ‘faire le stop’ ie hitchhike.
So I waited out a violent unexpected thunderstorm in the supermarket for an hour (lucky I wasn’t on the ridge for that) and started hitching to val d’isere. I got a ride in two minutes to halfway and then a second ride within five minutes! The mountain gods were smiling on me as the driver was a mountain guide and told me a better and more beautiful option to get back on track and go through the high passes. He rang the refuge at Col de le Laisse to make sure I could get there safely and that other hikers had cut a path through the snow and then he drove me to the trail head. (If anyone ever needs a guide – Stephane from Tignes guides)
It was a big climb and a lot of snow but as he told me it was perfectly safe as anywhere I fell I wouldn’t fall off a cliff!
I arrived at the intimate refuge which had a 32 bed dorm to find only two other hikers – Swiss guys making a film about the GR5. A note on French alpine refuges – I highly recommend them. For 40 euros you get a dorm bed (OK, complete with snoring), a big dinner (typically soup, stew and polenta, cheese and dessert) and breakfast. Given the food is helicoptered in it is terrific value! You can also buy wine and beer!
I was in bed by hiker midnight (8.30pm) and didn’t even get vexed by the harmonious Swiss snoring!
Distance traveled = 32km *
Ascent/descent = 1600/800 *
Rides hitched =2
Toenails lost = 1 (with a likelihood of at least two more)
*estimated as my garmin battery is struggling and most refuges have no electricity to charge it
So, today was a happy day! The gr5 trail intersects with the deservedly famous TMB trail for the duration of my day. So while I had to endure lots of sunburnt people walking slowly with heavy packs, they had conveniently left me lots of tracks to follow through the snow!!!
I walked from Les Houches to the lovely village of Contamines, where I stopped to buy crampons and sunglasses. The guidebook said it was a six hour walk, but I managed it in 3.5. I also had two coffees as no one was up when I left Les Houches at 6am.
And then continued up the river to start the climb up to the Col du Bonhomme. It is a lovely easy climb for most of the day passing multiple refuges selling cake. As we got up to 2000m, the snow was back.
There were about 50 or so hikers making the traverse, a stark contrast to my lonesome traverse yesterday. Some had amusing clothing choices – the French (and I) were in shorts and tshirts, but there were about 30 Chinese hikers who were covered from head to toe, including buffs on their faces! I asked the guide what that was about and apparently no one wanted a tan!!!
I stopped early today after a mere 7 hours on my feet as my next leg is over the exposed Crete de Gittes, and there was a thunderstorm forecast for this afternoon. So am enjoying the delights of a mixed dorm in the refuge to Col du croix du bonhomme at 2450metres.
The Crete de Gittes
The plans are shifting for the next few days as I had originally intended to climb multiple passes higher than 2200 metres and these are now all snowed in and inadvisable for a lone hiker (especially one who doesn’t understand snow and is scared of heights). I still plan to walk to the Mediterranean, it just might require a few days pounding the tarmac. I am treating this as an exercise in flexibility!
Distance travelled = 32km
Ascent/descent = 2316/894
Coffees = 4
Times fell on butt = zero!!! (Though I almost fell up the stairs to the refuge)
No. of hikers overtaken ascending from Contamines to the Col = 78
**note I am now on day 6 but have very limited 3G, will upload photos and additional posts when I reach civilisation 🙂
So today was not my day! Snow – my nemesis – almost got the better of me! More on that later…..
But first – a beautiful start to the day in Samoens, with a beautiful river walk up to the Gorge du Tines which was stunning with the sun coming up through the trees
The path up the gorge du tines with the ladder to climb
And then it was a beautiful ascent up to the collets du anterne! (The view with the ubiquitous gr5 marker in the foreground)
And then after a lovely coffee at the refuge, it all went pear shaped. Climbing up the hill to the Col du Anterne I passed over some very hairy parts of the trail where it was covered in snow. Traversing the snow was terrifying as one foot wrong and I would have tumbled down a big slope. (The photo below – the path is horizontal, and it is steeper than it looks)
I naively thought it would get better – big mistake! I got to lac anterne and there was no path to the Col – and it was about two k away and 200m up. And it was all snow and some of it was quite steep! I tried a couple of attempts to get around the lake and eventually figured it out! It took me two hours to reach the Col including multiple slides and several falls through the snow (in normal conditions it would be 30 minutes). I thought the view when I got to the top was worth it
The view back the way I came – that’s a crapload of snow
The view of Mont Blanc and Le Brevent from the Col
Or I thought it was worth it until I looked down the other side – a steep snow covered slope with no discernible path, but a view of the refuge moede anterne at the bottom. I skied on my butt down most of it – not on purpose, but I couldn’t stay on my feet. The highlight of the day was an uncontrollable 100m slide down the slope, where I finally manage to stop myself with my poles 5m before a waterfall! It was terrifying!
I finally got to the refuge after many more falls, and the nice man there dissuaded me from continuing on the gr5 route given the unprecedented levels of snow, my lack of crampons, the numerous bluffs and the absence of any other hikers, and suggested I descend to Les Houches by another path. I felt guilty for about taking a shortcut for a nanosecond (given I am fundraising), and then remembered how it felt with my life flashing before my eyes sliding down the cliff. I hope my donors will forgive me! The shortcut was still a brutal 1000m descent through the woods
Am now safely in Les Houches, fortified with a big dinner, and have adjusted tomorrow’s route to avoid the highest pass which is still covered in snow!
It was always going to be a long day – 46k, more than 2000m of climbing and a guide book estimate of 14.5 hours of non stop walking. I was (overly) confident I could do it in much less.
On the bright side it was a stunning stunning day in the Alps! Total perfection. I set off at 6am filled with optimism for the day. And then I started climbing up the first ascent and all of the paths were like this
Today’s soundtrack was clearly going to be ‘mud, glorious mud’. It was a challenging first few hours of mud.
Then we met my other nemesis – snow. I am not a fan of snow! I go out of my way to avoid winter entirely and succeed most years. And I am ok with snow in the Alps – it makes the mountains look pretty – but am less thrilled with it when it covers the trail and markings and you haven’t the foggiest where to go. It’s ok if it is a small bit, but I encountered this monster around 10am, and did the only sensible thing a girl who is scared of heights could do – I crawled up the side of it on my hands and knees on the rock face – it’s steeper than it looks.
The snow was also responsible for some major navigational booboos…. It is hard to follow the trail when you can’t find it – and I lost it a few times today.
The day got better once I finally found an open cafe – at 11.30 am when I got my first coffee of the day and inhaled a huge croque Monsieur. I didn’t see many hikers apart from a large group of French strollers who were taking a day walk to Lac Vert with more gear than I have for 18 days, and the tutted at my lack of walking boots
The views were stunning and it was a wonderful days walk, in spite of the quad busting/knee crushing final descent into samoens. I was on my feet for a total of 10.5 hours with only a brief lunch stop – I was too scared to stop in case everything seized up. Am now lying on floor with legs in air trying to sort my calves out!
Up at 5.30 again tomorrow
Distance covered = 47km
Ascent/descent = +2184m/-2466m
Times fell over = 3 (twice on butt and once on knees)
So today I only did half a day on the GR5 given logistics of getting to the trailhead! It was only 19k so I thought that would be a piece of cake and couldn’t understand why the guide book said it would take 8 hours and 45 minutes. Hmmm, well the following elevation profile probably explains it, they don’t mess about with easy introductions on the GR5! If this elevation keeps up I will have buns of steel by the time I reach Menton
In the end it took me five hours! The uphills were ok but the downhills were like skiing through mud! Really claggy mud. Oh, and it rained the whole time.
I am sure the views would have been magnificent but it was a bit cloudy. I had a lot of songs going in my head to keep me moving uphill, but honestly mostly it was poi e (the kiwis know that one,) and I heard it before I left home so it is cemented in my brain and was a pretty good rhythm for getting up those hills
I arrived in Chapelle d’abondance and had a very long hot shower and cleaned my filthy socks. Then I popped down to the local superette for supplies for tomorrow. It was closed! So I asked a local where the nearest supermarket was and she said ’10 minutes down the road’, I clarified that I was walking and she said ‘yes, 10 minutes’. That lady must have been a world record speed walker as the inter marche was 3.5km away!!! So I did a bonus 7k not counted in today’s distance.
Sun is finally out! Will be in bed by 8.30 for a 6am start tomorrow
Distance = 19km
Elevation gain/lost = 1829m/1210m
Bars consumed = 4
Times trail lost = 3
Times fell in butt = 1 (a new record for me)
Pieces of cake inhaled = 0 🙁
Funds raised =£4899.66 from the amazingly generous donors plus another £4899.66 as I am matching all donations. There’s still plenty of time to donate if you haven’t already at justgiving.com
I have travelled to 159 countries and only been properly robbed once (held up at gunpoint near Popayan in Colombia). However, I have had numerous occasions when I have avoided trouble by just recognising that it was coming….. So I have a few simple rules I live by to keep myself more or less safe
1. When arriving in a new country late at night, always prebook a hotel and an airport pick up!
Book the first night and an airport pick up! – You don’t want to be walking around a new city at night, even with your small pack, looking for somewhere to stay. Do some homework, pick somewhere reasonable, and book the first night…. and then get them to arrange an airport pick up! There is no category of human being more dodgy than the third world airport taxi driver (and honestly some of the Heathrow cabbies are no better, and the Barcelona ones are probably worse). If you get in a taxi late at night and you don’t know where you are going or how much it will cost (and probably you are not fluent in the language), at best you will be overcharged! at worse you might end up kidnapped.
Make sure the airport car is actually yours! Even if you have booked a car and there is a man there with a sign with your name on it, don’t assume he is legit. There have been numerous instances in South America (particularly Venezuela), where dodgy drivers have copied names from others outside the terminal, bribed the guards to get into the terminal, and then picked up the passenger before they could find their legitimate driver. This happened to a good friend of mine in Caracas and fortunately he was only held for 10 hours while they cleaned out his ATM card. And it happened to another colleague in Russia, and he realised he was being driven out of Moscow to the country side (the wrong direction). He ended up opening the door and rolling out and running into the woods. He lost his luggage but did have his passport on him. To be sure the car is yours, make sure they can tell you your name, your flight number, their name and the hotel that you are going to. If in any doubt call the hotel and ask for the drivers name and cross check it is what the driver said)
2. Don’t go wandering around by yourself after the sun goes down
I will happily walk pretty much anywhere and everywhere during the day. I don’t mind if the neighbourhoods look a bit sketchy provided I can see women and kids, then I generally feel safe – most people won’t let their kids play in the street if it is a danger zone. However, when the sun goes down, I make sure I take precautions. If I want to leave the hotel for dinner, then I make sure the restaurant is close by, I know the way, it is on a main road and the streets are lit, and then I will walk. If in any doubt, take a cab. Multiple times in capetown I wanted to walk the 500 metres back to our hotel, but when the maitre de is blocking the door and telling you he would rather pay for your cab then let you walk back, then that is advice you should probably take.
3. Be physically fit and walk everywhere
Generally to enjoy travelling I have to be reasonably fit, as my favourite way to get around anywhere is to walk. And this typically means walking 15-40km a day. While this may seem like an odd security tip – a couple of thoughts –
If you have walked somewhere, it is quite likely you a) know how to get back to where you came from and are b) fit enough to do so. This means you know where you are and are not reliant on anyone else (taxi, dodgy tuktuk etc) to get you there.
If you run into any problems, you are more likely to be able to get yourself out of them in a hurry. Without wishing to be overly negative the advice in terms of terrorist attacks has changed in the past few years. In the old days we were told to lie down and play dead. Now we are told to run. I would like to be able to outrun trouble and while this isn’t the reason I run (I must confess to an endorphin addiction), it is a positive side effect.
If you look strong and capable, (flex biceps now), then people are much less likely to bother you. While I don’t have huge biceps, i have strong legs (and calf muscles so gnarly that a group of chinese tourists once photographed them), and think that this helps convey the sense that I can take care of myself. Even better if you are actually able to take care of yourself, and know some self defence (learning some self defence is on my to do list!!)
4. Dress appropriately (more or less)
Ok, so I am not the morality police, and frankly ladies you can wear whatever you damn well like!!!! And when I am at home in London, or Toulouse, or NZ, I do just that!. However, i have figured out that it is easier to more or less blend in when you are travelling. If the local women all have shorts down to their knees (as they do in most of the pacific) then perhaps it isn’t a bad idea to leave the short shorts in the backpack. If all the other women you see have their shoulders covered – ditto – it makes sense to think about doing the same. I am not suggesting you adopt the strictest interpretation that you see on the streets, but don’t be surprised if people hassle you if you have everything hanging out :-).
Note to self – I don’t always follow my own advice, especially when I am running, as I hate running in too many clothes. One fun day in Tajikistan I went for a 10k run in shorts and a tank top, and while I had seen a couple of russian women in short skirts, more or less everyone else was in full length multicoloured abbayas. It was full daylight and I was running through a park, and I accidentally ran through a group of men who had clearly had a few drinks. They surrounded me and one of them tried to grab me. There were plenty of people around, so I wasn’t that worried, so I just pushed him out of the way with a hefty shove and kept running, albeit at a faster pace (reinforcing rule 3 for those of you who weren’t paying attention).
5. Avoid talking to anyone who wants to talk to you, but do go find locals to talk to – typically women with kids
Rule no.1 in tourist spots is to ignore (politely) anyone who wants to talk to you. Anyone who approaches you in the street with an offer of a free guided tour, or a taxi, or a request to practice their english, or to warn you the temple is closed today, or to ask if you lost to wad of cash which just fell in the street in front of you, is not typically someone who has your best interests at heart. I adopt an ‘in the zone’ policy where I just don’t respond to anyone who talks to me. Given I live in London, I am already an expert at this pose as we get plenty of practice with the chuggers (a.k.a. charity muggers – those irritatingly over friendly people who try to aggressively stop you on the street and part you with your money. While normally for a good cause, chuggers work on commission, so if I want to give to a charity, I will do so direct. I am not going to pay the guy on the street for harassing me.) If I am feeling lazy then I pop in my headphones, even if I don’t have music on, I can pretend I do. Let me repeat, I have never ever had a good outcome by responding to someone who was trying to aggressively offer, sell or help me with anything!
However, meeting locals is one of the great highlights of travelling, so while I absolutely ignore touts, I do make an effort to chat to new people, especially on long voyages when I feel like some company. My top tip, especially for India is to ignore your designated train seat and go and find a big family group with an elderly and much revered matriarch. Plonk yourself down in a seat as close as possible to grandmama, smile at her and offer her whatever food you are carrying with you. Without fail this will generate a reciprocal snack offer and some type of conversation, albeit perhaps in sign language. Then all the grand kids will practice their english on you and before you know it you will be staying at their house in Lucknow (yes this happened). Cafes, Bars, Restaurants, Museums, Planes, Ferry, Airports, Trains, Stations and Terminals are all places I have struck up conversations with interesting people and where i have learnt a lot about the country I was in.
Note, to put it in context, I am pretty sure I am in a lot more danger taking my weekly bike ride from central london to richmond park, than I am wandering around Douala at midnight……, so it is always good to keep these things in perspective.
Another auspicious entry to a country! I was met at the border by my 20 year old guide and promptly asked him to get the driver to stop 200 metres down the road so I could pee behind a tree. He was a bit bewildered as to why I hadn’t even approached the public conveniences at the border……, honestly my nose wouldn’t let me get within a 100 metres of the border loo! Sewage cooked in Central Asian sun does not smell good!
Thus began 48 hours of what I hope was some reprogramming of my lovely guides ‘interesting views’ on women and what they could and should do. In fairness, he was lovely, very friendly, had terrific english, eager to please and to make sure I had the very best experience that I could in Tajikistan. However, I was his first female tourist – tourism not being a huge thing in these parts. And he spent a lot our time together trying to reconcile being nice to me, with his view that most women should be like his wife (who he had recently wed in an arranged marriage) i.e shouldn’t work, should cover herself from neck to toes, and should wear a headscarf. It was fun!
There really isn’t much to do in Tajikistan unless you have time, companions and money to go and hike in the high Pamirs. I will do that at some point, but I didn’t have the time or companions on this visit. So, I went to Khujand – the cultural capital of Tajikistan for a look around. It is no Uzbekistan, but there were a few things to see, and I didn’t see a single tourist when I was there. I couldn’t honestly recommend anyone go for the scintillating tourist sites, but I managed to find a couple of things to do
CHECK OUT THE KHUJAND FORTRESS AND MUSEUM
I visited the museum in Khujand in the Fortress. There is a lot of sadness in the Tajiks, as most of their treasured cultural monuments are actually in Uzbekistan – particularly the tomb of Ismael Samani, the founder of the Tajik society (see the post on Bukhara). When the Soviets broke up the Stans, many of the boundary lines were drawn without care or reference to the historical tribal lands. Listening to the old ladies in the museum lament the ‘loss’ of their treasures was powerful, they aren’t easily able to cross the borders and they feel like whole parts of their lives have been stolen. Honestly, it wasn’t the V&A, but they did have a much loved mosaic tile recreation of the life of Alexander the great (who says I don’t appreciate the arts ;-))
go shopping in Payshanbe
After the museum we went to Payshanba the biggest bazaar in Asia. Great fresh produce, nuts, meats and the usual plastic rubbish that everyone imports from China. The watermelons were amazing. The clientele and the stall owners were fascinating – loved the dresses. And every now and then I would see an incongruous Russian lady in a mini skirt – not sure what they were doing there. Next to the bazaar is the Shikh Muslihiddin mosque and mausoleum, sadly no women allowed! Apparently it is a bit cultural highlight, so if you are a bloke it might be worth checking out. My most entrenched memory from visiting the market was a deep and abiding gratitude for time and place of birth. I am not sure I would have coped well as a Tajik woman
Go see some weddings at the arbob palace
We also popped out the Arbob palace, which is actually a bonkers modern building which used to be the home of a Soviet collective farm, and was the place were Emomalii Rahmon came into the public domain. Rahman is the mad dictator who has been ‘president’ for 24 years. He’s not popular but has just changed the constitution so he can stay in power indefinitely. Technically you are not allowed go into the palace, but a small donation to the doorman sorted that out. The gardens were a hot Khujand wedding venue and we saw 8 weddings within the space of an hour. Not one of the brides was over 20!!!!
Go for a run, avoiding the drunk locals
Had an interesting 10k run one evening in the searing heat around the botanic gardens and along the river. I had unwisely gone out in shorts and a tank top, so did have to extricate myself from an over-friendly group of half drunk Tajik blokes who wanted to get to know me better.
Check out Mug Tepa and the Shah Mausoleum in Istaravshan
Mug Tepa is one of the ancient settlements in Tajikistan, which is to say it is a few old walls and a dome which are well guarded by policemen. So, while we tried to visit, we got kicked out. Apparently they were worried about us being political demonstrators….., which I think loosely translates from Tajik as ‘you didn’t offer a big enough bribe’ We also popped by the Khazrati Shoh mausoleum.
The food is good – simple and fresh. Delicious salads with tomato, cucumber and tonnes of herbs and good cheese. Lots of grilled meats. I probably shouldn’t have eaten the salads given they were washed in tap water, but my stomach survived
I stayed at the Grand Hotel in Khujand – very nice, probably nicer than I needed.
The border crossing is a total pain in the butt. Both the Uzbek and Tajik side were rude, unhelpful and unnecessarily pervy at looking through my underwear. Ladies, be warned.