I take you on a tour around the Oisan massif, on the GR54, one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the French Alps.
One of the most beautiful, but also one of the toughest: 180 kilometers, 13,000 meters of positive altitude difference, at least as much negative altitude difference and more than twenty-five passes passed at often more than two thousand meters of altitude.
A gReat tRekking, in short, with a lot of capital R’s that roll around like pebbles under the soles.
PS : in France, hiking paths are often tagged with red and whites stripes. We call these trails GR, which means Grande (Great) Randonnée (Hiking).
Three years ago, in 2017, I had to abandon this loop three quarters of the way through. Explanation: finding a signal after two nights in the mountains, I called my wife to reassure her that I was still in one piece. To which she answered that speaking of piece, she was going to have one removed, the unfortunate one, in the operating room and in emergency. She couldn’t tell me before, I was unreachable. I had obviously left the trail – hitchhiking from La Chapelle en Valgaudemar, an epic – to rush back to Fontainebleau to hold her hand.
So I was left with a slight feeling of unfinished business.
And then the science-fiction pandemic that fell upon us this spring did the rest: even if, for professional reasons, I was not confined – at all – I still spent this bad period focused on the Ecrins, telling myself that as soon as they would give us back our freedom, I would go and finish this trek by redoing it all.
As soon as the school was closed, I jumped in my car and drove to Les Deux Alpes, to meet up with my thirty year old friends who run the very recommendable restaurant Le grain de Sel.
These friends kindly lent me an apartment with a breathtaking view of the Muzelle glacier, at the foot of which – if all goes well – I will spend my last night of bivouac in two weeks.
Then, ready to go, I left.
Les Deux Alpes - Clôts hut
July 11, 2020. The atmosphere outside has turned gray.
Leaving the station, around eight o’clock, if it wasn’t for the crazy Kangaroo Club, you’d almost think you were in a suburb of Victorian London.
In the absence of Jack the Ripper, my friend Patrice accompanies me on these paths where we used to run to load ourselves with natural EPO before marathons.
From the top, nice view on the resort.
In the undergrowth, the atmosphere is tropical because of the mist and the humidity.
The martagon lilies are out. They remind me of caliph turbans from the Thousand and One Nights. No?
In Bons, at the roadside, Patrice leaves me. He is already a bit late. By chance, a motorcyclist of his acquaintance stops at his height and takes him in rump for an express ascent. Without helmet.
I continue from now on alone, by borrowing temporarily the road.
Then I find the GR in height of the lake of Chambon. Exotic atmosphere. I have the impression to be in Sumatra.
I pass the dam of the lake.
Then I climb – and the slope is rough – towards the small village of Mizoen, where I take a welcome break.
My cap is gone, on the picture. I don’t have it anymore. Sniff. I’ll tell you why at the end.
Roused by a slightly sweetened soda, I cross the village while climbing.
Then I go out of it by a small path which smells good the tepid sheep droppings.
And I continue in the still white day.
Then, I find my favorite paths on the balcony above the Chambon. A bit scabrous. Andean, even.
With now a timid appearance of the sun.
And barely two hours later, I am already at my terminus of the day, at the foot of the petrifying fountain where the waterfalls overflow from a tufa concretion: the refuge of the clots.
It’s only two o’clock. I could go up to bivouac on the Emparis plateau but I kept a memory of the climb and I don’t want to put myself in the red from the start. Six hours of quiet walking are enough for me today. So, let’s stop.
I book my evening meal with the hut keeper who even allows me to take a shower – with the COVID instructions, they are normally closed but it’s early and I’m alone, so… – and then I go to refresh my feet in the stream that flows from the waterfall. I take the opportunity to immortalize my self-satisfied look.
Then I come back to the refuge to play with the guard’s children a game of exotic skittles – mölkki – whose origin I first presume to be obscurely Afghan – a mountain people if ever there was one – but which I will discover later, thanks to a quick search, is in fact Finnish and that even Decathlon – a french sports hypermarket chain – has started to sell them. Exoticism is definitely not what it used to be.
The afternoon passes gently, the hikers arrive at the end of the day. The meal is copious and good – after the traditional soup, the gratin of Crozets does not make a fold – then I greet the company and climb on the flats, above the refuge, to install my bivouac in the coppery tints of the evening.
I’m mounting my brand new Plexamid, which I can’t wait to test.
I leave a flap open, to see from my bunk the mountains going out one after the other.
Swarms of mosquitoes stick to the mosquito net; I taunt them, giggling. Then I fall asleep.
And I wake up for the first time. I am too hot in my comforter: a steam room. I open it to let in some fresh air – in reality a cold and humid slurry. I take the opportunity to put on my glasses, first covered with mist, to admire the stars. A prodigious night sky of constellations! I go back to sleep.
I wake up again. The cuben – the high-tech material – of the tent is transparent and it’s the glow of the almost full moon, at my head, that woke me up this time. I thought it was already daylight. I fall asleep again.
I woke up again around 2 o’clock. The interior is dripping with condensation – the notorious disadvantage of the one-room tents – and the top of my sleeping bag, under my nose, is soaked. The condensation doesn’t drip on me though. The tent is very well designed and the humidity, when it does drip, is evacuated by some sort of mosquito net gutters all around the ground sheet. I assume that it is the contrast between my own breathing and the cold night air that has soaked the bag. I leave for two hours of bad sleep.
My eyelids open again at 4 o’clock. My mattress has slipped, my bag too, and the end of my comforter is stuck to the soaked wall. I wriggle around and complain, go back to sleep one last time, and at six o’clock, with my eyes wide open but slightly burning, decide with a grumble that it’s time to go out and leave.
Actually, I am vaguely annoyed by this first night in my new tent and I come to regret the old one, which weighed a kilo more but was – in my memory – much more comfortable. But we will see later that these regrets will not last.
Refuge des Clôts - La Grave
July 12th. When I get out of the tent, it’s chilly and my nose is running. I take advantage of the beautiful light of the dawn.
The sun is seeping through the mountains and flooding the valley. I smile. Come on: I’m where I’ve wanted to be for the past three months, and the view is well worth the discomfort of the night.
I pack up the camp and go to the refuge to pay for my meal and fill my water bottle. In the common room, the other hikers, shaggy and awake, are having breakfast. As for me, I have nibbled two cookies and drank some water, so I will have a coffee later. For the moment, I want to climb the 500 steep meters that await me.
So I climb. My breath is short, my calves are on fire. My physical condition is terrible. No training and too much sedentary life this year. Too bad. I press on my sticks, grumbling. Compensation: I’m the only one to enjoy the view.
I pass over the petrifying fountain, in a network of streams that caracolate from everywhere.
The grassy slope gives an idea of the inclination of the climb.
Honestly? I’m drooling. At each bend, discovering in front of me the slope even steeper than the previous one, already quite difficult, I even let out one or two swear words. In a rattle.
It takes me almost three hours to swallow these five hundred meters – in a few days, of course, I’ll climb twice as much in the same time, but in just as much pain, that said. Whatever we do, unless we go to Mars, we always feel the earth gravity…
At 10:30 am, I reach a refuge at the foot of the Emparis plateau. A coffee and a blueberry pie? You bet! A beer and a plate of cold cuts and cheese. No kidding.
The schedule annoys me a bit. I had indeed planned to bivouac on the plateau, in front of the glaciers, as I did three years ago, but I will be up there by noon. As there is a network, I do a quick search for a hotel in La Grave. I find one, call : they have a small room available. The Edelweiss. A single bed? I don’t care. It’s perfect. A hot shower and a comfortable bed will make up for my dull night.
So I set off again and sent myself up the new steep climb to the Lac Noir. I had forgotten how steep it was. And so many people! No more loneliness. The proximity of the parking lots earns me the invasion of the Quechua hordes, these crowds disguised as adventurers who import their bawling hysteria into nature, as long as it remains easily accessible to them.
PS: about the Quechua hordes : nothing to do with peruvians. Quechua is a famous french brand of cheap hiking clothes, sold in the Decathlon shops I’ve already talked about.
The black lake is crowded. The picnickers moo at all costs. I continue my way, very quickly, as if in flight, forsaking the lake Lérié, less frequented and always so beautiful.
I start the long – endless – descent to La Grave, walking against the current of the walkers who go up to the lakes, on paths cluttered with shameless cows who simper with their big bells. Move over ladies. “Moo”. There’s no “moo”, come on.
I then go down to Chazelet and La Grave through a few blocks of alpine houses. It is not 4pm when I arrive at the hotel. I’m hot and the hard descent in the rocks has taken its toll on my feet.
This self-portrait on the terrace is not flattering, of course, but it has the merit to reflect faithfully the state of yours truly after a bad night and ten hours of walking – the house doesn’t do artifice.
I dry my tent and my comforter in the room, I wash myself under the hot shower, I do a quick laundry and then enjoy the restaurant – very good – before going back to sleep in a small bed but with very dry sheets
La Grave - Le Monêtier les Bains
July 13th. After a hearty breakfast, we leave the Edelweiss – the hotel, not the flower.
Heading to Villar d’Arène by forest paths. Bucolic as you wish. And deserted moreover: at this hour, the Quechua hordes are still sleeping.
In height, clear view on the glaciers and big holes of blue sky. Good omen.
I arrive in Villar-d’Arène early. Not yet ten o’clock. In my initial plan, I was going to stop at the campsite on the Arsine road. Well, too bad. I’ll continue. Come on, an Orangina to celebrate. I wonder what they put in it to make me go at this rate…
I go back down from the village square to the torrent – the Romanche for those curious about hydrography.
And then I enter a larch wood straight out of a fairy tale…
Which wood borders the river with strong flow.
After the Pont d’Arsine, I head for the glacial lock that bars the valley and is called “Pas d’Anna Falque”.
A hard climb, again, in twists and turns. But where does this name come from, the “pas d’Anna Falque”? Well…
Legend of Anna Falque
A very long time ago, at a time when evil goblins still roamed the mountains in the company of a mare of fire – because if you eat too much genepi, you know what happens – a young girl, Anna Falque, decided to override her mother’s ban and went down to celebrate St. John’s Day, wearing an extremely shimmering dress. Incendiary even. Because she was like that, Anna. You won’t go. Yes I will. And that’s it.
While she was at the foot of the laces with some merry men she had met at the party, a beautiful black mare appeared to them.
Well, in principle: beware. A mare, all alone, in the mountain night, at the time of the diabolical follies: not good, that. Not good at all.
Except that Anna and her companions, drunk with their youthful misconceptions, saw only a timely mount. They laughed at the elders’ pitch. The naive ones. For as soon as they laughed and mounted the satanic beast, it leapt into a great green flame with a mephistophelian cackle, carrying away the unfortunate Anna and her valiant turlurons forever.
And that’s it.
So let’s have a thought for Anna, blowing hard because of the slope, and let’s reach now the Arsine valley.
Marmots-land. Full. And not shy. Like Anna. That being said, I couldn’t take a picture of them with the phone, even when approaching them. When I zoom in, the image is pixelated. Too bad, let’s continue with the Glacier des Agneaux as a vanishing point.
And cows again, placid, watching me pass by with their big round eyes lined with long lashes. Coquettes.
At the approach of the fork that goes down to the Alpe de Villar refuge…
I decide to ignore the temptation of the Orangina and I continue in the big rocky scree, between the torrents, where I had pitched my tent three years ago. Memories.
There, alone, I picnic. Sausage, froggies’ pemmican.
Then I go up to the Star Lake. 2231 meters.
In my initial forecast, I had planned to bivouac there tonight. Nice, huh? But problem: it’s way too early.
Just a quarter to two. Even if I go to bed at eight o’clock, I’ll have to wait six hours before I can pitch the tent. By doing what? The view is beautiful, of course. I downloaded a book on my phone for just such a situation. But it’s very cold at this altitude and I tell myself that I’d better move on to be in Monêtier-les-Bains by late afternoon.
Let’s go. I pass the Arsine pass, at the foot of the moraine of the lake of the same name.
I find there the Quechua hordes, assembled in mass since the parking of Casset. Always so shouting. Run away, quickly.
On the way down, the torrents that come down from the glacial lake spread out in sinuous pockets. Their waters are loaded with particles that make them milky, with the “ocean surf” color of old Fender guitars from the 50s.
The sky is clearing. Many people, still. Some are still going up to the pass, quite late, I think, but it belongs to them. Others go back down.
As I approach the valley, I find the shade of the larches and the torrents.
I am also back on the stony paths that made me suffer so much three years ago – I started with bad shoes and this section, added to the previous day’s descent from the Emparis plateau, had been a real torture.
This time, I’m better equipped, but I still have the soles of my feet meowing. The few kilometers between le Casset and Mônetier are long. But flat.
In Monêtier-les-Bains, I stay in the same hotel as before. I had arrived there panting; this time, I am more dignified. It’s better. By chance, I even got a nice room in promotion.
After the meal, on the church square, I take the opportunity to follow the gaze of the bronze chamois: it indicates my direction of tomorrow, the Eychauda pass, and beyond, another valley, that of Vallouise.
Le Monêtier les Bains - Vallouise
July 14th. Well rested in spite of my legs still being a bit stiff, I leave at 8:30 am. Goodbye Monêtier-les-Bains.
Good morning the new rise of the morning.
Very steep, not to change, but in the benevolent shade of a melezin punctuated with ant hills and beautiful wild flowers, clusters of yellow foxgloves, in particular.
Soon enough, I reach a grassy flat spot, near some old closed houses. I had told myself, before leaving, that I could pitch the tent here and even make a fire since we are not in the Parc des Ecrins. The ground is flat, the view is beautiful on the village below…
I had even imagined, while looking at the map, to take a picture of myself with the tripod: I would have been seen stirring the flames at dusk, with a seasoned firebrand, like the adventurers in the Camel ads of the 80s.
Vanity. All is vanity.
Because it is only half past nine. I am 3 bivouacs ahead of my living room forecast, facing the map – and anyway, since my last passage, no fire signs are now explicitly hung everywhere.
So I take the opportunity to drink some water and nibble on some dried fruits, sitting on the stoop of one of the buildings, then I am disturbed by a Quechua group guided by a big-mouthed companion. A female version of the character played by Benoît Poelvoorde in the french movie Les Randonneurs. Quickly, I take back the track punctuated with cairns – these calvaries of the walker.
The ascent is really arduous but magnificent. The path overhangs a torrent, below. The air is fragrant with pine needles.
It is already hot despite the shade and I sweat profusely. Fortunately, after an hour – or two, I don’t know anymore – the path crosses the torrent that we can ford.
I take advantage of this to dry my nose with fresh water and fill my water bottle with my filter.
A little further, I am amused to observe ants coming and going in the dry by a dead trunk. It is the rush hour on the viaduct.
Then the forest becomes scarce, with the altitude, and I reach the top of a kind of flat, between meadow and scree.
Change of universe: I am now in the middle of the ski lifts of the Serre-Chevalier ski resort.
Less bucolic. I’ve skied here before. In winter, covered with white, it is charming. But in the summer, you quickly realize how frighteningly artificial the decor is. Still, I offer myself an Orangina on the terrace of a high altitude restaurant, open, and I chat with a couple of walkers who ask me what route I’m doing. I explain.
Higher up, you’d think you were in a mining basin. Like a phosphate deposit.
I don’t linger in this sinister landscape and quickly cross the Eychauda pass, leaving on my right the direction of the Pas de l’âne which could take me, via a new steep path, to the Grangettes pass. But the weather is threatening and I don’t want to arrive in Vallouise under the rain. So I go straight on.
I pass the pass.
The ski lifts are less present and I approach a pretty meadow of altitude.
The slope is covered with one of my favorite flowers: the vanilla orchid. These are already a little past their prime.
Younger, their color is more burgundy.
These flowers have an extraordinary perfume. Vanilla, sweet. I spend long minutes on my stomach in the grass, sniffing them, and then I take a sausage break a little further. I can still see some chairlifts on the horizon, but the few walkers I met before the pass have disappeared. Finally alone, as I like.
I then go back down to the Chambran valley.
Downstairs, I linger in front of a sign about the job of a shepherd.
At the bottom of the picture, the testimony of the shepherdess says this: what I like is the contact with the animals, taking care of them, their calm, and then the work with the dogs.
By associative ricochet, I think of my own job as a college principal and it makes me laugh alone, like a fool.
The old stones of Chambran evoke a past life, harsh, at 1700 meters, in complete autarky with the animals in the common room to keep warm. No dentist in case of cavities. But no sugar either, that said…
The GR follows the road. Three years ago, I had hitchhiked. Today, no car. It is probably still a little early compared to the time when the walkers come down from the Eychauda lake – a classic little run from the parking lot, which I had made my daughters do about ten years earlier.
So I continue walking. Sometimes, the GR crosses the road and becomes again a classic downhill path, between wild grass and nettles. Then it finds the road again. Then it intersects, etc. I overtake a quartet of hikers loaded with huge bags to which are hung a lot of things: stainless steel quarters, rattling water bottles… Their gear must weigh at least thirty kilos. They are having a hard time of it, the unfortunate ones, even on the way down. I would tell them about the the concept of the ultra-light walk if I wasn’t afraid of looking like or a sanctimonious person that I am not. After all, everyone has to carry his own cross.
A little further down, I am finally picked up by a retired couple. They save me a good half-hour walk along the road and leave me at the edge of the path that runs along the torrent of the Gyr and leads me to Vallouise, where it starts to rain.
Here again, my initial plans are turned upside down: I had indeed planned a stop at the campsite, frequented two summers in a row with my daughters, but the idea of pitching my minimalist tent under the water does not appeal to me. So I headed for the bar-tobacco-hotel-restaurant where I used to offer the girls a “no-limit” ice cream as a reward for their courage in the walks.
The room is clean, the sanitary equipment is perfect and I also have a small balcony ideal to smoke in the dry in front of my laundry. What more could I ask for?
A restaurant on the terrace, maybe. A bit damp but good to eat.
I take the opportunity to call the shuttle that connects Vallouise and Entre-les Aygues by car. The GR still takes the road for two hours and I prefer to spare myself this portion without much interest.
The lady I have on the phone cools me down a bit though:
“The pass of Aup Martin is still covered with snow, she warns me. It doesn’t pass. For the GR54, I take people through the Fournel valley.
“Ah? Mid-July, there are still snow?
“Yes, we had a rotten month of June. Do you have equipment?
“No. But I know the pass, I’ve already crossed it. I imagine that the track is made anyway. Can you take me there anyway?
“Of course. Departure at 7:30, in front of the hotel.”
Still snowed in? Hell.
It’s steep up there. We’d have to make sure we don’t screw up. But well: to go around with the Quechua hordes? Oh no, then. A vague story of dignity…
Vallouise - Pré de la chaumette
July 15. The shuttle bus takes me to the hotel at the hour said.
On the way, we discuss. The driver tells me that the GR54 is less and less travelled. Moreover, formerly, this vehicular link was taken care of by the Departmental Council, which dropped the unprofitable business. The town hall then took over, then abandoned it in turn. It remains only her, whose job is first to make the cab.
“The hikers are reluctant to leave on circuits of more than ten days, she tells me. They prefer short loops. The tourist office is considering changes to the route, with passages in small villages-museums, for the cultural side. The relationship to effort has changed, she adds. And then especially, today, people have difficulty leaving their network connection.”
The Quechua hordes prevail, in short.
“So much the better,” I reply with a smile, “I’ll be all the more peaceful for it.”
She drops me off at Entre-les-Aygues. It is eight hours.
I pay the eight euros of the race in cab and cross the torrent on a wooden bridge.
A little further on, I meet a lonely donkey that comes down to meet me and that I want to take a picture of but that I scare with my sticks. Too bad for the picture.
The valley is magnificent. And already, in fact, there are “névés” – snow caps may be the good translation of that word.
Where we see that it can be risky to walk on it blindly. They often make bridges over the torrents, dug from underneath, and can collapse without warning.
I wonder, since I meet them at this altitude, what they will look like at more than two thousand meters. That being said, on the schistose slopes of Aup Martin, they will be solidly anchored to the rock. No need to worry. And then the valley is beautiful: don’t get bogged down with negative thoughts!
Flocks again. Who look at me passing with round eyes.
The advantage of a late summer is that the rhododendrons are still in bloom. Usually, at this time of the year, they are already scorched. Here, their bloom enchants me.
The path is beautiful. Waterfalls tumbling down the slopes, small torrents on which I jump from stone to stone and yodel like Heidi, but without the quilts.
I arrive at the huts of Jas Lacroix. There is, among others, a shelter for hikers.
At the back, facing south, sheltered by the rocks, two women are drying their tents and comforters. They bivouacked at the edge of the torrent, in Entre-les-Aygues, and they took the rain last night. We discuss about the snow of the pass. I ask them if they are equipped: ice axe and crampons?
“No. And you?
I shake my cap.
“No, same as you. I’ve already been there, three years ago, but it was dry. So I thought it would be the same and I didn’t bother. But with the sticks, in the track, it should do it”.
I wish them a good climb and continue. At about half past eleven, I take a dry sausage break.
An eye on the clouds that are piling up. The driver of the shuttle announces me the rain around 1 pm. I leave: I don’t want to be surprised by the water on the shale which is very slippery.
One of the two hikers I met below passes in front of me smiling. She is alone. I imagine that her partner walks more slowly than her. We will see later that I am only half wrong.
I go back through the scree. The slope is steep and stony as one could wish.
Gradually, the alpine meadow gives way to mineral.
The passage becomes more bitter. Less bucolic. The serious things can begin.
I ford a last stream and I take the opportunity to fill my water bottle, already almost empty, then I look up. The rapid deterioration of the cloudy sky worries me a little, but I think I still have some good weather ahead of me.
I can see the hiker in front of me, already on the shale as she approaches the first névés. From this far, she is only a tiny point lost on the slope.
I follow her. With the pass in my sights, the slope of which is clearly visible here.
A first névé. Soft slope. Trace made. No problem.
So, I take out the tripod again. It will be a nice souvenir.
Oh, that face. Smile a little, though!
Further on, on the other hand, I’m not so smart. The next névé is much steeper.
I pass it while remaining concentrated. A wrong step and zou: two hundred meters of slide with landing in the rocks, like a hiker’s tartar. Let’s avoid it, eh? But it goes well, as I thought.
I offer myself a little retrospective view on the tricky passage.
The last few meters in the shale remain. Very steep. And the sky has definitely turned. Do not linger. Do not take a picture either. The rocks, which look like charcoal chips, are indeed soaked on the path that climbs steeply. Dangerous. So I steer clear and prefer to climb straight up, sticks shortened to the maximum which I use as almost ice axes, gritting my teeth and ensuring each step in the footprints of other hikers who make me appropriate ladder steps. I’m quite happy to have only seven kilos on my back, food and water included.
A few more efforts and finally: the Aup Martin pass. Victory!
But it’s not over yet. In front of me, another tricky passage awaits me, leading to the Pas de la Cavale.
I get hailed: a shower of small icy needles whips my face and legs. In spite of the sleeveless down jacket, the windbreaker and the choker, I shiver in the biting cold. To spoil nothing, an improvised gargoyle picks me up at the exit of the passage. I laugh: as if I needed an ice-cold shower! But it’s impossible to avoid it. I pass underneath, tucking my head into my shoulders.
Pass de la Cavale. It is done. Egoportrait of the pedestrian, very happy with himself.
In the distance, the snowy ridges have an Icelandic air. It is wild and beautiful. I love it.
I catch up with the hiker on the way down. Her name is Maud and she tells me that she too is walking alone. She met the other woman on the road that leads to Entre-les-Aygues, a road that they walked for lack of having thought of the shuttle, before bivouacking together at the foot of the torrent and getting to know each other. Just before the rain.
“How was it in the pass? she asks. Me, in the schists, I really had the fear. It was steep, it was slippery. Didn’t you hear me screaming? Go goat, go goat!”
She bursts out laughing, mocking herself.
“The goat! Honestly…
I laugh too.
“The snow is fine, I tell her. But this wet rock crap at the exit is to be avoided absolutely. You have to leave the path and go straight up the slope. It’s steep but it holds better.”
“That’s what the two young people who were coming in the opposite direction advised me to do. So, I went down a little to take their tracks in reverse. I really don’t know how they managed to get down. Did you meet them?”
Yes. A boy and a girl. The boy had sunscreen on, but you could see that he was totally livid under the white cream traces on his face.
I overtake Maud who goes down slowly, still under the blow of her retrospective fright.
I admire, in spite of the cold and the fine rain, the folding of the rocks of the cliffs opposite, memory of the prodigious tectonic movements which date from the alpine orogeny, hundreds of millions of years ago. Vertigo of geological times!
Further down, I can already see the Pré de la Chaumette refuge. The rain has stopped.
When I arrive at the refuge, I discover that the showers are closed – COVID always. So I leave my bag in the shelter of the stairs and go upstairs to drink a beer in the room. A few hikers are sitting there, including a bear-like guy who must be the owner of the huge bag I put mine next to. It slipped on its side and I straightened it out: a quintal of cast iron!
Maud enters in her turn. Takes a beer too. She asks me where to pitch the tent. I show her the bivouac area, higher than the refuge.
We go to choose our locations. The bear is already there. Lying down on his ground sheet for a nap.
I find a place that is not too dirty with sheep, upstream from a dry stream. Hop. Base camp set up.
The second woman joins us. Her name is Christine. She says that she walks very slowly on the climbs and that she caught the rain on the col de l’Aup Martin. She found it rather tricky, the pass. I can imagine. It’s already hard in dry weather, so in the rain…
Christine recognizes the Plexamid, as a seasoned Ultra Light Walker. But she is a purist who impresses me: she sleeps under her silnylon poncho, which she made herself and which serves as a tarp that she mounts with one of her sticks as a central pole. A kind of insect hotel, but which suits her very well. Respect.
I confide in her that the Plexamid is very well designed but that the condensation inside it made me a bit bloated last time. Christine tells me that it’s inevitable, that she has some too but that she wipes it with her micro-towel, the size of mine. Not a bad idea. I’ll think about it before I stand up and blot the cloth with my hair…
On that note, we leave the camp.
We went to the refuge to wash up and have lunch. Copious, hot, good – “oreilles d’âne”, a speciality of the Champsaur : a spinach gratin whose leaves are shaped like the ears of the donkey, hence the name of the dish. A small cup of génépi as a bonus, after the dessert. There are four of us at the table, Maud, Christine and I, plus the bear – a friendly computer specialist – who confides to us that he takes his time, in small steps, for pleasure as much as because of the weight of his bag. A pleasant conversation around the steaming plates at 3000 calories per portion.
In bed afterwards, before a big stage tomorrow.
I spend the night, less disturbed than the last time but even more humid. I still don’t sleep very well – let’s not dream. I’m too hot in my sleeping bag invaded by my own humidity and I wipe the walls above my head when I wake up. That said, I take the opportunity every time to look at the stars in the clear night sky. No small profit. I still miss my old tent, but the weight gain, especially in the climbs, has already convinced me that I made the right choice with this one. I think about the bear bag and smile. And I asleep.
Pré de la chaumette - La Chapelle en V.
July 16th. Beautiful light when waking up.
I nibble two cookies, drink a glass of fresh water and then fold up the stuff, dripping with water as it should be. I am reluctant to compress my soaked comforter in its bag: the feathers may be treated, hydrophobic, but I am not sure they appreciate the treatment. Their wet smell is not very pleasant.
This morning’s program: three passes, no more and no less. And about ten or eleven hours of walking to get to the Chapelle. There is a refuge at the bottom, before, but I didn’t keep a very pleasant memory of it : chickens everywhere, rusty carcasses of agricultural machines… Not good.
Come on, let’s go!
Christine has already left. Maud overtakes me in the sun, while I change and drop the layers of clothes, before crossing a flock of sheep whose bleats and bells brighten the path. The droppings too. The whole overhung by this beautiful blue Klein of the sky of altitude.
I catch up with Christine on the climb. She tells me again that she climbs very slowly, to which I answer with a smile that it’s not a race – to each his own. The proof: I myself was overtaken by two mutants in trail shoes and mini-bags, who were running at full speed.
Maud stopped for a break further up, too. We did the rest of the climb together, with a passage in the rocks where we had to put our hands. Almost climbing. Fun but exhausting. All the more so because if Christine’s bag is the same reduced weight as mine, Maud’s bag, on the other hand, weighs twelve or fifteen kilos.
Finally, after many efforts – and from the morning, almost on an empty stomach, it’s hard – here is the first pass: La Valette. 2668 meters.
The pass opens on an incredibly steep and black slope, in the foreground of this eloquent photo, and in which winding laces are very tight. 70° of inclination, by the ladle. Maud is very careful: she doesn’t like shale anymore since yesterday. I prefer this dry and soft ground to the stones that roll under the sole; I pass her and go with a good pace.
The slope goes down in a nice valley and then goes up to the second pass, the one of Gouiran: 2597 meters.
From there, a breathtaking view on the eroded and lunar hills of the third pass, Vallonpierre.
The path crosses the piles of crushed rock, crossing from time to time a small névé.
The slope is, again, rather pronounced. Each step costs a significant effort. New self-portrait of the author, where the suffering disputes with the intelligence of the expression.
Then the Vallonpierre pass, finally!
2607 meters. A rounded ridge that dominates two valleys. I spend a little moment of contemplative pause, sitting on my bag, photographed by Maud who has just arrived in her turn.
In the distance, below, we can see the Vallonpierre refuge on the edge of its lake, among the collapsed blocks. A real postcard landscape.
And a perfect stop to take off the shoes, dry the tent and the comforter in the sun and eat a good omelet. Or, like Maud, a raspberry and whipped cream pie as an extra.
Christine arrives when we are about to leave: the material is dry, the feet are more or less rested. The three of us chat for a while, then we leave.
I let the ladies go downhill. My soles hurt and the paths full of rocks do not help. It’s my turn to move more slowly; I join them only further down, towards the Clôts refuge – another one, but not the same one as at the beginning – in a southern landscape decorated with dry stone walls that remind me of the Cevennes – a southern part of the French Massif Central made famous by Stevenson.
The shelter doesn’t give me the same impression as the last time, three years earlier. It has even become charming: no more chickens, the rusty carcasses are gone, less nettles. The small bivouac area is tempting, especially since my feet are crying out for help, but I really need a good night’s sleep: unlimited hot shower and uninterrupted sleep.
We have a drink – I decline the beer and choose a coke, everything is said – and we enjoy a welcome break. Because there are still two hours to go to La Chapelle en Valgaudemar.
The descent is endless. The path is beautiful, that said, flowered, cute to the envy, but the steep slopes have left their marks. When we arrive in the village, we immediately separate, rinsed : Christine in search of a bivouac, Maud from the campsite and me, from the Mont Olan hotel from where I had called my wife three years ago and where my journey on the GR had been interrupted.
Once showered, laundry done, table reserved at the restaurant and material laid out on the bed for further drying, I go downstairs to smoke on the terrace and call the house. Phew. My wife is fine: no emergency organ removal this time. The curse of the Chapelle en Valgaudemar is definitely broken. Yes.
I meet Maud, who is wandering around looking for food. As far as lodging is concerned, it’s fine. Her tent is set up at the small campsite next to the hotel but the pizzeria she spotted on arrival is full. I thus propose to her to share my table. The meal is good, but we swallow it while yawning, the features dug by the day.
“At the end,” says Maud, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to throw the bag away. I was fed up. I told myself that I should have stopped at the refuge. Are you doing the alpine variant tomorrow?”
The alpine variant of the GR, unmarked, wild and very tempting, passes by the Olan refuge – 2332 meters – and the Pas of the same name – 2695 – before joining the Souffles refuge by the Côte Belle ridge and the Lautier lake.
But apart from the fact that the weather is uncertain, my body tells me very clearly that it would not be reasonable. Not at all. So I announce that I will follow the classic itinerary, along the torrent, and climb to Les Souffles by Villar-Loubière. A more restful stage. Maud intends to do the same. Exhausted.
La Chapelle - Refuge des Souffles
July 17. In the morning, but not especially early because I enjoyed breakfast and a relative lie-in, I leave.
The path is flat – a change – and rather rural.
I walk along a stream – the Séveraisse – and find a nice place to bivouac where I wonder if Christine didn’t plant her poncho last night.
A little further, I observe a black mare in her paddock. Masked. Nothing to do with the corona-bidule, it is because of the flies and the horseflies.
The mare looks at me behind her veil. Thinking of the legend of Anna Falque, I wonder if she will jump on me, giggling, in flames the color of genepi. But no. Phew.
Just before Villar-Loubière, in the ditches, magnificent orange lilies stretch out their beautiful petals.
The village is picturesque. Charming despite the grey sky.
An old mill of the XIXth century sits there, housing a museum. Closed. A pity. Everything else is closed. Let’s move on.
The exit of the village marks the reunion with the Parc des Ecrins. I am at 1037 meters of altitude, the sign says. The Souffles refuge is at 1968 meters. The calculation of what I have to climb is quite simple…
Let’s go. Without surprise, it climbs hard.
I am sweating profusely, probably because of the humidity. I am dripping, literally. Like the torrent I cross by a bridge.
The climb continues along a steep path.
Compensation: blueberries! Razzia.
And wild strawberries. Yummy.
A “hou-hou” falls from the sky. It’s Maud, ahead, a few laces up. I join her by pulling my water bottle from the bag. Thirsty.
“Christine is in front?
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her. I don’t know where she slept.”
We continue the climb together. Beautiful flowers: large astrances.
Scarabs that look like they were cast in metal from another world.
Après un bois de mélèzes – planté en 1920 disait le panneau, en bas – noyé dans une brume très japonisante…
We finally reach the refuge. Great view on the valley.
We have lunch with an omelet, while the clouds finally fade and reveal a beautiful landscape.
The guard is nice, as well as the few young people who are with him. Maud asks about Christine, to know if she has been here before us. But no. Her description does not say anything to anybody. Not seen. Where did she go?
We reserve our evening meal and we go to set up the tents, taking advantage of the return of the sun, then we climb to the small pass of the bells, below the scree. Beautiful view, straddling two valleys, but invaded by voracious mosquitoes. Which is strange, at this altitude.
On the way back, I enjoy the solitude and the sun, at the foot of my tent, with a worried eye on the cloudy evolutions which do not tell me anything good.
After an hour, a trio of young and talkative hikers settle down not far away. Their babble spoils the sound landscape so I take the opportunity to visit the outside shower – the inside showers are not free. I’m not stingy, especially since it’s not much, 3 euros 50, but the young man who welcomed us explained us that because of the sanitary constraints, they had to disinfect everything after each visit. So I wanted to spare him this worry. And then, as long as we live in the open air, we might as well go through with it and have a little fun.
Here is the thing. Relative intimacy but proximity with nature guaranteed.
The interior is roomy.
Do not forget to connect the warm water supply from a solar tank. Otherwise, the wash is invigorating. It’s fun. And it’s not cold. I towel myself off with my micro-towel and sit down below to take advantage of the network – I saw one of the young people of the refuge, the only girl, by the way, phoning from here when I arrived. I send some reassuring texts, with pictures of the bathroom.
In the evening, just before the meal: Christine arrives!
She tells us that she slept in another campsite, finally, and that she did the alpine variant, at her own pace. The Pas de l’Olan and all that. Respect. She declines the invitation to join us at the table – she’s a bit short of cash, as she hasn’t found a cash withdrawal at the Chapelle, which doesn’t have any – kindly rejects our proposal for a momentary loan and goes off to make her meal under the poncho. She bluffs me.
At the table, we share the meal with two people from Liège, Jean-François and Christophe. Two brothers who had seen us at the Pré de la Chaumette. They are also doing the GR 54, but very lightly, sleeping only in huts. I recognize them at once: they are the two mutants who overtook me at full speed in the climb to the Valette pass!
The meal ends with the animation of one of the young people of the refuge. A gifted and funny entertainer, perched on a mini stool, wearing a disguise reminiscent of the some bands in the 70’s, he tells us the legend of the Graviers des Souffles while ostensibly showing a jar. Inside: the famous gravels – sugar cubes soaking in a brandy flavored with a whole bunch of mysterious herbs.
After the performance, which was highly applauded, the gravel was passed from table to table. I put one in my mouth. Hell!
Les Souffles - Le Désert en Valjouffrey
Did I sleep better? Not really. At least, not really… Come on, I’ll tell you everything. As soon as I got into the comforter, less sweaty than usual because the temperature had dropped below five degrees, I realized that I had to urinate. It was a disaster. I had taken my precautions before going to the tent, as usual. So I told myself that it would pass and that I would fall asleep. And in fact, I think I had a nose dive between ten and eleven o’clock.
But at midnight, nothing to do: I was totally awake. I pressed gently on my bladder, to be sure. The organ immediately confirmed the feeling: you’re going out, man. No choice. And for that: to get dressed by soaking the wet walls I had forgotten to wipe, to put on the cold shoes, to get out backwards from the gondola and, with the headlamp, in a fog to cut with a knife, whose spray scrolls horizontally in the beam of the lamp, to go to pee in the rocks. Sickening.
But good: then. Big sleep, despite snoring somewhere, under another tent.
I emerge from the tent at eight o’clock. Maud and Christine have already set up camp. The fog has partly cleared and a beautiful sea of clouds drowns the valley.
The double-wall tent, opposite, is just as soaked as mine. I think that my old shelter would not have offered better than the Plexamid, for one kilo more, and that I should have put it as much to dry anyway. I am now convinced that I made the right choice. It was about time.
After that, I packed the wet camp and took my first steps. The clouds go up and down. I am again in the mist.
Including the technical parts of two
stunts waterfalls. I play here on two words which are the same in french : we say both “cascade” for stunt AND waterfall. Anyway…
In height, it gets better: the landscape is sublime.
The contemplation of this ocean of absorbent cotton reminds me of a famous painting of German Romanticism, that of Caspar David Friedrich.
So, with the tripod, I try a very personal counterfeit.
We have fun as we can.
Then I resume the climb to approach the Vaurze pass – 2490 meters. The perspective of the blue sky lets me think that on the other side, the clouds will have disappeared.
It seems that from one side of the Alps to the other, the cumulus clouds are meeting for an annual gathering.
So I go down to the Désert-en-Valjouffrey, my stage of the evening, by diving towards the fumaroles.
The trail twists and turns in a strange atmosphere.
That said, there is hope under the foggy layer: my next step is bathed in sunshine.
I see Maud and Christine who have stopped near a stream. I call out to them but they don’t hear me at first because of the crash of the waterfall, then they finally see me. I wave to them and they answer me with their hands.
We chat while I fill my water bottle with my filter, and then the three of us leave, continuing to chat.
Except that the chatter, downhill in the rocks, is notoriously not ideal for concentration: in a bend, Christine rips and goes upside down in the blueberries of the steep slope. Fear.
Fortunately, more fear than harm. But a broken stick and the hat flew off ten meters below. Christine climbs down to retrieve it, hands clinging to the roots, then climbs back up while I wait for her and Maud takes our picture.
One is silent now, while continuing, the eye riveted on the treacherous stones.
With the loss of altitude, the heat is very present. We literally cook on the way.
Before the village, we meet a nice torrent.
Cool off! While the girls take a quick dip in the five degree water…
I try an icy cryotherapy on my toes. Damn, it’s cold! But effective.
The village of Le Désert en Valjouffrey bears its name well. Not a cat. Two wash houses with drinking water, old alpine houses in their original state – as much as to say authentic, and not yet revamped for the happiness of the Quechua hordes – a small cemetery. Above the latter, the Arias refuge.
A former vacation camp converted into a communal gîte – I worked in places like this in the mid-1980s, notably in Haute Savoie. The building of the dormitories, disused, brings back memories.
Routine then: hot shower – happiness – laundry…
Setting up the base camp.
And we went down to the lodge for the aperitif with Jean-François and Christophe, the brothers from Liège, already seated in front of a bottle of wine and with whom we shared the meal: vegetarians for them both as well as Christine and Maud, extremely carnivorous for me.
Then, satisfied, our heads a bit turned by the second bottle of wine, we go back to the bivouac.
Beautiful lights nimbent the crests, in the distance.
The air is finally dry. A bit warm. So I choose not to sleep directly in my sleeping bag. I spread it on me instead as a comforter – and I spend a very pleasant night, door open but mosquito net closed, on the stars.
Le Désert - refuge de la Muzelle
July 19th. A big piece is waiting for us.
We looked at the big map pinned on the wall of the lodging last night: almost 1000 meters of positive difference in height to go up to the pass of Côte-Belle, 800 meters of descent towards Valsenestre, and 1100 meters of ascent towards the pass of Muzelle. Plus 500 meters of descent to the refuge. Furious walk. Let’s go.
Christine and Maud went ahead of me, with a quarter of an hour to spare, while I was dragging my feet to pack up.
The exit from the Désert is steep as can be.
I am caught by Christophe and Jean-François, who are running up the hill. A collapsed névé, in front, gives an idea of the slope.
Orange lilies again. Beautiful.
I join Christine then I pass her, an eye on the rocks and the blue sky above.
I cross the Côte-Belle pass at 2290 meters and I can see the next pass in front of me, the Muzelle pass.
From here, the final slope of schist seems to me of a prodigious verticality. How do you climb in there? Well, we’ll see.
I take a break on the pass, invaded by strange and sticky little beetles. I take off my shoes – relief – and I smoke a cigarette whose butt I carefully crush in my pocket ashtray: a mini round aluminum box, like the one I put moisturizer in.
Christine appears. We make the descent together, in an extraordinary landscape straight out of a science-fiction set.
The laminated slabs of rock, sculpted by erosion, pile up above our heads, or protrude like spikes.
It’s like Planet of the Apes – Schaffner’s film, not the recent and distressing box-office and popcorn rehash. It’s an absolutely incredible landscape, probably one of the most spectacular I’ve encountered in the Alps.
The rest of the descent – in every sense of the word – is forest and flowery. Very pleasant.
At the arrival at the crossroads of Valsenestre, as it seems that there is no water afterwards and that the next ascent is going to be very hot, we go down a little further to fill two water bottles in the almost dry stream.
Christine’s filter is much better than mine: ultra-light, screwed on a plastic bottle, it is immediately usable while I have to pump on mine, pump, pump again, shadock style, to fill my canisters. I ask her for the brand of the one she’s using – Sawyer – and memorize it for a future replacement.
We then go up a bit to a picnic table under the larches. There, we have a new snack with sausage – Christine makes a bowl on her stove – while the tent, poncho and comforters are drying in the sun.
We meet Jean-François and his brother who come back from Valsenestre. They found the village very beautiful, and all the better for having sent themselves an omelette and a cold beer.
Maud has disappeared. She must be ahead.
We set off again. Full white sun.
In two hours, I drop my two liters of water that my overheated body metabolizes immediately: not even a pee break, everything is gone in the tissues.
The climb is tough. I drool in the sun while forcing the sticks. Christine’s silhouette, behind me, fades away, a tiny ant lost in the landscape.
With the gain in altitude – I must be at about 1800 meters now – the air has become much cooler. I put on my sweatshirt and continue, looking at the final slope with perplexity.
On both sides, threatening clouds appear. Curiously, the pass remains clear. It suits me well and I cross my fingers that it lasts.
And it does indeed last. At the foot of the schist wall, surprise: the slope, which seemed so vertical from afar, actually forms a kind of rounded cone. The path winds in laces. Nothing vertiginous. But steep!
I am in pain. And it goes on and on.
But the pass approaches…
Because the good thing about walking is that you always end up there.
Almost there. One more effort.
And that’s it. Victory. Arms raised like a soccer player who just scored a goal.
An icy wind passes between the rocks. I take shelter and contemplate the landscape in front of me. I can see the refuge, far down on the other side of the lake, as well as the resort of Les Deux Alpes, my terminus, where my friends must at this hour start to set up the terrace of their restaurant.
I take my phone out to take a picture and realize that the 4G is working fine: I send a few texts then I get out of my shelter to try to see Christine. She is approaching. Only a few meters left. I wait for her and take a picture of her when she arrives: it will be a souvenir.
I’m cold and I don’t linger. I recommend my rock shelter to Christine and go downhill, schistose as I like it and punctuated with big snowfalls.
On this one, I put my shoes in parallel, knees bent – at least, as much as the left one, very swollen and stiff since four days, allows it – and I push on the sticks while sliding. Without falling, a great performance.
At the edge of the lake, far behind a network of small streams, I see Maud who has already set up her tent on a grassy slope, sheltered by a half-circle of dry stones.
I join her by asking her, very seriously, what she puts in her morning coffee to go so fast with her fifteen kilos bag. She laughs. She tells me that she arrived at about three o’clock, at the same time as the people from Liège with whom she ate and drank a beer, which beer upset her gyroscopes a little and caused her to fall into one of the streams. New laughter, shared.
Christine joins us in turn. She plans to eat again under the poncho and Maud is no longer hungry; I therefore return to the refuge alone, once the tent is up, to share a beer with Jean-François and Christophe, as well as a father who has brought his ten-year-old son up here to offer him the same walk that I once took my own daughters on.
When I get back to the bivouac area, my legs stiff but my stomach tense because of what I have just eaten, I am amused by the mules that are grazing on the material, shoes included, of imprudent hikers: they have put their tents right next to the path, contrary to us who have put them behind three small streams, and thus out of reach of the beasts
Behind night in the mountains. The setting sun illuminates the Muzelle glacier with a beautiful orange hue. I first opt for the sleeping bag in comforter mode but in the night, I am awakened by the cold and put me in it by closing it. I go back to sleep.
La Muzelle - les Deux Alpes.
July 20. I wake up at six o’clock and immediately feel that my night is over. So I wipe the condensation off the tent as I usually do, get out of the warmth of the comforter – oops, it pinches this morning – and get dressed before going to the deserted toilets of the refuge: 10 minutes there, 10 minutes back: enough to make me seriously nostalgic for the concept of “toilets on the landing”.
In some places, patches of frost tell me about the temperature of the night. It was slightly below zero. So it must have been a degree or two cooler than the Plexamid. A good point for my sleeping bag: I was not cold at all.
On the other hand, I made two small mistakes: I forgot to connect my phone to my backup battery; I forgot to store the battery with me in the warmth of the sleeping bag. Result: my phone is discharged and the battery, cold, struggles considerably to recharge. So we will have much less pictures for this last stage.
At eight o’clock, it is the departure, all three of us. We meet the Liège team on the steep slope of the Vallon pass. Christine was left behind, as usual serene.
An hour of climbing later, in the scree and on the steep ramps, I immortalize our last passage with the tripod.
We say goodbye: Jean-François and Christophe go back to their car in Bourg d’Oisans – the classic start of the GR 54, which Maud must also return to, but at a slower pace.
Christine arrives. We set off again on the descent – which I had kept, having done it with my daughters, a much easier memory than what I rediscover now.
No battery = no photo. The trail is fraught with pitfalls and rocks, steep switchbacks and technical passages aided by cables.
“Did you get your girls through there?” worries Maud.
Yeah. Unworthy father. I am a little ashamed, in retrospect, even if I know that they don’t hold it against me. The proof is that for some time now, they’ve both been talking about coming back there with friends. So what…
The phone a little recharged, further down, I photograph the lake of Lauvitel. Always so beautiful.
We will stop later on, on its grassy beach, at about 11:15 am, to have a picnic, dry the equipment in the sun and try a quick swim. The following picture is by Maud.
On what, to the progressive arrival of the Quechua hordes, we leave again. I put my cap on a rock, so that it dries: I forget it.
I will realize it only when I return to Les Deux Alpes, turning the bag over in all directions. Unfortunate, I liked my cap. Its terrycloth headband, inside, was useful to prevent the sweat from running into my eyes. I had bought it in Vallouise, three years ago, because I had forgotten the previous one in the car of the people who had picked me up after Chambran. Decidedly! It will be said that each GR 54 had its tribute of cap. An involuntary ex-voto, in short.
The descent is done for part in the sun between white-hot rocks and the Quechua hordes which go up blowing, and for part in the welcome shade of a melezin where there, water reserve dry, I am taken of a nasty blow of heat. Thanks to a stream, Christine allows me to use her filter: I can drink immediately, filling my gourd directly without having to pump: convinced, I already know that I have adopted it and this especially as it weighs a third of mine, however already light.
At the crossroads, before the Danchère, Maud says goodbye. The GR goes in front of us and we turn right: Christine parked her car in Mizoen, above the lake of Chambon where I passed the first day. I advised her to go back up with me by the skips that allow to avoid the hard and uninteresting climb from Venosc to the Ski resort.
We both stop at La Danchère, on a nice grassy terrace. Beer and sugar waffle. I get stung by a wasp, Christine by a horsefly, then we leave along the torrent.
On the way: raspberries. Plenty. Excellent.
Then, finally, the Venosc skips bring me back to my starting point and I wish Christine good luck, before going to see my friends at home, who are resting between two services and are delighted to see me whole again.
GR54 completed in 10 days. Mission accomplished.
I take off my shoes and blush immediately. My socks smell like old tartiflette – a French mountain recipe made of cheese crusts…
Yeah. So frenchy. I know.