February 9, 2022
Day 97. Larche to Refuge des Lacs de Vens. 23 Km. 9 Hrs. 1550m up. 880m down. After two nights and a day off at the peaceful and quiet gite in Larche we were recharged. Our batteries were full, our legs rested and we had relaxed in the sleepy village which was already starting to hibernate. We were now ready to move on to the next section. It was called the Mercantour, or Maritime Alps, and it was the last section and 10 days long with a rest day in the middle. Remy was a day ahead on a slightly different route, Richard and David had vanished, and we were now going a little off piste. There were some other English staying at the gite also but we did not really bond with them. After a good breakfast we got our heavy pack lunches, said goodbye to the two young hosts and set off at 0830. For the second day in a row there was frost on the grass outside the gite but the sky was a perfect blue and the forecast was great for the next few days. The contrails of the higher jets were very short and disappeared quickly so the air at the higher elevations was dry.
We followed the small road SE up the valley. There was traffic on the bigger road, which went up and over the Col de Larche and down to Italy, but on the small road there was about a car every 10 minutes at the most. It was cold in the forest where the sun did not filter through, but in the glades the sun instantly warmed us. It took us nearly one and a half hours to walk the 5 km to the parking place at the end of the road. The Ubayette stream flowed beside us the whole way, just to the north of the small road and it went to the car park, and then up the valley we were going to follow to the south.
We reached the car park, which was virtually empty and started up the valley so the south where the stream came down. After a few minutes Fiona saw a bearded vulture high up on the hillside to the west. Then I saw another two beside it and soon we were looking at 5 of these huge birds soaring above us. They seldom beat their enormous wings and when they did it was a very slow flap. Their flight looked almost effortless and they circled high looking for carion. One of them crossed the valley heading east and slightly into the wind, but the vulture tucked its wings slightly and sped across the sky sacrificing just a little height. I knew these vultures were rare in the Alps and I had just seen two all trip and here there were five in one place. I think the Mercantour is renowned for its Bearded Vultures but this was exceptional
Just a kilometre from the parking place we came across two shepherds chatting beside the small cabin one of them spent the summer in. They were both rugged swarthy older men with a mass of matted hair and crimped beards. They did not look nearly as bright as Seb. I showed them a picture of Seb by way of conversation and they said they did not know him. Just beyond the cabin was a flock of sheep still in their nighttime compound. They were a slightly different breed with brown faces typical of the Mediterranean area. There were 3 large Pyrenean Mountain dogs embedded with them and they were lying on the ground partially asleep. As we continued up the valley there were a few fishermen in the stream fly fishing despite the fact it was in the Mercantour National Park. At the parking place just below where the park started there was a “No Kill” notice for the fisherman but I am sure it was hard to police.
After an hour we climbed a small rise and reached the stunning Lac de Lauzanier at about 2300m, and just above the treeline. It was a beautiful lake against a backdrop of bare rocky peaks which were reflected on its slightly rippled surface. We had been going for about 3 hours now so found a small rock to sit on slightly above the lake and had half our picnic lunch here. The lake was perhaps half a kilometre long and 200 metres high and there were about 20 people lying in the grass around it, most I am sure had walked up from the parking place. There were a few fishermen too, casting spinners into the lake from a rocky prominence and I wondered why on earth the park authorities did not ban the habit. After a warm half hour, with the cold of the morning now a distant memory, we continued up.
Our path went up the valley, passing a few springs which flowed from the ground and were ice cold after months percolating through the mountain. At one point I saw 5 red deer in the valley wallowing in the deeper parts of the main valley stream far below. They had seen us 300 metres away but were quite confident. I think their fear of man passed down through the generations was beginning to fade now they were not prosecuted in the National Park. We passed another lake, Lac de Derriere la Croix, at about 2400m, which had dried out considerably in this drought and had shrunk to half its size. Just after this lake the path started to climb in earnest up some grassy slopes covered in marmot burrows to reach some screes on the east side of the bowl. The path traversed up these screes on a stoney platform about a metre wide, and was easy to follow until it got to the Pas de la Cavale, about 2700m, our first pass of the day. There was an open view to the south from here over the vast grassy bowl below the pass on the southside, with some small lakes and a couple of shepherds cabins far below. Beyond this bowl was the Tinee Valley and the massif of Mont Mounier, where the GR5 went. However we would leave the GR5 very shortly and go off piste for a few days through the mountains on the border of France and Italy and on the main watershed.
The descent down the pass was initially steep as the path made a traverse down a ledge and then double backed on itself to go down under the ledge on steeper ground. It was always safe, especially in the dry, but it was a little loose and covered in gravel and Fiona felt a tad uncomfortable for these 10 minutes. After that the gradient eased and the path dropped down across more scree and then across the upper grass slopes to the small Lacs d’Agnel at about 2350m. These lakes were really depressions in the moraine formed where the glacier of ice and rock melted, dumping the stones in circles as they emerged from the ice. Then the ice left a depression when the it finally melted, which later filled with water. We left the GR5 at these lakes and had our second lunch here after we had been going for well over 5 hours.
From the small Lac d’Agnel we headed SE down the cropped smooth grassland for a kilometre at least as we descended into the rocky streambed in the Salso Moreno, which was dry. There was a large flock of sheep below us but were largely stationary and would not reach us. We crossed the dry streambed which was full of rubble from the moraines and bare rocky mountainside above and then climbed the easy grassy slopes of the small side valley called the Vallon de la Cabane. It was a delightful climb up a grassy ramp with serrated mountains on all sides. I thought the faint path would continue west up the grassy slope in the valley to the moraine above, and then ascend this veering to the SE to Pas de Morgon, 2714m, but it did not. Instead it climbed up a small gully to the south to a grassy plateau with the lowest of the Lacs de Morgon.
For the next hour we had some of the best walking on this trip. The faint path, marked only by cairns, weaved up between small bare outcrops on a rocky turf path. The gong was never difficult and the route finding was easy with the numerous small stone cairns. However what made this ascent really special were the numerous tarns and ponds nestled in the outcrops. There must have been about 6 tarns and 10 ponds in all and they all had a great view across them to the NW and the Pas de la Cavale and the steep descent from it we made just 2-3 hours earlier. Each tarn had its own character but all were very tranquil in the still warm day. They looked very tempting for a swim but I was worried about the time it would take. Each was a deep blue, almost a navy blue, which was probably partially due to a reflection from the perfect skies of the afternoon. Beside one tarn I spotted a larch growing at 2500m which was a record for me on this trip for a conifer. Beside the tarns the blueberry bushes were becoming very autumnal and they glowed crimson if the sun shone on them at a certain angle. After a lovely hour where we climbed some 250 metres we passed the last tarn and then gained the moraine at the top. We followed the moraine up for half an hour climbing another 150 metres to reach the Pas de Morgon 2714m, the highest point of the day.
I was a bit worried about what would happen next on the descent down the other side, however it was much easier than I imagined. The faint path veered slightly SE until it got to a prominent ridge which was the Italian/French border. It then followed this ridge for over a kilometre to reach Col du Fer, 2564m. This kilometre was quite slow going as the ground was rocky in places although the rocks were stable and abrasive so our boots stuck to them. Col du Fer I think is a hikers and shepherds thoroughfare as there was a good path coming up from each side. On the French side it was from a stunning high valley, Vallon Tortisse, with a magnificent pasture and a couple of old cabins which were still under a wooden slab roof. On the Italian side the valley leading up to the col looked dry and arid. In the distance we could see the triangular tower of Mont Viso rising above everything as it was the most southerly and isolated 4000m mountain. From Col du Fer the path was virtually level for a kilometre to a small pass called Collet de Tortisse between two modest hills. Here we started the final descent to the Lac de Vens.
The descent was not that steep due to an old constructed path which I think might have been some near 100 year old military path. It went down in easy zig-zags, which were so easy we cut across one. There was a unique arch in the beige rock here which looked like it should be in Arizona. Near this arch the view to the south, which was already good, became the double spread of a coffee table book or poster. It was absolutely stunning as the Lac de Vens appeared below us in a deep bowl at the top of the tree line. The three Vens lakes were laid out in a row at the bottom hemmed in by steep mountains. The colours of the beige rocky mountains covered in crimson blueberry bushes, the dark blue azure waters and the limegreen of the upper larches all under a perfect blue sky were quite mesmerising. It was one of the top three locations of the entire trip. The cabin we were staying at Refuge de Vens was at the head of the largest and uppermost lake on a small knoll with a small stream on each side. It was a perfect and idyllic location.
We reached the cabin at about 1730 and found the host. He looked exhausted after catering for a full house of 40 last night and a weekend of day trippers who had come up for lunch from both Italy and France. However, they had all gone now and there were only 8 of us staying. We had to share a dormitory but it was big and all four couples found a little niche to sleep in. Dinner was large and everyone was full after a couscous terrine and stew and I had a vegetable fry on my couscous. The host was very easy going and aimed to please. Of the 4 couples 2 were German and one of them, Manu and Christof, were very chatty and friendly. We were seated next to them and spent the whole meal chatting enthusiastically. By coincidence all 4 couples were also going to Refuge de Rabuons tomorrow and it was supposed to be stunning also. After dinner I wrote but I had to go well past the 2200 curfew to finish but the host just showed me how to switch off the lights.
Day 98. Refuge des Lacs de Vens to Refuge des Rabuons. 14 Km. 6 Hrs. 620m up. 500m down. I did not sleep too well in the dormitory despite the fact I was tired and the window was wide open. Fiona for once slept well however. The alarm went off at 0630 for the breakfast at 0700. It was a stunning morning again with just the slightest frost and a near full moon hanging over the lake in the purple glow of the dawn. Breakfast was nothing special but it was large enough for the reasonably short day we were to have. The picnic bags were heavy, always a good sign, and when we inspected them before packing they looked great. I had goodbye to the host, Anton, who was a very competent cook and an all round easy going nice guy. We left just before 0800.
Initially we went down to the first lake, crossing one of the small streams which cascaded down each side of the cabin. The first lake still had the moon hanging over it as we skirted its northern shore through scattered small larches and blueberry bushes. It was still in the shade. To the south of us and also in the shade were craggy mountains covered in scree and looking very inhospitable. The lake however was very hospitable and gorgeous, and a delightful start to the day. We wandered along its entire shore, occasionally climbing over rounded slabs which sloped down into the lake. Generally the path kept on the turf. As we got to the outflow of the uppermost lake another small one appeared at the end of it, and then after a short steam another larger one appeared again. It was as stunning as the first. At the end of it there was a small cascade where the outflow splashed over a slab and fell into yet another lake. This one was small but there were rings where trout were rising. The path then crossed the outflow to this fourth lake to the south side of the stream, passed yet another tarn and reached the bottom of the first climb of the day. This hour’s riparian wandering was the perfect start to the day.
The climb was initially steep as it zig-zagged up the hillside glowing in blueberry bushes in the early sun. It had just risen over the rampart of mountains to the east of up which formed the main watershed of the Alps, and the border. The climb was however quite short, just some 250 metres in all and it was over in well under an hour. Near the top was yet another lake, Lac de Babarottes at about 2430m. There were some hardy young larches growing here, well above anything I had seen before and some must have made it to 2500m. This lake was also gorgeous and the sun was shining on its clear waters illuminating a few large trout, perhaps 30cm long, which were cruising along the surface looking for flies. The descent down the other side of this col was initially quite steep and the path was covered in a gravel from the granite type rock, but it was always safe. There was a view down the side valley past a shepherds hut and a compound full of sheep to the Tinee valley. It was around 1000 now and the sheep were still in their compound with the dogs sleeping amongst them. The dogs were easily distinguishable because they were white compared to the brown sheep. The shepherd’s cabin was still in the shade and it might have been the reason he was so late in getting his sheep out to pasture. We descended about 250 metres to an area strewn with moraine above the sheep and then picked up a path we could see contouring across the hillside.
Across the large Tinee valley below was the massif with Mont Mounier where the GR5 went. I could see the small village of Saint Dalmas le Savage on the other side. It was not to be confused with Saint Dalmas, perhaps 40 km further down the valley, where the GR52 split off from the GR5 and headed up into the Mercantour. We would meet the GR52 in 4 days.
The path we arrived at which contoured around the mountianside was called the Sentier de l’Electrique. It was the most amazing path as it was well constructed some 70-90 years ago probably by an electricity company. It was completely flat which in this very rugged terrain was quite a feat. We followed it for the best part of 4 kilometres as it contoured around the spurs and veered into the gullies. It was absolutely flat and easy underfoot so we could stride out along it, often two abreast. Occasionally the path narrower to a less than a metre but usually it was well over a metre. Where there were cliffs and buttresses to negotiate the path was supported on stone terraces or hacked into the cliff. It even went through two small tunnels to maintain its level route. Larch trees clung to the steep mountainsides above and below the path which mellowed its appearance. At one stage as we cross the rocky spur, called Crete de Ballai, we could look down into the Tinee valley far below and see the very small town of Saint Etienne de Tinee. After this spur there were the remnants of an aerial tramway with the rusting ruins of a small metal wagon. The metal wagon must have ferried goods between the tramway and the barrack buildings in the next valley we went into a kilometre further on. The barracks were still standing and it seemed some workmen were living in one building as there was a large generator outside.
Just beyond the barracks were signs saying the Chemin de l’Electric was closed for a section, for everyone’s safety. The signs were dated 2014. It was due to a small tunnel on the pathway which had collapsed and there was no way round. We were spoiled by its lovely flat surface and now looked at the diversion. It climbed 250 steep metres over a spur and then descended to the flat track again just a kilometre from the barracks. It took a good hour to climb and descend the 250 metres over the spur. The tunnel collapse had forced the authorities to make the diversion and there were 4 workmen constructing the diversion. They had already constructed the route up over the spur and were now constructing the route down the other side. We had lunch just after the old barracks built by the electricity company some 80 years ago before the climb.
After lunch we went up the steep hillside on the new well constructed path which zig-zagged up the slope in easy hairpins. It took a very short hour to get to the top and then walk across a high plateau to reach the absolutely stunning Lac Fer. It was nestled in a cirque surrounded by jagged mountains culminating in Mont Tenibre, 3031m. The sun was shining on its surface illuminating it and it was easy to see the large trout swimming on its surface and even a metre down. Around the edge of the lake was a fringe of yellow shallows before it got deeper and its colours changed to mixtures of green and blue. We marvelled at the lake for 10 minutes contemplating a swim but then decided to push on to the Refuge de Rabuons. We descended down the other side of the spur on the path the workmen were still constructing and reached the wide level track made by the electricity company 80 years ago just above the small lake called Lac Petrus.
Now we were back on the easy spectacular wide and level path again having bypassed the tunnel collapse. We still had about 5 km to walk and it took us about an hour and a half – partly because we took so many photographs. This second section of the Sentier de l’Electrique was even more spectacular than the first and the challenges of construction even greater. The mountainside was very steep and in places the wide path was hacked into the cliffs and on other occasions it was built up on high terraces. On two more occasions the path could not go round a buttress so it tunnelled through it. The whole time the path felt very safe as it was built to take heavy machinery on metal carts to the small hydroelectric powerstation. Halfway along we came out of a tunnel, rounded a spur and caught sight of the night’s refuge on a rocky ridge which was the natural barrier to create the Lac Rabuons. As we approached it we came to the small power station which had just been modernised. It took water from the lake just the other side of the natural granite barrier via a small tunnel and then put it through a turbine before releasing it back onto the hillside. The electricity company which built the track here from the workers barracks also built the one we walked on before lunch to take water out of the bottom of Lac Vens but never got around to it before the National Park was created. From the small powerstation to the Refuge de Rabuons the wide easy constructed path ceased and it was replaced by a more traditional rocky footpath for the 10 minute walk. Just before the cabin the view over Lac Rabuons appeared. Unfortunately the lake was hydro regulated and the level was low so it lay at the bottom of an ugly bare ring of rock which despite the dramatic mountains as a backdrop made it unsightly. It was just outside the National Park.
The cabin was quiet when we arrived and the host, Charlie, greeted us and showed us the dormitory and told us to take any bed. There were two others already there so we took beds near the end wall hoping Manu and Christof would take the beds near the door and keep it open. However as the afternoon wore on, more and more people arrived including a large bunch of teenages on an outdoor education trip. By the time supper arrived it was crammed and it would be a noisy night. I wrote the blog before supper as everyone was arriving, while Fiona had a shower in an outdoor cubicle where a long black hose snaking across the hillside for a few hundred metres supplied warm water on this hot sunny day. The host, Charlie, came over and explained the options for tomorrow. The path I originally intended was no problem, he said but it was long. He suggested an alternative with a 200 metre scrambling section on the ascent over the pass to the west of Lac Colle Longue. He said the descent on the east side was easy but I thought Fiona would be uncomfortable on the scrambling ascent so we would revert back to our original route which was 3 hours and perhaps 600 metres of ascent longer. Charlie said he could give us an early breakfast at 0530 and I snapped at the chance. I had finished writing an hour before dinner at 1900.
Day 99. Refuge des Rabuons to Sanctuary di Saint Anna. 29 Km. 10.5 Hrs. 1640m up. 2110m down. I did not sleep that well again. I made sure the window was open when I went to bed, but someone must have closed it in the night and the temperature in the dormitory just got hotter and hotter. When the alarm went off at 0530 I did not feel that refreshed. We took everything downstairs to pack into our rustly bags and then had breakfast. It was a poor breakfast of pale light breads and weak coffee. The only redeeming ingredient was catering muesli and powdered milk which we heaped into our bowls like a condemned man. By 0615 we were ready to go but it was not quite light enough and we had to wait another 10 minutes before we set off for fear of tripping over a boulder.
I had been a bit worried about the path we were to take as it was not marked on any map I had seen. However, it was marked on various online charts and the host, Charlie, had explained it was recently improved. When we started I was astounded that it was so good. It was negligent of the map makers to leave it off both the official ING map and the Didier Richard Edition map I had, which was not really worth the paper it was printed on. We skirted the south side of Lac Rabuons and then started to climb up the path which had been cleared in the scree on the west ridge of the rocky triangle of Tete de Jassine, 2914m, mountain. As we climbed the sun came up on the peaks across the Tinee Valley below and the brightest stars in the sky started to fade. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day as per the forecast. We flushed a covey of some 5 ptarmigan whose wings were already turning white. They flew down the path and we passed them again some 10 metres away. They were just too well camouflaged to photograph in the late dawn light. Some 20 minutes later we saw a large male European Mouflon, Ovis aries musimon. The Mouflon is the feral descendant of a primitive sheep which was reintroduced to the Alps. It was the first and only one I had seen on the whole trip. It was very wary of us and took off across the scree long before we got close with an intuitive fear of humans which Ibex do not seem to have. There was a short steeper section just to get up onto the main ridge.
Once on the ridge we could see the path descend gently into the wild cirque with Lac Clapiere, a small alpine tarn, nestled in the scree fields just below the head of the valley. The descent down into the valley was easy on a gentle path which was occasionally strewn with boulders but previously someone had removed the most awkward ones and tried to level the route off. The path went along the floor of the valley contouring out again to the spur on the south side. As we walked along I saw three Bearded Vultures come over the ridge by Tete de Jassine, glide over our valley and disappear over the spur where we were going. The vultures seemed to be on a mission rather than aimlessly soaring.
We crossed another high valley descending slightly as the good path continued to contour round from the two spurs which enclosed it. There was a small clear stream tumbling down it and this enabled a flock of sheep to thrive in the bowl. As we circled round above them they were still in their night time enclosure. When we rounded the spur on the south of this second high side valley yet another one appeared. It also looked quite pastoral but we could not see any sheep in it. On the farside was a gentle rounded ridge with a small knoll peppered with small hardy larches at the upper limit of the tree line. The knoll was called Tete Gorpa. When we got to it an hour later after another easy descending traverse across the bowl of the day’s third side valley, it revealed a small tarn in a tiny hidden shangri-la covered in grasses with a few protective copses of larch trees. It would have been a great place to camp.
After Tete Gerpa the path now climbed for a good hour and a half. Initially it was easy across the grassy hillside covered in brown grasses but as we ascended it went into a small steep sided bowl with a steep exit on a looser path where small floods had brought gravel and stones down in heavy rainstorms. In one place it washed the path away but it was still easy to cross the tiny ravine. Once we climbed up out of the bowl we sauntered across the scree covered hillside on what looked like a constructed rough track. The track was probably a very old military track linking all sorts of ruined stone houses. The track delivered us to Col de Colle Longue, the end of our second climb for the day at 2533m. There were some views here over to the Mont Mounier massif across the large Tinee valley to the SW and we had had these views all morning. However we could now see north over the col down the deep steep sided valley to the north and to the village of San Bernolfo. To our east was the very craggy mountain of Tete de l’Autaret with a path going up it. Just below the col on the north side was the Lac de Colle Longue and we dropped down the very stone rough track to it.
At this circular lake we had a choice of routes. The first route, very adventurous in its nature, headed off to the east over 4 passes to the Sanctuary at Saint Anna. It was about 10 km and involved some 600 metres of ascent. The last two passes were not really passes at such as the path traversed the hillside from one saddle to the next. However the first two were more challenging with the second, Passo del Bue, 2603m, being of an alpine nature with an exposed section. It was likely that this route was also across rocky ground of boulders and scree which would have been slow. It was all a bit of an unknown route on which I could find little information. The other option was perhaps 16 kilometres with over a 1100m of ascent, so much longer. However this second route choice was on easier and well frequented paths which would have been faster to walk on. It was less adventurous but at least it was assured we would not have to turn back if the going got too difficult, as might be the case with the first option. Fiona was keen to do the easier longer option so reluctantly I agreed.
We set off down the valley towards the small Lago di San Bernolfo which we could see at the bottom. The route down followed a rough military track which had been carved through the scree fields. It was quite easy underfoot and just a quick glance to the side at the scree showed us how difficult it might have been in the large boulders without this track. As the track descended the terrain became more hospitable and soon there was turf beside the track meaning we could cut across the dozens of hairpin bends the track took. On each side the valley walls became very steep and rocky. Looking up the side valleys I could imagine the scree fields we might have encountered had we gone the other way over Passo di Bue. Soon the valley became very pastoral and we came to the meadows around the Lago di San Bernolfo where there were cows of a very light, almost white breed, grazing. Just after the lake we went over a very small saddle, passed the closed Rifugio de Alexandris Foches, and entered the forest. It took a good half hour zig-zagging down the track in the forest to reach the small village of San Bernolfo, just on the other side of the bridge. We had been going for 6 and a half hours now and heard there was a small cafe here so made the slight detour to visit it.
The cafe was actually a refuge called Rifugio Dahu de Sabarnui and it was a delightful place in an enchanting old wooden building with a worldly well travelled crew running the place. Inside it was decorated with lots of historic or quirky items which made it look like a rednecks hang out in the rural MidWest of America, but it was anything but and was quite Bohemian and artistic. We had a cake each to make up for the poor picnic which Charlie at Refuge de Rabuons provided, and were ready to do the last half of today at 1400 hrs. We wandered back through the pretty village in the middle of its steep harvested hay meadows, recrossed the bridge over the small stream in a deep slot and entered the fir forests again.
The route now went up the Vallone della Sauma. The track initially went up through the firs on zig-zags until it quickly became impassable for vehicles and reverted to a path. The firs were large and the forest floor was covered in blueberry bushes and mushrooms. The mushrooms were largely of the Amanita genus and were either inedible or poisonous. They were not glutinous at all but very dry and shrivelling and cracking on the stalk in this drought. After a good hour the forest started to thin and by now it was largely larches. There was a path up the rocky valley side which led up to the Laguna della Sauma but we needed the path which went straight on up this now pastoral valley to Passo Sometta, 2209m. As we approached the path I came across a small herd of the white cows again which I now had discovered were of the Piedmontese breed.
At the Passo Sometta we could look over the small alpine valley to the south to the main alpine watershed and the mountains on the French Italian border just a kilometre south. I could see a small path traversing across the scree between saddles. The path came from the Passo del Bue to the west and the descent looked easy from there. This would have been the route we would have taken earlier had the ascent to the Passo del Bue not been so exposed. We had had to drop down the 100 or so metres into this small alpine valley into the upper larches again and follow its crystal clear small stream down for an easy half kilometre to its junction with the Vallon di Tesina valley. It was a remote and wild spot and there were plenty of marmot at the junction of the small high valleys. I drank from the stream and the water was immensely refreshing.
We were getting tired now but there was still another 400 metres to climb up to the Passo Tesina, 2400m. As we climbed through the larches again I could look back down the Vallon di Tesina and see that just below the point where we joined it was a shepherd’s hut and a large area of dark bare earth where the flock spent the night. It must have been a big herd of 2000 animals. The path to the Passo Tesina climbed up a shallow escarpment to a higher valley of pastures and small ponds. It was quite idyllic and a bit of a hidden paradise up here. However the whole time we could see the final ascent up the pass and it looked quite long. It was not as bad as it looked in reality and the crimson blueberry bushes, spectacular views and the occasional stand of very old Arolla pine eased the slog.
With tired legs we found the descent was on an old military track and the gradients were quite gentle. It was just what we needed and we followed the track down, losing a couple of hundred metres until half an hour later we reached a small tarn in the grassy plateau just before reaching Lago di Saint-Anna. On looking at the map I saw the Sanctuary di Saint Anna was just below us and we could cut across the grassland, off piste, and get there in 500 metres, rather than follow the path for a couple of kilometres. We headed off cross country and followed the water supply down. It was perhaps not the easiest route as there was a screefied to cross with large stones and then rocky turf, some of it quite steep and wearing on our tired legs. However soon the roofs of the Sanctuary appeared just below us and 5 minutes later we had gone through another herd of Piedmontese cattle and were in the upper car park at our destination.
The Sanctuary di Saint Anna was a high monastery, the highest in Europe, at 2030m. It had a large Refugio attached to it with comfortable rooms and a number of more monastic buildings with simple rooms for the more pious. There was a large chapel, the beating heart of the whole complex and a cafe and small gift shop. We had booked into the Rifugio Alpino Casa San Gioachino and were shown a room on the first floor with an attached bathroom. There was an extended clothes washing session in the shower before dinner at 1930. Dinner was simple and a bit disappointing with small portions. Probably a great size for worship and prayer but way too small for a hard hike. We were sat next to two people doing the Via Alpina. She was a Swiss 40 year old and he was a German 50 year old. They were both doing the trip independently but had met up and hiked together. They were the type of hikers all other hikers tend to avoid as they were so competitive and factual. I felt they were hiking the Via Alpina for all the wrong reasons. We mentioned nothing of our trip and they continued to become unbearably superior. He said he was going to hike the 500km Kungsleden next and did I know anything about it. I told him to google my books on Amazon which surprisingly he did. He was a bit quieter afterwards but the Swiss Miss carried on lecturing us about her brilliant tent choice and how our tent was flawed. We could not get away quickly enough. It was an early night and we slept like logs in the dark, quiet room with no disturbance.
Day 100. Sanctuary di Saint Anna to Rifugio Emilio Questo. 20 Km. 7 Hrs. 1180m up. 830m down. We had a day’s rest at Saint Anna. I had put it aside to write the blog and explore the chapel and its environs. It was a coincidence that our rest day was one of the wettest days of the entire trip. We felt quite smug to be sitting in the large warm building with the rain pouring down outside. We only went out once and that was to the cafe at midday. They did great panini, mozzarella and tomato sandwiches and we had 2 each. They were so good we ordered another 12 to have as our three meals when we were at Refugio Emilio Questo tomorrow. That refuge was closed but we could use the winter room as shelter but there would be no food hence the 6 large paninis each. Fiona went to have a look at the chapel and we managed to buy some batteries and soap in the gift shop. which mostly sold religious icons. I managed to catch up with the blog before dinner by which time the rain was just petering out. Dinner again was a disappointment. The main course for vegetarians was just a few slabs of cheese. I made my feelings known to the waiter and told her it was just lazy. During the night the rain returned and there was a tremendous thunderstorm with lightning very close by. I was pleased to hear it as it would bring an end to the constant rain and drizzle and clear the skies.
I got my revenge for the poor supper at breakfast and was quite brazen in helping myself to three times my entitlement. I was like a hungry dog. We got our picnic from the sanctuary, paid our very reasonable bill, said our goodbyes and went down to the cafe beside the large chapel. The guy at the cafe we chatted to yesterday had our 12 panini sandwiches ready and packed, which was great. We paid for them and managed to stuff them into the tops of our rucksacks without too much crushing. We finally left the whole Saint Anna complex at about 0900 under a beautiful clear sky.
Our route climbed immediately, firstly up the road heading south for half kilometre or so until it petered out. We then continued south up a track for another half kilometre until it changed into a path. The path continued to climb, sometimes quite steeply up the northern ridge of the shallow Cima Moravachere, 2383m. Once we gained its rounded summit the path headed south west for the next 4 km along the crest of the rounded ridge, called Crete de la Lausetta, leading to the Col de la Lombarde. It was a gentle walk through the uppermost scattered larches across the hillside covered in autumnal blueberry bushes, juniper scrub and small willows. On our east side was the Vallon di Sant Anna with the road in it winding up to the Col de La Lombarde and on the west side far below was the Vallon de Chastillon valley in France where the road which went over the col headed down again. It took a couple of hours to reach the Col de La Lombarde, 2351m, from Saint Anna and it was quite busy when we got there with a mix of old men on motorbikes, couples in campervans and sports car drivers. One thing they all had in common was to photograph their various vehicles at the pass. There was also a contingent of road cyclists who were doing this famous col, which was occasionally on the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia itineraries. There was a small kiosk in a van here and he was selling large sandwiches. We had one each as an early lunch.
After the Col de la Lombarde our route went down the road into France for a few hundred metres until it reached a path which veered off to the east across the lower flanks of Cime de la Lombarde mountain. The roughly constructed path went through some tedious scree fields. It was slow going but without the path it would have been very arduous. The path also went through some easier slopes covered in larch woods before alternating back to the angular scree fields. It dropped the whole time as it went round the spur and into the upper Vallon de Chastillon valley. Suddenly there was a modern ski village below us, called Isola 2000. It was a blot on the otherwise wild landscape, but nowhere near in the same category of eyesore as Tignes some two weeks ago. We wandered under ski lifts and walked down pistes and up access roads for nearly an hour until we reached a large artificial pond, called Prise d’Eau, which was used to store water for the snow maker nozzles in the winter. Across the valley to the south there were many pistes which had been cleared in the forest and moraines which had been bulldozed smooth for this industrial tourist complex. However at the round storage pond we could turn our back on it all and head into the craggy mountains again up the small side valley called Vallon de Terre Rouge.
The path up this side valley went first east up through the larches on rocky ground with frequent scree fields and outcrops. The path through them was well constructed and I guess as it was near the border it was done by the military some 100 years ago. A half hour after leaving the artificial pond the path reached a junction under the looming rocky peak of Cima de Tavels. One path went south to Col Merciere while our path went north to the Lacs de Terre Rouge. It only took half an hour to weave up through the outcrops to reach the magnificent and wild cirque with a handful of lakes nestled in it. All around us steep craggy mountains rose up to form a jagged arc some 500m above the lakes. There was a small chink in the ramparts which surrounded the lakes and that was on the border at a pass called Baisse de Drous, 2628m. On the north side of this cirque the rocks and the screes below them were a red colour and it was this which gave the cirque its name of Terre Rouge. The route from the lakes went up across this scree on a small constructed path. It traversed up high above the largest lake which changed colours as the sun and shadows flashed across it. Well above the lake it made a switchback and traversed up to the very jagged rocks of the pass. The path up to the pass was hacked out of the cliffs in some places and built on terraces in others, again probably 100 years ago by the military. At the top there was a great view down the matching cirque on the Italian side which was even wilder than its French counterpart.
The descent was again on a military track which had fallen into disrepair but was still good for hiking. It descended a couple of hundred metres to a large old barracks which were now derelict and about to collapse. They belonged to the Ist Regiment Alpini of the Italian Army and were from the First World War. The tracks from this conflict have been very useful to us over the last 4 days. From the barracks we descended another couple of hundred metres to the very beautiful Lago di Valscura, 2272m. It was again on the old track which had been destroyed in a few places by small flooding streams. All around this remote Italian cirque were small buildings high up on the mountain sides, where soldiers must have kept watch in cold miserable conditions. When we reached the Lago di Valscura the sun was out and we sat on a terrace and ate our second lunch. This lake also changed its colour frequently with just subtle changes in the sun’s rays. It was very clear and there was a cluster of boulders in the middle which almost formed an island. As we ate we saw crows harry two large birds of prey circling around the cliffs above us. I think they were too small to be a pair of eagles but perhaps they were hawks. The walk to the end of the lake passed more ruined barracks and at the outflow of the lake was a beautiful small meadow. A shepherd had been here with his flock recently and had spent some of the summer in an old building with a new tin roof. He was probably returning to the plains of Piedmont now.
It was only 3 km to the Refugio Emilio Questa from this lake but it was the most remarkable and wildest of the day. The route was a mixture of rocky path and an incredible pavement some 3 metres wide through the most inhospitable and challenging boulderfields. It must have also been a military road and I spared a thought for the hundreds of wretched Italian soldiers who must have laboured in harsh conditions to build it. In stretches it was still good and it wove and twisted through huge boulders. Its wide surface was made with the flat edges of thousands of large stones fitted together. It led us up to a remote lake, Lago del Claus, 2344m, in a very deep cirque surrounded by a ring of extremely jagged peaks. The track, something like a rugged version of the yellow brick road from the Wizard of Oz, ended here and a path continued for another half hour to take us to the Rifugio Questa on the edge of the Lago delle Portette, 2361m. The mountains around this refuge really looked as rugged as the Dolomites and although they were under 3000 metres they were incredibly spectacular and jagged with serrated ridges buttressing them up.
The Refugio Emilio Questa was also an old barracks of the First Regiment Alpini from the First World War. It was closed and the host, Marco, had emailed me a few months ago to tell me he was closing early as he had run out of water in this prolonged drought. However there was a winter room with no facilities other than a roof, tables, mattresses and blankets and we were welcome to use it without charge. It was quite an ugly stone building and the lake it was beside had shrunk considerably into a steep sided cone and was now 100 metres from the shelter. When we went in we found a middle aged French couple were there. There was space enough for 10 people though. We went to collect some water in the deep, almost unnatural looking depression and then came back to settle in. The French couple were very nice and quite experienced in the mountains here and we could glean some information from them. After our dinner of 2 paninis each and a bar of chocolate for dessert I wrote until 2130 when it was time for bed. I hung the food as I am sure the place would have mice and went up the steep ladder to the mattresses in the attic space where we slept.
Day 101. Rifugio Emilio Questo to Refuge Cougourde. 19 Km. 9.5 Hrs. 1440m up. 1660m down. During the dark night I could see towns twinkling on the plains. It was difficult to imagine that there were large cities down there where humanity thrived after so long in the mountains. One of the cities was probably Cuneo. When light came we could see down the valley which led to this plain and far below us was the Rifugio Valasco which was once a royal hunting lodge for Vittorio Emanuele II, initially King of Sardinia-Piedmont and who later unified Italy into a Kingdom. It was in this era and the later border conflicts with France when many of the military roads we had been walking on in the last couple of days were built. We had a relaxed breakfast of another of the two baguettes each, which were starting to get a bit soggy after 24 hours.
We eventually left at 0830 which was probably a bit too carefree as today was certainly an unknown quantity with very small poorly marked paths. Initially we went down a rocky track with much of it in the shade. Near the cabin we saw two female chamois, each with one of this year’s kids. The kids were still frolicking even at 5-6 months old. The rough path circled round the head of the valley across scree chutes, dropping into the upper larch forest with big trees. After an hour of this path it reached a side valley which headed up to the SE. There was a path here which came up from Refugio Valesco here and we joined it. It was also a constructed path which in places was quite wide and well made to the extent is was paved with flat stones and 2 metres wide in places. We climbed it as it went up this side valley, called Val Morta, climbing out of the last of the grandee larches onto rocky valley floor. Within an hour we had reached the Colletto del Valesco pass, 2430m, where there was a great view down to the lowest of the 3 Fremamorta lakes, 2359m, and the rugged mountains beyond which were as wild as anything I had seen on the entire trip in this remote corner of the Alps. Beside the middle of the Fremamorta lakes was a small red bivouac hut of the type I have stayed in in the Dolomites with 9 beds. It was called Bivacco Guiglia, 2437m. Looking from the saddle we were on the route down to the first lake, surrounded by a large boulder field, looked like it was the Great Wall of China. We got to the first lake within a few minutes and could see large trout swimming on the surface of its deep azure waters. We had to walk up the well constructed track between the lower and middle Fremamorta Lakes where we found the path which descended some 600m all the way down to the remote Gesso Valley.
The descent down to the Gesso Valley was slow as it was very stony and crossed a few boulderfields. Nearly every step had to be considered and we were thankful it was a dry day and the soles of our boots gripped the rocks. There were a few sections of zig-zags between the boulders where the path descended on gravel and steep turf before veering south to cross another strip of rocks. About half way down just at the treeline there was a short cut. We took it and within a few minutes I was hoping we had not made a mistake as it became very rough and steep with the occasional exposed section. However as we went down it the larches got larger and more dense and this made it feel more secure as it traversed the steep hillside in an eroded groove. After half an hour we reached the main path again and continued the descent down to the valley floor. The clunk of cow bells from a herd of some 40 cows echoed up the valley side and it gave the impression that this area was pastoral but it was really far too rugged for cattle except on the valley floor where there were some pastures at Piano della Casa del Re. The high jagged mountains completely surrounded the head of the Gesso valley and there were high grey jagged peaks on all sides, except for the narrow entrance to the north where the track came up. Just before we got to the valley floor there was an exceptionally rocky path, marked only by small cairns across boulders to the base of a spur where there was the small Refugio Regina Elena stone cabin, 1850m. It was newly restored and maintained by the Sezione di Genova Alpine Club. However it had closed after the summer and all its metal shutters were firmly closed. We had lunch in the shade beside it as we had been going for 4 hours now and finished off the last of our now soggy baguettes from the Sant Anna cafe. Although we had been going for 4 hours we had very little to show for it as the terrain forced us to be slow and cautious.
After lunch we started the main climb of the day, which was a 900 metre ascent to the Main Alpine Divide and the French border. Our route initially took us up one of the fan of 4 side valleys which came down to Rifugio Regina Elena at the head of the Gesso Valley. This side valley was called Vallone Assedras. The climb up it was quite sustained but not too steep as it zig-zagged up through the thinning larch forest to the north of a small clear stream cascading down the V shaped valley. It was an easy half hour climb during which the Refugio Remondino appeared above us, perched on an outcrop. With its tall facade and red shutters it looked like a Tibetan Monastery. However, well before we reached it the path crossed the stream and forked and we had to take the small branch which I was pleased to see was marked by old faint paint marks.
The small path we took climbed up very steep small zig-zags in a narrow gully between two crags. Essentially we had to go up this gully to climb up beside, and then over, the buttress separating the Vallone Assedras side valley we had been climbing and the Vallone di Balma Ghilié side valley which we were now trying to reach. We could not go up the latter valley from the head of the Gesso valley as the route was impassable lower down due to it being in a gorge. Once we had climbed the zig-zags to reach the top of the buttress I expected up to make a steep exposed traverse across the side of the valley to reach its floor above the gorge, However it was a very pleasant easy walk along a balcony path beneath large rock faces and above outcrops which dropped of into the gorge below. Small streams came cascading down the rock faces and crossed the grassy slope where the path went before plummeting over the crags into the gorge. There were a few outcrops but the faint path threaded a pleasant route through them traversing the valley side and delivered us into the upper V shaped valley above the gorge. The floor of this valley was covered in boulders but there were some grassy slopes which the path tended to follow. It took a good hour to climb up this remote rocky path to reach the saddle on the main ridge which seemed to have 2 names, namely Col du Guilié and Colle est del Mercantour, 2639m. The view south from the pass looking into France was spectacular, but the view to the north down the side valley we had just come up and beyond into Italy was very wild and rugged. We rested in the remote grandeur for a minute or two to get our bearings and work out the next section. It felt like we should be at the highest point of the day but there was still more to go and we could see it looming in front of us
We had to descend for 150 metres on the faint path south into France and then leave the path and follow a non-existant path, marked only by cairns. This non-existent path would take us up rocky slopes climbing another 250 metres to reach the day’s high point of Baisse de Baissette, 2645m. From where we stood it looked quite daunting but as we set off and started the descent and the climb we saw it was not that bad as the initial foreshortened view made us think it was. However it still took well over an hour as the terrain was quite taxing which meant we were slow. At this final pass there were two small tarns, the Lacs du Baissette which were very calm in the windstill late afternoon. Fiona was walking just in front of me at the lake and had her head down as she went round an outcrop so she did not see the enormous ibex until she was just 3 metres from it. It was the largest ibex I had seen and we estimated it was nearly 200kg and with huge curved horns. It was completely debonair and just stared for about a minute as we fumbled for cameras. It then sauntered off without being the least bit concerned. A bit further we met another younger one who was not quite so carefree and snorted when Fiona got too close. It was the closest we had got to ibex on the trip and it lifted our spirits on what had so far been a demanding and arduous day.
Just after the ibex and the tarns on the col we reached a lip and beyond it was a steep descent. There was still no path and just a few sporadic cairns here and there to follow, but it was largely off-piste. We were lucky that the descent was not a bit steeper as we could just thread our way down across rough gneiss slabs and grassy slopes between outcrops. I was constantly scouting the route on the way down as it would have been easy to end up in an area which was too steep and we would have to back track. The slope was largely convex so it was difficult to see what was ahead but I did have a GPS route downloaded and followed it as much as I could. As we descended the slope 3 lakes appeared below us in the cirque. The lakes were called the Lacs Bessons. Initially they looked large on the still evening but as we approached them we realised we were quite close to them and the light was playing tricks with our perceptions. The lakes were on the floor of a cirque which was almost bare slab with very little grassy patches between them. Beyond the cirque was the towering gneiss mountain of Caire de l’Agnel, 2937m, one of a handful of lofty mountains on the main alpine watershed and border. As we descended the light changed to a more rosy hue and the rocks in the cirque took on this colour too. We eventually picked our way down to the largest and lowest of the lakes and saw they were just separated by small waterfalls over the bare rock. It was an otherworldly and unique landscape with the bare rocks slabs going straight into the mirror calm surface of the lakes. We crossed the outflow of the main lake, 2541m, and then looked at the map.
My original plan had been to go over a slight rise and then straight down the steep unseen hillside to the Refuge de Cougourde, 2100m. However our legs were tired and I was worried that the path, which would be poorly marked and invisible to the eye, would be difficult in this rocky terrain and we might get into trouble. With less than 2 hours daylight left I decided to take the more secure path down the Vallon des Lac Bessons valley and then the Vallon Sangue valley. My map was useless but I had some digital apps on my phone and they indicated there was a shortcut path from the Vallon Sangue to the Refuge Cougourde. So confident there was a good path we set off down the first valley which was quite steep and loose, but there was a beaten path from people coming up to view the lakes. At the bottom of this first valley it joined another valley and the terrain eased off and it became quite grassy. As we descended we came across many chamois and a few more ibex. These ibex were again very confident and barely moved as we approached. I got a bit close to one and it snorted and swung its head in my direction as if to warm me. The chamois were a bit more nervous but we could still get within 20 metres of them. As we went down the valley we passed about 20 of them in all, mostly in small groups or individuals. After an hour’s descent, with an hour of daylight remaining, we reached the turnoff where the shortcut should be but there was none to be seen – not even a stone cairn. It was much less than a level kilometre to the refuge across the hillside but perhaps 3 kilometres, and with a lot of elevation, if we stayed on the path down the valley and up another. We decided to go cross country across the hillside.
This short kilometre took us nearly an hour to traverse. It was largely scrub willow and some areas of large boulders. We slowly picked our way across them trying to link up the grassy areas. It was never steep but the terrain was very difficult and it was slow to walk across. There were a few more chamois here and they wandered about the terrain easily. After half an hour we reached the path coming down from the lakes which I initially planned to take and it was as difficult as the path we were on. Had we come the original way it would have been quicker but not by much, perhaps an hour at the most. Once on this original path we continued to clamber down on the boulders and scrub but with the occasional cairn to give us some assurance. It took another half hour to descend the final half kilometre and reach the refuge by which time the light was beginning to fade at around 1930 hrs. We had been on the go for nearly 11 hours.
The hosts were very welcoming and interested in the route we took. It was very seldom anybody walked here from Refugio Emilio Questo. There were just 10 of us staying at the hut and 6 of them had already eaten. We shared a table with the other two who had not eaten and by luck they were vegetarian also. It seemed we were the only hikers here and all the others were climbers who were going to climb Cima Cougourde tomorrow. There were ropes, helmets and climbing racks all over the dining room as the others prepared for their climb. The meal was excellent and there was a lot of it. After nearly 36 hours of soggy baguettes most things would have tasted good, but this meal was a cut above the usual. After dinner the host showed us a room. It was a dormitory with 8 beds in it but we had the whole room to ourselves. Fiona went to bed pretty much immediately but I stayed up to write some notes for the blog and eventually went to bed at 2200. It was a very spectacular day in remote wild mountains with some great wildlife and the stunning Lacs Bessons lakes but the terrain was very difficult and slow. However we had made it and from now we would be on the well marked and used GR52 path for the remaining 4 days to the Mediterranean Sea.
Day 102. Refuge Cougourde to Refuge de Nice. 11 Km. 6.5 Hrs. 980m up. 910m down. After the long hike yesterday we were both remarkably well refreshed in the morning and got up for the 0700 breakfast. It was large and generous with plenty of heavy brown bread and jam. We set off at 0800 on what we hoped was a reasonably short day as it was only 10-11 km. However as yesterday showed the distance was reasonably meaningless compared to the terrain. There was quite a strong and cold wind. It did not bode well for the 8 climbers who were also staying at the refuge and wanted to climb the stout steep sided gneiss monolith of Cima Cougourde today. We had not walked far from the cabin when I had to stop and dig out my soft shell jacket to put over my shirt and Fiona had to put gloves on.
The path contoured round the valley side for a little under a kilometre on a good path which linked the refuge to the GR52 a little to the south. It was a lovely start to the day through some old growth larch woods with some very old twisted and contorted large trees, which were much more venerable than most humans. There was a lot of chamois in these woods grazing on the grassy glades amongst the trees. Perhaps the cold wind had driven them down from the higher treeless slopes above. Looking back to the refuge I could see that the route we had originally planned to come down yesterday to the refuge before we changed our plans did not not look difficult at all and in retrospect we should have taken it. After a short half hour we joined the main GR52 and climbed slightly up the lip of a large open cirque, surrounded by rocky mountains covered in boulder fields. The floor of the cirque had a scattering of larches and a beautiful lake called Lac de Trecolpas, 2150m. There were signs here saying no camping but there were two tents up ignoring the diktat and risking a fine by the park authorities. Neither set of campers looked very experienced with cheap, heavy equipment. There were chamois here also scattered near the lake and in the larch copses. There was a lovely island at the far end of the lake which was connected to the shore by a natural causeway which was exposed in this dry summer and it looked quite idyllic. The whole of this part of the cirque was still in the shade and the bitter wind was cutting through my jacket and as we set off up the slope it seemed to get colder still. It was not until we had climbed up through the boulders on the path to reach the pass some 45 minutes later that the sun reached the lake. However, just on the east side of the Pas des Ladres, 2432m, the sun had been out for a couple of hours and had started to heat the slopes and just out of the wind it was warm again.
At the pass there was a fork with one path heading NE across the slope toward Col de Fenestre on the border and alpine watershed. The convoluted Via Alpina long distance walking route came over this pass. However we wanted the other path which went south down the grassy slopes strewn with rocks and boulders for a kilometre to the Refuge la Madone de Fenestre. It was an easy saunter down this path with 2 groups of chamois grazing quietly beside the track in the warm sun. We did not go all the way to the refuge but took a very easy short cut across the grassy valley floor for a few hundred metres to a lush pasture beside the Vesubie stream. The was a small south facing bank of earth here covered in marmot burrows and it was sheltered from the wind. We had lunch here with the marmots continually poking their heads up to see if the coast was clear and they could come out again. These marmots would soon be hibernating. They would retreat into a burrow and form a ball with perhaps as many as 20 marmots cuddled together with the smallest in the middle and the large grandees on the outside. Their body temperature would lower to about 6 degrees only and they would spend about 6 months in this state until the spring snows started to clear and they could emerge next summer. So for their imminent hibernation they needed to put on as much weight as possible to see them through. We only kept them waiting for half an hour before crossing the stream on stepping stones to gain the main GR52 path again, which was just on the other side, to start our second climb of the day.
This climb went up a vast sloping ramp covered in scree on the north side of the steep mountains of Caire de la Madone and Caire Barel. They rose so steeply from the scree that they blocked the sun and virtually the whole climb was in the shade. The wind had never really eased today and it was back with a cold bite to it as we slowly plodded up across the large stonefields gaining height as we went. There was a small buttress in the middle of the stones which we had to clamber up but it was neither high or exposed. After a cold hour we reached the top of this stony ramp and passed the two mountains which blocked the sun to enter a high side valley. This was also strewn with boulders and stones from a small glacier which had left them here as it melted. However there was a rough path through them and it climbed steeply, sometimes in zig-zags, to the notch in the jagged ridge called Pas du Mont Colomb, 2548m. The pass was quite alpine in nature, especially on the east side which we had to descend. Initially it was very steep for 10-15 metres and we had to clamber down using our hands also. It soon eased off but the terrain was very difficult, with the whole cirque we had to go down covered in stones and boulders. They were stable, having settled over the last 200 years or so since the glacier left them but there was plenty of scope to put a foot wrong and stumble. The descent was only 400 metres in all but it took the best part of an hour to work our way down. Every step had to be considered and carefully placed. There was no worn path here but there were painted marks on the boulders showing the best way to thread a route through them. The valley floor was green, grassy and looked very inviting and it slowly approached as we went down, but just before we reached its sanctuary the route we had to take to Refuge de Nice veered north and we headed away from these meadows.
Instead we went north up the valley for 5 minutes until we came to a dam. I was surprised to see a reasonably modern concrete dam here as it was clearly inside the Mercantour National Park which I thought would have existed before the dam. But I found out at the refuge that the dam was here before the Park was created in 1979, having been built in 1969. Once we were past the dam and its eyesore was forgotten we entered a very beautiful cirque with dammed Lac de la Fous on the floor of it. This was relatively busy with a few dozen fishermen round the shore. This was in contrast to the corresponding National Park on the Italian side where fishing in the lakes was not allowed. We went round the west side of the lake with the larger refuge sitting on a knoll at the far end. It was a beautiful situation in this wild mountainous bowl where only the lower slopes had any grass at all, and the higher slopes were slabs or bare rock supporting angular peaks.
I had expected the refuge to be quiet but it was full and all 52 beds were taken. We got 2 beds in a dormitory with 6 beds but this was in an alcove off another dormitory with 16 beds. We spread out our sleeping bags to claim our beds and then went down. It was quiet but in the next 3 hours it filled up and the dining room was rammed. I met the two wardens from Larche gite where we stayed over a week ago who had now finished for the season and were hiking. I also chatted with 4 French Canadians who we had met at Saint Anna 5 days ago. There was a group of Swedish ladies who we chatted to for a while also but the dining room was getting busier and busier especially when 3 families with 6 parents and about 10 kids arrived. Unfortunately they were in our dormitory so I feared for the night. At the meal we were seated next to the four French Canadians. They turned out to be some of the most educated people I had met on the entire trip and they were all scientists. One was a senior microbiologist and another was a climate scientist. The climate scientist was fascinating and very informative and witty. He said you had to remain an optimist in his field to survive as the situation was so serious. He explained that while carbon release was a big problem he said the real issue was the melting permafrost in Canada and Siberia which would release millions of tons of methane which was currently locked up in it. Methane was apparently 25-30 times more harmful than Carbon when it came to a greenhouse effect. We all went to bed early and I must say the 10 kids in our room went to sleep at 2130 and stayed quiet until the morning so my fears were completely unfounded.
Day 103. Refuge de Nice to Refuge de Merveilles. 10 Km. 5.5 Hrs. 610m up. 710m down. I had to get up in the night and open both the windows, one at each end as the temperature in the dormitory was so hot. There was now a cool draft, but no one complained in the morning. Breakfast was very poor and small but the table next to us were all men and they were drinking heavily last night so we suspected they would not be up for a while and their table was still empty. So we raided their bread and butter. They could always ask for more when they surfaced. We continued our enthusiastic chat with the French Canadians over breakfast. One of them, Don, had a nasty cut on his knee after a stubble, so Fiona checked his dressing and resealed it. It was the worst place for a deep gash; horizontal and right in the middle of the kneecap so it opened with each step. We left at 0800 on a frosty but clear morning and yesterday’s wind had moved on so it was calm.
After 5 minutes we came to a small grassy area above the refuge. It was covered in about 15 tents. Some campers were up but I suspect most were waiting for it to warm up a bit before they got out of their cocoons. I reckoned it was still below freezing at -2 to -5 degrees and it would remain in the shade for an hour or so before the sun rose over the high ridge on the east side of the cirque we were about to walk up into. As we walked up the path we saw a few chamois grazing near the path and others sitting on top of small outcrops chewing cud looking at the sparse string of hikers which Refuge de Nice had just discharged. After half an hour we reached the beautiful Lake Lac Nire, 2350m. It was still largely in the shade and quite cold but there was a strip of sun along the north shore and it created some great green and blues shades. The large steep mountains to the south of it probably kept this lake in the shade most of the time, especially in the winter months when it would be frozen over. After the lake the valley, Vallon du Mont Chamineye, levelled off a bit and although it remained predominantly rocky, as was the norm with everywhere in the Mercantour, there was the occasional grassy strip and a few small tarns on the valley floor. An hour after leaving the refuge however this saunter came to the headwall of the valley and we had to climb it for a good hour to reach the pass, Baisse du Basto,2693m. Most of the climb was in the shade and it was cold enough for Fiona to put gloves on. The last half hour of the climb was across large boulders marked with small paint marks. We once lost the path and by the time we realised we were 100 metres from it. Rather than return to the supposed path as the crow flies we tried to take a cross country route to reach it further up the slope, but the boulders were so large and awkward it was very time consuming and perhaps a little dangerous so we went directly towards it losing height and time. As we reached the Baisse du Basto we burst out of the cold, drab, shade into the bright sun and the whole day became much more pleasant. The French Canadians were already here basking on rocks and having some of their picnics, which the Refuge de Nice had provided.
From the pass it was easy to see the next part of the day and it looked lovely with a long descent down a gentle valley with a good smattering of grass and turf among the boulder fields and outcrops and then a short easy climb to a smaller pass called Baisse de Valmasque, 2549m, less than 2 hours away. Beyond this small pass was the fabled Vallee des Merveilles. After a short chat with the others we set off down the fantastic valley. Almost immediately we came to 4 large ibex and a bewildered young chamois amongst them. The chamois looked lost and was running around bleating for its mother who was on a crag on the other side of the path. The chamois kid ran round in a large arc skipping from boulder to boulder with great ease and agility until it got to the bottom of a steep gully which it just bounded up to be reunited. After half an hour and about half way between the pass and the large Lac du Basto below us we came across a beautiful tarn set in a craggy hollow in the mountains. It had no name but was at 2550m. Ibex and chamois were all over the patches of grass here or sitting on the rocks in the sun. There must have been 10 of each species. It was remarkable how they had lost their fear of humans after perhaps just 10 generations of not being hunted. The chamois were a bit more nervous but the ibex were very confident. It was one of the most idyllic scenes in the entire Mercantour section. After this utopian tarn the path continued down the valley. Long stretches of the path here were being constructed or repaired and it was an easy descent to the junction below, which was well to the south of the Lac du Basto. Between the our junction and the lake was perhaps half a kilometre of alpine meadow sloping gently down to the lake and I thought I saw many chamois grazing on its verdant patches. We were not to go down that way though, which went to the Refuge de Valmasque down another valley also renowned for its beauty. Our route went to the south up to the pass Baisse de Valmasque, 2549m, just a short half hour up an easy zig-zag path.
We had decided to have lunch at this pass and it was a great place to stop. Below us to the south was the Vallée des Merveilles, with a couple of small tarns and a lake on the U shaped floor of the pastoral valley. On each side of the valley were rocky mountains with huge slabs, especially on the west side which had many plateaus of bare rock and a few alpine tarns scattered across it. As we ate lunch a park ranger appeared and explained some of the treasures in the valley below. The most remarkable thing about this valley was that it had been a hunters and pastoralists crossroads for millenia going back 6000 years at least, and the evidence for this was engraved in the orange shale slabs which were everywhere in the valley. These shale slabs had been laid bare by the glaciers which flowed down the valley and probably disappeared 12,000 years ago. The striations the glaciers left on the slabs as the rocks embedded in the ice scraped them were out of a geography textbook. However the real treasure had been created after the glaciers and from 6000 years ago to 4000 years ago tens of thousands of carvings had been etched on the surface of these shale rocks. The etchings were formed by hitting the surface of the stone either with other stones or implements. The etchings depicted horned animals, daggers, human forms and even geometric shapes. After our lunch and before we set off the ranger asked us if we could cover the tips of our walking poles or put them away to save damaging the Petroglyphs.
We easily descended the zigzags down to the floor of the Merveilles valley and got to the paradise after half an hour. The tarns were quite shallow and looked very inviting for a swim but we did not go in. There were a few signs for the petroglyph drawings but we did not see any from the path. There were many in the area but we would have needed a guide to go off the track. A little below the tarns down the shangri-la was the Lac des Merveilles, 2294m. It was a deep azure colour in the sun. There were many signs for carvings here but we were not allowed to go to them. We went round the east side of the lake on a stone causeway along the water’s edge and then walked past more sites we could not visit. Soon the path went under an enormous boulder balanced on two others. There was a sign here for “Le Chef de Tribu”, a well known petroglyph but for some reason we did not consider visiting it until it was too late. I think we thought there was more to come. There were only 2 other places. One was a large slightly overhanging slab, called the Vitrified Wall, but it had been defaced by hunters and traders 200-100 years ago when they carved their names all over it and the other was the Roche Vandalisse. This rock had split in two along a striation and there were carvings on both faces of it with a few horned animals. After these two places the valley opened out onto a beautiful plain with a few lakes on it and a scattering of the upper larches. We walked round the west and south sides of the first lake called Lac Longs, 2111m. There were a few old houses about which looked like they belonged to seasonal shepherds, a newer house which was probably for the rangers and scientists, and then there was the Refuge des Merveilles which we got to at about 1430.
When we got to the refuge it was quite busy. There was a road just 7 km down the valley and a track led up from it to the Refuge des Merveilles. As it was one of the last sundays of the summer and the weather was good there were lots of day trippers coming up here. As such the staff at the hut kept the dormitories closed until 1600. We sat with the day trippers at the tables outside in the warm sun and had a large omelette each. At 1530 Remy appeared having walked all the way from Refuge la Madone de Fenestre, where he had camped in the cold night with frost there also. We chatted until we were shown our dormitory beds. The staff gave Fiona and myself a great spot at the far end of one dormitory where we would not get disturbed. There would be about 20 in our dormitory but about 40 in the dormitory Remy was allocated. After claiming our beds by putting our sleeping bags out we went down and chatted with Remy until supper and exchanged tales of our differing routes. He too seemed to have encountered his fair share of stone and boulder fields. When supper came we were seated at the same table as a French/English couple and a young French couple who were still in their early 20’s but very gifted. He had already written 4 novels and she had just graduated in Law from the Sorbonne and had a job in Paris to take up at the end of the year. They were great company. After the large meal everyone went to bed at about 2100 but I stayed up to make some notes for the blog. I sneaked into the dormitory at 2200 and it was sound asleep, dark and quiet. I set the alarm for 0530 to have an early breakfast and go at first light.
Day 104. Refuge des Merveilles to Sospel. 30 Km. 10 Hrs. 820m up. 2590m down. The alarm went off at 0530. I silenced it before it even sounded for fear of waking any of the other 20 odd people in the dormitory. We already had our rucksacks downstairs partially packed so took our sleeping bags down to stuff them into the rustlely bags without disturbing anyone. It was not completely dark outside with a halfmoon in a clear sky but there was no sign of dawn yet. Breakfast was the bare minimum the hut staff could get away with, and it was a disappointment but we had two pack lunches for the long day. By the time we finished breakfast at 0615 people were already coming down hoping for an early breakfast but the door to the dining room was locked until 0700. Remy was amongst them and we chatted with him briefly before we left at first light which was now 0630. He would no doubt catch us up later today as we were both going to Sospel.
There was a strong glow to the east where the sun was rising unseen towards the horizon and would soon appear above it with the promise of yet another perfect day. We climbed easily to the small barrage holding the waters of Lac Fourca, 2165m, back and went round its east side climbing slightly as the glow in the east got brighter. An early morning Alpenglow formed across the peaks to our west as the sun’s rays, which were still below the horizon, were reflected off the atmosphere and indirectly lit up the mountains. Soon afterwards the first orange rays of the sun hit the peak to the west of us, Cime des Lacs. Initially it was a thin orange band but it grew quickly as the sun rose and soon the whole mountain was glowing. We went up the open valley passing a couple of tarns and the larger Lac de la Muta which was also formed by a small, modest dam. As the sun rose more the intensity of the orange hue decreased and the mountainside became much clearer. Within an hour we had passed the small Lacs du Diable, which nestled in a flattish cirque under the highest mountain in the area, Cime du Diable, 2685m. Here the path veered south and climbed gently to Pas du Diable, 2340m, which we reached in a bit over an hour from the refuge.
The view from the pass was a bit confusing initially as there were no mountains to speak of to the south. There were just grassy hillsides which led down to a splay of wooded ridges which got lower and lower as they faded into the greyish haze. Once we had adjusted to this surprise we focused on the distant view and it dawned on us there was the Mediterranean Sea. From our maps and phones we worked out we were looking at the city of Nice and beyond that the town of Antibes some 40-50 kilometres away. It was an emotional sight and I felt a surge of excitement seeing it after 4 months of walking towards it. All being well we should be swimming in it in less that 36 hours. There was still a lot to do today though, and we could see much of it before us and imagined which was the final highpoint of the day before the long descent to Sospel this evening. We set off to the next milestone, the sharp ridge of Crete de l’Ortiguier, just beyond the next saddle at Baisse de St Veran, 1836m. We had only gone a hundred metres or so when we came across a scattered herd of about 10 chamois. Some were grazing quite nonchalantly on the grassy slopes far from the safety of outcrops they could seek shelter on. We spent a few minutes admiring them as they would probably be the last we would see. Further down the open pastoral valley was a shepherd’s hut and a large flock of sheep was just emerging from their nighttime compound and onto the open hill. We could hear the excited herding dogs barking as they tried to keep the herd together. Despite it being south facing there were some lusher areas of grass in this pastoral bowl so there must have been a spring still flowing there. Our path went down through this pastoral bowl keeping above the flock of sheep traversing down the hillside to a small saddle, Baisse Cavaline, 2107m, which we sauntered over. It took us into the shade again as the sun had not risen high enough to reach the west side of the small knoll of Cime de Raus. It was a cool respite for an easy kilometre until we reached the sun again at Col de Raus saddle. From this saddle we descended another kilometre in the sun high above grassy slopes with a small dormant dairy at the treeline below to reach Baisse de St Veran. We had been going over three hours now and the paltry breakfast was long spent so we stopped here for lunch near an old fort from the Alpine Line, the southern extension of the Maginot Line from the 1930’s and now in ruins. As we ate lunch Remy appeared. We chatted briefly before he went on to have his lunch later.
After lunch we traversed along the Crete de l’Ortiguier ridge. It looked exposed from a distance but like so many places in the Mercantour there was an old military road along the west face and this was easy to follow. These military roads were constructed by soldiers over the last 150 years to allow troops to access the defensive forts on both the Italian and French sides in various conflicts, some before Italy even existed and the Kingdom of Savoy ruled. At the south end of the ridge was another fort, a solid squat 3 storey edifice called La Redoute which just 80 years ago would have housed cannons and soldiers. We walked down a path above the road which came up to the fort from the other side and joined this road at a large dairy called Vacherie de l’Authion, 1842m. The dairy was just at the treeline and it looked quite parched but there was some greener grass in the vicinity of the stone barns which some 40 cows had gathered on. We caught Remy up after he had paused and we walked together for the next hour and a half. It was a stunning walk along the ridge top alternating between path and forest track and keeping just at the treeline on the crest of the ridge. Occasionally we climbed as the ridge rose above the trees and then dropped back into them as it undulated down again. Often the path went either slightly to the west or east of the ridge and where the slopes were grassy and pastoral there were tremendous views down to the valley on each side. On the west was the Bevera Valley with the town of Moulinet, and on the east side was the La Roya Valley and the town of Briel-sur-Roya. The upper trees were just starting to turn, especially the deciduous ones, and these gave a flash of colour to the views. After a glorious 3 hours on the crest passing over the high points of Mont Giagiabella, 1911m, and Ventebren, 1976m the path finally reached the third hill called Mangiabo,1821m. It marked the end of the beautiful 10-11 km ridge walk from the La Redoute fortress. Remy stopped here for lunch but we continued to break up the huge 1500m descent which was about to start.
The descent was really not as bad as we feared. From the summit of Mangiabo it veered to the west side of the ridge and fell way across grassland which it traversed across in a long zig-zag dropping a couple of hundred metres until it reached the mixed conifer woods. We followed the path down as it traversed the main ridge descending from Mangiabo through the woods until we got to a glade with an abandoned Italian WW1 cannon in it from 1916. We sat on the barrel of the cannon and had lunch on its cool metal. The wheels had disappeared leaving just the 150mm bore barrel which was 5 metres long. Remy passed us for the final time as he was now on a mission to get to Sospel and sort out accommodation for himself. After lunch we continued our descent having made just a small dent in it so far. We still had another 1200 metres to go. The route veered east back onto the dry crest of the south ridge from Mangiabo and it pretty much followed it all the way down to the valley where Sospel lay. Because it was south facing the terrain was dry and stony with no soft leafy earth underfoot. Often it was gravel on a packed surface and one had to take care our boots did not slip on the small stones which we like ball bearings. Fiona had one bad slip and landed on a sharper rock which will certainly be the cause of a large bruise. The vegetation also changed and the soft larches and firs with their forest floor covered in needles was replaced by oak scrub and pine which were harsh and dusty to walk through with no soothing moments at all. It took about 3 hours from our second lunch to descend the 1200 metres to the outskirts of Sospel which was slow considering it was only 10 km, but the terrain demanded some caution.
Sospel was a beautiful town. It was an ancient town some 1500 years old and a staging post on the Nice to Turin road with a population of about 5000. It had been restored but still kept much of its ancient character. There was a main street on the south side of the Bevera river which was no more than a trickle now in this drought. The main street had a few shops and restaurants and we wandered up it, our eyes agog after some 2 weeks of largely mountain refuge food. We took a tour into the main square also where there was a magnificent old church and a warren of small lanes and passages. The hotel we had booked was called the Hostellerie du Pont Vieux, which was perhaps 2 stars. However, it was perfect for us with a great shower. In addition the landlady was exceptionally welcoming and friendly. It was right opposite the old bridge in Sospel hence the name. This bridge was extremely characterful as it was over 800 years old and had an old Toll House in the middle of it. Our hotel was the usual place for hikers on the GR52 to stay so it was no surprise when we got a text from Remy to say he was there too. After some two hours of showering, scrubbing and washing clothes we were ready for a meal. There were very few places open so we ended up in a pizzeria which was not serving pizza that night. We all went for a large salad as a main course because there had been no vitamins really for the last 2 weeks since entering the Mercantour. Sospel was a wonderful place to spend the penultimate night of the walk as it was a link between the wilds of the Mercantour and indeed the rest of the Alps and the rest of the world which we would be thrust into after tomorrow.
Day 105. Sospel to Menton. 19 Km. 7 Hrs. 1140m up. 1480m down. We had breakfast at 0730. It was superb with self service with batons of still warm fresh bread in the old dining room. The building the hotel was in was reputedly 700 years old and the vaulted ceilings looked like they had been there all the time. After breakfast we went into town to get some filled baguettes as there was nothing all day until we reached Menton. Remy had already bought his and was topping up on coffee. He was walking the GR5/GR52 which is a long distance route from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean taking about 6 weeks. Remy was walking this route on his own but had bumped into other hikers also doing this route. One of them who we had heard about over the last two weeks was Jenny, a bright German girl who was also walking the GR5/GR52 but was a bit slower than Remy. She had twisted her ankle a few days ago but had recovered from that now. Jenny had caught us up and was now chatting with Remy who introduced us. It seemed quite logical to do the last day as a team as we were all finishing that day and were all strong hikers now. Fiona and myself got two sandwiches and we were all ready to set off at about 0900.
We wandered east on the south side of the Bevera River, past the old bridge at 320 metres altitude and then continued east on smaller roads through the fringes of the small town for a couple of kilometres until these roads became an easy track and there was a path which veered uphill. The path went up through the woods which being on the north facing slopes were not nearly as arid as the south facing slope we came down yesterday. We heard the clink of sheep bells and the distant barking of dogs but we never encountered the flock. It seemed the dogs were barking down by a beautiful small homestead called St Julien which was on the hillside below us in a small side valley. As we climbed we went past old terraces in the woods which the trees were growing out of. In a few places where the trees were near a wall they might have disturbed the stones but generally they had not done too much damage. Many of the trees were young sweet chestnuts and the path beneath them was cool and shaded. Their spiky nut shells littered the ground and it seemed like it was going to be a mast year, where the trees produce an abundance of nuts to overwhelm foraging animals and ensure many nuts germinate. Somewhere in the chestnut woods we were joined by a large black dog which we thought was one of the guard dogs of the flock of sheep we heard earlier. However the dog started to follow us and tagged along with Fiona and Jenny who were ahead and chatting enthusiastically. We went in and out of two small side valleys with dry stream beds as we climbed through the woods. At one of them there was a large trough which the dog got into to cool off in. After an easy 2 hours we reached Col du Razet, 1032m.
We thought we would descend from Col du Razet but the path continued to head SE from the saddle and gently traverse up across the scrub covered hillside for another good kilometre to Colla Bassa, 1108m, which was right on the Italian border. Along here we got another view of the coast and this time it was easy to make out the towns, especially with Remy’s help as he had landed at Nice airport many times as a pilot and knew the area well. With the dog still following us we crossed Colla Bassa saddle and started heading down the dry stony slope to the south in a forming valley. After a good half hour, with the girls ahead, we got to a small gate with some signs welcoming us in. Beyond the gate was a sun shelter and some sofas. Jenny was very excited as this was a small permaculture farm run by a wise old German lady who had bought the place a decade ago and had settled here to practise her spiritual horticulture. It was just at a settlement called Mourga on the map, which looked like it once prospered, as all the slopes were covered in terraces, but now all the farmhouses looked abandoned or derelict except for this one. Jenny ran a small shop in Frankfurt selling ethical food in sustainable packaging so she was in her element here. The owner explained some things to us and we asked loads of questions and then settled down on the old sofas to have our baguette lunches and some of the diluting juice the lady provided. It reminded me of some of the “trail magic” I had on the PCT. The dog which had followed us was still with us and it did not behave well with our hosts’ two collies and there was an episode with gnashing teeth but it soon settled down again. This small self-sufficient permaculture farm was a very welcome surprise. After nearly an hour’s pause we were ready to set off again.
As soon as we went the dog, which had been waiting outside the rickety gate, rose up and started following us again. The GR52 which we were all following did not take the easy straightforward way down to Menton, which would involve going down into the valley to the west where the villages of Monti and Castellar lay. Instead it kept on the much more scenic high route adjacent to the Italian border. This meant we had to descend the short distance to Mourga and then ascend 300 metres eastwards up through beautiful Maritime Pines, Pinus pinaster, for nearly an hour to reach our final pass called Col du Berceau, 1132m. At the col there was a lovely green lawn right on the saddle with verdant grass under the pine trees. There was no spring up here so it must have been kept hydrated with mists rising from the slopes below which condensed on the trees. The dog was still with us and it lay down in the grass as we gazed at the coast right below us now with Menton clearly visible. We tried to get rid of the dog hoping it would not follow us into Menton but it was having none of it and we thought it has probably used hikers before to get a free walk and will know its way home.
The descent down the south side of the col initially needed some caution as went down the path covered in stones and gravel. However it soon levelled out as the ridge reached a small bowl with the arid grassy areas at Plan de Lion and Plan de Leuze. It was a delight to walk across these and look down to Menton, and just along the coast was Monaco. However our level walk was short lived and soon we started on the final 700 metre descent. Here we noticed the large dog was no longer with us and he must have turned round and headed back home for the 15 km return to near Sospel. The path was loose, dry and covered in small stones and it was easy to slip and slide on the gravel. We all did at least once until we learnt to take more care as to where we placed our feet. There was virtually no respite for an hour as Menton slowly got closer and closer. Occasionally we reached a track but the path cut right across it and went back into the twisting descent among the scrub. At last we reached the large motorway along the south coast of France and passed under it between the pillars holding it up. After the motorway we weaved down through residential streets where the pre planned route on the GPS was essential as there were so many alleyways connecting the roads. After half an hour of passing small villas, many of which had been divided into apartments in their pretty gardens, we went under some railway track and then suddenly found ourselves on the promenade with a marina full of motor boats just beyond. We could not go into the sea here so we walked west for nearly a kilometre to reach the first beach. It was a different world down here with traffic roaring down the promenade and people everywhere.
The beach was nearly a kilometre long but it was completely developed with a row of restaurants between the promenade and the Mediterranean Sea. Most of these had put up parasols to lay claim to a portion of the beach which they would like to have ownership over, but did not. At the east end of the beach there was a section which was free of parasols and we went there, weaving a route between all the sunbathers on towels or in their own portable deckchairs. There was hardly anyone in the water compared to the amount of people lying on the beach. We found a place beside some rocks and took off our rucksacks. Remy and I were lucky in that our underpants looked like swimming trunks so we took off our boots, socks, shirt and shorts and went straight in. Fiona went in fully dressed except for her boots and socks and Jenny found somewhere to change. The water was absolutely beautiful and the sea was quite clear. It was quite a gentle beach with no waves and a gradual descent so we had to go out 50 metres or so to get out of our depth. We spent the next half hour in the sea lying weightless in the azure waters all the time keeping an eye on our rucksacks and clothes. It was exactly how I imagined the celebratory swim in the Mediterranean to be.
After we had dressed again we sauntered down the length of the beach heading SW towards the old town of Menton. With the sun in our faces we took some victory photos and then decided to go up into town to get some celebratory ice cream. We found a parlour on a busy tourist street and had a few scoops each sitting on a bench near a church. It was then time to say goodbye to Remy and Jenny who went up to find the Menton campsite, while Fiona and myself went off to find a 2-3 star hotel. After half an hour wandering through the town with a few enquiries we found the Hotel Chambord. It was charmless and perfunctory but with a great bathroom and a balcony on which we could hang all our washed clothes as everything needed a wash. By the time we finished it was already dark and we went out for a pizza near the hotel.
The overnight stop in Menton was not really that celebratory at all. I knew it would not be that nice a place to unwind after the tour so we had already arranged to take the train to Venice the next day. It took most of the day to get there on 3 different trains, and then a vaporetto boat from Venice to the quiet and secluded island of Murano, adjacent to Venice island. Here we would base ourselves for 5 nights exploring all the islands in the lagoon, including Venice itself. I knew the islands quite well having spent 2-3 days here each time I finished one of the 6 Alta Via hikes I had done and was eager to show Fiona around. After a very relaxing 5 days here we eventually flew home on a direct flight courtesy of Ryanair from Treviso.
The Mercantour had been a fitting end to the Main Alpine Divide hike. Long ago I thought that once the Alps approached the Mediterranean they just petered out into rounded foothills. I could not have been more wrong. The Mercantour or Maritime Alps were very rugged and wild. They were nowhere nearly as spectacular as say the Valais or Zillertal Alps but they were much quieter and full of wildlife. Indeed I saw more Ibex and Chamois here than anywhere else. The only downside was the quality of the refuges of the Mercantour. The food at them was good, but the accommodation was usually in a dormitory and these often tested Fiona’s patience. We were lucky with the weather in the Mercantour and only had one day where it rained and by good fortune this was on a pre planned rest day. Had the summer ended early and the first autumnal snows arrived in the last week our route through the Mercantour would have been difficult and undoubtedly would have had to change our plans and continue on the GR5, rather than take the GR52.
Section 15. The Mercantour. 175 km. 71 Hours. 9980m up. 11670m down.
Section 15. The Mercantour. 11 September to 20 September 2022.
The arrival in Menton brought a close to my summer’s hiking from Vienna. It had taken 4 months in all with 105 hiking days and 20 rest days. During this entire summer I had only had a few days where I had to put my waterproof jacket and I never had to put my crampons on. It was a remarkably dry summer and it followed a winter with an unusually low snowfall. I am sure these conditions were a direct result of climate change, but I was very lucky with the clement hiking weather. The previous year would have been a much soggier experience and I am sure next year will also have much more prolonged periods of wet weather. It had been an exceptional privilege to hike from one end of the Alps to the other along its main watershed in relative luxury and comfort using refuges and cheaper hotels with the very occasional night in a tent.
Section 1-15. The Main Alpine Divide. 1949 km. 735 Hours. 117330m up. 117090m down.
Section 1-15. The Main Alpine Divide. 18 May to 20 September 2022.