October 14, 2023

Day 52. Jan 10. S 87º57.940 W 083º05.636 to S 88º09.228 W 082º43.957. 22 km. 10.5 hrs. 2940 Cal. There was sun on and off in the night and the tent was warm. However, in the morning just as I was packing up, I could see the clouds starting to erase the sun and the light. Not again I thought. How many white outs can there be on this trip? But it did not turn out like that as it must have been a thin mist of low cloud and although my shadow almost disappeared, the visibility remained tolerable. It stayed like this for a couple of hours until my first break. After 5 km I crossed out of the difficult 87 degree and into the reputedly easier 88 degree. The terrain was quite easy, but it was slow. All that new snow which had fallen yesterday was like white iron filings, shards of ice, and they clung to the pulk as I pulled it over them. It was hard slow work, almost like pulling a tyre on a wet sandy beach. The sun never really disappeared though, and it shone through the veil of mist with a halo round it and more iron filings in the mist fell to the ground.

I was dreading my second break as I anticipated cold fingers preparing and eating it. It was cold, about minus 25, but the ferocious bitter winds of the last few days had dissipated, and it was now a gentle breeze and the wind ribbon waved half-heartedly. Preparing lunch, I must have looked like a scientist handling flasks of liquid nitrogen. I had big clumsy mitts on and with them I was filling the Nalgene bottle and the macaroni cup with steaming water from the thermoses. In the end it worked OK, and the macaroni was great. It started hot but I had to finish it within 5 minutes, or it would start to freeze.

I was quite empowered by the lunch and set off well. I could feel the surge of energy from the 1000 calorie meal. Instead of stopping after 5 km I continued for 7 km. The terrain got easier with less sastrugi and dunes or drifting, and, if you could see them, there were also strips of harder glazed snow which were aligned in the direction I was going. More and more blue sky was appearing and yet behind me from where I had come looked dark and almost certainly a whiteout. I wondered if I really had climbed out of one weather zone into another which was the high pressure which was frequent on the polar plateau, where there was more of a continental climate. Frequently I looked back, and the sun was still there but beneath it on the ground was a tremendous glow as if there was a nuclear explosion. I assume it was the optics of the veil of mist and the reflection from the snow. It was there all afternoon whenever I looked back.

126. It looked like a nuclear explosion on the ground but was obviously a reflection of the sun on the icefield.

During my third break a hand got very cold. I think some moisture got onto the glove and into the mitt liner while I was preparing a drink. Luckily, I had the redline mitts to hand in a pocket in the green bedding bag. I ripped off my damp glove and plunged my hand into the lamb’s wool and down feather of the redline and prevented any damage. I was glad now I had an abundance of gloves. I skied another 5 km after that across a plain filled with dunes of snow about a metre high. There was hardly a flat patch there. It looked like ocean would look like in a force 3 breeze just before the white caps of a force 4 started. They were easy to ski over but there was plenty of soft snow between them to slow me down.

At last, the 22 km mark for the day came and I pitched the tent at once in this choppy frozen ocean. There was no wind, and the tent was a dream to put up even with mitts on. It took just 15 minutes instead of the windy 30 minutes when I was much more cautious. As it was, I could feel the heat of the sun on my face as I started to boil the kettle. I had still 205 km to ski to the South Pole and had 9 day’s worth of food which I could stretch to 10 with a bit of rationing and 11 with a lot. It seemed quite plausible. I had already done over 950 km since I started. Once the weather improves in a few days I might put in some early starts to get the average milage down a bit. It had been a great day, and I was delighted to have started the final section and put the rough climb section behind me.

Day 53. Jan 11. S 88º09.228 W 082º43.957 to S 88º20.805 W 082º46.888. 22 km. 11 hrs. 3070 Cal. Although the sun was out it was very cold at minus 28 outside. Luckily there was virtually no wind otherwise it would have been serious. As it was, I could feel the cold creep through my salopettes. I had pretty much every item of clothing on when I left at 0700. In the unlikely event it got too hot I could always ventilate using the zips on the salopettes and pit zips on the jacket. It remained chilly all day and even hit minus 30 when I stopped to put the tent up. The one item I lacked were really good gloves for tent work. The Hestra Alpine Pro were not up to the job as the shiny leather absorbed the cold and the lining was too thin. Much the same way a steel toecap boot is cold in the winter as the toecap absorbs the cold.

I did not have a plan when I set off but wanted to cross the 88 degree and 20-minute line. It was about 21 km away. All the 4 sessions today were quite similar. The spindrift had settled everywhere on the flat ice between the gentle climbs. On these flatter bits with new spindrift the going was very sluggish and the ice crystals lying in the dunes did not let the pulk pass easily. However, where the ridges of the dunes had been polished the pulk slid beautifully. The trouble was there were few of these polished areas and they were mostly on the climbs.

127. The moonscape of waves on the ice sheet. Mostly they were dunes but some were carved into sastrugi

As the wind was now quite negligible it was easy to prepare my food and eat it sitting on the pulk. I had made a mistake of taking such preparation intensive food for my midday meals and would have been better off having a nose bag of easy snacks I could just tuck into. When I did have my macaroni, I did feel a surge of energy which lasted a couple of hours before the mouse was back gnawing at the walls of my stomach. I was quite well nourished though but my main complaint was tiredness.

I don’t know whether my pulk is heavier or slides less well than the others?  Probably both but at the moment I am putting in 10-11 hours days every day without respite and have to do so to complete my 22-24 km each day. I wake at 0500 and the cycle begins and start skiing at 0700. I don’t finish until 1900 and then have to set up the tent and put everything on the drying racks. If the sun is not out to warm the tent, I have to bring the stove in to warm the tent for an hour or so to dry everything. Then I have supper, write the blog, and try and get to sleep by 2200 but it is often later. I should have 8 more days of this before I reach the South Pole. People might ask what I am going to do when I reach the Pole and the ALE camp there. Overwhelmingly what I would like to do is sleep. I will sleep for days hopefully.

The weather now is much more continental with dry, sunny, cold. The forecast for the next week is more of the same. But it comes at the price of cold. It is now on average between -25 and -30 centigrade outside. But without the catabatic winds that is not too bad if you wrap up well. I do have a problem with my breathing mask and general condensation from my breath. It ices up the windstopper flap I have sewn onto the bottom of my goggles to protect my nose and cheeks. icicles hang from the bottom of it. When I lift them slightly to my forehead so I can eat I feel I am in the mouth of a predator fish looking out past the teeth. However, the real condensate is around the mask and at the end of the day it is thick with ice. I should have brought 3 or 4 of them really to swap out every break.

128. It was a particularly cold day. Between minus 25-30 ?C The ice built up on my goggles and breathing mask was severe.

Today I skied until about 1900 and as soon as I had done my 23 km put the tent up. I was tired, too tired to write the blog, so I am writing it the next morning before breakfast at 0430. Hence the slight rambling. On the bush telegraph the FireAngels, Bex and George have finished with a massive 37 km day and have reached the Pole. Congratulations to them they have had a well-organised and well-disciplined expedition and have done stunningly well. Poppis and the Finns are about 2 days ahead of me and Al and Dave about one and a half, so I am still managing to keep in touch with them. They both had resupply caches left for them near here. Also about are Per the Swede and Robert the Polish skier who started at the shorter Messner start and are a few days ahead. And then there is Patrick who started at Berkner Island and is doing a really huge trip. Patrick is going very well and should be at the South Poe in a few days. We are all put to shame by Frenchman Vincent Colliard who reached the South Pole yesterday beating the previous record which had stood for a while. He did it in 22 days beating the record by 2 days. It will be nice for Pierre (already at the Pole and waiting to fly back to Union Glacier) to meet him. 2 record breakers, both French, the fastest and the youngest.

Day 54. Jan 12. S 88º20.805 W 082º46.888 to S 88º32.724 W 081º46.847. 23 km. 10.5 hrs. 2800 Cal. Distance to Pole 162 km. Food Left 7 days. (ED: note the 2 new stats for the final countdown!) Again, it was very cold in the morning. Down to about minus 30. I got cold fingers packing up the tent. I noticed that although it was clear and quite wind still, the air was full of shards of ice glistening in the sun like stardust. Every day the terrain in degree 88 has become easier and today it started off pretty uniform with small dunes, drifts really. You could have skied here in a whiteout without trouble. However, the snow was abrasive, and it was hard to pull the pulk except for the rare bit of more glazed snow. I guess that as the sastrugi, and the dunes get smaller it means the winds are not so strong here and maybe that’s why the snow was a bit looser and still sharp and angular as it had not been battered and rolled by the wind as spindrift. I felt desperately tired as I skied in the morning both physically and even more mentally. There were times where I could easily have fallen asleep and carried on skiing I felt, like sleepwalking.

I had my breaks sitting on the pulk with the very slight breeze in my back and the sun in my face. It was like the weeks before Thiel Fuel Cache when the weather was good. except now it was probably 20 degrees colder. I easily made the macaroni and the hot chocolate drinks with the mitts on as I was getting more used to it. I had to eat the macaroni quickly, like a dog lapping up its dinner and without finesse as I had to get it down before it froze.

In the second half of the day the temperature rose to about minus 15 and it was noticeably warmer. It was more to do with the sun being at its strongest than with any weather change. Whereas yesterday I felt I was going uphill the whole day while not really doing so, today I felt I was skiing on the level. Either my legs were less tired, or the snow was a bit easier. Once I had been going for about 12 hours in all with 10.5 on skis I decided to camp. I wanted 24 but was happy with 23.

I had wanted an early night but as I was melting snow the stove started to splutter. It needed a bit of maintenance. The other one had already been put aside for maintenance, so I had to strip the burners from both stoves and get them going again. It took well over an hour. I also filled my fuel bottles from the dodgy ones in the pulk. I had about 2.5 litres of fuel to cook and occasionally heat the tent if the sun was not out. It would be enough to get me to the South Pole. I only have 7 days of food left now and am aiming to be at the Pole on the 19 January which assuming there are no weather problems is quite feasible as it is 162 km away. However, in the next 4 days I want to do 100 km just to add a comfort buffer. It means getting up earlier. I am afraid the blog might suffer, and become more perfunctory, but we will see how time goes. As I put my tent up a plane flew north in the distance. It was carrying Pierre, Bex and George and, I assume, Vincent Colliard back to Union Glacier, so the bush telegraph will be very depleted as they were part of the mainstay.

Day 55. Jan 13. S 88º32.724 W 081º46.847 to S88º45.800 W 081º53.839. 25 km. 11 hrs. 2770 Cal. Distance to Pole 138 km. Food Left 6 days. I woke naturally at 0400. The tent was warm, and the sun was out so I decided I might as well get up and make an earlier start. I had planned to do this anyway. It took me two and a half hours to get ready and set off which is a bit ridiculous really and I will have to be more efficient in the mornings. It was very cold when I packed up the tent, I reckon it was minus 30, but there was no wind which was lucky. I got very tired in the first session and almost got the “nods” where you are desperate to stay awake but can’t. Despite skiing and pulling the pulk, the experience is the same as when you are on a long drive and can’t keep your eyes open. At least then I would have had the chance to pull into a stopping place but there was not the same option here.

Since I came into the 88th degree the conditions have gradually got easier. I likened my first day in them like an ocean frozen in a force 4 just before the whitecaps start to break. Then it was a force 3 and yesterday was like a force 2 and very benign. Well today it was almost flat calm. This can only mean one thing and that is the prevalent winds in this area are gradually diminishing as I head up to the Pole. I would say this area seldom receives the big winds to create the sastrugi and dunes of the lower sections.

I had been going for a good hour when I noticed some cloud formations and mist to the east. I thought nothing of it until suddenly the snow lost its luminosity. I looked round and the sun was being swallowed by a large cloud. Not again I thought as I assumed I had finished with the compass now I had reached the sunlit uplands.

129 The last of the dunes and sastrugi halfway through the 88th degree as the terrain became yet more flat and calm.

At the time I was experimenting with the neoprene facemask, as the Cold Avenger breathing mask produced so much moisture which ran down to my chest making the five layers of clothing damp. However, the neoprene FRX racing mask had its own issues and steamed up the goggles. As I was wondering how to revert back to the cold avenger the skies darkened, and a small wind appeared. It was absolutely freezing and despite having all my clothes on I could still feel the cold. It caught me unawares like a squall at sea while you are sunbathing. Luckily, I had a spare pair of goggles but as soon as I put them on, they started to fog up also. I decided to revert back to the partially frozen Cold Avenger. However, the switch over was fraught in the minus 30 with the wind. Eventually I managed but I sacrificed 2 pairs of gloves as they got covered in frozen condensed breath and got a bit wet. Eventually the switch to the breathing mask was complete and luckily my googles started to clear again.

The cloud only lasted for a couple of hours and then the sun returned. I caught myself starting to smile when the first shard of sun approached. I carried on to the south, coming across numerous ski tracks from my colleagues. Some I followed for a bit, others I ignored. They were no easier than the rest of the ice field. I noticed my pulk, which squeaked and crunched over the snow was starting to fall silent. I had climbed imperceptibly and was now at the 88th degree and 40 minutes and this was the end of the climb which had been going on the undulating steps from Thiel Fuel Cache. I was now going onto the Polar Plateau at last.

The snow was like castor sugar or sand, but it was not so abrasive as the same type of snow in the 86th degree. The grain of the snow was very small and almost powder. It was OK to ski on and it continues for the next 150 km all the way to the south pole. I skied perhaps another 10 km across the plateau till I hit the 25 km mark and then put the tent up. The snow was deep and loose, and the tent pegs would struggle if a wind arrived, so I used the skis as tent anchors. Since the squall passed early in the morning the weather had been nice again and now in the evening it warmed the tent and dried my damp clothing. It had been a great day and despite the tiredness I enjoyed the peace and solitude of the plateau, smooth and luminous bright, it was vast and almost seemed to follow the curvature of the earth like an ocean view does. If I had 6 more days like today, I would reach the pole before my food ran out.

Day 56. Jan 14.  S 88º45.800 W 081º53.839 to S 88º58.377 W 082º44.961. 24 km. 10.5 hrs. 2740 Cal. Distance to Pole 115 km. Food Left 5 days. I woke naturally at 0400 again and the sun was out. I was a bit quicker this morning and got away just after 0600. It was immensely bright outside on this Polar Plateau, yet far to the north where I had been in the last 2-3 weeks was cloud. I wondered if there were the same whiteout conditions there now, similar to the ones which had plagued me when I was there. The snow up here was like caster sugar again, but some people compared it to sand. It was quite a remarkable consistency and not unlike the snow of the 86th degree which was deep and abrasive. Except here it was not so abrasive and the pulk slid a bit more easily. However, I was never going to get any sort of glide on my skis before the end of the expedition as the snow was too sharp and granular. Perhaps even without a pulk I would have had little glide. So, I was resigned to plodding along for the next 5 days or 115 km. What was remarkable about the snow was the silence of it. Unusually the pulk runners squeak as they get dragged over the snow but with the Polar Plateau snow it was silent as if riding on a bed of feathers.

It was pretty flat all day according to my instruments, but I felt I was going uphill. I was quite fatigued. I thought perhaps I had some sort of illness or lethargy but had no fever. I felt very sleepy and could have easily put the tent up and fallen asleep at once. It was the same as yesterday. This was probably because I am not getting enough sleep. I ski for 11-12 hours, put up or take down the tent for 4 hours, cook for 2, blog for 1 and the remaining 5 hours are sleep. For most of the morning I felt slightly delirious and plodded along in automaton mode with my eyelids often heavy. Even when clouds came and blotted out the sun and the temperature plummeted to minus 30, I did not get any invigoration. Nor after the snacks or meal. It was only towards the end of the day after the last break that I became livelier. People might say, I bet you can’t wait to have a beer or pizza. Actually, nothing is further from my mind. What I am really looking forward to is falling asleep in front of the fire in my cosy living room with Fiona, my partner, practicing the piano in the corner.

I came across more tracks and even some campsites today. I think they were from Al and Dave- the ex-marines, and then later Robert and Per, 2 soloists from Poland and Sweden respectively who appear to have teamed up. They began from the Messner Start, which is slightly shorter and meets the Hercules Inlet route at Thiel Fuel Cache. Thereafter they would have done the rugged 86 and 87 degrees which I did. They are not on my bush telegraph but they seem to be averaging 18 km a day so I might catch them up. In the meantime, I am still last.

I was going to do 25 km today but as I reached 24, I saw a wave of castor sugar looming. It was not the climb which concerned me but the cold wind coming down the slope as the evening air chilled. This catabatic wind would have stripped any solar gain the tent was producing. So, I stopped well before the bottom of the slope. This slope rose up pretty much on the 89th degree and also coincided with the 2700 metre contour line. I got a message from Poppis saying he had recorded a temperature of minus 32 just up the slope. So that, and the catabatic wind, would have been fiendishly cold.

The tent was up quickly in the gentle, but bitter breeze and I was soon inside the tent feeling the sun on my face. Without the sun this expedition would have been very difficult. There would be no way to dry clothes or have a clear vision of the terrain. The forecast said sun, lots of it, for the next week, but the temperature would be about minus 30-35. With it minus 30 outside the temperature in the tent could be plus 20 and all that separated the two was a layer of ripstop nylon.

Tomorrow, I start the Last Degree. The others already have. There is a definite excitement in the air now with everybody remaining, about 9 of us about to finish in the next week. I plan to finish on the 19th of January primarily because that is when my food runs out. The forecast is good, 5 days is average for a degree and the last degree is relatively easy and flat, so it is within my sights. But things can always go wrong.

Day 57. Jan 15.  S 88º58.377 W 082º44.961 to S 89º11.566 W 082º19.116. 25 km. 10.5 hrs. 3010 Cal. Distance to Pole 90 km. Food Left 4 days. I woke at 0430, a bit later than I wanted but still OK as I was quite fast and still managed to set off by 0630. It was a beautiful morning with just a slight breeze but cold; very cold at below minus 30. As I got to the bottom of the slope that I had stopped before yesterday, the breeze started to pick up and it went from a force 2 to a 3. It really made a difference, and my fingers were getting cold, so I had to put the OR Alti Mitts on. As I skied south it appeared that this rise was just one of many rises. They were less than a kilometre apart and there must have been a down slope the other side of each rise. I barely noticed the ups and downs other than visually. It was like a huge mid ocean swell created by a distant storm. I must have crossed some 15 of them in the first 12 km.

The wind had now increased to a force 4 and the spindrift was certainly on the move, although it stayed close to the ground. The patterns it produced on the surface of the snow were just like sand where water was moving over it. There were ripples in the snow everywhere. Although this was a southern wind, I noticed that there were some dunes here, and these were all aligned South East – North West indicating a South East wind. These South East winds would have been cyclonic when large depressions from the Southern Ocean extended this far. They must have been ferocious weather events. Luckily, I just had to cope with this cold catabatic southerly wind as the cold air flowed downhill from the plateau. My wind soon increased again to force 4. The wind chill must have been in the minus 40’s. I had to change gloves again for the Redline Mitts. I have never been more thankful to Bjorn at Pitteraq in Oslo for thrusting them upon me. They are so warm and give instant respite.

In the UK when we say a “bitter wind” we probably have a cold easterly in February coming off the North Sea. However, this morning’s wind took that to a whole new level. It was more like an industrial blast freezer where food is rapidly frozen. If I took a finger sized chipolata sausage at room temperature and threw it on the ground here, I am sure it would be frozen solid in a couple of minutes.  A bare hand, perhaps 10 minutes, and a hand in my Hestra gloves, perhaps half an hour before there was frostbite. I had to plan every move that involved any dexterity and stopping for a snack or rehydrating the macaroni was out of the question. Hence, I did not stop for nearly 6 hours by which time I had done 13km. At one stage I could feel the cold even coming through the Redline Mitts and thought I would have to call it a day and put the tent up or risk frostbite. It was the most intense cold I think I have experienced. However, I managed to get the Redline Mitts into the poggies and that brought some respite.

After 6 hours the Force 4 had abated to a Force 2, and I took the opportunity to have the macaroni and hot chocolate. It was delicious and I managed to finish the cup of macaroni before it froze. This boosted my energy, and I did another 8 km with the wind easing all the time. I came across some tracks and worked out they were from Al and Dave and also from Robert and Per. They were just a day old but already covered in small dunes. It was not a great help to follow them as the new spindrift was more abrasive than the snow I was on. However, it did mean I could park my mind in neutral and not have to worry about navigation. I followed their tracks past their campsites and across more rolling swell until I had done 25 km. As yesterday I noticed a large wave or ridge to the south which would be the first thing tomorrow.

It was just a force 2 but still below minus 30 when I quickly put the tent up and went inside to sort myself out. My mask had frozen to my small beard which took a while to pull apart but the piece of drybag I had sewn onto the mask did seem to have diverted the moisture away from my chest. Despite the blast freezer raging outside at minus 30 the tent did get up to nearly 20 degrees inside which will dry my damp clothing. It had been a good day despite the wind and the most noticeable achievement was passing into the “Last Degree”. ALE and private firms run mini guided expeditions across the relatively easy but cold last degree which takes a week or so for those who want a shorter Antarctic adventure. But these had just finished for the season. At the scheduled 2100 ALE phone call I spoke to Louis Rudd who had just finished guiding a group for his company called Shackleton.

Day 58. Jan 16. S 89º11.566 W 082º19.116 to S89º25.296 W 081º44.483. 26 km. 11 hrs. 2740 Cal. Distance to Pole 65 km. Food Left 3 days. I woke at 0400 and left at 0630. Initially it was great but then a southerly wind developed. It was not as bad as yesterday but still one of the coldest days I have experienced. The whole day was similar to yesterday really except the wind was just low enough to give me the confidence to prepare the chocolate drinks and the lunch. I continued skiing over the vast undulating icefield which sat over the pole and spread out in every direction.

Around lunch I thought I spotted someone away in the distance, about 5 km away. Of course, it could just be my eyes playing tricks on me. But I lined it up with 2 distinctive patches of snow and it did in fact move. In fact, it seemed there were two people. It must be Robert and Per, Polish and Swedish respectively. They had started at the shorter Messner start and were going quite slowly. After some 4 hours I finally caught up with them when they camped early because Per’s foot was sore. I had not seen anyone since the end of November so as I approached the tents, I was anxious. It was indeed Robert and Per, and they came out to meet me. I suppose a snippet of social chat was all I could hope for in my “Man Friday” moment. However, it was very perfunctory. I would have been better going round them and saved the epiphany of social interaction for the camp at the South Pole. They took a few photos of me, and I skied off after 10 minutes.

130. Arriving at the campsite of Per and Robert who took the photo.

I wanted 26 today and I got them. Once the tent was up, I did all the chores and then had my delicious Expedition Foods fish and potato. After the meal I tried to write but kept falling asleep so made the blog for today short and succinct.

Day 59. Jan 17. S 89º25.296 W 081º44.483 to S 89º38.363 W 081º17.103. 25 km. 11 hrs. 2610 Cal. Distance to Pole 40 km. Food Left 2 days. When I looked at my watch and it said 0400, I knew I had to get up, but I would dearly loved to have spent another 4-5 hours sleeping. I could see from the rippling on the tent there was a slight breeze, but the sun was out, and the tent was not cold. The solar gain of the tent is an absolute Godsend and without it this trip would be totally different with tens of litres of fuel to heat the tent and dry things.

I set off at 0630 and already the wind had dropped a bit as per the forecast. by lunchtime it had all but ceased. The view from my hermetically sealed face area and out of the goggles was almost of a tropical paradise with smooth white sand under an even light turquoise sky. It could have been a poster for a white sandy Hebridean beach or Whitehaven Beach in Australia. The “sand” was brilliant white, almost luminous, and it sparkled as I went along it. There was immense solitude and mystery here on the Polar Plateau nearly 3000 metres above sea level. It was quite a magical place. But then if you took a glove off or unsealed part of the face the reality of minus 30 soon made its presence felt with a stinging reminder.

131. The problem of condensation is that it freezes on the breathing mask and on the cheek and nose protection flaps sewn onto the goggles.

As I skied my thoughts inevitably turned to finishing in a couple of days. There will be a team running the camp as a satellite from the main hub at Union Glacier. I wondered who was in that team as inevitably there would be someone there who I’d known previously or was a friend of a friend, either American, Norwegian, or British. Then there will be the “expeditioners”. Pierre and the FireAngels had already left but in their place will be Patrick the Canadian who I hung around with in Punta Arenas before we left. Then there would be the Finns who arrived at the South Pole today. Then Al and Dave (the ex-marines) and I would probably all arrive in 2 days. I should imagine the comradeship between us will be overwhelming. Apparently, Patrick has already said he would bring me breakfast in bed on the first morning. I am not looking forward to luxuries that much other than having time to relax and write. I don’t think I have had a whole day off since I thought I had badly damaged my knee and that was perhaps 7 weeks ago. I am also looking forward to the very simple things like having a chair to sit on or readily available hot water.

However I will also miss the daily expedition life and the routine I have established. Everything in the tent has a place and this order has evolved over the last 8 weeks. As long as the sun is out it gives me great joy to ski in Antarctica and I have enjoyed being in my bubble of exclusivity. But there have also been some significant hardships and it will be a delight not to contend with these for a while.

I did my 25 km by 1900 and then put the tent up. once inside I soon started to warm up as the evening sun shone onto the west side of the tent and radiated it heat. It was a very simple luxury, but I would not swap it for all the chocolate in Belgium. After the scheduled 2100 call with ALE I ate my delicious fish and potato stew and then wrote the blog but had difficulty staying awake. I still have 40 km to do which I hope to do the majority of tomorrow leaving me with a short day to finish on the 19th. All in all, it had been a great day, but I was tired and fatigued.

Day 60. Jan 18. S 89º38.363 W 081º17.103 to S 89º50.151 W 079º55.617. 22 km. 10 hrs. 2490 Cal. Distance to Pole 18 km. Food Left 1 days. When I looked at my watch it said 0300 so I rolled over for another hour. Unfortunately, I slept on to 0500 partially due to the tent being so warm due to the sun outside. I eventually got going at 0730. It was too late a start to do the intended 25 km, but it would be close. It was a beautiful, very bright and quite still morning and I had to vent the salopette legs to stop myself overheating despite the temperatures hovering around minus 30. From one horizon across to the other there was not a cloud in the light turquoise sky. There was just the sun in it. I have not seen the moon at all on this entire trip and it is something I will have to look up. Perhaps its orbit is in more restricted latitudes of say below 80 or even 70 degrees.

I split the day into four times 6 km sessions. On the first I approached the 2800 contour line and there was wave after wave of rolling ice waves to gently climb and then even more gently descent to reach the next. Each wave was about half a kilometre apart. The pulk felt heavy and difficult to pull or perhaps I had become quite feeble. It was now only about 50kg with a day’s worth of food and 2 litres of fuel. I tired very easily and also noticed how short of breath I was. It was nearly 3000 metres, but I had acclimatised in a text book manner and also at 3000 metres in the Himalayas I don’t have any issue. Maybe there was less oxygen in the air at the poles. I have not seen my torso for nearly 2 months as I never change clothes however, I notice the tremendous weight loss. I started probably 103 kg and I would say now I am approaching 80 kg. Just when the New Year’s resolution of Keto or Atkins or Huel diets are running into the sand in the general population with little to show may I recommend dragging a 100 kg sledge for 2 months across 1200km in Antarctica for guaranteed weight loss.

On the second session I felt a bit perkier as the waves eased off onto a very broad ridge. The weather had not changed but suddenly it felt colder. Much colder. I had my hand bare for 15 seconds doing something and it started to sting. I also noticed the cold suddenly creep through all my clothing. I have become used to it being minus 30 over the last week but this was much more, and it frightened me. An hour or two later I warmed up so I can only conclude it was a cold bubble of air that had dropped from a very high altitude. Like the opposite of a thermal. During its worst I had the redline mitts on and the poggies and still my fingers were cold.

During the third session I reached the top of the broad rise which the waves of the morning led up to and the skiing was easy. I think there was a slight descent because I was getting a glide on my skis here and there. In the distance I noticed 2 white stripes on the ice cap which looked a bit unusual. They could not be drifts. They were a long way away and perhaps there was some sort of mirage. it was warm enough now for me to take my phone camera out and I set it to 100 zoom and took a few photos. There were black things and when I looked with the eye again, I could make them out. Then it dawned on me it was the South Pole Station. There it is. THERE IT IS!! It was about 24 km away still but that was the South Pole and the end of my journey. I aimed to get there tomorrow.

From here there was a lovely barely perceptible descent for a couple of km down into a dip where the building disappeared. I stopped here for my snack and was amazed now how warm it was. I could virtually eat the whole energy bar without gloves on. This is what I would expect though on a sunny afternoon. I was going to do 6 km after the snack but in the end only did 4 km as I wanted the time to do the blog and enjoy a sunny evening in the tent. It was my last evening in the tent. I would miss the routine and order from boiling the kettle with my legs in the hole in the snow to then turning the stove off to retreat to the inner chamber which the sun had warmed nicely. I then had a host of things to do including eat my delicious dinner, check in with ALE, spread the solar panels out on the tent floor to charge, do some maintenance and write the blog. It was a routine which had developed over the last 60 nights which I have been in the tent consecutively. The tent has really been my home and I have got quite fond of it in the same way a prisoner might get fond of his cell. There is stability and order here while just outside is danger and chaos.

And so, I began my last night in the tent. Tomorrow I will be thrust back into society again having been detached from it for two months. During that time, I have virtually been entirely on my own like an ascetic monastic monk in a stone house on a rocky outcrop. I am usually a keen follower of current affairs, yet I know nothing about what has happened in the world since mid-November when Hamas launched an attack on Israel and Israel had just started to respond. I have lived in a complete cultural void where the only things that matter are the weather, snow condition, temperature, and visibility. It will be quite a shock to go back into society again after my supercharged Lent. I can imagine when I reconnect with my phone there will be over a thousand emails waiting for me but there will also be people to laugh and share jokes with and rejoice with and that excites me. I have done my time as a spiritual hermit and now it is time to re-enter society again. I have done it a few times in my life, not least with my 249 day Norway trip, but there is always an anxiety with change and change will happen tomorrow when I get to the South Pole Station. When I arrive there, I will be the oldest person to have skied solo to the South Pole and also the oldest person to have skied there unsupported. That is taking all my food fuel equipment and doing all my own repairs and maintenance without any outside help. I am pleased with that as it is quite an achievement for a 64 year old.

Day 61. Jan 19. S 89º50.151 W 079º55.617 to S 90º00.000 W 000º00.000. 21 km. 8 hrs. 2210 Cal. Distance to Pole 0 km. Food Left 0 days. I managed to get up a little after 0400 and the sun was shining into the tent heating the black insulation I had on the floor and this in turn was warming the tent and heating my boots. I packed everything and placed it all outside the vestibule and then turned and sat with my legs in the pit and looked inside my tent with some sadness. It had been very good to me and had been a solid and secure home for last two months. I then did the zip up of the inner for the last time and went out to pack the pulk. Although it was sunny there was a crescent of light grey cloud to the east. All the forecasts said it would be great today except for the one which I got on the Iridium Go. which said it would cloud over at 0900. Unfortunately, the Iridium Go forecast was the one I had leant was by far the most accurate and so it seemed today also.

132. In the freezing fog semi whiteout which enveloped on my last day as I skied towards the pole.

I decided to split the day into 3 times 6 kilometres and have two breaks. At each break I would have the last of my food, a packet of macaroni cheese. The 1000 calories in each would power me through the day. The trouble was it was a faff to prepare with mitts on. It was lovely as I set off, but the crescent of low grey cloud was moving towards me like a dust storm consuming all as it swallowed it up in its misery. I braced myself for it as the joy of the morning started to fade and within a short time the lights had gone out and where there was once sparkling snow there was now just a dull uniform greyness. It was not a proper whiteout, the likes of which plagued the 86th degree for me, but a semi whiteout and I could still see 100 metres. Without the sun to temper the cold the temperature dropped considerably as the freezing fog enveloped me. When the 6 km mark came up for the first break, I thought it is just not worth getting cold for the sake of a bowlful of macaroni so decided to bin the break and just have one at 9 km.

The closer I got to the South Pole the more and more tracks there were. Just as you could not move anymore with crossing over a longitudinal line it was the same with ski tracks and even vehicle tracks left by scientific vehicles. Most of the ski tracks came from ALE or private groups doing the “Last Degree” to the South Pole. Given the poor visibility, I decided to follow one of them where I guessed some 20 skiers had been altogether. It was fast and easy. With the longitudinal degree lines, what was 60 minutes or 60 nautical miles on the equator, was now just tens of metres. I should have been able to see the South Pole buildings from here become imperceptibly closer with every kilometre but could not see them at all.

Beside the ski track I was following there had been a single skier a few metres off to the side. I went over and followed this track for a while. There were a few things I noticed about it. It was so shockingly straight it would have made a Roman Road look like a meandering country lane. The pole baskets of the skier hit the ground every 2 metres rather than every metre like mine, so this skier had a great glide and technique. The pulk they were towing was a Paris Pulk. I soon deduced it was the track of Vincent Colliard who passed this way a week ago on his record-breaking speed run. he was making his own track as he did not want his record questioned. His technique was simply superb.

133. Arriving at the Ceremonial South Pole after 61 days alone on the ice if Antarctica.

At 9 km I did stop for my macaroni and as predicted I did get cold. I could feel the minus 30 even creep into my boots with the separate liners and 2 pairs of socks. I could feel it permeate 6 layers on top and 4 on my legs and I could certainly feel it come through the mitts. However, once I had the macaroni inside me I felt empowered and sped off to try and warm up again. After a quick 4 km, almost racing an imaginary Colliard beside me on his razor-sharp track, I had warmed up again. Then out of the grey, to the west of the track, appeared some small structures with flags on. I assumed these were scientific data or collection points. They continued for a kilometre or so when the freezing fog started first to thin and let some more light in and then to lift slightly. Suddenly before my eyes some 2 kilometres away the South Pole Base Station, dozens of small scientific structures, a large telecoms dish and the brightly coloured tents of ALE’s South Pole Camp appeared. ALE’s camp was about half a kilometre to the east of the South Pole Base Station, and it was my immediate destination. All the ski tracks were leading to it like spokes on a wheel. I had been told when I got to it someone would come out to meet me and point me in the direction of the South Pole itself.

It took a short hour to reach ALE’s brightly coloured camp, almost a pageant in contrast to the stark authoritarian structure of the US administered Amundsen Scott South Pole Station.  I can imagine someone in the ALE camp saw me and announced “incoming single skier with pulk” as soon an ALE jeep came out to meet me. The camp manager Cedar from Whitehorse and his good friend Devon from South BC, Canada, got out and strolled over to intercept me. I recognised both from Union Glacier 2 months ago. It seemed appropriate that Devon should welcome me as he was the person who put me in touch with ALE (Antarctic Logistics and Exploration) 8 months ago when I first enquired about an adventure in Antarctica. There was a hearty handshake and congratulations, but I was covered in ice and did not want to take my mask or goggles off because it would take so long to realign everything. They pointed me in the direction of the Ceremonial South Pole and the Geographical South Pole which were adjacent to each other a short kilometre away up an icy road. They told me to go there, and they would come up in 15 minutes and meet me and take photos and then drive me and the pulk back.

134. With the glint of victory in my eyes at the Ceremonial South Pole. The tape on the nose is to cover some frost damage.

I went up to the flags of the Ceremonial South Pole and as I got there Devon arrived in the ALE truck. There were more handshakes and then he took some 30 photos of me getting his hands cold in the process. We then walked over to the Geographical South Pole a few hundred metres away and I set off my check in to register the 90-degree reading. I walked round the world a couple of times and stood with one foot in one time zone and the other in a time zone twelve hours ahead. Devon took more photos. Then we loaded the pulk onto a trailer and I climbed into the truck and drove the short km back to ALE’s camp. Here Devon showed me a large yellow tent with 2 beds, a heater, 2 chairs, and a table in and said it was mine. I could stand up in it and the warmth was fantastic, both solar and the kerosene heater. I put my bedding on the pack on the bare mattress and then went into the main dining and kitchen tent.

135. With my now very empty pulk with the Thistle of Scotland on the back. My bedding is in the green bag.

As I went in there was a cheer and people came forward congratulate me. First were the two ex-marines Alan Chamber and his friend Dave who arrived a few hours ahead of me. Then Anna, a delightful and calm Kiwi from Te Anau, who gave me an enormous and warm hug, and then Twitty, a Malaysian cook from Sabah. Along with Cedar and Devon, we were the only people here. I had just missed Patrick and Poppis and the Finns who flew back to Union Glacier as I was arriving. I sat with Al and Dave and had a huge plate of food and soft drink. There was beer here too, but it would make me too sleepy.

136. With my skis at the Ceremonial South Pole. I used both Asnes Amundsen (pictured) and Asnes Ousland in the pulk.

I spent the afternoon basking in the euphoria of that dining tent and the seemingly unlimited supply of luxuries of soft drinks, chocolate, and great company. Alan and Dave were in a similar mood and had the sparkle of victory in their very blue eyes. Alan was a Polar veteran and had many North Pole last degree trips under his belt and a few South Pole ones too. He knew everybody and one of his last trips had been to bring the founding owners of Google to Antarctica for a solar eclipse and they were now his personal friends. I had been in contact with Al and Dave almost daily via a Garmin Inreach message and they had helped keep me motivated during my darkest days in the whiteouts in the 86th degree. How lovely it was now to bask with them in the victory of this warm convivial tent looked after by Cedar, Devon, Anna and Twitty the most warm, considerate and delightful hosts. Cedar and Devon were both polar guides and had done this trip so they could empathise with us.

137. At the Geographical South Pole at 90 degrees where all longitudinal lines and time zones meet.

Soon Twitty announced dinner was ready and served us a fusion of Malaysian inspired beef curry and chicken and then the 7 of us, 4 staff and 3 guests ate together. It was the most perfect evening and it only got better when Al produced a bottle of single malt, Wolfburn 46%, from Thurso which the 7 of us shared. I eventually went to bed just after 2100 into my warm spacious tent having been told breakfast was at 1000 the next day. As usual I went to bed fully dressed in 3 layers of leggings and 5 tops. Initially I slept well but then woke after midnight absolutely boiling as if I had fallen asleep in a greenhouse in the mid-afternoon in the middle of a heatwave. The trouble is I could not get my tops off. All the zips were stuck in the done-up position where they had been for the last 8 weeks and then were eroded by salt and time. I eventually forced them off but nearly ripped my ears off. The mesh of the Brynje under garments had left diamond impressions on my torso. I was pleased to see my arms had not withered as much as I feared. after that I fell back asleep and slept well until the alarm went at 0500. The joy of hitting the “dismiss” button should not be underestimated and I slept for another 4 hours.

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October 14, 2023

Day 40. Dec 29.  S 86º00.335 W 081º14.560 to S 86º11.000 W 081º20.082.  20 km. 10.5 hrs. 3110 Cal. It had been snowing a light drizzle through the night and it was still doing so in the morning. Perhaps 2 cm had accumulated on the pulk. It was not flakes or even polystyrene like beads but more of a fine dust, as if someone had thrown icing sugar around. I set off at 0700 and immediately knew I would be splitting the day into four 5 km sessions rather than 6 as it was heavy going from the off.

The 86 degree is renowned for having deeper soft snow, similar to what I was skiing on. There was probably a climatic explanation, but it might be that this region gets a lot of freezing fog, and this produces the fine snow particles which just accumulate. These small snow particles like icing sugar grip the runners of the pulk and don’t let it pass easily. I found that there were also some slightly glazed ridges amongst the beds of deep soft snow and these ridges ran in the same direction I was going, namely south. If I kept to the ridges, it was much easier, but it was not easy to link them up. Although it was nearly a whiteout the sun was there as a diffuse ball trying to shine through a thin layer of fog. This fog or low cloud persisted all day but the diffuse ball in the sky was there most of the tie also. It was a kind of semi whiteout and the snow had little contrast, but I could see at least 100 metres.

I pulled and pulled the pulk all day gradually getting more and more tired. It was exhausting work. I felt like a large plough horse pulling a 3 bladed plough through an everlasting field of sorbet. As the day wore on the more tired, I got. I suppose this is what it was like to be a slave or a prisoner in a work camp where you get up and toil all day, day after day, until the labour takes its toll. However, this usually takes years, and it is quite unbelievable really how resilient the human body is. I was toiling but I was well nourished and there was also a goal insight just in 3 weeks or so. My lot was really nothing like a slave or prisoner of war, but it was taxing, and I was working at full steam really.

At last, the 20 km was up and I found a nice firm sheet of neve snow on which to pitch the tent. It was up in 20 minutes, and I was soon inside getting the stove going. It takes a good hour to melt and boil enough snow for the next 24 hours. After that I retreated to the inner tent and got onto my sleeping bag and made a chair from the thermarest. It was the best time of the day, just about to have my delicious Expedition Foods fish and potato stew, which I could never tire of. Their lunch time Mac and Cheese is wearing a bit thin though. After that the bush telegraph messages start coming in about who had an easy day and who had a tough one. It seems that most people in this neck of the woods were having the same problem with the soft abrasive sand like snow. Not Pierre though he had finally broken through the giant sastrugi and dunes of snow and was just on the Polar Plateau. He had some 200 km of flattish skiing to do to reach the South Pole. For me it had been a hard day with little rewards or view, but I was another 20 km closer to the pole. I would sleep well tonight.

Day 41. Dec 30. S 86º11.000 W 081º20.082 to S  86º17.916 W 081º22.555. 13 km. 9 hrs. 2470 Cal. It was snowing a light drizzle when I woke and packed. The pulk had about 5 cm of new snow on it with the consistency of castor sugar (where I previously wrote icing sugar, I meant castor sugar). Once I was hitched into the harness and had taken my first steps, I knew today was going to be hard. To make it more bearable mentally I kept it in 4 sessions but dropped the kilometres in each one to 4 kilometres. As it turned out even that was too much. It was a fiendish haul and I had to really work hard. The first kilometre took an hour and cost me 300 calories. I became a bit despondent about it all and morale slipped to a low ebb. In the last week since leaving Thiel Fuel Cache it has virtually been poor weather the whole time. The sun has not made many appearances, but the whiteouts and the fine snow has continued almost unabated. It is sapping my joy and from what I can make of the weather forecast there is still a couple more days of overcast snowy weather to come. I also was a bit annoyed that the others were now days ahead of me. They were in teams with much lighter pulks, and they could also take it in turns to plough through.

I had hoped to do a degree in every 5 days, which is an average of about 22 km per day but there is no way I can manage that in these conditions. After nearly 3 hours I had only done 3 km and I was already quite exhausted so had my first break. It had at least stopped snowing now and the whiteout was quite half hearted really. For the rest of the day the weather did improve and as it did, I could feel my mood lift. Towards the end of the day there was plenty of blue sky and I could put my compass away and rely on distant cloud formations as a bearing. My usually ordered system of breaks went out of the window as I ploughed on, and they became quite random and almost chaotic as I had to stop nearly every kilometre for a rest. I could feel some aches and pains but interestingly not in my right knee. My pulk weight including the pulk was still about 75 kg and of that only about 30kg was food and fuel now. I think I am still a good week or two from that magic tipping point when I can easily overcome the resistance. A bit like a motorboat labouring away until suddenly it breaks free and starts to plane on the water.

115. Ploughing a lonely furrow in an endless plain of caster sugar like snow, some 10-15 cm deep.

I heard from others ahead that this degree becomes easier after the halfway point with firmer snow again. That means I probably still have another two days of hard work before I get there. If it continues like this much more, it will cost me my “unsupported” status as I will probably need a re supply somewhere on the Polar Plateau but that is still a long way off. A resupply would not be the end of the world for me, but had I decided to go “supported” the whole way I could have had a 50 kg lighter pulk on average and a lot less worry over my equipment failing. The Finns did this and have been living the dream with entrecote and chardonnay. I stopped early at 1730 as I thought there was a danger of damaging some muscles especially in my right lower leg. As I put the tent up the sun came out and it soon warmed the tent. In fact, it was a lovely evening in the tent and the temperature in the drying rack got up to 31 degrees and the solar panels were working overtime after a leisurely week for them. The sun makes all the difference to the mood too and I was content in the evening.

Day 42. Dec 31. S 86º17.916 W 081º22.555 to S 86º27.544 W 081º27.525. 18 km. 9 hrs. 2290 Cal. It was a warm and sunny night. The tent was warm, and everything was crisp and dry. The solar chargers had filled both batteries in the night. The tent life in the morning was pleasant as it was about 20 degrees in the tent. When I emerged, it was to a wall-to-wall light blue sky, a very mild turquoise almost like a watercolour wash. The snow was a brilliant white and without my goggles I would have almost been blinded by it. The weather had instantly changed my mood for the better. There had been no wind in the night and my footsteps around the tent, some 15 cm deep were still fresh. As I put on the yoke and started to pull, the pulk felt heavy and I decided to go for four times 4.5 kilometres today making a total of 18. It is what most of the others managed in this quagmire of caster sugar.

As I was doing the first session the icesheet rose up to a higher plateau to around 1800 metres. On this rise there must have been some catabatic winds descending from the 1800 plateau as there was little snow here on the firm neve and skarve surface. My ski poles squeaked as they twisted on the firm surface. There was also some small sastrugi around, but it was quite light. The pulk slid easily across the hard surface and I could climb quite quickly. However, it was only a couple of kilometres over an hour or so and soon I was on the shelf above and the deep caster sugar returned.

116. My tent pitched with the skis as pegs as the snowpack was too soft for the standard snow pegs I have.

It continued like this for the rest of the day with me stopping every 2-2.5 hours for a break. As far as the eye could see it was a smooth even surface to the distant horizons. The horizon itself was huge and well delineated. Above was the turquoise water colour wash and below the brilliant white smooth snow, which I though took of some of the turquoise from above. Occasionally I came across the tracks of Poppis and the Finns who passed here two days previously, but they were buried under 10 cm of new snow, and I quickly lost them again.

At the breaks I had to swap my gloves for mitts as it was much colder now. I also put on my Decathlon duvet jacket over my main Shackleton jacket and the harness. That way I kept warm while sitting on the pulk. During the last session a wisp of hazy cloud appeared and occasionally covered the sun. It was the next batch of poor snowy weather arriving and it was forecast to last 2 days. Hopefully I would be out of this wind still area where the snow accumulated with being compressed into firmer snow by the wind. After this inclement weather for the next couple of days, which was bound to be in a whiteout, the forecast looks good. At 18 km I stopped and put up the tent. There was no sun now, so it was not that warm until I brought the stove inside the inner tent. It did not take long before it was roasting. I ate my supper sitting up feeling the warmth pumping out from the stove. On the bush telegraph this evening I have not heard from Pierre but with both his bindings damaged but just usable he is pushing for the South Pole on the Polar Plateau now. Poppis and the Finns, the FireAngels, and the ex-marines Al and Dave, are all ahead by a day or 3 and are in better conditions now and all three groups are preparing for the big 1000 metre climb to the Polar Plateau. Theis climb of 1000 metres is over some 150 kilometres, so the gradients are not that steep, but significant. Today had been a nice way to finish off the year.

Day 43. Jan 1. S 86º27.544 W 081º27.525 to S 86º38.000 W 081º37.741. 20 km. 10.5 hrs. 3150 Cal. From my sleeping bag I could hear it was quite windy outside and the tent buffeted a bit. But it was just a mild gale and not anything like a storm and I could not afford a day off.  When I emerged from the tent, having packed everything, I thought “is this wise?”. It was like Ice station Zebra again. If someone had said to me I would do 20 km today I would never have believed them. It was also cold, perhaps minus 15, and the windchill was terrific. I carefully took the tent down using the security painter in case a gust took it from my hands and packed it too and got out the compass. I would have liked to have taken a photo, but it would have been too cold on my fingers, which now look like a clerics rather than a bricklayers, as I lose weight.

With the compass mounted I set off and luckily the wind was almost at my back coming from the NE. I was well covered up. The Shackleton salopettes, which are amongst my favourite bits of kit, really do a great job in keeping my legs warm and the jacket with the fake fur ruff protect my top half face beautifully. The terrain was still sandy snow like caster sugar. The skis would not keep a straight line or stay that level and my boots and ankles were twisting sideways frequently. However, there were often patches where the snow was firmer, and I could ski here and was delighted how well the pulk was on this firmer snow. I decided to go for four 5 km sessions and by the time I reached the first the wind had eased from a force 6 to a 4. It was still bitter in it.

On the second, third, and fourth sessions the snow got progressively firmer, and the skiing was much easier. I had to put the “Cold Avenger” face-mask on as the sunburn on my lips was being affected by the cold. It too is another favourite bit of kit. I suddenly saw my blurry shadow and looked round and there was the haze hidden sun behind a thin layer of cloud. It came and went all day except in the morning, when it was a total white out, the visibility remained tolerable. I climbed steadily all day and barely noticed it and by the time I reached 20 km I had climbed to 1900 metres over sea level. Which partly explains the bitter cold. I still have another 1000 metres to climb over the next 10 days or so to reach the Polar Plateau.

It is almost habit now, but it is amazing to just stop at a random spot on this vast ice sheet take out the tent and put it up and then some 20 minutes later I am sitting with my legs in a hole while the stove is melting snow. Then I retire into the inner tent, which is my home, and the bitter cold of the outside is soon forgotten. After my scheduled call to ALE at 2100 hours I write the blog and send it to my friend, Ruth, to proofread and publish. The day has a rigid structure and routine and without that I think things would unravel quite quickly.  On the bush telegraph both Pierre and Poppis had equipment failures which they are both hoping to fix. The FireAngels, Bex and George, are now into the middle of the 87th degree where the climbs are steep and the sastrugi of biblical dimensions. Al and Dave, the ex-marines are about 25 km ahead of me and keep sending me words of encouragement which was needed after the last week of poor weather and difficult snow. All in all, it had been an OK day, and I am slowly chipping away at the distance. It is now only 375 km to go, and I still have 17 day’s worth of food left.

Day 44. Jan 02. S 86º38.000 W 081º37.741 to S 86º48.765 W 081º45.469.  21 km. 9.5 hrs. 2450 Cal. Sometime in the early morning the sun must have come out as it was hot in the tent. I was still in my minus 30 sleeping bag so was in effect being slowly roasted. As a result, I did not wake naturally around 0500 but nearer 0600 and I felt a bit groggy, almost hungover. The sun stayed out while I breakfasted, packed, and for the first hour or so of the day. The skiing in the morning was great and it was firm and even. I decided to go for 3 sessions of 7 km each so I would only have two breaks instead of three. Ahead of me I could see a great wave of ice. It looked like a frozen tsunami towering some 50-100 metres above. To get to the base of it there was actually a bit of shallow downhill and then the climb up the wave started. It was 100 metres, and it took about an hour. The climb was on hard snow and even bare ice which was fissured with narrow cracks 1-2 cm wide caused by the buckling of the ice sheet as it slowly flowed down here. The pulk glided beautifully on it and despite going up, felt light. It was so different to the last week when I was in a quagmire of soft white sugary snow which clawed at the pulk. I felt like a fruit fly which had inadvertently landed in the middle of bowl of syrup and after a week of wading through it finally reached the rim of the bowl.

117. The tsunami in the ice sheet which I had to climb to reach the 1900 metre plateau.

Despite the effort of the climb up the tsunami it was nice to have some topography again after a bland flat week. Near the top of the climb, I had my first break just as the forecast clouds and snow were coming in on the bitter NE wind. From my selection of gloves and mitts I had finally found a great solution to this cold for my fingers. I had removed the liners from OR Alti Mitts and this allowed me to use my OR Backstop Sensors inside them. Then I put both into the poggies so in effect I had 3 layers. If I needed to do something dexterous, I could just slip my gloved hand out of the mitt for a minute or five and then reinsert it into the warm mitt lining later.

On the second session the weather deteriorated to just short of a complete white out. However, the surface was even, and I could just plod along. Both the sky and snow were a dull grey but the sky was slightly darker so there was fuzzy horizon. There was little to see on the snow’s surface and any pitfall was only noticed at the last minute, but there were very few. One of the biggest problems skiing in a near whiteout was what to do with the mind. It would not go dormant and passive but just kept churning round and round on usually banal thoughts. Once it started on a chain of negative thoughts It was difficult to turn it around to happy thoughts again. One recurring theme was constantly calculating how much food I had, versus how many kilometres, versus how much time I needed, versus average kilometres per day. “Doing the Math” as people on the Pacific Crest Trail used to say. I think long distance hikers do a lot of it and it is dull. Perhaps that is why they listen to podcasts to have a more structured chain of thought rather than random thoughts in a chaotic chain reaction.

During the third session the whiteout cleared, and it was more like sporadic pockets of snow showers coming through. There was always one horizon which was clear even if the other 3 were blurred. I kept my compass mounted in front of me as without it I was like a moth to the sun. Within the space of 15 seconds, I could inadvertently turn 90 degrees without knowing it. It was only when I looked at the compass again that I realised. I also use my Garmin Fenix watch a lot to navigate. It has the course plotted on it and my position too and I just keep on one or the other. It also tells me how far I have done and much more useful information like whether I am ascending or not. Just as I was approaching the end of the day, I started on another shallow but sustained climb from the shelf or plateau I had been on up to the next level. I only did a part of it when I hit 21 km much earlier in the day than I thought.

118. The tent is up, and the sun is warming it for me to go inside and cook (boil water really) and relax.

I had the tent up and stove on by 1900 just as the sun came out fully to warm the tent. It was a lovely evening for me with some warmth and the clothes, hardly damp with sweat, drying on the rack. I had macaroni for supper for a change as over the last few days I have been rationing the odd portion here and there, especially the lunch time macaroni which is a palaver to prepare in a cold wind. But doing this I have collected an entire day’s worth, so I still have 16 day’s worth; one to finish this degree and 5 for each of the next 3 degrees. A degree is 112 km for those who like to “do the math”. At the scheduled 2100 call to ALE I give my position and then have a small 2-3 minute chat.  Sometimes there is someone from the ALE family of employees there to offer encouragement and support after the call. Tonight, it was Preet Chandri, polar superstar, on the phone to chivvy me along to the Pole. They are a very thoughtful bunch at Union Glacier and indeed the Polar Community in general.

Day 45. Jan 03. S 86º48.765 W 081º45.469 to S 86º57.102 W 081º50.543. 16 km. 8 hrs. 2290 Cal. I could hear it was a nasty day from the comfort of my sleeping bag. It took great discipline to get up because I knew what lay in store. There was yet another weather front coming in and it would mean snow, whiteout, and a cold wind. None the less I had to get something on the scorecard for today. When I went out at 0700 it was as bad as I feared with virtually no visibility, snow and a stream of spindrift flowing like water round a boulder when it hit the tent. There was a large drift on the upwind side of the tent and the snow valances around the tent were buried. Rather than burden myself with something unfeasible I said I would try and do 4 sessions each of 4 kilometres. I thought it was quite manageable. Just as I started, I noticed a tiny air bubble in the compass.

The first session was quite arduous as it continued uphill on the hard snow and drifted snow which was almost dune like. I saw nothing of it nor when I was about to walk into it until I was on it. It was a total white out and all I could see were my skis and the compass on the mount. There was no horizon at all. The trouble with this total white out is you can’t see the change in terrain or the small ridges or dunes and so you can’t plan accordingly, you just stumble into it. So, it took 2 hours to do the first session. My skis slipped on the harder patches and then got bogged down in the small dunes. All I could do was keep moving forward. As an experiment I closed my eyes for a minute and kept skiing. It did not make any difference at all. It was the same with all the sessions today except some had quite benign terrain where I could step forward more confidently. I spent the entire day watching my compass bubble grow until it was about the size of a lentil.

I kept thinking about the weather and why it was like this at the moment. Perhaps it was affected by El Nino, which influenced the Atlantic also, or perhaps it was just a bad run of low pressures in the Southern Ocean and these ones were big enough to encroach onto Antarctica also. If they did then the northeast winds (the equivalent of the northern hemisphere south westerly) would bring in moisture which would be swept inland and condense and fall as precipitation as it rose and the 86th degree is where it rose. Maybe it was a bit like a cloud forest in warmer climes where moisture laden air would rise up in the mountains and condense leaving the mountains above dry and sunny. Maybe that is the case here too where the moisture falls here in the 86th and 87th degree leaving the Polar Plateau dryer and sunnier. Hopefully not as elusive and fictitious as the Sunlit Uplands of Boris Johnson.

119. It takes about an hour at the end of every day to melt and boil some 7 litres of water for the next 24 hours.

As I closed in on my 16 km in the whiteout, I thought that if any normal people had seen me, they would want me sectioned or locked up for my own good. Here was a solo person on a vast glacier in a whiteout with the nearest other people, Al and Dave, some 30 kilometres away. And yet to me now it felt quite normal. It’s what I had been doing for the last 6 weeks and what I would be doing for the next 2. Perhaps I was suffering from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where I felt some benevolence to my kidnappers. When the weather is good, I thoroughly enjoy it, but this run of snowy and misty weather is beginning to test my patience. However, from the small forecasts I can get on my devices it seems good weather is just round the corner.

I had wanted to make it to the 87th degree but that would have meant another 3 hours skiing and a late finish. So as planned I stopped at 16 km and put the tent up. it was cold here now I was at 2100 metres. It was perhaps minus 18 outside but in the wind, it felt considerably more. There was no sun, so the tent was cold but after melting the snow I brought the stove inside and it quickly warmed the interior and started to dry some of the damp clothing. It had not been a great day, yet I had done 16 km and climbed some 150 metres too apparently although I never noticed it. The bush telegraph was very quiet, and I think everyone had an early finish and then an early bed.

Day 46. Jan 04. S 86º57.102 W 081º50.543 to S 87º08.805 W 082º27.146. 24 km. 11.5 hrs. 3790 Cal. The iridium weather forecast said it would be 5 days of sun from this morning and I could see and feel from inside the tent it had already started. However, it was to be cold, about minus 22, and there would be a force 4-5 wind for the whole period. When I went outside to pack, the sky was perfectly blue, a light azure, but it was cold, very cold. I decided to be ambitious today and go for 4 sessions of 6 km and see if I could make 24 in total. However, the snow was clinging at the pulk. It was if I was dragging it through iron filings, especially the deeper sections. There had been snow on and off for the last 8 days and it had not really settled yet or got a glaze.

The first session was quite easy except for the sluggish snow but it took 3 hours just to do 6 km. I started at about 2100 metres height and climbed frequently over waves of ice as they flow in super slow motion down from the plateau. There was the odd bit of negligible downhill on the south side of the wave before a gentle climb of on average 20 metres or so to the next. Each wave seemed 2 km apart. Going up the wave the wind had generally blown the snow off the firmer fissured ice, so it was much easier than the flatter parts where it settled.

It was so cold my glove system of OR backstop, then the outer shell of the OR Alti Mitt and then the poggie was not really enough. I had something else at the ready which I was keeping for the plateau but thought it wise to use it now. It was the Mountain Equipment Redline Mitt. They were too big for the poggies but the small OR backstop fitted inside them. They were fantastically warm, and I was so pleased I brought them.

It was a delight to be able to see everything again. The cold and the wind were a small sacrifice to pay to be able to appreciate where I was on this vast rolling ice sheet. My mood soared and I was optimistic again. If I could just push hard for these 5 predicted good weather days, I should be through the infamous 87 Degree and almost on to the flatter gentler Polar Plateau.

120. The valley with the dunes of snow in a moonscape before the tsunami of ice beyond which I would climb

At the third break it was just too windy, and I would have got too cold preparing my drink. I thought it was getting on also and it would be better to do just another 4 km in which case I could skip the hot chocolate drink, which I did. A bit further on I came over another wave and could see a great frozen tsunami rearing up ahead. It was the slope up to the 2200 metres contour line. Unfortunately, my 4 km would take me halfway up it but, that was acceptable I thought. However, there was a small valley of ice between it and the wave I was on. I had a nice 5-10 minute downhill run and sometimes had to ski fast so the pulk would not catch me up and bash into my legs. The valley was quiet and sunny with little wind and in hindsight I should have stopped here. It had some strange snow formations which I had heard ALE refer to as dunes. I previously dismissed it as perhaps a mis translation between American and British English, but I was wrong. There were actual dunes of snow some 2-3 metres high. I wove a path through them and then started climbing the tsunami up to the 2200 metre contour. It was OK in the sunlight but would have been a nightmare in a whiteout. There was sastrugi everywhere, however it was quite small and between the sastrugi were smooth hard sheets of bare snow which was almost ice. I carried on up with the wind getting up to a force 4, then a 5, and finally a 6. I did my 22 km but there was nowhere to camp, so I went on, and on, and on and there was still nowhere. As I climbed, I was drawn like a moth to the west as it was easier. I had to veer this way anyway so did not fight it. But I could not find anywhere, and the wind was not abating as it often does with catabatic winds as you climb. Eventually at nearly 2000 I decided I’d just have to camp here in the flow of spindrift which was flowing down from above. I found a section which had settled spindrift on the bare ice as I needed to use my skis at tent pegs in this wind.

It took me nearly an hour to put the tent up as I had to be neurotic about not losing anything to the wind. I certainly could not catch it again and I doubt Usain Bolt would have been able to. A super Redline mitt or a tent bag would have soon been swept away. However, at last it was all up using the 4 skis and all the pegs bar two which I kept to anchor the pulk drag line. Then began my favourite part of the day to light the stove and derobe after a good day. I was however shocked at the amount of ice around my face, balaclava, buff, and the cold avenger breathing mask. They were all frozen together and then also into my small beard. I had only just started to boil the kettle when I had to make the phone call for the scheduled check in which was one of the reasons I had to camp because the phone was packed and operating it in the cold wind was not that feasible. If I missed that phone call alarm bells would start to ring, and people would be initially concerned and then start to take action. As it happened, I did do the 24 km I set out to do but it had thrown my evening routine out of the window and instead of sleeping at 2200 it was midnight. Even at midnight the sun continued to warm the tent, but the force 5 wind cooled it.

Day 47. Jan 05. S 87º08.805 W 082º27.146 to S 87º18.649 W 083º28.926. 20 km. 9.5 hrs. 3160 Cal. It remained windy all night although it dropped from force 6 to force 4 in the morning. A huge pile of snow had drifted in the lee of the tent, and I almost had to dig my way out. I was both physically and mentally tired after yesterday’s late finish and I felt it in the first steps. I decided to go for 4 times 5 km today. The next waypoint was about 40 km to the south and it was called SkiSP West 2014. However, to the east of this was a crevassed area and this waypoint was the most easterly we could go, we should stay west from it. I also had information from the most experienced Norwegian Expedition organiser of the last 25 years that it was far better to go much further west to W080?30.000. That way the climbs were not so steep and the sastrugi was smaller and you were well away from and potential crevasses. So, I decided to veer west to this waypoint, which was some 8 km west of SkiSP West 2014, and then come back east again and join the ALE route some 30-40 km to the south. So as soon as I left camp, I started to navigate towards this alternative waypoint still some 40 km away.

121. The tent was covered in a large drift in the morning which I had to dig my way out of.

Initially I had to continue to climb. It was not too bad as the winds had swept much of the loose snow and spindrift off this area leaving hard snow. The ski skins adhered to it but the pulk runner glided nicely over it making it easy work for me. It was cold, still minus 20, and the wind chill was significant, but I was well covered up. The main thing was it was bright and sunny and the windchill was a small price to pay to be able to see the snow and ice and the wind carved formations. The sastrugi was quite minimal really and at the top of the gentle climb, at around 2200m, it disappeared. Instead, what I got was flat fields of firmer snow which was compacting and between these areas of looser softer snow which the pulk sank into a little. Both seemed to adhere to the pulk but more so the latter.

And it continued like this throughout the day with undulations and gentle climbs. In all I went from about 2200 metres to 2300 metres which seems to be the way of things at the moment. The only real issues were doing intricate tasks like preparing lunch or tent work where dexterity was needed, and I could not use the mitts. The cold was overpowering and would chill a bare hand very quickly. It was also a nuisance with the breathing mask. The vapour in my breath condensed outside it and ran to the apron under the breathing aperture and froze. It froze my breathing mask to my balaclava and then froze the balaclava to my nearly 2 cm long beard and jacket zip. At the end of the day, I had to prise it all apart. It was certainly a novel way to shave, a bit like waxing.

122. The condensed breath from my breathing mask quickly froze into a clump of mask, balaclava and beard in these cold temperatures.

As the day wore on and I had my breaks in the sun with the bitter wind to my back the force of the wind dropped so rather than a horizontal cascade of spindrift like last night there were just some wispy tendrils of it, usually down wind of sastrugi formations. I found a place to camp as soon as the 20 km mark came up and put the tent up without the stress of a near gale. It was sunny and after the tent was up but before I brought my stuff in, I dug a hole in the vestibule for my feet. As I dug, I could fell the warmth in the tent and it pleased me I would have a warm evening to dry out the stuff, especially the face mask and goretex shell.

There was not much chat on the garmin messenger bush telegraph other than that Pierre had just 40 km to go and was within touching distance of becoming the youngest person to ski to the South Pole. His anticipated success is a great victory for him as he had a fuel shortage and broken and failing bindings. Poppis and the Finns are doing well and were saying it is twice as cold in Finland with temperature of minus 44.4. If there is one people that can look after themselves in the cold, it is the Finns. The FireAngels are on the plateau some 5 days ahead of me and Al and Dave I assume are 2 days ahead.

Day 48. Jan 06. S 87º18.649 W 083º28.926 to S 87º29.236 W 084º24.713. 21 km. 10.5 hrs. 3150 Cal. It was windy and even colder in the morning. minus 22 with a force 4 wind. I put everything on before I went out. It was fiendishly cold, probably the coldest I have ever experienced. I have camped in minus 41 in Sweden but when it is so cold in Scandinavia it is calm. I had the redline mitts on and I was not taking them off even for a photo. I set off at 0700 and aimed to be at a waypoint 22 km away by evening so split the day into 4 times 5 km.

The skiing was quite rough and the snow abrasive, but I ploughed up the first hill gaining some 40 metres to reach the first stop. I was hermetically sealed from the cold but eating and drinking were vulnerable times. The drink I mixed up at breakfast was already in its Nalgene bottle but as I tried to drink it it turned to a slush puppy before my eyes. The bottom 3 cm froze before I could drink it.

At the next break I decided it was too much palaver to make the Macaroni and Cheese. I would get sore fingers at the best and frostbite at the worst. I had the hot chocolate drinks and that was energy enough. The Macaroni can go towards an extra day’s food I was slowly collecting.

The third and fourth session were long. I did not notice it, but my balaclava was over my mouth and all the condensate was running down it onto my 4 chest layers soaking them. A km short of the waypoint I had done 21 km and was exhausted so threw in the towel at the top of a climb to reach 2400 metres. It took a while to put the tent up in the force 5 but by 1930 hrs I was ensconced in a sunny tent. Unfortunately, the wind did not allow for a heat to build up. I did the fortnightly refilling of the 3 litre fuel bottles which should see my out and I still had another 2 litres in reserve.

I was very tired, hence the short blog, but I have 3 more days anticipated good weather and want to get to the Polar Plateau in that time. It means 20-24 km per day for the next 3. It would be a nightmare going through this terrain in a whiteout but a joy in these conditions when you can see. Pierre, against all the odds, is camped 11 km from the pole and will become the youngest to ski to the Pole unsupported. He is just 26.

Day 49. Jan 07. S 87º29.236 W 084º24.713 to 87º38.617 W 083º30.219. 19 km. 10 hrs. 2720 Cal. I knew what was in store today and indeed the next 3 days. It was to continue up the undulating wavy ice gaining about 100 metres per day. If I did 20-22 km each day, I should finish with the infamous 87th degree in 3 days. The weather forecast looked promising except maybe for the last day. However, it remained cold at about minus 22 and the wind was a force 4 on average. It would make everything significantly more challenging and slower as I had to do things with mitts on rather than gloves.

The slope up to the Polar Plateau and the 88th degree was not a steady gradient at all. It had the same profile as a wavy water slide at theme park with mostly downhill sections but some flat or even uphill sections. To me it was the opposite I would climb what looked like a frozen tsunami for 30-40 metres but then on reaching the top of the slope I might have to go down 10-20 metres in elevation over the course of 3-4 km on a flatter section before the next tsunami of 30-40 metres. This has been the trend for the last 200 km really and also often before Thiel Fuel Cache. I don’t know what causes these waves. It is far too regular to be the underlying topography of the bedrock hundreds, if not thousands, of metres below. It must either be explained by the laws of fluid dynamics, for glaciers are slow fluids really, or it must be wind stripping snow continuously from one area and dumping in another to the extent that it builds up to tens of metres in depth. I probably favour the fluid dynamics speculation.

Where the climb is up the face of the tsunami the snow surface is generally quite rough with patches of sastrugi and also glazed and polished plates of neve snow. At the bottom of the slope are dunes and the biggest sastrugi where the catabatic winds coming down the slope are at their strongest. I think first a dune forms and it can be 2 metres high. The dune then hardens and gets glazed by the sun and wind. Then a strong wind will tear down the mountain in a storm and find a chink in the dune which then allows it to start carving it into sastrugi until the whole structure is razed. Between the wave and the bottom of the next slope is the step or self in this vast icefield and this flatter area is a moonscape of structures and blocks like the bottom of the slopes but smaller. There are also beds of loose snow here and it can be hard work pulling the pulk across their abrasive surface.

123. The moonscape of dunes, sastrugi and other wind carved formations on the flatter sections between waves.

I split the day into 3 seven-kilometre sessions as preparing lunch was out of the question in this cold wind. My breaks were a litre of drinking chocolate and an energy bar, and I would have only 2 each about 3 hours apart. The macaroni was carried forwards and over the last 3 days I have accumulated another whole day’s supply. So, I now have 12 days food left and my end date can be pushed back to the 19th. I hope 2 days will finish this degree and then have 5 for each of the last two degrees. In essence starving myself a little to build a supply is a way of keeping the daily average sustainable.

I reached the waypoint to avoid the crevassed area to the east after just a km and then took a new bearing to return to the original route some 25 km to the south. I had come some 7 km to the west of the route, but it had not cost me more than a km or two as the angle away from and back to the route were very small, and it was worth it just not to worry about crevasses. Once I turned, I went over a couple of waves and across large flat areas with slightly sticky snow. It was the snow and spindrift which fell last week but it has now begun to harden and glaze with the sun and wind and it was much easier. At the end of each session I was tired, dog tired, and could not wait for the nourishment. These were hard relentless days, but I had to make the most of the good weather. However, at the last session I ran out of steam and called it a day after just 5 km into the 7 km session.

It was now only a force 3 and the spindrift was barely moving. The sun was of course out and strong. I put the tent up quite quickly and then went inside to take off all my cold protection gear. Over the last days my biggest problem was the build-up of ice around the breathing mask. Yesterday as it built up it also thawed against my chin and throat and soaked my clothing as it ran down my chest. Today I tried the mask outside the jacket. It kept my chest dry, but the mask and jacket were frozen together, and it took ages to prise them apart. Because of the lack of wind, the tent got quite warm, and everything dried well. There was also no spindrift landing on the tent which in effect prevented solar gain. All in all, it had been a great day.

124. Today’s ice build-up entombed the zip to my jacket and it took a cautious while to prise apart.

On the bush telegraph Pierre announced that against all the odds he had reached the South Pole after 47 or 48 days. The youngest ever to do so. With his integrity, courage and brains Pierre will go a very long way in life. Al and Dave, the ex-marines are about a day and a half in front of me and racing to get to their food cache. Poppis the same. The unsupported Fire Angels, Bex and George, are efficiently clocking up the miles very professionally and are almost in the final degree.

Day 50. Jan 08. S 87º38.617 W 083º30.219 to 87º48.596 W 083º01.267. 20 km. 10 hrs. 2730 Cal. It was a lovely day and the wind which had been a constant menace over the last few days was a bit diminished. However far to the NW I saw some clouds on the horizon and from the forecast I knew they were coming this way. It seems there is a weather system coming my way and that can only mean whiteouts and that make me anxious as there will be no visibility or no heat in the tent in the evening to dry things other than precious cooking fuel.

I split the day into 3 time 7 kilometres as it was too much palaver to rehydrate the macaroni and it was another if I run out of food at the end. The breaks were just hot chocolate and an energy bar. The first session was getting back onto the main route after the diversion to the west to avoid a potential crevassed area. It was a nice ski, and I was delighted that the snow was hardening up and the sheets where spindrift had laid now had a crust and the pulk slid beautifully over them. I had to weave between dunes, about a metre high, and sastrugi, I suppose also a metre high but the way the dunes and sastrugi were aligned were exactly the direction I was going so I could just follow the hardened shallow groves between them, and I made quick time. and did the first 7 km in 3 hours. Meanwhile the clouds kept getting closer.

The second session was pretty much the same except the terrain got gentler and there were few dunes or formations. The surface was firm, and it was easy to pull the pulk. Somewhere early on, perhaps even in the first session, I crossed the 2500 metre contour line. I could feel the air a bit thinner, but it had been a very gradual acclimatisation, so it was not a shock but occasionally after a strenuous bit I gasped for breath. Not long after there was a depression of about 40 metres deep and 5 kilometres long and 2-3 wide. I could not work out what might cause such a depression in a glacier. As glaciers are slowly flowing, I would have thought this depression would have filled in over time. But there must have been other factors keeping it as a depression like a shallow reservoir which had been drained.

My biggest problem was the Cold Avenger breathing mask. It produced a lot of water from my breath, and it had to go somewhere. It either fell out as droplets or dripped onto the growing mass of ice under the mask. I wore it outside my jacket hood otherwise it would soak my neck and chest area. Outside the hood worked well until I wanted to eat. Then I had to undo it behind the hood and use the jacket front as a hinge and the two were frozen together.

On the third session the clouds began to cover the sky and the day, and my happiness, began to shut down and the snow withdrew its luminosity, and it was replaced by a dull, one-dimensional white sheet. Fortuitously I came across some tracks. I think they were from the Fire Angels, Bex and George, 5 days ago. I followed them a bit but, in this light, they were impossible to see, and I lost them in the whiteout. I got my compass out and started following a bearing for a couple of km. The terrain was very benign and there was nothing lumpy to trip me up. With a km to go it all went wrong. I knocked the compass with a ski pole, and it jumped out of its holder. It was a tricky job to get it back in and I had to take the mitts off, and my gloved hands got cold. Then while I was flustered sorting the compass out my goggles steamed up and the steam froze. There was too much going on, so I decided to camp right there. I had the tent up quickly and went in, but it was cold inside without the sun. After melting the water, I had to bring the stove inside and it quickly warmed the inner sanctum and dried the clothes. It is not without risk though so I had to keep vigilant nothing could fall onto it or touch it.

The weather forecast for the next few days is poor and that left me in a bit of despair. I think I am more susceptible than most to whiteouts and the lack of visibility. I feel completely helpless as I shuffle forward in them with nothing visible. Perhaps others can see a bit more than me and certainly in groups you have other people to help judge perspective but on your own it is quite isolating and vulnerable, and I am dreading the next day if there is sastrugi about. On the bush telegraph the others have said there is not much though. Poppis and the Finns have reached their food resupply and will be having a slap-up meal in a warm tent and then will sleep it off tomorrow as they rest. Such are the joys of supported expeditions as opposed to the hardship of unsupported ones.

Day 51. Jan 09. S 87º48.596 W 083º01.267 to S 87º57.940 W 083º05.636. 18 km. 10 hrs. 2920 Cal. I did not sleep well as I was anxious about the weather and it holding me up. It seemed better weather up on the plateau. However, when I woke at 0300 the sun was out, and it was partially cloudy. I decided to go for it, and after the usual morning routines, I was off before 0600. The snow was now quite hard and my pulk was noticeably light and I made good time for about an hour before some scattered snow showers came through. They were the advance party and pretty soon they merged, and the horizon disappeared, and the whiteout set in. I had planned 3 times 7 km to take me to the milestone of the 88th degree 21 km away to the south. It was the end of this crux and infamous section.

When the white out arrived I just carried on skiing but at a slightly slower pace. The terrain was still pretty even but 3 times a small ridge caught me unaware and I fell over. I was quite comfortable skiing on this in the white. I was loathe to stop and have my snack and drink as I knew I would get cold, especially my fingers and I did 8 km before I decided one more km and then I will stop. However, in that 1 km I ran into some large dunes which looked to be about 2 metres high although I could not really see them. What I could see is some of the eroded faces and deep groves around them and they looked treacherous to ski off or slide into. I therefore had to proceed very slowly probing my way. Luckily, they only lasted for about half a kilometre, but it took over an hour to pass through them.

After the quick cold break, I began to climb a slope. The snow covering on it was perfect with sheets of glazed snow. The ski pole’s tips squeaked as I twisted them when I walked and the pulk, usually grinding or screeching behind me fell silent. I guess a lot of the spindrift does not settle here but carries on down to the bottom to form new dunes. I climbed nearly 100 metres from the 2500 contour to the 2600 contour but hardly noticed it on this superb surface. I kept looking round to see if there was any hint of light to the west where the weather was coming from but there was none, and this whiteout looked set for the day. As long as I did not any large sastrugi I should be OK if I continued cautiously and patiently like this. However, there was no joy at all to a whiteout and I relied on my compass and wind ribbon to navigate by. If I relied on instinct I would be going round in circles.

125. Tools of the trade in a whiteout. The compass mounted at eye level and the wind direction ribbon on the ski pole.

After the second break my intention was to do another 7 km, but I ran out of steam again and the terrain became quite lumpy. I could not see but it just stumbled into it. I fell twice again, probably partly due to exhaustion and disorientation. I had been staring at the compass and the unseen ground ahead of me for 8-9 hours now. So, I decided to throw in the towel at 18 km. It does not sound much but they were hard won.  It was also a victory for me to confront the anxiety of a whiteout and come out on top. I dare say if there was a lot of sastrugi I would not have fared so well.

At 18 km on the dot, I stopped and pitched the tent on what seemed a flat bit of snow. I set up my travelling home and moved in to start boiling. It was very cold outside, perhaps even minus 25, and the tent was not much warmer until the stove got going which raised it to zero. It was not the same as the sun and there would be none of that tonight. It was going to be cold. However just as I was packing up the kitchen, I noticed a shadow and looked out to see the sun. I could feel its warmth through the nylon flysheet. It would make all the difference. I was still some 4 km shy of the 88th degree but I was delighted with what I had done. I retreated to the inner sanctum, surrounded myself with feathers and ate my delicious fish and potato stew. I was quite early, and it was nice to get the blog out of the way before the scheduled 2100 hrs phone call to ALE to let them know all is well and I am still alive.

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October 14, 2023

Day 30. Dec 19.  S 84º02.177 W 080º30.731 to S 84º14.185 W 080º31.200. 23 km. 10 hrs. 2440 Cal. I got going at 0730 on a bright and sunny morning with very little wind. I kept the skinny 30mm mohair short skins on, and they were just enough to give me the traction. However, within an hour I felt the first breezes and in another hour it was about force 3 which is when the spindrift starts to flow. All the loose snow which had fallen in the last 5 days, and there was only about 4 cm of it, had remained undisturbed by wind. Well, when the wind got up to force 4 it started to flow from south to north and was soon piling up in large banks like the leaves in a autumn gale. My problem now was that instead of a nice consistent cover over the whole terrain there were frequent piles of it everywhere and they were unavoidable. I could push my skis through them easily enough but when the pulk hit them it slowed considerably as they were like piles of sand. My gait was no longer a short ski or fast walk but a steady first gear plod with the off section of heaving to get over the mounds of spindrift. At one stage I was worried that something was wrong with a runner on the pulk such was a drag and I turned it over, but all was well.

102. There is usually always a path through the sastrugi. Occasionally it is narrow and one has to be careful the pulk does not slide into a hole

After my first break the wind went up to a force 5 and now the whole ground was flowing with tiny ice particles. Where these went into sastrugi they followed the contours of the ghoulish shapes and streamed plumes where a groove ended in a ramp or lip. It was like a cascading waterfall in the sastrugi. The wind remained strong all the way through my lunch and I had to be careful again not to lose a glove or poggie. However, as the afternoon wore on it reduced back to a force 3. Throughout all this the sun remained unimpeded to shine its light onto the snow and also to warm me a little. It also seemed to glaze the snow slightly as with the marginal breeze the spindrift was not so much on the move and the pulk slid much more easily. It was a lovely late afternoon ski, but I just ran out of time to do my full 6 km in the last section and called it a day at 23 km in all. I spotted a nice camp spot and with half an hour the kettle was on the stove. I always keep some water back in the day to put in the pan before the snow goes in. I call it seed water and without it, it is very easy to damage the bottom of the kettle if one only has snow. It is always a feeling of deep joy to sit on the edge of my sleeping bag with my feet in the hole and feel the warmth of the stove and the sun after a hard day in the open wind.

103. Tent life. Outside it is minus 15 and a force 3 wind yet inside it is plus 25 and everything is drying nicely on the lines. If the sun goes so does the warmth.

I knew that a Frenchman, Vincent Colliard, was starting about now to have a go at the record for the route I was doing, which is in a way the main or official route. It is currently 24 days and held by a Norwegian Eide. By comparison I should take about 60 to do the same 1150 km. However, I now learnt that Colin O’Brady, an American who caused a stir 7 years ago, is going to give Vincent a run for his money and compete against him. There will be much made of this and much comment in the polar community as these two big names go head-to-head.

However for me the more interesting race is with another Frenchman, Pierre, who I have alluded to in the last few days as the man with 2 pieces of bad luck, a susceptible binding, and a fuel leak which has left him just 4 litres to finish the last 500 km. Rather than seek help and go supported Pierre has decided to go for it and try and reach the South Pole before his fuel runs out. Pierre is only 26 years old and if he succeeds, will be the youngest to go unsupported to the Pole. So, a record awaits. To me this is a huge display of courage and optimism, and I can only but admire him as he dashes south for probably only 440 km now. It is a race between Pierre and him running out of fuel. He can do 30 km a day and uses 200 ml fuel a day, so the margins are very tight. ALLEZ ALLEZ PIERRE!!

I am now towards the back of the field of 9. With Pierre miles ahead, the supported Finns with their light pulks 40 km ahead, the feisty Fire Angels 20 km ahead and the ex-marines Al and Dave about 20 km behind. There is no competition between us. Except for the supported Finns, we all have a race to get to the Pole before our recourses run out. I still have 29 days food left, large amounts of fuel and spares of many critical items, like skis and stoves, and this leaves me quite comfortable. Comfortable especially after today because I skied 23 km and did not take any ibuprofen all day and never felt my knee at all. It is there lurking under the surface, and it could still all go horribly wrong but for the moment the knee is behaving as it should.

Day 31. Dec 20.  S 84º14.185 W 080º31.200 to S 84º26.718 W 080º34.445. 24 km. 9 hrs. 2060 Cal. As usual I was up just after 0500 and away just after 0700 on another bright beautiful calm morning. But it was cold at about minus 15 which was easy to overlook in the warm tent. As soon as I started skiing, I was pleased to notice that the mounds of spindrift had not only packed together but also had a slight glaze to them and the pulk glided easily over the surface. It made such a difference in effort and also in speed and I managed to do the first 6 km in just over 2 hours. I sat on my pulk and had a snack and while I could feel the sun warm my legs through the dark grey salopettes I could also feel my fingers getting cold.

The second and third sections were the same in glorious sunshine with virtually no wind. However, towards the end of the third section the glazed snow started to get a breakable crust and I went through the surface frequently into the slower snow underneath. it was like breaking through a meringue crust to be mired in the stickier filling. On the plus side it will mean this will glaze over all the more during the night hours when the sun is not so intense. We were very blessed to have this period of good weather and the forecast was for more of it. It makes everything so much easier.

On the fourth and final section I got a surprise to find that it actually went downhill for about a kilometre during which I lost 30 odd metres of elevation. I forgot about the pulk entirely as it bounced along behind me. I was a wonderful 10 minutes of relaxation, but I knew there would be a price to pay. This price was a long hill up the other side, and it took me a good 2 hours to slog up it to complete the 6 km. My legs were tired, and I could feel the tank was empty as I finally clocked up the 24 km for the day. I don’t think I could have done more but it had been a relatively easy day with not a lot of calories burned. My knee was fine but my neck was sore, but this was alleviated a little by dropping the harness, so the waist took more than the shoulders.

104. Just taken the harness off and starting to put the tent up after a long day. Pretty soon the tent will be a warm cocoon on the cold icesheet.

I found a place to camp and within the hour was filling the thermoses from the kettle on the stove. The tent was roasting and at one stage the thermometer showed 32 degrees. It was delightful to wallow on the inside after the day in the cold. It was a significant day because it marked the halfway stage in my food. I managed to spin the first 28 days supplies out to 31 days by being frugal when I had a day off or a very short day. However, I doubt I will be able to do that now as I need all the calories I can get and protein to keep the muscles and joints in shape. So, I now have 28 days food left starting tomorrow morning meaning I will run out of food on the 17 January evening. That should give me enough time to cover the remaining 620 km.  I have already done 535 km but that was with a much heavier pulk. In terms of distance, I should be at the halfway stage in a couple of days but in terms of effort I think I have already passed it. So instead of counting the days up I am now counting them down.

Day 32. Dec 21. S 84º26.718 W 080º34.445 to S84º39.269 W 080º33.617.  24 km. 9.5 hrs. 2090 Cal. I was getting spoilt by this weather. I was woken again by the sun in the warm tent which had been slow roasting me all night. Consequently, I did not feel that well rested but was glad of the warm tent. Yet outside it was minus 16, but calm. It was the perfect day in a run of perfect days. I managed to get away by 0700 which is always my goal but often relapses.

The snow in the morning was firm and quite fast and it was a joy to ski. There was a fair climb but like most gradients here it was very gentle. Just before my first break after the climbing was done, I looked to my west and land was ahoy! It was the first land I had seen for weeks. I think they were part of the Theil Mountains Range, and they looked about 50-100 km away to the west. They were covered in ice and white, without the big dark rock walls of the Patriot Hills at the start. It was lovely to spot them as this frozen ocean was quite monotonous save for the changing texture of the surface.

105. About to stop for a break and get food out of the pulk. Which is definitely getting lighter.

During my third session of 6 km, I started to feel a pain in my neck. I dropped the harness so the shoulders would take less weight and the legs more and this seemed to help but I could not shake it. It lingered with me for the rest of the day. I hope it is not going to become my go-to pain now the knee has had its day and seems to have stopped complaining. I suppose overall I am quite tired, both physically from the effort and mentally from the relatively little sleep and I am sure no deep sleep. However, I need to keep putting in good days like this while the weather is good. Soon enough there will be a foul day or even a storm and I can then lie in bed listening to it without guilt while I rest. On the last section I was slow. The snow was good, but I did not have the energy to ski so had to plod along with my skis on. Eventually around 1800 I had done my 24 km and found a good spot to camp. I suppose this expedition is more of an endurance test than an expedition.

This is nowhere more on show that with the “race” between Colin O’Brady and Vincent Colliard which I alluded to yesterday. I know nothing about Vincent Colliard other than he works with Ousland Explorers, and that in the Polar World is about the highest accolade you can get. By implication he will be modest, highly competent, and likeable, and hand-picked by his employer. Colin O’Brady is a record chaser and something of a showboating chest-beater. He is certainly a very competent endurance athlete but perhaps in adventure sports for all the wrong reasons. Colin would never climb a mountain to revel in the wild alpine flower meadows, but he would do it to crush someone else’s record. They will no doubt overtake me in a few weeks.

To my mind the real race is between young Pierre up ahead and him running out of fuel. This a race of courage versus misfortune. The misfortune being he had a fuel leak and lost a few litres of fuel. He is putting in some huge days to try, and is now down to 3 litres with some 400 km remaining. You can follow it on his blog www.polexpedition.fr . Meanwhile the FireAngels Bex and George are storming ahead. Bex used to play women’s rugby for Wales and they have gone through the male teams and soloist, like me, in a similar manner to Jonah Lomu going through the England Backs. They are consistently doing high 20’s every day without fail.

But all in all, on this the longest day in the southern hemisphere I had a good day and a comfortable evening doing chores in the warm tent. When I say longest day, I don’t really mean Antarctica where this day is perhaps 3-4 months long with the sun continually going round in the sky until it dips to the horizon and rises again for a month and then disappears completely for 3-4 months.

Day 33. Dec 22. S 84º39.269 W 080º33.617 to S 84º51.750 W 080º46.155. 24 km. 9.5 hrs. 2360 Cal. It was yet another fantastic day when I wearily dragged myself out of my sleeping bag and packed. I am in a bit of a cocoon in the tent so when I stepped outside, like a marmot leaving its burrow, I was struggling to see for the glare. I set of at 0700 and initially the going was quite slow due to the crystals in the snow but as the sun intensified it mellowed and relinquished its resistance. After that it was an easy pull on a lovely day. I have climbed slightly and am now around 1300 metres and its does feel a bit colder than down at 800 metres. Perhaps minus 15 as opposed to 10. With a bit of a breeze, it does feel very cold and I was struggling with the small gloves and the poggies. In the end I had to get my Alti on and they are super. They are also made my Outdoor Research who know how to make gloves and mitts. I also have some Hestra which are borderline useless. I have many pairs of Hestra gloves at home, and none work well.

On the second leg I began to feel a few aches and pains. One of the most alarming was under the heel of the right foot where the planter attaches. Another was neck. I am acutely tuned in now to any developing pains. They could be a banana skin to this expedition. The trouble is the older you get the more banana skins there are lying around and at 64 there are quite a few. However, as the day unfolded the heel diminished and with the neck I found a sweet spot for the harness lower down where my torso and legs could share the strain.

106. Skiing with the 90 kg pulk behind me containing everything I need for the next month.

On the third and fourth 6 kilometres the mountains I had seen yesterday reappeared. They were much closer now at perhaps 30 km and tall and covered in snow and ice. There were Ford Massif in the Theil Mountains. Other nunataks and escarpments just made an appearance, but I did not climb high enough on the undulating ice sheet for them to reveal themselves. None the less it was lovely to see land and I am sure tomorrow I will see more when I ski near their base. However, these nunataks and escarpments were much smaller than the Ford Massif and I don’t think I will be overwhelmed by them. The snow, especially towards the end was superb and on the level bits I was actually able to ski. My pulk is still quite heavy at about 90 kg but it will reduce to 50 kg in the next weeks and this small ski today was hopefully a taste of things to come. I certainly was not as tired as yesterday when I hit the 24 km mark and looked for a place to camp.

It takes half an hour from taking the skis off to lighting the stove and by 1900 the stove was roaring away. There is no subtlety to the stove. It is either off and quiet or on and dominating everything with its need for attention and jet like roar. However, it works well, and in an hour everything was boiled and I could withdraw to the inner sanctum of the tent and eat my dinner. On the bush telegraph I was saddened, in fact gutted, to hear one of us has had to retire. It will be a great loss to our camaraderie. The FireAngels are past Theil and the Finns have had a day off there, gorging themselves on their resupply and sleeping no doubt. To my great surprise Alan and Dave were also there. I was sure they were behind me, but they also have a resupply and so must have overtaken me with their light pulks. It means I am last now; however, the Finns and the Ex-Marines will now be burdened with their resupplies which will slow them a bit. I still seem to have a large stock of food, fuel and 2 of just about everything critical. My strategy was not to dash to the South Pole like a high-performance car but grind my way there like a tractor covering most contingencies, and that still seems to be working.

Day 34. Dec 23.  S 84º51.750 W 080º46.155 to S 85º04.511 W 080º45.798. 24 km. 9 hrs. 2260 Cal. It was yet again another fantastic day, and the tent was warm. I knew just the other side of the ripstop it was minus 15 but in the tent it was cosy. One thing I have in the tent that really helps this is a 3 mm thick piece of insulating mat which covers the entire groundsheet. Not only does it protect me from the cold snow below, but it is black and absorbs the solar radiation and then slowly lets it out.

I managed to get going at 0700 as usual and as normal the early morning snow was quite gritty and held the pulk back. As I climbed the temperature dropped and I noticed how my beloved combination of the Outdoor Research Backstop Sensor gloves inside the poggies was not as warm as it used to be. I tried several different combinations and settled on the mohair fingerless mitts inside the Hestra gloves and then these inside the poggies. It was not as dexterous but slightly warmer. If there is one thing I have an abundance of, it is gloves and mittens. On the right of the photo are 2 pairs of mohair fingerless mittens which I use as a liner as they fit inside everything else except the OR Backstop. I have two pairs of these in case I lose one. Then there is the red Hestra heli ski which I use for putting the tent up and down and more and more in the poggies. Then there are the poggies which go on the ski sticks, and I can just slip my gloved hand in and out off. Then on the left are the OR Alti Mitts which are very warm but not that dexterous and then finally there are the Mountain equipment Redline mitts which are the warmest of the lot and also a backup in case a OR Alti mitt blows away. All the gloves and mitts are on wrist lanyards which is an essential safety feature.

107. A collection of gloves with the liners on the right and the serious mitts on the left.

As the morning progressed the snow became less icy and gritty and much easier to pull the pulk on and therefore faster. There were times where I could actually ski, and as the pulk empties more, these will become more frequent. My neck hurt initially but I dropped the harness just by a centimetre or two and it made all the difference. I saw the Theil Mountains all day, or just the tops of them, as there was an ice ridge in the way. I am sad to say I don’t think I will ever get a full view of them now.

For my breaks I sit on my pulk on the section where the clothes bags are. It is wonderful to be able to sit in little wind with the sun in my face and warming my legs through the dark salopettes. All around me is the ice field, utterly still and peaceful and without a soul within a good day’s ski. It is one of the most isolated places I have been and quite sensational having it all to myself. It has been nearly a month since I have seen anyone although I know there are a few people within a 200 km circle of me. I sit on my pulk without a care in the world and watch the snow sparkle. Not like the kaleidoscope when there is a bit of spindrift on the move but more subtly like the milky way on a clear cold night. My breaks are about 20-30 minutes and then it is time to put the skis back on and go another 6 km, which generally takes 2-3 hours.

108. The Ford Massif in the Theil Mountains never revealed its true glory due to the ice ridge blocking the view.

After 24 Km I was just a km short of the Theil Fuel Cache. It is an icy runway and a couple of shipping containers and lots of fuel drums neatly stacked. Some planes en route from Union Glacier to the South Pole Station sometimes have to stop here to top up their tanks. There is possibly the world’s most remote toilet here and a container where supplies are left. Both the Finns and the Ex-marines had a resupply here; but not Pierre, or the FireAngels, or me. I could not use the toilet or even leave rubbish either, in keeping with my unsupported status. So tomorrow I will ski on by as it did not exist. When I put the tent up, I could not find any good purchase for the pegs in the sugary snow. It is usually rock hard, so this surprised me. I had to use my 4 skis as the main anchor points for the tent, making sure the sharp steel edges were facing the tent so they did not chaff through the cord. It was another beautiful warm evening in the tent. I am sometimes frustrated how long the snow melting takes to produce 6 litres of boiling water and with tonight’s sugary snow it was nearly an hour and a half. I suppose I could have gone further but I don’t want to risk any more injuries and am keeping the momentum steady until I lose more weight from the pulk. It had been a marvellous day.

Day 35. Dec 24. S 85º04.511 W 080º45.798 to S 85º16981 W 080º49764. 24 km. 9.5 hrs. 2810 Cal. I cannot believe this weather. It is yet again a beautiful cold crisp clear day with little wind. I have nothing to compare it to so don’t know if I am being fortunate or whether this is the norm. I left at 0700 and skied the km and a half to the Thiel Corner Fuel Cache. It was essentially an ice runway marked out with coloured bags, an small arial for comms, perhaps 100 barrels of aviation fuel in a neat line, a limp windsock and the famous toilet, apparently the most remote in the world. It was about 2.5 metres in height, width and length and must have been brought to Antarctica on the Ilyushin cargo flight and then dragged here from Union Glacier with the fuel some years ago. I went over to open the door and have a look inside, but it was cold and quite dark and a poor alternative to outside. I think it might also be used to resupply the supported expeditions I did not bother taking my skis off as there was nothing here for me and even taking a sheet of toilet paper would have jeopardised my “unsupported” status. I skied on into a multitude of tracks. Some were skiers and some were vehicles. I assume the Electric Vehicle and its support convoy came this way. There were 11 skiers in front of me, including Robert and Per, who both independently came to here from a different start, The Messner Start, which is slightly shorter. Including me there are 12 skiers and I am now bringing up the rear, but I am not stressed by that. Slow and steady for me.

109. Possibly the world’s most remote toilet at Thiel Corner Fuel Cache.

As I headed south for the first of my breaks, I noticed how smooth the snow is here. There is no sastrugi at all and very little skarve even. These features are caused by wind, and it must be quite sheltered here from the catabatic winds which sweep down from the Polar Plateau to the south. In fact, there was about 5 cm of newish snow lying on the old surface from about 10 days ago and it had not been pulverised into spindrift like in other places. It had hardly been disturbed. It was easy to ski on. I thought I was going uphill but at my break I sat on the pulk and looked back to the distant toilet and fuel cache, and they looked higher than me.

About 20 kilometres to my west were the Thiel Mountains. I could only see the upper parts of them as an ice rise blocked the view of the base and much of the ramparts. From here they reminded me of the Hardangerjokull in Norway with its flat ice field on top and then steep glaciers tumbling down from it between the ramparts. Where I was going to the south was just a vast plain of ice until beyond the curvature of the earth.

It was a long afternoon as the snow reached a certain temperature or humidity, so it gripped the pulk. Either that or there was little gas in the tank to overcome the friction. To the Gods above I must have looked like an ant dragging a large colourful caterpillar across a white sand beach. Usually, the last section is a bit easier as the snow is more glazed but not today. It was still abrasive. At last, the 24 km mark came up and I could look for somewhere to put the tent. It was not as easy here as say a week ago because the snow was much looser and sugary due to the lack of compaction by the wind.

110. My tent in the evening on Christmas Eve was warm and cosy despite it being minus 15 outside.

There was not much on the bush telegraph this evening except from Sam. A few days ago, Sam suffered a medical setback which could have happened to anyone. And it ended his trip. I remember getting the text from him about it a few days ago and it left me shocked. I suppose being out here on your own, where time is almost meaningless and the only things that matter are immediately in the vicinity one loses some measuring stick for emotion. When I got Sam’s message, I thought I would cry. I didn’t but I was very emotional about it and was gutted for him. He was evacuated the next day on the doctor’s recommendation and went to Union Glacier and then on the returning Ilyushin to Punta Arenas. The diagnosis was correct, and Sam is returning to the UK after Christmas. He is an ex-marine and has served in combat so will know the real feeling, but for me it felt like we lost a man. Pierre is now some 200 km ahead in difficult ground and the Fire Angels, The Finns and Al and Dave are a day ahead of me. It was another great evening in the warm tent with just a slightly overcast sky.

Day 36. Dec 25. S 85º16.981 W 080º49.764 to S 85º28.473 W 080º58.411. 22 km. 9.5 hrs. 2600 Cal. It was very warm in the tent most of the night and especially in the morning, so I did not sleep that well. I should have vented the door a bit, but I was miserly about retaining the heat. When I eventually emerged, blinking into the daylight, it was 0630 and there were some clouds to the north. To the north doesn’t worry me the wind seems to come from the south, so I was not perturbed. I heaved everything out of the tent and packed the pulk and was ready to go at 0700. The clouds seemed a lot closer now.

In fact there was an ominous mist below them and it was drifting towards me and encircling me. I felt a bit of alarm now as it continued to advance like toxic gas in the first world war. I skied south away from it and into my shadow but that started to get fainter and fainter until the mist had consumed everything. The sun, which had been my joy and companion for the last week was quickly extinguished and all its benefits went. The most significant was the contrast and light and then the warmth. The freezing fog consumed everything and all I could see was the snow for about 10 metres in front of me and even that was not that clear.

On the plus side the terrain was very gentle. It was flat and I think level, but it was difficult to gauge. I made good time and did the first 6 km in 2 hours. It was the same for the second stretch also, but I could see nothing. I might well have been a hamster on a treadmill with a white blindfold on. During the third stretch it cleared slightly and I could see a great ice rise looming ahead in the direction I was going. I checked my GPS and that was correct. I had to climb nearly 100 metres up it from the level I was on to a new higher plateau. As I skied to the base of it for my third break, I came across more and more light sastrugi and many small ridges and grooves in the snow’s surface.

On the fourth section, the calm plod of the morning all went out of the window as I got to the bottom of the slope. It seems the cold air descending this slope, in what is a catabatic wind, often came roaring down here and created and carved some difficult but small sastrugi. It had also stripped all the loose snow from the surface and the resulting sastrugi, ridges and grooves were glazed and polished. I wandered into this just as the mist came back and it was chaos. I slithered on my skis, stumbling frequently, but the pulk kept getting stuck in grooves. I then had to heave on the slippery surface with my skis slipping hopelessly to try and get it out. I went from 3 km per hour to 1 km per hour if that and it was very strenuous. To make it worse I was already on the climb. I peered into the flat white light but could barely make anything out. My eyes were already tired after the morning and early afternoon and kept inventing mirages as fluid drifted across my cornea. I became very angry with everything and in the end had to stop and change skis to the Ousland skis with the wider Nylon 60mm short skin and the current 30 mm mohair did not provide enough grip. The next hour I climbed slithered and strained and slowly pulled myself and the pulk up the hill away from the pockmarked terrain as the bottom. Eventually it began to get a bit smoother as I climbed further but the sastrugi and poor visibility at the bottom had taken its toll and I was tired.

Some 2 hours after my break I had only done another 2 km and was thinking of putting the tent up when I came across ski tracks leading up the hill. I followed them for a bit and noticed I was not the only one having problems as one of the skiers had walked much of this section. It is frowned upon to walk as there is a danger from crevasses, which is minimised if your weight is spread with skis. I continued up the slope for another 2 km on much easier ground but decided to camp early at 22 km rather than the 24 km I aimed for.

The tent was up at 1730 and then I went in to boil the 7 litres of water. The stove was the only heat in the tent as there was no sun and it got the tent up to about 10 degrees. It had been quite a puritanical Christmas. I think some of the founding fathers of this austere type of Christianity would have heartily approved of my toil and John Knox himself would have been delighted. Once in the tent I had my usual supper and then started on the blog. The bush telegraph was full of Christmas banter. The FireAngels were enjoying a bottle of Baileys, and the ex-marines Al and Dave were having port. Poppis I am sure would have bettered that even. Ahead Pierre was enjoying some French treats he had been saving. Everyone though had struggle with the light today and cut their day short.

Day 37. Dec 26.  S 85º28.473 W 080º58.411 to S 85º39.304 W 081º03.075.  21 km. 10 hrs. 2320 Cal. It was cold in the tent in the morning, a little above zero and I knew the sun was not out. When I emerged 2 hours later, I was disappointed to see it was a white out. Even with my high contrast goggles on I could make out very little about the terrain. It had also been snowing a little in the night and there was now about 4 cm of new snow about. As soon as I had taken the first steps and felt the snow clawing at the pulk I knew it would be a long day and boring day. especially if the sun did not return.

To make it easier for me to cope with the white out I decided to do four 5 km sections rather than the usual 6. If there was a change in fortune, then I could always do more at the end. I tried to go without the chest mounted compass, relying on the course on my garmin watch and the route on the GPS. However, unless you looked at these gadgets every 15 seconds it was easy to become disorientated and go wildly off course very quickly, especially if the wind ribbon was erratic and limp. Without any gadget or compass or wind I would imagine you would end up just randomly wandering round in circles for hours going nowhere, but convinced you were heading directly south. Even with the compass I found myself 30 degrees off course just in the matter of 15 seconds if I was not paying attention.

These conditions continued all day. There was nothing to see save 4 nearby nunataks which just fleeting revealed themselves before being consumed by the mist again. I think it was the Lewis nunataks and they will be the last land I see until I reach the South Pole. Now they are quite small with the 4 of them in a row but if climate change continues, they will be the crest of some mighty mountains in a thousand or two years.

111. A long day in the mist with the pulk clinging to the snow and the face masks icing up with condensed breath.

The one saving grace of the day was that the terrain was even. There was no sastrugi or even skarve and that meant I could just plod along towing the sluggish pulk all day. Had there been sastrugi I think I would have done less than half the distance and probably for more effort. I was doing about 2 kilometres an hour with my mind busy calculating permutations of days left, food left averages needed each day or per degree. Whichever way I looked at it there were no grounds for alarm unless of course the sun does not return for a week or two while this low pressure persists. But without the sun there was no joy in today and if this keeps up for a while morale will take a blow.

After my 20 kilometres I saw I had time and energy to do another without eating too much into the evening. I could not even see where I wanted to put the tent so had to walk around to leave some footprints so I could judge the lie of the land. With the tent up and no sun there was no solar gain, so the tent remained cold while I refilled my three 1 litre fuel bottles. This is a fortnightly task as I burn about 200 ml a day melting snow to boil 7 litres. With the 3 bottles full I saw I still had another 5 litres which are split into three 5 litre containers so if one went, I would still have the 3-4 litres in the other 2 containers. I had an abundance of fuel, and it might be needed to heat the tent on the polar plateau in 2 weeks on sunless evenings. Although it had been a dull day, I had at least knocked another 21 km off the total and am now just 485 kilometres from the South Pole.

On the bush telegraph of the garmin inreach devices the Finns, the ex-marines Al and Dave, and the FireAngels all did well despite the whiteout. It bodes well for me as they are all a day ahead and said there was no sastrugi. Meanwhile Pierre who is far ahead had a difficult cold day climbing up to the Polar Plateau but still put on many kilometres.

Day 38. Dec 27. S 85º39.304 W 081º03.075 to S 85º49.816 W 081º08 246. 20 km. 10.5 hrs. 3170 Cal. Against the odds it was sunny when I woke but it was a small crescent of clear sky between what looked like 2 fronts. I packed in the sun and skied about 3-4 km when the inevitable change started to happen. It was like the management closing down a famous theatre after an evening’s extravagant performance. The first thing to get switched off is the sparkle and luminosity of the snow. The crystals stop reflecting and the light drains from the snow, and it starts to go grey. My shadow, sharp and defined in the sun becomes more diffuse and eventually becomes a dark blur as the first waves of thinner cloud start to cover the sun. Then the horizon, once clear and sharp, starts to merge with the sky in a dullness that is a harbinger of things to come. Initially the snow still maintains some shadows and highlights and is 3 dimensional but as the light fades when more cloud covers the sun these become less contrasting until in the end everything becomes 2 dimensional and flat. If it stayed like this, it would be tolerable but inevitably what happens next is the cloud descends or it starts to snow, and you are in mist. Now the 2-dimensional snow just disappears along with any horizon, and everything is just one dimension of a slightly grey white. It is impossible to see features beyond the end of your skis and you have no idea what is snow and what is sky. It is like scuba diving in milk.

And this is what happened this morning as it had the last two days. All I could do was plod on hoping I was not going to hit a sastrugi patch. As the sunny day was shutting down, I did manage to get a glimpse of the Lewis Nunatak before it to was extinguished by the whiteout. The whiteout blotted out any joy there was, and I knew it would be a trudge until it ended.

112. Looking back at the pulk and the track through the newer soft snow before the whiteout arrived.

It didn’t end and it persisted all day through all my breaks and sessions of skiing. The snow was also not letting the pulk glide easily and I was going uphill, but I could only feel it and not see it. It was a long day, but I was determined to get something out of it. I did my usual 4 sessions with 3 breaks, but I cut the last two sessions short as with all the heaving I was getting a sore neck. The 20-kilometre mark could not come quickly enough, and I spent the last 2 hours constantly looking at my watch to monitor my slow progress. As soon as it came, I pitched the tent. I was a bit delayed with my usual evening as I did not stop until after 1900. Once in the tent I could relax but even here there was no joy as the sun was not warming it. Once I finished melting the 7 litres, I brought the stove into the inner sanctum and in no time it hit 30 degrees. However, I could not keep it there as there are carbon monoxide concerns. I looked at the forecast in the evening and it did not look good for a few more days. On the bush telegraph everyone was complaining about the weather and the whiteout, even the Finns who know about harsh wintery weather.

113. Looking over to the Lewis Nunatak before the mist stole the view.

Day 39. Dec 28. S 85º49.816 W 081º08 246 to S 86º00.335 W 081º14.560. 20 km. 10.5 hrs. 3170 Cal. It was not sunny when I emerged from the tent but there was good light and there was plenty of contrast in the snow. The horizon with the snowpack and the sky was not very pronounced and they almost merged. However, there was a distant crescent of blue sky far to the north east and the very gentle wind was also coming from there so there was hope. I had skied about an hour when suddenly I noticed my shadow beginning to appear. I looked round and the blue crescent was now almost upon me. Within 10 minutes everything started to burst into life and the snow started to sparkle again. There were some dark clouds on the distant horizon but at least I would have a few hours joy.

The snow however was very abrasive and did not let the pulk pass easily. I rescheduled my day to do four times 5 km, rather than 6 km as I knew I would not have the time or the energy. By the time I got to my main lunch break, the middle break, it was beautiful weather and surprisingly warm. I did not need gloves even which has been unheard of in the last month. I sat on my pulk and basked in the sun enjoying what I had been missing over the last 4 days.

I had been going up steadily since Thiel Fuel Cache but had not really noticed it. However, I was now at 1600 metres having climbed 200 since the cache. I would have to climb much more in the next fortnight getting up to 2800 metres and there was the infamous sastrugi of the 87th degree ahead where much of the climbing was, but for now it was gentle, and the terrain was very kind with lots of smooth gentle slopes. However, the snow was quite deep and not at all compact or glazed. I worked like a cart horse pulling the pulk through it leaving a trail some 10 centimetres deep. There were no signs of any other tracks as the wind and new snow obliterate them quite quickly.

114. It was nice to enjoy the sun again while having lunch.

Eventually, 12 hours after setting off and after some 10 and a half hours hard pulling, I crossed into the 86th Degree and then the 20-kilometre mark for the day soon after. By now the weather was changing and the sun was struggling to appear through thickening cloud. my shadow had long gone, and it was even snowing very slightly, like a frozen drizzle. I had the tent up quickly and dived inside pulling the zip closed on the world outside. I was now in my warming cocoon with the stove going, an hour later that normal. it seemed everyone ahead, Poppis, the FireAngels and the Ex-Marines were all complaining about the deep abrasive sandy snow and were saying this is what this degree is renowned for. The next 100 km were going to be a slow pull in sand snow up a gentle slope until the 87-degree started, and it was probably worse as it was where most of the climb was. This brings the Middle Section, The Thiel Mountains, to an end and heralds the start of the Steep Rough section, Section 4, from the 86th Degree to the end of the 87th degree. It is perhaps the crux of the whole trip and delivers you to the Polar Plateau, the last section. It had been a great section, but I was disappointed that the route did not go nearer the mountains. The weather in the first half was superb but the second half tarnished it a bit.

Back

October 14, 2023

Day 18. Dec 7. S 81º55.626 W 080º07.595 to S 82º07.063 W 080º08.858. 22 km. 8.5 hrs. 2710 Cal. The vestibule of the tent was heavy with spindrift and was bulging inside. I could not push it out from my sleeping bag so left it until later. Outside I could hear the stiff breeze but inside it was warm, and the solar chargers were just topping up the power banks on the east side of the inner tent floor. I managed to pack everything into the pulk by 0730, a record for this trip, and set off south. I thought I could do it all without my outer jacket today but after a few minutes I realised it was a bad idea and had to stop and faff around to adjust my head gear and then put the jacket on. It was instant relief from the biting wind.

I could feel my knee and indeed the whole IT Band from my knee up my thigh and I expected it would give me some hassle today. However, I also developed the pain in my neck quite early on and this concerned me more. I think it comes from leaning forwards with the harness on to pull the pulk. As I skied, I analysed the angle my body was at due to the high harness and wondered what would happen if I lengthened the shoulder straps and dropped the harness, so it was at my hips rather than resting on it. There was near instant relief as my posture was much more upright. The only problem was that my already exerted legs would now have to do a bit more and I felt it quickly. However, it did not get worse as the day went on.

There was a small climb in the morning, and I thought I saw either 2 or 3 skiers perhaps 4-5 kilometres ahead. If it was 2 it would be Alan and Dave and if it was 3 it would be the Finns led by Poppis. Both were in the vicinity as the Finns had a day off yesterday to celebrate Finnish Independence Day. The climb took perhaps a little under two hours and the going was easy. At the top of the climb, it levelled off and I really felt it was level. Here I crossed the 82nd degree. The last degree had been a very slow one and taken well over 10 days due to me nursing my knee. However, there was nothing to see at all but it was a significant milestone. I sat on my pulk and had my usual Clif Bar and hot chocolate with the sun in my face and back to the wind.

080. Crossing the 82nd Degree and heading south in good conditions

After my break I started the best 14 kilometres of skiing the trip had offered yet. The snowpack was firm and the pulk slid easily on the level terrain. There was no skarve really and the skis just slid along. I was doing 3 kilometres per hour. When Omar gets to this section on his bicycle, he really will be able to cycle. Halfway across this lovely section a small squall came in from the SE. The spindrift started to rise, and the air was full of sparkling crystals when the sun illuminated them. I had a repeat break sitting on my pulk and then carried on gliding across the snow’s surface. I almost got into a rhythm. The neck and knee discomforts had gone, and I could enjoy myself peering out from my goggles surrounded by the ruff on the jacket. I had already done 20 km by 1530 and should have called it an early day. However, before I got the tent out at a suitable camp spot, I dug a hole. I could only go down 10 cm before I hit hard ice. I would not be able to dig a hole for my feet when boiling the water. So, I went on another two km and this time I found a nice surface with deep firm snow. It was perfect.

081. Dinner in bed. A mug of potato and fish stew with a litre of hot chocolate. In the periphery are drying clothes and solar chargers.

It had been Force 4 or 5 all day and was now a 5. Before I unpacked the tent, I got all the pegs ready and also the harness line for the security line on the tent. I then unravelled it and I tried to keep it at snow level while I got the poles in the sleeves. I was up quickly then and soon I had dug a half metre deep hole in the vestibule and filled the tent with all the bags and cases. I secured the pulk and then withdrew into the tent zipped up the fly and enjoyed the warmth of the sun blasting on my face as I peeled off the icy garments. I brush the snow of everything and then lay them out in the tent to dry. On the west side in the evening and then moved them to the east in the night. With the boiling done and the stove put away I withdrew into the tent with my flasks and got into my sleeping bag to eat dinner. It was my favourite time of day, and the tent was usually around 20 degrees if the sun was out. Although my knee was a bit of an issue midday at the end of the day it felt like nothing was wrong and I could have gone on for another 5 km. I am not sure if that was the Nurofen I took a few hours earlier or my knee was healing. I think the former. It had been a great day, and I was pleased with everything when I finally settled down for the night at this the start of the second section. Although I could see no sign of the Martin and Nash Hills out to the west which heralded the start of this Section 02.

Day 19. Dec 8. S 82º07.063 W 080º08.858 to S 82º18.466 W 080º09.994. 22 km. 8 hrs. 2760 Cal. It was overcast and dull in the morning, but the wind was minimal, and it made packing the pulk and taking the tent down much easier and quicker and I was off by 0800. It was a flat light, and I could not really see the snow at all. However, I could tell it was smooth and there was some loose spindrift or even a small cover of new snow on top. It made for slightly heavier work dragging the pulk over spindrift or new snow. However far to the south on the horizon was a blue line in the sky and as the wind and weather constantly come from the south, I knew sunshine was on the way in a few hours. It took longer than expected to do the first 8 km until my break and in the dull light and softer snow it was a bit of a trudge.

After my break however the low cloud had broken enough to let some light onto the snow and at once I could see the more glazed bits and the small areas it had drifted which would cling at the pulk. So, I could weave a path between them until the sun finally arrived and my shadow appeared in front just to my right. Perhaps the snow just needed a little bit of sun to take the edge off its graininess because suddenly the pulk slid much more easily. I still had the short skins on on the Asnes Ousland and they worked really well, and I could actually ski on the level ice sheet. I made good time and enjoyed it. I could feel my knee, but it was very tolerable, and it gave me confidence to know what the problem was now.

082. Having my snack and litre of hot chocolate sitting on my pulk in the sun. Despite appearances it was still minus 12.

I stopped for another break in the sun and sat on my pulk as usual to have my snack. The weather was so benign now I could even set the phone down in the snow to take a selfie. I had already done 16 km and was thinking about doing another 8 km and when I set off, I was full of vigour. The lovely skiing continued but soon I started to see some sastrugi fields litter the otherwise pristine gentle slope. Pierre who was now miles ahead warned me of 14 minutes (nautical miles) of sastrugi and I was about to enter it. After 6 km I decided that I would call it a day. My knee was OK, but I have a few chores like melting water, the blog and hanging the clothes to dry and if I leave it too late it runs past my bedtime of 2200. I found a place to camp, dug a test pit to make sure the snow was deep enough and then put the tent up.

One of the chores I had to do was beef up the padding round the Ampulla fuel bottles. With my pulk being fibreglass rather than Kevlar it was a bit less rigid, and I noticed the fibreglass matting liner had chaffed a hole in the bubble wrap around the containers. If I had a lot of sastrugi tomorrow it might chaff right through the side of the container and spill 4 litres of fuel into the pulk. It would be a nightmare scenario, so I used up all my empty ziploc bags and other plastic wrapping to cover the bottom of the Ampulla flasks and then kept all this twisted plastic in place with electrical tape. They were well padded by the time I finished. I not only boiled the litres of water I needed for the evening and next day but also a bit to wash in with my facecloth. The tent was so warm it was the perfect evening to do so. At one stage the top of the tent by the drying rack got to over 30 degrees!

There was little chat on the garmin messenger, but it seemed Sam was still going strong and in good spirits heading across the Ronne Ice Shelf to the Penescola Mountains and the Fire Angels were still going strong now about 39 km behind me. They were like a couple of Lionesses on the savannah closing down on an old bull buffalo. They will no doubt catch me within 2 weeks. I reassessed my food and it seems I still have 40 days which is more than I expected and makes me feel a bit more comfortable about not smashing out 30km days.

Day 20. Dec 9. S 82º18.466 W 080º09.994 to S 82º28.658 W 080º13.236. 20 km. 8.5 hrs. 2690 Cal. It was a beautiful morning and it had been a bright sunny night. The tent was very warm, and I did not sleep in my sleeping bag despite it being about minus 10 outside. I had no idea “solar gain” could be so significant. The lack of wind also helped. I got up early at 0530 and started with cereal and whey drink in bed before packing. I was off by 0730.  However, by this time the sun had vanished and there was a flat light with little contrast on the snow.

I had been warned by Pierre, now nearly 100 km ahead, that the next 30 km involved some big sastrugi. I had camped just at the northern edge of this area. It did not take long before I was into it. I am not sure what causes sastrugi other than wind. The wind and spindrift erode the hard snow into formations much like it does in the desert on sandstone outcrops. What is eroded gets blown away to form into a drift somewhere down wind and it builds into a large structure which then sets hard with the sun and minus temperatures. This hard drift is then ripe to get eroded into sastrugi again and so the cycle continues endlessly. It is at its worst where the wind is strongest. Here in Antarctica that is on downward slopes where the catabatic winds roar down to the coast accelerating down slopes or at pinch points between mountains. I don’t know why there was sastrugi here but there must have been some wind.

083. Sastrugi. Nice to look at but hellish to drag a pulk through. Some of those mounds were a metre high.

The shapes created were lovely to look at. A jumble of hollows, anvils, and sharp ridges but that is where the loveliness ends. For me there was a hellish collection of fiendish obstacles each one intent on tipping the pulk over or threatening to break a ski as I straddled two ghoulish shapes. In addition to that just downwind from the sastrugi were small dunes of gritty snow that would claw at the pulk. Luckily the sastrugi only occurred in patches, each about the size of a tennis court with another tennis court of soft grainy snow adjacent to them. In the worst areas the tennis court patches almost merged but it was still possible to weave a path between them. However, that frequently meant straying into the softer drifts or into the small sastrugi.

084. The consequences of not choosing the right path through the sastrugi was a pulk with a mind of its own.

It took me nearly 4 hours to get to my first break after 8 km. My legs were tired with the effort of having to heave the pulk over ridges. I have a very strong bungee elastic on my tow rope, and it was sometimes nearly at full stretch as I leaned forwards. Often, I would go one way but the pulk got caught diagonally on the ridge and headed off at 45 degrees until it finally climbed the ridge which diverted it. It capsized a few times as it did not follow me, and the path I intended it to take, and wandered over frozen anvils.  All this was at great expense to me, and I could feel all the patient work on my knee undoing. In the end I discovered it was hard work going diagonally across it. It was easiest to follow the ridges and then tack back perpendicular to the ridges. A bit like a sailing boat beating into the wind. The only cheer in all this was that the sun was returning, and it was windstill and remarkably mild at minus 5.

After my lunch of rehydrated macaroni and cheese I continued but this time in better light. I could stop and pick a course with more thought and consideration. It was still slow going and I laboured on for another 3 hours just to gain another 6 km before I could feel the macaroni was spent and I needed another break. Two Clif bars later I was recharged but could only manage another 6 km before it was 1700 and I had been on the go for nearly 8.5 hours. It had only done 20 km today, but they were hard earned. My knee was sore, but not catastrophically so, and I could feel the other one just starting. According to Pierre I still had another 6 km of this tomorrow before it eased off again.

085. My second break after just 14 km in 7 hard hours. The weather alleviated the hardship hugely.

I was quite please I had managed all this on the short skins. I did put the longer ones on for a while but there was so much friction in them it was like trying to ski with snowshoes on. I think this was the cause of my sore knee in the first place 14 days ago. I am not sure what I will do about them. I have a pair of even smaller mohair short skins which offer great glide, but minimal grip and I might take the long skins off my Asnes Amundsen skis and put on these speedy skins and keep the current ones on my Asnes Ousland skis and vary the ski/skin combination to the conditions.

It was a lovely evening when I found a small patch of firm snow. The tent was up in 10 minutes without the wind, and I could dig a great hole in the vestibule to dangle my legs into. I zipped up the fly and felt the heat build. Soon the ice on my goggles and mouth guard were dripping water. I boiled the 7 litres and then took my outer shell off and retreated into the inner sanctum to surround myself in feathers, not that they were needed on this sunny wind free evening. The battery banks on the solar panel needed to be warmed before they would accept a charge but that was quickly sorted by putting them in the pizza delivery box with the hot thermoses for tomorrow’s drinks. It had been a hard day, but my legs seemed to recover quickly.

Day 21. Dec 10. S 82º28.658 W 080º13.236 to S 82º38.924 W 080º12.341. 20 km. 8 hrs. 2450 Cal. The tent was warm in the night, and it was very bright. It was like sleeping in a greenhouse on a summer’s day. However, it was still minus 10 outside. I did not sleep well and felt my knee after yesterday’s strain through the sastrugi. It was not sore I was just worried it was not getting better. It hung there like the Sword of Damocles ready to strike me down if I put in too much effort. I got my usual 0800 start on a beautiful wind free bright sunny morning.

The first 8 km to my first stop took 3 hours and it was all weaving through the sastrugi areas and having to cross drifts and ridges. It was simple enough, but I could not get a rhythm as there were so many small diversions and occasional heaves where I had to strain to get the pulk over a ridge. I was told by the Finns and young Pierre who were ahead that I would only have half a day of it and then it would get better and sure enough it did start to diminish by the time I got to this 8 km break. It was so calm and windstill the silence and peace were magnificent. I rehydrated a macaroni for lunch and had it on my pulk.

086. My view for much of the gloomy afternoon was just the tips of my ski and this chest mounted compass to keep my bearing correct.

For the next 8 km the visibility started to deteriorate as low cloud swept in from the east. Small mounds in the icefield started to get absorbed by the could which was moving unstoppably closer. Rather quickly my shadow disappeared and then all the detail in the snow, highlighted by sparkling small ridges and shadows vanished. It was now all just a dull white. It was as if someone had switched the electricity off at a party. By now the sastrugi had all but vanished and I was thankful I was out of those hazards before the contrast went. The skiing now was quite smooth. I stopped for a short break after another 8 km and was surprised to see the odd flake of snow landing on the pulk. I had been getting my directions disorientated in this light so out came the compass on a chest mount, so it sat in front of my face. Even with this I could still turn 90 degrees in the space of 30 seconds if I was not paying attention. There was nothing on the horizon to focus on and my wind ribbon was hanging limp. In fact, there was hardly a horizon at all and if I took my goggles off, I could only see a dull grey white everywhere. On and on I skied correcting every 10 seconds when I looked at the compass on the chest mount. It was virtually the only thing I could see. However, the snow was superb and smooth and my skis and even the pulk glided effortlessly over it. It was just a shame I could not see it.

After 20 km I stopped for a Clif bar before the final 2 km in the contrast-less grey gloom when I noticed the tail end of one of my short skins had peeled back a little and was covered in snow. If I was not careful the whole skin would soon be covered in snow and the glue ineffective until dried. I had to attend to it at once and so decided to camp here and sort it out. The tent went up like a dream without any wind and I was inside with the stove going with 20 minutes.

However, I had to turn my attention to the skins. The long skins made by Colltex were full length and held on by a rubber clip at the front and a metal clip at the tail. When I looked at them, I could see both rubber clips were badly perished and damaged and would not last much longer. Also, one of the metal clips at the tail was bent back and I had no way to repair it. The long skins were doomed to fail very soon. I have used Colltex skins for 40 years and these were the worst set I had owned. They had just changed the design a little from the previous model but introduced two fatal flaws. It was a major concern and disappointment, and I can see myself throwing these skins away at Thiel Corner in 270 km. I took them off and packed them away. In their place I put on some 30mm mohair short skins. Probable the fastest but least grippy skin you can get. To prevent the tails peeling back on the other 3 skins and to reaffix the one which had already peeled I screwed the tails of them into the skis. Luckily, I had had the foresight to pack a hand auger, screws, and a screwdriver for this very purpose as it was always in the back of my mind the tails might peel. It took a good hour and a half to sort all this out, but I did it in conjunction with boiling the 7 litres. I kept the skis in my tent overnight just to press the glued tips on again and again before using them. So now both my skis have short skins, one for everyday use and one for excellent conditions and all have the tails screwed down.

087. Emergency maintenance work to the skins. These are the 30 mm mohair short skins getting screwed to the Amundsen skis.

On the bush telegraph I only heard from the Fire Angels this evening, 2 Welsh female fire fighters who were doing well. However, they just entered the sastrugi area when the light failed and after a few hours of floundering around in the mist decided to camp. Al and Dave were just a bit behind them. The Finns are probably 15 km in front of me and young Pierre some 100 km ahead of us leading the herd.

Day 22. Dec 11. S 82º38.924 W 080º12.341 to S 82º42.971 W 080º13.248. 8 km. 3 hrs. 1120 Cal. This morning started off where I left it yesterday. If felt quite warm perhaps minus 5 only and the visibility was poor. It was almost as if a warm fog had enveloped tis part of the Antarctic plateau. In every direction they were grey clouds above a barely discernible grey icefield. There was not a chink of brighter weather anywhere. I could see it was going to be a very difficult day to navigate so put the compass mount on and at the same time took my jacket off as it was just far too warm. Even with the compass in front of me I was still all over the place. I tend to fix a bearing on a darker patch of sky or a lighter cloud in the grey gloom but today there was little variation and what there was seemed to be every changing. So, in the space of 20 metres, I can wander of course by as much as 20 degrees. What generally happens is I veer towards the easiest path in the snow and my ski and pulk align themselves with the ridges and channels on the snow. I plodded on like this for about 4 km with the light getting worse and worse and the contrast almost totally disappearing. If I dropped an A4 sheet of paper on the ground in front of me, I doubt I would have been able to see it unless it lay across my ski. Luckily the snow surface was not too bad, and I could assume the next step was going to be like the previous. I suppose it was a good to a white out as you can get. The only blessing was there was absolutely no wind and the wind ribbon from my ski stick hung limply. On and on I pushed, correcting my direction with the compass every half minute or so.

However, after 4 km in an hour and a half the terrain started to change. Suddenly there was a ridge here which I had not seen, and my ski slid sideways on it, then there was an unexpected hollow 10 centimetres deep and I stumbled into it. This got more frequent, and the ridges and hollows became slightly bigger. At one stage the pulk became a dead weight and I could not heave it over the ridge, and I turned round to see it had capsized. Because I could not see the ridges the pulk was about to climb over I could not lunge forwards at the required time to increase the momentum and so often it would take me by surprise, and I would have to heave and strain. It was all becoming quite taxing. Pretty soon it was becoming quite chaotic, and I was starting to lose confidence as to where my skis would be on a ridge or in a hollow. My pace slowed right down to about a kilometre an hour. To an observer from afar I must have looked like a drunk trying to get home at night. I stumbled many times, fell a few, and frequently had to right the capsized pulk.

088. Fumbling my way forwards with the chest mounted compass in the near whiteout until I decided to camp early.

After an hour of this without the light getting any better or the terrain easing, I thought something is going to break here. Either my knee or a ski or a binding. For the effort I was putting in I was getting very little reward. I looked at the weather forecast, and it said it might improve marginally in the afternoon from 100% cloud cover to 70%. So, I decided to put the tent up and sleep until the afternoon came. With no wind the tent was up in a flash and my sleeping system in the green bag slid onto the groundsheet. I left everything else in the pulk, went into the tent unzipped the outer bag and was asleep in 5 minutes.

I woke an hour later at midday to see it was still the same so returned to bed. This continued through the afternoon and each time I had a look outside it seemed I had dipped my head into a bucket on milk. I could still see no contrast in the snow’s surface. The hoped for 70% cloud cover forecast came and went with no change. Eventually at 1700 I threw in the towel and decided to camp here. The forecast for tomorrow was much better and I needed some visibility to weave my way through the hazards here. In fact, it was supposed to be blue skies from midnight. On and off I had slept about 5 hours in the afternoon and will sleep more tonight so an early start might be on the cards. I also managed to finish up all the odds and ends of food I had saved in the last week which were left over from my daily ration packs and by doing so managed to get another day out of my food. So, the day I run out of food is postponed a day from the 16th to the 17th of January. In the evening I heard from Poppis and the Finns and also Pierre and they had soldiered on and made good ground. I suspect the ex-marines, Al and Dave, and the Fire Angels had a hard time of it in the sastrugi I left yesterday which was worse than what I encountered today.

Day 23. Dec 12. S 82º42.971 W 080º13.248 to S 82º55.963 W 080º14.662. 25 km. 9.5 hrs. 2860 Cal. When I woke in the early morning around 0400, I could feel the warmth of the sun. I looked outside and it was crystal clear, and the snow was full of detail. I got up, had breakfast and then was off by 0600. I could now see I was in the middle of a sastrugi area. there were ridges and grooves all over the place and occasionally a tennis court size area of ghoulish sculptures. I was worried I opted out too easily yesterday but now with the terrain before me I could see it was the best choice. It was windstill and only about minus 10 so quite perfect conditions. However, pulling the pulk was like as if it was in treacle. Over the last few days there was no wind and a fair amount of humidity. The surface of the snow was covered in a hawfrost of many small plates of icy snowflakes, and these clawed at the pulk and slowed it down. It was hard work pulling through it and also all drifts in the sastrugi area. After a couple of hours, I was starting to feel my knee as the effort was taking its toll. It felt like I was going uphill but when I looked behind me it looked like I was going downhill. One was an optical illusion.

089. The sastrugi field revealed itself in the morning and justified my decision to camp yesterday morning.

I made heavy work of it and wanted to see if I could do 10 by 10. That is 10 km by 10 am in the morning. I just made it, and it took 4 hours in all. My knee was definitely complaining when I stopped for the lunch of Macaroni. I took another ibuprofen with it, but it made little difference for the afternoon stretch. I could feel every step and it was beginning to get me down and also causing me worry. If there is one reason this expedition fails it will be because of the knee. With it gnawing away, my thoughts turned very negative and pessimistic. How much longer could I go on if it persisted. What was the point of it all? was it just some ego trip to brag later I had done it? The joy of the expedition started to fall away at the thought of another 36 days with this dull ache and endless slog with very few creature comforts. I wondered at what stage most people who are going to bail out do so. Certainly not in the last third but perhaps in the first third when the reality of it all become too daunting. It would just take one phone call and it would all end and I could be teleported back to Punta Arenas with its pizza parlours and hot showers. It was the first time in the trip I had thought about quitting, and I was shocked at how powerful these thoughts were.

I had a second break around 17 km and sat on my pulk and ate a Clif bar. The wind was just starting to pick up and the flakes of hawfrost were getting blown around. They were settling in loose drifts and the sun was sparkling off them and the drifts where they were accumulating looked like a kaleidoscope of flashes. Eventually these flakes would get broken down into small ice particles of spindrift and pack together as the wind increased. I had a third Ibuprofen now hoping it would stave off any discomfort while I tried to get a reasonable distance today.

090. Eating macaroni on the pulk at my midmorning break while it was still calm and sunny.

And it seemed to work. The snowpack became much harder, and it was easy to ski and the pulk seemed much lighter. For the next 3 hours I skied well and the pain in my knee completely vanished. I am not sure if it was the ibuprofen or that it the pain was reducing as the muscle and ligaments worked. I have noticed before at the end of a day it eases off. It completely restored my good mood and when I did the calculations in my head about distance left to do and days’ worth of food left, I realised it was very feasible. The weight in the pulk was diminishing considerably and it would mean I would get faster, but even if I didn’t, then at the halfway stage, in about 12 days, I would still have just under half my original food and more than half of fuel. It restored my confidence after a wobble in the morning and early afternoon. I skied on until 1700 hrs when the wind was up to a force 5 and I knew I better find somewhere to camp.

091. The tent set up as a strong breeze lashed it with spindrift. Inside the tent it was delightfully warm, dry and calm.

Putting up the tent was easy enough, but I used the security painter attached to it just in case it was ripped from my grasp by a gust. If it disappeared over the icy horizon, it really would be the end of the trip. Soon I was inside with my feet in the pit, and everything unpacked. I disrobed as the stove warmed the tent even more, so it was hot. Once the water was boiled, I retreated inside pleased with my 25 km and surprised that my knee was not complaining. I had my usual fish and potato stew, which I could never tire of, sitting up in bed and then wrote the blog with the heat of the sun drying my clothes and charging the batteries. Outside it was a force 5 and spindrift was everywhere but inside it was warm and calm.

Day 24. Dec 13. S 82º55.963 W 080º14.662 to S 83º07.490 W 080º16.159. 22 km. 9 hrs. 2810 Cal. It was windy but sunny in the night but in the morning the wind ramped up a notch from force 5 to 6.  I put all the clothes on I might need today, selected my gloves to take the tent down and the mitts for skiing and did everything up before I went outside. I could not believe the difference from the greenhouse like warmth of the tent to the industrial blast freezer outside. Spindrift was a metre high, and it was rippling across the snowfield. I had to be very careful not to lose any equipment as my dry bags of clothes would blow away. I had to take everything from the tent to the pulk rather than throw it out of the door. Taking the tent down was a difficult challenge and I made double sure it was anchored to my pulk drag rope with the security painter before I took out the last pegs. I then had to wrestle with it on the ground to fold the poles over in half and roll the whole thing up. It all took twice the time at least and I was being lashed with spindrift the whole time. Eventually I set off at 0730.

I could not use poggies today on the ski sticks as the risk of losing one was too great. Instead, I used my large Outdoor Research Alti mitts and once I change over from my Hestra work gloves my hands were lovely and warm but unable to do any small fiddly task. Although it was hard work skiing into the wind, and I was skiing directly into it, watching the streams of spindrift flow down was mesmerising and also spectacular when it went through sastrugi areas as plumes of it would be directed into the air. This was Antarctica in her raw nature. What it must be like in a force I shudder to think. If this current weather was in the UK, the Met Office would have issued a red warning with question. Yet in my salopettes and jacket I was protected from it and I could peer at it with comfort from my protective goggles and face mask.

I slogged into it for nearly 4 hours to get my first 8 km. The snow was loose and sandy and did not allow the pulk to pass easily and I think there was a fair bit of windage on the pulk also. I continued with a slow plod, as in first gear, slowly but sure grinding down the distance. However, despite yesterday’s efforts my legs were quite tired, but the knee did not complain at all. In fact, I did not notice it all morning despite the strain, nor had I felt it last night in the tent. It could not possibly be on the mend, could it?

When I came to have my break, it was a very undignified affair. I turned the pulk sideways to the wind and then crouched down on the snow in the lee of it like an animal would. It was somewhat sheltered but on each side of me I could see ridges of spindrift forming quickly before my eyes and it was amazing how quickly they built up. By the time I left they were half a meter high and 10 metres long. My hands got very cold here as I put on my usual small black ones to have lunch and they were soon covered in spindrift and inadequate, but the mitts came to the rescue as I started skiing again.

In the afternoon the wind started to ease and suddenly the spindrift all but vanished. Previously navigation was easy as it was directly into the spindrift all morning but now without it, I wandered a bit off the line. The skiing also got easier as the snow was not so loose, and the sun was perhaps glazing the surface. It was a nice 8 km, but it seemed to drag on. My thoughts were positive now and remarkably my knee was still not complaining except right at the end. By now the wind had eased enough that I could sit on my pulk and eat my Clif Bars without fear of getting frostbite in the blast freezer of the morning. In fact, in the late afternoon after my second break it was turning into a lovely late afternoon. The snow was now very hard and my pulk passed over it without much friction. I have noticed this a few times that the skiing is hardest in the morning and easiest in the evening when it is more glazed. I passed the 20 km mark which I would not have envisaged in the morning and continued for another 2 km. Again, there was not complaint from my knee.

093. Tent life. Here feeding chunks of snow into the kettle while enjoying the heat in the vestibule of the tent before disrobing.

Time was getting on now and it was after 1800 before I had the tent up and the pit for my feet dug. Once everything was secured outside, I came in and sat on a dry bag of clothes with my feet in the pit and closed the outer door. It was instant bliss as I could feel the warmth on my face as I peeled off the ice encrusted head gear and gloves. I got the stove going as soon as possible and started feeding chunks of snow into the kettle. This usually takes an hour and warms the tent even more as the liquid fuel stove pumps out the heat. Inside the tent it was a forest of drying clothes from the clothes lines, mostly gloves and their linings. Before long the solar panels were charging the batteries. Once enough water was boiled, I retreated into the tent and closed up the inner to enjoy my delicious dinner and write the blog. The blog alone takes nearly 2 hours to write and send. Despite the wind it had been a great day mostly on account of my knee not complaining too much.

Day 25. Dec 14. S 83º07.490 W 080º16.159 to S 83º21.024 W 080º17.636. 26 km. 9.5 hrs. 3030 Cal. All too quickly it was 0500 and the cycle starts to repeat. I opened a new weekly food bag last night. I have 5 left meaning another 35 days. It is one of the ways I have of keeping track of time and seeing the weight slowly reduce as each one is about 10 kg.  I then gather all my chargers and gadgets from in my sleeping bag and pack them away. Then have breakfast, again in my sleeping bag. I could see it was sunny and there was little wind outside, my favourite combination. As I eat, I check the weather forecast on the Garmin Inreach device I have. Inside the tent it was 14 degrees. Then it is time to get out of my sleeping bag and put on my socks, salopettes, jacket, boots, and the head gear. Once that is on, I zip up my sleeping bag in the bedding system and throw everything outside the door and follow it zipping up the tent. I put it all in the pulk and then take the tent down. The tent poles remain in their sleeves and I just part the 3 sets in the middle and fold them over and then roll the whole thing up and put it in a 1.5-metre-long tube bag. It too goes in the pulk, and everything gets zipped into the pulk cover and secured down. The whole procedure takes 2 hours but a bit more if it is windy.

Today was not windy. It was a beautiful day with azure blue skies and hardly a breath of wind. It was the perfect day and would do wonders for morale. The snow was quite fast and hard and the pulk moved easily across the generally even terrain. I was in a good mood and humming cheerful songs and I walked quicky with my skis on. I always seemed to be going uphill but again when I looked back it looked like I had come downhill. It was a common theme I had noticed frequently. Whatever I was doing the gradients were minimal. After 3 hours I had done my 8 km and sat on the pulk with my face to the sun and had macaroni and ibuprofen.

094. It was a glorious day’s skiing under blue skies and a gentle breeze all day. I still used the poggies on the ski sticks for warmth and have the dexterity with my small gloves on.

For the second 3 hours stint the snow went from OK to superb. Suddenly I found myself actually skiing and the pulk was just bouncing along behind me. I got into a rhythm of launching off one ski and gliding with the other. I was doing about 6 km per hour. Ecstatically I calculated I would do 30 km today, be at Thiel fuel cache 210 km away in a week and at the Pole in 3. And the pulk felt much lighter than before. When I started it was like pulling a railway carriage, now it was just like a Volvo estate and hopefully in a few weeks it will feel like a Smart car. However, it did not last long and after about half an hour the terrain got rougher, and I felt my knee. My mood came crashing down again. Will I never shake this affliction. And I limped on to my second break again sitting on the pulk in glorious sunshine.

On the third stint I actually had to sit on the pulk at one stage while the knee was sensitive but then I thought if I carry on it will pass as it does most days. And it did and I hit the 20 km mark feeling great. I carried on for a few more hours but the terrain got much rougher as the sastrugi appeared and between these wild sculptures in the snow everything else was large skarve with ridges and grooves. Luckily, they seemed to be aligned to the direction I wanted to go. Nevertheless, it was slower, and I had to right the pulk 5 times after various capsizes. As I was feeling good, and the late afternoon was perfect I carried on for another hour after my usual stopping time of 1700. The terrain got even worse, but I managed to find a camp spot at 1800 amongst it all. The tent was up very quickly, and I did not load the valances with snow as it was forecast to be still all night and there was very little reason to question that now. Within half an hour I was basking in the tent with the sun radiating through the ripstop nylon cover. I knew all my sweaty clothing and damp boots would be dry in a few hours. It is this solar gain and 24-hour sunlight which makes expeditions down here possible. If it were dark outside with no chance to dry anything it would be a real hardship. Borge Ousland and Mike Horn, arguably the world top two explorers did a trip across the North Pole in the dark of winter and must have endured some terrible hardship and used lots of fuel heating the tents.

095. A self-timer on the ground as I ski past the camera with the pulk in tow.

It was a busy night on the Garmin Inreach bush telegraph. The Fireangels were just behind me and enjoyed the same glorious day. They did 27 km and would soon overtake me. Pierre 100 km to the north had a great morning but then hit cloud and poor visibility. Sam on a different and much more demanding route had endured a day of great effort where he had to shuttle everything up a steep slope in a scene out of the Heroic age of polar exploration a century ago. But everyone seemed in good spirits. For me it was one of the best days of the trip and I think if I take enough ibuprofen and push through the knee pain, which comes around the 10-15 km mark and disappears later, I have a good chance to finish. Especially as I can feel my pulk getting lighter as I have used ? ‘s of the consumables. I still have another 50 kg to shed from the weight and that will make a huge difference to my speed and effort.

Day 26. Dec 15. S 83º21.024 W 080º17.636 to S 83º32.975 W 080º19.594. 23 km. 9 hrs. 2530 Cal.  I often wake in the night at am pleased to see it is just midnight or 0130. However, this morning I slept through it all and was surprised to see it was 0515 but I still felt tired. The night had passed in a flash, and I felt cheated of some downtime. I had to start the day at once and it was a beautiful day outside so there was no time to waste. After the usual routine I was away by 0715. This time I did not put a jacket on as it was sunny and windstill. I still had my face coverings though, partly also to protect my lips against the intense glare.

I divided my day into 3 x three-hour long sections again, during that time I could generally make 8 km. As an experiment with the first I did not take any ibuprofen and my knee felt quite normal up to the break. This was partly because I could not exert myself and stride forth due to the terrain. It was heavily sastrugied and I had to make every step with consideration. However, there was plenty of routes through the sastrugi and I was always looking 50 metres ahead for the best course. Often, they looked worse than they were and there was a path right through the middle of them. One was very gnarly and impassable, even to a tractor, and was high. I called it a Monsterugi ! It was about my height.

096. Some of the largest sastrugi so far. Monsterugi even. It was nearly 2 metre high in places. Luckily it was only in patches.

After 3 hours I stopped for a very calm lunch. I could put anything on the ground without any fear of it getting blown away and the wind ribbon on the ski stick barely fluttered. The sun warmed me as I sat on the pulk even though it was at least minus 10.

For the second spell I could see clouds far in the distance. They looked different to wispy ones, and I wondered if they could be caused by mountains which I knew to be in that direction but still 180 km away. That was where the Theil Mountains were, and I would be skiing past them for a week starting in 8-9 days. I also knew there were nunataks to the west like the Pagano Nunatak but could see no sign of them. At the top of every rise, I looked longingly for mountain or nunataks which might punctuate this endless frozen ice cap. The middle section today the ice cap was like an ocean which had been frozen in a squall. The white claws of breaking waves instantly petrified into ghoulish sastrugi. I got right through this section also without feeling my knee.

097. About to have my macaroni sitting on the pulk with the sun in my face.

It was only in the third section did it start to hurt and that coincided with the terrain becoming much more benign so I could put more effort in and start to ski.; thrusting with the trailing leg while the leading leg glided for half a metre or so. I got a good rhythm going on the hardening flatter snow and the pulk clattered along behind me. With my red poggies on the ski sticks thrust into view alternatively each side of me I felt like a steam engine locomotive. However, it took its toll and I had to slow down and then stop a kilometre short of my goal. However, if someone had said to me 3 weeks ago when I was distraught in the tent thinking I had torn a ligament that I would be pushing 25 kilometres daily soon I would not have believed it. It was good to stop when I did as there were a few things I had to do.

Once the tent was up, I had to fill up my 3 fuel bottles from the plastic ones in the pulk. I think the lids might have been leaking fractionally when the liquid in them sloshed around when I went over the sastrugi. Filling the bottle is always a fraught and dangerous occasion as the fuel is very cold and any spillage on your hands is a serious skin injury. I took 3 litres out of the fullest container so now each container has 2 litres in it. Then I had to attend to a blister which surprised me as I never get blisters. I also had to have a token wash and cut my nails. Occasionally I would catch whiff of my clothing, especially the damp wool clothing and it smelt like an animal cage at a zoo. It would make Durian fruit smell like roses. With those chores done and the water boiled it was time to withdraw into the inner sanctum of the tent and have my supper propped up in sitting position on the thermarest. I could never tire of my potato and fish stew, but the lunchtime macaroni is becoming dull. There was very little chat on the bush telegraph tonight except from the Fireangels who are slowly catching me up and are just 8 km behind me now. I think to an extent I am pulling them, and they are pushing me to do an extra few km every day.  It was a good day really but tomorrow looks like the light will be poor if not terrible.

Day 27. Dec 16. S 83º32.975 W 080º19.594 to S 83º35.555 W 080º19.530. 5 km. 3 hrs. 630 Cal.  I knew today was going to be a difficult day as the forecast was for 100% cloud cover and light snow. The problem was going to be with visibility if I came across rough terrain. I set off sharp at 0700 and the first kilometre was good except snow was sticking under the nylon short skins. I changed skis to the ones with the short mohair skins and they slid beautifully. However very soon I hit rough terrain. In the white it was difficult to see if it was just skarve or whether it was sastrugi. Whatever, the mohair skins were not grippy enough for the occasion and I had to swap back.

For the next 2 hours I fumbled and stumbled over small unseen ridges and had to heave frequently to pull the pulk out of hollows. It was a lot of effort for very little gain. The pulk capsized frequently as it slid off a ridge. On one occasion 3 times in the space of 10 metres. In the end I had to take my skis off and walk it through some of the areas for a couple of times. I grew increasingly irate and frustrated and, in the end, decided it was not worth it. The forecast was for it to be poor all day and I thought if I continue like this all day something on me or the equipment will break. I compared myself to a lumber horse decades ago trying to pull logs out of a felled forest full of tree stumps and doing it in the dark. Others seemed to manage better and the Fireangels overtook me and did about 20 km but perhaps it is easier in a team. It can be difficult mentally on your own as there are no reference points and, in the end, you lose your confidence as to where your next step may be. I felt my knee hurting a bit after a particular strenuous heave to get the pulk over an unseen divot and then decided that’s it.

It was only 1030 but there was little to gain and plenty to lose so I found a level spot somewhere in the white and put the tent up temporarily. I intended to wait here until it cleared. I just took in my sleeping bag and slept from 1100 to 1300. When I looked again it was worse with low cloud and a slight snowfall of round polystyrene type snow. The same at 1500 when I then decided to get everything I needed from the pulk and make this spot my home for the night.

There were a few things I needed to do like cut up the large full skins which were just about useless anyway. I cut them into shorter segments I could screw into the base of the ski should my current nylon ones fail, and I had to stitch a small hole in the sleeping bag. After doing my exercises for my knee I had the usual supper and then went to bed early hoping for a very early rise as the forecast is good from after midnight. I still have 32 days of food and ample fuel and even managed to squirrel away some of the snacks I did not eat today in hope that I might accrue another days’ worth of food should there be more rest days. None the less it was a frustrating day.

Day 28. Dec 17.  S 83º35.555   W 080º19.530 to S 83º49.520 W080º26.150. 27 km. 12 hrs. 3650 Cal.  Because I slept much of the day, I did not sleep well at night so when I woke just after one, I had a look outside. It looked like it was clearing up as the forecast promised. I slowly got into gear and rumbled into life pulling myself out of the warm sleeping bag after breakfast. However, when I was ready to go at 0315 it had misted over again and was snowing gently. By this stage I was committed so set off. The terrain was gentler than I remembered it from yesterday and there was a predictability to where my skis went. It was the pulk which had a mind of its own and wandered off the plinth I was skiing along into a groove where it capsized. In all there were about 12 capsizes which are very time consuming to rectify.

However, after an hour it got a bit more gnarly and the mist induced whiteout more complete. I slowed right down and walked forwards using my poles like a blind man would use a white stick. I found them especially good to keep them well to the front of me and off to the side where I could feel if there was a groove or divot. I felt one many times, and prodded around more to see what the obstacle was. I could then divert to the other side to stop the pulk capsizing off the edge. It worked very well but it was slow at just over 1 km per hour.  However patiently and carefully I was gaining some kilometres. My vision was limited to what I saw out of the goggles which was just my two large red poggies thrust forward with the sticks prodding forwards. I should imagine it is rather the same view as a lobster might have probing along the seafloor with its two claws on each side.

098. Probing forwards in the white gloom hoping my pulk behind does not slide into a divot or furrow, or even capsize.

I have changed my strategy now and instead of aiming to do 3 times 8 km a day I will do 4 times 6 km. It is a much more manageable chunk and less daunting to do 2 hours rather that 3 between breaks. During my first break I sat on my pulk in the white mist with snowflakes falling and had a Clif Bar and hot chocolate at about 0530 in the morning. However, during the second break at about 0900 I noticed that the visibility was improving, and I could see 100 metres now, all be it like someone with cataracts. However, things just carried on improving until at last I saw a faint shadow and the surface of the snow sprung into life.  I had just done 12km in the space of nearly 7 hours but suddenly I could stop probing and shuffling and go faster.

By the end of my third session, it was becoming a glorious day and the very gentle breeze was from the east meaning it did not have the bitter edge as the south wind does. I could now see everything although there was a haze in the sky from which a light snow continued to fall. It mattered not to the visibility as the sun shone through and warmed me. It had a halo round it all day as the light higher haze distorted its light. The terrain for the rest of the day was through sastrugi fields. However, between these fields of ghoulish shapes like blacksmith’s anvils and giant closed fists was a relatively level platform of level snow covered in a light dusting of new powder. With the great visibility it was possible to plan a route which did not involve too much deviation and I was making good time.

At the end of my fourth session, it was just 1530 and I had already done 24 km. I pilfered the snacks I had squirrelled away yesterday and set off again hoping to get another 6 km and try and get my first 30 km day. Despite the odd niggle from both knees, I felt OK but then doubts started creeping in. Was it really worth the bravado of doing 30 km if I was to be semi crippled for the next week. It had happened earlier in the trip. Also, the time was soon approaching 1700 and I need time in the evening to do all my chores so after 3 km I saw a nice patch of snow and put the tent up.

099. At the end of a long day, I put the tent up facing the evening sun which has a halo round it.

By 1800 I was sitting in the hot vestibule with my legs in a pit starting to boil the water. Once I had supper, I tried to write but fell asleep in the warm tent sitting in campers chaise-longue. The alarm woke me for my scheduled 2100 called to ALE to check in and report everything was OK. During this call the doctors at ALE, Paddy and Isla, had arranged that Ily, a guide from Alaska, sit in. She was also a physiotherapist and talked me through some more exercises for my IT Band as well as hips and legs in general. This level of service ALE provide is really second to none and is offered not just from good customer service but also a real human concern. Virtually everyone who works at Union Glacier, and there are about 100 staff, are all outdoors people and very empathetic. I was going to write again after the phone call but fell asleep at once after what had been a long but great day.

Day 29. Dec 18.  S 83º49.520 W 080º26.150 to S 84º02.177 W 080º30.731 24 km. 9.5 hrs. 2600 Cal. Yesterday was far too long in duration and effort. As a result, I was too tired to do anything last night and exercises, blog, teeth etc all fell by the wayside as I fell asleep at 2110 after the scheduled call to ALE. That meant when I woke at 0500 I had to write and send the blog otherwise it would have over me like a black cloud all day. I was done by 0630, had breakfast and was off but 0800 a full hour later than normal but with a clear conscience on a beautiful still sunny morning with some hazy cloud.

The late finish and late start totally mucked up my routine. Routine for an expedition like this is essential. Without routine and consistency things quickly unravel and flow into the sand. I have my routine of up a 0500 off at 0700 and then doing four 6 kilometre stretches each taking about 2.5 hours and then putting the tent up around 1700-1730 which give me enough time to boil the water, at least an hour, eat supper and write the blog finishing at 2100 for the 3-minute phone call. Then lights out as they say. Any deviation from that means I am very tired in the morning and he to fight to get things back on track.

100. This patch of Monstrugi had formations which were 2 metres high.

All 4 sections of the skiing today were pretty similar. The old snowpack had 3-4 cm of new snow on it from the last couple of days and this did not allow the pulk to pass easily. The snow particles clung to the runners as it went over them, and I could hear it grinding all day. When this melts and refreezes or just get a bit of a glaze on it then it will be lovely to pull the pulk across it. I had both the short nylon and short mohair skins on at different times today. They are on different set of skis and the set which are redundant sit on top of the pulk, so they are easy to change as the conditions determine. At each of my 3 breaks I could sit on my pulk without my main jacket on such was the clement weather all day. Having no wind was nice but the warming sun and excellent visibility was magnificent. With my 4 stints of 6 km done I found a nice place to camp at the 24 km mark. A bit later than I would have liked for my evening chores but pleased I had done 24 km after yesterday’s 27 km. It was also especially pleasing that my knee was no longer the gnawing pain and that I had only taken 1 ibuprofen each day. I would not say I am out of the woods with it, but my confidence is returning.

I heard from one other expeditioner who is going “unsupported” and has run into a lot of bad luck. It means he might have to go “supported”. Although there are only 2 characters difference in those words there is a huge difference in reality. Supported means you can get 3 food and fuel drops; you can leave your rubbish at Theil and you can get replacements of things that might break. In theory it means you can travel very light most of the time with a 70 kg pulk reducing to 50 kg before you reach our next supply. Your pulk is not quite a toboggan with a hamper of easter eggs on it but it is more that end of the scale than Sam Cox’s monster pulk with 80 days of food and fuel in it and weighing in at nearly 200kg for his unsupported expedition. So, what does unsupported mean. It means you have to take everything from the start. All the food, all the fuel, all the spare parts, and contingencies like spare ski, solar chargers, clothing. It is a lot more demanding and completely self-reliant. When I started, my pulk was 137 kg but if I went supported it would be 70 at the most. Mine is probably 95 now but will come down a further 40 as I eat the other half of my food to around 55 kg. 55 kg will be a dream. This extra weight at the beginning puts a lot of extra wear and tear on the body and slows one down a lot. So, there is a lot more kudos to unsupported especially amongst the polar community and any serious expedition to north or south polar regions would have to go unsupported to have any claim.

The worst is to start off unsupported and put all that effort into it and then have some bad luck like a fuel leak or a broken binding which you could not fix and had to rely on outside help. Your expedition would then be reclassified from unsupported to supported and for that you lose all claim to any record you were trying to set and also some status. I am still unsupported but only by the grace of God. If one of my critical bits of equipment packed in and I needed outside help I would lose that status and revert to supported.

101. Despite the sun being out it was still minus 15 and my breath froze quickly onto my clothing.

I learnt today that one of us is having that plight and unless he can figure something out, will have to seek outside help and revert to supported. Consider his journey in comparison to the one of the electric vehicle which made it to the south pole. This makes towing a toboggan of easter eggs seem impossibly arduous with its heated seats and climate control. Now some people, especially petrolheads, might consider me a puritanical killjoy but I suggest this expedition should never have happened. Dogs are not allowed on Antarctica for environmental reasons so why should an electric vehicle? Is nothing sacred anymore? It is the thin end of the wedge. What’s next, the Red Bull Mt Vinson Motor Cross Rally? To add to my distaste, it was done for climate change awareness. It left me fuming about as much as the petrocarbon generators used to charge the electric vehicles’ batteries and the diesel support vehicles. Rant over!

Towards the end of the day, I crossed the 84th degree. That brings an end of the second of five equal sections. I could not see the nunataks, like Pagano which marked the end of it, but my GPS told me I had crossed into the middle section, that is the section with the Thiel Mountains. This last section saw my knee and IT Band getting stronger and starting to heal and it also saw my total pulk weight reduce by a further 15 kg. It may not sound much against the 100 kg average, but I am starting to feel the difference. I still have 30 days of food left and this is 2 days more than half, so I feel quite comfortable in the supplies I have.

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October 14, 2023

Day 01. 20 Nov. Hercules Inlet to S 79º59.2243’ W79º50.7014’. 8 km. 3.5 hrs. 80 up. 0 down. 1380 Cal. At breakfast I noticed it was a lot less noisy. Indeed, it was almost dull. There were some 40 people in the dining room, but it was subdued. Then I noticed none of the staff were here. They had all moved through to their own dining room leaving just the guests. It must be said that most were very interesting but there was not the happy banter. Tim Mcdowell, the young ops guy came to tell me the 0930 flight was postponed as there was still a bit of fog over Hercules Inlet and the pilots needed good contrast and this was likely missing. He said there was another satellite image at 1200 but in the meantime, we should prepare out gear. I packed everything except my tent and took all the stuff I was leaving to Lucy who could store it. At 1200 Tim came back and said the flight was on. I packed the tent and then my pulk went off to be weighed. It was 137 kg in all. 80 of which was consumables. I then had a quick lunch while the crew loaded the pulk into the Twin Otter. They separated the fuel so it would not leak with reduced pressure. I forgot to fill my thermoses at the dining room which would have save me fuel in the evening. After lunch it was time to go to the plane.

035. The Twin Otter on the ice runway having disgorged me and all my equipment.

The pilot and co-pilot were both Canadian women. The pilot oozed experience and was an Arctic Pilot in the summer for the same company – which ALE chartered. The pulk and gear was already loaded so I just had to take my seat. After a while the engines started and the plane moved forward on its large skis turned and then headed down the runway taking off quickly with the light load. The camp was soon gone, and in its place was a small range of glaciated mountains sticking out of the mantel of an ice sheet. Hercules inlet was just the other side of the mountains some 60 km away. We were there in no time, but the pilot had to make a couple of low passes to make sure the ice sheet was smooth enough to land on. She found a spot and we circled round and landed. The two pilots helped be out with the heavy sledge and the fuel and I and all my gear were on the ice. The pilots made sure I phoned comms to report my position and then they filled a couple of black bags with snow to act as a marker for their other flights this season.

At last, I was ready. The pilots took some photos of me and then I was ready to set off. I left at 1500 hrs heading south. Once I was far enough away, they started their engines and took off. The plane soon disappeared leaving me on my own in this vast wilderness of ice. It is likely other skiers, and there were about 10 skiing this route this year, will catch me up and I might meet them, but it could be the pilots are the last people I see for 56 days until I reach the pole.

036. Heading south from the plane so it could take off a return to Union Glacier

For the first hour the skiing was very easy as I crossed the flat icesheet which filled the Inlet. The snow was smooth and hard with a light dusting on it from last night. It was almost what the Norwegians call silkefore – silky conditions. The sun was quite bright but there was some mid-level cloud, and it was wild still and totally silent except for the swish of skis. I was going to use full skins but changed to the short skins and they were fine. After an hour I got to the edge of the inlet where the floating ice was grounded on the bedrock. At the safety brief I was told to keep my eyes open here as the ice essentially went up a down slightly with the tide and there was a hinge effect. However, I saw not the slightest crack.

037. The Patriot Hills were about 20 km to the SW and were a great directional marker to head towards as I crossed the frozen inlet to the start of the climb.

The terrain started to climb now, and it would rise some 800 metres in the next 20 km. I had expected a discernible climb, but the gradient was so shallow it was barely noticeable. I kept on a bearing from the start waypoint to another some 6 km away. It kept me on a bearing towards the Patriot Hills away in the distance so 20 km away. I kept heading for the glacier which drained the central portions of these hills. It was windstill and silent. Although the climb was negligible, I did feel it from time to time especially when going over rougher ground with the odd lip. It would be an exaggeration to call it sastrugi which is slower. I plodded up here for the next two hours constantly debating whether I should switch my skis over to the set with the full skins but just managed to keep going on some areas with a vigorous short set of herring bone steps.

At one stage I glanced at my watch, and it said it was 2000. I was shocked at where all the time had gone. I decided to ski for another hour and then phone comms for my daily scheduled call and position which I had to do every day at 2100. By that stage I would have done 8 km and done a good 3 hours. I must have faffed about for ages at the plane. I summited a very gentle rise and found a good spot to put the tent up. It was already 2110 and I was a bit late with the call. However, the operator at the other end seemed surprised I was calling him. I gave my position and said I was going to camp.

038. The tent set up in the sun at the end of my first day. It was cold, perhaps minus 10 outside but warm in the tent with the tremendous solar gain.

The snow was firm, like a neve type of snow and it squeaked when I put my sticks into it or walked on it. It was firm enough to hold the large tent pegs I had well. The tent was up in ten minutes then I threw all my pizza delivery bags in and dug a hole in the porch. I dragged my bedding bag in and then got the stove going. It all worked as it should, and it took well over an hour to melt 6 litres of water. 4 went to create chocolate drinks, 1 to rehydrate dinner, and 1 for tomorrow’s lunch and water left over to start tomorrow’s melting so I would not scorch the pan. I sent a few messages and was pleased to hear Sam Cox was doing well up in Berkner Island. It was already 2300 when I started my meal and. It did not feel late at all, and the sun was charging the batteries in the tent porch.

039. My kitchen is basically to melt water to hydrate meals and make hot drinks. I would do it all in the evening to save the faff in the morning as the thermoses were so good.

However, I noticed all my other gadgets said it was around 2100 but my trusty watch said midnight. I was confused. I phone Comms again to ask the time. I was in fact 2100 and my watch was 3 hours fast. It must have picked up the time on the Skylink satellite at Union Glacier camp and shifted my phone to Western Time without me knowing. It was lucky I thought to phone again otherwise I would have had a black mark by my name. It explained why the afternoon was so short. I had good time now so wrote the blog and just enjoyed the warmth of the tent perched on the sunny icy expanse. It got up to about 20 degrees in the tent and I was warm. Outside the sun was bright and passing over the Patriot Hills to the SW. It had been a marvellous first day and I was being spoilt by the weather. I had some aches and pains and a bit of cramp after the day but that was probably due to being relatively inactive for the last 3 weeks. I had another 700 metres to climb and would take them slowly easing my way into the trip and savouring the experience of this extraordinary continent.

Day 02. S 79º59.2243’ W79º50.7014’ to S 80º03.9712 W 80º20.6876. 15 km. 7 hrs.  370m up. 20m down. 3140 Cal.?  I slept well on the ice without the need for an eye mask despite the bright sunshine. It was so bright in the tent in the morning the solar chargers were working well on the tent floor beside my bed. I had breakfast in my sleeping bag washed down with a litre of whey and milk. I also had a litre of chocolate still scalding hot in my flask after a night. I had to put snow in to cool it. Outside it was windstill, below zero at perhaps minus 5 or 10, but sunny and this warmed the tent like a greenhouse. My bare hands got cold packing up the tent, but they warmed quickly once they were away from the frosty ripstop. It did not take long to pack the pulk, but I tried a few experiments to get access to my stuff without taking the skis, sleeping system and tent tube off and this took nearly an hour. I eventually left at 1100. It was way too late, but I did not want to put in big days yet anyway. After 3 weeks in Punta Arenas I looked like Billy Bunter and I did not want a wear and tear injury. Once I was in better shape, I could extend my efforts.

040. Leaving camp in the morning and looking over to the Patriot Hills which I would soon leave behind as I veered more to the south.

I set off south with the warm sun on my back. I had the short skins on as the terrain was undulating for the next 3-4 km and then I could see it rise to the west of Fudgie Nunatak. A small knoll standing proud of the icesheet. I persevered with the short skins, but it was quite hard work, and I was always tense and prepared to get pulled back. Eventually with the slope to the west of Fudgie Nunatak approaching I put on the skis with the full skins. What a difference. I could now pull with confidence. With these full skins I felt I could pull a railway carriage, which was just as well as my pulk was not far off at 137 kg.

As I started up the slope, I noticed some bare milky blue ice to the side of the waypointed route. I veered over to it. It was cracked and the cracks were about 2-3 cm wide. However, the runners glided like a dream on the ice and my skins had a good grip, so I stayed on the ice weaving a path between the wind shaped sastrugi which was lumpy and erratic. it was not a steep climb by Scandinavian standards but with the weight of the pulk it certainly made me work. Under the sun it was hot work and I had to stop to take off a layer of clothes and also my balaclava and gloves. The sun was intense, and I could feel it burning my scalp. It had never occurred to me to take a baseball hat with a neck cover but that is exactly what I needed.

It took a good 2 hours to climb up the slope between Fudgie Nunatak and the Pirrit Hills and I passed very close to Fudgie. So close I could easily have gone onto its rounded boulder covered dome. I am sure there might have been some lichens growing on the rocks. I kept thinking Northern Europe must have looked much like this 12000 years ago at the last ice age with everything covered in ice. Reindeer would been at the more hospitable edges going from outcrop to outcrop to nibble the lichens. The Neanderthal hunters would have followed them as they moved north as the ice withdrew until they could settle the land and become todays Scandinavians.

041. Hauling the 136 kg pulk up the slope between Fudgie Nunatak and the Pirrit Hills over rougher ground. it was hot work under the constant sun.

As the cold air flowed down from the central higher areas of Antarctica it picked up speed at the steeper sections. These are catabatic winds. It is the reason that whichever route you ski to the pole the winds are against you as they always flow north from the high polar dome in the centre. Here between the Pirrit Hills and Fudgie Nunatak they would have accelerated through the gap and blown the snow into uneven formations called sastrugi. Although it was beautifully calm today the normally constant wind had left its mark and I had to pick a path through the formations. Some were like blacksmiths anvils and other were scallop like depressions. The pulk struggled and 5 times it turned over and I had to right it. All the Acapulca Pulks I have owned and also the Fjellpulken ones have a common issue with this, and I think the runners could be another 25% further apart to minimize the capsizing.

At the top of the climb, I reached another waypoint and veered more to the south. I would follow this for another 6 km to another all the time climbing slightly. The gnarliness of the sastrugi eased as the slope eased and I could make better time again. It was still hot and windstill and I had no use for gloves at all. I was tempted to go on and on into the sun which was now almost in front on me. However, I was wary of doing myself an injury. It would do me no good to gain an extra 5 km at the risk of popping a hernia or prolapsing a disc so after 7 hours I found a flatter spot in the sastrugi and made camp. The tent went up quickly and once inside I made a deep hole in the porch, I could put my legs into so I could sit as I melted water. I could feel the heat of the porch warm my slightly sunburnt head. I boiled 4 litres of hot water for the flasks and another 3 to drink with my dinner and tomorrows breakfast. I had tried not to sweat too much today but it was difficult not to. At times I felt like a slave pulling great blocks of stone to build the great pyramids of Gaza under the midday sun. I sent a few messages on the Garmin Inreach App which I am sure I would use a lot as fed snow into the kettle. After supper I wrote a bit of the blog but fell asleep halfway through it at 2230 and abandoned it as I slid into my sleeping bag.

042. My camp on at the end of Day 02 with the Pirrit Hills in the background. Once inside the tent I could almost lounge around in underwear such was the solar gain.

Day 03. S 80º03.9712 W 80º20.6876 to S 80º14.1736 W 80º37.2676. 21 km. 8 hrs. 170m up. 30m down. 3380 Cal.  I had a slow start as I needed to finish the blog in the morning. It was bright outside and there was virtually no cloud, and it was completely still. I have heard it said that the moment you get off the plane Antarctica wants you dead! Who ever said that either led a very sheltered life or is a drama queen. Since I arrived, I have been spoiled by the most benign conditions, I know it will change and the wind will pick up but for the moment I am having some terrific skiing. I was wrong what I said yesterday about the Pirrit Hills. They are much further away and all the hills I am passing to the west are the Patriot Hills which is basically the SE end of the Ellsworth Mountains before they diminish and are consumed by the ice sheet.

043. A high east facing cirque in the Patriot Hills whose glacier drained onto the icesheet

In the morning I continued south to another waypoint. As I went another plane went over to take some more people to Hercules inlet. I was in contact with the always chirpy Jacob. Pierre and the older British Marines started yesterday, and Jacob and the Finns started today. That just left Missy Desktop who was keeping her trip under cover and would start soon. The young Turks of Jacob, Pierre, and Missy Desktop would soon catch me up. The older marines I guess would go at my pace and the Finns, guided by the remarkable Poppis might catch me up. Poppis was not only an experienced guide and outdoors man but also an inventor of outdoor gear and quite a character. There were also 3 going from Messner Start including Robert the Pole and Lucy the Czech with Christian Styve as her guide. I am not sure where Per the Swede is starting probably Hercules Inlet also. In addition to that there was Sam and Patrick starting at Berkner Island on the outer coast. They were the purists. There was also Omar on his bicycle towing a pulk which will be interesting. So, in all there were 16 Expeditioners in all. The older Marines of Alan and I think Mike were also characters especially Alan while the steely Mike was nearly 68 years old.

The first half of the day was to the East of the Patriot Hills across the vast icefield. It rose very slightly but the surface of the snow got easier and easier until I could get a passable glide on my full skins. The pulk just capsized once and I repacked the top half and that seemed to lower its centre of gravity. The gradient eased as I went from perhaps 1 in 100 to almost flat. At the top with the smoother snow and the lack of sastrugi I felt I was cooking on gas. The pulk, a strain on the climb, was now at times barely noticeable. I found myself leaning forwards occasionally and reminded myself to be more upright and pull from the hips and keep the chest up. In short, I had to ski like a pigeon and not like a turtle.

044. My tent at the end of the day with the Three Sails barely visible as 3 dots on the horizon above the vestibule.

As I skied, I could not help but think what was under me. Perhaps a kilometre of ice slowly flowing towards Inner Coast and the Ronne Ice Shelf where I started. I have heard it said that if Antarctica losses all its ice, then sea levels will rise by 67 metres. It seemed an excessive claim up to a week ago but now having seen the vast amount of ice here I can believe it.  Perhaps one day in 1000 years it will all be gone and a kilometre below me colonizer plants and scrub will be establishing themselves in the newly exposed moraine and eskers.

In the afternoon the skiing got even easier. I did not change skis to the one with the short skins as everything seemed to be working well. In fact, I think the ice sheet might have dipped slightly maybe at 200 to 1. It was virtually imperceptible to see but the skiing was quicker. I made good time and the pulk was more stable across the small sastrugi. In fact, I thought I could have been skiing down a Scandinavian lake were it not for the expansive ice fields. About 5 km before I stopped, I saw The Three Sails. It was a waypoint I had to head for and was composed of three nunataks in a line. Once I got there, I would have done about 50 km on this journey. As I skied towards them, they virtually sunk below the horizon as I skied south into a depression. I could have skied much longer in these great conditions but decided to call it a day a 1930. The sun was still warm and was burning my right cheek as it veered from behind me to ahead of me. I found a flatter area, set up the tent and started to melt the 7 litres of water I needed. After the obligatory check in phone call at 2100 I washed in come cold water with a facecloth and then started the blog. It had been a great day, and I was optimistic about tomorrow also.

045. Looking from my campsite across the icesheet to another range in the Patriot Hills which had dominated all 21 km today.

Day 04. S 80º14.1736 W 80º37.2676 to S 80º24.8351 W 80º28.2534. 21 km. 8.5 hrs. 70m up. 70m down. 3470 Cal.  I got quite badly sunburnt on my cheeks and jawline yesterday despite them being on the shaded side. I think the reflection from the snow is enough. Today I would take more precautions and wore a buff to protect my neck and a small hat to cover my scalp. It was a bit windier today so I could get away covering up a bit before I started to sweat. It was still probably minus 10 but I could feel the sun warming my back. I smeared my lips and cheeks in sunblock and set off at 0900. Probably not a pretty sight but I would meet no-one today.

046. After getting fried yesterday I was taking no chances with the sun today. Notice despite the sun there was still frost on by jacket.

Initially the snow was good as I skied south past the distant Patriot Hills, possibly 20 km to the west. There was a grand array of peaks, likely composed of hard rock which rose up through the icesheet. All the rock I had seen so far, mostly from the plane seemed to be sedimentary. I made good time and with the early start I was eating up the kilometres and after 3 hours had already done 10. I stopped for lunch in the middle of the vast icesheet in the very slight breeze. The sun was shining, and it warmed anything black facing it. I sat on my pulk and ate the Clif bars and drank my first hot chocolate. Unfortunately, there was something wrong with my drinks mix. Either it stewed all night and lost its flavour, or the flask was imparting a metallic substance. I noticed it yesterday also and my drink tasted foul. I was sure it was stainless steel, but it looked matt now. It was a GSI Microlite 1 Litre, and I had 3 of them. I would try putting the next batch in lukewarm to avoid scalding the milk/chocolate mix. My Nalgene bottles did not have the taste and were sweet and delicious.

047. Looking over my pulk to the distant Patriot Hills. The poggies on my ski poles were very useful. As was the ribbon which showed wind direction and helped with navigation.

After lunch I thought I would be at the 3 sails in no time. However, it took ages to make any headway. The snows surface was ridged and furrowed, and also hard and unforgiving. my skis often crossed at the top of an ice mound, and I fell over twice, once when the strong elastic on the pulk trace heaved my back. As I ski towards the 3 sails, they started to disappear from sight, and I very gradually descended into a dip. I was using them as navigation as there was a way point nearby. With them disappearing I had to resort to my gadgets to navigate.

048. A zoomed in shot to one of the biggest massifs in the Patriot Hills.

After a slow lumpy climb the tops of the 3 sails reappeared and with each step more and more of them were revealed. They were not high or dramatic nunataks but graceful like the sails of a schooner. I seemed no closer to them than I was a lunchtime, but the Patriot Hills were definitely starting to recede now. After the 3 sails there was nothing but the ice sheet. I imagined the Ancient Mariner must have felt like this as he sailed through the Pillars of Hercules and out into the vast Atlantic. There would have been a few rocky outcrops about to see him off before he ventured into the vast empty ocean expanse. The 3 sails were to be my last outcrops before I went forth into the all-encompassing and featureless expanse. I would see the odd distant nunatak but nothing significant until the Theil Mountains and they were still 3-4 weeks away. It really would be an isolating experience.

The snow got difficult towards the end of the day and was quite lumpy. It was always firm and had been since I left the plane. I occasionally tried short skins, but I slipped around too much on the small icy ridges so went back to the full skins. On one occasion I slipped, and my ski knocked and bent the clip holding the end of the skins to the rear end of the skin. I would have to bent it back later in the tent so put on one ski with short skins in addition the one with long skins. It got me thinking about the vulnerability of the skins. Once the glue was wet it would have to be dried before reattaching. In fact, all in all skins are somewhat vulnerable. If I was to buy my equipment again, I would definitely get a pair of Fisher Crown Base ski which have fishscales on them. Not are fast as skins and the connoisseurs look down on them but trouble free and reliable.

049. The graceful Three Sails which I camped near. It might be the last bit of land I pass for a while.

The last few km of the day were a bit laboured. Perhaps I was worrying about the ski skins, but I did not feel full of joy as I had previously in the trip. However, the sun was out and the wind was barely there so the evening was pleasant. I decided to camp at 1800. It would give me enough time to boil 7 litres and eat supper before my 2100 check in call. With the tent up and the vestibule facing south the sun soon warmed the tent and it felt cosy inside. I did my cooking duties, phoned ALE and then sent a few messages on the Garmin device which was quite remarkable. Sam still seemed to be going well and Jacob and Poppis were 2 days behind me. I also heard from Bex of the Fire Angels. I forgot to mention them yesterday. They were 2 Welsh girls, firefighters, skiing from Union Glacier to the South Pole. This brings the total number of Expeditioners to 18 this year, which must be something of a record for ALE. It had been a good day but not a great day and I was a bit worried about the hard snow conditions. The icy ridges might take a toll on my equipment.

Day 05. S 80º24.8351 W 80º28.2534 to S 80º35.5031 W 80º09.1850. 22 km. 8.5 hrs. 100m up. 90m down. 3340 Cal.  The locations where I camp are given in degrees as there is a lack of suitable landmarks. Imagine the world split into an orange with 360 segments, 180 West and 180 East. At the equator the distance across each segment is 60 nautical miles. Obviously when we leave the equator and head to the top or bottom of the segments the segment remains distinct but the distance across it reduces proportionally until it becomes virtually nothing.  This is called longitude. Now let us imagine two segments of the orange lying side by side so they form a circle. Then cut a segment of orange up into 180 equal portions, like a cake, and divide them into 90 North and 90 south. The outside edge of each of these portions, or degrees, is also 60 nautical miles, but unlike the longitude, the 360 segments of the orange, they stay at 60 nautical miles wherever their position. For my trip I can forget the longitude, it is irrelevant, but the latitude is important. I start at about South 80 Latitude and then go through all of the 80’s until I reach South 90 – which is the pole. So, I have to pass 10 degrees with each one being 60 nautical miles or roughly 11 km. So, the S figure in my campspot in today’s case is S 80º35.5031 and means 80 degrees and 35 minutes with a fraction of the minute in decimals. There are 60 minutes in a degree latitude also so when I get to S 80º59.9999 I am just a few steps from S 81º.  the degrees of latitude will become important for me as I ski down to S 90º the South Pole itself. As I said earlier each degree is 111 Kilometres and I have 10 to do of which I have done about half of one.

My face was still stinging from 2 days ago, so I covered up very well again with a hat, buff, and total sun block on the exposed areas. It was still not enough in this intense sun. The problem was my sunglasses kept steaming up as my breath was diverted into the buff. I could not really see my watch for navigation or indeed the lie of the snow and its ridges. Twice I fell forwards when a ski hit an unseen ridge. I also went backwards a couple of times which must have looked quite comical and the pulk refused to more and the strong bungee cord yanked me backwards off my feet. More seriously though something might break.

050. Putting the goggles on was a revelation as the vision was so clear and the face protection attached to the underside of them was a godsend.

I decided to try the goggles. I have never used goggles in 40 years of ski touring. I always battered on in a ventile jacket and old sunglasses and thought goggles was for the Alpine ski slopes. However, putting them on was like having like having cataracts removed. Not only that but the face protection Fiona had made to sew onto the goggles covered my cheeks, nose, and top lip. I was sold. I can’t believe it took me 40 years to discover goggles but now I am a convert. Especially for these Julbo ones which pull of the face a bit to allow air circulation.

The snow was still quite lumpy for many kilometres after the Three Sails. Not quite full blown sastrugi but ridged and scalloped enough to make me work hard. Occasionally I looked round in a forlorn way to see if anybody was catching me up but there was nothing but an ocean of ice. In the receding distance was the Patriot Hills but they were getting smaller by the day. I stopped for lunch and had Mac and Cheese. I sat on my pulk and ate it in the sun with virtually no wind. Although it was about minus 10 it was warm in the sun. It was quite surreal to be sat here, totally isolated for everyone else and viewing this vast vista of ice and mountain. I was lucky too it was such magnificent weather. I was privileged indeed to experience such tranquil splendour, and indebted to be educated to such a level I could appreciate it.

 

051. A last lingering look at the magnificent Patriot Hills before I dissapear into an ocean of ice.

After lunch the going got much easier as the snow became smoother. I still had the full skins on and was comfortable in them. I needed their traction to pull the 130 kg pulk and in anything less would have been tense. By midday any physical niggles I had like a stiff back had disappeared once I warmed up. So, I could ski carefree across the easier snow heading south into the ocean of ice. The last outpost of land was disappearing quickly. The goggles were fantastic, and my face was covered. The only issue I now had was that with the absence of any landmarks I strayed off the trail regularly. It had a few tools to keep me right. Firstly, a compass bearing taken from a GPS and it was about 180, secondly I could use the sun and the wind ribbon on my ski stick to keep a constant like my shadow at 1200 hrs or the wind ribbon at 0700 hrs and lastly I had the route on my watch as a track and this was my main means of sticking to the line. Nonetheless with my mind in neutral and the skis swishing away I often found myself a few hundred metres each side of it. It was not important, but it meant it zig-zagged a bit.

052. The pulk make a great seat. At the far end I have a pizza box of drinking chocolate bottles to sit on and wash down my lunch. Note the wind ribbon on the ski pole for wind direction indication.

It was really a lovely afternoon’s ski, and I was full of optimism and the worries of yesterday were now diminished. No doubt something will happen to some equipment again soon and I will have to find a fix for it but in the meantime, I could enjoy the peace and lack of worry. I did get a few messages from others, and they seemed to be experiencing a bit of grief. Sam on his long trip was bogged down in deep snow with a 170 kg pulk on Berkner Island. He was a tough guy though Sam and I sure he would push on. The Fire Angels were also on sticky snow today, the wrong side of Hercules Inlet. I feared for their speed of progress, and I feared worse for Omar on the bicycle and could just not see how it would be possible to make progress in this uneven snow, especially towing a pulk. Still no news of the young Turks of Jacob, Pierre, Missy Desktop or the Finns under the experienced Poppis, all of whom were behind me, probably a few more days. I could have pushed on more, but I thought it best to keep it under 8 hours in the beginning so camped just before 1900 hrs. As usual I angled the tent so the sun would heat the vestibule in the night and dry my sweaty clothes. It was another magnificent day; the type of day Norwegians dream of when they flock to the winter mountains at Easter.

Day 06. S 80º35.503 W 080º09.185 to S 80º45.670 W 08000.345  20 km. 7 hrs. 70m up. 100m down. 2830 Cal.  It was yet another good day in prospect when I opened the tent. The 2 solar panels were working well inside the tent to charge the 2 battery banks I had. They would even charge in the inner tent laid on the floor. I was getting quite well rehearsed now in my morning routine. After breakfast in bed, I put all the gadgets, tools, medicines, drinks containers and stove system into one of 5 soft material boxes. They were all red to keep the tent looking warm. I then zipped up the sleeping bag, and mattress into its lime green protective cover and threw everything outside. I then put my boots on, zipped up the tent and loaded the 5 red material boxes into the pulk. I then split the tent poles in half and folded the half not in the sleeve over and rolled the tent up and put it into a long ripstop tube. This tube went inside the pulk beside the red boxes. Then the sleeping system went on top and the skis I was not using on to again. There were pockets in the lime green material bag for thinks I might need like a Gore-Tex jacket of mittens but up to now had not used. It generally took me half an hour to pack.

053. The two types of skin I use. The full length on the left and the short skins on the right. The latter are faster but often don’t provide the traction I need.

Today I started on full skins. The conditions were quite fast and the pulk runners slid nicely on the hard morning snow. I skied all morning and had done 10 km by midday. It was the fastest ski of the trip yet. After lunch I tried the skis with the short skins, and they were OK but not as good as the long skins, so I switched back. In the ridged condition, which the Norwegians would call Skare, the short section with the skin might not be in contact with the snow and I would slip back. It was unnerving and tense so I switched back, especially as I could see a small climb coming up.

The goggles continued to be fantastic, and the cheek and nose protection worked perfectly with the soft-shell wool jacket and zip to cover virtually my entire face and I was slowly recovering from being battered by the sun 3-4 days ago at the start. I noticed my clothes were also a bit looser now, especially the salopettes which I wore constantly. A week ago, if the button ripped loose and popped off it would have taken someone’s eye out but now it was just straining gently. I was also getting a bit more agile, but still groaned when I stood up after kneeling. It would be a while before I could get off the floor keeping my hands in my pockets.

I stopped for lunch and sat on the back of the pulk having one last look at the Patriot Hills and Heritage Range before they disappeared into the distance. I was about to head into the ocean of ice, but I did notice 2 lofty nunataks sticking out in the middle of the ice. They were at least 50 kilometres away. My hot chocolate was foul again from the thermos, and I had to pour it away. I realized that the problem was the milk was forming culture in the flask. It was a really bitter taste and made butter milk taste pleasant. I would have to rethink my drinks and now add hot water to the milk/chocolate in a Nalgene bottle. At least the thermos did keep it warm for 24 hours.

054. Having lunch and looking across the vast frozen ocean of ice with very little features on it.

After lunch I tried the short skins again but soon reverted. The snow was really quite good with no sastrugi and smaller skarve. I made good time however by about 17 km I noticed a small pain on the left side of the left knee. I decided to call it a day at 1800 after 20 km rather than try for a couple more and run the risk of injury. I fold a flat spot and put the tent up. I took 15 minutes until I was inside getting the stove going. Despite the -10 outside and the 10 knot wind it was soon cosy inside. I was only 1800 which meant an early night. I rinsed the contaminated flasks with hot water and filled them with hot water. I cooked the dehydrated tea and then made my obligatory 2100 hrs phone call to ALE. it seems people were a day or two behind and everyone was reporting OK conditions. I wrote the blog trying not to fall asleep in my sleeping bag and eventually crashed out at 2200 – a record for me as its often midnight.

055. A last look at the now distant Patriot hills before they disappear behind the curve of the glacier or into the haze. I will be sad to see them go as they have been my only companion in the last week.

Day 07.  S 80º45.670 W 08000.345 to S 80º53.512 W 080º04.207. 15 km. 5 hrs. 20m up. 80m down. 1910 Cal.  It was quite windy in the morning, perhaps a Force 4. However, the spindrift was barely moving across the surface of the snow. It was millions of tiny pieces of snow and ice, small and spherical, flowing endlessly across the snow, ultimately north in Antarctica, until it found a drift to latch onto and become part of. The wind just made it more difficult to do things, like wrap up the tent as one had to be careful not to slip you grasp on anything, especially the tent. Otherwise, it would be off and much faster than I could run! It also made it a bit colder on the hands. However, it was a bright bright day, and the sun was fierce. it is difficult to underestimate the ferocity of the sun and its UV power. I am not sure if the Ozone hole has been filled in again. I think it has. But the rays are strong and are present 24 hours a day as the sun goes around overhead. I was only now repairing the carnage the sun had done to my lips on the first two days with constant smearing of lip balm and total cover by clothes.

It was perhaps -10 and the snow was quite firm. It seemed to be best in the morning when the sun was at its lowest. It was a skarve, with small holes and scallops. The pulk moved like a dream across it and my skis slid well also so progress was quite fast. I think I might have been going down very slightly as the resistance was minimal. it was really a lovely ski and in 3 hours I had covered so 10 km and stopped quite early for lunch at midday. The biggest of the Patriot Hills were just poking above the ice horizon as I sat on my pulk and had Mac and Cheese. I solved the problem with the foul-tasting milk culture in the flask by just keeping hot water in the flask, from the night before, and adding it to the milk as I needed it in a Nalgene bottle. It was cold in the wind, so I sat with my back to it with my full Gore-Tex jacket over my skiing jacket.

056. Lunch on my pulk on Day 07. The mountains of the Patriot Hills and indeed all the Ellsworth Mountains were all beyond the horizon now save for a few distant tops.

After lunch the lovely conditions continued but I think I started to go up slightly on the undulating ice. It was difficult to tell with the naked eye and I just noticed it when the resistance increased, and my watch started to show some altitude gain. It was very gradual at perhaps a metre every 5 minutes. The snow was the best of the trip so far and the ridges in the skarve formations were small. Occasionally there would be completely flat patches. It was a far cry from the lumpy skarve and medium sastrugi on the climb up from Hercules Inlet over the first 2-3 days. In fact, the skiing now was a joy. It was still too uneven for me to switch completely to the small skins, but I am sure most Norwegians would have done so.

After a couple of easy hours after lunch I noticed the pain in my knee coming back. It was on the outside of the left knee. I know little of the anatomy of the knee other than it is complicated but for some reason though it was a cruciate ligament and it had been straining a bit over the last week and was now slightly inflamed. I also though it could be the start of it tearing which would be a trip ending event, so I decided to be cautious and call it a day. it was just 1400 and were it not for this could have gone on for another few hours. I had done 15 kilometres already which was an acceptable amount anyway. I put the tent up with the vestibule facing north and the lower end into the wind and was soon inside.

057. Melting snow in the tent on the reliable but noisy MSR XGK 11 stove. I still use my trusty 40-year-old Witco spade from Norway. It is heavier than its modern carbon fibre equivalents but it has never let me down.

I was quite a luxury to have the whole afternoon to relax in the warm tent. Outside it was minus 11 but inside in was plus 20. I boiled the 6 litres of water and then turned off the jet engine of the stove to enjoy the silence. The stove is an MSR XGK 11. It is a solid little stove with few moving parts and it not adjustable. It is either on and roaring away or off and quiet. There are other options, but they are not as reliable. Indeed, I still have my 25-year-old MSR XGK 1 and use it from time to time in Nepal, where everything else clogs up on the dubious kerosene.

I then hung all my slightly damp clothing up on the clothes lines in the tent and clipped them there with beech cloths pegs. They would dry in no time in this heat. Some items, especially my wool skiing jacket which I would use in all but the worst weather, was starting to smell like a wet dog and that was just after a week. I can imagine after 8 it will be quite rich. I made my mattress into a chaise longue by raising the end, pulled the sleeping back over me and started to write the blog. However, the comfort and warmth soon overwhelmed me and I dozed for an hour. It might be hard to believe that in this extremely isolated and inhospitable place, in the middle of a vast icesheet one could find such comfort.

058. Hanging all the undergarments, gloves, and hat in the tent to dry at the end of each day. Without the solar gain of the tent, enhanced by its yellow colour, the expedition would be a damp, frozen misery.

As the afternoon wore on, I got a few messages for other skiers. Sam was still on Berkner Island 500 kilometres away and after a week of hard slog had at last had a nicer day with firmer snow and Jacob was still in good spirits by the 3 sails and the Finns under the characterful Poppis were also there. I could reassure Jacob and Poppis that the conditions were about to get better. No news of Omar on his bike, Pierre who I would expect to catch up soon and Alan and Mike, the older ex marines. It was comforting to know there were others on the ice even if they were 50 km away. I finished the blog and dinner well before my scheduled check in at 2100. I had taken 2 Ibuprofen with each meal since midday and my knee was totally forgotten about, so I probably won’t speak to the doctor today as tomorrow is Medical Monday when we all have to speak to either Doctor Isla or Doctor Paddy for our weekly check-up which the very professional ALE provide.

Day 08.  S 80º53.512 W 080º04.207 to S 81º02665 W 080º 02.141. 18 km. 7 hrs. 90m up. 110m down. 2260 Cal.  It was not that nice when I woke at about 0500. The sun was off course still up as it never set but it was behind a layer of cloud so there was not the solar gain, and the tent was cold. In addition, there was a good wind outside, not quite a force 5 but enough to rattle the tent and have all the promise for a cold day. I put on an extra layer in anticipation and had to use the cosier but less dexterous Hestra gloves to take the tent down as my usual OR Backstop were not enough. I packed everything into the pulk without allowing too much spindrift in.

059. It was quite windy in the morning and cold without much sun. The spindrift was lashing the south end of the tent.

Initially my knee was OK but after a few kilometres it started to hurt again. I analysed the movement which aggravated it, and it seemed it was due to my lower leg moving forwards rather than what I expected it to be which was straining to straighten the leg and move forward. I was still in the full skins, and they had a fair bit of friction in them especially as I often had to lift the tip as Colltex had changed the front rubber clips and they often caught on the snow. I decided to change to the short skins as the conditions now warranted it anyway. They glided forwards much more easily and after a kilometre I did not feel the knee anymore. Hallelujah. Unless I hit large sastrugi and had to switch to full skins again this was the solution. My arms had to work harder as I could no longer plough forwards like a tractor and had to put more power into them. Perhaps different parts of my body had to take it in turns to have a bit of pain.

I was glad I had an extra wool layer under the goretex shell. It was the first time I had both the goretex salopettes, which I virtually live in, and the goretex jacket on. I felt a bit trussed up, but I was covered head to toe and felt warm. Importantly my cheeks and upper lip were covered by the goggles and the flap below them and my lower lip by the merino jacket. The flow of dry cold air over them still aggravated the sunburn from a week ago but it was subsiding. I even got sunburnt on the tip of my tongue then.

I was too cold to fiddle around and get the camera out for photos. Not that there was much to take. The mountains had disappeared, and it was just this vast icefield as far as the eye could see. At the top of a small rise, I just saw what I assumed were the Pirrit Hills and a vast monolith of a nunatak beside them called Moreland Nunatak which stood up steeply from the icefield. They were perhaps 40-50 kilometres to my west, and I would see them from time to time today.

The snow was good, and I could see from my watch I was going down ever so slightly. I made good time and within 3 hours I had made 9 km and I felt great. The weather was not as fierce as it was earlier, and I thought to have lunch on my pulk. I got the pizza delivery box out and poured water from my flasks on my mac and cheese and into my Nalgene bottle with the chocolate and milk mix which was now delicious compared to the rancid culture a few days ago. I could see none of the Young Turks approaching.

060. The headgear is important. I have a hat on then googles over this. At the bottom of the googles is a flap sewn on to protect the nose and upper lip. Then a wool under jacket zipped up to protect the bottom lip and this also has a hood. Finally, a goretex jacket with a hood and a small ruff covers everything.

After lunch the almost imperceptible undulations continued. The wind was now just a force 4 and the sun barely visible. It made the light quite flat and lacking in contrast. I needed this contrast to ski towards features in the snow but without it I was just going on my shadow, I was often skiing into my shadow, or the wind direction ribbon. However, it was hard not to unconsciously turn so I was going parallel with the ridges of skave snow rather than diagonally over it, as I should, but which was more effort. I frequently had to correct myself. After another 3 hours I stopped for more chocolate drink and a biscuit and had intended to go more but the pain started to come back in my knee soon after I restarted. The snowfields were good, and I could camp anywhere at will so after 18 km stopped and pitched the tent. This time I made sure the vestibule was facing south to catch the night sun, warm the tent and charge the batteries. I seemed to have a surplus of power with the two solar chargers.

I think my body is suffering a little from the weight I put on before I started. I had gone from slightly above my fighting weight to plump. Carrying too much weight takes its toll on the body just like too much snow on a Christmas tree will take a toll on the branches. Eventually limbs start to ache and break. I can see I am getting slightly more agile now as I lose weight and by the end of this trip should be in fine shape and ready to lead an active life. The test will be to see if I am able to stand up from lying on the floor while keeping my hands in my pockets.

Just before I stopped, I crossed the 81-degree line. I had skied a whole slice of the cake I talked about a few days ago, from 80 degrees to 81 degrees. It was 60 nautical miles or about 111 kilometres. I still had another 9 degrees to ski, but it was nice to get one out of the way. I also had to start a new food bag as I had already gone through one. Each bag contains 7 days of rations, and I had 7 left. I did a quick calculation and see that I had to ski just over 20 kilometres a day for the next 49 days to reach the South Pole at 90 degrees. It was quite feasible as I would get fitter hopefully and my pulk would get considerably lighter losing over 10 kg per week.

061. Disrobing all the head gear in the sanctuary of the tent. Often the tent was so bright I would need sunglasses inside it!

Once inside the tent surrounded by down feathers, I was soon warm and relaxed in the orange/yellow glow. It was -11 outside, -21 with the windchill but inside the tent it was 14 degrees. As always it was a luxurious end to the day to lounge around for a few hours and eat supper. One day there will be a storm, but I can secure the tent to make it much more solid and half bury the sides with snow to see it out. The was not so much chat on the Garmin messenger service with the other expeditioners this evening but I did speak to Doctor Isla at ALE as it was Medical Monday and told her about my knee.

 

Day 09. S 81º02.665 W 080º 02.141 to S 81º05.880 W 080º02.305. 6 km. 2.5 hrs. 20m up. 60m down. 1120 Cal.  It was a force 5 in the morning and overcast with little solar warmth. I had to be careful when taking the tent down not to lose anything in the wind. I have a security line on the tent which I attach to the line I drag the pulk with which I used this morning. If I lost a grip of the tent, it would be off quicker that I could ski. My hands got a little cold, but they soon warmed up when I started to ski. I have poggies on my ski sticks and they are fantastic as they keep the wind off completely. Before long the cold in the fingers was replace by the hot aches as blood rushed into them. I had overdressed this morning and I soon had to stop to take off my wool jacket and put on the goretex jacket. The wool jacket is totally unsuitable to skiing if there is any spindrift as it would soon get covered.

I headed south for a couple of kilometres over easy snow and was feeling quite good physically but there was a slight twinge in the knee. It was on the left-hand side of the left-hand knee, at the bony protrusion and perhaps 2 cm forward of the large tendon which comes down the back on the knee on the outside. As the kilometres progressed it got slightly worse and after 4 km I stopped for a biscuit. However, it did not go away. It was not that painful, but I am just worried that if I pushed it, I would cause more damage. After 2 km it was not going away as I warmed up, so I decided to call it a day at around 1200.

My knees have never troubled me before, and I was not expecting it. I was more worried about my back but not my knees. Some might say I pushed it too much on the first week and I was a bit too greedy to get the kilometres in and perhaps keep up with the pack. I would say there is a lot of truth in this, and I should have limited my skiing to 6 hours a day for the first week and then increased it by an hour a week thereafter. However, the situation is now that there is an inflamed tendon and I have to throw everything at it to resolve it otherwise it might become a trip ending injury. As I put the tent up, I could feel nothing wrong and once in the tent it was fine, but I would have to rest it. So, I decided to take the rest of the day off and all of tomorrow also.

062. My tent, its south end well battened down against the south wind. I may well spend 48 hours here.

I will hit it with Ibuprofen and try and put a small ice pack on it and keep it rested. Then in two days’ time I will go for a small 3-hour ski and keep it at that for a while until I am confident, I can stretch things again.  One thing I do have on my side at the moment is time and I still have nearly 50 days of food to do exactly 1000 km. It is a good week worth of food more than most people have. However, I cannot say I am not disappointed to have accrued this injury so early. I remember a good friend of mine in Norway warning me about getting “belastningsskader” a couple of weeks into my Norge Paa Langs on skis. Well, it seems I have got a “belastningsskader” and will have to nurse it for a while.

Once in the tent I had a snooze. The spindrift swirled outside, and I could hear sliding off the tent when it built up a bit. There was little solar gain as the sun was behind the cloud. I had dozed for a couple of hours when suddenly I heard something outside. It must be Pierre. I knew he was a short distance behind me. I unzipped the fly and right enough it was Pierre. We chatted for a good 5 minutes. It seemed he had a similar problem and he thought it was also caused by his full skins. I noticed he was on his mohair short skins now. The best of the best. I have a pair too and might put them on when I leave here.

063. Pierre came skiing past my tent late afternoon. He continued for a few hours I think into the wind. He seemed a very strong and experienced skier despite his young years.

He was completely kitted out for the weather and even had his Air Avenger mask on and a large Wolverine ruff. With him getting cold outside and spindrift blowing into the tent our conversation was swift. We exchanged numbers and I zipped up tent and he clipped into his harness and slipped away into the weather.

It was good seeing Pierre. He was one of the Young Turks I was waiting to catch me up. He would now be the leader of this year’s Peloton of skiers heading from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole. There would be no material benefit to following in his tracks because there would be none. However, there was some psychological comfort knowing he was out there forging the way. I expected to see Jacob or even Omar on his bicycle next. The tent was not that warm due to the lack of sun, but it was nice to spend the afternoon lazing in it. Having to spend a whole day in it tomorrow through should be quite boring but necessary.

Day 10. S 81º05.880 W 080º02.305. 0 km. 0 hrs. 0m up. 0m down. 0 Cal. As my knee was not fully recovering, I had already decided to throw everything at it today to see if I could stop it worsening. And that meant taking a day off and staying in bed. When I heard the wind outside and unzipped the flysheet to see a force 5 with a good bit of spindrift and light snow, I was not sorry. I could not just roll over and go back to sleep as I had to get up, get fully dressed and then go outside and clear the snow which had built up on the vestibule especially. It was remarkable to see how big and long the drift was down wind of the tent which had formed just in one night due to the changed aerodynamics of my tent being there. That done it was back into the tent to disrobe and crawl back into my still warm sleeping bag. I dozed on and off until lunchtime midmorning.

064. The Office. I usually write the blog from my sleeping bag with the thermarest backrest up after the evening meal.

I then sent a long string of messages to my favourite Veterinarian, who was up to speed on the knee anyway. It seemed I had inflamed my IT Band right at the bottom of the femur. It was not a catastrophe and was eminently treatable. Firstly RICE. I was Resting, Ice was in abundance everywhere, so I put some snow from the porch in a ziploc bag and then stuffed it down my leggings to the knee joint. I did not bother with Compression and as I was horizontal, I did not bother Elevating. In addition to that I took 3 more nurofen today. I was also given some exercise to do. One of which involved rolling on a cylinder.

065. The tent on the windy morning was covered in spindrift and had to be dug out to all what little sun there was to heat the inside.

Everyone who camps in the snow knows the comfort of a pee bottle. It saves getting out of you sleeping bag and going out into the snow. Mine is a pink Nalgene bottle with flowers on it. The main exercise I had to do was lie on my left side quite rigidly, almost like planking. Then I had to put the cylinder under my hip and propel myself forwards keeping rigid, so the cylinder rolled down to my knee and stretched the IT Band. I had to do this 4 times twice a day. I could have used my thermos flasks, but I think I would have crushed them, so the pee bottle was ideal. My tent floor had an insulated covering and under that was hard snow. It was perfect for a gym floor once the sleeping system was raised to one side. I got in position and rolled up the tent floor using the bottle as a fulcrum until my head was in the vestibule over the hole, I dig so I can sit up. I did this 4 times and could feel the muscle and tendon stretching. I was then back to more snoozing for the afternoon while the poor weather continued.

On the positive side my lips which had got so burnt a week ago and previously felt like they had been botoxed with hot lava were now starting to calm down completely. Despite using 100% sun block I had a trout pout for a few days. With much bee’s wax and face coverings I had nursed them back to normal and today inside all day and it being dull made a huge difference. Even in the tent there is risk of getting sunburnt and my solar chargers work beside me when I sleep if the sun is out.

It is easy to let negative thoughts accrue in a long trip, especially if conditions are unpleasant, or things are not going well. I noticed on the PCT walk in the US many hikers listened to headphones. I questioned one as to why he thought this was better than the sound of the wind in the pines or babbling brooks or even the iconic call of the Hermit Thrush. He said if he didn’t, he would have the same thoughts going round and round in his head for days and often they were negative. I totally knew where he was coming from as I had also noticed it. Had I slogged on today with a sore knee into the half-hearted blizzard I would have struggled to keep positive. However now I am positive and hope I can regain full fitness in a week or so. Tomorrow I will just to 3 hours skiing – even if it is a perfect day – and then camp. I will slowly build it up again. I still have the luxury of time on my side even if I only do 100 km in the next week. And my pulk is getting lighter by the day.

Day 11. Nov 30th. S 81º05.880 W 080º02.305 to S81º09.903 W 080º02.853. 8 km. 3.5 hrs. 60m up. 60m down. 1730 Cal. My knee felt fine this morning. However, it had felt good most of the time except at the end of a day which were increasingly getting shorter due to it. I had done pretty much everything I could, and I just could not spend another day in bed. My idea was to build up slowly now. So today I aimed to do about 8 km or 3 hours. There was no hurry at all and when I looked out of the tent it was overcast with a flat light with little contrast. It would make it difficult to pick out the nuances of the snow. I did my IT Band stretches and was reading to start packing up when far on the horizon I saw 2 skiers. It must be Alan and Mike I thought, and they would more than likely swing by to say hello. When I looked 15 minutes later, I saw it was just one skier. I knew who it was, and they were trying to do it as quickly as possible. They also wanted to keep it under wraps a bit, so I won’t say more. They gave me a wide berth and continued past my tent at half a kilometre’s distance, so I carried on with my packing. By the time I was out of the tent, had packed my pulk and was ready to set off they were a distant dot about to get swallowed by the poor light.

066. The anonymous skier went past my tent at a distance in the morning hoping to reach the south pole in a record time.

For the first step my knee felt good. I was nervous about it and was tuned in to see if I could feel anything, but I could not and that was a relief. The snow of yesterday had smoothed over the snowfields beautifully and most of the ridges and scallops of the skare had been filed by it. It was easy skiing but the pulk was a bit more of a drag because of the ankle-deep snow. My short skins were coping well. However, the light was very poor, and it was difficult to see the nuances of the snow and the ups and down. Hence it was difficult to put on a small spurt to overcome a small rise or move slightly left or fight to avoid a divot. A few caught me out and one made me fall over. Had it been sunny bright clear weather today would have been an excellent ski. After an hour and a half, I had done 4 easy kilometres and thought I would take lunch rather than blast through the 3 hours in one go.

I sat on my pulk and rehydrated the macaroni and poured hot water onto the powdered chocolate drink in my Nalgene bottle. It was cold at about minus 14 and the wind was force 4, so there was quite a wind chill. After lunch I just had an hour and a half left to ski for today’s quota so experimented with the different head coverings, goggles, and mouth pieces I had.  The “cold avenger” mask which Pierre was wearing in the photo a few days ago was good but it interfered with the flap I had sewn onto the bottom of the goggles. The flap gets a lot of moisture on it and was frozen, so I had to get my other goggles out and with them it worked fine for an hour. I then tried the neoprene balaclava for winter motorcycle racing. They worked well but was a bit tight and I noticed some ice building up inside the goggles with these on. I also spent time adjusting my compass holder which is a chest strap with a protrusion to hold the compass at eye level, so I don’t have to look down to see my bearing. These are remarkably accurate but not as convenient as having the route course on your watch.

After 8 km my knee was still completely OK. It could have been tempting to go on, but the visibility was poor, and both goggles needed some work on them. I chose a random spot pretty much on the marked GPX route and put the tent up. It did not take long before I was inside with everything hanging on the drying lines. There was little solar gain in the tent, and it barely crept above zero. There was also no sun to charge the batteries. Luckily, I had an abundance of power which would last 4-5 days, but I would need the sun soon to charge the gadgets. In the later afternoon I put the back of the thermarest up and sat in my sleeping bag and had Clif Bars and hot chocolate. I intended to write the blog after that but fell asleep upright. When I woke there was tepid glow in the tent which was now 5 degrees plus. The sun was not far away and could come anytime in the night to turn the tent into a drying room. I was pleased with today and even if I had been fighting fit, I would not have done more that 20 km because of the light. I will up my distance tomorrow marginally and of course do my exercises and ice my knee tonight.

Day 12. Dec 1st. S 81º09.903 W 080º02.853 to S81º15.152 W080º03.464.  10 km. 3.5 hrs. 30m up. 40m down. 1530 Cal. At odds with the forecast, it was bright and sunny outside. Perhaps the first sun for 3-4 days. It made such a difference to the mood. In the bright clear light, the snow almost shone and every ridge or change in surface was crystal clear. I thought there was a tent about a km from me last night but now in the clear light I could see it was the massive sugar loaf bulk of Moreland Nunatak. It rose straight out of the ice to a great height and was steep on all sides. It stood defiant against the ice sheet unwilling to be eroded away like so many of its neighbours. It was much easier to pack up without the wind and I was more optimistic about the day.

067. The distant Moreland Nunatak is about 50 km to the west of the trail and stood out proud from the ice sheet.

The snow was good, and I made speed across it. Sometimes the pulk just followed like a Jack Russel. Its runners just sliding easily over the crests of the ridged snow. The suddenly it the dug in like a St Bernard wanting to sniff and I had to lean forwards to pull it through the softer snow. It was a easy hour and a half to my first break but which time I had already done 4 km. There was a twinge in the knee but not the one that concerned me as it was in a different place. The headpiece I was wearing seemed to work well and it did not fog up the goggles at all. It was the winter motorcycle racing hood which was a fully face covering mask. It was made by FXR racing. At the first break I stopped for my main lunch which was all in the refreshment’s cabinet along with the hot chocolate. The only problem with the hood is I had to remove it to eat. Moreland Nunatak stood proud far to the west.

068. The refreshment cabinet with hot water to rehydrate the meal and hot chocolate to drink.

The next 4 kilometres were much the same. The sun came a went a bit more now so I to concentrate on the direction more as I could not use my shadow all the time as a compass. Usually on the bearing I am skiing on which is 142 degrees I am skiing directly into my shadow at 1400 in the afternoon. After another 4 km in an hour and a half I stopped again. This time just for a Clif Bar and more hot chocolate. My knee still felt fine, so I continued. However, after another kilometre I felt the first twinge of what I had been searching for. It was the slight discomfort in the IT Band at the bottom of the femur. I skied on slowly for another kilometre hoping it might pass but it did not. Wary I might undo all the remedial work I had done in the last 3 days I searched for a spot to camp with a firm base so I could do my rolling exercises.

069.  A selfie with the racing mask on. It is almost invisible under the goggles with the nose/cheek flap attached.

Putting the tent up and cooking the 7 litres of water was now a well-practiced routing and I found it second nature. As the southerly wind forecast was going down to a force 3 I decided to put the vestibule facing south. That way the solar gain was all the more should the sun come out and it would warm the tent, charge my batteries and dry the slightly damp clothing all the more. As usual in the evening, the bush telegraph started up and there were many texts on Garmin inreach messenger. Pierre was now 50 km ahead as was the anonymous skier who overtook me yesterday morning and Jacob was about level with me but far to the west. They all asked about my knee as did Sam who was doing fantastically well on Berkner Island on a different route. I had hoped to get a few more kilometres out of today but have to adjust everything to the foibles of one knee. It is a bit frustrating to see everyone overtake me and disappear over the horizon to the south. If my knee does sort itself out, I will be like a coiled spring and if not there is a plan B which I am formulating, as I need to do 20 km a day not 10 km.

Day 13. Dec 2nd. S 81º15.152 W 080º03.464 To S 81º20.929 W 080º03.970. 12 km. 4.5 hrs. 50m up. 50m down. 1770 Cal. I did not have a good night as I was worrying about my knee. It would be crushingly disappointing if I had to end my trip because of it after so much time and expense planning for it. If my knee did not repair sufficiently, I could ski on at about 8-10 km a day to the halfway point at Thiel Fuel Cache where ALE planes regularly landed. It was still 420 km to the south and in fact my next waypoint. If my knee went downhill more to the extent, I could not move then I could always get rescued, but the ignominy of that would be much to bear having never have been rescued before. On the other hand, my knee might recover completely. Certainly, the other one was like a coiled spring rearing to go.

In the morning it was overcast and dull. There was a very flat light, and it was difficult to see where horizon stopped, and the sky took over. Everything was white in this low cloud. The visibility was perhaps half a kilometre, but it was difficult to tell without any reference. Just as I was finishing packing the tent into the pulk I spotted two very small figures in the distance, perhaps 2 kilometres away. It could only be Alan Chalmers and his friend Mike – both ex marines and Mike being nearly 68. It looked like they were heading south parallel to my track but a good 2 km to the west. Jacob and the Finns under Poppis were also even further to the west. We were all on a compass bearing of 141 degrees. However, I was adhering to the imaginary line between the Three Sails and the next way point at Thiel Fuel Cache. After I set off, I quickly lost sight of them as the undulations of the icesheet got in the way.

I skied an hour and a half and did 4 km. It was quite taxing navigation wise. There were no reference points and no sun to cast a shadow. The only consistent thing was the wind ribbon on my ski stick, but it was often limp as the breeze was very small. I used the chest mounted compass, but it demanded a lot of attention, and I used my Garmin watch which had the route marked on it. The latter was the most precise. It had snowed a little in the night and it was still just snowing, and the terrain was great. The new snow had filled in the imperfections of the skave and the skiing was fast and easy. I had the small nylon skins on, and they slid beautifully over the snow and created just enough friction to pull the pulk. It slid behind me quite easily. After 4 km I stopped for a drink and a rest. My knee felt good and after a short break I continued.

The snow surface was even better now but the visibility was worse. I kept seeing mirage especially in the form of a rocky mountain ahead. A few times I also thought I saw people. There was nothing of course except me and my eyes imagination. Although the snow was good the visibility stopped me from going faster as I could only shuffle across the snow because there were still some ridges to catch me out and one did, and I fell forwards. I stopped for my second break after another hour and a half. The visibility had opened up behind me and I saw Alan and Mike again. They were still 2 km away and further to the west.

My knee still felt OK although I could just feel it if I focused on it, so I set off for another 2 or 4 km. But now the cloud had lifted a bit, and the visibility was good. The snow was also excellent and given the improved vision I could now stride out. The pulk followed obediently and I made good time. There were even hints of blue sky on the horizon. It was the best skiing of the trip so far and if it remained like this to the South Pole I would be delighted. It was still 980 km away. When I got to 10 km the knee was still fine, so I went the other two and was just starting to feel it. The wind had dropped completely when I found some firm flat snow to camp on. The tent went up easily the large pets getting a good grip in the firm surface. It was only 1600 hrs.

With the tent up I boiled the 7 litres of water I needed and then another litre to wash in with my flannel. smalling of soap for the first time in a while I got into my sleeping bag for an early supper and then wrote the blog with the clothes lines full of damp clothes drying. There was a little sun outside and it made all the difference to the tent temperature. Perhaps as much as 20 degrees more if the sun was shining.  After the last few days, the battery chargers were also picking up enough light to charge the power banks. It had been a good day the snow was excellent, and my knee was certainly improving. I am not out of the woods yet and will have to take the next week relatively carefully should I not have to revert to a couple of days rehabilitation in the tent.  I realized at the end of the day I had taken no photos all day such was the unappealing light and views.

Day 14. Dec 3rd. S 81º20.929 W 080º03.970 to S 81º27.524 W 080º04656. 14 km. 5.5 hrs. 60m up. 70m down. 1900 Cal. It was quite miserable in the morning. There was a very small amount of new snow falling from an overcast dull sky. It was not that cold at about minus 7 but it felt it. The was little wind. There was virtually no horizon, and the snowfield was a uniform smear of dull white without any contrast at all. It could be difficult skiing and it would certainly be taxing to navigate with no shadow or wind ribbon or landmarks. I packed up early and was off by 0800 as the forecast was for the wind to get up later.

As soon as I left, I could see the two skiers I saw yesterday. It must be Alan and Dave (who I previously referred to as Mike). I could see we were going to meet with the trajectory we were both on, so I speeded up a bit to be in front of them. After an hour and a half skiing, I had done 4 km and was ready for a break and they were half a kilometre or so behind me. By the time I had finished they were approaching. It was them in their blue Mountain Equipment suits covered in charitable events for the UK Forces. They were both ex marines and had led some polar expeditions with the forces. Indeed, Alan is something of a polar legend and guide. One of his more recent trips was guiding the 3 founders of Google on an Antarctic expedition. They were so impressed by him they gave him money to come on this trip with a friend, namely Dave. They were not here to set records but were just two old buddies out to have a trip to themselves. They were well loaded down as they hope to do the Hercules Inlet to South Poe unsupported. As Alan arrived, I said to him “Doctor Chalmers I presume. I have been expecting you” which made him chuckle.

070 A brief chance encounter with Al and Dave on the ice. Two hard as nails ex marines.

We had a brief chat about how we found the trip so far and they asked me if I needed anything to which I said “No”. There are strict rules to going “unsupported” and even accepting a mug of coffee would invalidate the claim. After about 5 minutes we parted company with them walking for another 10 minutes to their hourly break and me eager to get going as the wind was getting up and it was cold. With us both navigating using different systems, Alan with his compass and me with my GPS watch we soon went on slightly different trajectories into the white gloom. Occasionally I caught sight of them during the course of the next 10 km as we drifted apart.

071. Al was pulling two pulks. The small one at the back followed the main one like duckling follows a mother

After the chance meeting the remainder of the afternoon was getting easier and easier. Firstly, it became less gloomy and there was a bit of contrast to the snow at last so as least I could see the ridges and hollows before I hit them blind. Then a patch of blue sky opened up in the distance exactly where I want to be heading. It was my navigational landmark. Without landmarks, navigation must rely on instruments, and it is fiddly and time consuming. Sometimes the instruments say one thing and intuition says another. Off course intuition is always wrong but it sows doubt and erodes confidence. Soon the small patch grew, and it was coming my way.

The snow was now easy to ski on and I glided well on the skis. I could see where the small ridges were on the gentle skarve so I could thrust a bit more to get the pulk over them rather than being caught unawares and heaving to haul it over with no momentum. I stopped for a short break of biscuits and a litre of chocolate drink before pushing on. The wind was increasing a bit but there was no spindrift yet. Most importantly my knee was not causing any major issues. I could feel it, but it was well within my worry zone. Even as I reached the 14 km mark, I could have gone on but thought it prudent to stop. It was only 1500 hrs, early afternoon really. The wind was increasing all the time also and it was a force 4 now.

I had the tent up quickly. I risked pitching the vestibule into the wind so I could get more solar gain in the porch to charge batteries. I covered the flaps which surround the tent in snow to help anchor it, pegged out a few more guy ropes on the south facing vestibule side and put everything in. I then secured the pulk and went into the vestibule and dug a half metre deep hole so I could sit comfortably with my feet in the hole. I then disrobed my face and head and fired up the stove and started melting 6 litres of water and boiling much of it. I was only using 180 ml a fuel a day using this method cooking once a day. Once the boiling was done, I withdrew into the inner tent and got changed.

072. The first task in my tent after pitching is to dig the hole for my feet and then boil water in the Robens Kettle. The plate hanger spring on the kettle lid is to hold it in place so the rim does not get squashed into an oval.

It was not a good force 6 outside and the wind roared round the tent. The flaps at the side meant no spindrift was blown in and there was a lot of it about. The wind chill must have been minus 20 or more. However, inside the tent it was bright and warm as the sun arrived and blasted through the walls. Once my batteries warmed up, they started to charge quickly placed on the bags inside. The drying rack was warm, and I knew everything would dry quickly. I had a full 3mm mat across the entire groundsheet and it was black and also absorbed the heat. It was like being inside a greenhouse. I checked my thermometer at one stage on the drying rack in the roof and it measured 31.5 degrees. It was fantastically cosy and yet just the other side of the thin fly it was bitterly cold. I was very comfortable writing the blog. It had been a good day I was now up to 14 km a day with my knee. It would be nice to get 16 tomorrow but I must not undue the last weeks self-nursing.

Day 15. Dec 4. S 81º27.524 W 080º04656 to S 81º36.805 W 080º05.673. 16 km. 6.5 hrs. 70m up. 50m down. 2340 Cal. It was windy in the night, and it was still windy in the morning. A good force 5 if not a 6. The wind had blown the spindrift into a huge ridge some 50 metres long and half a metre high down wind of the tent. Even the pulk had created its own snow drift in its lee. However, it was bright and sunny and that lured me out of bed. I knew it was going to be cold packing up the tent, so I put my jacket on also. I wore my thicker gloves for this as I needed dexterity and warmth. One of my biggest fears is losing something in the wind. I have spare gloves and mitts and they are all on leashes but to lose the tent would be a nightmare and a trip ending mishap.

A bit later than I wanted I set off at 0930. The wind was bitterly cold, and I had to ski a bit to warm up enough to take my larger gloves off and put on my daily OR Backstop sensor gloves – one of the best bits of kit I have. I put my hands in these smaller gloves into the poggies which are also fantastic. The two work well together to give me the dexterity and warmth when I do a small task like undo zippers or tighten buckles.  However, the spindrift was all over the surface of the previously hard snow and it made it quite frozen sand. The pulk would not slide as easily on the matt surface as on a glossy surface. I found myself leaning forwards more than normal to get the pulk to slide. I knew it would take its toll on my knee.

073. Some of the snow surface today was quite lumpy. I am not sure if it was “skarve heavy” or “sastrugi lite”

With the sun out, the day had a much more enjoyable feel to it than the gloomy past few days. I could see for miles, and it was easy to navigate with glistening snow drifts a kilometre ahead or a single distant cloud on the horizon. It was also easy to navigate with the spindrift. It flowed across the surface of the snow like a fast motion dry ice smoke as it cascaded towards me. It was difficult to comprehend how many billions of tonnes of spindrift were on the move, not just here but all over Antarctica. It was quite mesmerising looking at it and I had to pick a path through the large skarve and occasional soft drift. When I looked up as the sky with a few clouds in it they seemed to be rushing towards me also for a while. Sometimes I was not sure if the surface of the snow could be described as Skarve Heavy or Sastrugi Lite as one merges into another.

After a hard 6 km I took a break. This would be no picnic of the first week. It was too cold and windy to stop for long. I drank a litre of hot chocolate and had a Cliff bar and was ready to move in wading upstream in a torrent of spindrift. I was well clad. I had the salopettes on as usual and they kept my legs very warm and on top I had the matching jacket and just two layers underneath. The jacket was very windproof and had a ruff round the hood to create a small microclimate around my face. It had some well thought out features like a placket pocket which allowed access to the salopette chest pockets without having to undo the whole zip. On my face now I wore the cold avenger mask which worked well and protected my lips from the bright sun, and it fitted under the goggles whose flap I sewed on was almost superfluous with the “cold avenger”. After another had 5 km I took another break – again a quick one.

I thought I would camp soon after as the snow was still sandy and heaving on the pulk was straining my knee more than I would like. However just then the snow surface became harder and the pulk glided more easily. The wind also dropped from the force 6 down to a 4 as the afternoon wore on and that made a big difference. So, I continued for another 5 km to complete my 16 for the day which is what I set out to do. Before me I could see a great wave in the ice sheet, almost like a mid ocean Tsunami. It rose some 30-50 metres and I would have to climb it next. It was just a gentle undulation in the whole ice sheet but most you could hardly see.

074. The head gear for a windy day involves a breathing mask, goggles and a ruff on the jacket to create a microclimate round the face.

I stopped at 16 km on a nice solid surface so I could do my exercises. I put the tent up carefully in the wind with the vestibule facing south to capture the sun hoping and expecting the wind to die down. I could not dig my usually half metre pit for my legs as I hit ice after 20 cm, which was impenetrable. However, I could still come in and sort everything out in the warmth of the sun. I had the added chore tonight of filling up my 3-litre bottle of fuel. Each one takes 900ml, so I have used 2.7 litres in 14 days. Not long after the 6 litres were boiled, and I could retreat into the inner tent for supper and to write the blog. Tonight was also Medical Monday where we spoke to the doctor. It was Paddy on call tonight. He gave me some tips with taping my leg and also a few exercises. However, he also though it was an ailment with I would probably have to manage throughout the trip. All in all, it had been a good day. Skiing on my own miles from anybody at the bottom of the world in bright sunshine across a vast glacier with spindrift flowing towards me was an extraordinary experience.

Day 16. Dec 5. S 81º36.805 W 080º05.673 to 81º45.060 W 080º06.537. 18 km. 8 hrs. 2650 Cal.  I have stopped posting the altitude measurements as they are not accurate at all especially when windy. It was windy in the night again and it was dull in the tent. It did not entice me out but out I had to go. I got dressed in the tent and packed up before opened the flysheet and stepped oot. It was like walking into the stage set of Ice Station Zebra. It was a good force 5 and there was spindrift everywhere. I had to be really careful taking down the tent so as not to damage the poles. I was very slow at doing it, so I did not lose control of it, and did it all kneeling on the ground to keep the tent low. Meanwhile spindrift was lashing into me. A good half hour after from emerging from the tent I set off. It was cold, about minus 15, and add the wind onto that there was quite a chill.

075. The curious halo and the repeat suns in a ring around the whole sky. The halo is here but the rings of sun round the sky are out of the picture.

I split the day into 3 six kilometre stretches to achieve my 18 km for the day. it would be far too cold for any hot food, so I aimed to have a Clif Bar and a litre of hot chocolate at each of the two breaks. On the first 6 km the wind was relentless, and I was completely battened down with goggles, mask, and the hood on my jacket done up and the ruff deployed. The wind was coming straight into me, as it virtually always did. I had to slowly climb the frozen Tsunami, which I saw yesterday, and the catabatic wind coming down the slope made it very rough ground as it accelerated down the shallow slope. It was not a long climb just about the whole 6 km. However, there was the odd patch of hazy blue in the overall dull greyness and occasionally I could see my shadow. On one occasion I glanced up and the sun was surrounded by a halo of rainbows. It was remarkable enough but what was really unusual is there was a ring right round the sky at the level of the sun and the sun seemed to be repeated about 8 times on the ring. Two of the repetition suns happened right on the halo of the rainbow. I am sure there is a name to this optical phenomenon much like a broken spectre is another optical phenomenon. My break was quick and perfunctory, and I did not take my harness off as I did not want to fiddle with my hand getting cold to put it back on again.

On the middle 6 kilometres the visibility disappeared all together. It was pretty much a white out. The spindrift was still flowing but I could not see it. The contrast of the snow completely vanished however I could feel it was much smoother that the earlier section even if I could not see it. The spindrift was like sand and my pulk was harder to drag across the snow. At one stage I felt I was dragging a millstone along the bottom of an Olympic sized swimming pool filled with milk – and I was going from the deep end up to the shallow. It was a slow relentless plod and I kept glancing at my watch to see if my 6 km was coming to a halt. Eventually it did and I had another Clif bar and litre of chocolate before starting the grind again.

076. The days breath condenses on my googles mask, my Cold Avenger mask, my jacket and even the ruff. It is not cold inside, but one has to be careful not to break anything to remove gear to have a snack.

On the third section in the mid-afternoon the visibility improved slightly. I had a few more mirages where I would see other skiers or tents. Then I saw a very pale blue line. It was directly in front of me, and I could not work out what it was. It got bigger and bigger and then I realised it was blue sky and it was coming straight for me. Hallelujah. It still took a good hour to get to me but then the whole horizon ahead was glorious and blue and there were contrast in the snow and my shadow too. The last 4 km were wonderful. The spindrift had stopped, and the snowpack had more of a glazed feel to it as the runner of the pulk went over it. it was much easier. As I neared 18 km, I realised my knee was holding up. I could feel it, but it was not painful. I did have a slight pain in the neck at the vertebrae, but I think this was caused by heaving the pulk through the sandy spindrift up the slope this morning. It is something I will have to pay attention to as last year an Expeditioner, Ben Weber, had issues with it and it caused him great grief, but he still finished despite this ailment.

077. About an hour after the previous photo, I am cosy in my warm tent with damp clothing drying quickly in the 20 degrees in the tent. It is a comfortable home after a day out on the ice.

When I found a place to camp, I put the small end up into the wind as it was due to increase to a force 6 or even 7 in the night. With the tent up, the pulk pegged into the ground to stop it blowing away and everything in the tent, I dug the hole for my feet, got in and closed the door. It was another world and as I started to take off the ice encrusted face shields. I could feel the sun warming my face. It was my favourite time of day especially if the sun was out and I knew the tent would be warm. I boiled the 7 litres and then closed up the inner door and retired to the warm sanctuary. Today it looked like a laundry with all the damp clothes hanging up. The chargers were working well inside the tent. I did not finish the blog until 2130 and then spent another half hour sending it. I had to be up at 0600 everyday now really so the blogs might get shorter. I had been a good day the only blight on it was I heard my bright, chirpy young mate Jacob, part of our herd, had flown back to Union Glacier today. His tour over but thankfully not due to injury or accident.

Day 17. Dec 6. S 81º45.060 W 080º06.537 to 81º55.626 W 080º07.595. 20 km. 8 hrs. 2480 Cal.  It was windy again outside and I thought it was overcast until I went outside and saw it was bright sunshine but that the tent was covered in a layer of spindrift. My day began as usual at 0600 when I had my cereal. Then I got dressed in the tent and packed everything into the containers they belonged in. Then I would stack it all in the vestibule and go out for the first time in the day. Then it was just to pack all the containers in the pulk leaving one side of the top half free. It was for the tent tube. I would then secure the tent to the harness line and take it down just removing half the pole from the sleeve. I would then fold the exposed half pole over the pole still in the sleeve. Once I had done this to all three poles, I would then roll the tent up and insert it into the 1.5-metre-long bag. I was all done by 0800.

Although it was windy, and this made it feel about minus 20-25 it was beautiful day. The ice sheet stretched away in every direction, and I felt I was in a small boat in the middle of a vast ocean. It might sound boring, but it had its charm of total isolation and other worldliness. And it was incomprehensibly huge. With the spindrift the going was slow as there was more friction. However, after I climbed a small, almost imperceptible, rise there was less spindrift on top of the snow and the surface was more glazed. The runners slid well on this latter surface. I think I saw a couple of skiers way to the east of the route and assumed this to be Alan and David, the characterful ex marines.

078. The vast expanse of the frozen icesheet which covers just about everything except for the odd nunatak out here.

I stopped after 7 km, turning the pulk so I could sit on my clothes bags underneath with my back to the wind. It was far too much palaver in this cold wind to bother rehydrating some Macaroni Cheese with hot water from a thermos, so I just had a Clif Bar and hot chocolate. After this break I felt invigorated and the pulk slid easily across the ground. It was probably flat, but it felt like I was going up slightly. The pressure changes in the atmosphere would have been more significant than my small rise and fall in elevation that the barometer on my gadgets measured. After an easy 7 km I stopped again for the same short break which only lasted 15 minutes. The spindrift eased for the final 6 km across the endless icesheet, and it was a delightful ski until I reached the 20km mark for the day. It was my goal and limit.

I checked the forecast and the wind seemed to be increasing in the night so I pitched the lower end towards the south meaning the vestibule would not have direct sunlight all night. However, I could still arrange everything in the tent, so it dried in the warmth. It was not the best pitch and on a bit of a slope which I did not initially see with my goggles on. But worse than that was it was on 10 cm of hard snow and then ice underneath. I could get the tent pegs in but could not dig the hole. Instead of sitting comfortably undressing and boiling my water I had to scrabble about on the floor of the tent on my elbow and in a very clumsy fashion. Having said that, when I started, I was as elegant as a walrus manoeuvring in the tent, and now I am getting much more agile as I lose weight.

079. The daily photo of myself dripping in ice from condensed breath. Sometime many of the garment round my chin are frozen together. The cosy tent warming up in the sun.

There was not much banter on the bush telegraph this evening. There was a group with Pierre the young Frenchman, Poppis and the other 2 Finns and the Fire Angels who were at the back of the herd but catching up slowly but surely. There was also Sam, but he was on a different and much much more ambitious route. He was doing well, and it looks like he has the potential to achieve something special. Missing from the banter was Jacob. His tour had not gone as he would have liked, and he bailed out yesterday. It was a great shame for him and also a loss for me as I considered him my mate on this section as everyone else except the speedster Pierre were in teams.

At my regular 2100 check in called to give my daily position and have a small but perfunctory chat with the radio operator Coleen asked to speak to me. She had come over from the catering area to the comms container to do so. She and her partner, Lane, were working here and both keen hikers from the US. We had some common hiking friends, and none more so than Top’O my hiking buddy from the first half of the PCT 6 years ago. She had a message from Top’O and also told me that each morning at the ALE group meeting when the Expeditioners progress was announced that people were rooting for me and hoping I overcome my knee. It made an already good day into a memorable one.  There is an overlap between the close-knit US hiking fraternity and the family of ALE employers. I still seem to have 42 days’ worth of food left and the South Pole is 900 km away. Hopefully as my pulk gets lighter I will get faster. There is still 60 kg in it to get consumed and 50 which will not.

 

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March 20, 2023

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 01. 24 March. Ritsem to Akkastugorna. 12 km. 3.5 hours. 80 m up. 110 m down. I woke up in Luleå with the alarm going at 0430. It took me a while to realise where I was and also why the alarm went. Then it dawned on me I had to get all my stuff down to the station and take a train at 0600 to Gallivare. I had a shower, my last for a while, ate my breakfast I bought in the supermarket last night, loaded up the trolley and was at the station in good time. The train was already there waiting for the first passengers to arrive. I soon loaded everything and then we set off on schedule at 0609. It took a little less than 3 hours to make the journey to Gallivare. Between snoozes I saw it was cold and overcast outside with a recent fall of snow. It looked like a dull christmas card as the landscape was flat and plain.

At Gallivare there was a bus waiting for the train. It was a large minibus with a huge trailer. There were about 15 of us ready to board. After we filled the trailer and closed the lid we set off at 0900. One of the groups on the bus were 9 young lads from Lund. They all had media jobs and were combining a tour down the Padjelanta Trail for about 10 days where they intended to camp. They were a lively bunch and I am sure there would be some great tales at the end of their tour. The bus drove quite quickly given the conditions and it took about 4 hours to reach Ritsem, including a long break at Stora Sjofallet where there was a nice cafe. The final 45 km were along the north shore of the huge Akkajaure lake with which I was quite familiar. By now the skies were a perfect blue and I could see south across the lake and make out some of the ranges of Sareks National Park where I hoped to ski through for the next 10 days. I could see Sarektjahkka, 2089m, which I hoped to climb and also the large graceful massif of Ahkka, 2011m, which I had also already climbed and was probably too difficult for winter conditions alone.

Eventually the minibus arrived at Ritsem Fjallstation where everyone got out. It was the end of the road anyway. Here I went in to get the primus powerfuel which I had already ordered and they had the 5 litres I wanted. The warden, Greger, was not there but his assistant was and she was extremely helpful and organised a parcel of bags, clean clothes and my trolley to get shipped to Kvikkjokk. It cost me about £50 but it was 15 kg and it was great not to have it in the pulk. The large team from Lund almost faffed around as much as I did but they were off after a good hour while it took me 2 hours to get ready. Eventually I left at 1530 under beautiful skies and with a wonderful forecast.

01. Heading south across Akkajaure Lake from Ritsem to Akkastugorna with the pulk loaded with its 60 kg including 12 days of food.

I think my pulk was about 60 kg with 12 days of food and 5 litres of fuel plus all the non-consumables – which were about 45 kg on their own. It was a steep descent from Ritsem Fjallstation to Akkajaure lake although the trail was wide and smoothed by many snow scooters. A crash here would have meant a long slide with the sledge pushing me down so I walked. Within 10 minutes I was on the lake and putting my skis on in glorious sunshine on a wind still day. Although the pulk wss 60 kg it was a dream to pull on the lake and I barely noticed it as I followed the tracks of the large team from Lund. The lake was largely ice frozen to a depth of at least half a metre and covered in snow. There were some hydropower currents at the start where there was open water but the route was well marked. The ice largely formed in the lake in early and mid winter but then the water level dropped by 10 metres leaving large plates of ice perched in shallow rocks around the edge and near the many islands

For the next 2.5 hours I had an easy and quite fantastic ski across the flat lake towards the large bay on the south side. I was skiing towards the massif of Ahkka the whole time and it initially clouded over but then later cleared to reveal multiple peaks. It was a magnificent mountain and was called the Queen of Lapland. As the afternoon wore on and dusk approached Ahkka took on the golden hues of the sunset and then the rose pink of the alpenglow. It was the perfect antidote to 30 hours of travel and made it worthwhile. I really enjoyed the ski and the small skins were perfect for the surface of the lake and gave me a great glide and some traction when needed.

02. The beautiful and graceful Ahkka massif is on the south side of Akkajaure lake and near the Akkastugorna cabin. Here it is in the late afternoon sun.

As I got to the south side of the hamlet of cabins, called Anonjalmme, I caught the big team from Lund up. There were of varying abilities and some were walking. I chatted briefly with them and then rushed on to get to the cabin at Akkastugorna before dusk. The Lund team were now looking for somewhere to camp in what was already about minus 15 and dropping rapidly. I went over a small ridge where the pulk soon reminded me of what a chore it would be to pull up a slope later on the tour and then curved round to the west into a bay within the bay where the cabins were. I got there at dusk as the light was fading and the temperature was now minus 20. The warden showed me a rustic room in the cabin which was already warm as 3 Swedes were in it. I made some conservation with them while I ate my freeze dried meal and then typed up the day while the Northern Lights flickered green just about the horizon. It was a nice display but I hope to see better later. It was about the 10th time I had stayed in this cabin over the last 40 years and it still has all its rustic charm and cosiness. It was a great end to the first day.

03. The Northern Lights between the birch trees above Akkastugorna cabin on a very cold night of minus 25 C

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 02. 25 March. Akkastugorna to Camp near Kisuriskåten. 22 km. 9 hours. 360 m up. 110 m down. It was a nice evening in the cabin with the older 3 Swedes and I had a small cubicle to myself. It allowed me to sort everything out in the morning in the comfort of the warm hut and I put my “Arctic Bedding” together there. Eventually I was all done and had a last decision to make on which route to take to the start of Rouhtesvagge. I could either go the shorter way of about 15 Km between the large Ahkka massif and the lower hill of Sjnjuvtjudis, which would mean going through woods and the occasional climb up a steeper gravel bank. I had been this way before, twice in fact, but can hardly remember it as one was 40 years ago. The other alternative would be to go to the west of Sjnjuvtjudis on good tracks until I got to Kutjaure lake then pass the hidden, cold and private Kisuris cabin and head up the Sjnjuvtjudisjahka stream. I was less likely to get into a pickle but it was 25 km. In the end caution got the better of me and I opted for the more straightforward route which was 10 km longer. 

04. Day 02. Leaving Akkastugorna with the short cut to Ruohtesvagge through Sjnjuvtjudisjavrasj looking tempting as it was 10 km shorter than the detour via Kutjaure lake and Kisuris. However there were steep banks to negotiate with the pulk.

It was stunning when I set off at 0930 in minus 18. However the sun was warming and it was windstill. I passed a few campers near the cabin including some of the team from Lund and then followed easy firm scooter tracks over a gentle ridge and down to the large Vuojatadno river, which was mostly frozen over. Ahkka towered above me to the east and I could look up its glaciers to the peaks in the heart of the massif. It took a good 3 hours of very pleasant easy skiing to reach Kutjaure lake. Much of it was on snow scooter tracks for Sami who owned fishing or reindeer herding cabins in the Padjelanta area. 

05. Day 02. Looking SE across the open outflow of Kutjaure lake down towards Nijak and the start of Ruohtesvagge where I would camp.

I left the tracks at the lake and had to head across virgin snowfields and ice giving the outflow of the lake a wide berth as I could see there was open water here where the Vuojatadno river started its journey. On the south side of the lake I crossed some frozen marshes and entered the woods. It was firm and the weight distributed between my skis and the pulk meant I did not sink much. Kisuris cabin was hidden in a hollow in these woods up a steep gravel bank. I did not feel like looking for it as I heard there was no gas there and it was only 1300. As I went through these woods I disturbed a hare. It was completely white save for its dark eyes. It looked at me for a good minute during which I managed to extract the camera and take 10 good shots. It was a magnificent encounter with a truly unique animal. I was surprised it did not run away at once, and it probably realised I was not a fox or lynx and wanted to save energy. 

06. Day 02. A mountain hare (Lepus timidus) in the birch woods near the cabin near Kisuris cabin.

Elated by this meeting I started to ski up the Sjnjuvtjudisjahka stream. There were some old tracks of skiers and I suspect the 3 older Swedes in the cabin last night were among them. The streambed was quite wide and it was easy to cut up through the steep moraine banks on each side this way. The stream was completely frozen over and there was no open water at all. The tracks meandered up the shallow streambed in the bright still sun. It was very quiet and still and the quality of the light was only something I have seen in the Arctic, such was its luminosity.

07. Day 02. Heading up the frozen Sjnjuvtjudisjåhkå streambed near the treeline at 700m between Kisuris and the mountain of Nijak

I skied up the stream bed for a good 2 hours stopping for lunch half way until the birches thinned and the bare mountain started. It was a gentle gradient and the pulk was not making me work hard. I had the big skins on the bottom of the skis now so every step had great traction and I felt I could pull a railway carriage up here and not lose grip. As the route got higher the previous winters winds had blown the snow about and some parts were nearly bare and other parts icy. However there was enough  neve-type snow to find a route up the valley which had opened out. 

08. Day 02. The steep north buttress of Nijak, 1922m, marks the NW point of the near 25km long Sarek massif. Ruohtesvagge goes up to the right of the photo.

I was skiing with the craggy mountain of Kisuris on my south and the graceful Ahkka massif on my north. Ahead was the characteristic buttress of Njiak which split the valley in two. It was the northmost mountain in the large 25 km long massif which culminated in Sarektjåhkkå,a good days ski to the south. The weather was still great as I skied towards Nijak and I intended to camp at the foot of it. However the wind got up slightly and I thought better of pushing on into dusk so at about 1730, still a few km to the west of Nijak I found an unsheltered place to camp. The tent was quickly up and I was soon in my sleeping bags as dusk fell. It was cold perhaps minus 25 and I could not write but fell asleep after I had eaten. I woke a few times with the northern lights illuminating the tent, sometimes so brightly one could read even though the moon was barely an eight. During the night the wind got up quite a bit but I felt secure in the tent which at 6 kg and double-poled was the strongest on the market. I felt I could survive a storm in the Helsport Patagonia 3. 

09. Day 03. Early morning at my camp near Nijak after a cold night. Ruohtesvagge valley goes up to the right.

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 03. 26 March. Camp near Kisuriskåten to Renvaktstugu Rouhtesvagge. 10 km. 3.5 hours. 240 m up. 60 m down. I woke early as I think the clocks had changed to summer time, although there was little evidence of summer here as it was minus 10 in the tent. After the usual breakfast and water melting for the days drinks in the thermos and insulated bottle I eventually emerged from my sleeping bags at about 0830 and was completely packed an hour later, with the tent in the long bag which allowed the poles to stay in their sleeves ready for a quick set up at the end of the day.

10. Day 03. Looking north to Ahkka Stortoppen, 2015m, from the northern end of Ruohtesvagge valley. The top is to the left of a small notch which has a small narrow very exposed apex of rock to straddle for 5 metres if coming from the right (east)

The wind of the night had blown a fair bit of snow around my tent and equipment but it was now almost still again. The sun was out and it was already above Nijak which looked magnificent in its coating of snow. Ahkka across the valley even more so and even the steep south facing crags, the first place snow disappeared from, were plastered in white. I set my skis SW and climbed gently up into Rouhtesvagge keeping Nijak on my left. The sun was blindingly bright and without sunglasses I would have got snow blindness in these conditions. 

11. Day 03. Heading up Ruohtesvagge valley looking south to Boajsatjåhkkå. It is a great side trip up and over the saddle to the right of the mountain with great views to the right ( south) up the glacier into the heart of the Ruohtes massif.

The open wide valley floor was gentle and undulating but occasionally covered in moraine mounds or drumlins where gravel was deposited by the retreating glacier. Most had been smoothed off in the millennia since the ice age finished. It was easy to weave a route through them climbing slightly. When I was about level with Nijak I reached a small crest and the whole of Ruohtesvagge valley opened up in front of me. To the east was the gnarly Sarek massif and to my west the smaller Ruohtes massif. Everything was plastered in white snow and the valley itself was full of deep snow. There must have been a heavy snowfall this winter. 

I had about 30 kilometres to ski over the next 2 days to reach Mikkastugan, a small shed with a solar powered emergency phone, the only piece of civilization in Sarek. I could do it in a long push but I heard that the Renvaktstuga in Ruohtesvagge was still standing and open although there was a lot of snow in it. I had stayed here before 40 and 30 years ago when it was almost pleasant, but cold. It made sense to stay here this time too. It was just 10 km up the valley on a knoll. Pretty soon I could make it out and after a lovely 3 hours of skiing it stood before me. From the outside it looked fine. 

12. Day 03. The snowy bitterly cold inside of the abandoned reindeer herders hut in Ruohtesvagge where I spent a night. Except for the fact I could sit and write I would have been warmer in the tent.

Once I opened the door though it was dire. The outer door was gone and the porch was full of snow and the inner door was rotting and did not close properly. The sleeping benches were covered in ice as was the floor. It was very cold inside, much colder than the sunny outside. I was in a real dilemma to stay here or push on. The only thing in its favour was that there was a table and a sleeping bench nearby where I could write the blog and cook. It was also windproof should the wind get up. I tidied it up a bit and shovelled some snow from the furniture and it looked plausible to stay in. I daresay the tent would have been warmer though. 

I had lunch and was just spreading out the bedding when another skier showed up. He was Finnish and had started from Ritsem just a few hours after me and we camped in the same area last night. He was about 35 and was an old hand with winter expeditions and had been here a few times. We chatted for a good half hour in the still sun outside, comparing equipment, swapping tales before he continued up the valley towards Mikkastugan. He hoped to camp somewhere en route. It is unusual to meet others in Sarek. 

13. Day 03. The single Finn I met in Ruohtesvagge heading south to Mikkastugan with Mihkatjåhkkå, 1735m, in the background.

In the afternoon I put my boots and mitts on the peeling bitumen of the roof so they might dry a bit. They had both gotten a little damp from sweat and this would freeze. I then had a snooze before writing the blog which took 3 hours. I was trussed up in a sleeping bag with my duvet jacket on but still my fingers were cold despite the merino fingerless mitts. I was glad when it was done and I could cook and go to sleep. I noticed the clocks had definitely changed as it was now dusk at 1930. In a week’s time it would be 2030 such is the speed of change here in the Arctic.

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 04. 27 March. Renvaktstugu Rouhtesvagge to Mikkastugan. 13 km. 4.5 hours. 60 m up. 160 m down. It might have been warmer in the tent than the semi-derelict shed but at least I could move about in the shed and write while in the tent everything must be done lying down. I usually spend my time in a tent scrabbling about like a rodent and writing is difficult. However I slept well and woke early. When I went outside i was blinded by a blaze of white light. It was yet another beautiful day and there was not a breath of wind. Being in the shed made morning tasks and packing the pulk easier but I was still not ready to go before 0930. 

14. Day 04. Leaving the abandoned reindeer herders cabin in Ruohtesvagge after a bitterly cold night around minus 30 spent inside.

I clicked my skis in, still deciding to keep the full ski skins on and turned into the sun. My toes and fingers especially were very cold but it did not take long to warm up and soon I was having to stop to take my duvet jacket off and half an hour later again for a peeling off of another layer and even gloves. I also smeared my lips and nose in zinc sunblock. As I skied south east in perfect conditions I could see up the Rouhtesjiegna glacier into the heart of this massif. I once skied partially up it and then cut over a small saddle to the south where there was a frozen lake before coming back down a lovely slope to the main Ruohtesvagge valley. Essentially it was going round the smaller mountain of Boajsatjahkka, 1746m and it afforded great views to the north over the long Sarek Massif. I would be too much to do this now with a heavy pulk so I went to the north of Boajsatjahkka keeping in the valley which was essentially level 

15. Day 04. Looking SW into the heart of the modest Ruohtes massif from Ruohtesvagge valley.

As I skied SE I passed the magnificent mountain of Gavabakte, 1910m. It was one of 3 similar height mountains in a huge cirque the top of which was the main ridge of the Sarek massif. The mountains were lathered in snow and all their crags were white. Beneath the cirque were the remains of a once large glacier which had now all but gone leaving the prominent lateral moraine ridges. I continued down the valley in the glorious weather without a jacket and just fingerless gloves on. It was a rare treat to be warm but I could not afford to sweat into my clothes or they would freeze solid later. 

16. Day 04. Heading SE down the large arterial Ruohtesvagge valley towards Mikkastugan with Mihkatjåhkkå on the left.

I was now about 6 km from Mikkastugan, to my mind the heart of Sarek. It was here 3 large valleys came together namely Ruothesvagge, Guohpervagge and Alggavagge to form the main artery of Sarek which drained to the SE down the enormous and deep Rapadalen. Rapadalen was famous for its U shaped valley floor covered in shallow lakes and deltas and much vaunted for its wildlife, including Scandinavians 4 predators and some giant elg. I could see the massifs further to the SE which formed the edges of Rapadalen. If all went to plan I would not be going straight there but would end up there in a week or so via Alggavagge and Sarvesvagge. 

17. Day 04. Looking NW back up the arterial Ruohtesvagge valley from near Mikkastugan with the pointed Gavabakte, 1906m, dominating the Sarek massif on the right (north)

I followed the Finns tracks down the valley which fell almost imperceptibly towards Mikkastugan and the meeting of the valleys. Across the confluence the large Massif of Ålkatj started to unfold. It had some impressive summits but all in the 1800 metre region among its large glaciers. The last time I was here in 2008 I cut right through it on two connecting glaciers, the Ahkajiegna Glaciers,  and ended up in Sarvesvagge which was a spectacular route. Soon I rounded the spur which came down from Mikkatjahkka and then I could see up the large Mikkajiegna glacier to first Sareks south top, 2049m and then Sareks stortop, 2089m. It was at the heart of this massif and it was very alpine up here, even in the summer. I had been up Sareks stortop on a poor day in the autumn some 20 years ago with my friend Stuart and to the top of the glacier beneath it in 2008 in stunning weather but without crampons and ice axe which I deemed necessary. 

19. Day 04. Sarektjåhkkå Stortoppen, 2089m, in the evening sun from Mikkastugan. I hoped to go up the west ridge ( left) the next day from the unseen glaciated saddle.

20. Day 04. Mikkastugan is a small uninsulated shed in the middle of Sarek National Park. It is just big enough to sleep in and has a table and emergency phone. It was to be my basecamp for 2 nights.

There were quite a few ski tracks about now, not just the Finnish guy, but many were quite old blown over. I expected someone to be at the emergency shed or camping there but could see no life as I approached. 40 years ago when I first visited there was a small unheated but comfortable hut here but it was burnt down shortly afterwards. In its place there is an emergency shed with a telephone. The shed is just 2 metres by 4 metres and is now looking the worse for wear but is still weather proof. I went in and there was a bit of snow on the floor and leaks in the ceiling but it had a table, benches and a single platform for 1 to sleep on. I moved in and made myself at home in the mid afternoon. It would be a great base camp for me to explore the surrounding area tomorrow if the weather forecast I saw 4 days ago holds true.  By 1700 I had written the blog with my petrol burner staving off the deep chill which I knew was coming in the evening. As long as no one else turns up and stays the place would be great for 1.  

21. Day 04. Inside Mikkastugan shed with the emergency phone in red by the door and my stove making a futile effort to stave off the minus 33 that night.

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 05. 28 March. Mikkastugan to Sarektjahkka and return. 16 km. 8.5 hours. 1260 m up. 1260 m down. It was very cold in the night and I measured it as -33 outside and -26 in the shed. I could just start to feel the cold seep through my sleep system but it would have another – 10 C to go before it became uncomfortable. As a consequence I was a little slow to get going and eventually left at 0900. Two more Finns had turned up last night and were camping. I went over a chatted to them. Like many Finns they looked like they were prepared for cold weather with felt trousers and a fox fur cap. I chatted with them briefly and would have loved to have picked their brains on cold weather camping because they looked at home in it.

22. Day 05. Heading up the Mihkajiegna glacier on old tracks to the saddle ahead where the climbing starts.

I left the, crossed the huge snowbank which had completely filled in the gorge and set my sights on Mikkajiegna glacier and Sarektjåhkkå beyond. From here the skyline did not look so daunting but it had turned me back on an equally perfect day in 2008 when I thought better of it. I tried again in 2020 but the weather forecast was dreadful so I skipped Sarek and went the Padjelanta Way and emerged in a Covid locked down Europe. This time I had my ice axe and crampons. It was a gentle way up above a deeply corniced ravine which led me after an easy couple of kilometres to the snout of the glacier. As I skied up the moraine valley where the snout had retreated I spotted a few rocks with paint daubs on them making the date the glacier was there. Even since 1996 it has retreated about 500 metres. There had been other skiers on the glacier and it looked like they were going to the same saddle. This was a good thing as although the glacier is covered in deep snow there are still crevasses on it and when I went up in 2003 with my friend Stuart to climb Sarektjåhkkå in dreadful autumn weather we saw a few. But I saw none in 2008. Their tracks gave me a bit more confidence today. By now the cold of the night and morning was completely banished and I had to take off my duvet jacket and a set of gloves. I did not want my clothes getting damp with sweat. 

40. Day 05. Descending the Mihkajiegna glacier towards Mikkastugan and looking up a accumulation bowl to the east beneath the impressive peak of Svarta Spetsen, 1842m. Note the wind formed “vindgryte” with the huge snow cliffs.

Once on the glacier I was in a dream world of vast snowy bowls which flowed down from the jagged and corniced mountains far above. The bowl to the east was especially dramatic with the peaks of Svartspitsen and Buchttoppen forming a fantastic ring of black cliffs with the glacier emerging from the base of them. On one part of the glacier there was an enormous “vindgryte” where the wind had carried snow drifts to form a large cliff some 50-100 metres high. It would not do to ski over this in a whiteout! I followed the other skiers’ tracks up across the rolling icefield passing a few more ice-filled accumulation bowls coming down from Mikkatjåhkkå and Vargtoppen. However it was the one on the east side which caught my attention as it was the one which came down from the two main peaks of Sarek, namely Stortoppen and Sydtoppen. In the summer this was an ascent route. After a good hour slowly climbing the glacier it reached a steeper bit between two nunataks which protruded through the ice, their dark buttresses squeezing the flow of ice like boulders in a stream. Here the other skiers tracks seemed to zig-zag up and I remember doing this 14 years ago. Above me the crags on the west ridge of Sarek Stortoppen loomed menacingly. I can’t remember them being quite so threatening, and it was a little alarming as I had to climb them. 

23. Day 05. On the saddle between to glaciers looming up at the west ridge of Sarektjåhkkå Stortoppen. The route goes up the steeper ridge initially then eases off for the final section to the summit.

Soon the tracks and I reached the watershed, or iceshed really as there was a large glacier on the other side. I had looked down on it from Sarek Nordtop and it was fissured with crevasses in the late summer but they would all be filled in and covered over now. It would be possible to make a tour up the Mikkajiegna glacier and then down this Sarekjiegna glacier and then on to Akkajaure Lake in civilization over a couple of days. For me though the route was to the east edge of this saddle where the west ridge of Sarek came down and I could step onto it. It looked worryingly steep again and it was plain to see why I turned round 14 years ago. This time I had come prepared and it also seemed that two skiers whose trail I had been following also went this way. 

25. Day 05. Looking back down the steeper lower section of the west ridge of Sarektjåhkkå Stortoppen to the glaciated saddle below and my just visible tracks.

26. Day 05. The final steeper part of the lower section of the west ridge of Sarektjåhkkå Stortoppen before the gradient eased.

I put my crampons on at the foot of the ridge and packed my skis on my rucksack in case I descended a different way. I secured the lease of my ice axe round a wrist and used the ski poles in the other hand and set off up the hard neve snow. For the next hour it was a full on mountaineering experience. Without crampons and an ice axe I would have slipped and probably slid to my death or at least a few broken limbs. I was thankful for the route which the other two had made and it gave me confidence to carry on knowing others had been – although the other two seemed very experienced mountain men. It was never that steep and was just 45 degrees at the worst parts but combined with the exposure it was a memorable ascent. At last the crags finished and icy slopes between them merged into a single ridge. 

27. Day 05. The final shallower summit ridge of Sarektjåhkkå Stortoppen took half and hour of lofty hiking to the small conical summit, 2089m.

This ridge was much more exposed but the angle now was just 30 degrees at the most, and often less. The ridge was covered in large icy formations and small snow patches with a cornice on the southern side. I clambered up each of these icy formations with my crampons biting well into the neve snow, which was hard and squeaked. It was quite an exhilarating experience climbing up the ridge, but I was a bit daunted by it and worried about the last section which seemed to be a knobbly icy cone. The faint footsteps of the previous two climbers helped my confidence and it showed me the obvious path. As I climbed the view was simply breathtaking and there were mountains with huge cirques filled with glaciers in every direction. Sarek National park really was a wild and rugged place, perhaps the wildest in Scandinavia. It was similar in scale to Jotunheimen in Norway but the Jotunheimen was full of people, lodges, marked trails and footbridges, and access roads, yet Sarek was completely devoid of these. It is perhaps the last raw wilderness in Europe. While I was marvelling at the view I had suddenly gained the foot of the final cone. It was not as bad as I feared and soon I stood on the summit. I had been here before but then I could see 20 metres this time I could see at least 100 kilometres. 

30. Day 05. Looking NW from Sarektjåhkkå over the Mihkajiegna glacier I came up to Vargtoppen, 1807m, Gassatjåhkkå, 1912m, and the rest of the Sarek massif.

31. Day 05. Looking south from Sarektjåhkkå Stortoppen to Sarektjåhkkå Sydtoppen, 2023m, just 500 metres away along the arete. In the distance are the Bielloriehppe (left) and Pårte (right) massifs.

There was ridge upon ridge in every direction. Especially the South and West. I could see north to Kebnekaise and also some big mountains in Norway which I think was the Okstind massif. It was the best view I had had from any of the 137 two thousand metre mountains in Scandinavia, and I had been up all of them. Sarektjåhkkå was also the most inaccessible of them all needing at least half a week to climb it. Only Balkatt in the southern ranges of Sarek National Park was comparable in remoteness and I could just make Balkatt and Pårte out, some 30 km away on the other side of the deep and arterial Sarvesvagge valley. I lingered here in the relative warmth with just my fingerless gloves on in the still sunny day. I was a lucky man to encounter this and I soaked it up. As long as I could get down without incident this would probably be my best mountain or outdoor day ever in 45 years of exploring. I took a few videos and many stills and then turned my attention to the descent.

29. Day 05. Looking SSE from the summit of Sarektjåhkkå towards Buchttoppen, 2010m, and the Skårki massif in the distance.

37. Day 05. Looking NE along the sensational arete between Sarektjåhkkå Stortoppen and Nordtoppen from the former. The 600m passage involves some exposed scrambling or easy climbing in the summer.

The footsteps of the two I followed went south off the main ridge into a large couloir filled with snow. It was quite steep but it was not exposed and had I slipped I would have slid down the concave slope for hundreds of metres until I came to a natural stop. I then noticed that the two mountaineers I had followed had gone this same way but after a short distance they had put skis on and skied down the couloir. They must have been supreme athletes as this was extreme skiing and even with the right equipment takes some mastery. I faced the slope and front pointed to where they put skis on and then continued to front point descenting another 100 metres. With burning calves I then started to walk down the slope and was delighted at how well the crampons suited the boots. Soon the snow became softer and the gradient eased. I began to consider putting skis on myself. I still had the full skins on and they greatly reduced the glide but inhibited any easy turns. So I descended quite steeply down the bottom of the couloir which merged into the glacier doing cowardly step turns at the end of each zig-zag. After 5-6 zig-zags I was down on the main glacier. Here I could pretty much glide down the ski tracks I made in the morning and so perhaps 90 minutes after leaving the summit I was skiing off the glacier onto the  snow covered moraine at the bottom; I had made it. 

32. Day 05. Looking SW from Sarektjåhkkå Stortoppen down the couloir which leads to Mihkajiegna glacier. It was the way I descended.

I now just had an easy 2-3 kilometres to ski down my tracks to reach the shed at Mikkastugan which I considered my basecamp. The sun was out and it was warm and the weather was still. It was a fantastic end to a spectacular and memorable day which I will cherish for the rest of my life. Whatever else happens on this trip it will be a success because of today as it was an unfulfilled ambition to climb Sarektjåhkkå in the winter on such a day. An ambition I have harboured for nearly 40 years. As I cruised down to the hut on the clear spring day I was surprised to see noone else. It also suited me as I could retire to the hut and have a late lunch and write the blog. It took a while to write and I was finally done by 2030 by which time it was dark outside and the temperature was falling dramatically and would be minus 30 again I am sure. Today was the last of the good weather according to the forecast I saw 5 days ago, but I am sure that might have changed but there is no way to know. Sarek is off grid in every sense. I had a tasty freeze dried meal and got into my sleeping bags at 2100 very satisfied with my day. 

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 06. 29 March. Mikkastugan to Alkavare Kapell. 22 km. 8.5 hours. 280 m up. 250 m down. It was very cold in the morning at minus 26 which was quite surprising as it was a bit overcast and this would block the coldest atmospheric air descending. However as far as the weather went it was great, just not perfect. I  eventually left the small shed where I have stayed a few times now at 10 and headed west up And headed up the large arterial valley of Guohpervagge for 4 km. This valley headed west for about 20 to spill out of the Sarek Mountains on the high plateau of Padjelanta.  I followed the track of the single Finn, who stayed quite high on the north side, until I needed to veer off down to confluence with Alggavagge. Alggavagge was another arterial valley which also gently descended down to Padjelanta, but to the SW. Splitting these large valleys in two was the large mountain of Harrabakte, 1711m, almost a massif in itself.

41. Day 06. Leaving Mikkastugan and heading west up Guohpervagge to its confluence with Alggavagge. The two valleys are separated by the long ridge of Harrabakte, 1704m ( centre).

Sarek and its twin Kebnekaise to the north were two ancient geological nappes some 420 million years old. There is a line of the nappes all the way down Scandinavia and geologists refer to them as the Scandinavian Mountains. When Pre-Northern Europe, then called Baltica, collided into Greenland, then called Laurentia, massive mountains were created similar to today’s Himalayas. The hard gabbro rock of the sea bed of the vanishing ocean was squashed and folded like a tablecloth on top of the old basement of the continents, to enormous proportions. Later when the two continents separated 65 million years ago and the Atlantic appeared and widened, these hard oceanic deposits still lay on the edge of the continental basement as they do today although they are greatly diminished from 8000m to 2000m by erosion, especially of multiple ice ages. These oceanic deposits are called nappes and they make up the Scandinavian Mountains and their counterparts in Greenland. Padjelanta was not a nappe but part of the even older continental basement. 

At the confluence of the two valleys I climbed bed up to a small hut. It was a Sami herding hut and covered in snow and I am sure it is locked, although it looked unmaintained. This was the border between two Sami herding groups. Cirges group was one of them and they had a very big area running from the pine forests on the Baltic plains to the SE, through the central portion of Sarek and on to the lakes of Padjelanta. The reindeer were now in the forests to the SE but already would be making way up to these mountain valleys in their annual migration to their calving grounds in these valleys and then the pastures of Padjelanta. They would then return in the autumn. They had been doing this since the ice age vanished here 10,000 years ago. The Sami (Lapps) and their predecessors have been following the reindeer for millennia and their whole culture and livelihood is based around it. During the winter they supplement fodder in the forest, during summer the herding groups round up animals in huge corals and mark family ownership and in winter they round them up again for the yearly cull. They also protect the animals from predators, especially wolverines and eagles whose talons can puncture a reindeer’s lung. Wolverine are especially good predators and rely on reindeer to survive. From the mists of history  there has been a triangle of hate and fear between Reindeer, Wolverine and Sami. I am sure it is in the Sami DNA to persecute and kill them and conversely the Wolverine has evolved great cunning to elude and circumvent the Sami. It is strictly forbidden to kill wolverines now and is a prisonable offence but I am sure it happens and they are quietly buried. 

42. Day 06. The small reindeer herders cabin in Guohpervagge at the confluence with Alggavagge ( on the left). These sparse cabins are used during the summer months by the Sami during various herding tasks, such as marking and culling.

Sarek has been a bastion National Park for over 100 years and is surrounded by other important National Parks which act like a buffer zone. Sarek is the largest, wildest and most remote wilderness area in Europe. There are no paths, cabins, bridges or amenities for hikers or skiers at all save a single emergency rescue phone at Mikkastugan and a bridge over the gorge there as there were many deaths from people desperate to cross the flooded river. But although Sarek is 100 years old the Sami have been here much, much longer and they have certain rights in the park, solely to do with reindeer herding. Therefore there are about 10 herding cabins owned by the various herding groups and a few fences to corral the animals or keep them seperate, and the Sami are allowed snow scooters to maintain them. However the use of scooters by the Sami is strictly logged and monitored. 

43. Day 06. A last look back to the Sarek massif (distant left) from the watershed in Alggavagge valley as I start the imperceptible descent to Alggajavrre Lake and Alkavare Kapell.

From the herders cabin at the confluence of the valleys I easily made it some 3 km to the watershed of Alggavagge. Interestingly here I saw some single reindeer tracks of a large lone animal and wolverine tracks following it. At the watershed ? could see up a side valley into the heart of the Ålkatj Massif. Here there are two glaciers connected by a watershed. The glaciers are called the Nuortap Ahkajiegna and Oarjep Ahkajiegna and it is possible to go up one and down the other to Sarvesvagge. I did it some 14 years ago on skis but had a heavy rucksack and I think it would be prohibitive with a pulk as there are some slopes to traverse. It was spectacular, I remember. 

I now had one last look at Sarek, topped with a bit of cloud. This was my seventh winter trip through Sarek including 1985, 1986, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2023 and I had intended it to be my fanfare so it was a poignant last look. I then set my sights down the valley and towards the blue skies over Padjelanta. Harrabakte dominated the descent on the north side with its dark craggy ramparts. The descent was very shallow and my glide was zero due to the big skins. I had calculated to leave them on until tomorrow to climb over the watershed in Sarvesvagge and did not want to jeopardise the adhesion. There were a few willow scrub poking up from the shallow braided stream now long buried under snow and ice. This was a calving area and I once walked here in summer and saw plenty of newborn. I passed a small valley, called Neidariehpvagge, which cut through to Sarvesvagge. I walked it once in the summer but thought it was too steep for the pulk. I calculated it was easier to do the extra 8 to 10 km down to Alggavare lake and round Sarvestjahkka. 

44. Day 06. Alkavare Kapell is a very remote chapel used by the the now Christian Sami reindeer herders who come here in the summer. It was recently restored and with the roof in good shape I had high hopes to spend the night inside.

As I reached the lake I now harboured thoughts about staying at Alkavare Kapell as I did before in 1985. It was fine then and I remembered sleeping on a pew. However maybe it had blown away or rotten since then. It was a slight  detour across the lake and up a tall knoll to the Kapell which I saw was stone. When I reached it I was delighted to see it was refurbished and the plank roof was covered in thick Stockholm tar and huge irons held the new timbers place. In the last few hundred years there was considerable missionary effort to convert the Sami from their renowned Shamanistic beliefs to Christianity. Incidentally our whole Christmas traditions are lifted from the Shaman Sami ones. Along with this missionary work was exploitation and soon prospectors arrived to mine silver on Padjelanta and forced some Sami to work for them. Those who refused were held under icy  water. Excitedly I opened the unlocked door. It was full of snow which had blown through gaps in the stone wall during the winter storms. Everything was 30-50 centimetres deep in it including the refurbished altar and even the candle chandelier was covered in it. There was no way I could stay in it and I was disappointed. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. I quickly set up the tent nearby in the last of the sun’s rays. It got cold quickly once the sun disappeared behind a gentle hill on the Padjelanta so I brought the stove into the inner tent, which I am usually reluctant to do without my small fire blanket which I had left behind. It became very warm in there, if not hot and toasty in there, and soon everything which was a bit damp was crisp and dry. There was also the danger of falling asleep and not waking up due to monoxide fumes poisoning. It should still take me 3 or 4 days up Sarvesvagge and then down Rapadalen to the fabled homestead at Aktse now a simple STF cabin but with a stove. 

45. Day 06. The interior of Alkavare Kapell was completely full of snow which had blown through the stone wall as spindrift during the winter storms. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”

46. Day 06. I camped beside the Alkavare Kapell in great weather as the chapel itself was full of snow.

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 07. 30 March. Alkavare Kapell to Sarvesvagge west of watershed. 13 km. 6 hours. 200 m up. 160 m down. When I woke in the morning it seemed to be warmer. When I opened the inner door I could see why. It was snowing. I opened the fly and saw large perfectly formed flakes of snow gently drifting straight down in the still air. They were like eider duck down. The visibility I noticed was not that good however. I melted snow, cooked and ate breakfast all from the comfort of my multiple sleeping bags and then got up and packed. It was minus 10 and that made a huge difference to my hands and I could perform all my tasks with just fingerless gloves on which speeded everything up as I was more dexterous. I eventually set off at 0930. 

The descent to the lake was fraught as I could just not make out the ridges in the snow or even some of the slopes. The odd rock or willow shrub poking out of the snow gave me some perspective but it was difficult to judge. 

48. Day 07. As the day progressed I headed south and then east into appalling visibility and an increasing wind, and at time could see nothing except whiteness – like scuba diving in milk.

Once on the lake I could see nothing. It was like scuba diving in milk. As it was flat I just had to take a bearing and follow it to where the Sarvesjahka stream entered the Alggajaure lake. Soon I could see some willow branches on the other side. Here I knew there was a difficult landscape of drumlins and moraine debris and the river picked a path through them. I had intended to follow the river but was a bit alarmed at how open it was. I could see it was quite shallow though but there were deep holes in the snowpack covering it. I decided to pick a way through the drumlins. 

It was a mistake and I was totally disoriented immediately. The boulders which were 100 metres away turned out to be stones just a few metres away. I could not see what was up and what was down. At one point I was heading to a boulder and the slope quickly steepened. I had to descend it as the pulk wanted to go that way and at the bottom with the pulk tugging me down I was on the river again. It seemed easiest to follow it after all. However it soon went into a narrow ravine. To climb out with the pulk would have been difficult, if not impossible and I thought I would have to retrace my steps. However by good fortune there was a bank of level snow on one side above open water which then crossed to the other side, also above open water. After some 100 metres of angst the river rose above the rocky sides onto a flatter area. 

For the next 2 hours I plodded, frequently having to correct my course across a network of lakes, marshes and stream channels although I could see none of it as it was all a frozen white desert obscured by a white fog and white snow. Here and there I saw willow branches or boulders and veered to them as if they were friends. I was lonely out here in the white emptiness. At last I spotted some rocks higher up and knew I was going round Sarvestjahkka, which marked the northern jaw to Sarvesvagge which I intended to follow for 2 days at least. I kept these higher rocks and the ridges of gravel banks on each side of the small stream descending the mountain on my left and plodded on in the white featureless world for at least another hour.

Judging by my GPS location and other navigational aids I soon reckoned I had crossed the last of the marshes and was now starting to head into the valley itself. This was soon confirmed when I saw the landscape on the south side rising steeply also. The wind was now getting up a bit but it was at my back and the snow was flying past unnoticed. It was probably at a depth of about 10 cm now and the going slowed down. 

49. Day 07. After a trying 13 km I finally threw in the towel and camped some 4 km to the west of the watershed in Sarvesvagge, which it had been my intention to go over.

I thought about calling it a day a few times but wanted to put a proper shift in first. I decided to head up the valley until I had done 6 hours. It was too miserable to stop and have lunch so I plodded on up the obscured gentle slope with a mouse gnawing my stomach. After a good hour with little achieved except a couple more unseen and unenjoyed kilometres I found a very small cone of moraine and thought I would camp in the lee on it on its west side. Not that it would afford any shelter should a storm brew up. Within half an hour the tent was up, the stove was on and my meal was hydrating from thermos water. It felt secure in the tent. After an hour I was in my dry sleeping bags lovely and warm as the primus roared away in the inner tent so much so my gloves hanging from the apex were hot. It must have been 40 degrees up there. I put my thermarest into sitting position with a couple of daily food rations as a lumber support and felt very very cosy. I turned the stove off after an hour and then had a small siesta in the crispy dry tent while the snow continued to fall. When I woke I wrote the blog slightly alarmed at some of the gusts which rattled the tent. I was done by 2000 as dusk was falling and then melted more water. I noticed the temperature falling again and thought the snowy weather might be coming to an end. It was a very remote and lonely spot I chose to camp and although the tent is stormproof I had not put a full complement of snow pegs in, relying on skis, poles and ice axe and just 2 on the 18 pegs. 

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 08. 31 March. Sarvesvagge west of watershed bad weather day. 0 km. 0 hours. 0 m up. 0 m down. The wind did increase quite a bit in the night. I was not going outside to have a look but I think it was a good Force 8. It was also snowing all night I think. When I woke and undid the outer fly door a little I could see it was a blizzard. Visibility was appalling and there was spindrift everywhere. I melted water for breakfast and the day to put into a thermos and insulated Nalgene bottle for lunch in the hope it would blow over. It was a warm wind from the WNW. The temperature was only minus 5 and even fingerless gloves were unnecessary. Which was just as well as the stove had been playing up a bit and I thought the fuel was not getting warm enough to turn it full into gas and it would splutter and flare. I had to do quite a bit of maintenance and it was only when I changed the nozzle to a spare one did things improve again. I am very careful about using clean fuel and putting it into clean bottles and now am using Primus Powerfuel. This was learnt the hard way after years struggling with dirty paraffin in Nepal. After the stove was done I packed the bedding, kitchen and put my boots on to start packing the pulk. However the wind might have eased to a force 5, lulling me into a false sense of good weather but I could not see anything. It was a flat valley with some moraine piles and hummocks behind which could be lurking small steep drifts or cornices and I would not be able to see them until I was over them and tumbling down. I could not make snowballs all day. 

50. Day 08. I was stormbound in the tent all day as a blizzard raged outside. I was fortunate to have such a solid tent; a Helsport Patagonia 3. My pulk is just visible to the left of the tent.

So I decided to stay put. I had to dig the pulk out from a drift and found the snow pegs. I then dug down to solid snow and put in 8 snow pegs and stamped them in. The tent was rock solid now. I then went back inside unpacked everything and got into my sleeping bags again. It was so warm in the tent (and outside) much of the frost in the tent was melting. It must be a warm front passing through or the recent high pressure had shifted east and it was dragging warm spring air up from Europe. I made a note to look at the historic synoptic weather charts when I got home. 

51. Day 08. Although there was a small storm outside the tent held up well and I managed to keep quite cosy in my sleeping bags and caught up with the office work ofcthe blog from my chaise longue thermarest.

After my lunch I had a siesta while the blizzard continued outside. I woke mid afternoon and put my thermarest into sitting up mode, pulled my sleeping bags around my shoulders and started to do some blog work and process some of the photos ready to post. My office was very cosy and it was remarkable to think there were only two thin layers of ripstop nylon between my calm office and the stage set to Ice Station Zebra raging outside. My sleeping system consisted of a large waterproof lime green bag. Into that goes all my bedding. First a 12mm foam mattress then a 50 mm large thermarest in a sleeve so I can lift an end 90 degrees to form a “chaise longue”. On that I have my sleeping bags. From the inside I have a vapour barrier sheet to stop moisture permeating into the next layer which is a minus 30 rating down bag. Then over this I have a minus 18 rated large synthetic bag. It gets slightly damp but mostly from my breath. Then over the synthetic bag I have an ex army supposedly goretex bivvy bag. It takes me a good 5 minutes to truss myself up in the bags but the system seems to work and the down bag is still totally dry after a good week. So my basic needs of warmth and a dry shelter are met. 

When people hear I am skiing in Sweden though they probably think gluhwein, apres ski and crayfish seasoned with dill. It could not be further from the truth. It is so time consuming extracting myself from my sleeping bags I just pull the top half down, pee in a Nalgene bottle and empty it in an ever deepening hole in the snow in the tent porch. I eat the same dehydrated meals each day, propped on an elbow, and dribbling the overflow from the long titanium spoon onto my jacket or sleeping bag. All this in a small tent in a blizzard in the middle of the most remote wilderness in Europe. Dancing Queen or crayfish tails in dill for me. No Sir! 

By evening the temperature had fallen again to what one would expect, as the warm front seemed to have passed and normal Arctic service was resumed. I was fascinated and a little alarmed at how high a drift had grown on one side of the tent. The pegs I put in this morning were under a metre of snow now and the pulk also. Hopefully it will stop growing as I can see a fair bit of digging tomorrow to extricate everything. It is the foibles of drifting snow and aerodynamics which if I was a seasoned polar explorer would be second nature. 

I reckoned I still have 3 full days to go to reach the homestead at Aktse but it might be longer as the snow will be deep and uncompacted by the wind in the woods off Rapadalen. 

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 09. 01 April. Sarvesvagge west of watershed to Rovdjurstorget. 22 km. 9.5 hours. 260 m up. 530 m down. I woke at 0600 and started to melt the day’s water at once. I needed about 2.5 litres in all but I already had a litre of quite hot water in the thermos to get the snow melting started. The half litre was for the dehydrated oats breakfast. All that and eating breakfast took an hour. It did not take me long to pack and pop my head out of the tent again. I could hear it was a still day and I had decided I was going whatever the visibility. It turned out to be poor, but not appalling. 

52. Day 09. I had to dig the tent out of a drift in the morning after the storm when it was windstill. The pulk was buried under a metre of snow. The visibility was poor but not appalling so I decided to make a break from the watershed in Sarvesvagge.

However the big issue now was the tent and pulk. I had to dig about a metre of snow away from each of the 8 snow pegs and almost the same for the pulk. The tent was in a hollow now with just the top half showing. It could have withstood a hurricane like that. I had to dig about 50 cm of snow from the storm flaps around the perimeter of the flysheet, which also secured it down. Pulling the tents flaps from the frozen snow took a fair bit of careful tugging but after half an hour it was free and on the pulk. 

I set off up the valley with just the odd small gust of wind. I could see the rocky features on the mountains on each side of the valley as I headed east to the watershed. I reckoned it was about 4 km away. However soon the gusts got stronger and more frequent and the visibility in them became appalling. I had the wind in my back which was a godsend as to go into it would have been cold on the face. As I reached the top some of the gusts were easily force 9. It was remarkable how quickly the weather deteriorated. Once over the watershed I hoped it would ease off, but it got worse. I hoped that I was not about to be hit by a Polar low, similar to an Atlantic low but smaller and more intense. After 2 km of descent and just 2 hours after setting off the winds were storm force. I doubt I could have set the tent up in this without it getting ripped from my hands. During the worst gusts the visibility vanished and I had to wait 15 seconds for it to abate enough so I could see rocks again which showed me the lie of the land a little. It stayed like this for a good hour but at least it was not getting worse. I think part of the problem was the small Neidariehpvagge valley merged here and it was nearly aligned west east so the wind from both valleys were merging between ever tighter mountainsides. 

53. Day 09. Within an hour of setting off the wind had increased from Force 1 to Force 10 and as I crossed the watershed the visibility was appalling, especially in the gusts, one of which had the pulk airborne and me yanked round onto the deck, breaking a drag stay for the pulk.

I hoped the wind would ease as I descended but it remained ferocious. At one stage a gust hit so strongly it lifted the 45 kg sledge and spun it round, yanking me off balance. I fell and the sledge rolled a few times so the dragging poles twisted and one broke. Me, the pulk and the harness were in a tangle and I had to unattach myself and undo it. Luckily the dragging poles have a wire core so the kinked poles were a nuisance but not critical. This violent gust, hurricane force and full of heavy spindrift seemed to be the crescendo and over the next hour the winds and associated visibility returned to gale force and then diminished again. I was saved as had they gone up a notch again, I would just have to have sought some shelter behind a boulder, if I could have found one. 

Half an hour later I saw a patch of blue sky and the wind reduced again to a force 5 or 4. I reached a small reindeer herder’s cabin and it was locked as expected. A bit beyond my eye caught some orange fluorescent material flapping in the wind. Then I saw skis and ski sticks. I went over and saw a tent in a hollow surrounded by walls of cut snow blocks. I shouted “good afternoon”. “Good afternoon, do you want some dried apple? ” came the retort with a German dialect. They were two young German brothers and they looked to be in their very early 20’s. Yet these were the two whose footsteps I followed up the very exposed ridge to Sarektjåhkkå and who were such excellent skiers.  Initially I thought they would be some expert French guides experienced in all manner of cutting edge mountaineering and I was quite astounded how these two young boys could be so competent at such an early age. It was too windy for them to come out and I did not want to linger in the gale so when we worked out we should see each other in Kvikkjokk in a week or so we parted company. They told me the weather was now improving and hope to go and play in the Parte massif for a few days. 

For the next hour I skied down the valley until the visibility improved so much I could see the adjacent mountain tops and the birches further down the valley. Indeed it became so benign I could stop and have lunch. As I ate the sunny patches grew and blue sky almost filled half the sky. It was a relief. 

54. Day 09. The further east I got down Sarvesvagge the better the weather got so after midday it was increasingly pleasant.

At lunch I took off the big skins and out on my small mohair kicker skins. The glide was now superb after a week of the full length skins. I skied down the stream bed but it was in a small trough and was full of loose snow,  so I kept on the rounded bank where the wind had rolled the snow flakes, breaking their arms off and packing them more tightly and firmer for me. For the next  hour I had a lovely tranquil ski down the valley to the start of the birch woods passing the end of the glacier route I came over from Alggavagge 14 years ago. My mood lightened hugely as the snow was not too deep and the weather was continuing to improve and the barometer was rising. 

55. Day 09. As I approached Rovdjurstorget (predators meeting place) where Sarvesvagge met Rapadalen the wind ceased, the sun came out and the barometer shot up.

Once in the woods the Arctic charm started. Firstly the light is so special everything is illuminated and even the dullest of dead tree trunks stand out against the gleaming snow. Secondly I came across areas where flocks of ptarmigan had hunkered down in the snow, almost buried in a deep divot. They would emerge to waddle to the sapling birch growing through the snow and eat the infant buds. Thirdly, it was so calm and peaceful in the woods. They were a magical place. I saw some flocks of ptarmigan but they spotted me from 100 metres and 20 or so took off. I wandered through the trees past an area known as Rovdjurstorget or “Predators Meeting Place”. Here there were known to be Bear, Lynx, Wolverine and Wolf. However I knew I would not see any and probably not even their tracks. I didn’t, but I did see plenty of fox prints as they stalked the flocks of ptarmigan. 

56. Day 09. Looking back up Sarvesvagge valley from the junction with Rapadalen. The watershed, where I had taken such a battering, was 17-18 km behind me now.

With the sun now strong in the afternoon it was pleasant and warm and I continued through the woods until the Sarvesjahka stream met the Rapatno river at the confluence of the two valleys under the huge face of the very impressive Beilloriehppe. I was now in Rapadalen and this is where I intended to camp. I crossed the Rapatno river and was delighted to come across old ski tracks. They would make my next two days to Aktse easy as it is heavy work ploughing a furrow for oneself. I pitched the tent in the late afternoon sun beside some ancient venerable birch. The ice lining the tent from this morning soon melted and I was soon inside with the stove going. I had an abundance of fuel so heated the tent for a good hour over and above the 2.5 litres of snow melting needed for supper. I could make it to Aktse in a long day from here with the tracks to follow but had already decided to savour Rapadalen and its magic especially as the good weather seems to be restored. It had certainly been a mixed day today. 

57. Day 09. My tranquil campsite beside the open, braided river valley near Rovdjurstorget in the upper part of the delta and lagoon area of Rapaselet.

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 10. 02 April. Rovdjurstorget camp to Nammasj camp. 23 km. 8 hours. 60 m up. 160 m down. I slept well and woke late about the time the sun cleared the low ridges down the valley and lit up the porch. I guess it was about 0800. I popped my head out of the porch and it was a stunning sunny wind free day. The sharp fluted spurs on the upper flanks of the towering Bielloreihpe were just catching the sun which made them look even more dramatic. I lingered over breakfast and packing and did not get going until 1030. The day was warming up nicely at minus 5 but it was minus 26 in the night. Soon I was sweating and had to stop to take my jacket off. The tracks I was following soon veered into the woods and quickly became covered in 10 cm of new snow. If I stayed on the track it was easy going but frequently I stepped off the hardened track underneath and then I was into 25 cm of snow until I stepped back on the submerged track again.

58. Day 10. Skiing across the Bielloriehppjavrre lagoon in Upper Rapaselet looking NE to the Skårki massif.

After stepping off the track about 40 times in the space of half a kilometre it did not make the effort of following them worthwhile so I left them and veered onto the large frozen braided delta of Rapsalet. There were many lagoons here and I had sometimes seen large elg in the summer standing chest deep and dropping their heads into the waters to graze on the aquatic weeds. One of the biggest lagoons was called Bielloriehppe Javre and it was about a kilometre across. Occasionally I could see the wind had blown all the snow off the lagoon in patches revealing the ice. I was often clear with bubbles and I could see them 50 cm below the surface. One could have driven a tank over the ice. After this lagoon I carried on down the flat of the valley across, lagoons and braided channels and large gravel banks. It was difficult to see what was what but occasionally twigs sticking through the surface showed me that I was on a gravel bank. Rapasalet was essentially a glacial lake which had been completely filled in with alluvial sediments swept down the river. These sediments still flowed down and the braided paths they took down Rapsalet would change over the course of a century. The only problem skiing here is that there had been some strong winds in the winter and they had sculpted the snow into small ridges and formations known as sastrugi. It was just small sastrugi compared to the large anvil shapes one might get in the polar areas but it still slowed me down and the pulk was bucking and twisting over each one also pulling and pushing me like a banshee. Rapsalet was about 10 kilometres altogether and it took a good three hours to ski down it. It was windstill under a perfectly blue sky. Indeed the weather could not have been better and it was a joy to travel down the valley between the massive mountains on each side. 

59. Day 10. Looking back up Rapaselet with the Bielloriehppe massif on the left and Skårki massif on the right. The winters wind had stripped the snow off some of the ice in the delta land.

As I reached the bottom of Rapaselet the valley veered more to the south as it ran into two hard knolls on the valley floor called Alep and Lulep Spadnek. The valley also narrowed here and while it was still U shaped it was a narrower U verging on a V. Here I verged to the north side of the river and skied along the edge of the woods. From time to time I came across the ski tracks and they were much easier to follow now as they were more prominent. It was an absolute delight to ski here occasionally through the woods looking to see what the ptarmigan had been doing, looking at the way the fox tracks darted about the ptarmigan hollows in the snow where they might be hiding. I saw just one wolverine track here but it would not bother with the ptarmigan as it probably had a small moose or reindeer cached under a stone in a drift which it lived off during the winter.  The other delight with the woods was the light, the luminous bright white of the Arctic which illuminated everything and showed up every fissure in the tree or nuance in the surface of the snow. 

61. Day 10. Heading down Rapadalen towards Alep and Lulep Spadnek (centre). I stopped for lunch here on a levee formed by the River Rapatno.

I stopped for lunch on a natural levee the Rapatno river had formed along its bank between the river and the marshes. There was no wind at all and the sun was hot. I could feel my face starting to burn and my lips crack.The was no need for any gloves at all. After lunch I had gone about 300 metres when suddenly I saw 6 people coming towards me. They were not fluent skiers. Then I recognized the leader, Geoffroy. He was a Belgian who ran small bespoke camping trips for fellow Belgiums. Last time I was up here in 2020 we had bumped into each other up Tarradalen and then again at Kvikkjokk where we both wondered how we would get home after Europe had locked down for covid while we were in the wilderness. I mentioned the Old Amsterdamer cheese he gave me then and immediately his face lit up he went to his pulk, dug out some Old Amsterdamer cheese and gave me a huge chunk saying “There it is a tradition now”. It was very touching. We must have chatted and reminisced for a good half hour, his clients fascinated by our acquaintance. 

62. Day 10. A chance meeting with Geoffroy (left) and his team from Belgium. I had met Geoffroy 3 years ago and he gave me some Old Amsterdam cheese which he did again now to create a tradition.

After this joyful encounter in the middle of the remote Rapadalen I carried on downstream towards the two rocky Spadnek knolls. The river now started to flow in more of a single channel and there was a noticeable descent to it; perhaps half a metre every 100 metres. There was the occasional open section here but there were a number of tracks to follow. At one stage the river was too difficult to follow just where the large tributary called the Gadok joined it from the SW. Here Geoffry and his team had detoured into the woods on the south side over a spur, and I followed their tracks through the deep snow in the bright still of the mid afternoon. I could see the river nearby and it was open in many places and I saw a pair of dippers flying from one opening to another in search of any larvae which might be forming on the submerged boulders. Not long afterwards once past Lulep Spadnek the river flattened out again and the tracks returned to the river. The skiing now became very easy as the winter winds had not blown the surface into uneven structures and the firm snow surface had small channels to follow from Geoffroy’s team. I had a good time as I sped down the flat surface now intent on getting to Nammasj to camp.

63. Day 10. Near the 2 hard Rock knolls of Alep and Lulep Spadnek the Rapatno river fell more rapidly and I had to divert into the woods on the south side to avoid obstacles. Luckily I could follow Geoffroy’s tracks.

Suddenly a snow scooter came from the corner and stopped by me. We started chatting and it turned out the driver worked for the Swedish Wildlife Service and was going up to their hut near Rovdjurstorget to continue his surveys, especially on Gry Falcons. I told him I had once seen a pair on the southern slopes leading down from Luohttolahko some 15 years ago. He said they were still there. What he did not know about Sarek was not worth knowing. He had been studying here for 20 years and knew every ravine. I would have loved to have chatted longer but after half an hour we had to part. Him to his hut at Dielma and me down to Nammasj. 

64. Day 10. Approaching Nammasj, a Nunatak in the middle of the Rapadalen valley. After Nammasj the Rapatno river entered a 7 km long detla, hemmed in by Skierffe (left) and Tjahkelij (out of pic on right) to spill into Laitaure lake.

It was a great ski and I was astounded at how long it stayed light for now.. It was nearly 1800 and the sun was still up and shining on the south facing slopes. On and on I skied with Nammasj getting ever closer. It was a fortress like nunatak, or tower of rock in a glacial flow, which now stood proud of the valley, it was flanked further down the valley but the near vertical walls of Skierffe on the north and Tjahkelij on the south with the nearly full moon rising above all. It was quite a sight. 

65. Day 11. My campsite beneath Nammasj was blessed by the morning sun which soon banished the minus 20 chill of the night. The craggy hill in the background is Ridok.

At the base of Nammasj the snow was very firm and it was easy to find a comfortable place to camp on this still evening and with the temperatures about to drop to minus 20 at least I found a nice spot on a snow covered levee. I had the tent up, sleeping bag deployed inside and stove on in 14 minutes. The tent soon warmed up with the stove going in the porch. Once the water melting duties were done and supper was rehydrating in the bag I brought the stove inside to heat up the inner. It did not take long before it was full of hot dry air inside and my gloves were crispy. I had an abundance of fuel left, over a litre, so could be liberal with it. I fired the stove inside for a good hour, opening the door to the porch occasionally to let in more oxygen. It finally got dark at about 2100 now and after writing a bit in the heat I fell asleep for the last time in the tent this trip. Aktse was 10 km or 3 hours away and I would be staying there tomorrow. It was a simple hut but had the comfort of a wood burning stove, gas rings, stools, tables and mattresses on bunk beds. These were the comforts I had been dreaming of for days. 

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 11. 03 April. Nammasj camp to Aktse. 11 km. 3 hours. 80 m up. 30 m down. I was woken at 0630 with a ptarmigan chuckling right outside the tent. It was signalling to others as a cockerel might. It was a cold night and I measured minus 22 in the tent’s porch. However the barometer was now at 1035 and still rising so it was hardly surprising it would be cold. I had pitched the tent so the morning sun would not be blocked by the gabbro block of Nammasj and at about 0730 the first rays hit the tent. I opened the fly sheet door and could feel the heat of the sun at once. I cooked only enough water for breakfast and ate it with the burner in the inner tent. The night’s frozen condensation was soon evaporated from the inner nylon and it was dry. I soon stuffed the sleeping bags into the Arctic bedding roll and the tent into the long sack both designed to save time and effort and had the sledge packed by 0900. 

66. Day 11. A last look up Rapadalen to the large convoluted Bielloriehppe massif bathed in the morning sun.

Initially the skiing was in a similar easy fashion to last night with good tracks on a firm surface. As soon as I passed Nammasj though I entered the delta of the Rapatno river and more and more ice appeared on the surface of the river. It was not the smooth sheets of water ice but knobbly rough ice where the water had seeped up from the river and wetted the snow which then refroze. It was slow and difficult to ski on and the tracks seemed to follow the edges of the channels. 

67. Day 11. The south face of Skierffe, 1183m, towered above the delta landscape of the Rapatno river as it entered Laitaure lake at 497 metres. The 300-350 metre cliffs were vertical.

After a while the tracks veered off form the channels altogether and headed into the woods. I followed them but became alarmed when they seemed to head north into dense birch woods. However I was committed now and followed them for a good kilometre on what seemed a wild goose chase. To go off them through the woods on my own would have been foolhardy. Just as I was about to turn around I saw a traditional Sami Kåta, a small pyramid hut made from logs and covered in turf. This one had a stove pipe coming out of the roof. In the old days of herding and hunter gathering the sami would use these hut a certain times each year for fishing, or berry collecting, or hunting ptarmigan and then the rest of the time they would be closed up a left. This one had not been used all winter and was covered in a huge cone of snow. 

68. Day 11. Beneath Skierffe, on the shore of the Sajvva lagoon I came across this Sami Kåta. They are traditional turf shelters use for brief periods during the year for a few weeks at a time. This one like most had a stove.

After this the tracks veered east again and Nammasj was behind me again. I headed down a small channel towards the very foot of the 500 metre south wall of Skierffe where there was a lagoon called Sajvva, about a kilometre across. At the far end were two huge boulders and I think one of which was an ancient place of worship for the Sami and to leave offerings for their deities. 

From here I thought I could almost see the snow clad roofs of the homestead and cabins at Aktse. I followed a set of tracks down the hard neve snow on top of the ice on the northern channel. A snow scooter had been this way too and helped flatten the undulations. Skierffe towered above me, its top 700 metres higher mostly up a sheer cliff. It was perfect for BASE jumpers. After an hour of following this channel I finally got to the Laitaure lake. The lake was very slowly being displaced by the delta which must grow a few centimetres a year. 

I was spoilt for tracks to follow on the lake itself, both skiers and snow scooter tracks but took one which went to the boat shed for the summer crossing of the lake. Here there was a small jetty and I knew there was a gentle but sustained climb up through the mixed birch and spruce woods to reach Aktse. Luckily the climb was well used by skiers and snow scooters so it was wide and firm. I had to herring bone up a few steeper sections but generally the short skins coped well. The ascent was only 15 minutes anyway before the fabled homestead at Aktse appeared. It was owned by the Lanta family who well over 100 years ago gave up their reindeer to build and run a homestead here. It was very fertile and the farm prospered. Some 40 years ago I once bought a book by the Journalist, photographer and naturalist Edvin Neilson who spent a number of summers here with the Lanta family. The STF (Swedish Tourist Association) had a cabin here also and it had been hankering for its luxuries for a few days now. I hauled the pulk up the last 100 metres like Julius Caesar returning to Rome with the spoils of another conquest. 

69. Day 11. The fabled homestead at Aktse belongs to the Lanta family. They are Sami who gave up their reindeer over 100 years ago to farm on the fertile ground.

The Warden was about and showed me a lovely room with 10 beds, 5 in two cubicles off the main room with stove, cooking area and tables. It was the classic STF cabin design and was both cosy and conducive to good conversation in the evenings. The hut warden, Erik, was quite local and very familiar with Sarek and Norbottenslan in general. He was 67 and still very fit. He knew Bjorn Sarstad, who I also knew in Kvikkjokk well having known him all his life. We chatted for half an hour before I went to my cabin and unpacked. I spent the rest of the afternoon washing myself, the clothes I had been wearing for the last 11 days and had to peel off, and also drying out all my equipment. I smell like a delicatessen. It took a good few hours in the empty hut with the stove on and the sun pouring through the window. I was just left with a clean dry pair of underpants by the time 5 Finns arrived, but they went into the other mirror image room of the same cabin I was in as I rushed to put my goretex jacket on to cover up. An hour later I was joined by 3 Italians and a Czech called Jerome, who was skiing the whole Kungsleden from Abisko in the North to Hemevan in the South. He seemed to know what he was doing but the Italians were not so prepared to cross Sarek, which was their intention. Jerome shared the small 5 bed cubicle I was in while the Italians had the other. By the time the dusk fell we had had a chatty evening round the stove, my clothes were dry and I was looking forward to a night under a duvet in a comfortable warm bed and not being trussed up in 4 sleeping bags. It was utter luxury.

70. Day 11. The STF huts are largely built on a design by Abrahamson. There are 2 such room which Mitton image each other. Each room has a stove, cooking facilities and two 5 bed cubicles for sleeping. This 50 plus year old design is great for getting the occupants to chat and work together until the candles get blown out around 2100.

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 12. 04 April. Aktse Rest Day. 0 km. 0 hours. 0 m up. 0 m down. I pretty much got up when Jerome, the Czech, rose. He wanted to ski the entire 40 km to Kvikkjokk and set off at about 0800. I had no doubt this careful, experienced, considered man would not do it. The Italians, a bit more haphazard, set off an hour later to head up Rapadalen.  That just left me on my own. I returned to bed for a very early siesta and then did some typing. About midday I went out onto the balcony and noticed a very small gathering on the terrace of the warden’s cabin and thought nothing of it. Half an hour later the door of my half of the cabin burst open and someone said “James it is so nice to see you” It was Bjorn from Kvikkjokk whom I had known for over 25 years. He had been on the terrace but I had not seen him and the warden must have told him I was staying. I stayed with Bjorn and his partner Helene quite a few times in Kvikkjokk some 20 years ago. I went down to join the gathering and catch up with Bjorn. He had brought a woman up on his snow scooter as she was doing a snowshoe tour and was hurting her knee. I chatted with Bjorn for a good hour and told him I would be in Kvikkjokk in 48 hours and would seek him and Helena out. He then had to return to Kvikkjokk. 

71. Day 12. I had a day off at Aktse washing my clothes and myself during the day before the next intake of skiers and dog sledders arrived. That evening was exceptionally sociable with 3 great teams of other people and me.

Later in the afternoon two witty Swedish ladies, Karin and Mathilda arrived from the cabin to the north and they were assigned to my half of the cabin in the other 5 bed cubicle. They were an Engineer and Firefighter respectively and good company. They spent much of the afternoon on the cabin’s balcony drinking tea in the sun. Then later Olav, a Dutch musher arrived with 18 dogs and two clients. Each sledge had 6 dogs and he was very thoughtful about their welfare. The clients it turned out were two Brits, Yvonne from Wiltshire and Neil from Berwick on Tweed. This trio had been on a few trips together and their jokes and banter were from weeks for familiarity under some hardship. Olav the Dutchman had lived in Sweden for a couple of decades running a successful outfit with 36 Alaskan huskies in all. He was the type of Dutchman I really admire, quick of thought, independent, witty, multilingual and a great conversationalist. He not only looked after his dogs well but also his clients. They went into the other half of the hut and took a cubicle and I went in there to chat with them. 

I thought that was it but around dinner time 3 Swedes arrived. They were weather beaten, rugged and smelled like I had yesterday. It turned out they had just emerged from Sarek where they two had been camping for a week. They were also quite relieved to be in the warmth, sitting on a chair with the prospect of a real bed. They were great company and we exchanged tales for a good hour as they relaxed and unpacked into my cubicle which was now stinking and full of damp gear. As bed time approached I decided to beat a tactical retreat from my cubicle and go into the spare one in the dog friendly section where Olav and his team were. Between these three groups of people I had an excellent evening in the hut with plenty of banter and tales.  It had been a very sociable day off. 

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 13. 05 April. Aktse to Pårte. 25 km. 6.5 hours. 160 m up. 220 m down. It was slightly cloudy in the morning but completely windstill and mild at around minus 5. The 3 Swedes who came in from Sarek last night were going to have an easy day cleaning up and enjoying their oranges once they had thawed out. They were a great bunch and I really warmed to them. As I did with the two young Swedish girls and the dog-sledding team of the Dutch boss, called Olav and his two English clients Yvonne and Neil. It was perhaps some of the nicest company I have had in a cabin. So it was with a tinge of sadness I packed my pulk, now with the arctic bedding system and tent dried off and dismantled into their component bags. The pulk looked a lot smaller now. The Swedish girls left for Parte about 8 but I was a good hour behind them and headed off down the slope at 0900 almost running down a very organised team of German snowshoe hikers who had assembled outside the lower hut. 

72. Day 13. Crossing Laitaure lake en route between Aktse and Pårte cabins and looking NW towards Rapadalen with Tjahkelij on the left, Nammasj in the middle and Skierffe on the right.

The first kilometre was a delight as I sped down between the spruce trees to the lake. The spruce were very thin and pointed, typical of the taiga type forests, so they shed snow more readily and did not store it in their upper boughs so a storm might snap the top off. The ski path was like a gentle version of the Cresta Run. It was a slot in the forest snow almost 2 metres wide and a metre deep. It was wide enough so I could control my speed with a snow plough as I never knew what was round the corner. Down I went for a good 5 minutes with the pulk heaving and tugging as I went over the bumps, and they were virtually continuous. After an exhilarating kilometre the track spilled me out onto the bright surface of Laitaure lake. 

There was a line of sticks across the lake marking the snow scooter trail to the south and I followed these across the lake. I guess about 20 snow scooters a day came this way so the trail across the lake was smooth and easy to ski. The pulk was almost forgotten as I skied with gliding strides and made great time for nearly 3 km to reach the other side. It was a lovely ski and for once I felt like an oiled machine rather than a collection of badly fitting parts. I could see up the lake to Nammasj at the far end of the delta land and the two defining edges of it in the tall cliffs of Skierffe and Tjahkelij. Rapadalen beyond them was a bit ill defined in the flat light. By the time I reached the other side I was hot and had to strip off gloves, hat and jacket. 

The trail now climbed slightly for 2 kilometres through the lovely narrow spruce again with a scattering of birch lower down. I was on the scooter track as there was no option. If I went off into the forest freestyle I would have been thigh deep in loose snow and so would the pulk have been. I would be lucky to make 500 metres an hour through the unblemished virgin forest snow. Occasionally the climb was too steep for the kicker skins on the skis so I had to herring bone up the compacted wide trough of snow. At the very shallow apex of the broad saddle I had another exhilarating ski down a “Cresta Run” again until I reached Tjakjajavrre Lake, which again was blindingly bright after the shaded stillness of the sprucer forest. 

Tjaktjajavrre Lake is a large dammed lake used for hydro power. Its surface can rise and fall some 40 metres. It was created over 70 years ago by building a large dam and flooding the Tjaktja valley. This open valley was fabled for its beauty as there was a string of lakes along its floor all surrounded by mixed woods of pine, spruce and birch. When the reservoir is empty, as it was today you can still see the original small lakes on the floor as they are unblemished flat snow covered ice. But the rest of the reservoir is a grotesque jumble of sheets of ice formed during the early winter to a depth of about 50 cm. However as the stored power is used up the level falls and the ice sheets come to rest on the old valley floor, with boulders beneath the ice protruding through and propping the ice up at angles. The winter snows had covered these ice sheets and smoothed them off a bit. The snow scooter path went through the middle of them and it was easy to follow across to the south side some 3 km away, gently dropping to the old riverbed and then climbing up easily on the other side. 

I had been going for 3 hours now and had done some 13 km already so stopped for lunch. As I ate 4 Finns came the other way and we chatted in Swedish. Many Finns speak Swedish and some even have Swedish as their mother tongue. After lunch I started the most delightful 3 hour, 12 km ski, which lasted the rest of the day. Initially it was along the southern shore of Tjaktjajavrre lake for a short hour. While there were the ice sheets of remnants of the reservoir on the north side on the south side there were patches of mixed woods, including some pine trees. The trail was easy and virtually flat save for the odd short climb. However once the trail got to the end of Tjaktjajavrre lake it climbed a short shallow ridge covered in pines and then reached a lake called Rittak. Rittak lake was one of the original lakes of the fabled valley and it had not been affected by the rise and fall of the reservoir of the hydro scheme and was still pristine. 

73. Day 13. Skiing through the beautiful warm mixed spruce and pine woods in the vicinity of Lake Rittak near the delightful Pårte cabin.

I skied over Rittak lake in perfect sunshine feeling the heat in my face after the warm day. beside the snow scooter tracks unblemished snow stretched across the surface to the spruce and pine trees around the shore. It was a picture postcard scene and it brought back memories of similar skis along here. Once, perhaps a bit later in the season, I remember some swans on a small open patch of water on the lake having migrated from the south to breed up here. At the west end of Rittak lake there were a few smaller lakes and frozen marshes all separated by the comforting and nurturing pine trees, which made me feel I was in a safe maternal embrace again. Here and there were some small patches of water opening up where the stream which threaded the lake together flowed out of one. After a meditative hours in this sunny winter wonderland I came across Lars Thulin. He was doing the whole of the Kungsleden south to north and lived near the end of it. It was literally skiing home. He was a photographer and outdoorsman and we had a lot of interests in common. We chatted for an hour in the sun while his Finnish Lapp dog, a herding type dog, lay on the  snow and listened. We had a few mutual friends, it turned out. Lars was in no hurry and had everything he needed on his large stable pulk, made by Hilleberg the tentmaker. After Lars and myself parted I just had a couple more kilometres to ski in the pristine winterscape to reach one of the most charming and idyllic of the STF cabins at Parte. 

74. Day 13. Me standing in from of Pårte cabin, also an 50 years old plus Abrahamson design cabin within touching distance of a razor at Kvikkjokk tomorrow. This photo re enacts one I took in 1986!

It was a small cabin of the familiar Abrahamson design and it was arranged like a small homestead on a wooded promontory overlooking the small Sjábttjakjávrre lake. The warden small cabin, and the woodshed formed the other two sides of the compound. I noticed a flock of Siberian Jays hovering in the trees nearby. The warden came out to meet me. I recognized Håkon at once as he was the warden at Sitajaure where I stayed 3 years ago. He was an ex soldier who had spent time in the Swedish peacekeeping contingents in the Balkans 30 years. We chatted for a good half hour before I went in. The Swedish girls, Karin and Mathilda, were in one half with a grumpy mother and daughter team from Belgium. They had a cubicle each, so I took a cubicle in the empty mirror image of the other half of the hut and soon warmed the place with the stove. Håkon appeared with a cake he made, for which he is legendary, and I went through to the Swedish girls and chatted with them and ate my portion. As the full moon came out over the bare snowy ridge of Kabla to the south I went into my half, lit the candles and had a quiet supper, reflected on what a great trip it had been and wrote the blog until it was dark outside. 

Sarek Ski Expedition. Day 14. 06 April. Pårte to Kvikkjokk. 17 km. 3.5 hours. 80 m up. 230 m down. I heard Karin and Mathilda get up early and leave at 0700 in the next door room. However as it was a short day I lingered in bed in the quiet, peaceful cabin. I had breakfast with the Belgian mother and daughter team who were much more gentle this morning. Håkon came over to say goodbye to us later on and I eventually left around 0930 with a slight haze in the upper atmosphere giving an almost overcast feel. The pesky Siberian Jays were out in force to see me off hoping I would leave something. I had already seen them tugging at the zip on my pulk trying to open it. 

Initially I skied west across Sjábttjakjávrre lake which Pårte cabin sat on the edge of. It was a lovely ski for a couple of kilometres and the skis glided across the snow beautifully and the pulk followed behind gliding silently on the snow with virtually no friction. I almost forgot about it. As I skied the high haze burnt off and the sun began to break through. I could feel my already weather-beaten face start to heat up in the sun. Along the shores of the lake, on the flat valley floor, the narrow taiga-like spruce trees filled the immediate horizon and pierced up into the white flanks of the mountains beyond the stakes. 

75. Day 14. Skiing across Stour Dahta lake between Pårte cabin and Kvikkjokk with the sharp spires of the taiga like spruce lining the shore and the large Pårte massif, which has two 2000m mountains in in a a host of glaciers.

At the end of this lake there was a gentle passage along the virtually flat valley floor skiing between scattered spruce and pine trees. It was getting quite warm now and I could see small birds, mostly tits, starting to chase each other from tree to tree as the spring courtships got underway. This led to another lake, Stuor Dáhtá. It was also aligned east-west for about 4 km. Again it was a beautiful easy ski along the lake. There were more and more snow scooters here and they followed the same line of stick markers I was and had created a very firm layer of smooth snow with a loose topping a centimetre of two deep. It was perfect to ski along. To the north above the green spires of the shoreline rose the Pårte massif, whose 2000 metre top is the easiest of the 4 2000 metre tops in Sarek but still takes 3-4 days from a roadend. 

At the end of Stuor Dáhtá lake and arm headed south over more undulating terrain in the forest for 4 km. There were some nice, gentle downhill sections but also some smaller climbs which were hot in the midday sun in the breathless wind of the still forest. The trail dipped to a stream bed and then gently climbed again. I knew there was a good downhill section coming but the start of it seemed further away than I thought. Up and down the trail went for nearly an hour in the spruce forest crossing the occasional open patch of frozen marshland. There were a few scooters here and most seemed quite respectful and pulled over to the side or even stopped for a chat when I went by. 

76. Day 14. The last few kilometres to Kvikkjokk are an absolute delight as the mixed ski and snow scooter trail zips down through the mixed spruce and fir forest with some exciting sections.

At last there was a longer section of downhill and I could see down to the Gamajahka valley now where the village of Kvikkjokk lay. I knew this heralded the last 3 kilometres and it was occasionally quite fast and intense. The ski and scooter trail here was wide and it was easy to snow plough down some of the steeper sections. I took up the whole trail in places and it was lucky there were no scooters coming up. They could stop but I would need 20 metres with the pulk pushing me onwards. There were some quite exhilarating sections where I almost lost it. If I crashed here I would have slid 30-40 metres down the track with the pulk’s momentum. The last kilometre was much more gentle as it was down a snow covered track and I glided down here between an avenue of trees until I passed a large parking place and the signpost for Kvikkjokk Fjallstation just beyond. I intended to stay here so I took the small track up, when under the arch of the old building and then skied to the front door. 

77. Day 14. After 14 days and over 200 km of a magnificent ski trip, more of an expedition really, I finally glided under the archway of Kvikkjokk Fjallstation to some culinary treats and a fist shower since leaving Ritsem.

They had a bed in a shared room for me for a couple of days and had also received my package of clean clothes and bags I had posted from Ritsem. I had lunch, chatted with Karin and Matilda before they headed off in a taxi and then had a shower. I washed a few extra clothes to last me the next 3 days and then started to pack. It took a couple of hours but at last everything was in the pulk or the large ski bag. I attached my kayak trolley to the bottom of the pulk so I could move it about easily between here and Luleå airport where I had to be in 3 days time.  I had allowed a bit too much time at the end of this trip in case of bad weather of which there was less than I anticipated. The trouble was there were no buses to Jokkmokk for the next 5 days so I would somehow have to get a lift or if there was no one get a taxi to Jokkmokk and then take a bus from there. I was determined not to rush my departure and spend 3 days in Luleå which would have rather tainted an otherwise perfect ski trip. I would rather relax in Kvikkjokk instead where I would meet fellow skiers and spend some time with Bjorn and Helena whom I had known for 25 years. This particular ski strip through Sarek had been my 7th and it had probably been the best. If I never have the opportunity to go through Sarek again in the winter I will be leaving on a good note with memories to cherish. 

Sarek Ski Expedition. 24 March – 6 April 2023. 14 Days. 207 Kilometres. 74 hours. 3120 metres up. 3280 metres down.  

There is an hour long video, filmed on my phone, with some great views and also a lot of narration. It is not the most exciting or professional but you can skip to the more interesting parts which as a rule are in the middle.  The link is HERE 


 

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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. 

649.Heading up the Ubayette valley towards the Lac du Lauzanier and the Pas de la Cavale.

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. 

650. looking south across the lacde Lauzanier up the highest parthg of the Ubayette valley with the Pas de la Cavale out of sight just to the right of the small puff of cloud

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. 

651. Some Red Deer, Cervus elaphus, which had been wallowing in the stream just above Lac du Lauzanier.

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.

652. Looking SE from the Pas de la Cavale, 2700m, SE towards the Pas de Morgon, 2714m, which is right under the cloud upper centre. Out route went down to the round turquoise Lac d’Agnel, across the Salsa Moreno valley, up to the plateau with the largest Lac de Morgon (just above centre right)) to the Pas de Morgon

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. 

653. Looking NW from the Vallon de la Cabane across the braided Salso Moreno valley to the Pas de la Cavale, 2700m. The path came down the steep sedimentary terraces under the saddle

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. 

654. Looking across one of the 5-7 Lac de Morgon towards the Pas de la Cavale, which is the saddle in the middle. The cliffs we came down look vertical buut this is a foreshortened view and they were not that exposed

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. 

655. Looking across the upper 3 Lacs du Morgon at about 2450m with the Pas de la Cavale in the distant right. The lone larch tree is at abouut 2500m

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. 

656. Heading along the ridgetop on the France/Italy border between Pas de Morgon, 2714m and the Col du Fer, 2564m unseen just beyond Fiona. Centre left is the Collet de Tortisse pass between two smaller hills.

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. 

657.Descending the easy path from Collet de Tortisse towards the Lac Vens and the Refuge de Vens situated at the hed of the largest of the Lac Vens lakes in prime position.

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.

658. Looking down the largest of the Lac Vens lakes from the terrace of the Refuge de Vens with the moon hanging over the lake just after dawn

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. 

659. Looking east up the largest of Lac Vens with the Refuge de Vens sitting on a rocky knoll at the far end between two waterfalls.

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. 

660. Looking SW from the col after Lac des Barborettes over the shepherds hut in the shade and the night compound for the sheep across the large Tinee valley to the massif between the Tinee and Var rivers

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. 

661. Walking south along the sensational Sentier de l’Electric built some 80 years ago to build two small hydroelectic plants under Lac Robuons and Lac Vens. The latter was neverbuilt but the path remains

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. 

662. The very pretty Lac Fer was at the high point of the diversion from the Sentier de l’Electric. It lies in a south facing cirque under Mont Tenibre, 3031m, in the miiddle of the photo.

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. 

663. After the diversion over the srur with Lac Fer on top the route returned to the Sentier de l’Electric path for another 4-5 km passing through a couple of tunnels to reach Refuge de Rabuons

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.

664. Lac Rabuons in the the very early morning from the ascent to the south up over the west spur of Tete de Jassine.

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. 

665. A European Mouflon, Ovis aries musimon, running down the scree on the west spur coming down from Tete de Jassine. it was 200 metres away

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. 

666. The sun just about to rise over the Main Alpine Divide to the east of Lac Clapiere, which can just be seen above the path mid photo.

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.

667. Heading south round the middle of the three side valleys which the path virtually contoured round between the west spur of Tete de Jassine and the knoll of Tete Gerpa. Amazingly this path was not marked on the official maps

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. 

668. Looking SW back up to Col the Colle Longue after the long descent on the old military track which took us down to Lago di San Bernolfo in Italy

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. 

669. Approaching Passo Sometta, 2209m, at the head of the smaller Vallon della Sauma, whhere we met a herd of Piiedmontese cattle

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. 

670.Looking south from Passo Somatta towards the Main alpine Divide and the border. The mountain is Roche du Saboule. The path from Passo del Bue to Passo Tesina goes along the bottom of the scree slopes about the sparsely forested outcrop.

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.

671. Looking from the small hidden Shhangri la at the head of the Vallon di Tesina to the Passo Tesina 2400m in the middle of the ridge. The path goes up from the left under Cima di Tesina, 2460m, which is the rocky summit.

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.

672. The final 200 metres or so up to Passo Tesina was on a soliid path with autumnal blueberry bushes and scattered Arollo pines beside the path.

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. 

673. On the ill advised, off piste, rocky descent which was a short cut from Lago di Saint Anna to the Scantuary di Saint Anna, whose roofs can been seen below

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.

674. Looking back to Saint Anna Sanctuary. The Passo Tesina, 2400m which we came over to get to the Sanctuary is just out of the picture on the left

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. 

675. Heading SE down the gente Crete de la Lausetta at around 2300 metres rowards the Col de la Lombarde, which can just be seen slightly right of centre

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. 

676. Looking east across the Lac de Terre Rouge, 2452m towards the Baisse du Druos pass 2628m, which is seen in the middle of the skyline. It is the current border wityh Italy although this border has changed over the centuries.

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. 

677. The beautiful Lago di Valscura, 2274m is on the east side of the Baisse du Druos pass and in Italy. At the far end of the lake there was a shepherds house and a recently departed flock of sheep who had been here for the summer.

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. 

678. Looking west from the outflow of Lago di Valscura, 2274m towards the pass of Baisse du Druos, 2628m, which is on the jagged skyline in the centre of the photo

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. 

679. A section of the old paved military road between the lakes of Lago di Valscura and Lago del Claus. This road was perhaps 100 years old and built by soldiers. Refugio Emilio Questa is in the cirque just after the dark knoll in the centre right

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.

680. Passing Lago del Claus, 2433m, en route to Rifugio Emilio Questa which is about half an hour way in the next cirque south

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.

681. Heading up a section of paved track in Valle Morta towards Colletta del Valesco, 2430m, and the the Fremamorta lakes beyond this col

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. 

682. The lowest Fremamorta lake, 2359m from the Colletta de Valesco. The track which looks like the great wall of china leads up to the small red Bivacco Jacques Guiglia, on the knoll centre right. Our route went down into the valley on the left  

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. 

683. Looking down from the Fremamorta lakes into the Gessa Valley and the meadow of Pian della Casa dei Re, centre right. The gorge and valley of Balle di Balma Guilie goes straight up from this meadow directly away from us to the col with a small peak in the middle of it.

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. 

684. Climbing up the steep gully from Vallone Assedras to gain the top of the buttress which we had to traverse across the top of to reach the Vallone di Balma Ghilié. The main valley below is the Gesso valley and the Colletta de Valesco pass and Fremamorta lakes are at the upper left of the photo.

685. Going south across the top of the buttress between the Vallone Assedras and the Vallone di Balma Ghilié. The Vallone di Balma Ghilie is straigh ahead and the gorge is down the valley to the right

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 

686. Climbing up the Vallone di Balma Ghilié above the gorge which is unseen below. The buttress we had to traverse over the top of is in the cetre right. The main valley below is the Gesso valley and the Colletta de Valesco pass and Fremamorta lakes are at the upper centre left of the photo.

687. Looking SE from the Col du Guilié / Colle est del Mercantour, 2639m towards the pass of Baisse de Baissette, 2645m, which is seen directly above Fiona. The route up to this pass went up the grass and slab slopes just to the right of the scree. The ascent was not as steep as the photo suggests.

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. 

688. The enormous male ibex which Fiona nearly walked into on the Baisse de Baissette, 2645m, pass. We estimated that this ibex was a little under 200 kg and perhaps 14-15 years old.

689. Another ibex on the Baisse de Baissette pass. This ibex was only 7-8 years old and perhaps just over 100 kg. It let out a snort when Fionsa got too close

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. 

690. The stunningly beautiful Lacs Bessons lakes. These 3 lakes lay in a cirque of bare gniess with the mountain of Caire de l’Agnel, 2937m as a backdrop.

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.  

691. In the Vallon Sangue below the 3 Lacs Bessons there were many chamois. The chamois were a bit more nervous than the confident ibex.

692. There were also many ibex in the Vallon Sangue below the 3 Lacs Bessons. This ibex was about 20-22 years old and must have weighed over 150kg. It was very confident, but let out a snort and swung its formidable horns when we about 2 metres away.      

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.  

693. On the off piste route across the boulder and scrub covered mountain side between the Vallon Sangue and the Refuge de Cougourde in the last light of the day with the gneiss monolith of Caires de Cougourde, 2921m, on the left of the picture

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. 

694. One of the many chamois we saw in the walk up to Pas des Ladres, 2432m. Thus one was near the side of te beautiful Lac de Trecolpas, 2150m.

695. Looking west back to the Lac de Trecolpas, 2150m, with the Mont Pelago, 2768m, in the background with the sun of it. Refuge de Cougourde is in the valley to the right

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. 

696. Our sunny lunch spot on the shortcut across the pastoral bowl beside the Vesubie stream. After lunch the GR52 path traversed up the scree slopes in the shade to the side high valley and then on to the Pas du Mont Colomb, 2548m, in the photos centre

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. 

697. Half way up the shaded scree slopes was a small crag to scramble up for a few metres. It was not steep but one needed hands to help get get some of the steps.

698. The final slopes up to Pas du Mont Colomb, 2548m, were in a side valley which became clogged with large stones.

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.

699. The first 10-15 metres down the east side of Pas du Mont Colomb, 2548m, were very steep and again you needed your hands to clamber down the narrow rocky slot behind Fiona

700. Reaching the bottom of the cautious 400 metre descent down the east side of Pas du Mont Colomb and nearing the inviting meadows at the bottom. Unfortunately the route did not reach them but headed north before we reached them up the valley to the right

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. 

701. Looking across Lac de la Fous to Refuge de Nice. In the background are the 3000metre mountains which for the border and the main alpine watershed

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.

702. The cold Lac Nire, 2350m, with the Pas du Nire on the skyline behind it to the south. Vallon du Mont Chamineye went off to the left out of the picture.

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.

703. Looking SE from the Baisse du Basto, 2693m, pass across the upper Basto valley to the Baisse de Valmasque, 2549m pass in the middle. The distant mountain is Mont Bego 2876m.

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. 

704. The beautiful utopian tarn, 2550m, in the upper Basto valley. On the turf and crags surrounding the tarn were numerous ibex and chamois.

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. 

705. Looking south from the pass of Baisse de Valmasque, 2549m over the shangri la of the Vallée des Merveilles. The west edge Lac des Merveilles, 2294m, can just be see below the 2 tarns on the valley floor.

706. Looking south across the Lac des Merveilles, 2294m. The causeway of stones can be seen below the slab at the edge of the lake. This was the area there were the most petroglyphs but they were off the path and we needed to go with a guide to view them.

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.

707. The petroglyph carvings on the Roche Vandalisse were from the bronze age and were typical of the carving in the area which where chipped into the rocj some 2-5 mm deep. Some wewre nearly 6000 years old. In all there were some 40,000 carvings in the entire area.

708. The lake of Lac Longs, 2111m, just below the the Vallee des Merveilles. Just right of centre photo is the Refuge des Merveilles which could sleep about 60 in 2 dormitories

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. 

709. Dawn approaching fast over Lac Longs, 2111m and the Refuge des Merveilles. In the background are the eastern ridges of the Ligurian Alps

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.

710. One of the tarns just below Lac de la Muta in the first light of dawn with the mountain of Cime des Lacs, 2510m, in the background.

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. 

711. The Crete de l’Ortiguier as seen from the Pas du Diable, 2340m, which was just an hour from the refuge. Just out of the picture to the right was a view down to the Mediterranean Sea

712. Looking east down the Vallon de Cairos from Col de Raus, 1999m. The mountains in the distance are the Ligurian Alps in Italy

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. 

713. Looking south over the dairy of Vacherie de l’Authion,1842m to Pointe de Ventebren, 1976m, which was on the ridge south towards Mangiabo,1821m, and then down to the town of Sospel, 320m.

714. Looking east down the side valley of the Vallon de Fontanas from the climb up to Mont Giagiabella, 1911m, with the first of the autumn colours on the decidious trees. The valley in the middle distance is La Roya.

715. Looking west from Mangiabo,1821m down the side valley of Vallon de Bouissiera towards the large village of Moulinet in the main La Bevera valley. This point on the ridge is where the 1500m descent to Sospel starts.

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. 

716. Some of the mixed decidious woods on the descent to Sospel. Many of trees on this descend were oak and pine which could tolerate the arid south facing slope.

717. Approaching the town of Sospel, 320m, in the La Bevera valley after the long descent. The landscape and vegetation here was totally different to the start of the day at Reguge des Marveilles.

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.  

718. The Pont Vieux in Sospel. This old bridge over the La Bevera River was some 800 years old and it had a toll booth built on is parapets. The bridge was on an historic trading route between Nice and Turin.

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. 

719. Heading east from Sospel above the small side valley of Vallon de Sues with the homestead-like farm of St Julien. This was looking north from the climb up to Col du Razet.

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. 

720. Going through some of the cool decidious woods on ancient terraces on the climb up to Col du Razet. Many of the trees here were sweet chesnuts and their mast covered the ground in many place.

721. The large dog which followed us from the vicinmity of St Julien homestead for about 14 kilometres to half way down the final slope to Menton. He was cooling off in a drinking trough here near Col du Razet, 1033m.

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. 

722. After 4 months we were finally approaching the town of Menton in the centre and left of the photo. Monaco is the town in the bay on the top right

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. 

723. I started the walk swimming in the Danube in Vienna so it was fitting I ended the walk swimming in the Mediterranean Sea at Menton.

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. 

724. On the beach at Menton with Fiona, who had walked all the way from Chamonix with me for a good month. I am still in the wet underpants from the swim.

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. 

725. After a long walk it is always a bit difficult to adjust back to life back in the fast lane above walking speed. Murano in the Venice lagoon is the perfect staging post to make that leap back into society again and we stayed there 4 nights.

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.

726. The final route was 1949 km with 117,300 metres of ascent and descent. In all it took 4 months from 18 May 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.

 

   

 

 

 

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February 9, 2022

Day 90. Modane to Rifugio Terzo Alpini. 21 Km. 7 Hrs. 1470m up. 740m down. I thought we would have a longer day than estimated so we set the alarm for 0600. Breakfast was quite easy in the apartment with the cereal, milk, yoghurt, bread, jam and cheese we had left over. However we had to do some washing up before we left and by the time we got onto the street it was just after 0730. To our surprise it was raining slightly and it looked like there was more coming up the valley. We walked down the main street of Modane and entered the adjacent town of Fourneaux without really noticing we were in a different place as there was no break. Fourneaux looked exactly the same except there were more buildings between the main street and the railway sidings. In the middle of Fourneaux we turned off the main road, crossed the railway lines over a bridge and then walked up some small roads to the south for a few hundred metres to go under the high flyover which supported the motorway. 

Once past the pillars supporting the motorway we quickly entered the forest which swallowed us up and soon the urban bustle of Modane was fading. After a few minutes I looked back and I could just see the motorway slightly below us a few hundred metres away but the surrounding trees muffled the sound. We now started a long sustained climb up some 400 metres until we reached the skiing holiday apartments at Valfrejus. They were 4-5 stories high, but they were at least in an alpine style as opposed to the tower blocks of Tignes. The path did not take us into Valfrejus at all and we just glimpsed this part of it through the trees and then it was gone and we were back in the forest, but from the map it looked like a holiday village. A kilometre further we got to a small meadow with a few houses clustered together which was the hamlet of Les Herbiers. It was quite horticultural and the gardens all had small vegetable plots. Beyond it the route reverted back to the gravel track and it was easier than the forest path and we climbed quite quickly to a small concrete structure which was a small hydroelectric intake. There were many old military defences around here, perhaps from the Second World War or even earlier. We had been walking for 3 hours now and gained about 900 metres so started looking for a place for a snack. Just at that point we walked into a carpark which was at the end of the road and there were some benches here for our break. 

598. Going up to the Col de la Valle Etroite (Valle Stretta in Italian), 2433m, with the Refuge du Mont Thabor centre right beside the scree.

Just as we finished Remy appeared up the track. After a short chat we walked together past a few alm houses at the treeline and then continued up the open mountainside. The track made quite a few zig-zags to climb up the lip of a smaller side valley for a short half hour. At the top of it we were back in a high alpine valley with very jagged rocky mountains on two sides and a pass ahead in the distance. It was quite a pastoral valley, despite the aridness of it, and there were a few alm houses up here with small farmers trying to make a living in the small scale but vanishing style of their grandfathers. One of the rocky peaks which appeared in front of us was Mont Thabor, 3178m, a modest mountain but one of the highest in the area and very serrated and jagged with many pinnacles on its sawtooth ridges. At the bottom of its east ridge was the Refuge du Mont Thabor which was perhaps a kilometre to the west of the col we were heading for, Col de la vallee Etroite, 2433m. It was an easy pleasant path up the grassy slopes to get there and before we knew it we reached the pass. It was overcast with a cold wind on the col so we enjoyed the view for just a few minutes then decided to continue down the south side to a sheltered spot.

The col was the boundary between the Department of Savoie and Hautes Alpes and on the descent it felt we had entered a different land as the terrain was very rocky with huge screes and the pastures which were brown and arid. However, further down the valley we could see extensive forests. After a few minutes the wind stopped and we found a sheltered spot in the grassland to have lunch. Fiona and I had bread, cheese and tomatoes while Remy whipped out a small stove and with great ease boiled half a litre of water and poured it into a foil bag with dehydrated pasta and fish. The meadow we sat in was alive with plump marmots and there must have been 25 around us. The valley which we were to follow down to the trees and the refuge was called Vallee Etroite in French and Valle Stretto in Italian, and it was renowned for its beauty. It was a valley which was Italian previously, but was then transferred to France for some reason.

599. Going south down Vallee Etroite to the pastoral Plaine de Tavernette where a few brooks and springs met to form the stream in the valley.

After our al fresco lunch we headed down between the scree slopes which rose up from the grassy floor. Above the scree slopes were steep rock walls which lead up to the lofty jagged peaks. The mountainsides here reminded me of the Dolomites and the minerals in the rocks must have been full of nutrients as the pastures were healthy. After half an hour we dropped down onto a small plain with a crystal clear spring running through it. It would have been a great place to camp but as we descended even nicer ones appeared. Below this lovely plain with lush grass and the clear stream the valley continued its gentle descent into the hardiest of the larch trees which started around 2200 metres. They had a special quality to them with their slow growth and stunted appearance. The main valley became more and more beautiful as we descended and the trees became larger and more protective. The path then reached a small escarpment with a 100 metre drop which took us down into the mature larch forests with glades of meadows between them. It was a magical area with venerable old trees, bright glades full of verdant grass and clear streams. Here and there were scattered clumps of juniper bushes. Further down the valley was the small summer farming hamlet of Les Granges. The few notices further down the valley were in Italian first and French second and most people now said Bon Journo rather than Bon Jour. 

600. Looking down the beautiful Vallee Etroite from the edge of the small escarpment with the hamlet of Les Granges in the meadow centre left surrounded by larch forest.

We walked through the larch forest for about 3 km to this hamlet. There were some scattered cabins in the woods and many close cropped glades and meadows between the trees and near the clear stream which would have been wonderful to camp in with the maternal protection of the larches. After this delightful amble on the gentle track we reached Les Granges. It had perhaps 40 buildings, most were renovated chalets and haylofts and they looked old and characterful. Two of the buildings here were Refuges. The first we came to, Refugio Magi, looked lovely and reminded me of a Nepali teahouse with its seperate dining room whose walls covered in glass windows in a single story building. Unfortunately the other, Rifugio Terzo Alpini was not so salubrious and it was the one we were booked into. We were given a small 4 bed room with a bunk on each side and we had to share it with one other. It did not look as nice as I suspect the other refuge was, and it was a disappointment. 

601. The alpine hamlet of Les Granges in the Vallee Etroite. The hamlet had 2 refuges, the lovely Magi and scruffy Terzo Alpini.

After changing clothes and having a snack I went into the dining room to write while Fiona sat in the sun and chatted with Remy for a couple of hours. We were all seated at the same table for supper with a French mother and daughter. The daughter spoke great English but had strong opinions and was very dogmatic about them. On the adjacent table were 12 elderly Italians who were very jocular and rowdy and raised the roof a few times with their joyous laughter and banter. The refuge was closing tomorrow and I felt what they gave us for dinner was what was left in the storeroom. There were quite a few courses but it was a haphazard selection. Me and the French mother and daughter were all given gorgonzola cheese to melt into our polenta, while Remy and Fiona shared a large terrine of sausages and stew. It was great to dine with Remy again as he was so knowledgeable about virtually anything and yet easy going and witty. We would part ways tomorrow, but hopefully we would meet down the trail sometime before Menton. After the meal everyone went to bed at around 2100 and I set the alarm for 0515.

Day 91. Rifugio Terzo Alpini to Rifugio Baita Gimont. 30 Km. 10 Hrs. 1840m up. 1570m down. We knew today would be a very long day and we were likely to arrive around sunset. To make the most of the day and ensure we had the best possibility to arrive in daylight we decided to leave at first light. That was 0615, so we set the alarm for 0515. When  it went off we gathered up our few belongings in the room and sneaked down to where our rucksacks were in the boot room and packed them there. We then went into the dining room where our breakfast was laid out for us with the tea in a thermos. It was a miserable breakfast, typically Italian with a lot of sweet and airy bread which would all be spent in no time. Looking into the packed lunch bags provided for us added to the disappointment as that would be spent in an hour or two also and there was nothing enroute. Rifugio Terzo Alpini was a miserly place. We quickly finished breakfast and went out at 0615. It was still dark with a glow to the SE and many stars still shining. We walked down the road for about 10 minutes with head torches until the twilight was enough to see the road.

It was a very easy ascent down the road for about half an hour. The road followed the floor of the Stretta Valley (In Italian) of Vallee Etroite (in French). The valley had changed nationality a few times in the last 200 years. After the half hour, passing quite a few parked cars and campervans beside the road, we passed a restaurant combined with dairy selling products to the public.  We then reached a small bridge over to the east side of the stream. We crossed it and continued down for another short half hour. Somewhere near the bottom, by a small hydroelectric plant on the other side of the stream, and beneath a series of hairpin bends on the road over the ridge to the west and on to Briancon, we crossed into Italy. On the west side of the valley the sun was now illuminating the row of steep limestone crags which formed a sheer rampart above the scree slopes. We passed a holiday park at Pian de Colle on the valley floor with a fence around it where some 100 caravans with wooden extensions and deckings were crammed together like they were on a congested reservation. It looked like a very uninviting place to own a static caravan and we thought most of the owners were from industrial urban sprawls like Turin. There was a road here which went down to the rural town of Bardonecchia some 4-5 kilometres down the valley. We could see its church spires and buildings and it seemed like a very nice town. 

603. The lovely cabin of Gr Giuaud in the larch forest on the climb up from Pian del Colle to Col des Acles, 2292m. this 800m climb was all in italy.

We circled round the east side of the compact ugly static caravan park, passed a small rustic golf course and then started to climb up the forested valley to the south. It was initially on a steep track which served a few clusters of cabins in the forest. The cabins at Grange Teppa, 1627m, looked like they were about to become derelict with the rusty roofs covered in fir tree needles and the stone walls starting to crack. However a bit further the cabin at Grange Guiaud, 1794m, in the larches looked well cared for and recently restored to an idyllic leisure cabin. After Grange Guiaud the track seemed to peter out a bit and a path continued through the beautiful larches. Although the walk was without let up as it climbed through the trees, it was very pleasant. It was still cool as the sun was low and the spider webs across the path and the large needles on the adjacent trees were covered in dew drops. Above us in the higher trees the forest was humming with hover flies which were emerging from crevices in the venerable rugged and fissured larches. We saw a tree creeper with it white cap searching for insects. As we climbed further the larches started to thin and we could see the jagged limestone ridges on each side soaring above us with a mantle of scree below them. However the larch forest never disappeared completely as the pass we were heading for was still below their limit of about 2200 metres. As we approached the pass we walked into a herd of about 50 cattle who were leaving the forest to wander up onto the alpine pastures above for the days grazing. We followed some of them up to the pass, called Col des Acles, 2292m. It marked the end of this 800 metre climb, which was the first of three climbs today. At the col we crossed back into France. 

602. Climbing up to the Col des Acles, 2292m, and looking back north up the Vallee Etroite where Les Granges hamlet and the refuges were located near the shadow. The photos bottom right was in Italy.

604. Looking south from the Col des Acles towards the slightly higher Col de Dormillouse, 2445m, situated in the shadows above the screes. There was another pass a little beyond this pass called Col de la Lauze, 2529m, out of the picture behind the triangular hill to the left of the screes

At the pass there were great views back to Valle Stretta  and the mountains around Mont Thabor where we were earlier this morning. There were perhaps even better views to the south over a wild and rugged landscape of serrated limestone ridges, huge scree slopes and extensive forests. It looked like a wild and lost corner of the Alps. The weather was fantastic and it was still relatively cool. We had been going for 4 hours now so had the paltry lunch in the morning sun near grazing marmots. From Col des Acles we had to make a 400 metre descent into the small Valle Acles. Initially the path went past some crumbling fortifications and barracks when this disputed frontier was contested. We then dropped into the larches on the arid south facing slopes and followed a stony track down to the valley floor where firs replaced the larches. On the valley floor the heat was beginning to build and it did not bode well for our imminent climb. Firstly we followed an easy quiet track up the gentle valley for a good kilometre with the small stream beside us until we reached the lovely hamlet of summer farms at Chalets des Acles where there were about 10 houses or barns and a chapel in a beautiful meadow surrounded by forest. It was a serene place with a pastoral history which probably stretched back into the mists of the collective recollection of the farming community here. 

605. The Chalets des Acles, 1867m in the open Vallee Acles valley lay between the two main passes of the day.

At Chalets des Acles we hopped across stones on the diminished stream and entered the fir forest. There was a steep stony track here we followed for an hour as it climbed up the side valley of Vallon de l’Opon. To our west were steep barren scree fields where nothing could grow as the scree were arid and unstable. Above the screes were the lofty jagged limestone peaks from where the screes came. On our east was a large forest called Bios de l’Opon. Lower down the trees here were fir and pine but as we climbed the larch took over. After an hour we had climbed about 300 metres and the track veered off into the woods so we followed the path up the gentle valley floor. It was a very beautiful section with many open glades between copses of verdant larch. There were a few seeps and small springs here to keep the meadows verdant. We wandered from one glade to the next on ungrazed meadow weaving between copse and grassed over piles of moraine until the woods petered out and the veldt-like yellow grasslands of the upper mountains took over and covered the valley. Ahead of us was a pass called the Col de Dormillouse, 2445m. The last few hundred metres up were more rocky than lower down but they were still rough pasture. We could see the cross on the pass ahead and it grew quickly as we approached it. Beside it there was some movement. 

606. Heading up the final slopes to the Col de Dormillouse, 2445m, pass where we met Seb the shepherd with his 950 sheep and assortment of dogs

We thought it was cows but then saw it was a huge flock of 900 sheep and then I saw there were a few guard dogs with them. A man on a scrambler bike came across the rocky pastures towards us with two dogs leaping after him. He circled us and then disappeared up the mountainside again with the dogs. He looked a wild character with a deeply lined face and flowing hair and could have been mistaken for a brigand or pirate. We reached the pass and settled down to finish our snacks as the sheep grazed below to the west of the pass looked over by the shepherd. However they were heading in our direction quickly and I could see 3 or 4 large dogs embedded with them. The shepherd then mounted his scrambler and blasted up towards us. I thought he was coming to ward us off. Before he arrived an enormous Pyrenean Mountain dog came over the ridge and ambled towards us. He went straight over to Fiona who was sitting down and nuzzled up. Fiona’s dog whispering charm soon overwhelmed the guard dog and he was looking for cuddles – which he got. The shepherd arrived soon afterwards and we started to chat in terrible English from him and French from me. 

607. Fiona with the large Pyrennean Mountain guard dog. This dog would probably not have been so friendly is the shepherd, Seb, hd not been nearby. This was on the Col de Dormillouse, 2445m.

608. The herd of 950 sheep on the Col de Dormillouse, 2445m. The herd were also guarded by 4 Kangal dogs from Anatolia as well as the Pyrennean Mountain dog. The Kangals are introduced to the sheep as puppies and live their entire lives in the flock. They are highly inteligent and are constantly on the look out. In this area there is a pack of wolves and the 4 Kangal would protect the sheep ftom them constantly.

The shepherd, who was called Seb, was a picture book character and could easily have been an actor. His wild features and deeply furrowed smile lines, back flowing hair and green eyes came from years of living off grid and outwith normal society. I learnt he had 900 sheep and he spent the summers up here in his hut and the winters down on the plains near Marseille. I assumed he was born into this lifestyle and after a short period at school adopted it again. As we chatted the sheep came close and I could see 4 large Sivas Kangal dogs moving with the sheep positioning themselves on knolls to act as sentries. I had seen these dogs a lot in Kurdistan when I spent some time with pastoral nomads there and started to show him some pictures on my phone. He was enthralled at the sheep, shepherds, black tents and dairy practices he saw on the 100 odd photos. When he found out I had walked from Vienna we reached a real rapport. Meanwhile the large Sivas Kangals had discovered Fiona, and were also coming over for some attention also – although 2 stayed with the flock. Seb told me there were wolves about here but with his 4 Kangal and 1 Pyrenean guard dogs and the assorted 5 other herding or smaller sentry dogs his flock was safe. As we chatted a shepherdess appeared who seemed to be Seb’s partner. She was also a wild and heroic figure and owned half of the 900 sheep. Seb asked me to show her the photos of the Kurdish shepherds and we spent half an hour discussing it with her. Fiona joined in the chat but with 4 or 5 dogs around her looking for attention she was spoilt for choice. Eventually after a good hour we had to push on but it was easily the highlight of the last month for Fiona and myself meeting Seb and his partner and hearing about his shepherding lifestyle and seeing his unique dogs and how he worked with them to maintain his romantic livelihood. 

609. Seb the shepherd on the Col de Dormillouse had 950 sheep. Here he is with a few of his herding dogs who would also alert the five 60-70 kg guard dogs should any predator approach the sheep.

610. Seb, his partner and myself looking at photos on my phone of the shepherds, their lifestyle, their sheep and their dogs at Ikiyaka village, Kurdistan where I spent 2 summers in the mid 1980’s. They were fascinated by the similarities with themselves

Although we were at the pass, we still had to climb another 100 metres or so for the next half hour. We had to reach another pass on the side of a deep grassy bowl with a small shepherd’s hut nestled in the bottom of the cirque beside a bare patch where the sheep spent the night. I think this was Seb’s partner’s cabin. The higher pass was called Col de la Lauze, 2528m. It was the highest point of the day and about 700 metres above the Chalet des Acles at the bottom of our climb a few hours ago. From this Col there was an easy but long descent down the veldt-like grassland to the edge of the larch woods where there was a track to some unobtrusive ski lifts. We then followed this track down for a good hour into the forest descending some 800 metres until we crossed the border into Italy again and reached the ski resort and summer tourist town of Claviere, 1750m. It was a tourist town with a few cafes and souvenir shops but all the hotels seemed to be closed. However it had a relaxed atmosphere and the ski developments were quite small scale and I thought tolerable. We went into one of the cafes which looked like a quaint English tea room and had a snack to replenish what last night’s Rifugio Terzo Alpini failed to do.

611. Looking south from near Col de la Lauze, 2529m, down the side valley with the Italian town of Claviere about 800 metres below. Refugio Baita Gimont is in the forests in the middle of the picture across the valley.

We still had the final climb of the day, a 300 metre ascent up through the forest on a mixture of tracks, grassy ski pistes and pleasant paths to the south of Claviere to reach our destination. Our legs were tired but the gradient was gentle and after an hour of not too strenuous effort we finally reached it. Although it was called a Rifugio it was not and had no dormitories, sticky tables or set menu. The Rifugio Baita Gimont, 2035m, was a large old alm house from quite a rich farm I suspect. It was 2 stories high with 9 double bedrooms and a nice restaurant. It was not luxurious but it was very comfortable and characterful and the owners were extremely welcoming. It was exactly what we wanted after 2 longer days, and the poor rifugio yesterday. Within an hour we had showered and washed everything and then went down for a nice meal chosen from an uncomplicated and easy menu of delicious dishes. We finished the meal by 2100. Fiona then retired to read on the bed and relax while I spent the next 3 hours writing until midnight.

612. The chracterful Refugio Baita Gimont was in an idyllic setting in the upper larch forests beside a large pond. It was in Italy close to France.

Day 92. Rifugio Baita Gimont to Refuge des Font. 14 Km. 4.5 Hrs. 550m up. 560m down. It was a leisurely start to the day as we had planned two short days to catch up after yesterday’s efforts. So breakfast was at 0800 and it was well worth waiting for. It was quite a large breakfast but the quality of the ingredients set it apart from hotel buffets. The fruit especially was perfectly ripe and juicy. Our hosts were very helpful and phoned the next refuge at Les Fonts just to confirm everything was in order. They were a very easy young couple and judging from the art books and the detail of decoration we thought they were well educated and quite sophisticated. When she started to play jazz in the bar area as she opened up it was confirmed. As we were the only guests the goodbye ws protracted and we learnt they were both from Argentina and had emigrated back to the land of their forefathers. He spoke 5 languages well. Although we were the only guests, the beautiful refuge had a large terrace with many tables and I suspect they were sitting on a small goldmine as they would have summer walkers and winter skiers all dropping in for the large profit drink and snack trade during the day. In the evening when the punters had gone, then Baita Gimont would return to its serene meadow by the pond all surrounded by beautiful larch forests. 

613. The upper larch forest between Baita Girmont, 2030m and the pass on the Italian French border near Cima de Saurel. The yellow bushes are blueberrie bushes with their first flush of autumn colours.

On leaving we went down to the pond which was surrounded by pasture teeming with marmots. From the pond we found the path which went south up through the larch forest on the west side of the Valle Gimont for about 3 km climbing steadily to reach the ridge just to the east of the peak Cima de Saurel, 2449m. It was quite a confusing area backwards and forwards on the French Italian border in an area covered in small paths and tracks to service both Italian and French ski lifts. I had the route already programmed into my GPS so followed the course knowing it would see me over the other side. Eventually the path went east back into Italy and dropped down into a small shallow valley with a few high larches in it. It was really a stunning area both in itself and for the distant views of where we had been yesterday and south to the craggy mountains of the Queyras region in France. At the end of this small shallow valley was a lovely lake with a few mossy islands. Each end of the lake was covered in weed which wildfowl were swimming in but the centre of the lake was clear blue water. Just beyond the end of the lake was a very easy shallow pass called Col Bousson at about 2170 metres. Beyond it we went back into France and stayed there.

614. Looking NW from the pass to the east of Cima de Saurel towards Mont Chaberton, 3431m across the valley with the town of Claviere. In the bottom right is the cream coloured spect of Refugio Baita Gimont, 2030m. The pass of Col de Lauze we came over yesterday is upper left.

From Col Bousson we could look south down across a few more small tarns in the yellowed veldt-like grasslands to the larch forests in the Vallee Cerveyette just three kilometres below us. It looked a very pastoral valley with many hay meadows and small hamlets of summer farms. Beyond it were the modest jagged peaks of the Queyras, an area of renowned beauty in France, known for its traditional culture and pastoral farming. We would spend the next few days in the Queyras and had been here before. So we set off with some excitement from the Col to get down to the Valle Cerveyette. As were descended down the yellowed dry pastures we saw clusters of white patches on the hillsides. I was perplexed what they were until we came across one. They were patches of huge field mushrooms, some the size of a large dinner plates. I had heard about such field mushrooms but never encountered them in all my foragings. Marmots thrived on these pastures and we must have passed nearly 100 on the hour long descent. There were also many kestrels hovering over the grass and prostrate juniper bushes. We passed a few more beautiful tarns and shepherds’ houses before we reached the hamlet of Le Bourget on the valley floor, 1876m, where the Cerveyette stream ran. 

615. The lovely tarn to the south of Col du Bousson, 2154m, on the Italian French border. In the distance across the Cerveyrette Valley with the forests is the northern massifs of the Queyras.

On the south side of the valley there was extensive larch and swiss pine forests between the stream and the crags of the mountains until they rose up above the treeline. On the northside however all the trees had been removed long ago to create hay meadows. There were a cluster of summer alm houses and barns here which looked like they were full of hay. These meadows and the hay in the barns would be used in the autumn and spring when the animals were coming down from or going up to the more alpine pastures. The valley floor was occasionally quite wide and there were some marshlands here and there also. I don’t think anyone would stay at Le Bourget all year but there was the Refuge Tord here and it might have catered for cross country skiers in the winter season, which is popular in the Queyras. 

616. Looking up the Cerveyrette Valley to the hamlet of Les Chalps and in the far distance Les Fonts where there was the Characterful Refuge Les Fonts.

617. The lovely hamlet of Le Bourget, 1875m, in the Cerveyrette valley was one of the most northerly hamlets in the pastoral Queyras region

From Le Bourget we had a gentle walk up the quiet tarmac road for 6 km. We could have branched off the road at the old rustic hamlet of Les Chelps and gone up a track in the woods on the south side of the stream, but chose to stay on the cultural side. The hamlet of Chelps was even more traditional and pastoral than Le Bourget and there was a business selling local dairy products from their barn. All  the barns and houses were quite tall and narrow and either under a traditional roof of larch planks or a newer lighter easily maintained roof of aluminium/zinc sheets. We passed a beautiful alp restaurant with picnic tables just sitting in the grassy meadow. It was quite busy with day trippers and drivers but we did not stop as it was just half an hour from our refuge at Les Fonts.

618. Looking down the Cerveyrette Valley from near the hamletof Les Fonts, 2040m, to the upper larch forests on the south side of the valley.

Les Fonts was a very traditional cluster of 20 odd old houses at 2040m, just at the tree line. The large summer houses and barns were all two storeys and often with a small attic above under the wooden roofs with huge eaves. Our refugio was one of the largest buildings and it had also acquired a few other adjacent houses as store rooms and annexes. It was a beautiful characterful house which was a popular stop on a few trekking routes, so had the money to be improved to a standard which most trekkers would find acceptable. We were shown into a large room with 10 beds on 4 wooden platforms and a south facing window and were told we would be the only ones in it. We then went down to the outside terrace and had the best bread, cheese and tomato roll of the whole trip with a small cake to follow. I remembered from my last stay that the Refuge Les Fonts served great food. I wrote the blog and sorted out pictures to use for 3 hours in the empty dining room, while all the other guests sat outside in the sun. I finished by dinner at 1900. Dinner was fantastic. The salad was huge and a real blast of much needed vitamins, The main course was very generous. Then there was cheese course followed by creme caramel. Not only was the host generous with his half pension meal but the cook was good. I have heard of refuges serving pasta with chopped up tinned tomatoes as the accompanying sauce to guests. Refuge des Fonts was at the other end of the scale. Everyone suddenly went to bed at about 2100 so we followed. The spartan room of 10 beds was still empty except for us.

619. The hamlet of Les Fonts from the start of the climbup to Col de Peas. This is the view of the hamlet from the south. The refuge is on the left with the brown roof.

Day 93. Refuge des Font to Souliers. 12 Km. 4 Hrs. 630m up. 820m down. Today was the second of our easy days after the very long day and although there was no hurry we were still up for a 0700 breakfast. For the first time in a mountain refuge the breakfast defeated us and there was still a quarter of a basket of bread left when we finished. I remembered this refuge from exactly 10 years ago and it had as excellent food then as it did now with generous portions. We left at 0800 , slightly behind a group of very elderly French who were in their mid seventies at least. They were quite slow but admirably dogged and persistent and all 10 of them were doing the entire 8 day Tour de Queyras. You could not help but admire them. 

620. Heading up to Col de Peas, 2629m, (centre top) from Les Fonts, 2040m. The tall spire of Pic de Rochebrune, 3320m, is hidden in the cloud to the right.

The first part of today’s short walk was a near 600 metre ascent from Les Fonts up to Col de Peas, 2629m. When we set off at 0800 there was a threat of rain, especially on the hidden peaks around the Pic de Rochebrune, which were lost in the dark mist. It was a great shame as this was a remarkable mountain, which looked like a Nunatak on a pedestal and was higher than anything else in the vicinity. As we walked up the side valley to the south one could easily be forgiven for thinking one was in the Scottish Highlands in  drought. The grasslands went all the way up to the modest peaks and ridges which had small mantels of scree on their lower slopes. There was a herd of some 40 brown cows grazing on the gently sloping valley floor and they looked like the Tarentaise breed of the Beaufortain area. We overtook the elderly French group who were quite spread out and joked a little with each of them in a pidgin language with some signs. It took us under two hours to reach the pass on the easy gravel path, which would have been easier to ascend than descend. There was a cold wind at the top but remarkably we remained dry all the way. 

621. Col de Peas, 2629m from the south before the descent to Souliers. In the side valley to the right is a large flock of 500 odd sheep and guard dogs beside a shepherds hut.

We did not stop at the top but decided to continue down the south side. Here there were some sunny patches on the yellowed veldt grasslands. The grasslands descended down the slopes to the larch forests, which were so typical of the Queyras region. Below these forests was the Combe du Queyras valley which was the arterial valley of the whole region. Beyond the valley were ridge after ridge, each one a bit higher than the nearer one, until they disappeared into the distant blue haze and cloud of the Ubaye region to the south and the Mercantour beyond that. It was still a wild and jagged skyline but the valleys and plateaus were more gentle than the high Alps further to the north. We started our descent down these grassy slopes. As we descended a valley to the east revealed itself and it had a shepherd’s hut in it and a large flock of about 500 sheep nearby. The sheep were beige but the dogs were white and it was easy to spot them among the sheep. We skirted across a small side valley descending slightly until we reached the edge of the larch forest. 

622. The bright larch woods on the final descent to Soulier, 1844m. Between the old trees were clusters of the bright yellow slippery jack mushroom.

The forest floor was covered in bright yellow mushrooms which I knew as “slippery jack” on account of their mucous-like covering. They were apparently edible but I had never tried them. I only saw them in larch forests and there must be a symbiosis between them. The forest curved round a spur and then started to descend more seriously on a long series of comfortable zig-zags on the path which was generally soft and easy underfoot. We dropped about 400 metres on the bends until we heard the cowbells of the cows in the pastures around Souliers. These pastures had already been harvested for their hay which was now stored in barns but I was still surprised to see cows in them. I thought they would still have been in the higher pastures and these meadows saved until the mid autumn when the snows started to settle higher up.

623. The delightful hamlet of Soulier had a refuge and a gite and a very beautiful small church. It lay at 1844m and was probably the upper limit for all year farms as it was south facing.

In the middle of these meadows on the south facing side of the valley floor was the hamlet of Souliers. I think it’s farms were occupied in the winter too despite it being at 1800 metres. There were perhaps 40 buildings in this hamlet which included a couple of gites or refuges for hikers on different trails. There was also a small church with a wooden roof and a rounded end. The hamlet was very picturesque with old houses adorned in farm implements and window boxes. An open attic eaves had some 10 old wooden beehives stacked in it and they were darkened by years sitting in fields in the sun. Our Gite was called Le Grande Rochebrune and it was quite idyllic. We ordered an omelette lunch made from the eggs of the hens in the field below. The food was excellent. As we ate, many of the hikers from Les Fonts arrived and they greeted us like long lost friends, especially the elderly team. After lunch we were shown a room in the adjacent building. It had a shower so we washed clothes and the little sweat we had accumulated in the last 2 easy days. In the afternoon I wrote while Fiona relaxed on the sunny balcony terrace of the gite. We learnt Remy was camped just north of us and we arranged to meet up for supper tomorrow. 

624. The Gite Le Grand Rochebrune at Soulier was a characterful refuge with great food in the middle of this delightful hamlet. It was popular with hikers.

Day 94. Souliers to Ceillac 21 Km. 7 Hrs. 1110m up. 1290m down. There was a thunderstorm in the night with heavy rain but by the time dawn arrived the streets were drying and the sky was overcast but without threat of rain. We sat at the same table with the 4 French who were doing the Tour de Queyras hike of which there are various versions taking 7-10 days. Breakfast was good. The hosts made an effort to provide good quality ingredients and there was cereal, yoghurt jams and enough bread for everyone. We eventually finished at 0800 and set off. Most people were going north over the ridge to Brussinard on the Tour de Queyras while we were going south down to Chateau Queyras deep in the main valley.

625. One of the pretty old houses in the hamlet of Souliers. There were about 40 buildings and a small chapel in Souliers

Both routes went through the lovely village to the small beautiful church which had a characteristic Queyras sundial painted on it. We now went down the road onto the track and veered south through pastures where there were 20 odd cows and a large bull amongst them. The meadows continued as we headed south with the valley dropping away from us. There was a superb view back to Souliers from the track here. As we wandered along we surprised 2 roe deer who were moving from the larch woods below the road to the higher woods. It was a very easy hike along the lovely track and after a few kilometres it brought us to a dammed lake called Lac de Roue, which was covered in weeds round the edges. There were a few campers about and lots of old picnic tables covered in lichen and moss which were returning to the earth from which they once came. 

626. The hamlet of Souliers lay at about 1800m altitude which was the limit of year round farms. The farmers had to collect enough hay to see them through November and April when snows might cover the meadows, although the south facing aspect would help keep them clear longer.

At the Lac de Roue the path made a sharp turn to the east and went down through beautiful larch woods getting steeper and steeper as it went down. The further it descended the more the soft needle covered path changed to a gravel path in the pine trees, which thrived on this arid hillside where the larch would struggle. We soon started to zig-zag down hairpin bends for the final descent. At one bend the trees were thinner and we could see down to Fort Queyras, an imposing mediaeval looking stronghold on a knoll in the main valley, which was almost a gorge now. It was quite a surprising sight to see a fort of this magnitude in such a rural location. As we descended further the trees shielded it again until we reached the road at the bottom of the valley. We had to follow the road along the side of the gorge for a few hundred metres to reach the village of Chateau Queyras at the bottom of the Fort. The village had a coffee shop and a few other unusual businesses like a laundry, but otherwise was quiet and pretty with old houses and colourful window boxes. The main road into the Queyras, serving a few villages and towns further up, went through and it was reasonably busy and it killed the serenity of the village. 

627. The castle of Fort Queyras in the deep valley by the hamlet of Chateau Queyras was medieval dating from the 12th Century.

We crossed a bridge here over the Guill river which drains the Queyras region and then started our 1000 metre ascent. At the bridge there was a small Via Ferrata route on the side of the gorge and some people were clambouring along it on wires. I met an older Norwegian man here who had come all the way from Norway on a Vespa scooter and was going over all the cols in SE France over 2000m. It seemed like a barking retirement project but he was very enthusiastic about it. The climb up the south side of the gorge was initially very steep for 20 minutes but it soon eased off as we gained height. The path occasionally followed or crossed a track which went up the steep side valley in a series of hairpin bends. The scruffy small pine trees soon gave way to the lovely larch and the valley changed character afterwards. It was now much greener on the forest floor and the canopy had more light. We passed a scattering of small restored cabins at Le Pre Premier, which looked like they were now rented out, and then came across an older one in a small meadow with a rustic table outside. We had been going for over 3 hours so we stopped here for our picnic lunch the Gite at Souliers had provided. It was quite good also. 

628. The small pastoral chalet at Le Pre Premier on the way up to Col Fromage made a great picnic stop.

After lunch by the cabin the route became easy and delightful. The forest had thinned sufficiently so that there were glades of meadows here and there and they were verdant and welcoming. Also we could see some of the peaks around us through the trees, especially impressive were the spires of Pointe de Rasis, 2844m, which looked like something out of the Badlands in Arizona. As we wandered up through the shade of the larches we came across Remy who was just starting to cook his lunch. He must have overtaken us while we were sitting on the picnic bench. It was great to see him and chat about the last days. He was pleased his tent had withstood the thunderstorm last night. After 10 minutes chat we let him eat his now hydrated meal while we carried on up for another hour or so in quite stunning surroundings with the characteristic green grass of the limestone rich fertile Queyras with the lime coloured larches scattered on the hillsides in larger woods and smaller copses. This combination was so easy on the eye and easy on the soul. As we neared the top we could look back across the main valley and see Souliers behind us to the north. At last we reached the top of the ridge at Fontantie, 2250m. It was not the Col Fromage which was another two kilometres away but between here at Fontantie and Col Fromage it was flat and easy walking. 

629. The jagged peaks of Pointe de Rasis, 2844m formed the eastern side of the Col Fromage, 2301m, pass. This is the view of it from the north.

The view from Fontantie was exceptional, to the west were the arid craggy ridges of Queyras stretching into the blue but before them was a forest filled side valley covered in forest lower down and scree higher up. Across this valley the mountain of Brunet, 2582m dominated everything and its higher slopes were covered in blueberry bushes which were just turning red. In places the sun shone on the patches at a certain angle and they were bright crimson. We walked a few metres and then looked down into a vast landslide, perhaps centuries old where the looser limestone rock had been washed away leaving an open wound which was constantly weeping small stones and gravel. The whole area had been eroded into a myriad of white sharp ridges and steep gullies. It was perhaps 400 metres wide and nearly a kilometre long and I am sure visible from space. It was very steep and if anything fell into it it would tumble down a gully into the depths. I think even ibex and chamois would be wary of crossing it. The path went round the top of it for 10 minutes before we were free of it and on the open scree of the mountainside. The path traversed this hillside horizontally until it got to the col between the mountain of Brunet and Pointe de Rasis. There another superb view burst upon us to the south of the Ubaye region where we would be walking for the next 3 days. It looked even more rugged than the Queyras. At the bottom of the slope south of the col was the Cristillan valley and the alpine hamlet of Le Villard. We had walked up this valley 10 years ago going from Ceillac to St Veran. 

631. Looking NW from near Col Fromage across the Combe de Queyras valley to the mountians on the edge of the National Park and beyond.

630. Contouring across the hillside from La Fontaine to Col Fromage at about 2300 metres and looking over the autumnal blueberry bushes on the mountain of Brunet, 2582m. Brunet was on the west side of Col Fromage.

As we gazed over the rugged view Remy caught us up and we descended as a trio. The path was a series of zig-zags covered in loose gravel. It was easy for a foot to slide 10-20 centimetres before it stuck on a larger embedded stone and it made for uncomfortable walking. However we chatted the whole way down and before we knew it we were on the track on the valley floor. It only took half an hour to come down this steeper section. It took another half hour on the road from the historic hamlet of Le Villard to reach the exceptionally beautiful large village of Ceillac. It had some of the most characterful of the buildings found in the Queyras and the church tower was unique in that the bells were just mounted in the middle of the single wall. There were fountains, typical sundials, bakers, window boxes and small quirky balconies everywhere. We walked down the main street passing quite a few cafes which were heaving with 60 year old French hikers for whom the Queyras is considered a connoisseurs region for trekkers. There were perhaps 10 groups of 5-10 people and they all had broad smiles and the glint of victory in their eyes as if they had finished a multi day tour and were now celebrating with ice cream and much backslapping. Remy went off to find the campsite while we headed to the large Gite de Baladins, our refuge for the night. 

632. Looking up to Col del Estronques, 2651m, on the route between the villages of Ceillac and St Veran from the hamlet of Le Villard at the bottom of the descent from Col Fromage

633. The church at Ceillac with its characteristic Queyras sundial and its bells mounted in a thick wall rather than a square tower.

It was a huge establishment in a lovely old building which had been tastefully modified. I would estimate it could sleep and feed 100 guests in small 5 bed rooms. We had to share a room with 3 others. I wrote in the afternoon while Fiona went and investigated the alleys and crannies of Ceillac. At supper we were sat at a table for 4 next to 2 very bright erudite English sisters who were very cultured. They were just starting their Tour de Queyras hike. The food was very good and I and one of the sisters got a great vegetarian option. I wrote again after the meal and finally finished by 2200 when it was lights out in the Gite. 

Day 95. Ceillac to Fouillouse.  26 Km. 8.5 Hrs. 1470m up. 1230m down.  It was a hot sleep in the congested room and neither of us felt refreshed when the alarm went off. Breakfast was at 0700 and it was a large and generous breakfast which helped compensate for the dormitory in this battery farm of older hikers doing the Tour de Queyras. We were ready to go at 0730 when the rain and mist of the previous night was starting to clear, revealing a perfect blue sky above. Before we left Ceillac we thought it best to go to the cash machine as most of the refuges we would be staying in for the next 10 days would only take cash. It was a wonderful opportunity to go back into the streets bursting with colour and character and now completely empty. We got the cash opposite the church and then walked out of town on the road heading south east up the Melezet valley.

634. Climbing up from Peid Melezet towards Lac Mirror and looking NE over the Melezet Valley with the early morning mist clearing

We passed the campsite and continued walking on the quiet road for nearly 2 kilometres until we reached the modest ski lift at Pied Melezet, 1692m. The valley here was still in the shade and the mist lingered and it was quite cold on the exposed hands. However all that changed as soon as we started the steep climb up through the firs and pines. The path was well used and quite greasy in the damp of the morning but as we were slogging up it we could easily place our steps with care. After a two hour climb up beside the Cascade de la Pisse stream, which flowed down the hillside in a series of small white waterfalls without having carved any sort of streambed let alone a ravine, we reached Lac Mirror, 2214m. Lac Mirror was absolutely stunning. It was a small lake perhaps 300 metres long and 100 wide but it was set in a beautiful larch forest with a small forested ridge behind it and then a vast jagged ridge of limestone peaks beyond that. It would have graced any tourist brochure and I am sure features in almost every book about the Queyras. We both took plenty of photos and marvelled at the beauty of the place for a good ten minutes and then chatted to two English hikers who we met yesterday, and seemed very chatty and open.

635. Looking across the serene Lac Miirror, 2214m, towards the limestone peaks of the Crete de la Font Sancte ridge which culminate in the highest peak at 3292m, some 1000 metres above the lake.

636. Climbing from Lac Mirror towards Lac Sainte Anne and crossing the moraines from the departed glaciers which came down from Pic de la Font Sancte, 3292m, which is out of the picture to the right.

From the Lac Mirror the path went on up through the thinning larch woods for another kilometre at least until they started to peter out. There was a small shepherds cottage in the middle of a glade and there were plenty of signs that a large herd of sheep spent the night here gathered together with a dog or five guarding them. At the edge of the forest the open veldt-like hillside started but there was a lot of moraine in the area, dumped by glaciers that vanished in the last 200 years. In the moraine there was a wide ski piste and also a rough track to service the lifts and we followed them until we ascended another 200 metres to reach another beautiful lake of a completely different character, called Lac Sainte Anne, 2415m. It had a small chapel beside it, but it was locked. The lake itself was quite circular and a deep turquoise colour. There was no outlet and I think the water percolated out of the moraine wall which formed a dam. It was in a depression and after this dry summer there was a natural bare patch around the lake. Beyond it were screes and debris from vanished glaciers and then the serrated limestone peaks nearly 3300m high in a jagged arc. We stopped here as we had been going for 3 hours and had our picnic, provided by the Gite de Baladins in Ceillac, which was very good. 

637. The beautiful turquoise Lac Sainte Anne, 2415m, was formed when the glacier which deposited the terminal moraine to form the natural dam for the lake melted leaving a vast depression. In the back fround the the Pic de la Font Sancte, 3292m.

638. Looking up to the Col Girardin, 2699m, which we had to cross, from just above Lac Sainte Anne.

However, there was yet more to ascend to reach the highest point of the day, Col Girardin, 2699m. We could see it from our picnic spot a good kilometre to the south up the mountain. As we climbed the mountain side became rockier and rockier as the vegetation petered out in the crumbly, friable rock fragments. The path zig-zagged up in quite wide hairpins where thousands of feet and hooves had trampled it into a smooth surface. It did not take long to plod up it and suddenly we were at the col. The view back to the north over the Queyras and glaciated peaks of the Ecrins further to the NW was stunning. However, it was the view to the south over the wild Ubaye region which really took the prize. Across the deep Ubaye valley to the south was the very furrowed and heavily buttressed Chamberyon massif with its myriad of sharp peaks. The highest was Aiguille de Chamberyon, 3412m. It was really a breathtaking view of the quality which I only got once a week on this entire walk. 

639. Looking south from Col Girardin, 2699m, across the deep Ubaye Valley to the Aguille de Chamberyon massif, 3412m.

The descent down the south side of the pass was long. Not quite at long as the 1000m ascent but it felt like it was. Initially we went down steep zig-zags on loose friable rock where there was a good path with the odd boulder in it to step over. It quickly took us down a couple of hundred metres to a beautiful lawn bordered by a large moraine. The lawn must have once been a lake formed by the large moraine blocking the small stream. However the lake had since filled in with the small rock fragments which these friable mountains were crumbling into. The lawn was full of grazing marmots, some of whom hardly bothered to move when we approached and others just ambled off to the large boulders of the moraine. It was interesting to see that the marmots used certain areas to go to the toilet and there were piles here and nowhere else. 

640. One of the very confident marmots on the descent from the Col Girardin in the lawn area at the bottom of the first section of the descent.

Just after the lawn we met the two English guys again, who we now knew were Richard and David, and a little later bumped into Remy who was having his dehydrated lunch. We chatted to Remy for 5 minutes and then continued down to where the path split. One branch went steeply down to Maljasset, a remote and small summer village and the other went down to La Berge, a small hamlet 2 kilometres down the road from Maljasset. Both paths looked steep but the one to La Berge was shorter and it was the route of the GR5 so we took it. Not long after the split it went across a steep open spur on the friable rock fragments. There was grass on each side of the path but it was patchy. Above the path was mountainside and crags and below was a steep slope which ended in crags. It got more and more exposed as we went along it and if one slipped off the path here one would tumble over the crags below. However I could now see the other path down to Maljasset and it also looked tricky. So we proceeded with great caution along this 300 metre section until the exposure eased again and the mountainside started to become covered in juniper scrub. At this point it was easier to look around and see the magnificent view down the Ubaye Valley to where we thought the town of St Paul might be. As we descended the larch trees soon appeared and they welcomed us back into the forest where it would now have been very difficult to fall down the slope. The path zig-zagged steeply down through the forest for about 40 bends with the trees getting bigger and the forest floor getting bushier until at last we finished the knee jaring 800 metre descent and tumbled onto the very quiet tarmac road. Just down the road was the rustic and ancient hamlet of La Barge, 1877m, where there were about 20 gorgeous old stone buildings under heavy stone slab roofs. There was a fountain in the hamlet and a bench nearby so as we had been going for another 3 hours we stopped here for our second lunch. As we ate the English, Remy arrived. All of them had found the exposed section over the spur quite worrying and Remy said he would have been very apprehensive in a rainstorm. 

641. The latter half of the descent from Col Girardin, just after the exposed corner, looking down the Ubaye Valley. The hamlet of La Barge is just out of the pictuure on the bottom left.

642. A typical Queyras sundail on one of the old stone houses under a stone slab roof in the small hamlet of La Barge, 1870m.

The English went on but we teamed up with Remy for the 6 km saunter down the quiet asphalt road. We chatted the whole way and the time passed quickly as we strode out. The cliffs on the east side of the valley were astounding at one point in this wild landscape. Along the bottom of the cliffs was the narrow valley floor and we now saw that the autumn colours were starting to appear on the deciduous trees. Remy mentioned a few times we had to cross a spectacular bridge but we thought nothing of it. About a km north of this bridge we passed a very well restored and quaint summer farmhouse, chapel and bell tower at St Antoine, 1651m. The chapel had a large mural painted on the side of it which was protected by the large eaves. A bit later we saw the bridge. It was sensational. It spanned the gorge which the Ubaye stream had carved and I think the gorge was perhaps 150 metres deep and less than 10 wide. The sides of the gorge went straight up with the old stone arched bridge sitting with an end on each side. It was like a miniature version of the Ronda bridge in Andalucia but higher. 20 minutes later we were crossing it and peering over the parapet to the stream far below in the narrow slot. It must have been a huge and brave feat of building to construct this bridge some 100 years ago when the area was very poor and impoverished. 

643. The Pont du Chatelat bridge spanned the gorge where the L’Ubaye stream was still carving the gorge ever deeper some 150 metres below the bridge in a deep slot.

After the bridge, called Pont de Chatelet, our route went up the tiny road through a small narrow tunnel.  We left the road here which continued up to Fouillouse in the hanging valley above and stopped. We could now see down to St Paul 4 km away which was the highest town in the Ubaye Valley. After the tunnel we left the road and followed the path up through the pine woods. Fiona found her second steam and marched off leaving Remy and I in her wake. It took a short hour from the bridge to reach the hamlet of Fouillouse on the lip of the hanging valley at the end of the road. The first building we came to was the Gite des Grange and it was our place for the night. 

We had already booked a room and Remy and the two English also managed to get a room. It was a large building, bigger than a traditional farmhouse with 3 floors. It was being done up and the top two floors were now some 15 rooms and 2 dormitories. We got a lovely room with an ensuite showerroom. After last night’s cramped battery farm for hikers Fiona was overjoyed. After showering and washing some clothes we went down for dinner as it was 1830 already. We chatted with David and Richard and then went in to eat at 1900. It was quite busy with 25-30 people, all of retirement age. The five of us all sat at one table in an enormous vaulted dining room which was the ground floor of the whole building. We guessed its origins and Remy thought it was perhaps 300 years old and was a landowning farmers house. He would have been the lowest rung of the aristocracy. The meal was good and the conversation was fast and witty. Remy was so good at English having worked abroad a lot he could easily keep up, and even hold court. After dinner I retired to write at 2030 while the others kept chatting for another hour. I eventually finished at 2300. It had been a great day. 

Day 96. Fouillouse to Larche. 14 Km. 5 Hrs. 840m up. 1050m down.  We slept well in the dark quiet comfortable room and the alarm woke me up at 0630. It was still dawn outside at 0630 as the nights were getting longer. By the time we went down for breakfast at 0700 it was fully light. Breakfast was a generous buffet with granola, quark, fruit juices, breads and plenty of jam. All served in the splendid vaulted cellar like a mediaeval banqueting hall. The price of the stay here was slightly less than most places I had stayed and it was great value for money. We left at 0800 with the sun on the meadows on the south side of the valley but with most of the hamlet of Fouillouse in the shade. I learnt our Gite was built in 1801 and many of the other large farm buildings here also dated from the same era. As we left the gite and wandered up the main street we passed another 5-6 large buildings which were once farms. Their ground floors were all buttressed to support the vaulted ground floor. In one of the buildings was a small shop and in another a cafe. I think the economy of Fouilouse was now built around hikers and motorists coming over the bridge. There was a small chapel with its three bells in the flat wall which extended up from the gable end. The wall was just a metre thick, which was enough to house the bells in the apertures meant for them. 

644. The chapel in the hamlet of Fouillouse, 1900m, in the morning before the sun had breathed some life into it. The bells were housed in a single thick wall, like they were in Ceillac, as opposed to a square bell tower.

It did not take long to leave the hamlet and continue up the track past meadows and then on into the larch forests of the upper valley which was hemmed in on each side by the giant walls of the rugged limestone peaks. After an hour or so of climbing the early chill of the day was soon banished by the sun which had now risen above the peaks and was filtering through the larches. We reached a small shepherd’s hut and then spotted the herd of perhaps 500 sheep moving out of the night time enclosure to the higher pastures. The guard dogs embedded amongst them must have seen us but did not bark to alert the shepherd or bound towards us even though we were just 200 metres away, albeit on the path. The sheep were moving like a bucket of maggots across the hillside and had not dispersed yet. 

645. The shepherdess at her cabin just getting ready to take her flock from their night time sanctuary up to the higher pastures. In the distance, centre left, is the first pass of the day Col de Vallonnet, 2609m.

We continued through the larches and came to another herd. They were still in their nighttime enclosure of an electric mesh fence. There were 3 large Pyrenean Mountain dogs sleeping amongst them. I am sure they had one eye open for predators. Beside the flock was a larger hut with the shepherdess just preparing to take them out of the earth covered compound and onto the higher pastures for the day. We went past them and reached the edge of the treeline soon afterwards where the veldt-like grasses took over. There had been a definite greening of the grass over the last two weeks with the nighttime rains, which had made a small dent into the summer’s drought. We climbed up through marmot country and eventually reached the top of Col du Vallonnet, 2609m. To the south of us there were a number of jagged peaks in a semicircle round a huge bowl. It was a very wild and desolate corner of the Alps and except for a small shepherd’s hut it was empty. 

646. Looking south from nesr the Shepherdess’s cabin to the mountain of Tete de la Combe, 3089m. This mountain formed the left flank of the Col du Vallonnet pass.

We had to contour round the side of this bowl with the mountains to our east and the side valley which drained this bowl disappearing to the west and the hamlet of St Ours, which was out of sight far down the valley. The path remained quite level as it headed south dropping a bit to reach an old track. I think this track was built between the two World Wars to service the derelict forts which were on the south side of the bowl under the pass of Col de Mallemort, 2558m. This col was our southern escape from the desolate bowl and we had to climb a couple of hundred metres to reach it. En route we passed one of the crumbling forts which was a barracks for the troops stationed on the Maginot Line, a series of forts and defences stretching along the border of France to prevent an eventual German invasion. It later transpired that the Maginot Line was breached by the Germans who went around the end of it and encircled the French troops defending it, who later surrendered. 

647. The wild country in the cirque between the passes of Col du Vallonnet, 2609m, and Col du Mallemort, 2558m.

At the col we looked south over the bare hillsides which descended all the way to the village of Larche in the Ubayette Valley. It was surrounded by exceptionally green pastures which were emerald and must have been well irrigated. There was a road in the valley and I was surprised to see lorries on it and later found out that the road went over a pass, Col de Larche, 1948m, just 5 km to the east of Larche and on the Italian border before descending to Italy. Beyond the Ubayette Valley was the start of the Mercantour, the southernmost range of Alps on the west side which went all the way down to the Mediterranean Sea. It was our last section and it would take about 10 days to cross. It looked quite similar to the Queyras and Ubaye regions of the Cottian Alps but it seemed to be slightly greener and not quite as rugged, although it was slightly higher overall. 

648. The reasonably gentle descent from Col du Mallemort down to the Ubayette valley where the very small village of Larche lay. Across the valley is the northernmost massif of the Mercantour or Maritime Alps. These alps are the final section of our walk.

The descent down to the valley was relatively easy but it was long and involved some 800 metres of descent. Initially it was down steep gravel zig-zags on a stoney hillside with little grass. But this led down to great sloping grasslands which were a joy and easy on the knees. Rain was pouring just down the valley and it looked to be heading our way so we increased the pace in the vain hope of beating it. However it stopped short just to the west of us and then petered out and by the time we were on the last section the skies were clearing up again and sunny patches appeared on the valley floor. The last two kilometres were down another series of zig-zags into a small arid valley with a clear stream tumbling down it. At the bottom of the valley we met a track which took us into the village of Larche. 

Larche, 1700m, was not very pretty or idyllic. There were some shops but they had all closed as the summer was over. We had already booked a gite and went down to it to discover it was locked until 1600 when the host returned from a shopping trip down the valley to get  more supplies for the gite. However there was another one nearby which was serving food. In it we found Remy, David and Richard. They told us the quite shocking news that Queen Elizabeth had died yesterday and indeed on the television in the corner of the restaurant there was constant coverage  of the UK Royal family. We had a meal and then went back to our gite to check in and get a small room with two beds only. The showers were in a shared room but there was plenty of hot water to wash our clothes and hang them to dry in the breeze outside. I then wrote for an hour before dinner approached. Remy, who was camping nearby joined us and the other 5 guests in the gite. However we did not see Richard and David who were supposed to stay here but had disappeared as we think Richard had some bad news. Dinner was great as the gite had a once a week no meat or fish day and it was today. Lentil curry was the fare and it was very good. We chatted to Remy after the meal who would go on tomorrow and our paths would probably not cross for another 4-5 days. I wrote a bit more after dinner and then called it a day at 2230. 

This was the end of the very pastoral and culturally rich Cottian Alps, which were for us a traverse of the Mont Thabor, Queyras and Ubaye regions. While the mountains here were not as high as in other parts of the Alps they were still spectacular as the limestone ridges and peaks were very serrated and angular with steep crags and cliffs on all sides. They reminded me very much of the Dolomites. However these regions also had open pastures on the nutrient rich plateaus and beautiful larches in the numerous side valleys and these were ideal for sheep herding. Many of these herders were tranhumants who spent the winters in the warmer foothills in the south of France and then came up here for the summer to live in small cabins with their flocks. This transhumant culture and the local farming culture and architecture of the high villages also helped make this one of the best sections both scenically and culturally.  

 

Section 14. The Cottian Alps. 138 km. 46 Hours. 7910m up. 7260m down.

Section 14. The Cottian Alps. 03 September to 10 September 2022.

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February 9, 2022

Day 86. Bellentre to Refuge d’Entre le Lac. 21 Km. 8.5 Hrs. 1750m up. 400m down.  I was  bit unsure of todays route and thought it best to leave early incase there was hiccups en route. In addition to that we also had to climb 1750 metres and that alone would account for  4-5 hour. so I set the alarm for 0530. By the time we had finished breakfast and packed it was already 0630 and completely light. We walked down the village of Bellentre to get bread for our lunch. However the shop did not open at 0700 on a Monday as we had thought. In fact it did not open at all on a Monday so we would have to get lunch elsewhere. We left the village, crossed the main road, and headed down a smaller road across a bridge over the clear Isere river to the south side. Here there was a small track up through the hazel woods. 

570. Looking north over the roof tops of Montchavin to the town of Bourg-St Maurice in the arterial Tarentaise Valley. Further up the valley is the Col de Petit Saint-Bernard Pass and Italy.

The route followed this track making frequent shortcuts across the hairpin bends and climbing without respite for a good hour. It was quite a nice climb in the deciduous forest but a bit confusing on occasion and I am glad I had the GPS route to follow. On and on we climbed in the cool dry morning with just the odd cloud here and there. Suddenly the woods thinned and we reached a road on the other side of which was a mechanics garage on the edge of Montchavin. We wandered up through the lower half of the large village and popped out of an alleyway to find ourselves on the main street. There were quite a few shops and everything looked very quaint and well ordered. Montchavin was not an honest farming community, but one which seemed to live on tourism, especially winter tourism. There were a few modest ski lifts radiating up the hill from the town and these must bring in enough winter skiers to warrant the newer chalets and apartments which reduced the village’s charm. We stopped at the baker for bread and the small supermarket for tomatoes to complete our shopping list for lunch as we already had cheese. Across the large Tarentaise Valley I could see the lovely authentic farming villages of Valezan and Les Chapelles which were still very traditional. I could also see up the valley towards Bourg-St Maurice and the road to the Petit Saint Bernard Pass on the Italian border. 

571. Looking south from the edge of the landslide area to the south of Montchavin over the villages of Piesey and Nancroix in the Ponturin valley where we want to be.

We continued up through the rest of the village beside a ski piste and then entered the pine forests again on a track high above the Ponturin stream in the valley far below to the east, where the villages of Piessey and Nancroix were visible in their meadows on the valley floor. After a few kilometres the path forked with a branch going up through the forest to high alp hamlets. Our path continued to contour across the steepening hillside with the expectation it would traverse down the valley side to the stream. However suddenly the grassy track disappeared and there was just a large gash in the mountain side 100 metres wide and 500 metres high where a landslide had obliterated everything. It was too late to turn back so we waded through the undergrowth above the landslide to try and get to the path on the other side. After a laborious five minutes forcing a way through tall raspberry canes and willow herbs, now covered in  fluffy seed heads, we emerged on the track on the south side of the landslide. There was a path here which forked down through the forest from the track. The track soon came to a dead end in the forest. It was the path we wanted not the track but it looked unused, except by wild animals. There was absolutely no sign humans went this way and it was covered in fir cones and fallen twigs. It did not bode well and I suspected there was another landslide further on to isolate this section of path. We hesitated to follow it but then considered the alternative, and it made sense to try it at least. I went on ahead to see if there were any difficulties while Fiona followed on the tricky terrain at her own speed. There were some more difficult and steep sections for the next kilometre but nothing impassable and then I could see it eased off. I returned to give Fiona the good news and then we proceeded together to reach a track in the valley beside the stream. At the track there was a notice warning walkers coming the other way of the difficulties further up, but I saw none earlier. We followed the track up to the hamlet of Moulin where there was a bench and information board. It was a perfect place for our lunch of bread, cheese and tomatoes. On the information board we noticed that the old route for the GR5 from Bellentre to Montchavin to Moulin, the route we went, was now abandoned and the new route went from Bellentre to Landry then Moulin. After our adventurous detour we set off up the valley. 

572. The charming bohemian hamlet of Les Lanches where there were a couple of artisanal places to sleep and a donkey sanctuary.

It was a beautiful valley of small hamlets in open meadows separated by hazel and rowan woods with some firs. The route was mostly on grassy tracks through these woods climbing gently past Nancroix, the largest of the hamlets and then past an old lead mine whose buildings were either now a museum or derelict. After a short hour we reached the last hamlet of Les Lanches. It was a gorgeous collection of bohemian, artisanal, small farmhouses and buildings all in working shape but not too over restored. There were 2 small homely Gites or B&B’s here which would have been very homely and quite cheap in rustic characterful houses covered in window boxes and old farming implements. A few of the houses still looked like small pastoral farms keeping some young bullocks. There was also a small donkey sanctuary here with 20 donkeys in a field. I think it was possible to hire them to take children on a small ride on colour coded paths in the valley. We crossed the main valley road here and went through Les Lanches on the small gravel road which ran through it crossing over an old wooden bridge to the east side of the dry stream bed. From here we went up through extensive meadows on the valley floor with just a few old stone houses scattered here and there. They looked like old summer alp chalets and all the shutters were closed. We then crossed the dry streambed to the west side again to reach a large car park at the end of the public valley road where there was a small Vanoise National Park Visitor Centre. 

573. Looking up the Ponturin Valley above the delightful hamlet to Les Lanches to the upper meadows at the road end. The route goes up the valley and veers to the right round the corner.

574. Looking NW down the Ponturin Valley from the platform just as were leave the upper pastoral valley and enter the alpine zone

Once we passed the Visitor Centre the route became much less pastoral and more apine. It climbed for a few hundred metres through the higher woods which were largely rowan. They were now covered in berries but all the leaves were withering, possibly because of the drought although the berries were plump and juicy. There was a small viewing platform with a great view down the valley to the meadows we had just left. After the platform we passed a few magnificent wispy waterfalls bringing meltwater down from the small glaciers on the east side high above. The valley we were going up then levelled off after an old terminal moraine where there was a small shepherd’s hut called Chalet de Rose, 2020m. There was a small spring here with delicious sweet clearwater. Once we climbed over the moraine pile we reached a promised land. The valley sides rose up to high peaks with a scattering of snow fields and glaciers but the valley floor was a vast flat meadow with a clear stream meandering across it. Fish were rising in the stream and you could see their shadows on the beige gravel on the stream bed. It was a quenching sight on the hot day. The path was still a bit rocky but it was a delight to wander beside this long lush meadow. On the far side was a cluster of chalet buildings, which were once probably a dairy but I think now they were just maintained, but not used. After 2 kilometres this meadow ended in a small rise with a gentle cascade splashing down it. It was like a magazine advert for the Alps. At the top of this rise we reached another shallow basin with a deep blue lake, Lac de Plagne, nestled in the bottom of it. Round the perimeter of the lake was clear water and beige shallows before the deep blue. at the end of the lake was our home for the night, Refuge d’Entre-de-Lac, 2160m. 

575. Looking up the upper Ponturin valley across the pastures to the south where the Lac du Plagne lake and the Refuge d’Entre le Lac lie

The refuge looked a bit ramshackle initially with various buildings, awnings and a yurt. However, the entrance was eccentric and the welcome very warm. We were allocated a small room off the main dormitory. This dormitory was in the main building which was an old cow barn some 40 metres long and 8 wide with a curved roof and immensely thick stone walls. It was like a vaulted dungeon with a door at each end. There were perhaps 10 sets of bunks on each side in the main dormitory but it did not feel cramped. I had seen  few of these restored cow barns in this trip so it was exciting to be sleeping in one. The host was very knowledgeable about the area and the Tarentaise Valley in general. He raised an eyebrow with our route choice up the old GR5 before the landslide essentially destroyed it. We had a look around at the various buildings including the large yurt with 10 beds and then I found a place to write while Fiona went off and stalked a couple of Ibex who were grazing in the pasture nearby.

576. The Lac du Plagne lake in the upper Ponturin valley was an Idylic spot. Just beyond the far end of the lake is the Refuge d’Entre le Lac.

Just before dinner the hut host, who was quite a character, came out with a pail to milk his two brown cows. These were the same breed as all the cows we had passed since Mont Blanc and I now found out the breed was a Tarent or Tarentaise after the valley. The milk he got would be for tomorrow’s breakfast. At dinner we sat under one of the awnings which had 6 large tables. Only 3 were used for the 20 odd guests. We were sat at one with Remy and Niels, a French/Belgium team doing the GR5. They had met at the start and were hiking together. Remy was 50 ish and Niels 20 ish but both spoke great English and were very likeable. Remy was an Airbus pilot and very worldly wise. It was good fortune to meet them as I am sure our paths will cross again as we are both doing the same route for the next 3 weeks. There was also a very nice German lady and a shy Frenchman who said nothing at all. The meal was one of the best of the trip with a great French onion soup and cheese, A large omelette and ratatouille for me and roast chicken for the others, and a milk pudding for dessert from the two cow’s morning milk. It was a very sociable meal time. Just after darkness fell at just 2030. I retired to write while the others kept chatting with gusto, competing with the table of lively French medical students. By 2100 everyone started to go to bed. Remy and Niels both had tents and Fiona and I went off to the old vaulted barn to the small room off the main dormitory. I noticed a slight chill in the air now as the warmth of high summer was drawing to a close. The refuge was turning out to be one of the most characterful and sociable of them all.  

Day 87. Refuge d’Entre le Lac to Refuge Entre Deux Eaux. 25 Km. 8.5 Hrs. 1250m up. 1280m down. The alarm went at 0630 as usual. It was a beautiful morning but the forecast was for rain and thunder in the late afternoon/early evening and we had an estimated 9 hours to walk. We were ready and packed by 0700 when we were unleashed to start breakfast. There was only us, Remy and Niels, and we had the leftover curd from yesterday and then lovely granola, fresh milk from the hosts cows, homemade bread and jams. It was a great breakfast to top off the lovely stay at this friendly and characterful refuge. By the time we left at 0800 it had already started to cloud over and virtually the whole sky had a thin layer of cloud over it. 

577. Looking back to the Refuge d’Entre le Lac and the Lac du Plagne lake as we start the climb up to Col du Palet, 2652m.

We walked up the slope to the south of the refuge and the lake to gain the official path of the GR5 at the top of the climb where the ibex had been grazing yesterday. They were nowhere to be seen but in their place the hillside was alive with marmots. There were a few old plump grandees keeping sentry watch while a host of smaller ones from this year’s brood scurried round eating grass. For them the race was on to put on enough fat before the snows forced them into their burrows for the 6-7 month winter hibernation. One grandee was very obliging with photographs and allowed me to come within a few metres. We were in the Vanoise National Park now so I think they had been protected for many generations and their confidence with humans was ingrained in their DNA. 

578. An obliging older marmot keeping sentry watch while the smaller marmots try to put on weight for the up coming winter’s hibernation.

A bit above the marmots the path reached the calm Lac de Grattelau, which lay in a bowl surrounded by jagged peaks. Around the fringe of the lake was a mantle of bog cotton in full fluff. Although there was water flowing out of the lake it must have soon disappeared under boulders because the pasture below it and adjacent to it were dry and the farmer had turned the water troughs upside down for the winter. Indeed the shortage of water became apparent when we climbed the short brown grass slope above the lake to the Refuge du Col du Palet. It was a splendid looking cabin, I think run by the Vanoise National Park authority, but it was already closed for the season as it had run out of water and its spring had dried up. Just above this cabin, in a brown boulderfield left by a recently departed glacier was the Col du Palet, 2652m, and the end of our 500 metre climb. 

579. Looking across the Lac du Gratteleu fringed with bog cotton. The lake lies just under the Refuge du Col du Palet which was closed due to lack of water.

On the south and east side of the pass we entered a high alpine rocky environment with little grass but significant scars from the ski industry. There were lifts and access roads all over the mountainside and it looked like the pistes had been smoothed off by bulldozers over the last decades. This was the ski area of Tignes, a popular winter resort for skiers. The worst infringement was on the far side of the valley where I could see ugly pylons supporting a gondola right up the  noble mountain of La Grande Motte. We walked down the hillside on a limestone type rock with more and more grass appearing as we descended. Marmots were plentiful here too and we passed at least 100. In a few months they would be hibernating in their burrows while skiers carved down the slopes just above them. I knew Tignes was an ugly development with a few high rise hotels around the once pristine lake of Lac de Tignes, but nothing could have prepared me for the ghastly eyesore which appeared as we rounded a small spur. Here in an alpine environment, well above the treeline was a lake and around the lake were tower blocks of hotels. It was like the dormitory suburbs for an industrial Soviet city. There must have been accommodation here for tens of thousands of gluhwein swilling skiers in fashionable headbands. All my criticisms of Austrian ski resorts (with the exception of the Stubai) should really pale to what I could write about Tignes. Indeed in retrospect some charmless development like Obertauern or Kals, which I found so distasteful earlier in the trip, could now almost be pleasant compared to Tignes. It looked like an artist’s impression of a futuristic city on Mars. I could console myself with the thought that the greedy developers of the Tarentaise Valley had sacrificed this corner of Savoie so the rest of the Alps could remain untouched. However, I knew this was not true and there were dozens of other developments all over the Alps. Surely none could even come close to matching Tignes for its culturally bankrupt mass tourism. We descended to the outskirts of the eyesore, which was still growing like a cancer in this alpine valley, and then skirted round its dormant hotels, restaurants, bars and discos and climbed out of the valley up the slopes on the south side trying not to look back.

580. The magnificent mountain of La Grande Motte, 3653m, was on the periphery of the Tignes ski area. It had a funicular railway in a tunnel up it and then a gondola at the end of the railway which went to the summit.

We climbed for a good hour passing downhill cycle paths for mountain bikers, until we found a spot beside a mobile dairy to have lunch. The smell of manure and the clunk of the cow bells soon restored my spirits after Tignes. After lunch the weather cleared briefly and we hoped the forecasters had got it wrong as the clouds vanished and bly sky appeared everywhere. It was a long but gentle climb from here up the valley through vast stone fields across the barren valley floor until we got to Col de la Leisse, 2761m. It was the top of our second climb of the day and from here it was all down hill for the next 12 kilometres. To the west of the Col the mountain, La Grande Motte, 3653m, dominated everything. Large glaciers with some small crevasses flowed down its eastern flanks and there was even some new snow on the summit ridges. However, the tentacles of Tignes ski development even reached these glaciated slopes with a funicular railway and then a gondola, even though it was in the Natural Reserve de Tignes and Vanoise National Park.

As we descended down the SW side of the pass into the Vallon de la Leisse we entered a moonscape of glacial debris from many recently departed glaciers, and a few in their final decade. The whole valley was strewn with moraine and there was no vegetation anywhere other than a few hardy coloniser plants. In 50 years all this might be arid meadows but for now it was just stones. Further down there was a shallow lake which was filling up with silt and stones brought down by downpours. There was a lake marked on the map at Plan des Nettes but when we got there it had vanished leaving just a horizontal line where the shore once was. We went round the north side of the dry lake to where the outlet had once been but it looked like a catastrophic event had broken through the rock and moraine barrier and the force of the empting lake had removed the 5 metre high natural dam and swept it downstream. Just below Plan des Nettes was a small prow and the Refuge de la Leisse sat on it. 

581. Heading down the Vallon de la Leisee valley between Refuge de la Liesee and Refuge Entre Deux Eaux. The enourmous scree slopes are on the south side of La Grande Casse, 3855m, the highest mountain the Vanoise

The Refuge was three cabins and did not look that homely. The all female staff were not that welcoming and could not serve us for ages as they were in a “meeting”. Remy and Niels were here and with the forecast they decided to stay in a dormitory rather than camp in a thunderstorm. We eventually had a slice of brownie each and then continued down after saying goodbye to the other two who I hope we see again. It was still 6 kilometres to go but I could see the going was quite easy as the path was gentle and went across alpine grassland. We dropped down to a small bridge over the infant stream and then went down its south side as the stream grew quickly harvesting water from a number of springs emerging from under the moraine. On the north side of the Valley now was the La Grande Casse, 3855m, the highest mountain in the Vanoise. It rose very steeply from the stream for 1500 metres up to a crenellated crest which was attracting mist. Glaciers clung to its high ramparts but occasionally they shed ice and snow in the winter and this cascaded down gullies in large avalanches bringing stones with it leaving them on some of the biggest screes I have ever seen. The whole lower flank of the mountain was a skirt of scree which plunged into the stream. In many places the packed snow from avalanches still spanned the stream with a tunnel underneath for the stream and hundreds of tonnes of scree on top of the snow bridges. 

The weather finally broke as we turned south where the Rouseau de la Vanoise stream cascaded down bare rock steps from the valley to the west. We just got our jackets and overtrousers on in time before the deluge started. It did not last long but it was intense. We went down the path to where 2 cattle dogs were rounding up the milk cows and driving them down the path on the east of the stream. There were about 20 cows and they were taking their time despite the frantic dogs and whistles from the farmer who was getting soaked in his casual jacket. We passed the cows as they went off down to the portable milking unit on a large trailer and then started a gentle ascent to the refuge. By now the rain had totally stopped and the returning sun was heating the ground causing steam. Behind us was a great view to the La Grande Casse and in front was the very nice refuge above a hamlet of alm houses. 

582. Looking back to La Grande Casse, 3855m, just after the half hour rain shower had cleared. In the bottom right are cows being driven down for the evening milking

From the outside the refuge looked like a very good restoration of an old summer dairy and house. Inside it was warm and homely and very welcoming. Amazingly we were the only guests which surprised me as Refuge de la Leisse was full and it was nothing like this one for charm and comfort. We got two beds in a dormitory with 12 beds but it mattered not as we were the only ones. We arrived quite late at 1700 so by the time we went upstairs dinner was only an hour away. The host lit the fire and we sat in front of it feeling its warmth while outside the thunderstorm had arrived and it was pouring. It was extremely satisfying to be sat in front of the fire while the thunder roared outside and rain poured down the large slabs on the roof. Dinner was very good and Fiona’s beef stew in a red wine sauce was sensational apparently. At the end of the meal we were both full. I then wrote while Fiona made some sketches before going to bed early. I was finished by 2130 and the rain was still falling. It was a fantastic refuge again.  

583. The charming and well restored Refuge d’Entre Deux Eaux was once an old summer alm and dairy. In the background is La Grande Casse.

Day 88. Refuge Entre Deux Eaux to Refuge de Plan Sec. 27 Km. 9.5 Hrs. 1480m up. 1300m down.

584. Looking SW from the Refuge d’Entre Deux Eaux in the early morning with the sunrise illuminating La Dent Parrachee, 3639m.

When we woke there was a stunning sunrise which illuminated the mountain of La Dent Parrachee, 3697m. It was the highest point of the southern massif in the Vanoise. We had to walk round the base of this mountain today to the SW side of it, where the Refuge de Pan Sec sat on a hillside above two dammed lakes. The breakfast was quite poor with no cereal and not a huge pile of bread. As usual we left at around 0800 and walked down to the Rochure stream on a damp track, as it had rained in the night, and crossed it on a solid bridge. Here at the junction of the two streams, the Leisee and the Rochure were a few clusters of alms houses and dairies. There was also a track here which came up over the mountainous plateau to the south all the way from Termignon. This well maintained track served quite a few dairies and summer farms and was the way the milk went out. I think there was also a bus from the track end here all the way to Termignon. A few of the stone alm houses had collapsed. Water ingress had rotted the roof beams which soon snapped under the huge weight of the stone slabs on the roofs. However, many of the alm houses were still in good condition and a few had been recently restored. We crossed to the west side of the stream which disappeared down a gorge which looked very inhospitable and steep. Its difficult topography was the reason the track had to come over the plateau to the east of the gorge.

585. One of the restored alm houses at the confluence of the Liesee and Rocheure streams where there was a cluster of such alms.

586. The alm house of La Para was built with stone walls under a heavy stone slab roof. I think this alm was used for sheep or goats rather than cows

We zig-zagged up the mountainside towards the southern massif of the Vanoise passing an all stone two storey alm, called La Para, which looked like a small citadel house from Dolpo or Tibet, except it had stone slabs on the roofs. After an hour’s climb we finally gained the crest of a spur above a line on impenetrable crags below us. We headed west for a kilometre with great views unfolding before us over the complex of glaciers called Glacier de la Vanoise. At one point we stopped and took some photos then heard the chink of sheep bells behind us. We turned around to see about 20 of them come over the crest of a knoll behind us and then walk quickly down the hill towards us. Another 100 soon appeared and then another 500 behind them. It was like a waterfall of maggots. They were surprisingly fast as they raced each other to the most succulent tufts of grass and moving much faster than we could walk. I was wary of the guardian dogs or Pastou who would be accompanying them and might see us as a threat but then a shepherd appeared and I knew he would pacify the dogs with a single whistle. Further west two small tarns appeared below us with the mountains and glaciers reflected in their calm waters, which were just occasionally broken by a small rising fish. It was an absolutely stunning view and Fiona went ahead so I could get some photos of her beside the tarns to give it a sense of scale.

587. The idyllic tarn with the Glaciers de la Vanoise in the background. For scale Fiona is walking on the path to the bottom left of the tarn.

After the idyllic tarns the route left the more pastoral landscape and crossed the settled moraine which the glaciers must have deposited here centuries ago. This moraine had settled and stabilised and much of it was covered with turf and patches of the yellow saxifrage, Saxifraga aizoides, especially where the slightly silty stream came down from the large glacier which covered the icy summit of Dome des Sonnailles, 3361m. After this torrent, which we crossed on a wooden log bridge, we climbed slightly across more settled glacial debris for another easy half hour to reach a balcony over the deep gorge far below where the two streams on each side of last night’s refuge were grinding their course ever deeper. Mist welled up from the gorge as it funnelled moist air up which was now condenscing around us. The mist came and went but it made the rocky path a bit greasy and our tempo slowed a bit as we had to be more cautious. In between a condensed obscurity we saw a female ibex slowly clambouring on the steep grassy slopes just above us. I looked for more but did not see any which surprised me as females often group together.

588. The female ibex was alone on the small crags just to the north of Refuge de l’Arpont. Female ibex are usually in groups

The air coming up the gorge must have dried slightly now as the mist became more sporadic and then disappeared altogether. It revealed a pastoral bowl with a cluster of old alm buildings. Most were in disrepair with their heavy stone roofs collapsing and some walls even toppling over. Waterfalls cascaded down steep slabs into this bowl. High up above the waterfalls was another large flock of sheep grazing among the outcrops. Just in front of us however was the refuge. It was originally a collection of alm houses which had been resorted but since I was last here 10 years ago a large modern extension has been built which was somewhat in keeping with the other buildings and then environs but with a large flat roof, which although cheap and practical did not blend in and made the whole thing look like an architects vanity project. The refuge was however closed for the afternoon as the guardian was on the roof of one of the old alm houses putting the heavy stone slabs back on new timbers and did not want to come down each time someone wanted a slice of cake. So after 4 hours on the go we sat at a picnic table on the roof of the new building and ate our mediocre lunch last night’s refuge had given us. 

After lunch we continued on the balcony path south above the gorge. The mist had cleared from everywhere bar the very summits. There was a great view across the gorge to the plateau on the east side and the Refuge du Lac Blanc. In the midst of old alm buildings near us on the west side of the gorge was a small chapel but its old sun darkened and furrowed door was locked with a rusty old lock which looked very solid. As we continued south from Refuge de l’Arpont and the chapel the path slowly descended into alder scrub and then reached La Mont where there was a small stone cabin and a few derelict houses. There was a sign here which said “Refuge de Plan Sec 5.15 hours” which took the wind out of Fiona’s sails, especially as we could see the long climb up out of La Mont up the steep hillside to gain the grassy slopes above a steep and uncrossable ravine. It was the main climb of the day and it was about 500 metres in all. It started with traversing up the side valley in thick alder scrub with slity stream cascading down. It was in the heat of the afternoon on a south facing slope so it was a hot and sweaty slog. Kestrels were so plentiful here I wondered if they could just thrive on rodents or whether they could also eat the plentiful grasshoppers. As we climbed the town of Termignon lay below us on the Arc Valley floor. It has a modest ski lift system and some new buildings which were obviously to house skiers in but it was still quite charming and nothing like the eyesore of Tignes. The Arc Valley continued up east from Termignon reaching a few small towns before fanning out into a spread of high remote valleys ending in glaciated peaks on the French Italian border and watershed. These high valleys were so remote they are a haven for wolves. Once we had climbed out of the side valley filled with alder scrub and over the spur which defined the south side of it there were still numerous zig-zags up the grassy mountainside to the top of the main climb of the day. Fiona’s legs were tired after the large hot climb, but crucially her back was holding out. We had a rest here during which I heard a marmot’s shrill squeak. This time it sounded different. It was short and almost uttered in a panic. A few seconds later I saw an eagle blasting along the crags above us doing 50 kilometres per hour in a smooth purposeful glide. It was being harried by crows who could not keep up. The eagle was not hunting, but going somewhere else. I think marmot have different sounds for different dangers and the eagle was their biggest danger by far, and was soon spotted by the alert sentry.

From this grassy crest we continued south and crossed a large scree-filled side valley to reach the pastoral col of La Loza. The scree came all the way down the mountain from the high terminal moraine of an unseen glacier above. At La Loza there were some alm houses and a newer shepherds house which was wooden and looked more like a garden shed. There was a large herd of sheep gathering below it, and many more up on the hillside above us which we had to pass through, and more againn far away up the hill. The guardian Pastou dog with the lower sheep saw us and barked but he stayed put and luckily did not bound the 400 metres up the hill to ward us off. From La loza we followed a lovely old drove road which climbed gently for 2 km climbing an easy 300 metres to Grasse Combe. At last we managed to put some distance between us and Termignon in the Arc valley below, which we seemed to have been skirting round for a few hours. It was replaced by other villages in the valley now.

589. Looking down into the L’Arc valley with the village of Aussois on a plateau. Modane is out of the picture to the right. In the background are the Cottian apls which is the next section.

At Grasse Combe the drove road descended with zig-zags for a km but we cut across them all to reach a prow on spur above the steep mountainside which had been below the path all day. From this spur the route now followed a gravel path down more zig-zags into a large loose steep side valley. It seemed to be a weeping sore constantly losing stone down its rocky slopes. There were many dwarf pine, Pinus mugo, which thrives in this arid inhospitable terrain found here. There was one small section over a rock buttress with chains for security but they were not necessary in these clement conditions. Once past the steep ravine the path veered west and emerged back onto the  veldt-like brown grassland and contoured west for a good kilometre to the ski lifts. There was a quaint restaurant here with marmot in the garden. It lay under the Devil’s Stone. A huge round boulder perched on the grassland which looked like it would just take a puff of wind to start it rolling down the valley obliterating whatever got in its way until it came to rest in the Arc river 1200 metres below. We turned north here and went up a gentle climb on track past a large herd of goats and then cows to reach a pretty cluster of buildings which was our home for the night Refuge de Plan Sec, 2356m. It was one of a few refuges in this area. 

590. The lovely Refuge de Plan Sec was very welcoming and served an excellant dinner. It had a great location in an alpine pasture overlooking two dammed lakes

The host was very welcoming and gave us a great room with a stable door and just 2 beds. We arrived at 1830 and supper was soon afterwards so we just unpacked, changed shirts and went down into the dining room with a huge open fire roaring in the corner. We were sat at a large square table with 9 people altogether, one of two such tables, eagerly awaiting our dinner. The others at our table were a very nice young Dutch couple, a shy hiker from Sheffield and 2 unfit French couples who looked like they had driven most of the way here and then walked the last bit with a great effort. The dinner was one of the best with 4 courses and a great vegetarian option which I shared with the Dutch. Everyone was impressed including the four older French who looked like they knew a thing or two about dining. Our end of the table was good fun mostly due to the lively Dutch couple who could speak 4 languages. After the meal there was no time to write really so I made some notes for later and turned in at 2200.  

Day 89. Refuge de Plan Sec to Modane. 17 Km. 6.5 Hrs. 470m up. 1700m down.  We slept well in the small cosy room with the stable door and I was surprised it was 0630 already when the alarm went. Breakfast was a bit of a disappointment but there was easily enough credit in the hospitality account after last night’s splendid dinner to make any criticism completely unwarranted. We said goodbye to the young Dutch couple and also the generous host and set off at 0800. The mist hanging over the two dammed lakes in the valley drifted about the adjacent slopes and there was a chill in the air reminding us it was September now. 

591. Looking up the small stream in the early morning to the lower slopes of La Dent Parrachee as the mist clears.

We went north down under the pretty Refuge de la Fournache, one of about 5 refuges in this vicinity, to the head of the top lake called Plan d’Armont. By the time we got to the inflow the mist had virtually cleared and it was warming up. We took our jackets off here as a large French guided walking group arrived. They all removed their jackets in unison and donned their caps with ear and neck protection and covered themselves in suncream so the air reeked of it. We nipped up the slope in front of them and then looked down and saw them marching up in single file with the young guide at the front like the pied piper. We climbed quite steeply for a kilometre or so ascending about 300 metres. This climb was the only significant climb of the day and it was over before we knew it. The disciplined caterpillar of the ageing French group arrived soon afterwards and I thought they might follow us all day. However, they were taking the more sportif way to Refuge de l’Orgiere over the high Col de la Masse, while we intended to take the balcony path round by Col du Barbier, a much more gentle option.

592. Looking across the side valley where the two unseen dammed lakes are to the mountain of La Dent Parracheee, 3639m. The Refuge de Plan Sec is on the shelf to the right of the photo.

Initially our route headed south contouring round the hillside to the west of the two dammed lakes. Across on the other side of the lake we could see the lovely Refuge de Plan Sec, where we just stayed, and the cows in the pastures around it before the mountainside rose up to the large peak of la Dent Parrachee, 3697m, the giant at the southern end of the Vanoise Massif. The view was spoiled a little by the barrages of the lake and the modest ski lifts on the other side, but they were quite insignificant to the angular majesty of the mountain. Before long we reached Col du Barbier, 2287m, and then turned west again over the arterial Arc valley. On the floor of the valley was the town of Modane, with its transport links of motorway and rail, where we were heading for the night and a day off tomorrow. Beyond it to the south were the Cottian Alps which would be our next section for the following week. 

593. Looking SW across the L’Arc Valley to the Cottian Alps from La Barbier. Modane is unseen in the valley under the grassy ridge to the right.

The path now followed a more pastoral stretch with yellowing meadows on the south facing hillside. There were a few old shepherds’ houses here and although some were ruined others were in good condition and one even restored. Soon we heard the clink of sheep bells and then ran into a large herd of them.  They were separated from the path by a flimsy electric fence which neither us or the sheep would cross. However, the large Pastou dogs were taking no chances protecting their flock and came bounding towards us with a deep baritone bark. They looked like giant retrievers but were 60 kilos of lean uncompromising elite canine. They came within 3 metres putting themselves between us and the sheep but remained on the other side of the electric fence. They were not baring their teeth but were still very threatening on account of their size. As we walked past the sheep they followed us like a nightclub bouncer until they had escorted us off the premises. The dogs are put in with the sheep when they are puppies and to an extent think they are sheep and they remain and grow in the flock. Their job is to guard the sheep against intruders and predators which increasingly nowadays are wolves. Each flock of about 1000 sheep, looked after by one or two shepherds, would have about 4 dogs and it would be a foolhardy wolf pack or gang of rustlers to take them on, especially at night time when they would be less forgiving. We walked on past the sheep and dogs for another kilometre or so then stopped for our packed lunch just before the descent started.

594. One of the large Pastou dogs at La Barbier which guard the sheep from wolves and other dangers. These loyal dogs live within the flock from puppies and are fearless in their defence of the sheep.

As we ate lunch I noticed a bearded vulture circling in a thermal just below us. It rose quite quickly on the updraught, going round it tight circles to stay in the rising column of of air. These vultures were essentially extinct in Europe but there has been a reintroduction programme in some areas of the Alps and they are now re-establishing themselves. They are still extremely rare and it was only the second I had seen on the entire trip, while I had seen about 50 golden eagles. Despite being the size of an eagle it was a very skillful and ergonomic flyer and in the entire 5 minutes we watched the vulture it climbed from us gaining a good 500 metres of altitude without moving its wings once. It just angled its tail or moved the feathers at the end of its wings to stay in the updraught until it was out of sight above us. 

595. A rare Bearded Vulture soaring over the pastorl alm of La Barbier with the glaciers of the Ecrins massif in the background.

596.Lookiing down on the town of Modane in the L’Arc valley with the Cottian Alps in the background. The Cottain Alps are the next section: SSection 14.

After our picnic we started the long descent on the dry path. Initially we went through larch and Arolla pine woods. The Arolla pine cones were falling readily now and every one had been shredded by squirrels extracting the large hard pine nuts. It must have been a bonanza time for the squirrels who undoubtedly had more than they could eat and would be storing the excess up for the approaching winter. We dropped down the forested hillside, which reeked of hot resin, on the dusty zig-zag path for nearly an hour until we burst out into a wonderful clearing of knee high yellowing grasses with a few clusters of very well maintained alp houses. One of them had been turned into the Refuge de l’Aguille Doran. It looked very inviting and there were a few people sitting outside having lunch under red parasols. We lingered here a bit, resting our knees and orienting ourselves on the map before crossing the meadow on a small path. This path took us into the side valley to cross the small stream on the Pont de Chevres bridge and then a short while later another alm called Pierre Brune.

597. The beautiful alm of Pierre Brune in its hay meadow at about 1800m. This is were the steeper 700 metre descent to Modane starts in earnest.

At the charming cottages at Pierre Brune the descent became much more sustained and the path dropped some 700m through the dry firs and the black pines. The sun flooded in between the trees heating the forest and releasing the resinous odour which permeated everything. Dust particles hung in the air illuminated by the shafts of light and as we went down the path covered in cones, needles and surface roots we kicked more up. It was a slow tedious descent, especially where there was a bit more gravel, which were like ball bearings under the soles of our feet. It took well over an hour to carefully pick our way down until we met a steep track which was as bad, but quickly led us into the upper buildings of Luutraz, a suburb of Modane on the north side of the L’arc River. From here the path became paved. 

We could stride out now down the deserted roads between the villas and dull government buildings, like the hospital and gendarmerie. Within a quarter of an hour we reached the river and then followed it downstream crossing on a tied arch bridge with a pavement on each side to reach the main street of Modane. Modane is not a picturesque town by any means, but is unpretentious, honest and simple. The L’Arc river forms the northern boundary of the town and on the south side of the river is a continuous row of 4-6 story buildings a kilometre long. To the south of this is the main road and on the south side of the main road, where in other towns there would be a corresponding row of 4-6 storey buildings, were railway tracks and sidings. Well to the south of the railway sidings was a motorway. Both the railway line and the motorway emerged from under the mountain at Modane where they had been in a tunnel for many kilometres to the east after going into them on the Italian side. As a consequence Modane had amazing transport links for such a small provincial town and the high speed train between Turin and Lyon stopped here. Our apartment was just west down this main street towards the centre of town.  It was owned by a Bulgarian family of gymnasts who had been working in London for a couple of decades. They bought the rundown 4 storey building a few years ago and were doing it up to have 8 large family holiday apartments, especially for the ski season. The windows all looked over the river which flowed beneath us. There was the biggest health food store I have ever seen just beneath us which made up for the supermarkets each a kilometre away in both directions down the single main road. That evening we went out for a pizza in the town. As we finished Remy came in. He had had a huge day from Refuge de l’Arpont to here taking 11 hours, while Niels was taking it slowly from now. It was great to see Remy again and as he was having a day off in Modane also we arranged to have dinner tomorrow night. I did not write at all as I was tired and had the day off tomorrow. 

Section 13. The Vanoise. 90 km. 33 Hours. 4950m up. 4680m down.

Section 13. The Vanoise. 29 August to 02 September 2022.

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February 9, 2022

Day 80. Champex to Refuge du Col de Balme. 18 Km. 8 Hrs. 1920m up. 1230m down. I did not have a long sleep but it felt like I had a deep sleep and there was not problem in getting up at 0630. I packed a bit and then went down to the large breakfast at 0700 where I was the first there. I never feel guilty about piling my plate high and having multiple servings at expensive Swiss Hotels, and today was no different and I managed to cram in the 2000 calories I needed before the dining room was swamped by Americans. I left at 0800 and noticed the Americans bags and suitcases were already getting loaded into a large van to get transported to the next overnight stop for them. There was something going on in Champex today and much of it was cordoned off and tents were getting erected and music was blaring. It was probably another run judging by the barrier tape which was getting strung out. Champex must once have been an idyllic spot beside a beautiful lake but it was now a busy tourist spot and the smell of cooking oil palled over the town on this still morning. I walked to the west end of town to a modest ski lift and found the wide path beside an irrigation canal. The water in the canal was clear and fresh as it rushed down into the lake. I think the canal was extracted from the stream which went down the other side of the watershed Champex was on so the lake would have fresh water flowing into it. 

The walk along the canal was a delight as it was lush and damp. The rowans here were now heavy with berries which were just turning from orange to red. Their branches were so laden with fruit they were arching down, turning some leaves upside down. Yesterday’s rain would go some way to making the berries plump up. After a kilometre the canal contoured away from the path, which climbed away from it to reach a school outdoor centre or hostel. There was a guy catching me up all the way along the canal and he finally pulled level at the hostel. He was English and his name was Will and he was mid 20’s

533. The final slopes up to the Fenetre d’Arpette pass, 2665m to cross into the Trient valley was stewn with large boulders.

For the next 2.5 hours Will and myself walked up the Val d’Arpette chatting about all things outdoors. He worked in an outdoor store to make ends meet as an artist. However Will had grown up in an active family and he had the outdoors in his DNA. We shared a lot of stories as we went past the lower meadows in the valley where there was a herd of Heren cattle. Soon the track we were on ended and we started up the easy path which got rough and rougher as we climbed. Will was a fast walker and I was pushing myself a bit to keep up with him, gasping for air occasionally mid conversation but never breaking sweat. We started overtaking other groups who must have started very early. It was pleasing to see so many young people with tents doing the Mont Blanc Tour. There must have been nearly 50 going up the valley with us – all self-sufficient. As we climbed up the route suddenly became very gnarly as it entered a boulder field towards the top. The painted marks on the boulders were just an indication of a suggested route through this obstacle course as there was no path at all. It eased off as we approached the top with a braided path covered in stones and gravel. The rock here was granite and it had eroded and broken down into small pea sized fragments which covered the path. We reached the Pass, called Fenetre d’Arpette at 2665m, after a near 1200 metre climb from Champex in a little under 3 hours and I was still feeling fresh. It was the advantage of hiking with someone else, especially someone whose slipstream I could follow. The weather had not really been on our side with bands of mist coming and going but occasionally we caught sight of the serrated ridges on each side of the valley where there were still a couple of small glaciers. We each had some bread and cheese at the pass with the cosmopolitan throng of other hikers, all of whom were delighted to have arrived. Will decided to stay and see if the weather cleared a bit and take some photos, and I was keen to press on as I still had another big climb later in the day so we parted company at the pass. 

534. The remnants of the lower Trient Glacier clings on precariously to the bare rock. Authorities were afraid a serac would tumble off creating a flood in the stream. The reality of global warming.

The descent was initially in the mist with the odd heavier drop of rain. It made the descent quite slow and I had to be cautious. Although the rock was granite it was quite well polished by thousands of boots and the mist and wet fine dust made the surfaces a bit greasy. I slipped once in the first 100 metres and landed on my bum. As I descended lower the mist thinned and then cleared across the upper Trient valley so I could see the Trient Glacier. I had passed this way some 10 years ago and thought the glacier had shrunk considerably since then. I will have to compare photos later. What was left of this lower Trient Glacier was a narrow strip of seracs and ice blocks clinging to the bare rock. Streams were emerging from under these blocks and cascading down the bare rock to the valley floor where they joined the main torrent. The going got a bit quicker as I descended with more ground granite and turf and less slippery rock. What rock there was still quite slippery now as there was a film of mud on the damp surface. I slipped again in another place and my feet slid off the path and down the 40 degree grassy slope below it. There was an alder scrub here with springy branches and I grabbed one to stop the slide and haul myself back onto the track with mud on my knees and elbows. Soon the path entered the larch and levelled off a bit as it neared the valley floor where the torrent from the Glacier Trient was now a powerful stream. Through the trees I saw the Chalet de Glacier which was a day time cafe for walkers coming up from Col de la Forclaz, or over the Fenetre d’Arpette as I had done. It was quite busy being a Saturday so I found a seat on the outskirts of the throng next to a couple. He spoke to me in French and I said I was Scottish. He then said in broad Glaswegian accent “well so am I” 

535. Looking down the upper Trient Valley from the treeline after coming down the pass from the Fenetre d’Arpette. The Trient glacier is out of the picture on the left. In the middle upper photo is the Chalet les Grands alm above the line of cliffs.

He said the bridge I wanted to go over was taped off with signs and closed to pedestrians. I said I was going over it whatever, as the detour would have been a few hours extra. After our picnic bread and cheese we each had we went down to the bridge which was covered in tape. I could see nothing wrong with it, and even if there was the torrent under it was not enough to sweep me downstream. I straddled the tape and signs and crossed and so did the other two. A few others crossed it and seemed they were all French, while the Swiss were more obedient and did not cross. Once on the other side I was surprised at just what a well constructed path it was.

536. The steep path covered in slippery slabs and concrete going up the line of cliffs to the Chalet les Grand alm, 2113m. This is the shortcut from Chalet Glacier du Trient to Col de Balme missing out Col de la Forclaz.

The path climbed quite steeply, but it was an even gradient and the path was wide. large slabs from the nearby cliffs were used to cover the surface and it was easy going up them. It took an hour to climb up under the wall of these cliffs which loomed above us and was the source of the slabs. At the treeline the path changed direction and headed towards the base of the 30-40 metre high line of cliffs. I then saw in the mist that the path went up them. It must have been a natural sloping ledge which was enlarged and widened by the path constructors. It was paved with slippery slabs which were set in concrete. The path was about 1.5 metres wide with a cable on the inside wall. On the outside wall there was a drop which grew quickly as I ascended. I think the path was too steep for pack animals, but it was perhaps a precarious drove road. At the top the terrain levelled out onto a pastoral plateau where there was a newer shepherd’s house made from wood which was called Chalets des Grands, 2115m. The mist had cleared now but the path was still greasy. I was a bit slow and cautious so the Scottish couple took off here as they had a long  way to go. 

538. Looking down on Col de la Forclaz from the garnly path between Chalets les Grands and Col de Balme. This is on the shortcut route which misses out Col de la Forclaz.

537. Looking up to the Col du Balme from the small garly path between Chalets les Grands and this col. The refuge is just seen in the saddle of the col, 2203m.

The route climbed up still higher on a small rocky path often over outcrops and down small gullies. It was very slow going and I made laborious progress. It was partially because I was tired and also because the soles of my Salomon shoes were more slippery than the Lowa I recently had. This road was definitely not a drove road and only goats could manage it so the well constructed path earlier must have been for the alm I just passed. The path was about 2 km and it took well over an hour to negotiate it from the Chalet Les Grands round a ridge at the treeline and then across a bowl to another ridge where the path veered SW for the final leg. As I slowly clambered over the boulders and outcrops I could see the high village of Trient in the valley with its raspberry pink coloured church and the Col de La Forclaz clearly visible above it in a clearing in the forest. It was the way the Haute Route and the Tour de Mont Blanc went but I was making a shortcut by taking this smaller path. Once I passed the second ridge, where a small path went down to meet the path coming up from Trient, it was an easy half hour jaunt contouring into the side valley to the Col de Balme, 2203.m. About half way along I passed the preserved dairy at Les Herbageres below me with its two large stone animal barns with stone walls and vaulted roof covered in stone slabs which I remember going into 10 years ago and being in awe of the construction.

539. The old restored stone cattle barns just on the NE side of the Col de Balme at the the Les Harbageres alm, 2036m.

The Refuge du Col de Balme was right on the saddle itself. It was quite a stark looking building from the outside but cosy inside. It was just inside Switzerland by about 50 metres but was run by a Frenchman with French prices.  The host was quite a character, spoke great English and loved to entertain his guests. The food was very good and he made a great effort for me, the single vegetarian. Upstairs the 3 dormitories were quite simple 3-5 pairs of bunks in each room. I mentioned the bridge to the host and he looked to the skies saying he had an email about the closure yesterday with no explanation. I mentioned that the riverside access was also taped of for 500 metres with “flood hazard” signs above Chalet du Glacier by the bridge and then he said that it must be because the authorities were expecting part of the Trient Glacier to break off and tumble into the gorge creating a torrent which might sweep the bridge away. As darkness fell the skies cleared and it was very easy to see the whole of Mont Blanc now, which was very impressive with its high glaciers tumbling 3000 metres down the mountain. 

540. Loking NE from the Col de Balme, 2203m, in the early morning with mist covering the entire Trient valley.

Day 81. Refuge du Col de Balme to Chamonix. 19 Km. 6.5 Hrs. 530m up. 1690m down. It was a beautiful day when I woke at 0630. Breakfast was at 0700 and there was only one other person in the dormitory so I packed quietly and went down. It was an OK breakfast and I could have had more cereal and bread but was conscious the host was keeping an eye on who was having too much. I was thankful I could top it up later on my walk to Chamonix if needed. After saying goodbye to the various walkers and the host I went outside to put my boots on. To the north the Trient valley was full of mist which came up to pretty much the level of the col. Above it was bright sun but below in Trient and Col de la Forclaz it must have been damp, cold and grey. To the south though it was completely clear and all the mountains were tremendous with the low morning sun sharpening the ridges and gullies and even highlighting the seracs and the crevasses in the large glaciers. The main mountain was of course Mont Blanc, but there were a plethora of sharp needle like peaks on the vast ridge between Mont Blanc’s summit and where I stood some 15 kilometres to the north of it. It was the most alpine view on this trip. Nothing else I had seen could match this mountain scenery, not even the Zillertal or Valais. I took loads of photos and then started my trip down. 

541. Looking SW from the Col de Balme towards Mont Blanc, 4810m. The usual way up is up the erratic Grand Couloir out of picture to the right and then up the ridgeline from the right over the Dome du Gouter (extreme right) the two exposed Les Bosses humps (centre right) to the visible summit.

The path went down between small ski lifts and tracks. I generally cut across them but occasionally followed them. I could see Chamonix in the valley far below me. To the south was the Mont Blanc Massif which to the north was the Aiguilles Rouges Massif.  What was really striking was how far the Glacier des Bossons came down from the summit of Mont Blanc, 4810m, to about 1350 metres which was not far above the valley floor. My route would go along the bass of the Aiguilles Rouges on the northern balcony path of the Chamonix Valley below. About half way down the descent there was a new ski lift being installed and the track up to it had been upgraded. There were signs that the path was closed with an explanation of the detour. However in true French style, the few people about were ignoring it and going round the barrier. I did the same, went past the new ski lift and continued down to the lower end of the closed section to reach the place where the deviation rejoined the original path. It was a Sunday and there was no one working and no one about to shout at us. It was not long before I was dropping past a very eroded landslip on the opposite south side of the valley and then past some hay meadows to enter Le Tour. Le Tour was the uppermost village in the Chamonix valley and the start of the tarmac road. The rowans here were plentiful and heavy with red berries. 

542. Looking south from the Balcony Path on the north side of the Chamonix valley to Mont Blanc in the distance. On the left are the various Aiguilles above Chamonix with the Aiguille du Midi,
3848m, upper centre photo. It has the gondola.

I was not walking down the road but taking the balcony path on the north side of the valley. There was also a balcony path on the south side but it was not so well used and the views were not the same and it started at Le Tour also. The South Balcony path contoured round the mountainside in the firs and rowans for about two kilometres until it came to the pretty hamlet of Trelechamps. It had a lot of old wooden houses and all the chimneys were massive and square and covered in wooden shingles with a few large boards across the top. They were typical for the region. There was a large sprawling refuge here which was very popular with TMB and Haute Route hikers and I had stayed there myself a decade ago. It was called Auberge la Boerne and it was full of character with wood throughout and quirky alcoves and furniture inside and a vegetable garden and dozens of window boxes on the outside. 

Just after Trelechamps my route crossed the main road, which went up over the Col de Montets pass and to Switzerland, and entered the forest on the west side. This was really the start of the balcony path and it extended for some 10 kilometres. Initially the path was wide and easy. There was a procession of people going from Trelechamps to Refuge Lac Blanc or Refuge Flegere on the TMB route who had had a more leisurely start to my 0800.  I did not really catch anyone up as they were all moving well and had already stopped to take their jackets off on this beautiful warm day. We all moved along as one through the firs and rowans passing above the town of Argentiere. I could look to the SE here up the grotesque twisting gorge at the bottom of the Argentiere Glacier. This glacier had carved a brutal trench before it retreated. I had crossed this glacier some 30 years ago on skis when I started the Skiers Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt with a huge and unfeasible rucksack of over 30 kg. 

543. Aiguille du Midi on the left with Mont Blanc centre and right. The normal route up is across the unseen unpredictable Grand Couloir over the rocky ridge on the right and then up the skyline on the snow and ice.

546. The Aiguille Verte, 4122m, is just of the east of Chamonix on the other side of the Valle Blanc and the Mer de Glace, (out of picture to right) a huge glaciated side valley which had gouged a vast slot on the north side of the Mont Blanc Massif.

After an easy two kilometres the main path headed up the mountainside to first one and then the other refuge and the path I was left to follow was small and seldom used. It was the called the Sentier des Gardes. It was very undulating and in places quite gnarly with some big windfall firs across the track. There were great views to the south, especially to the huge spires of the Aiguille Verte cluster of towers on the south side of the valley. My speed slowed considerably as I picked my way along here for what felt like 4 kilometres. I passed no one else on the way on this forest path. About half way along there was a tremendous roar from the other side of the valley. It was a large rockfall just to the north of the Aiguille du Midi on which the top station of the large cable car sits. It took a minute for all the rock to tumble down the gully and onto the glacier where it would eventually become moraine. The dust palled above the glacier and above the mid station to this same cable car and the dust lingered there for a couple of hours. Eventually I got to the west end of this small path which despite being gnarly was a delight to follow as it was quiet with some of the best views in Europe. The end was heralded by a regular shadow going over the track ahead. Initially I thought it was paragliders but then I saw it was the cars for the Flegere gondola. I passed under the wires and descended a bit to reach a much larger and quite busy path, which must have been the pedestrian route up to Refuge La Flegere.

544. The Aiguille du Midi on whose sharp summit the gondola ends. This was just after the rockfall down the gully which reverberated around the valley.

Once on the large path the going was initially easy. In a kilometre it reached a delightful little old stone shepherds house which was now converted into a restaurant, called La Floria, with a stunning view across to Mont Blanc and over Chamonix. It was very busy with not a free seat on the 20 odd outside tables. From here the going went from easy to very easy as there was a rough track for the next 2 kilometres which went all the way down to the outskirts of Chamonix. I could really stride out down here and before I knew it I was surrounded by houses. I went past a paragliding landing field and then after a couple of blocks I was walking under the finishing arch of the UTMB race which was about to get under way in the next couple of days. It was a major ultra marathon which went the 170 km around the base on Mont Blanc pretty much on the TMB trekking route. The winners would be coming under this arch in a few days and probably be broadcast on live TV. Chamonix was absolutely heaving with the fittest people of the planet, their partners and other spectators. The average age was well under 40 and everyone was lean, cool and happy. There was a very enthusiastic feel to the whole place where runners and tourists from all over the world had come to enjoy the next week’s running festival. 

545. Looking from near Chalet Floria before the final descent to Chamonix in the valley below. Note the Glacier des Bossons coming nearly all the way down to the valley floor for nearly 3500m of descent. The dust from the rockfall is still palling in the air an hour after the event (left)

However all this excitement was dwarfed by the fact I was meeting Fiona in the next few minutes. She had flown from the UK to Geneva that morning and then had taken the bus from Geneva to Chamonix. Just as I passed under the finish line for the UTMB and entered the main square she phoned. She was at the other end of the same street, the main street in Chamonix. We walked in opposite directions down the street full of cafes which had burst out of their premises onto the street under awnings. They were crammed with diners.

At last I saw Fiona on her phone to me. We walked the short distance to the apartment and although it was just 1430 the keys were already in the key safe after the cleaners had tidied it up from the previous guests. We dumped our stuff and then went to the supermarket to get some bread, cheese and tomatoes and also some drinks as I had not eaten, drunk, or indeed stopped, since leaving this morning 7 hours ago. Back at the small flat we ate and caught up on our lives and then I had a soak in the bath and washed my clothes. That afternoon the blog was postponed as we had two free days here and no commitments. We went through Fiona’s rucksack and could only extract a kilo of unnecessary stuff to post on to my friend Magali to keep until the end of the trip. Her rucksack was about 9 kilos also now. That evening we went into town to eat but the restaurants were busy. It was like being in London as the offices empty after a day’s work. After 3 months of relative peace and quiet the swarm of very nice and active people was quite overwhelming. We managed to find a quieter Italian for a pizza each and then headed back to the apartment by 2100 as we were both tired.

Day 82. Chamonix to Contamines. 27 Km. 9.5 Hrs. 1620m up. 1470m down. After a couple of days in Chamonix, the Outdoor Capital of Europe, it was time to continue the walk again. It had been a good pause to catch up with everything and also enjoy the ambience of the town which was hosting the UTMB, a major running festival with perhaps 10,000 competitors and perhaps 20,000-40,000 family members and spectators coming to cheer them on in one of 6 races. We also had a meal with Andy and Nila, the very bright, worldly, couple I met while crossing the “closed” bridge a couple of days ago. Chamonix was full of high achievers most of the time but with this running festival it was brimming over with them and it was quite a privilege to be here at this time. 

547. Mont Blanc, 4810m, early in the morning. The summit is centre right and the large Glacier des Bossons which used to come down to the valley floor is centre

I set the alarm for 0530 as it would take a while to have breakfast and pack up everything. By the time they were all done it was 0730 and we were off. The first part of the hike took us downstream for a while until we crossed the railway line to the north side of the stream and then followed it down for another kilometre passing a couple of 2 star hotels. Just after these hotels a track branched off to the right (north) and entered the forest. There were a few hikers and a few dog walkers about now as the time was 0800 already. As we sauntered along the easy track a runner with a number on suddenly came round the corner heading towards us. Above the number were the letters TDS. It was the final stage of one of the 6 races of the UTMB festival. This one was the second most brutal of them with 145 kilometres with 9100 metres of ascent. The winner usually takes a little less than 20 hours to finish it. All the 1600 runners in this race started from Courmayour at midnight on the previous night with the winner finishing yesterday evening. The runner coming towards us had been on the go for 32 hours ! It was quite emotional to see what some people are capable of and how much character and grit they have to push themselves so hard. You could not help but be in awe of the runner. After he passed we continued through the forest on the path which undulated slightly for about 4 km. During this time another 50 runners passed us heading for the finishing line in Chamonix and I had great admiration for all of them. 

The easy wide track on the north side of the river soon finished and there was a bit of pavement walking over a bridge by a small dam on the river and then into the eastern parts of Les Houches, a small town a little in the shadow of Chamonix, but still a very desirable place. We walked along the street passing its small church and a few outdoor sports shops and estate agents. After a kilometre we reached the centre of the town just at the base of the Bellevue gondola. Just a couple of metres after that was the base of the Chamonix Kandahar, one of the most challenging of the world series of ski races. We left the road here and started to climb the ski piste which in 6 months time will be hosting this world series event. The road zig-zagged up the wide piste for almost half an hour. At each bend there was a cluster of exclusive chalets overlooking the piste. The route then left the piste and headed into the mixed woods at the side and continued to climb but now ups a small steep path. It veered SE across a meadow with a great view of the Chamonix Valley below until it reached another path. Here we met the runners on the TDS race again as they came steeply down the forest path and plummeted straight down into the valley without the gentle piste we had come up. Two Belgiums caught us up and one, Wim, was just out for a small jog before he started the main race the UTMB in 2 days time. It involved 170 km and 10,000 metres of ascent with the winners taking around 20 hours. We had to stand aside and applaud the runners as they went past. The two Belgium runners dragged us up in their slipstream and we chatted profusely, so suddenly we reached the edge of the woods, crossed a meadow and we at the upper station of the Bellevue Gondola, 1801m. We said goodbye to the Belgiums here and wished them luck for their upcoming races and then continued on. 

548. On the steep path up through the woods to Bellevue beside the Chamonix Kandahar ski piste with runners on the gruelling TDS race coming down.

The path was much busier now. Firstly there were all the TDS runners who were gathering at the gondola top station as it was a feeding and watering point for the runners and there were many spectators. Then there were all the day trippers who had come up the Gondola and were hanging about a bit bewildered at being near the treeline. There were also the punters who had come up on the Mont Blanc Tramway from Saint Gervais and some had disembarked here while the tram continued up to the Top Station at Le Nid d’Aigle. We negotiated a route through this throng, crossed the tram tracks and soon were back in the fir forest with the occasional runner coming towards us. 

This path contoured round the hillside under the tramline for a bit and then descended towards the snout of the Bionnassay glacier. There were cables in just a few places and they were not necessary in these good summer conditions, but I am sure in the snow and ice they are a godsend. Just before the path got to the snout of the glacier it descended steeply on a loose section with gravel and dust strewn over the boulders we had to clamber over. The runners kept coming and some were looking very tired now and almost stumbling with oblivion and exhaustion. The path did not cross the snout of the glacier but went over a suspension bridge well below it. The glacial torrent raged beneath in a smoothly eroded slot in the bare rock plates. Unfortunately the bridge was a bottleneck with the runners wanting to come one way and the hikers going the other. There was only room for one direction at a time and then only a few people on the bridge at a time. Some of the hikers were getting quite impatient and frustrated at the wait. When my turn came there was no time to stop and take a photo mid bridge. 

549. Crossing the bridge at a busy time over the torrent which emerges from under the snout of the Glacier de Bionnassay

The climb from the bridge over the glacier snout to the col de Tricot, 2120 was a long sustained ascent. However it was made much easier by the views up the Bionnassay Glacier to first the Refuge de Tete Rousse, 3167m high on the ridge above us. Then some 650 metres above that was the Gouter Refuge, 3817m, on the lip of the higher icefields covering the upper slopes of Mont Blanc. This was the usual route up but in between the two refuges was a steep wide gully called the Grand Couloir. The problem was this gully was plagued by rockfall which thundered down the gully, usually in the late afternoon once the snow and ice holding the rock in place had melted. This year there was no snow and ice holding the rock in place and it tumbled down actively, erratically and dangerously. So much so that the refuges were closed to prevent people making a possibly fatal ascent across this gully to the south side of it to climb further. There were many rowans on the hillside here and the bushes were heavy with ripe blueberries on the final slopes to the Col de Tricot, 2120m. 

550. Looking up to the Gouter Refuge on the left skyline and the Tete Rousse Refuge on the ridge below. Both refuges were closed to discourage climbers from ascending the dangerous Grand Couloir between the huts on the very left. The glacier in the middle is the Glacier de Bionnassay.

551. A zoomed photo of the Bionnassay glacier as it tumbles down its ice fall from the Dome Gouter high above ner the summit of Mont Blanc

At the col there was a great view down the other side to the meadows and alms in the valley at the Chalets de Miage. Many of the old buildings here looked like they were still pastoral while others had been converted into a busy refuge with many parasols visible. It looked like an idyllic place and we would soon descend the 600 metres to reach it. But first as we had been going for 6 straight hours it was time for lunch. We ate it on the col and watched the TDS runners. They were very tired after 2 nights and 2 days running and 125 kilometres under their belts already. However they had to tackle this hill which looked fiendishly brutal for them. There were about 300 coming up the zig-zags and all were walking. They had to get to the top by 1630 or they were eliminated. After lunch we walked down passing those coming up and most were shattered. As we got to the bottom we met the “sweepers” who were officials bringing up the rear. They were the ones who would eliminate those who were not going to mke it. When we got to Chalets de Miage it was a lovely place and I could easily have stayed here. It had a rich pastoral history and even now the pastures were alive with cow bells. The refuge looked very nice and lively and the meadow around it was full of hikers with tents setting up camp. It was a happy scene. Just after it was a parking place for cars and campervans and I spotted a few runners here distraught at not being able to finish and texting friends to arrange a lift to a bed. 

552. Looking north towards Col de Tricot and the near pastures of Chalets de Miage (right) from the easy climb up to Chalets du Truc. It was the 600m climb up the gully to Col de Tricot which was the fnal test for the TDS race runners.

It was getting on in the afternoon now and we still had one last climb. It was the third of the day and it was the shortest at just 200 metres. It went steeply up to the south of Chalets de Miage through a rowan and fir forest to the Chalets de Truc. The rowans were heavy with their berries and their leaves were all upside down as the branches were so arched with the weight. Indeed the hillside looked rust coloured with the silver undersides of the leaves and red berries. In no time we reached the pretty Chalet de Truc and stopped for some water. She had a place to stay but it was in a 20 bed dormitory and Fiona baulked at the idea. So after our drink we decided to push on for another good hour and try our luck in Contamines.  Had Chalet de Truc had a smaller bedroom we would have probably stayed at the menu was very pastoral with local cheeses and the refuge was pretty and the host was kindly. However they had very little water, so little you had to buy bottled water to brush your teeth. 

553. The small cosy Refuge du Truc, had a local menu and a dormitory for 20 people but it was suffering from water shortage this dry summer. It is only an hour further to Contamines.

It was not long to Contamines. The path soon entered the pine forest and descended quickly to reach a track. This track then traversed down the hillside for a few kilometres to reach the sawmill at Contamines. The route then followed a track which cut across the numerous bends in the road. Eachside of the track were lovely old charactful barns and farmhouses which continued all the way to the solid medium sized church on the main street. We passed one B&B where we stayed before, but the owner had retired and converted the house back to a residence. I could see there was only one option available online and that was a dull looking 4 star hotel a kilometre south of the church. Rather than waste time looking for something else we set off to it. We passed a few hotels en route but all were full. It was a shame we could not stay in Contamines itself as it was a lovely town oozing with charm and character. 

We found the hotel called Hotel Chemenaz and they had a room. It was expensive and not great value but we were tired and time was getting on. I thought the restaurant looked expensive, with a superfluous if not ostentatious menu which would have cost 100 euros for two diners so we went over to the supermarket and got some true hiker food; fresh bread, cheese, tomatoes, pot noodles, yoghourt and some fruit drinks and ate them on the balcony off the room. Then after a good soak and clothes wash in the bath it was already 2100 and time to write the blog.

Day 83. Contamines to Refuge de la Balme. 7 Km. 2.5 Hrs. 540m up. 0m down. We should have had a day off today in Contamines but the area was quite busy with tourists associated with the UTMB races. We did not care for the hotel we were in that much as it was in a remote and charmless corner of Contamines. Instead we decided to push on and do the next day over two days instead of one. So we booked a place at the Chalet de Balme which was not half way but would take a good chunk off the single day. It was just a 2-3 hour walk so there was no need for an early breakfast. We got up at 0800 and went over to the adjacent supermarket to get more bread, jam, yoghurt and milk to have on the balcony in the morning sun. We did not leave the hotel until 1000. 

We walked back to the stream which was creamy with glacial silt and followed it up. For the next kilometre we went through a very forward thinking and enlightened family sports and exercise complex which was part of a public park. There was a boating lake, running tracks, tennis courts, outdoor exercise machines and even tarmac tracks for roller skis so  cross country skiers could practise all year round. Indeed when we passed there was a biathlon competition with competitors from Switzerland, Italy and France all getting out of vans and warming up. This corner of the Alps seemed to be full of sporting events and it was great to see such enthusiasm. 

554. The beautiful Notre Dame de la Gorge church at the southern end of the Contamines pastures and parkland. It was at the start of the historical route over Col du Bonhomme and on to the Aosta Valley in Italy

At the end of the playing fields and parkland was an old church called Notre Dame de Gorge. It was a beautiful smaller church with a lovely old priest’s house beside it. It was in a rural location with no other houses around it so it must have drawn people from other areas and it was probably on an old trade route so catered for merchants, travellers and pilgrims who were heading to and from the Aosta Valley in Italy. The last time we went past there was an outdoor concert just outside the church and I noticed that they had some outdoor services through the summer. After looking at the church we started up the track into the mountains. To the north of us was the Contamine Natural Reserve and it encompassed much of the south western tip of the Mont Blanc Massif and included the 4th largest glacier in France, the Tre la Tete glacier, which tumbled down the SW tip of the massif, unseen from the Contamines valley. It started its slow descent from nearly 4000 metres and came down 9km to the snout at 2000m. It was the source of the silty water in the stream. 

Our route went up a steep track in the forest for a good kilometre climbing quite steeply. The track was quite busy. There were endurance runners warming up for the UTMB, long distance hikers with large rucksacks doing the TMB and GR5, day trippers going up for a walk and a meal, and family groups going up for picnics. It was a very earnest crowd and everyone seemed in good humour with lots of greetings and general bonhomie. The track went up to the north of the turbulent stream which was eroding a slot deep in the ravine beside us. Occasionally you could see down into the depths of the gorge where the river was hard at work gouging the slot deeper and deeper. Eventually we came to a small stone bridge over this milky torrent. The torrent seemed to be 100 metres beneath us, but it was probably half that,  tumbling over cascades in the very bottom of this narrow canyon. It was so deep and twisting it was difficult to see. Our route now carried on south up the main valley while the torrent headed up to the east to the snout of the Tre la Tete glacier, which was still hidden by buttresses.