The Mont Blanc massif, from le Brevent. (Note: le Brevent, not Mt. Brevent…don’t ask me why.)
The GR5 was one of the tracks my wife and I took during our three month walking trip of France in mid-2007. The gear we took was previously discussed in our gear list article. A special ‘feature’ of this trip was the very bad weather we experienced for the first two months: it was meant to be summer, but we had rain, hail, and snow. Coping with this bad weather for weeks on end with ultralight gear required some skill, but we managed. Another ‘feature’ of the trip was the significant change in altitude almost every day. We were yo-yoing from valleys at well below 1,000 m (3,000 ft) and cols and ridges around 2,500 m (8,000 ft). It kept us fit, but our appetites grew huge.
The name ‘GR’ stands for ‘Grande Randonnée’ (or ‘Great Walk’) in France. The French have lots of them, so obviously the GR5 was created a long time ago. It runs from the resort town of Thonon-les-Bains on the Lac Léman to the city of Nice on the Mediterranean, but we bypassed the last bit. Instead we took a spectacular high variation called the GR52 going from a little mountain village called St. Dalmas Valdeblore to Menton on the Mediterranean. These notes will cover the GR5 section only.
We arrived in Thonon by train. I highly recommend the French trains, especially the TGV or ‘Train a Grand Vitesse’ (high speed train). They are smooth and comfortable, but you need to book a seat some time in advance, or you may find yourself standing. We were in Thonon for a few days resting: we had already been walking for a month, and I had cracked an ankle bone just before we got there. At the time I thought it was just a sprain, but the length of time it took to heal showed otherwise. I could walk, but with some problems. In Thonon we stayed in a hotel called ‘The Red Count’ – named after some local lord who, hundreds of years ago, used to return from battle covered in his opponents’ red blood. Great stuff if you aren’t squeamish!
Before I start, I had better explain some terms I will be using and some local features:
- French shops are mostly shut down between 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm for a siesta. Don’t ask me why. This strange and annoying custom made food shopping difficult at times.
- Even small villages were likely to have a shop with enough of a range that we were able to buy what we needed for a couple of days. Fresh bread was almost always available – the French have a thing about fresh bread…and so did we.
- Refuge, guarded: a mountain hut with staff providing dinner, bed, and breakfast, and usually cut lunches as well. May be run by an Alpine Club or the local town. If they are staffed, bedding is usually provided, but you bring your own towel and liner sheet/bag. Showers are normally coin-in-the-slot. Unfortunately, many also have car access for tourists.
- Refuge, unguarded: a mountain hut without staff. Usually has mattresses and may have gas stoves, but bedding would be unusual, and there isn’t any food. Showers are unlikely.
- Gite: usually a converted farmhouse, providing the same facilities as a guarded Refuge. Also may have car access for tourists.
- Hotel: just that, but the smaller ones are used to wet, muddy walkers. Hot showers and towels were provided, and breakfast was sometimes included in the price.
- Most lacs (lakes) exist because of a barrage (dam) at the end, built a long time ago for hydro power.
- The French have a custom of making drinking water readily available from public ‘fonts’ or faucets in many places. Town water is almost always safe, so we used the fonts a lot.
- Some National Parks and other areas are designated no camping, and I am told that the Rangers do patrol the place. However, tent sites were seen…
- The local Topo-Guide books published by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (FFRP) are highly recommended. They don’t give distances, only the far more relevant heights and standard times for the sections. We usually managed just slightly better than the book.
- Balcon: geological feature; a sort of high shelf running along the side of a valley for a long way.
- Alpage: high open grassy pastures located up in the mountains above the forests. Lovely places.
Click a thumbnail to view the image gallery.
Tuesday 19 June 2007
We were up early at 5:20 am in Thonon (431 m) and away through the very pretty Forêt de Thonon, then over a few ridges. Much of the day was spent getting clear of the outlying car commuter suburbs of Thonon, but eventually we headed up into the mountains of the Dents d’Oche to camp on a high saddle near the chalet Grand-Chesnay (1,414 m). The chalet had an excellent font, which we used. The saddle seemed to be devoid of cows…it was clean (unlike some other paddocks). It was quite exposed, with excellent views of the mountains, but fortunately the weather was fine. I checked the nearby pine forest for sheltered sites, but it was full of flies and midges! No, thank you.
Wednesday 20 June 2007
We were again up at 5:20 am, away by 6:45 am, up the spur to the high limestone region under the Dents d’Oche. We contoured around small peaks to very nice Lac d’Oche (1,750 m) for morning tea. Furry marmots scurried for cover as we passed. Up and down over many small cols – around here, height changes of a few hundred meters just don’t count.
Finally a long descent down through the forest to la Chapelle d’Abondance in the next valley – a very tourist town (1,021 m). No camping grounds nearby and intensive farming all around, so we had to find a Gite. The tourist hotels were all rather expensive, of course. We found Gite Le Feto next to the all important food shop – the name Le Feto means cheese cellar. The Gite was very nice, but empty of other walkers, as the weather had been very wet.
Thursday 21 June 2007
There was a big electrical storm during the night and filthy weather in the morning. We packed slowly, hoping the weather would clear. It did, briefly, so we headed off. However the rest of the day was quite wet, and we even had a hail storm while lunching on the sheltered veranda of an empty chalet. We were grateful for the small mercy of timely shelter.
It cleared a little later in the afternoon as we approached the Col de Chésary (1,992 m), which would take us briefly into Switzerland. Gambling on having reasonable weather overnight, we camped in a flat bowl just below the col. It was a bit exposed, but the grass was soft and there was a clean tarn nearby.
Friday 22 June 2007
Happily, there was no storm during the night, so we were up and away by 7:00 am. A violent hail storm hit fifteen minutes later as we went over the col, and all we had on were our Taslan pants and shells and our lightweight silnylon ponchos, but the ponchos kept us warm, so long as we were moving. We headed to the Refuge de Chésary but found it closed, as the owner was sick. We continued on down in bad weather to the Refuge de Chaux-Palin (1,843 m) where we bought hot tea and cocoa, which we happily consumed inside, out of the storm.
The Refuge was empty, again because of the bad weather. Funny thing: only us foreigners go walking in this kind of weather; the locals stay home. From here we climbed over the Col de Coux (1,990 m) back into France in more fog, rain, and wind, down to the Terres Maudites (evil lands) – so named because it was peppered by falling rocks from the cliffs above, I suspect. Finally we headed downhill to the town of Samoëns (703 m) in the valley. Being low, Samoëns was fine, sunny, and full of car tourists and tourist shops. It was late enough, so after food shopping we stopped for the night at the camping grounds on the edge of the town and enjoyed hot showers.
Saturday 23 June 2007
Despite lots of rain over night, the morning was sunny, so we headed off through the limestone Ravine de Tinée – up steel ladders in a limestone canyon, along a narrow track across a steep face, then back down. I guess you could just follow the road around the whole lot if you wanted. The weather cleared up as we started a long climb up into a huge bowl in the National Park (no camping) below the Col d’Anterne – very beautiful country. The cliffs around the bowl were immense, although the weather was still very uncertain with clouds swirling around.
The Refuge Alfred Wills (1,808 m) was here, so we asked the Guardian whether we could camp nearby. We received an enthusiastic "Sure, anywhere, no charge!" We camped near the Refuge and bought huge mushroom omelettes for dinner. The French do make good omelettes. After dinner, the Refuge Guardian gave me some of his homebrew – dangerously smooth, pleasant stuff with a high percentage of alcohol. Wow! He was pleased with my reaction and assured us that we would have no snow problems at the Col d’Anterne above.
Sunday 24 June 2007
A clear sky overnight for a change – which meant it was only 3 °C (37 °F) in the morning. We were up at 5:20 am and away by 7:05, long before the sun hit and the ‘Refugees’ awoke. Up to the Lac d’Anterne and the Col d’Anterne (2,257 m) over a fair bit of névé. So much for the Guardian’s assurances – although the snow was really no problem. We just stomped along making fair use of Sue’s lone trekking pole and my Helix UL ice axe.
Down to Refuge de Moëde d’Anterne – this looked fine on the map, but it had car access, so there were lots of tourists. We passed on without stopping, heading down a rather rough track into the rough and remote Doise valley over a very remote Pont d’Arlevé – an antique bridge (1,597 m). The Guide book says the bridge is removed in the autumn and replaced in the spring because of the violent spring thaw. The flow was still pretty violent from all the recent rain when we were there. Then there was a long traversing ascent, past the site of the ancient chalets d’Arlevé. A bill of sale for the chalets from the 17th century referenced the original title from 1443 – only slightly older than me. Finally we reached the Col du Brévent (2,368 m), right in front of the entire Mont Blanc massif. There had beena fair bit of climbing that day!
There were big névé banks at the Col and up towards the peak of le Brévent, but they weren’t a problem. We had lunch at the Col, watching people glissading down the slope and playing games, then climbed up to le Brévent (2,526 m) for more fine views of the Mont Blanc massif. On the way down, I rolled my injured ankle and expected big problems, but all that seemed to have happened was that I tore any attachments loose, and the ankle felt freer and hurt less. Ah, well.
The Refuge Bel Lachat on the edge of the top plateau had some spectacular views of Mont Blanc from its exposed veranda, but we passed on and took a side track to a small tarn on the edge of the plateau, out of sight of 99% of walkers, and camped there. The tarn was quite shallow and actually warm! The view was magnificent – apart from the clouds and fog. We pitched the tent carefully, as the position was very exposed on the edge of the plateau at 2,100 meters. The inevitable storm (with hail) hit immediately after we moved in, but the tent was well-guyed, and we enjoyed our dinner with a view.
Monday 25 June 2007
The storm went on for most of the night, but we were warm and dry inside. The weather in the morning was slightly better, but Mont Blanc was ‘smoking’ (streaming cloud), which is never a good sign for the forecast. A family of ibex were grazing nearby, ignoring us. Hunting has been banned here for some time, so the ibex don’t worry about walkers much. We set off over the edge, down the steep side of the plateau and through a ravine where the creek was roaring. The rain had started up again. There were handrails around some of the worst bits of rock, which was reassuring in the rain, as the hillside was a trifle steep.
The forest below was much more sheltered and the track was gentle. We rolled into the ski village of Les Houches (1,008 m) and sought accommodation – no camping grounds, the Gite was full of car tourists (and expensive anyhow), and the hotels were not cheap, as the village is next door to the major ski resort of Chamonix. Still, we needed food, and I had to buy some new shoes as my old ones were dying. The shops were shut for lunch, so we had to wait until the late afternoon. We indulged in a hotel, and I visited a laundromat with almost all our clothing. We later visited the biggest sporting goods store for shoes, only to find they were closed to take stock. However, the staff were more than obliging when I explained my need, and our mission was accomplished!
Tuesday 26 June 2007
Once again the weather was not fine, though it was not actually raining. We started with a steep climb up to Col de Voza (1,653 m) where there is a little cog railway going further up the Mont Blanc massif. It was (much) too cold for ice cream, so we headed down the other side towards Les Contamines. We had considered doing a high level variant for this section, but it was actually closed due to snow depth. Down in the valley the river Nant Torr was roaring. There was a lot of suspended silt in the water, and a side creek had a different color silt – the merging waters and colors were striking.
We passed Les Contamines and went up the valley to an old church, Notre Dame de la Gorge. Here the track started to climb steeply, up to the edge of the first alpage layer. At the steep edge of the alpage there was bridge over the creek, which had turned into a savage limestone gorge. A sturdy airmat would not survive the experience – let alone a passenger. The bridge is said to date back to Roman times.
We passed one Gite and kept climbing. The area is a National Park so the ‘no camping’ rule is in force (in theory), but ‘they’ have made two authorized camping grounds before the Col. We stopped at the second, near Gite la Balme, where ‘they’ have even built a public toilet for the campers. We put the tent up just as the inevitable storm hit. Actually, tents are not meant to go up until 7:00 pm, but that’s a stupid rule and seldom obeyed. You could die of cold and wet waiting for that hour. We got some condensation on the inside of our silnylon tent while cooking dinner, which was hardly surprising as our clothing was all wet, and the tent was a bit closed down to stop the wind. A quick wipe and it was OK. We were warm in our thermals and Cocoons.
Wednesday 27 June 2007
Up at 5:10 am, away at 6:50. I registered 2 °C (36 °F) inside in the morning, and the peaks around us were showing fresh snow from the storm – hum, interesting. As we reached the snow line, we were passed by two endurance runners wearing ski pants and jackets and carrying a hydration bladder pack and trekking poles – nothing else. Mad! We later learned they were training for something.
We headed up the track as best we could – it was quickly disappearing under the snow by now. At the Col du Bonhomme (2,329 m) there was a small, fairly new, wooden shelter shed with a functional door. Though this was a valuable safety feature, we chose to continue. Sue’s single Titanium Goat trekking pole and my Helix UL ice axe were in good use by now. The traverse from the Col du Bonhomme to the Col du Croix du Bonhomme (2,483 m) was a bit obscure in the fog, but no matter. We reached the Club Alpine Francais (CAF) Refuge just after the col and decided to take some shelter inside and get some food. You can’t suddenly stop in this weather just to eat! The Refuge is large, with at least one hundred beds and a large kitchen, in which the head Guardian obligingly posed for a photo.
The Refuge was still full of customers from the night before, some of them rather uncertain about what to do. They asked us about the conditions outside – I would have thought the conditions were fairly obvious! We knew what to do all right: I fired up the stove in the free kitchen area (most good refuges have this for those who can’t afford to buy meals), and we had hot drinks and a good morning tea. After this, the fog (actually low cloud) looked as though it was lifting a bit, so we packed up and headed down the other side to Les Chapieux (1,554 m) in the valley below. Once below the bottom of the cloud, we could see OK. The melting snow (it was summer, after all) made for a very slushy track and cold wet feet in our light joggers, but we had no problems as our legs were warm inside our GoLite Whims.
Interlude – Tour du Mont Blanc
At this point in the trip, we decided to temporarily leave the GR5 and do the Tour du Mont Blanc, which is a big loop around the Mont Blanc massif. At the end of the loop, we were back at the CAF Refuge, so this GR5 narrative will pick up from there. Sadly, I have to report that the snow and the weather at the Col had not gotten any better by our second passing, though some weeks later it was all grass and flowers there.
Part Two of Roger Caffin’s GR5 Trek Notes is available here.