My experiences with thru-hiking

Can’t Keep Up With The Languages

Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Aug 02 2009

Aug 02 2009

Modane is a twin town to a town across the border in Italy. Yes, the GR5 is now adjacent to the French border with Italy, so when I pass hikers now, I have to go from Bon Jour to Buongiorno. There are a lot of Italians on the trail in these parts.

Yves had told me to watch out for the storm, and when I woke up this morning, I saw everyone scrambling. I noticed that Yves had already packed up and left. The sky was dark and I guess the storm was here. So I scrambled too. I quickly packed my stuff, and just as the drops started to come down on us hard, I took shelter in the restrooms and packed everything up. I put on my gear and headed out, while everyone around me hiding from the rain, looked at me like I was crazy.

It was all up hill to the Col de la Vallee Etroite, and I had decided to stay the night at the Refuge Du Thabor, which was a fifteen minute detour from the col. I didn’t account for the wind chill, and three hours into the hike I started freezing. The tips of my fingers were turning blue and my teeth kept chattering. Up ahead, I saw someone duck under some shelter at some abandoned house, and when I got there I saw it was Yves. I hung out with him for a little while he took out his stove and made some soup. I warmed my hands and asked him when he left the campsite. He said at 7am, and I left at 8am. Not bad. I’m getting faster. The sun came out and the rain stopped, and I decided to the head to the refuge. I was completely wet and there was water in my boots. Yves said that he wasn’t planning to stay at the Refuge Du Thabor and wanted to cover more distance. I wanted to get out of my soppy clothes, so I wished him well and left for the refuge. When I got there I asked if they had any place for me. Despite the poor weather, the place was packed with hikers, and I was a little worried. I got a bed and as I was walking by the dining area, I saw Stephanie and Emmanuelle, and later joined them for a late lunch. We shared notes on our trip so far and they told me that the weather would get better here on out.

I Can Be A Delight

Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Aug 01 2009

Aug 01 2009

The people here are tickled pink when I tell them my name. Ravi, besides being an Indian name, is also a French word for “delight”. I feel like I belong now. (Yeah, right.)

I left early this morning and got to the next refuge called Refuge de Peclet Polset. I have no idea what these names mean, and they’re getting even harder to pronounce. As I pass by the refuge, I hear someone shout out to me, and I see the French mountain man sitting on the steps at the refuge drinking a Coke. I keep thinking I should ask him his name, but I keep forgetting. I walk up and chat with him for a while. He said he camped at Les Prioux (where Stephanie and Emmanuelle stayed) and got up early to get on the trail. He had to endure a cold night in his little tent. While we were chatting, we bumped into a guy from Nepal who worked at the refuge. I told him I was from India, from Goa, and he was surprised to see an Indian on the trail. He told us he worked as a guide in the Himalayas and spends three months of the year working at the refuge in France to learn French, because a lot of his customers in Nepal come from France.

I got back on the trail and headed for Col Chaviere, which is the highest point on the GR5. It was a crazy climb with a lot of scrambling and I got there before the French mountain man. I seem to be hiking faster uphill. I waited at the top to see if he was doing okay, because it was steep and the chance of falling was high. I’m glad it wasn’t raining. Once I saw he was doing okay, I kept going, because there was not a lot of space up at the col.

Finally made it to Modane and had to walk it to Fourneaux to get to the campsite. After doing my usual chores, I went into town to pick up stuff and look for an ATM, and bumped into the French mountain man. He looked exhausted, and once again, he was sitting and drinking a Coke. He couldn’t find the campsite and I gave him directions to it as I went around hunting for an ATM. I finally just pulled my money out of another bank. Screw it, whatever the extra charges are.

Later at night, the French mountain man bought me dinner at the restaurant in the campsite, and I found out his name was Yves. He enjoys telling the two ladies sitting next to us about my walk across Europe. They wish me “Bon Courage”, a phrase I hear often now. After the meal, Yves confesses that he doesn’t like wine and hates cheese. Strange for a Frenchman, he tells me.

Blessed With Good Weather

Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Jul 31 2009

July 31 2009

The two French sisters, Stephanie and Emmanuelle, always head out on the trail before 7am. Most of the hikers (well, the Europeans) on the GR5 get out of the refuge early. So by the time I head out, which is round 9am (8am on a good day), they’ve had quite a good head start. A lot of people like to head out early to avoid the sun or bad weather. Apparently, if it rains, it’s more likely to happen late afternoon. I’ve been on the trail for too long to have such a rigid approach to hiking. I’ll get there when I get there. Yes, I’ve developed a carefree attitude on this trip. Or maybe because I’m a Goan, I already had it in me.

I’m slowly running out of cash, so I’m hoping the next town Pralognan has the ATM I’m looking for. As I walk into the town I spy Stephanie and Emmanuelle eating lunch at a restaurant and I wave. I hurry into the center of the town, but find no BNP Paribas bank, but I do find a Doner Kebab place, so I sit down and order one. Mmmm. The grocery stores (both of them) are closed, so I’ll have to survive on what I have which is trail-mix. Well, at least, I had a nice lunch. I get back on the trail and pass a place called Le Prioux, where Stephanie and Emmanuelle said they’d stop for the night. I decided to press on and get to the Refuge Du Roc De La Peche. No sign of the French mountain man, he must be on some other trail by now. The refuge is pretty pricey, and since I don’t have a choice (no camping allowed here too), I settle in. The next refuge is three hours away, so that’s not a choice. I finally finish the John Grisham book. Left it behind, because I’m sure someone as desperate as I was to read something, will pick it up.

Summer Skiing

Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Jul 30 2009

July 30 2009

Climbed up to the Col Du Palet first thing in the morning. The French mountain man is ahead of me and he’s just bouncing along at great speed. There are a lot of snow patches in this area, and it’s known to snow sometimes. Not just sprinkles of snow, I’m talking snowstorms, which can be a problem, obscuring the trail-markers that are painted on the boulders.  I follow the French mountain man (why do I keep calling him that?) and reach a ski resort called Val Claret. It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen, modern buildings like apartment complexes in the middle of these beautiful mountains.  I catch up with the French mountain man, and we shop for provisions at a store called Sherpa, and gobble our breakfast near the ski rentals. Even in the summer (and this is news to me) there are still some spots people can ski at, and we watch a few folks walk by in their ski boots, heading to the ski lift. After I’m done, I say goodbye to my breakfast buddy and get back on the trail.

The landscape on this part of the trail is pretty bleak with tons of rubble. Big stony walls surround me. To my left, I see marmots prancing about, and I wonder how they survive here. I finally reach the Refuge d’Entre Deux Eaux, and I’m told that I can’t camp there. The manager can’t speak English and two French women come to my rescue and help me with some translation. After I get a bed, shower and wash my clothes out (my chores), I join the two French women for a chat. Stephanie and Emmanuelle are sisters, and have recently been laid-off, so they decided to do something they’ve always want to do: walk a bit of the GR5 trail. I make a joke about our table being the jobless table (after telling them I quit my job), and Stephanie just stares at me, but Emmanuelle laughs. (Whew…I still got it.)

Even though I can’t camp here, I see cars parked at some of the buildings near us, so it makes me wonder why that’s allowed if the park is trying to protect whatever it is they’re trying to protect. Of course, I wonder out loud. Stephanie scowls and agrees with me that it’s strange and shrugs it off. I go back to John Grisham, which is a horrible book, but I keep at it, hoping it’ll get better.


Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Jul 29 2009

July 29 2009

Left Landry with Cas, my new Belgian friend. He was taking another route through the Vanoise National Park and I had decided to take a variant: the GR55. At this point on the trail, the guide offers three options to get through the park. The GR5, GR5E and the GR55. The GR55 is the high-level route, promising to take me to the highest points on the trail.  It also said it’d save me two days too. Two days I can use later as rest days. One hour into the hike, I could see I was getting into some really remote areas of the park judging by the harshness of it all and the rocks. I only saw little shrubs everywhere trying to stay alive. There were patches of snow too, and plenty of streams flowing down the mountain.

When I got to the Refuge D’Entre Le Lac, I saw why a lot of people were clamoring to get there. The refuge is next to a beautiful lake, and people were picnicking around the big blue drop of water. The guide recommended a stop here, but I heard that camping wasn’t allowed here, so I kept walking to the Refuge du Col du Palet. They allowed me to camp there for 3 euros 50 centimes. The Vanoise National Park is a protected area, so wild camping is strictly forbidden, and you can only pitch your tent at certain refuges, and only from 7pm to 7am. The guy at the refuge was nice enough to let me put my tent up at 6pm with an 8am deadline. I bumped into a French man who was also camping at the refuge, and he told me that he had just retired and was walking the GR5 to Menton. He had all the time in the world.  He told me his wife didn’t like camping and hiking, so he was on his own. He hadn’t hiked in thirty years, so he was glad to be outside. Like true hikers, we talked about our gear, and I think he was carrying more weight. He was tall like Goliath, and with his backpack on he looked like a mountain. He’s a French mountain man with tree truck for legs.

No Bloody ATM

Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Jul 28 2009

July 28 2009

As though walking eight hours isn’t enough, the guide tells me I have a nine-hour hike today to get to Landry. The tracks were just too muddy and there was this once instance where I thought a cow was going to tackle me. I was really worried about falling in the mud, only because of the hefty amount of dung in it. After slipping and sliding and walking over boulders, I reached the Refuge De La Bale, where I got an omelet with cheese, potatoes and bacon. I had to kick off my boots to give my feet a rest. The downhill has been tough on my knees and feet, and there are no nice manicured trails here, just rocks and more rocks. I finally got to Landry and, using my sixth sense, found the campsite. I’ve definitely honed my skills at sniffing out campsites and grocery stores. I was also looking out for an ATM, but couldn’t find a BNP Paribas. I may need to use some other ATM, and I hope they accept my card.

At the campsite, the tent pole was so messed up and bent out of shape, it took me an hour to fix it and put my tent up. It worked just fine, but I was worried about it suffering through another storm. I looked up at the sky looking for dark clouds.

I struck up a conversation with my camp neighbor, a Belgian guy who lives in Holland. He was walking the GR5 too through the Vanoise National Park. We immediately started comparing our camping and hiking gear. That’s what hiking dorks do, I guess. Later went down the street to the store to buy some food and a liter of orange juice. Damn tasty. I’ve noticed that a liter of orange juice here is cheaper than a can of Coke Light. I guess it’s cheaper to live healthier here in France.

My Favorite Stretch On The Trail

Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Jul 27 2009

July 27 2009

These hikes are sure not getting any shorter or easier. Started early, because of the eight-hour day ahead of me, and found myself with a huge crowd of hikers, all of us hiking up to Col du Bonhomme. The last stretch is crazy steep and everybody, including me, is taking eencie-weencie steps up the slope. When I get to the top, everybody is on the floor taking a break and eating something or the other. I munch on some tabouli. There are two groups of hikers, both being lead by guides, a mixture of Americans, Canadians and Dutch folks. It takes us all another forty-five minutes to get to the refuge and I decide to grab some lunch there. They had a spaghetti carbonara with lots of bacon – couldn’t pass that up. I parted ways with the crowd of hikers (the point where the GR5 breaks away from the Tour Du Mont Blanc trail) and headed over the Crete De Gittes, which was by far the coolest stretch I’ve been on so far. The guide recommended not going that way if the winds were rough. A lot of the trail has been rock-chips and flaky slates, almost like rubble, so falling is really easy here. It was a scary stretch, but pretty awesome too.

Finally reached the refuge at Plan De La Lai. The building was small and thought I was not going to get a bed that night, when the guy took me to some Moroccan tents at the back of the building – really sweet digs. Each round tent holds six beds, and I shared the space with five other hikers who were doing a part of the GR5. Dinner was inside the building, a simple couscous with sausage, followed by some raspberry yogurt thingy. The place was loud with everyone talking at the same time. It was like a school cafeteria. A nice man who knew a bit of English clued me in on what people were talking about. And just like that, the weather turned from nice and sunny to a stormy night. Glad I wasn’t camping outside.

The Touristy Part Of The Trail

Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Jul 26 2009

July 26 2009

Fairly easy walking today.

The GR5 trail along this section to Les Contamines overlaps with the Tour Du Mont Blanc trail. When I finally get up to the Col De Voza, there’s a small hotel and restaurant and tons of hikers coming up on the Mont Blanc Tramway – a retro-looking train that goes around the Mont Blanc. Apparently, it was designed at first to summit the Mont Blanc (don’t’ know what they were smoking), but I guess that didn’t work out. I left the horde of hikers and made way down passing even more hikers, all of them wearing that pained look on their face, that grimace, as they carefully made their way to the top. Once again, I made myself a tuna sandwich (the mayo flavor) at a river and continued to Les Contamines. The refuge there is run by the Club Alpin Francaise – a cute little refuge run by a cute little manager. Did the usual, grabbed a shower, washed out my clothes and did a little shopping, stocking up on provisions. I had picked up a John Grisham book at the last gite, so I now had something to read. Most of the gites and refuges have books in the common area that have been left behind and all of them are in French, so I was pleased to find a book in English, even if it was John Grisham. The last book I read of his was The Firm. Think it was his first book. It was so-so. The only instance where I can say the movie was better than the book.

Happy Birthday To Me

Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Jul 25 2009

July 25 2009

I turned 38 today. I’m getting old. I keep seeing a lot of old people on the trail, and I hope I’ll still be hiking in my seventies – well, at least day hikes.

In the morning, I discovered that two Americans were staying at the refuge. Kerry and Amber are from Florida and love the hiking in Europe. I haven’t seen a lot of Americans on the trail…so I ask if I can join them on the trail. We set out together to Les Houches, a small resort town. Both Kerry and Amber are pretty fast on the trail, and I’m having a hard time keeping up with them. I was seriously out of breath and my heart was pounding. Despite me being out of breath, we still carried on a conversation. Kerry had a lot of nice things to say about the hiking in Switzerland, and enjoyed it more than the hiking in France. We finally got to Le Brevent, which is the highest I’ve climbed so far on the trip, and we could see some beautiful views of Mount Blanc.

We still had to walk another forty-five minutes to the restaurant at the top, and when we got there we stopped to grab a bite. The restaurant had a gondola ride down to the town of Chamonix, and I decided to treat myself (and my knees) to a ride down the mountain. Besides, Kerry and Amber were taking the gondola ride, and I wasn’t about to let go of the only other people who spoke English.

Chamonix is the center for mountaineering in France, but the place was like a huge city. There were some nice glaciers surrounding this “grande ville”, so close you could walk up to it. Kerry, Amber and I decided to catch a bus to Les Houches, where they had already booked a hotel room. I landed at a gite nearby. Later, Kerry and Amber treated me to a birthday dinner. We had planned to eat at their hotel, but had to escape as some teenage French alternative band started warming up, and they sounded bad. The first song, Wonderwall by the Oasis, sounded hilarious with their French accent. We would have stayed, but the singer was atrocious. So we escaped to a nice restaurant down the street. When I got back to the gite, I discovered I had a roommate from London. He was getting ready to summit Mont Blanc with a guide. I wished him good weather.

Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls

Posted in Hiking GR5, 1500 miles across Europe by onefootatatime on August 28, 2009


Jul 24 2009

July 24 2009

Today, the trail took me along a river and up to a waterfall, where I took a break and had a tuna sandwich. Thanks to Ruth, I discovered these cans of tuna that come pre-mixed with either mayo or mustard or olives or some regional sauce. So I’ve been picking up these cans every now and then, and all I need is a baguette to make a simple and tasty sandwich. Anyway, I had the tuna-mustard and it was good. Had to walk uphill some more and stopped at a restaurant to sample their sorbet. It was a hot day, so a sorbet break was much needed. I ended up chatting with this guy at the next table for almost two hours, and I still had another six hours to go on the trail. I said my goodbyes and headed out and reached some refuge in the middle of nowhere. It was the Chalets D’Anterne, but I still had to walk another three hours to get to the Refuge de Moede Anterne, the place I was hoping to get a bed for the night. At the Chalet, I bumped into a German couple doing a part of the trail with a donkey too. Apparently, there’s a town nearby where a guy rents out donkeys to help you carry your stuff on the trail, and even gives you a map and itinerary. After chatting with them, I had to put on my rain gear, and I spent the next three hours walking in the rain and mist. I couldn’t see the trail markers, and had to rely on the cairns. I was a little lucky to catch the dark shapes of the buildings and found the Refuge De Moede Anterne. When I walked in, everybody was surprised to see me. The man coming out of the storm just soaked to the bone. I had a quick shower and decided to grab some dinner too: a nice helping of polenta with cheese and sausage. Hit the bed and slept like a log.