My summer holiday for 2012, was in the Écrins region of the French Alps. Starting and finishing in Bourg d'Oisans, it has a reputation of being the toughest trek in The Alps. With a distance of 176 kilometres and no less than 12,800 metres of ascent and descent, it certainly lives up to that billing.
My journey began with a flight to Geneva, where an overnight stay was necessary, then continuing by train and buses to Bourg d'Oisans via Grenoble. It was in Grenoble where I had arranged a rendez-vous with my trekking companion, Andrew - from the Czech Republic.
On our arrival in Bourg, we went for a pre-trek beer at a bar that was showing the final stage of the Tour de France on TV. But we soon had to tear ourselves away from the bar and be on our way for the first stage of our tour. On leaving the road out of Bourg the route soon becomes steep and it is required to scramble up some rock ledges with the aid of fixed chains. After gaining a bit of height the views opened up a bit, and after passing by some small alpine hamlets we had to descend into the Gorge de Sarenne and follow the track up to Combe Haute, which was where we had planned to pitch our tents for the night. We found a nice spot, just down from the restaurant building, by the stream with some picnic tables. Cooked some food, had a swig of pear brandy that Andrew had brought from home (nothing un-expected there) what did suprise me was that he smoked a pipe!! (the guy is 24 years old!)
Stage 2, Combe Haute to Besse-en-Oisans.
After a fitful night's sleep (takes me a few nights to adjust to sleeping in a tent) the morning was bright and clear. We had a little way to go to reach the Col de Sarenne, where we got our first view of La Meije. From the Col, the path descended to Clavans-le-Haut and then to Clavans-le-Bas, where we stopped for lunch on a bench in the shade from the blazing sun. Our route continued down to the Torrent le Ferrand, and then rising steeply up to Besse-en-Oisans, where we were able to but supplies from the small village shop, have a beer at the bar and but fresh bread from the excellent bakery on the road heading out of the village towards the campsite. I liked the campsite there, cheap, functional and conveniently located.
Stage 3, Besse-en-Oisans to La Grave.
This was an enjoyable day's walking, plodding up to Col Nazié and Col Bichet there were good views into the valleys below and across to La Meije and Le Râteau. We then followed the alternative path to Lac Noir and Lac Lerié, Lac Noir in paricular was a lovely spot, an ideal lunch stop. Rejoined the main path that descended to Le Chazalet (it was baking hot in the afternoon sun by this time), then on to La Grave. The campsite there had a fussy warden and a dramatic view, at the foot of La Meije.
Stage 4, La Grave to Monêtier les Bains.
This was a long stage, one of those days where progress seemed slow (and in my case, it was). To begin with it was easy enough, the path followed the course of the river (la Romanche) to Villar d'Arêne (a delightful village, with a very nice food shop). The path climbs steeply after passing Le Pied du Col, and even after gaining a significant amount of height, it is still some way to go to reach the Refuge de l'Alpe de Villar de Arêne, further still to the Col d'Arsine.
From the Col, the trail descends to pass the Lac de la Douche, below the Cirque d'Arsine. This was the toughest day of the trek, so far. We didn't reach Monêtier until 6pm, and having passed the campsite on the way I was reluctant to walk back there, so I enquired at the Gîte, Le Florou, and luckily, they put me up for the night and I enjoyed a cold beer, hot shower and nice meal. Met 2 girls from the Netherlands, who were also doing the GR 54, the first other than ourselves we'd encountered on the way.
Stage 5, Monêtier les Bains to Vallouise.
After a comfortable night's sleep at the Gîte, I met Andrew and we set off for the Col de l'Eychouda. At about half-way to the Col, I had a nagging thought in my mind that I'd forgotten my mobile phone...looked in the pocket of my backpack - it wasn't there. Damn! Maybe I'd put it inside the pack? It turned out, I hadn't. It was left in the Gîte where I'd put it on charge. No phone for the rest of the trek.
Pressing on, the way up to the Col passes the ski station and lifts and pistes and is undoubtedly the ugliest section of the trek.
It is much nicer on the other side of the Col, though. The views looking back are particularly good. Stopped for a lunch break at the Buvette in Chambran (beware of the Chickens!!) There was a good view of Mont pelvoux on the descent to Vallouise. Vallouise represents the last chance to buy supplies for the days ahead, with a well stocked supermarket. The campsite was very nice (and very expensive - 20 Euro a night for 1 tent). I took dinner at the Gîte d'Etape - 16.50 Euro for a 4 course meal.
Stage 6, Vallouise to Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette.
This is the longest and toughest stage of the trek, 22km in distance with a height gain of over 1600 metres and loss of over 1000 metres. Accordingly, an early start was required, and we were on our way at 7:45. The first 2 hours was spent mostly walking on the road to the National Park entrance at Entre-les-Aygues (I later discovered that there is a bus that leaves Vallouise at 7am). It was an enjoyable walk up to the Cabane Pasorale du Jas Lacroix, gaining height but not being too steep. We had our lunch in the welcome shade provided by the Cabane, then set off for the long walk up to Col de l'aup Martin, passing some magnificent scenery along the way. The final approach to the Col required care to be taken on the loose shale. From the Col, you can see across to the contorted strata of the Pointes des Rougnoux, and in the near distance the Pas de Cavale, which is only about 15 minutes from l'aup Martin.
I'd heard rumbles of thunder and seen the sky darken, and it started to rain. But it didn't last very long, and brightened up again as I descended. I arrived at the Refuge at 5:30 pm, met Andrew there. He told me that if I wanted to camp I had to pitch my tent in the field, up from the hut, and pointed to his tent. Too far from the refuge for me, I thought, so I stayed the night indoors...glad I did too, there was a massive thunderstorm in the early hours and again at 7am.
Met some more GR 54 walkers that evening at dinner, Robin and Mary, from England. Also re-aquianted with the Dutch girls, whom I'd met two days ago, Annalise and Anke.
Stage 7, Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette to Refuge de Vallonpierre.
After a none too promising start, with some rain, it didn't turn out to be that bad a day after all. It was hard going up to the Col de la Valette, but once that was crossed it was just a matter of keeping concentration on the eroded ground of loose shale. After crossing 2 more Cols, the Gouiran and Vallonpierre, I arrived at the Refuge de Vallonpierre. It was only 2:30 in the afternoon, but I felt that I'd done enough and called it a day. It gave me time to do some washing, air my tent out, and drink some tea!
The skies cleared late in the evening, and I got a view of Le Sirac.
Stage 8, Refuge de Vallonpierre to Refuge des Souffles.
Every now and then, if you're really lucky, you awake to the kind of morning when you feel glad to be staying high up, in the mountains. This was one of those mornings, clear blue skies, perfect views of the mountains, and to top it off, you look down to the valley and see a sea of mist. I'm not one to gloat (much!), but GET IN!
After much marvelling at the phenomenal views, I descended my way into the valley, briefly through the mists, which were soon burned off in the morning sunshine. Met Andrew in La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemar, also another familiar face (from the Chaumette, 2 nights before) Martin, the cheerful Catholic Priest from Bonn, Germany. I found the village shop to be open (I had wondered, it being a Sunday) and had a nice lunch, even though the waiter got my beer order wrong (was to be something of a recurring theme on this trek).
It was a pleasant walk out of La Chapelle, down the valley to Villar-Loubière. That was were the hard work started, in the blazing hot afternoon sun, up a steep path with precious little shade, all the way to the Refuge des Souffles. A welcoming place, with a notable selection of bottled and canned beers.
Stage 9, Pic Turbat - side trip.
When planning this trek, I'd identified the Pic Turbat as a walk-able peak, well within striking distance of the GR 54, and the Refuge des Souffles is a convenient place to gain access to the mountain.
Setting off at 8am, we had the benefit of walking in the shade up to the Col des Clochettes, and before too long we were standing on the shore of Lac Lautier. The path to Pic Turbat starts in earnest from Col des Colombes, just above the lake. The way-marks are faint and not easily spotted. It's not difficult going though, it does get quite steep on the final approach to the summit, and it is necessary to use your hands on the rock (straight-forward, easy scrambling).
It was well worth the effort, and the views from the top were superb. We stayed up there for half an hour or so, gazing at the scenery. I lost sight of the markings on the descent and had to traverse across some rough ground to get back on track, but made it down safely enough. The Lac Lautier was a nice spot for lunch, Andrew went for a swim (I did not). Re-traced our steps to the Refuge, for a celebratory beer.