Hiking the GR5
When we arrived in Landry, after a long day of travel, the hotelkeepers told us that the only restaurant in town was closed. The best they could offer was a simple meat and cheese plate. “With wine?” we asked. “Of course.” Not expecting much, they brought out a platter with a healthy slab of Beaufort, a wedge of tomme, a goat camembert, a whole saucisson, some sliced salami, a loaf of crusty bread, salad greens, dressing, and of course, a bottle of wine. We were giddy at our good fortune. And we needed it. The next morning we would begin a multiday hike along the GR5+GR55 through the French Alps, attempting to cover 125 miles in nine days.
We hiked 11 miles in fog and misty rain to reach our first refuge. Their website mentioned that we might have the possibilité de goûter le lait tiède de la traite du soir (possibility to taste the warm milk from the evening milking). Yes, please! Twice a day they milked two brown Tarentaise cows, using the fresh, raw milk for cafe au lait, hot chocolate, and homemade fromage blanc for dessert, served with jam and dulce de leche—also made from the milk. They claimed that only four people in Savoie still handmilk, two of whom work at the refuge. Of course Stephanie volunteered to help that evening.
We spent part of the day hiking in the shadow of enormous ski lifts, which, cruelly, were not operating. Had they been, I’m not sure we could have resisted the temptation: it was the longest day we’d planned between refuges: 17 miles with 4000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Even more cruelly, we passed a beautifully situated refuge at mile 13, where we almost certainly would have stopped, except that we had booked all our refuges in advance. If we ever return to the GR5, we’d probably limit each day’s hike to 10 miles or less—unlike backcountry camping, in these civilized Alps, it’s nice to have time at the end of each day to explore the refuge, take a shower, chat with fellow hikers, read a book, and quaff a bottle of wine.
The highlight of the day was the Lac des Vaches, a shallow lake surrounded by immense, glaciated mountains with a flagstone path cutting through the middle. Super picturesque, even amongst a horde of day hikers. However, from then on, we were on a descent deathmarch: dropping 4100 feet over 5 miles. Once again the static ski lifts mocked our plight. There’s a reason people ski down these mountains! When we finally trudged into the village of Pralognan at 2pm, we’d only covered 9 miles—our refuge for the night was still a staggering 6 miles away. Suffice it to say, the mood was dark. Stephanie’s spirits lifted when she learned of a bus that could bring her within 2 miles of the refuge; I decided to hike the rest of the way. That night we upgraded our demi-pension dinner to a vraie raclette: a quarter wheel of the dish’s namesake alpine cheese to melt over a plate of charcuterie and potatoes. It was very rich and very well-deserved.
Our hike to Modane can only be appreciated with statistics. We climbed 3115 feet over 5 miles in order to reach the Col de Chavière. At 9173 feet, it’s the highest pass on the GR55 (and higher than any other point on the GR5). This was the “easy” part. Then over the next 8 miles, we descended 5775 feet to Modane, where we re-met the GR5. And we thought the previous day’s descent of 4100 feet had been bad. By comparison, it’s only 4780 feet from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River via the 7-mile South Kaibab Trail, our previous standard-bearer of descent distress.
In the middle of the night, we both woke up with scratchy throats. We left Modane the next morning before any pharmacies were open, so we had to grin and bear it. Of course we also had to climb “another Grand Canyon” out of Modane to reach the Col de la Vallée Étroite, which served as the border between France and Italy prior to WWII. From that point on, “Ciao!” replaced “Bonjour!” as we crossed paths with hikers heading the opposite direction.
I now know what it’s like to backpack with a full blown cold: not fun. The day started with a climb, no surprise there. We took it very easy. Small steps. And then it started to rain. Luckily we only had 8 miles to cover. We arrived in Nevache around noon, debating our next steps. We’d originally planned to take the treacherous GR5C to Briançon on Day 7, but looking at it now (1 Grand Canyon up, 1.25 Grand Canyons down!) and taking stock of our poor health, we smartly decided to take a bus to Briançon instead. After 6 days and 78 miles, our hike was over, but we didn’t know it just yet. When my back seized up the next afternoon touring around Briançon, we took that as a clear sign it was time to head home. The following morning we were on train to Cannes, anxious to recuperate in Stephanie’s Mom’s sunny jardin.
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