Brunissard to Ceillac – D24

Brunissard to Ceillac, Day 24.

In Brunissard we shared a room with two young men who had recently taken to hiking. They were preparing to take a trip to Nepal and go trekking there. In order to gain experience they’d decided to hike part of the GR5. this was their first foray into hiking. Ever.

One was laid up in bed. Invalided by a small blister on his little toe. This had made walking uncomfortable and his knee hurt a bit. Consequently, he was going to take a taxi round to the next refuge/gite and his mate would walk on alone.

What was really strange about this pair is just how poorly prepared they were for doing this. They had no maps at all. No means of navigating. They were reliant on sign posts along the way. Being guys in their mid-twenties we’d made assumptions that they knew about preparation, and kit etc. But no.

It begs the question, as Richard put it, how do you learn this stuff? For most of us, we’ve been dragged out hiking by parents, or forced into it at school or the CCF/ACF or Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, scouts, girl guides, the military etc. But what happens if you’ve had none of these influences? If you have never ever been hiking? Where do you go to learn? What gear do you get?

It perplexed Richard enough to start asking everyone at breakfast where and how they learned how to hike (our room mates were still in bed). The consensus seemed to have been that parents had been the primary influence, followed by school activities and in some cases military service. It struck us that there must be some scope for a ‘learn to hike’ type course for latecomers to the activity.

In direct contrast to our room mates, we were joined for the day, quite by accident, by their direct opposite – a young woman from Belgium (a doctor specialising in emergency treatment) who had plenty of hiking experience – Nepal, S. America, the Caucasus, Europe etc. She was doing the GR5 to Nice alone, from St. Gingolph, with no rest days.

We’d spotted her the previous day at he Col des Ayes on her own and she’d ended up in our gîte.

Although she set off a few minutes before is in the cool post dawn air, before the sun warms things up, we soon caught her up a couple kilometres down the road where the GR5 departs into the woods to the east. What bound us together was a partnership in civil disobedience, possibly even crime. A sign at the track warned hikers that further movement along it was interdit (forbidden) due to logging activity. It offered no detour information. So, we did what Brits everywhere would have done – we ignored the sign and proceeded as normal. We couldn’t hear any logging activity, or chain saws etc. Soon we passed through the logging battlefield and could hear vehicles revving up below, presumably beginning the day’s logging activities. We snuck through unobserved and in the nick of time. This criminality occurred between La Chalp and Arvieux, best located on Paddy Dillon’s graphics from Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone below:

Desiré, our Belgian doctor, proved to be a great co-hiker. She set a decent pace and was able to easily rub along with us. It was nice to walk as a trio, and for me to listen to two medical professionals bantering about medical stuff. If anything went wrong today I’d be very well looked after. Richard wants to teach me to do a cricothyrotomy just in case he goes int anaphylactic shock. This will involve me stabbing a hole in his throat with my couteau. What could possibly go wrong?

Today’s hike can best be divided into two unequal parts. The morning’s activity was relatively painless, involved a little climbing through shady woods and quite a bit more downhill to Chateau-Queyras, a small town dominated by a 13th century castle. We stopped there to indulge Richard’s addiction to iced tea before crossing the river and beginning the very long slow slog up to the Col Fromage (yes really!)

The sign at the bottom indicated that the Col was 10.5km distant and we knew we had an ascent of almost exactly 1,000m. How easy could that be? 100m of vertical ascent every kilometre. But, it didn’t quite work out like that. In places it was very steep, in others we lost height, and sometimes just tabbed along on the flat. Most of it was through pine forest, which was just as well as I’d burned to a crisp the previous day as we’d hiked due south facing the sun. But, the track just went on and on and on and on. Tedious. I’d much rather prefer a savage gradient and get the whole process over with quickly than this slow ponderous ascent.

Eventually, we broke out of the tree line four kilometres short of Col Fromage. Our altimeters showed that we’d pretty much gained the Col’s altitude so it remained a bit of a mystery as to what was to come next. Virtually every col we’d encountered got steeper and steeper the closer we got to it. This was the first one where the track contoured around a large bowl before leading to the col itself.

We’d sliced a good hour and a bit off the prescribed time so stopped and made a litre of lemon tea and tucked into Geoffrey Grimmet’s sausage. Eating sausage on the Col Fromage. You can’t make it up.

Way below on the south side we could see Ceillac about five kilometres away. We were nearly there and at the rendezvous with Phil and Godfrey, who were still in the air from Gatwick to Turin, from where they’d take a taxi to Ceillac. We’d beat them to it…and to the bottom bunks of the two bunk beds. First come first served.

But, before that we passed through Richard’s ancestral village, a place called Villard. It’s charming in a Borat kind of way. The Villards had lorded it over the valley and protected it from bandits for centuries. We passed the chapel in which his ancestors had been baptised and the seat of Villar power, the Manor House, just to its left of the chapel in the picture below. The name Villard was anglicised to Villar during the Huguenot exodus to England. Richard was so overcome at this unexpected homecoming, moist-eyed even, that he was compelled to phone his wife in UK and suggest that they return to Villard and reclaim the ancestral seat. For some reason she wasn’t too keen.

There’s even a statue to one of Richard’s ancestors, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Richard himself after a hard day’s hiking.

So, we rolled into Ceillac at 3.30pm after seven or so hours on our feet and now await the arrival of Godfrey and Phil. Little do they realise just how much of a savage ascent we have tomorrow.

Stay tuned!

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