28 Aug Going the distance – Veterans’ Gambol roundup
‘Living intensely makes every effort and every sacrifice worthwhile; living halfway has always been the function and the punishment of mediocre people.’ Rollo Diez, Tombstone in the Valley of Death.
I’ve always thought that eliciting a bit of divine intervention helps in one’s endeavours, particularly when up against the elements.
Just a few kilometres south of the trekkers’ and outdoor enthusiasts’ Mecca of Les Contamines-Montoje in the Savoie, just off to the right of the road that leads to a long and strength-sapping climb to the Col de Bonhomme, lies a charming little chapel – Our Lady of the Gorge. I always pop in to collect myself before a gruelling hike uphill and to beg for protection from the elements: from the rain on previous occasions; from the hammer blows of solar radiation on this.
If you’d been one of those visitors appreciating the piped angelic music and hushed calm of the chapel on 11th August and had it ruined by the loudest fart you’ve ever heard (one that couldn’t be explained away by creaking floorboards or rickety pews) and saw a scruffy looking person hustle out, then yep, that was me. Sorry. The litre of milk I’d gulped an hour previously had backfired.
But, take solace in the fact that divine retribution is swift. Within an hour I’d lost a windproof jacket. Normally my kit is solidly squared away. Inexplicably, it fell out or simply dematerialised. Either way, we now know folks, don’t we, that the price of farting in church is an item of clothing or €100. Not too bad and I didn’t like the colour anyway.
Or perhaps you’d been passing the Le Clerc supermarket in Briançon – France’s highest city – on 16th of August and spotted a disheveled itinerant in the building’s shade digging into a tin of sardines with his fingers. Me again.
Or on the very obscure off chance that you happened to be walking over a small wooden bridge after midnight on the 22nd in the middle of nowhere north of Sospel in the Alpes Maritimes and, glancing down, saw a hunched figure furtively boiling up some noodles on a small gas stove. Me again.
All this peculiar and vagrant-like behaviour was the product of trying to tab down the Grande Traversée des Alpes in the quickest possible time. It is a considerable distance from St. Gingolph on the southern shore of Lake Geneva to Menton, a French Mediterranean resort on the Italian border.
The terrain between the two is entirely mountainous across which snakes a spaghetti of hiking routes that meander south. The principal route is the GR (Grande Randonnée) 5 to Nice. Various diversions and offshoots of GR5 take you to different interesting areas, but always southbound. Collectively they are known as the Grande Traversée des Alpes or GTA.
The overall distance is very contentious. The start line at St. Gingolph states Nice/Menton 680 km. This cannot be true. To finish at Menton one jumps off the GR5 north of Nice and onto the GR52 which hooks north again before turning south through the Mercantour national park kissing the Italian border and dropping down to Menton – a much more satisfying finish to the GTA than tramping through the suburbs of Nice. But the GR52 adds an extra 40km to the straight GR5 finish at Nice. So Nice and Menton can’t be the same distance. Furthermore, I’d completed the GTA twice before, on both occasions finishing in Menton: in 2018 in a glacial and pleasurable 37 days; in 2019 a race to the Med against two young French ultra lightweight enthusiasts, the Ninjas of the Alps, which gave me a finish time of 17d 20h 50m – fast considering that 21 days is the aim of most speed merchants. On both occasions I’d GPSed the distance: 724km.
Broadly speaking, from north to south, one passes through four zones: the Savoie which incorporates the classic highest peaks in the French Alps; the Haute Alpes (Val d’Isere/Tignes) and the Vanoise national park; Briançon at half-way is the gateway to the southern Alps; and right in the south one encounters the Mercantour national park and the Alpes Maritimes leading you to the Mediterranean. It is all extremely mountainous with very steep thigh-burning ascents and hideously painful molar-grinding ankle-snapping descents.
Dotted along this spaghetti of routes lie towns, villages, refuge huts, and gites – plenty of places to stock up. Appalachian back country it is not.
The pandemic put a stop to any further hiking and steered me into a vaccination role with the NHS.
The race to the coast against the youngsters, the Ninjas, had left me wondering whether there was any scope to shave off a few hours or even a whole day. The days in the second half from Briançon had been so long that I couldn’t see much scope to crush out more time. But, at the start we’d dawdled a bit and perhaps that’s where some time could be saved.
A few weeks ago, with zero preparation, the opportunity arose to get to St. Gingolph and get on with it. So, I packed hastily and decided that I’d raise money for Veterans Aid as I was a vet and this was the charity’s 90th anniversary. When raising money you have to create a challenge or goal. In this case it was to go solo against the clock, under canvas, and beat the 2019 time of 17d 20h 50m.
Going as light as possible is always the aspiration. I’d manage to pare my kit down to 9kg dry, but when I added to it all the paraphernalia to support a trackable charity event (satellite comms device, phone, power packs, cables, chargers, solar panel etc.) the weight soon touched 11+kg. Add 2kg of water and you’re into 13+kg territory. Take on board a saussison sec and one or two other edibles 15ish kg started to be the norm. Not light. Every gramme you carry up or downhill requires energy expenditure. I also ended up choosing to go at the height of the hottest summer on record, which had fearsome consequences.
Rather than laboriously churn through a liner description of what happened each day, which is pretty meaningless to people who don’t know the route, I thought I’d touch on themes and points of interest.
As far as I could see, if I was to slice a day off the 2019 time, all the big gains were to be made right at the start. In 2019 I’d wasted half a day waiting for the Ninjas to turn up from Lyon. Consequently we only made it to La Chapelle d’Abendance by the end of the day – no real distance.
By really going for it on day one and then hitting the same end-of-day halts I should, in theory, slice a day off the time. If I could compress four days into three, then the plan after Les Houches would be to always go a little further than the 2019 stops in the hope that all the marginal gains over the following eleven or so days would add up to perhaps another half a day off. That was the strategy – go for it for the first three days, crush four into three, throttle back a bit, maintain the gain and increase it incrementally.
That’s exactly what I did, starting on a head torch at 2am on day one. By the time the boulangerie in La Chapelle was open for breakfast I was passing through and on armed with a litre of milk and three choc au pain. Talking of pain (pardon pun) ascending steeply through thick woods from La Chapelle I felt a twinge in the side of my left knee – a small tendon or connective tissue strain, most likely the Ilio-Tibial Band (ITB), a fairly common irritation on long distance events. I paid it little attention and pushed on. It was to to become quite a major problem in the days to come. Almost a show stopper.
Back to the plan. So, I covered 61kms in that first day almost reaching Samoëns. By the end of day two I’d climbed out of Samoëns and covered a similar distance passing over three cols and finishing at a refuge called Moëde d’ Antern, which had been our day three stop in 2019. So, I’d clawed back a complete day in two. But, it had been a hard slog in thinner air and terrific heat.
It’s not that I was fast. I definitely wasn’t. Almost everyone passed me on the uphill. I wasn’t that bothered because my strategy was not about speed but conservation of energy and maximising walking time. If you are prepared to walk up to 18hrs in 24, without faffing around with coffee stops, start at 4am on a head torch, finish at 11pm on a head torch, give yourself just enough time to get the bivvie up, cook a meal and sleep enough to let your body repair micro damage and do that consistently day after day then the distances you can cover are really quite surprising – over 60km a day quickly became a norm. An easy day was sub 60km; 40s was positively slacking. I once hit 71kms and over 12,000’+ of ascent in 18hrs. So the strategy was to conserve energy, go slow, go long and always try and go a little further than the day’s goal.
It was also important to stay under canvas (Pertex or a tarp these days) and out of the comfort of refuges and gites for a number of reasons. First, if homeless veterans are sleeping rough then so would I. Second, the Covid-19 threat in cramped and overcrowded refuge dormitories didn’t appeal. Third, it obviates the corrupting influence of comfort – no one wants to get out into the rain when they can stay in the warmth, order another coffee and croissant and delay. Forth, the primary advantage to carrying your own home and grub in your pack is flexibility – you stop where you want. The main disadvantage to this is extra weight, at least 3kg in tent, rations and stove. The only concession to getting into a gite or refuge was safety. If the situation became dangerous then I’d seek refuge. This happened once and I was very grateful for the assistance of strangers.
The strategy of going slow, long and always a little further proved surprisingly effective and shocked me. By the time I’d reached a small hamlet called Plampinet in the Haute Alpes at about 40% of the way downrange I’d clawed back a whole second day. Although it was tempting to pitch tent then I pushed on upwards and got as high as I could towards the next col, which put me at two days and three hours ahead of schedule. The following day would involve a pre-dawn hop over the col and and an easy drop into Montgènevre and on to Briançon, the halfway point.
But, all this had come at some cost and considerable pain. Inevitably, when pushing your body in this way niggles become major concerns. I had a couple of issues going on. The most serious was the left leg ITB. It got erratically worse. I’d be perfectly alright for hours on end and suddenly it would appear as a tension and then the whole knee would then progressively start to lock up. NSAIDs and painkillers took the edge off it and I hobbled on. After a stop or rest or early morning start it would be fine for hours and then just as inexplicably would come on for no reason, as it did on the approach into Briançon. I knew that to hold onto my 2+ day lead I’d have to do the same long legs as I’d done in 2019, and those were going to be challenging and arduous days ahead. The knee wouldn’t hold up.
So, when I got into Briançon I rang an old mate, Ben Clayton-Jolly in Austria. A Plymouth boy, and old school friend he’d also served in the Parachute Regiment and we’d served in 1 PARA together during the 1988 tour of South Armagh. Like me he’d moved on, lived in Austria, was an international mountain leader and Arctic ultra marathon enthusiast. He is also writing a book about health, fitness and performance in later years. He identified ITB as the likely culprit and gave me some tips on where to apply pressure indirectly to relieve the pain. The best thing I did, though, was to find a pharmacy and get a €35 knee brace fitted – a big neoprene Velcro type thing with a hole for the knee and sturdy side bars to support the knee. Although the next seven days hammered that knee I never felt a thing again, except on one occasion. The moment that brace was on I became Steve Austin.
But this journey was marked less by the extreme hiking and more by overcoming the endless obstacles that presented themselves. I could cope easily with the physical and psychological demands. It was the other challenges that had to be dealt with that I found most taxing.
The most annoying of these was IT. I was reliant almost completely on my iPhone for a number of things: a) communications – very important if you are fundraising and trying to keep awareness up by posting photos on various feeds; b) check navigation – I knew the route, but use the Gaia GPS app and high res ING mapping of France to confirm exactly where I am (I also carry an old fashioned Silva compass); c) finance etc. For some reason that has now made me hate Apple, the iPhone would go into a security lock out mode and not let me back in for 5-15 mins depending on how capricious it was feeling. When it shows that screen it also displays a tab to completely erase the phone.
On the 17th of August just short of Chateau-Queyras I took the phone out of my pouch to check something and discovered it had wiped itself clean. Just like that I was rendered blind, dumb and penniless. I could communicate in a basic text way with folk back home using the Garmin Iridium InReach device I was carrying, but I was limited to the number of satellite texts I could send and receive, and it couldn’t buy me a coffee and croissant contactless.
I remember a strange feeling of liberation as my umbilicus to the world was severed and at the same time a sense of horror that cut off from and floating free in this electronic void no one can hear you scream. But, being an iPhone I had a back up in the iCloud somewhere. All I had to do was get into a wireless environment and reload my phone from factory settings. Simple? No!
I remembered a gite in Chateau-Queyras that might have WiFi. It’s a charming and very secluded hamlet with a 13th century castle. Picturesque for sure. Modern no. Connected, perhaps. The gite was shut. But, I’d glanced down an alleyway and noticed a chap tapping away at a laptop on top of some stone steps. No cables were visible so he must have been wirelessly connected. I introduced myself, explained the problem and asked if I could use their WiFi. He immediately made me take my pack off and stinking and unshaven bundled me inside to join his family for breakfast. The WiFi was fine but they were on copper wire so the download of the OS took forever.
My host’s name was Patrick Vergès – still is, actually! Madame Vergès seemed to specialize in collecting special grasses and mountain berries and turning them into jellies, jams and alcohol. Patrick’s son, an engineer in Lille, was visiting with a friend and his young daughter.
The phone eventually came back to life but as a pre-trip version of itself. I’d lost everything including photos from the start. Worse still I had loads and loads of apps on the phone all of which were struggling to download themselves. The key ones I needed were Gaia GPS, WhatsApp, email, Facebook and of course banking and wallet apps. But I couldn’t figure out how to prioritize these and the download times were agonizingly slow. My 2+ day lead was slowly eroding.
Eventually, I had to tear myself away with no apps fully installed and get going in the hope that I’d find faster WiFi in the next town, Ceillac over the next hump, the Col Fromage. I eventually got WhatsApp working. The navigation app never properly reloaded and I completed the trip relying on memory, my Silva compass and a scrap of a paper map. Here I am in Menton and still only half the apps have loaded. The security lock out feature cannot be disabled within your Apple device. It has to be completely wiped back to factory settings or disabled when new. I guess the software geeks in Palo Alto never get out into the back country with their ‘smart’ phones.
Madame Vergès packed me off with two small jam jars of alcohol with strict instructions to drink them on the beach when I arrived. Another 1kg to lug about. Sadly, and perhaps fortuitously, a couple of days later the weather changed from scorchio to life threatening thunder and lightening.
The delay at Chateau-Queyras cost me three hours. I was determined not to lose my two day lead but was on the cusp of doing so. The descent into Larche is long and very arduous. The sign at the top of the col says two hours. I made it down in one hour five minutes chased by lightening bolts, thunder and driving rain. The rocky paths turned to rivers. It was like being shelled again, counting the seconds between flashes and thunder and trying to estimate how close the strikes were while resisting the temptation to run – a sure ankle-snapper. I wondered then whether the cost of farting in church was actually a thunderbolt to the head and I was done for.
But, I wasn’t. I got into Larche in driving rain at 6pm. I was soaked to the skin and still 12km short of where I wanted and needed to be (high up against the next col) to maintain my two day lead. The mad part of me wanted to keep going. The sensible part said stop, it’s not worth it. So I stopped, made my way to to the Auberge du Lauzanier where we Fools had stayed during the 2018 trip. The young assistant said ‘no room at the inn’ but suggested a tramp down the road to somewhere. It was howling outside and once inside a structure the corrupting influence of comfort wrapped its claws around me.
Just then the madame of the place came in. I recognized her immediately and told the assistant so. She said something to madame about my previous stay. Madame went over to two Frenchmen, hikers, having a beer in the corner and came back and said that they were happy for me to use their spare room. At a stroke I was transported out of the world of cramped smelly bivvies to a private room with a bed, sheets, charging points and a stupendous meal in really good company. The only downer – guess what?, the iPhone had wiped itself again during the downhill dash. This had become a game of electronic snakes and ladders. Fortunately the WiFi was strong and by the time I tabbed out of Larche at 5am the following morning I was no further forward with my second re-load than I had been after Chateau-Queyras. I abandoned the alcohol at Larche. It had leaked everywhere. I’m surprised I hadn’t caught fire. Had a lightening bolt struck me I’d have gone up as a huge fireball – a propane gas and alcohol fire bomb.
But for the instant kindness of both the Vergès family and the French hikers in Larche, my journey would have been significantly more uncomfortable and arduous.
The decision to stop had been sound. The storm had killed five in Corsica and caused land slides along the route that may have caught me had I pushed on that night. But I was now behind and had to get to Roya at the very least just to get back on track and claw back my two day lead. That day I set off at 5am and basically didn’t stop for 18 hours until I reached the small wooden bridge below the refuge at Roya. It was grim. I put in 71km and I think over 12,000’ of ascent plus a very very tense descent into Roya on a head torch over horribly broken and steep tracks. This was the only occasion when the left knee defeated the brace.
Worse yet, I knew that the rest of the trip would be exceedingly hard. By Roya I’d approached a point where I had to decide when to make a break for the sea and empty the fuel tanks and consume all the energy I’d been conserving. I had 200km to go. It sounds a long way, but if you are biting off 60-70km chunks every 18 hours the timeframe is three days.
Boredom never ever came into the equation. Throughout the trip I was constantly doing mental time and distance calculations or figuring out where to top up with water or eat. Every moment was consumed with strategising this thing and looking for ways to get ahead and lighten the load. I’d abandoned some gear at Larche and planned to ditch more at St.Dalmas, the point north of Nice at which the GR52 branches from the GR5. The solar panel and extra gas canister could go there.
I don’t want to talk too much about kit and gear as it’s a bit geeky and only of interest if you are into this stuff. But, I have to talk about the footwear. I had decided, based on good reviews to ditch the usual clumpy hiking boot and go with a lightweight job made by Innov8. Called a Rocklite GTX its USP is a graphene sole that is lightweight and grippy. A pound off your feet is the equivalent of five off your back, so the adage goes. The problem with them is sizing. All the online chatter says you must buy them one size larger than your regular hiking boot. I’d bought a pair a few years back half a size larger and my toes had touched the front going downhill. So for this trip I went a whole size larger. They fitted well with plenty of forefoot room. But with the slightly larger size came a slight left heel rub issue, which resulted in a blister that had to be managed carefully. And it was. But as the trip progressed and these booties took a massive hammering they began to deform when wet. So the laces had to be tightened even more. These were as thin as cheeswire and eventually abraided the top of my right foot, despite plasters and care. In all other respects they were superb: they made light work of those horrible tabs along Tarmac imposed by diversions; they gripped exceedingly well on wet rock; they weigh almost nothing…but, they really weren’t up to an alpine hammering. They started to slowly fall apart. In the wet they became slipper-like, and were not good at protecting the feet from the impact of the stones below. A great day boot for the Lake District, but not for anything this extreme.
After Roya I had to put in another pretty arduous day to get to St. Dalmas and launch into the Mercantour nationl park on the GR52. I think I covered about 66km in about 15 hours. But, I got to where I needed to be to preserve the two day lead. I even found a convenient place to bivvie right next to the GR52. I sorted out all the kit I’d leave for some lucky traveller to find.
In 2019 I’d pushed through the Mercantour to Menton in three days arriving at ten to nine in the evening of the third day. But, the terrain is just too arduous and dangerous to either risk night marches or to really claw back any time over the distance. It is almost devoid of paths in the middle bit. Ascents and descents to and from passes are not quite but close to vertical. One hops from boulder to boulder. It’s precarious and dangerous and the risk of lower limb injury very real. That said, the approach into the region from St. Dalmas to Le Borèon is pretty fast, standard and straightforward. In 2019 I’d stopped short of the pass and camped at Lake Trecolpas short of the Pas des Ladres. This time I was determined to get ahead and get over that pass and knock it off. It was psychologically important to do that and claw back that geography and time.
As I’d left St. Dalmas and was crunching uphill a strong hiker came level. We chatted. He was also on the same journey, St. Gingolph to Menton, hoping to do it in 21 days. As we exchanged info I could see the surprise in his eyes when I said that I was on day 14. I asked him where he’s was going to camp – Lake Trecolpas. And then he left me for dust. At six that evening I got to the lake. Another storm and hailstones. Of the three tents there one was his. I pushed on in bad weather, got over the pass and three hours later had negotiated another horrendous descent in the gloom to a refuge called La Madone de Fensetre. I never saw that guy again. All it takes to get ahead is go further get up early and you never see them again – a validation of the go slow, go long and go further strategy.
By 5am I was on the trail, on a head torch and ascending the first of two very arduous passes. I felt pretty strong and decided that if I made good time over these two and the boulder fields and reached the Valley de Merveilles (a place of ancient Neolithic rock carvings), I’d break for the coast and empty the fuel tanks in an overnight tab and not stop at a place called Camp d’Argent as I had in 2019. Just jump right through it. With a tactic like this going too early you risk blowing up. Going too late and you don’t make the best of emptying the fuel tanks. It’s all in the timing. I sensed that morning this was the time to go.
And that was, in the end, the right call. I covered the last 103kms in 35 hours of solid walking. I got through the Mercantour and out via Devil’s Pass (aptly named) by 6pm and continued down for three hours to Camp d’Argent where I’d arrived at midnight in 2019 and got my head down. This time I arrived three hours earlier and pushed on on a head torch towards Sospel. What happened that night and the following day would determine how many hours plus of my two day lead I’d have when I got to Menton.
I’d slowly been chomping through my rations over that day, stopping to eat the last freeze dried chicken tikka masala and then at midnight the last of my noodles. I was trying to time it to get to the start of a terrible descent into Sospel (three hours of treacherous slipping and sliding) at dawn. A head torch wouldn’t do it. So I stopped on top of Mount Mangiabo, got into my sleeping bag, and took a 40 minute snooze, careful to set the alarm for 4am.
A night tab sounds terrifying and difficult, but it has it’s benefits. And really it isn’t that bad. Your navigation has to be spot on which takes concentration. In fact the logic of early morning starts is inescapable: wonderful solitude; no other humans; stillness; and you cover more distance during these chilly and cooler hours before the sun starts to batter you into the ground. On this night move I was rewarded with a cooling breeze and great views of the coastline lit up. To my right I could see Nice and the crescent of the Promenade des Anglais and the aircraft landing and taking off from its airport. Above me the sky was clear, stars bright and Milky Way clearly visible.
The halt on Mangiabo had a downside. It was quite hard to get going again at 4am. I was freezing. But better that than begin the descent into Sospel on a head torch. FYI – on the GR5/52 several descents are real tests of nerve and are extremely long and arduous: in the Savoie the descent from the Brevant above Chamonix to Les Houches (some say this 2,000m descent is the worst); still in the Savoie just, the descent down to Modane; in the south the descent from the Longon valley to St. Saveur sur Tinée is murderous; and finally the descents into Sospel and Menton are positively lethal, made so by a loose surface of fine dust, small stones, pine cones and other natural debris that render otherwise rocky paths into slipways worthy of the Cresta Run. I had three ‘uncontrolled descents’ on the way down to Sospel. The town never seemed to grow or get nearer. Descending is always so much harder, more painful and more nerve-wracking than tramping uphill.
But, it does end. By nine a.m. I was down and feasting on bananas, oranges, pastries and had bought three liters of water to carry and three to re-hydrate with. The heat was already oppressive and I knew there was yet to be much climbing with little shade. I also bought a large slab of cheese to chomp through. Instant energy.
I did a foot inspection. Part of the ritual when stopping, even if it’s to make a cup of tea, is to get the boots and socks off and inner soles out to cool off, dry out and get some UV on the feet. The blister on my left foot that I’d managed throughout was fine. On the top of my right foot I was a little concerned where the thin wire-like laces had raked through my skin. Inevitably on a night move the grass gets dewy, boots get sodden, laces need tightening and that cycle causes abrasions. I cleaned up the sores and dressed them with new fabric plasters.
At 9.30am on my 16th day I headed out of Sospel to Menton. Again, yet more climbing was involved. At least three cols, some of it, mercifully, was in thick woods that shaded me from the worst of the solar hammer. Even so, I could feel the humidity and heat, dreading the second half which offered no protection.
They reckon about some six hours from Sospel to Menton. I was feeling strong and was going fast and felt I could do it in four-and-half to five. But, that was a pipe dream. The sun was the most intense I’d experienced on the trip. Out in the open I was easy prey and slowed a bit.
I had one ritual to perform that would also gobble some time. On our Fools trip in 2018 we came across a place in the woods which offered weary travelers a chance to help themselves to water, juices or even beer. It was quite random. It had a visitors’ book and a voluntary contribution box. On that occasion we’d all helped ourselves, signed the visitors’ book and left no money. In 2019 I met the owner Christine and although I only had a glass of juice left €20 in the kitty to make up for the previous year. This time she wasn’t there but her partner was. Again, I helped myself to grenadine and water, signed the book and left €20. She provides such a great service at the right spot and expects so little.
After that I staggered up the last climb battered by the sun to Berceau, the pass from which one looks down on Menton far below. All that stood between me and it was a broiling hot afternoon death slide. I paused for twenty minutes in the shade of the pine trees, not really looking forward to what was to come but looking forward to finishing this thing. My former 2REP (2ème Regiment Etranger de Parachutistes – the elite of the French Foreign Legion) friend Michel who lives in Cannes would be there to meet me.
So, I set off. I’d barely gone fifty meters before I had my first fall. I had another three. All painful and bruising. It slows you down, exposes you to more radiation, which in turn dehydrates you further. No shade at all. I briefly fell in with a chap on his 21st day. He’d suffered weight issues and had found himself on the GR5. I was pleased for him. But I had to stop to hydrate so we parted company. I could feel the very beginnings of heat stress and there was no shade to be had. Hour after hour I twisted and turned through this cauldron (that day it was 35 in the shade in Menton). Each time I started to sway or stagger I’d take some more water. I began to wonder if the price of farting in church might be heatstroke and collapse.
I also passed a lot of migrant debris. Clothes, shoes, anoraks, empty water bottles. The migrants go up these trails and play hide and seek with the French authorities. But, they’re just homeless people, displaced from places like Syria and other hell holes looking for a better life. The detritus of their abandoned gear litters the approach to Menton.
Eventually, after a long time my feet hit tarmac. The beach was still a long way downhill – twisty turny through steep-sided suburbs. I had a raging thirst. The last of my three liters gone. I knew I was in trouble.
Most of the smart houses high up in Menton are gated. You can’t just knock on the front door and ask for some water. But, at one I glimpsed a completely naked elderly gentleman pottering about clutching a towel. I shouted to get his attention and bemused he came over wrapping the towel round him. I begged him for some water, talking through the security gate. He was thrilled that I was British and launched into a long tale of how he’d known Winston Churchill during the Second World War and General Franco during the 1930s. And I’m politely nodding and saying how interesting it all was but internally thinking give me some effing water. Eventually he opened the gate and said he’d go to the kitchen for a glass. I said no, pointed at the hose pipe and and told him to turn it on. I doused my head, hat, shoulders, and drank like a horse from the pipe until I couldn’t drink any more.
He wanted to talk more about Churchill, but I was on a clock and time was slipping away. It was already half-past-four and I had a way to go down through Menton. I bade him farewell. Without him I may well have collapsed. He probably saved the trip – the naked old man who’d known Churchill. Five minutes later I had a raging thirst again. The heat was oppressive and route badly signed in Menton. Once or twice I took a wrong turn and had to backtrack adding to the agony.
But, nothing is forever. The steep steps and streets gave way to the beachside promenade. I tabbed along it, past port control and a harbour full of yachts to the small beach that marks the end in Paddy Dillon’s guide to the GR5/52. It was thirteen minutes past five in the afternoon. I stopped the clock then. I’d completed the GTA in 15 days, 17 hours and 13 minutes – 2 days, 3 hours and 37 minutes faster than in 2019. I’d held onto my two day lead by my fingertips. But for the kindness of strangers, the outcome might have been different.
Michel was waiting in a cafe and came to join me with his young daughter and son. I took my boots off and did the feet in the sea pic. Michel said something strange, ‘Why is the finish on a small beach reserved for dogs?’ Some people were swimming there, and some dogs. I gave it no more thought. I needed water. I threw the boots and knee brace into a nearby bin. The brace had served me well. The boots had been light. But they’d also caused me unforeseen problems. I wasn’t sad to throw them away. I had a raging thirst. The last push had been 103kms and over 16,000’ of ascent in 35 hours. That’s what it took to preserve that two day lead.
Rather than mix these in with the narrative I’ve added some points of interest below.
I had no idea I’d be doing this in the hottest part of the hottest summer on record. The heat had a profound effect on performance and results. I had to carry more water than I had budgeted for for two reasons: greater consumption and greater scarcity (see the paragraph on the environment below). Water is more important than food. It is also heavy to carry. I made sure I had at least two litres on board and stopped whenever the opportunity arose to drink from natural sources using a Sawyer filter equipped with a straw.
Keeping cool was an entirely different matter, particularly on legs where there was no shade. The most effective solution I found, which worked well, was, where possible, to soak my shirt, shorts and hat in river or lake water and wear them dripping wet without wringing them out. The evaporation effect was good for several hours and kept my body cool even in oven-like temperatures.
The problem on the last day was compounded by a complete lack of water with which to exploit the evaporation effect. Heat stress was the inevitable result, even though I’d drunk three litres of water in Sospel and had three on board.
But, it wasn’t all sunshine. I’ve never done the GTA and not donned my waterproof jacket on so many occasions: thunderstorms, hailstorms, driving rain, cold and biting wind – a true four seasons trip.
In 2019 I had an okayish medical pack. But, halfway through I acquired the most terrible gastroenteritis either from drinking contaminated mountain water or from poorly prepared food. I had nothing with which to deal with it and because of a lack of sterility in the field never broke the contamination cycle. I learned my lesson. This time round I had powerful full spectrum antibiotics: Azithromycin in the first instance for three days and if that didn’t nail it, Metronidazole. I was also fastidious with water hygiene and wouldn’t drink it unless it was either bottled, the source declared safe (eau potable), or boiled, filtered or treated with chlorine tablets. I was fine throughout and never had to touch these drugs.
I also had a plentiful supply of NSAIDs – Ibuprofen 400mg which kept the worst inflammation at bay and codine-paracetamol based painkillers if the knee got too bad. After I bought the brace I never had to take a painkiller again.
The other thing I had to consider was how to keep recycling two pairs of socks and ensure I had a clean pair on each day. The solution was simple. Had an onboard washing machine. A Ziplock bag with water, some detergent and the dirty pair of socks sat at the top of my rucksack on a long cold cycle. As soon as I found some water to rinse them through with I did. A quick squeeze and whirl round my head served as the final spin before they were hung off the pack to dry. Ninety percent of the time that worked well and I wore clean socks every day.
Had I gazed into a crystal ball and seen what would happen at the end I’d also have had a third antibiotic packed away – Amoxicillin (read on to find out why).
My final word on medical kits is think very carefully about plasters and particularly blister plasters. Look after your feet and they will look after you. I didn’t take enough, but was able to buy Compede blister plasters along the way.
Nothing brought home to me the servitude we are locked into in the digital age than the wiping of my phone. If your smartphone is wiped clean unexpectedly the shock is quite profound as you contemplate all the apps and features you rely on to navigate modern life. Stripped of them your umbilicus to the virtual mothership is severed and you drift around the analogue void where no one can hear you scream.
So, don’t be totally reliant on tech. Or have revisionary modes up your sleeve. Fortunately I took hard copies of my debit and credit card. I had a Garmin GPSMap66i InReach Iridium satellite communicator which in extremis kept me in touch with some folk and in dire circumstances allows me to SOS the global HQ in New York.
I also had my old analogue Silva compass tucked away and had acquired a paper map of the Mercantour just in case I got lost. Which I never did.
If I replace this five-year-old iPhone with a new one then I’ll insist that the security lock feature is disabled before the OS is installed.
I have had an amazing trip over familiar territory. But, it was also tinged with great sadness and, frankly, alarm. I have been shocked throughout by the very visible effect of climate change on the alpine environment. Most of the rivers I remember from 2018 and 2019 are dry husks. Every gem of a mountain lake has either disappeared or shrunk to two thirds its size, no longer blue and sparkling but green and tepid.
The retreat of the glaciers has caused massive instability in the mountains. During my trip two French female climbers were killed in the Mont Blanc area by rockfall. Guides to Mont Blanc are now finding the instability too dangerous to take clients up the mountain. Glaciologists estimate that if we have another few summers like this Europe will lose its glaciers and and Mont Blanc its permanent cap.
On the route down towards a place called Landry, which follows the course of a river towards a refuge one turns into a gentle downhill slope towards the refuge. The path is flanked by a vast field of beautiful waist-high purple flowers. I’d been looking forward to that on day five. But no –they’d been burned to a crisp by the sun and starved of water. Valley of death.
And on and on this went, villages whose public fountains always offered water were bone dry. The consequences on biodiversity if the Alps dry up are too horrible to contemplate.
And all this is the consequence of human activity.
Kindness of Strangers
On a more positive note, above all I’ll remember this trip for the kindness of strangers.
On day 14 I was struggling somewhat. I’d put in a 68km day crossing the Vanoise national park from Landry to Pralognan. My knee had really hurt. One is forbidden from camping in the Vanoise so I was under pressure to get to somewhere to camp. The following day I left Pralognan and had a fairly miserable morning slowly and painfully making my way up to the Col de Chavière – the highest on the route. Rain made it worse. At the top of the col I did what all old soldiers do to cheer up – I got a brew on, took a rest and ate some Kendal Mint Cake. I rested for half an hour.
Presently two French lads, Joe and Thibault, crested the col and we had a brief chat. They began the descent to Modane (one of the horrors) before me but for some reason my knee had cleared up and I caught them up. For the next three hours we travelled together and by the time we’d reached Modane we’d bonded enough to go for a meal. We were the three amigos. They were fascinated by the charity aspect of my trip and insisted they paid for my meal. Their journey was over and they were catching trains out the next day. We found a campsite and before settling down one insisted on a selfie of the three of us. He said, ‘These trips are not about what you see or do or where you go. They are about who you meet.’
Whether the help was solicited or accidental I have been encouraged by the kindness of strangers, whether it’s Monsieur and Madame Vergès in Chateau-Queyras sharing their WiFi and breakfast with a scruffy and smelly stranger, or the the owner of the gite in Larche ensuring I wasn’t turfed back out into the storm, or Churchill’s naked best buddy hosing me down with water and saving the day.
These are the people I’ll remember.
I can’t pretend to have ever been homeless, even on this trip. But I was reminded over a fortnight how quickly our dignity degrades.
As the days progressed everything I owned or got into started to acquire that sour pong of body odour – sleeping bag, jackets, even the rucksack smelled of stale sweat. You live in a bubble of filth. But you know it’s temporary.
For homeless veterans and homeless people in general this state of being is a downward spiral of indignity. Veterans Aid talk about giving former service people back their dignity as much as they do about getting them off the streets. This is a key component of their work and has been for 90 years.
I couldn’t follow every donation or thank people individually, but before my first IT meltdown I noticed that a donor had give £100 and left a message that VA had helped him when in trouble. This alone made all this effort and sacrifice worthwhile.
A huge thank you to all the donors to this cause.
Aftermath – There’s a sting in this tale
Despite the arduous nature of the tab and sleep deprivation for the last 35 hours, I was in better shape at the end than in 2019, despite being three years older and in my 60th year…except for one thing.
The following day my right foot had swollen and gone red. It looked like the small abrasions caused by the laces had become infected, probably in the water on that beach. I was up at the St. Michael campsite, where I’d stayed for 10 days in 2019. I hobbled down to town and found the same pharmacy that had sorted out my gastroenteritis three years previously.
The French pharmaceutical system is impressive. Most pharmacists have PhDs and can diagnose and offer good treatment. In this instance the pharmacist’s name was Max and he spoke good English. He told me I had a bacterial infection that if not treated with antibiotics could lead to sepsis. He couldn’t sell me the antibiotics without a prescription and very correctly warned me that the antibiotics I had would a) not deal with a skin infection and b) cause me more harm, ‘Do not take Azithromycin or Metronidazole for this, you need Amoxicillin.’
He gave me the address of a local doctor. I hobbled round the corner only to find that the surgery was shut on a Wednesday. I’d have to wait a day. The following morning the foot had doubled in size was hot and red. Michel came to pick me up and take me to the doctor. We made an appointment at 11am. Dr. Fervier was excellent. He spoke some English. Michel did the interpreting. The problem with the right foot’s swelling was that it was impossible to determine how much of the swelling was due to injury from a sprained big toe, damaged tendons from repeated pronations or the infection.
To be on the safe side he prescribed a 8 day course of Amoxicillin (1g thrice daily) and Clavulanic acid (62.5mg thrice daily). He asked when I’d last had a tetanus jab. I replied not since 2004. So he prescribed one of those and dressings for the foot. Pretty good service for €50!
Back we went to Max to buy the gear. ‘Here’s your Revaxis’, he said taking a box of pre-loaded tetanus vaccine out if tge fridge and popping it into the bag.
I’d kind of assumed he’d be administering it and said, ‘Can’t you give it to me?’ He replied that he could only sell it but not administer it as he wasn’t trained or insured or whatever to do so. He said that I’d have to take it away. ‘Put it in your fridge in your hotel room and book an appointment with the doctor to administer it,’ he said.
You’ve got to be kidding me! There had to be a simpler solution than banging in doors again. There was.
‘Listen Max. This is a pre-filled IM vaccine right?’
‘Yes, deltoid or thigh.’
I said, ‘Fine, I’m a NHS Senior Healthcare Assistant Covid-19 vaccinator with the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust. I’ve administered thousands and thousands of IM inoculations – Astra Zeneca, Pfizer and Moderna including paediatric doses. Do you have any objection to me self-administering?’
He was a bit surprised but said he had no objections at all. So the vaccine went back into his fridge and Michel and I went to lunch. A few hours later we returned and Max let us use his back room for privacy.
The sealed pack had a preloaded syringe and two needles to choose from, a short and a much longer one. I selected the latter. I had my own sealed pack of Nitrile gloves and was mindful to ensure I observed the aseptic non-touch technique that is drummed into you. One infection was enough thanks. The pre-loaded syringe has an air bubble in it like the flu jab. It’s very important not to expel it as its function is to act as a stop, fill the needle’s dead volume and prevent the vaccine coming back out. I checked that there was actually a dose in the syringe and that it was 0.5ml as stated, had no impurities in it, and put on the longer needle, removed the sheath and stuck it into my left lower deltoid as Max held my sleeve up and slowly depressed the plunger. Max had a yellow sharps bin ready and in went the used syringe and unused needle. I made a note of the date, batch number and run out date of the vaccine for my own records and thanked Max for all his help.
This story started as a tale of from ‘jabbing to tabbing’. I would never have predicted that it would have ended with jabbing again quite so quickly.
Endnote: If you have got this far and finished this story you’ve clearly found it of some value or entertainment. If that’s the case and you haven’t already, I’d be grateful if you’d consider making as generous a donation as you can to Veterans Aid now.
If you are a veteran yourself and got this far or are one of the many veterans who have applauded this enterprise and praised its physical aspects on social media, I would be very surprised if you didn’t make a contribution. We have to look after our own. Many thanks.