Landry to Val d’Isère – D11 & D12

Landry to Refuge d’Entre Le Lac – D11

Keep talking, sir! We’ll find you.

There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep to repair and recharge the body. After the grim experience of our previous lodging, the Hotel Alpin in Landry was positively luxurious in that IBIS minimalist sort of way. More of a businessman’s hotel that had transported itself into the heart of the Alps. There was still enough heat in the late afternoon sun to dry off clothes, which we washed by hand immediately on arrival.

‘And the prisoner ate a hearty breakfast!’ I think Richard was a little amazed at the quantities of ham and cheese I was shovelling down my gullet at breakfast. Somehow I’d poisoned myself with a coffee at the Refuge de Balme after our conquest of the Col de Bresson the previous day. Richard thinks it was the milk.

Within minutes of starting off down towards Landry a pain gripped my lower bowel and I blew up to four months pregnant. I was in agony. It felt a little like that scene from Alien. I had a monster moving around in my gut. And it hurt. A lot. It had to come out.

Unfortunately, we were tabbing down a bare-arsed road in the middle of a glaciated valley with almost no cover. Way off in the distance and considerably further below I spotted a small wood close to the track. Each step towards it was agony. I thought I’d explode and out would pop a creature that would attack Richard.

I appraised Richard of the operation that was about to take part. He stood guard a discrete distance down the road. Those of you who have heard an A10 Warthog fire its 30mm cannon in a couple of long raking bursts will appreciate the acoustics. (For those of you who are truly mystified by all this Warthog stuff, check it out on YouTube – the first 30 seconds will give you a good feel for what’s involved).

‘Successful operation?’ He asked.

He must have heard the long raking burst. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed to me. Nothing new to him I guess. He’d already served up his tales of attending rectal clinics, which rather drove him into orthopaedic surgery.

In that moment I was reminded how quick-witted soldiers were and can be. I don’t know what it’s like in other regiments but in the Parachute Regiment they were super sharp and quick. Officers were always fair game for ribbing. Any excuse and the blokes would be on to you like a pack of wild dogs in that sub-insolent way that they honed to perfection. On operations or on exercise whenever someone let rip (and soldiers don’t hold back or try to stifle their flatulence – they kind of compete for acoustic superiority – volume trumps melody with them), someone quick as a flash would shout out in mock concern, ‘Keep talking, sir! We’ll find you.’

I was half cured. But the pain was already returning and my belly was swelling up again. Richard came up with the four months pregnant phrase. So, after ten minutes the pain was again so acute I had to repeat the performance. Two more strafing runs by the Warthog must have alarmed everyone the valley.

The moral of this sad story is don’t drink coffee with milk at refuges.

I only mention this sorry tale to explain why I failed to eat anything that night in Landry. Richard’s burger and chips looked and smelled fantastic. I just couldn’t risk it. But this morning, the prisoner ate heartily.

And then we set off south out of Landry. Fortunately, it was an easier day. According to Dillon it was supposed to be a reasonably gentle ascent of 1379m over 18km, best illustrated by the graphics from Hiking The GR5 by Cicerone:

After the previous day’s death march we needed something shorter and more sedate. And we got it. We trudged rather sedately up through a luscious pine forest buzzing with insects that sparkled in the filtered sunlight. It was slightly humid and sweat was pouring off me. I was losing quite a lot of water.

After a couple of hours we came into a small hamlet where kids were getting donkey driving instruction. Virtually every village or hamlet we’d passed through had a granite trough with fresh potable water pouring from a spout. This one was particularly pretty, garlanded with bright flowers – chocolate box. I’d got into the habit of carrying a collapsible cup for drinking on the hoof – not from rivers (you’re best advised to filter from those) but from these communal troughs.

Water and rehydration has become a big issue with us. On yesterday’s grind in the sun I flagged quite considerably at one point. Everything ached, particularly soles. And then just before I keeled over I said to Richard, ‘Stop. I have to drink right now!’ And I squirted a litre of water straight down my throat in less that 30 seconds. Within moments I was fully recharged.

Richard’s amazed at this and wants me to leave my body for his younger colleagues to carve up. I’m not quite ready for that.

‘I have never seen the effects of re-hydration work so fast in anyone. It’s like you’ve just taken on a fresh load of Kryptonite!’

He’s right in a way. For some odd reason I don’t feel thirst in the same way others do. So I can tab along for ages and suddenly find myself in quite a dangerous place if I don’t take on water quickly.

Richard was so fascinated by this that he was doing some research at breakfast on his iPad (he’s schlepping one of those – a big one – in addition to his laptop).

‘The average 70kg male is composed of 60% water. Females are composed of 50% water. That means that a normally hydrated 70kg male [does such a creature exist anymore?] is composed of approximately 40 litres of water, inside and outside the cells. The thirst sensation kicks in when 2%-3% of this water is lost.’

So, that would be between 0.8 and 1.2 litres. That’s not much! But I don’t really get the thirst sensation, so my water det gets dangerously low. And then I guzzle it down and surge on.

The ultra runners and ultra mountain marathon types, the sort of lunatics that do the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc with their lightweight everything, have the water intake thing totally nailed. They have these combat vests with their hydration packs (water bottles to you and me) on their chests or backs and little tubes from which they sip. They don’t guzzle. Their performance monitors are set to beep at annoyingly regular intervals to remind them to take a sip. Beep – sip. Beep – sip. Beep – sip. I get the logic of this – totally. Hydrate as you go along. But holy crap! Who wants a hiking companion who’s sole conversation is beep – sip, beep – sip, beep – sip all day long? There’d be murder in the mountains pretty quickly.

In fact, Richard told me he’d been asked on his IML course, ‘Villar, how do you know which is the back of the rock?’ He hadn’t known the correct answer. ‘It’s the side where you find the toilet paper’. Well, in my world the back of a rock is the place from where you hear a beep every ten or fifteen minutes coming from the performance monitor on the wrist bone of a skeleton wearing Salomon trail shoes and a chest vest of hydration packs. Beep. Beep. Beep.

The hike uphill was on a much more manageable gradient. A long, slow steady plod up a valley with spectacular waterfalls on the other side. Although the path was narrow, rocky and winding, being the holidays it was rammed with families making their way up or down, some on donkeys. It was interesting to see how frequently whole families were out trekking and doing their thing. You wouldn’t see sullen English teenagers being dragged around the Lake District with such willingness. There seems to be less of an obesity problem in France. They’re very sporty.

At one point two guides and a donkey came down the track laden with empty beer kegs. We were obviously heading in the right direction.

Presently the path broke out of the trees, turned right and bore on up a perfectly glaciated valley the bottom of which shimmered emerald green and through which snaked a shallow clear trout-bearing river.

Chapeau!’, we cheered as we saw a fisherman land one about the size of a cigarette lighter. We were trying out our new found word. At the Royston Vasey refuge we’d been told by three French women that ‘chapeau’ is an even higher accolade than ‘bravo’, reserved for exceptional achievements. So we tried it out, fearing we’d been stitched up and it was really some hideous insult. But, it turned out to be true, though not the kind of thing you say to someone who has landed the smallest trout in the world. The angler saw the irony in it, though, and laughed out loud.

Eventually, we climbed up to the head of this valley in which sat an extraordinarily beautiful glaciated lake, or tarn as we’d call it in England. At the far end of the lake was our refuge, a long wooden hut with a couple of outhouses. As we got closer we could see it was packed with day trippers readying themselves for the hike back down the track. It was clearly a popular spot.

We were to be a full bunkhouse that night – kids, parents, other hikers. Yet more pitched tents. In a vast outdoor wood-fired cauldron one of the staff stirred huge chunks of beef into which he poured several litres of red wine and a scores of onions.

Vegetarians and Vegans look away now!

The building was divided into a sleeping block – rudimentary bunks – 20 in total, sleeping 40, and an eating area. All pretty basic and ‘cosy’.

The refuge was reasonably self-contained – a vegetable garden, geese, chickens, donkeys and two horned milking cows that chased each other around their enclosure. We were also in Marmott Central, surrounded by these shrieking outsized guinnea pigs, which the children tried to chase down. They’re creatures that hang around rocks and dive into burrows. They’re not exactly tame, but not too fearful either.

The local beer, schlepped up by the donkeys was excellent, as was the three course meal that the refuge staff served up in this really remote location. As always, it seems in France, it consisted of three courses: a mysterious soup with a hunk of cheese followed by amazing boeuf bourguignon and rice with fromage frais, direct from the cows outside. Good enough for us.

The diners on our table, all French, were intrigued by our long walk and asked enough questions to completely exhaust Richard’s French lexicon and fry his neural networks. I’ve been there before in Bosnia and Russia (try explaining Brexit in Russian!) and was happy to pretend not to speak French. Le stylo de mon oncle est sur le table and le chat est sur la chaise is about it, with the exception of the ubiquitous bon jour and, of course, chapeau!

Sleeping was fairly nightmarish: men symphony-snoring, the sound of cracking ice every time someone on a top bunk stirred and several blood-curdling screams from the younger children as they were chased around their nightmares by monsters. Too much cheese. I really envied those in their tents outside.

But, what a day – loaded with great views, interesting people, perfect weather and a stunning remote location that one can only describe as enchanting. The enchanted lake.

Refuge d’Entre Le Lac to Val d’Isere via Tignes – D12

What a treat for breakfast – fresh milk straight from the udder and fromage frais not quite from the udder but not far off that.

With some reluctance to leave the lake we set off slightly earlier than usual for the ascent to Col du Palet (2,653m), the highest point so far. The climb wasn’t particularly arduous. I passed a couple coming the other way. They were followed by an inquisitive donkey. ‘Bon jour’, I said. ‘Bon jour’, they replied. They looked slightly English in attire – no fancy hiking gear, just good solid clothing and boots. No beep – sip. A minute later I heard Richard roar out. I assumed he’d been attacked or fallen. I swung round only to discover that he’d bumped into Geoffrey Grimmett and his French wife, Rosine.

Geoffrey is our next leg’s hiking companion, with whom we were meant to meet up in Val d’Isère for Hell Week. And here they were, hiking in the opposite direction to us. What a reunion!

What a coincidence! Or was it? Geoffrey knew our route and itinerary. He and Rosine had spent the night at the Refuge du Palet, just short of the Col du Palet. Was this a little pre-Hell Week practice being slipped in, or was this a deliberately engineered rendez-vous? They were hiking down to the enchanted lake and on to Landry to pick up their car and drive back round to Val d’Isère. Geoffrey, by the way, is the outgoing Master of Downing College at Cambridge, and a mathematician of some considerable brilliance.

We pushed on to the Refuge du Palet where we took on water while a girl played on a swing, which hung from the eves of the cabin. A swing with the best view in the world, or so Lego Tatiana thought.

The route can best be seen from Paddy Dillon’s graphics in Hiking The GR5 by Cicerone:

As we crossed the Col du Palet we suddenly re-acquired 4G four bars. Twenty-four hours of communications flooded in. So we took time out to deal with all this electronic pollution and do the social media thing. Not a bad place to take time out in the sun.

The route down to Tignes Le Lac was reasonably gentle and steady. It was clear from the ironmongery in the hills that we were entering a fairly serious skiing Mecca. And quite suddenly and unexpectedly the ground steepened and Tignes Le Lac came into full view way below us. It was a dramatic moment, but in a way a strange one. There stood this Mecca to enjoyment that looked totally out of place in the mountains. A scar, almost.

And suddenly Tignes comes into view.

The GR5 takes your directly into Tignes and around the lake. A perfect place to stop for a coffee and sink into comfy arm chairs while Richard the writer made notes. By the way, his book about this trip will be awesome. He’s already written one about travelling through Chile and Bolivia, Never A Straight Line. Plug his name into Amazon – Richard Villar.

I know what you’re thinking. And yes, you are right. I’m getting my crawling in now in the hope I’ll be favourably looked upon in his GR5 account.

Normally we don’t eat during the day. Water only. But here, beside this lake, we were gripped by a desire for some chips. There was a BBQ going on the terrace and the smell of chips was enticing.

‘Could we have two bowls of chips, please?’ Richard asked the waitress.

‘Our chips don’t come in bowls, but we can bring you a bag of chips if you like.’

‘Ah, no. Not crisps. I meant French fries!’

‘Non. That is not possible.’ She replied flatly. And that was it. No bloody chips for us.

‘That’s the difference, Richard. If this was America here’s what we’d have heard: I’m afraid we don’t do French fries on their own, sir. But we can make that happen for you. How would you like them? Soft or crispy? Would that be with ketchup or mayo, sir, or both? But here in France, it’s Non!

It was time to get out of Dodge. So we paid the bill, saddled up and hiked round the lake, through a building site and on up the hill which bore right into the Val d’Isère valley, where we came into very close contact with marmotts.

Ambush left! Marmotts – fauzands of ’em!

It’s almost as though they were lying in ambush. I was the spotter. Richard the sniper because he had the better camera. So, he’d creep up on them to get the best shot he could, providing me with interesting pictures of him stalking marmotts on the commanding high ground that covered the track. Just as well for us that they weren’t armed or we’d never have got to Val d’Isère, where we eventually met up with Geoffrey and Rosine for coffee and a reasonably gargantuan meal of pork chops in the evening, and chips (not in a bag)!

The descent into Val d’Isère, the other Mecca of skiing, took us across open ground past ruined bothies and into lush woods and grazing horses.

Val d’Isère – admin day – D13

Rosine has kindly agreed to backload any unwanted gear to Cambridge in her car. I’ve been quite ruthless in getting rid of all ironmongery – crampons (unused), carabiners (unused), synthetic clothing (now replaced with Merino wool garments – I am a convert and Zelot), and superfluous bits and bobs that all add to weight in a micro way.

I reckon I’ve now shed 2-2.5kgs and freed up some volume. Short of junking the Jetboil, which would remove another 1kg including spare gas, I really can’t think of much more to take out. But, Thermos Anxiety is high in me and I’m not ready yet for that humiliation. I’d much prefer to retain the ability to brew up on a stove or cook up some noodles in an emergency. You never know when that option might be vital.

Tomorrow we start Hell Week, as we’ve been calling it. So far, Phase 1 was six days, then a rest day in Les Houches, followed by a five day Phase 2 that has taken us to here. Tomorrow we start a seven day Phase 3 that takes us 168kms downrange to Briançon and involves over 8,000m (27,000’) of ascent. The sequential distances are: 25km, 30km, 31km, 21km, 13km, 21km and 27km. Of course, it all depends on the going. Let’s see how the three of us get on.

Stay tuned!

Vital Statistics:

Landry to Refuge d’Entre Le Lac:

Refuge d’Entre Le Lac to Val d’Isère: