Plampinet to Briançon – D20 (FW D7)

Fun Week Day 7 – Plampinet to Briançon

Plampinet offers two gîtes to stay in. We were booked into the Gîte Auberge de Cleida, which has some sort of connection to the 14th Alpine Hunter Regiment. I got the impression it had been a kind of officers’ mess or their hunting lodge. It had also featured as part of the set of Belle et Sébastien the French drama set in during the Second World War in which an orphaned boy and a great big shaggy dog help resistance fighters to run circles around the Germans. I vaguely remember the series as a child.

The dining room also doubled as a restaurant for locals so hikers were all put onto one long table. This was no bad thing for us because, yet again, we were able to chat with the Australian family, two of whom had been on the GR5 since the Hook of Holland, where they’d bought the cheapest bicycles they could find one Sunday to cover the first 1,000kms – quite right! Who want’s to walk on the flat? It’s boring! Topics of conversation: Australia’s new prime minister; hiking; writing; hiking; Five Eyes intelligence sharing; hiking; Brexit; hiking; Russia and its New Physics weapons; and hiking.

We had one more day to push to Briançon. The choice was: either a twenty minute taxi ride down the road or a six hour hike over the hump of two cols and down into Briançon taking the scenic route. Obviously, we opted for the second option, which is nicely illustrated by Paddy Dillon in Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone:

From the front gate of the Auberge the route immediately starts to ascend in a series of steep switch-backs that drew us right around the shoulder dominating Plampinet and up a riverine re-entrant climbing steadily all the way to some chalets at which the track crossed the river (coloured cool crème de menthe in places), dived into thick pine forest and ascended very steeply until it burst out of the tree line into a spectacular open valley, lush and green at the bottom but dominated by amazingly steep scree slopes and a jagged escarpment on the right. The valley led up to the first of two cols, the Col de Dormilouse (2445m) and beyond that a little further on to the higher Cold de la Lauze (2529m).

The entire climb from Plampinet to the Col de la Lauze was 10.5km and 1,047m of ascent. I was quite interested, as we were approaching the end of our third week, to put on a little spurt and see how my hiking fitness had come on. A steady uphill climb for over 10kms with no opportunity to run to increase one’s hourly distance average seemed like a reasonable test. So, I pulled away gradually from Richard and Geoffrey and maintained a steady 4kmh per hour for 10.5km uphill. I wouldn’t have been able to do that two weeks previously.

The human body is a remarkably adaptable machine. Not only is it capable of rapid self-repair given sleep and the right nutrients, but it doesn’t take much to re-engineer it with a little persistent repetition. All those little niggles at the beginning (Achilles tendonitis and one or two other minor irritants) have disappeared into the background and are largely irrelevant. Moreover, two weeks previously we’d noticed a change in our performance at about 2,100m when the air pressure (not oxygen content) dropped and made breathing more laboured. The additional effort had been noticeable at altitudes above 2,100m. That is now no longer the case. Performance remains undiminished

It is said by those who specialise in human strategies and programming, that it takes around twenty-one repetitions of a behaviour to install it as a habit/addiction that runs automatically at the unconscious level once the appropriate triggers fire. Virtually, everything we do from brushing our teeth to writing is a learned behaviour or strategy (as it’s called in a Neuro-Linguistic Programming circles) runs automatically. We don’t have to pay attention consciously to how to do these things. In that sense, though educationalists with tut-tut and disagree, human beings are, at one, level, programmable machines. In fact, we’re more than that: we self-programme finding the optimum way to do things and then let them run automatically when we need them. Some serve our purposes very well and others, like addictions, are less beneficial. But, all of them are strategies/programmes we’ve installed in ourselves. As I reached the Col de la Lauze without too much effort in a shade over 2h 39m I was reminded just how adaptable and programmable we are.

The views from the Col were tremendous. To the east was a higher mountain one could almost touch, along the spine of which ran the French-Italian border. To the west, long vistas picked up jagged peaks and glaciers (behind Geoffrey and me below).

I fired up the Jetboil and had a brew ready for Geoffrey just as he and Richard reached the Col about thirty minutes later. I thought it was appropriate that the Master of Downing College should be handed a nice brew of English tea as he arrived at the highest point on his last day. He was most appreciative. So much so that he gave me a sausage later that night for our onward journey!

From the Col de la Lauze it was downhill all the way to Montgenèvre, a ski resort just short of the Italian border, where we stopped for iced teas having tramped past a family rather oddly having a table picnic in front of a shrine.

Richard is quite worried about his addiction to iced tea, which is nothing of the sort, really. The ones we were offered wee more peach-flavoured sugary water out of a can. The Liptons variety, albeit out of a can, is acceptable, but this Italian knock-off was certainly thirst-quenching but calling itself ‘tea’ is stretching the truth considerably.

At this point Geoffrey revealed he’d been carrying a large dried sausage, some manky-looking cheese and a decidedly crusty looking loaf in his pack since Val d’Isere. Both the bread and cheese looked dangerous enough, from a biological warfare point of view, to need to call in the men in lumpy white suits from Porton Down. Forget Novichok. This was the stuff of assassins. But, we decided to have a go at the sausage with a couteau I’d bought in Chamonix. All men seem to carry a couteau in France and I didn’t see why I shouldn’t be the exception. Who knows what bacteria were lurking on the sausage, but it tasted good and the body actually needs about 21g of fat each day to sustain itself, or so went the self-justifying argument in my head.

From Montgenèvre we picked up the GR5 again through low forest and sole-bruising rocky tracks to the outskirts of Briançon. There’d been some debate the previous evening as to whether to take the GR5 into Briaçon via the two cols or to take a variant over a mountain to the west of Plampinet and approach the town from the north and not the east. In the end I’m glad we decided to stick with the traditional GR5 as it brings hikers into Briançon under the shadow of three magnificent eighteenth-century forts and over a spectacular 168′ high single span stone bridge, Le Pont d’Asfeld, built in 1734 by Louis XV and into a fortified and walled citadel of narrow streets. Several hundred feet below and to the west lies modern Briançon.

The town, which is a centre of hiking in summer and skiing in the winter, is quite substantial and pregnant with military history. It seems to have been the gateway to France through the southern Alps, hence all the fortifications. It’s citizens had, like virtually every other French town and village, paid a heavy price during the First World War. The war memorial a the the top of the Rue de la Républic describes the sad story of whole families decimated – fathers, uncles, sons, brothers, nephews and cousins.

Richard has been responsible for the route and the bookings at each stop. We’re here in Briançon for two complete days. He could not have chosen a more interesting place for a decent pause before we continue with the last fifteen-day push to the Mediterranean.

As this was Geoffrey’s last evening we went out for a slap up meal. It’s been great having him along. In a way, I was hoping his early morning train (5.30am!) from Briançon to Valence wouldn’t materialise and he’d be forced to continue with us. Alas, not. But before he hit the sack, he gave me a small dried pork sausage, which he’d bought, presumably to keep my little knife busy on the march south. Most kind.

On Tuesday morning Richard and I push off for Brunissard, half-way to Ceillac. We rendezvous with Godfrey McFall and Phil Neame on Wednesday evening at Ceillac.

And then we’ll be four.

Stay tuned!

Vital Statistics

Plampinet to Briancon: