Refuge Moëde Anterne to Les Houches – Day 6

The Ninja of the Alps

The Refuge Moëde Anterne at the end of Day 5’s walk has mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, so I discovered when someone on Facebook asked whether the reviews were justified. I don’t bother looking at Trip Advisor – full of whining people with first world problems.

What I can say is that the refuge is set in spectacular surroundings, a joy to arrive at and, as far as amenities go, is perfectly adequate for serious hikers – hot water, showers and a very cosy wooden room for Richard and myself – though the duvets were made for Hobbits.

The catering was interesting, ‘I’ve ordered polenta. I have no idea what that is. Any idea?’ There were two choices of meal and Richard had gone for something I’d never heard of. It sounded vaguely Vegan. ‘Richard! What have you done?’ Ali had ordered the spaghetti bolognese, which seemed like a safer bet. After a delicious chicken soup our two sausages and a baking dish of encrusted yellow stuff arrived. We were both suffering from food envy but that soon dissolved when Ali’s bowl of spaghetti sprinkled with something brown arrived. The polenta, despite its yellow apple crumble looking appearance, was suddenly appealing. It’s okay in a buttery sort of way that clings to your teeth. But it’s fuel.

The refuge is a privately run affair. After the evening meal the Madame, a lady in her seventies or even eighties, with a face as ragged as the mountains, delivered a small speech to the assembled diners, about fifty people. She pointed out Mont Blanc and other peaks, in particular the Brévant, up which we were to go next day. The Brévent is a high point overlooking Chamonix in the valley to its south and has spectacular views of Mont Blanc and the peaks beyond. At 2,525m it’s accessed either by a two-stage gondola ride from Chamonix below or via numerous steep tracks from several directions, including our refuge.

The next morning no words were explicitly exchanged between Ali and myself but we both sensed that this was going to be an epic two stage race from the bottom to the Col de Brévent and thence to the Brévent itself. Paddy Dillon’s map and chart from Hiking The GR5 below show our route up.

The approach to the start point took us downhill initially from the refuge for about forty minutes – a pleasant warm up. But losing height is always alarming – as you descend towards the inevitable river below you know that all that lost height will have to be painfully regained. As we crossed the river at the Pont d’Arleve the track turned right and began its ascent.

We stopped and searched for a sign that would tell us what the recommended time to the col should be. There wasn’t one except old wooden pointers to Anterne and the Brévant. At that moment the Ninja of the Alps passed us by and began her light-footed ascent. She’d gone about 50m as we dithered about looking for a sign. She’d fired the starting pistol so we set our stopwatches and off we went in pursuit.

At this point I need to rewind the video to Day 1 to explain who the Ninja of the Alps is. As we arrived at Novel on Day 1 after our not-very-gruelling 4km hike up from St. Gingolph we’d been given bunks in a communal dormitory, where our fellow sleepers were a family of three or four and a young woman whose kit was almost entirely black: long pants, long-sleeved shirt, a rectangular neat black North Face pack (very compact) and a black baseball cap. She was quiet and very self-contained. Her kit was always neatly stowed or carefully prepared to be packed away. She kept herself to herself. I think Richard asked her where she was going and she’d replied that she was doing some of the GR5. The following morning she crept out silently, wraith-like as we were still stirring, and vanished into the pre-dawn gloom.

She reappeared at the Refuge de Chésery at the Green Lake just inside Switzerland. It thundered and rained that night. The Ninja chatted to two other French hikers as Richard and I wrote up our stuff. That was the night we were in the sardine bunks. The Ninja was below us. I’d noticed earlier how neatly her kit was always packed and thought that she must be military or ex-military.

The following morning Richard was up early and had witnessed her packing. As a seasoned International Mountain Leader it takes a lot to impress Richard. ‘I’ve never seen someone so immaculately prepared for the mountains! I watched her pack every item carefully, waterproofing everything and placing each item carefully in its proper place. She’s a text book example of mountain preparedness.’ We speculated that she was probably military or, better still, some sort of French special services operator checking out the Savoie resistance under the guise of hiking.

As Ali and I finished our first race at the Refuge Moëde Anterne the previous day she was already there. We hadn’t seen her in Samoëns but here she was again. This time she asked what we’d been writing about at the Refuge de Chésery two nights previously. So we told her, but we still didn’t know her name.

So here she was about 50-70m ahead of us. Off we charged, up hill, breathless and pouring with sweat in pursuit of the Ninja in her black gear. Closing the gap with her was a good way of ensuring that the initial pace was brisk. Rather alarmingly the gap closed slowly. She was nimble and not easy prey and was bouncing effortlessly up the track. I guessed she must have been in her twenties and her gear under 10kg. Ali recognised a fellow runner in her. This was going to be though. Slowly we reeled her in, metre by agonising metre.

Fortunately, after about 20 minutes she stopped to take a photo or adjust something and we manage to squeeze past her. Of course, she wasn’t part of the race so it was now Ali and me. Up and up went the track and then briefly it levelled out after passing a large boulder. At that point I ran like hell to put as much distance between myself and Ali before he came to the same point. This is the best way to drop the psychological hammer on someone. When they get to the same point and see you unexpectedly far further ahead most people give up and dial down the effort. Not Ali. And not the Ninja. She was behind him and to all intents and purposes now part of the race.

At great effort and sprinting at every opportunity I opened the gap as the track wound monotonously up the side of the mountain and then where it steepened it flip-flopped into a series of switch backs. Each time I saw hikers ahead they became targets to pick off. But Ali and the Ninja remained about five minutes behind. At one stage I glance back and saw Ali sprinting across a patch of flat. He wasn’t giving up.

After more than an hour of this madness I realised that I’d steadily exhausted myself. Either that or the altitude was having an effect on the rate of climb. I knew I had the advantage and kept telling myself that for Ali to catch me he’d have to be matching my pace and bettering it and slowly he’d reel me in. I had no idea how much further this mountain would go on. I was half preparing to write a blog about being beaten to the Col de Brévent and the Brévent itself by Ali and the Ninja. This fear drove me on.

Presently, I rounded a corner to find the track blocked by hard snow fall. I put a foot on it to test it – too slippery to risk. This was steep and required crampons for safety. I couldn’t waste time on that, so I lost height, clambering over boulders and rough rocks and worked my way around the bottom of the snowfall and back up to the track which then looped round to the col. Just then I saw Ali approach the snowfall and shouted to him not to go on it but to go round. He thought I was deliberately trying to slow him down and tried to set foot on it again. With his rubber-soled running shoes he’d have slid to the bottom. So I shouted again and when I was satisfied that he was going to do what I had done I set off again. He was very close and had possibly closed the gap.

Just as I was resigning myself to Ali and the Ninja catching me, because they’d paced themselves better, I summited the Col de Brévent. 1 hour 28 minutes.

But, through a combination of fatigue and mist I missed the sign post at the top. Still gripped by racing madness, I tore down the track, bounding down using my poles to steady myself. I still had to get to the Brévent itself. After ten minutes the mist cleared and below me, far below, I could see the cable car mid-way station at Gares de Planpraz. With horror I realised I’d shot over the col and followed the most obvious path down without realising that the one to the Brévent went right at the col. I’d lost 325′ of steep height and had to trudge back up sure in the knowledge that Ali and the Ninja would be waiting at the top of the Brévent.

At that point Richard, who had been directing operations from the rear, phoned to say that he was in ‘writers paradise’ and that we weren’t to wait for him at the Brévent but to press on to to Les Houches and find the Hotel Chris-tal. But, as I trudged back up to the col, I knew he couldn’t be too far behind me.

Ali and the Ninja were waiting for me at the Brévent. The Ninja, whose real name we discovered is Séverine, probably hadn’t been racing but just skipping up in her effortless manner following these two crazy rosbifs up the mountain. So, Milos 1, Ali and the Ninja 1. I fired up the Jetboil and got a brew on for the three of us while we waited for Richard. To our utter astonishment Séverine revealed that this was her first go at hiking. Her kit preparation was too good for that to be true. At 8kg it was pretty minimalist. I told her that she was to feature in Richard’s book as the epitome of mountain preparedness. She was quite perplexed and insisted she was a novice.

Richard later had an exotic alternative theory about her, ‘I think your past has just caught up with you, Milos. They’ve sent her to keep an eye on you!’

The views from the Brevent, when clear, are truly spectacular. Lego Tatiana was ecstatic and posed shamelessly on the edge. Nothing much to worry about except a 3,000′ drop to Chamonix below. Beyond that Mont Blanc, permanently snow-capped sparkled in the sun. But, there’s no solitude at the Brevent – it’s a Piccadilly Circus of hikers, runners and cable car day trippers.

Richard arrived about half-a-hour after I did with his own adventure story. The tortoise often observes more than the hares. In his case, he’d been happily plugged into his hiking music, had just negotiated the snowfall and was observing an English family traverse it with no crampons. A sixth sense told him to ready his camera and, just as Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (the regimental march of the Parachute Regiment) kicked in, the son took a slide to the bottom. Richard went back to help. Fortunately the boy was shaken, stirred but not broken.

Séverine was Chamonix-bound and we had further to go to Les Houches. So we set off together, Séverine was now part of the rosbif circus and seemed happy to tag along. We wouldn’t see her again as she planned to stay hiking in the Chamonix area. We stopped occasionally for Richard to point out good hiking routes to her.

Then his bootlace snapped. As he fished around in his huge pack he said, ‘I hope you’re going to record in you blog that I executed my boot lace change quickly.’ He did. But it was more a Formula 2 pitstop than Formula 1.

‘Séverine would have had hers done by now Richard!’

‘That’s right,’ said Ali, ‘She’d have put her hand in her pack and known exactly where to find her spare laces – in compartment 4D!’

I’m sure Séverine found out ernest discussions about new hiking terminology quite mystifying. We’ve now decided that Track Envy is a sub category of an overarching psychological condition best described as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Other examples are Food Envy, Queue Envy etc etc. Furthermore, we’ve added to the lexicon of hiking terminology. The Refuge Moëde Anterne had no sockets. Given the technology we all now carry around Battery Anxiety is never far away.

Before parting company we stopped in the small Refuge de Bellachat for refreshments and more ground briefings for Séverine. And then off we set. The Ninja of the Alps slipped away left down to Chamonix and we went right. Here’s the Ninja of the Alps between Richard (R) and me.

And Richard giving her further tips for good walking.

The descent from the Brévant to Les Houches took the best part of three hours. Steep, baking hot and foot boiling. As we trudged along hot asphalt in painful silence Richard’s voice drifted to the front, ‘Does the complete silence from everyone mean that I’m not the only one in agony?’

Despite being shorter in ascent and slightly shorter in length than the previous day’s hike, it seemed much harder. We were genuinely quite shattered. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of six days of tramping up and down mountains. We had about us that same heavy weariness that I remembered having in the army after weeks in the field and long laden marches. Everything ached.

As we trudged into Les Houches and the prospect of two nights and a whole day off I couldn’t help but wonder what the very last fifteen days of the leg to Menton would be like without without a rest. But before that we have Hell Week to look forward to, 19-25 August – 168kms in seven days. That’s yet to come.

But, what a week we’ve had and what an honour to end it in the company of the Ninja of the Alps. An example to us all.

Stay tuned!

New Hiking Terms

Track Envy. A jealousy that overcomes you when you think that your hiking partner appears to have found firmer footing.

Stick Shame. Profound self-loathing and disgust when you feel you’ve resorted to using hiking poles unnecessarily.

Thermos Anxiety. A deep despair when you realise that age has crept up on you, evidenced by a preference for convenience.

Battery Anxiety. The panic that creeps through you when you realise your devices are going to run out of juice.

Today’s Vital Statistics