St. Dalmas du Plan to Sospel via Gite de Boreon, Refuge de Nice, Refuge des Merveilles and Camp d’Argent – D32, D33, D34, D35 & D36

St. Dalmas du Plan to Le Boreon – D32

The Gite des Marmottes was pretty good. For some strange reason the booking made provision for one en suite room with two single beds, which Godfrey allocated to Phil and myself. He and Richard were put into a bunk room to share with two French women. Phil and I weren’t complaining but it would have made more sense to put the two French women in our room and for the four of us to occupy the bunks. I guess this is just part of the strange system of bed allocation in the gite system.

If you’re a blue water yachtie you’ll know that Horta in the Azores is a kind of hub where yachts come in from all directions and depart to all destinations. It’s where crews swap out or jump ship and join other crews. St. Dalmas du Plan is the equivalent for the Grande Traversée des Alpes (the GTA) of which the GR5 and GR52 are the main components (there’s also a GR52A etc.) All routes lead to and from St. Dalmas du Plan.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that old faces popped out of the woodwork. The first I spotted was the Australian family from Brisbane, two of whom had done the whole thing from Holland. The parents, if you recall, had flown out to hike the last part with them. They’d taken a flat in St. Dalmas for two days before heading off down to Nice. Our three Welsh friends, first spotted coming out of Brunissard to Ceillac are also Nice-bound, so sadly we won’t see them again.

But, guess who we saw this morning as we’d finished stocking up at St. Dalmas’s supermarket? None other than Steph the German, whom we’d first met in La Chapelle d’Abondance on Day 2 and then again coming out of Val d’Isere on Geoffrey Grimmett’s first morning with us. Great to see her again. Despite wild camping most of the way, she and one of the Australian girls would be following us to the Gite de Boréon at La Boréon. Here’s Paddy Dillon’s take on the route form Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone:

The ascent to Col du Barn was pretty savage and relentless. It was cloudy but strangely humid. We maintained a very steady plod up the mountain – sedate would be a better word. The scenery was pretty bare-arsed and barren. It lacked the grandeur of some of our more recent ascents. By and by, as we approached the Col de Veillos we came hard up against day tripper hikers who’d been bussed to some point and then let loose with their guides. The Col was rather like Piccadilly Circus and we rushed to get off it and away, inadvertently taking a track that wasn’t the GR52. We also lost height – a cardinal sin. That mistake, relatively quickly spotted, still cost us half an hour as we re-adjusted (sweated our arses off regaining height) back onto the GR52.

Yet again I was piss wet through with sweat. I’m leaking water through every pour. By the time I joined the others at the Col du Barn, I was soaked, freezing and shivering. They were brewing up on the Col but I kept going down the other side. I didn’t feel like stopping and encouraging hyperthermia so I plodded on down a rather pretty wooded valley for and hour or so slowly enough that the others would eventually catch me up.

At the bottom of the valley the track meets a graded road and the GR52, which had hitherto been going due north (yes, north again!) swings to the east and begins a big hook east before heading back south. This takes you over the unspectacular Col de la Salese. From there it’s all downhill to Le Boréon through pine forest.

But the weather caught us out. A few spits of rain became big fat heavy droplets and some small hail. For the second time ever and the first time in over four weeks I hauled on the plastic top and pants just as the heavens opened and lightening and thunder struck. Safe under a plastic skin I plodded on down the track which quickly became a small river and water raced down the mountain looking for the shortest route. It seemed the track was it.

Just as the rain seemed to be easing the others caught up with me. Some had waterproof jackets on but no pants. We tabbed on as the rain eased wondering whether to shed the plastic. Damn good job we didn’t. As the track crossed a swollen river and rose to meet a metalled road terrific thunder and lightening erupted and the rain fell in heavy sheets, causing everyone bar me to fish out their plastic pants. The rain had the intensity that I remember from the huge deluges you’d get during the rainy season in the jungle. The rain was so think it reduced visibility considerably.

We set off at a smart clip down the road towards Le Boréon about one kilometre away. But as the water cascaded down the mountain it began to throw boulders and stones onto the road. We were under fire. I have never seen Godfrey, Phil and Richard move so quickly – they ran like hell down the road all the way to the Gite de Boréon.

We’re a full house again: the group of eleven with their two guides, one of whom was rather smug that we’d been caught in the rain and they hadn’t; the German Heinkle lady is also here; Godfrey and Richard’s female room mates turned up well after us (they’d tabbed off down the GR5 to Nice for an hour heading south before realising they should be on the GR52 heading north). We’re also expecting Steph and the Australian girl, but are worried that they got caught on the GR52 trail in the forest when the storm hit.

Le Boreon to Refuge de Nice – D33

Steph and the Australian girl turned up late but alive. They’d got caught in the gorge just as the worst of the storm hit. They looked quite shellshocked, but still smiling. Chapeau!

The evening meal was guaranteed to keep Phil Neame farting for at least 24 hours. Lentils and boar testicles. Quite exotic in a French sort of way. I’ve eaten goat genitals during Eid in the Sinai desert – a not altogether unpalatable breakfast, bar the fact the owner of said genitals had had it’s throat slit with a knife ‘sharpened’ on a desert pebble a scant 30 minutes beforehand. So, boar testicles and lentils was no problem.

Getting to the Refuge de Nice was the hardest day yet for our group. Here’s Paddy Dillon’s take on it in Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone:

It involved nearly 1800m of ascent over two massive passes. Initially, the approach to Pas des Ladres was through an ancient old pine forest before breaking our and up – severely up. The path was stepped and well groomed but extremely steep. We paused on the top before descending just as steeply to La Madone de Fenestre where there’s a famous chapel and a refuge. We took a long pause to brew up and dry out damp waterproofs.

We usually take one or two extended stops a day and in addition to brewing up we always take boots and socks off to air our feet and allow them to cool down. This simple procedure makes a huge difference and avoids unnecessary blisters. It’s pretty basic stuff. But you don’t see many other hikers doing the same.

But there was still another pass to get up. This one was called the Pas du Mt. Colomb. The GR52 track on the map changes from a solid line to a dotted line. This means that there’s no path. You kind of have to make it up as you go along – or so Phil explained to us (he’s a veteran of two Everest expeditions). This was a brutal yet exciting ascent and descent over huge boulders: crag-hopping with weighty packs. The pass itself was a gash in the rock at the very top. One determined man with a sword could have held off an army there – Thermopylae but in the Mercantour National park.

The descent was hair-raising. Godfrey had been most anxious about starting early and avoiding the inevitable late afternoon storm during this descent. I’d thought at the time he was being over-anxious and that it would be alright whatever the weather. But, as we gingerly moved from rock to rock for what seemed like hours I realised that doing it in a thunderstorm in the kind of pouring rain we’d experienced at Le Boréon would have increased the risk of serious injury quite considerably. He was right in his judgment.

But, we were both rewarded by coming face to face with two of the park’s elusive chamois, one of which was rooting around in the dirt of the track about twenty metres ahead of us – quite unafraid.

After some more clambering the path levelled out and we came upon a reservoir at the far end of which was perched, high up, the Refuge de Nice. What a fantastic location and sight for sore eyes and feet. The steps up to it were some of the hardest we’d taken that day. We were quite exhausted when we arrived – some more than others. I don’t find it too bad. For me each day has become totally mechanical and severity of ascents and descents are really quite irrelevant. It’s like being wrapped in a kind of narcotic numbness. It’s all doable.

No boar’s testicles for supper – thank [expletive]. Wine, wine, wine, some pasta and beef, wine, wine, wine, followed by smashing your head to pieces in the tiniest bunk space. I’m heartily sick of bunks and tiny spaces.

Only four days to go.

Refuge de Nice to Refuge des Merveilles – D34

An easy day today. Just a shade over 10kms in total with only two moderate ascents. Here’s Paddy Dillon’s graphics from Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone:

The first was over the same kind of boulder fields we’d encountered yesterday. More crag-hopping to a reasonably high col. Great weather and fine views. Although it was quite early I felt the urge to brew up and try out lime in my tea as opposed to lemon. Not bad, but not quite the same. It was busy up on the col – five others: a young Dutch couple and a trio of French. They’d set off much earlier and yet we’d steadily closed the gap. We’re operating as a steady group of four.

Richard, who normally brings up the rear, was very complementary about our cohesion and sure-footedness, remarking that in all the ascents none of us had dislodged a single stone or sent a rock rolling downhill. Good mountaineering skills. I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms, but he is right – we are moving as one, steadily eating up the ground.

From the col we dropped gingerly down over yet more gigantic boulders and then back up to our last col of the day – an easy peasy switch back track. At the top we took a long ‘tactical pause’: boots and socks off, Jetboils on. Today I broke with tradition and boiled up a packet of my emergency noodles (we’re so close to the end, I reckon if I don’t eat them now I never will). Big mistake. Richard and I have never eaten anything substantial between the dreadful French breakfasts and the evening meal. The noodles sat like lump in my stomach and made me drowsy.

We had about four kilometres to drop down to the Refuge des Merveilles through the valley des Merveilles, famous for its 36,000 ancient glyphs. The rules for moving through this rather beautiful valley are strictly enforced: no movement off the track without a guide; no hiking poles. The valley had a very spooky and ancient feel to it. It reminded me of Sedona in the US – a very old sacred place, despoiled in places by more modern graffiti. In essence humans have been advertising themselves in various scratchings in this valley for several thousand years.

The Refuge des Merveilles lies on yet another lake. We arrived at 2pm – two hours before we were allowed in to find our four allocated beds in what can only be described as a giant dormitory with one solitary window at the end.

Richard has condemned it (and many of the refuges we’ve been to) as a health hazard. He should know. He’s a surgeon. He’s almost obsessional about the transmission of bacteria. I’ve noticed over the past six weeks that each time he gets a small graze or nick on his skin, particularly anywhere on his hands or arms, he disinfects and plasters up immediately to ward off infection. Initially, I thought he was being prissy. But no! He’s a surgeon. He cannot operate on a patient if he’s carrying any bacteria on him. It’s his training and profession that makes him fastidious about managing the transmission of infection.

It’s through these eyes that he’s appraised the absolutely appalling hygiene we’ve encountered in some of the refuges, particularly this one: no hot water in the loos; no soap in the loos; toilet cubicles so small that your hands inevitably come into contact with the bowl someone else has been sitting on; no hand sanitisers; no fly control; overcrowded and under-ventilated dormitories; communal eating where unwashed hands infected with other peoples’ faecal bacteria are pulling bread out of bread baskets etc. It’s not hard to see how a serious case of gastro enteritis could rip through a communal dormitory.

The refuge was rammed to capacity, some 90 people stuffed into two crammed dormitories and into an overcrowded dining room. But the food was excellent: some sort of vegetable soup (never ask); pasta and pork goulash, cheese, cakes and inevitably lots of wine topped of with a number of shots of Genepy (a herbal liquor we’d grown fond of). One of the refuge staff treated us to singing and guitar playing. A great evening. The staff were fun and young. The youngish boss had greeted Godfrey McFall as Monsieur McTombé. As the evening wore on Godfrey was promoted from McTombé to McSchuss.

McTombé-McSchuss and Richard took themselves off to bed. Godfrey had bagged the spot next to the window, determined to ensure that we slept with it open. Richard was sleeping next to him. Phil and I stayed on for more Genepy and music, little realising that a full-throttle battle was raging in the dormitory above.

In fact, I wasn’t ready for bed so went outside to spend an hour looking at the stars and Milky Way, which was very clear in the sky above us. A black cat came to join me. Perfect.

Three days to go.

Refuge des Merveilles to Camp d’Argent – D35

It’s official. The Fools have won their first battle honour – the Battle of Merveilles 2018. We now need some colours on which to sew this honour. We’ve thought of asking Boris Johnson to present us with our first colours emblazoned with the battle honour. But, it would fall to Her Majesty the Queen to dish out the gongs: a VC to Godfrey McTombé for exceptional heroism; a MC to Richard Villar for a) direct support of McTombé’s efforts and b) exceptional mediation and negotiating; and Phil Neame gets Mentioned in Dispatches for astute after-action initiative. I get nothing because I missed the action, playing with the black cat and gazing at the Milky Way while the Battle of Merveilles raged in the dormitory.

I only heard about this at 5.30am when Richard and I rose, grabbed our gear, cleared out of the sleeping ghetto and met in the boot room to pack our Bergens. He asked whether I’d witnessed the ‘punch up’ the night before. I said, ‘No! What punch up?’

‘Oh!’ He said, ‘Godfrey nearly got into a punch up with a French woman and her boyfriend over the window!’

Having interviewed all the participants of the action I’ve managed to piece together the sequence of events.

McTombé and Richard retire to bed. Godfrey opens the window wide.

French girl: ‘Shut that window immediately!’

Godfrey: ‘No!’

French girl: ‘We’re in the mountains. It’s cold’

Godfrey: ‘Well, get yourself another blanket.’

French girl leaps up lunges at the window and slams it shut, clinging onto the handle and barring access to the window with her body. Godfrey leaps up and tries to open the window.

Godfrey: ‘Open the window. It sinks in here. We need fresh air.’

French girl: ‘No!’ Clutches handle tightly. French girl is now joined by big burly bald boyfriend. Godfrey and he square up to each other. Blows are about to be traded.

What’s needed is a Special Forces flanking attack. Where’s Burls when you need him?

Richard Villar, who has been watching something on his iPad now removes spectacles and prepares to get involved in the punch up. But, he has the presence of mind to commence negotiations.

Villar: ‘This room is a breeding ground for disease. For everyone’s safety we need a throughput of fresh air.’

French girl’s defence begins to crumble and she concedes to opening the window an inch.

Weapons remain holstered. The window is left slightly open. Godfrey, Richard and the French go back to bed and nod off.

Phil Neame, oblivious to the confrontation that has taken place, not to mention the evident hostility of the dorm to les rosbifs, bumbles up to bed only to discover the window partially open, ‘I’m sure we agreed to open it,’ he thinks and flings it wide open.

At breakfast Richard’s relating the details of the Battle of Merveilles in a loud voice as Godfrey is helping himself to coffee while the French girl (who has mad staring eyes) is looking daggers at him.

According to Richard, conflict over refuge windows between open-window-loving Brits and closed-window-loving French is common.

But, there was one smart guy in the whole hut who managed to find a way to avoid the dormitory scrum. He can’t have been French because we found him fast asleep under a blanket on a mattress on one of the outside tables. Sensible guy. For him the window was wide open all night.

So The Four entered the Valley of Merveilles (guns to the front, guns to the left, guns to the right) and tabbed out south at 8am, victorious and poles held high in salute to the new battle honour.

I’m sure Marmite had a role to play somewhere in the chaos of battle. Funny thing, though. We were sitting next to an American girl and her English boyfriend at breakfast. They were from London and hiking in the opposite direction. Originally from Colorado she’d settled in London, which she thought was the best city. So, I offered her some of my Marmite. But, she rejected my offer, ‘I like Britain, but not that much!’

‘Do you realise that hundreds of thousands of tons of Marmite were shipped to Russia during WW2 via the Arctic Convoys? Marmite sustained the Soviet Army at Stalingrad and Kursk which as you know were the pivotal battles and turning points of WW2. One might, therefore argue that Marmite was one of the critical war-winning factors. Are you sure you don’t want some?’ She still wasn’t interested.

So, anyway, those were our adventures in the Valley of Merveilles. We left victorious over the appropriately named Pass du Diable (Devil’s Pass), which we now reckon should be renamed Red Devil’s Pass. Paddy Dillon in Trekking The GR5 by Cicerone shows the way:

We headed south towards Camp d’Argent over high lush meadows and some pretty battered looking military structures that had been on the wrong end of high explosives – relics of the Franco-Italian border squabbles in this area.

As we passed though the Red Devil’s Pass we effectively left the mountains. Ahead and to the south lies the final range of hills that lead down to Sospel and thence to the sea at Menton. They’re all completely covered in fir trees. No exposed rocks. We suddenly realised that we’d passed out of what one would call mountains and out of the Mercantour national park.

After fourteen kilometres of mild ambling we came to the auberge at Camp d’Argent. It’s really a winter ski chalet situated at the bottom of a ski lift. We’re now into some relative luxury – two rooms each with twin beds and an en suite bathroom. Tomorrow night we’re in a hotel in Sospel and then one in Menton. No more slumming it in overcrowded dormitories or the threat of gastro enteritis. I’m rooming with McTombé (hero of the Battle of Merveilles). At lest we won’t be fighting over the window.

Two days to go.

Camp d’Argent to Sospel – D36

Disaster nearly struck this morning. Just as we were booting up and and adjusting Bergen straps the proprietor of the auberge we’d been staying in – a large ski hut in effect – came running out with my pot of Marmite, which I’d left on the dining room table. Can you imagine, getting to Menton sans Marmite! Catastrophe.

We’d had a great meal the previous night, cooked up by the owner and his wife – except for the pea soup. Nothing essentially wrong with pea soup, but I’ve lost count of how many times it has been served up in refuges and huts. But the duck ‘bubble and squeek’ or duck pie that was served was fantastic. What a recipe! Phil and I had to celebrate with extra Genepy, which accounted for my sluggishness this morning and the near Marmite catastrophe.

Today has been a hard but very enjoyable hike of nearly 23kms – most of it downhill through thick pine woods. Some, though, climbed onto razorback traverses from which we could see Italy on the left and France on the right. But, most amazingly of all was the moment when Richard and I crested a small rise and discovered that we could see the Mediterranean for the very first time. Our journey’s end. As we tabbed along we could start to make out details of the coastline, ‘Look! That’s Cap Martin. So that must be the bay of Menton’.

We could literally see our finish point in the distance, beyond yet another range of hills. Somewhere down there between us and them was Sospel, our penultimate destination. Here’s Paddy Dillon’s take on the route from Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone:

Godfrey and Phil had tabbed on ahead so Richard and I kept each other company. It was great to walk – just the two of us – as we neared our destination. The emotion of seeing the sea was not one of excitement or even anticipation. Hard to explain, but it was one of regret. It meant that all this would soon be over.

We caught up with Phil and Godfrey on Mount Mangiabo. They’d already settled down to brew up and air their feet. Phil has walked the entire way there with his underpants on his head. He’d washed them and thought that they might dry if he hung them off the back of his Bergen. But, because we were heading due south the back of his Bergen was facing north and getting no sun. So the practical solution to the problem was to wear them on his head. Genius. But it drew some curious looks from our two young Dutch hiker friends whom we’d kind of picked up a few days back in the bolder fields.

The drop down into Sospel was pretty brutal. Downhill always is. We were dropping from over 1800m to 440m. The lowest Richard and I had been – ever. Watch out for the DVT. En route we passed very large artillery pieces from the First World War left scattered along the trail. Their breaches had been explosively destroyed in place, presumably because no one could be bothered to drag them all the way down to the bottom again after hostilities were over.

I guessed that Godfrey and Phil would have selected a strategic position in Sospel – a café of some sort. So, when Richard and I finally tramped over the bridge we spied them tucking into beers and peanuts. We joined them and threw off our boots.

The hotel was still half a mile away. So rather than drink more we decided to boot up again and head uphill to our lodgings. Just then my sister, Nada, and her husband, Simon – Tatiana’s parents – showed up with a, ‘Fancy seeing you here.’ They’d driven down overnight through France to surprise us in Sospel and to join us in Menton. I had no inkling of this and was, and remain, completely gobsmacked!

By the way, today we received more donations – £200 in total. So, thank you very much for those. We are close to £9,000 raised for Children With Cancer UK.

One more day to go!

Vital Statistics:

St. Dalmas du Plan to Le Boreon:

Le Boreon to Refuge de Nice:

Refuge de Nice to Refuge des Merveilles:

Refuge des Merveilles to Camp d’Argent:

Camp d’Argent to Sospel: