Tatiana’s Gambol 2019

Good morning! Bonjour! Добар дан! Добрый день! Dzień dobry!

It’s August, the silly month. So, here we go again! Just when you thought it was all over, another bout of lunacy to keep you all amused and entertained over the next couple of months. Lego Tatiana and I are on the hoof again.

If you’ve received this it’s because our ships have crossed each other’s horizons at some point in the last few decades. Some of you will have followed Tatiana’s Gambol last year and helped raise awareness and money for Children With Cancer UK (CWCUK). Others will be profoundly shocked to hear from me in this way. Apologies for that. But, let’s not let that get in the way of a good cause. Before you yawn, reach for delete or unsubscribe I’d ask you to do only one thing – read this blog to the end before deciding what to do.

This year’s mission is broadly similar to last year’s: trekking the Grande Traversée des Alpes (GTA) from Saint Gingolph on Lac Léman to Menton on the Mediterranean on the Grande Randonnée (GR) 5 and 52 routes, again for CWCUK. How and why are explained on the www.tatianasgambol.com site under ‘About TG’, where an eight-minute video of last year’s effort gives the background to the event and a good indication of the terrain and route.

But, that’s where any similarity with last year’s event ends. Then Richard Villar and I hiked the first two-thirds before meeting up with Godfrey McFall and Phil Neame, former Parachute Regiment colonels, for the last 13 days to the sea. In total it took 37 days of which four were rest days. We stayed in a melange of pre-booked accommodation: refuges; gites; guesthouses; low-star hotels. A roof over our head, an evening meal and breakfast were guaranteed. En route we met interesting solo hikers, like German Steph, Desirée Radermecker and Jean-Christophe Despérier, following their noses and freestyling it downrange with tents and sleeping bags. This year I’m following suit: tent, sleeping bag and no itinerary whatsoever – all designed to ward off the corrupting influence of comfort – but always with the aim of completing the route as quickly as possible.

Why the same charity and same route? The answers to both reasonable questions are easy. The scourge of children’s cancer is the same this year as it was last year and I have a personal interest. As for the route, I know it well: where to take on water; the boring bits to blow through quickly; the lovelier bits to savour; where to free camp beside high alpine lakes; and how to make good progress. Last year was a recce for this year.

The other major difference is tech. Last year folk followed a series of blogs. This year I’m carrying one of Garmin’s clever InReach satellite communicators, which will allow you to track me in realtime through the MapShare portal at the bottom of this blog and on the website’s home page – bookmark it if you can see yourself feet up and relaxing with a glass of Blanton’s or Woodford Reserve, a sip or two of Apple Pie, a Bud Lite, a chilled glass of crisp white wine or free-flowing bubbly while tuning into the madness.

The MapShare portal shows information in various ways. Tracks: blue dots and straight lines indicate my position every 30mins and track; a blue triangle indicates my current position. Activities: squiggly lines in different hues and colours denote the actual GPS-ed route I’ve taken. Blue speech bubbles: satellite messages I’ve sent to MapShare at that location. Think of them as celestial tweets – click to reveal bleats of anguish. The information can be toggled on and off in the menu on the left, where you can also enable various topo and aerial underlays. The system has a two-way messaging service – 160 characters per message. A big plea – please do not message me using it. I won’t have time to read them and you’ll chomp through my battery charge. It’s for emergencies only, like ‘Hey! Come home, you’ve won the lottery’. Data enthusiasts can also follow the segments on Strava, a link to which is on the TG home page.

So, we turn now to the matter in hand. I’m sitting here at Les Chemins du Léman in Novel where I’ve spent the night after two long days of travelling – train, plane and boat across Lac Léman. It’s Saturday 3rd August, almost a year to the day since Richard and I set off from the same hostel. In contrast to then, this year’s event starts at snail’s pace. I have an RV (rendez-vous, not recreational vehicle) to make with contacts bringing me two gas canisters.

Those of you who read the first few blogs last year will remember the Ninja of the Alps – the young woman who shadowed us, whose mountain preparedness and rucksack packing were so perfect according to Richard that we concluded she must be a secret agent or a special forces type on a mission – France’s female answer to Jason Bourne. Well, yes, I tracked her down! She claims to be a tech journalist living in Lyon. Hmmmm, a thin legend. She and her Russian boyfriend (a picture is building here, right?) are doing the exact same route this year but they don’t start from St. Gingloph until midday today. They’re kindly bringing me two gas canisters for my Jetboil. Rather than wait here for them in Novel we’ve agreed that I’ll mooch slowly off south, crest the Col de Bise and RV with them at the Chalet-Refuge de Bise in the valley below.

The Ninja told me via WhatsApp that they had planned to complete the trek in 15 days – a wildly ambitious 45 kms and over 2,500m of ascent per day. I replied with shock-horror and crying-with-laughter emojis. They’ve now settled on 19 days instead. Paddy Dillon, author of Trekking The GR5 Trail, reckons fit people can do the slightly shorter GR5 to Nice in 21 days. We’re doing the longer (by about 50 kms) GR5/52 combination through the stunning Mercantour national park to Menton. The Ninja has also told me that her Russian BF is more of a Ninja than she is. So, two Ninjas to deal with! Also, she’s hinted that they’re up for a race to the sea, meaning me and them. Both are less than half my age [shock-horror emoji]! But, never forget David Mamet’s words of wisdom – old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance. So, I guess we’ll be testing that hypothesis thoroughly.

Before I head off I’d like to thank Rupert Hanson, ex-Royal Tank Regiment, in Canada for sorting out the website in such a quick time – I only accepted the Ninja’s challenge a few weeks ago. Also, a big thank you to friends and supporters at Cotswold Outdoor in Plymouth, UK. And a note for Richard Villar – Richard, you’ll be thrilled and delighted to hear that my Achilles tendon is even worse this year and my pack is heavier.

An open invitation. If anyone out there is stupid or crazy enough, you’re welcome to join me. You’ll have to intercept me en route, pack and travel light and be prepared for long days on foot and nights under canvas. But, come and help me deal with the Ninjas.

Finally, there’s a twist at the end of this journey. The end is never the end. But, you’ll have to stay tuned to find out what I mean.

As Major-General Chip Chapman CB PARA (Retd.) was driving me to Bristol airport early yesterday morning he asked, ‘What are the mission-critical points of failure?’ After deciphering the military gobbledegook I got what he was asking and replied, ‘Well, that would be death, wouldn’t it?’

With that and the Ninjas uppermost in my mind, all that’s required now are bold and fearless steps, and firmness and presence of mind. At all times.

And so it begins.

Utrinque Paratus!


For a full width version of the MapShare portal below click here.