Lesley Williams, from Cicerone, tackles the 660km long GR5 trekking route that runs through the Alps from Lake Geneva to Nice on the Mediterranean. She describes how a long trek can become a way of life, rather than simply a long trudge through the mountains.
The wind had picked up, visibility was down to mere metres
Even though the snow was now driving into every crevice between our clothing and faces, shrouding us in rime and a gritty crust of ice, we kept going. The stony path was all but obliterated with the soft knee-high snow, hiding those otherwise reassuring red and white paint splashes known to Alpine trekkers.
It was 31 August 2012 and we were crossing the Col du Bresson in an area known as Beaufortain, sandwiched between the Mont Blanc massif and the Vanoise National Park, an area famed for its mountain cheeses. We had set out from the hut that morning in full winter and wet weather gear, knowing that snow was on the way and we were confident we had the time and fitness to get through this 29km stage, with the prospect of an easier, largely valley-based day to follow.
As we approached the col, I remember thinking that the harder part of the day was yet to come. We began the descent of a long boulder-strewn valley in deep snow and with very little visibility. Every step jarred our legs but we had to push on as this was a long stage, with nearly half the distance still to cover. The Refuge de la Balme was two or three kilometres away and we were looking forward to steaming hot soup, some company and somewhere safe to shelter if things got worse.
But as we approached the hut, it became apparent that it was a building site. Instead of hot soup, the smell of fresh cement filled the chilled air. The place deserted because of the bad weather. We scoffed a handful of nuts and moved on, the clouds clearing a little as we dropped down. As we looked back the storm continued to rage, snow-laden clouds dumping their heavy white load as they passed.
Tired, but elated, we finally arrived at the auberge in Valezan where we enjoyed a delicious meal followed by a very sound sleep. No one else had set out for the col that day, and it was another two days before it was passable, causing some interesting 'bunching' of GR5 trekkers as they were either delayed, or found ingenious public transport alternatives to get through.
So why had we chosen the GR5? With a fair knowledge of the Alps, and easy access to all Cicerone's guidebooks, it had been time to make that difficult choice of where to go for our late summer trek. Many years ago, while on our first trek, the Tour of Mont Blanc, I had spotted the graceful ridge stretching south from the Croix du Bonhomme hut, and had been captivated by the idea of heading south through the Alps.
Over the last fifteen years, we’ve spent many holidays walking, trekking and (in Jonathan’s case) mountaineering in the Alps and other parts of Europe, so it was a real surprise when we realised that we had only previously walked two or three day stages out of the 28 days it takes to walk the GR5. The prospect was irresistible. Four weeks on a 420-mile (674km) journey of discovery exploring the French Alps, passing through national parks and skirting the Mont Blanc range from the southern shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) to Nice and the warmth of the Mediterranean.
Wrapping our minds around a trip of that length, however, took a little while: four weeks of continuous walking, with an average daily ascent and descent of 1200m and distance of around 24km. Would our 50-something-year-old knees hold up? A trek of that length definitely has a different feel to it. Over four weeks, it isn't just a journey, it becomes a way of life. You have time to become closer to the landscape, the weather and the wildlife, but you also have time to really relax and absorb the experience. It's great.
As anyone will tell you, the weather in the Alps can change dramatically at any time of year. That day on the Col du Bresson had been exceptional, but not entirely unusual. During our 28 days of late summer walking we experienced everything from sweltering 30 degrees to sub-zero temperatures. There were days when the combination of humidity and heat was such that our hands could barely stay gripped to our walking poles. We saw clouds of every variety, from the innocent late afternoon puffs of white cumulus to the high lenticular formations that so accurately forecast the approach of the severe weather. We battled against gale-force winds, particularly strong and unavoidable in the Vanoise, and encountered every kind of precipitation, from heavy rain en route to the Col du Bonhomme, through to fine mist, heat haze and hail the size of large marbles. (Thankfully the hail was during a ferocious electric storm that thundered on the metal roof of the tiny Chesery refuge in which we were staying at the end of our second day.)
Accommodation on the GR5 is fairly plentiful. We were walking the route between late August and late September, and although we were unable to stay at three fully booked mountain huts, we were generally able to choose from a variety of accommodation options by booking two or three days ahead, making some stages shorter or longer as it suited us. Gites and small auberges in mountain villages were often really successful stopping points, some even with fluffy white towels – the holy grail of luxury for the trekker! At other times the accommodation was decidedly rustic, such as at the Refuge de la Leisse in the Vanoise, with options of cold water either in the main communal room or outside, and the Refuge de Longon, a vacherie in a high meadow where we slept on mattresses in the old stables, with cold water in the one shower and an outside tap and trough shared with the animals. But all the mountain refuges were welcoming and we had some fabulous meals too, at which friendships were forged with fellow trekkers, many of whom were also walking part or all of the route.
It's impossible to condense a month of trekking into just a few paragraphs, but there were certainly a number of days that stood out from the others as being particularly memorable. The stage between Samoëns and the Moëde Anterne refuge was one such day. Starting out in the chill of the early morning, we picked up some fresh bread and headed out of town. The route initially took us through a limestone gorge, where we clambered on ladders up between sculpted rock faces. The day was bright and sunny, and soon we found ourselves by a river watching first one then two golden eagles gliding high on the thermals, simply enjoying the day. Climbing steadily for a couple more hours we passed several spectacular waterfalls, the path busy with other walkers enjoying the beautiful wooded valley and cascades. Our path then forked and we continued to climb to the Collet d'Anterne where we were treated to our first distant view of Mont Blanc, its frozen slopes dominating the distant skyline. The path then meandered through a delightful valley with limestone boulders and a crystal clear river, with the massive face of the Rochers des Fiz to one side. We enjoyed our 'second lunch' of tarte aux myrtilles at the Alfred Wills hut, once the alpine retreat of the British alpinist who founded the Alpine Club. Two further climbs, separated by an idyllic brilliant blue lake, brought us to the Col d’Anterne. The panorama that stretched before us literally took our breath away, the majestic Mont Blanc range clearly defined against the vivid blue sky.
While every day holds memories that will stay with us forever, there were two or three days following our departure from Briançon that were pure trekking heaven, as both of our diaries later testified. These days seemed to have every element in perfect balance – delightful scenery during the uphill elements of the day, lakes, streams, blue sky, shaded sections, wonderful views from the cols, with interesting, sometimes exposed, sections and well-graded descents, all with elements of historical and geological interest. We passed fortifications and castles, entire villages where each house displayed an ancient sundial on its crumbling south-facing wall, beautifully engineered stone bridges across narrow chasms and fortified hilltop towns. Of the principal mountain regions we passed through, we now have plans to return to explore further, particularly the Queyras, with its untamed rugged mountains and ancient, largely unspoilt villages.
No GR5 trek experience is quite the same. For one thing there are two or three points on the GR5 where there are alternative routes from which to choose, depending on time available, the weather, and possibly a desire to face a sterner or easier route. There are two alternative starting points on the southern shores of Lac Léman; St Gingolph, a small town straddling the border between France and Switzerland; and Évian les Bains a little to the west. We chose the route from St Gingolph, as it gets you into the mountains rapidly, with around four hours of unrelentingly steep climbing before the first col is reached, the long day ending at Chapelle d'Abondance. The alternative route takes two days to get to that point, being marginally less demanding.
Two days after turning our backs on Mont Blanc, we were presented with a choice of three routes through the Vanoise National Park. Having explored some of the route that crosses the Col de l’Iseran on a previous trek, we opted for the high level GR55 route over the high central part of the range. The snow from the recent storm still lay thickly on the higher ground and cols, giving the impression of winter, a far starker landscape than that which we remembered from an earlier visit, when the hillsides had been festooned with flowers. Further route options are available approaching Briançon, a high exposed ridge walk over the Crêt de Peyrolle, a lower balcony path below the ridge and an alternative route via Plampinet and Montgenèvre, which makes its final approach into Briançon over the elegant 18th-century Pont d’Asfeld. During the final few days of the trek, you can either stay true to the GR5 with a finish in Nice, or you can take the GR52 route after St Dalmas to walk through the stunning Vallée des Merveilles in the Mercantour National Park, to make a spectacular, but very steep descent to Menton, just a few miles to the east of Nice.
Is it worth walking the whole route? In our opinion definitely ‘YES’. It’s fairly easy to split the route into sections, but if you are able to do it all in one trip, so much the better. The first two weeks take you up into ever-higher alpine terrain, with vast panoramas of the Mont Blanc range and the sheer delight of the Vanoise National Park, while south of Modane (the best place to split the route into two, in view of its TGV connections) the trail leads you through delightful scenery to Briançon, then through two further protected reserves – the Queyras and then the Mercantour National Park.
The GR5 is no sprint. It’s a very enjoyable marathon. During a month you will find that you unwind from the outside world in a way you may not have previously experienced. Keep a journal of each day – it’s a great way to keep memories crisp, and it will be fun to read in years to come, although, to be honest, your experiences will stay in your memory for a long, long time.
A similar article appeared in Trek and Mountain magazine in early 2013.