A glimpse of the Mercantour Alps, 2012

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Day 1, 20 October, pincode troubles

Oh no! I had just entered the wrong pin-code in my telephone for the third time. Now it was blocked. That was a little disaster because now I wasn’t able to call my uncle and aunt – who were on vacation nearby – to pick me up for my return to the Netherlands. I would have to reduce my six-day trip to five days in order to spend the last day finding an internet-cafe.

After a one-hour drive from Gap, The bus dropped me at St Martinet, five houses and a little church at the bottum of a deep valley, at a height of about 900 metres. I went up a gravel road to find a rather level grass field to set up my camp. In the disappearing daylight I hurried to find a track to the bottom of the nearby gorge, to get water from the River Grand riou de la Blanche.

I immediately noticed some mistakes in my equipment. The ethanol didn’t burn well and contained an even more bitter flavour than usual. In the process of touching the stove it would leave traces on my fingers. When I licked the sticky honey from my fingers the disgusting taste entered my mouth, which resembled the taste of the walnuts I had brought and which therefore immediately lost their atraction.

Day 2, start of the trail

The gravel road went up along the river for several kilometres, along the tiny towns of St Barthelemy, Les Clarisonds and a little church. The real Grand Randonee track started from a parking space called Pied des Prats. The trail went to the end of the forested valley and then ascended steeply through the colourful larch forest.

Since I was carrying a backpack of nearly twenty kilograms, and since there was enough water to be found in little streams, I didn’t carry any water with me.  I therefore decided to stay overnight at one of the last rushing streams before I would enter the dry area of the mountain pass.

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Natural Theatre

Day 3, searching the trail

Just when I reached the Tete de la Sestriere at 2571 metres, it started to rain heavily with strong gusts of wind. I almost had to walk diagonally over the ridge, along two ski stations. It would take about four hours walking in continious rain to reach a mountain pass at the other end of the ridge. The weather had cleared. I finally had my lunch break at a little stream above the tree line.

I went down for two hundred meters until I reached a rather large sheep shed in a narrow valley. I went to the right, down into the main valley, until I realised to have taken the wrong route. I went back again to the sheep shed, but I just couldn’t find the GR 56A. This trail would go up a forested hill, to continue on the same height for about twenty kilometres until it reached another pass at the end of the valley.

A sign, different from the red and white GR sign, lured me onto a narrow track that went into the right direction. However, the falling leafs of larch trees had made the track hardly visible and the many sheep created many other tracks, all slightly heading towards another direction. When I looked up there was the red and white GR sign, a hundred meters up on the steep hill. What a relief!

The whole evening I walked with great pace over the perfectly horizontal path along the valley. It was almost completely dark when I reached the necessary stream that came rushing from the mountains.

That night I woke up very sick, up to a point that I had to throw up several times. I had probably been drinking too much cold water just after I arrived. Now all the essential food energy was lying in the grass. What a deception.

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Dark Majestic

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Autumn Larch

Day 4, slowly, very slowly

It was already late in the morning and I packed all my things very slowly. I threw the heavy backpack on my shoulders and walked with very slow pace, every five minutes leaning on my ski poles to take a good breath. It made me feel like an old man.

After a steep climb along a two hundred meters high waterfall I managed to near the end of the valley. But again there was the water – matter: how far should I go? The main river deep down the valley had completely fallen dry and the little patched of snow where too high to reach. One kilometre ahead I noticed dark coloured spots on a rocky wall, probably because of water pouring down through the layers sandstone. When I approached the little riverbed there was water indeed, although not mentioned on the map.

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Along the trail

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Day 5, last descent

The next morning the water bag was filled with a two-centimetre thick layer of ice. Despite of the sub-zero temperature it didn’t feel cold at all because the air was extremely dry. I felt much better then the previous day and it would take only half an hour to reach the mountain pass of Petit Col de Talon at a height of 2680 meters.

At the bottom of the valley I met a French man of 63 years old, a sportive and friendly fellow who I met earlier at the mountain pass. He asked if I needed a ride to Barcelonette, which was my final destination indeed: tomorrow, not today. My idea was to continue further down the valley and ascend another gravel road tomorrow, to reach a car road near the top of Cime de la Bonette, from where I would try to hitchhike to Barcelonette. I decided to accept his offer and reached the town at about six in the evening, where I camped at a shabby grass field under the pine trees, near the backyard of some houses near the River l’Ubaye.


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Early reading

The next two days I took the bus to Gap, slept in a Formula1 hotel and took the train to Chrest, where I managed to call my uncle and aunt to pick me up. Thanks again, Lionne and Egbert!

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Map of the route