Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Eagle's Nest and Le Gaulois

Another rewarding day in the Haut Alpes

You never quite know what you're going to get when you order a climbing guidebook over the internet. It could be an absolute gem, a total load of rubbish or, most likely, something in between.

When we were planning this year's trip to France (primarily another of Di's pilgrimages to pay homage to the concept of the Grand Randonnée), I put my foot down and said that if we were going to Europe again I wanted to do some climbing. Of course that put the ball in my court as to where we would climb and how we'd find what we wanted to do. Loving climbing guidebooks as I do, I ordered a bunch of them - all for the Alps. We were tempted by the iconic area around Chamonix but for various reasons decided that climbing in the southern Alps around Briançon would be the best option for this trip, especially after I found a book called Escalade en Briançonnais, Haut Val Durance and Queras. It covers 11 distinct areas, with cliffs comprised of 6 different types of rock: limestone, conglomerate, gabbro, quartzite, granite and gneiss - a real smorgasbord for the rock-climbing gourmand and towards the better end of the scale when it comes to climbing guidebooks.

Yesterday we went  to an area called Ponteil.  The guidebook describes the climbing thusly: " The rock is amazing: pocketed slabs, cracks and dihedrals on a yellow rock that offers good grip ... On top the view of the Durance valley and on West Queyras amazing". It sounded like a place we had to visit.

For our first outing in the area I decided on a cliff named Nid d'aigle, meaning Eagle's Nest or Eyrie. The crag takes its name from the first route done on it, which the guide says is "La grande classique du Ponteil, la première voie ouverte dans la falaise". Here's the view you get when you are on your way up to the climbing on this sector (right click on photo for a more detailed view):

Nid d'Aigle: our climb takes the prominent dihedral towards the right-hand end
With its beetling overhangs, it was a bit intimidating-looking compared to the slabs we'd been on at Ailefroide on our previous day out but the route we had chosen was well within our level of capability so up we went. As Di wanted me to lead the crux fourth pitch, she racked up and set off on the first pitch, which started with a nice easy angle ...

... and here she is on the belay at the end of the pitch, which traverses around the first big overhang in the dihedral ...

Pitch one finishes with an airy traverse

After the first pitch the climb gradually steepens. Here Di is stemming up the upper section of the third pitch ...

Di on pitch 3
I took a couple of scenic shots at this point of the climb ...

Looking down to the houses, road and Durance River below
Looking across the valley
After I pulled through the crux on pitch four I took this photo looking back down at Di on belay ...

Looking down pitch four
We were delighted that, apart from a few loose stones laying about on ledges, the rock was pretty much as the guide described: nice and solid. Although the route consisted of five pitches, with traverses and a couple of ledges and an overhang they were all relatively short: two free-hanging 50 metre rappels gets you back to the bottom. Here's Di halfway down the first rappel ...

Di on the first rappel
On the way back to the car we stopped for a look back at our route and to check the progress of a party of three who were on pitch two when we rappelled past them. If you expand this next photo you'll get a clearer view of them, with the leader at the top of the third pitch, belaying up the other two in the party ...

Climbers on pitch 3 of Nid d'aigle
We thought it would be good to see a bit more of the countryside so we took a route back to our apartment via Saint-Crépin, a little village below the crag on the other side of the Durance River. On the way, we passed an airfield that we'd noticed from high on the hill, where a bunch of gliders were laying in wait for a late afternoon flight ...

Gliders near Saint-Crépin
We'd overlooked bringing any lunch with us, so when we passed an enticing-looking roadside bar-café we decided to check it out ...

Alfresco dining in the Haut Alpes
It was only once we were seated that we noticed the sign above the entrance ...

The charmingly-named "Le Gaulois"
As soon as we sat down and saw the plate of food delivered to the lady sitting next to me, we knew we were in for a good feed. The lady's companion, noticing our appreciative looks said, "Everything here is good!" The menu made choosing very difficult, but I decided to go with my first impulse and have the same salad the afore-mentioned lady was devouring with such gusto. Di opted for the seafood-based equivalent. We managed to restrain ourselves to just the one course - but only bearing in mind that we'd have plenty of opportunity to visit again before we leave the area.

Di's tongue-in-cheek comment as we were polishing off our lunch was, "Well .... it isn't Arapiles, but ...". For those of you who are non-climbers, or those of you who are but haven't climbed at Arapiles, it's one of the most user-friendly traditional climbing areas in the world, with the emphasis on traditional. Situated far away from Les Haut Alpes in even farther western Victoria, the climbing is fantastic: wonderful, solid rock encompassing a huge range of grades. But there is little in-situ gear: apart from the occasional bolt or old piton to save one from a catastrophic ground fall, you pretty much have to place all your own protection. It's just the opposite hereabouts. But then it's pretty hard to find a charming little bar-café like "Le Gaulois" when you've finished climbing for the day!

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Eating Pancakes and Climbing La Cocarde

They don't have baking powder in France ....

... but they do have Maple Syrup!

When we did our first grocery shop the other day we spied Maple Syrup and had to have it so we could make pancakes on the occasional morning when we aren't racing off to the crag. (Note: Maple Joe from oh... Canada!) Couldn't find any Baking Powder at the time so we left it for the moment. We were back to get a few more things today and scoured the supermarket and still couldn't find Baking Powder: conclusion, they just don't have it. What they do have is Baking Soda ("What's the difference ?" you ask ... I answer), and the only size is this mega-packet, so that's what we've got. It says on the container that they use it for "Patisseries ... Pour bien faire lever la pâte: use cuillière à café pour 500 g de farine". Sounds about right.
The other thing featuring prominently in the photo is some massage oil for sore muscles which are starting to present. In the background, Di is snipping open a packet of  walnuts to go in the salad she is making for dinner. We've rediscovered that the French are big on nuts in salads, especially walnuts (noix) and hazelnuts (noisettes).

After a couple of more energetic day, today was a relaxed day. We drove around a bit, had lunch out (very nice gigot d'agneau, but maybe not as good as our home-grown Tasmanian lamb), did some shopping - Di has a very fancy new pair of climbing pants - then came home for an afternoon of reading and looking at the guide book in search of tomorrow's agenda. We've set out a game plan; hopefully the weather will co-operate.

Yesterday was a good day out. We went to the main rock climbing area in the Dauphiné area of the Alps de Sud, a place called Ailefroide. After just a little bit of to-ing and fro-ing we found the cliff we were looking for and the climb we wanted to do. Not too bad for a first visit to a relatively large area. We had chosen a route called "La Cocarde", a very popular climb and one the guidebook describes as "simply spectacular climbing".

Here is a photo that shows the route, obviously very foreshortened so the traversing isn't as significant as it looks ...

Pleased to have found the route we were looking for, we geared up just as the bottom of the cliff came into the sun ...

The climb was six pitches long: 230 metres, graded 5c+  ~ 17 in Australia or 5.9 in North America. And it was a really lovely route.

Di led the first pitch and here she is at the belay ...

Did you notice the short black dotted line and the "Whoops!" on the photo showing the route? Although I was looking hard for bolts to follow I inadvertently headed up to an incorrect anchor, which turned out to be merely a rappel station. As I was bringing Di up to my position I noticed a line of bolts down and right (my left looking down) that I should have followed. In the next photo I've belayed Di down to the nearest of those bolts so she can regain the line, a traverse right before heading upwards ...

Once she had climbed across and up and put me on belay I tentatively followed: the climbing back down was easy but if I slipped there was nothing to stop me from taking a huge whipper. Back en route, we were delighted to have found the right way as the climb was a gem. Not hard but very enjoyable and about the right grade for us as we hadn't been on granite slabs for about two years.

Here's a photo of Di following me up the gorgeous long fifth pitch ...

... and one of her just arriving at the end of the final pitch ...

As you can see in the next photo, the views we enjoyed during the climb were fantastic ...

A couple of final notes on the route. The bolting is not quite "old school" but what I would describe as "sporty" and might test the nerves of someone just pushing up to that level.  Although not quite as clean, classy or hard as the wonderful "Crest Jewel" on North Dome in Yosemite Valley, the style of bolting was quite similar: pretty spaced in places but with the bolts where you needed them, and grouped where the level of difficulty was sustained. This added nicely to the sense of challenge and commitment on the route. I can see why it is so highly rated at the grade.
The other note is in regard to the name: we discovered "cocarde" stands for the French emblem of a tricolour rosette, and thereby represents those wonderful three maxims of French nationhood: liberté, égalité et fraternité.

Vive la France!

The forecast does look good for tomorrow, so hopefully we'll have another great day out on the rock.

Wish us luck, won't you?
All the best, Doug and Di

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Settling into Briançon

One of the things about travelling is that occasionally but - seemingly regularly - one is surprised by moments of unexpected delight. Such was the case while we were waiting to pick up our rental car at the Grenoble train station. There happens to be a piano in the main foyer of the station and a young man, possibly a student was playing as we passed by ...

The drive south from Grenoble took us back through le Bourg-d'Oisans and on up to Col du Lautaret by which time my nerves were jangling from all the gasps and screeches from the passenger sitting beside me. The roads are pretty narrow and windy, but it wasn't that bad, really. A pause at the col for a hot chocolate (not hot enough and too sweet for both of us) and the obligatory photo of the big bikes settled us down again ...

... before we continued our journey to Briançon to collect the keys to our apartment. By the time we had unpacked all our dirty clothes from the hike and the stuff we'd left in Bourg and settled in we didn't really feel like doing any shopping so we elected to have a meal out in the old town of Briançon at a place called Lou Grand Caire, a charming little restaurant with a traditional French Alps menu supplemented with a hint of Nepal.

Yesterday it rained all day. I'd have happily stayed indoors but Di, being the older, more sensible of the two of us, dragged me out to do some shopping. We got some provisions and she made a wonderful ratatouille for dinner. And that was about it for the day, except that I came across a shocking but unsurprising article in The Age newspaper about a nine year-old girl accidentally killing her shooting instructor with an Uzi machine gun at a firing range in Arizona. So macabre, but it turns out that almost the exact same thing has happened before - more than once. Maybe the final ugly twist of the knife for me with this one is the name of the shooting range: "Bullets and Burgers". I'll leave it there.

Today was a better day. After a great sleep in we woke to a fine day. Di was determined to go to the weekly market in Briançon and I'm so glad she was. We came away with heaps of booty. I took this photo of old tomato varieties, all grown organically or, as they say here in France "biologique" or just "bio" for short ...

When we got "home" I laid out all the goodies on the kitchen bench ...

Clockwise from back left we've got: ravioli with mushrooms and parmesan; tagliatelli; basil magnifico; Sicilian anchovies; beetroot; fennel bulbs, carrots (just pulled by the look of them); aubergines; courgettes; tomatoes; raspberries; parmesan; two types of bread; and tucked in to the right of the bread is a chunk of preserved meat and some fantastic green beans.
We've decided that a visit to the market will be a weekly occurrence. Interestingly, it is held on Wednesdays. Seemed unusual to me but Di didn't think so.

Some mundane business followed: we're happy with our apartment but it hasn't been particularly well looked after as a lot of lights weren't working. Happily, the agent organised for an electrician to call us and he got here while we were home for lunch and fixed everything up for us. Now I can read in bed. Yippee!

We decided to see if we could still climb and took ourselves up to the nearest crag - which is about a kilometre's drive and 5 minutes walk away - for some exploratory moves. It isn't the sort of place you'd travel halfway around the world to visit, but it was a good place for us to start. There were three young lads already there when we arrived and we were a little amused by the picture they presented (note the lad in the hammock reading the guide book and the tightness of the rope between the belayer and the climber) ...

It was good that we'd chosen a crag so close to our apartment. Just after I took this photo I discovered  I'd left my climbing shoes behind and had to race back to get them. It was a lot less inconvenient than the time I left my climbing shoes in the car at the base of the hill at Lowdina, but that's another story and you'll only get it out of me with a great deal of persuasion, possibly involving beer, wine and maybe even spirits.

While we in the middle of getting reacquainted with the business of fondling rock a guided group arrived and this little crag was swarming with adolescents.

Kind of fun watching them: it brought back a lot of fond memories but at the same time we were glad that that part of our lives is behind us! Anyway, we had enough fun that we're planning on a visit to Ailefroide tomorrow to see if we can find an easy multi-pitch route or two to do. We'll let you know how things went in due course. In the meantime I'd better start getting my gear organised - including my climbing shoes! - as it's a bit more of a drive than today and it's advisable to arrive early in the morning. So long for now ...

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Tour des Écrins ~ done and dusted!

So, I maintained a bit of a diary on the iPhone while we were on our hike. The idea was to make just a few notes for each day and add a few photos to show the richness of the route. I hope you'll like it. Later I'll make a larger gallery on my SmugMug site when I've got more time.

Day 1
Bourg d'Oisans - Besse-en-Oisans

Okay, I'll be the first to admit it: we found today's 1700 metres of uphill walking to be a pretty hard slog and, by the time we were finished, wondered what we'd let ourselves in for. Our saving grace was the training we did at home on Kunanyi/Mt Wellington before leaving for France to walk the GR54.The initial part of today's route was steep but interesting and passed through a tiny hamlet near Huez high above Bourg. 

A tiny hamlet above Bourg d'Oisans

Next, a lovely section of track traversed through forest ...

One of the delights of walking in the forest above Bourg d'Oisans

... before delivering us on the road from Huez up to our high point for the day at the Col de Sarenne. Not to put too fine a point on it, hiking up the road was rather tedious, especially with the number of cyclists riding past reminding us that there was a more efficient - yet still human-powered - way to travel on bitumen! A lunch stop for a great bowl of soup and home-made bread revived our spirits and we set off on a long descent before the steep climb to the charming village of Besse, a beautiful, old alpine village.

A glimpse of Besse

Made us think of Heidi a bit, actually (I know, wrong country, but still ...).

Day 2
Besse - Le Chazelet

After a short descent on the road the rest of the day's walk was on trails. Shortly after leaving Besse we got a view across the narrow valley we were ascending to a gorgeous, isolated alpine hamlet ...

A tiny isolated hamlet clings to the side of a narrow valley

 More climbing followed - up and up and up through a couple of minor passes to reach our high point for the day, Col de  Souchet  at 2365 metres. We enjoyed glorious walking  through the Plateau d'Emparis, passing by a herd of sheep and goats ...

Free ranging livestock on the Plateau d'Emparis

We would have liked to linger in this area but a cool wind arrived, bringing drizzle while we were hiking across the higher parts of the plateau so we pushed on instead. As we neared Le Chazelet  the  weather picked up and we were rewarded with clear skies and wonderful panoramic views across to La Meije

View towards La Meije from Plateau d'Emparis

Eventually we found ourselves at the top of the twisty descent down into Le Chazelet itself, which is a ski village in winter and popular centre for hiking in the summer.  We were gobsmacked to suddenly come across streams of people, many of them family groups - some of them comprised of three generations, coming up the hill towards us. It was really wonderful to see the numbers of people out enjoying the environment. By the time we got down into Le Chazelet we were ready for a late lunch of crêpes salées followed by a lazy afternoon. 

Day 3
Le Chazelet - Refuge l'Alpe de Villar d'Arène

We woke today to a cold morning with a dusting of fresh snow on the higher peaks illuminated against a eggshell-blue sky.  As we set off through the village, Di was a bit befuddled with water pouring off some of the roofs; where could it have come from, she wondered? With no gutters, the roofs were just releasing the frost as it melted. A short hike up the road leading into the sunshine warmed us up ...

Looking back at Le Chazelet

...  which was followed by the descent to La Grave, a very touristy ski village and very different from either Besse or Le Chazelet. We did not linger: this was not what we'd come for! Back on the track, lovely walking up along the Rive Romanche led to Villar d'Arène, another gorgeous village high on a mountain slope. An amateur bike race was just setting off from the town square as we arrived. As we continued onward, we left the upper reaches of the Romanche ...

Leaving civilisation behind

... for a scenic path which led up into a high hanging valley where we found the Refuge l'Alpe de Villar d'Arène, which enjoys brilliant views of the peaks ringing the head of the valley. We felt very lucky that we'd had another clear day in the Alps ...

About where we had lunch on day 3

... when the weather had been pretty ordinary throughout the summer and not very promising when we'd arrived in Bourg a few days earlier.

This is what we've come for ...

Day 4
Refuge d'Alpe Villar d'Arène - Le Monêtier-les-Bains

This is probably starting to sound monotonous but, yet again, a frosty start led to yet another gorgeous day. The walking was sublime for most of the way. Initially, a relatively short, gradual, open climb with great views led up to the Col d'Arsine (2340 metres).

Looking around the Col d'Arsine
That was followed be a lovely descent ...

Di starting down the long descent into the valley
A little further down the valley

... along a stream to the attractive Lac de la Douche. It was a little early and cool for a swim so we kept on down through the forest to the small village of le Casset where we hoped we  might get some refreshment. Nothing doing, so on we went to Le Monêtier-les-Bains (essentially a ski and spa resort town) where the attractions of the first patisserie we encountered were too much to resist. We arrived at the Gîte Le Fourou  and, although a little non-plussed we weren't able to access our room and get a shower until 4:00 p.m., that inconvenience was more than made up for by having a room to ourselves and the fantastic evening meal, sharing a table with a bunch of convivial Belgians and a Frenchman named Philippe de Brion. As Philippe seemed like a jolly sort of fellow and was going our way, we asked if he'd like to join us in the morning.

Day 5
Le Monêtier-les-Bains - Vallouise

Now a party of three, Philippe, Di and I set off early for the long climb up towards Col l'Echauda. The first two hours were spent in a lovely forest; like the section of forest on the first day, we found lots of flowers along this part of the trail ...

More forest flowers
... and then some lovely open walking along what are ski slopes in winter followed ...

Looking back the way we'd come
... passing some patches of beautiful wildflowers ...

Another beautiful mountain trail
We spent some time walking up a gravel road through a ski area. Not the nicest part of the route so far. After crossing a new high point of 2425 metres for our route, we found more beautiful grassy slopes and soon stopped for lunch, with fine views looking down into the valley below. There was also this unusual plant growing at that spot ...

Lunchtime oddity
Soon the trail descended very steeply before easing off just above Chambron, a popular spot for day-trippers to set off on various excursions. Here we joined the road which we more or less followed - with intermittent  detours - down to Vallouise. As with most GR routes, there seems to be lots of water points in small settlements along the way. Here's one we came across a half hour or so before arriving at Vallouise ...

One of the more stylish waterpoints we've encountered

We were able to access Le Baoüti, the gîte we'd pre-booked, as soon as we arrived (well, after stopping for a beer first!) and Natalie, our charming hostess was also able to provide a single room for Phillipe. Di and I had a room to ourselves with our own shower and toilet - merveilleux! The day was topped off beautifully when our long-lost friend Carol Nash - whom we hadn't seen for at least 25 years - and her daughter Jess turned up to have dinner with us. yet another fantastic, footloose and fancy-free day!

Day 6
Vallouise - Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette

We'd been persuaded that it was a good idea to take the bus up to the end of the road at Entre-les-Aygues, saving us about nine kilometres of walking on bitumen and about 400 metres of ascent. 

A new variation on foxgloves for us: yellow rather than mauve
With the 1160 metres of climbing that we did have - in and out of light showers - this certainly was a good move and one we'd recommend. 

All the tired horses in the sun ... how'm I supposed to get any ridin' done?
Mountain hut using features of the landscape
An interesting rising traverse across the schist-comprised cirque at the head of the valley brought us to the Col de l'Aup Martin which, at 2761 metres, is the high point of the GR54. 

Philippe nearing col de l'Aup Martin; Dianne a little way back

It was cold and windy up at the top so we continued onward in search of a warmer and more sheltered spot for lunch. After contouring around to Pas de la Cavale ...

Traversing towards lunch!

...we dropped down far enough to find a spot out of the wind for a welcome rest and lunch, about 4 hours after setting off. The descent to the refuge was very steep, dropping nearly 1000 metres in quite a short distance. The refuge itself is a beautiful building constructed in 1980.

Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette
Remarkably, although there were lots of people up for lunch there were only 6 of us in the refuge for dinner, so it was quite a pleasant, intimate evening. Even better was the situation with the dortoirs: the guardian of the refuge was happy to give Di, Philippe and me a room to ourselves and put the other guests in a room of their own. (It seems to be more common to have everyone packed in together in this situation to save on cleaning.) 

Day 7
Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette - la Chapelle-en-Valgaudemair

Wow! What a day! We crossed three high cols before a long, long, long descent. The first col was our high point for the day ...

Looking ahead from the top of the first col

... it was followed by a short descent ...

Descending the schist just under the first col

 ... into a lovely hanging valley where a group was just packing up their camp after spending the night.
We had a pause 
at the top of the next col for a snack and to look at the route ahead ...

The route ahead lies over the corrugated ridge right of centre
A longer and more arduous descent and ascent took us to the top of Col Valonpierre ...

Di on top of Col Valonpierre
From there we could look back through the second col to our high point for the day and ahead to the Refuge de Vallonpierre, which is situated in a gorgeous spot by a tarn which we chose as our lunch stop. We noticed some interesting clouds building as we continued down valley ...

Threatening clouds build above

The very long descent to our destination for the night was highlighted by a stop to eat some wild raspberries that Philippe found growing beside the track ...

Framboises found by Philippe
 This day, our longest of the tour, ended just as the rain - and it was VERY heavy - arrived. 

Day 7
La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemair - le Désert en Valjouffrey

Si hier était le jour des framboises, aujourd'hui c'est le jour des myrtilles. (If yesterday was raspberry day, today is blueberry day.) We started - uncharacteristically - with a pleasant, slightly downhill stroll for an hour to the village of Villar-Loubière.

An old mill in Villar-Loubière
And that's when things changed. We climbed 1000 metres to the lovely Refuge des Souffles where we paused for some morning tea. When we set off again to climb the remaining 500 metres to the Col de la Vaurze we discovered myrtilles in abundance just near the refuge and naturally paused for a little grazing. After a long northwest and then southwest traverse  the route finally climbed very steeply to the col where we paused for a long, long lunch break.

Another trackside attraction
These rock formations grabbed our attention on the way up the hill
A false summit
Cette marmotte regarde moi avec suspicion!
Looking down into Désert-en-Valjouffrey

Eventually feeling refreshed enough to continue, we found an  initial steep descent on now-familiar hard-packed schist took us to a long traverse and another steep descent towards le Désert-en-Val-Jouffrey, a tiny town with a brilliant gîte d'etâpe.

Another view from the col
Like many of the descents on this Tour des Écrins, when observed from below this one looks so improbable; given that the route drops 1250 metres over a distance of 4.6 kilometres with a long traverse in the middle, it's not surprising our guidebook describes it as "knee-wrecking". 

That's our col in the distance, slightly right of centre
As we arrived in the village we were treated to an age-old tradition:  bringing the cows in from the hills for milking ...

Day 9Le Désert-en-Valjouffrey - Valsenestre

As per usual the day started pretty much straight uphill. At least the climb was more moderate than yesterday's at  just over 1000 metres and on a good surface. We reached the charmingly named Col de Côte Belle 2 ¾ hours after setting out from the refuge and had a break for a snack and to enjoy the panoramic views, both back the way we'd come and the route ahead.

Looking down at the winding track leading up to the Col de Côte Belle
Three amigos atop Col de Côte Belle
Overlooking Val Senestre

Our guidebook had highlighted the descent with descriptions of sections that featured "spiky, shattered, slate-like slabs" and "a wild alpine garden".  

Rock coming apart at the seams!
Any moment now ...
Part of the "wild alpine garden"
Further down we traveled through stands of young birches and larches, suggesting that an avalanche had swept through this section of the track in the not-too-distant past. Throughout the descent we were confronted with the intimidating climb of the Col de la Muzelle, one of the highest on the GR54 and where our journey will take us tomorrow. Many times we stopped, awe-stricken, looking across at the improbable route.

The view across to the Col de la Muzelle with its intimidating upper section

 Upon our arrival in yet another tiny alpine village we were delighted to meet our hostess Helène at Le Bélanger, another gîte d'étape and the only accommodation if one wants to stop hereabouts. Not only was Helène a delightful hostess, she was a wonderful cook: our meal here was probably the best we had en route. As I sit writing this and sharing a bottle of Vinsobres with Di and Philippe I can smell dinner cooking and it is driving me crazy. This gîte has the reputation of having the best food on the GR  and my nose is telling me why. Bon appetite!

Day 10
Valsenestre - Refuge de la Muzelle

Like most of the cols we've had to climb here in the Alps, the Col de la Muzelle was a lot easier than it looked. The 1300 metres of ascent from the village of Valsenestre took us 2 hours and 43 minutes with Di setting a sure and steady pace the whole way. 

Looking back towards yesterday's pass
We were on the fearsome-looking section of schist at the top before we knew it and were delighted to discover an excellent wide path had been worn into the surface, making it the easiest part of the ascent.  This little creeper with its beautiful flowers grew straight out of the schist ...

Clinging to life
Unfortunately, the overnight rain left the skies mist-laden for the entire ascent so we were only able to get  brief glimpses of the surrounding peaks and the Col de Côte Belle, which we crossed yesterday. With no clear indication (pun intended) that blue skies were imminent we decided not to linger at the col. 
Philippe leaving Col de la Muzelle behind
Di heading towards Refuge la Muzelle

The short descent to the refuge only took about an hour, making for a very short day indeed. We've had an early lunch and are looking forward to a relaxing afternoon enjoying the magnificent views from the refuge's sunny, south-facing terrace overlooking the beautiful Lac Muzelle.

Looking back towards Col de la Muzelle from the refuge

Day 11
Refuge de la Muzelle - Bourg d'Oisans

Holy Moly! We have finished the Tour des Écrins! We can hardly believe it. On paper this looked like an easy day, although the descent of 1850 metres to our final destination posed a question for our knees. 
It was quite a cool morning. Di - being Di - was well rugged up.

Leaving Lac Muzelle
Looking back at Lake Muzelle on the approach to Col du Vallon
As we'd spent the night over 2100 metres, the 400 metre climb up to the Col du Vallon was pretty easy, then it was all downhill from there. 

Col du Vallon ~ our last col on the GR54!
Looking down towards Lac Lauvitel
The route descended steeply - hmm, there seems to be a bit of repeating theme here - to Lac Lauvitel and then continued in the same manner right down to the floor of the valley of the Rive Romanche. The highlight of the day was definitely the views we enjoyed on the descent to Lac Lauvitel. By the time we'd arrived at the lake we realised why the route down was so convoluted: steep walls circle three sides of the lake making for a spectacular setting. 

At Lac Lauvitel
Further on the path was paved for a very long distance and, it being Sunday, lots of people were making their way up into the mountains. It was a joy to see so may folks out enjoying their local environment. Actually, I think my real highlight for the day was my brief chat with two petits randonneurs who were about four and five years old: they were very excited about the prospect of seeing some marmots. This left me with a grin that lasted right through the seemingly endless lower section of the walk before arriving at Bourg d'Oisans and our finishing point. I experienced one last treat of nature before we arrived in Bourg ...

Butterfly on Lilac blossom
... and finally we were there!
We arrive at the Office de Tourism in Bourg d'Oisans

Le Tour des Écrins In Summary

A glimpse of Le Tour des Écrins from a Google point of view

There was no doubt we were lucky with the weather. Our heightened sense of enjoyment would have been tempered considerably had it been colder and/or wetter at various points along the route, especially climbing the slopes up the the col de l'Aup Martin, as well as descending the slopes immediately below the Col de Vallonpierre and Col de la Muzelle which were all on steep schist and would have been quite slippery when wet.
We were rapt with our packs and their contents: they were the lightest we've carried on a multi-day hike and will be the template for any future excursions of this sort. For both of us,  a couple items of warmer clothing didn't get much use but that would have been different had we experienced bad weather.

The valleys generally are steep and narrow; the scenery magnificent and the hospitality in refuges and gîtes excellent. Interestingly, two of the gîtes were owned by the local commune, as was one of the refuges. A very smart way to support tourism in those more remote valleys, and apparently very successful.
We walked 167 kilometres, crossed 14 passes and ascended - and of course descended - 12,830 metres over 11 days. Maybe the best indicator of how we found the GR54 was that when I asked Di and Philippe which day was the best, we all simultaneously said, "The longest day!" The combination of the three passes close together, a fantastic lunch spot, eating raspberries, a long and varied descent and beating the rain into town meant a lot was packed into that day. The only slightly disappointing thing about the hike was that we saw little wildlife: apart from lots of marmots there were only a few birds. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat - if there weren't so many other things on the bucket list!