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 ...).
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 ...
Besse - Le Chazelet
|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.
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 ...
Le Chazelet - Refuge l'Alpe de Villar d'Arène
|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 ...|
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).
Refuge d'Alpe Villar d'Arène - Le Monêtier-les-Bains
|Looking around the Col d'Arsine|
|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.
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 ...
Le Monêtier-les-Bains - Vallouise
|More forest flowers|
|Looking back the way we'd come|
|Another beautiful mountain trail|
|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!
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.
Vallouise - Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette
|A new variation on foxgloves for us: yellow rather than mauve|
|All the tired horses in the sun ... how'm I supposed to get any ridin' done?|
|Mountain hut using features of the landscape|
|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|
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 ...
Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette - la Chapelle-en-Valgaudemair
|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|
|Di on top of Col Valonpierre|
|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|
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.
La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemair - le Désert en Valjouffrey
|An old mill in Villar-Loubière|
|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|
|That's our col in the distance, slightly right of centre|
Day 9Le Désert-en-Valjouffrey - ValsenestreAs 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"|
|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!
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.
Valsenestre - Refuge de la Muzelle
|Looking back towards yesterday's pass|
|Clinging to life|
|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|
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.
Refuge de la Muzelle - Bourg d'Oisans
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|
|Col du Vallon ~ our last col on the GR54!|
|Looking down towards Lac Lauvitel|
|At Lac Lauvitel|
|Butterfly on Lilac blossom|
|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!