French Odyssey Part 10 – Sunrise & Solitude   6 comments

Whilst on our day trips to the Verdon Gorge, I’d harboured an idea to get a decent walk on the mountains and ridges that rise above it. I had a walking guide with some excellent routes in it that sounded ok for a half a day. Downside was that I’d have to start at sunrise and be finished by late morning before the heat killed me. On several days I’d thought “tomorrow is the day” but after a an evening consuming chilled Rose wine and a few beers the idea of getting up at 5am no longer appealed. However as our last day approached before the journey home I decided I had to go for it.

The day started with a splendid sight.  The local woodland is populated with wild boar but they are pretty secretive so I was thrilled that as I pulled away from the house in the pitch black at 5:30am I sensed some movement in the fields and then a large wild boar trotted across the track about 2 feet in front of the car pausing briefly to look at me with a kind of “what the feck are you staring at” look before he headed off into the darkness. It had been worth getting up early just for that so it was with renewed enthusiasm that I set off.

I’d chosen a walk to the south of the gorge, climbing the ridge of the Grand Marges before descending to the road and walking back along one of the high level traverse paths back to the car. When I arrived at the car park at the Illoire pass at 6am I faced a couple of unexpected problems. First it was still dark, second there was a gale force wind blowing. I felt slightly unsettled sitting in the car on my own, paths in France aren’t always as well-marked as you’d like them to be and I was on my own. Still, what’s the worst that can happen I thought so I set off to my next problem.

The main path up the Marges ridge is a GR route that I was hoping was well-defined and signed. Trouble is, it lay a few hundred metres through the woods from my car although there was a path marked on the map. I set off on what I thought was the path which promptly ceased in middle of some rather thick and exceptionally prickly maquis scrub. B*llocks! And so passed an interesting 20 minutes of scrabbling about in the undergrowth by the light of my phone trying  to follow a series of pathetically weak paths issuing forth a whole range of colourful metaphors about french paths, map-makers and anyone else who I felt deserved some of that. Eventually I emerged scratched and a little temperamental (I’m not a good morning person) into a clearing at the far side of which was a cairn marking the junction of my GR path to the top and the broad path I should have been on in the first place but singularly failed to find. Bloody french map-makers.

At least it would be plain sailing from here (fat chance – more later). I climbed quickly keen to get clear of the trees and watch the sunrise.

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Lower gorge and Lac de Sainte Croix

The weather wasn’t as clear as the past week but the clouds gave it a majestic feel. As soon as I was in the open I sat down on the cliff edge with my feet dangling over a precipice and soaked up the atmosphere.

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The sun rises

It was truly magnificent and after a few seconds my bad mood of earlier was replaced with the calm reflection of a day solo in the mountains. I looked at the gorge and the lake.

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Lac de Sainte Croix

I looked at distant summits wondering if they had routes. I planned other walks in the gorge. I thought about Jane and how she would enjoy this spot. I watched the sun start to appear changing the landscape subtly, dramatically as it did. Mostly I just wondered about the majesty of this part of France and that I had it all to myself for now. I was back in touch with the mountains

From then on I simply soared up the ridge, sometimes following the path, sometimes trying to stick the edge to get the feeling of height above the gorge.

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Lower gorge and the corniche sublime road

At the Clot de la Glaciere there is a stupendous lookout point over the lower gorge and high meadow that would be a perfect wild campsite if there were only some water nearby. I cruised up to the summit of the Grand Marges ridge at 1577m just as the sun broke from the clouds and had the most stunning peaceful outdoor breakfast I can remember. Life was pretty good just then.

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Grand Marges summit

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Upper gorge and limitless peaks

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Lac de Sainte Croix

It was time to move on, the sun was getting higher and the temperature rising rapidly. The path twists and turns down to La Colle with the vast expanse of the army ranges at La Canjouers to the south. They really don’t want you straying in there with warning signs every hundred yards or so. Other than that it was a pleasant and steady descent through the scrub and trees.

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Ourbies ridge

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Looking back to Grand Marges

I caught a couple of distant glimpses of more wild boar and I could hear them in the trees but no close encounters. When I reached the road I came out into the open and it was already hot even though it was only just after 9am.

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Looking along to where I needed to go

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Plein Voir peak

I reached the start of the path back along the upper slopes of the gorge where there were several signs. My french is not great but even I can get phrases like “sentier ferme” and “tres dangereaux”. B*llocks! I pondered the alternative of a 5 mile walk along a busy road and decided in my usual reckless manner that it would be fine – “what’s the worst that could happen” – so I set off anyway. The start of the path was broad and sunny with hundreds of butterflies to keep me company.

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Easy start

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Accompanied by wildlife

Very quickly the path went very narrow and the slopes above and below me got steeper and steeper. The path had been well-marked out with yellow paint splashes – helpful you’d think – if only it wasn’t within a pantones breadth of the colour of the lichen that covered every rock. I had several moments wondering where the path had gone, retracing my steps and by luck or judgement finding the path again. It clearly wasn’t a well used path, it was overgrown and extremely prickly, shorts were not the right attire. As a progressed I became uncertain about what might be around the next bend that might be the reason for the path closure. An unstable scree slop. A landslip with no way across. There were several “sentier difficile” sections on the map. The drop to the gorge was precipitous, the cliffs above impenetrable. On top of all that it was fiercely hot. I was uneasy.

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The path traverses the rock ridge on the near skyline on the left

Well, for anyone expecting a tale of thrills, daring escapes and near-death experiences I’ll have to disappoint you. Other than the nagging feeling I might have to retrace my steps and walk along the road and ever-increasing temperature, the walk was enjoyable. There were several sections of exposed scrambles and traverses around the numerous rocky ridges and promontories where a slip would have been nasty and some major scree slopes to cross but they were all well-marked and easy to follow.

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Not as terrifying to cross as it looks

The situations and views were magnificent and still I had it to myself although that enhanced my sense of unease at times.

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The narrow defile of the lower gorge

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Ourbies ridge

The only moment of alarm came when I paused to check out where the path had gone and became aware of stonefall in the vicinity. While I looked around to see where it might be coming from I heard the very scary whizz of a small piece about the size of a tennis ball as it missed my head by a couple of feet. I legged it until I was sure I was away from the danger zone. Had it hit me on the head…………..

I had a sit down and a snack to calm my nerves before I pressed on through the impressive Cirque de Vaumale perched high above the part of the gorge we’d been along in the pedalo the previous week.

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"Where the kayaks and the pedalos play"

The views were still tremendous. The final climb of 200m back to the car were in the full glare of the sun and was punishing. I reached the car with a mix of satisfaction and relief. The section above the gorge had been a little tense at times but as I look back now I wonder why I made such a fuss. Possibly my lack of familiarity with the terrain, possibly the isolation. As I sat by the car I realised I hadn’t seen a single person all day – well morning anyway

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Path crosses the terrain on the left

Satisfied that I’d seen the “real” Verdon Gorge I headed home for a cold one by the pool

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6 responses to “French Odyssey Part 10 – Sunrise & Solitude

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  1. Your luck was in there, Andy. I almost never get away with it. Usually my suspicion that the game will impendigly be up is swiftly followed by emerging onto the lip of the Chasm of Doom or somesuch other topographical certain death scenario. This followed by having to trudge all the way back to the point where I first thought ‘Hmm, maybe it’s worth taking the chance’. I remember one 13 hour day in the Karnic Alps in Austria, the last few hours were an absolute bleeding nightmare, battling through scrub, non existent path, terrifying drops etc. Only when we finally emerged onto the main track leading to the refuge – sweating, bleeding, knackered – did we pass a sign with a big red cross saying ‘WEG VERBOTEN’ or somesuch other Teutonic warning.
    Anyway, glad it all worked out for you, you jammy so-and-so.

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    • Bloody Germans as well as bloody French!

      Not heard of the Karnic Alps – whereabouts are they?

      It was tense for a while when I wan’t sure why the path was closed. There was no obvious reason for it other than the path was a bit sketchy and loose in places. My main worry was having to retrace my steps in the heat of the day. If I’d been forced to retreat just before the final climb I’d have had to walk the best part of 10 miles in the blazing sun. When I do get into trouble on rock then I have my own unique technique that my pals have termed “leap and pray” it’s served me well over the years but if it does fail me I might not be able to blog about it :). The Verdon gorge has some pretty big cliffs and I also had visions of me clinging to a rock face above a 1000 foot drop as I’m always too dumb to take the safe option and retreat.

      Mind you that small rock that just missed me nearly gave me a skid-mark

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  2. There was an English chap out walking with his 15 year-old son in the Dolomites a few years ago; they came to an old cable lift stanchion and the chap decides they’ll use an old hawser to descend along the cable. I wonder how long it was before he hit the next stanchion at 60mph that he was going to die. His poor son having to watch it then climb down the mountain on his own. Think of your kids next time you have a ‘leap and pray’ moment, Mr Jones!

    The Karnic Alps run along the border with Italy from near Cortina d’Ampezzo to near Villach, by the junction with the Julian Alps and the Karawanken (pronounced ‘vank’). They’re a fine range of mountains with spectacular views of some of the other ranges including the aforementioned as well as the Lechtaller. They have some great refuges and aren’t so busy as some of the other ranges. Been a few times and never encountered any Brits.

    Hmm, I might dig out some old slides and do a post one of these days…

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    • Blimey what a numpty! I should stress that the leap and pray technique is only for people of a very specific mental constitution i.e. nuts (namely me) – “don’t try this in the outdoors”. I tell my kids not to do all the dumb things I used to do. If they follow that advice they should be fine

      I’ve never been to the dolomites but always wanted to go. The idea of the via ferrata is very appealing. I’ve climbed in the Oztal alps and they were pretty awesome. My alpine adventures were mostly around Chamonix and Zermatt. Reckon when my kids are grown up these other alpine mountains will be the ones to go for.

      I’d love to scan in some old photos and blog about the “old” days – it was a time of youthful enthusiasm and exuberance. And I had hair! Trouble is it’s hard enough keeping my blog up to date as it is!

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  3. Wow, well worth your early start to get a full morning walking there. I can imagine the moments of anxiety following the “sentier ferme” and “tres dangereaux” signs! I, too, would probably have chanced it too, instead of face a long, hot road walk, but would have been on edge all the time wondering if/when the path was suddenly going to disappear. The rock fall must have been a bit disconcerting!

    Superb photos!

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    • I’ve been in areas where I’ve seen stonefall but that’s the closest I’ve come to being crocked by one (unless you count a large head sized one rolling past me after my mate GM fell off a crag, busting his hand in the process on Rum – quite a story that one for another time)

      All added to my sense of unease but it was a top notch walk – nice to be able to retreat to a sun-lounger by the pool afterwards.

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