Martin in Gatineau Park

Martin in Gatineau Park

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Friday 8 July 2011 - A Walk to Refuge des Merveilles

12km, 1300 metres ascent, 6.25 hours.

Having shed James and Helen from the reconstituted 'famous five' yesterday, we shed Susan this morning, as she has to catch a flight from Nice to JFK tomorrow morning. We did enjoy your company, Susan, and your less expected company, James and Helen - we hope to see you again at cider pressing time.

Despite her living in Glastonbury, Connecticut, we anticipate more adventures with well-travelled Susan a bit sooner than some may expect.

Anyway, on another fine, sunny morning we said our goodbyes and jumped on the big old bus that now plies the 20km or so route between Tende and Castérino. A bargain for €1, but a challenge for the driver who has to manoeuvre the old vehicle around countless hairpin bends.

Our first objective in Castérino was to book accommodation for tomorrow night; our second was to relax with a coffee. We achieved the latter, but the village is full tomorrow - not a single bed remains. Plan B was implemented - go to Tende tomorrow and try to find somewhere. Only when a vague sort of 'phone signal appeared several hours later did we realise that Plan C could be an option.

Meanwhile, we set off on Gillian's walk number 2, the Mont Bégo Loop. Up a pleasant jeep track through pine woods where nutcrackers were in evidence. The otherwise deserted track was luxuriously lined with a plethora of flowers - martagan lilies with huge blooms, our first sightings of black vanilla and burnt orchids, cow wheat and large clumps of globeflower and marsh marigolds, to name but a few of the countless species on offer.

Refuge de Fontanalba provided welcome refreshments. It was otherwise deserted.

A short way further along the track, we branched to the right towards the site of ancient rock engravings. A guard (warden?) was in situ to check that our walking poles were stashed and would not be adding to the ancient markings, some of which are apparently reproductions, the originals having been taken for display in the museum at Tende.

We spent the best part of two hours wandering around this 'Fontanalba Rock Engraving Circuit' (walk no 1 in Gillian's book). We found it interesting, but just a little over-hyped. The section known as 'La Voie Sacrée' was shut, apparently for health and safety reasons due to some of the slippery stones having themselves slipped. Pathetic!

There were a few people around, including three Germans seen at Rif Soria-Ellena.

A 'phone signal appeared. I had a brainwave. Plan C for tomorrow night was hatched. The role of a guide book writer can be tough at times. This time Gillian far exceeded her duties and within a few minutes we were booked into a hotel in Tende. Thank you, Gillian.

Moral: pre-book your weekend accommodation in this area, even out of the main season.

Our afternoon stroll to Refuge des Merveilles was undertaken on virtually deserted, but delightful, paths, so it was a bit of a shock to find hordes of people outside the refuge. We knew the score, as this refuge has an internet booking system requiring a €10 deposit, and we obtained - a couple of weeks ago - two of the last places for tonight. It takes 79 people, and was full. Still a shock to find so many people after encountering so few all day.

We finished up on a table with lots of 'hut to hut' walking enthusiasts, including Gilles Clement from Paris, with five friends, on an annual pilgrimage. It was great to meet you Gilles, and your friends, and thank you for being so gracious about our failings in relation to the French language. Your English is excellent.

Back to our route - we encountered our first edelweiss on Baisse de Vallauretta, where I no doubt had Gillian puzzled by mis-naming it. Descending to Vallon de la Minière, we encountered chamois, and a group heading up to wild camp, with a pony carrying their tents and other gear.

It was perfect walking weather. Sunny but not too hot, with a cooling breeze. This enabled us to speed up to the refuge with 15 minutes to spare - we had been told that our places would only be reserved until 5pm! I don't think we'd have been turned away though. We then had to wait outside in the sunshine until 6pm, when we were shown to our beds in the huge dormitory. Meanwhile we could purchase a litre of hot water for €1, and I finally found the teaspoon that I'd packed to accompany the mugs, tea and dried milk.

One of the hut guardians spoke very good English - Kevin, who told us his father was English, one Steve Peacock, said as if we should know him...

The evening passed quickly in the company of our new found friends, and the four course meal was very good considering that nearly 80 people were being served in one sitting by a handful of staff.

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Friday, 8 July 2011

Tende


We are back in France.

Here's the view from the balcony of our private room in Tende's gite d'étape.

Yesterday afternoon Dario's taxi efficiently deposited James and Helen near their lodgings in Entracque, and took us on to the station at Borge San Dalmazzo. An hour's journey from there saw us arrive here in plenty of time to wash all our trek soiled items before heading off for some fine dining (it was Susan's last night with us, but no excuse was really required) at La Margueria.

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Thursday, 7 July 2011

Thursday 7 July 2011 - An Alpi Marittime Trek, Day 6, Rifugio Pagari (2650m) to San Giacomo (1210m)

11km, 250m ascent, 5.4 hours.

Trek Totals - 80km (50 miles), 6000 metres ascent, 40 hours including breaks.

Last night we enjoyed our best meal yet, at the hands of Maria of Pagari. Antipasta > lasagne al forno > polenta with vegetables, carrots and mushrooms, all with exotic flavouring > crostata della casa. Delicious. Vegetarian.

Yesterday's posting was written before dinner, after which despite the apparent presence of a phone signal from time to time, it took until we reached the village of Entracque this afternoon before it finally 'sent' and we received comments from the last day or two. We hope we didn't worry Gillian into thinking we may have come to grief on the high route to Pagari! The guardian there tells us that some years the high route is not possible at all without ice axe and crampons, but in other years the snow may be safe for ordinary pedestrians by mid July. Just now conditions are dangerous, with a layer of hard ice underneath steep soft snow on a 500 metre section of the crossing. Perhaps a rope would also be handy.

Thank you as always for your comments...

Alan, you are so kind! EasyJet to Nice beckons for you and Sheila; we are sure you'd enjoy it here. The opportunities for wild camping are exceptional as well.

Nick, we have Yaktrax Pro footwear. As you surmise, they are good for icy pavements, but also can be kept in a day sack for steep snow and other conditions where more grip is desirable but full mountaineering kit isn't needed. It's important that you test them in order to know their limits. I did that in the Lakes and on Ben Lomond last year and found them to be grippier than expected, but no use on steep ice.
How are you getting on BTW?

Nightbird, I feel ashamed to have distracted you from important work, and also to have found a temporary replacement for you in the 'Famous Five' team. You'll be pleased to hear that the finely tuned restructured team has now been disbanded, but we do hope to have a reunion. Neither Susan nor Helen could match your 'Nightbird' performance, though their ability to cope with steep snow slopes was ... well ... better?
There will of course be a slide show.

We enjoyed muesli for breakfast! If they can do that at the highest rifugio, why not at all of them?
So we set out well fortified on stage 2 of Gillian's walk number 19, the descent to San Giacomo via Lago Bianco del Gelàs.

It started as a sporty route along a narrow rocky path interspersed with steep snow traverses (pictured). Luckily the snow wasn't hard enough to create any particular dramas. The most difficult section was a short traverse across a collapsed gully. After that, a minor route finding dilemma was resolved by following the marked path to Bivacco Moncalieri, as far as Lago Bianco del Gelàs. Here, a family group of ibex watched as we investigated the memorial to a man killed in 1971 whilst working on the construction of a rifugio here.

All that remains of the structure is its concrete base and a few piles of rubble.

But Rif Pagari is about to be extended.

The long descent to San Giacomo was steep but delightful, with 'new' flowers to record and a plethora of butterflies to enjoy. We also saw a ptarmigan and a black grouse, and heard a chiffchaff.

There was nobody else on this route, and little sign of anyone else having been there this season.

The weather teased us by producing a short shower out of nowhere shortly before we reached San Giacomo and the end of this excellent trek, but by the time we reached the café there, we were able to sit outside to enjoy our celebratory platters of meats and cheeses, etc.

Delicious!

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Wednesday 6 July 2011 - An Alpi Marittime Trek, Day 5, Rifugio Soria-Ellena (1840m) to Rifugio Pagari (2650m) via San Giacomo (1210m)


18km, 1500m ascent, 7.3 hours.

Yesterday's picture, if it wasn't obvious, was taken whilst we were enjoying a pot of tea outside Rifugio Soria-Ellena shortly after arriving last night.

From the window of our private room (still only €37 for half board) the morning sky was deep blue in hue. Marmots were whistling (perhaps Clever was out chasing them) and birds were chatting - there are small red breasted birds here, linnets I think.

It was with regret that we turned down the valley when we set off at 8.40, but with ice axe and crampons still being needed for the high route to Pagari, we knew it would be crazy to try with just walking poles and Yaktrax.

So we pottered down the stony 4WD track to San Giacomo. The flora was again superb, and now at the end of the day there is much discussion as to what we have seen. One definite ID is Spiked Bellflower, seen above under the spell of Sue's camera.

There were numerous people coming up the path towards Rifugio Soria-Ellena, which must do a good elevenses and lunchtime trade.

Shortly before reaching the beech woods that herald the arrival of San Giacomo, we came upon a vehicle containing a tank full of large trout. These were transferred into buckets and released into the river by the fisheries team. We weren't sure whether this re-stocking was for fishing purposes or for breeding, or both.

San Giacomo sports an excellent café that provided coffees, packed lunches and the booking of a taxi for when we return tomorrow.

The five hour, 1500 metre ascent to Rifugio Pagari could have been quite a slog. It wasn't. A most pleasant ascent in the company of myriads of butterflies, including the apollo, small blue, large blue, swallowtail, black-veined white, fritillary, small tortoiseshell, ringlet, comma, large copper, skipper, orange tip, painted lady, brown argus, brimstone, cleopatra, small fritillary, plus several unidentified. Thanks go to James for identifying most of these, and to Sue for capturing images of some of them. Butterfly afficionados may spot some rarities here.

Amongst all this butterfly spotting we couldn't help but be distracted by herds of chamois and ibex, the latter being particularly curious as to our passing, especially two young males who broke off their juvenile sparring to come and investigate.

Sadly, whilst the flowers are too numerous to record here, our bird count reflects the historic oppression of many species hereabouts. We've seen dippers and a heron, and there are plenty of redstarts and wheatears, but not much else other than the occasional alpine choughs and a bearded vulture. Absent from this list are the raven, ptarmigan, black grouse, peregrine, snow finches, and no doubt many more unprotected species.

After a couple of generous breaks, we arrived at Pagari at 4pm, taking just five hours for the well graded ascent. It's a small, friendly establishment. Already installed were two Germans who busily tested a litre of wine, and ten French walkers from Arle who were testing the beer. Our own testing has now started, after the ritual of afternoon tea on arrival at our resting place for day. The rifugio only has capacity for 24, so it's pretty full tonight.

We are high up here (2650 metres) and despite the afternoon cloud (mountain weather) we have great views of nearby peaks and of distant Alpine ranges to our north.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Tuesday 5 July 2011 - An Alpi Marittime Trek, Day 4, Rifugio Remondino (2430m) to Rifugio Soria-Ellena (1840m)


13km, 1000m ascent, 8.4 hours. (All timings on this trip include stops. Gillian Price's book provides accurate walking times.)

Another fabulous mountain day.

The 'variable' weather forecast for today proved inaccurate. The weather was perfect for this mountain traverse of two halves.

The first half, to Rifugio Genova, was rough and tough, the second half, after an excellent lunch of pasta/polenta, was over a scenic pass involving well graded paths and lots of flora and fauna.

We set off as a 'famous five' at 8.30 after a good breakfast, and headed along the thin and rocky path towards Colle del Brocan (2892m). Soon the rocks mutated into snowfields and eventually Yaktrax crampons were donned by the three of us who had them. J and H managed easily without such aids, and the three German lads who followed us up were probably ok, though (as expected) we didn't see them again. However, a slip on this steep snow could have serious consequences, so those without previous Alpine experience, or dubious about their ability in such conditions, may be wise to leave the Colle del Brocan until the snow has melted - a bit later in the summer.

The effort was rewarded with great views over the Alps and towards the Mediterranean.

The 900 metre descent to Rif Genova was steep and rough, with some steep snow slopes to test Sue's glissading skills. The rest of us slithered along behind, eventually catching up when she stopped to record the passing of yet another wild flower.

Lunch at Rif Genova was a complete contrast to yesterday's dismal experience. Cheerful staff chatted about routes and served up our pasta and polenta with speedy efficiency. We lazed there in the sun for a good hour.

In contrast to this morning's route, the easy path up to Colle di Fenestrelle (2463m) seemed positively decadent, as we wound slowly up to the pass. Chamois and ibex were abundant here, and a lammergeier flew overhead, sending the local choughs into a frenzy.

There had been over 30 people at Rif L Bianco, over 20 at Questa, and 17 at Remondino. But there are just 8 of us here tonight, which means that we received a friendly welcome from the staff here, who remain unchanged from our visit three years ago, and another very good meal. Sadly Matilda the fox has not survived the winter, but Rifugio Soria-Ellena has gained 'Clever' the dog, and has a friendly ibex - perhaps a brother of 'Ronaldo', the ibex of Rif Questa.

Gillian, thank you for your comments, we are glad that you and Nick enjoyed the 'book posting'. No doubt other readers of these pages are too busy reading your book to find time to comment! (Ha ha! Actually they are probably on holiday themselves, not interested in leaving the shores of the UK, or simply bored with these ramblings...)

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Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Monday 4 July 2011 - An Alpi Marittime Trek, Day 3, Rifugio Questa (2388m) to Rifugio Remondino (2430m)


13km, 1000m ascent, 6.6 hours.

Cloudier today, but fine with sunny intervals until 3pm. At least yesterday's sunburn didn't get any worse.

Breakfast was better at Questa, with plenty of bread and plenty of coffee. Just as well, as although Ennio said we would be able to get lunch at Rif Regina Elena, his optimism was misguided and he could have sold us packed lunches.

It turns out that Sue and I have met Ennio before. He worked at the visitor centre in Terme di Valdieri in 2008 and kindly put on for our benefit an English language version of a film about the reintroduction of ibex to this area. He also helped with accommodation suggestions and with the identification of a lammergeier that we had seen (we had thought it was an eagle).

An 8.45 departure saw us strolling in a minor procession along more of the magnificently constructed King's hunting paths. Imagine 5 metre high dry stone walls laid horizontally through boulder fields. Roger, who spends a lot of time dry stone walling, would be impressed - these 'paths' even have kerbs! We could just imagine the king in his chariot rumbling along them some 150 years ago in his misguided quest to hunt the ibex to extinction.

Sue and Susan are pictured today, at around 2400 metres, near Lago inferiore di Fremamorta, on a section of the hunting path.

We got ahead of most of the Germans (described jokingly by Ennio in more racist terms that I hesitate to repeat here - they are all very nice), leaving two of them to attempt an obscure route to Remondino (they failed to turn up).

Meanwhile, James and Helen headed down for lunch, and the three of us visited first a memorial cross (by mistake) and then the red metal hut of Bivacco Guiglia. We wanted to show Susan that such a place could be home to nine visitors. We succeeded - there was sufficient to confirm that three people could enjoy a comfy night here - but there are basic provisions, cups, blankets, beds, etc, sufficient for nine.

The descent to Rif Regina Elena was steep at times, but not unpleasant. James and Helen were sitting disconsolately outside. We had all omitted to read page 147 of Gillian's excellent guide book. Despite Ennio's assurance, no food or drink was available as we hadn't given them 'at least one day's warning'. We enjoyed the rest of our reserve supplies, James's errant jelly was repatriated and eaten, and water was the food of life. The Rifugio could have taken at least €50 off us, but preferred to continue with a family party. Fair enough!

The 600+ metre ascent to Rifugio Remondino should take two hours based on Gillian's accurate estimate. But the sky had darkened; spots of rain caused us to hasten our pace. I led the intrepid quintet across a river - a risky leap instead of a bridge lower down. Nobody complained! A steady pace enabled us to knock 20 minutes off Gillian's estimate. The raindrops increased. J and H stopped to don waterproofs. I stopped a little higher when the rain turned to serious hail. I then discovered that waterproofs were not needed. I had inadvertently paused under an overhang. In a brief pause before the storm set in, we all managed to reach the Rifugio, fairly dry, at 3.20.

It's an excellent spot with good food and wine. And a hot shower that worked intermittently for some of us as the power went on and off in the storm. €5 for a shower, so the three of us shared it - quite interesting in a small dark room with intermittent power...

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Just for you, Gillian

Your book is very popular in these parts, Gillian.

Other readers of this posting should take note and order their copies before it goes out of print.

The maps may not be available from Stanfords, but can be obtained from The Map Shop (Upton-upon-Severn), and they are readily available locally.

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Monday, 4 July 2011

Sunday 3 July 2011 - An Alpi Marittime Trek, Day 2, Rifugio Livio Bianco (1910m) to Rifugio Questa (2388m)

15km, 1200m ascent, 7.8 hours.

A fantastic mountain day, the memory of which will stay with me for ever.

I have to be reasonably brief as Rif Questa is a most sociable place and it would be out of order to spend the evening writing the blog. I haven't seen any comments as reception today was virtually non-existent.

Breakfast was sparse, but the sun was shining so we were all happy.

The three of us got off at about 8.30, giving James and Helen a 20 minute lead, which they maintained all day.

A few others were seen on the way up to Lago soprano della Valletta, but none appeared to follow us to Colle della Valletta, where we were greeted by a fantastic array of peaks (pictured), with Monte Viso prominent in the middle distance.

We also enjoyed cloud inversions a plenty today. Lots of photos were taken - enough in one day for an entire slideshow.

The Colletto Est della Paur tried to live up to its name ('fear inducing'), but our Yaktrax crampons made the ascent of the steep snow slope very easy. We could, like James and Helen, have managed without them, but hey, we'd brought them with us so we used them.

After a steep but uneventful descent we glissaded (collecting James's jelly on the way) down to a small lake for lunch. Sue waded out to an iceberg and gave it a good trampling. It nearly sunk!

Well graded former hunting tracks (the Kings of Savoy hunted ibex to near extinction hereabouts) then took us all the way to Rifugio Questa, a small, basic refuge manned by Ennio and Temba. A ten year old stambecco (ibex) resides outside, and a redstart is nesting in the wall of our loft.

On the way here we saw more ibex and chamois at close quarters, together with wonderful displays of wild flowers.

Sue, Susan and James (still in remission from dropping parts of his lunch down a mountain) braved the cold shower, which is housed outside in a tin shack.

Dinner was an excellent hearty mountain soup featuring beans, chickpeas, rice, etc, followed by mashed potato and beef, then chocolate mousse.

There seem to be more than the stated capacity of 20 here, including an Italian couple we saw early this morning. They must have taken 11-12 hours over our 8 hour route. They looked exhausted, and were further dismayed when presented with an 8 foot ladder from which to enter their sleeping quarters from the main room of the quaint Rifugio. Everyone seems to be housed in a loft of some sort.

Earlier, James had commented that the timings in Gillian's book seem generous! Sometimes timings estimates can be a thankless task!

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Sunday, 3 July 2011

Saturday 2 July 2011 - An Alpi Marittime Trek, Day 1, Sant' Anna di Valdieri (1000m) to Rifugio Livio Bianco (1910m)

9km, 1000m ascent, 4.5 hours.

After a good breakfast at the excellent Albergo Nazionale recommended in Gillian's book, we pottered off to the cash machine (the next five nights will be cash only at mountain huts), and then to the station for the 9.47 train to Borgo S. Dalmazzo, a 15 minute journey down the valley towards Cuneo.

Sadly, the sky was overcast, with slight moisture in the air, but still t-shirt weather down at 850 metres.

At Borgo, after admiring a rally of classic Citroën cars, a call to a local taxi firm advertised outside the station bore fruit, and a few minutes and €30 later we were happily ensconced in a café at Sant' Anna, watching a loudly hooting wedding cortège pass by.

"You must use the path that goes up by the cemetery and contours back above the village" said the friendly lady who served us in the café. We had plenty of time, so we took her advice.

After a 'start of trek' photo we set off past the church towards the cemetery, then up to the ruined village of Bartola, finally abandoned by its last occupant in the 1960s. Various information boards related the history and other information about the area. Terraced fields had reverted to flower meadows after their previous use for crops and medicinal herbs had come to an end.

From a balcony at 1200 metres, with fine views both up and down the Valle di Gesso, we gently descended 100 metres to the main path from Sant' Anna, where we joined the route described in Gillian's book. Not that a description was required for the straightforward walk up the valley to this Rifugio. First through shady woodland, then up an open valley on a well graded path, one of the paved royal hunting tracks constructed at King Emanuele's behest in the 1860s.

There were plenty of people about on this cloudy Saturday, including a large group of families with children who as I write are livening the Rifugio, albeit deafening the other occupants.

There were also lots of animals about, with brave marmots posing dutifully beside the track, chamois prancing daintily on the snow slopes opposite, and ibex obliviously going about their business in steep rocky gullies.
Alpine flowers of many varieties adorned the hillsides and filled the meadows as we ascended today - wonderful.

We've not had any rain, but here at the Rifugio, pictured above, we are about the height of the cloud base. It is definitely best to be inside; beers on the terrace will have to wait. "A litre of boiling water, please", was our first request. We have no stove on this trip (in deference to my role as packhorse - Sue is in 'bum bag mode') but we do have mugs, tea bags and milk, as well as Austrian Alpine Club membership which gives discounts in certain mountain huts.

We are in a dormitory for 12, in the roof, so it promises to be a hot night.

Dinner was in two sittings. Luckily we were allocated to the first, at 7 o'clock. It would have been tedious to have to wait until 8.30. We were accompanied at our table for five by '2 Germans', who turned out to be James and Helen from the Hereford area, with whom we spent a very pleasant evening, with pasta > meat and mash > cheese/cake, all with red wine.

We are, of course, thanks to our AAC membership, '3 Austrians'.

Amazing, isn't it: Germans and Austrians speak such good English these days that Italians (and the guardians here speak quite good English themselves) cannot identify us as being English!

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