Saturday, 18 August 2012

GR 54 - Tour de l'Oisans

My summer holiday for 2012, was in the Écrins region of the French Alps. Starting and finishing in Bourg d'Oisans, it has a reputation of being the toughest trek in The Alps. With a distance of 176 kilometres and no less than 12,800 metres of ascent and descent, it certainly lives up to that billing.

My journey began with a flight to Geneva, where an overnight stay was necessary, then continuing by train and buses to Bourg d'Oisans via Grenoble. It was in Grenoble where I had arranged a rendez-vous with my trekking companion, Andrew - from the Czech Republic.

On our arrival in Bourg, we went for a pre-trek beer at a bar that was showing the final stage of the Tour de France on TV. But we soon had to tear ourselves away from the bar and be on our way for the first stage of our tour. On leaving the road out of Bourg the route soon becomes steep and it is required to scramble up some rock ledges with the aid of fixed chains. After gaining a bit of height the views opened up a bit, and after passing by some small alpine hamlets we had to descend into the Gorge de Sarenne and follow the track up to Combe Haute, which was where we had planned to pitch our tents for the night. We found a nice spot, just down from the restaurant building, by the stream with some picnic tables. Cooked some food, had a swig of pear brandy that Andrew had brought from home (nothing un-expected there) what did suprise me was that he smoked a pipe!! (the guy is 24 years old!)

Stage 2, Combe Haute to Besse-en-Oisans.
After a fitful night's sleep (takes me a few nights to adjust to sleeping in a tent) the morning was bright and clear. We had a little way to go to reach the Col de Sarenne, where we got our first view of La Meije. From the Col, the path descended to Clavans-le-Haut and then to Clavans-le-Bas, where we stopped for lunch on a bench in the shade from the blazing sun. Our route continued down to the Torrent le Ferrand, and then rising steeply up to Besse-en-Oisans, where we were able to but supplies from the small village shop, have a beer at the bar and but fresh bread from the excellent bakery on the road heading out of the village towards the campsite. I liked the campsite there, cheap, functional and conveniently located.

Stage 3, Besse-en-Oisans to La Grave.
This was an enjoyable day's walking, plodding up to Col Nazié and Col Bichet there were good views into the valleys below and across to La Meije and Le Râteau. We then followed the alternative path to Lac Noir and Lac Lerié, Lac Noir in paricular was a lovely spot, an ideal lunch stop. Rejoined the main path that descended to Le Chazalet (it was baking hot in the afternoon sun by this time), then on to La Grave. The campsite there had a fussy warden and a dramatic view, at the foot of La Meije.

Stage 4, La Grave to Monêtier les Bains.
This was a long stage, one of those days where progress seemed slow (and in my case, it was). To begin with it was easy enough, the path followed the course of the river (la Romanche) to Villar d'Arêne (a delightful village, with a very nice food shop). The path climbs steeply after passing Le Pied du Col, and even after gaining a significant amount of height, it is still some way to go to reach the Refuge de l'Alpe de Villar de Arêne, further still to the Col d'Arsine.
From the Col, the trail descends to pass the Lac de la Douche, below the Cirque d'Arsine. This was the toughest day of the trek, so far. We didn't reach Monêtier until 6pm, and having passed the campsite on the way I was reluctant to walk back there, so I enquired at the Gîte, Le Florou, and luckily, they put me up for the night and I enjoyed a cold beer, hot shower and nice meal. Met 2 girls from the Netherlands, who were also doing the GR 54, the first other than ourselves we'd encountered on the way.

Stage 5, Monêtier les Bains to Vallouise.
After a comfortable night's sleep at the Gîte, I met Andrew and we set off for the Col de l'Eychouda. At about half-way to the Col, I had a nagging thought in my mind that I'd forgotten my mobile phone...looked in the pocket of my backpack - it wasn't there. Damn! Maybe I'd put it inside the pack? It turned out, I hadn't. It was left in the Gîte where I'd put it on charge. No phone for the rest of the trek.
Pressing on, the way up to the Col passes the ski station and lifts and pistes and is undoubtedly the ugliest section of the trek.
 It is much nicer on the other side of the Col, though. The views looking back are particularly good. Stopped for a lunch break at the Buvette in Chambran (beware of the Chickens!!) There was a good view of Mont pelvoux on the descent to Vallouise. Vallouise represents the last chance to buy supplies for the days ahead, with a well stocked supermarket. The campsite was very nice (and very expensive - 20 Euro a night for 1 tent). I took dinner at the Gîte d'Etape - 16.50 Euro for a 4 course meal.

Stage 6, Vallouise to Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette.
 This is the longest and toughest stage of the trek, 22km in distance with a height gain of over 1600 metres and loss of over 1000 metres. Accordingly, an early start was required, and we were on our way at 7:45. The first 2 hours was spent mostly walking on the road to the National Park entrance at Entre-les-Aygues (I later discovered that there is a bus that leaves Vallouise at 7am). It was an enjoyable walk up to the Cabane Pasorale du Jas Lacroix, gaining height but not being too steep. We had our lunch in the welcome shade provided by the Cabane, then set off for the long walk up to Col de l'aup Martin, passing some magnificent scenery along the way. The final approach to the Col required care to be taken on the loose shale. From the Col, you can see across to the contorted strata of the Pointes des Rougnoux, and in the near distance the Pas de Cavale, which is only about 15 minutes from l'aup Martin.
I'd heard rumbles of thunder and seen the sky darken, and it started to rain. But it didn't last very long, and brightened up again as I descended. I arrived at the Refuge at 5:30 pm, met Andrew there. He told me that if I wanted to camp I had to pitch my tent in the field, up from the hut, and pointed to his tent. Too far from the refuge for me, I thought, so I stayed the night indoors...glad I did too, there was a massive thunderstorm in the early hours and again at 7am.
Met some more GR 54 walkers that evening at dinner, Robin and Mary, from England. Also re-aquianted with the Dutch girls, whom I'd met two days ago, Annalise and Anke.

Stage 7, Refuge du Pré de la Chaumette to Refuge de Vallonpierre.
After a none too promising start, with some rain, it didn't turn out to be that bad a day after all. It was hard going up to the Col de la Valette, but once that was crossed it was just a matter of keeping concentration on the eroded ground of loose shale. After crossing 2 more Cols, the Gouiran and Vallonpierre, I arrived at the Refuge de Vallonpierre. It was only 2:30 in the afternoon, but I felt that I'd done enough and called it a day. It gave me time to do some washing, air my tent out, and drink some tea!
The skies cleared late in the evening, and I got a view of Le Sirac.

 Stage 8, Refuge de Vallonpierre to Refuge des Souffles.
Every now and then, if you're really lucky, you awake to the kind of morning when you feel glad to be staying high up, in the mountains. This was one of those mornings, clear blue skies, perfect views of the mountains, and to top it off, you look down to the valley and see a sea of mist. I'm not one to gloat (much!), but GET IN!

After much marvelling at the phenomenal views, I descended my way into the valley, briefly through the mists, which were soon burned off in the morning sunshine. Met Andrew in La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemar, also another familiar face (from the Chaumette, 2 nights before) Martin, the cheerful Catholic Priest from Bonn, Germany. I found the village shop to be open (I had wondered, it being a Sunday) and had a nice lunch, even though the waiter got my beer order wrong (was to be something of a recurring theme on this trek).

It was a pleasant walk out of La Chapelle, down the valley to Villar-Loubière. That was were the hard work started, in the blazing hot afternoon sun, up a steep path with precious little shade, all the way to the Refuge des Souffles. A welcoming place, with a notable selection of bottled and canned beers.

Stage 9, Pic Turbat - side trip.
 When planning this trek, I'd identified the Pic Turbat as a walk-able peak, well within striking distance of the GR 54, and the Refuge des Souffles is a convenient place to gain access to the mountain.
Setting off at 8am, we had the benefit of walking in the shade up to the Col des Clochettes, and before too long we were standing on the shore of Lac Lautier. The path to Pic Turbat starts in earnest from Col des Colombes, just above the lake. The way-marks are faint and not easily spotted. It's not difficult going though, it does get quite steep on the final approach to the summit, and it is necessary to use your hands on the rock (straight-forward, easy scrambling).
It was well worth the effort, and the views from the top were superb. We stayed up there for half an hour or so, gazing at the scenery. I lost sight of the markings on the descent and had to traverse across some rough ground to get back on track, but made it down safely enough. The Lac Lautier was a nice spot for lunch, Andrew went for a swim (I did not). Re-traced our steps to the Refuge, for a celebratory beer.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Skye - The Cuillin, May 2012

Ever since I last visited Skye, 5 years ago, and getting a brief taste of the Cuillins, I have had hopes of going back there and climbing all of the Munros (and other hills) some time ago I decided that this would be the year to do it.

Now for me, the Cuillin of Skye is not something I'd fancy taking on all by myself, so to do it properly I knew I needed to hire the services of a guide. I looked at various courses available online and chose to go with George Yeomans (link) it turned out to be a good call. George was superb, he knows the Cuillins inside out, is very patient and calm, safety conscious and an all-round nice bloke.

The course was due to start on Sunday 13 May, so I needed to be on Skye on Saturday. I even managed to get a hill in on the way there - Glamaig from Loch Ainort. It was not a bad walk, though un-relentingly steep from soon after the start until I came to the first top - An Coileach. From  there it was an easy walk along the ridge to the summit - Sgurr Mhairi, got some views though not extensive. I knew it would be a good move to get a hill in on the day having seen the forecast for the Sunday!

Sound of Raasay

Raasay from An Coileach (Glamaig east summit)
An Coileach from Sgurr Mhairi (Glamaig)

As mentioned above, Sunday was a washout. I did attempt to do a coastal walk, drove down to Talisker, got up onto the cliffs, but it was impossible to walk with the rain lashing into my face. So I made a hasty retreat to the car and headed to Portree, where I did get to see the conclusion of the Premier League title. 

Monday 14 May 
Met up with George at Glenbrittle youth hostel, there was just one more person on the course, David from Dunfermline. George decided that for our first day we would do the 3 Munros that are up the path into Coire a' Ghreadhaidh (Sgurr a' Mhadhaidh, Sgurr a' Ghreadhaidh and Sgurr na Banachdich), I had actually done these before, when I was here 5 years ago, but was happy to do them again. We went to Mhadhaidh first (some easy scrambling required to reach the summit), then via An Dorus (where it was a bit tricky on the wet rock, so we used the safety of a rope to climb the rock step). It was quite straight-forward to get to the summit of Ghreadhaidh, but from there George took us down from the ridge on a path that avoided the south top and then back to the ridge where we had to go over the top of Sgurr Thormaid on the way to Sgurr na Banachdich. Not a great day, weather-wise - there was fleeting glimpses of visibility up on the ridge, but also some snow showers, though it did brighten up a bit of the descent to Glenbrittle.

 Cuillin ridge from Sgurr na Ghreadhaidh
Glenbrittle bay on descent from Sgurr na Banachdich

 Sgurr Dearg and In. Pinn. on descent from Sgurr na Banachdich

 Sgurr nan Gobhar

Tuesday 15 May
Met with Geoge at the hostel and we drove down to Glenbrittle campsite then set off along the path towards Coire a' Ghrunnda, it was a long walk in, but there were fine views out to the Islands of Rhum and Soay.

 Loch Brittle



 We took a break before heading up the path to the Coire which was quite rough but we soon gained height and before too long we arrived at the Loch.

 Loch Coir a' Ghrunnda, Sgurr Alasdair

 From there we went up to Sgurr nan Eag, the southern-most of the Skye Munros, and with it's coastal prominence, great views out to sea.

 Cuillin sound pano from Sgurr nan Eag

 Gars Bheinn from Sgurr nan Eag

 Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Thearlaich, Sgurr an Da Dubh Bheinn, Sgurr Dubh Mor from Sgurr nan Eag

 Loch Coir' a' Ghrunnda, Sgurr Alasdair

 From Eag, we skirted around Caisteal an Garbh-choire and dropped the packs just below Sgurr Dubh An da Bheinn, for the out-and-back trip to Sgurr Dubh. This involved some scrambling and it seemed (to me) complicated route-finding (one good reason to be with a guide).

Sgurr nan Eag, Gars Bheinn
 looking north from near Sgurr an da Dubh Bheinn
 Summit attained there was some tricky downclimbs back along the way we'd came, picked up the packs and headed for a path along the top of the screes above Coire a' Ghrunnda, and then climbed up a basalt chimney and scrambled up to the summit of Sgurr Alasdair.
 Sgurr nan Eag, Loch Coir' a' Ghrunnda
 Sgurr an Da Dubh Bheinn, Gars Bheinn, Sgurr nan Eag, Loch Coir' a' Ghrunnda from ascent of Sgurr Alasdair
 The views from the summit were astounding, it was 5pm and the visibility was excellent, all of the tops were cloud-free and the sunlight and shade on the mountains made the views so spectacular. I could have spent an hour up there, just gazing at the views, but there was enough time to take some photos and admire the views.

 Sgurr Dubh Mor, Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn, Gars Bheinn, Sgurr nan Eag from Sgurr Alasdair

 looking north from Sgurr Alasdair

 on Sgurr Alasdair summit

 on Sgurr Alasdair summit

 pano north from Sgurr Alasdair

 northern Black Cuillins and Red Cuillins from Sgurr Alasdair

 On the descent from Alasdair we had the joys of the Great Stone Chute down into Coire Lagan, where we followed the path down to the campsite.
 looking down the Great Stone Chute

 looking down into Coire Lagan

 An Stac screes

 Rhum, on descent from Coire Lagan

 southern Cuillins from Glenbrittle campsite

 Alpenglow on the Cuillins from Glenbrittle (15 May 2012)

Wednesday 16 May
Met with George at the hostel and we drove the short distance to the Memorial hut, and set off on the path up to Coire Lagan, passing an impressive waterfall along the way. The views out to sea were fine, and the clouds were beginning to lift from the tops.

Loch Brittle


 We stopped for a break at Coire Lagan, and could see all of the tops. I thought another fine day was in prospect (according to the MWIS, it was supposed to be a nice day). However, it didn't quite turn out that way. Anyway, from the Coire, we made our way up the edge of the An Stac screes and then stashed the packs at a point just down from the ridge.

head-wall of Coire Lagan

 Sgurr Alasdair and The Great Stone Chute

 On reaching the ridge the tops were still in sight, but I sensed that the clouds were drawing in, so I took a few photos before heading up to our first Munro of the day, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.

 on the Cuillin ridge looking towards Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and Sgurr Alasdair

 It started to snow and with the rock being wet we used the rope for protection (it was quite exposed on the ledges). Got to the top and it was zero visibilty, didn't hang around there for too long and on the descent to the ridge it seemed as though it was brightening up a touch - could see the In. Pinn. (and also hear the commotion caused by the folks that were up there).

 climbing down from Sgurr Mhic Choinnich

 Sgurr Dearg and the Inaccessible Pinnacle

We retrieved the packs then made our way up the scree and slabs (which was horrible) to the base of the Pinn. By this time, it was snowing again and George assessed the situation and said he was willing to take us up if we were happy...David and me looked at each other and said "let's do it", so George roped us up then soloed the 1st pitch. David went up first, with me at the back of the rope. It was easy climbing to begin with, then got more difficult when I had to cross over the rock and do a "big pull" up where I couldn't get any foot-holds. Could take a little rest at the "half-way house" whilst George climbed to the top and fixed the rope for us. The second pitch is easier climbing, but it is much narrower and more exposed (I was glad that I couldn't see a big drop below, just mist), but I safely made it to the top.

on top of the In Pinn

  And could relax a bit while George set up the rope for us to be lowered off. Being lowered off was an experience in itself, took some getting used to - leaning back with my heels on the rock and gently shuffling down until I'd reached the base of the Pinn, un-clipped from the rope, walked up to the top of Sgurr Dearg and watched George abseil down.

 me and The Pinn

 We had a late lunch, then walked down the Sron Dearg path to Glenbrittle. George dropped me off at the hostel and I downed a couple of beers to celebrate the climb and my 100th Munro!

Thursday 17 May
We had done them all down the Glen, so we'd arranged to meet up at Sligachan at 8:30, the weather was foul (it had not stopped precipitating since we'd done the Pinn. the day before). When George arrived he said "Guys, it's Blaven, or nothing!", I said it take that, so we set off on the drive down to the Cuillin out-lier. Rain from the start, until we got halfway up then it turned to snow, which was settling on the ground. We stopped briefly here for a drink and something to eat. As we got higher, the snow got deeper, and beginning to freeze, and close to the top, George was having to chip it off the rock in places where we needed to scramble up. At the summit, George took a photograph of me, then we made our way back down. There was no way I could have done this one on my own in these conditions (another good reason to have the services of a guide), but at least i got something out of a bad weather day, and being on Skye you can expect a bad weather day (or two, or three...) Anyway, we made it up and back down safely in around 4 and a half hours, had a sandwich in the car then drove back.

me, on my summer holidays. summit of Blaven, 17 May 2012

 Friday 18 May
Met up at the Slig. again, George said it would be only possible to do Bruach na Frithe, so off we went - following the path up to Coire Basteir. Snow had settled on the ground from the Coire upwards, and it looked very icy on the rock as we passed below the Basteir tooth. 

Pinnacle ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean
 looking down into Coire a' Basteir
Red Cuillins, Am Basteir from Bealach nan Lice

Sgurr a' Basteir
 Indeed, the snow had a firmer feel to it from the Bealach nan Lice up to Bruach na Frithe. We got some decent views of the snowy Cuillins, then made our way down via Fionn Choire
 Bruach na Frithe
looking down into Fionn Choire
 Blaven from Bealach nan Lice

 Cuillins from below Bruach na Frithe

 Bruach na Frithe

 Am Basteir and the Basteir tooth

looking down into Fionn Choire

Fionn Choire
 further down there was nice views of the mountains by the Allt Dearg Mor. After getting down off the hill, David, George and me went for a drink at the Sligachan pub. 

Red to Black Cuillins pano
Allt Dearg Mor waterfalls and Sgurr nan Gillean
 Marsco, Clach Glas and Blaven
 Sgurr nan Gillean, Sgurr a' Basteir, Bruach na Frithe

Glamaig, Beinn Dearg Mor, Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach
 north Cuillins pano


 Sgurr na Gillean and Am Basteir from Allt Dearg Mor waterfalls

 Marsco, with Garbh-Bheinn behind to the left

 I got some good views of the mountains on my drive back to Glenbrittle, and some very nice views of the mountains after sunset.

Cuillins from the road to Glenbrittle

Hairy Coo and the Cuiilins

Alpenglow on Cuillins from Glenbrittle

Alpenglow on Cuillins from Glenbrittle

Alpenglow on Sgurr Dearg

Saturday 19 May
Had quite a late night, drinking in the lounge with some of the guys in the hostel. Said my goodbyes in the morning then I left the hostel after a happy week's stay. There was some great views of the mountains on the road to Sligachan.

Black Cuillins from road to Sligachan

 Black Cuillins from road to Sligachan

 Red Cuillins from road to Sligachan

Cuillins pano on road to Sligachan

  Black Cuillins

Black Cuillins reflection
Parked my car in the lay-by at the head of Loch Ainort, and set off for Garbh-bheinn, it was a nice day, quite warm in the sun, so I took my time with this one. Most of the snow had gone, there was only patches of it, high up near the top. Needed to carefully pick my way through the rocks up to the top, which was a very airy summit, but tremendous views across to Blaven and over to the Black Cuillins and Red Cuillins (Garbh-bheinn is actually a Black Cuillin out-lier, and you cross from the Red to Black on the way up). I spent almost an hour on the top, then came back down the same way.

Garbh-Bheinn an Allt Coire nam Bruadar

Cuillins from ascent of Garbh-Bheinn


 Cuillins in profile from ascent of Garbh-bheinn

Clach Glas and Blaven

 Black Cuillins from Garbh-bheinn

Red Cuillins from Garbh-bheinn

 Belig, Glas Bheinn Mor, Loch Ainort from Garbh-bheinn

 Loch Slapin from Garbh-bheinn

on summit of Garbh-bheinn


Sgurr nan Gillean

 Cuillins from Garbh-bheinn


 Red Cuillins on descent from Garbh-bheinn


After my week on Skye, I spent a few days on Knoydart, then came back to Skye with the intention of joining up with George and his group and doing the two Munros that we couldn't do the week before, because of the snow. I came over on the Wednesday afternoon ferry from Mallaig to Armadale, then camped at the Sligachan campsite, it was ceratinly the weather for camping.

 enjoying the "Red Cuillin", 23 May 2012

my tent, Sligachan campsite

Sligachan campsite pano

 alpenglow on Black Cuillin

alpenglow on Red Cuillin

Cuillin pano

 alpenglow on Red Cuillins by the river

 Marsco from the river

 alpenglow Cuillin pano from the river

Thursday 24 May
Starting from the Sligachan campsite, I followed the path into Glen Sligachan then up to Mam a' Phobuill and the steep slopes of Marsco.

Black Cuillin

 Garbh-bheinn and Blaven

 Got good views over to Garbh-bheinn from the east top, then it was an easy walk to the summit, from where there was a superb Cuillin panorama. Descended by the north ridge, which became uncomfortably steep until I reached the Coire. Then it was a long walk back to the Sligachan where a cold pint of San Miguel was in order.

 on Marsco summit

 Cuillin pano from Marsco

 Red Cuillins from Marsco

 Black Cuillins

 Marsco and the Black Cuillins

Sensational views of the mountains, after sunset.

 Red Cuillins alpenglow reflection

 Black Cuillins alpenglow reflection

Friday 25 May
Left the campsite and met up with george and his group to do the 2 Munros we'd not been able to do the week before, because of the snow. We took the path up into Coire Basteir, but this time we headed up to Bealach a' Basteir, dropped the packs and climbed Sgurr nan Gillean by the west ridge. We got roped up for a moderate rock climb, but after that it was just straight-forward scrambling up to the summit, which was quite airy, and from which none of the connecting ridges are visible. We roped up for the descent, and were lowered down on a section adjacent to where we'd climbed up earlier. It was hot again, and I was beginning to suffer in the heat. Felt a bit better after a sit down in the shade and getting some grun inside me. So with some enthusiasm I was ready to tackle my only remaining un-conquered Munro on Skye, Am Basteir. It didn't turned out be as difficult as I'd expected (or as it appeared from Gillean), some scrambling on exposed ledges, but it's a different ball game when the rock is dry (as opposed to what it was like when we did Mhic Choinnich, the week before). We descended to below the Bealach a' Basteir, where the group continued up to Bruach na Frithe, I sat that one out and had a rest in the shade. When the group returned, we descended the way we'd came up, but lower down the path, some of us (myself included) decided to cool off in the stream. It felt lovely, and it's not all that often you get chance to bathe in fresh water after a hard day on the hills in Scotland. Strolled down to the Slig. said goodbye to George, then went for a post-walk drink with the group.

Allt Dearg Beag and Black Cuiilin

west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean

  Am Basteir, Sgurr a' Fionn Choire

ascending the west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean

  on Sgurr nan Gillean west ridge (Am Basteir in background)

scrambling up the west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean

 on Sgurr nan Gillean summit

 Am Basteir from Sgurr nan Gillean

 Blaven from Sgurr nan Gillean

 Knight's Peak

 Am Basteir from Sgurr nan Gillean west ridge

 Am Basteir

 Bruach na frithe from Am Basteir

Sgurr nan Gillean and The Pinnacles

 cooling off after a hot day on the hills.