The word alpine comes obviously from the Alps even though it’s evolved into a kind of generic term for everything alpine. But strictly speaking an alpine something should take place in some alps. There are actually a few mountain groups in the world named alps but it all began where the European plains rise several thousand meters to become a world of rocky, ice-covered big walls that define the line between north and south; east and west, too.
GR stands for Grande Randonnée which is French for (in this context) Long Distance. A GR trail is a long distance trail. Number 5 is just a serial number within the French trail system.
The GR 5 is a part of a longer, trans-european trail named E2 in the world of European trails. It traverses western Europe north to south from the Netherlands to the Mediterranean shores. Once in France, this E2 takes the GR 5 name. Once in the Alps, the GR 5 follows the western arm of the range with the French Rhône valley on one side and the Italian Po valley on the other. But theres a huge array of mountains in between.
A plus for scenery, a lot of minuses for what we’ve done to it
Rock walls, sharp peaks, glaciers that still carve their valleys, mountains all over the visible place… you probably can’t get any more scenic than this; but the whole picture is somewhat less bucolic when you meet dammed lakes, hotel-like stuffed huts, roads everywhere (tarmac roads!), ski lifts that are even more everywhere than the roads and the certainty that there’s human habitation down pretty much every main valley. There’s no wilderness in the Alps and the place is so crowded and accessible that it’s too easy to meet that kind of people who would never go to the mountains unless they can drive. And here they can.The Alps are not the place to scape civilization but they’re still and excellent place to hike for anyone not expecting a wild place: the trail network is so thick the options are endless and indeed… you can’t probably get any more scenic than this.
For many mountaineers in Europe, the Alps are a traditional step in a kind of natural progression. For some reason, I skipped that step and I couldn’t find the right time to fill the gap. It’s a lot about trying to meet that progression and the feeling that, in a way, I didn’t want to go there anymore. There was a time when the Alps would have been my last frontier; now, they’re a spectacular but crowded place that doesn’t really entice me much. Yet, it’s a place I feel I need to travel through.
I know, it doesn’t sound too enthusiastic for something that’s bound to be the most important part of my year. 2009 has been unseasonably packed with events, mostly good ones. I just couldn’t spare enough time for planning something more challenging… and I guess I was missing this part. Once again, the hiking’s coming (sort of) home.
Plan: looking the other way
That’s what I’ll have to do too many times: look the other way when I meet civilization once again. It’s possible to travel on the GR 5 with a day pack and sleep under a roof every night but that’s not what I’m looking for so I’ll play the self-suficient hiker even if it’s not needed. Stuffed mountain huts and villages are found at regular intervals but I plan for 3 or 4 major ressuplies (with maybe some indulgence here and there) and camping most nights. Sometimes this puts the hiker in a tricky situation because it’s not so easy to look the other way when the weather turns fool and it’d be so easy to stay under cover… more so when you travel with a rather minimalist kit and shelter is just a tarp (albeit a big one). There’ll be no dogma though and I’ll allow myself the use of these facilities if I really feel I need it.
The Alps being such a busy place, the options are endless. I almost feel grateful my plan is as simple as possible so I don’t have to care about much logistics. It breaks down easy: fly to Geneva; take train or bus to Thonon-Les-Bains; hike, hike, hike… ressuply along the way, no need for detours, not even need too much advance planning, there are supplies all over the place; hike all the way to Menton; take train or bus to Marseille; fly home.
Out of the two possible end points, everybody agrees Menton and the GR 52 are a much more stylish end than Nice and the GR 5 proper. Flying out of Nice turned out expensive and badly timed so I decided to do it from Marseille.
Direction of travel
No question here, the Mediterranean makes for a perfect finish line: the earth ends, the trip ends. That must be why most people hike north to south and the guidebooks are so written. I will follow.
The Alpine Traverse on the GR 5 has the most typical hiking window for mountain hiking in the mid latitudes: roughly July to September with June and October as an option depending on the year and in somewhat rougher conditions. I’ll again go for a mid-late window starting in the second week of August. I expect good temps, abundant daylight and little or no bugs but also good chance of afternoon thunderstorms. A serious weather system may strike anytime but it’s less likely to happen during the summer. If it does, it can bring snow and very harsh conditions but the snow should melt away quick. New snow that stays is not to be expected until October.
The weather is considerably milder as the Mediterranean gets closer and the mountains get lower in height.
Not many new additions at all in my closet and none of them specifically thought for this trip so most of the stuff will be the same old one already commented for previous trips in 2008, 07, 06, 05… The expected conditions will probably resemble those met in 05 in the Pyrenees: dense network of huts and civilization hence high altitude, exposed trails (for the region) and camps.
I’ll comment on some new items and just briefly mention some of the rest. Here is anyway the complete, detailed list
TNF Triumph Anorak
TNF has this bad press about focusing on expensive, non-technical wear for urban people with money rather than quality stuff for mountaineers. It may be true but they still build the latter. At least, this anorak shows they made an effort to get the lightest, workable version of a waterproof top they could and they deserve some credit for having that as a starting point. I’d wish there’d be more gear built under those premises in the commercial world, we’d see lots of interesting stuff.
The Triumph is built out of two single pieces of fabric to minimize seams and those that remain are sewn and taped as minimalist as possible. The nylon face fabric is thin but feels strong and the 2 layer construction helps take the weight down to just 160 gr. (6 oz) for (one of) the lightest of its kind.
At this weight, the Triumph gets very close to the Propore stuff which works very well but is so fragile. The Triumph feels much more solid but particularly it is much better designed. Actually, there’s some design in it (unlike the Propore stuff which is basically a stuff sack with sleeves). This anorak has a good hood with a stiff brim, elasticated wrist cuffs and (much more to my liking) cord-locked elasticated waist cuff and hood adjustment. It’s also got a front pocket I don’t need and that probably means the difference in weight over my Propore jacket but it’s probably the only extra.
From tests and reviews I expect it to be waterproof enough and just barely breathable. the Hyvent DT membrane is just another cool looking name for just another poliurethane (PU) membrane whose breathability is rather limited but I don’t expect much from membranes anyway. The garment being yet quite new (ie, lightly used), the DWR will be in top form so I expect the Triumph to perform well enough. At least, it won’t be weighting me down which is very important for an item that will (hopefully) spend most of its time in the pack.
Inov8 Terroc 330
It was time I was done with my previous stock on trail runners (I try to make them last) and got to try a pair of Inov8s. The Terrocs are the lightest hiking shoes I’ve ever had and they feel very comfortable. I was a bit puzzled that they’d produce some pain around my unkle bones but it seems it’s a somewhat common problem. Anyway, after some use it seems gone now. I’m still not sure the front area is wide enough for all my toes to fit comfortably but I’m taking them for the long distance anyway. If it is and if they also pass the long distance test as far as durability goes, it won’t be my last pair.
Bottom rain wear
The pros and cons of my old rainskirt were quite obvious; one of the cons was about the size and it was time I made a trip were the rainskirt would again fit in the line-up so I could spare a few hours and make a new, longer one. We’ll see how it goes.
The now already usual system of 5 garments for 5 different layers, all interchangeable so the combinations are many: base layer (zip neck, long sleeve, light color), thin fleece (zip neck, just barely heavier than a base layer and the ideal insulation to wear while moving), windshirt (indispensable, super-versatile layer), down insulation (most warmth for the weight) and waterproof (see above). All this garments are in pullover style (lightest than a full zip) and only one (the waterproof layer) has a hood.
Convertible pants for a 2 in 1 that minimizes the pack carried weight for whatever the option; loose polypropylene tights for sleeping and additional warmth, if needed; a rainskirt as a very interesting alternative over the dreaded rainpants; and two sets of underwear in boxer style (for regular wearing) and slips (lighter weight) for backup.
Wide brim hat for the sun; fleece beanie for the cold; thin stretchy buff for neck or wherever it’s needed; and a dedicated, high loft, synthetic hood to combine with my hoodless sleeping system.
Windstopper fleece mittens for insulation and silnylon overmitts for rain or extreme cold.
Two pairs of socks for hiking (mid height wool blend; and a spare, low height, mostly synthetic one), one low height, wool pair for sleeping.
The shelter choice was meant to force some challenge in a trip that otherwise feels less of a challenge than anything I’ve done in the last few years and the idea was to take a home made version of a simple but very configurable tarp for use in the alpine… unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to make some final aditions and I’ll have to leave that little challenge for some other time.
Right from the sofa I still feel I need some challenge built in so I’ll try a tarp again. I know the expected conditions will most probably demand a more substantial tent and that it’ll be difficult to not hear the siren calls of huts and villages when the weather turns fool if the alternative is pitching a tarp in some exposed location… but that will be my challenge. I’ll take a well used and trusted friend, a Golite Cave 2: huge for one, successfully tested in harsh mountain conditions, bombproof in locked down pitch.
An outdoor basic principle says we have to trust our instruments. The use of a tarp in alpine terrain puts some preassure on the user: I’ll have to rely not only on my shelter but also on my hability to set it up right. This time, I know the challenge will be to know that I have to trust not only my instruments but also myself.
I’ll also take with me some more classics: a lightweight, non-waterproof topped bivy (BMW Vapr) and a plastic sheet for the floor.
Lightweight gear can be durable and the Granite Gear Virga definitely is. When I got it I could never imagine it’d become my most used pack ever, will it break sometime? I hope not on this trip!
My Nunatak quilt needs some relofting which will probably mean adding some more down to those starved baffles but I don’t seem to find the time for the operation. Meanwhile, I’ll keep shaking the down every night so it stays on top as I still use one of the lightest, serviceable sleeping garments available.