Is there anything I can write about the Alps that’s not already been said? Probably not except my own take at one of the most spectacular, long distance traverses along the western arm of one the most spectacular mountain ranges. A bit of blah, blah, blah too…
Trail and terrain
The GR 5 is a very good trail. Tread and signalling are excellent if not even excesive, at times, for the latter. Following the trail is hence easy but as usual in the mountains I wouldn’t like to be out there without at least a proper map, most useful in the higher areas in case of bad weather conditions when getting a sense of the surroundings may be difficult through direct observation.
Junctions are plenty and the trail regularly visits civilization where the route turns into a maze but signalling was almost always outstanding.
There are some sections on tarmac near the villages but usually not too long. It’s common to walk on dirt roads of varying quality but with very limited or no motorized access.
The elevation gain and loss is huge all along, a thousand meters at a time is almost daily routine. I guess most of the terrain doesn’t call for a high level route so visiting valley bottoms is the norm. It’s also common to find steep sections on the trails.
Forest walking is not rare but it usually happens near civilization. Most common is open terrain above tree line (whatever the tree line means). Alpine meadows are usual and incredibly beautiful to walk through but also an exposed place with little reference points in case of bad weather.
Mostly as expected, with usually hot days and afternoon cloud build-up. I went through a couple of bad weather spells which lasted a day or two and some instability towards the end of the trip in early September but in general the weather was gentle with me. Mid-day heat was overwhelming at times, particularly in the northern sections due to, I believe, the high humidity.
Afternoon storms were not usual but the clouds would gather almost daily, sometimes leading to some sprinkle towards the end of the day. I found odd how often it would rain a bit sometime during the night which made the tarp almost mandatory but most times it would be a very quiet and peaceful rain that didn’t last long.
Lots of people on the trails as expected on such an accessible trail system but just because motorized access is always within a day’s walk the vast majority of users would be day hikers. I didn’t find many who seemed to be there for more than a day. Very few of those looked like they’d be camping. Of all those I got to talk to, only one was hiking the whole of the GR 5.
I couldn’t relate to most of the people I’d meet. This is odd: lots of hikers but not much social interaction. It’d be crazy to stop and talk to everybody but I wouldn’t have much in common to talk about anyway.
It is also remarkable the type of hikers on the trail: a good number of them would be people in or around their 60s, probably retired. There was also a good number of families with children. Groups were far more common than solo hikers and big groups were common.
It seemed to me not many thru-hike the GR 5 even though the fact that most who do go north to south may make difficult to meet other thru-hikers. It also looked like the trails on the GR 5 are mostly used as day hiking activities and easy access to the mountains for those not into more technical climbing.
The hut system is dense around the GR 5 as well as in many other areas of the Alps. Both the quantity and the quality of huts make a deep impact on the hiking experience.
Maybe I should start by taking care of the language: stuffed huts along the GR 5 hardly deserve that name but they are indeed worthy of the adjective. To my view, they’re more like hostels. Most have some kind of motorized access through dirt roads (not open to the public though) and they’re indeed stuffed. There’s usually a menu for all meals (and I mean an actual menu, with choices) and the few ones I stayed at had even electricity and hot water showers. Trailheads are hardly ever far away and many huts serve as a tavern and turning point for day hikers who take a drink before turning back. Or just tavern for longer distance hikers.
Facilities are usually basic and sleeping is in bunks but I don’t think that’s enough to call something “a hut”. Full accommodation doesn’t fit in my idea of a mountain hut. Whatever we call them, these are hostels.
It became usual for me to stop by a hut almost daily for some coffee. Hiking was not coffee-free for me anymore! At the beginning of the trip, I was just passing by but it became evident that just ignoring the huts wouldn’t make it feel like they were not there so I indulged. I would fight my own apprehension at taking advantage of something I wouldn’t really need and was most probably taken up there by some dreaded motorized means… at least, coffee grains are a light and compact carry and the fuel needed wouldn’t be much.
I slept on huts up to three times. One of those was by a public tarmac road so definitely not a mountain hut. Another was due to bad weather conditions in a very exposed area and I was happy to spend the night there, it was a small, cozy place. The third one was a mandatory happening within the Vanoise park limits where camping is not allowed and it probably was one of the most depressing times in this trip: a giant size, hotel like “hut” set up there in the name of preservation?… an urban trap full of urban people with urban attitudes, all that in the middle of the mountains. Sad.
I went through another two hut stays in the Vanoise but purposely chose those where camping was allowed nearby the hut itself and that eased the experience.
I like camping out most and I can still appreciate a simple hut for the protection it offers, particularly in bad weather conditions, without taking too much from the outdoor experience and providing nothing but shelter. The stuffed huts as found along the GR 5 are really far from this ideal.
In the summer, shepherds live in the mountains. Cattle too. The former take care of the latter and, among other things, get the milk and make cheese. Cheese is the traditional way of making long term use of the excess milk and making the cheese on-site has a definitive advantage: it’s much more compact to transport it down to the valleys than the milk.
The Chalets d’alpage are the mountain huts where all this activity goes around. There usually are dirt roads that climb to them but they’re off the regular road network. The hiking trails, however, often go through these huts so they become a source of potential clients and many shepherds’ huts turn into rustic, monotemanic grocery stores: the cheese can’t be anything but excellent and you can wave the local cows goodbye while knowing where your beaufortain came from.
Chalets d’alpage where local cheese is available for sale are particularly abundant in the northern section of GR 5. If you hike southbound, don’t carry much cheese from home.
French bread is so called for a reason: the french love freshly baked bread and pastries and availability is outstanding. The tiniest hamlet may have no shopping facilities but if there is one shop it will be a bakery (boulangerie). If there’s no bakery, chances are an old fashioned van will blow a horn, open the door and expand the unmistakable smell.
Boulangeries are a great place for hikers: if you’re a hiker, you are allowed to eat everything you want! which is a great thing to happen in such a place. The array of choices is amazing too: puffy pastry with some fruity jam filling or cover is the most popular variety and no matter how hungry you are you won’t be able to try them all.
Town visits on my GR 5 necessarily meant a bakery run. Always a well deserved one.
I must mention this great website that’s greatly helped my planning. It’s an excellent starting point with lots of information so thanks to the author for the great work.