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GR5 Les Contamines to Refuge Plan de la Lai and on to Valezan and Refuge Entre le Lac

The iPad photo was taken in front of the refuge on one of the rare occasions that the sun shone today.

As I walked into Les Contamines-Montjoie yesterday afternoon I was cursing myself for having booked myself into La Chemanaz, the same hotel I stayed in when I did the Tour de Mont Blanc. (La Chemenaz Hôtels-Chalets de Tradition, 12 Allée du Nant Rouge, Les Contamines-Montjoie.) Actually, there is nothing wrong with the hotel, it is just that it is about a mile away from the old part of town in a modern ski resort, which I imagine is quite spendid in winter, but a bit grotty out of season. After a beer and half an hour relaxing on the soft white duvet watching an old British film about Thomas Becket, I was rather pleased with my decision. It had started raining outside and I had booked a table in the restaurant for dinner; it was nice not to have to go out again.

The restaurant quickly got busy, with two large groups creating a buzz of conversation. I read the menu for ages, to the frustration of the waitress who visited me three times, before I eventually decided to take the menu du jour after all. It was delicious. As I tucked into the duck I thought once more that I should start looking at menu prices before I ordered, but I was pleasantly surprised when I came to check out – tremendous value.

When I first climbed the Col du Bonhomme on the Tour de Mont Blanc three years ago, I was impressed with the speed the runners went up the mountain, not running as such but walking much faster than everybody else. This time it was me passing everyone. I wa s fit three years ago but am a lot fitter now. It continued to rain steadily all the way to the Col, but as I reached the top the wind incensed and finally the mountains showed themselves, revealing great views down the valley.

I walked past the attractive refuge du Bonhomme, for the third time. Once year I must stay there; it looks nice and has a fabulous location. The path from the he refuge to the arête of Crête de Gittes was too appealing though, and I headed off again running. This route isn’t recommended in high winds as you could easily get blown off. From the end of the arête it was just an hours run to the refuge de la Lai. I arrived just in time. I’d no sooner sunk my first beer than the heavens opened. From then on it got steadily worse all afternoon.

There was a bike race going on and from time lome riders, looking cold and wet would pass the refuge. About four o’clock there was suddenly a terrible draught in the dining room. We all looked around accusingly, looking for the foll that had left the door open, but the door was tight closed. The refuge owner shot upstairs saying something about the bathroom window. In the minute he was gone, the powerful gusts of wind seemed likely to lift the roof off the building. Then the thunderstorm struck. Minutes later a half drowned cyclist burst through the door shivering uncontrollably and with so much water running out of his clothes you could have been forgiven for thinking that he had fallen into a lake.

The next morning the weather was definitely better but it was still raining and the clouds were very low. There were only six of us staying at the refuge, surprising given the amount of snoring that I had heard I the night. We had breakfast together and discussed our plams for the day. The three French ladies were doing the Tour du Beaufontainne and the two American girls the GR5. It was their second day, having started in Les Houches. One of the girls had two large blisters, proving that you still need to break in new boots, or at least toughen your feet up. With another wet day ahead of them I imagine that she would be pretty miserable.

The route from Refuge de la Lai to Valezan allowed for some great running. I soon caught up with the two American girls who had left an hour before be, chatted briefly and then continued squeshimg through the mud. It was a relief when the path got steeper – the mud gave way solid limestone and gravel paths. I was quickly at the sumit and then had a splendid run down the mountain to Valezan. About a mile from the village I cam across a soldier in camouflage, carrying a huge pack and an automatic rifle. I ran round him and into a column of similarly equipped soldiers on exercise. I passed more of them, all looking very serious and looking out for snipers as I ran down the hill. It was rather bizar, especially when they started firing. Not at me, obviously.

I arrived at the Auberge in Valezan in time for a shower and lunch, which was excellent. As it was still raining I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and sleeping, before retiring to the dining room at 8pm for my second three course meal of the day.

The only real view I got all day was shortly before dark when the clouds finally broke and I could look out over Valezan to Landry and the ski resorts on the mountain opposite.

The following morning Valezan was in the he clouds, and that was pretty much where I stayed all day, only getting brief views of a set of rather nice waterfalls as I ran and walked to Refuge Entre Le Lac. It was my slowest day yet, partly because of the steepness and slippyness off he trail, and maybe because I was tired, although I did become somewhat supercharged after I ate half a pork sauscisson.

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GR5 Samöens to Refuge Moëde Anterne

So, three days to write about. Where does the time go? It now seems like an age since I left Samoëns, my run beginning with the long hill back into town from my hotel. I ran this with a light step as I had checked my bank balance. I’d had one of those nights when I wake up thinking "Oh my God, I wonder if I have any money left?", the stash I brought with me from Saudi now being rather depleted. I’d checked my bank balance after breakfast and found it healthy, hence the spring in my step as I ran into Samöens. I stopped at the cash point, aware that the refuges I would be staying in over the course of the next week probably wouldn’t take credit cards. The machine decided not to give me any English (not a problem) nor any cash (a technical problem). I hate it when they do this; couldn’t they be more specific and say something like "Sorry, you requested a receipt and we are out of paper." Or "your bank thinks your card it being used by someone other than you, for although you have made several transactions abroad in the last few days, this one, where you have used your PIN number, looks suspicious, so they have decided to suspend your card. But don’t worry, if it is really you using your card it will only take ten working days to reactivate it. Until then, have a nice day."

With a rising feeling of panick I went to look for another machine, at the same time thinking how I would get hold of cash for the next few days. The ATM was much more accommodating, giving me both a choice of languages and cash. As the receipt popped out of the slot, I remembered that I had left my running poles by the last ATM at the other side of town; what chance of those still being there?

I should have more faith in human character, for although the town was already busy, someone had placed my expensive Leki poles in a prominent position at the side of the bank where I might find them on my return. Content once more I ran out of town. It was pleasant running along an easy dirt track through the woods and along a small river into the Gorges des Tines, out of which I had to climb by a series of steel ladders. It must be a spectacular place in a storm. But hyphen again, you would probably get washed away.

Leaving the valley behind I climbed steeply to the Cascade de Rouget, a rather splendid waterfall and a nice little restaurant, just as I was getting hungry. There were tourists everywhere, brought out by the spectacular weather. As I ran past I had to laugh at a father berating his son for wanting to stay in the car playing on his iPad, rather than get out and explore the countryside.

Climbing though steep woodland to the Collete d’Anterne I was surpassed by how many families were out walking. The weather was nice but the path was steep and rugged, and it was as humid as a sauna. I had to stand to one side whilst five guys on single wheeled chairs were conducted down the mountain by beefy helpers. Uncharitably I wonder if this was really worth the effort. There are plenty of nice places to see that don’t require this amount of effort, and judging from the expressions of the riders, there didn’t appear to be a lot going on in terms of appreciating the scenery or the adventure. Perhaps I was missing the point, and all the effort was really about making the volunteers feel good about themselves.

As I rounded the hill and reached Collete d’Anterne I was amazed. Towering above a green pasture was a spectacular line of huge cliffs (Pointe de Salles), blue in the mountain haze. They are so massive that I was unable to capture a photograph until I was several miles further on and whilst I watched a helicopter evacuate an injured scout.

A little further on the views just got better, with the stunning and almost unbelievable colours of Lac d’Anterne appearing ahead. With perfect mountain weather and a walk that is not too demanding if you take the full day over it, I could now understand why the paths were so busy. Remarkable scenery.

Another short climb took me to the Col d’Antern and another amazing view, this time over e Refuge Moëde Anterne and the mountains of the Brévent, Aguilles Rouge and Mont Blanc.

As I unpacked my bag at the Refuge dormitory I thought about all the pharmacists I had passed in the last few days and not bought earplugs. As I write this three days later, and having passed several more pharmacists and having suffered a sleepless snoring night, I still haven’t bough any. Pah.

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GR5 Refuge de Moëde Anterne to Les Houches

The refuge was pretty full last night, and my website booking hadn’t regisered, so I was glad that I arrived early. I had dinner with a Swiss gentleman I had passed earlier in the day. He was escaping for a few days whilst his family were cruising on the Mediterranean. Like me, he had been very impressed with the day’s walk – better than anything he had done in Switzerland, he said.

Leaving the refuge in the morning I was expecting a huge day, as the guide book suggested that the walk over the Brévent was particularly challenging. I didn’t find it so and this was one of my best day’s running so far, beginning with a thousand metre descent before the climb of the Brévent even began.

The first time I climbed the Brévent on the Tour de Mont Blanc, it was in vile weather and the views opened up for only a few minutes. Today though the wether was spectacular and the views over Mont Blanc fantastic. I spent longer at the summit than I had planned as there were two men preparing to BASE jump off the cliff, zipping themselves into colourful winged suits. Quite an adrenaline rush.

The descent from the Brévent to Les Houches is absolutely huge and for a few minutes I contemplated taking the cable car down to Chamonix before heading off on my run. The impressed gasps of the walkers as I plunged down the hillside more than compensated for the decision. At least I choose to consider them gasps of admiration, although I am not so sure about the noises made by the group of Germans I sent a cascade of stones down upon.

At Les Houches I was irritated to find that I had booked an Auberge in the middle of no bars land between Les Houches and Chamonix and up a bloody steep hill. Really, I must be more carefull.

I took a shower and decided to take the bus into Chamonix. I like Chamonix, it has a bustle about it; just the right mixture of shops, interest, mountains and the promise of adventure. Oh yes, and good beer. Mont Blanc Blanche is particularly good.

I was back at the Auberge early as the last bus was at 19:30 and I was feeling too tight to pay for a taxi. Still, a pleasant evening reading and relaxing in a very pleasant alpine chalet.

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GR5 (sort of) Les Houches to Les Contamines

Looking rather hairy.

I put this selfie in only because I failed to take a single photograph the whole day. There was nothing unappealing about my walk from Les Houches to Les Contamines really. The day seemed to be split between six inch wide vegetated paths in dense deciduous woodland and narrow Tarmaced country lanes through less dense deciduous woodland. In addition, the humidity was 100% and the views almost nil. Could I be the first to contribute a dozen axes to the local population? The paths around here could definitely benefit from some senitive deforestation. Oh, and I got lost. Well, as lost as it is possible to be these days with a GPS. I should rather say I found myself in various places when I intended to be elsewhere and then found myself trying to get back on track. The problem with running is that you can cover quite a lot of ground in ten minutes, and if that ten minutes is down a steep hill in the wrong direction ….

Still, although my 10.5 mile run turned into a 14.5 mile viewless sweatfest, I had a good day. I’ve been to Les Contamines before, but it isn’t the town I remembered (goodness knows where that is). I thought I had booked a better hotel than the one I stayed in last time, but actually am staying in the same hotel I used before, just it is in a different town. Strange tricks the memory plays. I must keep writing a journal or goodness knows where I will end up. The hotel, by the way, is splendid and the four course menu du jour was superb, as it was the last time I was here, now in remember. Or do I?

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GR5 Day 3: Refuge de Chésery to Samoëns

There were only three of us staying at the Refuge de Chésery, so I need not have booked. Three others camped nearby and had rather a wet night. By 6:30 am though the sun was up and it looked like being a spectacular day. Lac Vert was like a blue mirror in the early morning light and with the clouds finally gone, I could see the huge ski lift station high above the refuge. This area is part of a huge ski resort and I imagine it is wonderful in a good winter. The ski lifts and tracks look a mess in the summer. Many are still in operation, being used by tourists and mountain bikers.

This was my longest day so far, with a couple of easy cols to cross and a huge descent. The scenery was very impressive, with long views across alpine pastures into the valleys deep below.

I passed a sign warning walkers and cyclists how to deal with the dogs that guard the livestock. There are wolves here apparently. I wouldn’t have believed the sign unless I had read a piece in Le Monde the other day. Farmers in the region are complaining about the number of livestock being lost to wolf attacks. The government has just increased the quota of wolves that can be killed each year in order to keep the numbers in check.

The descent into Samöens was steep but on good tracks, with the last free miles being on Tarmac. I think I may have missed the path. Samöens was bustling when I arrived at lunchtime. It is a thriving place in summer, offering mountain biking, climbing, parapenting and other outdoor sports.

I had dinner in the hotel last night. Embarrassingly I had to wear a pair of startlingly white hotel slippers as my running shoes were caked in mud and smelled like a rotting carcass. There was another chap in the hotel who spent dinner talking to himself. If you didn’t look in his direction, you would have sworn he was having a conversation with a partner. Bizarre.

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GR5 Day 2: Note from Refuge de Chésery

I managed to get the sink clean this morning. Last night I had managed to block it by washing the mud off my running shoes and socks, leaving it full of brown, silty water and bits of floating grass. Although the sink was now clean, I couldn’t help feeling guilty. When the cleaning ladies come to wash it out they will find the water turning a nasty brown colour and refusing to go away. I fear that they are going to have to take off the u-bend to remove the silt.

Dinner at the Esprit Montagne was really quite exceptional. Three very unusual and beautifully presented courses, with which I enjoyed four local artisanal beers and a great coffee. As I was finishing my desert I was thinking that I would have been a good idea to ask the price before I agreed to have dinner. So when I came to pay this morning I was expecting the worse. I got a very pleasant surprise, it was only €20. Considering that breakfast at The a National had been €7.50 for bread and jam, this was quite a bargain.

The guidebook suggested that the route from La Chapelle d’Abundance to Refuge de Chésery would take eight hours and described the path as both steep and wet. I don’t think that I have walked in so much mud since doing sections of the Pennine Way in the 1980s before the path conservation measures were introduced. The areas where cattle use the path to get to and from pastures and cow sheds were particularly sloppy.

I was lucky with the weather again. Although the forecast suggested that there wod be rain all day, it didn’t start until I got to the refuge. The clouds even parted for much of these day, giving me good views down the Valée d’Abundance, and apparently of Mt Blanc, but I didn’t recognise it.

The wildflowers in the meadows are really beautiful, with many orchids and wild roses.

I finished the route in 4 hours 2 minutes. I’m mainly having to walk up hill, but am hoping to develop fitness as the days progress. Tomorrow is a slighter shorter day, finishing in the town of Samöens, where I am going to take a rest day. I figured if I ran for three days and took a rest, it would help.

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La Chapelle-d’Abondance

I love the shutters on the windows, they make the room so dark it completely messes with my body clock. Getting up at 7 was difficult this morning but I thought I had better make an effort as I had asked especially for an early breakfast and the lady that runs the Hotel National in Saint Gingolph said she would come in earlier than usual.

There are a number of hotels in the town and I would recommend staying at one of those rather than the National. It was overpriced and smelled musty. At €80 for bed and breakfast it is way overpriced. As only bread and jam was on offer for breakfast I think that €35 would be a fair price. Look elsewhere unless, like me, you found this the cheapest option in town. Oh, and the television only showed a blue screen.

When I finally got out of bed and put the shutters up, it was raining and the cloud were well down the mountain.

I fussed with my backpack until 9:20 and then set off, expecting to get wet. The rain stopped as I walked out of the door and didn’t start again until I got to La Chapelle d’Abondance.

The guidebook suggests that walking from Saint Gingolph to La Chapelle d’Abondacne in one day at the start of the GR5 is not for the faint hearted, with two steep passes and big descents to deal with. It estimates 8 hours plus if you are fit. I think I am and so I set off, but decided to walk the first hill rather than run it; no point in setting out too fast.

As I climbed from Lac Leman (390m) to Col de Bise (1916m) I was struck by how different the experience of trekking in the Alps is to trekking in the Himalayas. Climbing 1560m in one go, on your first day in the Himalayas could kill you. As Himalayan treks often start at over 2500m, it is necessary to climb slowly to aclimatise, with 300m a day being the usual safe daily ascent recommended. No acclimatisation problems in the Alps of course. Mind you, I didn’t get much running in on the ascent, just a few low gradient sections.

The rain held off as I climbed through the forest, sweat dripping from the end of my nose, the low cloud creating 100% humidity. Eventually I pulled out of the tree line and a break in the clouds encouraged me to take out my camera. It was like magic. Suddenly there were small patches of blue sky and sunshine.

Rounding the next corner I found the source of all te footprints in the mud. There were about a dozen hikers in front of me. Up until then I had had the trail to myself. They were moving very slowly and I soon past them, to once more claim a deserted trail.

From the Col de Bise I was able to run easily downhill to Bise, about 500m lower. The scenery was rather splendid and I should have stopped to take a photo whilst the weather wa clear, but I was enjoying the descent too much. Approaching Bise, the path levelled out and the cattle had made the path into a quagmire. I plunged up to my calves in a mixture of liquid clay and cow shit, almost losing a shoe. There are definite advantages to wearing hiking boots and gaiters. My blue Salomon running shoes came out transformed. (They are now lying on my hotel balcony drying, hopefully, after I washed them in the sink. The sink is now blocked, something I am a little embarrassed about.)

From Bise there was another pass to climb and a sign said it would take an hour. It took me thirty minutes, and I stopped for lunch and to admire the cattle sitting on the coll. They didn’t look impressed. Nor was I, they had made a real mess of the path on the other side, churning up the clay into the sloppiest, sloppiest travesty imaginable.

Descents are easy, right? Maybe if you don’t train on the flat most of the time. Still I ran well and the second big descent of the day was a blast. Reaching La Chapelle d’Abundance I stopped on the first piece of flat ground to check which hotel I was staying in. My legs didn’t like the change of gradient and my left leg went into an impressive cramp that had me dancing around on one foot for about five minutes. It must have been quite amusing. Hopefully my legs will improve over the next few days. In the meantime I am drinking tonic water!

I’m staying in the rather spendid Esprit Montagne, just up the road from La Chapelle d’Aabundance in La Pantiaz. The menu du jour was fascinating; I didn’t know that your could roast watermellon as a vegetable or make a desert out of Jerusalem artichoke and parsnip. Oh and try pureeing kiwi fruit as a sauce. All delicious.

264m 35s 12.62 miles
20m 58s/mile
1836 ascent, 1202 descent

Book suggested 8 hours

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