Sunday 3 November 2019

Through the Alps on the GR5: How Wild is Wild?

Camp in the valley of the Ruisseau du Charmaix

This piece on my GR5 walk in the Alps first appeared in the June 2019 issue of The Great Outdoors.

Across the deep blue water of Lake Geneva, I could see the mountains rising, mountains I would soon be walking through as I headed south along the GR5 trail to Nice and the Mediterranean. Soon the train would pull into the little town of St Gingolph and I would walk from Switzerland into France and look for the first GR5 signpost. Until a few weeks earlier I hadn’t expected to be here. I had expected to be hiking the Colorado Trail in the Rocky Mountains. However, a series of reasons ranging from wildfires closing sections of the trail to minor ailments had meant I’d run out of time. Setting off late in the summer would have meant early snow might prevent me finishing the trail. I’d need to hurry to try and avoid that. I didn’t want to hurry. I didn’t want that pressure. I’d had to deal with blizzards and snow in the Colorado Rockies many years earlier on my Continental Divide Trail walk. A main reason for hiking the Colorado Trail was to see the areas I’d missed then by taking a low-level route. 

I still wanted to do a long walk though, something taking a month or so. The GR5 through the Alps looked suitable, being some 645-725km (400-450 miles) in length (there are some different route options). As with the Colorado Trail the first autumn snow might prevent my completing the trail but in this case I would just accept it, or so I believed. 

Cornettes de Bise

As I considered it a long walk in the Alps began to appeal. It was, I thought, something I should have done already. The longest trips I’d undertaken were a week’s walk on the Tour de Queyras and a week’s ski tour in the Vanoise National Park. Why hadn’t I done anything longer? Why had I neglected the greatest mountain range in Western Europe and one of the most famous in the world? In my head the Alps were too developed, too tame, too lacking in wildness. If I was going abroad to walk I wanted vast open spaces, unspoilt wilderness, majestic wildlife. I didn’t think I’d find those in the Alps. On the GR5 I’d discover that I was both right and wrong and that what constituted wildness was rather more complex than I thought.

Only deciding to walk the GR5 two weeks before I set off didn’t leave much time for preparation. I bought Paddy Dillon’s Cicerone guidebook, some 1:100,000 scale maps for overviews, and downloaded 1:50,000 maps to ViewRanger on my phone. Like all GR routes the GR5 is waymarked throughout with horizontal white and red stripes on boulders, trees, signposts, and buildings. I wasn’t expecting to have any navigation problems and in fact my compass (I never go without one) never came out of the pack.  Food I’d buy along the way. The gear I’d planned for the Colorado Trail would do. I skimmed the guidebook on the long train journey from the Cairngorms to the Alps. My first supplies came from a supermarket at the train station in Geneva. 

Camp in the valley of the Ruisseau d'Anterne

In summer it’s possible to stay in accommodation every night. There are many refuges in the mountains and villages every few days. The refuges start closing down mid-September though and I knew most would be shut after the first week or so of my walk. I was planning on camping most nights anyway. As always, I wanted that closeness to nature that only staying out overnight brings. What I didn’t know was that the small villages mostly close down as well, with no shops or accommodation available. Some of them felt like ghost towns.  

I liked not knowing too much about the route. I never do much detailed planning, but I did know more about the Colorado Trail than the GR5. I’d learn much along the way. I knew enough to decide walking south was the best option as I’d be through the higher mountains where early snow was more likely first. Also, further south where it was drier and warmer the summer heat should have eased by the time I was there.

The section through the Alps is the final and most popular part of the GR5, which starts far away on  the coast of Holland. Except for a short dip into Switzerland the Alpine stretch is all in France. I wondered what my rusty schoolboy French, unused for many years, would be like. Pathetic, it turned out. 

The first day set a pattern for the whole walk, except in regard for the weather, which was very hot, as it was to be the first five days. I sweated uphill, the pack feeling heavy, my legs leaden. The town gave way to woods, the woods to open mountainside. The first pass appeared, the Col de Bise. Down the far side I camped on the first flat ground with a splendid view of the limestone peaks of the Cornettes de Bise. Cow bells clanged all around.  That type of day – steep climb from valley through forest to high col then down to camp – would be repeated again and again. In all I crossed 44 named cols and climbed 1200 metres plus almost every day. I also encountered many cows, more than I’ve ever seen anywhere, and, in the southern part of the walk, equal numbers of sheep. On most days there were electric fences to cross too. Easily movable ones so that herds and flocks can be moved from area to area, reducing over-grazing. 

Mont Blanc

Although the general pattern of the days was similar the days themselves were not. There is a huge variety of scenery on the GR5. The common image of the Alps is of snowy mountains and there are some of these, especially in the northern part of the route, which passes Mont Blanc itself. But there were fewer than I expected, and the overall impression was of rock not snow. I was not in the Rocky Mountains, but I was in rocky mountains, the bare bones of the world showing through. Walking in the autumn meant virtually all the snow from the previous winter had gone. In the summer much more is left, and the mountains probably do feel snowier. I only ever walked on a few small patches. Mostly the trail was stony. The rocks themselves are a mix of sedimentary and metamorphic, the first often pale limestone and both crumbling and unstable. Some descents were quite exciting on narrow decaying paths of rubble and rock chips. The shape of the landscape was carved by glaciers, most long-gone but leaving behind the usual distinctive features – aretes, corries, U-shaped valleys, moraines.

The first ten days of the walk I passed many refuges. These all function as restaurants during the day and it took will power not to call in at every one and in the cafes in the villages. I had to forget the long-distance walker’s adage of never passing by anywhere selling food as on some days I’d have spent longer eating than walking. There’s no need to carry much in the way of supplies here.
Further south is different as there are fewer refuges, on some days none. They were all closed when I was there anyway, and I hadn’t expected to use them. I had expected to buy food in villages though and the shops and cafes being closed did present a problem. Not expecting this I almost ran out of food, which would have been ironic here. Happily, I found one tiny ├ępicerie open in a little hamlet called Fouillouse. There wasn’t much choice and for several days I’d eat panettone for breakfast, chocolate, trail mix and Nestles concentrated milk for lunch and as snacks, and packet soups and cheese for dinner. I didn’t mind. It kept me going.

On the fifth day the weather broke with rain arriving in the evening. Although there were many warm days to come none were as hot as those at the start, which was a relief. I found the heat enervating and once it had eased off walking became much easier. Rain when it came was often short-lived but very heavy with thunder and lightning. The coldest day though was clear and sunny but with a bitter wind sweeping the open expanses of the Vanoise National Park.  I just missed the first snows, waking one morning at a forest camp after a night of heavy rain to see white streaks high on the mountains I’d crossed the day before in cloud and a cold wind. For the last week of the walk I stayed ahead of the snow, often looking back to see it on the mountains. Seeing it took away my feeling that I wouldn’t mind if I didn’t finish the walk. I realised the trip would seem incomplete if I didn’t complete it now I was not far from the end. The heat I’d been concerned about as I descended slowly to the Mediterranean didn’t materialise and my last two days were cloudy, wet and cool. 

Lac de Grattaleu
Initially the refuges, roads, livestock and other signs of humanity did detract from the walk, but I soon realised that these were part of this landscape and had been so for many generations. This is an inhabited land. There was much walking away from them too, especially in the high country above the forests and in the forests themselves, which were glorious and often the wildest places.  Silent dark forests of pine and spruce, lighter forests of larch and in the south sweet chestnuts, were a pleasure to walk through.

Most of the refuges and villages were built of local stone and wood and blended into the landscape, Only the modern ski resorts seemed alien. Coming out of the Vanoise high country and staring down at the cluster of tower blocks of Val Chalet and Tignes I exclaimed out loud. From above they looked like terraformed settlements on another planet in a science-fiction film. The ski tows and chairlifts were an intrusion too. However, there were far fewer of them along the GR5 than I’d feared.

Col de la Leisse
Wildlife is often taken as an indicator of how wild somewhere is and here the French Alps score highly. I saw wild animals and birds every day, often in large numbers. Of the mammals marmots were the most common. These big plump rodents live in high meadows above the forest and in some areas I saw dozens of them at a time, standing up to look for danger, then emitting shrill warning whistles before scuttling over the grass to their burrows.  Bigger mammals are the wild goats known as ibex or bouquetin and the smaller goat-antelopes called chamois. I saw herds of both. The first ibex appeared on the first day as I reached the first col, startling me. A pair of thick curved serrated horns rose above a bank just a few metres away. Then as the head came into view the ibex saw me and sped away. 

In the woods I saw squirrels, black squirrels. They are in fact the same species as our red squirrels but here have much darker coats. Lynx, roe deer and red deer also live in the forest. I never saw these, but I did hear the red deer stags roaring, just as they would have been back home in the Highlands.
Another animal I never saw was a wolf. I’d love to have seen one but just knowing they were there was exciting. I did see a wolf kill. I was descending a long valley in the Vanoise National Park when I met three people standing on the path looking at the far hillside. I looked too and saw a flock of vultures circling. ‘A wolf has killed a sheep’, they told me. Through my binoculars I could see the bloody remains which the vultures were tearing apart. I wondered where the wolf was and whether it was watching us. There are hundreds of wolves in the Alps and they are protected, with compensation offered to farmers when livestock is killed. There are no wolves in the Colorado Rockies. I was beginning to wonder which place was the wilder. Maybe it wasn’t the Rockies after all. Maybe wolves were the key.

The huge vultures were impressive in themselves. I saw many on other days, often solitary and drifting high above, watching for carrion. I saw golden eagles on several days too, more than I’ve ever seen before, including a dozen or more circling above a high col, a glorious sight.
The GR5 through the Alps is a popular route but walking in the autumn as the refuges closed I only caught the end of the summer season. Once I was past Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley the numbers of other walkers dwindled. On some days I saw none. The mountains are quiet in the autumn. The second day of the walk I came down to a crowded car park at the Chalets de Bise where I met my friend Lionel Morel, who lives not far away. There are restaurants here. The first was booked up for hours. Walkers were heading off in every direction. Would it be like this the rest of the walk I wondered? A month earlier it would have been. 

Evening light in the Parc National du Mercantour
The final flourish of high country on the GR5 is in the Mercantour National Park. A variation here stays high until a final sharp descent to Menton and the Mediterranean. With unsettled weather and fresh snow on the summits I decided not to take this. Instead I stayed with the main route wandering slowly down through wooded hills and along steep terraced mountainsides to a surreal final walk through the streets of Nice to the sea where crowds sunbathed. It felt a long way from the mountains.
I’d set off unsure whether I’d like the GR5 or whether I would find it lacked wildness. I was surprised to find I enjoyed it far more than expected. It isn’t a wilderness trail; it isn’t remote except in a few places. There are ski resorts, refuges, bulldozed roads, and far too many cows, sheep and electric fences. But then there are the magnificent forests, the spectacular mountains and the rich wildlife. I was glad I’d experienced these. 

The Mediterranean


  1. Thanks, reading bought back many memories of when I walked it in 2006 2 Sept. – 27th Sept.

  2. Thanks for this! I made a spur of the moment decision to walk the gr5 this summer, after more rugged high-level adventures in be Pyrenees earlier years - and I have exactly the same fears (essentially that I'll be disappointed by excessive crowds, roads and towns when what I long for is long stretches of wilderness).