Over the last several years, traveling and living abroad have made me a sort of real life Yes Man; I try to accept every opportunity that presents itself. Special access to a cathedral spire? Sure. Spontaneous trip to Turin? Absolutely. Sharing a bottle of exorbitantly expensive wine? Please and thank you. So naturally, when my new friends Léo and Antonin invited me last minute to join them on their weekend traverse through the Chartreuse, I said yes.
The massif of the Chartreuse stretches between Chambéry and Grenoble, and—even though the peaks reach only modest altitudes when compared to the high Alps—it’s not a geological formation to be trifled with. This is real hiking, Léo warned me; we would span the entire range from north to south: about eighty kilometers of distance, five thousand meters of ascent, and five thousand meters of descent in three days. I, however, was thoroughly psyched, and the fact that these measurements were metric made them all the easier to ignore. The weather forecast was ominous as well, but I was not to be deterred.
On Friday, October tenth, I met up with Léo and Antonin at their house. We were joined by an Austrian named Bernhard, a friend of Antonin from his time studying in Calgary. I learned that we were also to rendezvous with a British girl named Emily somewhere in the mountains—as of Friday the location wasn’t very specific.
This ambiguity seemed characteristically French—as were many other aspects of our voyage. As we split the group gear and loaded up our packs, I couldn’t help but notice our food: paté, taboulé, cassoulet, saucisson, Nutella, and on our way out of Chambéry we purchased no less than six fresh baguettes. This was also a francophone journey in that it started far later than originally anticipated—after a lackadaisical lunch and some desultory preparation, we left at four in the afternoon.
I felt our departure from the city slowly; we went from downtown to the suburbs, then outer villages, then the countryside, until finally there was nothing but a lone trail in the forest. We followed the French grandes routes—primarily the GR 9. Much to my disappointment, I quickly distinguished myself as the weakest member of our party. I had the shortest legs, the heaviest pack, and I was the most out of shape. The difficult trail only widened this gap: I learned quickly that the switchback is a trend that never really caught on in the French trail system. Instead of zigzagging up the mountain, the path went straight up at a relentlessly steep incline. Even worse, the trails were nothing but mud as a result of the recent rain. With every step, the ground absorbed my energy. Any momentum gained after a short break was quickly sapped away by the fluid earth.
If the first day of the hike discouraged me with its challenges, it consoled me with its views. We walked through the picturesque meadows of the countryside, passing furry cows as they grazed. When I periodically looked behind me, I could see all of Chambéry, nestled in the valley. As we pressed on we caught larger and larger glimpses of the dramatic northern face of Mont Granier. We ascended into the clouds, feeling their cool moisture envelope us. Then we climbed above the mist as the sun was setting: we found ourselves in a numinous plane, punctuated by mountaintops.
The most impressive panorama, however, waited for us at the Pointe de la Gorgeat. At 1486 meters it was the highest elevation we achieved on the first day. Although the sun had set, the valleys we straddled were still illuminated in the glow of twilight—it was just barely too dark for pictures. Behind us, we looked down at the lights emanating from Chambéry and the surrounding towns; the giant Lac du Bourget was a dark void surrounded by glimmering settlements. In front of us, the entire Chartreuse massif presented itself in an otherworldly scene. Only the outlines of the mountains were defined; their dark masses jutted out from the earth like broken, contorted teeth. The clouds hung in the sky as dark smoke, and the scattered lights of small villages in the distance burned like the last dying embers of some epic cataclysm.
After absorbing it all in amazement, our party began a whirlwind descent. The conglomeration of mud and leaves that was so tiresome on the way up proved to be sympathetic in descent. With each lunging step, the ground cushioned the impact; we could safely rocket down the slope without destroying our joints. An hour or so later, we arrived at the outskirts of a village and stopped. In the darkness we set up camp, ate, stretched, and discussed the imminent storm.
At six in the morning there was a break in the rain. All four of us awoke simultaneously, and when we transitioned out of a sleepy daze and realized our fortune, we moved. As quickly as possible, we took down the tents and loaded our packs. We went down into the village to make breakfast (if you can really make soggy baguettes and jam, that is), finding shelter under someone’s deck. After a slight scare about our dwindling water supply, an early riser in the village pointed us toward a public restroom where we could refill our bottles.
Before the sun had risen, we were back on the trail. For a while, the hiking was relaxed as we moved forward in the valley. Eventually though, it was time to get up on the ridge. I was confused as we approached a small cirque. Eventually I realized that we were to follow a solitary forested corridor up the cliffs. An ominous sign read: Col de l’Alpette .9 km; 1 hr. It doesn’t usually take an hour to walk one kilometer…
More mud, more ascent, no switchbacks. As we pressed up the slope, no one had the breath to talk. The only sound came from the cowbells below us in the valley. The multitude of bells reverberated and echoed into one, continuous drone. It was both charming and eerie.
As we neared the top, the sun peaked over the ridge right above us. The sudden burst of light created intense shadows, and the energy of the sight gave me motivation to keep going. Once we reached the crest, we stopped for a moment to enjoy some chocolate and our sense of accomplishment.
The next section of the trail was sublime. We continued underneath the backside of Mont Granier into a brilliant meadow, which was covered by the lushest grass I have ever seen. The blanket of green was wet from the night before, and it glistened in the directional sunlight. We weaved in and out of rocky glades and diffuse evergreens. Bernie proved to be quite the forager: he found wild blueberries, blackberries, and cherries. I have never met an Austrian before, but somehow this seemed to be fitting.
Around this time, Antonin’s knee started giving him significant pain. Apparently the morning’s ascent had revived an old injury, and as we moved Antonin struggled to keep up with his limp. As much as I could sympathize with Antonin (I’ve had intermittent pain in my left knee since my hike in the Pyrenees two years ago), I was also relieved to no longer be the slowest. While Léo and Bernie eagerly progressed, Antonin and I stuck together and followed at a slower pace—a trend that continued for the rest of the trip.
After the meadow, we transitioned into the high plateau of the Chartreuse. At the risk of sounding less-than-literary, the whole landscape truly felt like something out of Lord of the Rings. We were on a great journey through misty clouds, ancient forests, and dramatic mountains. Within the course of the day we passed through a dozen distinct environments; the diversity gave the impression of elapsed time—as if we had been traveling for months.
The Chartreuse is powerful. Even in the daylight, my impression from the night before at the Pointe de la Gorgeat lingered: you can’t escape the sense of being immersed in a brutal geology, something both mythical and violent. The mountains are giant shards, and you can almost feel the pressure that formed them. In some places, it’s as if you are walking amid the collapsed ruins of a giant stone table. In others, you can see the enormous folds of rock that were formed when some ancient colossus kneaded the peaks in his hands.
After some more ascending and descending, we stopped for lunch. It was a hardy backpacker’s lunch—comprised primarily of different forms of fat (and a little bread). I shamelessly sucked on a heaping sporkful of Nutella for dessert. It amazes me that, when I'm backpacking, I can feel my energy being restored after a meal.
We followed the GR 9 into a thick forest. It wasn’t long after we left that I slipped in the mud and bent one of my trekking poles. I wasn’t too happy, and my mood sunk further once we entered the woods: the trail became a disgusting trench. Whereas at other points on our journey we could just walk beside the trail when it was particularly muddy, in the forest it was flanked by the most combative of thistles—there was no choice but to trudge through the deep, watery muck. I could also surmise from several of my senses that the mud was in no small part composed of cow feces (local herders also use the GR system to graze cattle). Mud, mud, mud—it was the constant of our voyage. Memorial of mud; millennia of mire.
After the forest we worked our way toward the Col de Bellefond, a pass situated in a beautiful crown of mountains. The approach was littered with boulders of all sizes, and once again we felt ourselves in a fantasy as we weaved in and out of the rocks and trees, passing a pack of chamois. When we arrived at the top, we were shrouded by clouds. Although the weather had been far more agreeable than we expected—it was supposed to rain on us all day—it was a little disappointing to not be able to devour more spectacular views. In another way, I suppose, the clouds did make the occasional glimpse all the more titillating.
Again we rocketed down the mountain. Antonin was able to get cell service, and he contacted Emily. We would meet up her and her friend first thing in the morning. As the sun began to set, the trail seemed never-ending. We had been hiking for almost twelve hours straight, and we just wanted to be done for the day. After becoming tired, then becoming numb to the stress, our muscles were reaching a third wave of fatigue. Léo and Bernie kept pushing on, hoping to find a campsite before dark. Antonin and I lagged behind, out of sight and out of earshot. We were both in pain now, as my ankle had started to hurt with every step. I don’t know exactly how long that final leg of the day lasted, but it felt interminable. Finally, well after dark, we stumbled upon the other half of our party. In an exhausted hurry we ate and then collapsed.
Although Antonin and Bernie woke up at six, Léo and I slept in for another forty minutes. I use the word sleep liberally, for most of the previous night had been an attempt to find some modicum of comfort with a giant rock in the middle of my back and while sliding down to one side of the tent. The briskness of the morning and the beautifully blushing sky, however, quickly invigorated me.
Shortly after we hit the trail, we ran into a section of very steep rock. We descended slowly using all limbs, but the rock was polished from the friction of thousands of other hikers. At one point I slipped, and the only thing that stopped me from a ten foot fall was landing on top of Antonin, who was down climbing directly below me. Scrambling with a pack on isn’t very fun.
After the rocky section, we rounded a corner and caught our first glimpse of Grenoble in the distance. Even further beyond that—about 70 km away to be precise—Mont Aiguille poked up above its neighboring peaks. We continued on for a bit until we were above another pass, the Col du Coq. Léo spotted Emily waiting below us, and he started sprinting down the switchbacks (apparently they do exist, just where you don’t need them). When I reached the bottom, Emily, topped with blonde dreadlocks, greeted me with a full hug. To my utter surprise, I looked over and saw that Emily’s friend was none other than Dawn—a British teaching assistant who I had just met at our training a week before! Once the six of us had all been introduced or reunited, our formidable multi-national coalition set off for Grenoble.
I want to brush it off as mere coincidence, but soon after the women joined our group we started having navigational issues. We took the wrong trail, doubled back, and then decided to take a shortcut. This shortcut somehow led us to a peak, the Bec Charvet. To get there we climbed off the trail up a blank, steep face of loose rock. Then we continued up yet another steep path of mud, on which everyone slipped at least once. Even though the original goal of making our trip shorter was a failure, the view was astounding. From there we swooped down yet again and then followed a gravel road for quite some time. It had a gentle negative slope, which left us all with enough breath to socialize—a welcome change.
For the next leg of the trip we would follow a ridge for several kilometers up until the Fort du Saint-Eynard. The effort it took to get up on the ridge was worth it; for a couple of hours we commanded a view of the winding Isère and the outskirts of Grenoble in the Grésivaudan below. A breathtaking view awaited us at the fort. We peered over at the Vercours and Belledonne ranges, and we looked down at Grenoble and the Bastille (which, in turn, overlooks Grenoble). It felt simultaneously as if we had already arrived and as if we still had a long way to go. The latter was more accurate.
As the group made our last big plunge, we realized that we were all out of water. I was surprised by how quickly thirst gripped us all. No one spoke on the way down, almost as if to safeguard the moisture in our saliva from evaporating. As we descended lower and lower, I could also feel the temperature rising; I had become accustomed to the chill of the mountains. At the Col de Vence we stumbled upon a spigot, and we guzzled down as much water as we could fit in our stomachs. There was only one stretch remaining before we arrived at the Bastille, but just like the day before it seemed unending as we drew nearer to the close of our journey. Trees encased the trail; the only thing to focus on was my feet. After a sign identifying the Bastille as one kilometer away, I began counting my paces to distract myself (it took 823). At long last, we arrived just as the sun was about to set.
I had imagined myself coming up to the Bastille from Grenoble at some point as a tourist; I would have never guessed that I would descend upon it as a stepping stone at the end of a greater adventure. Sitting there on top of the Bastille, yet again I was struck with the same powerful scene from the Point de la Gorgeat. This time, however, it was just light enough to record. Although I hesitate to share such a poor approximation of the real experience, maybe it can impart something to my words.
Léo led us down a secret path below the Bastille that he discovered when he lived in the area (which was, this time, an actual shortcut). After just over fifty hours from our departure, we stepped off the trail and onto the city streets of Grenoble, elated and exhausted. Before we ate and caught the last train, Antonin snuck off to the nearest grocery store and bought a bottle of green Chartreuse, which is produced in and named after the massif we had just successfully crossed. Sitting in the company of friends, enjoying the complexity of an herbal liqueur, and feeling the heat of fifty percent alcohol—I can think of no better way to have celebrated traversing the Chartreuse.
In March I hiked back up to the Pointe de la Gorgeat in daytime, as I promised myself I would in October. Instead of snow, imagine it ablaze in the dying sunlight.