I did it. After forty-five days and five hundred miles, I successfully completed my traverse of the Pyrenees via the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne. There were tears and blood and an incredible amount of sweat. There was an unceasing chain of awe-inspiring landscapes. I savored plenty of solitude. Equally, I met people along the way whose company I cherished. At times it seemed like nature offered little gifts, and other times nature seemed indifferent and overwhelming. Some obstacles gave me serious pause. Some moments filled me with the rush of victory. At one point I even believed I had failed and my dream had slipped from my grasp.
I pushed my body, applied my skills, and quieted my mind. I made some great judgment calls and some enormous errors. I learned through experience. I smiled to myself, entertained myself, and talked to myself. I got tan, grew some facial hair, and lost some weight. (I think I've already regained the weight).
How can I even write about such an immense experience? How can I process, organize, and articulate in a way that does it all justice? I don't think it's possible in a single post, but I feel compelled to write something to help people understand this milestone in my life. I'll just need to trust that the details will come through in my conversations with people and in my future writing. So for the moment I'll summarize the experience, what I learned, and how it's influenced the way I imagine my future. I'll let photos do the rest of the talking.
The route that I followed consisted of five sections. The first section crossed through the Basque country from Hendaye to Lescun over the course of nine days. My departure on June 19th was, of course, anticlimactic. I set off alone on a rainy morning, but it wouldn’t be until almost a month later that it rained on me again (the weather was bizarre in the Pyrenees this summer, but it worked in my favor). During the first leg I transitioned into life on trail: conditioning my body, adjusting to my no-cook diet, and establishing my daily rhythm and rituals. I savored the green and bucolic landscape each day. The Pyrenees are pastoral in the truest sense of the word—there are grazing animals everywhere. I enjoyed getting a sense of the Basque culture and passing through picturesque villages as I crisscrossed the French-Spanish border. I was filled with peace and contentment each afternoon as I stopped for the day and set up camp; it felt as if I’d been hiking all my life.
On day six, however, the trip took a turn for the worse. During the ascent of the Pic d’Orhy, the first summit over 2000 meters, my right knee started hurting. Then it hurt more. Then it became excruciatingly painful. Each step caused extreme, audible suffering. With each step my pace slowed. With each step I could tangibly feel my dream slipping further and further away. It began to sink in—I’d severely damaged myself, only a week in, and my trip was almost certainly over.
For the next two days I limped onward to Lescun, where I took a few rest days. The situation didn’t improve much; if normal stairs proved to be an obstacle, how could I hike through the mountains? I had great doubts, but verbalized them to no one except my mother—I asked her to look into whether or not my plane ticket could be refunded and rescheduled. The more I thought about it, however, the more resolute I became. I reminded myself of how long I’d wanted this, how far I’d come, and how difficult it would be to return and try again later if I gave up. I decided that if I failed, it would be because of my body and not my mind. I would not make the choice to stop walking—I would stop only when I was physically unable to continue. I was prepared to hobble all the way to the Mediterranean.
The second section from Lescun to Gavarnie entailed seven days in the French Pyrenees National Park. The first few days went better than I had expected. I became absolutely in tune with my body. In the general sense, I ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired, and relieved myself when I so desired. But for the first time I truly listened to my body. I learned to distinguish the nuances of soreness, ache, and pain. I figured out precisely when I could continue and when I needed to rest, dip my bandana in a stream, and cool my knee.
Little by little, I became accustomed to walking with an injured leg. As long as I didn’t weight my knee while it was bent, I could handle most terrain. Rocky trails, boulders, and snowfield still proved to be difficult, but I was inspired by my surroundings. The views during this part were absolutely stunning. Every day was beautiful, and in retrospect I consider the second section to be the most consistently impressive of the entire trip. In fact, I was so motivated that I didn’t take variants that would have made the section easier and safer. On top of that, I wanted to complete the section one day faster than the guide book prescribed so I could have a rest day afterwards and not fall behind. The end result was that I successfully tackled some of the most challenging terrain of the entire HRP while shaving off a day in the process. I was only able to accomplish this via virtually interminable days—I limped for thirteen hours three days in a row.
Towards the end of the section I was reminded of what inspired me to do the HRP in the first place. There was one day where I hiked the exact route that I did in 2012. It was as if I’d gone back in time, back to the person I used to be. As I climbed towards the inspiring north face of Vignemale, I couldn’t help but feel as if each of the last three years was a decade. When I descended into Gavarnie I was filled with pride: in a week I’d gone from thinking my trip was over to overcoming some of the hardest days the HRP had to throw at me. I had proven much to myself, but I also knew it was time to get serious about letting my knee heal.
The third section stayed primarily in Spain during the nine days between Gavarnie and Salardú. During this time the HRP passed some of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees, and the landscapes were enchanting. The normal HRP route includes four extremely difficult days in a row over snow and boulder fields and high passes. I decided to take a three-day variant following the GR 11 (the Spanish route) during this part for a variety of reasons, chiefly for the sake of my knee.
For me, this was the most social stage of the entire hike. As my knee improved, I was able to hike with other people again. I reunited with hikers that I’d previously met, and I spent the majority of the section walking with others. I enjoyed the company, the conversations, and the cooperation. People went from meeting each other to feeling like old friends within a matter of days. Chatting made the time fly on trail. I was even gifted with a few hot cups of herbal tea. All of this prompted me to reflect on myself and my relationships back home. I wondered often about what type of person I truly am at my core, and what that means for the people around me. Bit by bit my knee healed, as I crossed the halfway point of my trip.
The fourth section crossed some of the most remote areas of the Spanish and Andorran Pyrenees in the ten days from Salardú to Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre. The area was so remote, in fact, that there was essentially no place to restock on food for the entire duration of the section, so on day one I crawled out of town with an absurdly heavy pack.
The rain finally caught up with me as well. Every afternoon, like clockwork, clouds darkened the sky, and most nights they let loose. It wasn’t a tremendous hindrance, however, because the rain usually began after I’d stopped hiking for the day. This region contained many unstaffed shelters along the trail, so I often had protection from the rain if I really needed it. While the clouds did provide some welcome shade during the day, they didn’t create ideal lighting for photographs. As I approached Hospitalet I could sense the beginning of the end. I began to look back on the trip, think about how I’d changed, and try to grasp what it all meant going forward.
The fifth and final stage of the HRP consisted of ten days between Hospitalet and Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was afraid that it might be less interesting after having completed the rest of the traverse. The last section, however, still had much in store for me—including the highest point of my entire trip, an incredible two-day ridge walk, and one crazy thunderstorm. Any concerns that it would be too easy were further invalidated by the fact that I compressed the ten days of hiking into just eight. Over the course of those eight days, I appreciated the most diverse scenery of the entire hike: desolate alpine peaks, grassy high plateaus, and the dry Mediterranean bramble.
As I neared the finish, I became increasingly elated by the probability of my success. Only a few obstacles stood in my way; I only needed to avoid stupid mistakes. With greater frequency I passed hikers going west to east on the trail—just starting. The beginning of my trip seemed both unfathomably distant and undoubtedly proximal. It felt, simultaneously, as if I’d started my journey years ago and as if I’d started it the day before. Either way, I certainly felt changed by it.
Due to poor weather on the Pic de Canigou, I didn’t see the ocean until the penultimate day. I had prepared myself to be impatient towards the end, yet I found that I was simply excited. I was saturated with a constant happiness. I couldn’t wipe the grin off of my face as I drew closer to the Mediterranean, as Banyuls came into sight, and as I descended for the last time. I prepared myself for anticlimax as I entered the calm streets of Banyuls. I saw the beach, packed with sun-soaked crowds. I slowly walked up to the water, crouched down, and let it lap against my dirty hands. Puzzled beachgoers observed a single, oddly clothed man with a giant backpack, completely unaware of the gravity of what he had just accomplished.
So what now? I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. I still don’t know if I’m an introvert or extrovert or both. I still don’t know whether or not, at the deepest, most hidden level of my being, I’m a bad person. I still don’t know exactly to what extent I should regulate my interactions with technology. I still don’t know if or when or where I want to establish my roots. I still don’t know whether I should give money to panhandlers. I still don’t know why women do what they do. I still don’t know why Donald Trump is number one in the GOP presidential primaries right now.
I do know that I’m well rested in body and mind. I know that when your greatest stress is physical, you’re living a pleasant life. I know that, after a month and a half of eating out of an old peanut butter jar and sleeping in a plastic bag on the ground (albeit an expensive plastic bag), I want to live a more minimalistic life. I know that I’m excited to apply what I’ve learned to hiking in the U.S. I know that I want to get involved with more serious mountaineering. I know that completing the Triple Crown (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail) is now a long-term goal of mine. I know that the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne has been the biggest dream that I’ve conceived of, planned, and achieved in my entire life. I know that that I’m enormously grateful for my experience in the Pyrenees, and I know that someday I’ll be back again.
See my video of the HRP here.
If you're interested in the logistics of my thru-hike of the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne, this is the post for you! My (annotated) packing list and some general comments are below. I have a total weight for my pack, but unfortunately I didn't have a scale accurate enough to weigh each item. I've decided not to use brand names as I don't want it to turn into a gear obsession list. If you have any questions about my general approach or about specifics, send me a message (however you won't get a response for quite some time, as I'm currently hiking and this is a timed post).
Things Worn/Used [Not included in the base pack weight]
-Full grain leather waterproof boots
-Wool hiking socks
-Softshell hiking shorts
-Synthetic boxer briefs
-Synthetic button-up t-shirt
-Waterproof map case
-55 liter internal frame backpack
-Ultralight 20 liter day pack
-Waterproof bivy bag [I am not bringing a tent]
-Tarp and cord [I can set up a shelter with this and my trekking poles if weather gets really bad, but it will otherwise serve as a ground sheet]
-Stakes [So my bivy doesn't blow away]
-Closed-cell foam sleeping pad
-Down sleeping bag and waterproof compression sack [Bag rated for 0 C/32 F]
-Sleeping bag liner [To add warmth when it's cold, function as an ultralight bag when it's hot, and keep my bag cleaner]
-Inflatable pillow [Okay this is a bit of a vice, but it weighs almost nothing and it’s worth the extra comfort and convenience to me. Most hikers use a sack of their clothes as a pillow]
-Instep crampons [There will probably be snow in some parts of the mountains, and the security is worth hauling them all the way across]
-Snow attachment for trekking poles
-Waterproof hardshell jacket
-Waterproof hardshell pants
-Light synthetic gloves
-Synthetic fleece cap
-Synthetic/wool base layer upper
-Synthetic base layer lower
-One extra pair of underwear
-Two extra pairs of hiking socks
-Synthetic hat [To add some extra sun protection]
-Flip-flops [As camp shoes]
-Small microfiber towel
-All purpose biodegradable soap
-Floss [Also useful for repairs]
-Tongue scraper [I know it’s weird but for me a fresh mouth is a real morale booster, and it weighs almost nothing. Especially when it's also cut in half]
-Small nail clippers
-Foot powder [Not for feet]
-Drugs [Antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, a few strong pain killers in case something goes very, very wrong]
-EpiPen [Most people don't know, but I'm actually allergic to beef now]
-Biodegradable toilet paper
-Water purification droplets
-3 liter hydration system
-3 liter dromedary [Primarily as a second container to hold water while it’s purifying. I won't be lugging around six liters of water everywhere]
-Empty peanut butter jar [I’m going no-cook. That means no stove and no hot food. This peanut butter jar will be where I soak my dinners to life in cold water]
-Various spices [How I'll keep my sanity]
-Stainless steal multitool [On the heavy side, but I'm still willing to take the weight for a sturdy companion. I also keep it in the waist belt pocket of my pack, so the weight goes directly to my hips]
-Duct tape [Rolled around a plastic straw to save space]
-Repair kit [Nylon patches, thread and needle, safety pin]
-Stormproof matches [Backup]
-Aluminum space blanket
-Maps [Number will vary according to where I am on the trail]
-Cheap, light cellphone [For calling emergency services if needed]
-Electronic tablet in waterproof case [See comments below]
-Universal USB charger
-Wallet [Well, a ziplock bag that contains things that wallets do]
-Extra ziplock bags
-Earplugs [For cowbells and snorers]
The total base weight of my pack is just at 12 kilograms, or about 26 pounds (the final weight will fluctuate drastically based on how much food and water I'm carrying at any moment). That's heavier than I wanted, but much of that comes with the territory of solo hiking: I can't split gear with other people. In a group of three, for example, there would be one first aid kit, one repair kit, one tent, etc. Well I still need all of those things but there's only me to carry them.
In other ways I want to be conservative with my gear selection, because the consequences of an accident are amplified when hiking alone. I have an EpiPen, extra matches, and a space blanket even though I am almost certain I will never touch them, because they could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency.
As I'm a little early in the hiking season, I want to be on the safe side with protection from the elements. The weather in the Pyrenees is notoriously unpredictable and temperamental. Maybe I could make it without a down vest and a sleeping bag liner, but I don't want to push my luck—especially because I'm not bringing a stove and can't easily warm myself if needed.
On that note, I decided after careful consideration to make it a no-cook hike. Even among hikers it's often considered an odd choice, but eventually I became convinced of its merits. I save a fair amount of weight by not bringing a stove or fuel. I don't have to hassle with cooking when I'm tired and hungry. What’s most appealing to me, however, is the time saved—depending on how many meals I would normally cook a day, up to two hours including cleanup. It means I can get going quickly in the morning and get to bed quickly at night. Plus, I can probably get a hot meal every once in a while when I go through a village to resupply.
The question of technology was for me one of the most difficult when considering what to bring on my hike. Would bringing an iPad inhibit my ability to connect with my environment and live in the moment? Would it over complicate the trip? Is it cheating?
It quickly became clear that it was a going to save me weight. The iPad alone weighs less than the HRP guidebook, which I downloaded instead of bringing a hard copy. It's also functioning as a journal, reading material, a camera, and a video recorder. I could theoretically use it for GPS as well, but I don't think I'll have the need and it drains the battery.
It is certainly practical to have some contact, at least intermittently, with the outside world. I'm not certain how often I'll be able to find internet access, but I estimate about once a week. I can find weather forecasts and prepare accordingly. I can update my itinerary with the people I've entrusted it to, which is important because I'm solo hiking. In case of an emergency I would be able to contact family and change plans.
I could also check my email, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram at every chance I get. I could theoretically download a ton of movies and entertain myself every night. I could play video games alone in the woods until my heart was content. But instead I intend to abstain from social media, games, surfing the web, etc. I feel like those could indeed become a distraction, and I relish the opportunity to let go of them and have some mental peace for a time.
But I think this touches on a deeper philosophical issue: the relationship between humankind and nature. Firstly, this is a false opposition: humans are nature, but we separate ourselves from the rest of nature. That didn't start with the iPad. If I wanted to have a “pure connection” or “true encounter” with nature I would ditch my boots, all of my gear, my food, and instead dance around naked in the mountains foraging for plants. Then I would die, because our ability as humans to manipulate and insulate ourselves from the wild is the only reason we've survived and thrived. Ultimately, wise usage of gizmos on my hike will require personal responsibility and self-discipline—qualities that everyone in the 21st century needs to cultivate in relationships with technology in order to live healthy and fulfilled lives.
What's in my pack will no doubt change as the hike goes on. I suspect that, no matter what, it will gradually become lighter. Some things will work well, some things won't. Some things I'll really need, some things I won't. If there's an interest, maybe I'll post an analysis of my equipment afterwards!
I awoke in the cold mountain hut the same way I went to bed—alone. It was the second day of my hike through the Parc National des Pyrénées in October 2012. The day before, I had slowly ascended the Gaube Valley towards the Pic de Vignemale, the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. But as I had drawn closer, the weather had worsened. From my map I could tell that I was close to the base of the mountain, but I hadn't actually seen it yet due to the thick gray mist. As I stirred some nuts into my oatmeal, I glanced outside to see the clouds retreat for an instant, revealing a dramatic wall of granite right before my eyes. The rush of perspective overwhelmed me with awe, and then the valley was veiled again with clouds just as quickly as it had been uncovered.
Nevertheless, I set off and hiked for the entire morning without seeing more than fifty feet through the fog. It was a grueling path, working up to the highest point I would reach in my entire trip. The air became thinner: I made a push, paused, and restarted without any proof of progress from my surroundings. Then, suddenly, the sun burst over the ridge-line to my left, immediately banishing the mist. Everything around me glistened with dew, and directly in front of me—close—the spire of Vignemale shone brilliantly.
I think that moment of rapture, when both the light and the jagged mountains pierced through the clouds, was when I first sensed I would return to the Pyrenees. It was a slow realization that I wasn't anywhere near done here. In the months following my trip, the sense turned into an idea: to traverse the entire range from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. In the months following my return to America, the idea turned into a dream. Then over time the dream intensified and crystallized into a plan—the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne.
The Pyrenean Haute Route, as it's called in English (or even more commonly just the HRP), is just one of several ways to hike across the Pyrenees. The GR 10 runs all the way across on the French side. It has a twin on the Spanish side, the GR 11. Both of these trails are well-developed and well-traveled, often providing a mountain refuge for the hiker each night. The HRP, on the other hand, is more of an idea than an actual trail. It attempts the follow the highest walkable path all the way across the Pyrenees, frequently crossing the border while linking together bits of the GR 10 and GR 11 with local trails, livestock paths, and bushwhacking. Over the course of 45 days the HRP thru-hiker travels almost 500 miles with 140,000 feet of elevation change. Quite the ambition.
Yet even though I've had this dream for so long, it's often proven difficult to communicate—most of all to a close friend whose wedding I'm missing, to parents concerned for my safety and unclear future, and to a woman I love dearly but from whom I'm voluntarily prolonging separation. When I tell people I'm going on a 45-day hike alone in the mountains, the nearly unanimous response is, “You're crazy.” The rest say, “Be careful.”
Part of what draws me is the challenge. I’m guessing the HRP will be the most physically demanding thing I've ever done, and that's very appealing. It will also be a test of my wilderness skills—most of all, navigation. There will certainly be a mental challenge as well, which I've heard can often be the most taxing part of a thru-hike. I crave the feeling of success and accomplishment that can only come from pushing oneself to the absolute limit and overcoming.
A few people expressed interest in doing the hike with me, but an essential part of my dream has always been solitude. This of course amplifies the challenge and raises the stakes, but I feel that solitude has inherent value, especially when interacting with the natural world. Being alone enables deeper introspection and reflection—maybe even making them necessities. Of course it'd be nice to experience some self-discovery or revelation along the way, but you can never expect these things.
I think it'll be good for my health. I'm not in peak physical condition at the moment, and that's not a great feeling. I’ve known the vitality that comes from having a fit mind and body and I wouldn't mind returning to that level of fitness. Also, as a sort of experiment, I'm abstaining from caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol for the duration of the hike. It's not that I consume any of these in excess, but they are easy things to cut out and I'm curious to see if it will have any effect on me. Finally, and possibly most importantly, I want to look tan and lean for all those pool parties I'll attend when I get back to the U.S. in August.
So here I am, about to start this hike. I’m about to begin what I’ve dreamt of for more than two years. After spending so much time gathering information, reflecting, and planning, the moment has finally arrived. Just like any other major event, it doesn’t seem real now that it’s here. Whether it feels real or not, tomorrow morning I'm going to walk down to the beach in Hendaye, touch the water, and turn to walk east. Wish me luck.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
A few weeks ago, I went on a day hike with some of the other Anglophone assistants. Our goal was to hike from the train station in the town of Saint-Pierre d’Albigny (295 meters) to the top of the Dent d’Arclusaz (2041 meters) and return before dark. Spoiler alert: we failed. I still consider the trip a success.
Our party consisted of the Brits (Dawn, Julia, and Rose) and the Yankees (Adam, Hannah, Neal, and myself). Our motley crew assembled at the train station in Chambéry in different stages of preparedness—from hangover to headlamp. Except for Dawn and me, the group didn’t have much out-of-doors experience.
We arrived to find Saint-Pierre shrouded in mist. As we walked up through the town, the gang became concerned: if visibility stayed so poor, would it be worth continuing? As we ascended the sun did the same, and the clouds melted away to reveal the landscape surrounding us. The Dent d’Arclusaz was directly in front of us, massive but distant. To our right, we saw the high peaks of the Belledonne range, already covered in snow. The party reacted with awe, followed by uncertainty. The space separating us from the peak was difficult to comprehend.
Still we pushed on past the outskirts of the town, finally reaching the trailhead. The first section was muddy and steep, which only cultivated more doubt. The word impossible bounced around. It seemed silly to me, however, to undermine our chances so early, so I encouraged everyone to keep hiking as if we were aiming for the summit. If our goal turned out to be unattainable, it wouldn’t be because of our own pessimism.
The forest was a consolation. Autumn was in its fullness, and the myriad of trees enclosed us in living color. When I think back on the fall of 2014, I will remember the fiery blanket spread over the mountains.
It’s a good thing that the woods were pleasing, because we didn’t see much else for the next several hours. The trail leveled out as it meandered up switchbacks, which made the hike easy but time-consuming. Not everyone in the group thought it was easy, however. This was Julia and Hannah’s first time ever hiking up a mountain, and a few of the others were running on inadequate sleep. Much of the challenge was mental. The trail was narrow and even though we were concealed in a forest, the steep drop directly beside us was enough to give some people vertigo. To be fair: the slender path, combined with the wet leaves and mud, gave us reason to be cautious.
As we hiked higher and higher, the party approached physical and mental breaking points. Hannah, as always, was endearingly vocal. She frequently asked for the elevation in an attempt to judge progress, but she really meant are we there yet? It was clear that we wouldn’t reach the top, but still we pushed on towards the tree line. Although the strugglers were periodically revived by little glimpses through the forest, it was clear that we couldn’t keep going much longer.
Just when surrender was palpable, we reached a clearing below the summit. The cliffs of the Dent d’Arclusaz, which had been concealed for the past several hours, suddenly shone right above us. Gasps, then cheers. We had a clear view north into the folding range of the Bauges. The group shouted in disbelief: it was difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that the cliffs that were once so far away now lay right before us. The gravity of the scene filled us all with a sense of immense accomplishment.
At our highest point we reached 1440 meters, but it was apparent that we couldn’t reach the top before dark. After a late lunch and an extended break, we started our descent. It wasn’t long, however, before we reached another opening in the woods. It was even more stunning than the last. The town and the valley opened up below us, and we could trace the Isère River for miles as it snaked towards the mountainous horizon. The earth and the sky were draped in wispy clouds, and the afternoon sun illuminated the entire landscape. This is literally the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, Hannah said. The sentiment echoed in our group, albeit with more profanity.
We didn’t reach the summit, but that day I witnessed something far more rewarding than the view that would have met us there: I saw other people discover the mountains. What other place offers such rich grandeur? What other place confronts man with such an abundance of challenge? Only the mountains can pummel you into submission one moment and overwhelm you with beauty the next. The fact that this beauty is well earned makes it all the more sublime. It invigorates and enriches the spirit. This is real wealth; this is living.
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.