Le Mercantour by Paul Jackson

Right, here we are then, at La Madone de Fenestre, almost 2,000 metres up in the French Alps, with the Col de Fenestre the only thing separating us from Italy. This was once a Roman sanctuary, then the home of the Black Monks in the 9thcentury, which the Saracens destroyed in the 10th, then the site of a Marian apparition – hence the name – and then a few hundred years later the Templars rebuilt it, as a hospital, before this was burnt down during the French Revolution! Suffice to say then, there is just a little bit of history here, however we aren’t staying put here, in what is now a refuge, for we are just getting started.

A quick beer down and we are off, just as other hikers are arriving from elsewhere, all giving us funny looks as they pass us by, setting off as we are in the late afternoon, when thunderstorms are most likely in this part of the world during August, when the clouds look heavy with rain, and when there isn’t that much light remaining between now and sundown. But we know no better. This is our first time doing this, so we set off, without any second thoughts…

It is straight up, past the vacherie, over the bridge over the mountain stream, and up and away, up, up, up. I take a look back at my older brother, Chris, with his 80-litre backpack on his back, and see that this is already too much for him, and we are only 10 minutes into what is a four-day hike. We press on though. This trip has long been organised, meticulously planned, and…

Well, not quite. In fact, none of us know quite what is in store for us.

It gets darker, and then the rain arrives, followed by rumbles of thunder. This was our worst nightmare, being high up in the mountains during an electric storm, and now it is coming! But up, up, up we go, trying to leave it behind us, with barely a track to follow, just rocky terrain laid out before us, and then snow, that eternalsnow. Now I had thought that we had an easy stage today, but instead we are going straight up over the top of a mountain, trudging through snow in what is the height of summer in the South of France – which is presently suffering an especially oppressive heat wave – and there is an electric storm looming.

A pass opens up before us, a narrow pass, the Pas du Mont-Colomb, standing at 2,300 metres, and we scramble up towards it, toiling upwards like Sisyphuses, beyond the snow, over shale, as the thunder we are trying to flee suddenly grumbles ahead us! Mike, one of my oldest and closest pals, has taken Chris’ pack as well as his own, and one way or another we manage to get ourselves up to 2,300 metres, the highest point of the day, as mists set in around us and our anxiety rises.

We look down over the other side, and the way down there goes straight down! This isn’t hiking, it’s almost mountaineering, abseiling! Down we go though, for we are already over halfway, sometimes going backwards, sometimes scrambling down on all fours, down through those mists.

And then the mists part.

dLittle by little, a sort of lost valley opens up before our eyes. I feel like Conway would have done in Lost Horizonwhen he stumbled upon Shangri-La deep in the Kunlun Mountains, for the snows and the shale and the mists and the thunderclouds are now behind us, and instead a path snakes gently downwards now below a blue sky into a lush, verdant valley, where Alpine Ibexes patrol and marmots screech. Down we go, skipping along now, gleeful, forgetting our prior ordeals, putting them firmly behind us, down towards a mountain lake where trout rise to the surface to meet us, which we dip our feet into and soothe our pains in its icy bosom, where we down another beer…

 

And perched over on the other side of the lake, up on the edge of a little rise, is our first stop: The Refuge de Nice.

Things are pretty basic here: no signal or Wi-Fi – neither of which we will have for the next four days or so – no telephone, perhaps three electric sockets to be shared by the 100 people staying here, barely three minutes of warm water that costs us €2 each, and dormitory with no space but full, I imagine, of snorers and other inconsiderates. And yet the dinner is good, the wine palatable, and the glass of Génépiat the end will surely knock us out, especially after the energy we have spent today, and give us a good night’s sleep.

All of us lie there for hours, wide-awake, as the snorers snore and movers move, and then, just as we do finally start to drift off in the early hours of the morning, an Italian chap decides to get up, long before dawn, and start getting ready, waving his lamp around willy-nilly and packs, and repacks, and re-repacks.

Packed ourselves, breakfasted, paid, and watered, we are off, taking a rather leisurely route between a number of little lakes that lie in the Vallon de Niré that we are now traversing. This is much more like it, we think, when the Baisse du Basto suddenly looms before us, going straight up, up through snow and shale again, all 2,693 metres of it, this the highest point of our trip.

“Fuck!” I mutter.

Such sights we will continue to see over the coming days, and each time we will think, “Surely we will be going around it”. Inevitably, we will go straight over them, as we do now.

But we get there, exhausted and sweaty, the sun beating down on us, my brother only just getting there with that 80-litre backpack of his on his back, but we are up. Having picnicked we are off again, downwards. But yet another height awaits us, the Baisse du Valmasque, this a mere 2,549 metres though, and after that we are into the Vallée des Merveilles.

We come across the Bronze Age petroglyphs, the anachronistic Le Christfor instance, but it must be said that we aren’t left feeling particularly impressed by any of them. So much for merveilles. Well, one things does at least make me chuckle, a later – but still ancient – piece of witty vandalism reading, HOC QUI SCRIPSIT PATRII MEI FILIUM PEDICAVIT[1]!

Then the thunder returns. Actually no, not thunder, lightning! Mike tells us that we need to count, and that anything up to 30 seconds between the thunderclap and the lightning flash can be dangerous. We count 3 seconds! The thunderstorm is on top of us! We forget those wretched petroglyphs and run, as quickly as our little legs will carry us with those backpacks on our backs – an 80-litre one on Chris’ – all the way to our next stop, the Refuge des Merveilles, which lies on the edge of a lake ahead of us. Guides seem to be strolling back, and some people even seem to be heading out, but, though it might make little difference if a bolt decides to strike us, we run all the same.

We pass the afternoon drinking, playing scrabble, drinking, playing chess, drinking, eating, and then drinking some more, and suffice to say that when we get up bright and early the next morning I have a sore head, and our first task is to get up to the Pas de l’Arpette, all 2,511 metres of it. Again, we manage to mount it, and a wonderful vista presents itself, with a valley ahead that rolls downwards with the Gordolasque River. But the way is steep, and I take my brother down arm-in-arm, carefully as we go, and only when we get down into the valley can we both really start to enjoy it.

But what a valley we now find ourselves in, full of friendly chamois, and then we come down further, down to tree-level, into heavily forested zone that provides us with ample shade. We picnic on the banks of the Gordolasque before completing the final few furlongs, to our next, and last, stop: The Relais des Merveilles.

Now, after what we have had to endure the last couple of nights, this really is sheer luxury: our own bedroom, plenty of sockets, Wi-Fi, and our own shower with an unlimited supply of hot water.

Again, I had expected the last day, like the first, to be fairly easy, a gentle little run in back to the car, but again, how wrong could I be. The accumulation of our toils might have accounted for this, but today, in my humble opinion, is the toughest! Straight away we are going straight up to the Baisse de Prals, standing at 2,335 metres of it, which might not sound too much, until you think that out starting point today, the Relais des Merveilles, stood at something like 1,600 metres, so we have to get over some 700 odd metres, and suffice to say that the going is steep. But our little legs get us up there again, and again, another wonderful valley presents itself, one that is full of little marmots, wild horses that prance about, and bulls, whose little bells ring out and reverberate around the valley! Soon we are following a little stream that flows gently downwards alongside our track through the woods, and we pick up the pace, for we know that the end is nigh.

And then we are out of the wood, and there is La Madone de Fenestre before us.

We have come full circle.

And into that little, icy stream we go, hand-first and then head, washing away our woes.

But we have no beers left to celebrate with…

 

BIO: PAUL JACKSON: Paul T. M. Jackson is a writer, translator, and poet based in the South of France. He has previously published ‘A Greek Odyssey’ in the Wanderlust Journal.

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