Hannibal did it, Napoleon did it and now I can say I’ve done it too. Those famous conquerors were faster, but I understand they did it the easy way. The wusses rode elephants and horses, took shortcuts and had armies of minions carrying their gear for them.
I travelled on foot, by the scenic route, doing all my own walking and lugging all my own stuff, with just a small entourage of intrepid friends, and it took us five week-long trips spaced across five separate years to make the Grande Traversée des Alpes, the Great Alpine Crossing. This year we finished the job.
It may be an achievement to complete one of the world’s greatest hikes, in this case the 620km trail from Lake Geneva to Nice, but our project was not about bragging rights or setting records.
We did it because the walk is physically challenging yet safe, and because this long distance hike offers an extraordinary variety of spectacular scenery, with comfortable accommodation and French cuisine conveniently waiting for us right beside the track.
The GR5 trail across the Alps is one of the numbered Grande Randonnées (Big Hikes) marked out by the French Hiking Federation FFRP. They’ve produced detailed guidebooks of the route and helpfully stuck little red and white labels on signposts, rocks and trees to keep us on the right path.
Their route took us through the spectacular Vanoise and Mercantour national parks and numerous picturesque French villages, as well as some unexpectedly ugly ones.
My first surprise was to discover just how wild Europe could be. I assumed that over the centuries wilderness would have been abolished here. Certainly there were often signs of habitation around us, but there were also rugged peaks, glaciers, rocky moraine, dense forests, fields of wildflowers, tumbling streams and clear mirror lakes. There were many days on the trek that we didn’t see another human being for hours on end.
In the higher regions we spotted groups of ibex and chamois goats, and the ubiquitous marmots. These large ground squirrels, which look like flat beavers, mount guard on vantage points above their burrows, whistling warnings.
Our rucksacks weren’t weighed down with tents, heavy sleeping bags, fuel bottles or freeze-dried food. We relied on refuges to shelter and feed us.
To an Australian, a mountain ‘refuge’ sounds like sheets of corrugated iron propped against a snow gum. ‘Refuge food’ sounds like canned baked beans on last week’s bread. Fortunately that is not how things are done in France.
The refuges operated by the Club Alpin Francais, usually in spectacular locations on high cols or beside lakes, are basic but comfortable communal lodges, with bunk beds and blankets provided. Some have hot showers, some don’t.
They served us breakfasts and dinners and, unfortunately for those hoping to leave some kilos on the trail, beer and wine was always available. Despite the altitude it wasn’t always ‘haute cuisine’, but it was hearty fare which did the job. And this being France, great food was never far away.
Whenever we stayed in a village, our day began with a stroll to the local boulangerie and supermarché to buy baguettes, fromage, paté and saucissons for our picnic lunch. I learned that the ugliest, most misshapen French sausages available would usually taste the best.
Then we’d strap on boots and backpacks, adjust the trekking poles, and get on the track around 8.30, aiming to walk 6-8 hours each day while still leaving time for that leisurely lunch.
The GR5 is designed for fit hikers, but nobody needs to be a super athlete to walk it. That suited us perfectly – those of us who were under 50 when we started the trek have passed that milestone now. There was some rocky terrain, mud, snow and solid climbs to nearly 3000m, but in early summer the track was usually in good condition. The great unpredictable element was the weather. We sometimes sweltered under blazing sun, regularly tested our wet weather gear, slogged through late snows and once were caught on a high col in a thunderstorm with lightning strikes and rockslides happening around us. Fortunately it passed over and we staggered down to shelter, a little shaken.
On any journey, it’s not just about the places you go, it’s about the people. The first year, three of us started out on stage one from Thonon-les-Bains to Chamonix. As we raved about how great it was, friends began to join our party. By this year there were ten of us.When at night we lined up at the long refuge tables with other hikers and passed the pichets of wine, strangers became at least temporary friends.
French is the lingua franca of the Alps, but M.Provan, who taught me mine at high school, would wince to hear me speak it now. It was always sobering to hear Germans, Swiss and Danes conversing in fluent français, then switching into English for the benefit of the poor Australian across the table.
There are sections of the GR5 I’d love to do again while my knees still function. For a week-long highlight, I’d recommend the Parc National de la Vanoise, between train stations at Landry and Modane.
Meanwhile, the Grande Traversée conquerors will be looking for new hiking challenges. Fortunately the world has other classic routes we haven’t yet attempted.
Getting there: Airports nearest the route are at Geneva and Nice. Etihad flies from Sydney to Geneva from $1889 return. There are train connections from the airports to stations along the GR5 at Thonon-les-Bains, Landry, Modane and Briancon.
Staying there: There are numerous refuges and gites d’étapes, as well as hotels and auberges in towns. Refuge cost is usually EUR35-40 ($47-54) a night for demi-pension (bed, dinner and breakfast). Advance booking is advisable for larger groups and during peak holiday times in July and August. See ffcam.fr and click on ‘Refuges’.
When to go: The alpine refuges are open mid-June to mid-September. Walking the Grande Traversée at other times is hazardous and should only be attempted by well-equipped and experienced mountaineers.
Safety: Good wet weather gear and boots are essential, and advice of local experts should be heeded on weather and track conditions.
The FFPR guidebooks 530 and 531, which describe the GR5, are in French, but with self-explanatory maps. They are available at French walking shops, including Au Vieux Campeur in Paris. To order online, see ffrandonnee.fr and go to ‘Boutique’.
There is a good route description in English on grfive.com.
OTHER CLASSIC WALKS
Appalachian Trail – USA
3510km. Few people walk the whole route from Maine to Georgia, much of which is through challenging wilderness trails. However, more accessible sections are very popular.
Land’s End to John o’Groats – UK
1400-1900km. There is no fixed route on this one and much of the walking, whether on roads or cross-country, is not difficult. But it is interesting to discover Britain from north to south at ground level.
Camino de Santiago – Spain
800km from Roncevalles near the French border to Santiago de Compostela. The St James Way Pilgrim’s Route, with different starting points in Europe, attracts tens of thousands of walkers each year, not just religious pilgrims. Walking is easy, with visits to churches and monasteries a bonus.
Bibbulmun Track – Western Australia
1000km from Perth to Albany, through WA’s lovely South West. There are few difficulties in the walking, though lack of accommodation and food outlets along the way can cause problems on some sections.
First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney.