Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Christmas holidays

A couple days in Aachen/Hergenrath, a few days in Bad Lippspringe, then a few more days in Hergenrath.

We even did a couple hiking trips in the Hohes Venn:

Friday, September 23, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 20: Travel back to Basel

A pretty simple day with plenty of distance covered. Our original idea is to drive out of the Valle Meira, do some sightseeing in Alba, find a place to stay on the way to Milano, and then head back to Basel on Saturday. While having a really nice lunch in Alba we realize that it makes a hell of a lot more sense to just go ahead and drive to Milano, drop off the car, and head back to Basel today. So that's what we do. Aside from a double accident causing a traffic jam on the highway towards Milano (accident 1 and then another accident in the traffic jam itself), this goes really smoothly and we're back home before 10pm.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 19: Around the Rocca la Meja

Originally planned as a driving day, but we can't bear to leave the mountains just yet, so we drive down the Valle Meira a bit, headed into a side valley, found a place to sleep in Vernetti, then set off for a short hike. We have no desire to try and compete with yesterday, which was a real highlight, so this hike is more of a cool down day. :-)

From Vernetti we drive further up the valley, on some very entertaining narrow mountain road in our underpowered rental car until we reach the Colle del Preit (2083m). Not much room to park here, but we find a mostly suitable space and then set out. The plan is to walk around the Rocca la Meja and then have lunch at the Lagho Nero.

We start along the farm road across the lovely green high valley, under cloudless blue skies in somewhat warmer conditions. The road leads gently up for a while until we head off onto a foot path which we follow gently up throught he grass to the Colle d'Ancoccia (2533m). From here further up a bit to a fork with a nice "for expert hikers" indicator in our direction and a "normal" path in the other direction. Expert hikers? huh? We break out the book and actually read the description of the hike this time. Ah... yes... the book says there's an unmarked path to a saddle followed by a very steep descent on the other side. Ah well... the path is marked now, so they probably cleared up the other side as well.
Towards the Colle della Meja
Five minutes later we're in the Colle della Meja (2551m) and see that the other side is really steep and that there's still no real marked path there. Ah well... The first bit is quite steep, with highly marginal footing, but after that it's just a steep descent traversing under the wall of the Rocca la Meja.
The steep route down
There's a really nice controlled gravel slide passage that we both have a complete blas on, then a bit more normal descending, and then we're at the bottom. A short bit of block later and we find a normal marked path leading is downward through the trees.

This is a very nice path, good walking under the trees. Then we hit the blueberries and take a break.
mmm, blueberries
After a bit Greg declares a unilateral blue berry moratorium and we continue. Andrea keeps lagging behind and violating the moratorium, but we do manage to make some progress through the extremely difficult terrain (a longish green stretch where 50-75% of the ground cover is blueberry shrub). Eventually we reach another farm road, contour lightly down a bit more, and then turn off for the Lago Nero. We're both pretty hungry at this point since we "planned" our lunch break to be three hours into a four hour hike starting at 10am. Eventually we reach the lake and have a lunch break under a tree on the slope above the lake. Pretty lake, excellent views, amusing antics of the people down by the lake itself, it's a good break.
Lago Nero, Monviso in the background
After lunch it's further downwards in the same direction, a nice gravel slope traversal, descent inot a valley of cows, and then a short climb back to the car. We drive back to the hotel, have a cool beverage while "appreciating" the kitsch and the fact that German is the only language we hear. To be fair to the hotel: the place is kitschy and very oriented towards its German target audience, but the rooms are really comfortable and the people are very friendly.

Approximate stats: 11.9 km loop, 806m up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 18: Sentiero Roberto Cavallero (partial) + Sentiero Dino Icardi (partial)

Another cloudless start... we could really get used to this! :-)

Rather than repeat a km or two of road, we drive down to the parking lot for the path to the Stroppia falls and set out from there. We immediately start climbing (another type 2 Andrea special) along the road. Past the construction site, then up, up, as the road starts to look more and more like a hiking path, until the road from the other side joins in and the hiking path turns off to head straight up the valley. Past an alp we climb (here we see a couple rock climbers assembling their gear by their car), past yesterday's cows, up the Valle de Maurin. Soon we hit the sun and can enjoy a sunny uphill walk through the lovely green valley with the steep stone sides. No breeze today, so it's a bit warmer than yesterday, but nothing crazy. After more climbing and walking and marmots and lakes and streams we reach the Col de Maurin (2633m), our first named pass of the day. We enjoy a short break and try, unsuccessfully, to catch sight of the lakes under the pass on the French side. Then it's climbing further along the somewhat muddy Sentiero Roberto Cavallo to the Col de Marinet (2784m). This path is a bit muddier and has some more climbing. From here we've got great views into France and up to the next pass on the agenda with its steep snow field.

The snowy ascent to the Colle Chiaslaras, Mt. Chiaslaras to the left

The path leads us off to the left across some gravel and block and snow patches towards the foot of the steep snow field with its visible switchbacks. There are footprints in the snow here, so we know that we aren't the only crazies to do this. Once at the snow field it's easy: follow the footprints up the zig zags. The footing in the snow is good and we make the Colle Chiaslaras (2973m) with much less trouble than it looked it it might be from below. After a very brief pause to take the "pass picture", we head up the left side to find the unmarked path up to the Monte Chiaslaras (3005m). This is easy enough to find and we make our way up without too much trouble. Once up top we enjoy fantastic views all around and have a very nice lunch break int he sun. The pans from up there are also going to require some quality time in Google Earth to label.
View from the Mt. Chiaslaras
After our lunch break we head back down to the pass and then begin the descent of the other side. Again, we have the other prints to follow, so this is really no big deal. About halfway to the bottom the SRC heads off to follow a contour to the next pass, we follow this. The footprints we have been following do not. Woo hoo! virgin territory! We contour around a bit and then start climbing steeply up the valley side. Quite steeply. On muddy, slatey gravel. There's not much path here, but the way is very well marked so it's no problem to know where to go. The trick is not sliding backward and (for Greg), not kicking rocks loose onto Andrea.
Steeply up
After a good bit of climbing, the markings stop, but there's a chain (a chain?!?!?) visible above. We head towards the chain.

A bit of an aside: We know that there is some sort of path to the pass here, but we don't really know anything about it. We had a description of the SRC in Italian, but Andrea didn't really read it, we just picked out the pass names and set out, so we don't really know what to expect. So the chain was a bit of a surprise.

We work out a technique for getting the 20-30m up the first stretch of chain without killing each other and then hit a sharp left turn to start a traverse, also on the chain. Andrea, seeing the expression on Greg's face, volunteers to go first. Greg agrees with this. Andrea starts the traverse with the words "Step back, I'm going to swing out on the chain". Greg is too dumbfounded to react sensibly, so before he can muster any objections the "swing out" is finished and Andrea is once again in a sensible position. The traverse with the chain is somewhat hairy, but it's only about 30m long so it's over quickly.
A bit with the chain
The last bit is a 2m scramble with another chain to help and then we're in the Passo Terre Nero (3048m). Another short break to appreciate the views and what we just did (and to laugh a bit about the swing out) and then we start down the other side.

View from the Passo Terre Nero
 This isn't anywhere close to being as dramatic as the way up: it's a descending traverse to the left with a fun mixture of block, gravel, and snow. We're descending towards the lovely lake and trying to figure out the logic (or lack thereof) of the path until we reach the Col de Gipierra (2930m).

It's getting late-ish and we've already done a  lot, so we opt not to climb up to the Tete de la Freme (plus it looks crowded up there). We're now back in an area with plenty of other people around at the crossroads of a couple of heavily used paths. Down from the pass and along the bowl to the Biv. Barenghi (from Monday, but this time the weather and conditions are dramatically different). From the bivac we head along the valley side again, through several unnamed saddles, around a few bowls, until we reach the Colle del Infernetta (2783m). There's an other couple here who have arrived from the other route up from the valley. They don't really seem properly outfitted for the descent (she: light hiking boots, stylish city sunglasses, and a terrycloth skirt). The difficult decision about whether to go before them (and risk having them kick rocks down on us) or go behind them (and have to wait for them) is made for us as they head out before us. We wind up having to overtake since they are moving so incredibly slowly, then we try to go as quickly as possible to minimize the risk of stones from above. Anyway, we reach the valley bottom and then walk the rest of the way out of the beautiful Valle de Infernette. Back on the road, downwards, deoutr to cut some corners, past a patch of Edelweiss (wow!), and ever downward until we hit the car and drive back to Campo Base.

It was a long, but very varied and interesting day.

The six passes
Dinner was more crowded than it has been (18 people) and we end up at a table with four other Germans. There's plenty of conversation and food.

Approximate stats: 18.9 km loop, 1710m up.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 17: To the Monte Bellino

We start the day under cloudless blue skies at around 7:45. Today is definitely an Andrea special type 2: wake up, eat, climb. :-)

The path leads us steeply up the valley on the right side of the Rocca Provenzale. The initial climbing is nicely sheltered, not too cold, not too warm, great walking weather. As we approach the Col Greguri (2319m) we get into the sun for the first time, but the morning still isn't too hot; we just lose a layer or two and continue. After aruond 2.5 hours of nice climbing we hit the Col de Rui (2708m). From here it's down a bit to the valley floor and then continuing off the main path along the valley towards the Passo de Lauset with its military ruins. This is an unmarked path, but it's really easy to follow. From the pass (2889m) we ascend a bit to the neighboring "peak", P.2912 (for want of a better name), where we have a lunch break in the sun in a wind-sheltered spot with great views.
Heading down from our lunch spot
From the lunch spot we spend a bit of time finding the way forward. We don't have a decent map and the picture we took of a real map is unfortunately blurry in this section. After some wandering around, searching , and traversing some marginal hiking territory (some bits more than once... joy!), Andrea locates what could be the path, at least it looks like it used to be bits of a path even if the only recent users have been goats. Still, we take it. Aside from some washed out sections with marginal footing (and very respectable drops to the side) and one bit that's been covered by a rockslide (nice scrambling there!), it's a good path.
Looking back along the path
It leads us very nicely along the valley side and, towards the end, up to the Mt. Bellino (2937m). Here we enjoy another nice break with an incredible 360 degree panorama (yes, there is a good reason to go to peaks!) from the Argentera to the Monviso. We'll need to spend some time with Google Earth to figure out exactly what we saw.
View from the Mt. Bellino
After our break, we head onward and downward to the Col di Bellino (2813m), then further down through the valley, ever descending, down, down through the green. We do a nice second lunch break with a view on a flat piece of grass in the sun, then head further onward and downward. Good views and nice burbling streams are with us the whole way.
Down through the valley
 Towards the bottom of the valley we encounter a big herd of cows being roused by their keeper to move down the valley as well. Unfortunately for us, they are following the path we want. By the time we weave our way through the mass/mess, we've moved pretty far from the path and are now in "unknown" territory.
A small group of cows in the way
We continue on in the right general direction and, after some time figure out a good route down. Not too long later we're back on the road home and then back at good ol' Campo Base for another nice evening.

At dinner we end up at a table with a French guy who is walking a short stretch of the Via Alpina and a French-speaking Swiss who is walking the whole Via Alpina from Trieste to Monaco. The Swiss guy has been walking for three months and is now about ten days from being done... crazy stuff.

Approximate stats: 15.7 km loop, 1467m up.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 16: Sentiero Dino Icardi (partial)

The weather forecast for Acceglio was for 11 hours of sun, strong winds, and cool. Maybe Acceglio had 11 hours of sun, we certainly didn't see that today... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

After an Italian breakfast, we are underway from Campo Base (1650m)) around 8am. We head up the road, past the campsite, a bit further along,  and then turn to follow the Sentiero Dino Icardi up the valley wall towards the Stroppia waterfall. Nice path leading us up, up, towards the sheer cliff. We have a bit of fun along the way trying to guess where we'll go up. The weather is ok: blue skies overhead (but clouds visible), cool, but not cold, and not too windy. Up we go!

We hit the wall at a bit of a staircase and head steeply up from that point. It's a nice path along the natural place to go up, along grass bands, over streams, etc. nice somewhat exposed bit with an ornamental rope for that "I'm safe" feeling for those who need it. Up and along to the Rif. Stroppia (2260m), over the waterfall (dry), and up more. As we near the rim, the wind starts. As we crest the rim (~2350m) the wind is there in full power. Woohoo is it windy.

Beautiful views across the high plain to the snow-dusted mountains all around. across the plain we go, gently climbing, fighting the wind at times, towards the corner that will lead us further up.
On the plain in the wind. 
At a certain point there is snow on the ground around us, which makes path finding difficult until we get used to it. Onwards, upwards, through ever increasing amounts of snow, big wind gusts constantly there to fight against, up, up. Evil looking clouds gathering on the other side of the ridge. We're in partial sun until around 2700m, where it's all shadow. It's clear at this point that we are *not* going to do either the high pass or the peak we had planned, but a lunch break out of the wind at the Biv. Barenghi seems appealing. Up into the wind a while longer, through the snow and rock landscape and then we're at the Biv. Barenghi (2815m). We let ourselves into the structure, close it back up, and have a quick lunch break (we may be out of the wind, but it's still only 1.6 deg C).
Biv. Barenghi in the snow

After lunch we put on more layers and venture back out. The originally planned route takes us over another high pass and down its steep North side; we decide that this isn't such a hot idea and head back the way we came up. It's much nicer walking with the wind in our backs. Back down, down in the sun on the high plain (ahh... sun) where most of the snow has by now melted, onward and downward with the wind always at our backs. Back down the cliff fact the same way we came up.
Back down the cliff face
Some amusing snow showers starting along the way (are we going to have to race the weather back?) until we hit the valley floor. The last bit to the Rifiguio goes quickly and then we're back and warm and out of the wind.

Not the tour we planned, but still quite an experience. That high alpine area with the beginnings of snow cover was a lot of fun to walk in. Too bad about the damn wind!

We have another really nice dinner; they are feeding us well here. :-)

Approximate stats: 15.3 km loop, 1267m up.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 15: Rain Day

Rainy day, icky and cold outside. After a post-breakfast nap we pack, checkout, and drive up the valley to the Rifugio Campo Base. We spend the rest of the day keeping ourselves warm and out of the rain. Towards 6pm the rain stops so we do a quick pre-dinner stroll to check things out. We're amazed to see snow on some of the mountains around us. Looks like it starts at around 2500m or so. Crazy stuff!

Dinner is really good and includes our first real polenta of the trip: polenta con salsicce and polenta con formaggi. mmmmmmmmmm... polenta!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 14: Sentiero Pier Giorgio Frassati

After a decent breakfast we're on our way. We drive up the road a bit to start out hike at the Sorgenti della Maira (1646m); we're following the Sentiero Pier Giorgio Frassati for most of the day. The path leads us up the side of the valley, up, up, under trees on a nice, very colorfully marked path, up until we hit the ridge above the Lagho Visaisa (1959m).
No shortage of markers on this path.

Further up the the valley along the left hand side towards what looks like a dead end of cliff walls. At the "last minute", the path turns off to a saddle leading out onto a broad, green, flattish high plain, past the Biv. Bonelli, along the plain, scaring marmots the whole way.

Onwards and up to the Colle della Munie (2531m). Nice views down into France, where there is also a broad, green, flattish high plain. Along the ridge a bit and then we deviate from the official path to stay on the ridge and follow a highly used path, past the Col Aguya, climbing, climbing tot he peak of the Mt. Soubeyran (2701m). Fantastic views all around, definitely convincing us that we need to spend a few more days in the area. We have a nice 10-15 minute block with the peak to ourselves and then leave it as the next pair comes up. Solitude on an easy peak with great views... what a luxury!

View from Mt. Soubeyran

Onwards, downwards, along the rim of the valley until we reach the Pas del Fea (2539m). Down a bit more to the old military installation, where we do a lunch break out of the wind and then head on around the bowl, descending the whole way. Down, down, down we go. Along the way we see clear traces up to the saddle of the very attractive Mt. Viraysse; Greg toys with the idea of doing that one too, but it's too late in the day for such games and the weather seems to be heading in a bad direction.
Bowl under the Mt. Viraysse
Onward and downward! We catch sight of a hermeline in summer coat, but the shuy little thing doesn't let us get close enough (or stand still enough) for a picture. Down, down, down, past the Grange de Pause where they are gathering their sheep somewhere out of sight (we could hear them for quite a ways, but never saw a single sheep), and then down tot he road and back to our starting point (with a few nice corner cuts along the way to keep things interesting).

Very nice day in a beautiful area. It's very, very nice to be hiking without the heavy packs on. Reassuring somehow that we are still somewhat fit! :-)

Back at the hotel we take a quick nap and wake to rain... yes the weather was heading in a bad direction.

Approximate stats: 12.7 km loop, 1060m up.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 13: Travel day to Valle Meira

After packing and a reasonable breakfast, the guy from the hotel drives us down to the crossroads for Entracque and drops us off. Before leaving, he asks a local about the bus and confirms that it's still running. We wait a bit (we're early), the bus drives by the other way and the driver says he'll be back in five minutes. We now know that there *is* a bus, so we relax a bit. Then the five minutes pass and the bus doesn't come back; the doubts start again. At least we know that there is a bus up that valley and that we're standing on the only road out (we check the map to confirm that). After a while the bus does show up and the trip to Cuneo to pick up the rental car proceeds without undue drama.

The road to Acceglia is easy to find and follow and we arrive without problems, check into the hotel, have a small lunch (not as good as yesterday by a long shot), have a nap, explore the small town, do an aperitif, play cards, and have dinner.

The hotel is a massive contrast to the Balma Meris. This one is trying too hard for the old rustic luxury atmosphere, particularly in the dining room. Not so much our style, but it's clean, the beds are comfy, and the people are friendly. Could be much worse. :-)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 12: Rifugio D. L. Blanco -> S. Anna di Valdieri

We wake to good weather for the hike down to the valley. Nice play of sun on the mountains, mirrored in the lake, and the just-past-full moon.
Another beautiful morning
Since we don't need to pack the tent and everything, we're underway early. Nice path through the valley downwards with plenty of active and inactive alps and marmots and such things. We pass numerous people coming uphill past us.

Along the way a long discussion about how it makes sense to continue the trip. We decide to take a different approach: rent a car in Cuneo and then find good base camps (hotels, refuges, whatever) for multi-day stays in one place with interesting hiking. We get down to S. Anna di Valdieri (980m) at round 10:30, do a bit of exploring, and then go to the Balma Meris, a promising looking (and recommended) hotel/bar/restaurant for coffee/tea and to find out where the bus stop is. Further planning and web surfing during the hour we sit in the shade int eh garden, very relaxing. The plan is to take the bus to Cuneo, stay the night, rent a car, and then head onwards.

We're at the bus stop at around noon for the 12:15 bus down to Cuneo (the single bus that runs through town today). 12:15 rolls around, no bus. Ah well... we're not in Switzerland. 12:30 rolls around, no bus. hmm... 12:45, no bus... 1:00, no bus... At 1:15 we give up and go back to the hotel to see if there's a number we can call to find out what the heck is going on. There isn't a number we haven't already tried, but there is a later bus further down the valley we could take and the really friendly and helpful guy from the hotel offers to drive us down. After a bit of thought, consultation of the bus schedule, thinking about how nice the hotel looks, and considering what it would mean to hit Cuneo at 8pm, we leap outside the box and decide to stay at the hotel for the night and get a ride further down the valley for the morning bus to Cuneo. Good decision! After a really nice lunch we take showers, take a nap, do some more exploration of our options, have an aperitif, play some cards, then have *another* really nice meal before collapsing into bed.

It was a really great call to stay at the Balma Meris. The atmosphere and music were great, the food was excellent, and the guys were super friendly and helpful. They took really good care of us.

Approximate stats: 6.6 km, 8m up, 908m down

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 11: Lago inf. di Valscura -> Rifugio D. L. Blanco

Another cloudless blue sky morning and 8:50 departure time. A lone hiker goes by under the full moon at around 6:30 and a couple small groups of guys who look like workers pass while we're packing up.
Every morning should start this clear and still
We start the day with a climb, at first gently then not so gently out of the valley on the side opposite where we came in. Up go with the morning sun at our backs and a gentle breeze keeping us cool; good walking! We continue until reaching the crossroads at the Laghi inf. di Valrossa (2485m), where we take the fork deeper into the valley, past the lakes, instead of that to the Colle di Valmiana. Here we're following yellow markings and plenty of stonemen, easy way finding. Eventually we hit the upper lakes, take an energy bar break, inspect the map, and play the "which of those high passes is the pass going to take us through?" game.
Which of those saddles are we going to?
After some really nice block walking/climbing it becomes clear (we had guessed wrong). The next 100m or so of climb are on blocks, which is a complete blast.
Fantastic block
We're grinning ear to ear by the time we're through it. This is followed by a very steep stage alternating dirt and gravel that is less entertaining, particularly the gravel parts. A last bit of block climbing and we're in the Colleto est della Paur (2890m), with the expected great views to either side.
Laghi soprano and settano della Sella from the Colleto est della Paur
After a quick water and photo break we descend the other side. This is pure block (no gravel, thank goodness, going down something like what we just came up would not have been much fun) except for a brief bit of snowfield that is soft enough for an easy heel-kick crossing. Lunch break in the sun/shade/sun/shade in the blocks on the other side of the snowfield with great views and then we start descending in earnest.

Past a couple of groups of nice lakes, always following the royal hunting path (or what's left of it), up some, down more, through the Colle della Valletta (2488m).
Some lakes on the way down
Down to the fantastically beautiful Lagho soprano della Sella (2329m), further down, with the Rifugio D.L. Blanco (1910m) in view below at the end of the Lagho settano della Sella (1882m).

The beer is calling. The pace picks up. We talk about maybe just staying the night in the hut and continue our descent.  At some point it becomes fairly clear that the hut, which definitely should still be open, is closed. Damn! Greg starts concocting absurd scenarios where he will get his beer. Arriving at the hut, shure enough it's closed. We scout a bit for a campsite and find a couple of marginal candidates, then settle down for a rest and wash. Andrea does some more reading, we share our outrage that the hut is closed (supposed to be open until the 15th! this is the 14th!), then Andrea discovers the hut's winter room. Unusual in Italy that it's there, but there you go. We check it out, deem it cozy and preferable to camping on a bumpy or slanted spot, and move our stuff in. More resting, some cards, dinner, some cards, log writing, bed.
Making dinner outside the Rifugio
Note: both today and yesterday we walked past enormous numbers of blueberries. We could have picked liters of them, but then we wouldn't have seen anything. Still, sometimes it was really hard to not just stop, pick, and eat. :-)

Dinner: Soup: vegetable with dumpling enrichment. Main: Polenta with salami and porcinis in honor of the hut. Trick for getting the fine polenta to be mostly right without using massive amounts of gas: Cook polenta a bit. Let it stand covered 5 minutes. Add a bit more water and cook a bit longer. Let it stand covered 5 minutes. Add more water, let it cook a bit longer, and serve. This worked quite well.

Approximate stats: 11.1 km, 775m up, 1143m down

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 10: Vallone del Gesso della Valletta -> Lago inf. di Valscura

Another blue cloudless sky in the morning. No breakfast sun for us due to mountain configuration issues. :-) We're underway by 8:45. We start by repeating yesterday evening's post-dinner stroll and heading up to the Rif. Regina Elena and then set out, slightly climbing, towards the other side of the valley and the path up to the Laghi di Fremamorta. The path is broad and easy to walk, genly ascending in switchbacks. Cool breezes, nice views all around, good climbing.
Up the side of the Vallone de Gesso della Valletta
After a while of this the switchbacks start to get a bit tiresome and we both want to do the climbing faster. This frustration is blunted temporarily by the discovery of a big patch of blueberries; we put the hike on hold for a good blueberry and water break. Continuing on we do the switchbacks ad infinitum and then we're up top. nice energy bar break looking out over the biggest lake (2371m) and the rock walls behind it, then we continue on the old military road past the other lakes.
On the military road past one of the lakes. Route in front nicely visible.
Up here we see the first people of the day (aside from the two who passed our tent site towards the Rif. Remondio at 6:30). Past the lakes and then a slow descent on the road into the next valley.

Lunch break at a crossroads with nice views across the valley to the beginning of tomorrow's hike. Some more people passing, and then the slow, gradual climb to the Rif. Emilio Questa. At the crossroads below the hut we make the difficult (but seemingly logical) decision not to walk up to the hut and then back the same way and continue on without a cool beverage. Some 15 minutes later this decision is proven to be based on false assumptions as we intersect another, higher, path from the hut. Oh well... We continue on to the Lago del Claus, which is really attractive (and even has islands!).
Island in Lago del Claus
Onward, onward, along the old royal hunting path, through a really impressive stretch that looks like a nice fieldstone wall laid on its side, real craftsmanship.
Order from chaos: a really beautiful stretch of the old royal hunting path.
On we go until we reach the day's goal: the Lagho inf. di Valscura. We ditch the packs, scout around, do some laundry, pump some water, have a rest, have some tea, and start to settle in. Oh... wind... strongish, coldish wind... not good! Let's find a more sheltered spot! We scout around some more, move the stuff, pitch the tent, make the dinner, tidy up, take a walk, and write the log.

No sunset tonight: there are just too many clouds in the way. Also: we forgot to do the tent site photo, doh!

Dinner: Soup: potato leek with dumpling enrichment. Main: soy bolognese with tomato zucchini soup, mystery spice mix (something I made a couple years ago that was in with the backpacking kitchen stuff), and polenta.

Approximate stats: 11.0 km, 1086m up, 625m down

Monday, September 12, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 9: Les Lacs Bessons -> Vallone del Gesso della Valletta

It's mostly clear when we wake up and there's very little wind (yay!).
What a morning
After the usual breakfast things, we're underway by 8:45, just after the sun reaches our tent site. The first task of the day is to find the path we'll be taking out of the bowl. This is another unofficial thing, so we need to do some searching for stonemen. Eventually we find the path and start following the stonemen uphill.

Up, up we go, about 200m in total, with good walking and scrambling under the cloudless blue sky.
Up through the rock desert
At the top we pass a couple of small lakes in the saddle between the Cime de Baissette and the Tete de la Ruine, then we head down the other side, still following stonemen, across block, through gravel, down, down, down knowing, since of course we can see the next pass, that every meter we lose we'll have to win back on the other side. Eventually we start climbing again, still following stonemen, up, up, up, to the Col de Mercantour Est (2639m). It's too windy up here for a break, so we continue to follow the stonemen up (of all directions) from the pass for a bit. We find a wind-sheltered spot, do an energy bar/map study break, and then continue on the adventuresome path onward.

The way leads up, down, up, over blocks, up, over blocks, down, up, following red markings (useful only to Andrea), tending ever upwards and leading under the the steep stone walls. Really, really nice high alpine walking. Somewhere along the way we have lunch with a view. When we reach the decision point for whether or not to climb Il Baus, we opt to skip it: the peaks of the Argentera massif are covered in low-lying clouds so it would be a wasted trip up.
The rest of the Argentera massif is under there somewhere.
We start descending towards the Rifugio Remondino (2430m) instead. Down, down, down we go, following multiple colors now, over more nice block and some good steep bits until we reach the very attractive and modern hut. Of course a cool refreshments break is required (yeah, ok, we might be carrying our tent and food, but we aren't exactly roughing it) before we continue.
Rifugio Remodino from up the valley
The next stage is down 650m to the valley below. This is a nice descent on an easy path with great views. We take a blueberry break along the way (first blueberries we've found that taste like anything), and then we're at floor of the Vallone del Gesso della Valletta (~1800m). We do some scouting for a tent site, wash some clothes and ourselves in the river, rest in the late afternoon sun, pitch the tent, play cards, make dinner, and generally enjoy the warm evening (it remains cloudless where we are, over the ridge to the next valley we can see a cloud train running all evening) and views. What a contrast to the previous evening with its high-alpine environment!
Tent site
After dinner we do a quick trip up to the unstaffed (and locked) Rifugio Regina Elena to check it out before heading back to write the log and go to bed.

Dinner: Soup: vegetable with dumpling enrichment. Main: Mashed potatoes with salami and dried green beans.

Approximate stats: 7.1 km, 493m up, 1235m down

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 8: La Madone de Fenestre -> Les Lacs Bessons

We start by taking hte once-daily-now-weekend-only bus from St. Martin to Madone de Finestre (1909m). The bus is fed by a special "Rando Bus" from Nice that makes sure it and its twin going to Boreone are good and full. Still, we're early and get seats. After an adventurous drive (no way the Swiss would let this guy drive a bus!), we get to the hut, church, and cloister (or whatever it is). Our path, along with that of just about everyone on the bus, leads up towards the Col de Finestre and Pas de Ladres. Up we go, getting used again tot he heavy packs (now full weight again after resupply), up up in the sun under a cloudless blue sky with a cool breeze to keep the temperatures sane, perfect walking weather. Greg even manages to climb 500m without soaking his shirt through... unimaginable!
Up towards the Col de Finestre
Great views back towards days four and five. From the Pas de Ladres (2448m) we head a bit up to the side to find some quiet (loads of folks in the pass), appreciate the views, and do a quick energy bar break.

During the descent we encounter lots of people coming up, lots of people wearing what seem like the wrong clothes (tennis shoes? here?). Down we head to the Lac de Trecolpas (2150m), where madness rules (loads of people), cannot imagine what this place must be like in the high season. We flee quickly. The first bit of descent is almost comical with the number of Sunday day-trippers coming to the beautiful lake. We turn off towards the Refuge du Cougorde and all is quiet. After some traversal and nice block walking, we arrive at the refuge about three hours after our start from Madone de Finestre. We enjoy a lunch break in the shade near the river. There's a special treat for Greg: a cold beer from the hut to accompany lunch... what luxury! There are less people here than at the Lac de Trecolpass, but it's still plenty busy.

After lunch we head up, past the hut, to the Lac de Sagnes (2198m). There's not much lake left, but it's in a really nice setting surrounded by towering mountains.
Stone landscape above the Lac de Sagnes. A Caire de Cougourde in the back. 
We search for a while for the starting point of our route forward: an unofficial, but frequently used trail up to the Lacs de Besson. The start point is not so easy to find, but once we're on the trail it's simple to follow. Up, up we go, almost completely alone, quiet, beautiful views. Very nice climbing. The path is steep and tricky enough that at least Greg is able to achieve that meditation-like state where the brain is wandering but still concentrated on path finding and foot placement and the legs seem to set the correct pace automatically. Great stuff!

Towards the top (2516m) we pass one small, mostly dried up lake and then ditch the packs to search for the other lakes and a good camping spot near the middle of the upper lakes (2545m). With the packs off we both feel weightless and we run around like goats nit he granite landscape. The real goats (chamoix) are not impressed with our antics. Andrea locates a good spot, we grab our bags, slog to the spot (no more goat action with the packs on!), pitch the tent, get settled in, rest for a bit, and then make dinner.
Tent site between the lakes
It's a bit windy and cool and the clouds are doing crazy things and threatening to engulf us at any moment, so we retire tot he tent for cards and log writing after finishing dinner and cleanup.

Nice day of hiking with great weather (until the very end). Perfect backpacking experience with the tent site surrounded by granite between two alpine lakes. Nice!

Dinner: Soup: potato leek with dumpling enrichment. Main: "Chile non carne with cornbread" (see day 3).

Approximate stats: 7.9 km, 1063m up, 423m down

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 7: Nice

This is the day we visit the beach during our backpacking trip in the mountains... grrr

We take the early (7am) bus back to Nice. Really nice road in the park: between cliffs, over bridges, through an impressive gorge, etc. We're in central Nice at around 9am.

After a coffee/tea we do some wandering around the slowly awakening pedestrian zone until it's time to go try and find a gas cylinder. Our first try, in a sports store that should have some: out of stock (still). Rather than screw around with a bunch of other small places, we head to an outdoor store that had been suggested last week, but that was a bit too long of a walk then. After a nice stroll through Nice we arrive and there they are: exactly the cylinders we want in three different sizes! Two different brands! Bonanza! We buy one 200g cylinder and one 400g cylinder (who knows if we'll be able to find these later in the trip, let's take care of the rest of the trip now) and then head out to kill five or six hours until the bus back in the evening.

Lots of strolling, market visit, peach eating, beach walking, people watching, lunch eating, trip re-planning, general fun in Nice. Towards time to go we head back to the Monoprix for the food re-supply (the place is nuts on Saturday afternoon!) and then to the train station. We have some time and the bus isn't there yet, so Greg insists on a stop in Flunch to have a beer. This is really just because the place is named Flunch.

Back on the bus, another drive, same nice road back to St. Martin. At the hotel we unpack, get organized and then go have a really nice dinner at the restaurant La Cave and then head to bed.

This ended up being a fun day (particularly after we had the gas cylinders), even if it was completely not part of the original plan for the trip.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Maritime Alps Tour Day 6: Baisse des Cinq Lacs -> St. Martin Vesubie

We're getting faster: today we are underway by 8:45 :-)

We bid farewell to the lakes and head toward the corner of the plain and the path that will take us to the Cime de la Valette de Prals. Nice path that more or less hugs a contour line until the end, where it takes us up to a saddle and then further to the peak (2496m) itself. From here we have the expected great views in all directions, including what would be the Mediterranean if it weren't covered by clouds.
View South from the Cime de la Valette de Prals
We enjoy the views for a bit and then head down to the ridge where we will spend a large part of the rest of the day. The path stays mostly on the contour connecting pass to pass along the ridge, going on the South side of the peaks. It's sunny, but there's a breeze that keeps it comfortable; nice walking conditions. From the passes we have good views in both directions and from the path itself we have views to to the South. We're surprisingly alone: we see a total of three people on the ridge all day.
A part of the ridge, the path is visible
Eventually the ridge ends at the Cime de la Palu (2132m), where we have a our first glimpse of the day's goal: St. Martin de Vesubie. After a lunch break in the shade and a last look to the South, we start our way down, down, down the end of the ridge towards town. We make pretty good time except for one minor wrong turn caused by wishful thinking, a soft level path, and some nice shade, but that only costs ~10 minutes. It's a long way down, but a nice path to do it on.

Eventually we hit town and start looking for a hotel for the night. The first place is booked out (at least they say they are)... the second place is booked out (at least they say they are)... worrying starts. The third place has a (very basic) room left, yay! Onto our next task: finding a new gas cylinder for the stove. The less said here about this search the better: there are no compatible cartridges to be found in town. Damn. The only solution seems to be to catch a bus back to Nice and get a new cylinder there. Nice... gas cylinders... haven't we heard this one before?

Approximate stats: 15.8 km, 546m up, 1865m down