Posted by: Richard | July 1, 2009

Day 15: To Refuge du Thabor

June 28: Well, today was another long day, 9 hours of walking with a huge uphill and downhill component.  We would need to be prepared, and we were greeted by a good breakfast at our hotel.  Many breakfasts are old bread and super sweet jam.  The coffee ranges from acidic instant to good instant to bad authentic to excellent.  This breakfast had good bread, good coffee, good jam and some yogurt.

I was down a bit earlier than Lynn and started to talk with the owner.  I asked if the loud noise at 5am had bothered him.  To my surprise, he said “No, they were celebrating the wedding”.  I asked if this was normal, indicating that if this were to happen in Britain or Canada, there wouldn’t be a lot of tolerance.  I was surprised to learn that every wedding (at least in this valley, though the hotel owner said throughout France) was like this.  The party goes until very early in the morning, but usually around 3 or 4am the bride and groom slip out to a mysterious place (not their house) for a bit of sleep.  The wedding party, thoroughly inebriated get into their cars and try and find the bride and groom.  Discretion is not the name of the game in this endeavour, as it is believed the best way to find the happy couple is to make as much noise as possible.  The key aspect in all of this is a metal pot, filled with luxuries such as chocolate and champagne.  This pot is beat and eventually the couple will respond, accepting their gifts.  The revellers can now drive home (many come from far up the valley).   Lynn and I were both very grateful to hear of this wedding tradition, and it made our day a heck of a lot more fun.

Well, onto the walk.  The day would unfold like this.  3 hours or so down to Modane, 2.5 hours up to ValFrejus and 4 hours to the refuge.  Water should be available at Modane, Valfrejus and the refuge.  As such, we took only my canteen.

It was blazing hot, but quite lovely as we walked through the wood down to Modane.  We both had our iPod’s on and were blissful in the early morning with our books.  Out of this revelry we were astounded to hear a giant white dog (the size of a St. Bernard) barking at us from behind a fence 200m away.  I noticed a flock of sheep, and realized that this was a legendary Pastous dog, a herder for the sheep, a dog that lives with the flock and protects the flock from wolves and other dangers.  Thankfully, the dog was collared to a giant car tire, and was unable to do more than bark.  From the corner of my eye, I spotted a quick movement.  HOLY SHIT, THAT PASTOUS DOESN’T HAVE A COLLAR AND HE JUST JUMPED THE FENCE LIKE A GAZELLE.  This giant bugger was barking mad and bounding towards us.  I was scared as he approached.  I had instructed Lynn several days earlier when a lovely border collie tried the same on us (and she yelled at it) to remain calm, say nothing and not to be aggressive.  Thankfully she did.  The Pastous had a giant bark and snarl and we could feel his hot breath at our legs.  I was very scared and Lynn even moreso.  For 20 seconds, as we tried to continue on the track he circled us barking and snarling.  It was the scariest part of our trip so far.  As we moved farther on, he stood his ground and stopped circling us, and saw us off with a lot of barking.  About 30 seconds after we lost sight of him, he chased us down to give us another good barking.  Now, I’m not a dog and I don’t profess to speak dog, but I’m pretty sure I heard in his barks a loud “Piss off you”.

We were scared by this.  Throughout the day our thoughts returned to this dog and Lynn said a few times it really put her off the walk.

Thankfully, we arrived in Modane with no further incident.  Alas, while there were some gypsies, there was not water.  It was damn hot.  The ascent (roughly 1500m or so) should find us some water in Valfrejus, so we agreed to push on rather than deviate off path for 30 minutes to another listed water source.

We climbed quickly through the heat and arrived at Valfrejus.  It was a big village, filled with 6 cars.  Another damn winter only village.  These sons-of-bitches had also turned off the fountains.  Damn.  We continued through the village and finally found the only open place, the Gite (roughly like a hostel), with two giant signs (20 feet by 6 feet) trumpeting they were open every day for lunch.  It was 1.30, and Lynn and I were hungry, very thirsty and in need of a break.  I walked onto the patio and was informed that the gite was in fact not open for lunch, and the owner was having lunch with his family.  I asked if I could buy a drink, to which he said now.  I was desperate for a drink, and begged him to fill up my water.  Thankfully he did, and Lynn and I now had 1.2L of water for 4 hours of climbing.

We sat on a mountain path near the gite to eat a bit of our limited food stock and drink the water.  As we did this, a young dutch girl came down the path, a bit frantic / frazzled.  “Do you know that the refuge is 1km above where we are!!!”  I looked in my guide, and corrected her “it’s actually only about 900m, and it says it is good paths all the way, so it shouldn’t be too bad”.  She was tired as she had been hiking alone in Italy for a week and wanted to stay at the closed Gite, as she was waiting on a “male friend” who would arrive the next day in Modane with a 27 kg pack (note: this is a lunatic size of pack).  Why she didn’t wait in Modane is beyond me, but both Lynn and I could tell that she wanted something.  I offered her information from our guide book and we said she could walk with us.  Out of the blue she said “do you think I could sleep in the toilets in town”.  I hadn’t seen them, though Lynn suggested this to be a bad idea.  We chatted some more, and then we moved onto our trip.  Lynn and I think the dutch girl was just tired and a bit scared of where she would stay that night, and had probably been alone in other refuges like we had.  Unlike us, who could afford a 50 euro hotel, she probably had 15 euros a day for a budget, and blowing it all in a gite was hard to ponder.

After talking to this dutch girl, I thought back to all of my trips when I was in my early 20’s and was hiking in Nepal, the Pyrenees and the Alps and how little money I had and how hard it was to be alone all the time.  Sitting here now, I honestly don’t know how I did my trips on such limited budgets.  In 1999 I spent 2 months in Europe and didn’t eat out for one meal other than having a coffee ONCE.  In 2 months of my hiking in 2002, I didn’t eat out once, each night slinking out of the hostel or refuge to cook pasta and combine it with dehydrated tomato soup.  Many nights I couldn’t even afford a hostel and would set my tent up alone in a forest or on a hill overlooking a road.  What a life I did, how hard it was.  Just the lack of amenities would make that trip seem very hard now.

While a lack of cash can make a trip hard, I think it is doing it alone that makes it harder.  I couldn’t imagine doing a trip like this without a partner like Lynn.  During the hardest days, I know the day will be over and we can both change into our one set of clean clothes, talk about the day and eventually snuggle in bed and listen to a story on my iPod.  As we walked through the mountains this day, I turned to Lynn and said “I think I would have given up if it wasn’t for you”.  This is a powerful statement as I don’t give up, but it is probably true.  This has been a hard trip and having a strong woman like Lynn has made it infinitely easier.  I’m a lucky fella to have such a great wife.

Well, back to the day.  We continued up from the gite for about 4 hours.  It was hot as hell, over 30 and though I was faring well, Lynn was finding it tough.  As the refuge came into sight, Lynn started to cry.  This had been our biggest and toughest day yet.  It was also the hottest and we had been short on water and food all day.  Seeing the refuge was important.

We arrived at the refuge and were both thankful just to be able to stop walking.  We took our places on the top bunks in a dormitory (I hate the top, but all others were taken), and then had a couple of beers before we had an excellent meal.  We quickly retired to bed, our iPod and some Seinfeld episodes. 

At 3am, the dutch couple below us got a bit panicked and woke the room up as there was a nosebleed.  At 5.40, they woke the room up again as they had to start packing as they wanted an early start.

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