July 10, 2013: up at 6:30, the usual businesses, breakfast at 7 but we were 15 minutes late. We left Larche in good time, but after walking ten minutes or so Stefan had the happy idea of asking the nice bartender to make us sandwiches for our lunch, which would let us have a cappuccino while waiting. And so we actually left town later, about 8:30. The first part of the walk was very pleasant and almost imperceptibly climbing, most of the time on a country asphalt road leading to the trailhead parking-lot at the national park.
We never saw the serious guy and his friend: I'm sure they are very fast and disciplined — or perhaps they simply levitate. We soon caught up with the couple from Limoges, though; we played leapfrog with them all day.
Having walked east, nearly to Italy, to get to the trailhead, we then turned south to walk up an extraordinarily beautiful valley. To my mind it's been slightly spoiled since five years ago by the addition of explanatory panels and, for the first kilometer ir so, a concrete pavement suitable for wheelchairs. There were marmots everywhere; the air actually smelled of them, probably because day-hikers feed them, in spite of signs politely asking them not to.
After a while, though, the concrete trail gave up, there were fewer people on the trail, and the smell of marmotry gave way to grass, larches, and quickly flowing water. The grade increased, and the surface became more rutted, then occasionally stony. Here and there footbridges and steps assisted, but it was still a hiker's trail, not a walker's footpath.
A little before reaching the col we passed a couple of lakes, the second of which, smaller and higher, was mostly iced over. It took a few hours to get to the first col, the Pas de la Cavale, at 8700 feet. Six or eight times the trail was under snow, sometimes for sixty or eighty (linear) feet. The view from the col was extraordinary, but we didn't linger, as we were hearing a thunderstorm approach.
Soon after beginning a steep, stony descent, with many switchbacks, it began to rain in earnest, and that quickly turned to hard hail, copious haikstones the size of BBs, or coriander seeds. This made the descent that much harder, particularly wearing glasses. I'd put the raincover on my pack and put on my windbreaker, but hadn't had time to put on my rain pants, and before long I was pretty well soaked through.
The thunder and lightning seemed to have moved on, but the hail didn't let up. We found a goodsized boulder, big enough for the four of us to shelter in its lee, and waited a few minutes, and the storm began to seem to lett up. I knew we had hours to go, though, and that the weather could turn nasty again, so we set out.
Almost immediately a steady cold rain set in. The trail, a deep dirt rut through rather high grass, was running water, and very slippery. I fell once, my feet sliding out from under me; and I fell again, stepping into a marmot hole invisible in the grass, which I'd begun to walk on to avoid the slippery mud.
Suddenly a bolt of lightning and its thunderclap struck almost simultaneously. I wasn't seriously worried about lightning, as we were well below the col and its surrounding peaks, but I saw Stefan throw himself on the ground, and wondered momentarily if he'd been struck; then realized of course he'd have been on the ground before I'd ever heard the thunder.
We pressed on. I remembered that it was a good three hours from the col to our lodging in good weather; who knew how long this was going to take us in this. I set a pretty fast pace on the rest of the descent, finding the way partly by instinct, partly from memory – from the book, and from five years ago. At one point I tripped on a tuft of grass and pitched headlong forward, taking most of the fall on my right shoulder.
At the bottom, though, two thousand feet below the col, we came to what I'd been most worried about, the ford we'd have to make of the stream draining this valley. The path had been washed out earlier, and the water was beginning to run high — and, I noticed, not clear as the snowmelt is, but almost black with dissolved black shale.
We found a way through; then faced the next problem: a steep ascent, on fairly dry dirt still but slippery where steepest. We had only six hundred feet to climb, but it was raining hard and pretty cold. It didn't help morale that Stefan noticed the body of a good-sized sheep that had apparently been lying there a day or two.
I thought to myself: I would never do this willingly, but being faced with it, of course one perseveres — and, fact is, it was exhilarating. In some ways the three hours or so since the storm began was the severest weather I remember facing unprotected. Where looming thunderstorms had earlier made me think of Giorgione, now I was thinking of King Lear. It was magnificent.
But on reaching our second col, at 7400 feet, we still had to descend to Bousiéyas, 1200 feet lower and 45 minutes away in good weather. We were in a thick fog, so thick it might as well have been rain. Visibility was poor. Our path was partly on the asphalt D64, the famous Col de la Bonnette road from Nice to Barcelonnette, and partly on slippery, steep mud ruts cutting through the many D64 hairpins. We chose to stay on the asphalt, and after watching a few campers drive by I held my hand out to the next car, which obligingly stopped.
The driver opened his window halfway, and I saw the back seat was empty. Do you have room for two of us, I asked, and he looked at me with a concerned, rather mystified silence. I realized I was in such a state that I'd forgotten to speak french, and asked again: avez-vous deux places pour madame et mussieu?
His wife popped out of her door and suddenly both back doors were welcomingly open. The couple from Limoges absolutely refused to get in, insisting that we do — they'd seen our falls, having walked always behind (and profiting from our footsteps). We argued a very short time; I wasn't sure how patient the driver would be. Then we tossed our packs in the trunk and got in.
It was so foggy, and we were so wet that the defroster couldn't clear the windshield, that we drove down to Bousiéyas with the two front windows open, the driver's wife with her head out, trying to make out the edge of the road. They were very nice people, in their forties or early fifties, down from Orléans for a week's holiday in Provence. They'd been in Barcelonnette yesterday, and had pretty well decided to give it up because of the storms, and head for Nice.
We finally reached our gîte, where I immediately took a nice hot shower. There's more to report, but it will wait.