Vacherie de Roure, July 14, 2013—
QUEL QUATORZE! We started out from Roya (1500 meters, just under 5,000 feet) on what I knew would be rather a long day fairly early in the morning, at 7:40, about as early a start as we've yet made — this would be a long day: five years ago, it took us nine hours.
We were soon back inside the Mercantour National Park, following a valley southward through forest which opened now and then for glimpses of the steep terrain hidden by the trees, and the tumbling Mairis.
Then we turned eastward, following the Sallevieille (who named these streams?) upstream to a ridge. there was a fair amount of snow before reaching today's high point, the Col de Crousette, at 2480 meters (8100 feet).
It was just ten minutes to twelve: we were making pretty good time.
We had been playing leap-frog with Johann and Manon, the couple from Antwerp, who had left a little before us. Early on we overtook them when they had taken a wrong fork; and toward the top of the col we slowed a bit, keeping them in sight behind us, when we had to cross snow patches hiding the path.
A marble column stands just south of the col, a hundred meters higher yet, dedicated to a fallen Alpinist: I remembered the marvelous panorama seen from there last time I was here. Today, though, the sky was low with clouds and mists, and I didn't feel like lingering. We rushed through the lunch we'd brought, then started the long easy descent, much of it traverse, across alpage on the south flank of Mont Démant,
The clouds had passes harmlessly and it was a fine afternoon. Far down in the distance we could see the hamlet Vignols, under its imposing grotto. We continued our easy descent, passing below the fanciful rock formations marking this area, but I was a little uneasy, looking at the ascent we would soon be making, under skies that were beginning to darken again.
Toward the lowest point, where the trail crossed the tumbling Bourgette torrent, who should we see but the Philippe and Becquie, the smiling young couple from Lille! How and when had they passed us? We talked for a minute; then I gestured toward the sky and left them, shrugging at the weather and enjoying the moment in a last patch of sunlight at the brook.
We toiled up the last climb, which is fairly long and steady but on good surface — except one or two last snow patches. Then, just below the col at the Portes de Longon — 1950 meters (6400 feet) — all hell broke loose. Distant thunder rapidly came alarmingly close, and rain began to pour down. I'd covered my pack, but hadn't put on my. Rain pants or jacket, so I quickly opened my umbrella.
Stefan was fighting with his poncho, flapping wildly in the high wind. I helped him get it over his pack, then turned and set out down the path. This last mile or so to our refuge, I remembered, was easy trail slightly downhill through a fine high meadow, alongside a creek. But I could hardly see, and the heavy, blowing rain had turned to hail.
My poor flimsy folding umbrella, meant for polite urban showers, had flipped inside-out several times in the shifting winds, and had opened a tear along one rib, but I held it above me to keep my vision clear, occasionally wondering if it would act as a lightning-rod. The meadow is fairly broad, but the ridges on either side weren't that much higher; we were in rather an exposed position.
We were soon completely soaked: no reason to avoid wading down the path, which had filled with swift-flowing muddy water. I glanced behind me from time to time: Stefan was keeping up at a bit of a distance, his poncho flapping wildly. The path and its balissage were invisible, but the direction was clear enough, and I stumbled on as fast as I could.
Finally we were at the refuge. I entered without knocking, completely soaked and a bit chilled, apologizing for my wet clothes dripping onto the floor. Two young people, a young man and a girl, sat at the table; the gardien of the refuge was in the kitchen doorway, his young wife and a child or two nearby. A welcome fire burned in a hearth at the other end of the room, and I eyed it greedily. The gardien looked at me a little skeptically, I thought, and asked if I had a reservation.
Yes, fortunately, we did. I wondered where Stefan was: he was taking a long time to appear. Finally, just as I opened the door to go out looking for him, there he was. We were shown to the dortoir where we began getting rid of our wet clothes when Philippe and Becquie showe up: they'd been following closer than I'd realized, keeping us in sight.
We're all family here, I said, no false modesty, get out of the wet clothes and dry off. I'd staked out an end bed in the dortoir; the couple from Lille climbed up into the loft. I wondered what had happened to the couple from Antwerp, who we hadn't seen since shortly after beginning the descent from the column. There was no shelter anywhere on the trail, and it was getting dark, and still raining hard.
Well : all's well that ends well. Johann and Manon ultimately turned up, philosophical and stoic like good Flemings. He methodically stuffed their boots with paper, and I remembered to remove the insoles from mine and dry them by the fire. We had a pot of tea, and I poured the last of my bourbon into it, to Philippe's amusement. Then we joined him in a beer: amazing, how thirsty you can get hiking, even in a downpour!
Two or three rather elegant Italian couples showed up from somewhere, dry and neatly dresses, and joined the rest of us at dinner. The young man and girl turned out to be Danish, and spoke good English, as did the couple from Antwerp; the Lillois and the Italians did not, or said they didn't, but conversation flowed nonetheless; we even managed, among us all, to remember most of the words to La Marseillaise — though there were no fireworks.
After dinner we hung clothes around as best we could, but the refuge, in fact a barely remodeled cowshed, was pretty damp. Oh well. I was pretty tired, and sleep came easily.