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Last things - Winter - November 26th

Each day feels shorter and darker now, as the sun struggles to rise, and deep Alpine valleys slumber in the shade. I'm pushing hard to explore the remaining peaks and valleys on my list. Starting early takes willpower, though I usually see both dawn and dusk on foot. The mountains are as beautiful as ever, trees frozen against the sky and only the bravest of torrents holding out against Winters icy embrace.

Time and again, mine are the only human tracks in the the snow, though the snow bears silent witness to little animals struggling to find food. Here, the tracks of a partridge finding his way to the bottom of an elderberry bush, his digging for treasure, and his wingbeats after he has taken his fill. There the rough bulldozing of a wild boar, his tusks scarring the snow as he lifts branches in search of grubs and bulbs. How fortunate we humans are with warm houses to return to !

For my final week, I am joined by a friend, and it is a joy to share the pleasure of these mountains - also a relief to share the work of breaking trail in thick fresh snow - the best early Winter conditions for 10 years. We have some superb days pushing high, and summit views above the clouds are breathtaking. Our last walk takes us up past the rabbit emporium on a crisp, pristine day, and we walk quietly, lost in our thoughts, counting out the last miles, drinking in the last views, committing all the details of this landscape to memory.

Back in London, I feel like a visitor, not a resident. Used to a simple, frugal life, the frenzied preparations for Christmas are a shock. It is lovely to see people again, but I yearn for the serenity and purity of the mountains.

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Back High! - November 11th

The good news this week is that my shoulder is working better, and after three 30 milers, I have let myself return to steeper slopes. With high winds forecast, I thought it would be instructive to climb Mt Gioberney. From 2400m, big gusts started coming through, peppering my legs with grit, and knocking me over, so I took my time on the delicate bits, waiting to move during gaps in the wind. The cliffs presented a splendid sight with spindrift blowing everywhere, and I was glad to be wearing goggles and face mask.

My Crux sack, even through compressed hard against my back was taking me off balance so I wedged it between two rocks and climbed on, wearing all my layers for the first time this Autumn. Reaching the col at 3238m it was impossible to stand, so I shuffled perhaps 150m up the ridge on all fours, belaying horizontally off my iceaxe, and keeping low to the ground in a haze of blown snow and ice crystals, before deciding conditions were too engaged to continue; I could not even lift my head enough to try and see the summit. The forecast predicted 70-90mph winds and -9c at 3000m which felt about right. Interestingly, I felt reasonably warm, probably from the exertion and exhilaration.

The following day, I joined up with the local Alpine club to climb the Pointe des Escreins (3032m). We came across a party of 11 alpine ptarmigan that allowed us close enough to see their pretty red eyebrows, such a contrast from their pure white plumage, before they wandered away across the snow patches. Violent gusts swept us with ice and snow crystals on the way to the col, knocking several of us to the ground. Four of the group continued above the col, bent low to shed the wind, and struggled our way to the summit. It was only possible to move between the big gusts. I estimated the wind as 60-80mph.

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Strange Encounters - November 4th

The cold, clear weather continues, and as it is calm, the hillsides are ablaze with the clear yellow of poplars, brick red rowans, gold and tawny larches and rosy wild cherries. I was admiring this today, when a lamb trotted round the corner on his own and scampered up to me. I just had time to finish my cereal bar before he dropped his head into my lap. Hand reared lambs are not that uncommon - sometimes the ewe rejects the lamb, and unless a goat can be persuaded to suckle the lamb, its hard work for the farmer, or more likely his wife or daughter. Lambs that grow up this way are intelligent little things, clever and wily, and quite unafraid of humans. I asked him what he was doing out on his own, and where he came from, and he baa'ed his replies.

I couldn't leave him and he didn't follow, so picked him up (a featherweight) and carried him to the farm nearby. He slobbered all over the little compass that hangs from my rucksack. The farmers wife accepted him happily, and explained that the ewe had had triplets and couldnt cope. He was the runt, so they took him indoors. I gave him a bottle of warm milk, which he slurped greedily!

The day before, I came back from the Ubaye valley through the tunnel de Parpaillon, cut to speed troop movements when Italy was an enemy power. Walking its 460m length, I felt very small in the middle, with just a dot of light at each end. At 2645m, it felt like the inside of a deep freeze, big icicles hanging from the roof. As luck would have it, a hunter chose that moment to drive through in his big 4x4 - thank goodness for my headtorch. Seeing my sling, he stopped to help, and had some difficulty accepting that I was just going for a walk.

This last week, I have been walking forest tracks and farm lanes while my shoulder mends, and it is interesting to see how much better I do on the easier gradients. 235 miles this week, with a good 10km climbed. Moreover, I'm less tired than usual, despite the long days.

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Lots of walking - October 29th

Quite a gap since my last report, during which I have been visiting lots of the higher peaks overlooking the Durance valley, and in the Queyras and Ubaye. The two bands of snow haven't lasted, rather to my surprise as it has been down to -16c on the tops. Some special moments such as summiting l'Aigliere (3300m) then navigating my way off in driving snow, and standing on the thin blade of the Pouzenc, surrounded by cloud, hearing the rumble of stonefall below as though my feet were making the giant itch and move.

The last marmot went to bed on 3rd October, and while there are sheep and even newborn lambs at 1200m, there is no-one but me now above 2000m. The cold has forced chamois and the like down from the high corries, and they are feeding with urgency now that they sense winter. I saw a family of wild boar eating windfall pears on the edge of a farm, the babies beautifully striped like humbugs. Their parents looked faintly embarrassed as though they knew they should be eating rougher, tougher fare.

Groups of red partridge up to six strong explode from under my feet, arcing away with little wingbeats, and the alpine ptarmigan is now in its full winter plumage. Often the first clue is a weird groaning, croaking sound like an old door opening, and looking up, there is a group of them, flapping away untidily like so much washing on the line. On the ground, they are supremely elegant and dainty, such a contrast.

The biggest thrill was when walking a ridge at 2900m, I saw something big fly past, so made myself small and waited. In a moment, a golden eagle, a two year old judging from his feathers, dropped onto a rocky spike 30m away. He was close enough to see his beak and his neck feathers ruffling. He looked me in the eye fearlessly. Such an athlete.

A few days ago, I landed heavily on some rocks, and am frustrated at another set of injuries. Until my shoulder stabilises, I must keep to easier ground for a bit as I cannot risk another fall.

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Brianconnais: Aretes de la Bruyere - September 27th

France is in the grip of what they call a 'retour de l'Est' - heavy cloud and a cold North-Easterly. I rubbed my hands as this means I can go quickly at last without overheating! Yesterday saw me puddling about in the murk on one of my local mountains, where there was a smattering of snow above 2000m. It was fun to leave the path, and set off by compass into the cloud, to see how well I knew the terrain. Today, I went in search of the white stuff, and walked around two beautiful outcrops: the Aiguillette du Lauzet and the Aretes de Bruyere. Between snow showers, the whole mountain side could be seen, immaculate in fresh snow. No other tracks all day; I had the place to myself. Fresh snow is such a delight, and feeling like a child again, I built a snowman, and added pebbles from a stream for his eyes.

A foolish mistake was to set off in a worn-out pair of boots, which had me slipping and sliding about. Above 2400m, the snow was 15cm deep, with wind-blown drifts to about 1 meter. No wonder the marmots have all vanished underground over the last few days! At the col de l'Aiguillette (2534m), I completely failed to see a snowdrift in the grey light, and fell over into it. It is not that cold yet though; freezing point is 2450m, so much of the snow will melt away.

I stopped to watch a dipper, one of my favourite birds, who was hopping in a desultory way on the rim of a torrent, turning over stones with his beak in search of grubs. He was all fluffed up, and definitely not inclined to swim up the torrent like a proper dipper. What a difference from the Summer, when these sprightly little birds hop and dip about, skim under the water and fly away.

Below the lac Rond, the route falls steeply down a rock chimney, secured with cables. The absence of tread on my boots had me floundering in the snow, and I was really grateful for that cable. For audience, I had a group of 7 chamois, who watched in frank dismay at my clumsiness. I dusted myself down, and realised they weren't rushing off, so sat down to watch them quietly for what seemed like an age. There were 2 adult females, each with this years babies, and a further three 1-2 year olds. For the first time, I saw young chamois suckling. They were in no hurry to go, behaviour that's a worry, as the hunting season started a week ago, and I had to walk down the path before they shuttled off around the cliff. 100m further down were 2 young adult males, their breath steaming in the falling snow, strong and vigorous in their dark Winter coats, and there was time for another close encounter before they walked slowly away. Most odd, its not the mating season yet, and I can only think the cold has suddenly made them reluctant to expend energy.

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Queyras: Belvedere de l'Homme de Pierre - September 25th

In the Spring, I tried to reach the Pic du Clocher, one of the high peaks overlooking the river Durance, but was thwarted by snow in a steep gully. This time, I tried climbing from the North, and enjoyed a superb walk. I set off from above Guillestre, and climbed initially through farmland, small fields where grass is being harvested for the third time to feed the animals through what will be a long winter. Everywhere now small reminders of Autumn can be seen: rowans and rose briars glowing, birches a tender yellow with sunlight coursing through their leaves, and of course, a stiff cold wind.

Onwards and upwards under larch and pine trees, golden light suffusing the foliage, and occasional distant clucking and chuckling from birds sheltering in the undergrowth. I emerged under a high, wide sky to a superb view of the mountains of the Durance valley, with, as background, the peaks of the Ecrins to the West, and those of the Queyras to the East. Below me in a bowl, sat the ski station of Risoul. I usually prefer walks that avoid ski stations, but the architecture there was pleasing. Continuing along the ridge, the gale force Northerly jostled me as I reached 2420m, and the start of the terminal ridge. This was a delicate, airy matter, fortunately slightly sheltered, and I clambered gently along, suspended above rocky ravines tumbling 800m to the left, and steep grassy slopes falling into a beautiful hunting reserve on the right. A corner led to an easier section, and I stood upright again, feeling the wind tearing past. At moments such as this, I have an urge to spread my wings and fly away !

Later, I dropped steadily down the long ridge North of the peak, a kilometer above the meanders of the river Durance, and with bright sunlight slanting through the scant tree cover, I marvelled at the range of colours: plum, tawny, apricot, butter yellow, rose, burgundy. Though the cold is strengthening its grip on the mountains, these Autumn colours made me feel warm and glowing.

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Queyras: lac de l'Ascension - September 24th

Travelling up and down the Durance valley, I've had my eye on a spectacular peak that overlooks it: the Tete des Aiguillons. The map shows a long valley next to it, ending in a broad bowl with a series of lakes, so I had to have a look. With cooler weather, I thought I could get away with starting later. 'Decide in haste, repent at leisure' was the thought for the day, as I toiled up one of those long exposed slopes, sweat dripping into my eyes, and this in spite of a cool wind. There's still plenty of heat in the sun here. Still, it was fun to look down on the village below; rooves all higgledy piggledy, surrounded by a patchwork of little fields.

The climb ran alongside the outflow of the lake, twisting and turning up the side wall of the gorge, and reached a flat area like a water meadow, with the river running through it, rising to ridge systems on both sides. I continued up, and was following a path through rock, when I heard a low noise. A growl ? It seemed unlikely, and I stopped, collecting my thoughts. Suddenly a large sheepdog jumped out of a small cave next to the path, and before I had time to react, bit me twice on the leg, and then knocked me over. I managed to stab it in the chest with a walking pole and it stood back growling. In indignation, I stood up, and shouted and swore at it, perhaps not the most appropriate action, but eventually all the noise and waving of hands frightened it away.

These sheepdogs are called 'patou' or Pyreneean dogs and protect herds of sheep from wolves. I've passed dozens of them in the Summer, and the rule is simple. When they bark, you stop, let them wander up and decide you are harmless, then you can continue. If the herd is on the path, the dog will let you know if you should go round. In this case, there were no sheep, and no other dogs, and I suspect she had given birth to puppies in the cave, and acted to protect them.

Angry and rattled, and with my leg bleeding, I cleared the area and sat down for food, to collect my thoughts and to squeeze the wounds to try and flush any bacteria. All seemed in (painful) working order, and after some gentle stretching, I decided to continue, hoping all that blood circulating would help to clear any bugs. I reached the main lake, kidney shaped, with some house sized rocks by its edge, and climbed on to the ridge 400m higher. Feeling a bit shaky, I came back to the two Escur lakes, a lovely cobalt blue in the afternoon light. For some time, I couldn't work out where the path went, and started to panic a bit. Thinking it must have been the after shock, I sat down, breathed deeply for a bit and closed my eyes, and afterwards it was obvious. Another climb to a col, and in two hours I was back in the village, in a vile mood, looking for a shepherd to lynch !

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Brianconnais: Vallee de la Cerveyrette - September 23rd

This high valley, tucked away in a corner near the Col d'Izoard is unusual. To start with, the bottom of the valley is a flat plain ( I think it must once have been a lake), and then, on one side, the hills rising up from it are easily graded, so the resulting fields have been harvested for hay for many generations. There is still a series of small hamlets here, with those strange, gaunt wooden buildings with open gables to help the hay dry quicker. As there are a number of little lakes, I set off, following the water courses, and was soon enjoying first one, then two more; an excitable Italian family picnicking next to the last one. French walkers generally outdo other nations when it comes to the thoroughness of picnics (I've seen a family tucking into three baguettes, five types of cheese and three types of tomatoes!), Italians make up for it in sheer excitement. Of the six people eating, five were talking simultaneously, and of course gesturing too.

It being Sunday, everyone was out walking across the border. Quite strange really; in France, most were Italian, and in Italy, most were French! To complete this cosmopolitan scene, a sign for the rifugio Gignoux in France pointed into Italy, so, in the mood for some good food, I nipped over the col and tried my (ermm) Italian on the locals. Well, if they understood me, they were being polite, and they assured me on my map that the Lago Nero was in France, so I was really none the wiser.

There seem fewer marmots now. At the end of September, they eat grass to purge themselves of parasites, block the entrance to their burrow, yawn, and cuddle up to hibernate till April. Not a bad life really.

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Frustrating Times - September 22nd

A frustrating few days. Though strong and keen to climb, I've been feeling weird, with bouts of nausea and giddiness. No temperature or tummy upsets, so goodness knows what its all about. This happens sometimes, and I just ignore it, though giddiness isn't a good idea on steep mountain paths, so I've walked mostly on roads and tracks with easy gradients, some 90 miles over the last few days. The payback has been the pleasure of looking up at all those peaks, rather than watching a rocky path. I also kicked a table, and cracked a little toe, though after a few miles the pain seems to vanish. Let's hope I can keep going without further incident until the end of November.

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Le Mont Thabor - September 17th

At 3178m, Mont Thabor is one of the highest mountains near Briancon, and is something of a rite of passage here: sooner or later, you are sure to be asked if you have climbed it. The forecast was for rain this afternoon, and my plans to climb the Thabor met with troubled glances. However the morning brought one of those brilliant, clear Autumn days without a cloud, and it was hard to tear myself away from the little lakes I passed. Everywhere there was something I had to stop and look at; clumps of moss, patches of bog with clear, gleaming water and nodding bog cotton. The raw, wild beauty of the uplands was breathtaking, overwhelming, and I was soon in tears and struggling to regain composure.

After a tricky little ridge walk, where I somehow got my boot irrevocably wedged between two rocks, there was a large boulder field to work through, with an icy lake fed by a melting glacier. The climb out of the boulders was steep and slidy, on sandy grit with embedded pebbles that rolled away when trodden on. As I crabbed and poled upwards, it became a contest between willpower and gravity and I was glad to reach rock again.

A chapel has been built just below the summit, that does double duty as a shelter, and it is full of notes giving thanks or commemorating climbers and walkers who loved this place. After tiptoeing down through the boulder field, the way back was straightforward and I settled into my long lope and ate up the miles.

Enjoying a drink back at the car, an enormous German biker in full leathers approached, with a hot cross bun pattern died into his crew cut. He turned out to be a keen walker who wanted some suggestions for the following year. His manners were exquisite, and we had an absorbing conversation.

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Pointe des Cerces - September 16th

A charming Frenchman offered to show me the way up to the Pte des Cerces, at 3097m the culminating point of the massif that I walked around the other day. Driving up before dawn, we stopped twice for roe deer, dazzled in the headlights, and admired their grace and elegance as they batted their ears, and trotted off into the dark. We approached via. the Tour des Cerces (see report for a few days ago), hoping for the overcast to lift, and slightly bothered by the eery light cast by the early sun as it shone at low angle through layers of cloud: bands of tangerine and green! Finally we popped up through the cloud, and there was that moment of surprise as the mountains lurched into sharp focus.

From the col at 2574m, we struck up to come round the shoulder of the mountain, and were soon climbing a very steep path, fortunately with excellent grip. Francois proved he could climb faster than me, and I was engrossed trying to keep up with him. We summited and gingerly looked over the edge. The slope below us was littered with slate spikes like knife blades, and the ground fell away into a line of ridges and spikey peaks. Francois summed it up as an extraterrestrial view. Definitely worth coming!

We turned to descend, and passed a group of 20 French alpine troops, dressed in white, climbing in formation. We looked at each other, and both laughed, as they looked just like Imperial troopers from Star Wars.

Honour was restored on the descent, as I was able to drop faster than Francois. Back at the col, he was clearly keen to complete the circuit so, as he was kind enough to show me the peak, I accompanied him around the rest of the Tour des Cerces; at least it was in the other direction this time!

The seasons pass so quickly in the mountains: in the space of a few days, the rowans have turned crimson, and the lower slopes are covered in little plum coloured bushes. Larches are called the tree of light here, and it isn't hard to see why. Some of them sport branches with the foliage a butter yellow, and a few trees are all yellow. Against a backdrop of dark green pine trees, the effect is startling.

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One million feet climbed this year - September 15th

Today I walked a fine circuit to the Vallee Etroite and back. Starting from Nevache, I climbed alongside the torrent du Vallon, admiring the narrow wild valley, a long ridge to the right, fringed with scree fields, and numerous little torrents flowing across the path from the left. St Michaels chapel stands on a little rocky knoll, and is full of thanksgivings from visitors. Beyond, the valley widens and flattens, with bands of gypsum slipping into the stream, leaving apricot coloured cliffs.

The final climb to the col was enlivened by an overflight of a young eagle, harried by several worried crows. I worked my way through a tricky boulder field on the far side, admiring the stark rounded lump of Mt Thabor, then turned to walk down the Vallee Etroite. In fact my tummy led me on this walk, as the Vallee Etroite is on the border between Italy and France and several friends had told me that the food is excellent. I passed the ref. I Re Magi (the three wise men), named for the three big peaks Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspard that overlook the valley, and ate some delicious polenta at ref. Tre Alpini, so good that I had to lie down and sleep!

The return path was the GR5, a lovely gentle climb in shade under pine trees, and just beore the col, my altimeter went around the clock. I normally work in metres, and have been wondering whether my altimeter would throw a womp when it reached 999,999 ft - well, the feet display blanks out, but luckily it keeps counting metres. I will celebrate with a glass of wine tonight.

The return valley was quite a contrast, high wild pasture, almost flat. At one point I passed below a low ridge, with the heads of six marmots visible. For a moment I thought of those cowboys and indians films where the Indians swarm over the ridge hollering and whooping, but the marmots didn't charge.

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Two walks - September 14th

Brianconnais: Fontcouverte to Les Gardioles

From the hamlet of Fontcouverte, I walked up past old chalets, some of them lovingly restored, to the pretty lake Laramon, which seemed to be full of trout and 'ombles chevaliers' - sorry no idea what these fish are called in English! I arrived before the wind got up, and took some good photos of the lake with reflections of the pics de Cerces. It was time also to marvel at the little bushes of 'myrtilles' that turn a brilliant crimson and contrast so beautifully with the grey rock. Above was the lake Serpent: nothing much swimming about save a few water boatmen, though it does have an impressive cirque as a backdrop. Climbing again, I reached a viewpoint above the lakes of les Gardioles, and had a snooze. Three enormous sheepdogs at the refuge du Ricou growled at my arrival: the owner is also a shepherd, and I had arrived at his lunch time!

Brianconnais: Fontcouverte to lake du Chardonnet

Sorry to keep visiting lakes, I must keep it in moderation, but after all those glaciers last week, I enjoy the running water. The lake du Chardonnet is recommended as a pretty place to visit, and the name sounds promising too. I wandered up through meadows, and stopped to watch two odd people sniffing around a clearly closed up chalet. They seemed to be waiting for me to go, so I continued, and watched from behind a tree. They wandered around the terrace, but didn't seem to be burglars.

Chardonney is a grape variety, and I had fond hopes for this little lake, though it was fringed with reeds, and more like Pinot Grigio. Wandering around the edge, something made a loud plop, large enough for me to jump, and again a few moments later. Walking more stealthily, I spotted the culprit, a big yellow and green toad who belched an air bubble at me in disapproval. I followed a delightful little path across meadows and into the rarely visited wood of the Alberges, an old and peaceful larch wood with nice clearings, where a deer and her fawn were resting - at least until they saw me.

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Brianconnais: Le Tour des Cerces - September 13th

Another day enjoying these spiky limestone mountans; today a circuit around the Pte des Cerces climbing 3 cols, and (depending what you call a lake) visiting as many as 9 lakes. The valley was clouded over in the morning, so I enjoyed a leisurely start, hoping the sun might burn off the overcast. A steep 500m led to the first lake, that I nearly walked past as it was hidden in cloud. Struggling on towards the col, a rock appeared lit by a sunbeam then I climbed up into bright sunlight; the peaks sticking out from a cloud sea. I sat on the col for a bit, enjoying watching the remaining cloud blowing away.

The far side of the col was astonishing. An ochre coloured mountain in stark contrast with scree the colour of Copper Oxide, the ground tumbling away into slate grey moraine with strips of crimson from little myrtille bushes, and on the horizon, the peaks of La Meije and the Pelvoux.

I stopped at a little lake with a border of bog cotton, wondering how best to photograph it, then realised the boggy surround was full of baby frogs desperate for the safety of the water. A man who had climbed the Grand Galibier bubbled on at me for a bit, so I walked up the ridge to see the white lake, which puzzlingly was deep green. There are so many lakes here that imagination has failed when naming them. Apart from the white, red, blue and green lakes, we have the err. round lake, the big lake ... after a bit you hanker for something like the lake of the giant whirlpool.

Autumn is edging into the landscape now, with crimson rowans, butter coloured poplars and the first gentians since the Spring I loved the lac des Cerces, and sat motionless watching the shoals of baby fish nosing into the shallows, then taking fright at my big shadow.

Feeling heavy and dopey today, I gave in and had a good sleep, and felt much better for it. Enjoyed today very much.

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Brianconnais: Val des Pres & Crete de la Lauze - September 12th

I'm spending a week close to Briancon, in the Vallee de la Claree, famous for its natural beauty. A local woman, Emilie Carles, wrote an enthralling book which has been translated into English as 'A wild herb soup', an unsentimental account of peasant life here in the early 20th century. When some mandarin in Paris decided that it would be a fine idea to mine uranium here, and dig a tunnel through to Italy, she drummed up fierce local opposition, and the plan was quashed.

I climbed to the East of Val des Pres and enjoyed the evolution of the landscape with altitude, from pine trees, through larches, then scree slopes, and finally a strange grassy tundra. Climbing through the pines, I enjoyed their resinous smell, and the fine views down to Briancon and the citadel, also a strange patch of red rock on the other side of the valley. Enjoying the walk, I extended it, and turned off across scree slopes, trying hard not to stop and pick up all those enticing pieces of bleached wood and interesting rock fragments. A clatter of stones, and a young male chamois, already in his dark Winter coat pranced along the slope above.

I sat on the Tete des Fourneous, enjoying views of the 3000m peaks nearby, and the Mt Viso in the distance, and heard a whistling rushing noise behind. Looking round, a small whirlwind was picking up dust. I just had time to hide my Snickers bar before it bathed me in dust. Later two more came past, although the butterflies seemed to keep away from them.

From the top, there was a good view of the pastures below, the grass pillowed like a duvet, and several sinkholes. From the end of the ridge, I dropped down to the col de Dormillouse, and looked at two huge sink holes some 20 metres deep, and as wide. Little sink holes are fun on a windy day, when one can sit in the hole, and be in complete silence, but these were something else.

A goatherd was tending a mixed herd of sheep and goats with fine curly horns. He shepherded them all into a smaller sinkhole, and as I walked away, they were all hidden, just the goatherd motionless on the rim.

I walked down the ravine, passing close under the rock pillar of the Grand Pierron, enjoying its buff, cream and slate coloured flanks and just below saw a natural rock arch. The walk ended with a leisurely stroll along the river, and to my amazement, the mairie at Val des Pres had internet terminals, so I could catch up with my emails.

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Back at base camp! - September 10th

I spent a frenetic two days back at base, relishing my old walks and treating my knees to more gentle gradients, 6 hrs/day. Apart from which, there were visits to my physio to sort out my sprained thumb, and the GP. Then I had to back up and collate all my photos, GPS logs and dictaphone messages. I took a first pass through the photos, choosing and tweaking those I liked best. Then several hours planning the next sortie, buying supplies and eating plenty of fruit and veg. Oh, and washing everything and repairing kit as well, answering all those emails that were waiting, and collecting my 4th pair of boots from the Post Office. Busy days!

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Alpe de Villar to ref. Adele Planchard - September 9th

Starting as for the ref du Pave, I turned left at the head of the valley, to come past the source of the river Romanche, a spring emerging at the end of the moraine below Roche Faurio. A mile above, the great rock wall of the Neige Cordier and Roche Faurio ridge stretched around the corner. My path climbed in zigzags up the opposite wall, which became a scramble for 150m, only a little protected by cables. Luckily I don't suffer from vertigo, though the sustained and exposed climb felt like an episode of Fear Factor. I heaved a sigh of relief to emerge in a huge scree field, Mont Blanc visible in the far distance, the path twisting and turning seemingly endlessly to reach the refuge, perched on a subsidiary ridge below La Grande Ruine at 3169m. I spent an hour marvelling at the view of all these peaks, with glaciers snaking down their faces. From here one can clearly see the Barre des Ecrins, at 4102m the highest point in the Ecrins, and its splendid domed glacier that tips down into the big glacier blanc.

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Two local walks - September 8th

Sentier des Crevasses

Crevasse sounds a bit intimidating. Happily no glaciers are crossed, instead the path traverses a steep slate slope that drops 400m to the valley of the Romanche. This rock formation is deeply ravined by erosion, and is known as 'les Crevasses'. The path is almost level, and gives an easy approach from the col du Lautaret; easy that is so long as you don't get vertigo! I had a fine view down the valley, counting the little hamlets with their houses clustered close together, the low sun clearly showing hundreds of terraces stretching up the hillside. Clearing the hillside of stone by hand must have been backbreaking work. Soon the cabled section appeared, the roofs of parked cars in the valley a tiny patchwork of colour - I was oddly tempted to throw a stone to try and hit one; sorry! A skittering noise made me look up, and pebbles were bouncing down the slope above across the path, luckily in front of me ...

Alpe de Villar to ref. Pave

While walking the Tour des Ecrins, an enticing valley appeared to one side, and I just had to return. Descending from the Alpe de Villar early in the morning, I reached the valley floor, sunlight arcing across to the headwall, giving an exquisite and pure light. I passed the little lac Pers, fed by springs, perfectly clear and a delicate turquoise, so lovely it brought a lump to my throat. The right hand fork at the head of the valley took me up into wild country, barren but for a few choughs chirring at me. At 2500m, the route continued along the crest of the lateral moraine. Across from me, the other lateral moraine curved down and away from the rock face, in the strange light looking just like a sand dune.

I once read a copy of 'Dune' by Frank Herbert; the cover showing a solitary figure striding up the crest of a great dune, and for a moment I felt like that Fremen traveller. The glacier du Clot des Cavales fractures into seracs, which topple down the slope disintegrating into ice cubes the size of cars. At first sight this looks to be the end of the glacier, however deep under a covering of loose scree, the tongue of ice continues; in places where surface water has melted holes, the underlying ice can be seen, like a pale blue eye staring balefully at an increasingly hot world. The glacier may be dying, but its giving birth to two little lakes, at present barely 20m across, which will probably grow as the glacier shrinks.

A path of sorts scrabbles 250m up the rock face, with a cabled section, and lots of steep slippery grit, to reach the refuge du Pave and the lake, an eery green colour. The refuge was empty, and I wandered about, becoming absorbed in the Visitors book. An entry for 2001 caught my eye; Gaspard and son aged 12 climbing a high col. The pair return some 5 times, and last year the boy came on his own 'without papa supervising'. A Gaspard was first to climb La Meije, the last high peak in the Ecrins; surely this must be his distant relative ? I wonder how he felt climbing on his own below pic Gaspard, which towers above the lake.

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Champhorent to the lac des Beches - September 7th

The long valley of the Veneon cuts deep into the North side of the Ecrins, with some 12 tributary valleys. What a sight this must have been when glaciated. At Champhorent, one of these valleys strikes 5 miles South to the foot of Les Rouies.

The walk started with an elegant 17th Century stone bridge spanning the Veneon, then climbed into the hanging valley of the Lavey. I passed some sheep eating rose briars, and goats munching elderberry. They stopped chewing guiltily, as though knowing they shouldn't, then moved to the far side of the bush, in the belief I couldn't see them.

The guardian of the refuge was trotting about closing up for the Winter, and his chief mouser strolled up and headbutted my legs hoping to be stroked. Shouts and guffaws interrupted this tranquil scene as I photographed a gaudy caterpillar. A bunch of climbers were following me up to the lake. Preferring peace and quiet, I mashed the 600m ascent in just on half an hour, a hard effort, and had time to enjoy the Aiguille des Arias falling steeply to the lac des Beches. The guys then arrived and stripped off, swimming across the freezing lake. Phew! Though I'll leave you to guess if that's about the swimming or the swimmers ...

The path dropped into an epicea forest, cool and dark, soft mulch cushioning my footfall, and threaded between huge moss-covered blocks, with dark gaping holes in between. I imagined returning this way in November at twilight, passing through wraithes of Autumn mist, and trying not to think of goblins. Later I saw a mature epicea tree straddling a cleft in the rock, and actually stood under the axis of the trunk - oh for a tripod for my camera.

There is a climb called 'the gift that keeps on giving', and I thought what a good name it would be for this walk, as a stream cascaded down the rock face opposite. A side path took me to the brink of the cauldron below a big waterfall that falls 50m with a muffled roar and explosion of spray. Erosion at the lip of the waterfall showed the flow must be ten times greater during the thaw ..

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la Berarde to the Col du Temple - September 6th

With the recession of the glaciers, some of the high cols are now passable in late Summer without crossing any ice. The Col du Temple is one of these, and at 3321m, it is nice and high. After a lovely climb through pine trees, I reached the refuge de Temple Ecrins, and followed the track round the shoulder of Pic Coolidge, several scrambles made more interesting by the void on my right ...

The lower cirque was a tumble of moraine and rocky blocks, and dawn finally broke over the col, illuminating all the sparkly bits in the rock. The magpie in me had to stop to pick up pretty pebbles, despite the cold.

Walking where there was recently a glacier is quite spooky. There is a real sense of presence. The glacier leaves its footprint behind, and a jumble of big blocks, like toys it has left behind. It felt like walking into a cave that had been used by bears, and crunching over bones. Some of the scree in the upper cirque was unstable, and the climb to the col took time. I chatted with a girl there, muffled in many layers of clothing, who was waiting for the return of 3 people who were climbing Pic Coolidge - this was the group on the glacier yesterday. I had a go at climbing further, and reached 3350m, just shy of 11000ft in old money, before reaching a steep couloir that required me to be roped up. Very pleased as this is the highest I have been so far in the Alps.

The view from the col was breathtaking. Below me was the head of the great glacier noir, and just the other side, the north face of the Ailefroide (3927m), with the long broken ridge of the Coup de Sabre, the Pic Sans Nom and the Pelvoux (3943m). Tired tonight, but a satisfying walk.

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la Berarde to Refuge de la Pilatte - September 5th

Just 3C this morning and a ground frost. I headed up the valley on an easy path, walking briskly to warm up. A gentle breeze, the katabatic wind from the glaciers, finally beat me and I stopped to add a layer. Several chamois had descended in search of food, and they scampered back above me, hissing in disapproval. The sun was already bathing the peaks in a rosy glow, and when it finally reached me, the difference was tremendous.

I walked up a side valley below the Pte du Vallon des Etages, and admired the glaciers clinging to the cliffs, walls of blue ice facing the valley where seracs had broken off. After a bit of a clamber, the refuge appeared, and I settled down to an omelette while admiring the view of the broad glacier field between Mt Gioberney and the Pte de Sele. There was some chatter and several pairs of binoculars in action, and finally, 4 incredibly small dots could be seen on the glacier, descending from the Pte de Sele, gingerly working their way through the crevasses where the glacier humps over bedrock. In contrast, the way back took me through sweet smelling pine and alder woods and I nearly dozed off in the sunshine while walking.

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The Vallon des Etages - September 4th

I walked downstream on a lovely path alongside the river Veneon, passing through a group (herd?) of some 20 donkeys. These wanted some food, and soon a string of them were following me hopefully. I turned uphill through birch, alders and rowans, the sound of a powerful waterfall coming from a gorge. Soon, I was in open country, heading up towards the glaciers at the end of the valley, stark and bright in the morning light.

At the top of the valley there was a river terrace, a large flat area full of glacier debris, with the river twisting and turning in braids through it. With the river up because of the hot weather, finding a safe crossing point took some time, but soon I was trundling back down the other side, doing my usual quickstep through the boulder fields and scree.

There are more and more Autumn leaves now, and rose briars are a brilliant red. Those few butterflies left desperately hang on the few remaining thistle heads, milking the last of the nectar.

On the way back, I had to run the gauntlet of the dokeys, and this time they were ready for a mugging. Ten of them blocked the path ahead, and in a classic pincer movement the remainder appeared on the path behind me. Disinclined to share my remaining cereal bars (how do you divide 2 bars by 20 ?), they were soon sucking my knees and elbows, and nibbling my rucksack straps thoughtfully. Trying to regain some control, I tried patting them, but this was just accepted as assent. One of them liked the taste of my bootlaces. It is not really possible to shove donkeys out of the way, so I just waited, wondering what to do. Eventually they considered me a poor sport and wandered off, doubtless planning to ambush another unsuspecting walker.

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la Berarde to refuge du promontoire - September 3rd

The refuge du promontoire sits on a steep rocky ridge dividing two glaciers at 3082m. To reach it one walks up a long narrow valley, and toils steadily up the central moraine that used to divide the glaciers. The ring of peaks at the end of the valley includes La Meije, Le Pave and Le Rateau, all at 3800m, and the closer they get, the more forbidding they appear. With the long approach, one feels as though rendering homage to the mountain, and as it was hot, I stopped sometimes to pour glacier water on my head, which felt like a benediction.

120m below the refuge, I could either ascend the pinnacle (harness and ropes) or ascend the glacier (crampons and cord as there were crevasses). I don't climb, and keep off glaciers as I am solo, so I had a go at crossing beneath the glacier; a delicate traverse on smooth sloped rock without holds, and the glacial outflow to cross. Then there was a simple climb in the rock. The refuge is a tin shed with a helipad, though the views of the surrounding mountains were splendid.

I caught up a father and 8 year old son on the descent, who had spent the night at the refuge, having climbed the rockface! I would like to read the boys essay on 'What we did in the holidays'.

The glaciers bring vast numbers of rocks and pebbles down, a wonderful mix of colours as they come from a range of peaks, and I couldn't help but bring some back wth me - ironic given the way I prattle on about keeping things lightweight.

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The Dibona - September 2nd

Based at La Berarde, I'm staying in a converted garden shed. Lovely actually, as I can hear the nocturnal scuffles of animals as when camping, yet it is warmer and drier. I shook out my clothing and disturbed a good-sized bat that flew around the room. I opened the door, but she showed no wish to leave, and returned to her roost on a beam. So there we were, two old bats ready for sleep!

I walked up to the refuge below the Dibona, an impossible sliver of granite, some 400m high. This was called the Pain de Sucre until the Italian guide Angelo Dibona first climbed it in 1913 with Guido Mayer. The ascent to the refuge was up a wild valley, the path climbing steeply to edge round below a cliff face, past a spectacular ochre and black rock face, up some slanted slabs (think Spasimata slabs on the GR20) above a ravine, some nice little patches of easy rock, then a thin trace above the cliffs of a cirque, with a final easy ridge to finish. Nothing hard, but quite steep, and plenty of landscape!

Tired by the difficult drive here yesterday, the height didn't come easily, and I had to sit and rest several times. The Dibona is elegant and pure, with climbers dotted all over it. I chatted with an Italian who bubbled over with enthusiasm. The best thing he had ever climbed, he said. The descent followed a narrow gorge which must be beautiful when still snowbound in Spring.

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Two walks in the Brianconnais - September 1st

Le Grand Area

The Grand Area is a lovely spiky mountain of 2869m near Briancon, and a straightforward climb from a nearby road, although ascending from the West, a big buttress made me doubt the path. After some days in the valley to avoid thunder, jossing around on gentle ascents, my legs were too strong, and I kept climbing ridiculously quickly, so I made myself stop and admire the glacier of the Dome de Monetier across the valley. Near the top there were several beautiful rock pillars, and a huge view North, where a cloud sea in Haute Savoie lay at the foot of the Mont Blanc massif. The cross at the top glinted in the sun, as a violent wind tore at me. Looking closer, I realised it was a war memorial. The descent twisted and turned along the South ridge, past little towers and pinnacles, some of which looked climbable.

The four lakes

At the Col du Granon, there is a buvette that sells drinks and snacks. Expecting this to be perfunctory, I was won over by the charm of a little stone building with wood stove - tres cozy, as they say here.

This afternoons walk broadly followed the GR5 down one valley, returning on the GR57 up another valley. I passed four lakes, and marvelled at how different each one was. The lac Rond is a little secret lake with water weed, hemmed in by boulders. The lac de Cristol is deep and clear and full of trout. Legend has it that treasure is hidden at the bottom, and a whirlpool will be unleashed to drown anyone hunting for it. I reckon it must be the man-eating trout.

Lower down, pine trees brought welcome shade, and there was a brief glimpse of Nevache in the val Claree, where I will be walking soon.

Climbing again, now in full sun and feeling it, I passed an area of grey limestone with vertical grooves, caused by acids in the rainwater dissolving the carbonates. The rock in this valley is quite lovely; ochre, cinnamon and buff outcrops contrasting splendidly with the grey limestone. After several rock cills, I reached lac Labarre, shallow and perfectly clear, with a slight brown tinge, perhaps from an iron-rich inflow, then just above was the Grand lac de l'Oule, sunlight sparkling off the surface, and a deep sky blue.

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Local walks - August 31st

Lots of rain and some thunder over the last few days has kept me off the peaks. Instead, I have been stretching my legs with longer walks on my local tracks. Fun to see how the landscape changes with the seasons. The harvest is now all in, and autumn is waiting to make an appearance, with berries on the rowan and whitebeam, and fat glowing fruits on the briar roses.

At dawn, it is deliciously cool, and the sun spends appreciably longer at lower altitude, so the subtleties of the landscape are revealed by the long shadows.

I have just discovered that what I thought was buckthorn is 'argousier'. Its little orange berries taste like haliborange tablets, and are full of vitamins. I must stop eating them before I glow in the dark. Blackberries, plums and raspberries are for the picking too, and I return home a stained, sticky mess.

Now the tourist season is slowing down, I am off to the climbing mecca of La Berarde, to sample further delights of the Ecrins.

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: Le Casset to Vallouise - August 27th

The GR54 continues up to the col d'Eychauda, which has been invaded by ski lifts (part of the Serre Chevalier resort), so instead I walked up the remote, wild valley of the Tabuc. The name in the old tongue means fear and devastation, when the torrent would burst its banks in the Spring, lay waste to crops and threaten homes. The track to the end of the valley was obstructed with twisted branches and torn tree trunks, evidence of big avalanches sweeping down from the steep hillsides. A colony of marmots yelped at my approach, and stayed above ground as I passed, perhaps to catch sight of this rare beast - probably not!

The climb to the col des Grangettes was steep and unremitting, my boots slipping back in the grit. Nearby, a covey of red partridges was bubbling musically, and finally whirred off downhill. The final 80m was a straightforward scramble in the rock, up chimneys and along ledges. Easier frankly, as the holds were secure. At the col, there was a superb view of the glacier snaking down from the Dome de Monetier, and the pretty lac d'Eychauda, which curiously has no outflow. In the pastures below, I stopped for a drink, and shared a cereal bar with some hens, which scrabbled over my boots and pecked at them for crumbs.

In Vallouise, I bumped into Key Reynolds, the author of countless walking guides, who was walking the GR54 with Jonathan Williams, the managing editor of Cicerone guides, and we had a good natter about the Ecrins.

This completes the GR54 Tour de l'Oisans et des Ecrins, and leaves me with many happy memories (and lots of photos to sort through). In ten days, the temperature varied between -2c and 34c, and we had sun, mist, Force 6 wind, driving snow, ice, hail and a few showers. The variety added to the pleasure.

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: La Grave to Le Casset - August 26th

A sumptuous day full of treats.

Leaving La Grave, the path entered a larch forest and ran alongside the river Romanche, noisily ribbling its way North towards the Rhone. The light today is different also, as we are close to the col de Lautaret, which is a major water and weathershed. It all reminded me of home, just down the valley, and like Mole from the 'Wind in the Willows', I was soon in the grip of feelings of longing and guilt for deserting it.

High above was the Bec de l'Homme (3454m), and soon a sign to the Refuge de l'Aigle (3450m), one of the highest refuges in France, and a source of controversy, as it no longer conforms to European standards and must be replaced. Those who know and love it are up in arms and want it treated as an exception.

A glacial verrou has to be climbed to reach the upper pastures. This is is the 'Pas d'Anna Falque'. People have seen evil spirits here, and a shepherds daughter, Anna Falque, insisted on wearing a brightly coloured dress to go to a party in the valley with friends. On their return, a horse flew down, and whisked away all those who hadn't run off. To one side of the high pasture was the little lake d'Etoile, for some reason highly popular with frogs. The shallows were thick with tadpoles looking for warm water, and frogs the size of my thumbnail, some with tails, hopped away looking for cover.

I walked up to the glacier d'Arsine, which has left a large terminal moraine, behind which sits a lake full of meltwater. This glacier is covered with stones, and sitting as close as I dared to the snout of its glacier, it seemed as though stones were falling every minute, as the glacier inches its way down slope. A walker I talked with said that five years ago, it was much higher and broader. Come while it is still here!

The walk down to Le Casset passed little lakes of a startling milky blue, and continued alongside a pretty stream.

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: Mizoen to La Grave - August 25th

I walked up to the pretty village of Besse, where streets are still paved with slate. Stopping for a hot chocolate, I overheard American and Canadian cyclists discussing the road cols and saying ruefully that they would return in better shape next year. Cycling up the big cols here can be quite a surprise. Sometimes you climb at a good pace for over an hour. Then the fun begins: a long sinuous descent reaching close to 60mph.

Besse was founded in 1540, when a big fire ravaged the forest, and the inhabitants of St Andre upped and moved to the last stands of birch. They called the hamlet 'Bes' which in Patois, the old language, meant birches.

The main climb of the day took me to the plateau of Emparis, a big and more or less flat moor, complete with a bog.

Locals have been fighting each other for grazing rights for centuries. Once the inhabitants of Mizoen moved the boundary stones in the night, and the residents of Besse accused them. Unknown to the Mizoenites, the Besseites had hidden offcuts of the boundary stones below them, so were able to prove the stones had been moved. A big fine ensued ...

Much of the day was passed admiring the mountains of the Ecrins on the other side of the valley.

The timings given for yesterdays stage were delirious. Even with my walking pace, I had trouble keeping to them, so today I kicked hard, and finished an 8 hour stage by 2pm, to enjoy the shade. Probably because of this, my legs are a bit stiff!

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: Bourg de l'Oisans to Mizoen - August 24th

I left Bourg and walked out along the main road, and started the haul out of the valley. This leads up a rock face with fixed cables for assurance. There was a good view of the perfectly flat bottom of the valley (once a big lake). Off to the side were the huge apartment blocks of Alpe d'Huez ski station, and sprouting from the top of every peak were ski pylons, like the bolts in the neck of Frankensteins monster. I suppose people have to chase the white gold, but it saddens me to see tracks and pistes slashed across the face of shapely mountains. Their straight lines bear no relation to the contours, and are an eyesore. How much damage a bulldozer can do, and how quickly.

At the col de Sarenne, with the ironmongery behind me, suddenly there was a breathtaking view of the great northern ramparts of the Ecrins: the Rateau, la Meije and the glacier of the Mont de Lans. I dropped down through the pretty villages of Upper and Lower Clavans and fell into conversation with a resident. I asked about the Protestant cemetery between the villages, created after the religious persecution of the 1500s. Any Protestant trying to leave was sentenced to the galleys, she said cheerfully, and Protestants were forbidden in the cemeteries, so they were buried under the floors of their homes. One of them is buried in my kitchen, and it makes me feel as though I am borrowing their home, she added.

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: Ref la Muzelle to Bourg d'Oisans - August 23rd

A glorious sunset last night played on the glacier above the refuge, then at night a strong wind blew up, and I struggled to get to sleep. In the morning, my boots inside the refuge were frozen stiff. I set off in bright sunshine to the sound of sheep bleating. Some very young lambs, and heavily pregnant ewes were amongst the large flock. I came across a handsome 'roves' goat, followed closely by a fat and happy lamb! Do goats suckle lambs?

The descent to the lac Lauvitel was fantastic. This largest and deepest of the lakes of the Ecrins was formed by an enormous rockfall partially blocking the valley. The lake is wedged in a pocket between two ridges that extend 1200m above it. Beyond the lake is a wildlife reserve that no-one is allowed to enter. This serves as a benchmark that allows comparison with other national parks where people are allowed, and animals can graze. The Lauvitel is very popular; some 600 people a day visit it, so there were lots of 'Bonjours'. The path below the lake is delightful; dappled shade from deciduous trees, and water coursing down on either side.

I stopped for a chat with an elderly lady at Les Gauchoirs, and having made complementary noises about her petunias, she told me that her grandfather had built the village fountain, and we commiserated each other about the unpredictable weather.

Two hours later, I was in Bourg d'Oisans, roaming the streets with my long loping stride, feeling lke an outlaw. I guzzled some fruit and ice cream and watched the cyclists whizz by. Le Bourg is close to the climb to Alpe d'Huez (of Tour de France fame), and would like to be known as Bike City. I certainly can't think of anywhere with so many bike shops.

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: Le Desert to Ref la Muzelle - August 22nd

With continuing heavy rain, the others in the refuge were for abandoning the Tour, however happily the sky was free of cloud at dawn, and they chose to continue to Valsenestre. I set off briskly enjoying the fresh, clear conditions, listening to the mewing from a nest of falcons high in the cliffs. From the top of the col de Cote Belle, the view of snow-covered mountains was breathtaking. A cleft dropped steeply into a snow gully, and I thought 'Well, at least I don't have to climb that'. After a few moments, I dug out the map, and the truth dawned; it was the Col de la Muzelle; the next col on my route.

Little bits of fear gathered around the edge of my mind, and negative thoughts flooded in. I gave myself a stiff talking to and dropped off the col, admiring a group of slate needles and stopping to see another 'petit coq bruyere' fly off with a plaintive grackle. Horsetails were spreading across the sky, followed by a veil; the onset of more weather. I hurried on, intent on passing the Muzelle beforehand. Usually, a tricky ascent looks more manageable as one closes in; lines of approach appear, and slopes seem easier. Not in this case. After a climb through boulders, the final 200m to the col ran straight up exposed slate strata at 35 to 40 degrees.

To start with, this worked well as the exposed slate teeth provided good grip. Then the gradient steepened and my boots were squirming for grip in snow and mud. Each few metres had to be planned, trying to guess the lay of the strata beneath the snow, and I had to 4wd with my poles, sometimes hanging on poor holds with thumb and fore finger. There was still a long way to the col, and, bothered by the delicacy and engagement, I traversed into a stream bed, where at least there was no mud, and scrambled up the wall in the stream. There remained a delicate smear on steep mud to reach the top, and I heaved a sigh of relief that the drop-off was just virgin snow-covered scree.

Clouds were flowing over the col as I settled into a nice glissade, and descended below the snowline. Oh the pleasure of good grip again! Quite a surprise to find such a delicate and exposed stage in the middle of a long distance walk.

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: Villar Loubiere to Le Desert en Valjouffrey- August 21st

The path climbed steadily out of Villar across scree slopes and through woods. I was thrilled to see clove pinks, little flowers in the shape of a maltese cross with a sweet clovey smell. After a heavy shower, low cloud filled the valley, blowing in fragments up the hillside. An advantage of cloud is that it shows the relief more clearly, and I snapped away with my camera.

Plenty of birdlife on the climb: coal tits fluttering amongst the junipers, eating berries, a 'petit coq bruyere' flying off, and four crossbills! From the refuge des Souffles, the path worked its way along and over some rocky ravines, to climb across the cirque to the col. Last nights weather fell as snow above 2200m, and todays chose to do the same. That Christmas feeling, only in August. It was 1c at the col, and a cold wind blew snowflakes into my face. I started down the steep snow-covered descent, an arresting sight in Summer, and couldn't really see much of the descent in gathering rain.

Glad I am staying in a gite tonight; camping would be wet. I dropped into a cafe, and shook my mac outdoors. Impressed by this, a little girl of about five took off her (dry) jacket and shook it as well, all over the wet pavement. Oh dear !

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: Gioberney to Villar Loubiere - August 20th

The GR passes a good way down the valley of the Valgaudemar, and my legs now twitch and ache unless they get their daily climb, so I added in a diversion to Gioberney, and a circuit to the lake de Lauzon. The day dawned foggy. Little chance of overheating in the sun then, so I rolled over and had some more kip. Instead of a huge view of Gioberney and the other 3000m peaks, the walk was silent and intimate, shapes looming out of the mist, and birds running from under my feet in the gloom. Fog is always special, especially in mountains, as many of the plants are covered in small hairs, the better to withstand the conditions, and they wear little necklaces of raindrops, that quite transform them.

The top of the walk crossed a plateau that was almost Scottish; bogs, low rocks and sedge, and on looking up, I saw 4 chamois outlined on a ridge. Later an alpine ptarmigan gave its rattling alarm call, and flew off. At just 6c, it was cold; even for me ! The walk down the upper valley was an unexpected treat, passing through deciduous woods with alders lining the river, little groves of birches and buckthorn and barbery already covered in berries.

At La Chapelle, I missed the grocery by a few minutes, so hung about and resisted the attempts of several Italian lads to chat me up. Calamity; no-one stocks Snickers bars, and I needed at least a dozen to fuel me through to Bourg d'Oisans. Finally a restaurant sold me some nutty cereal bars that have protein, and not too much fat.

I continued on to Villar on a sandy riverside track, admiring the hills now that the clouds had blown away on the breeze, disturbing a hare that lolloped lazily off, big black ears visible long after his body had faded into the grasses.

Some walkers have rucksacks that are twice as big as mine, and I am now used to unpacking its 30 litres to show that it has all I need. Producing my sleeping bag and bivvy tent with a flourish yields a chorus of "c'est pas vrai" and such like. I only wish I had a white rabbit to pull out to complete the trick!

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: Pre de la Chaumette to Gioberney - August 19th

An excellent high mountain stage, wild and beautiful. Choughs whirled and chirred above, before settling on a crag opposite. A juvenile chough perched on a rock by the path, weaving and bobbing, pleading to the others to return. They in turn implored him to fly over. The war of words continued, and eventually he lurched into the air and flew to them; a first flight perhaps?

Todays route passed over 3 cols, through desolate, wild country. In awe and in tune with the mountains, I sat, my mind empty, feeling the low murmur of the rock, and sensing that strange and vibrating light that escapes them. A wonderful feeling of clearheadedness afterwards. Eventually, I reached the refuge de Vallonpierre, and admired the Sirac reflected in the lake.

Ahead of schedule, I added a walk across the north face of the Sirac, on a breathtaking path below the glaciers, then trundled down the long valley to the head of the Valgaudemar. A man in the refuge last night advised me strongly to cut short this stage, saying I would finish after dark - an irksome aspect of solo walking is that people feel obliged to warn and protect, often unnecessarily. Restricting myself to 400m/hr ascent and 1000m/hr descent gives a pace that feels ok in the heat, yet leaves me time to spare.

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GR54 Tour des Ecrins: Vallouise to Ref. Pre de la Chaumette - August 18th

This stage is long and has a reputation for being tough, so I was determined to set off before any heat built up. The pretty town of Vallouise was still very much asleep when I started an hour before dawn, dark windows even in the bakery. There are nice old wooden chalets and an interesting church. The long walk up the access road was peaceful, light slowly revealing the mountains, and high cloud suffused in pretty dawn pink.

I turned South up the austere steep-sided valley of the Selle, swept by Spring avalanches from the high terraces above, passing a shepherds cabin and refuge where hikers were still sleeping. A herd of sheep and goats trotted past, and I chatted with the shepherd, a guy in his 20s with dreadlocks and a ready laugh. I admired his goats, tall at the shoulder, and with strong, curly horns. With a gleaming smile, he said that they had enjoyed the Spring flowers - not to look at, presumably. The path crossed the outflow of the glacier below Pte Verdonne, crossing a glacial terrace into a stark and mineral upper valley, winding its way round rocky bosses, to scratch across a long scree slope and scrabble up a steep slate terrace to reach the col.

Dropping down over the second col, twisted slate strata below the Pte de Rougnoux rose high above the sources of the river Drac, tumbling into a nice bathing pool below the bridge, with beautiful clear, cold water. A pair of kestrels were out hunting; surely the same ones I saw a week ago over the hill.

The Refuge du Pre de la Chaumette is a strange mix of 60s architecture roofed with lauzes; massive slate slabs that weigh around a ton. It being lunch time, I celebrated with an omelette and a long sleep to make up for the early start. Supper ended with an exquisite tart with wild raspberries picked nearby.

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Ecrins - Tete de Clotinaille - August 15th

There was a heavy overcast today, so I changed plans from a ridge walk to the climb of the Clotinaille, which faces South, and is not nice in hot weather. A new 4wd track, bulldozed uphill over the old path, is already ravined and rubbly, and made for heavy going. When the sun burned off the overcast, it became hot and sticky and the flies queued up for a piece of the action. Stopping would not have been a good idea, so I climbed non-stop to the summit.

A group of four descended past me, all pristine in long trousers and one, unbelievably in a thick acrylic cardigan, zipped to the neck. How do they do it ?

The summit had 3.5 crosses (one minus its cross piece) and gave great views over the valley. In a strong wind, I at last felt free of flies, however a horsefly bit my ankle; I think the first time I have been bitten on a summit. I stopped in a little stone chapel on the way down, and sought sanctuary from the ravening horde, then dropped rapidly down.

The Embrun Ironman triathlon is being held today (3.8km swim, 115 mile bike ride up the Col d'Izoard, which is a major Tour de France col, followed by a marathon). With the mercury at 33c, the whole town closed to watch, man the drinks stations, and applaud. The organisation is typically French; runners come up the high street, past ice cream shops and cafes, and a little boy high fived the runners. Despite their exhaustion, these elite competitors made the effort to respond.

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Ecrins - Chemin de la ceinture - August 13th

With a friend, we walked an unusual route that traversed a large cirque below the ridges. Unusual, in that it reaches no summits, crosses no cols, yet was unexpectedly satisfying. A short climb took us to the Cabane de Clot Besson, built as shelter for woodcutters, where a sculpture movingly commemorated a group of schoolchildren swept away in an avalanche. From there, we passed below seven peaks, on a glorious path that barely rose or fell, admiring how their appearance changed depending on the angle of view. At one point, we crossed limestone, gypsum, marble, a grey rock and inclusions of obsidian in 400 metres!

A strange building in the car park turned out to be the resting place for a giant larch, whose great age the foresters wanted to honour. It was already 4m tall in 1429 ...

A big reward for a modest effort. The following day, we walked the Sentier des Pyramides, an interesting route through two limestone cirques with caves, rock spires and collapsing rock faces (walked earlier this year).

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Ecrins - The power and the glory - August 12th

Todays walk was one of the showpieces of the Ecrins: from the Pre de Mme Carle up the Glacier Blanc to within sight of the refuge des Ecrins at 3175m. It is a glorious sight to see this great wide wall of ice creeping inexorably down, and astonishing to see lateral moraine walls high on the cliffs at the side, a reminder that the glacier was in places 100m deep, where now there is just bare rock. Anyone in denial of global warming just has to come and look.

The first refuge is opposite the Pelvoux (3943m), the Pic sans Nom and the Ailefroide and the views are magnificent. I fed the choughs at the refuge with pastry from a bilberry pie, which they enjoyed, sidling closer, head on one side, hoping for more. We walked on to 2900m, far enough to look round the corner at the seracs below the Barre des Ecrins (4102m), and to see the Refuge des Ecrins and the way up to Roche Faurio (3730m).

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Ecrins - Roc Blanc and Pointe des Rougnous - August 11th

I walked up to the lake du Distroit above Chateauroux, and from there climbed steeply to the col at 2700m, then scrambled North up the ridge, dropping down into scree and up to reach the Roc Blanc (2897m) from which one could see down the long valley North to Dormillouse. Then back to the col and south along a delicate little ridge to the Pointe des Rougnous (2749m), and an easy clatter along the South ridge, where I put up a young male chamois, and down to the Lake de Rougnous. As there were no sheep on this side, the waters were perfectly clear, almost good enough to drink, were it not for the thriving population of small waterbugs. Above, a pair of kestrels were out hunting, sunlight shining through their wings - the first time I have seen kestrels soaring on thermals.

I cut across country to pick up the path leading up from Prapic to the col des Tourettes, so called I guess because of the two little rock towers on the ridge nearby.

The 1100m descent from the col seemed to take an age. In high Summer, most of the wild flowers have been eaten or have withered in the heat. Those that remain, such as big purple thistles are little oases of insect life. I watched a butterfly on one bloom being poked off by a bee, which in turn was kicked off by two ants. On another thistle, a big green brown scarab beetle was munching his way slowly around the bloom, like a miniature combine harvester.

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Ecrins - Les Aiguilles de Chabrieres - August 8th

These shapely limestone pinnacles hang above the lower Durance valley, and they catch more than their share of weather. Thunder stopped me last time, and today looked like a repeat. The higher I got, the harder it blew and rained. Parties of holidaymakers in trainers and cagoules hurried down past me, hanging onto children, and looking cold and wet, and I checked on a group of four adults huddled shivering and wet in rain and cloud at 2100m in F6/7. They had neither map nor compass, so I made sure they knew where they were and how they could descend, and gave them some Snickers bars. Alarming.

I continued climbing past the table d'orientation (a great view in the cloud!), and tackled the steep climb to the breche, a cleft between two pinnacles at 2300m. With 50mph gusts and heavy rain blowing through from the other side, I sheltered in the lee and waited for a break in the weather.

The track to the summit cut along strata above a cliff, climbed through a tunnel in the rock, to tiptoe above a steep gully and reach the summit. A brilliant route, whoever thought that up. Later, a rescue helicopter came past twice, and I gave him a 'No help needed' sign - I only hope whoever he was looking for was lower down as it was 5c at 2400m.

I saw several falcons hunting (perhaps a pair), and heard a nest of noisy fledglings high in the cliffs - hard to tell what they were; perhaps buzzards or eagles.

A deeply satisfying day.

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Ecrins- 7th August 2007

Les cretes de la Rortie

Two nice walks today in cooler weather, with some rain to keep me fresh. The first climbed the south-facing hillside above Freissinieres, full of Mediterranean species, junipers, pines and wild lavender spreading its scent, and black woodpeckers making crooning sounds. The walk passed close under a fine limestone cliff, with an ominous sign 'The cemetery of the Vaudois'. Shortly after, I heard muttering above, and saw climbers spidering their way up. Perhaps the sign was the name of the climb. From higher up, one could easily see that the meadows in the valley were once a glacial lake, as for example was the valley at Bourg d'Oisans further North. I adore mountains in rain, never tiring of watching the clouds threading their way about the crags. Just beautiful.

The rock strata were slightly tilted, and the path worked its way along the cliff, climbing gently from strata to strata, to emerge in pine woods on the crest. Swifts nest in the cliffs, and I watched their slate grey wings from above as they fed their young.

Seeing the start of the walk below me, I felt nervous about the route that showed no sign of desending. Instead it reached a fine belvedere above a crest overlooking the river Durance. Only when turning around did I realise the path dropped down the rock face by steps cut into a notch. There followed some squeezes between boulders, and by similar convolutions, it dropped below the chaotic and beautiful ridge.

La Cembraie de les Ayes

Near Briancon is a valley with some of the finest Arollo pines in the Alpine chain. These were under threat, and after some magnificent 500 year old trees with great candelabra-like branches were felled to make way for larches, the area was proclaimed a nature reserve.

There were several Casse-Noix Mouchetee, birds with powerful bills that eat pine seeds, and hide them all around the forest for Winter. At last, I had a good clear view of a black cock flying away, pretty fan shaped tail and a vivid white tail ruff. I had glimpsed these birds before, so it is great to know what they were at last.

Todays dent is a sprained thumb, gained when I slipped on sheep mess in wet grass.

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Ecrins- 5th August 2007 - Les Croix d'Enfer

Today has been the hottest day of the year: 35C in the shade, which means that microwaved chicken feeling in the sun! I set off shortly after 5am, when the world was still very much asleep. There were several black woodpeckers making little crooning sounds in the woods, then a large hare bounded off down a field in the gloom. Higher up, a dozen baby partridges spilled out of a corn field and waddled busily along the path, pecking at seeds. My animals are out early.

Todays walk explored minor paths to and from Le Meale, and continued along the ridge to the spookily named crosses of hell ... how did a shapely mountain get a name like that ? I love ridge walks, as the route often needs thought, and when the ridge kicks up and down there are surprises and the view changes all the time.

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Ecrins- 2nd August - Donner und blitzen

An early start from the pretty village of Champcella to attempt the Vautisse (3156m), one of the more accessible high peaks near Embrun. The walk up alongside the stream took me past mats of wild strawberries, the densest I have yet seen. Emerging from the forest into limestone country, there were several fine rock outcrops, that could make worthy objectives, and I spent some time fooling around in a little cave, before climbing on to reach a series of mostly dried lakes. It was then just a short climb to the col at 2900m - cue the first drum roll of thunder. I had expected some clouds as a band of weather was working its way up to Northern France, so hadn't paid much attention. I duly dropped down below a nice crag and sat it out, enjoying the wild view, ropes of pristine white cloud pouring over the col, little torn patches of dark grey storm cloud, and a heavy overcast, lit from within by flashes of lightning, mixed in with a spot of hail. Fantastic, then the sky cleared. I climbed on, to reach 3040m, and then the sky darkened again, and it was washing machine time.

Sheltering again below a crag, water streamed off the rocks above, with thunder crashing around, and once a sharp crack and a clatter and whiz of stones somewhere above. Clouds closed in to give 5m visibility, and then a good pelting of hail, bouncing off the scree into little piles. After half an hour of this, the storm moved on, and I decided to move on down, as I couldn't see much and was getting cold. Following an easy path below the Crete de Prenetz, the rain restarted, with more thunder, though without ground strikes, and then two further bands of hail that cut visibility to 10m. How good it is to have proper wet weather gear! Finally, the sun came out, and I dropped in to a shepherds hut to warm up, and repack my winter gear.

Well, that will teach me to plan a day based on a general forecast!

Yesterday was my birthday, and I spent some time in my tent, enjoying the peace and quiet of the mountains. I had hoped to pass 150 miles of ascent by then, however it took todays walk to do that.

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Ecrins- 28 July 07

Le Vieux Chaillol

The Vieux Chaillol at 3163m is the highest mountain in the Champsaur, so I started walking before dawn, determined to get as high as possible before the heat built up. I reached the first col (2354m) at 7.30am and was struck by the contrast between tranquil golden pastures in the valley, and the daunting, and frankly lunar landscape ahead. The track followed the route of an old canal built to irrigate the valley with the outflow of the glacier - an incredible construction that required excavating rock and constructing dykes at up to 2700m. Climbing began in earnest here, the great stark rump of the Chaillol rearing 460m above the second col. The path being steep and slippy, I chose a line following strata in the rock outcrops instead, marvelling at the geology here, little chunks of white rock, and veins of ruby rock here and there. Just before the top of the diagonal, a bouquetin (like a powerful antelope) was munching peacefully. My presence didn't seem to bother him, and I sat quietly watching the king in his kingdom until he moved on. A scramble took me to the upper scree slopes, and I plugged steadily on, trying to find stable scree, and a good line.

The Chaillol reserved its prize till the very end, and a huge view of the Ecrins was waiting for me as I reached the summit. Looking South, Mont Ventoux, of Tour de France fame, was visible 130km away, and I persuaded myself that a peak on the skyline was the Argentiere, near the Vallee de Merveilles, North of Nice. A sign of the times, I guess, but the glacier that should have fed the canal is now a lake.

La Planure and the cave of the choughs

In great heat, I walked up the shady side of the Touron valley, slightly alarmed at the landslips and erosion that diverted the path several times. This side of the valley is wild, wooded and covered in undergrowth, and chamois and deer lie up here. There were also wild strawberries and raspberries to slow me down. Eventually I emerged in the alpages, marvelling at the strange limestone and crystalline rock formations.

The head of the valley is fine level pasture, inhabited since the stone age until the last war, when the retreating German army burned all the chalets. I found the resuragence of the Torrent de Mal Cros, that bursts out of a limestone cave, and managed to squirm up some way into the cool dark, until there was rather too much guano, as a large colony of yellow billed choughs nests in the higher reaches of the cave. These birds have quite a large wing plan, and in the strong updrafts I marvelled at how they would fold their wings against their bodies, and spear into the darkness at speed, somehow to brake and alight at their nests.

I couldn't pass up the chance of an apricot tart at the refuge, although the 50 odd visitors there all stared at me - goodness knows why!

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Ecrins- 26 July 07 - Les lacs de Crupillouse

An excellent day visiting this group of a half dozen lakes set at 2650m against a background of 3000m peaks. The entire walk is exposed South, and the insects on the initial section reminded me oddly of village life here: dignified lizards wearing olive green or khaki Sunday best, dainty, pretty butterflies wandering aimlessly, brassy young grasshoppers clattering noisily by on showy orange wings, and a steady procession of ants, with work to do please!

I had my doubts about the path as it led me towards a formidable series of rocky bars, however it adroitly worked its way through gaps, and kept climbing to reach an old glacial sill with rocks worn smooth, then onwards to the outflow of the lakes. These lakes are frozen 9 months of the year, yet support a thriving population of brown trout, that a small boy was doing his best to reduce (4 caught in a couple of hours).

I spent much of this walk in the company of a gendarme on holiday who taught me lots about fishing (not difficult as I know nothing), and the practicalities of extricating bodies from crashed gliders (ten a year around here unbelievably). We walked around the lakes, marveling at how their colours changed with the sunlight, and climbed to the col du Veyre, where there were superb views of the high mountains of the Ecrins. Intent on seeing bouquetins, we had a spirited time trying to persuade the other that distant dark rocks were actually resting bouquetins - but none of them were.

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Ecrins- 25 July 07

Prapic to the Saut du Laire

Prapic is a little village at the confluence of two rivers. There are 20 permanent residents (down a bit from 237 in 1856!). The houses date from the 17th century and are tall and narrow to make best use of limited space. Their gable walls are filled with wattle and brush so that the harvest, in the upper storeys, can dry in the wind. I walked up through 'marmot valley', where some of the marmots will share your lunch if you invite them, up to a narrow gorge, where at the time of the salt tax, the thief Hilaire jumped the river to escape the customs men (laire means thief in patois). It looks just about possible, although he would have had to be desperate, and I wasn't about to give it a go! The river must have been in spate, as there is an easy crossing just upstream. Impressively, the residents of Prapic would walk over the pass at night to sell their beasts, cheese and butter at the market in Embrun, and then return later that day; a 15 hour round trip - and no head torches then. I found a small grove of beautiful 'Reine des Alpes', a protected thistle like plant with misty blue flower spikes.

Chauffayer: Sentier de Decouverte

With time to spare after a relatively gentle walk, I tried another walk nearby, and was delighted. This was a little circuit on easy tracks between hedges and rushing streams, with panels describing the history of farming in the Champsaur, and how the landscape is managed. I never knew for example, that an established nest of ants will capture and eat a ton of insect larvae per year, so they are much prized by farmers for pest control.I spent a happy quarter of an hour listening to a passing farmer reminiscing and admiring swifts swooping low to gobble up insects. Feeling clear-headed and strong again, although little endurance, and cold and tired this evening.

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Ecrins- 23 July 07 - La petite Autane

Today finds me in the Champsaur (fields of gold), a part of the Ecrins with an intricate patchwork of little fields and hedges called the Bocage. After harvest, the landscape takes on autumn hues of tawny, gold and straw, hence the name.

This inspiring walk took me past the strangely named hut of Aunt Yvonne, a cozy shelter roofed with larch slats, then on to an Aiguille with a sheer drop on three sides, and great views of the silvery river Drac wending its way down valley. This led to the ominously named Col de Casse Diable, and a sign saying the path ends here and urging caution on those continuing. There followed the steep North ridge, a delightful, intricate sequence of bosses, aretes, little cliffs, and finally, a grassy balcony leading to the summit ridge.

I felt unusually tuned into the mountains today, blue grey eyes looking out on blue grey horizons, a chough and a hawk for company. The cloud base was just above the summit, serried ranks of clouds hustling past in the rushing wind, and I put my hand up to touch the sky.A man approached from the other direction and smiled, in tune with my mood.

The descent was just as surprising, the ridge widening to include four little hidden valleys full of lush grass - somehow missed by sheep! Later a large cairn with Buddhist prayer flags suggested other people find this place special too.

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Queryras- 21 July 07 - Ville vieille to Brunissard

I started up the 'Sentier de Decouverte', a path leading through strange plants including Astragales, which resemble a loo brush! Working from a Didier Richard map, I had some difficulty finding the route to the Col de la Creche, then dropped down to the Bergerie de Peas, and up again to traverse through larch forests to the refuge de Souliers. There, the owner was taking freshly made apricot flans out of the oven, the smell irresistible ... two slices and a siesta later, and I started for the lac de Souliers, a high little lake in lunar landscape, surrounded by scree slopes and tourists, this being high season.

The path up was crossed by little streams, and on damp patches, clouds of butterflies had settled, sometimes so dense that the ground was scarcely visible between them. I continued to the Casse Deserte, famous to Tour de France cyclists, a huge scree slope falling from high rock outcrops, and crossed by the road leading up to the Col d'Izoard. The track dropped steeply away into a deep gully filled with rubble, and surrounded by strange cliffs and rock outcrops. I half expected signs warning me of rattlesnakes!

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Queryras- 20 July 07 - Brunissard to Ville vieille

Friends of mine, Sue and Ivan Godfrey and their friend Pete are walking the GR5 this summer, raising funds for hospice care (see www.godfreytreks.co.uk) and we were able to meet up and walk this short stage together. We had a throughly indolent day, chatting about the snow we had met earlier, and even stopping for lunch where we satisfied our craving for fresh vegetables with huge salads. It was great to find them in good form, and I felt a little guilty with my tiny rucksack.

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Queryras- 19 July 07 - Arvieux and the Furfande

A diversion today to the nearby Queyras national park for a few days to rendezvous with some friends.

I walked up and over the Col de Furfande, the larches giving way to some fine Dolomitic mountains, and came across the first family walking with a donkey, a sight to be encountered often over the next few days. The donkey carries its own food, and the belongings of a couple of children. Kids love looking after the donkey, and with nothing to carry, they spend an excellent holiday without the dreaded 'walking' word being mentioned.

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Ecrins- 17 July 07 - Valsenestre to Le Perier

This walk visited the lac Labarre and the valleys above Le Perier, that I have already written about. This time though the weather was clear and hot, and it was amusing to see the hills laid out clearly, instead of hiding in fog. I was particularly interested in walking the middle section over the Col Romeiou that is a GR54 variant, that would make a lovely route between Valsenestre and lac Lauvitel.

The path crosses a steep hillside for some 300m, the edge built up with reinforcing bars. It crosses several streams, including one that issues from deep neve, and it was fun to scramble up and inside the tunnel between the stream and the neve, the ceiling sculpted into vaults by snowmelt, and icy dribbles trickling down my neck. The chill air contrasted strikingly with the hot breeze outside.

A good day for animals too, with several chamois and a pine marten seen.

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Ecrins- 16 July 07 - Tete du Vet and the Lac Gary

The Vet is a ridge that divides two valleys here; the Malsanne and the Valjouffrey. There are superb views to be had from 1300m above the valley.

I started early to try to avoid the heat, and climbed 1100m to reach the pastures, coming within 50m of a fall of big rocky blocks from a cliff above. The rocks made a deep clattering roar as they bounced down the cliff, snapped tree branches and flew across the path, hopefully to come to rest before someones back garden. Later I surprised two deer that were already lying up in the shade. Once in the higher pastures, the wind was terrific, and I climbed to a first col, then through a cirque to reach the col high above the ridge, and dropped down to the Lac de Gary, a little lake with a grandstand view of the Olan, Pointe Swan and other big mountains.

I had a go at the airy and delicate Arcanier, and managed to find a way up the lee side, before dropping down to the ridge of the Vet, where the wind made me drop to my knees several times. A depression is coming through tonight, and the speed with which the sky covered was extraordinary.

Back in the valley, the heat was torrid, and amongst the butterflies milling around on the South facing slope, there were three species that I haven't seen before.

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Ecrins- 15 July 07 - The head of Louis XVI

I programmed a gentle day in great heat, as I have a sore throat, and am finding the heat hard to manage.

In this staunchly republican country, the day afer the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the great prison in Paris, it seemed appropriate to climb the peak of Louis XVI, who fell victim to that nasty creation of Mr Guillotin. In French, peaks are often called Tetes, which also means head, and one talks of s'offrir la tete de, which can translate as helping yourself to the head of.

I walked up through another of those magnificent mature beech forests that are widespread here, to emerge in the high pastures where several groups of mares with foals were enjoying the lush grass. The peak was easily reached, and I brought with me an area map to identify the surrounding peaks. Stupidly I lost a glove on the descent, failing to check I had a complete pair, and also not checking that everything had been picked up.

Elementary (mistake), dear Watson!

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Ecrins- 14 July 07 - le Lac Fourchu and the Taillefer

Although just outside the Ecrins National Park, it would have been a pity to miss out this striking mountain. The climb started from la Grenoniere, a little hamlet at the end of the road. This was the first really hot day, and I soon dunked my head, and my top in the first waterfall, and repeated this at each opportunity, which kept me fairly comfortable. Weaving through pine woods, I was soon climbing past 2000m past little tarns and burns; oddly Scottish.

Lac Fourchu means forked lake, and there are around 15 smaller ones scattered around. Today was Bastille day, Frances biggest National holiday, and there was just a handful of people at this popular tourist destination.

The North face of the Taillefer presents a bit of a climb; 850m vertically and 1.5km horizontally. I settled into a gentle rhythm, and plugged away, climbing through three rocky bars and several neves, to reach the col, and after a longer neve, the broad summit, with prayer flags. From here, the view was remarkable; Grenoble, the Vercors, the cliffs of the Devoluy, the Barre and Dome des Ecrins, the Aiguilles d'Arves, the Mont Blanc massif and the massif de Belledonne - incredible.

The Petit Taillefer gave a vertiginous drop to the West, and I somehow managed a nap in the scree, before a glissade and long climb down, passing round the lake and the refuge de Taillefer. One strange sight was a totally nude middle-aged man wandering round in a carefree way; didn't we have one of those recently in Scotland?

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Ecrins- 13 July 07 - The Tour du Valbonnais

Trying to catch up with sleep, food and all that, I treated myself to a stay in a Gite, and joined up for the day with a group of walkers from North Lyons, to walk a section of the Valbonnais. We had some difficulty as a torrent had washed away the path, and our leader was understandably unwilling to lead a group down and up unstable debris walls. We eventually rejoined the correct route, and emerged from forest on a ridge with splendid views of the valley - and some fresh air, which helped to cool me down, as the delay meant we were climbing in the heat of the day.

Later, I was walking ahead of the group and heard the mournful cry of a red woodpecker. I kept an eye out for him, and eventually spotted him on a 'woodpecker tree' - a dead trunk covered in holes. He had sidled round to try and hide behind the trunk, rather unsuccessfully as it was too thin. Eventually he gave a little cry and flew away.

The group stopped at the high point for a good lunch and natter about food and mountains. Example:
Q. What bird livng in the mountains of France has the largest wingspan?
A. Neither vulture nor eagle, but an albatros ... they live in the Vercors now it seems!

We passed close by a large group of sheep penned in, including three donkeys, a horse, and two 'patoux', or Pyreneean sheepdogs that were used to protect sheep from bears, and are now often used to guard against wolves. Hopefully coincidentally, one of the villages nearby is called Chantelouve, or the howl of the female wolf ...

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Ecrins- 12 July 07 - The lac du vallon

Moving quietly up a forest track, a brown thing was sitting in the middle. I stopped to think, and its ears, very long, flopped as it washed its face. The hare turned around quite unabashed, and gave me an appraising look, then sniffed and lolloped off into the forest. He was big, probably a buck. I half expected a character from Alice in Wonderland to accost me next.

After yesterday, I was hoping for an easier day, and hoped that the 1350m climb would be easy. I must have been tired though, as the path crossed a steep slate slope and went on climbing steeply, with the final 500m up an endless glacial boulder field with a beautiful waterfall. The lac du vallon is surrounded by peaks of up to 3000m, and is one of the larger high mountain lakes in the Ecrins, at 2490m. It used to be part frozen in mid July as recently as 2001, but today and last year, it was completely ice-free, although the wind coming off the water felt icy enough.

I chatted with two locals coming down from the higher slopes, out collecting 'genepi', a plant used to make an alcoholic herby drink. The cliffs above often harbour 'bouquetins', big antelope like creatures with heavy horns, that are hard to see as they rest up and do not run away, unlike chamois.

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Ecrins- 11 July 07 - Above Le Perier

Todays excellent walk will remain in my memory for a long time. I passed the ruined village of Confolens, where the last inhabitant died in 1880, which is slowly being reclaimed from nature. Lovely stone buildings with gaping roofs and trees growing out of them, in a beautiful setting. Two chamois were keen to get down to a salt lick by a stream, and I sat motionless until they plucked up courage to come down closer to me. My camera with its tiltable screen was very handy, as I set it on my knee, and they felt as though I wasn't watching them.

The two valleys I walked through have rock strata running down the slope, and a lovely stream or waterfall coursed 150m down the hillside. A group of workmen from the Office National des Forets were staying in the cabin at 2000m, and were maintaining paths, making good the damage caused by erosion. Through the cabin window could be seen wine bottles, cheeses, dried sausgaes ... not a bad job!

I went on over the col through snow to drop down to the Lac de Plan Vianney, a dark green colour, and hemmed in by rock walls, and then back over the col to the cabin, and up to the col de Paletas, which was, err, airy! A trip at the top would have resulted in a fall of 550m down a rock slab. The rock on the other side was friable, and the tilted strata resulted in some spectacular ravines that were tricky to cross. Finally, in the heat of the afternoon, I dropped down through beech, birch and alder woods, enjoying the dappled light and the beauty of the tree trunks.

A superb day; it is a while since I last walked on snowy crests and in squashy beech mast on the same day.

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Ecrins- 10 July 07 - Crete des Lauvets and the Font Turbat (Valjouffrey)

I could see blue patches amongst the clouds at dawn, so thought I would leg it up to the little visited cirque of Font Turbat, beneath the huge North face of the Olan - in its own way just as impressive as the North face of Vignemale in the Pyrenees. The sky remained obstinately covered, and I was soon walking in a grey soup, with sounds of waterfalls coming from all directions. I headed up a steep slope, to scramble up a slab above two waterfalls, and thence into high pastures, the clouds deteminedly covering most things most of the time. The first col proved hard to find, and I more or less fell upon it from 100 metres away as the loom of the sun through the cloud banks seemed to be lightest there. On the other side, visibility was better, and a TV crew from France 3 were out taking footage. They filmed my blotchy, scarred legs as I walked by, and commented that the weather had been great before I came!

It was 4C at the second col, and the biting wind of the glaciers made it feel colder. I was in full Winter gear, and pleased to reach the refuge as snow started falling. There was a chance for a good natter with Sophie the guardian, and time to stroke and cuddle her cat, 'Nim'. After the snow, the Olan finally showed its face, and the long easy walk down the valley took me past Sophies geese and hens (for eggs) and donkey (for porterage). Then I came across a weeny marmot, surely only recently allowed out, who forgot where his burrow was in his panic. I had to wait while he got his bearings and rushed back across the path to Mum. A long day, and one of great contrasts. After the austerity of high mountain country, it was a real pleasure to walk through a more human landscape of harvest, hay and swishing grass.

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Ecrins- 9 July 07 - Valsenestre to Lac Labarre and the Tete de Rame

Valsenestre was completely buried by a large avalanche in the 19th Century, and those who survived were asphyxiated in their houses when they lit fires to keep warm. Today the village is being renovated under the auspices of the Ecrins National Park, though it is only occupied during the Summer.

Last night it thundered, and today, clouds blew up and down the valleys, giving those wonderful conditions where the views change every minute. I stopped often to enjoy the flowers holding little silvery raindrops. I missed a turning in the fog, and had an interesting scrabble up the second glacial terrace as a result. To my delight, this put me downwind and uphill of a young male chamois that didn't noticed me for a while, so I clicked away.

The lake took an age coming; fog seems to distort time and scale. Finally the fog lifted and I could admire the peaks surrounding it. I then climbed the Tete de Rame, at the end of a long broad ridge, and am assured that the view there is just great, although all I could see was the cairn. Back at the lake, and sheltering from hard rain under a boulder, I watched another young male chamois cantering effortlessly across the steep scree opposite, and then uphill onto the ridge. I decided to follow him, and how I wish I could climb as easily! Chamois have been timed to climb 1000m in 15 minutes, thanks to large hearts and blood that carries more oxygen than us. It has to help that they weigh much less too!!

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Ecrins- 8 July 07 - The valley of Valjouffrey

Another steep sided and deep valley, reaching into the heart of the Ecrins park. La Chapelle en Valjouffrey is a sleepy hamlet half way up the valley. I walked from there up to the Tete de la pale Traversiere and along the ridge to reach the Croix de Rougny. The walk is quite deceptive, as after 700m climbing through dark epicea forest, the mountains above are covered in undergrowth and wild flowers, despite being at 2200m. At the top, there is a grandstand view up the valley to the 3200m peaks at its head, and the distinctive cliffs of the Devoluy range to the West. From there, the path descends steeply to cross lush pastures that will be cut for hay, and visits another hamlet of la Chalp before returning to la Chapelle.

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Ecrins- 7 July 07 - The Pas de l'Olan and Lac du Lautier

A great day up around the Olan, the big mountain half way down the Valgaudemar. I saw my first orange lilys on the steep side of a rocky knoll, and couldn't resist a photo, which was a little dicey, and woke me up. Climbing to the Refuge de l'Olan, the track passed across concrete slabs, the remains of the earlier refuge that was destroyed by an avalanche. The guardian of the refuge had left his spotting scope out, to check on climbers on the Olan. A sobering reminder that 4 people have died on the mountain this year, and another group needed heli rescue.

Leaving the cirque, the track cut through a notch high in the side wall, and continued over another pass to reach the Lac de Lautier, with trout jumping in the blue-green waters. I dropped down off the hill via the refuge de Souffles, which reopened last month after renovation. A resourceful "rougequeue" (a large sparrow-like bird with a rufus coloured tail) has already taken up residence by the entrance, and was busily feeding a noisy nestful of fledglings. A very hot day, but fun.

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Ecrins- 6 July 07 - Mountains at the head of the valley

The valley of Valgaudemar ends in three glacial cirques, backed with a ring of mountains of 3000m to 3600m. This splendid walk traverses the head of the valley, with great views. Rising quickly to 2100m, one can admire first Mt Gioberney, Les Rouies and Les Bans, then one drops off the plateau to reach the Cabane du Pis, which is built in the overhang of a huge boulder, with the boulder as a roof! After views of the Aupillous way above the torrent, one reaches the plateau of les Jassines, and there opposite is the Sirac, with its subsidiary summits all huddled together. As the path follows around, the Pte de Verdonne, Pte de Queyrse, and Pics du Loup and de Bonvoisin appear. A magnificent and memorable day. I shall also remember the sports shop and newsagent in la Chapelle en Valgaudemar, each with signs saying closed; please see the shop next door!

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Ecrins- 5 July 07 - The Petarel Lakes

Climbing out of the Valgaudemar valley towards the lakes, the low cloud started shredding and boiling off in morning sun, and slowly the big peaks started appearing through gaps in the cloud. I arrived at the lower lake with cloud obscuring all the surroundings. Staring out, I felt as though on the edge of a sea, then the mist gently drew aside to reveal the rocky bars and pinnacled Petarel ridge - magical! A series of lakes higher up, the Sebeyras lakes, were a vivid green from algi.

Climbing on, a group of sparrow-like niverolles were playing a strange game of King of the Castle in the scree, each in turn fluttering up, to land a bit higher up. Feeling that something was happening, I continued watching, and realised they were hounding a weasel, who was hunting for birds eggs. The path continued over the col, and down through sunny alpages filled with wild flowers and butterflys, by now with great views of Les Bans and other 3500m mountains at the end of the valley.

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Ecrins- 4 July 07 - The Valgaudemar

Today, I'm walking in the Valgaudemar, a long, narrow cleft in the West of the Ecrins. A friend said that it is the most Himalayan of the valleys here, and at its head lie a clutch of snow peaks at around 3500m; les Bans, the Aupillous and the Bonvoisin. In fact, with alders, rowans and birch, and igneous rock underfoot, it reminded me strangely of the Highlands.

I started up the torrent behind l'Ubac, to reach Prentiq. As the main valley lies East-West, villages to the South lose the sun for long periods, so the inhabitants of l'Ubac grew their crops at Prentiq. The walk took me up to a high cirque, with a little shepherds hut cunningly built with a smooth concrete roof behind a large boulder; all the better to survive avalanches. The weather god threw all his toys out of the basket today, starting with rain showers and hot sun, then a srong, cold wind, followed by snow showers and hail; am I not welcome here? I continued to the Tete de Lauzarot and worked my way down the ridge, in search of the 'path', which could have been any one of several goat tracks, but clearly not the one I chose, as I found myself in an alder thicket. Retracing my steps, I plunged down instead beneath tall conifers draped in lichen.

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29 June 07 - The Les Orres ridge

A dream of mine was to walk the ridge from Pic de Morgon through to the Boussolenc over several days. Knowing now that parts of it are too technical for me, I set off at dawn to walk the eastern half. A quick climb from Baratier gained me the long forest track to Le Melezet in time for the morning birdsong, and I cut through the ski station of Les Orres to eventually reach the emerald coloured Lac St Marguerite, and later the ridge at the Col de l'Ane. I continued west over the unlikely named Costa Rouenda to the flanks of Pic Silhourais, the mountain whose other side was too difficult, then retraced my steps and climbed three rock outcrops to reach the Aupillon (2916m). There a whistling noise made me look up, and a glider passed overhead, slope soaring along the ridge.

The Alpes de Verdun were tricky, and I chose a path in the scree before climbing a slaty defile to reach the ridge. This took me to the top of the ski area of Les Orres, with plenty of strange ironmongery moaning and rattling in the gale. Choughs and ravens were out riding the wind and gave me their own special chorus; chirrs and cronks! Strangely, with sky all around and grey and buff coloured rock underfoot, what stood out most were the tiny alpine flowers, growing in impossible places, shrugging off harsh weather, and I stopped often to enjoy them.

Finally I reached the Pic de Boussolenc, and flushed with success, scrambled down a slate rock face to reach the final col. A quick recce at the peak beyond took me as far as a chimney that I was too tired to climb, so I took a path down into the forest. And Oh the delight after 8 hours of mineral landscape and battering wind, to hear the silence and birdsong, to feel soft pine needles underfoot, and enjoy golden evening light slanting through the trees. I reached the edge of the forest at dark, crossing the Torrent de Vacheres, and continued on, passing through a village, enjoying the snatch of voices and clatter of pans, the shadows of local cats out mousing, and by now on familiar ground, let my feet find their way home.

Thanks to settled fine weather, this concludes a good hard week with 17.6km climbed and 82 hours of walking.

3300m 16 hrs

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27 June 07 -Pic St Andre, Les Croix & Mont Orel

Excellent walking weather at present; cold, clear and stable, so another extended day in the hills. I climbed through the Foret de Saluces, enjoying the resinous smell of pine trees, and took the high track up the Suel valley, chatting with a shepherd delighted to be in his Summer cabin.

Azaleas and orchids lined the climb to a first col, where a colony of marmots gazed blankly at me and then at each other; few people come up here! A second col hosted dense clumps of blue gentians, and a view of an extensive boulder field, the 'Lissemplat'. Climbing this, repeated stonefall above worried me until realising it was a male chamois and his family of five threading the scree. I reached the col and climbed a broad shoulder full of wild flowers. Sparrowlike niverolles fluttered past and then back, each time fluting apologetically.

Spectacular views from the summit (2863m) made it all worthwhile, and as clouds rushed past, I felt as though on the bow of a ship. The ascent had gone well, so to amuse the chamois I tumbled six times on the descent ... the rhythm of the scree eluding me. Dropping down and round, a 350m climb through another boulder field took me to a shallow couloir, where an 80m rock face blocked my path to a second summit of 2963m.

I descended to the basin below the peaks, and crossed the lateral moraines to reach a broad grassy meadow full of buttercups and little squeaky birds with laryngitis, and lay down for a nap. A second colony of marmots watched the monster wake, and scenes from Gullivers travels crossed my mind, so I dropped down a ridge past great yellow gentians to a cabin with a delicious spring.

Later, I wandered through larches into the bowl of the cirque below Les Croix, and climbed to the chapel, which shelters a huge cross reaching to the roof - a sturdy little building whose lintel must have been positioned after an alcoholic lunch! A ridge took me towards Les Croix, the evening light throwing the earlier mountains into relief, eventually reaching the broad summit (2563m) with a cross on its three peaks. A delicate traverse took me to Mont Orel (2496m) at 8.30pm, then I hurried down into the forest to thread my way through azaleas, intent on finding the track before dark.

Four chicken-sized birds flew off from a clearing, and I really must find out what they were. To my great relief, the track appeared as planned - how satisfying when navigation works properly, and I reached a 4wd forest track at nightfall, to return home through byways and sleeping villages at 11.30pm.

3070m 16 hrs

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25 June 07 - The Tetes de Soleil Boeuf

Summer has settled in here; the glorious excesses of Spring are over, leaving the hills greener and quieter. Well, less birdsong at least, though we now have the sound of cowbells; very Heidi! At this time of year, animals used to be walked up from the Languedoc plains into the mountains in search of fresh grass; the 'Transhumance'. Their shepherds walked with them, and huge columns would make their way along the drovers roads of the Verdon, up into the Alps. Nowadays, they come by lorry on the motorway, which is much less romantic, though it is great to see the hills dotted with little staring faces.

Todays trip was an unknown, mostly off paths. I climbed to the shepherds cabin, and worked my way up the higher slopes to reach the end of the ridge. The view was sensational, although with the strong wind, I had to back away to avoid becoming part of the scenery. Strangely, there were a series of sinkholes along the ridge, and lying down in one, I was completely out of the wind, despite hearing it whistling across the crags.

An easy scramble gained the first summit at 2608m, then came an awkward climb in slippery scree to reach an outcrop of loose rock. I climbed gingerly up, trying to find good holds, to reach a rather airy ridge, and the second summit at 2771m, and then a nasty steep climb on decayed rock to gain the summit ridge at 2809m. Feeling precarious, and with the summit along an awkward ridge just 7m higher, I turned back, and enjoyed a nice sleep in one of the sink holes.

Wading through knee high weeds near the cabin, a little face popped up in front of me. I must have been using a marmot path. The face vanished, and the marmot, obviously perplexed, trotted along invisibly ahead of me making 'meep' 'meep' noises like a deranged electronic toy. I collapsed in laughter, and had a strong urge to chase him.

2320m

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23 June 07 - Le Pouzenc and Pic Silhourais

The shapely pyramid of the Pouzenc is a feature of the Southern sky here, and one that has tantalised me for months. Inaccessible in snow, very exposed, and at the limit of a days walk from Embrun, it needs stable weather and plenty of time.

Dawn brought a sky free of clouds and a fresh North wind; time then for summits and long views... The approach is through the beautiful Vallon de Muretier, which, on about the longest day of the year, I had all to myself (oh, and a small and vociferous army of marmots). The path winds along the floor of the valley, enclosed by lateral moraines, and there is a succession of little meadows, each so flat that they must be dried lakes. The river runs underground, surfacing briefly for 100 metres to offer much needed drinking water. The cliffs below the Pouzenc are folded and refolded, and on every flat rock, traces can be seen of the worms that burrowed in what was once the floor of the Alpine sea.

From the head of the valley, a path climbs steeply to the col (2678m), from which the sharp pyramid of the Pouzenc rises to 2898m. In fact, looking at the West face, I was gibbering gently and reciting Hail Maries, as it is a serious scramble. Fortunately, the path follows the ridge closely, and so long as you place your feet and hands carefully, it is straightforward, if airy. From the summit, all the big mountains of the Ecrins, Queyras and Ubaye are visible, with the snow dome of Mont Blanc on the horizon.

From the col, I climbed the Auta (2770m) and sat with my eyes closed enjoying the silence, broken only by the swish and whoosh of swifts wings and the occasional mutter of distant stone fall. I somehow managed to descend what was frankly a cliff to another col, and got within a handful of metres of the Silhourais, before deciding that I was pushing my luck, and heading for home - a six Snickers day!

2820m 13hrs

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16 June 07 - Still Here!

After so many miles, I've been feeling a bit weary, so am taking it easy until the 22nd, by limiting myself to a daily 6 hours and 1100m ascent, with lots of sleep.

In this dreamy early Summer, it is a pleasure to walk slowly, as the meadows are full of wild flowers; once I counted over 20 species blooming in a single field. Butterflies sail gently by, while strange and beautiful shield bugs, their iridescent bodies shining violet or green, munch gently. It is the season of orchids too; one need only follow a stream bank a little way to come across a grove of them, enjoying damp and dappled shade. All this richness and diversity is the result of no weedkillers, no fertilisers and delaying the harvest till after flowering.

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5 June 07 - Pic de Boussolenc

An all day trip today to reach one of the high points on the other side of the valley. The weather is very changeable, which makes it hard to plan a long trip. All one can do is to plan for any eventuality - which we pretty much had: variously a clear blue sky, hail, thunder, grey clouds and showers!

I came across a tiny hut, aptly called the red dwarfs cabin (door lintel at my chest level). Inside there were 3 plates, and I couldn't resist a quick look over my shoulder for the three bears.

The climb out of Les Orres (1650m) was rated as 4 stars, which for once felt appropriate, as it was unremittingly steep to the col at 2384m, and I was struggling. The route continued straight up the steep ridge. As I muttered vile imprecations at it, the reason became clear, as the path crossed a sheet of smooth rock at least 100m high, using the only fault in its face, and vanished round the back of the mountain. Brilliant! I had been timing the arrival of bad weather, and beat it to the summit (2832m) by 5 minutes. It didn't look like thunder, but as I was chucking layers of clothing on for the descent, I dragged out my platypus, thinking it must be leaking as it was buzzing ... in fact my poles were thinking of being lightning conductors! Cue a descent in free fall.

12 hours 2250m

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3 June 07 - Close Encounter

Today dawned clear and cold, ideal for the hills, so I climbed Mont Guillaume about which enough has been written. Coming out from behind a rocky bluff, a bird flew up making an extraordinary raucous noise - imagine a mix of a man gargling and a frog croaking. It flew off to land behind a rock. I watched for a bit, and its little head came out from behind the rock to have a look at me. A real lace curtain twitcher. Then another one I hadn't seen scuttled off busily from 6 feet away, and this one consented to its photo being taken.

These are 'Lagopedes', or alpine ptarmigan, slightly smaller than grouse. They often huddle immobile amongst rocks trusting in their exquisite camouflage when one walks past. In Winter they turn pure white with a red eyebrow, and their feathered feet help them to cross the snow. Such dainty elegant birds. Later, another erupted from under a rock just next to the path, and whirred away downhill.

The main path up remains blocked at 2300m, as it tracks across the bowl beneath the mountain, which fills with snow when the wind blows. This failed to deter a Frenchman from mountain biking down from the summit and gingerly crossing the snow banks. Amazing.

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2 June 07 - Le Mourre Froid (2993m)

I had planned a long ridge walk, but the weather was too unsettled to spend all day at altitude, so today was spent on this enticing mountain. I rode up from Embrun to Reallon, and enjoyed the walk in through meadows filled with wild flowers. The path lead up the narrow valley of the Torrent de Charges and turned right under the cliffs of the Pointe de la Diable (2928m) to reach the wide bowl under the Mourre Froid and Pointe de Serre (2909m).

I stopped at the Cabane de Charges to judge what the weather was up to. Mattresses and blankets were stacked on tubular steel chairs, with a note to put them back there out of the reach of mice. Another note asked me to leave the door ajar for the cat - surely the furry bundle streaking off on my arrival. Continuing, I passed a marmot hole 2 metres from the path, and there was a young marmot scratching his ear! He looked at me uncertainly and scurried down his burrow, then remembered to give a warning shriek from underground. He'll get a good scolding from his Mum ... Later, I was overtaken by a marmot running alongside to his hole; definitely babies!

Above the snowline, the gradient kicked up sharply, and I traversed steadily to gain height. Out of the mist came two guys, a little despondent. We conferred, and they were turning back as the ridge was blocked by cornices. The Mourre Froid guards its peak with a rocky ridge, but there is a small gap at 2890m leading to the summit snowfield. I climbed to the cornice and couldn't see how to dislodge it without it dislodging me as well. So I crossed to a buttress, and managed to scramble onto the ridge, where the rock was rotten. The clouds lowered, and snow and hail started falling. I was finding the ridge hard going, slipping above a steep slope, with bits of rock coming off in my hands. With too little margin for error, I worked my way carefully off the ridge, and enjoyed a nice glissade down a gully full of snow.

The cat was in residence at the hut, and inclined to put up with me, perhaps because it was raining hard outside. This valley has 450 chamois, and a pair of eagles (which must enjoy such silly marmots), though they must have heard I was coming, as I didn't even see one!

MTB 500m Walk 1500m

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Earlier progress reports

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