Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Coping with Change

I did one of my standard mountain bike rides today. I think the last time I did it was in June with my son. At one point there are a couple of small rocky drops where the trail descends to cross a 4x4 track - but you don't really need to slow for it.

Well,that was then - you need to slow now. Someone has dug a drainage ditch along the side of the road and the ditch can easily swallow up a mountain bike. Fortunately I was able to stop in time, but it was a nasty surprise...

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Refresher Flight

Above launch

I haven't flown my paraglider in a while; other things have just seemed more attractive. Yesterday I went for a hike nearby and saw quite a few wings in the air and realized I fancied a flight. So this morning I hiked up to launch with my gear.

There was an inversion that was hindering thermals - everyone launching seemed to either go up or go down pretty quickly. Once in the air I discovered that I hadn't taken my bi-focal sunglasses - so I couldn't read much of the information on my GPS. But I could see the altitude and that confirmed that I was in the "going down quickly" category. 
LZ at La Mure - it's the field in the center

But then I caught a good enough thermal to ride up 600m and get through the inversion - from then on it was pretty easy. After maybe 30 minutes of admiring the fall colors and straightforward thermalling, I headed out to land. Maybe not the greatest of flights, but more than enough to scratch my itch and I found it all very pleasant! 

Monday, October 5, 2015

The GR5 - Going Lightweight

The GR5/GR52 is a long hike - 600 km long, 32,000 meters up and the same down. You'll be carrying your gear all that way, so you obviously want to minimize it. You'll also be using your gear pretty intensely over 30+ days, so it's important it works well and you like it. You want to think long and hard about your gear list; this is the approach I used. 

We planned a lightweight trip for three main reasons. First and foremost is enjoyment - I enjoyed almost all the hiking on the trip, but I know that wouldn't have been the case if my backpack had weighed 10 kg more. Second, a lighter backpack means less pounding of the joints and hence a reduced injury risk. Lastly, an increased performance margin; if you need to deal with a crisis at the end of the day (e.g. having to walk to the next hut, getting lost, helping another party, horrible weather), you'll be in better shape if you've been carrying a light backpack.

The first step in going lightweight is staying and eating in huts, gites or hotels. This reduces your backpack to pretty much clothes, emergency gear and daytime food and drink. There are disadvantages in this approach (cost, busy huts, noisy dormitories, having to plan around the available accommodation) and it isn't for everyone, but it worked well for us. We also always took a picnic from a hut or (if we were in a valley) bought our lunch in the morning, so we only really carried food for that day.

The second step is is not to take stuff you don't need - and to be pretty ruthless about it. An obvious exception is safety equipment - here, you have to carry some stuff you hope not to use. I decided to take a whistle and decent bivy bag but against taking a gps and an emergency beacon (e.g. a spot locator) based on the margins I was comfortable with.  

My full backpack (without food and water) weighed 5.3 kg. Here is the gear I took, broken down into categories. All weights are in grams.

Carried Gear - 5285
  Backpack and Hydration System - 990
    Backpack (Simond Alpinism 22) - 730
    Hydration System (Source 2L) - 230
    Waterproof Clothes Bag (Sea And Summit) - 30
  Emergency Bivy Gear - 772
    SOL Escape Bag - 260
    Down Jacket (Patagonia) - 382
    Silk Sleeping Bag - 130
  Clothing - 1492
    Shell Layer - 440
      Waterproof top (Marmot Super Mica) 314
      Over-trousers (cheap, showerproof) 126
    Hut Clothing - 430
      Briefs - 60
      Socks - 60
      Merino Shirt - 137
      Trousers - 273
    Hiking Clothing - 622
      Light Top - 234
      Light Fleece - 212
      Socks - 60
      Gloves - 81
      Snood - 35
  Other Equipment - 2031
    Stationary - 754
      Topoguides (2) - 404
      Writing Materials, Puzzles - 180
      Passport, Wallet - 140
      Reading Glasses - 30
    Electronics - 318
      Phone + Charger - 180
      Camera - 138
    Toiletries - 357
      Towel - 127
      Toilet Bag (soap, toothbrush etc) - 110
      Sun Protection - 110
      Ear Plugs - 10
    Emergency Gear - 602
      Cliffbars (3) - 227
      Water Purifying Tables - 30
      Swiss Army Knife - 99
      Tissues - 25
      Compass - 34
      Whistle - 10
      Torch - 61
      Blister Cream (Friction Zone) - 80
      Advil - 20
      Waterproof Bag (Sea And Summit) 16

A few notes
1. There are 4 topoguides for the hike. I had two sent to the post-office in Modane (along with some minor things like extra sun protection) so I only needed to carry 2 at any one time (I sent the 2 'used' guides home when I collected the 2 'new' ones). This worked well.
2. My backpack was light, compact and well balanced; it allowed the water to be carried next to my back. It needed to be packed carefully, but I felt it was worth the hassle.
3. The Sea and Summit bags did a good job of keeping everything dry.
4. I had a light long sleeved top as well as a light fleece; the light top was often better when hiking, when a fleece would have been too warm.
5. In addition to this, my normal hiking clothes were a light tee shirt, trail running shorts, light boots, sun hat, sunglasses and walking poles.
6. The above weight doesn't include food and water for the day. Normally this would add approximately 2 kg for the water and a bit less that a kg for the food.

I don't think you can get things much lighter than this without reducing your margins below what I was comfortable with. The most obvious way of lightening things would be to reduce or eliminate the emergency bivy gear. Another would be to not take the topoguides and instead rely on following the red and white signs (maybe augmented with photos of the maps on a smart phone).  

I wouldn't change much in what I took; everything performed very well. I would have preferred a merino shirt to hike in (they dry more quickly after washing and smell less), but couldn't find one in a light (cooler in the sun), bright (better for safety reasons) color. I would also have taken a long sleeved merino shirt as an alternative to the light top I sometimes wore when hiking. I would consider taking a well stocked Kindle for reading next time.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

GR5/GR52 Route Planning

Just for someone wanting some route planning info, here is a summary of the route we took on the hike and some thoughts. FWIW, I've quoted the guidebook time for each day.

Day 0 - St Gingolph to Novel - 2 hrs
Day 1 - Novel to La Chapelle d'Abondance - 6 hr 40
Day 2 - Chapelle to the Refuge de Chesery - 7 hr 50
Day 3 - Refuge de Chesery to Samoens - 6 hr 10
(Rest day at Samoens - see note 1)
Day 4 - Samoens to Refuge de Moede-Anterne - 8 hr 5
Day 5 - RdMA to Chamonix - 3 hr 45 (see note 2)
Day 6 - Chamonix to Camping le Pontet - 6 hr 35
Day 7 - ClP to Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme - 5 hr 10
Day 8 - RdColdlCdB to Refuge de la Balme Tartenaise - 8 hr
Day 9 - RdlBT to Landry - 4 hr 30 (see note 3)
(Rest day at Bourg Saint Maurice)
Day 10 - Landry to Refuge du Col du Palet - 7 hr 30
Day 11 - RdCdP to Refuge d'Entre Deux Eaux - 7 hr 10 (see note 4)
Day 12 - RdEDE to Termignon - approx 5 hrs
Day 13 - Termignon to Modane - 5 hr 20 (via the GR5E)
Day 14 - Modane to Refuge I Re Magi - 7 hr
Day 15 - RIRM to Nevache - 4 hr
Day 16 - Nevache to Briancon - 8 hr (via the GR5C)
(Rest day at Briancon)
Day 17 - Briancon to Brunissard - 7 hr 15
Day 18 - Brunissard to Ceillac - 7 hr 55
Day 19 - Ceillac to Maljasset - 6 hr 35
Day 20 - Maljasset to Larche - 8 hr 15
Day 21 - Larche to St Dalmas le Selvage - 9 hr 40
Day 22 - SDlS to Roya - 6 hr 25
Day 23 - Roya to the Vacherie de Longon - 9 hr 10 (via Mt. Mounier)
Day 24 - VdL to St Dalmas Valdeblore - 8 hr 30
Day 25 - SDV to Belvedere - 8 hr (via the GR52A)
Day 26 - Belvedere to Sospel - 9 hr (see note 5)
Day 27 - Sospel to Menton - 7 hr 5 (via the GR52)

Pace vs Guidebook - Guidebook pace doesn't allow for stops for lunch, pics etc. so you have to be fairly efficient to beat it in terms of elapsed time. I would say that for the first three days we were slightly slower than it on elapsed time, then until Briancon we were slightly quicker than it and considerably quicker (when I was hiking by myself) after Briancon. Where we were quicker it was generally in the climbs we made time - which is what you would expect from a group carrying light packs.

Rest Days - Having a rest day early worked well. We enjoyed our rest days by having them in decent sized towns. After Briancon there really isn't anywhere I'd fancy spending a rest day.

Route at the end - Days 24, 25 and 26 were by far the least interesting of the hike; I would not recommend the route I took at the end. I would have preferred to stop the hike at St Saveur de Tinee (you are out of the mountains then and, while I enjoyed the arrival at Menton, it wasn't that sensational) or to have continued by the GR52. 

Overall Pace - The pace was fine for me - I didn't have any trouble with accumulated fatigue. I think the pace worked well for the others too, largely because we 'eased in' to the hike a little. Towards the end the days become longer (it is further between huts) and there is a temptation to hurry a little bit (the gravitational attraction of the Med!) - this increases the risk of injury, so I think it is worth resisting this temptation. 

Big Decisions - We did it N to S because it's the convention, it's hiking to better weather (after midsummer) and the climbs on the cooler N faces. We did it in Sept because the weather is cooler and generally better and also it would be quieter - this generally worked well. Hut and gite closures turned out to be a growing problem from mid-Sept and a slightly earlier start would have been better (e.g. if I had started 2 days earlier I'd have finished via the GR52).  

1. We had an early rest day to sort out any problems (e.g. equipment failures or send unnecessary stuff by post) and also to soften the start a little (the first 3 days don't form an easy introduction).

2. To save our knees we avoided the Brevent to Les Houches descent by taking the cable car to Chamonix (also a more interesting town than Les Houches). We took a shuttle from Chamonix to Les Houches the next day.

3. We spent our second rest day in Bourg Saint Maurice rather than Landry because it's a proper town.  

4. We took the GR55 and intended going via Pralognan to Modane but changed or route due to bad weather.

5. Mostly by the road, with a lift towards the end.