Internet access is rare for us while traveling in Europe. Purchasing a plan from Orange (the primary provider in France) was prohibitively expensive. So we snag free wifi when possible. Sometimes at French tourism offices. Occasionally at McDonalds, which we would otherwise never visit but is the one place that consistently offers free wifi in Europe. Most of the time, we’re either on the trail, or camping (free, in our campervan, usually near trailheads) in small, high-mountain villages, so we’re able to get online only occasionally, and then only briefly because we’re eager to get back into the mountains.
Today is gorgeous, the next summit beckons, so this post will be simply comprise some of our impressions from the 644 km (400 mi) we’ve hiked so far on our Hautes Alpes odyssey.
• The Alps are blazingly green. Meadows everywhere. More wildflowers (more colours, more varieties) than we’ve seen in any other mountain range. Many of the flowers strike us as extremely exotic: in particular the orchids that thrive above 1800 m (5904 ft).
• The Alps are more sharply vertical than North American mountain ranges. The valleys are narrower, tighter. The mountains have startling prominence. We’re constantly staring upward in amazement.
• More French hike than do Canadians or Americans. We see hikers here of all ages: from very young children, to seniors who appear to be quite old yet are clearly robust. The other day we met an 84-year-old man trekking alone. He was slow, but he maintained a consistent pace on a very steep trail. And he instantly understood when we told him we greatly respected him. He said he’d been hiking all his life. He loved it and was determined never to stop.
• Sometimes we see huge groups of 10 to 20 people hiking together. We’ve seen many seniors groups, ranging from age 60 to 80. A few women-only groups. Lots of families. And astonishingly young children (well equipped, thanks to their parents) who seem to be loving the experience. And we see all shapes, including the soft and portly, covering significant distances and gaining substantial elevation. We find this universal love of hiking to be very inspirational. Why is it that comparatively few of our fellow North Americans don’t hike?
• Nevertheless, we don’t find the trails here crowded. Sure, the most popular trailhead parking lots are frequently full. But there are no more cars parked at these trails than you’d find on a weekend at the most popular trailheads in U.S. or Canadian national parks. It’s a myth that all the trails in the Alps are crowded. Sure, the trails around Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn are very crowded. But for the most part, we are not among crowds. Frequently we’re alone on the trail, with few if any other hikers in sight. Often we reach our destination—a summit, col, a lake—and we’re the only ones there.
• One reason why hiking is so popular here, and why the trails we’re hiking are generally uncrowded, is because there are so many trails: far more options than you’ll find in any North American mountain range. Typically, from one trailhead you’ll find a couple trails surmounting a peak, a couple more running up or down valley. A couple more traversing various ridges. In the Hautes Alpes, the trails don’t stop; they spiderweb throughout the range. Except when confronted with a glacier, we never reach “trail’s end.” There seems to be no such place. We turn around out of choice, not necessity. This vast trail network gives people the opportunity to spread out. To us, it’s constantly exciting. Frustrating, too, because it requires us to study maps diligently to ensure we’re devoting our time and energy on the most rewarding trails. So our campervan is now a mobile library. We’re transporting enough maps and guidebooks to fill a suitcase. (No “Don’t Waste Your Time” guidebooks on the Hautes Alpes—yet.)
• The trails here are in great shape. Most seem to be well maintained. Some appear to be little used. Many deserve engineering awards. Here, far more often than in North America, we’re hiking on routes that forge clever, wily, cunning passages through seemingly impassably steep terrain.
• Do we yearn for North American wilderness? Actually, no, we don’t. Genuine wilderness has a unique atmosphere, to be sure. And we’ve yet to find it here, but we don’t miss it. The scenery in the Hautes Alpes is so consistently fantastic, amazing, startling, gorgeous, awesome, ______________ (choose whatever superlative you wish, they all apply) that we don’t mind passing a herd of goats, or a few shepherds and their flock of sheep, or some grazing cattle, or the occasional (usually abandoned) stone hut, or even the odd, high-mountain road. These, too, are atmospheric in their own way. Suggestive of an ancient way of life that seems to us rather romantic. The myth is that civilization has destroyed the Alps. The truth is that this has not and will never happen. Yes, we’ve seen mountainsides strewn with ski lifts. But for the most part, we’re hiking through unspeakably beautiful, absolutely unspoiled wildlands. Wilderness? No. But wild enough to keep us enraptured. As for wildlife, on yesterday’s hike we saw numerous chamois. A few days ago, we watched two, male ibex in cliff-edge combat: staring one another down, coiling their muscles, then exploding into each other, their tremendous horns clacking so loud it seemed both animals would be knocked out cold. And marmots? We hear their shrill cry in every hanging valley, and we often see them scurrying across meadows and diving into their burrows.
Thanks for checking in with us. We’ll post more about the Hautes Alpes as soon as possible.