The trip so far
Day 5 numbers and route map
Distance - 39.3km Ascent - 1745m Descent - 1705m Highest Point - 2699m, Col Girardin
The night before the camp spot was super chilly given that it had fallen in to shadow early in the evening, on the flip side the sun had come up and bathed our spot in warmth early in the morning meaning it was pleasantly warm sitting in the direct sun eating our breakfast, I don't really remember what we usually had for breakfast now I try to think of it, maybe porridge, maybe croissants? Maybe if I looked back at my previous posts I would jog my terrible memory, i've probably written about it before in great detail...
We took the opportunity of the warm sun to dry out a couple of things and air out our sleeping bags for an hour while we had our breakfast and had our usual morning faff. Once we gathered everything up again we were on the road a little earlier than usual (not much mind) as we thought we would try and squeeze in some extra kilometres today following on from yesterdays realisation and our worry of being behind our schedule to reach Nice in 4 days with still many passes to pass.
The first section of trail took us through some alpine forest before spitting us out onto an empty, bare ski piste to take us up to Lac Ste-Anne, we climbed up under the warm sun only to be greeted with what could be described as 'crowds' by high alpine conditions. They must all have been up long before us to hike up from the valley below to make it to the lake, OK in the photos it doesn't look very busy but I cut all the people out to make it look more 'wild' and less 'full of tourists', i'm not sure how many were just chilling by the lake for the day or heading up to the top of the col but there was easily 100 people around the lake!
We observed the tourists for a while, they observed us. Jan went for a dump behind a rock whilst I ran to find where all the water was coming from to fill this beautifully turquoise lake and to fill our water bottles. Then we set off up to hit the heights knocking on the door of 3000m that Le Col Girardin presented us with.
Highest point on the trip
The highest point on the trip and we were surprised by how much of the trail up to this was rideable!
The trail that zig-zagged its way up the mountain side, as so many of these french passes do, looked extremely steep from below but upon arrival we found it to be not too much of a leg burning gradient, managing to spin up good sections of it in the granny gear. It was a little precarious however, a wheel dropped over the edge and you might be sliding for a while down the gravelly hillside.
The elevation we had gained presented us with an insane view looking back north over the alps; Monte Viso, all the way into Italy, Le Massif Des Ecrins, Mont Thabour among hundred of other peaks that formed a spiky myriad of alpine fun stretching away into the distance, and we had just crossed half of that on our bikes! I think I had one of those moments here where you just stop for a second and think - this is awesome, what is there that is better than this, the kind of thoughts that just put you in an infinitely good mood.
This was the point in the trip that we had scoped out earlier in the week as a potential location to get up above 3000m peak on our bikes, something that we had both thought would be a great little personal accomplishment. And whilst the trail snaking its way up the ridgeline off to our left looking ever so enticing we decided that our imminent descent of 1000m might be enough to keep us entertained this morning and that would unfortunately have to leave our 3000m goal for another day in place of cracking on with the 'bigger picture' ride.
After some chat with the hikers at the top and being told that this was 'unrideable' and 'impossible' we set off down the epic trail.
We did actually listen to our walker friend for a change, usually you are told by hikers that paths are impossible on bikes but then you later find out that what they consider impossible is actually exactly what you are looking for. The top had proven to have some rather tight and steep switchbacks and apparently the bottom was the hardest so we took a detour around the hill and joined up with another pass down into Maljasset, we had nothing to loose as there was no extra uphill, so only a longer descent to gain.
We followed the contours of the hill around to find the bottom of Le Col Tonchet for more rockfests and technical taking us to the valley floor.
Then Jan fell off!
I am sorry Jan, I know you were annoyed about this fall.....really annoyed, but it was such a good photo sequence I couldn't resist including it.
..... But it wasn't long before he was back on the bike with a big smile on his face sweeping down through the meadows to lunch.
We stopped just at the bottom of the col at Maljasset for some food.
It was definitely worth stopping at Maljasset and if you are ever in the area I would certainly recommend a stop here.
The village is a collection of very old wonky stone buildings weighed down by their heavily tiled roofs, the streets and passages are narrow and it almost feels like the houses are built on top of one another. It is a tiny place, made to feel even more so by the mountains that tower above you lining the valley around you, it all combines to make the setting feel quite special.
We sat for lunch here, the owners of the cafe were friendly at the Auberge (hostel) and were happy for us to eat our own food at their tables, we did buy a coffee and chocolate covered waffles afterwards though, they even let us charge our phones here. This building is a feature of the village that expresses the feeling of heavyness you see throughout, as soon as you go inside you can feel the coolness created by the thick insulating stone walls, it is dark with few windows but it just adds to the atmosphere of the place, the beams and stairs and in fact anything wooden are all warped and aged with low roofs and doorways, and the best thing is you can stay here.
During lunch we got chatting to some old ladies as we often did on the trip, in fact as I often seem to do in life... Anyway, they informed us that there was absolutely nothing in the village we were aiming for that night and we wouldn't be able to buy any food. Oh. New plan needed. It turned out the only village with any kind of shop was a 15km round trip off our route on the road, not ideal. We rode down to the point where we needed to make the detour and decided to dump any excess weight and just take one bag down, we rode on down the road which seems to go on forever, just rolling downhill on and on felt so depressing knowing we had to climb back up this right after. We eventually arrived in St-Paul-Sur-Ubaye and found a shop... Closed! Why was it closed, at 3pm on a weekday afternoon, bloody France! We hung around a while and eventually a guy turned up with his van and a delivery of food, he said he would open at 4pm, we offered to help him take all his food inside if he opened early for us, he agreed thankfully and after some impromptu shop stocking we got our food and headed back up the road.
We rode up the pass to Fouillouse (good luck pronouncing that!) and found that there was a shop here! Dammit! The places only looked like 5 houses on the map so we had disregarded it as a food stop. Never mind, we still bought an ice cream and a bottle of Coke which we had on the terrace with yet more old ladies.
This is when I found out that Coca cola is like a drug for Jan, he was hyper as heck after the cola and was pedaling like a mad man up the pass and was extra excited when we met a man our walking his donkey.
Further up Le Col Du Vallonnet I was faffing around taking photos and Jan had gone ahead, I thought he had stopped to wait for me but actually he had found a tunnel. It was one of hundreds of old fortifications left over from who knows how many wars in this area, we had been following the French Italian border for the most part of this trip and you might remember back to the first days of the trip when we were in Briancon which is a heavily fortified town, this theme seems to carry on a long way through the mountains as we followed the border south.
We considered camping at the top of this pass but decided to push on for one more 'mini-pass' and camp on the other side of that given that the weather was so nice.
As we climbed Le Col de Mallemort, where we had decided we would camp that night, an old fortress slowly came into view, just under the summit of the col in a small plateau sat an old square fortress. As we neared it I remember shouting out to Jan 'it smells like barbeque, that is weird' and weird it was. As we rounded the fort and found the entrance and as we entered we were greeted with a collection of Mercedes 4 x 4 vehicles all lines up in the middle of the fort. It turned out that they were a bunch of German 4x4 enthusiasts, obviously Jan being German he struck up a conversation, he was hoping they would offer us some food from the BBQ but Jan came back to me a few minutes later and confirmed they were not so friendly or welcoming.
We decided instead of camping here with the crowds of Germans, we would go up over the last part of the col and camp on the other side.
Wow! Were we glad we decided to ride over to the other side of the col, the sun was just setting down the valley and we had that 'golden hour' of light as we rode down to find a flat spot to camp.
The air was so calm and there was barely a cloud to be seen so we decided just to pitch our tarp in the middle of the hillside, even though we knew the sun would disappear soon, the lure of that golden sunset persuaded us to camp right in the middle of it all, we were exposed on all sides but it didn't matter, the weather was so calm we thought we would risk it.
We ended up sleeping just on the groundsheet that night and didn't even pitch the tarp over the top, the sky was so clear! We spent the evening lying on our backs in our sleeping bags, looking up at the clear dark skies watching the shooting stars go by, not that that lasted long before we fell asleep after our long day and 1700m of climbing.