The GR5 – Geneva To Nice

04 Apr, 2009

We’ve now started planning properly our Big Walk for 2009: The GR5 from Geneva to Nice (not the extension from Holland to Nice!).

It all started with a Cicerone sponsored podcast with Andy Howell interviewing Paddy Dillon. We listened to it on the way to Wales for the weekend. By the time it had finished, we were thinking we’d just have to do it. I’ll have to have words with both of them – it’s not cheap this walking in France malarkey!

725km/450 miles in distance, 40,000 metres/130,000 feet of height and inevitably, 40,000 metres of height loss, which is the real killer. So that’s 40km/25 miles up and down, or four and a half times the height of Everest.

The guidebook that Paddy has written was only published late last year so it’s probably hardly been used by anyone so far. Which seems to be true since there are a couple of little mistakes that we’ve told Cicerone about that they’d not noticed before. (Expect an Updates tab on the page for the guide book soon).

At the moment we’re thinking five weeks should cover it. That’s already a week longer than Paddy gives it. But his days are pretty chunky by our standards and we’re not racing here. The longer the better. So it may yet be stretched…

Working as freelancers (IT for me and Translation for LB) certainly has its perks. For everyone else, try The Four Hour Work Week. It’s a great read if nothing else.

walkers-haute-route-07-61 We’re planning on doing it hut-to-hut so I’ve already covered a lot of my ideas on that in the series of postings on the Haute Route.

Though there certainly will be some little improvements to the kit to mention. I’ll be aiming to carry as little as possible to make up for my lump of a camera.

However the big difference here is simply the fact that we’re away for so long. There are all kinds of odd things to consider.

Most house insurance only covers you for thirty days away from home. Most travel insurance doesn’t cover a trip that long. A pair of Terrocs should be good for 500kms… so even starting with nearly new ones (I’d always try them for a couple of weekends) is going to be pushing a point. How do you carry enough memory for that many digital images? (How do you find the time to develop them afterwards?). Carrying a total of twenty one 1:25,000 maps would weigh a couple of kilos – that had to be re-thought!

As ever, we’ll be walking with some of the usual suspects from previous Big Walks, but only for the first twelve days.

Few other people are free enough from commitments to be able to complete the whole trek. It might seem odd to be starting on a honeymoon with friends – but we’ll have most of the time there on our own. We’d have liked to have been able to invite some more people for the first section, but booking in to the huts in high-season is tricky at the best of times.

So, as we keep saying to people, never mind the wedding, think of the honeymoon!

I really, really can’t wait…

Category :

Big Walk, GR5

Posted by RedYeti

A Summer Alpine Walking FAQ

10 Apr, 2009

I’ve spoken with many, many people about walking hut-to-hut in the Alps during the summer. Some are not really “walkers” at all and some are quite enthusiastic walkers in the UK but have no idea of the existence of the Alpine huts and Gîtes d’Etape.

There’s a huge amount of information around in books, online and even on this site under labels such as Haute Route and GR5.

But the sheer volume of information is also rather off-putting – people want an overview to get them going.

So here’s a run-down in FAQ style that tries to cover the questions that everyone seems to start with. Well, they’re what I get asked anyhow!

Continue reading »

GR5: Tyvek “Hut Sandals”

13 Apr, 2009

When you turn up at an Alpine hut or gîte d’Etape, the best way to ensure a really frosty welcome is to tramp straight inside with your boots on.

A lot of the huts provide racks of sabots (sandals or clogs) that you can swap with your outdoor footwear before entering. But many don’t, and many don’t have enough in the right size to fit my size 11.5 feet.

Besides, it’s always nicer to wear something that only your own scary feet have seen the inside of!

But carrying sandals has always felt like more weight than it’s worth to me. I’ve mostly just used my socks but they do get rather dirty.

On the Haute Route I used thick elastic hair-ties to hold just the Superfeet insoles on to my socks. It worked, after a fashion. But it was rather dangerous as it was all too easy to catch the toe in something and have your foot “bungied” back to earth as the rest of you carried on forwards…

But this year, with some inspiration (once again!) from Lighthiker, I think I might have cracked it: Tyvek Clean Room over-shoes.tyvek-hut-sandals-small

They’re ridiculously light at 28 grams for a pair.

The only supplier I’ve found sells them very cheaply at 55 pence per “shoe”.

Although the postage makes up for that at £6.50.

But, club together with some like-minded friends, go nuts and get two pairs and the price comes down to something more reasonable.

I’ve yet to try them extensively but from using them after a sauna in a camp site recently they seem fine.

They have a very thin, rubberised sole that works well to prevent them slipping.

Overall they’re so simple the only thing that remains to be seen is whether they’ll last the whole trip.

Category :

Big Walk, Footwear, GR5, Kit

Posted by RedYeti

GR5: Changes To The Itinerary And A TN Laser Comp For Two

09 May, 2009

We’ve been having a bit of a think.

All things considered, we really won’t want to stay in huts for the whole trip.

And, we won’t want to come home at the end of it.

So as a solution, we’ve decided to take a tent and to stay for seven weeks!

The decision to go from five to six weeks took quite some discussion and planning and weighing up of variables.

The decision to go from six to seven weeks was more along the lines of “Oh… b**ks to it! Why not?”

We’re both freelance and don’t have any more ties than a mortgage at the moment. Not even cats to milk or goldfish to shave.

We’ve been looking at what we might do as Variantes along the way.

The Vanoise National Park looks particularly good and was on the list of potential Big Walks already. We’re thinking about going down through it, back up, and down again all on different routes!

But at our proposed pace, that would put the trip beyond seven weeks without any rest days. Though if we stick to the days in Paddy’s guide it would actually fit… it all depends on how much we speed up…

Enough of all the waffle – what about the main raison d’être for this blog; the kit?

We’d been itching to camp but the thought of lugging camping kit around when we plan to stay in huts for most of the trip had put us off.

But this isn’t 1975. We don’t have to carry a canvas ridge tent and wooden stakes.

So I made up the list of what we’d need to carry:

Tent – Terra Nova Laser Competition (extra weight is “proper” stakes – 4 Ti Nails, 2 Y stakes and 5 Ti skewers) 1,094
Sleeping bag – XL PHD Minimus 560
Sleeping mat (torso) – halved Gossamer Gear NightLight 3/4 112
Sleep mat (legs) – cut-down Gossamer Gear ThinLight 68
Stove – Whitebox + wind shield and stand 68
1.5L Saucepan (MSR) 112
1.5L Saucepan lid (MSR) 62
Pot grab – MSR 28
Mini Firesteel – Light My Fire 10
Knife – Spyrderco Ladybug (three revisions old now) 18
Sporks – Alpkit X2 26
Fuel bottle – 500ml Platy Bottle+FireLite Red Spot Cap 22
Meths (half litre) 400
Subtotal (grams) 2,590
Sleeping bag – PHD Minimus 496
Sleeping mat (torso) – halved Gossamer Gear NightLight 3/4 112
Sleep mat (legs) – cut-down Gossamer Gear ThinLight 52
Food Flavourings (curry powder, herbs, salt, pepper) 80
Subtotal (grams) 740
Total (grams) 3,330

For a whisker over 3.3 kilos, including fuel, we can go from whatever our base pack-weight for hut-to-hut will be, to being able to heat water and sleep in a bag on a comfy mat in a tent. It’s a no-brainer.

Ah now the tent…north-wales-aran-fawddwy-may-09-7-small

The more knowledgeable might spot that a tent rated as “1+” by the manufacturer is being used by two people.

Well with LB being on the petite side and despite me being 6’2″ (187cm) ish I’m not exactly carrying any extra poundage, we can “snuggle” quite nicely into the Laser Comp‘.

The porch is surprisingly generous. There’s at least as much as in the Voyager Superlite taking into account the fact that with the Voyager you have to traverse the length of the porch to get in and out and therefore can’t really use a lot of it as storage. With the vertical room it’s quite suitable for cooking under as well.

We’ve tried it for a weekend of camp-site camping and for three days on the hill in some pretty nasty weather on a couple of exposed sites.

We’ve found that we can adapt our usual routine quite easily and the extra 900 grams knocked off the pack-weight is well worth any extra faff.

And to justify all this spending on new kit, we only have to avoid staying in a few huts over the trip and it’s paid for itself!


Posted by RedYeti

GR5: Tetanus

20 May, 2009
mini-tmb-sep-2008-46-small I’ve been amazed at how much thought has gone into vaccinations for this trip. Especially since at first I hadn’t thought we’d need any at all – It’s only Southern France!

But there are a couple of things well worth considering: Tetanus and Tick-borne Encephalitis (which is the subject of the next posting).

Judy Armstrong mentions Hep A but my own GP‘s Practice Nurse said there was no particular risk and she therefore couldn’t justify giving it financially.

So; tetanus.

Everyone knows you should make sure that your booster vaccinations are “up to date” but how do you know if you need one? Well, obviously, ask your doctor. Don’t listen to some bloke on the internet!

But this is what I’ve been able to gather from the MASTA Travel Clinic Nurse, my own GP and The Greeen Book from the UK Department of Health:

If you are in the UK, more than five vaccinations in your lifetime and you’re considered to be covered.

If you plan to travel abroad, where there may be an increased risk of exposure to Tetanus or medical facilities may be harder to reach quickly (that includes walking hut to hut in the Alps), MASTA advise ensuring that you keep up the “every ten years” boosters (which they also say to get free from your GP so they’re not trying to rake in more cash!).

If you grew up in the UK, unless your parents opted-out of it, you should have received four vaccinations by the time you reached adulthood (three when very young and one booster pre-school). By simply having one booster in early adulthood you should be up to the magic figure of five in total.

A check of your medical records should establish how many you have had and when the last one was. That should make it simple to decide whether one is required for a trip.

However, just being up-to-date with your Tetanus vaccination doesn’t guarantee that you won’t need further preventative treatment if you have a deep wound, particularly one involving soil getting into it.

So for me, the real question is; What kind of injury “in the field” would require me to walk out to medical aid and get a jab?

I don’t think that this is as hard as it might seem to answer. If I fell and put a gash in myself that I thought I could reasonably clean up, as long as I had the above mentioned level of vaccination I might well decide to walk on.

However, if the wound was very deep, especially a puncture (tetanus thrives without oxygen), or if there was soil ground into it I would probably be making a decision as to whether to get to proper medical aid based on the more immediate “mechanical” effects of the injury.

My current vaccination status probably wouldn’t be at the forefront of my mind!

Once I’d got myself to a doctor I could therefore consult them as to the necessity of any further jabs against anything that wound may have exposed me to. For example tetanus immunoglobulin. (Which is not what is in a normal booster vaccination but something that is given if you are thought likely to have been exposed to tetanus).

It’s impossible to make absolute rules around this, every situation is different. And it’s impossible to be sure you’re making the best decision taking all the factors into account (like, is it worth hiking out for two days and getting a bus to the hospital!).

To reduce the risk as far as possible, you’d have to attend a doctor for anything other than a paper-cut. So I think it’s best to arm yourself with as much information as possible, and the relevant vaccination level, before you go.

I also think it’s worth carrying a record of when you were last vaccinated and for what. Just a tiny piece of paper with the names and dates of your vaccinations could be very helpful for a doctor treating you.

I was lucky enough to have LB with me in France a couple of years ago when an errant ski gave me a new duelling scar. She speaks enough French to let them know I was up to date with my Tetanus jabs. Without any paperwork I may have had an unnecessary and possibly expensive jab!

Category :

Big Walk, Essentials, GR5, Safety

Posted by RedYeti

GR5: Tick-borne Encephalitis

20 May, 2009

I must admit that I may have previously missed the fact that there is Tick-borne Encephalitis (TBE) within the Mont Blanc region but for Judy Armstrong mentioning it on her excellent site.

Edit 01 October 2011: TBE is apparently now endemic to some areas of Switzerland (though not around the TJR by the looks of it). As it happens, LB’s cousin got it last year. He’s a very fit, healthy thirty-something but it’s severely affected him for months so far. Very unpleasant!

However she says that you need to have the first vaccination at least six months in advance of your trip which doesn’t tally with the information in The Green Book from the UK Department Of Health.

Unfortunately, the highest risk factor is thought to be hiking in infected areas.

If contracted, between 1 and 2 people in 10 will have brain damage and 1 in a 100 will die.

We’ve had vaccinations for it since we spend so much time in Sweden, where it is far more prevalent. But even without that, the possible consequences of getting it are so serious that I think we’d have had them anyway.

You need two jabs to start. The first confers some protection but if the second is given only a fortnight later it will confer around 90% protection. But a fortnight is the very earliest that you can have the second. Ideally, the second jab should come between one and six months after the first. That second jab should then bring you up to full immunity.

The third comes after a year, and gives immunity for a further three years. Although the UK advice is to renew three yearly the Swedish advice states that it can be renewed every three to five years (and here).

In Austria TBE jabs are apparently part of the standard set of vaccinations that everyone receives but they’re not generally available from your GP in the UK.

Instead you’ll need to go to a private travel clinic. Your GP’s surgery will be able to tell you where the nearest is.

Category :

Big Walk, Essentials, GR5, Safety

Posted by RedYeti

A New Pole-Hood For The Terra Nova Laser Comp

09 Jul, 2009
Terra Nova Laser Competition - Pole-Hood In Cuben-1-small

Stretching to breaking point my excuse that “I will be carrying it for seven weeks so I’ll get whatever kit is necessary”, I’ve decided to have the legendary pole-hood of the TN Laser Competition re-worked in Cuben Fibre by Morph over at Team IO.

Terra Nova Laser Competition - Pole-Hood In Cuben-3-smallTo me, the original hood is at odds with the rest of the cleanly designed Comp’ in being rather over-specified. For instance it’s only about 14cms (less than 6 inches) wide and yet it’s got a taped seam running down the full length of it.

I know that TN say that it’s “optional” but it’s only optional if you don’t mind doing without the full strength, waterproofing and anchor points of the tent.

And although you could leave it at home for an overnight trip during good weather, in the UK mountains with our very changeable maritime climate that’s unlikely to be a very sure bet. And as for predicting whether I’ll need it across seven weeks, even in the more stable continental climate of the French Alps…

So, I want the things that a pole-hood gives me on the Comp’; two extra guy lines, waterproofing on the central seam and some stability provided by the compression of the pole.Terra Nova Laser Competition - Pole-Hood In Cuben-5-small

But I don’t like the weight. What are the options?

No pole hood or guy lines:

No good. I want the guy-lines for stability, the compression strength of the curved pole and waterproofing.

Though of course I could use silicone seam sealer. Which adds to the weight somewhat.

Just guy lines:

There are three tie-outs that the pole-hood attaches to along the pole. But just using two of them for attaching the guys won’t work since the tie-outs simply aren’t designed to be strong enough.

The pole-hood is designed so that one guy line pulls on all three tie-outs and, when in tension, also against the guy on the other side, compressing the hoop formed by the pole.

Still no waterproofing with this option.

Guy lines linked with a length of cord

What about taking the cords from the edges of the pole-hood and linking the two guys, as well as the points where the pole-hood attaches at the pole ends and attaching the guys to them?

Well the cord would simply try to take the straightest line between the three attachment points on the tent thereby not providing any real transfer of the load I don’t think. Also, there’d be no compressing force applied to the pole and obviously no waterproofing.Terra Nova Laser Competition - Pole-Hood In Cuben-2-small

Guy lines linked with a length of cord, linked with lateral cords

To improve on the last idea, link the two cords taken from the pole-hood with lateral cords running across the pole.

Meaning the cords stay in roughly the sample place as they were when threaded through the edge of the pole-hood and give compression to the pole.

Well it’s almost there I think. But you’d end up with a great big mess of cords that would be a nightmare to untangle and pitch each time. And you’d still have to add the weight of the seam seal to provide the waterproofing.

Terra Nova Laser Competition - Pole-Hood In Cuben-4-smallSo, without serious re-working of the structure of the tent itself, or perhaps compromising the strength, it has to have the pole-hood.

But why does it have to be so heavy?

I asked Wayne if he could remake it and sure enough he’s taken it from 73 grams (with original cords) to 33 grams (with new cords) for just the hood on its own. Add in the guys and my scales make it 84 grams originally and now 44 grams total weight.

I’d guess the new cords alone must weigh around 8 grams and as explained above, I don’t think they’re expendable. Factor in what has to be another 8 or more grams of silicone and carrying the actual “hood” part amounts to the equivalent of a piffling 17 or so grams.

For £30 it obviously adds a bit to the cost of the tent. However it also takes off about 4% of the original weight and a 4% weight saving can’t be bad!

You can see from the pictures that it’s beautifully made. Amazing work, welding the material together and running the cords through the edges like that.

I reckon it’s at least as tough as the original. I’m looking forward to trying it out in the Alps…


Posted by RedYeti

GR5: Maps And Guides

14 Jul, 2009
Walker's Haute Route - 07-155-small We’re using the new Paddy Dillon version of the Cicerone GR5 guide book.

Paddy writes the text as he walks on an old palm-top so it’s as accurate as it can be.

By our Alpine walking standards the days are quite large. The first day is 25K with 1090M of height and from then on they tend to get larger. So we’re breaking them down into smaller chunks (as he says you can easily do in the podcast with Andy Howell). We’re also making the first day very short partly because we couldn’t find accommodation where we wanted and partly because a short day gives plenty of leeway for EasyJet to mess up our timings!

Maps for a route of this size are tricky. Ideally you’d take a 1:25,000 for each section. But that’s a total of 21 maps. Even if you buy from The Map Shop (who hold a huge range of maps at very reasonable prices) that works out to be £157.50 (at £7.50 per map).

Besides, 21 maps would be very heavy. They are around 90 grams each meaning a total weight of 1.9KG!

Paddy rather dismissively mentions the TopoGuides series (without actually mentioning that you need numbers 504, 530, 531 and 507). His objection seems to be that you’d have to “carry four guidebooks”. Which I can understand, but since they weigh in at a total of 650 grams for the lot that’s a considerable weight saving against the 1:25,000s. They appear to have perfectly usable maps too.

Walker's Haute Route - 07-236-small

Of course the other way to do it is to pick up maps on the route, and then post them home as you go.

I can see the appeal of that but I don’t think it works for me. It means that you have to find somewhere to buy a new map every two or three days. I think I’d find that something of a distraction. I know that once I settle into a walk, my planning abilities tend to become very short term (where’s a good spot to sit down for lunch?) and I am sure I’d manage to walk right off the edge of my last map before realising that I was a couple of days walk from the nearest place to buy the next one.

Part of the appeal of a long walk for me is to get all the planning done up-front and then just amble along in a sort of Zen state of enjoying where I am and who I’m with.

As it happens we’re being joined on the first section of the walk by some of the usual suspects from our other Big Walks. So we’re taking IGN Bleue 1:25,000 numbers 3528ET, 3548ET, 3428 ET. We’ll then be able to hand those over to our friends when we leave them at the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme (where I proposed to LB in fact). Our friends will be retracing their steps to Les Contamines Montjoie to get a transfer out the next day while we head for Nice using the remaining three TopoGuides.

It’s worth noting that the guide-book has a mistake here. The first map listed in the book (and on the Cicerone site) is “3548ET”. Which doesn’t exist. But it’s actually the 3528ET. I’ve mentioned it to Cicerone so I’d expect an Updates tab on that page soon.  (I have no idea if there are any other typos in there since I’ve not checked further down the route).

Dave with maps of GR5-smallBut one other reason that I would have liked to get the 1:25,000 maps, was to lay them all out on the floor (somewhere with a rather large floor) so that we could get a feeling for how long the route really is. We’re very used to judging distance based on that particular scale of map so it would have been a great way to let the length of the route sink in.

We’ve started mapping it out in Google Earth and just seeing that the distance from the starting point at Thonon-les-Bains down to Nice is easily a third the height of France is one way to understand the size of it.

But I still couldn’t resist seeing it on paper so I bought the 1:100,000 scale “Carte De Promenade” cycle touring maps from The Map Shop (no.s 45, 53, 54, 61) so we could lay those out on the floor!


Category :

Big Walk, Essentials, GR5, Walking
1 Comment »

Posted by RedYeti

Vibram Five Fingers – The Comfiest Footwear Ever

16 Jul, 2009
Vibram Five Fingers - March 2009-small

We each picked up a pair of Vibram Five Fingers at the OS Outdoors Show this year. They are fantastic.

We’ve hardly taken them off. In fact I considered getting married in them.

Rachel, our regular walking buddy and Physiotherapist, also got a pair and wears them to work all the time. She gets cold feet (in fact she has proper Reynaud’s Syndrome – a scary thing that) so she’s far more comfy with a pair of toe-socks inside them. In fact at times she even finds them a bit on the warm side during the summer.

The toe-socks also mean that they need washing far less often. Without them the Five Fingers can get a bit pongy after a couple of days.

The feeling of something between your toes was something I wasn’t sure that I’d get used to but after the first hour I’ve never been aware of it.

It’s not quite like walking bare foot in the sense that you don’t have to be quite so careful where you tread when wearing them. I walk along quite “naturally”, as if wearing shoes. You also notice odd things, like tarmac actually feels softer to walk on than concrete.

I’ve been wearing them for the 2k each way walk to work on which LB usually comes along and we’ve both found that at first we got sore heels. A mixture of slightly “warm” spots as if they were about to blister and also a sort of “impact” related tenderness.

We swapped back to the Terrocs for a few days now and then to let the soreness subside. Our feet have simply become tougher and now cope without a problem – even for running short distances (possibly longer distances – we’ve not tried!).

Toughening up the skin like that is probably an advantage on a long walk but of course the big advantage is the better proprioception and strength.

The oddest thing was when I came to take my Terrocs off one lunch time on the hill. I massaged my feet and found to my surprise that they felt far, far more “muscly” than they used to. My feet just feel stronger.

Ulrika And Dave Wedding-80-smallIn fact, we’ve found them so comfortable that we’ve decided to take them with us on the GR5. We think they’re going to be worth the 386grams for my EU45 and the 248grams for LB’s EU36.

Although we decided to go with the conventional footwear for the actual ceremony, for the party afterwards, as you can see from the picture my brother took, we both decided to change into something more comfortable!

Category :

Big Walk, Footwear, GR5, Walking

Posted by RedYeti

Dry Bags Always Need Checking

04 Aug, 2009
Ulrika - Sweden Summer 2009-42-small

I’ve just leak tested the five dry bags we’re taking on the GR5 and three had leaks.

Most of them are by no means old either.

To my surprise, by far the worse leaks were in the “tougher” Exped sacks and not in the little silnylon Sea To Summit bags.

Even pin-hole leaks can let in surprising amounts of water I’ve discovered – and some of the ones I found were pretty big.

Here’s a quick HOWTO:

  • Have a pen ready to circle any leaks and a towel to dry the outside.
  • Turn inside out (you’ll want to make any repairs on the inside of the bag).
  • Fill with no more than about four litres of water, even in big bags (any more and the silnylon bags could rupture).
  • Dry with a towel so you can spot the leaks.
  • Roll the bag around so that each section of bag is at the bottom of the water inside them (to get the most pressure).
  • Pay particular attention to seams.
  • Dry and repair with Mcnett Seam Grip or Mcnett Silgrip

Only four days to go… Whoohoo!

Category :

Big Walk, Essentials, GR5, Kit, Repairs

Posted by RedYeti

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