GR 52 – Fantastic Trek 3 Refuge Nice to Camp d’Argent

Our sleeping arrangements in Refuge Nice comprised a small cubby hole with 4 beds on two bunks. The space between the bunks was too limited to accommodate any gear so all that had to be stowed in the open area beyond the cubby hole, which was part of a much larger dortoir with beds to the right and the left and above us. It sounds quite claustrophobic but in fact it worked quite well. It was busy and showers, that required a paid-for token for 3 minutes of hot water, and toilets were in much demand. The food was very good and the location and surroundings could not be beaten. Dinner was pea soup, veal, cheese and pudding. After dinner bouquetin came down to the area close to the refuge and during the day I saw marmottes, chamois, ravens, wheatear, dipper, pipettes and alpine choughs. There were also masses of attractive flowers.

We were up early for breakfast and ready for off at 8am. The day would involve two major climbs and two descents. It was the most remote and desolate region of the trek and included the Valley of Wonders (Vallee des Merveilles) a rugged area famous for petroglyphs (rock carvings) believed to date from the bronze age. The first stage involved an ascent from the refuge

The route up and away from Refuge Nice

essentially following a stream to a large lake, Lac Nire. After, there was a minor col before entering the Vallon du Mont Chamineye beneath the eponymous peak at 2921m. There were several snow patches (neves) in this valley and the next one and we often spied chamois playing or resting on the snow. There were a number of small lakes in this valley some with icebergs

The valley was followed by a steep and quite long climb up to the high point of the trek the Baisse du Basto 2693m. Looking back the valley appears quite desolate.

Looking back the way we walked up

The climb was just over 300m but it was very steep at the end and quite eroded and loose at the very top. This was signified on the IGN map by a red dotted trace, always a warning sign! From the top we could see our route forward down 300m or so and then up about 200m to la baisse de Valmasque (2549m) our final col for the day.

La baisse de Valmasque between the peaks in centre right

We passed more lakes with snow

and had to traverse quite a large snowfield before the ascent proper.

At the top I spied a chamois ambling past

and there were fantastic views behind

Lac Basto in the direction we had come from. The path up is on the extreme right and we came across the scree from the right hand side. The path on the rhs of the lake is not ours.

and in front into the Vallee des Merveilles.

Looking ahead into the Vallee des Merveilles

The descent into the valley was quite steep and stony but offered amazing views into what struck me as a very special and atmospheric place. We saw several marmottes as we walked through the rock strewn valley floor with large glacier-smoothed rocks everywhere.

 

The rock carvings in this valley and its surroundings were first described and studied in detail by a Brit at the end of the 19th Century.  In 1967 a Frenchman catalogued over 10,000 such carvings and now the whole area is very closely monitored and controlled  to protect these artefacts. Amongst other controls, visitors have to keep to defined paths and must not use walking poles with metal tips.

We were almost at the end of the valley when we met one of the site wardens who checked that we knew about the restrictions applied to the area. We confirmed we did and she offered one of us rubber tips for walking poles so they could be used. We asked about the carvings and she offered to show us a couple. I was surprised by how small and indistinct two if them were. I could easily have overlooked them. The other clutch known as The chief of the tribe” were larger but still rather underwhelming.

By Philippe Kurlapski – Private work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=792995

We thanked the warden warmly and walked on, later meeting her colleague who walked a while with us and retrieved the rubber pole cups. The day was hot and it was a relief to spy the lake

Le lac Long Superior with Refuge Merveilles on the right hand bank about 2/3rds down

and the refuge.

Refuge Merveilles (2130m) with lake behind

The refuge was not completely full but was crowded. We were put in a dortoir with 10 beds, 5 over 5, we were assigned the top bunks. But in the end only 8 beds were occupied. There was no hot water and the only shower near our dortoir had an appropriate warning notice attached. The evening meal was good but a little crowded. Breakfast was the standard fare and we were off, ready to walk, around 8am.

During this day the countryside became more gentle and we had our first convincing sight of the sea. We started by climbing to the lake that provided water to the Refuge. We first encountered the barrage wall

and walked past the lake above the barrage. We continued climbing passing more small lakes until we reached the Lacs du Diable

Lac du Diable with Pas du Trem in the background, the Pas du Diable was behind me

and beyond the Pas du Diable (2436m).

View ahead, into gentler country from Pas du Diable with the Med in the distance

This was a hot day, high twenties or even 30C I think, and it was a long walk to our next stop. The views were striking but a lot less dramatic than heretofore. In the more open countryside we struggled to find some shade for our lunch.

Approaching the Baisse de St Veran

After the climb on the side of the hill in the photo above we had the disappointment of a descent and another climb to reach the Col des Trois Communes.

Pointe des Trois Communes with the redoubt on the top of the hill 2080m

The view back down hill was a fabulous one with our track slowly disappearing into the mountains.

The redoubt was built in 1897 and was the first military building to use both stone and reinforced concrete, though the reinforced concrete was only used on the Italian facing walls. Around the area there were several remnants of military buildings including this barrack block we passed a little later.

The redoubt was the site of fierce fighting in April 1945 (http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/en/redoubt-3-communes) and there is a memorial close by to the French forces involved.

There were another  2 or 3 kms to go before we reached our overnight stop around 4.30pm. The walk was mostly on tarmac down to a place called Camp d’Argent, no doubt a name derived from the old military ruins thereabouts. There were still impressive sights to gaze at.

View towards the Med

Our overnight stop was L’Estive (1737m) a very comfortable Gite just opposite a ski drag lift.

 

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