Last July, I had a chance conversation with a friend of a friend who was off for a mini break running some of the GR marked paths in France. He enthused about the amount of pastries and tarts he was going to be able to consume en route. With this in mind, that afternoon, an idea was born.
I’m not sure how I ended up looking at the GR58 tour of Queyras but with the internet saying, “walk it in 12 days” in my head that meant “run it in six” so I duly went and booked the flights.
To make running more enjoyable, I looked at carrying the minimum and we planned to use the French hut system for food and accommodation. I then bought the map and looked at the route broken into six days; maybe this could be more of a mighty adventure than a micro one!
Once time allowed, I swung myself into planning mode and bought a guide book, only to discover that reading the book might have been advisable before eagerly booking flights. The mountain hut system closes down in mid September due to snow, and our flights were booked for the 23rd. Nonetheless the Qyeyras range still looked do-able, just in a different formation, we needed to think of the possibility of snow; not just running in a vest and shorts! We booked a hire car and added one bag of luggage to our flights (I wanted to take lightweight collapsible poles and there didn’t seem to be a definitive answer if I could take these as hand luggage).
Now we had a bit of flexibility with the car, I started trying to sort accommodation; harder than I thought, as the valley seemed to close between summer and the ski season. I cobbled together a series of possible loops which would cover vast sections of the GR58 using a ski chalet, an Italian hut and small French pensions for our overnight stops. This was all very weather dependent as it meant leaving our hire car at a 2,744m col. Leaving the car there was fine, but we needed stable weather as if snow fell the pass would be closed!
The week before our departure, the local school posted pictures of children arriving at school in knee-deep snow. Oh dear, all my running plans might need revising again, we certainly wouldn’t get over to Italy. I procrastinated a little more on what we should take. The plan was now three days running in a loop, and three single days. To be enjoyable we had to be able to travel as light as possible, but still able to cope with all weathers. Our only compromise, after looking at the forecast and speaking to a local, was not to take our Kahtoola microspikes.
I used a Salomon Advanced Skin 12 Set running vest, which comfortably carries a remarkable amount, and was running with:
I was also wearing a Suunto Vertical watch and carried my phone with route descriptions, plus charging cable
My back isn’t up to carrying too much weight, so I allowed my husband to take up the slack and carry a few things for me; sometimes it’s good to admit you just can’t do it! He carried extra for me:
Clothes: I ran each day in the same clothes, and luckily after a quick rinse through they dried overnight
As we arrived into the Queyras valley via the Col d’Izoard at sunset, I thought I might burst with excitement. The owner of the chalet thought our plans weren’t possible, especially not in running shoes! He was concerned our ambitions hadn’t factored in the altitude. He suggested a circuit which was a favourite of his and covered a length of the GR58. The route climbed out of the valley bottom through the beautiful pine trees, past old chalets and up into the high meadows full of Alpine cows and the sound of their bells.
Each turn led to another vista and more excitement, it was easy to follow the red and white painted marks on the rocks, and the dry trails were a pleasure to follow. Over the Col des Estronques (2,651m) brought us a brilliant view down through meadows to St-Véran. We’d covered 24km with 1,800m of climbing; a brilliant day, but was that too much for a gentle break in? The chalet owner was pleased to see us return, but insisted we borrowed his more detailed maps for the rest of the week.
At dawn on day two, we drove to the top of the Col Angel (2,744m) with the icy blast of wind and the early start hitting my bare legs. The day began with running down 500m into Italy, and we soon realised we’d crossed the border when we were greeted with “buon giorno!” This group of Italians also looked askance at us dressed in shorts and T-shirts when they were wearing down jackets and thick trousers; we skipped off happily into the distance, passing more cows with bells, the sun was shining. The top of Passo della Lossetta (2,872m) brought Monte Viso in all its magnificence into view, and we’d arrived at the level of light snow. An interesting traverse leading to Col Vallante took us past marmots sunning themselves on precarious ledges. It was a tricky descent through fresh snow on treacle-black schist, we lost the waymarks but could see where we were headed. I’d hoped to be able to find water at Rèfuge du Viso (back in France!), but everything was very definitely closed up. We faced the next climb with less water than I’d have liked, the sun was shining but luckily it wasn’t scorching heat. The steady zigzags brought us to the top of Col Sellière (2,834m) looking down into Italy. All I could actually see was a steep drop on frozen schist into a boulder field and cloud. Oh joy, but the tricky section was soon done and we sank into the dense, silent cloud. The red and white paint soon led to another boarded-up hut and lake, this probably was a stunning view but was quite eerie in the clag. It had been a long day and the lovely wooden signs informed us we still had another 10km until we got to our hut for the night. It was a long valley, full of sheep with bells; we ran to the sound of music. I was relieved to see the Willy Jarvis Refugio after 30km with 1,600m of climbing. We were the only guests in the hut that night, and ate like kings; a platter of locally produced cheese was the highlight for me.
I awoke the next morning knowing I’d had a great couple of days, but my body said otherwise! No time for rest; the Col d’Urine needed to be found. We left the hut to the sound of bells which followed us for the first hour, as the sheep were also making their way up to the higher pastures.
Again, we followed red and white waymarks up through a moonscape valley and, much to our surprise, amongst the loose gritty rocks we spotted a black Alpine Salamander. From the Col at a mere 2,525m we left the barren landscape and ran down a grassy mountainside, zigzagging with the sound of marmots shouting our arrival. With only 16km and 900m of climbing, we ran through early autumn trees into the village. A short day, but I could get one of those lovely French tarts!
Day 4 wasn’t huge, but did start with a flat 10km run along the valley bottom. Early morning sunshine, autumnal trees and a glistening river; you could run for miles in air like that. Our waymarks soon loomed, and we knew we had 1,500m of climbing in the next 8km. It was impossible to just put your head down and get on with it, Monte Viso stood at the end of the valley, mighty in fresh snow; we’d been lucky with the weather.
We passed a couple of stunning mountain lakes plus a rare sighting of people, we’d pretty much had the mountains to ourselves. As we approached Col Vieux (2,806m) we were engulfed in cloud, running down we had to keeps our eyes alert for the waymarks and also check the altimeters; we only needed to drop to the Col Angel and our car. In the thick white we took a compass bearing which lead us bang onto the car. 20km in total, and a slight sadness that this part of the mini adventure was over.
Day 5 was a loop that took us back up to Abries, the village we stayed in the night before. This allowed us to pick up the GR58 trail again, another day in rugged high mountains listening to marmots. At our high point of the day, Col du Petit Malrif (2,830m) we looked down to the mountain hut where people stay who have sensibly read the guidebook and gone in the right season. I felt a pang of loss that we weren’t connecting the GR all together. After our long zigzag descent, down fabulous slopes into the beautiful village, and standing in a hot shower I didn’t feel so bad; another 30km and 1,700m of stunning climbing done.
Our final day dawned with crisp air and blue sky. I didn’t want to go home, but we headed in the right direction towards the Col d’Izoard. It would be a short, sweet 10km with a mere 700m of climbing. The start was a run through dense dark pine trees on carpets of cones, then out into the open in blazing hot sunshine, we ran past a group of people making hard work of the hill and I’m not sure that my cheery hellos helped. We reached a glass-like Lac du Souliers and watched the fish, then made for our final Col and onto Pic Quest de la Côte Belle (2,856m) where we looked down to the tiny dots of cars on the Col d’Izoard. Below there I could see the Refuge Napoléon and could almost see my final French gateau of the trip, after all this dream-like holiday was all about cake eating!
I can only recommend the Queyras as a region; great for walking, running, biking and gateaux eating. There is one piece of kit that has been used like nothing I’ve ever tested before; the Patagonia Micro Puff Jacket. This winter it’s also been out with me in my running pack, there for emergency warmth. I’ve been more than happy to carry it, as it’s so light (just 227g) and packs so small. Even if I haven’t used it, it has allowed me to push on knowing I have the right clothing that will make the difference if I need it. If only to pull it on after my run, when I’m sitting eating the cake!