Sunday, 4 August 2013

Landry to Modane - Day One Hundred and Six to One Hundred and Ten

I grappled at the tent door in total darkness, terrified that death was upon us. The trampling grew louder and my panic stronger. Finally, the zip unlodged from its buckle. Below in the valley the lights of Landry glimmered and I realised that the dozen or so charging giraffes, that had somehow found themselves in the depths of the French Alps, were, in fact, not going to crush every bone in my body.

When morning came Jake and I packed up our gear and descended down the steep forest path into Landry, where we bought pains au chocolat and found the train station. Tumbleweed rolled by as a hot wind blew through the tracks, making my eyes water. At 12.10, the rails rattled and a dusty, old train ground to a halt. The doors bounced open and there stood Phil, bearded and beaming. We pushed out of town, fuelled by Golden Delicious apples, and soon joined the Tonturin River where Phil stopped to look at an ant, "This could be a long trip", Jake steered Phil's way. We continued climbing as the sky grew ominous. "Are you not scared of the storm?", one lady questioned after we informed her of our intentions to camp. The Nant Puters waterfall tumbled from a limestone overhang, its waters transformed into mist before reaching the rocks below. We camped opposite, sharing stories late into the night. It must have been after 9.00 p.m. by the time our heads hit the pillow.

The thunder and lightning came at 4.00 a.m. "You all right, Phil?" Predicting good weather, Phil had opted to sleep outside. Through the pelting rain I heard a muffled response, "Yeah". Several hours later I pulled open the tent door to reveal a suction-packed Phil. He had spent the night in what can only be described as a giant, orange plastic bag, which clung to his body, puddled with rainwater. The temperature had dropped thirty degrees from the previous day. Winding through boulders that surrounded D'Entre Le Lac, I watched as mountain spires came and went through the wind and rain. We reached a refuge where a Frenchman pointed through the cloud, "The pass is that way". As my bones chilled to the marrow, I acknowledged for the first time in one hundred and six days, that shorts were perhaps the wrong attire. After just three hours of hiking we arrived in the walker-despised town of Tignes Le Lac, bought a hot chocolate then checked into a cheap hotel. An unjustifiable fify five euros was spent on a lavish salad which we prepared then ate with a bottle of Old Nick rum, a sickly sweet spirit that pushed conversation inevitably towards romance.

We left Tignes swiftly, soon finding ourselves on rugged terrain, where horses roamed and marmots called. The Col De L'Iseran signalled the highest point of our entire walk (2,770 metres). Despite the extensive sweet stand, the moment was anticlimatic and we made our way down the southern route, glimpsing a baby marmot as it wobbled out of its burrow. By late afternoon our feet were ready to rest. We resupplied in the quaint town of Bessans, where a wood-carved fawn rode a serpent in the town centre, then pitched our tent amongst hazel. Cows jangled and the L'Arc Riviere rumbled, water over stone.

The following day our path led us further down the valley. Phil's glowing sunburn, which resided most seriously upon his ankles, thighs, arms and hands, had forced him to wear his only long sleeve top, a thick hoodie, no doubt uncomfortable on a day where the temperature gauge sat above thirty degrees. A market strang out along the main street of Lanflevillard. We bought a melon each and ate it with jam sandwiches, a new lunch time recipe, by the town lavoir.

The first of August signified the final month of our walk to the water. It was a chill morning and dew sat on the grass and in the contours of Phil's body. Jake and I watched as the sun shone through the trees on the cliff top above our pitch. Through squinted eyes, the rays curled with my lashes, forming a catherine wheel frozen in time.

Since the beginning of the week I had noticed a transformation from alpine to mediterranean; vegetation dried, heat radiated and crickets clicked. Modane, Phil's parting town, was a relatively uninspiring place. Perhaps most entertaining was a 'sign of distances'. Monaco (just a few kilometres from Menton) sat 250 kilometres from Modane. Our route would take us over twice this distance. Phil's initial plan of sleeping in a park in Lyon whilst waiting for a bus was altered when he learnt of an earlier departure. He left as the sun dipped behind the mountains.

In the five days that he was with us, Phil walked 107 kilometres (that's about 125,000 steps), ascended 4,600 metres and descended much the same, gained first degree burns on thirty per cent of his body, clocked a dozen hairy stumbles, and inflicted some sort of abrasion on each and every toe. His greatest distance covered in a day was 35 kilometres which, without training, was quite frankly rather impressive. The highest temperature in which he walked was 35 degrees celsius and the lowest 5. Phil had one shower and one bath, both on the same day.

Jake and I sat by our tent in the dusk light. A well tanned man, with grey hair and a proud belly, stepped from his Challenger campervan in Speedoes that used to fit. He poured pasta through a plastic colander by a tree, then returned to his van. "I guess you get to an age when you just don't care," Jake uttered, as a warm wind blew.

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