July 24—Day 37: Shelter at Col du Fromage to the Ancient Observatory
I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of walking down through pine forests. The trees are colorful, of dark green, weathered brown, striking yellow, deep red, and faded gold. The air smells of pine sap, fresh and pleasant. The path is softer among the trees, just earthen dirt covered in pine needles. Birds sing and the timber sways and creaks in the wind. The whole forest is a delight for the senses.
So it’s no surprise that the Queyras has been one of my favorite regions of the trek. Heavily forested, but still with farms, valleys, cliffs, rivers, and mountains. The high mountains make for great Alpine hiking and are certainly beautiful, but these forests are far and away my favorite landscapes. This is a region I’d love to return to someday.
I left the shelter at Col du Fromage in nicer weather. It wasn’t far to reach Ceillac, the central town with the Queyras.
After weeks of hiking, I’m able to make the climbs without as much difficulty as before and so I’ve come up with a new way to challenge myself. I cram more food than I ever thought could fit into my pack. This afternoon I bought two loaves of bread, a package of butter and a jar of jam. I bought a sausage, two quiches, some tabbouleh, and a bag of a biscotti-like treat that’s a Queyras specialty. And I had to buy another notebook since I’m near the end of my other one. Oh, and I bought a new canister of fuel too. In all, my pack is probably some 20 or more kilos now, and looks comically huge. It certainly makes things interesting.
Past town the trail climbs up to two lakes, Lac Mirror and Lac Saint Anne. It was very steep to the first lake, and pretty tough with my heavy pack. There was supposed to be rain again in the afternoon, so I was motivated to get to the lake and not be caught out again; it rained just as I finished the climb.
I stood under a solitary tree beside Lac Mirror, staying mostly dry underneath the branches and watching the rain land on the lake. The rain passed for a moment, and the lake stilled to a perfect reflection of the mountains. Then it thundered, hailed, and rained again, so I ate a small quiche.
After a while the weather finally passed and I went up to the next lake, Lac Saint Anne. It was absolutely beautiful, colored bright blue at the base of a massive grey mountainside. As I was having a picnic dinner, French couple arrived we talked a bit about the hike; they shared some dates and yellow raisins that were quite tasty. When the man heard I was walking the whole GR5, he shook my hand. I think it was a long dream of his to hike it himself.
A Finn also showed up, who was hiking the trail. Mika perfectly matched my idea of Scandinavian folk: fit, rough-edged but friendly, and just a bit eccentric. We compared notes for our trips, then hikes together the last hour up to Col Girardin. He went down to camp on the other side of the col, but I had my eye on a tiny shelter further up on another mountain. On my map it was marked as an “Ancien Observatoire”—now how could I pass that up!
I zigzagged up to the tiny shelter, storm clouds brooding overhead. At first I thought it was locked, which would’ve been really bad, but after a good shoulder charge the door gave way and opened up to absolutely perfect shelter. Not quite an “ancient observatory,” but a fine Alpine hut. The views were stunning in all directions, and you could see back all the way down past the lakes to Ceillac. Fog rolled over the tops of peaks and around in the valleys, ever shifting. I went out again after midnight and the sky had cleared, the stars and moon shining bright. It was one of the most incredible places I’d been on the trail.