Shared Silence: defying expectations on the Mercantour Traverse

Two weeks after first learning about the Mercantour region of the Alps, Alex Roddie found himself attempting the full 117-mile traverse of these sun-drenched mountains in the south of France. Would his spontaneous gamble pay off?

This feature was first published in the October 2020 issue of The Great Outdoors magazine, and describes a walk I conducted in July 2018. Read more about the Mercantour Traverse here.

No long-distance trail is exactly how we imagine it will be. That’s what I was thinking on my third day of the Grande Traversée du Mercantour when, after climbing steep ground out of Col de la Guercha in poor visibility, I’d found myself committed to Grade 3 scrambling moves on a ridge that kept getting steeper and looser. Actually, that’s a lie. My thoughts were actually something like Christ! Why did nobody tell me about this?

The truth is that I hadn’t asked, because I wanted to be spontaneous. Two weeks before I hadn’t even heard of the Mercantour National Park in the Maritime Alps. Now I was committed to the Grand Traverse. Very committed.

There was a path marked on the map, but from where I’d stood on the shifting screes of the col I could see only two ways ahead: a steep grey snowfield, pockmarked by stonefall impacts like some perverse lunar landscape, or a rock ridge that looked a bit scary but probably doable. I chose the latter but soon regretted my decision. It had been five years since I’d last climbed anything harder than Tryfan’s North Ridge but the half-remembered anxiety of steep rock came flooding back in no time. The holds were there, sure, but sometimes they broke off when I stepped on them, and the rock strata rested at an unhelpful angle, forcing me to smear with my trail shoes. I hauled myself over a final vertical step, thankful for my light pack.

About the route

Distance: 117 miles (188km).
Starting point: Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée, France. The ‘official’ GTM begins at the hamlet of Estenc, but Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée is more accessible; resume the standard route at Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage.
Finishing point: Menton, France.
Public transport: From Nice, local bus 740 heads to Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée. Regular buses connect Menton with Nice Airport.
Wild camping: Bivouac is permitted within the national park between 19.00 and 09.00.
Maps: French IGN 1:25,000 maps 3639OT, 3640ET, 3641ET, 3741OT, 3741ET, and 3742OT.
Best time of year: June to October. Steep snow possible on the high passes well into July.
Route notes: A highly challenging Alpine long-distance hike involving plenty of ascent, big passes, some scrambling, and lots of rough ground. The final two days at low level are arid and could be extremely hot. Stock up on water before leaving Sospel!
GPX file: You can view a map of my route and examine the GPX file here on Gaia GPS. I provide this for interest and general information only, and do not recommend that anyone uses it for navigating on the hill. Please do your own planning and create your own GPX files before venturing into the mountains.

The Mercantour Traverse began with two good but exhaustingly hot days. I’d started at Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée, a quiet little town hidden deep in the pine-clad valleys north of Nice. My minimal research threw up the interesting fact that a pack of wolves roamed the Mercantour National Park, an idea that added spice to the walk even though I didn’t expect to see any evidence of them. The trail’s qualities truly revealed themselves on the second morning as I climbed steep switchbacks towards the great frontier ridge between France and Italy, which I’d be following for the next 40 miles. The previous day had taught me how quickly the heat could build under the clear skies of these southern Alps, even above 2,000m, and I wanted to complete most of the ascent in the cool of the morning. By 9am, I was stretched out on the bank of a foaming torrent at 2,200m, chugging water and slapping on another layer of suncream. Around me, an Alpine paradise unfolded in all directions. Clusters of pines and larches sprouted from the crags, surrounded by constellations of red, purple, blue and yellow flowers. Snow-dashed summits danced in the heat haze high above, while the slender thread of the trail wove a cunning line beneath the highest and most barren terrain, keeping the walker in that happy place of trees and marmots and delightful hidden tarns – at least for a while. My map indicated that I’d leave this long traverse line the next day and enter the high Alpine zone. During my meagre planning stage I’d worried about thunderstorms, with spending so long up high, but those worries evaporated with the sheer delight of this magical trail. At least, again, for a while.

I have never enjoyed a day’s walking as much as I enjoyed that first day along the Tinée frontier ridge. The trail took me from cirque to cirque, each more wonderful than the last. I drank in the wild landscape on all sides. It felt almost too good to be true, this symphony of dry paths, sunshine and mountains – and no glaciers anywhere to be seen, unlike in the Swiss Alps where they often intrude on trekking routes. I was feeling happier with my gear choices, too. My pack was ultralight – a wispy Atom Packs Prospector, loaded up with 4.5kg of additional kit. My Tarptent Notch had no inner, and I was carrying a rain kilt. If there ever were a time to go minimal in the Alps, then this, surely, must be it – slap bang in the middle of the great European heatwave – but nevertheless there’s always some uncertainty when heading to high elevations with a light pack. I knew from past experience how quickly thunderstorms could build on hot afternoons.

On the second night, I made a home for myself on a rocky platform at 2,600m, high above the Lac de Rabuons. The temperature dropped by 20˚C in an hour as the light flared and died on the embers of snowfields high above. Stars punched through the haze. Although there was a hut down there somewhere, a little kernel of civilisation for those who wanted it, I allowed myself to be purified by the solitude. Clearing the mind of its ceaseless chatter is almost impossible. Something at the core of us is frightened of the silence – scared to be left with nothing to do but be. I relish that challenge, but only in places such as this do I have a fighting chance. I sat there on a rock for a while as the shadows deepened and the frost nipped at my ears, trying to find the silence. In time, it came.

On the third day the easy delight of that first stage turned to something a bit closer to alpinism. Up at 4am, eager to cross the first major snowfield while it was still frozen, I stuffed my meagre belongings into my pack and headed up to a notch in the skyline – a hard wedge cut out of the blue pre-dawn glow above me. The snowfield I’d been worrying about was easier than expected thanks to my ice axe and Microspikes, which crunched reassuringly into the hard surface. Then up and over the ridge – and into the cloud. By the time I reached Col de la Guercha and my nasty little Grade 3 arête I was swimming in it.

I was thinking about the gulf between expectation and reality as I descended steep ground on a compass bearing in the mist, wary of the distant growl of thunder that sounded like a living thing. Lightning at sea level can be impressive, but it’s easy to dismiss, easy to walk away from. Lightning on a mountain ridge is primal. It plays tricks on the mind. I don’t exactly fear it – the actual risk has always seemed too abstract – but I respect it, and perhaps some ancient ancestral thing deep in my brain stem worships it. So it was that my steps down into a desolate cirque were followed by an ecstatic thrill of danger, half real, half magnified by the imagination. Somehow I always forget this feeling between trips, when I’m far from the mountains and the world is smaller again. I forget that lightning at altitude casts strange shadows in forgotten corners of my mind. Combined with the thought of wolves that might have been gazing up at this mountain crest from isolated glades in the forest far below, this trail took on a mythic flavour, as if I’d become dislodged in time.

That night the storm did its best to pry my shelter from its bolthole beneath the frontier ridge and fling it into Italy. I hardened my resolve for more challenges the next day, but I dropped down from the highest ground, the weather improved, and I coasted 26 easy miles down to my first resupply point at Isola 2000 (an incongruous ski town) and beyond, back into the woods. The mythic illusion dissolved – or perhaps it evaporated as the temperature climbed into the mid-thirties.

There were other hikers about. I met a woman walking through the forest not far past Isola 2000. She looked experienced, but seemed to be suffering from foot problems. ‘I hope to make it to Sospel over the GR52,’ she told me, looking doubtful. ‘They say the snow is bad this year. What do you think? I may get a taxi to Saint-Martin-Vésubie in any case.’

Solitude was far behind now, but the woods welcomed me. Spending time in the forest does primal things to my mind, too. As I walked through a dozen miles of the wildest and most beautiful Alpine forest I’d seen in years, I felt a deep contentment, as if I could live a lifetime in those hours. Of course, there were signs of humanity everywhere. This was no pristine wildwood. I didn’t care. I hadn’t expected this, and so the surprising reality was a pure gift.

The Mercantour Traverse brushed with true greatness when it climbed up to join a legendary section of the GR52 from La Madone de Fenestre to Sospel, crossing four challenging passes in the high Alpine. My gear anxieties crept back as I camped beneath the first col, gazing up into a wilderness of smashed rock, more snow than I’d counted on, and yet another thunderstorm. I’d been more than warm enough so far – and the rain had mostly hit when I was safe under my shelter in the evenings – but I still didn’t know how closely I was sailing to the limitations of my ultralight gear and skills. Timing, I realised, would be important. I had to beat the lightning and the heat, strike while the snow was hard. That meant early starts.

When I finally reached it, the narrow slot of the Pas du Mont Colomb was a place of surprisingly cold winds that whipped through the defile. At the bottom of a scramble down a steep gully, the valley of boulders beneath me led deeper into what felt like an endless world of summits and cirques, ice and rock, nameless flowers and hidden streams. For a moment, I could see no one. Solitude again. I indulged the fantasy that I was truly alone, that I’d stumbled upon these mountains in some unknown corner of a forgotten continent, that the world was a bigger, less trodden, less Instagrammed place where new mountain ranges might still be found by the lucky wanderer. Then I looked back the way I’d come. Down past the shattered boulders. Past the icefield where my cut steps were softening in the sun. There, picking her way along the snow in this wild and remote place was the woman I’d met two days before, filled with doubt at the time that she would make it. Even at this distance I could see the joy on her face. It mirrored my own. She raised a trekking pole in salute, and I responded in kind.

I may crave solitude, but I also believe in sharing the wild places with others. Telling the stories that need to be told (sometimes even via Instagram). There’s room in our mountains for both silence and community.

In hiking the Mercantour Traverse with few expectations, I discovered a landscape of mythic grandeur. I passed through the Vallée des Merveilles, where rock carvings dating back millennia bear witness to the yearly tide of snow and ice. I wandered between the artillery-smashed ruins of WWII fortresses in the mist, their trench systems now grazed by cattle. I climbed col after col in a sublime mountain landscape. I descended from the high Alpine to the furnace heat of the Mediterranean, swapping the cry of eagles for the churr of cicadas. And although I saw nor heard no trace of the Mercantour wolves, my walk was all the richer for their invisible presence.

Keen to read more about the Mercantour Traverse? Check out my online feature for Sidetracked magazine, ‘No Borders’.

All images © Alex Roddie. All Rights Reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission.

By Alex Roddie

Award-winning outdoor and nature writer, editor, author, and photographer.

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