STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

Hiking Across the Mercantour National Park
Day 2 – July 5: Refuge Questa to Boréon

August 12, 2022

This article is covers day two of an eight day backpacking trip across the Mercantour National Park known as the “Grande Traversée du Mercantour.” You’ll find links at the bottom to the other days.

While it’s not exactly what I would call a “milestone” day, day two of any multi-day backpacking trip certainly has some significance. Finishing the first day, in good shape and good spirits, gave me a sense of confidence that strengthened my determination and resolve that I could make it through this entire eight day adventure. Since this was all new to me (hiking through the mountains with a full back-pack for days on end) some of the uncertainty and apprehension began to melt away. “OK, I can do this,” I thought to myself. I knew there were still many challenges ahead over the next week, but as we began this second day I was feeling strong and confident.

Doug and I were up with the first light, eager to get an early start on the trail. At an estimated 19.2 kilometers (it was actually longer) this would be the second longest day of the trip and almost double the distance of the previous day. Additionally, we’d be doing a bit more climbing and over three times the descending we did on day one. The guidebook estimated about seven hours for the trek. So we knew we were in for a long day but we were ready.

We enjoyed a modest breakfast at the refuge (cereal with warm milk and bread with butter and jam). After double checking the route with one of the workers we set off just as the sun was beginning to peek up over the rugged mountaintops that surrounded us in every direction. It was cool enough that I decided to begin the day in a long sleeve shirt.

In the distance we could see the deep, narrow valley known as the Vallon de la Morta which we would take towards Boréon. Our first immediate destination was Lago di Fremamorta, a lake a little less than two hours away. Getting there would involve some descending as well as some climbing. From the lake we’d be climbing to our high point of the day, Col de Frémamorte (2,615 meters / 8,579 feet), which also happened to mark the French/Italian border. We’d be back in France in just a few hours!

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Lago di Fremamorta

We had a short descent from the refuge along a very rocky path to reach the bottom of the valley. The sky was clear with only a hint of a cloud here and there. The morning air was warming quickly as we made our way through the stones and scree. As we descended across the rocky slopes the ground gradually started to become covered in places with thick green grass and pine trees began to dot the landscape. Before long we had reached the bottom of the valley and the long, gradual ascent to Col de Frémamorte began. The trees became scarce once again and the rocks came to dominate the trail and the surrounding mountainsides. Grey and brown covered almost every inch of the visible terrain.

Our trail took on a bit of a rollercoaster feel at this point with some alternating ups and downs, nothing too long and nothing too serious. Overall we were still going up but the alternating changes between ascending and descending were actually quite welcome and helped keep our legs in good shape. We passed a small col, Colletto de Valasco (2,429 meters / 7,969 feet) as the small valley narrowed approaching the lake.

It was a fairly easy hike up the Lake Fremamorta. In truth there are actually four lakes all grouped together and known as the “Lacs de Fremaorta,” of which I think the largest is Lake Fremamorta proper. They are perched on the lip of a small plateau on the side of the valley. Far below to our left we could see another trail, back down among the trees and grasses, running in the same direction. Some old building foundations lay scattered around the small lakes. It was hard to say what they had originally been part of as now very little remained. After the lakes the trail turned sharply uphill following a small crest along the side of the mountain. A beautiful stone wall had been built to support the path and it snaked up the side of a small hill on the way to the Col de Frémamorte.

Map courtesy of Les Guides Randoxygène.
Map courtesy of Les Guides Randoxygène.

We could see the small “saddle” in the mountain peaks that was the Col de Frémamorte and the multiple switchbacks in the trail that would take us there. Another small, seemingly unnamed lake lay at the base. The final push up to the col was actually not bad. From down below it looked a lot worse than it actually was. The mountainside was covered in rock but the trail was well defined and we didn’t have to climb over any large boulders. The switchbacks made it fairly easy to make quick progress. Doug went on ahead of me and I arrived at the summit a few minutes after he did.

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Col de Frémamorte

At the top we enjoyed beautiful views in all directions with multiple alpine lakes on both sides of the border. We were now back in the land of the French numbered balises and balise #271 reminded us that even though we’d come a long way today we were still less than half the way to Boréon.

We met a couple of French women hikers at the summit who spoke pretty good English. In fact, one of them told us her ex-husband was American and that her son spoke perfect “American.” They offered to take a photo of the two of us which you can see in the photo gallery. We rested for a short bit, drank some water and then headed down the other side of the mountain into France.

It’s a long descent from the Col de Frémamorte to the next landmark, the Col de Salèse (2,031 meters / 6,663 feet), over five kilometers. At first we were navigating mostly steep switchbacks through rock and gravel which required a slow pace and some finesse. Eventually the trail leveled off just a little bit as we passed by several lakes on our left known as the Lacs de Frémamorte. Around us the ground slowly became greener and greener and we could see large forests of pine trees in the distance even farther down. We were coming down from the high mountains and back into an area that was heavily forested and quite verdant.

We decided to stop for lunch when we found a nice shady spot under a few trees surrounded by tall grass and large rhododendron plants. The lunch from the refuge consisted of a sandwich, some pasta salad, and an apple with a juice box and candy bar for desert. Refreshed and ready to push on we we were shortly back on the trail where we soon reached a couple of small lakes that we immediately recognized from our hike up to Lac Nègre two years earlier. Balise #70 pointed the way up to the lake, only a 15 minute detour. While Lac Nègre is a beautiful site and we were tempted to take a short detour and visit it we stuck to our route and continued the descent down from the high mountain peaks.

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Lac Nègre

Having hiked this trail before we were familiar with the terrain which involved a fair amount to “step” descending, which is always a bit hard on the knees and feet. It’s a beautiful area with lots of greenery and thick forests full of tall trees that can often block out the sky and the sun. The trail follows a small stream down the mountainside for several kilometers and eventually reaches a parking lot along the M89 which then leads to Boréon. On our previous hike up to Lac Nègre we had gotten a bit off trail on the way back down and ended up having to backtrack, adding some additional distance to our day. We were very careful not to make the same mistake this time.

About an hour from the turn-off to Lac Nègre there’s a small col, Col de Salèse, at balise #436 that lies on an old mountain road which runs up to the abandoned village of Mollières. Just a few meters further on is balise #435 where we would normally turn and head through the woods in the Vallon de Salèse (Salèse Valley) to a small parking lot on the M89, and actual paved road that connects with Boréon.

Unfortunately for us Tempête Alex had damaged a large portion of the trail between the Col de Salèse and the parking lot. We were forced to take a “déviation temporaire” (temporary detour) that involved walking for quite some distance on a mostly asphalt road that ran pretty much parallel to the actual trail. We were not happy about this. For starters it was a lot less scenic than the normal route and on top of that it was hell on our feet after such a long hike through the mountains. But, we persevered and after 7 1/2 hours we arrived at our destination, the Gîte du Boréon.

Gîte du Boréon

Boréon is a small hamlet/village located about eight kilometers from Saint-Martin-Vésubie at the north end of the Vésubie Valley. Situated next to Lac du Boréon it’s a popular destination for hikers, horseback riders, fishermen and really just about anyone looking to get out into the wild. The entire area was hit very hard by flooding from Tempête Alex in October 2020 and is just now starting to recover. The Park Alpha Wolf Park is a wonderful wildlife park and educational center known mostly for its three packs of wolves. It was closed for quite some time after Alex, but I think it is open again now.

You’ll find the term “gîte” used quite a bit in describing rural holiday and vacation rentals in France. Often times it will refer to a country cottage or barn that has been converted into a small apartment. You’ll even find the term used in non-rural areas. Originally these properties provided quite rudimentary accommodations but over time that has changed. Today you can find gîtes of quite good quality, sometimes what could even be considered luxurious. They are almost always for one party, accommodating anywhere from two to ten people.

The Gîte du Boréon is a bit different. It’s actually what would more accurately be described as a “gîte d’étape” (stopover lodge). Kind of a cross between a youth hostel and a small hotel in the mountains offering basic overnight accommodations. One step up from a refuge, a refuge “deluxe” if you will. This is where Doug and I would be spending our second night.

The building appeared to be fairly new and was in great shape. Everything was clean and modern. No wifi or television (of course) but we had access to electricity to charge our phones and a place to wash and dry clothes. We were placed a small room with two bunkbeds. Doug and I were in one set of beds and a French couple was in the other. No chairs, desks or furniture other than the beds. The bathrooms and showers were down the hall, used by everyone on the same floor as us.

When the French couple arrived Doug and I both introduced ourselves speaking a little French. After explaining (in French) that we were Americans, but that we lived here in France, I asked the man (in French) if he spoke any English. “No, you must speak French,” he said to me, ironically in English! “You Americans think the whole world must get down on their knees before you.” Well that really pissed me off. I’m usually pretty easy going (I think) but that touched a nerve.

Doug and I are not anything close to the stereotypical “rude American.” We live in France because we love it here. We speak the language (and work very hard to get better and better). We have done everything we can to assimilate into the culture. I’ve explored more of this part of France than most of the people who live here. Fuck this guy. I’ve never really encountered anyone like this in France before. Almost everyone we meet is very kind, very open and very welcoming. Apparently this guy had some chip on his shoulder about Americans. I wanted nothing more to do with him.

Dinner was served in a large dining room with big tables and wouldn’t you know it, this couple was seated at the same table as us. I would probably not have spoken another word to this asshole, but, true to fashion, Doug struck up a small conversation with them (in French) and before long they became much friendlier. Hell, by the end of the meal everyone was having a deep discussion about the U.S. In English! Doug is much more social than I am and can generally make friends with just about anyone. It still left a sour taste in my mouth but at least things were now more civil.

We went to bed early with the knowledge that the third day might just be one of the most difficult ones of the entire trip. Not as long as today but with a lot more climbing.

Follow our path for the day. (Video copyright Michel Peracchia FFRandonnée 2022)

Stats for the day:
Approximate Distance: 21.6 kilometers (13.4 miles)
Total Time: 7 1/2 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +650 meters (2,133 feet)
Elevation Gain in Flights of Stairs: 228
Approximate Descent: -1,460 meters (4,790 feet)

This article covers day two of an eight day backpacking trip across the Mercantour National Park. Click one of the links to read about the other days.

Intro | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8

Juste les Faits:
What: Hiking across the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes-Maritimes
Where: Refuge Questa (Italy) to Boréon (Google Maps)
When: July through September
Phone: 04 93 16 78 88
Park Website: mercantour-parcnational.fr
Hike Website: randoxygene.departement06.fr
Facebook: ParcnationalduMercantour
Download a PDF of the entire Grande Traversée du Mercantour: ParcnationalduMercantour

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Steve and Carole in Vence