STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

Hiking Across the Mercantour National Park
Day 4 – July 7: La Madone de Fenestre to Refuge de Nice

October 7, 2022

This article covers day four 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.

On paper this should be the easiest day of the entire trip. A mere 8.3 kilometers (just over 5 miles). Not much climbing, not much descending. However, when the day was over Doug and I both agreed this was the most difficult hike so far. Why? Rocks. More Rocks. Even more rocks. Hiking along a trail of dirt and small rocks is one thing, even when the trail is steep. But, when you encounter large sections of huge boulders and stones which require careful navigation and even climbing over sometimes, it’s an entirely different story. Even when the terrain is fairly flat, walking across these boulder fields can be very challenging and quite taxing. You have to be extremely careful with each and every step you take.

The other issue with these areas is the lack of a proper trail. On most of the stages along this hike the trails are very obvious, well marked, well defined, easy to see and follow. But when you get to a large field of rock those trails go right out the window. The only real way to follow the path is to pay careful attention to the red and white markings that are painted now and again on the side of the rocks to mark the official trail. Ideally these are located so that when you reach one you can see the next one and move from one to the other without much problem. However, that’s not always the case and Doug and I often found ourselves just forging ahead hoping and praying that we’d see the next marking before we strayed from the path.

When we first started on this eight day hike I didn’t really know exactly what to expect. I guess I just figured it would be all wooded hillsides, beautiful lakes and grand meadows full of grass and flowers. Which, to be honest, a large portion of it was. On my other (somewhat limited) hikes in the Mercantour National Park this is pretty much what I had encountered. I wasn’t expecting this kind of terrain that was completely dominated by large boulder fields and rock skrees. I’ll admit that there is a certain kind of beauty in these vast expanses of bleak, desolate stone, but honestly it gets old pretty quickly when you are traveling through and over it.

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Leaving La Madone de Fenestre

We got an early start out of the Madone de Fenestre refuge on Thursday morning. The breakfast in the refuge left a little to be desired. Just a bit of cereal and milk along with the some bread, butter and jam. Still, we ate up a good portion of it knowing we’d need our strength for the day ahead. From the refuge it’s a very short hike along the GR52 to a little wooden bridge that crosses a small river. In fact, we would be staying on the GR52 for the entire hike this day. A large cowshed sits next to the river though there were no cows in sight this morning. Balise °359 told us that we had approximately 2 1/2 hours to Pas du Mont Colomb, the first (and only) pass we would be crossing that day. The sun had yet to come up over the mountain peaks and everything had that kind of pale blue haze that you see in the early dawn hours.

There were a fair amount of pine trees scattered around the landscape, lots of grass and some bright purple flowers. The cold mountain water rushed by in the little river and the air was crisp and cool. An idyllic mountain scene that gave little notice of what was to come later in the day. Doug and I began the hike with our new friend Dominique who we had met the night before in the refuge. An older gentleman who was hiking on his own, Dominique stayed with us for about the first half hour but soon he began to lag farther and farther behind. It was important for us to keep our own pace so we continued on without him.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Hiking Across the Mercantour National Park Day 4 Map
Map courtesy of Les Guides Randoxygène.

We travelled along a small valley called Vallon du Ponset for less than fifteen minutes before we came to the next balise, °367. We continued to walk and climb. The entire first half of the route was uphill and parts of it were quite steep. Rock steps were set into place at various intervals along the trail which allowed us to cover a fair amount of elevation in a fairly short amount of time.

Steve climbs up a steep section of rock.

Unlike several of the previous days there were no lakes along the trail today. Gradually the grass and flowers began to disappear and the trees became fewer and fewer. We crossed more and more stretches of rock slides. To our left all we could see were huge mountains of rock and dirt. Before long all it seemed we were doing was climbing (not walking) over large boulders and rocks. It was slow going. A few places were quite technical in that we were required to climb almost vertically up some of the rock formations. Doug filmed the short video you can see here of me coming up one such section. (I have to have a talk with Doug about filming videos in portrait mode. 🙂 )

We continued to climb towards the Pas du Mont Colomb. Almost all the greenery was now long gone. No trees. No grass. No flowers. There was some thick lichen like substance growing here and there which provided a small amount of relief from otherwise vast amount of grey, white, red and brown rock that covered the entire mountain as far as the eye could see. There was no “trail” to speak of at this point. We were simply scrambling over rocks and boulders looking for the next red and white marker that let us know we were going the right way. Sometimes they were very frequent and easy to find but occasionally they were farther apart and we would begin to wonder if we had lost our way. This type of “hiking” is particularly slow, difficult and very time consuming.

Pas du Mont Colomb

The last push up to the summit was by far the steepest. The large boulders were below us now but the steep slope of the mountain was covered in loose rock. It was hard to pick out the trail as it zig-zagged its way up towards the top. I actually managed to get off the trail at one point and found myself climbing up a very steep portion on my hands and knees. Doug had gone on up ahead of me and I thought to myself, “This can’t be right.” Sure enough, when I looked down behind me I could see where I had missed a turn in the trail. Getting back to that point was no easy task with a full, heavy pack on my back. Going up a steep portion of the hillside is often much easier than coming down it. I was sitting and scooting for a good part of it.

Once I was back on the trail I made pretty good time up to the pass. From a distance these steep slopes seem much bigger than they actually are. Once you get into a steady rhythm, moving back and forth across the switchbacks you find that you cover the distance much quicker than you would have thought. The last final bit took us through a narrow gorge where, miraculously enough, some grass and weeds suddenly appeared. And then suddenly, I was at the top.

It was a remarkable site as the trail led directly to a small gap between two large rock formations. Looking between the rocks was almost like looking through a large window. On the other side was a huge valley, more mountains and a descent that looked like it went straight down. Balise °400 sat at the summit and declared that we had only an hour left to reach the Refuge de Nice. I found that hard to believe as it also said the route back to the Madone de Fenestre was only 1 1/2 hours and we’d been out well over three hours at this point. And Doug and I are not slow. The signs were not to be trusted.

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The Descent to le Lac de la Fous

We rested for a short bit at the summit, drank some water, had something to eat. There were two passages through the rocks at the top of the pass and it was clear that the second one was the way to go. It was still incredibly steep, by far the steepest section we had encountered on the entire trip so far. The guide book describes it as, “a narrow, steeply-inclined gully, one of the most technical sections of the route.” They weren’t kidding.

The descent down the other side of Pas du Mont Colomb to the Lac de la Fous was slow, difficult, steep and arduous. I was very glad to have my hiking “sticks” with me as they are a huge help in navigating this type of descent. Doug and I both took it very carefully, though as usual, Doug was out a fair bit ahead of me. It’s hard to keep up with that guy! Much of the descent was again over large boulders where no “trail” existed. But, we paid close attention to the signs painted on the rocks and were able to find our way without much trouble. There was little to no greenery for most of the way down to the lake.

Lac de la Fous

Shortly before arriving at the lake an actual trail began to reappear and things began to level out. Grass and trees also came back into view. Lac de la Fous is a “man-made” lake, created by a damn across the Gordolasque River. Built in 1969 it powers a turbine that supplies electricity to the village of Belvédère downstream. I for one was very glad to be off the rocks and on dirt once again. The trail passed by the damn and then wound easily around the lake. We could see the Refuge de Nice on the other side, sitting high up above the water. It’s always a nice point in the hike when your final destination comes into view. It doesn’t even matter how far away it is. Just being able to actually see it can give you that extra little boost you might need to keep going.

Doug and I were actually familiar with this small portion of the hike. Last year we had hiked from Belvédère to the Refuge de Nice (and back) with Doug’s wife Maureen and a couple of friends. So, once we connected with the trail around the lake leading to the refuge we knew exactly where we were and what to expect.

We decided to eat lunch on a grassy portion of the lake just before the refuge. We wanted to get some food inside us and also soak our feet in the ice cold water. After a strenuous hike across large rocks and boulders there’s nothing better than soaking your feet in water so cold you have to make an effort to keep them submerged. Doug waded out into the lake up to his knees but I sat on a rock and just dipped my feet into the water.

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Refuge de Nice

It was a short hike up to the refuge after we finished our lunch. The last part is a bit steep, so just when you think you’re done with all your climbing for the day the trail comes back to say, “Not so fast.” Thankfully, it isn’t very long. We checked into the refuge and were assigned bunks in one of the dormitories. This one wasn’t too big, maybe 20 beds total in our room. Doug once again took the upper bunk and I took the lower. We rinsed out some clothing and took it outside to hang on one of the small railings around the refuge to dry.

The refuge had a couple of sets of pétanque balls so Doug and I decided to play a game or two. It was a bit complicated as there really wasn’t an area of flat ground that you would normally play a game of pétanque on but we managed to find a little area that worked fairly well and had a lot of fun. It was a nice distraction and a great way to kill a little time. For me the “down” time on these hikes is the most challenging. I’m used to being busy most of the time and there’s not a lot to do at these refuges. No internet connection (usually) to allow me to “connect” with the outside world. I spent a good portion of this hike reading the autobiography of one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Todd Snider, on my iPhone.

Even though I was pretty tired from the morning hike I did do a bit of exploring around the immediate area of the refuge. It’s situated on a small patch of level land part way up a hillside that is mostly dominated by very large rocks. Grass grows between the rocks, in cracks on the rocks and even directly on some of the rocks and it’s really quite beautiful. I spotted a few bouquetins climbing on the rocks and took some photos of them (you can see one above). Clouds began to roll in and the sky darkened in a few places making for some very nice lighting affects.

Next to the refuge is another building that appeared to be empty and unused, but upon closer examination I found that it contained a number of beds. I suppose maybe it’s an “overflow” building for when the refuge gets completely full. There was even a smaller building that I was told can be used by hikers in emergencies when the refuge is closed during the winter months. It’s not much more than a shelter, but if you needed to get out of the cold and away from the snow for the night it would certainly be a welcome sight.

Doug and I were both a bit concerned about the young English hikers we had met the night before. It was an extremely difficult portion of the trip and they were hiking without sticks which makes the descents over rocks very tricky. We weren’t sure how much experience they had with this kind of hiking and were a little worried it could prove too much for a few of them. We also took note of some very dark clouds in the direction which they would be coming from and hoped they had not encountered any rain. The last thing I would want to do was hike over those rocks when they were wet.

We had no reason to be concerned though. Not too long after we arrived we could see them coming along the trail beside the lake. I yelled down from the refuge, “Hey, England!” and they waved back. As they arrived at the refuge we made a point of congratulating each of them and giving them a high-five. Hell, they were almost 50 years younger than us so I guess their youth alone was enough to get them through the difficult portions of the hike!

We had a good dinner at the refuge and hit the bunks shortly after eating as we planned to get an early start the next morning on our way to our next stop, the Refuge des Merveilles. It wasn’t supposed to be a particularly long hike, about 10 kilometers, with not a lot of climbing or descending. I was especially looking forward to this stage as it passes through a section of the Mercantour National Park that is famous for ancient engravings made on the sides of rocks. More about that on the next post.

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

Stats for the day:
Approximate Distance: 8.3 kilometers (5.2 miles)
Total Time: 4 3/4 hours
Approximate Elevation Gain: +755 meters (2,477 feet)
Elevation Gain in Flights of Stairs: 191
Approximate Descent: -430 meters (1,410 feet)

This article covers day four 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: Madone de Fenestre (Alpes-Maritimes) to Refuge de Nice (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: July through September
Phone: Office de Tourisme/Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée – 04 93 02 41 96
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