Via-Alpina 2017

Another end to end hike.

We have always wanted to visit the Alps but never really decided where as there does seem to be quite a lot of them. Cicerone's "Trekking in the Alps" alone lists "20 classic routes" all competing for our attention, but there is nothing quite like starting at the sea and ending at the sea as the Pyrenean Haute Route does. So in what seems like a good idea in front of the fire on a cold Dartmoor evening tickets to Trieste are booked and we begin pouring over maps and kit lists in excited anticipation.

So its coming to the end of April, much planning, route worrying and kit selecting has been going on, most of which is totally unnecessary but still an integral part of preparing for one of our hikes. To make it "official" we announced to the world, or at least the Via Alpina Facebook page that we would be starting in June.........

Hi, we are Nick and Jo Mandeville. We live and work in the Dartmoor National Park in Devon UK. This year we start walking the Via-Alpina from Trieste on the 24th of June hoping to reach Monaco in early October. We have hiked, climbed, camped and bivouacked throughout Dartmoor, Snowdonia, Cumbria, Scotland and the Pyrenees. At a time of great change politically and environmentally we hope to discover an Alps that is inclusive and that inspires particularly the young who once captivated by mountains and wild places are sure to be their future guardians. If you see us stumbling along the trail please come and say Hi.

We aim to follow the "Red Trail" from Trieste as far as its intersection with the "Green Trail" (Alpine Pass Route) which we aim to take through Switzerland before meeting up with the "Tour Du Mont Blanc". At some point on the "TMB" we will break off to join the "GR5" which will form the basis of our route down to Monaco. 
Along the way if the weather is kind, we have the time and a little extra in our legs we will try and summit Triglav, Buet and Viso.............its a rough plan anyway!

Via Alpina Kit.
So that is it we are off, if you would like to catch up and see what happens next look us up on Instagram.

We made it!!!!!.................

On the morning of Monday 25 September, day 94, we hiked the final one and a half hours from our last bivy to the beach at Menton bringing to an end a great adventure. Discovering Slovenia, Italy, Austria, Germany, Lichtenstein, Switzerland and France. Bears, Wolves, Boars, Squirrels, great birds of prey, salamanders, snakes and the most wonderful flowers. Sunshine to nearly 40c, blizzards and high bivys down to -10c.
Lots of pain and huge amounts of pleasure, we reveled in glorious landscapes and met some amazing people.................just for now we will let it sink in!


Pyrenees Haute Route Variants

Having through hiked the Pyrenees twice, deficiencies in Ton Joosten's HRP route become more evident. Obviously individual timescales, snow conditions, prevailing weather and re-supply strategy all make demands on route selection but there are some sections that can certainly be improved. A look at the original George Veron Guide is useful.
One such section is that from Gavarnie to Biados. Here Joosten will send you all the way down to Heas with a road walk to the Auberge and camping that in high season is often full. Following the climb out to Hourquette Heas, Hourquette Chermentas and Barroude you descend once more through the Cirque de Barrosa to a very busy road to follow towards Parzan before which you turn up a dirt road for the long climb up to Collado de Urdiceto. In effect you have traversed through a wild, high section of the Pyrenees mostly on road and track and to a large extent low down, not very Haute Route.
There is an alternative, not for bad weather, but certainly far more interesting and within the spirit of the HRP, this would be the George Veron route.

Follow the HRP from Gavarnie through the Hourquette d'Alans and head down the Cirque d'Estaube to Lac des Gloriettes. At the southern end of the lake a bridge leads to a rising path heading East, follow this as the way becomes clearer and eventually a broad grass track that intersects the road leading to the Cirque de Troumouse, follow the road to Auberge du Maillet.

Cirque d'Estaube
The Auberge has rooms catering for hikers, meals and a bar, it is also possible to pitch a tent opposite as this is outside the National Park.
From here you will have to follow the road and/or take the paths between the hairpins until picking up the path leading to the Cabane de la Vierge. Paths abound, some human some animal but it is fairly easy to follow the curve of the Cirque in order to reach the Cabane des Aires.

Cabane des Aires, Troumouse.
North East of the Cabane is an obvious hill (Tuc de l'Escaurede), keeping to the South side of this a vague path becomes clearer as you approach the steep flank of Pic de la Sede.Once started the way is clearly marked with many cairns, zig zaging up the steep limestone height is gained quickly to reach the Col de la Sede.

Improbable from here, cabane, hill and flank of la Sede.
There are stunning views of the Cirque de Troumouse from the Col de la Sede.

Cirque de Troumouse.
At the Col rather than going through climb up onto the ridge and head South towards Pic de Gerbats where you will find a vague path through the scree and boulders below the cliff of its Northern flank. On arriving at the grassy edge there are increasingly dramatic views into Barroude as you get closer to Pic de la Gela.

Barroude and the ridge to Rioumajou.
If you have the time there are great views from Pic de la Gela or continue to skirt below its peak on a traverse to gain the ridge at a grassy col and continue North Westerly to gain Horquette de Heas. (This final section of ridge is quite narrow and rocky, a la Striding Edge, approach with caution in poor conditions)

Approaching Hourqette de Heas.
Back on the standard route now heading East and then South through Hourquette de Chermentas on a clear path to Barroude. Really miss the Refuge for it's friendly welcome and sustenance, I hope that one day it will be re-built.

Lac de Barroude.
From Barroude it is a short climb up to Port de Barroude. Here Joosten's guide has you descending the Cirque de Barrosa and on down to the Parzan road before joining the GR11 up the long dirt road to Urdiceto. Instead we turn left and follow the ridge over Pic de Port Vieux.

Leaving Barroude.
This is a long day, through hiking with a reasonable pack at least 9hrs walking so be prepared and take enough water for the day. The ridge is generally wide and easy but poor visibility could lead you into problems with steep ground and you would be very exposed to stormy weather, having said that it is escapable at fairly regular intervals on reasonable paths. The way is obvious in places, but not always, there are cairns and the occasional white paint mark indicating the way but in good weather sticking to the ridge the way is pretty obvious.

Pic de Bataillence.
The real sting comes right at the end if the ridge where you arrive at a well marked col just South of Pic de Lias. The initial down climb is steep and loose and seemingly heading into an abyss, but orange paint marks on your left (looking out) on better rock provides a fairly easy descent that soon eases.

Un-named col South of Pic de Lias.
There is now a long traversing descent to reach Hospice de Rioumajou that is not to be under-estimated, nothing difficult but route finding can be taxing as the path disappears repeatedly in the grassy sections as you search for orange paint flashes on the odd rock!

Long way down to Rioumajou.
Hospice de Rioumajou is not going to be of any use as I think it closes at about 4pm, but there is a water source, a bivouac area and a good foot soak in the river on a nice evening can set you up for tomorrow.

Hospice de Rioumajou.
Veron now takes you South on a very pleasant hike to Port de Urdiceto where we can rejoin the GR11 to Camping Forcallo or Refugio de Biados. There is also Port de Plan which will also lead on down to the GR11 and Port de la Madera which catches up with the GR11 beyond both the camping and Refugio.

Leaving Rioumajou.
A fine route, highly recommended for inclusion in anyone's Haute Route Pyrenees crossing.


Shoe Review: La Sportiva Raptor and Synthesis Mid gtx, Salewa mtn Trainer gtx, Millet Trident gtx, Super Trident gtx and Garmont Dragontail MTN

Ok so this is a real mixed bag, but these are all shoes I have worn, abused and destroyed in the last 12 months or so. Despite big names, much marketing hype and sometimes misleading reviews I will try and give it straight, particularly as it's my money that paid for them all.
Obviously fit is hugely important, my feet are fairly standard for Northern Europeans, a fairly broad forefoot and across the toes and a low arch in a size 45, somewhere between a hobbit and a ballerina! (have you seen a ballerina's feet!?)

La Sportiva Raptor

La Sportiva Raptor
Firstly these really fit my feet, plenty of room up front, a very supportive mid section and incredibly stable heel, this shoe is so right in many ways. The lace system is simple, but given the elasticated integral tongue I more often than not just slip them on. Then we have the sole, stable in the right places and bendy where it needs to be, it will grip to pretty much anything. Lastly the mesh upper is super breathable making them really comfortable in hot weather.
The perfect hiking shoe? Well for me not quite, that super breathable mesh upper lets water straight in, now most modern ultralight hikers seem to love this but I struggle on multi week trips to stop my feet falling apart in the end. Bashed feet when tackling lots of boulder fields and scree can be wearing as can the amount of debris that finds its way through the mesh and don't try and kick steps in a snow slope with them. Good for about 500 miles so on long trips they will need replacing.

La Sportiva Synthesis Mid

La Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX
Well I fell for the marketing guff and shiny reviews on their release expecting the "STB Technology stabilizes the foot by wrapping the midsole and unifying the midsole with the upper for the perfect locked-down fit" would be similar to the Raptor. Unfortunately there is nothing remotely fitted about this shoe, it has none of the arch support, heal stability or forefoot stability provided by the Raptor, it is just wide, baggy and the foot slides around on a flat innersole.
Despite all this they were light and waterproof which I needed for an upcoming hike, what the hell. Well they lasted 16 days, and it was only that long because it took a few days to hike out to a town big enough to replace them, by which time both shoes leaked, both lace systems were broken and the sole was coming away from both. If after all this you are still tempted do not attempt wet rock unless you enjoy skating!
I did contact La Sportiva's UK distributor on my return, Lyon Outdoor, who kindly provided a refund through the retailer.

Salewa mtn Trainer

Salewa mtn Trainer GTX
Whilst reasonably broad in the forefoot these are narrower across the toes causing some discomfort to the small toes. Support under the arch is quite pronounced and takes some getting used to, but once you are they feel particularly stable and comfortable( if your feet are the right shape). I have worn these a lot day to day on and around Dartmoor and in most conditions have been reliable except on damp or wet rock where grip is at best average.

Millet Trident

Millet Trident GTX
Broad across the forefoot, just broad enough in the toe box, a supportive heal and a very stable sole unit, goretex too. I had great expectations for these shoes and in many ways they are my favorites. The fit isn't quite as good as the Raptor or as comfortable to walk in but they still have great grip and a "connected" feel to the ground. Very happy across boulder fields, up and down steep scree or kicking snow steps.
So what's wrong, well they have had a hardish 25 days and they are in bits! Cuillin Traverse nearly 3 days (we are slow!), Ogwen valley easy climbs 3 days, La Porta Del Cel (Pyrenees) 4 days, Pic's Lliterola, Royo and Perdiguero (Pyrenees) 2days, Troumouse-Barroude-Rioumajou and return (Pyrenees) 4 days, Pic Grande Fache (Pyrenees) 2 days, plus a couple of bimbles on Dartmoor and a day climbing at the Dewerstone prior to going to Skye hardly makes the 25 but I'll be generous. The side protection rand is sewn, rather than bonded to the shoe like the toe bumper, and through abrasion both sides have blown out. 
I have tried contacting Millet about the poor construction/design flaw of these shoes but had no response.

Millet Super Trident

Millet Super Trident GTX
I bought these in the Pyrenees last year when the Sportiva Synthesis shoes failed so completely. I am not keen on Mids generally as I end up with sore achilles, as I did here, but there was little choice and the rest of the fit was good. They have covered a good 300 miles of hard mountain trails and show little real wear other than the rand blowing out again as above although these have retained their shape and integrity better than their fabric counterparts. However in both cases it seems ridiculous that footwear apparently created for the Chamonix Guides last less than a month and are less durable than a pair of trail runners.
If however Millet were to bond a rubber rand around the Trident Mid or Shoe as other manufacturers do these would be as near to perfect for me as I would expect to find.

 Garmont Dragontail Mtn

Garmont Dragontail Mtn GTX after 94 days hiking

I bought these in the Pyrenees (2016) as cover for a pair of Millet shoes (see above) that were falling apart. Fast forward to spring 2017 and I was undecided about what to wear for our Via-Alpina through hike. Knowing the Millet boots or shoes were unlikely to last even halfway, I wore the Dragontails to work and around Dartmoor in the run up to our departure. Pleasantly surprised they were chosen.
The fit is broad across the forefoot and very secure in the heal, with lacing down to the toes it is very easy to customise the fit. At first they felt harsh and "clumpy" but they wore in quite quickly becoming comfortable for long days even on hard ground, although not as comfortable or connected as the Millet.  
However I think the fit is a little short, great for scrambling but not so good for long descents. The original insoles are a rubbish piece of foam that once damp (sweat or rain) will just rot your feet, they need to be swapped out for a proper insole. The other negative was the Goretex leaked from the first rain storm we had in Slovenia which meant managing periodic bouts of wet feet over the next 90+ days.
All that said they lasted to the end, tired but relatively intact (my wife's boots had to be replaced at Samoens) so the general construction, apart from the goretex liner, is extremely good. As a result I will buy these again in the non gtx lite version as I think they will be great for summer scrambling and easy climbs.


Locus Gear Menkaura Sil Review

Menkaura camping high in the Pyrenees

I have long been a fan of single pole tents for both their simplicity and their weatherliness and like many our first was the Golite Shangri-la 3. Whilst this provided a comfortable home on extended trips it was not particularly light, the door zip always snagged and strapping trekking poles together as a centre pole to keep the weight down was an unnecessary faff.

Shangri-La 3 on the HRP

A search of the web will now reveal a myriad of " mids" constructed by cottage manufacturers around the globe using the latest gucci fabrics.
Locus Gear first caught my eye because I couldn't find a picture of a badly erected tent, testament to their cut and design, but initially their models were either too big or too small, that is until they came out with the Menkaura. At 270cm x 270cm it had great floor space for 2 and a height of 130cm meant only needing  a single trekking pole to set it up, but still plenty of headroom to sit up for breakfast in bed and getting dressed and generally hanging around in shitty weather.
In the real world this is a shelter that is up in moments whether using just the Sil Nylon fly or in combination with the mesh inner. Total combined weight of ours including stuff sacks, additional tie outs and a good set of pegs is just under 1500g (this includes the heavier PU Taffeta inner).

Menkaura with a view to Posets

Whilst I had high expectations for this tent they were very soon surpassed as we encountered storm after storm on it's first outing to the Pyrenees. The slightly lower profile and pyramid shape give the wind very little to get hold of, allowing a more relaxed approach to pitch selection. An 8hr storm with all the proper accompaniments will still be bumpy but I don't worry about the tent anymore.
It's very nice when the sun shines too!

Locus Gear Menkaura near Iraty Pyrenees

Menkaura mesh inner, Iparla Ridge
Down sides?..... as with any lightweight tent and mesh inner combination condensation can be an issue and I am not convinced the built in vent does much, however undoing the door a little from the top is pretty effective.
Sil Nylon holds on to water, so whether it is condensation or rain from last nights storm and you want an early start you are going to have a wet fly. I always pack mine in the compression straps of whatever sack I am using and if possible give it the chance to dry over a lunch stop, no big deal. Sil nylon is also more forgiving than cuben fibre when it comes to difficult pitches without even looking at the comparative costs.
So how good?..... this is about the only gear I have not changed in the past 3 years, in fact I have just bought another Menkaura Sil in another colour because we need something a bit more stealthy for a long trip next year, love it!

Our new Locus Gear Menkaura in Snowdonia 

Locus Gear Menkaura on a cold and snowy morning
Via-Alpina GR5 Mont Thabor French Alps

More snow for the Menkaura in the French Alps


Hiking "La Porta del Cel" in the Pyrenees

Last year during our second traverse of the Pyrenees we had intended to include an ascent of Pic d'Estats, however the weather had other ideas and it was whilst sheltering at Camping Bordes de Graus we learned of "La Porta del Cel" (Sky's Door). The route generally starts at Tavascan with a short walk to the Refuge at Bordes de Graus and continues clockwise via the Refuges of Certascan, Pinet and Vallferrera, taking in the Peaks of Certascan and d'Estats before returning to Tavascan. Whilst we were not interested in staying at the refuges and getting the T-shirt the route looked fun and whilst being roasted on a Mediterranean beach we were in need of mountains.
Not wanting to drive all the way around into Spain we decided to start in Ariege (l'Artigue) and pick up the route at Aiguamolls and continue anti-clockwise towards Certascan thus allowing ourselves a little time to find our feet before Pic d'Estats.

Cascades de l'Artigue

From the parking at l'Artigue we initially follow the path to Refuge Pinet but soon leave on a rising path along the North side of the Ruisseeau de l'Artigue. The path splits again on crossing the stream, the northerly route heading to Pic Rouge and ours continuing westerly into a hanging valley, where we join the main route, before finally reaching Port de l'Artiga (2477m) with clear views over to tomorrow mornings objective Pic de Certascan.

Pic de Certascan from Port de l'Artiga
A well marked path led us on down to Estany de Romedo de Baix and then back up to Estany Romedo de Dalt where we knew there were good camping spots. Pitch selected, a swim in the lake, supper and we were ready for sleep.

Estany de Romedo de Dalt

Much of today is familiar from our HRP crossing in 2013, a short climb to the col before a steep descent and traverse to Estany de Certascan and the Refuge.

Estany de Certascan

Under clear skies we climbed to the Coll de Certascan, no snowfield this year, dumped our packs and set off to climb Pic de Certascan. Great views and a small group of Bouquetin on the summit made the climb worthwhile.

Pic de Certascan with Bouquetin

All downhill from here, return to the col for a snack before starting the long descent to Noarre and on to Camping Bordes de Graus for much needed cold beer, followed by an equally required shower! Supper was as hearty, fun and tasty as usual, late and full we turned in.


Whatever way you look at this route our third day would be the crux, having decided to stay at Bordes de Graus meant adding the short section down to Tavascan on to what would undoubtedly be a long day, and so it proved. In just over an hour of pleasant walking we were outside the only shop in Tavascan, we waited 10 mins before ringing the bell, after a shout from the balcony above it was another 10 mins before the door opened. Re supplied and fed in the warming sun we set off to climb out of the valley, from 1100m it would be 7hrs of up before reaching our high point of the day, Roca Cigeralera, at 2668m.

Leaving Tavascan

It was here that we met a shepherd with his flock, 3 collies and 2 mountain dogs. Having worked as a shepherd it was great to talk sheep and dogs in such an amazing position.

Pyrenean Mountain dog at Roca Cigalera

From here the route descends from Coll de la Llaguna across a fairly testing boulder field, up to coll de Sellente and down again to the unmanned Refugi de Baborte. At this point most trekkers would continue down to Refugi de Vallferrera but without the need to visit the refuge we continued rather sluggishly to Coll de Baborte intent on finding a bivy spot around the Estanys de la Coma de Sotllo.

Coll de Baborte from Coll de Sellente

It was very tired legs that searched out a flat spot that evening but we were in a prime position for tomorrow and so far the weather was still good.

Someone reluctant to leave their sleeping bag

Despite some reluctance in the camp we were away by 7am the following morning to descend to Estany de Sottlo to pick up the main route up Pica d'Estats, a steady climb and then steeply through scree up to Port de Sotllo and into France.

Port de Sotllo

The main path went way down to avoid a rock step and snow which were easily tackled without having to lose much height and from Coll de la Cometa we followed the direct line of ascent.

This way!

This felt like a proper mountain summit despite the crowds it was high, pointy and strangely remote feeling, all helped by the rather obvious change in the weather.

Pica d'Estats

All thoughts of Pic de Montcalm were dismissed and we set off  to see if we could beat the inevitable.

Storm clouds

Before we reached Etang d'Estats we were swallowed by cold wet mist reaching the Refuge Pinet in light rain and zero visibility. After a short stop for a drink we stepped out into heavier rain and rolling thunder which would accompany us all the way back to l'Artigue with bouts of heavy rain and hail for good measure but nothing could dampen our spirits following our 4 days on La Porta Del Cel.


Cuillin Ridge Traverse

Cuillin Ridge
This was a bit of a weird one for me as there was no real thought or planning because I didn't really expect it to happen. A chance comment to a very old friend from the dark ages led to us agreeing that if the forecast was ok-ish for the last week in May we would drive up and have a look.
Now as much as I love Scotland I gave up going there a long time ago. In another life, for a few years, I would drive through on my way to Shetland buying sheep in the Borders and on the Islands, the weather usually appalling. I even persuaded my wife to come with me on a couple of summer excursions, the weather was similarly appalling for the most part, we do however still talk about standing atop An Teallach under a glorious blue sky looking out to the Summer Isles, but despite the passing years we also remember the midges! So living on South Dartmoor close to a ferry port it's actually easier to head south to the Pyrenees. Anyway the forecast was pretty optimistic.

16 hours driving brought us to Glen Brittle campsite. Some sleep and then copious amounts of coffee we settled the camping bill and by mid morning we were gearing up to go. Now I had never been here before and my partner in crime had sat on Skye in the rain on a few occasions in the hope of getting on to the ridge, pretty much a pair of virgins. We did have some photocopies of a guide, a good 2+ days food and a well established ability to suffer, we were ready.

We followed the well trod path from the campsite towards the southern end of the ridge and headed up into Coir'a' Ghrunnda to the Loch for a quick lunch. Here we gained the ridge and headed south in the sunshine to Gars-Bheinn where we about faced and did it all again including the detour to Sgurr Dubh Mor. We now needed to replenish water supplies and with the previous day's travelling catching up with us we headed down to a bivy spot we spied earlier beneath the T-D Gap with a good spring.

Apart from my snoring mate a good night was had and we were breakfasted and back on the ridge quite quickly having finally given up our warm sleeping bags, no alpine starts here! The immediate scramble up to, abseil off, and climb back out of the T-D Gap first thing in the morning certainly grabbed our attention, but what an awesome day of never ending interest we had as far as Bealach na Glaic Moire where finding a good supply of melting snow only a few metres off the ridge we decided to have supper and set up our second bivy.

Well we were lucky the forecasted showers didn't arrive during the night but the niggling northerly breeze of the previous 2 days intensified making for a freezing bivy, wore everything but still too cold to catch more than a few moments of sleep. Dawn brought the sun again and the wind died back to a breeze, I just lay finally warm in my sleeping bag, seriously tough getting out!
We were both tired and although it didn't look as though we had far to go it was slow going, route finding to multiple abseils it was a relief to have sections of grade 3 scrambling to solo!
With lunch on the summit of Bruach na Frithe the end was in plain view. Arriving at the Baister Tooth we were both fried and bypassed it to climb Am Baister up the east ridge then return to Bealach a'Bhasteir to climb Sgurr nan Gillean to complete the ridge.

Having given no thought to what happens now it was fortuitous to meet several people on the summit who wanted to descend in the same direction as us but didn't have a rope or harness for the final abseil, lift back to Glen Brittle negotiated we saw everyone down and staggered the remaining miles down to Sligachan in a daze. Having showered at the campsite the breeze that had been our companion for the last 3 days died and the midges came out to feast! Crisps, peanuts and a few noodles provided a celebratory supper whilst hiding in the van.
A broken nights sleep preceded the caffeine fueled 16 hour journey home, what an adventure! Thanks Pete.