Thursday, 10 July 2014

Mercantour National Park - La Madone de Fenestre

Here's the final, rather tardy, blog post about my recent trip to the French Alps. We moved house over the weekend and it didn't go quite as smoothly as planned, plus I have an Open University assignment due in today - so at least I have some good excuses for my tardiness! Once we've settled in to our new house and I've caught up on my OU reading, I'm hoping to start painting again, now my thumb is just about feeling better :o)

On our third and final day in the Alps, we went on an epic walk starting and ending at La Madone de Fenestre refuge in the Mercantour National Park. This was located kind of around the treeline, with sparse trees dotted around at our starting altitude. There were enough still to provide a habitat for the birds we spotted as we set off, a Nutcracker being mobbed by 2 angry Mistle Thrushes! Around a stream by the car park I also saw a few Yellow Wagtails.

The start of our walk.
Going up...
Pretty soon we were snowshoed up and ascending some slightly alarming gradients! This was definitely the most epic walking I had ever done, concentration was required to follow in our guide Mel's footsteps and dig our feet into the snow properly at each step, for us city dwellers unused to hoofing up mountains it was hard on the ol' legs! On this walk we'd been joined by another couple who were also staying at the gîtes, they were a similar age and were similarly experienced to us when it came to walking (i.e. this was also the most epic walk they had ever done!) so it was nice to share the walk with them.

Looking towards the refuge.

Looking towards the refuge from a bit higher up!
The first part of the walk consisted of several steep ascents like this, interspersed with more level parts and short breaks to rehydrate and re-apply sun cream - it was sunny to start out with and we worked up quite a sweat. I was kind of glad that it soon clouded over as it made the going a bit easier.

View from the ascent.
View from the ascent.
It wasn't long before we saw more Chamois, and our first Alpine Marmots scurrying across the snow! I'd never seen Marmots before, they were bigger than I thought they'd be - think I was expecting something more Lemming-sized for some reason. They weren't too bothered by people and we saw plenty during our walk, some quite close to. We also heard them whistling!

Before the scrubby vegetation disappeared at higher altitudes, we heard lots more Lesser Whitethroats too, I still didn't manage to see one though! Higher up, as the vegetation became much smaller and sparser, there was a lot more uninterrupted snow which was great for spotting animal tracks and signs:

Chamois footprints.
Wolf footprints.
Wolf poop, with a bit of fox poop too (smaller, darker, less furry bits)!
We stopped for lunch on a prominent knoll from which the snow had melted; its dark colour compared to the surrounding snow meant it was pleasantly warm, having absorbed the sun's rays in the morning. Added to this, it was scattered with tiny treasures - miniature Alpine plants!

Alpine Bird's-foot Trefoil, Gentian sp. and Houseleek sp. in our lunchtime spot (apologies for lack of definite IDs!)
The best part of our lunch break though was the juvenile Golden Eagle which flew right over us - my first Golden Eagle, and despite my lack of eagle ID skills, there was no mistaking this one due to its close proximity! Brilliant! After lunch we set off again across the snow, and I spotted distant Wheatear and Black Redstart on some of the scree slopes and rocky outcrops. After a while we had to stop while Mel scouted out the safest route back down - I was glad we were with an expert guide, this was definitely not a walk I would have attempted without someone who knew what they were doing! Here are a few photos I took while he did this.

Up on top.
Up on top.
Up on top.
We started to descend, down some equally steep slopes as the ones we'd come up. This time we carried our snowshoes, and had to dig the sides of our feet into fresh snow to gain a good purchase at each step. I was not strong at this and made slow progress! However at different points we all had a go at sliding down on our bums which sped things up somewhat. As we descended we entered a wooded valley, through which a meltwater stream ran. However this stream was completely hidden beneath the snow and we had to carefully follow in Mel's footsteps to ensure we didn't suddenly plunge through! At one point we had to cross the stream at a carefully-chosen point - we took it one at a time, treading very carefully and tentatively.

As the woods thickened, we saw more boreal birds, and I added Willow Tit to my list. I also spotted this lovely flower:

I think it is a Snowbell sp.
As we reached the end of the walk, Mel informed us that he would place it into the 'challenging' category, that he wouldn't often get the chance to attempt as often their visitors were older and less sprightly than us, so we all felt pretty pleased with ourselves about that!

Chris and I feeling pretty pleased about having conquered a challenging route!
I have attempted to mark out our approximate route on this photo of the map that I took back at the gîte. I think we deviated slightly from some of the mapped paths depending on snow conditions but it gives the main gist!

Our route.

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