Hike in Vosges! It was our first official holiday since I settled in France at the end of February. My husband, Silviu, and I had planned our vacation since January. We wanted to jumpstart the spring season with a 5-day stay in Gérardmer at the end of April.
Exploring the Vosges Mountains, 25 – 29 April 2016
We were looking forward to shrug off the cold grey season, and cruise on the trails in the coniferous forests, under the clear blue sky, in the crispy spring air.
Our key race for this year is the 50km OCC, a sister race of UTMB at the end of August, and we need hill training. Unfortunately, living in Île le de France (a region in the north central of France which encompasses the Parisian region), incorporating long hill training will be hard as the hills here are generally less than 200m, and also, the trails are mostly urban trails with not much technicality. We were hoping that the stay in Gérardmer would let us catch up on some elevation training.
Get to Gérardmer
Gérardmer is 440km east of Paris. We took a TGV (France’s high-speed rail service) from Paris and reached Épinal, a neighbouring town of Gérardmer, in less than 2.5 hours. By the time we reached Épinal, the temperature had dropped to low single digits. When our bus dropped us at Gérardmer, situated at an altitude of 670m, we were greeted by snow flurries lashing onto our faces.
Looming cold snap
Our happy warm images were faced with an escalating sense of foreboding a week before our departure. The weather forecast showed temperatures plunging and even the possibility of snow during our 5-stay in Gérardmer.
After checking into the hotel, we braved the snow flurries, mixed with freezing rain, to have a quick glimpse of Lake Gérardmer, the largest lake in Vosges and was born out of glacier origins. After seeing the various photos of the lake advertised on the internet, it was disappointing to see a grey body of water, partially cloaked by the winter fog – all colours were tainted by the winter.
The snow flurries were relentless, and did not let up the rest of the day, nor for the next three days. The temperature in Gérardmer, mostly remained around freezing point. A thin layer of snow covered the town centre.
Untested winter running gear
One of the worries we had was whether the running gear that we brought with us was adequate for the weather. Neither of us had ever hiked/ran in snow before, nor thus never tested our gear in this type of inclement weather.
Struggle out of warm hotel bed
It was indeed very hard to get ourselves out of the warm hotel bed. However, seeing that there was not much to do in the town, our hotel room was too small for us to be cooped for days, and that we had already spent not an insignificant amount on the travelling expenses, we decided to bite the bullet and brave the snow.
Station de Trail
In 2011, France first introduced the concept of Station de Trail, or a “Trail Station”, and the concept has spread to various parts of the country. Each station offers a range of services to outdoor enthusiasts, including well-marked trail routes, which indicate the level of difficulty, shower/changing room facilities for hikers/runners who passed by, and running workshops.
On Day 1 and Day 2, we completed Route 7 of the Station de Trail in Gérardmer and we did parts of Route 6 in Day 3. Similar to the colour codes of ski slopes, the difficulty level of each route is reflected in the colour used to mark the trail. For instance, Route 7, which is marked in red, indicating the most difficult level among the trail routes in the Vosges department.
Route 7 covers the immediate mountains surrounding Lake Gérardmer.
We covered 20km in Day 1, starting from the trailhead next to the ski station, covering the 3 hills on the southern side of the lake, with a total elevation of 740m/D+ (Moving/Elapsed time: 3h 17min/4h 56min).
On Day 2, we covered 962m/D+ over the 3 hills on the northern side of the lake (Moving/Elapsed time: 4h 42min/6h 40min) in 24km.
On our last day, we covered only one peak, and our highest peak in the 3 days, reaching a total elevation of 624m/D+ over 20km.
Running hopes dashed
We abandoned any hope of running soon enough. Our progress was slow. From the trailhead to the first peak at 1,046m, it took us 33min to cover 150m/D+ in 1.3km, that is 2.4km per hour!
Our movement was hampered by the thick pile of snow: at times, each step I placed onto the snow, the snow would sink to my mid-shin. To extract myself, I had to lift my other leg as high up, before sinking down again to into a fresh mound of snow.
Calf and gluts workout
Repeating this action over several hundred metres at any one time, and trying not to tumble over the more resistant snow piles, consumed too much energy. Coupled the thick snow with an uphill climb, it was one of the more effective calf and gluts workout I ever had!
Day 1 (26 April 2016)
The trailhead was 230m higher and about 2.5km away from the town centre. Certain steep sections of the first 2.5km already generated enough heat for me that I had to remove my beanie and the first layer of long-sleeved Icebreaker by the time I reached the trailhead.
A different scene was presented to us when we reached the trail head (ski station). The ski slope was entirely covered in two-inch deep of snow, a scene befitting a ski resort in the WINTER, not end April! A signage at the start indicated the temperature to be 0°C.
There was hardly anyone around and the whole ski station, including the restaurants, was closed. We passed two teenagers, one of them holding a large red circular sledge, walking up the slopes.
During our descents in certain parts of the forest, we were given a glimpse of what the trails could be like, if the weather were much nicer to us: the trails were very runnable, with sections where one could happily cruise along, surrounded by the lush coniferous trees.
There were, however, also sections of the trails that were scattered with rocks and thick roots. These obstacles were hardly visible as many of them were covered with patches of snow. We had to mind where our feet were placed, as any inadvertent quick movement from us might mean a slip and a fall.
Sliding on my butt
It was harder during descents, for instance, the last descent on Day 1, we had to cover a drop of 200m/D- in 1km, on technical trails. At times, I was on my butt, sliding down the trails grabbing the nearby plants.
Day 2 (27 April 2016)
Apprehensive of how our legs would react after 20km of not-used-to activity from yesterday, and saving some energy for today, and Thursday, we started to start gently by fast walking the 3.1km around the lake to the base of the first climb.
The first climb would take us to our 2nd highest peak today, standing at 943m. The trail started with some steps, before turning to a long mountain road covered with snow. The snow must have continued throughout last night to this morning, as the certain sections of the mountain road were piled high with powdery snow.
By the time we started with the 2nd climb, it was already slightly past noon. The lower altitude of 633m and the slightly higher temperature at noon had melted much of the snow. The lush green vegetation which should be expected in the spring, revealed itself, amidst the slush. Instead of the thick snow, we had to pay attention now to where we placed our feet to avoid the puddles of slush.
The first part of the 2nd climb was steep, but was eased by a few small switchbacks. We covered 134m/D+ in 767m, approximating 19% in gradient. The second part of the climb took us up to Roche de Bruyères, at 919m, where a view of Gérardmer and its lake could be admired. The cloudy sky did not do justice to the blue waters of the lake. However, set against the winter grey, the city and its lake revealed a different side of beauty.
The third climb of the day took us to a high of 1,044m, and this was the section where most of the snow trudge took place. By the time we commenced this ascent, we had already covered 15km and tiredness was already seeping in. We estimated that we had dredged our legs through at least 5km of stacks of 20cm deep snow mounds.
In our last descent, we had to cut across two ski slopes. Always feeling slightly vertiginous at heights, walking across the slopes and trying not to trip and slide down the ski slope, already made me nervous. Unable to tear my sight from the plunging view of the Gérardmer valley, made me even more high-strung during the crossing.
By the time we reached the La Mauselaine ski-station (where we started our run on Day 1), it was closed to 5.30pm. The sun was still around, casting a ray of warmth on us. To get to the city centre, was another 1.5km of downhill, mostly on road, mixed with some short steep sections of trails. Just 50m above the city centre at the view point of Roche du Rain, we managed to catch Lake Gérardmer, for the first time in two days, cloaked in its resplendent blue, under a clear sky [Refer to the main feature photo].
Day 3 (28 April 2016)
The moment that I woke up, I could feel the general tiredness the lower half of my body. Today was the last day of our exploration of the Vosges Mountains. We planned to explore the hills on the eastern side of Lac de Gérardmer, which would allow us to visit two more lakes.
Similar to Day 1, our route would start from climbing from the city centre to the ski station of La Mauselaine. The climb to the first lake, Lac de Lispach, was the biggest climb in the last 3 days – a nonstop climb for more than 500m in 6km. The first climb was not as steep as compared to other climbs, but it was still hard as the forecasted improvement in weather did not come through – it was a long, tough trudge up to the peak of La Tête de Grouvelin at 1,140m.
To get to Lac de Longemer, the second lake, we first had to walk on short sections of raised half-a-metre wide wooden walk boards (alternatively, on the muddy patches). The boards were covered with snow that had refrozen (and thus slippery). We then traversed on a narrow trail that was covered with one to two inches of snow, that cut across the face of the slope.
If one tripped and slipped on the snow, or inadvertently placed the foothold on a pile of snow, thinking it was part of the less than two-feet wide trail, one could easily tumble down the slope – not too steep and deep (about 10m), but strewn with rocks. At certain sections, iron rods were constructed to aid in crossing from one precarious part to another.
After safely cutting across the face, the descent was short, but steep, over rocky terrain, mostly covered with wet snow. I spent most of the descent on my butt, sliding down slippery, muddy rocks, mixed with snow patches.
By the time we reached the road, next to the 2nd lake, we had already covered 13km and more than 600m/D+ in 4h. We decided to call it a day, and abandon the initial plan to climb the second hill, which would take us directly back to the city. Instead, we just walked 6km on the paved road back to Gérardmer.
Turn adversity into opportunity
64km, 2,326m/D+ in 3 days. The unexpected adverse weather conditions threw our running plans in Vosges astray. Under normal circumstances, we would never have entertained the idea of trudging through inches of snow in the mountains. However, the adverse weather conditions gave us the opportunity to realise that we are physically and mentally strong enough to undertake such feat. It also shows us a different side of the mountains that we usually enjoy within the warmth of a car or the four walls.
Guess what. On our last day in Gérardmer, we woke up with sun shining in a clear blue sky, temperature mid-teens, and not a trace of snow could be seen in the town.