The French Vosges: Where the colour ‘green’ was invented

After doing pretty good at Havenloop Gent and Wings For Life and winning “Laat’em Lopen” the week after that, it was starting to get hard to keep the feet on the ground. It took the French Vosges about an hour to bring me down. 3 days later, If I may be so free to take the metaphor one step further, my feet were embedded in the rocks. Humbled. Amazed by everything around me.

DAY 1

We arrive at the edge of Gérardmer on Thursday, early in the afternoon. Still some time left for a first scouting trip. There’s no wi-fi in the apartment to check for routes online, so I head for the highest hill I can spot. On the way there, I run into a sign to “Le Haut du Tot”. I have no clue what it is but it sounds promising so I decide to go for it. What is announced as a 2h05 hike turns out to be a 30 min run. The last bit heads into a little town but I decide to switch routes: the “La chambre du Loup” (room of the wolf) sign just sounds too promising to ignore. It’s a short climb and once at the top, it turns out to be a little space created by some fallen boulders. But the fun bit is that they created a little trail around the top which is tons of fun, technical, fast. I’m having a blast and it’s so beautiful out here. I head back, more or less the same way I came. Given the limited planning, a good run. 26K, 756m+.

DAY 2

We’re 5 minutes out the door and it starts raining. Whatever. I head for the tourist information office and spot some MTB routes starting from a ski station nearby. 25k and about 500m+, not too bad. So I head for the Mauselaine ski station, already a 200m+ climb (“It can be a nice warm-up”, K. Jornet, Tromsø, Sept 2014). Once there, I run into two fellow runners. They tell me the ski station is actually one of the “Stations de Trail“. Things suddenly become a lot more interesting. They point me towards a map with the routes starting from the Mauselaine station. The longest one that’s fully available is 21k and does about 1300m+. Let’s go!

The first part leads me rather directly towards the Tête de Grouvelin, the highest point in the surrounding area. The trail to it consists mostly of service roads & ski tracks, and once there the view is, well, non-existing: with the persistent rain came fog, which is basically all I can see right now. Slightly disappointing so far, this trail.

And then I dive back into the woods and am left with mouth open, both to breathe better during the ascents as well as a natural expression of amazement. This… is… amazing. The trail becomes narrower and more technical. I just can’t get around how GREEN it is out here. Trees reaching up to the sky everywhere. Water coming down from that sky and, via small waterfalls all around, gathers in a lake that suddenly pops up out of nowhere below me. In that lake, some small islands in the lake that turn out to be just thin layers of dirt & vegetation gathered over hundreds of years, floating atop of water plants. I’m in awe.

If the climbs are relatively mild & gentle (the “Ballons” in the French Vosges are known to be not all that steep), the descents aren’t. Branches & trees across the path, loose rocks, you name it. Add some rain and it becomes a small miracle that I “only” fall once. Part of this miracle is called “Salomon S-LAB Sense Ultra“, by far the best running shoes I’ve ever worn. I realize I’m wearing more or less the same stuff I was wearing during CCC and how all of it, the SKINS a400 pants, the montane waterproof jacket,… are holding up easily given the conditions. Who needs sun when you have gear like this? It’s 5 hours later when I arrive back at the opposite side of the Gérardmer lake. Another 5 minutes and I’m home. It stops raining. I smile at the sarcasm of it all. I couldn’t care less. 40k, 1553m+.

DAY 3

That doesn’t mean I don’t like myself some sun every now and then though, and the view of mountains bathing in sun and the kind of fog that predicts a sunny day the next morning is a welcome one. A solid breakfast and a short car trip later, I find myself at the foot of “Le Grand Ballon”. I gear up and leave without really taking note of my exact location.

The trip to the rooftop of the Vosges is pleasant: There’s a separate hiking trail meandering close to the road. There’s a downside to it too though: After 7km of running, I’m a mere 200m higher than my starting point, even though it feels like I’ve been climbing more than twice that amount. As a result of this, the last 2k are STEEP! But the view you get at the top easily makes up for this. Spectacular! I take some time to take it all in (including a persistently crying toddler who refuses to go up the final flight of stairs). I take the shortest and possibly slightly illegal route down to the nearest road, but since it’ll probably be another half hour before Kim passes by, I head further down in the opposite direction I arrived from.

From here onwards, I’m just guessing what’s doable. I spot a sign towards “Judenhut” and decide to go for it. Once arrived, there’s a faded map of the region and another sign direction ‘Gustiberg’ and ‘Lac du Grand Ballon’. The lac turns out to be rather splendid and the trail next to the river that springs from it even more so. Another map of the surroundings and I decide to head for ‘Lac duLauch’, passing the beautiful Seebach waterfalls. I keep going lower and lower. And given the fact that the lake is an artificial one, this can only mean one thing: there’s a climb coming up… When I finally reach it, it looks more like a wall. A combination of stairs and really steep trails. I hate stairs. This lake better be awesome.

The lake is awesome, but in fact, the climb is a reward by itself. Trees, a few houses high, lie about like mikado sticks, ripped out by water or wind. I feel small again. I take some time to take it in and then head for the top of the Markstein, hoping there’s some shop or restaurant there so I can refill my water. The climb is steep, partially over a ski slope, but there IS a shop and I eat & drink plenty and refill for the last part. When I’m about to head out in the direction of where I think I parked the car, I spot a sign saying “Grand Ballon, 7k”. That’s weird… exactly the same distance as from where I’m parked. I turn around and to my surprise spot the car. Hello sense of orientation. With 45k on the counter, I decide to run the first 5k of the ascent once more and then retrace my steps. 55k, 1766m+

DAY 4

On the Final day we do a short hike together. Another 12k and 300+ m ascent. The sun is at full force and we’re having fun. My legs hurt. Kim’s legs hurt. But I guess that was the purpose of this trip and the proof that we just had a very productive weekend. And no less beautiful. Vosges, you’re pretty damn amazing if you ask me.

 

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