Friday, September 28, 2012


The time finally came to wrap up our stay in Chateauroux and move to the Dolomites.  Our group would be growing in Italy with the additions of Nenad and Phil, friends and cyclists from Reno, so we had secured a roomy apartment in the mountain village of Alleghe.

We gleefully ignored the length of the drive until the morning of, then had a minor panic when we realized it was a 7+ hour affair.  Oh well; time to get going!

We were already near the Italian border, so after navigating a good bit of tourist traffic near Briancon, we were cleared for takeoff on the autostrada.  Or so we thought.  Thanks to our access to stunning technology in this golden age of electronics, I'm able to bring you a transcript of the in-car dialogue during the first few kilometers of our autostrada journey:

Oh look; what's that?  Oh, a toll booth?  That's cute.  It's 9 euro?!  Hmm.  Ok, well at least that's over.

[silence for a few minutes]

Um, what's that up ahead?  Is that another toll booth?  That's odd.  This one wants 12 euro???

[grumbling, followed by more silence]

That had BETTER not be another toll booth!

[frenzied screaming, unintelligible profanities]

So, something like 70 euro later,  we crossed Italy, left the autostrada, and entered heavy traffic in the mountains.  We had the misfortune of traveling during the end of Italy's big summer holiday period, and the landscape was overrun with tourists (of which we were included), so it was slow going through tiny villages with 1.5-lane wide roads.

All was well, though, and we made Alleghe that evening.  Alleghe is located along a lake at the base of the Civetta Group of the Dolomites, a visually stunning sub-range (the Dolomites are spread across a fairly large region).  It's predominantly a winter resort town; our apartment was across the street from the ski resort's gondola.  However, it's busy during the summer, too - mountain biking and hiking abound.

Our location was about as central as it could possibly be.  A ~200m loop would take us on our daily path of bread, fruit, vegetable, and meat shopping, and we were steps away from an enoteca, a pizzeria, a gelateria, and several other -erias.  In other is good.

Serving as our home base for the next 10 days, we rapidly got down to settling in to the easy life in Alleghe.  Brace thyselves, Faithful 7, as there will be a whole spate of posts from here, broken out logically by what we were getting up to.

Let's start with a quick wander around Alleghe as night sets in.  Sorry; it's not a comprehensive tour.  I did not have that in mind and just did the ADD thing for spots that caught my eye.  Besides, you'll be more interested to see the mountains etc.

Old firewood shack as day fades

Shack detail

Stone and wood

Town church, with ridiculously loud (and frequent) bells

One interesting quirk about Italy's mountain towns is that they take the concept of the siesta to staggering new heights.  With the exception of a couple cafes, the town pretty much entirely shut down from noon until 4 or 4:30.  Naptime!

Lots to come; stay tuned.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lac du Distroit

Well, sadly, this is the last post from France.  Not sadly, we've still got lots of ground to cover.

So on the day of the race, I decided that I didn't quite have the stomach to go spectate/cheer/cryintomybeer, so instead we did the out of sight out of mind thing and headed for the mountains in the Ecrins National Park above Chateauroux.  We picked a hike to an infrequently traveled lake called Lac du Distroit, and it ended up being a nearly empty trail, as well.  More room for us!

We had also dragged Ethel's mom along with us, who is not a regular hiker.  She did, however, keep plugging along, did the entire hike, and (I hope) enjoyed herself, even if she totally worn out the next day. This was certainly the longest and hardest day outside she's ever had, and she was a trooper.

Also, Ed and Beth had just arrived from New York, so it was an easy sell to get them up in the mountains to beat their jetlag.

Ed and Beth shiver together

We made a steep climb up a big cliff face before we topped out into a big lush meadow that also housed this little waterfall.  We wound our way through this meadow as the trail meandered from rockpile to creek and vice versa.  The trail finally started another big climb, and the horizon line began to suggest that we were nearly to the top.

Lone survivors above treeline

Midstream growth

As we neared the top of the last climb, it became apparent that this was cow country; we had passed some structures down below that didn't look too dilapidated, and then we happened upon the herd.  These high alpine cows were proof that California's "Happy Cows" campaign is a bunch of crap.

Surveying her kingdom (queendom?)


Murphy gets all Zen

After playing with the cows for a bit, who were totally unbothered by our presence, we hiked the last few minutes to the lake.

Holy epic reflection


Little blue guys

While still inviting and in a blissful setting, Lac du Distroit lacked some of the raw appeal of the High Sierra lakes.  We all swam, and life was good.

Lac du Distroit (click for -much- larger) [bonus points for whoever can find Beth...]

The hike back down was a little more relaxed as we were no longer worried about running out of daylight; we'd gotten kind of a late start after settling in to our habit of lazy mornings punctuated by baguettes and coffee.


Love the sharp ridgeline as it wraps around

Windswept grass

Beth made a new friend; a butterfly took up residence on the bill of her hat and stayed there for about 3 miles of the trip down.  Persistent little bugger!  Maybe he just wanted a free ride.


Stowaway, closer

As we approached the bottom, the day was starting to fade, and that presented a couple photo opportunities that weren't prime when we were on the way up, not to mention that I didn't want to be responsible for an early turnaround up top just to ensure that we'd make it back down before dark.

I name thee Vector Falls


Safely back to the trailhead with some day to spare, we lazily retreated back to the house and...big surprise...drank some wine and told stories.  We only had another day in France before a huge travel day to Italy, so this was our last big mission and one worth savoring.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Cold Flow

When we finally descended from the demoiselles, it was near dark.  Grateful to be on flat ground, my only real objective was getting back home, but I had the misfortune of turning my head towards the river and seeing something worth stopping for.

The full scene

Photo geeks: 30" exposure with the 90mm tilt-shift at f/5.6.  The tilt axis is rotated about 30 degrees from horizontal to match the terrain, at it only took about one degree of tilt to bring the water into sharp focus.  As noted, it was minutes away from darkness, so I'm not entirely sure how I got this properly focused, but hey, every squirrel gets a nut sometime!

And since you're stuck viewing this at web-res:

Bonus crop

We've only got one more hike to get through before we shift from France to terrain and sights soon to come!


Friday, September 21, 2012

Demoiselles Coiffees

Yes, "demoiselles coiffees" is a bit of a tongue twister.  Perhaps you've heard of hoodoos, or earth pyramids, or fairy chimneys.  They're all pretty much the same thing, but the demoiselles are the French version.  Translation?  "Ladies with hairdos."

Some of the ladies

There are some more well-known examples closer to Embrun, but we were wandering around up in the hills one day and came upon these.  These are not totally undocumented, or even well-hidden, but they're certainly not publicized either.  They're also pretty easy to get a view of, albeit devilishly difficult to get close to.  Of course, I wanted to get close to them.  So predictable in my old age...

Up close

I actually scared the shit out of myself getting to them.  Well, not literally.  They were perched along a 50+ degree slope with curious footing...grippy right up until it was weighted, at which point it evaporated into a gleeful frictionless cascade.  Even with good shoes, I was clinging to frail bits of vegetation, half-accepting that at some point, I'd tumble backwards and go head over heels into the rock pungee pit below.


Another group

Quick geology lesson:  these are erosion-formed oddities.  As ground erodes away, and if conditions are right, harder rock protects softer rock (or earth) beneath it, and the whole column eventually becomes freestanding.  There can be several flavors of the topper rock and the supporting material, but that's the basic premise.  Over time, the column will collapse, depending on the hardiness of its material.  Plug for a friend: for some excellent examples of some North American hoodoos, check out Chris' description here, or search results here.

You can see the factory in the left side of the frame...many of these will not survive

The French demoiselles are far different than, say, the ones Chris shows off.  Instead of homogenous sandstone underneath, these are made of something that resembles natural concrete; a fortunate mix of dirt and smaller rocks that stay bonded enough to support the sometimes huge topper rock.

Dusky skyline

It started to get dark, which was great for photo opportunities, but my difficulties ascending this terrain were looming large in my mind, even though I had a headlamp.  So while the potential was there to make a night of it, a safe-ish retreat while there was still a little light in the sky seemed like a far healthier choice.


Most of the main group

And...this next one seemed well worth the extra effort afterwards.

Lights on!

This definitely was a fun mission to occupy an evening; unique formations in nearly inaccessible terrain.  All the makings of "you wouldn't believe the great photos I had on my camera before it tumbled off a cliff!"  Fortunately escaped that fate...


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Col d'Izoard

A few days into our stay, we decided to recon the bike course for Embrunman, just to see what it was all about. I mean, we had a rough idea.  The course's reputation, along with the elevation profile (yes, I shared this before), ought to have been enough.

Izoard is the cute bump in the middle

Its centerpiece climb is Col d' Izoard, a comically arduous "feature" to put in the middle of a triathlon.  However, our first look at the enormity of the first uptick on the profile proved that this course was not a one-trick pony.  One short section was marked at 20%...

As we made our way around the course, we finally approached Col d'Izoard, one of the French giants.  Izoard itself climbs over 1500m from the valley, and while most of it is pretty mellow, a lot of it is not.

Ethel and her mum play self-portrait with me as prop

The view from the top is pretty amazing; even on a semi-clear day, we could see five ridgelines off into the distance.  These roads deposit us charmingly high into the mountains, where dramatic landscapes are right in front of us instead of far off.  Trails abound, and it's not uncommon to find entire families picnicking in places that would otherwise take hours and hours to get to.


The road drops dramatically away on the far side, serpentine g-force generators beckoning the brave.  Those willing to unlock the mysteries of two tiny contact patches squirming on grip-granting asphalt will be rewarded with an exhilarating trip down the dragon's spine.

Izoard's secrets lay herein

Unsuprisingly, this is about where I got a little bit bitter.  Cars and RVs are second-class citizens on these roads.  Nimble machines, like motorcycles or, oh, say, bicycles are the kings of the road.  Two-wheeled transportation is so deeply ingrained in French culture that cyclists of all ages and fitness levels are revered on these roads, nary a complaint from "inconvenienced" motorists.  Not to mention that they get preferential parking up top by virtue of their size!  After my first trip to this area a couple years ago, driving up any of these passes seemed like a waste of time and fuel.

And here we were: the enemy, cluttering the road with our awkward, inefficient machine.  I pined to be in the shorts of every single cyclist we passed on the way up or down.  Since that sounds fantastically dirty, maybe we'll switch "shorts" to "shoes."  Anyhow, I put it out of my mind, forced myself to forget that I wouldn't be turning myself inside out over this stretch of road in a few short days with a thousand anonymous brothers and sisters.

We careened down the descent, engine braking wildly insufficient to keep our speed in check, even in second gear.  Down and down and down we went, finally reaching Briancon.  We took a quick trip through the touristy but still awesome walled city and then continued on our circumnavigation of the racecourse.

Chapel ceiling in Briancon

By looking at the course profile, one might assume that it's not too bad after Izoard.  Mm hmm.  While there are no "big" climbs left, the little ones are big enough and relentless enough to make their point.  Cruelly, one of them climbs 600 feet in under a mile.

By the time we made it back to Embrun, I was exhausted from sawing the steering wheel back and forth across these roads all day.  While a different kind of exhaustion is inevitable if one travels by bike, suffering up and swooping down through employment of self-propulsion is obviously the right choice.  Although, having a proper automobile like a Lotus or a GT3 would probably be OK, too :)

Next up are some geological oddities that nearly claimed my life, or at least some bones.  Stay tuned!


Monday, September 17, 2012

Things With Wings

I quickly got into the habit of slinging my camera over my shoulder as we went about our business in Chateauroux.  The daily ritual of walking alllllll the way to and from the bakery was as good an excuse as any to find interesting things to photograph.

Here are some various insects.  I am unable to identify most of them with any certainty (or beyond, "Hey, that's a big moth!") , but I'd love to know what they are.  So if you happen to know...please speak up.

Feasting fly

Hummingbird-sized moth (really)

Butterfly detail

Butterfly + grasshoppa

Garden dweller

On the table for inspection

All too often (and I'm as guilty as any; just ask Ethel), we get caught up in taking as much gear as possible with us to prepare for any conceivable situation.  To buck that habit, I frequently make a point of going somewhere with only the one lens that's attached to the camera (and I don't have any zooms) and to look for things that work with that lens.  Take a whole bag of goodies, and by the time you've spotted something neat, changed gear around, changed gear again, and gotten ready to shoot, it's long gone.  So on a lot of my walks, I'd just take the macro and derive joy from the little things that we pass by blissfully unaware of every single day.

I suppose that habit applies beyond's so easy to get caught up in applying consumerism to rabid preparedness that we forget how little we really need to get by.  Holy shit; that got really heavy really fast.  So a priest walks into a bar with his dog...

Up next is some scenery from our greater area.  I'm whittling away at these as fast as I can!


Friday, September 14, 2012

Lac Miroir and Lac Sainte Anne

As we started to explore out from our little home base, we thought it prudent to do some hiking.  Chateauroux is nestled between two national parks: Ecrins and Queyras.  Both are spectacular and great destinations for recreation during all seasons.

We ventured into Queyras up some roads built for masochistic cyclists, through the village of Ceillac, and to the base of one of many area ski resorts.  Up and up switchbacks we went, our destinations the nearby lakes called Miroir and Sainte Anne.

A well-prepared shelter in the woods

Freshly melted water courses down the rocks

Runoff leaves the flats and heads for the twisties

The climb ended up being enough to get our attention; turns out it was a bigger climb than our "standard" hike back home (Mt. Rose), but at a lower elevation, so we didn't have that indicator to clue us in.  Upon reaching Miroir, we found it to not be very mirror-ish.  Or inviting, for that matter.  It was kind of a little puddle, but the setting couldn't be beat.

Competing vegetation at Lac Miroir

We also spotted some pack horses, wandering about as their clients lunched in the shade.  We definitely caught the beasts taking in the views, and Murphy couldn't resist saying hi, either.

Not a bad life

She tricked 'em into thinking she had apples or carrots or sugar cubes

We continued on the short traverse between Miroir and St. Anne, and soon found ourselves witness to the sudden, sharp ridgelines that just scream "Alps!"  Cresting a small hill and dropping into St. Anne, I couldn't help myself and found the biggest rock around the lake to jump off of.  Baptized properly, I was ready to face the return hike.

Sharpness abounds

I spent some effort on this trip making a type of photo that I'm not normally excited about: the venerable panorama.  Praise Allah for the superb stitching tools available in photoshop; the sheer enormity of doing this by hand would preclude it altogether.  While I'm usually not a fan of panos, the spectacular detail in the rock faces dictated that it be preserved somehow.  Thus, massive tasks of data contortion are undertaken, and we're left with files that we can print big enough to cover the side of a barn.

Lac Sainte Anne (click for -much- larger)

Down and down we went, a different way than we ascended.  Butterflies flitted amongst us for nearly the entire trip, and the difficult trail was filled with people who didn't necessarily look like outdoor enthusiasts.  All shapes, ages, and abilities got out there, and that's pretty awesome.

Enjoying a quiet afternoon

The bottom of the gurgling stream shown above (click for larger, it's another mini-pano)

My back held up okay, except for the times it didn't...undeterred, we figured we'd have a few more hikes in us.  This day was a great excursion into a sweet national park, grand excuse for a couple glasses of wine back in Chateauroux!


Past Detritus