Overlanding the Western Alps, Part 1

The Expedition Portal community is an amazing repository of trip reports from around the globe. ExPo member, escadventure, compiled this trip report from a trail run in the Western Alps. Overlanders have long asserted that Europe is void of any wild places worthy of exploring. It appears that is wholly untrue. Below is proof that overland exploration is alive and well in Europe.

Our 5200 pound behemoth lies in a small clearing overlooking a rocky gorge. Cool air rising from the stream below makes the morning a bit colder. The FJ Cruiser is fully deployed in camp mode like an adult’s transformer toy with Roof mounted tent, side mounted awning and all the camp stuff helpful to spend a week wandering mountain trails in western Italy and eastern France.

We’re at the staging area in the mountains north west of Genoa Italy, preparing for an offroad adventure with TC-Offroad Trekking. We normally avoid group tours and pre-arranged trips. But we like what these folks do and thought it would be good to see others conduct these sorts of activities, possibly getting new ideas. We came early and watch others arrive from all over Europe. They’re driving an interesting diversity of trucks from Land Rover Defenders and alpha-male Land Cruisers to Hyundai Terracan and LR4 Discoverys, as well as a couple of Jeeps.

The two day gathering allows time to hike mountain trails, sunbathe in the elusive alpine sun and preen equipment. It’s restful but a palpable tension builds with each new arrival. Sven the TC host, with his zebra striped Land Rover, earth tone clothes and close shaved hair style is quiet and confident yet approachable, perfectly fitting his role as trek leader. He shares – “this is my dream job, as a child I had a toy Land Rover just like the one I now drive.” He prepares a bonfire for tonight after everyone arrives. During this gathering, we formally meet our trekking-mates and Sven gives rules and advice for the next 7 days.

Morning brings the anticipated launch after another quick briefing and installation of Sven’s radios in our vehicles. Before long pavement turns to dirt, then gravel gives way to a rough trail strewn with cantaloupe sized rocks. Every hour or so we stop to take pictures or just rest and stretch our legs. We’ll learn, this relaxed pace will be maintained throughout the tour. After lunch in a high alpine meadow surrounded by rocky peaks, we pick up a trail that’s heavily rutted and rocky. One of the trucks, a Russian Lada, damages a driveshaft. He turns back and heads down the mountain for repairs running on just the front axle. The ridge pass is flanked by bunkers of stone and concrete, big enough for only a small cannon or machine gun squad, they must’ve been cold and lonely for some French or Italian soldiers. This vast frontier border has moved several times over the centuries, so it’s hard to tell who built and manned these remote outposts.

Our mountain giants driving trails all day, we come to the Forte Margheria ruin and set up camp on a small patch of level ground between the fortress wall and the steep hillside. Pulling the cover off boxes on our roof, we deploy what becomes a tent on the roof of our SUV’s: a fold-open 5ft x 8ft platform with a rubberized canvas tent and telescoping ladder for access. They’re comfortable, easy to use, mount on any roof rack and a great option for keeping off the cold wet ground. After dinner, Sven calls us together. He’s got cases of paraffin soaked burlap torches for camplight, and he passes them out to use for a night exploration of the fortress. Part of a defensive network built to protect the Tende Pass, Forte Margheria sits on a promontory overlooking the Tende tunnel and the trail leading to the ridge with it’s 51 hairpin turns.

It was an exciting experience for our small group to explore this dark ruin in the alpine frontier by torchlight. The smell of dusty dampness, the stone walls collecting mineral deposits from leaching water, orange light flashing shadows into dark rooms as we walk down narrow halls. The imagination swoons with possibilities of danger and the fear inducing darkness at the bottom of each stairwell.

After breakfast and the morning meeting, we head south again. By early afternoon we arrive in the French village of La Brigue. This quiet Alpine valley settlement, with it’s colorful stucco facades and ancient stonework architecture, has likely changed little since medieval times. And no one here seems to care. After a few days camping, we did seek one modern convenience – pizza. Contented after gratuitous consumption of fatty cheese and red sauce on thin crust, in a shop just big enough for a few tables, we search for a hole in the shrubbery leading to a creek in the village center. Filling our water cans, we realized the street gutters drained into this creek, limiting this water to cleaning and boiling use. Luckily we still had another container of fresh water for cooking and drinking.

Having enjoyed a comfortable break from our mountain seclusion, we trail westward back into the surrounding peaks. On the way, Sven calls on the radio for an “activ pause” (octeef powza). That’s German for “everyone out of the truck and help me gather firewood for tonight’s bonfire”. Yet another of Sven’s tactics for making this trip an engaging break from life’s normal daily activities. Setting up camp next to a stone garrison ruin, we park our FJ near the tree line as a rudimentary blind to indulge in a ‘camp’ shower – our first attempt at hygiene in days. We use a clever device called the Helio Shower – a collapsable tank with a foot pump and a hose/spray head resembling something from a kitchen sink.

According to our maps and GPS, camp tonight was on the French/Italian border. Indeed, around the campfire, Sven claimed that likely half of us sit in France and half in Italy. The next morning, Wednesday, we break camp and spend most of the day driving. Down a mountain, up another, through a valley. Again, again. The views are spectacular, at one point we can see through several mountain passes to the French Riviera coastline. Some of the roads are precarious, unmaintained tracks that’ll shake apart anything not tied down. Traversing these remote trails, we encounter enduro motobikers swarming in packs of three or four, fully armored and masked. They weave in and around our trucks in a frenzy of post apocalyptic terror. Our mountain giants slow, but stop for no one. At the Garezzo Pass, a 60ft long “galleria”, allowed access through the ridge. Stopping, we find a pair of donkeys appear to be living in this rudimentary tunnel. One of the Jeep drivers leaves his opened apple juice unattended and later finds a donkey carrying the bottle in it’s mouth.



Stay tuned for part two of Overlanding the Western Alps.

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Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.