Overlanding the Western Alps, Part 2

After a long ‘transit’ day of driving, we were happy to reach the first proper camp ground since Friday night, near a small Italian village. As darkness fell, a nearby hill issued a hundred voices singing in harmony with a squeezebox. We’re Too tired to investigate after the day of riding dusty trails, but it sounds like a group of middle aged Italians swaying back an forth hitting their beer mugs together. Frequently we hear one voice rise above the rest. This must be the guy climbing up on the table to make a spectacle something like an old swashbuckler movie. The days become a bit ritualized- up around 0800, breakfast, break camp, on the road at 1000. But the day is full of exciting experiences and new sites. Adventure with a comfortable pace. Before leaving this camp, we stock up on fresh water.

Our first stop today is the weekly market in nearby Demonte village and the opportunity to buy fresh fruit, veggies and bread, enjoying the pace of alpine Italian lifestyle. By afternoon we’re ascending more rocky trails after crossing again into France. We find an interesting interlude at Fort la Roche de Croix. Rumor has it Napoleon began construction on this fort, but the remaining ruins display architecture dating from 1884 to 1936. This was the southern end of the Maginot line and considered the most imposing part of the Larche Valley defenses. For us, it was a fun place to rest with inspiring views and interesting ruins to explore at will.

Back on the trails, at 8600 feet we reach the Tunnel du Parpaillon, a military project from 1891 dug through the Parpaillon massif. Traversing it, the walls and road surface unfinished, it’s ink black inside. We’re driving through a long track of rocky, muddy, deep water. The truck behind us ignites it’s bank of zillion candlepower roof lights, casting our bouncing shadow in front of us. A half kilometer later, we emerge from the tunnel to stop for south-westerly views of the Cote d’Azur- France’s ‘blue coast’. Our camp that night was an exposed promontory of rare flat alpine wilderness at 7000ft. Our coldest night of the trip, we came prepared with warm sleeping gear, and were lulled to sleep with the white noise of eagles crying and rushing waterfalls.

The next morning we brace ourselves against the chill wind with extra cups of coffee and tea before breaking camp. Nearing our afternoon destination, the weather deteriorates. We find the Forte Jafferau ruin shrouded in fog making it look more dead and remote. The rain lifts our spirits as it cleans our dusty trucks and adds melancholy monochrome backdrop to our mountain exploration.

Climbing over, under and around the bombed carcass once the home to a proud unit of the Italian Border Guard, the most discernable details are the cannon platforms where once sat the teeth of this mountain’s bite. Leaving our grey mountain refuge, we backtrack to camp at another garrison ruin. The bonfire, tonight within the roofless stone walls, has become a welcome ritual. Orange light reflects jittery shadows all around us. Light rain starts to fall. We don’t care, we’re all content and keep gabbing while moving closer to the fire. We’ve grown comfortable with living together and enjoy the evenings with the warm flickering fire, chatting with new friends. We’re the only Americans in the group. Thomas, who’s traveling this week with his teen son, has family in Charlotte. Jan and Andrea run a boutique hotel in Chemnitz. Jan studied in California and he still carries a picture of the Chevrolet he drove in those days. Sven (not our host) and Simone speak fondly of past visits to USA. They’re newlyweds and this is their honeymoon. At the beginning of the tour, Simone professed to be “scared of everything”, eventually becoming comfortable with the narrow high altitude roads. Aj and Katja reminisce about traveling the southeast US in a rented car. Aj “really likes the southern hospitality” he experienced. Our host, Sven Tegen started TC Offroad Trekking 15 years ago and his experience shows. He now has 18 ‘scouts’ leading a variety of off road treks from mild to hardcore, all over Europe and North Africa year round. Sven conducts the tour with Teutonic precision, making sure we have firewood each evening, planning routes based on his assessment of the group’s collective experience level, and answering questions with the patience of a saint. His fireside ritual of rationing Schnapps or Vodka make him popular too.

Morning brings an accelerated pace. This is our last day and Sven wants to start early. By 1100 we’re above the tree line along a narrow, boulder strewn trail built by Mussolini. At the top, Mussolini’s weather station is gone but nature endures and the views reward the effort getting here. This is Sommeiller, at 9800ft it’s the highest drivable point in Europe. It’s a cold, rocky, snowy, lifeless place that looks like we’ve launched our rambling giants to another world. With blue-green lakes under us and wisps of cloud shooting past the peaks above, it’s also beautiful and peaceful.

Sommeiller is the culmination of the week’s effort of driving, enduring the weather and learning about the world. We absorb the scene individually and as a group, lingering a moment in contentment. After photos and a rest, the mountain giants retrace our careful track to a lonely refuge hut. Here we return the radios and some linger to chat over cappuccino before beginning the journey home. It ends too soon, yet we’re anxious to get home- changed by what we saw, the people we met and places we experienced.


Read part one of Overlanding the Western Alps HERE.

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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.