Altitude Training: Maritime Alpes

The French Riviera is renown for beaches and bikinis, but one of its best attractions remains a well-kept secret: the Maritime Alps. Along the coast from Nice to the Italian border, the Alps march right down to the Mediterranean Sea: mile-high peaks offer breathtaking views of the coast to the south, and of higher snow-peaked mountains just to the north.
Like many triathletes and marathoners, I use altitude to train. For a diver, training altitude next to the sea is ideal. I came to Nice in 2010 to do a Master of Science in Finance, and while other students spent spare time wine tasting and sunbathing, I was putting in miles in the mountains. Competing at a high level demands a few sacrifices. ☺
Why train altitude for diving? Because freediving is the ultimate anaerobic sport: you leave the surface, and for the next three minutes the only oxygen you have is what you brought with you in your lungs, blood and muscles. Muscles work anaerobically for most of the dive, and anaerobic training is critical. There are lots of ways to train anaerobically, but few as challenging and exciting as training in the mountains. A day in the Alps can be many things—from awe inspiring to life threatening—but it’s never boring, and sprinting uphill into thinning air works you out as hard you can bear. This isn’t a post about training methods—I can’t tell all my secrets, at least not yet—but to let you in on some of the secrets of the Maritime Alps.
The trails start in the river valleys surrounding Nice: the Roya to the East, Bevera and Vesubie to the North, and Haut Cians to the Northwest. The mountains tower above those valleys: Gelas (3200m/10,500 feet), above the French/Italian border; Mounier (2800m/9,200 feet), standing majestically north of Cannes; Cime Negre (2500m/ 8,200 feet), rising like a black Egyptian pyramid above the Crest of the Alps; and Mont Mangiabo (1800m/ 6000 feet), whose summit seems only a parasail away from Nice and the sea. Wildlife is abundant and exotic: ram-like bouquetin, antelope-like chamois, and whistling marmots at altitude; wolves roam down to the coast itself.
The trails can be as challenging as they are beautiful: safe trails are easy to find at lower elevations, but summits demand more commitment. Pleasant footpaths give way to scree and talus fields at elevation, and trails turn into little more than ledges without warning. Summits require as much judgment as commitment. My ethos in freediving is to dive only as deep as I can safely swim back from—not to get rescued by a safety diver; in the mountains, I climb only as high as I can safely return from.
This spring, weather made that ethos challenging. April and May in the Maritime Alpes are usually clear—high pressure pushes most storms north, and mountains to the northwest block the rest—but this year, those months were the wettest in history: even the better days offered only short windows of clear skies. To an athlete training with trail shoes and light gear, these were interesting days. The first photo captures the Maritime Alpes this spring: taken near the Italian border above the Refuge de Fenestre, with clouds blowing in and snow lingering, it’s a reminder to take the Alps seriously, no matter how inviting they seem on calm blue days. The Refuge itself is a more hospitable place: a huge dormitory strategically placed to house alpinists, with a friendly host who prepares hot coffee and toast for breakfast, and rustic dinners for the hungriest of climbers.
A peak that I hoped to summit this spring was Mont Mounier, a limestone mountain towering above the surrounding countryside. I had first seen Mounier the year before, while cross-country skiing at Roubion with Guillaume and Julie, (who later told me about the approach from Valberg, and the route to the summit). Storm after storm kept it snow covered, and though I waited as late as I could to climb it, I still hit snow at 2500m. High-angle snow and trail shoes are a poor mix, and with snow falling on the mountains just east, and a line of thunderstorms just west, I decided to leave the summit for a better day. The second photo shows the lower peak in the foreground, and the summit behind and to the right, taken from an approach ridge to the south. From the ski resort of Valberg, it’s a moderate six-hour round route, and when dry only the summit gets technical.
Fortunately, even with the inclement weather, my local training peak—Mont Mangiabo—was accessible. The main trailhead (for the GR 52) is in the medieval town of Sospel, a pleasant hamlet just north of Nice, with warm cafés for breakfast and artisan bakeries to raid after a day in the mountains. “GR” is short for “Grande Randonnée”, or Great Trek; the GR 52 starts in Geneva, Switzerland, and extends through the Alps right down to the Mediterranean, so “Grande” is no exaggeration. The GR 52 leads to the summit, with a 1500m vertical ascent (about a mile). The third photo is from the summit; in the distance you can see the Mediterranean, and if you look closely, Nice airport and Cap d’Antibes jutting into the Sea.