Geo-Joint: Les Grands Goulets

Almost any road, even one crossing a flat valley floor, is the product of careful engineering and hard work. If that road goes over water or through some hills, that much more planning and effort is involved. True mountain roads are really a challenge, but their basic route may follow old game or first-inhabitants’ trails. Rock can be blasted to achieve the most efficient path, though roadbuilders prefer utilizing any flattish surface when possible. Suppose, however, that you want to put a road through a sheer-sided valley that offers no reasonable path? That’s what faced the people living in the French Alps about 20 miles southwest of Grenoble. Those living on the Vercors plateau in the early 1800s, though they numbered only around 5,000, wanted a better connection to the rest of France. Travel was only possible on foot or horseback—no path for wagons existed. Reaching the villages of the Vercors didn’t involve mountains of Himalayan heights, but the valleys into the mountains are narrow, and parts of the passage are nothing but vertical cliffs of stone.

The road through the solid rock was made for the carriages and wagons of old.

By 1843, work had begun on a road from Pont-en-Royans to Les Barraques, a distance of about six crow-flight miles. It was of course farther and far more arduous by land. Some of the road construction presented only moderate difficulty. At a section called the Petit Goulets several short tunnels had to be dug through the rock before reaching sections with more buildable slope. Eventually though, as they pressed on deeper into the narrowing mountain valley, there was no more surface upon which to build. Workers could no longer cut a bench into a sloping mountainside—the only way through was to blast a pathway. The rocks of the Vercor Massif are limestone, a sedimentary rock displayed in layers, some more resistant than others. Engineers built along these more easily dug out layers when they could, as their progress inched forward. In the stretch called the Grands Goulets, it was slow going indeed. In a terrifyingly low-tech process, workers were dangled over cliff faces, where they would set dynamite charges in small niches in the rock. Upon lighting the fuse, they would swing on a rope to the side of the blast hole, let the explosive do its work, and then set another. In this way a horizontal groove was cut along the vertical face, which other workers could then stand on to dig back even farther into the mountain, to make room for a roadbed. The danger was enormous and required nerves of steel to perform this strenuous task where any misstep or bungled procedure could be one’s last.

The Vercors Massif is riven with deep and steep valleys.

The road was completed in 1854 and finally opened the Vercors Plateau to the world for greater commerce as well as tourist enjoyment. The views from the roadway were stunning, especially the mile-plus section before arriving at Les Barraques. This was where the road often had a roof of solid stone and the drop-off to the river, deep below in the valley, was straight down. This kind of road is called a balcony road, for obvious reasons, and guard rails were a luxury not added in many places until years later. The road functioned well for a long time, even as the modes of transportation grew from horse-drawn wagons to motorized vehicles. But as those autos and trucks grew in size and speed, the route became ever more perilous. In some stretches there was room for only one car and one had to hope no one was coming the other way on the sharp, blind curves. But sometimes there was. By 2005, the French government decided that too many people had died on this fantastic road, and closed it down. Replacing it was a tunnel of just over a mile in length, bored through the mountain. For some reason, the most treacherous section of the old Grands Goulets road has been closed to not only vehicles, but to any access whatsoever. Not even bicycles or hikers are allowed, though of course some have sneaked past the barriers to explore and photograph the wonders of the old route. The shutdown may be due to the fact that parking space would be extremely limited, and there is almost no room to turn a vehicle around. Still, it is a shame that such a feat of engineering and hard work, and the chance to experience the terrific vistas it affords, is not available to the public. Maybe someday.

 

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PHOTO CREDITS:

caption: The Vercors Massif is riven with deep and steep valleys.
source: Wikimedia Commons: no source (CC by SA 3.0)
caption: A view of the kind of terrain the Grands Goulets road was built in.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Mg-k (CC by SA 3.0)
caption: The road through the solid rock was made for the carriages and wagons of old.
source: Wikimedia: Unknown (Public domain)
Current View
source: Creative Commons: Mbcmf217 (CC by SA 3.0)

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