Saturday, May 20, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 4: Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 4: Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti – 7/14/16 – 7.2 Miles

I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.  Where to even start? How much time do we have?  Can we sneak some into our backpacks?
Welcome to the Hotel Bouton D'Or breakfast buffet:  10 breads, croissants and crackers with butters, marmalades and jellies, 6 cheeses, 6 meats, 2 quiches, 2 egg stratas, 5 pastries, 3 tarts, soft boiled eggs, fresh fruit, granola, cereals, yogurts, juice, tea, coffee and…another plate and more coffee?  Grazie.

Jim and I lingered over the spread, made a lunch of stolen sandwiches and pilfered croissants, and reluctantly left the hotel, kicking ourselves for not planning a day off. [Note to readers: if you hike the TMB, please plan a rest day in Courmayeur and think of us.] We walked through the waking-up town, stopping at a local grocer and a candy shop for fruit and chocolate to sweeten the day’s hike.  By 9:30 we were following yellow TMB signs through the town center.
Today’s final destination is Rifugio Bonatti, but first we’ll pass through the village of Villair and then Rifugio Bertone.

Joining the flow of pilgrims up the gently sloping streets of Villair. 

We saw one gentle grandpa walking hand-in-hand with his toddler grandchild, just out enjoying the morning.

Very soon the TMB left pavement and the climb got real, the steepness we had learned to expect (over 2,000 feet in 4.5 km, marginally better than yesterday’s ending) with occasional rewarding views into the idyllic valley that cradles Courmayeur. 
What cloud?
Limited to two dimensions, Jim’s panorama struggles to convey the feeling of vastness

Jim’s pointy hat

That’s better.  Mont Blanc is in the upper right, over Jim’s head, in the clouds again.

Rifugio Giorgio Bertone

The patio beckoned us to sit down, sip an espresso and wonder why we’re not spending the night here, either.

Just as our little cup of happiness arrived, that black cloud let loose its first droplets and hesitantly we gathered our belongings to move to some sheltered picnic tables (maybe it’s just messing with us?).  Within minutes, the droplets fattened, multiplied, gained velocity and turned into hail.  As the wind picked up and the temperature plummeted, hikers sprinted up the trail to the rifugio and squeezed underneath the shelter. Since there was nothing else to do except wait out the storm, conversations commenced in hiker vernacular: Are you doing parts of the TMB or all of it? Which direction are you hiking? Where did you stay last night? We met a young woman named Amy, a British veterinarian currently living and practicing in Edinburgh.  Amy was traveling solo and would appear again and again in our days on the TMB. 

The storm passed quickly, blue skies reappeared as if nothing had happened, and everyone got back out on the trail.  Jim and I noted that we were lucky to have been at the rifugio when the hail came through.  Was this good karma after Day 2’s miserable crossing of Col du Bonhomme? We agreed that we must remember this good fortune the next time (if?) something goes awry.

Just past Rifugio Bertone the TMB splits into two options.  We took the more direct main route rather than the Mont de la Saxe route, not feeling confident enough that all storms had passed.  The variante follows the ridge while the main route is slightly lower, contouring around the north flank of the Mont de la Saxe as a balcony trail looking across Val Ferret to the Aiguille Noire, Mont Blanc and the Grandes Jorasses.  There are no second-rate options here, it is all 100% off-the-chain awesome.

First up: the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel, a manmade marvel that links Courmayeur, Italy with Chamonix, France.  (Wikipedia info here.) Massive Brenva Glacier, flowing down from Mont Blanc, looks as though it will obliterate the tunnel entrance at any moment.
Our undulating level walk above the valley was a delight, through meadows filled with understated but profuse wildflowers.  Clouds continued to obscure the high peaks but the valley was bathed in sunshine.  We ambled along in no particular hurry, taking photos, enjoyed our picnic of cheeses, breads and tarts while overlooking the Italian Alps.  We thought, it doesn’t get any better than this (actually, it does).
Tiny dots of color on the TMB
Jim in a frame
Italian Val Ferret      
Residents at a cattle byre at Alp Lèche
A peek at the peaks

For a brief stretch the trail passed in and out of thin larchwoods, deciduous trees that look like evergreens. We met two young women backpackers, Cassie and Niki from the U.S.  Cassie had lived and worked in our home town in North Carolina for a while.  Small world.  Like our new friend Amy, these two would become part of our TMB story.
The last mile to Rifugio Bonatti was the longest and the final approach was uphill, of course.  The sunny sky does not tell the whole story of the brisk wind and chill factor delivered by the earlier front.  We were glad to get inside.
We arrived before 3:30 p.m. and made straight for the bar.  This was the relaxed short day we had hoped for and we intended to bask in it. 
At check-in we were assigned two spaces in the dormitory, our first experience with sleeping on futon mattresses lined up on a raised platform:  48 half-board per person [Note: earplugs are an essential piece of equipment on the TMB.]
Storage cubbies for each hiker, handy for staying organized without spreading gear all over the futons

Bonatti’s common room filled up as the afternoon wore on and we were glad to have reservations. More people on today’s hike, more English spoken, more Americans.  Guided groups skip some sections of the TMB, but this is a leg of the route that is always included.  A few people hiking without advance planning stumbled in looking for spaces and were told to wait around in case of no-shows, including three young women from New Hampshire with whom we shared a beer. (I think ultimately no one was turned away.)  Unbelievably, gusts of wind began to blow light snow flurries.

I hand washed some clothes and hung them to dry (beside hundreds of other articles of wet laundry) while Jim took a shower.  Warning: showers are slippery places.  Jim slipped and fell hard, hurt a toe that afflicted him for the remainder of the hike, but counted himself lucky that his injury wasn’t worse. Another note: bathroom stalls were unisex, as in most other places in Europe, and it was no big deal that everyone walked around in just underwear between the bathrooms and the dormitory.  I can report that all French men wear briefs.

Dinner:  fresh salad!  Bean soup, bread croutons, slices of cheese, a mashed potato and vegetable tart, and a yogurt/fruit cup dessert.  Assigned seating at long tables.  We sat across from Randy and Carly, a young married couple from Washington D.C., and next to me sat John, a man from London who introduced himself as a hill walker, camper and writer since his retirement.  John had coaxed (coerced?) his friend Graham (seated across from John), who was not a backpacker, into hiking the TMB.  Fascinating conversation around the table, venturing beyond the TMB into world politics (Donald Trump, really? John voted for Brexit).  John was a veritable encyclopedia of information, anecdotes and tales, and who doesn’t love a British accent?  A delightful evening.  Oh, and John’s occupation before retirement: an officer of the Metropolitan Police in London, awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Bravery for arresting a man who stabbed him and three of his colleagues. Hmmmh.

In summary: the best day for me so far, not physically exhausting for the first time thanks to a longer night’s sleep the previous night, fewer and less demanding miles, an early finish with time to unwind.  Tomorrow we’re looking at 20 kilometers again, hiking into Switzerland.  John, Graham, Randy and Carly will be staying at the same hotel in La Fouly tomorrow night, so we now have joined our “hiker bubble” on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

Mileage:  7.3 Miles    Elevation Gain: 3,661 feet   Elevation Loss:   1,060 feet

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 3: Les Mottets to Courmayeur

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 3: Les Mottets to Courmayeur – 7/13/16 – 15.2 Miles

[Note:  This posting is very long and I had difficulty limiting photos. You have been warned.]

Will I get over these trail jitters?  Will these sleepless nights end?  Will I ever stop worrying about tomorrow’s mileage/elevation? Yes: today the tide turned.

Jim and I were up very early after another poor night of sleep for me (no Tylenol PM) and worry about what today’s 27 kilometers will bring. We shared breakfast with Hai, our British friend from last night’s dinner, who was eagerly looking forward to a high mileage day.  Our destination was the town of Courmayeur; his was as far as his feet would carry him until he stopped. Jim feasted on muesli, bread, jam, OJ and coffee. My appetite was definitely off, but I tried to consume some calories (normally not a problem for me). We planned to get lunch mid-day at Rifugio Elisabetta.

Our boots were still damp, as were our hiking clothes (yes, we wore the same pants for 10 days) but we expected to dry out as the forecast promised some sunshine.  We were on our way by 7:20 a.m. [Les Mottets is strict: everyone out by 8:00 a.m.]

Know where you’re going next: Col de la Seigne, the border crossing to Italy

Every day begins with a climb and we will soon be enveloped in the mist. Goodbye Les Mottets!

A teasing peek/peak at what awaits behind the clouds

Still spooked by yesterday’s level of difficulty, I asked Jim to stay in front of me and go slow up to the Col so I could just follow his feet and focus on my steps without looking too far ahead.  We climbed at a pace I could sustain and this worked extremely well, stepping purposefully and concentrating on steady breaths.  I did glance around from time to time.
Crossing this cascade got our attention. One misstep is one too many!

We caught up with the clouds, making it even more important to stay close together.  Like yesterday, we mixed in with a guided group and leap-frogged each other during rest and photo breaks.

Foggy mountain sheep

Hello Italy!  At the Col de la Seigne, cold, damp and very, very windy (a few degrees more tolerable than yesterday) so again we didn’t stick around.

As we began our descent, the clouds lifted up to linger around the mountaintops, letting the sunshine and blue sky take over. My spirits lifted as well with the revelation of the grand towering jagged peaks we had been walking past.  Unlike hikes I’ve done in the U.S. (Glacier NP, Grand Tetons) where I sometimes felt like I was at the top of the mountains, here I realized that I will never be on a summit looking down, that the mountains will always be much taller than whatever elevation I may reach. 

Our friend Hai walking past remains of an old building (the last we saw of him). The French-Italian border of Col de la Seigne has long been significant in relations between the countries, constantly guarded by a garrison that included the Barracks. This link describes the area just before and during World War II: “In the thirties, with the rise in international tension, in the Mont Blanc area they were held exercises with spectacular maneuvers of military units at high altitudes. The darkest time lived in these places is related to the Second World War, during which the Col de la Seigne was the scene of one of the attacks carried out by the Italian army behind a now beaten France by Nazi Germany. Even today are recognizable everywhere in this area the remains of the fortifications and shooting positions.”

The Barracks are now a museum and environmental education center called La Casermetta – a perfect spot for a break.

Now with a spring in our step we followed cowbell music into the pastures of Lée Blanche, a small valley at the high end of Val Veni, crossing braided streams and passing more building remains and lush flowers.

Sitting high up on a shelf, Rifugio Elisabetta looked like a postcard.  In fact, it is an iconic picture of the Italian Tour de Mont Blanc.
At Elisabetta we met many TMB hikers taking a break out of the strong wind.  Inside we inquired about a takeaway lunch – sorry, they don’t do that – so we cooled our heels until 11:00 a.m. when the soup was ready, chatting with a British family (mom, dad, young adult daughter).  Wow!  Huge portions of veg for me with a Fanta orange, lentil for Jim with Italian coffee, and an enormous slice of cake for dessert.  A hiker walked in dreaming of a hot panini – sorry, they don’t do that – but the cook was feeling magnanimous and did it anyway. Can we have a Coke to go, please?  A total of 32€ and well worth it.  They even had wifi.
From Elisabetta the trail dropped down into Val Veni, passing by the Glacier de la Lée Blanche with its streams of glacier melt flowing down to create Lac Combal.

Another waterfall tucked into a fold in the landscape

More abandoned buildings

Looking down into Val Veni

Along the valley floor the TMB follows an old roadbed built by the Italian army.  This is a look back over our shoulder.  Can you see Rifugio Elisabetta? Majestic Mont Blanc is hiding in the clouds again.

Lac Cambol

Fishermen at Lac Cambol

At the northern end of the lake is the decision point for taking the valley route or the high route to Courmayeur.  The weather was fine – bring on the high route, which means climbing again, but the expansive view made the effort less arduous.  Up, up, up through open meadows ringed by white-topped mountain peaks.  Awe-inspiring, overwhelming, humbling. 

 A significant pause today and perhaps the outstanding moment of our TMB trek: Jim was walking ahead of me as we tried again and again to capture the scenes on our cameras, all the while shaking our heads because it was so immense and…uncapturable. He stopped, turned to me and said, “This is one of the best days of my life.”  I snorted, punched him on the arm and said, “Oh, yeah, what about our wedding day?  What about that time we…?”  And he said again, “No, this is one of the best days of my life.  I’m serious.  I can’t believe we are standing here.” We stood and looked and commenced walking again, not talking.  Indeed, one of the best days of our life together.
Looking down on Val Veni, Lac Combal and the TMB low route (lower left), looking across at the Aiguille de Combal (upper left) and Glacier du Miage (upper right).  We saw the other side of Glacier du Miage on our first day hiking from Les Houches to Les Contamines. The building ruins in the lower left foreground are Alp inférieur de l’Arp Vielle.
Alp inférieur de l'Arp Vielle

A little bit higher, another abandoned building: Alp supérieure de l'Arp Vielle

Glacier di Miage

Mont Blanc towering past the top of the frame, still wreathed in cloud smoke, as Glacier de Bruillard (left) and Glacier de Fréney (right) flow straight down from its height. The horizontal grey tentacle-like streaks in the lower left are the lowest portion of Glacier du Miage: FYI, the longest glacier in Italy and the largest debris-covered glacier in Europe.  This two-dimensional photograph does not convey the vastness of this scene.

From the highest point of the day on the TMB, looking at Mont Blanc and the twin glaciers

Val Veni panorama - the tip of Mont Blanc above the clouds
The only thing that could possibly make this day better for Jim is – mountain bikers from out of nowhere!

Called a balcony path, reminds me of the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park in Montana

Mont Blanc and Glacier de Bruillard and Glacier de Fréney

Southern face of the Mont Blanc range

The best view yet of Glacier du Miage

Staying on course as the TMB descended back down to tree line

Oh, Dolonne, you look so inviting down there in the Aosta Valley. If only you were as close as you appear! There were still several kilometers between us and our hotel room in the adjoining town of Courmayeur.  As we passed homes, buildings, a couple of hostels and snack bars, zig-zagging on dirt roads and grassy slopes, watching for TMB route markers was our most important job.  The grassy slopes were criss-crossed with cableways.  Our Dutch roommates last night had advised us to ride the cable car down to Dolonne, but no, we are purists!  We’re hiking every inch of the TMB. 

Note to those considering this:  take the cable car.  The final descent to Dolonne is not intended to be scenic or fun.  It is the shortest way to get down the mountain on foot, with dozens of short switchbacks, sometimes no more than 20 paces before turning. Thighs shaking, knees aching, cursing loudly, we descended a punishing 3,600 feet, hobbling out of the woods onto a paved road and into the town of Dolonne.
Back to my mistake in judgment of abbreviating the recommended first three days of the TMB into two days.  If today’s hike had been shorter, we might have enjoyed Dolonne, stopping for an adult beverage and exploring some side streets.  Instead we hurried across the bridge spanning the Dora Baltea River to reach Courmayeur.  At the bustling tourist office we got directions to our hotel just a block away. 

Hotel Bouton D'Or - that corner room with two balconies is ours (120 including the most extravagant breakfast buffet I shall ever see this side of heaven.)
Inexpensive yet luxurious after 2 nights in bunk beds with strangers! A king-size bed! A separate entryway to stow our backpacks! An extravagant bathroom, decadent hot water and soap! As we unpacked to retrieve clean clothes, Jim shook out the filthy rain pants he had been carrying, and little chunks of mud flew all over the room, the soft linens, the clean floor. He washed them in the tub as best he could and hung them out on that fine balcony.

After showers and a wardrobe upgrade, we walked around town in search of dinner.  Again, we shortchanged ourselves tremendously by our limited time in Courmayeur.  At a nondescript restaurant Jim chose the buffet, expecting huge portions of pasta, but it turned out to be only antipasto.  He rose to the task and consumed mass quantities.  My simple dish of ravioli with fontina cheese and grape tomatoes in olive oil was superb. 

Mileage:  15.2 Miles    Elevation Gain: 4,380 feet   Elevation Loss:  6,345 feet

 “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people.  I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’”  ~Sylvia Plath