Sunday, 19 September 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc, days 5-6: Courmayeur to La Fouly

Day Five: Courmayeur (1226m) to Refugio Bonatti (2025m)
Sleeping: Refugio Bonatti
Distance: 21km
Ascent/Descent: 1,621m/902m
Highest Point: 2585m 

Carlsberg don’t make hill days, but if they did, they’d probably be the best in the world... 

At the meal the previous night, we’d resolved, perhaps as a reaction to the solecism of the preceding day’s somewhat facile walk to Courmayeur that we would, from hereon in, seize every variante we could. If a route seemed more challenging and visceral, then that would be our elected path. I had, long ago, decided the Fenêtre d’Arpette variante was to be a desideratum unless the weather was simply too grim but now, faced with a choice between a relatively easy day or a long, tough one, we inexorably chose the latter. When morning arrived, pacified and eased by the evening in Courmayeur we felt contented and untroubled. The sky was radiantly sun-drenched. We would be walking in full view of the south side of the Mont Blanc massif and the Grand Jorasses. There was no reason that the day ahead of us would not be a stirring, visual spectacle.

We met, from our respective hotels, at the church in the centre of Courmayeur by the Societa della Guide and the rather emotive and inspiring monument to Alpine guides. Ping need not have joined us - she was leaving the next day from Courmayeur - but at her request, we worked out a route for her to get back to Courmayeur from Bonatti by bus and she geared up. I think we were all galvanised by her continued presence in our small coterie and, as the day progressed, it was clear she’d chosen well. 

From the monument, we turned away from the church taking the path up the road to the left between the church and the Societa della Guide. It was an elementary ascent, through the back streets of Courmayeur, leading eventually to the smaller path up, after a steep climb, to Refugio Bertone (1989m). Again, we carried little food knowing that we would reach Bertone in good time to either buy something and eat it there, or eat it en route.

The path up to Bertone, as was so often the case when ascending from a town or village, was initially through alpine forest. A steep, rocky path beset with roots from the great, majestic evergreens shielding us from the sun’s sharp glare, by the time we got to forest edge, we were at Bertone. By the this stage, with some four days behind me and in excess of 3,000m of ascent already, I was climbing comfortably and, routinely, quicker than the rest of the group. I like this methodology - a stooped head and concentration on rhythm helps me move more quickly when ascending, which I find more comfortable, and the periodic interruption to await others catching up enables me to enjoy the panorama as it develops with each passing metre of the climb, and to engage in some photography. There is something very alpine about catching sight of mountains in the far distance through a leafy frame and that’s something that is not often associated with the Alps. In fact, I felt for all the world as if I was in New England or Colorado. Much of the Mont Blanc massif, and indeed the surrounding ranges, is arborial to around 1,500m so any initial ascent is within the paternal and enigmatic confines of this engaging, sylvan theatre. 

When we emerged into scintillating, celestial sunshine, we could see Bertone ahead of us some way up the mountainside. It’s a charming refuge, with a large patio balcony area to exalt in the arresting views across the Val Veni and down to Courmayeur, to the expanse of the southern massif of Mont Blanc and the Grande Jorasses, and the broad, sinewy hills to the south leading to the Aiguille de Chambave (3067m) and La Grande Rochêre (3326m). We set-down our packs and pulled on Oakleys and Ray-Bans before perching to savour the landscape around us. We could see, to the north east, the route upwards ahead of us which would lead us to the easier path around the mountainside - which was the main route - and the variante (hitherto the original TMB route which was re-routed as it was too strenuous) which we were intending to take along the grassy, ridge-line of Mont de la Saxe. We reasoned that that this route would allow us to regard both the Grande Jorasses and the south side of the Mont Blanc massif from a much higher aspect and, also, to keep in sight the rutted hills abutting Courmayeur to the south as well. We would also be able to ascend Tête Bernada and Tête de la Tronche (2584m) before descending into the valley and following the river round to Bonatti. 

We ordered simple ham and cheese sandwiches, which they made at our request as they are not actually on any menu, and a Coke which we devoured there and then, chatting to other hillwalkers as we sat under great umbrellas, observing. Before long, we ached to get moving and began the steep ascent to the path junction at Mont de la Saxe. Few people followed us as we took the steeper route up the hillside. In the heat of the day, with no cover from the sun, it was warm work, only assisted by a wonderful cooling breeze. However, before long, the ascent flattened out and we began walking along a pleasant, grassy path, atop the ridgeline. We could see ahead of us the peaks of Tête Bernarda and Tête de la Tronche (2584m) and ambled, without a care, towards them. 

As we sauntered, we were blessed with incredibly, majestic views to both sides with the southern face of Mont Blanc, once a thin sprinkling of cloud has drifted away, clearly visible. Framed by the Grande Jorasses, the entire vista was simply and utterly breathtaking.

We ascended Tête Bernarda quickly before heading down to the col between Bernarda and Tête de la Tronche. The views in the valley below, and across to the col where there is a path round to Bonatti approaching from the other side of the hill to the north-east, were amazing and we stopped for something to eat before heading up Tête de la Tronche. 

We knew now, we were faced with a steep, tricky and technical descent, on dusty, rocky ground with loose rocks and a sharp drop over the edge to Col Sapin (2436m). It was, in fact, somewhat easier than Mr. Reynolds had led us to believe but I am glad we approached it with some caution. As we rested and stared back at the Mont de la Saxe ridgeline behind us, it was a calming and tranquil moment. We knew we had a rather longer, but far less challenging descent down the river bisecting the Vallon d'Armina several hundred metres below us but we were getting thirsty in the sunny weather and were looking forward to a long, deep drink of ice-cold glacial water. As we filled our bottles, when we reached the bottom, we knew that we were on the last stretch - a semi-circuit of the hillside - and we’d be at Bonatti within an hour. 

Yotam and I, a short distance ahead of everyone else, had a chance to converse about the conflict in the Middle East and his views on the Jewish faith. It’s edifying to be able to discourse with someone who has experienced the day to day consequences of international relations in an open and honest way and we enjoyed the chance to bounce each other’s opinions off a wall of neutrality and a desire to learn. I think that was the day we really began to understand each other. It is one of the aims of traveling independently that other cultures are experienced and understood, and people from other regions met and a mutually enlightening confabulation commenced. 

We eventually arrived at the crossroads in the path, and 50m or so above us, lay Refugio Bonatti. Below us, was the valley floor and the main road to Courmayeur. We knew we had bid farewell to Ping and it was a genuinely disconsolate moment. We had reached Bonatti after a very long, challenging day and yet the fact that one of our band was leaving us was by far the more poignant moment. After we traded details - we’d left it to the last minute of course - she disappeared down the mountainside with a group of day-walkers. Whether I had not really seen it, keen to get to Bonatti as I was, or whether I'd seen it and not registered the signficance, it was at this moment that I turned and realised I was gazing, without obstruction, at a rather beautiful south face of Mont Blanc. The three of us (Eli and Jean-Rémy some way behind us by now) just enjoyed that moment before beginning the final, and plainly most wearisome, 50m to Bonatti. 

Refugio Bonatti is a privately owned refuge with commanding views of the southern side of the Mont Blanc range. It is as close to a mountain hotel as you could hope to get - the main dining room and bar is reminiscent of a modern London public house - a clean, contemporary-looking environment devoid of any real character. It is not an unpleasant place by any means, quite the reverse, but it does not have, within its walls, an ambience equal to that of Bonhomme, Bertone or des Mottets, for example. It is the height of luxury by comparison with comfortable beds (although the dortoir beds are, as ever, situated touching each other) but there are cupboards and hangers for clothes, modern showers, a drying room (which is not heated so we dried our clothes outside in the sunshine), and tiled floors. We grabbed a beer after a hot shower and sat outside as the final hours of genuine sunshine departed. The food is purportedly the best on the TMB at Bonatti. It was good, I would agree, but there is better to be had. That said, I could not fault Bonatti other than it felt simply too modern and pristine. Mountain refuges, which I imagine are big business now, just shouldn’t be so perfect. 

Day Six: Refugio Bonatti (2025m) to La Fouly (1610m)
Sleeping: Hôtel des Glaciers, La Fouly
Distance: 19km
Ascent/Descent: 920m/1341m
Highest Point: Grand Col Ferret (2542m) 

The next morning augured a dramatic change in the conditions. As we ambled downstairs for breakfast, each window was an even grey - it was as if, overnight, some gnomish pranksters had daubed all the windows an identical, gloomy, shade of charcoal. Fog had wreathed the mountains in yet another veil of Jack-the-Ripper, turn-of-the-century, soupy chaos. Periodically, various peaks would muscle their way through the mire but such respite from the otherwise anemic, stagnant murkiness was seldom. 

Breakfast was a consequently soporific affair and we were outside quickly, pulling on packs and eager to get going. I’d put on light trousers, hoping the rain would hold off, but I was to be disappointed - bitterly so - as the rain was to come in copious, relentless torrents until we reached Refugio Elena some hours later. It was not until we reached the car park in the valley, and one of the sheltered rest-points for the Ultra-Trail racers, that I’d be able to change. 

As we began the day, tramping round the mountainside along a narrow, muddy and undulating path it became clear that we were not the only people on the trail - mountain bikers sped round bends at startling speeds, coming off with alarming regularity. I’m a mountain biker and the skills on display were adolescent. Rich city-boys with no clue. We managed, for the most part, to avoid them, but such reckless disregard for what is a major hillwalking route, and a very narrow path, in terrible conditions as visibility was poor is breathtakingly injudicious. It was only a matter of time until one of us, spaced out as we were, attended at one of the breaks limping and with a tear in the knee of his Montane Terra pants (on the reinforced area, no less). This was day six, with five to go, one of the hardest stages to come, and one of us was quite severely impaired. I was livid and some exotic profanity escaped my lips. Were I able to catch up to the impetuous fool who had perpetrated this, unapologetic, misdeed, I would have been answerable only to the Italian court system. Sadly, the individual escaped unharmed. 

The rain was beginning its ingress into our day by this point and we undertook the muddy, treacherously slippery descent down to the checkpoint where we would walk along the river for a short while before beginning our ascent to Refugio Elena (2062m, or 2040m if you read the sign within) for lunch. There is no graceful way to undertake a steep descent when the path has disintegrated into a greasy quagmire without poles and those of us with four legs were descending like mountain goats. The rest tip-toed like fairies. By the time we got to the checkpoint, it was clear from the sky that the weather was to worsen over the coming hours. I quickly changed into my wet-weather kit, as did others, before we moved off again. The ascent to Elena became a boggy, greasy struggle as the rain really started. The Tilley, fantastic up to that point, eventually breached and I shoved it into the mesh pocket of the Gorilla and pulled up my hood.

It was probably not until we reached Elena that we really began to appreciate the views, obfuscated as they were before then by cloud, mist and rain, but our thoughts were dominated by the prospect of the warm and the dry. We placed our packs in the main entrance, shrugged off our jackets and strode into the refectory area of the refuge. Within moments, the Italian staff had brought sandwiches, hot chocolate and tea for us. Others had sought sanctuary from the deluge and we chatted incessantly with them whilst we ate. After some time, warmer but little drier, we pulled on packs and jackets and made our way outside. The rain had abated and the clouds began, slowly, to clear. Back along the Val Veni, the sun began to peak through the billowing mists. It is alleged that, from here, it is possibly to see the Col de la Seigne. It would appear that preternatural mountain pass, for us, was ever destined to remain an enigma. 

As we climbed towards Grand Col Ferret, we finally caught glimpses through the mists of Glacier de Pré de Bar, Mont Dolent (to the right) and the Aiguille de Triolet (to the left). In blissful sunshine it might have been amazing but in the tenebrous, ethereal swirling maelstrom of fog, it was an unearthly, eldritch apparition. I could not help but glance, perpetually and almost fearfully, at the vista behind me, so unnerving was it. I had, throughout the TMB, begun to comprehend that as much as I enjoyed hillwalking in the UK, I was bewitched with the Alps and my skill base, such as it is, demanded organic proliferation. I imagined what skills I would need to be walking on that ostensibly sinister frozen mass and resolved that I would return one day - better equipped and more proficient. I don’t think it was then that I resolved to do the Haute Route, or something similar, but the prospect of walking from hut to hut across glaciers, high up in the mountains, rather than simply gazing longingly at them, was gradually seducing me. I am not interested in the Walker’s Haute Route - instead, I wanted to do something really different. I am not a mountaineer and I suspect it’s perhaps too late for me to start learning to do the hard stuff, but I knew then that I wanted to step up. 

Grand Col Ferret (2537m) is not particularly grand, nor could I see any ferrets. It’s a poor quip but it seems, as I sit here now writing this, peculiarly appropriate. The day was about to become grimly humorous as, while we sat atop the Grand Col Ferret, we were accompanied by several The North Face tents, set up as checkpoints for the Ultra Trail TMB race. The views over the Swiss Alps, this being the border between Italy and Switzerland, were justifiably lovely but the presence of this infernal race infrastructure made it all distinctly unseemly.

Sadly, the day was to descend rapidly into farce as we, ourselves, descended rapidly to La Fouly. For the next few hours, we would step, like automatons, to one side as scantily clad fellows in garishly coloured Salomon trail shoes and tight-fitting clothing would jog past us, looking for all the world as if they might collapse imminently, and head down the mountainside. It became rapidly tiresome and the rest of the day was spent simply trying to get down as quickly as possible to avoid these mosquito-like annoyances. By the time we had reached La Fouly, and checked into the Hôtel des Glaciers we were glad to be off the mountain and in the bar.

La Fouly is the focal point for mountaineering in Switzerland within the Val Ferret. That fact is somewhat staggering to me as it seems such an innocuous place. The Hôtel des Glaciers, a small hotel steeped in mountaineering history is run by two of the most stoic of Swiss women. I found the Swiss somewhat humourless throughout the TMB (as well as in Grimentz earlier in the year), which is a sadness, but not representative of the whole country I suspect. At the Hotel, both the manageress and the lady serving behind the bar were icily direct. Despite my not inconsiderable anglo-saxon charms, they only warmed slightly during the course of our evening. Still, we had red wine and good food so little was lost. The hotel room was sufficiently well equipped to enable us to wash our soiled kit and bask in a hot shower. We slept well.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc, days 3-4: Refuge du Bonhomme to Courmayeur

Day Three: Refuge du Bonhomme (2443m) to Refugio Elisabetta (2195m)
Sleeping: Refugio Elisabetta
Distance: 19km
Ascent/Descent: 955m/1219m
Highest Point: Col des Fours (2665m) and Col de la Seigne (2516m)

The high route variante across Col des Fours at 2665m is one of the most elevated positions on the TMB. The path then descends rapidly and, accordingly to both Mr. Reynolds and the various maps we had between us, very technically and potentially precariously, to la Ville des Glaciers (1789m) before ascending, rather more gently, to Refuge des Mottets (1870m). It then ascends in steep, switchback turns and a long, sweeping path, redolent of the Carneddau to Col de la Seigne (2516m) and the French/Italian border before descending finally to Refugio Elisabetta (2195m). It is not an easy day in good weather, covering some 19km and just under (according to Eli's GPS) 1000m of ascent and over 1200m of descent, let alone poor weather. The path is depicted on maps with dotted lines where the trail becomes hazardous in inclement weather and those dotted parts on our maps were vast tracts of the initial part of the Col des Fours route, either side, in fact, of the col itself. Before we’d gone to bed, the weather had certainly been inclement - rough, squally and unpredictable. If it continued that way, taking the Col des Fours route would be foolhardy.

I awoke several times during the night and slipped out of the dortoir into the main corridor where I knew there was a door leading outside onto a small balcony from which I could observe the crucial meteorological conditions. The storm, a thunderous cannonade, continued unrelenting which set me brooding on whether Col des Fours would be a viable proposition. I slept fitfully, deep in conjecture. When I awoke finally for breakfast, I went downstairs and immediately went outside again onto the main balcony area. No rain, I gratefully noted, and the wind was more of a vaguely portentious zephyr, but the sky was deeply malignant. As the rest of the group ambled down and helped themselves to coffee, hot chocolate, bread and jam, we resolved to take the high route. The forecast suggested that the conditions would not worsen although there might be rain. I had been walking in a short-sleeved base layer only, with a shell if the wind or rain came and, given the amount of ascent and descent, I decided the same combination would be sufficient to begin with.

 As we packed and left the refuge, the mood was good, if not slightly apprehensive. Some of the group were not experienced hillwalkers so we felt a little responsible for ensuring they coped with the technicality of the path, the conditions and enjoyed the day. We fairly sprinted up to Col de la Croix Bonhomme and took the path to Col des Fours, noting ahead of us a dense morass of cloud and fog. The temperature had dropped, even in that short distance, but not sufficiently to mean I wanted to change clothing. By that stage, I had not even put a shell on and felt good - I like to stay in short sleeves as long as possible on ascents. The climb up to Col des Fours passed smoothly - navigation became technically more difficult as the path became harder to follow and, rather than resort to taking bearings and micro-navigation, we were alert to picking out the painted path marks in the fog and, eventually, we reached the Col. We had to traverse thick patches of snow, sometimes hundreds of metres in width, but little wind meant it was not unduly burdensome. Sadly, the billowing mist shrouded the panorama in a thick, impenetrable veil and the prospect of a short detour to climb up Tête Nord des Fours was now rather moot as any vista usually viewable would be hidden. Yotam and I were particularly disappointed, but we continued on picking our way through the murky haze, our eyes keenly following the path and looking out for the painted marks on rocks near it. Soon, we began to descend on steep paths of shale and mud, but within moments, it seemed, the mist began to clear to reveal the descent into Ville des Glaciers. The magic of gradually emerging from a nebulous cloud-base to behold almost in soft-focus a sun-drenched valley beneath will, I think, never be lost on me. I stood for a moment and savoured the beguiling mien below me. 

The descent was not quite as difficult as the maps suggested although, in thicker snow, I suspect it could well have been. By this stage, the rain had started to tickle the air and I had shifted to a shell layer. In the mist it was important to keep the gaps between us relatively small so that anyone struggling could be assisted and no one became separated or lost their way. The path became muddy and rocky, but manageable, as we forged the glacial rivers bisecting the valley. Cows threaded their way across the valley walls, not quite as assiduously as we did, colossal bells round their necks pealing in the chill morning air.

Eventually, we reached a wide dirt trail, which wound its way in sharp but easy switchbacks down to la Ville des Glaciers (1789m) and a farm road buttressed by small farm buildings mantled by labourers in galoshes. Crossing the river over a charming, wee bridge at the base of the Vallée des Glaciers, we set about once more the ascent to Refuge des Mottets and lunch. It is one of the eternal blessings of the TMB that many refuges en route will serve lunch as well as provide a place to stay overnight. There is little purpose in packing food beyond an emergency snack or two as there are easy lunch stops on the trail. We gratefully set down our packs and sought sanctuary from the now torrential downpour under the shelter next to the entrance to the refectory area of the small converted farm buildings comprising Refuge des Mottets. The refectory at des Mottets is a rather special place. Emblazoned on each wall with ancient alpine mountaineering appurtenances, with long benches and tables reminiscent of a public school or monastic institution, it has an intimate, cosy and informal tenor. We lunched on soup and the bread, cheese and ham that Jean-Rémy had dragged from Paris with him and chatted about the climb to Col de la Seigne and into Italy. The weather was growing no better, precipitation coming down in unwavering, ceaseless hordes and we knew there would come a point where we would need to venture out again into it, but this did nothing to dampen the mood.

 Strangely, as we climbed from des Mottets, the rain became more patchy and sporadic. We could see, as we ascended, clouds draped over the mountains across the valley, from where we had just come - ivory blankets from beneath which the muscular peaks had thrusted their way through so that the misty palls lay some distance from the summits. 

Sheep carpeted the mountainside as we hiked along the trail, a shepherd garbed in a long, flowing cape and thick gaiters, massaging them into submission with the aid of an ardent, devoted four-legged companion. We paused to watch them at work for a moment, simultaneously gazing across the valley at the range of Tête de Bellaval and Mont Tondu, and watching their practised synchronisation.

Unhappily, as we climbed, whilst the precipitation abated, the wind became stronger and colder and the fog an opaque, soupy mess. Frequently moving the fastest, I would scout ahead to ensure we kept to the path and detour back with reports. By this time, I had a base layer and a shell, without gloves, and I was growing colder by the minute. I did not want to delay us by grabbing the Prism and some gloves from my pack, preferring to cross the Col de la Seigne (2516m) and drop out of the weather, so foolishly chose to rely on moving quickly to keep me warm. By the time we reached the Col, marked by an Alpine-style cairn, someone was already sheltering from the wind behind it. I dropped down 10m or so to find some shelter on the leeward side of the col and, crouching to get whatever respite I could from the wind, pulled on the Prism and my gloves. Cold hands are not conducive to pulling on a pertex garment so I grabbed gloves first and then reveled in the almost immediate warmth of the Prism. Abruptly, the wind changed direction and my shelter became a funnel for the gale instead. I packed my kit and we moved off. Others had similarly donned additional layers. The views from Col de la Seigne are magnificent by all accounts and, perhaps had we seen them, I could edify you as to that, but alas we did not. That said, and to quote a friend, I like a bit of ‘weather’.

We were not long in descending from Col de la Seigne into the Vallon de la Lée Blanche before, for the second time that day, and in a manner infinitely more superlatively than the descent from Col des Fours, we stared at a sun-drenched valley below us. This time, the clouds parted to craft a slate archway through which, like a portal to some ethereal, fairy-tale kingdom, we could see the end of the Vallon de la Lée Blanche and the beginning of the Val Veni and, in the far distance, the Grand Col Ferret - which we would cross in some days to come. To our left, looming like seething, rocky spurs stood the keen, razor-edged pinnacles of the Pyramides Calcaires and ahead of us the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey. It was a striking, dazzling moment. Even the rain had stopped.

 Emboldened, we descended what became a treacherous, muddy quagmire of a path as quickly as we dared before almost stumbling upon a fresh-looking building serving as a shelter and museum part of the way down into the Vallon. We took refuge for a moment, out of curiosity rather than necessity, and inspected various murals on the walls and a sculpture of the Mont Blanc massif. It was a curious surreal interval.

 We continued our descent, elated that we were likely verging on the refuge and, most notably, a warm shower. I confess it was with some frustration that as we approached what I now know to be the Alpe inférieur de la Lex Blanche, a collection of old, seemingly disused buildings, we saw Elisabetta some 50m or so above us. It was less the ascent that frustrated us, and more the fact that, at that moment, the rain started again. In the 10 minutes or so it took us to complete the ascent, we were again soaked. We entered the busy boot room and removed our boots (not before providing some much needed impromptu first aid to an Englishman in need) and ambled into the dining room where the reception was located. For whatever reason, we had again sold under a lucky star and found ourselves in a four bunk room. Grabbing tokens for the showers, we dumped our packs, hung our wet clothes to dry and headed for the showers. It is a sad fact that hot water is strictly controlled in some refuges - Italian, usually, and tokens are required which last scant moments. Having experienced this whilst sailing, I had some inclination as to the likely consequences of failing to deal with this adequately so, after washing my base layer and boxers, I showered myself down in cold water, soaped, and then turned on the hot for as long as it would last. It was bliss. I changed and, warm and clean, I headed down to the dining room for a very welcome beer and to enjoy the fact the weather had changed dramatically for the good.

 Refugio Elisabetta Soldini is an extremely pleasant refuge, staffed by welcoming and helpful Italians from the Club Alpino Italiano who will, as they did for us, book further refuges for you. It was in this way we booked Bonatti some two days ahead. We booked refuges as we went throughout the TMB, a course which proved to be adroit, so that we would have flexibility in case of injury and in case we wanted to take a different route as we gained invaluable ‘on-trail’ intel. It is a comfortable place, standing high on a spur overlooking the Vallon de la Lée Blanche, with the Glaciers d’Estellette and de la Lée Blanche behind it. From large L-shaped balcony outside, the views, in good weather of course, are spectacular. I sat outside, warm again in the Prism, and enjoyed the sunset against the dramatic, craggy background.

It was full to capacity - a not unusual fact and it needs to be booked well in advance as there is little other option at hand - and there were Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award students in the vicinity camping as well. We again ate and drank heartily before returning to the illicit consumption of alcohol. Jean-Rémy, for reasons only he will ever be able to edify me as to, decided we should all have a shot or two of Génepi - a schnapps of some description I think - and, with that cerebral incendiary, we retired to slumber.

Day Four: Refugio Elisabetta (2195m) to Courmayeur (1226m)
Sleeping: Hôtel Croux, Courmayeur
Distance: 20km
Ascent/Descent: c.200m/c.1170m
Highest Point: Refugio 
Elisabetta (2195m)

I can be quoted as having said to be lost on the TMB is an embarrassment. I confess. I am embarrassed, perhaps eternally so. I was not the leader of our small coterie, but I had taken point up until then and, certainly, after that debacle, I took point from then onwards. I could argue it was not my fault, that others were ahead of me and I was simply following them at that point, but I should've known better. The morning had started pleasantly enough. Weather continuing from that of the evening before, we had taken photos of our group and reveled in the fact we got on so well. 

The descent from Elisabetta Soldini was an unbelievably peaceful, tranquil amble in comparison to the travails of the previous day. The sun beamed down on us like a proud father and if there were clouds in the sky they were tiny islands in an ocean of deep, passionate azure. Marmots played in the grassy fields and we cheerily strolled down to the main path and the route to Courmayeur. Ahead of us was a straightforward, easy day.

We chatted blithely and animatedly as we exalted in the vistas denied us the day before. I doubt a single day caused me to have recourse to my TZ10 more than that day - not because the panorama would not be bettered over the coming week, but because our mood was so enlivened. 

It was not long before we came to a bridge. I blame the Génepi the night before, but we had not conferred with Mr. Reynolds before setting off. Had we done so, we'd have known that, in bad weather, crossing the bridge and taking the easier route along the road was advisable. In good weather, the route across the spur of Mont Favre was to be taken. Alas, almost without thinking, we strolled blissfully unaware, across the bridge and it was an hour before we realised our error. To his credit, Jean-Rémy was all for going back and retracing our steps to the high route. The rest, myself included (oh, the ignominy) were for continuing on to Cormayeur. I should say, like Defence Counsel advocating on behalf of a churlish client, that the views even on that part of the route were spectacular and would not have been bettered to a degree worthy of re-routing by heading up 400m. Nevertheless, that was what Jean-Rémy did and we arranged, after some haggling over maps, to meet him in Cormayeur.

In order to link with the nearby TMB variante, we resolved to cut off the trail that followed the road and head up through the forest to the trail bound for the Refugio Monte Bianco. We knew, having left early, that we would reach Courmayeur in good time to have lunch and, as the day had become far from demanding (despite the distance = 20km), we did not require a stop at the refuge. It was a simple, navigational tool. Walking along the well-marked path along the upper, south, Val Veni, the Grand Jorasses to our left brought into stark and arresting relief by the sapphire sky, was a splendid, sublime episode - an undemanding, sunday afternoon stroll of a day, contemplating, perhaps a trifle wistfully, the glacier-clad mountains across the valley through the leafy awning of the trail. We stopped frequently, once to munch on snacks and take on water, but mostly just to stare. The Glacier du Miage, leviathan and imposing, stretched down to the valley floor feeding in great, gushing torrents the river running like an artery through the Val Veni. Beyond that, the smaller glaciers leading from Mont Blanc, de Bruillard and de Fréney can be seen caressing the steep, craggy slopes of the Aiguilles Blanche de Peuterey (4108m) and Noire de Peuterey (3373m).

Soon, we could see, in the heart of the valley, the entrance to the Mont Blanc Tunnel - a great, scaffolded structure reminiscent of an unfinished sprawl of buildings. The trail eventually, inexorably, led us back to the road which curved round and down towards Cormayeur. We accepted our fate with good grace, sauntering along the main road, whilst 
admiring - more easily as it was hardly technical ground - the circumference of mountains.

Courmayeur is, to the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif, what Chamonix is to the French and, to a limited extent, what Champex is to the Swiss. It is a large town, steeped in mountaineering and guiding history. The centre of the town is occupied by a rather handsome monument to the Alpine Guides of Courmayeur and it seemed fitting that the next day, before heading to Refugio Bertone and, ultimately, Refugio Bonatti, that would be our meeting point. As a town, it is indisputably Italian, replete with chic clothing stores and beautiful people. To juxtapose that Milanese landscape with craggy, hillwalking ascetics was, to me, vaguely humorous.

We arrived in Courmayeur without accommodation - we assumed, correctly as it transpired, that we could head straight for the Tourist Office and locate some suitable candidates. A word now on my philosophy so far as clothing for the TMB. It became rapidly clear, both during my preparations, but also when we arrived, that it would be a simple task to wash clothing and dry it overnight. As I had one, primary base layer - the Montane Bionic t-shirt - I decided to wash this as frequently as I could. A merino/polyester synthesis, it probably could have lasted much longer - indeed, my friend’s Icebreaker merino top, which he used almost every other day either as a base layer, or a mid-layer, was not washed at all and offended no one’s olfactory awareness. However, it dried so swiftly that washing seemed to make perfect sense. Thus, whenever we were in a position to do so, we washed kit.

We found a suitable hotel, the Hôtel Croux, and checked in. The lady we dealt with, to whom I shall simply refer as The Oracle, was outstanding. She recommended eateries for those in hiking boots - which is to say anywhere in town; she booked refuges ahead for us; she secured weather reports and gave us internet access. It was luxury. We spent the rest of the day, with Jean-Rémy, Ping, Yotam and Eli, watching the fashionistas drift past, swilling beer and devouring pizza. The evening was far more refined and we dined in a fine restaurant, the manager of whom batted not one eyelid when we walked in and treated us like royalty. It was a unforgettable evening.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc, days 1-2: Les Houches to Refuge du Bonhomme

At 5 years old Reinhold Messner was led by his father to his first summit. By his early twenties, he was one of the world’s greatest climbers. Born in Brixen, Italy in 1944, the Alps were his playground in his early years and they shaped his climbing style - the Alpine Style - climbing with very light equipment and a bare minimum of external assistance. Messner considered the alternative expedition style to be disrespectful to nature and to the mountains. Nearly a century earlier, between 1854, and Alfred Willis’ ascent of the Wetterhorn, and 1865 when Edward Whymper ascended the Matterhorn, the Golden Age of Alpinism saw most of the major peaks ascended in the Alps for the first time. In 1857, the Alpine Club in London was formed. It was a golden age for science, as the summiteers, along with scientists like physicist John Tyndall, carried instruments up the mountains to be used in scientific observations. By 2009, the Eiger’s North Face had claimed in excess of 60 lives and, in March of that year, two recruits from the Swiss Army’s Mountain Training Centre died when trapped by a storm trying to climb the notorious North Face. Despite purportedly planning adequately, they were most likely taken by a dramatic change in the weather. Conditions were such that rescue attempts failed. 

The Alps occupy a holy, majestic and critical mantle for any mountaineer or hillwalker. Mont Blanc, at 4810m, is the Queen of the Alps. The massif standing sentinel around the White Lady is circled by valleys in France, Switzerland and Italy and contains 5 glaciers as well as in excess of fifty major peaks. When you arrive in the Alps to walk there for the first time, they are true drama. The landscape has a sense of the English Lake District about it, until the snow-capped summits then extend far above what would have hitherto ended in north-west England. Everywhere in the valleys encircling the massif, your gaze is drawn inexorably to the sonorous titans seemingly within touching distance. Yet mountains are dangerous, unforgiving mistresses - a fact Messner recognised well enough when he said that “we attract tourists to these regions where we cannot guarantee their security” - and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure our skill set matches our aspirations. The Alps are certainly no exception.

 So it was, that I lay in a chair gazing at Mont Blanc, just outside the Hôtel les Campanules in Les Houches on Saturday 21st August 2010, considering those very same sobering thoughts. It was not my first visit to the Alps, nor was it my first experience walking in the Alps, but it was the first time I would be taking a long-distance path in the region that had captured my imagination since my parents and I drove over it when I was 8 years old, over a quarter of a century ago. I had set aside those dreams, hatched in the back of a battered old Cortina, throughout my early to late twenties in favour of a career. No longer.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is a demanding and, in places, technical walk. It is not mountaineering and no amount of dramatic licence or posturing prose will make it so. However, it is as useful, comprehensive and effective an introduction to true mountain walking in the Alps as you could hope to achieve. For some, it will be a pleasant, scenic and memorable trek among one of the most amazing and beautiful massifs in Europe (if not, the world). For me, it was an induction - an inauguration to where the next 10 or 15 years of my life would be spent. I am an experienced hillwalker which is to say, as my father used to say of drivers - there are no good hillwalkers, only safe ones. The hills in the UK, dramatic and wonderful as they are, simply do not have the energy and attraction of the Alps and, indeed, grander ranges across the world. To walk in the Alps, at the highest level, there is a skill set required that I simply do not have. The first stage in remedying that was the TMB. The second will be in Scotland in January/February 2011 and a greater understanding of ice-axes, crampons and snow-holes.

We arrived in Les Houches on the Saturday and started out the next morning, Sunday. We had planned meticulously in respect of our kit. Both of us were carrying, without water an food, something in the region of 6kg. We had with us a 2-person tent as an emergency shelter. We never used it - a fact I do not regret for one second, nor do I regret its weight - take the mountains seriously, Messner intoned. We did.

Day One: Les Houches (1007m) to Les Contamines-Montjoie (1167m)
Sleeping: Refuge du CAF (Club Alpine Français)
Distance: 16km
Ascent/Descent: c.750m/700m
Highest Point: Col de Voza, 1653m 

Across from the Hôtel Slalom, along from the Bellevue Téléphérique, the TMB begins. It is a steep inauguration to the next 11 days and the heat at 1000m is exacerbated by proximity to the sun’s radiation. That day, at 28C, we drank in excess of 4 litres. We were granted only sporadic respite from the heat by the canopied shade of the forested, winding dirt path as we frequently emerged from the sheltered confines provided by the alpine evergreens. It was our first day and, despite training as religiously as we were able prior to the TMB, it was a hard one. We did not take the ‘variante’, a much harder baptism - I wish now, secretly, we had but I wonder if we would have been able to deal with the next day as comfortably as we did, had we done so. Too much too soon - maybe. Others did it and found it hard going but rewarding.

As we reached Col de Voza, a broad saddle at 1653m with the demeanour of a bijou ski resort, we rested and caught our breath in shallow raspy gasps. Looking back now, I am embarrassed that 600m of ascent could tire me so readily, but it was hot and we were amateurs without our mountain legs. It was perhaps unsurprising. Les Houches begins at 1007m and Col de Voza is at 1653m, and there is more ascent after that, so the estimate of 646m by our dear friend (as he became) Mr. Reynolds is, it seems to me, somewhat conservative. I would suggest it is nearer 700-750m but, as the days progressed, that disparity would become distinctly insignificant. It is here that the last option to take the variante can be seen. 

From Col de Voza, we descended towards Bionnassay and, not for the first time, but now most clearly and spectacularly, the Dôme du Goûter (4258m), the Glacier de Bionnassay and the Aiguille de Bionnassay (4052m) came into view (pictured above and described left to right), framed perfectly by the deep, blue sky. For several kilometres, they stayed with us as we descended into the tiny hamlets of Le Crozat and Bionnassay. 

Passing a tiny chapel, we again entered the confines of evergreen forest, suddenly taken by the roar of the raging torrent that is the Bionnassay, some way below us. We crossed over a bridge and rested next to the river, stooped beneath a boulder as a tributary crashed into the Bionnassay beside us, to devour salami, cheese and bread and fill our hydration bladders. It was a magical experience to eat almost within the boundaries of the river, watching it rage past us. It was a standing joke that my 75g Swiss Army knife would see little use - its first outing was here and I took some satisfaction in that.

We continued on, sated and ebullient, through the undulating and narrow forested path, across the Gorges de la Gruvaz spanning the torrent spewing from the Glacier du Miage, and down to Tresse and Le Quy. That first day was spent walking through many tiny French hamlets and farming communities before re-entering forested areas. It's a dimension I had not expected but it was a pleasant enough amble. Through the forest, we could see rocky crags adorned with pinewood across the valley. The sun continued to heat the air and we took comfort in the shade of the giant and ancient alpine evergreens. It is no feat of navigation to trek the TMB - periodically, signs are posted, often with time estimates, and, in France, the symbol for the TMB (red over white) appears on those signs and is painted onto trees and rocks. Getting lost is an embarrassment. 

The Refuge du CAF at Les Contamines-Montjoie is at the bottom of a large house and accessed by means of a door at the back. It is stiff and a notice, in French, tells you to shove it hard. We did so, entered, removed our boots and wandered into our first experience of a dortoir. One room had four bunks in, the other had rather more. We set our packs onto bunks in the smaller of the rooms and went upstairs to enquire about dinner. Usually, dinner (as part of demi-pension, which I strongly advise you book each time you stay in a refuge) is at 7.00 or 7.30pm. It is often a 4 course meal, consisting of a starter, main, cheese and dessert. Standards vary but at the end of a 7hr day, it tends to matter little what the quality of the food is. Generally, it is hard to get bad food in France. We had some time so, in the ‘brothel creepers’ (as we dubbed the Hot Socks), we crossed the main road into a small pizzeria dubbed 'Le Totem'. What connection this place had to Native American rituals I know not, but the determinedly bickering French couple who ran the place were good value. We quaffed beer for a few hours, discussing the days to come, before heading over for dinner. Two rooms marked the dining area and an Italian family occupied one, leaving us and the other refuge occupiers in the other. it was here we met Ping, a New Yorker hiking the TMB alone and Yotam, an Israeli man from Tel-Aviv, similarly hiking alone. It simply seemed natural that, chatting with the over dinner, they would join us the next day. The TMB is rather like that - it is virtually impossible not to meet others and often they will simply end up walking with you. We did not mind this and, over the coming days, they became friends.

Day Two: Les Contamines-Montjoie (1167m) to Refuge du Bonhomme (2443m)
Sleeping: Refuge du Bonhomme
Distance: 16km
Ascent/Descent: 1316m/100m
Highest Point: Col de la Croix du Bonhomme (2483m) 

We had decided long before that we wanted to do the day 3 variante between Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and onto Refugio les Mottets, then crossing the Col des Fours at 2665m, before heading across Col de la Seigne to Refugio Elisabetta. It would be a long, arduous day but, as day 3 of the TMB, we felt we'd be ready for it. Weather would be an issue so we would need to assess the situation once we arrived at the Refuge at Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. The day started easily enough with a 4km road/track walk to the church at Notre-Dame de la Gorge. Ping was with us by then and it was at Notre-Dame de la Gorge that we met up with Yotam and, his friend, Eli - another Israeli. Eli is a curious character - having walked the GR20 last year with an enormous pack (27kg), he had decided to go lighter this time round with only 22kg. He only has one pace - a determined, indomitable slow amble that maximises his endurance and means he can walk for great distances. He also errs on the side of packing for every eventuality. In some ways, he is the consummate backpacker - there is no situation he is not entirely prepared for. That said, he acknowledges his pace is not for everyone and we stretched away from him on the early, almost paved, riverside ascent into the valley leading to Refuge de la Balme (1706m), the Aiguille de la Pennaz ahead of us. 

As we sat at the white picnic tables outside the refuge, a surly character asked us, abruptly, what we wanted. I enquired as to food. Moments passed as he came to terms with my apparent chutzpah. “What do you want?” he asked. “What do you have?” I responded. “Blueberry pie,” came the perfunctory riposte. “Sounds perfect.” Suspiciously eyeing me, he retreated and returned with a shortbread biscuit covered in marzipan, topped with blueberries. I cannot tell you if, under different circumstances, it would have been edible, but there and then, in the shadow of the Aiguille de la Pennaz, on the first real day of our walk into the Alps, it was bliss. We had climbed nearly 600m and walked nine kilometres in around 2.5hrs. We were ready for whatever was given to us. We filled our hydration bladders again and set off. It was not an easy day - the heavens swiftly grew slate-grey and foreboding and eventually the first few spots of rain dotted our arms. As we trekked through the valley, great crags towering above us on either side, we climbed relentlessly. By the time we had reached the tiny shelter on Col du Bonhomme (2329m), the wind was ripping at our collars but the rain continued only to fleck tiny beads onto our jackets. The sun of the previous day long forgotten, the south side of the Mont Blanc massif, notorious for less clemency than the north, began to bare its teeth.

As we enjoyed a brief moment of solace in the shelter, a compact, cramped hut suffused with other walkers pulling on extra layers, we stared up at the path which now lay before us. We knew there was more ascent to come - at least another 250m - but it was at that moment I realised that, although I was physically tired, the muscles in my legs were curiously buoyant. It's a strange feeling when the body realises, and tacitly acknowledges, that this is no weekend hillwalk and the “mountain legs” ignite. The new path dipped down away from the Col, cresting a ridge to the right of an ugly slab of a summit. Dipping our heads beneath the wind, we surged forward.

We climbed again, traversing the uncomplicated but rocky path, the landscape hued incongruously russet, this time reveling in the fresh and unfamiliar, wondrously distant vista of the seemingly endless Alpine peaks surrounding us. It had been sudden, without a moments warning, the shelter standing like a gateway, and we had entered the wilderness of the massif. The nearest building to us would be the refuge. Supplies to this remote place would have to be airlifted in. For the first time, we felt truly in the mountains. After what seemed a tragically short time, we saw the cairn on top of the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and climbed up to it, elated.

 The Col de la Croix du Bonhomme sits at 2486m. From it, we could see the refuge and cantered down to it. It was 2pm and we'd set a fairly blistering pace knocking off the day's mileage in just under 5hrs. Bonhomme is a large refuge, and at least 100 hikers were staying there that night. Some were on different paths to us, some were trail runners setting off early on ultra-trail marathons. The atmosphere within was adrenalised satisfaction. It's no easy walk up there and, as we sipped thick, European hot chocolate, simultaneously munching on home made tarts and flans, we chattered jubilantly. Again, my friend & I were in a dortoir of only 4 - a small, but pleasant room within the rafters of the refuge. This is when we met Jean-Rémy and Thierry. The latter, a tall, rangy figure with a deep Gallic slash of a smile, would leave us the next morning at 6am to complete his run from Geneva to Nice. It had been a day of rest for him, a chance to ease his muscles - he'd only covered 40km the day we arrived. Tomorrow he'd be back up to speed covering 50km in preparation for his 80km race in Brittany later this year - a race to be completed in 20hrs. Jean-Rémy would stay with us until just short of Champex. The small team was growing. Within 2hrs of us arriving at the refuge, Eli and Yotam arrived and joined us at our table. This time, as the light faded, we ordered warm red wine. It was a good day.

 For some time, I sat outside on the balcony watching the weather grow steadily worse. In the distance, half expecting to see a glowering eye segue into view above it, I stared at an ominous looking peak, shrouded in a thick, moody, inky pall. That same sable shroud began to encircle the refuge, as the wind picked up and our hopes for the high route across Col des Fours began to swiftly fade into oblivion. Rain pattered the windows and even those insane enough to outside retreated inside. 

By candlelight we devoured lashings of boeuf bourgignon, cheese polenta, bread and cheese, and chocolate cake. Language was no barrier as we muddled our way through to make our meanings clear to each other. It was all joyously convivial inside, whilst outside, a maelstrom raged. Well into night, we retired to bed, wondering what the next day would bring us. The prospect of dropping down to Les Chapieux filled us with little cheer and we resolved, the six of us - myself, my friend, Jean-Rémy, Ping, Yotam and Eli - that it would take a very great deal to keep us from the high route and Col des Fours.