Day Three: Refuge du Bonhomme (2443m) to Refugio Elisabetta (2195m)
Sleeping: Refugio Elisabetta
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
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.