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.


  1. Maz - another great post. I really love the photos. I need to do this route some time !


  2. Wonderful descriptive writing and brilliant photos. Thank you for sharing to share your trip with us.

  3. Thank you both. As I said right at the start of the Days 1-2 post, it's an amazing trek - it really gets you started in Alpine walking. We had the full gamut of weather as days 8 and 9 will demonstrate! I have a curriculum for myself for the rest of this year and 2011-2012: the development of a skillset that will take my hillwalking into mountaineering as well as the summer Mountain Leader training. It's going to be a really exciting couple of years...

  4. You have a fine skill in writing Maz. Descriptive and detailed - you have put a lot into writing up your trip. Fine photos as well. Its appreciated and thanks.

  5. Thanks Martin - a welcome comment! Glad you're enjoying the journal.

  6. Great photos, a trip to remember. The blue skies and white snow are wonderful.

  7. Some stunning photos in this Maz and a really nice "trip report" too.

    I really want to do this again... :)

  8. Just finishing the journal for days 7-8. The Fenêtre d'Arpette on Day 8 - fantastic stuff. Pyrenees Haute Route looks pretty good though. Thanks for the tip. Maybe for 2012 given this year is the Classic Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt.

  9. Maz - another great post. I really love the photos. I need to do this route some time !