Sunday, May 28, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 5: Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 6:  Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly  – 7/15/16 – 14.6 Miles

[Note: It took a lot of time and study to identify the mountains and glaciers in photos from today’s hike, and it is likely that some are incorrect.  I used the massive and detailed Carte de Randonnées hiking map Pays du Mont-Blanc.]

Hikers’ sleeping mats lined up in close proximity like sardines in a tin; now Jim knows what a sleepless night of incessant snoring feels like. Hiking boots: $150; trekking poles: $125; foam earplugs: priceless.

Small but satisfying payback: rustling around packing up at 6:00 a.m. to wake the offender.  Breakfast at Bonatti is served beginning at 6:30 a.m., the usual bread, jam, cheeses, muesli and other cereals, and don’t forget to pick up your takeaway lunch.  We ate with our new friends from dinner the night before and departed at 7:30 a.m. 

A dusting of snow and a ferocious wind called for down jackets, gloves and hats (Jim forgot to pack a toboggan!) to start our day.
The sun rose directly behind the rifugio, casting a welcome bright glow on the Mont Blanc range and highlighting its contours. Consequently, for the first few hours of our hike Bonatti’s side of the valley dwelled in deep shadow and photos were disappointing – but not impossible!

Today’s route took us up to Grand Col Ferret, leaving Italy behind and introducing us to Switzerland.  From Bonatti the TMB gained elevation (of course) for a short while and then leveled out on a balcony following the contours of grassy slopes similar to yesterday’s hike.  Breathing that alpine air, marveling at the colors – greenest grasses, azure sky, winking pinks, yellows and whites of wildflowers – we floated along the path in front of the not-quite-real backdrop of gray stone and snowy peaks.

Aiguille deTronchey, Glacier de Frébouze in the upper right, Rifugio Bonatti in deep shadow in the foreground

Glacier de Frébouze, an abandoned hut in deep shadow in foreground (see the square window?)

Looking down into the Italian Val Ferret toward Grand Col Ferret on the right – we are going over that pass covered in clouds

Panorama extreme left to right: Mount Blanc (white), Glacier de Frébouze, Gruetta Glacier, Mont Dolent and Grand Col Ferret

Close-up Gruetta Glacier

Jim in silhouette, Gruetta Glacier

First crossing of a cascade - appreciate the bridges when you have them

Next crossing, sans bridge
Jim and friends

Alp buildings

Here we turned left and began our descent to the valley floor

But first we’ve got to get past the residents

On the valley floor we paused at Chalet Val Ferret – another great place to stay, but we didn’t – and touched base with Carly and Randy.  They were faster (younger) than us and had already eaten their second breakfast at the Chalet. The TMB goes a mere 100 meters before turning back upward.  Why didn’t it just stay up on the balcony?  Because hikers have to get around this massive waterfall.
Looking over my shoulder to where we’ve been. In the far, far distance, Col de la Seigne where we crossed from France to Italy three days ago

On the last kilometer to Rifugio Elena the ever-present wind had become a force to be reckoned with.  Holding the camera at all was a challenge and holding myself upright was next to impossible without my trekking poles.  The trail followed in and out of the mountain’s contours, crossing snow in the shadowy folds, another reason to be grateful for the added stability of my poles.

Just a slippery little snow field over a cascade

Another one

Glacier de Triolet

Glacier de Triolet

Jim getting close to Rifugio Elena

At Rifugio Elena (another great place to stay overnight, but we didn’t) everyone was piling in for a respite from the wind, thawing frozen fingers around cups of hot chocolate or coffee.  We chatted with a British family (mom, dad, teenage daughter) that we had met briefly a few days earlier.  They were quite cheerful (or is it just that accent?).  They had braved the Col de Fours that Jim and I had skipped on our terrible bad weather Day 2.  The mom admitted that, although it was a good story now, at the time they were up there all alone and the footing felt quite treacherous, so not the best decision in those conditions and they wouldn’t do it again
After our warm-up, we bundled up again to brave the big push to our challenge of the day: Grand Col Ferret. In reality, the big push was more moderate than some of our previous climbs, a well-graded path although quite muddy and slippery in places, with a bit of new snow.
Leaving Rifugio Elena

Before we turn our backs on Italy for good, take a nice long look.  Who knows if the glaciers will still be here the next time we are?
Pré de Bar Glacier

Pré de Bar Glacier

Glacier de Triolet

Val Ferret – teeny tiny Rifugio Elena in the lower left

Panorama with Cassie and Niki

Cassie and Niki climbing to Grand Col Ferret

Grand Col Ferret – Hello Switzerland!

It’s a bit too chilly to have a lunch break here

Looking down into the Swiss Val Ferret – Grand Combin is the peak in the far distance, part of the Pennin Alps

Going from Italy to Switzerland was a mild shock – what contrasts!  The TMB leaves the sharp peaks behind, substituting gentler slopes. The brisk wind did not diminish, though, while we were still near the top.
Cassie and Niki

The white ribbon is water flowing from a high hanging valley

That wind was still fierce as we dropped down into the Swiss Val Ferret, but hunger pangs began to win the argument for stopping to eat.  We saw our British family friends hunkered down against a low berm and we barged in to catch a break. 
A sweet surprise, chocolate in our lunch from Rifugio Bonatti

The TMB continued gently downhill across wide slopes and occasionally narrow paths, a pleasure to walk, really a stroll.  We stopped at a summer dairy farm called Alpage de la Peule (a great place to stay, but we didn’t).  Confirmation that we are indeed in Switzerland: a Coke cost 3.60€ (at least they took Euros rather than Swiss francs.) 
Yurts at Alpage de la Peule

Jim’s highlight of the day: getting a Tour de France update from local cyclists

Backpacks lined up

Past Alpage de la Peule the way got a little sketchy, resulting in us taking the TMB variant on a gravel farm road that skirted the edge of the village of Ferret before rejoining the main trail onward to the town of La Fouly.  This variant winds off of the farm road onto footpaths, crossing the Drance de Ferret twice. One way is as good as another, two hours of walking through a Disney-esque-perfect countryside of wildflowers, cowbells and chalets. 
The cuteness of Switzerland

Swiss humor?

Switzerland looks very organized and civilized – the Drance de Ferret

Edelweiss Hotel in La Fouly, our least favorite stay on the TMB.  Tired, dirty and hungry (surely we are not the first people to arrive in such a state), the front desk manager was brusque and unfriendly, requiring us to store our hiking boots in the basement storage area before she would check us in.  Our room was simple and sparse, a bit hard to find in a warren of hallways, and at 214 CHF it was the most expensive of our itinerary (about $215 US, including dinner and breakfast), twice the cost of our lovely accommodations in Courmayeur with less than half the charm.

For that price we used the balcony as a drying rack with a view. (Bad news: the clothes that I had hand washed the night before at Bonatti didn’t get dry, so Jim carried them today.  The extra weight made a difference.  He was exhausted and developed heel blisters that plagued him the rest of the trip.)

We walked around the few blocks of La Fouly and returned to have a beer in the hotel bar (surprise! The desk manager was also the bartender. Same attitude.) The simple set dinner menu (bean soup, chicken curry and rice, and yogurt with fruit for dessert) was made special by Randy and Carly joining us, sharing stories of trips taken, trips dreamed of, and TV series to binge watch on Netflix.  Jim particularly was enjoying the conversation, fully embracing this backpacking microcosm.

Despite the cool reception so far in Switzerland, access to wifi was valuable, and we retreated to our room after supper to catch up on the world, talk to a couple of our kids, and upload photos.  We drifted off to sleep with visions of tomorrow.

Miles: 14.6       Elevation gain: 4,236 feet     Elevation loss: 5,350 feet

“And at the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair messy, and your eyes sparkling." ~Shanti

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