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