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

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