Monday, 16 September 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 2: A Long Way Up, A Long Way In

        “We climbed and climbed; and we kept on climbing;
         we reached about forty summits; but there was always
         another one just ahead.” 
Mark Twain (“A Tramp Abroad”)
In the morning we could see what we’d missed on arrival. Where the steep meadows had ended in cloud last evening, they now gave way to peaks and glaciers and a soft blue sky. If that wasn’t enough to lift our spirits, we’d also eaten and slept well. Despite a map briefing from Julie that promised a long, challenging day, we felt oddly – perhaps naively – optimistic about the day ahead.

[View from the Refuge de Miage]  
With that dollop of Day 2 innocence fuelling us, we left our homely refuge, crossed the Torrent de Miage, and trudged steeply uphill towards Mont Truc. The alpine meadows, full of wildflowers, kept our spirits up. 

[Alpine wildflowers] 
So too did the fact that we didn’t actually have to ascend Mont Truc. Instead we sidled through cow-dotted meadows, a brilliant blue sky setting off improbably beautiful mountains. There were even wild raspberries to pick once we started to descend through the forest.

[Levelling off after Mont Truc]  
A long descent followed, mostly on a wide track, and through beautiful coniferous forest dotted with deciduous trees. Eventually we reached the town of Les Contamines, deep in the Montjoie valley. The small town was bustling, with a market selling a large variety of outdoor clothing, and fluttering banners set up for the UTMB – the ultra marathon event that would follow our route in less than two weeks.

[Our sometimes tangled route] 
We caused a brief traffic jam as we processed behind Nikita the mule up the main street, but we soon dived off the road onto a shady track along the valley floor. The track was now easy and flat, but somehow we were behind time, so we had to hustle along. By now we’d been walking long enough for aches and strains to become evident. I was finding my pack in uncomfortable balance with my front-mounted camera gear, leading to neck and shoulder pain. (A quick adjustment later fixed the issue, but at the time it felt as though there was no time to stop for that.)

I was far from the only one facing challenges. Joan, at 75 still a leading light in the walking group around which our TMB party was based, was having trouble with the pace. She and a couple of others had been late arriving into Chamonix, after democracy protests at Hong Kong airport had seen them diverted to Frankfurt, then Paris. They’d only joined the rest of us late on the night before the walk. It had not been an ideal preparation, and Joan had begun to feel that the pace was beyond her, and that she was delaying the group.

Despite our pleas, Joan made the decision to travel back to Chamonix for a few days to re-gather herself. She said she’d aim to join us again in Courmayeur in a few days. Just before our valley ended – at the gothic chapel of Notre Dame de la Gorge – Joan waved us off. It soon began to look like a wise choice, as we immediately began a severe climb, first up an old Roman road, then over a deep and narrow gorge of the Torrent Nant, before winding around to a welcome stream-side lunch spot.

[Torrent Nant rushes through a narrow gorge] 

The sun was strong, with high cirrus clouds striping an otherwise blue sky. It was warm enough for some of us to seek shade. But too soon lunch was over, and we began a particularly long uphill section. As we got beyond 2 000m, still short of the Col du Bonhomme, the forest began to thin, and give way to expansive alpine meadows. Soon we stopped seeing – and hearing – cattle, the going now rockier, the grasses sparser.

[The long climb to the Col du Bonhomme] 

I tried to concentrate on what was immediately in front of me, or chat with whoever was beside me. But any time I stole a look ahead, the col was a good deal higher still. On one of these sneaked looks I noticed a large patch of dirty snow, with the signs of foot traffic across it. We followed Julie and Nikita onto the snow, curious about the mule’s ability to walk on snow. With her head stoically down, she just kept plodding. 

[Julie leads Nikita across a snow patch] 

Once we were above the snow I took the same approach. Finally, just shy of 2 hours after lunch, we topped out at the Col du Bonhomme. My brother Ian and I posed happily, if wearily, for what we hoped was a celebratory photo of the top.

[Brothers at the Col, (Ian right, Peter left)]  

But at 2 325m, it was still more than 100m below our day’s destination. We wearily turned south-east and began sidling across broken rocky terrain. Nikita seemed as done-in as we felt, and at one stage she stumbled to her knees. She also threw a shoe, and although it didn’t seem to bother her, we were concerned. Julie was too, and took extra care to lead Nikita around the rockiest sections. 

[A tricky rocky section near the end of the day] 

Nearly an hour and a half after the col, we finally saw our haven for the night, the Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, taking almost as long to say as it took to reach! We’d come nearly 22km, over 7 hours of walking, not counting our lunch break. At an altitude of almost 2 500m, this would be one of our highest nights.

[The Refuge at last!]  

If we thought we’d end the day with a quiet victory drink and meal, we soon learned another lesson of the Alps. Even when you’re a long way up, and a long way in, there are people everywhere. Still, it was a bit of a shock to enter the refuge and find over 100 other walkers already ensconced. The atmosphere was ripe with the smell of food, the fug of sweaty clothes and stale socks, and the multi-lingual hubbub of many nations. Once we had our beers, we sat down and added to the ambience. Day 2 was done at last.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 1: Up, Up and Away

Anyone who walks the full Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) inevitably conjures with numbers. One metric of the TMB is that it’s a walk of some 170km through 3 countries, around one massive white mountain (Mont Blanc), and among countless other glacier-fringed peaks. The total distance alone doesn’t convey much. The ascents and descents increase the difficulty exponentially. Over our 10 walking days we would need to climb a total of nearly 9,500m. By way of comparison Mt Everest is 8,848m. And what goes up must come down: look out knees!

[Mont Blanc centre/back, with some of our group] 
4 months out, back in Tasmania, those scary numbers were messing with my head. So too was the fact that I’d be doing this reputedly gruelling walk at the age of 66, and with a group I didn’t know. (The exception was my brother Ian, who had invited me to join the group.) When I learned that the rest of the group was already training hard for the walk, my apprehension only grew. There was nothing for it but to start my own training. Thankfully I wouldn’t be doing that solo, but with the welcome guidance and participation of my wife. Even though Lynne wouldn’t be doing the walk (it was a “brother thing”, for which our wives had generously given us “shore leave”), this looming deadline gave us both the perfect excuse to shed some weight and get fitter.

[On the right track: an obvious TMB sign] 
Fast forward to August 15, 2019. A short bus trip from Chamonix sees us at our start point in Les Houches. It’s high summer in the Alps, and the forecast storms are holding off. A disorganised group of clouds jostle the higher peaks, mirroring our own last minute fussing. Most of us have had a couple of days in Chamonix to meet up, and to overcome jet lag, but we’re still nervous about what’s ahead. There are 13 in our group, four of whom are 70 plus years old, with most of us nudging 60 or more. It’s fair, then, to call us “experienced”.

At Les Houches we meet our French guide Julie, and a mule named Nikita. The mule has been waiting for us, braying impatiently from the hill above us. Nikita will carry our overnight bags – strictly limited to a 7kg maximum per person – for the first half of our journey. We walkers will carry a similar weight of gear in our day packs. We watch – and assist – while Julie loads our mule. It’s something we’ll get very used to. And then we set off, falling in behind Nikita: something else we’ll get used to.

[Following our mule, Nikita]
It’s all uphill for the first 2 hours, initially through what looks like alpine suburbia, then across grassy, semi-forested slopes, which are grazed by cattle as well as groomed for skiing and mountain biking. The views, deep into Chamonix's Arve Valley, and up to the vast Mont Blanc Massif, are a major compensation for our huffing and puffing.

[Looking back as we climb out of the Chamonix Valley] 

We chat, as breath allows, and I learn a little about some of my companions. I also pick up that I’m not the only one having trouble convincing myself that my training is making any difference. Still, we eventually top out at the Col de Voza, just shy of 1700m. Shortly afterwards we unload Nikita and spread ourselves out on the grass for our first lunch. It’s bread and cheese – both French, of course – with assorted salads and fresh fruit. While we’re munching, Nikita finds a dry patch of grass and rolls in it extravagantly, as glad as we are of the break.

Another pattern is soon established. After our 650m climb, we have to descend again. Our steep path takes us through forest, towards the village of Bionassay. We by-pass most of the village, but not before learning that the glacier that hangs above it – Glacier de Bionassay – had killed 200 people in 1892. The glacier had collapsed, and a huge chamber of meltwater trapped beneath the ice had catastrophically flooded the valley, wiping out the lower village of Bionnay. Today the glacier has retreated considerably, and looks more picturesque than dangerous.

[View towards the Glacier de Bionnassay] 
We soon have a minor water issue of our own. A couple of days of rain have swollen the Torrent de Bionnassay, which we have to cross. Nikita would normally ford this without difficulty, but Julie decides that’s not possible today. It’s no problem for us, as there’s a footbridge. However that’s too narrow for a fully-laden mule, and Julie isn’t sure Nikita will happily cross the bridge, even if we take off her whole load. We try it regardless, and our brave mule – after considerable encouragement – trots quickly across the narrow bridge. She looks as though she’s holding her breath, like a child accepting a dare.

Once we’ve re-loaded Nikita we climb out of the valley, then up, down and around more hillsides. Our views now open out to the south-west, where there are some impressive distant mountains. But we’re heading south-east, up towards even higher mountains. And towards our next glacier – Glacier du Miage – part of which sits high above our first night’s accommodation. Of course there’s a climb involved, some 350m, and we’re both late and tired as we reach Refuge de Miage.

[Our weary group approaching Refuge de Miage] 
Clouds have descended on the mountains, so we make do with the lesser rewards of rushing water, chirping marmots, and green, flower-laden slopes. And did I mention warm showers, soft beds and cold beers? We’ve survived our first day on the TMB. So far so good!

[Looking good: our accommodation at Refuge de Miage] 

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

The Secret Highlands 2: Broken and Ugly

In the chill of the morning, while some of us were pulling sleeping bag hoods around our ears, Libby was up getting the fire started. The night before we’d decided there was no urgency about getting going in the morning. That, at least, was my excuse for staying à bed. But the warm flicker of flames that lit the hut proved the ultimate in gentle alarm clocks. How we humans are drawn to the flames!

[Drawn to the Flames!] 
After brekky we were in Tim’s hands. He suggested we pack lunch and head south, towards the February Plains. We were keen to explore this undulating plateau, with its grandstand views over Cradle Mountain National Park to the west, and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park to the east. But there was still cloud about, and views might be better with the clearer weather that was forecast for tomorrow. Besides, Tim’s agenda for today had a touch of the train-spotter about it.

In 1895, E.G. Innes and team had surveyed and cut a potential rail route between Mole Creek in the north and Rosebery in the west. Although the railway line never eventuated, some parts of his cut route can still be seen, including on a section of the Overland Track west of the Pelion Plains.

[Across the plains, with fire aftermath around us] 
Innes’ official report spoke of the landscape near here as “broken, ugly country”. After reaching what he called the Mackenzie Plain – probably part the February Plains – he “turned again south …. (and) skirted the side of the hill at an easy grade, through a country covered with a dense growth of myrtle and pepper tree.

Tim was keen to find evidence of Innes’ Track, especially where it “skirted the side of the hill”. Innes had presumably tried to take a line below and to the east of the highest country in order to avoid the worst of the weather that can lash this area.

So after walking south for a short while, we swung east and began to wander up a broad, open valley. The only thing remotely “broken” or “ugly” about it was the widespread fire damage from the Mersey Forest fires of summer 2016. There was stark burned forest on the valley fringes; burned scrub and buttongrass in the valley floor; even cracked and blackened rocks. The same fires had burned east around Lake Mackenzie and the Blue Peaks, and south-east through parts of the Mersey highlands. They were started by dry lightning, a phenomenon thought to be one of the local outcomes of climate change. I’ve written about these fires here

As we neared the edge of the upland, we began to get partial views east across the deep Mersey Valley towards Clumner Bluff and the Walls of Jerusalem. Tim had marked on his GPS that this was where we might find traces of Innes’ work. The fires had made our search both easier and harder: easier because we could see further, and walk more easily through the fire-cleared undergrowth; harder because many windfall trees blocked our way and obscured the kind of evidence we were searching for.

[Searching for Innes Track] 
After a couple of hours of off-track scrambling, we admitted defeat. We’d seen hints of cut lines, but nothing that was continuous and unambiguous. For our troubles we were sweaty and blackened, so we sought the compensations of lunch and a view on a high rocky knoll. We scored better. A large wedge-tailed eagle graced us with its presence as we ate. It perched for some time in a bare tree just above us, then took off, circling above for a final look. In its honour we dubbed our lunch hill “Eagle Rock”.

[A wedge-tailed eagle at "Eagle Rock"] 
We decided we’d return to the hut a different way, just for variety, but managed to collect even more scratches and black stripes from having to push through thick burned scrub. It had been two and a half years since the major fire here, yet there were only glimpses of good recovery. The cliché that all Australian bush was made to burn, and recovers well from burning, looked far from true up here in the sub-alpine zone.

Wildflowers were fairing best, taking advantage of the increased light, decreased competition, and a bed of ash for germination. Orange everlasting flowers (Xerochrysum subundulatum) particularly stood out against the blackened trees. Some of the eucalypts and other alpine trees showed only sparse and sporadic regeneration. Many trees stood stark and dead. But we were surprised at one point to find a clump of myrtle beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii) shooting from the base of their burned trunks. I’d heard they could survive light fire by sprouting from basal epicormic shoots, but this was the first time I’d seen it. Presumably the fire was less severe in the wet lee of the hill where we found them.

[Orange Everlasting flowers thriving after fire] 
Our via the cape return trip ended mid afternoon, in time for us to collect more firewood. It promised to be a cold night, so the fire would be very welcome. But alongside our anticipation of a good fire, we felt a strong sense of irony. We’d seen some of the dreadful havoc that fire could wreak in this alpine country. And we knew too that the various types of human-caused fire – whether through deliberate ignition, or anthropogenic climate change events like dry lightning – had burned out acres of beautiful flora up here, and especially large stands of superb pencil pine. It’s hard to shake the feeling that fire will continue to push some of these species to a brink that would be truly “broken” and “ugly”.