Wednesday, 16 October 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 3: Welcome to Italy


Could there be any more up, after the relentless climbing of yesterday? Of course there could, this was the Alps after all! But surprisingly, as we climbed from the small col that cradled our second night refuge, the walking seemed just a little easier. Our bodies, perhaps, were becoming more attuned to the demands we were making of them … at least for the first hour or two.

Elevation has its compensations, as long as you have weather to match. And we did. The sky was a blend of blue and half-hearted white. Nikita the mule and we humans variously clopped and scuffed our way up the stony path towards Col des Fours. At the pass we paused for a drink, and to take in a mountain dreamscape of jagged aiguilles and snowy domes. The nearest and foremost peak, over 1 000m above us, was the 3816m high Aiguille des Glaciers. It sits on the French/Italian border, its dark mass accentuated by the glaciers that draped and rippled from its shoulders like an ermine cloak.


[The view towards Aiguille des Glaciers] 
Nikita also rested atop the pass, looking first to where we were going, then to whence we’d come, as though weighing up the shortest route home. She had no more choice than did we, of course, and we were soon following her down the steep track towards our lunch stop at the bottom of the deep valley. But before that our long descent was interrupted by a side trip to Lac de Mya, a small glacial lake some 15 minutes south of the track.


[Nikita ponders her options at the Col des Fours] 
We were in treeless, green alpine meadows now, with wide and wonderful views across to the high aiguilles. A young couple had set up a bright yellow tent high above the lake, with a grandstand view in every direction. Their solitude was soon broken by a few dozen TMB walkers wanting to share their view and congratulate them on their location. They seemed to take it well, smiling and conversing in broken English as they simmered a kettle on their small gas cooker.


[An idyllic campsite near Lac de Mya] 
Our steep track then meandered down valley for an hour or more, until we reached La Ville des Glaciers, a tiny hamlet formed around a fromagerie. A few of us went inside the cheese cellar with Julie and the farmer. We sampled some of the delicious, hard Beaufort cheese, which comes only from this region, and Julie agreed a price for a generous chunk that would be the centrepiece of our lunch on the streamside grass.


[Steeply down towards La Ville des Glaciers] 


[Beaufort cheese in the fromagerie's cellar]

[Picnic lunch at La Ville des Glaciers] 
We’d been nervously watching the weather since yesterday. Storms and a change had been forecast for the region in coming days, but precise forecasts proved elusive up here. Instead, as we wound our way out of the last French valley and towards the Italian border, we turned to other forecast methods. Keith, for instance, invoked his Snowy Mountains experience, and tutted about the lenticular cloud we saw forming over one high dome. In his experience, that portended rain.


[Lenticular cloud? Is Rain Coming?] 
We’d strung out by the time we came to a track junction. In one direction was the Refuge des Mottets, with inviting looking outdoor tables and colourful banners fluttering in the breeze. In the other direction was a steep, unwelcoming switchback track. Our group’s lead walkers had stopped, and were in earnest conversation about which direction we should go. At this point an Italian man walked towards us from the refuge. He was smiling as he watched our group gesturing and (to his ears) yammering in a foreign language as they debated. When he passed me, he caught my eye, and briefly mimicked their frenetic dialogue, as if to say it’s not the sole preserve of Italians to gesture and chatter animatedly. Our mutual laughter was in a universal language.


[Climbing towards Col de la Seigne] 
By then Julie and the mule had joined us. Not for the first time she reminded us that we were supposed to follow Nikita. In what felt like punishment, she led the mule off to the right, up the steep track, and we followed, just a little reluctantly.


[Sheep grazing near the Col de la Seigne] 
Towards the top of the 800m climb to the Col de la Seigne, we passed a large herd of sheep being watched over by a shepherd and his dog. Some of the sheep were wearing wooden collars with bells which clanged a half-octave higher than the cowbells we were used to hearing. I wasn’t sure whether these were wethers or not, but the term bellwether came to my mind and stuck there. The other kind of weather also came to mind. The shepherd had been wearing a waterproof coat, with the hood up, and the cloud cover had increased noticeably. When we finally stood at the top of the col, a very fresh wind welcomed us to Italy.


[The long descent into Italy] 
Alas it was the best welcome we would get that day. After a beautiful but long downhill haul, it was late in the day that we eventually came to Rifugio Elisabetta. Exhausted after almost 20km of walking, with over 1 000m of elevation gain, we were given some bad news. It seemed that our group’s accommodation booking hadn’t got through to the rifugio managers. Also the water supply was temporarily off. No matter how sweaty and dusty we were, there would be no showers, minimal toileting, and hardly any drinking water. And with almost “no room at the inn”, we were only saved from bedding down in the stables when some usually unused upstairs beds in the dormitory were made available.


[Rifugio Elisabetta: Italy at last] 
There was other good news. The rifugio did have beer and food, and its apologetic and hard-working staff also ensured that our group had a table for dinner. So in a sublime setting, high above the Vallon de la Lee Blanche, and beneath the aiguille and glacier of the same name, we sat down to a hearty dinner. Welcome to Italy.

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]