Friday, 8 November 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 5: Of Blueberries and Bonatti

It may have been perverse glee, or perhaps simple relief that his forecast rain had finally come. Whichever it was, while ragged clouds swirled around the peaks, melded with low valley cloud, or just plain rained on us, Keith capered about light-heartedly. Even when it came to his attire, our group leader smiled as he said: “Yep, it’s gotta be jacket AND overpants. There’s gonna be more rain.”

[Keith prepared for wet weather] 
Wearing long overpants was quite a concession for a man who wears shorts every day, even in winter, even in the Alps. But no sooner had Keith put his overpants on than he was rolling the legs up, freeing his knees once again. Then he posed comically, laughing, and I half expected him to dance a little jig. But instead he was off to help load the mule. Nikita was waiting patiently, having been retrieved from a meadow after some well-deserved grass munching.

[Leaving Rifugio Bertone] 
From Rifugio Bertone, rain or not, we were soon ascending the winding edge of Mont de la Saxe, more terrace than mountain. As we sidled high above the Val Ferret, the Grandes Jorasses, all dark, sharp peaks and snowy shoulders, drew our eyes constantly. We were aiming for the head of the Val, above which sat the Italian/Swiss border. But that looked – and soon began to feel – a long way away.

[Views towards the Grandes Jorasses and Planpincieux Glacier] 
So what is it like to be simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated; to wish for the walking to end, and yet to never end; to see so much beauty that taking another photograph feels a kind of sacrilege? Something has to bring your gaze back to earth, and for us it was blueberries! Today we became expert hunter-gatherers of these little blue bliss bombs, tracking them down even as they tried to hide beneath their dark green foliage. For Keith, whose serious food allergies stopped him eating much of what was on offer in the refuges, the blueberries were a hugely welcome supplement.

[Wild and delicious: blueberries] 
All morning our rain jackets had been on, then off, then on again, as showers scudded by. Even though bits of the track had begun to squish beneath our feet, the rain was never hard. And rather than totally obscuring our views, it actually made the mountains what the Irish might call “atmospheric”. But as lunchtime approached, we started to receive rather a lot of “atmosphere”. Just in time, Rifugio Bonatti appeared out of the clouds, and we soon stepped under its sheltering roof.

The refuge is named in honour of one of Italy’s – and the world’s – foremost mountaineers, Walter Bonatti. Among his many climbing achievements, he is probably best known as the first to climb the Matterhorn solo, in midwinter. He achieved that amazing feat in 1965, aged 35, then promptly abandoned extreme mountaineering. However he continued to travel and climb and write about it until his death in 2011. He counted Mont Blanc a particular favourite, returning to it “with the same spirit in which one goes back to visit his father.” Bonatti’s book “The Mountains of My Life” is a classic of mountaineering literature.

[Some of our group outside Rifugio Bonatti] 
Inside the refuge, we had rather less lofty ambitions. Although picnicking inside a rifugio is generally frowned upon, the rain was pouring down outside, and it was lunchtime. After a certain amount of awkward, multi-lingual discussion, we compromised by purchasing drinks and snacks from the bar, then supplementing it with some of our own food.

After departing Rifugio Bonatti, we continued up valley through alpine meadows interspersed with soft, elegant larch forest. The Grandes Jorasses now seemed closer, and we gawped at the peaks and glaciers across which Bonatti et al had climbed. We weren’t aware then, but would learn later, that the Planpincieux Glacier across the valley from here had developed deep cracks. A few weeks after we passed by, the road to the head of Val Ferret, as well as some of the mountain huts here, were closed because of the danger posed by collapsing ice. Experts had warned that part of the glacier was sliding downslope at speeds of 50-60cm per day. And they weren’t crying wolf: a few days after the closure large chunks of the glacier broke off.

[Walking through larch forest above Val Ferret] 
Meanwhile our destination for the night was becoming visible. Rifugio Elena sat on a distant hill, around the same altitude as we were walking. But this is the Alps, and our path had to by-pass a mini gorge, the small but deep Val de Belle Combe. So down we wound, back to the floor of Val Ferret, in which sat the cheerful Hôtel-chalet Val-Ferret.

[Looking down Val Ferret on the final climb] 
The good news, for me at least, was that the hotel sold lemon soda. I bought a can and quickly guzzled it, since we weren’t stopping here. The bad news was that we would end yet another longish day with yet another steepish climb. To keep us honest the rain, which had held off for much of the afternoon, was threatening to make a comeback. That and the antigravity effect of food, a shower and a warm bed under a dry roof, helped pull us up the winding path to the prettily perched refuge.

[Ian on the final climb to Rifugio Elena]
By the end of day 5, we had covered nearly 20km, gained nearly 800m in altitude, all in damp weather. But as we walked into the warm, wood panelled refuge, with its busy bar and already-set dining tables, some of that effort was miraculously fading from mind.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 4: Among Giants

[Our morning weather as we leave Elisabetta] 
Worrying about weather is one of the less productive aspects of walking. Weather will do what it will do, and our conjectures and prognostications won’t alter that. And so, despite yesterday’s concerns about an imminent change, we awoke to a clear, blue, and pleasantly cool day.

We left Rifugio Elisabetta, and walked downvalley towards a slight haze that I supposed marked the distant town of Courmayeur. We would be dropping down almost 1000m to this busy town. In my imagination – and perhaps I missed today’s briefing from Julie – it would be a long but pleasant descent to a town that promised rest and refreshments.

[Early in the day: a view downvalley towards Courmayeur] 
I may also have been beguiled by our surroundings. For someone trained in earth science, but living in a place in which  arêtes, nunataks, cirques and moraines are but vestiges of long-gone glaciers, it was dizzying to be somewhere where these were still active components of the landscape. It was as though I’d stumbled upon trolls hurling rocks and snow at each other as they fought over a mountain range.

At the end of the steep Vallon de la Lée Blanche, our path levelled out as it met a lateral moraine coming off the Glacier du Miage. That moraine took the form of a steep, gravelly bank, now partially forested. As it barged its way across the path of the small stream we were following, it dammed the water flow, creating a series of ponds and lakes in which the towering Mont Blanc massif was now wonderfully mirrored.

[Mountain reflections in a moraine-dammed pool] 
Beyond here lay the broader Val Veny, its terminus close to the town of Courmayeur. But our path, we soon learned, wouldn’t follow the Doire river downvalley. Instead it would climb sharply 350m or so up to terraces on the southern flank of Val Veny.

We felt less annoyed by this seemingly unnecessary climb when we saw that the easier downvalley route would have been on a road. Instead we were rewarded with an ever-varying set of views across the steep valley towards the Mont Blanc massif’s southern bulk. And beyond that, to the east, we began to see the Grandes Jorasses. Their edge is marked by the towering Rochefort Ridge, and its dramatic aiguille, La Dent de Géant (“The Giant’s Tooth”), which nature writer Robert Macfarlane described as “a caffeine-stained fang”.

[Looking north across the Val Veny]  
While traversing this steep and spectacular edge, I began to wonder whether our capacity for marvels might diminish with exposure, in some kind of “familiarity breeds contempt” fashion. My eyes provided my answer. Without consulting me, they just kept turning mountainward. That said, a person can only keep walking for so long and, regardless of what my eyes thought, the rest of me was mightily pleased when we finally reached a series of inns and rifugio. One of these offered some humbler wonders in the form of food, drink, seats and tables.

[Always steep; always spectacular] 

[Yes, the traverse has precipitous edges!] 
The day had become hot, and I dearly hoped that in this Italian inn, I would find limonata – surely one of Italy’s best (soft) drinks. When my broken Italian finally broke through (the bar staff had thought I wanted generic lemonade, rather that the proprietary Sanpellegrino limonata), they could only produce a different brand of lemon fizz. Perhaps thirst breeds the opposite of contempt, but before the end of lunch, I’d downed two cans of whatever form of lemon drink it was.

After lunch we had a choice. From near the rifugio, a chairlift could take us down to Courmayeur. Would we be purists, and go down with Julie and Nikita? Or would we be pragmatists, and rest ourselves by taking this brief, mechanical short-cut? Had this been a pilgrimage, with a certificate signifying you’d walked the whole way, I probably would have walked. It wasn’t, and I didn’t. I gladly caught the chairlift, along with several others of our group. But let it be said, nearly half our group trudged down the steep track into Courmayeur.

[A chairlift's-eye view of our hardcore walkers] 
After our ride, while we waited for the hard-core walkers to join us, we had a couple of tasks to complete. One was to find Joan, who had rested in Chamonix, and was to rejoin us in Courmayeur for the rest of the walk. The other was to simply enjoy sitting in a café, and letting the town buzz around us while we enjoyed a bit more food and drink. (Dietary guilt had long left us to our own devices, knowing that we were burning off more calories than we could take in.)

Despite some mobile phone issues, we eventually met up with Joan near the bus station. She was looking dangerously refreshed and raring to go. But first we had to wait for the rest of our party. We did some back-of-the-envelope estimations, and thought it may another couple of hours before we heard the tell-tale clop of mule hooves. So we were pleasantly surprised when the rest of the party arrived a little before that.

Still, it was late on a hot afternoon that we all left for the final section of the day’s walk. Our task was to climb back from 1200m to almost 2000m. For those who had rested this felt like a big ask; for those who had just come down on foot, it felt cruel.

There was at least some good news: the bulk of the ascent would be in shade, following the ever-narrowing path from Courmayeur’s outskirts into a dense pine forest. Our night’s rest was at Rifugio Bertone, which sat near the treeline.

[On the climb from Courmayeur to Rifugio Bertone] 
We pushed on. I was trying to enjoy the resin-scented shade of the forest, and just put one foot in front of the other, but the was effort was telling. Just when we noticed the tree height lowering – a sure sign that you’re nearing the treeline – there was a commotion from the forest below. Word soon reached us that Nikita, our mule, had fallen. By the time we’d joined the concerned group that clustered around the mule, she was back on her feet. It seemed she had fallen when her pack saddle had become loose and unbalanced, tipping her down slope and onto her back.

After a lot of debate and discussion, a number of us volunteered to carry our own dry sacks the rest of the way, to relieve Nikita of most of her burden. Apart from adding to our own effort levels, it served as a good distraction. After a bit of grunting and sweating and pausing to catch breath, we turned a corner, and there was the refuge, just a little further above us.

Compared with the spartan quarters and water shortages of our first night in Italy, Rifugio Bertone was wonderful. The refuge’s full name is Rifugio Alpino G. Bertone. It was built in 1982 to commemorate Italian mountaineer Giorgio Bertone, who was killed in a light plane crash near Mont Blanc in 1977.

[Rifugio Bertone] 
After six and a half hours of walking, covering 20km in distance, including 1250m in elevation gain, we rated a hot shower as our number one need. And with four days of similar toil under our belts, we also hoped we’d have the chance to wash and dry some of our clothes. The rifugio not only provided both, it added excellent twin rooms, a very tasty meal, and a good selection of Italian wine to its credit. I decided it would have been churlish to complain that they didn’t have limonata.

* * *

Hoofnote: Nikita arrived just after us, safe and seemingly none-the-worse for her earlier mishap. She was given a wash, a rub down, and a good feed before being let loose in a grassy alpage for the night.

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.