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.

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