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.

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