Saturday 23 November 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 6: Mule in the Mist

The window of our rifugio bedroom looked out on a steeply sloping alpine meadow that rose up towards the Swiss border. Last night we had seen high up above the meadows towards the mountainous border. Today we could barely see the meadow, as thick clouds carrying solid rain had descended.

[Menacing weather over Grand Col Ferret] 
This slightly gloomy start to the morning wasn’t helped when we turned up a few minutes late to breakfast, and found that “seagulls”, in the form of early walkers, had beaten us to the promised cooked breakfast. The prosciutto had all gone, and only scrawny flaps of egg white were left where plump poached eggs had once been. My brother Ian was particularly not-amused. He’d already found Italian breakfasts on the frugal side, and having to again fuel up on crisp breads and jam, amid the fading whiff of cooked meat, seemed a final insult.

Although it was a decidedly first world problem, I felt much the same. But as I had some family business to attend to, I left him to vent his frustration on others. The Rifugio’s name – Elena – happens to be the middle name of my granddaughter Sophy. And as the rifugio was selling T-shirts with “Rifugio Elena” emblazoned across the front, I decided to buy one for Sophy. There was a comical moment when I tried to communicate in mime the size of my 13 year old granddaughter. I ended up choosing “Womens XS” size, and handed over my credit card. (I am glad to report that the T-shirt did fit!)

The rain was steady as we loaded our gear onto Nikita’s saddle. We were all wearing full rain gear, even the mule, although her khaki tarp was more for keeping rain off our bags. The low cloud was probably a blessing in disguise, as we couldn’t see how far we had to climb. Still, we feared that ascending something named the Grand Col Ferret would not be a simple matter, especially in this weather.

[Nikita and friends climb towards the Col] 
The path wound steeply up the alpine meadow towards the col. I’d read in a guide book that “tasty views” were to be had on this section, but the thick clag and constant rain left those to our imagination. There wasn’t much talk either, just a grim head-down-keep-up-with-the-mule determination. At one point I lost sight of the group in the “soup” just where the track braided. It was only the sight of Nikita’s hoof marks that assured me I was still on track.

[She went this-a-way!] 
Sooner than expected, we reached the Col, which was marked with a cairn that acted as a border marker: one side Italy, the other Switzerland. The wind up here was much stronger, and the rain lashed us slantwise. Julie stopped briefly, needing to adjust Nikita’s tarp, which was loose and flapping in the wind. She quickly handed the reins to Ian, who wasn’t quite expecting to have to hold the mule. Nikita chose that moment to pull away and then shift her considerable weight, almost pulling my brother into the mud. This didn’t improve his mood, to say the least, and some choice words tore off into the Swiss air as we started our descent.

[Descending into Switzerland] 
No-one was especially comfortable or happy as sloshed our way down into Switzerland. Wind drove the rain into our faces, and found any gaps in our supposedly waterproof garments. But a hiker’s hope springs eternal: at least we were going down, and surely the weather would be kinder in the valley. Beside, it was hard not to be enchanted by the scenery we could occasionally make out between clouds. We were high on the kind of hill that a lonely goatherd might frequent. And right on cue we began to see goats on the lush green hillsides. And was that yodelling we could hear, or just goat bells tinkling in the wind? I decided that any sensible goatherd would be tucked up inside. As we plodded on, I began to wish I could do the same.

[A brief break in the weather] 
Now the descent steepened, and the track wound down in a series of tight switchbacks. After a wet hour or so, we reached the small Alpage-Auberge de la Peule, a long but narrow building set across a steep meadow. The interior was packed with dripping walkers, their dripping coats draped over anything that might hold them. The few tables and chairs were taken, and there was a long queue at the bar/counter. The good news was that we could eat lunch in one of the yurts set alongside the main building. I bought a drink and a bag of potato crisps, and joined the group in the tardis-like yurt.

[The yurts at La Peule] 

[The surprisingly roomy yurt interior] 
From La Peule we continued our sodden descent into the valley which held the town of La Fouly. We had hoped that being downvalley would shelter us from the worst of the weather. It didn’t. We’d been a couple of days without mobile coverage, and had missed the forecast severe weather warnings, which included heavy rain, hail and thunder. So now the rain began to be accompanied by hail and thunder. Through the sturm und drang we processed, a soaking company of cowled monks, possibly praying for the lightning to stick to higher ground.

[Like processing monks on the approach to La Fouly] 
The road-side approach to La Fouly was studded with banners announcing the soon-to-be-run ultra marathon, the UTMB. These flapped wetly, but at least gave us hope that we’d soon arrive. And so we did. Even if it hadn’t felt like it, Day 6 had been one of our shorter days: just under 15km, with “only” 484m of altitude gain.

[Hotel L'Edeleweiss, La Fouly, Switzerland] 
Before we unburdened ourselves inside the lovely Hotel L’Edelweiss, we had one special duty. This would be our mule’s final day with us, and we each gave her a hearty pat of thanks. From here we would be using van transport for our bags, and Nikita would be taken back to a lush meadow near Les Houches

[Farewell Nikita!] 
Standing in the rain waving her off, a few of our group looked as if they’d like to join her. But once we were inside our first Swiss hotel, with its soft beds, drying room, restaurant, lounge and bar, we were placated. A hot shower and plush towels were icing on the cake.

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.