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.

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