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.

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