Filed under: running
Thursday 10th September 2009
Starting from the Relais d’Arpette gave us a head start on what was billed as a tough day. A few groups left ahead of us but the trail was fairly empty since most people would be coming up from Champex. The path meandered through scrubby woodland then boulders covered in grass and I made a comfort stop off the path while there was still some tree cover. Unfortunately I chose a spot in the middle of the route used by a herd of cows, fortunately they ring bells so you know they’re coming.
We were expecting a long uphill, and eventually we reached a boulder field where the going was much tougher. There were lots of big reaches to get to the top of the next boulder, sometimes needing hands as well, and not forgetting there was a big pack on my back to haul behind me. It’s just as well I have long legs.
The path was marked with the usual red and white pain flashes but it was a lot less clear among the rocks, and at one point Bill took what seemed to be the obvious path round some dodgy boulders – it wasn’t the right one. I had followed him up part of the way before I saw the next paint marks and there were two French girls following me. We managed to backtrack without too much difficulty but Bill had to do some ‘interesting’ scrambling back down to meet the path higher up.
When we thought we were about halfway up the boulders, the top looked fairly close but it was hard to judge the scale and a French guy with an altimeter told us there was still 600m to climb – over an hour then. Eventually the boulders gave way to loose grit covered in a light sprinkling of scrubby grass and from there it was a nasty, slippy, zig-zagging climb to the top. When we got to the col we watched others coming up and everybody looked both tired and relieved as they reached the top. There wasn’t a lot of room to sit around but we found a couple of comfortable enough rocks while we let the crowd move on so we could take some photos.
The view down the other side was much more open than the way we had come, with spectacular views of the Trient glacier, but it was still hard work going down the rocky, gritty path, frequently making way for other groups coming the other way. After about an hour we reached a big flat boulder, warmed by the sun, that was perfect for a lunch stop and the path got easier after that.
When we got down to the Refuge de Glacier, we took the path for la Peuty because we had booked in the Relais de Mont Blanc in Trient, effectively cutting off a bit of the TMB that goes via the Col de Forclaz. It was good path and track to Trient, which has a community bunker under the church built in 1992 (I’m not sure what it protects against). The Relais actually seems to be gite, shop, post office and everything else for the village and it looks a bit like it may have been a decent hotel at one time. Now it was a bit shabby but comfy and we managed to get a good hot shower just before two huge parties arrived.
It was also very busy and we were glad we had phoned ahead (I don’t really do phones – making an international call, in French, is a really big deal for me). We hadn’t expected to find the refuges busy, but it seems to be a popular time of year for large organised groups and the big refuges were all almost full while the little ones were almost empty. I think we were quite lucky the couple of times we arrived at a popular refuge without booking a bed. I wouldn’t take the risk if we were to do it again, though that does mean that you can’t change your route in the middle of the day if you’re tired or the weather turns bad.
I felt knackered; it had been a really tiring day with a steep ascent and descent over difficult terrain and my feet felt hammered despite the gel pads. We had a choice of meals again and we opted for cheese and tomato fondue (this was the last night in Switzerland) which came with a barrel-load of little boiled potatoes to eat it with. Because we had a room, we didn’t hang around long a the table after dinner and I don’t think I managed to read a full page of my book before I fell asleep.
Filed under: running
Wednesday 9th September 2009
With only 4 people, the dortoir was quiet and we slept well but I woke up in a panic twice during the night because it was completely dark and I couldn’t even see my hands. There’s never complete darkness in the city. Today was billed as an easy day (4 hours to Champex through the valleys) but we should have looked more closely at the elevaion profile and the contours before we assumed we had a pleasant stroll ahead of us. It was a good vehicle track from the gite down to La Fouly, passing by a little hydro-electric scheme with a completely flat turquoise reservoir above a tiny dam. There were signs all down the river warning of flash floods if they release water through the dam.
We bought local cheese, sausage and Swiss CHOCOLATE in La Fouly and a little packet of Ricola gums which proved to be really nice to eat on the walk. We still had enough Swiss France to be able to buy stuff for lunches but the prices came up in two currencies as well so it looked as though there wouldn’t be any problem using our Euros for larger bills. We ambled down to the valley through a couple of very picturesque villages (Praz-de-Fort was especially idyllic) and then started climbing up from Issert.
We weren’t expecting much of a climb (it was an EASY day) so when we came to a little stream beside a cave, we stopped for a leisurely lunch. A little lizard kept darting out from the rock but it didn’t seem especially bothered to have company. We had meant to keep half the cheese and sausage for the next day but it was really good and we ate it all.
At every bend, we thought we must be near the crest of the hill but there was always another climb. Eventually it levelled out across a curiously straight lateral moraine with the forest falling away on either side. It was like walking through a boulevard. Just off the moraine we saw three roe deer bounding through the trees and still we went uphill. From Issert we could see a bright, yellow house high on the bluff next to a huge rockface and we had joked that that would be where we were headed … and of course it was. I had assumed that the Champex-Lac would be in the valley and the climb only seemed a long one because we didn’t think we had any climbing to do at all, but it wasn’t the saunter through the valley that I had anticipated.
Champex-Lac is a sleepy little town on a tiny lake with chalets and hotels in the ‘Room with a View’ style, pretty but a bit lacking in atmosphere. (Though it was September, it may be more lively in July). We had the usual problems finding a place to stay. We were aiming for the cheap and cheerful Pension en Plein Air but it didn’t open until 3 o’clock, so we went into the boulangerie next door to while away the time with a coffee. Two coffees and a delicious piece of fruit tart later, we decided to phone on to the Relais d’Arpette to book two beds and bought some more lunch in the bakers.
We followed a little, fast-running irrigation channel most of the way up through forest and watched a woman picking myrtles with a device that looked a bit like a comb on the front of a box (you would need very close-set teeth to do the same with Scottish blaeberries). The Relais d’Arpette was in a clearing a bit higher up beyond the sluices controlling the water in the bisse and we were offered a choice of dinner menus and allocated two beds in a 4-bunk room. We were there early enough to do some washing and have a good, hot shower and then sat writing journals, reading books and just watching the sun go down behind the Glacier d’Arpette. Champex-Lac might be relaxing, but it doesn’t have the same view.
Filed under: running
Tuesday 8th September 2009
Aaaaargh! When we went for breakfast at 7:30 the dining-room was already heaving and the coffee had run out. There was a huge choice of other things (yoghourt, fruit, muesli, biscuits….) and eventually the coffee was replenished – phew!
We walked quickly to get ahead of a couple of big groups before we started the first ascent because it’s often difficult to pass a long line of people on the narrow paths, but the morning was more marked by a convoy of mountain bikers tearing down the rocky path than by walkers going the same way. The speed of the bikes on descent seemed complete madness, and some riders certainly seemed more confident than others. It made mountain biking in the Pentlands look incredibly tame.
The hike up to the Grand Col Ferret zig-zagged up for ever and I was getting slower and slower as we neared the top – definitely in need of lunch. Several routes converge at the col so it was quite busy, but plenty of room to find a space to chill out in solitude. The sun was shining and again we sat about doing nothing in particular, just taking in the views over to the Grandes Jorasses, Mont Dolent, the Aiguille de Triolet and into the Swiss Val Ferret. It’s possible to complete the TMB in less than 11 days, but the standard stages do allow enough time to idle in a refuge over lunch if the weather’s bad, take your time going up and down hill or just sit and enjoy the surroundings. After all it was a holiday, not a race.However, Bill had his eye on a little peak behind us (Tete de Ferret 2713m), because a 6-hour walk clearly wasn’t enough. I tried to rebel, but we dumped our packs at the bottom and almost skipped up to the top for fantastic views across to Mont Dolent and down into the valley. The path was quite badly eroded in places, and quite steep, which would have meant a slow descent with full packs, but no problem with just our gym bags. We retrieved our packs and then cut across the scrubby grass to regain the main path. Bill joked that since we were now in Switzerland, they would send out a helicopter to arrest us … about 5 minutes later a helicopter did appear, almost level with us so that we only saw the nose and rotor blades and then swept over the col, so I guess we got away with it.
The paths on the Swiss side were much less rough but it was still a long way down, and we had had very little lunch (there were huge picnic lunches at the Bonatti, but we hadn’t had the foresight to order one and our lunch was a Clif bar plus some crackers and biscuits from the Bonatti breakfast -yum). I was pretty well bonked by the time we got down to the first buildings, so I wasn’t thinking straight and I insisted on keeping going when Bill suggested we stop there. (After many years walking and running, I still can’t recognise the signs in myself – I felt tired, unfit, miserable, and just wanted to get to a refuge so I could stop for the day but what I needed was sugar and I felt much better after I had an emergency Frusli bar).
The surroundings were typically Alpine looking here – a lush green valley with a stream rushing through it, cows with bells, wooden buildings. Fortunately the way was on a mixture of track and road here so progress was still quite good despite my fatigue and soon we reached the village of Ferret. We had decided to stay at the Gite La Lechere if there were spaces, rather than go down into La Fouly, because we wanted to stay on the mountain, and the next day was scheduled to be a short one, so there would be no problem adding a bit on to the start. The gite had hot showers with unlimited hot water, we had a couple of beers, and the guardienne immediately started preparing dinner so it was a good decision.
We thought we were going to have the gite to ourselves but we were joined after a few minutes by Katia and David from the Sierra Nevada, though Katia is originally Swiss and spoke fluent French and Italian. They were fabulous company and we had a very good evening with them, eventually heading for the dortoir about 9pm, leaving the guardienne eating fondue with two friends, and demolishing several bottles of wine after which the friends presumably drove back down the hill, dispelling the stereotype that the Swiss are all obsessively law-abiding.
Filed under: running
Monday 7th September 2009
We had to replenish our Euros before leaving Courmayeur because there wouldn’t be another opportunity until we were through Switzerland. It took four attempts, at two different banks, using two cards, but eventually we got going.
The official TMB route has changed in the last couple of years – our colourful Rucksack Readers guide still described the route via the Tete de la Tronche ridge but the Cicerone guide gave this as a variant, accompanied by dire warnings about doing it in bad weather. We made good use of both guides on the walk, as well as our maps, but in general the Cicerone/Kev Reynolds guide seems more wary of recommending the slightly more difficult variants.The Cicerone guide says “The path now descends very steeply(caution advised)..” and the Rucksack Readers guide says “Care is needed in places as the trail is quite exposed”. I’m not particularly confident on airy, exposed ridges or on precipitous descents, so we had decided to follow the new ‘granny’ route through the valley. Fortunately, when we got to the waymark where the paths diverged we met a group of Brits, mostly similar ages to ourselves, carrying much smaller packs and with a guide. They were going the high route, so we reckoned it was within our capabilities too (actually it was more a question of not being outdone by them, though I’m sure they never realised there was any competition involved at all).
There was a long, long climb up to the crest of Mont Saxe and then a steep climb up onto the Tete de la Tronche ridge, but the view from the top was well-worth every step with Monte Bianco on our left all the way.We lingered on the top and had lunch there, chatting to a Tasmanian guy carrying about 15Kg of camera kit in addition to a pack that weighed at least as much as ours (and still walking much faster than us). The ridge was nowhere near as ‘airy’ as some I’ve been on in Scotland and the downhill was very steep but the biggest risk was likely to be falling on my backside – there seemed little danger of falling off the mountain. Then again, it was a calm, clear day and it would be a different prospect had it been wet and windy.
The views were spectacular all day, the walking was hard enough to feel like a decent day’s effort without being a slog and my feet felt tired but not completely hammered. The gel pads were doing their job.
The slope was more gentle from the Col Sapin. Like many others, we mistook some farm buildings half way down the slope for the rifugio but it wasn’t much further down the hill, tucked into a sheltered hollow. We watched a stoat playing up and down a dry stream bed for a few minutes; it almost seemed to be peeking over and watching us as well, it certainly didn’t seem that timid.The rifugio itself was sheer luxury compared to some of the others. We had asked the owner of the Svizzera to book ahead for us, and he had booked a room rather than dortoir places, but we had just replenished our euros, so we went posh for the night. The showers were still 20 litres on a token, and the hot ran out really quickly because they were powerful, but a hot shower is a hot shower. We bought coffees and headed back out onto the terrace, sat soaking up the warmth of the rifugio wall, frequently looking across to the Grandes Jorasses across the valley and just chilled out until the sun disappeared.
The Bonatti was full so dinner was a lively affair. We sat between a group of Tasmanians and a pair of Israeli brothers and there was a ot of animated chat over a marvellous meal – veg salad with crackers and bread, a huge bowl of spinach farfalle with garlic, oil and parmesan, pork, cauliflower and carrot salad and finishing up with apple cake with bonatti written in chocolate on the plates.
We took our planisphere outside for a bit of stargazing but it has a fatal flaw – if it’s dark enough to see the stars well, it’s too dark to see the planisphere. The moon was still too full for an optimum view but there was still much more to see than in the light-polluted skies over Edinburgh. It was just a fantastic place to be.
Sometimes the day after a ‘rest’-day can seem a bit of a let-down. It’s difficult to get going again after a stop and it was always going to be hard to match the excitement of the panoramique but it was a very good day from start to finish. Tomorrow we would enter Switzerland and lose the direct view of Monte Bianco, but even if we got bad weather from now on, the first 6 days had made the whole tour worthwhile.
Filed under: walking | Tags: Courmayeur, Mont Blanc, Monte Bianco, shoes, TMB, walking
We were first down to breakfast … and that was at 8am after a long lie in. The standard rifugio breakfast is bread, jam and coffee so we took full advantage of the massive spread in the hotel: ham, cheese, various types of bread, jam, butter, honey, toast, juice, joghourt, fruit, fruit tart…
Our plan for this ‘rest’ day was to take the gondola up to Punta Helbronner then go across to the Aiguile du Midi on the Panoramique. We were hoping for good weather at Courmayeur because the Panoramique is highly dependant on good conditions and only runs about one day in four during high season.
The cable from La Palud goes up in three stages. The first gondola holds lots of people but runs every 20 minutes, the second stage is smaller and more frequent and the last one only holds half a dozen people but rus every few minutes. We didn’t stop at any of the stages on the way up and then we had to cross from Italy into France to go on the Panoramique.
What can I say about the panoramique to do it justice? It surpassed all my expectations, though I’m not sure what I did expect. The ‘flight’ over the glaciers was the high point of our trip. The gondolas run slow enough for you to take in everything – the endless glaciers below us, jagged aiguilles, rock seracs, mountaineers crossing crevasses over snow bridges, a view that seemed to stretch forever in the incredibly clear air. It really was like slow-speed flying.
The cabins are attached to the cable in groups of three, so there are 5 points on the trip where they just stop while they load or unload more cabins at the two ends. At these times we looked across to te cabins going the other direction and they were bouncing quite far up and down. Of course on the way back we realised we had been too, but the motion is so smooth it’s not disturbing at all. Both our camera batteries started to fail, so I put mine away and just enjoyed the trip. The reurn rip across the ice cost €20 and I think it was the best of the whole trip (surprisingly, the return to Punta Helbronner was €36 and the fares for the French ascent are considerably dearer, but the trip is definitely worth every cent from either side.
I think I had expected cables strung out across pylons running across the Mont Blanc massif, and I did think that would be completely crazy. But of course it would also be impossible because you couldn’t build structures like that on glaciers. Instead, the cable is suspended from each end, with a pair of lateral suspended pylons maintaining tension close to the Italian end. In fact the cable climbs slightly from Punta Helbronner at 3462m to the French side, slightly below the Aiguille du Midi at 3777m.
We stayed at the Aiguille du Midi for some time, watching climbers, taking photos, glad that we had brought gloves, hats and thermal tops, even in the brilliant sunshine, but eenually we decided we should head back to Italy while the queues were still small. The return trip was every bit as good as the outward one and we stopped at all the gondola stations on the Italian side for a look round. The Italian side was less busy and considerably more laid back, with families enjoying themselves having picnics.
Rifugio Torino is the station below Helbronner but the refuge itself is actually connected to the cable station by a covered arcade of very steep metal steps, which looks and feels almost vertical, particularly in the thinner air above 3000 metres. There were lots of climbers at the refuge and we were really envious of some of them that were clearly novices, going out on the glaciers with guides and identical hired kit.
The trip seemed almost as tiring as walking and we did still have a couple of miles to walk back down to Courmayeur, in heavy boots and wearing too many clothes for the sun in the valley, so we had a siesta when we got back to the hotel (everything shuts until later in the afternoon anyway, presumably everyone else is having a snooze as well). The bad news was that the sports shop didn’t have any insoles, the good news was that I managed to get a pair of gel pads to fit under my toes from a pharmacy (also €20, but very good value if they saved my feet).
Tomorrow we’re back on the trail, I hope it’s not a let-down after the trip across the big white mountain.
Filed under: running
Saturday 5th September 2009
It was a beautiful morning. The storm had blown out overnight, it was a clear frosty morning and there was a sprinkling of new snow on the peaks. I took some photos just as the sun was hitting the glacier above the rifugio and we sauntered down the track towards the huge moraine of the glacier du Miage in the Val Veny. The surroundings were magnificent, the sun was shining and it was simply just a fabulous morning.
We caught up with some of the others who had left the rifugio that morning on a hill that offered an oustanding prospect onto the south face of Mont Blanc across the Val Veny. The strong sun was dazzling on the brilliant white of the Glacier du Brouillard and Glacier de Freney, which looked exactly the same as they do on the map. (The French IGN 1:25 000 maps are wonderfully detailed, especially in comparison with the Italian equivalents which show the Monte Bianco massif as a big featureless hill with smooth slopes).
We let the others go on and then phoned our teenage son to tell him how fantastic the view was. His response? He and his girlfriend had been making plum jam (maybe it’s teen code for throwing wild parties !!!???) If we had been sauntering before, we positively dawdled now. Taking photos of marmots, flowers and the big white mountain across the valley. We eventually reached the Maison Vieille, at the head of the Dolone pistes and stopped for coffee and sandwiches.
It suddenly dawned on us at this point that it was Saturday afternoon and we might have some difficulty finding somewhere to stay in Courmayeur, so the zig-zag down through the woods was done at a bit of a trot and was really hard on my damaged toes. Indeed, finding a hotel wasn’t particularly easy but we did end up in the Hotel Svizzera, a lovely mixture of rustic and 3-star luxury with the sound of the cascading, glacial river on the balcony and hot running water. We had only been walking 4 days but it felt like over a week with all the different sights we had seen, and it was really good to do some laundry, have an unlimited shower and sit on the balcony reading a book.
After a very ample dinner we wandered through Courmayeur. It seemed a fairly laid back place, with a main street full of expensive shops, including an Intersport sports shop where hopefully I can get something to make my boots less uncomfortable.
Filed under: running
Friday, 4th September 2009
We didn’t hang around long because it looked like the weather was closing in again and of course the path was blatantly obvious on the way down; it was hard to see how we had missed the cairns earlier.The descent from the Col des Fours was a slog but not as bad as the guidebook suggested, in fact the muddy path at the bottom was worse than the steep shale at the top. There were some fantastic rock formations where the streams had forced a way down but otherwise there was little to see because we were again surrounded by thick cloud.
As the path levelled out we passed a couple of parties whose baggage was being carried by mules. They all looked completely miserable and we got far fewer ‘bonjours’ than we had from other groups. I’m just glad we didn’t meet the mules on the steep descent. We could see the Ville des Glaciers and the Refuge les Mottets from the bottom of the hill but they were still quite far away and we suffered a number of heavy showers before we got there. The rain was getting heavier so we stopped at Les Mottets for shelter, soup and hot chocolate. The refuge was also feeding a French group who had come by car, David and Brenda from the US (who we would meet again later) and a Liverpudlian guy with Joly Small from Ardrishaig, who could talk the hind legs off a donkey and would have been fascinating company for the evening.
The latter two had just come down from the Col de la Seigne and were relieved to get in out of the rain after fighting a strong headwind. They said they had met two German chaps who had been turned away from the Elisabetta the night before. Since that was where we were heading, and we had no reservation either since we had had no phone signal for two days, we were a bit worried. My feet were still giving me problems, the nearest refuge after the Elisabetta was almost three hours further on and the rain was persistent and torrential at times. As we started to put all our wet weather gear back on I asked Bill if he wanted to stay at Les Mottets for the night and I was hoping he did….but we left the shelter and headed up to the next col, at a bit of a yomp because of the risk of not haing a bed for the night.
The rain did go off a few times, and each time it did we stopped to admire the view. Stormy or not it was still fantastic to be in the mountains, and the glimpses of high peaks and valleys reminded us that there was a big white mountain somewhere in the middle of this.At the col it was dismal. We took a couple of quick photos but it was very cold and we were now in full wet weather gear,gloves, hats and thermals. The rain had turned to sleet and hail and the only saving grace was that the wind was on our backs. So much for our welcome to Italy. Just down from the col was a curious new building which apparently is some sort of museum to Monte Bianco – no beds, no food, no use to us (maybe it’s very popular on a hot summer day).
We joked about where we would sleep if the Elisabetta refused us and I practised my best French in the hope I could sweet-talk the guardienne into giving us a bed for the night but I was seriously wondering whether our survival bags were going to have to be used and thinking that the cow-sheds ahead looked inviting. Fortunately the Elisabetta was busy but not completely full and we were allocated two spaces on the long mattress in the loft… and two tokens for the HOT showers (you only get 20 litres of hot water so you have to be careful to turn the tap off while you lather up, but I enjoyed every precious litre). Every inch of space was taken up with wet gear hanging to dry and there was a bit of a party atmosphere with everyone just very glad to be inside. The draft beer probably helped too.
There was a bit of chaos in the crowded dortoir at night, with lights going on and off, the emergency lighting coming on in the middle of the night – so not the best night’s sleep, but definitely better than a bivvi in the cow pasture.