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Thursday, 20 July 2017

Champex to Trient

We are sitting in our room in the Hotel Grande Ourse in Trient listening to the wind groaning outside. It has just blown up in a big hurry, and at the point when it started to push things over in the garden we decided to come inside. Apart from the wind and the river and the crickets there is total silence in this room with the three of us reading/movie watching/writing after a heck of a day.

It began early at the Alpina with Madeleine bustling to bring our breakfasts at 7.15 all smiles and "Did you sleep well?" She's such a lovely person and we shall miss this gorgeous place. It is not fancy, but everything is perfectly done. Last night's meal was unbelievably good. A rich mushroom tart with a blob of whipped cream full of chives to start, then lamb falling off the bone on a bed of couscous and tiny vegetables steeped in gravy and finally the remaking of what Madeleine said was an old French classic "oeuf de la neige". Egg whites whipped with lemon, on top of a passion fruit mousse, sitting on a banana and vanilla cream. We were all rendered speechless. Tom told a Madeleine (in French) that it was the best meal he'd had on this holiday. She beamed. To be honest it was one of the best meals I've had full stop. She'd made us packed lunches too - boiled eggs with potato salad and roast beef (cheese for P).

It was sad to leave such a friendly, exceptional place. We were on the road at eight walking along Champex's little lake. Where I discovered my camera battery was dead. All pix courtesy of my iPhone or Philippa.

Then up beside streams, through the trees.

After forty five minutes or so we stopped at a refuge to fill our water bottles and take stock of the trail ahead.

Today we are taking a TMB Variante. Ignoring the unfortunately named "Bovine" route and crossing a high mountain pass - the joint highest on the TMB along with the Col des Fours. It is the Fenetre d'Arpette and It's a little notch in the ridge you can see in the picture above. It's supposedly the toughest pass of the whole TMB.

To start with the walk was gently uphill through fields in hot sunshine. There were no clouds and no wind and we baked. Of course as you get closer to a mountain, the more of it there is to climb...

The trail began to get steeper and soon we came to a vast boulder field. The trail came and went, signified only by splashes of red and white paint but how we chose to hop over the boulders from one painty splash to another was up to us.

It was so steep that at times we had to use our hands to haul ourselves from one boulder to the next, our poles rattling behind us.

The final thirty minutes was over loose rocks and grit on a range of tracks which zig zag up to the ridge.

From there we could look back back down into the broad bowl of the valley we'd just climbed up, and down into the next too, with the Glacier du Trient spilling down from the mountain beside us.

We had our lunches on the rocks, eyed by a confident blackbird which hopped about around us hoping for some er, potato salad with hard boiled egg and roast beef.

It was a grand spot, 8,900 feet up. But that meant we had a lot of down to do. And it turned out that the down was every bit as testing as the up.

There was no boulder field and the path was clearly defined but it was covered with loose dust and very slippery. And steep!

As we descended, so did the cloud which now looked grey and imposing over our lunchspot on the ridge. A couple of girls with full packs were walking up the other way and asked if we knew the weather forecast. It's tricky because every day it has warned of thunder, but apart from the first day it's been mostly sunny. Madeleine had laughed off the forecast when we set off. "It's been saying thunder all will be fine" but now it really did look a bit threatening up there. P went into Motherly mode, warning the girls that it looked a bit grim, but they decided to press on and up. And actually though the clouds spat a little drizzle, there was no storm.

It was still hot and the glacier meltwater roaring down the mountain looked like the perfect place to dunk your head and cool down but we never got quite close enough on the way down.

Having left the level of wildflowers and butterflies, we descended back into it.

After about three hours the path levelled off and we stopped at a tiny refuge serving overpriced drinks and delicious sorbets. We had both and it was very good to sit down for a bit. It had been five hours of very steep climbing, up and down.

We walked on along the side of the valley, passing through an area of considerable devastation on both sides of the river. Trees lay fallen everywhere and piled in the river. We thought initially it had been the result of a landslide but there was no real rocky debris and some of the tress were snapped in half high up the trunk. I wondered whether there had been some kind of high wind.

The path followed a carefully maintained irrigation channel that sometimes followed boxed-in sections to carry the flow to the next ditch. There were expensive explanation panels about the place, but our French wasn't quite up to it.

And so, after a long day, we switchbacked down the grassed-over old road into Trient. Another silent Swiss mountain village. Our "Hotel" is really a refuge with nice bathrooms but it's all we need. We sat in the garden over panaches until the wind blew in. But it eventually blew out again too.

Supper was a communal affair and we shared our a table with two English guys called Dan; "Just call us the handsome Dans", and a young woman from Colorado. Kaitlin was doing the Chamonix to Zermatt walk on her own with a full pack, no poles and trail shoes rather than hiking boots. She'd been travelling by herself in Europe for two months and was perfectly at ease.

It was an easy, enjoyable evening with everyone swapping experiences, but when supper is done, everyone drifts off to bed. The three of us lined up in the dark to watch "Batman Begins" with our resident movie buff. And aching knees.

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Tuesday, 18 July 2017

La Fouly to Champex

This, says "Trekking, the Tour of Mont Blanc", is the easiest stage of the TMB. Looking at the stats, it is a mere 9.3 miles, climbing a negligable sixteen hundred feet and descending a piffling two thousand feet. Why, it is barely a walk at all. Hardly worth doing up the bootlaces...

Still, we have a hotel booked in Champex so might as well get on and do it. But time enough to plunder the breakfast bar first, under the watchful gaze of the rather officious owner. A hapless group of middle aged Israeli women made the mistake of ignoring the sign about not taking breakfast food for a picnic, and were told off. "I saw you taking the food! Some people haven't had breakfast yet!". We would never dream of doing such a thing. Oh no.

We planned to stay longer, lingering over wifi and coffee, but the sun was getting stronger and these valley walks are always a bit warmer without the altitude so we set off through La Fouly and then crossed the small dam and into the woods by the river. The sunshine was hot on our necks and without any real gradient to worry about we ambled along chatting. Above us a waterfall tumbled down the flanks of the mountain.

There was a wide, stony river river bed next to us which Tom decided to explore.

He hopped from rock to rock over the narrow channel of water - little more than a stream really - as we kept parallel with him along the path. Then we saw the sign warning us that the river bed was a runoff from the dam and could turn into churning torrent at any moment. And up to seventeen times a day in fact. Tom! Come back!

We continued on through the woods and found ourselves walking over such a sharp, straight ridge that it felt manmade, until we read that it was actually the ridge of a moraine formed by some vast, long-gone glacier.

Eventually we came to the first in a series of villages running through the valley. The original dark wood chalets have been steadily surrounded by modern versions but the old hearts of these villages are still remarkably unchanged.

That said we barely saw a single person and there was a slight sense that what we see now is preserved in aspic for the holiday-home crowd.

The roads were busy with farm vehicles loaded with hay, zipping from field to field. We continued our walk downhill through carefully tended fields and perfect, weedless vegetable patches. The chickens had their own chalet.

Though there was one front garden that rebelled against the chocolate box perfection of its neighbours

Les Arlaches was a classic Swiss village of dark beams and stone. Every chalet had the perfect logpile stacked against it but again, we didn't see a single person.

Occasionally there was a clink of a plate through an open window and there were duvets aired over windowsills but those were the only signs of life.

In the next village, Issert, we stopped for lunch by the roadside. Spaghetti for me and the lad, and a cheese omelet for herself.

Not eating meat is a custom with which the Italians and Swiss are mostly unfamiliar, so P gets rather a lot of cheese omelettes. Last night in La Fouly when T and I had chicken curry with vegetables and rice, they brought the same dish for Philippa minus the chicken and with a piece of cheese instead. And in Rifugio Bonatti when they served everyone falafel, everyone got a piece of cheese too. Maybe that says less about the status of vegetarian food in this part of Europe and more about the status of cheese.

All morning we had walked down hill, but after lunch we knew it was time to start going up to Champex which we could see on a ridge about fifteen hundred feet above us. After hours spent coasting and then a heftyish lunch we were not ready for any work. The path was steep, the air was sticky and we were feeling distinctly post-prandial. The path up through the woods is known as the "mushroom trail" and every so often there are notice boards advising passing funghists about which ones will be delicious and which ones will kill you. Local artists have also set up a series of wooden sculptures every ten minutes or so up the track, which are rather nice.

After an hour and a half of solid Up we emerged in Champex and found the hotel Alpina perched on the side of the mountain. There we were met by a beaming lady who showed us our room and served us panaches on the terrace.

Madeleine couldn't be more friendly or gracious. Breakfast is usually from 7.30 "but as you are not walking tomorrow maybe 10..?". We'd read in the TMB book that dinner here was not to be missed really isn't. There was a little bowl of broth in which sat a piece of fried white fish with a delicately flavoured mousse on top. Then thin slices of rare beef with curls of thin sliced carrots and courgette and a soft cake of lentils bound with cheese and butter. And finally a pistachio pannacotta with an apricot crisp and fresh strawberries, which are grown in this valley. Wot joy. Even the view from our room is a treat.

Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly

Tom was hard to rouse this morning. He blamed being cold overnight in our somewhat austere three bed room. We blamed staying up too late to watch a movie... Anyway we got to breakfast late which meant something of a mad dash around the buffet, grabbing the last of the bread and the muffins and a dribble of cool coffee. Actually they took pity on us and gave us more coffee, but these refuges are pretty clear that you are not there to while away the morning. They want you to have eaten breakfast and be on your way by 8. We picked up three splendid packed lunches and found places to put the sandwiches and peaches and slabs of black chocolate and panettone cakes. Then we went to find our boots in the boot room where everyone swaps their hiking boots for loose fitting slippers. The smell in that room is almost visible.

OK, time to go. The sun was on the other side of the mountain which made for a chilly start. We filled our bottles from the spring water which is available at troughs all along the TMB.

We were about the last people to leave Refuge Bonatti, which is a good way to start the day as you don't find yourself stuck in a clump of hikers.

The route started off fairly level for a change, hugging the side of the valley. Either side of the path were hundreds of gentians coiled and ready to flower. They will be stunning in a few days. We've been amazed by the variety of flowers; marigolds and daisies of course but harebells and rosebay willow herb, tiny yellow snapdragons, eidelweiss and wild cotton and a host of others that our parents would identify with a roll of their eyes at our botanic ignorance.

There were ruins here and there although one old house looked as though it might be inhabited. A man was drinking from the stream outside, his face was tanned almost black by the sun and his dog moving quietly nearby. We said buongiorno and he replied with a greeting that we couldn't make out.

The path turned down towards the river where we stopped at a little cafe selling unbelievably good hot chocolate, in mugs with long spoons. This was not supposed to be a particularly hard day so we'd decided to take it easy and stop everywhere that looked nice. Chocolate downed, we headed on along the valley floor until the inevitable yellow TMB sign told us that it was time to start climbing. And it was quite a climb, more than seventeen hundred steep feet, up to the 8,500 foot Grand Col Ferret which marks the Swiss border. It's these steep climbs where having hiking poles is a real boon; helping you haul yourself up and keep your balance. I'd been a bit sceptical about them at first but they've been great.

A little way up we came to the Rifugio Elena, a great modern barn of a building that replaced a refuge that was swept away by an avalanche in the fifties. Outside was incredibly windy; inside was a bit cheerless, so we went on and found a sheltered place to sit and have a handful of trailmix looking over st a glacier, before heading for the path summit and Switzerland.

The only advantage of these steep, knee-crushing, hip-grinding, lung-busting paths is that fairly quickly the place where you started is a faint dot, way, way below you and you feel to be making good progress. But inevitably there is So Much Further To Go.

Each ridge we approached we thought must be the last one, but another one would sneak up from the horizon and snigger into its hand.

When, finally the ridge top was in sight, we stopped for lunch looking back into Italy. Rifugio Bonatti had given us each a square slab of chocolate imprinted with its own logo and 64% cocoa. It was fantastic stuff, shattering in your mouth with a bitter-sweet creaminess.

The top of the ridge was marked by an official cairn and dozens of hikers sunbathing. It looked like they'd all been felled by the wind, which was pretty keen. And beyond was Switzerland. The mountains seemed rounder and less imposing. The high traces of snow sparkled in the sunshine and as we descended through the deep green valley, it got warmer and warmer.

We scrambled up to a viewpoint looking along the valley we would be walking along tomorrow.

The rounded hilltop was a perfect rock-garden with deserty flowers poking through shards of flat slate.

Hours later, at the bottom of the valley we stopped for a cold drink at a dairy farm where I watched a man stacking great wheels of cheese. The sun was searingly hot and looking at the map we were pleased to see our route go through trees.

The dappled shade was a relief as we continued our descent through pine and larch and eventually to the village of La Fouly. We walked on a main street lined with big wooden chalets to our hotel - a big wooden chalet. Hello Switzerland!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti

The guide says this is the toughest and most spectacular stage of the TMB and having just finished it, I think that's probably about right. It's not the longest in terms of distance, nor does it have the greatest altitude gain. But my knees are telling me this was a hard day, and some of the views we saw today were utterly spectacular.

We got up early this morning and were first into breakfast at the hotel. The team of waiters were eagerly waiting for us as usual. At least they looked eager... It is a very old fashioned sort of dining room, with many be-jacketed flunkies and everything just so. When they brought us drinks they were careful to turn the cup handles to the right position in the saucers. Our table was right next to a vast window looking out on the mountains we'd climbed down from and there was much cereal, and many dried fruits, and fresh rolls with curls of butter and tiny jam pots on a revolving server and fresh cheeses to cut and glass jars of yoghurt and flaky croissants and cappuccinos and hot chocolate like a dark night in a mug. It was all good.

We were on the road by 8.30 relishing the cool morning air and a mountain town beginning to sort itself out for the day. We walked through the new bit of town, and then the older bit by the church and past the grand wooden chalet that is the headquarters of the mountain guides' association. The road narrowed and took us into an even older bit of Courmayeur; smaller, plainer buildings of stone and with ironwork across the windows. Beside the road, a stone water trough lined with wooden planks for beating washing. I wish I'd taken a photo, but I didn't so you will have to take my word for it.

Soon the road became a track through trees and the sounds of cars and people faded to birdsong and crickets. The path was gently uphill but smooth and easy and we plodded up occasionally overtaking other hikers, occasionally being overtaken, but it wasn't busy. Then the TMB route left the smooth track for a steep rutted path which zigzagged up in the shade. Eventually we were looking down on Courmayeur stretched out across the valley floor

Up we went, the track getting steeper and narrower and more rutted.

We emerged from the tree line to see Rifugio Bertone basking in the sunshine, so we walked up to it, got some drinks and sandwiches and did the same. A little pet goat came and snoofled about, looking at us with its goaty eyes. It smelt a bit goaty too, but then they do of course.

It was here that we had to decide whether to take the standard TMB route along the side of the valley, or up to the top of the ridge and along it, which involved the same amount of steep climbing that we had just done over the previous two hours. But the sun was shining, the air was clear and the high route was supposed to be a bit special, so we set off uphill again.

It was steep, but doable and before too long we were on the spine of the green grassy ridge with views back down towards Courmayeur and across to the Grandes Jorasses, which were certainly very Grandes - pointy and snowy and worthy next door neighbours to Mont Blanc.

This is how I imagined the TMB to be - high mountain passes with towering snow-covered mountains under a crystal blue sky. It was marvellous.

We'd been under the impression that the ridge would continue more or less level, but all too soon we were heading downhill only to start climbing again to the Col Sapin, which is 2534 meters, or just under 8,500 feet. The ridge was knee-tremblingly narrow in a couple of places, but the top was a round smooth grassy dome where we spent half an hour or so drinking in the 360 degree view.

When we got there a skinny chap with a goatee beard was packing up a drone he'd been using to film other members of his group as they made their way down. He was an enthusiastic outdoorsman from Otley in Yorkshire and was particularly taken with the idea that Tom was filming something for the Kendal Film Festival. He set off back the way we had come, intending to then take the lower route to the refuge we were aiming for. We stayed on at the summit though. The air was full of honey bees which seemed particularly attracted to me and kept sunbathing on my t-shirt sleeves, which was a little unnerving.

Eventually though we had to tear ourselves away from this high little world. As we were packing up, a sudden gust of wind picked up the foam mat I'd been sitting on and shot it high into the air. It billowed about above our heads and I thought we'd seen the last of it, but all at once the wind deposited it down on the ground ten feet away. Tom grabbed it.

Going down was hard work, on a very steep narrow track covered with powdery dirt and loose shale. When we got to the bottom of the col, I realised that the blue and red blobs I had taken for recycling bins of some sort were actually a French couple sunbathing. At this point I'd been under the impression that we would just head all the way down to the refuge, skipping gaily through soft meadows and pausing only for handfuls of chocolate and to admire the view. But it turned out we had to go over another ridge first, climbing several hundred feet before we could start descending. Ag. It was fine.

We spotted marmots on the way up too. At the top of the ridge a herd of cattle wondered what we were doing. One of them was quite keen on licking me in a friendly sort of way, though on the whole I was against it.

We walked down through a broad glacial valley with the imposing rock wall of the Aguille de LEveque facing the end of it - all 11,700 feet of it, craggy with glaciers and topped with grey clouds. We spotted the refuge and quickened our pace with the prospect of food and a bed. But it turned out to be a farmstead.

Half an hour further and after a little more marmot spotting en route, we were having a drink in the last of the sunshine on the refuge terrace.

Supper was a delight. A mixed salad with a tiny piece of bread cheese and honey, followed by a pea, bean, lentil and pearl barley soup, a piece of cheese then falafel balls with potatoes and leeks and nutty little courgettes. Then a lemony cream posset for pudding. All served simultaneously to about ninety people.

We were good for nothing after that. The older members of our party are feeling somewhat weary (the younger member has barely noticed that we've done anything physical at all). Observations over supper...
P: "This holiday is much harder work than being at home"
T: "All our holidays are like that..."

Our path over the mountains is the purple one and the figures miss out a couple of hundred feet and half a mile or so when I turned the device off by mistake...whoops.