Bloody Hell, this is much harder than I was expecting. I’m taking really small steps, silly little steps, in an attempt to remain upright and prevent my kneecaps from being launched into space. Walking downhill on a steep incline is an activity that will forever top my list of 100 activities that I dislike the most. It’s like banging your head against a brick wall – it’s nice when it stops. By the time I have stopped, my thigh muscles are quivering, my knees have swollen and the end of my toes (which have been forced into the ends of my boots) are red and blistered. I feel too tired to be grumpy but it’s nothing that a few remedial beers, taken for purely medicinal purposes, can’t put right.
I’m at the end of a section of the Tour de Mont Blanc (or, as we extreme trekkers like to refer to it, the TMB). It starts and finishes in Chamonix and, other than a stop in Courmayeur, takes in a mixture of alpine hut accommodation as the track wanders over mountain passes through France, Italy and Switzerland. Since JD Forbes, the Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University opined in 1839 ‘the most successful of Alpine travellers will, if disposed to be candid, admit that the happiest moments of their experiences, have been on some of the more majestic passes of the Alps’ the TMB has evolved into the ultimate long mountain trek. It’s a 170km journey that circumnavigates the Mont Blanc massive with an accumulated height gain and loss of around 10,000 metres that the ‘normal’ person enjoys over a 10 day period.
But not just normal people tackle this trek. We came across some nutters who ran two sections of the walk each day. Another couple who walked two sections at a time (because their holiday didn’t stretch past 5 days) and there is even a race around the entire monolith at the end of August that the winner completes in a little over 20 hours. Well, jolly good luck to them is all I can say because it takes me 10 days flat out, in hyper drive. It always amazes me that no matter what the physical challenge us ‘normal’ people undertake, there is always some jockstrap who will have done the same thing in a tenth of the time. Why can’t they slow down and smell the flowers?
Not that there were many flowers about when we walked the trail. For various reasons relating mostly to disorganisation, we started in the middle of September just when most mountain establishments were closing for the season and their proprietors heading for a well earned rest by the seaside before the winter season brought waves of thin people in fat clothing flooding to the resorts. So, although there was never anywhere on the mountain open for lunch or a welcome hot drink, the upside was that we never had a fight with the crowds and the refugios that were open were only half full. However, the fact that we were there at all was often resented by those running the overnight accommodation and they retaliated by (generally) dishing up food that my two Labradors would look at twice before eating and making us sleep in unheated cupboards. But of course, this only added to our sense of achievement.
It became a kind of badge of honour that we shared with our fellow travellers with whom we would swap horror stories each evening, all of us attempting to outdo one another with tales of dreadful service/food/toilets/showers/beds. Despite some grim times, we were always able to laugh about it in the company of others who sympathised deeply but had an even more dreadful tale to tell. It was like being in a pub in Yorkshire as we enjoyed our sufferings.
But none of that will stick in the forefront of our memories. It has been a couple of weeks since we got back from out tour and the memories that leap back at me are all of the magnificent views. My most vivid recollection is standing at the top of Col de la Seigne, that was once the gateway from France to Italy, and gazing in awe down the valley of Val Veni that seemingly stretches forever eastwards towards Switzerland. Dominating the left side of the valley wall is the south side of Mont Blanc with its sweeping iced dome capped by a thin lenticular cloud. It rises above a succession of saw toothed jagged peaks and spiked ridges that are punctuated by vanishing glaciers and dark grey moraines. Along the right hand side, a less spectacular but equally rugged ridge of shale and dark green mountain grass runs for miles before dropping into Courmayeur at an angle cleverly designed to rupture knees. In the middles distance, through the base of the valley, runs a ribbon of green occasionally scarred by road and pockmarked by little towns and villages. In a straight line the narrow valley runs for about 30Km and rises from a low point of about 1,000 metres up past a series of run-of-the-mill peaks of 3,000 metres to the very top of Mont Blanc at 4,810 metres. The whole magnificent, captivating view leaves us gazing in silence for several minutes as we absorb one of the most spectacular scenes Nature has to offer.
And there are lots of astonishing views to compete with this one, some of which others probably feel are more magnificent and more spectacular. However, it’s all rather academic, like trying to decide whether a red Bordeaux Premier Grand Cru Classe is better than a white Burgundy Grand Cru as both are pretty much perfect.
Rather less perfect are the markings for the route in many places. Oddly enough, once we had torn ourselves away from the wonderful views at the Col de la Seigne, we managed to take the wrong path. Or, rather, I managed to take the wrong path as I was reminded once or twice in the following hour as we slithered our way over the unstable shale with the prospect of lunch at the Refugio Elisabetta receding rapidly. In my defence we came upon a fork at which the trail to the left appeared to weaken and end at an old ruin, whereas the trail to the right looked strong and well trodden. It was one of those 50:50:90 moments in which if I have a 50% chance of getting it right there is a 90% probability I will choose the wrong option.
The pathway was also reflective of the various countries’ economies so that in France the trail was generally well marked requiring only occasional reference to the map. In Italy, however, the trail was poorly marked, often splitting into numerous options like the flayed end of a rope, all of which offered hope but delivered only disappointment. In Switzerland, however, even a blind man could find his way.
But whatever the downsides they could not dampen the enjoyment or the joie de vivre of the entire experience of walking in the mountains. It’s an intoxicating mixture of spectacular scenery, the sense of space and freedom that can only be truly experienced in the mountains. It is the freshness of the air, the light of the sun, the might of the earth, the magnificence of Nature and the essence of geological history. It’s worth every drop of sweat to climb to the views but I wish I didn’t have to suffer the strain on my thighs and kneecaps when returning to civilisation.
I was asked, before I left, to come back with my observations of the differences between the French, the Italians and the Swiss as the TMB encounters all three in the 10 day walk. I thought it a bit peculiar. After all, these people live cheek by jowl so the differences could only be minor, surely. Wrong! As a generalisation, the French did their best to reinforce the British stereotype of them (difficult, unhelpful, and insular), the Italians were chaotic, warm and lazy and the Swiss were friendly, jovial, business-like and a little aloof.
In Chamonix, the town where we started, we visited the Tourist information office. It was like trying to get blood out of a stone. We queued up for a turn with the unhelpfully helpful girl behind the desk:
“Do you have the bus timetable between Chamonix and Les Houches?”
“Yes, I do!” says the girl helpfully whilst not moving an inch.
“Can we have a copy of it?”
“Yes.” She says and goes to get it.
“How frequently do the buses go?” I ask.
“I have no idea. Look at the timetable.”
“Where is the nearest bus stop?”
“Behind me.” She replies, waving her right hand vaguely over her shoulder.
“Which side of the road do the buses go to Les Houches?” I ask, clearly pressing my luck.
“The left side.”
“And which is the left side?” I ask because it will depend which way we’re facing.
“The side that goes to Les Houches.”
“Thank you. You have been most helpful.” I say with only a touch of irony.
This attitude of only answering the questions being directly asked and with minimal information was not confined to the tourist office. When we phoned the hotel in Les Contamines where we were booked for the first night of our walk (because I feared the hotel was some way away from the trail), the owner said that he was only two minutes walk from the TMB. What he didn’t say was that he was 15 minutes outside town. As it was a Sunday the entire town was shut down and deserted and it took us 30 minutes to discover where the stupid place was. During this time I had enquired the whereabouts of the hotel, in my best schoolboy French, with a little old lady (who threatened to hit me with her white stick), a lady in a car (who thought I was trying to hijack her) and a boy on a BMX bike (who clearly thought I was from outer space). It was my lovely wife who found the answer by visiting the only bar open this side of Pairs. My conclusion was that whilst I plainly look like a criminal, Debbie is sufficiently strikingly beautiful that even a Frenchman will be attentive.
We also discovered that it is not possible to eat in a restaurant unless we sit where directed and, even then, we may be asked to give up or table to other customers. Thus, in Chamonix, we were directed to a table for two which was shoehorned into a corner where there was insufficient room for me to be able to pull back the chair to sit down. So we moved to the next table.
“You cannot sit here, it is for four people”
“But I cannot sit there because I am too fat!”
“This table is reserved.”
“Is there another table” I ask looking at an entire section of the restaurant that is empty.
“OK. Then we will leave. I am not paying good money to be uncomfortable.” And we get up to go. At this point, miraculously, we can get seated elsewhere comfortably.
On another occasion in Annecy, we decide to take lunch at a lovely little creperie in the old quarter next to the river. The nice lady gives us a table and we sit down. Two minutes later we are asked to leave. “Why?”
“Because I now have four people and you are only two. Another table will become available if you wait five minutes.”
Unbelievable! I was incensed and was keen to run an experiment to test whether it was possible to shove the entire table in a part of the waitress where the sun don’t shine. But, more unbelievably, Debbie not only wouldn’t hear of it but actually wanted to wait! After a show of gratuitous petulance, I’m ashamed to say I acquiesced.
On the lovely Col de la Croix du Bonhomme there is a Refuge where, after a 5 hour walk, at 1.00pm we hoped we would get something to eat and drink. But they were closed for lunch whilst the owner and staff enjoyed a boeuf bourguignon avec une petite carafe de vin rouge in the sunshine of the veranda.
Of course, there are plenty of other examples of indifferent service I could bore you with but I think that the gentle reader’s patience would become exhausted and I would be placed on the hit list of a French Government death squad. I wonder whether it’s because we don’t live there or whether the French treat each other in the same way?
The Italians were rather different and are at least outwardly warm and welcoming. However, whilst with the French, if they didn’t want to serve you they would still do their best, the Italians, in the same circumstances, couldn’t be bothered. So when we arrived at the Refugio Elisabetta to a warm welcome our spirits were lifted. When the lady said Debbie would have a vegetarian lasagne for dinner we thought “Thank goodness we are now in Italy!” But when dinner came, there was a fight.
The chef had been engrossed in a football match that had overrun and encroached upon his preparation time. So dinner for us omnivores was a ladle of water that had been thickened with potato powder and a couple of cheese covered balls that looked like yeti testicles. I suppose they must have been alive once upon a time but whether it was as cow or chicken or pig was impossible to tell without a full post mortem. Debbie got given a plate of yeti testicles.
“No, I’m vegetarian remember?”
“Oh yes, I remember.”
Five minutes later out came Debbie’s plate containing the potato slop and two pieces of soft cheese. To say that Debbie was upset would be to underplay the nuclear explosion that followed.
“You said I would get a vegetarian lasagne!”
“No, I didn’t”
“YES YOU DID!”
“Yes, you did,” I add calmly, “I was there and I heard you too.”
“I said you could have vegetarian lasagne for lunch tomorrow.”
“But we are not here tomorrow.” Owner shrugs her shoulders as if to say “Well that’s not my fault.”
“Anyway, you didn’t say that, you said I could have it tonight.” Insists Debbie.
“It is only for two people.”
“Do you expect me to trek the mountains on two miserable pieces of cheese?”
“You don’t like it. Don’t eat it.”
With that, the plate gets thrown on the floor and Debbie storms out. The owner smirks at her departure so now I have a go at her. It’s disgraceful, it’s not acceptable, you just cannot be bothered, is this really the best you can do? But it is all to no avail. The can’t do attitude prevails.
When we got to Courmayeur we were welcomed warmly at the reception of the 4* hotel I had booked (because I thought we might need some normality by this time) and shown to our room which had a door that could be locked from the inside but not from the outside.
“Never mind,” said the (very) comely receptionist, “I’m sure no one will rob you.”
When we said that, on reflection and taking all things into account, we would slightly rather prefer a door that could be locked on both sides, we were offered another room for that night only but would have to move back again the next day. Having just spent 2.5 hours walking down the equivalent of a black ski run to get to the town, the prospect of moving all our stuff about each day appealed rather less than the prospect of being robbed. So we took the room and I threw all my kit all over the floor partly because I enjoyed the space and partly to convince a robber not to bother because someone else had got there first.
We then went off to town to stuff ourselves with pizza, an objective more than adequately completed at a restaurant called ‘Du Tunnel’ where some smarmy chap in tight trousers called Lorenzo made eyes at Debbie and gave us the most enormous pizzas we’ve yet encountered.
Duly stuffed, we returned to the hotel only to find our room locked. Apparently, the barman had been able to lock the door by using unreasonable force and now it wouldn’t open.
“Never mind,” said the very comely receptionist, “you can sleep in another room tonight.”
When we said that, on reflection and taking all things into account, we would slightly rather sleep in our room with our stuff (so that I didn’t need to disrupt my beauty regime), the muscular barman was summoned. Following 20 minutes of grimacing, standing on tip toe to lever the lock and shoulder barging the door, the recalcitrant portal flew open. The very comely receptionist and the muscular barman beamed with pride. Another customer satisfied.
The next day, following a kit inspection, we decided to evict a number of items from our backpacks in an attempt to reduce the burden we had to shoulder. We purchased a box from the post office and filled it with unnecessary paraphernalia: clothes, ponchos, 2 vacuum flasks, a book and other boy scout equipment that seemed like it might come in useful but we knew would never be used. In place of the clothing we bought two lightweight down jackets that folded into their own pocket. Thanks to the wonderfully hard bargain we negotiated, the money we saved from the purchase of the jackets would easily pay for the postage of unnecessary stuff back to our hotel in Chamonix. Or so we thought.
It turned out that 7 days later, having walked to Chamonix and taken a day’s rest, there was still no sign of our parcel that only had to travel 12Km through the Mont Blanc tunnel. It arrived 5 days after we had left Chamonix having apparently taken almost two weeks to move a total of 20Km. Either the Italian alpine postal service moves at glacial speed or the 4* hotel had forgotten to post our box. Chaotic warm and lazy.
We moved on to the Swiss who were also very friendly but in a more empty-your-wallet kind of way. So being friendly to them was more about good business than genuine interest in their customers and, on the whole, they remained somewhat aloof. But they did get lots of brownie points for laughing at my jokes (or was it my bad French).
There was a day when it rained so much the mountain path became impassable as a river in full spate blocked our progress. We had to retrace our steps for almost 2 hours and then faced the prospect of a further three hour walk to Martigny. After an hour and a half of walking stiff legged downhill, we came to a little town called Bouvernier where we stumbled into a bar for a coffee. It was a pleasure to remove our backpacks and our wet gear and begin to drip dry. Not wishing to walk any further than absolutely necessary, I engaged with the barmaid in my best French:
“Is there a bus service from here to Martigny?” I asked.
“No. Do you have a car?”
“No.” I would have thought that fairly obvious but never mind.
“That’s a pity because a car is the best way,” she insisted.
“Is there a taxi?” I wonder.
“No. But there is a train.” How wonderful!
“Where is the station?”
“I will draw you a map.”
How helpful is that and even more wonderful as my O level (grade 6) French was already being stretched to the limit. For some reason I wasn’t considered a linguist at school.
In Martigny, the train station helpfully sold us a bus ticket to the alpine hamlet of Trient (where we should have arrived several hours previously) and even showed us where to find the bus stop. In addition, the bus driver helpfully waited whilst we returned to the station to find my cap which I had forgetfully abandoned whilst my brain was diverted.
The biggest downside of Switzerland is that everything is so expensive. It was a shock to discover that my miserable pound would be exchanged only for 1.49 Swiss Francs. I suppose it is a reflection of the competence of politicians over many years but it won’t be long before nobody except the Swiss, the Russians (the ones who have raped their country’s assets) or the Chinese (ditto) will be able to afford to go there.
I cannot report that the accommodation along the TMB is particularly good. I know mountain huts are supposed to be basic but people run these places for a living and, whilst we don’t expect cotton sheets, a mini bar or room service, I feel we can expect a warm welcome, a hot shower and a tasty meal. Most places contrived to give us none of these things.
Rifugio Elisabetta in Italy, before reaching Courmayeur, was undoubtedly the worst overnight stop. The rooms were tiny, without heating or curtains or bedclothes and the bunk beds were made from metal. This meant they squeaked every time we breathed in and Debbie, being on top, swayed about at every turn. And the beds dipped in the middle as if the metal springs had given up the unequal struggle years ago. The showers required a token prized reluctantly from the bosom of the fat lady hidden behind sunglasses and a red wind stopper who ran the catastrophe.
“When you put the token into the meter you will get approximately three minutes of water.” She warned. This seemed perfectly reasonable. After all, how difficult is it to complete a shower in three minutes? So off I went to the shower, striped off, shoved my token into the meter, got thoroughly wet and soaped myself up gloriously. At this point the water stopped. What’s going on here? I doubt I have completed one minute’s showering let alone three. Now I am covered from head to foot with soap, standing an unheated bathroom with the mountain wind (which had infiltrated the showers through the gaps in the windows) winding around my naked body. It wasn’t ideal.
There was nothing for it but to wipe myself dry, get dressed and try to get another token off the witch who ran the place.
“I need another token for the showers please.” I asked nicely.
“Because the water ran out when I was covered with soap after only one minute.”
“I told you the water would last approximately 3 minutes.” She reminded me.
“You did. But it ran out after one minute.” I protested.
“I said approximately three minutes. A-pprox-im-ate-ly.” She repeated slowly. Clearly I was an idiot. I decided to accept my stupidity:
“I know. Please can I have another token?” I pleaded. Without a word but with a look of disdain that old me not to bother coming back again she withdrew another disc from her bosom and placed it into my hand.
As already reported, dinner was a disaster. Breakfast wasn’t much better and after a bitter, but brief, negotiation I parted with €160 for our night of misery.
The best place we stayed was without doubt the Hotel Alpina nestled at the end of a town called Champex. Its position was perfect, sitting on top of a joint between two Swiss valleys, Val Ferret and Val d’Entremont, with far reaching views down both. It’s the sort of spot where the idle traveller can collapse into a deckchair with a bottle of beer and be entertained by the view for hours. Unfortunately, the cloud crept across the sky during the early evening to spoil the sunset but it then mysteriously cleared to allow the dying embers of the sun to light up the snow dome of the Grand Combin in resplendent pink. A stunning trick of nature that even our hosts had not witnessed previously.
This wonderful spectacle was viewed during dinner. For once, taking the demi pension option turned out to be a winner with a superb meal that would not have been out of place at any of the very best restaurants. Debbie was equally delighted with the vegetarian option of croque madam drowned in gallons of lovely emmental cheese. The husband of the couple who owned the hotel was an excellent cook and enjoyed surprising his guests with great food and good wines and, frankly, I can’t understand why this place isn’t bursting at the seams during meal times.
The quirkiest place we stayed in was the gite Auberge la Boerne in a small village called Tre-le-Champ at the base of the beautiful Col de Balme, a day’s hike East of Chamonix. It is a converted barn that has been splendidly adorned with flowers that seem to grow out of every surface producing a riot of colour. From the outside the wooden building looks small and, when we step inside it seems positively claustrophobic. Downstairs there is a kitchen, dining room and washing area. Upstairs there are sleeping arrangements for about 30 people. I say arrangements because the sleeping areas are created out of all available space under a sloping roof. Our space consisted of two bunk beds (a double below and a single above) that had an area next to them that was half the length of the beds and 18inches (460 centimetres) wide. It was just possible for both of us to stand up at the same time but not if we needed to open the door. This was the first time I had slept in a cupboard and had I taken the owner to the European Court complaining about the violation of my Human Rights, I would undoubtedly have won. Other ‘bedrooms’ required guests to crawl into them and it looked as though another could only be accessed by climbing a ladder. It was the sort of place that would be considered funky by some, hell by others but, as most trekkers would consider themselves free spirits, I suppose funky would be the preferred description.
Never mind the people or the accommodation, it is the walk that we all come to experience. The TMB has become established as one of the great walks of the world bolstered because it circumvents Mont Blanc, a mountain that everyone has heard of and which most people still think is the highest in Europe. It seems to me that the massive of Mont Blanc is virtually a mountain range in itself as this beautiful 30 km long slug of rock, snow and ice has 400 summits scoured by 40 glaciers and a permanent crown of crisp snow. It lies in 3 different countries, with 7 different valleys that define the boundaries of the range and which carry the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc in some of the most exquisite mountain scenery anywhere in the world.
Being a circular route, the TMB can be walked in either direction though, for reasons that escape me, it is usually completed in an anti clockwise direction and traditionally started in Chamonix, a town that is acknowledge as the centre of Alpine sport.
The first day of the walk begins at a village called Les Houches just outside Chamonix. The track ascends from the road next to the lift of the Bellevue cable car and, spurning the opportunity to ride instead of walk (because that would be gutless on the first day), we set off up the steep pathway. It wasn’t long before our good natured banter dries up into silence and we wished we had taken the cable car after all. Sweat runs down my tee shirt and I curse my stupidity for carrying such a heavy backpack (18 Kgs).
Modern technology is to blame. I have an electronic notepad plus its charger, a mobile plus its charger, a camera plus its battery charger, spare batteries for the camera, additional SD cards for the camera, a tripod, a time lapse machine for the camera, mains power adaptors. I have books to make notes in, books to write in and books to read. Plus I have two litres of water, cereal bars, chocolate bars, money, passports, guide books, maps and all manner of other shit. In themselves they don’t weigh much but add it all together and it feels like I’m carrying an elephant uphill, particularly on day one. But we are only going 18 Km (11+ miles) and we have all day so it’s a case of finding our trekking legs again after a lay-off of 6 months since the Himalayas.
However, unlike the Himalayas, this walk turns out to be harder work in many ways. For, although there isn’t the high altitude to cope with (as the highest point is about 2,800 metres (9,000 feet), almost every day involves a climb up of anything up to 1,500 metres (5,000 feet), over a mountain pass, followed by another 1,500 metres down to the next valley and our overnight stop. It’s not the uphill bit that I dislike – though sweating buckets before 0900 in the morning doesn’t go down well – it’s the steep downhill sections that I abhor. My poor thigh muscles get worked to the limit, my kneecaps feel like they are about to be launched into space and my toes get jammed against the end of my boots in a bruising, blistering agony. It wouldn’t be so bad if I wasn’t so heavy. I have decided that I am the human equivalent to a diesel lorry in that I can get up the side of the steepest incline but going down involves the selection of a low gear to keep everything under control and takes some time.
This feeling is borne out by the signposts on the mountain that point the way and give times to the next point: We are always ahead of the time going uphill but fall behind on the descent. So, although going uphill is hard, coming down is harder. Debbie opines that mountain hiking is like childbirth in that you forget how much it hurts.
Our first great views come on day two as the TMB goes right to the head of the Val Montjoie and crosses into the Valee des Glaciers using the two Cols du Bonhomme. Like all the saddles the wind gets swept up from one side or the other (usually from the East in our case) making them very cold places to stop and enjoy the wonderful views.
Here at Bonhomme the best views are back the way we have come that reveal the winding route passing between green, alpine meadows all the way back to the village of Les Contamines 11 Km, as the crow flies, in the distance. To our front, the path continues over a series of grassy bluffs and little streams that fall steeply away. Above, dark, severe looking peaks stand guard forbidding anyone to try and pass them. They are the muscular foot soldiers who are the first line of defence for Mont Blanc. But this view was simply the warm up act for the next day.
To our surprise, the chap who owned the Refuge de la Nova, our overnight stop, offered to drive us and 6 other trekkers to the next settlement called Ville des Glaciers which was an extremely grand name for a collection of 3 houses. This saved us a walk of an hour and a half on a road that rises through pasture that has nothing to recommend it and we gratefully accepted his offer as it meant we could linger at the Col and enjoy the views for longer than otherwise we could.
This decision was rewarded in spades because the Col de la Seigne, which defines the border of France and Italy, has magnificent views in all directions. In front and to our left, Mont Blanc dominates the view. Its snow covered dome sparkles in the autumn sunlight and clouds spring from its summit. At its feet the limestone needles of the Pyramides Calcaire provide a formidable barrier like courtiers or gate-keepers to the god. To our front, the saddle falls away into a long, deep trench that cuts a gash in the mountains and which runs for almost 30 Km to the Grand Col Ferret that we will cross in a few days time. All around are spiky peaks and rugged ridges that are often separated by dirty glaciers that are retreating up the mountains. I wished we could have been here during the late spring when the alpine flowers would have been in full bloom, lighting up the green meadows and splashing bright colour onto this extraordinary canvass.
Another of the great pleasures of hanging about places like this is the feeling of peace and calmness that emanates from remoteness. There is no hustle and bustle of urbanisation. No mobile phones to break the silence, no horns or sirens, no squeaks from pedestrian crossings. No angry shouting, no calling or whistling, no muzak, no waiting in queues, no being ordered about and forced to conform. We are sitting above all that, looking down on pressing human endeavour. We are busy doing nothing.
It was just as well that we lingered here because the next day, following overnight rain, we found ourselves the meat in a sandwich of cloud. Above us, the great peaks disappeared in a cloak of menacing looking cloud while, below us, fluffy white cloud obliterated the valley. We were in a kind of reverse purgatory, neither in the bad weather of high mountain snow and wind, nor in the foggy duvet below.
This day we are travelling to Courmayeur and we have decided not to endure the steep descent into the town. The plan is to walk to La Visaille about 90 minutes away and jump on a bus. After 45 minutes we get to a fork in the route where we go left to La Visaille or right towards Courmayeur. Feeling rather fit, I suggest we change our plan, take the right hand route to Col Chercouit, another 3 hours away, and then catch the cable car into town. Debbie doesn’t seem overkeen but agrees, so we set off, taking the high trail that rises steeply up the south side of Val Veny. The upside turns out to be some good views of the south of the Mont Blanc Massive, as much as the low cloud would allow, but the bad news was that the cable car was not running and I was severely punished for changing our plans with a painful two hour descent into Courmayeur.
After a rest day in Courmayeur in which we travelled up to the pristine Glacier du Geant in a cable car, we moved eastwards and found ourselves once again held in the clear air between a sandwich of cloud. The dry air in which we found ourselves gave us unobstructed, if a little dull, views all the way back to Col de la Seigne. As we descended so the rain began. Debbie was a bit out to lunch this morning. First we had to stop so she could put on her rainjacket. Then we had to stop so she could cover her backpack with a waterproof. Then we had to stop so she could put on her waterproof trousers. Then we had to stop so she could tie her shoelace. For myself, I was caught in a dilemma: If I wore my rainjacket I sweated and got wet, if I didn’t wear my rainjacket I got wet from the rain. As the lesser of two evils, I decided not to wear my rainjacket. At least it wouldn’t get sweaty on the inside.
The trail is now a wet, muddy path often submerged in rivers of rainwater which makes climbing difficult. Feet slip, legs hurt and some swearing was evident until I copied Debbie’s preference for walking through the grassy meadows instead of along the trail. This was much better in that there was no longer any slipping and sliding about but was still hard going because the footing was more uneven.
Reaching the Grand Col Ferret, we didn’t linger in the cold wind but ploughed on into Switzerland, reaching the hamlet of La Fouly in time for tea and cake.
The following morning was bright and sunny with not a cloud in the sky! It was to become a feature of the weather thereafter that one day was bad, the next perfect. How does that work? It’s not that I wish for a run of bad days but that it seems most unusual to bounce between weather extremes so frequently. So it was that we had a lovely morning stroll through several old alpine valley villages resplendent with flowers before climbing up through the (welcome) cool of the forest to the lovely town of Champex. Here we took Sunday lunch by the lake that reflected the verdant green slopes below the summit of La Breya on its still waters.
We weren’t to get wonderful views again until we reached Col de Balme on the French border with its simply stunning views down the valley all the way to Chamonix. To our left (South) was the northern side of the Mont Blanc Massive with the Aiguilles (Needles) Vert and Midi dominating the middle view with their snow capped, dog toothed peaks. Beyond them, the contrasting smooth dome of Mont Blanc was the king of all it surveyed, dominating its lower rivals and enjoying every moment of attention it received. To our right, the Aiguilles Rouge looked like someone had taken a knife to its summits and chopped them all flat, leaving a uniformly high ridge that ran all the way to Chamonix.
It is without doubt a wonderful, raw, powerful view, reminiscent of a pre-historic movie set. The agony that the Earth endured to give birth to the mountains is almost tangible and the noise of the ice carving its way through the rock, as if it were butter, is almost audible. This is a special place where Nature created some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet and it is a privilege to be here to witness it in all its glory.