Day 5 – Refuge Elisabetta to Courmayeur
After a lovely evening, we woke to a less than mediocre breakfast and some awful coffee. Breakfast consisted of bread and jam and our choice of pre-packaged biscuits and cake. Ugh!!! We began by heading down the valley and met a fork in the road. If we continued straight, it was a longer path, but pretty flat and not very visually exciting. Our other option was to go high!!! Can you guess which we did? The three Germans that we were following the previous day also chose to take the high route. About 300 feet ahead of us, you could see them stop and look at the map. Mark was funny because at that moment, he too looked down at his GPS. Almost stalling just a bit. You could tell he really didn’t want to have to take the lead. Mark is smart. The Germans led the way and were “post holing” all over the place. They looked like the 3 stooges. As you walk on snow, your goal is to try and stay as much as possible on the hard pack. You can put your trekking pole out ahead of you and see if it falls through the snow as you plant it. Following tracks is much easier because you can usually see where the snow doesn’t give. Numerous times, we saw the lads in front of us, end up with one leg thigh high in snow. As we followed their route, we spotted a chamois, which is basically a mountain goat-antelope, high up on the slopes. Apparently they aren’t infallible to “post holing” either. Once she took a leap and basically disappeared into the snow. We continued in the snow. Numerous times we saw small ice boulders come flying down the mountain. Mark wanted us to go slowly over certain traverses, but NOT too slowly on the open mountain side. We came to one fairly long traverse, and Mark must have exhausted himself making steps in the snow for me. We had microspikes, but didn’t have them on. More often than not they would have been unnecessary as the snow was soft in many places. On this particular traverse, Mark would take a step and then kick the place he stepped in a motion like a saw about 3 or 4 times to make an actually step for me. Jason followed and repeated the motion. When it was my time to cross, I usually had fairly good steps. On some traverses, we would go one at a time, but on this particular one, we were going across together. All would have been fine had I just kept looking at my feet; however, at one point, I stopped and looked down. I seriously mentally froze. If I slipped, that was it. A long long slide to the bottom with no return. Seriously!!! Prior to crossing, Mark had given us advice on how to basically get into a flat belly cat position if we fell. No falling!!!! Once past the very open ravine, Mark began to make downhill steps towards the trail. Phew. Done.
We continued walking on the snowy trail with Mark in the lead, Jason and then myself. All of a sudden, Jason went from being in front of me to having one foot completely sink with snow coming up to his thigh. He tried to extract himself, but no luck. He literally COULD not move. I tried pulling him up, but to no avail. I hollered for Mark who came back with a big smile shaking his head. I wish I had a video of Mark on his knees in front of my husband’s crotch as he dug him out. He ended up with a much greater appreciation for someone like me with short legs! Once on solid ground, we continued our trek. Finally we reached an area which was the top of ski lifts, and we were looking down on the beautiful Italian village of Courmayer. Unfortunately, it was a huge, steep, switchback descent into the valley. We were exhausted at the bottom and then Mark said it was another 30 minute walk to our bed and breakfast. Mark had given me the opportunity to book our accommodation in Courmayeur. I am not a big hotel person so found what looked to be a lovely 6 room bed and breakfast called La Maison de Saxe. It was heaven. The owner, Raphael, had spent 3 years renovating a dilapidated 350 year old building in an old section of town. It was like a maze trying to find the place, but he did an amazing job. Our shower had a lovely stone floor and each room had such personality. Jason and I headed into town to find some compeed (blister pads) for his feet, and some appropriate gloves for me. $100Euro later, I was kitted out. A lovely dinner and 8:30pm bedtime.
Jason’s poor feet. Thus the need for Compeeds. This happened on the 2nd or 3rd day. Ouch. He had done plenty of hikes in these boots; however, we think because they were soaked through that perhaps they rubbed unevenly.
The original numbers for this day were 10 miles with 3300 feet descent. As we took the high route, these numbers are fairly skewed.
Day 6 – Maison de Saxe to Refugio Bonatti
The next morning, Raphael had a spread of local cheeses, bread, meat, yogurts and fresh fruit. I didn’t want to leave, and I definitely will go back. As we were in the bottom of a valley, we had to hike back up to the pass of the next valley. As we left Raphael’s, we walked through mountain meadows with flowers of all colors, followed by switch backs up a lovely forested hillside. Again, Mark varied the route so we stayed away from main trails. The sun was shining and the views were absolutely spectacular. We now had views of the back of Monte Blanco from the Italian side. Actually, the entire range. We had a couple pass us that we had met at Refugio Elisabetta. As they did, they pointed to a peak and asked it it was Mont Blanc. NO, it wasn’t! Mark pointed out the appropriate peak to which the other hiker made some ridiculous comment alluding to this was why we had a “guide”. NO, we had a guide so we had a fabulous trip, safe trip. The girl that made up this pair was the one that was balling crying next to the fire. Thank goodness, they just went on their merry way. After a few hours, we stopped for lunch with mind blowing views of the Alps. In Courmayeur, we had stopped at a charcuterie and picked up fresh bread, cheese, tomatoes and fruit. One of my favourite lunches. Jason and I just tore of chunks of fresh bread, ate the tomato as if it were an apple, and enjoyed fantastic cheese!!! This was one of our easier days and by 2pm, we were at our Refuge for the evening. Mark is also a trail runner and does tours of running the alps. He just happened to run into a group of friends at Refuge Bonatti. So I guess not so surprising that after a small break, he took off for a two hour run. Jason and I were content looking at the blue skies, snow capped mountains, and green hills whilst he had a beer, and I sipped some tea. Highly recommend everything about this refuge. We had our private room whilst Mark was in a dorm room with a couple other guides. Due to being so early in the season, Mark had quite a bit of luck with not having full dorms.
Dinner and breakfast are included in the price so there is a set time for each where they serve everyone staying there. We actually had a salad! Yay. So far, we had stayed pretty much to ourselves, but on this evening we shared a table with 3 Chinese hikers. It is fantastic to get learn about other cultures.
I don’t have the distance for this day as we had originally planned on staying at a different refuge. So happy this one opened.
Day 7 – Refuge Bonatti (Walter’s Place) to La Lechere in La Fouly
Our night at Refuge Bonatti was the first place where the actual refuge was quite busy. As it turns out, there was a place on the valley floor where day hikers or small multi-day groups could come up to spend the night. We decided to leave first thing in the morning. Good call. Unfortunately, this time, we had to descend to the valley floor and then hike all the way back up to the col before our decent into the Switzerland from Italy. The valley floor is accessible by car, and we could see from above small mini-vans dropping off group after group. About 2 hours into the day we came to a little hilltop to take a rest. From here, we could see across to the beginnings of the switch backs that would take us to the col. A group of about 12 were making tracks across a snowy traverse. Then behind us came 2 groups of about 12 hikers. Oh boy. My serenity all blown up. Mark asked us if we were good taking a short cut and making our own trail. Absolutey. Instead of following the track, we headed straight into the dip in the valley and up the other side. This would allow us to completely miss the traverse and end up where the hikers were beginning their ascent. This also meant straight uphill. Off we went, and much to my chagrin, one of the other guides from the group behind us decided to follow us. Mark kept quite a steady pace and before long, we were coming up on the tail end of the previous group. By far this was my hardest cardiovascular day. I think I am a bit of an underachiever and take the easy way out. Not today. Mark asked if we were okay keeping up the pace. Jason responded that he could do it ALL day long. I just nodded. All day, NO way. Maybe for another 1/2 an hour. We made our way past the group and had a clear path. The trail just to ourselves. We hit the snow for a long traverse and up and over the col. Again, the views are just amazing. So guess what, now, down we go. We probably could have done a couple “Brightwell’s bum slides”, but I was quite happy with my increased telemarking skills.
The last couple of miles could have been completed on a road; however, Mark asked if wanted to take a trail. Sounded much nicer, and as we could somewhat see our final destination, it didn’t seem like it should take that long. Famous last words. We had another mountainside picnic with views of the valley and then took off down the trail. The first obstacle that we came across was a fairly big mudslide. Not much to do here but hope that your boot didn’t sink into the mud past your ankle. Once we got through this, I felt as if I had added 6lbs to my boots. Then, we came across a fairly steep ravine covered with ice and snow. It looked fairly simple to cross, but if you slipped it would have been a fairly nasty fall. Mark started to make his usual steps into the snow, but he was getting pretty sweaty. We did have microspikes, but Mark didn’t have us put them on. Instead, we learned how to use an ice axe as sort of a hand rail. He had me cross first. The drop of the ravine was to my right so he had me plant the ice axe in the snow above me. Make sure it was secure, take a step and repeat. Actually, pretty cool. About an hour and a half later we were at our refuge for the evening. I was pretty tired and was looking forward to relaxing, but it sounded like a huge party inside. Yup, there was. We happened to come in on the day were all of the villagers take their cows up to the high pastures and leave them there for a 100 days. These cows are actually Swiss fighting cows. Yes, you read that right. As it turns out, the cows are all put together from different herds and as they make their way up the mountain, the fight for a spot in the hierarchy. The don’t actually hurt each other, but by the time they reach the mountain pasture, there is a dominant female. Then at the end of season, the locals from the different mountain ranges, actual “fight” their cows for supreme reign. Anyway, the locals were having an afternoon party. Eventually they left, and we had a lovely evening. One of the best and most lean burgers I have ever had was served for dinner. This was the second and last time of the whole trip that Jason and I were in a bunk type session. The room was so narrow and had 24 bunk beds. All lined up next to each other. There were only four of us this night, but I would not have handled more than that well. As of the end of June, they were fully booked for the next three months. NO thank you.
Day 8 – La Fouly to Champex La Lac
Overall this wasn’t a very interesting day. The first picture below shows the little town of La Fouly from our guest house. The majority of the day heading towards Champex La Lac was walking on a pretty wide trail down a valley. We then crossed the road and zig zagged through some fairly empty villages. Maybe they are vacation villages. Eventually we crossed the road again and began our climb up to Champex La Lac. The village sits high in the mountains around a lake. Overall, it was a fairly easy day. My highlight was the family that we stayed with that evening. La Grange is a family owned bed and breakfast in an old converted barn. How they manage 25 -30 people in high season with only one shower and two toilets is beyond me. However, it was just us that evening. Once we were settled, we spent the afternoon in lawn chairs relaxing. Mark took off on an afternoon run so we had an interesting situation. Jason and I speak little to no French, and the family spoke NO English. Our hosts husband disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a “gadget”. He had Jason put one in his ear, and he put the other in his. As Jason spoke English, it translated to French with a nice female voice into our host’s ear piece. Technology is amazing. We had the phone on the table in front of us so we were able to see what she was translating, and we definitely had some words that didn’t come out correctly. It was absolutely hilarious. At one point we were all just laughing hysterically at the mistakes in translation. However, overall we were able to communicate quite a bit. That evening we sat down with our hosts an their three children for a family meal. Conversation at dinner was a bit easier with Mark there to translate. Jason and I headed off to bed early with the sounds of cow bells to lull us to sleep.
The finish of our trek next!