Tour de Mont Blanc, Part 3
In Part 3, Travis and I witness a truly impressive feat of trail endurance, swap stories with the former mayor of Grand St. Bernard, and continue our Ripken-esque streak of red wine consumption.
Here are the first three installments of the TMB shenanigans:
We planned to hit the trail early after the laziness of our zero day. However, as happened so frequently on this trip, our ambitious plans were waylaid by subsequent events. The leader of the Tor des Géants, a monstrous 330 km trail race that covers twice the length of the TMB, was approaching Courmayeur and would finish less than 30 meters from our hotel within an hour of our planned departure.
That was too much temptation and we stuck around to watch the finish. The small square across from the Pensione Venezia swarmed with a manic crowd that erupted in thunderous cheers when Italian Franco Colle finally rounded the corner and crossed the finish line in a staggering time of 71 hours, 49 minutes.
We heard that Hollan Nickademus, an American despite his name, was in second. We wanted to wait for him, too, but learned after a little investigating that Franco had smoked the field. Another three hours at the finish line was a bit too much for us. We settled for crossing paths with our countryman as we ascended out of Courmayeur (1,226m) toward Rifugio Bertone (1,989m).
As we hiked, we planned, and even rehearsed, a rousing rendition of “God Bless America” that we hoped would give him appropriate inspiration for the final few kilometers. Unfortunately, we reached the rifugio, and then the junction for our chosen TMB alternate route just beyond, without seeing him. We waited in vain at the junction for an hour before continuing the climb up the Mont de la Saxe toward the Tête de la Tronche (2,584m) and Col Sapin (2,436m).
This section was especially pretty and we took our time savoring the experience as we crossed the Mont de la Saxe. Over the col, we dropped briefly down through the Vallon d’Armina before climbing to the Pas Entre-Deux-Saux (2,524m). This left us with several kilometers to Rifugio Bonatti (2,025m), a gorgeous refuge with long views up and down the Val Ferret.
We stopped briefly at Bonatti before pushing on toward Rifugio Elena (2,062m), located at the head of the Val Ferret nearly 10 km further on. Evening fell as we worked our way along the Vallon de Malatra and brought with it heavy clouds, a biting wind and scattered rain drops. We made Elena after dark and headed immediately for the dining room to thaw out over pasta and a carafe of red wine (a nightly ritual by now).
The views from Elena of the Glacier de Triolet and Glacier de Pré de Bar are stunning. These stayed with us most of the way through the climb to the Grand Col Ferret (2,537m), until a heavy cloud layer moved in over the pass and shrouded the world around us in a dense and almost comforting greyness.
We crossed the Swiss-Italian border at the crest of the pass, then dropped several hundred meters before the skies cleared enough for us to get our first look at the jagged peaks of the Swiss Alps. The long descent from the pass took us through a series of villages (La Peule, 2,071m; Ferret, 1,705m) before delivering us via paved road to La Fouly (1,610m).
In La Fouly, we conceded once more to the civilized nature of the TMB and took a long break at a beer garden that was the epitome of alpine decadence. We took turns alternately checking email and lounging on the patio while taking in the panoramic views of Mont Dolent and its glaciers.
We managed to detach ourselves from the beer garden lawn chairs three hours later. It was after 3:00pm and we had nearly 15 km to our destination in Champex. We hit the trail refreshed and made good time through the Val Ferret.
Half an hour from Champex, as the trail cut through dense forest, a side trail branched toward a clearing on the edge of the slope. A lone cabin was perched on the mountainside overlooking the valley several hundred meters below. Intrigued, we walked through the open gate to explore this picturesque oasis of humanity.
As we approached, a genial old man with a quick smile appeared in the doorway and came out to greet us. I spoke with him in my broken French and he invited us in for a beer. We settled in his cellar for a drink after introductions (his name was Ralph) and a quick tour.
He told us that he was formerly the mayor of Grand St. Bernard, which we took to be the town in the valley below. He had left politics to become a farmer and live in his mountain chalet. He seemed thrilled with that decision and we could tell that we were not the first hikers he had invited in for a chat.
(The funny thing is that, as far as I can tell, there’s no town called Grand St. Bernard. It’s entirely possible that Ralph was joking about being the mayor of the pass that we were all looking at and I missed it due to my craptastic French. Either way, he was a fun guy and we enjoyed the chat.)
With the beers finished, we bade Ralph goodbye and continued to Champex. Travis found a room in a small hotel, while I decided to rough it (just so I didn’t forget my roots). I set up camp at the end of town, then met Travis for a dinner of traditional Swiss fondue and, of course, red wine.
Look for the final post on the TMB trip soon.