DAY 4, Vallorcine – Lac Blanc
With the confidence of the extra miles we had done the day before we got up quite late, simply to realize that we had no reason to celebrate, all we had done was catch up with where we should have been originally. In addition, we got easily discouraged by the cafes in town where we stopped more than once, firstly to try to say goodbye and thank you to Samuel because we hadn’t seen him at home in the morning and secondly to prepare some sandwiches and have a coffee with a croissant or a pain au chocolat. It was in one of these cafes, talking to an elderly couple that had travelled the TMB before us, that we understood that the deviation for Lac Blanc was close. Yuri had insisted multiple times on taking the detour and after showing us the pictures of the lake it didn’t take long for us to give in so, after a few miles on a semi busy road, we took a sharp right and, with the massif behind us, we counted the hairpins we could see before starting our uphill march, arms and legs in sync, facing the floor and eyes on the prize. Once again, we had no idea what was in store for us. The feeling we all experienced on our way up was simply that it was never going to end, every time we got to what we thought might be the end of the climb we got given more, the stone and sand steps that we were following upwards slowly got steeper, the water got warmer and then started finishing, the trees got scarcer and the sun stronger until after a few hours there were no trees left, the water was finished and we were sunburnt. I’m not sure what we would have done if at that stage we had known that we were only half way up to the lake, hope and inertia were the only things that kept us going at this point (A short video of us Walking near Lac Blanc). After another two hours of uphill ridge walking with the whole Mont Blanc massif in full view on our left and a series of small lakes dotting the mountainside on our right we turned a corner and arrived at Lac De Cheserys, Teo’s eyes glistened while he undressed until nothing was left and ran into the water. We washed our faces and had our cheese sandwiches, which during this whole time had been sweating in our bags and, after a short break, headed up to Lac Blanc which was only another forty five minutes away.
Lac Blanc (France) — Picture by Teo Poggi 2018©
We definitely weren’t ready for the scenic intensity of the place and trying to put it into words would only be a waste of time, all you need to know is that that evening we didn’t walk a single mile more, we followed the lake round to the back of the plateau where a little stream fed into it on a massive gravel delta estuary, we set up camp next to four curious ibex that inquisitively sniffed us out before strutting off into the sunset. Here we had our noodles and risottos, made a cup of tea and laid down under our tarp with menacing clouds clearing into a pitch black star lit sky.
Lac Blanc (France) — Picture by Teo Poggi 2018©
DAY 5, Lac Blanc – Bellevue (Col de Voza)
We gradually woke up to the sun rising behind Mont Blanc and its image reflected in the stone still lake in front of us, by far the most scenic awakening of the whole trip. We slowly crawled out of our tarps to sit on a rock, gradually undress as the sunlight warmed us up and start having breakfast until, without warning, a middle aged looking mountain man came down the hill and before we could even begin to understand what was happening he had already spouted: “Put your tents away” in a tight French accent. We were obviously too far from being awake to realize what was going on but it only took another three words from the man for us to exit our dream state: “I’m a Ranger” he said coldly. With our tarps packed, the ranger now in the distance and our water bottles refilled we headed for Chamonix where we would have an unplanned lunch with a friend of Teo’s and Pietro’s from Pescara, who happened to be spending the week in an AirBnb directly above the place we had chosen to get our sandwich. The remaining part of the day was majorly uneventful until we touched the feet of Col de Voza where we were stormed on, not in a dramatic way or at least not in hindsight, seeing as we had no idea what was coming. Two minutes hadn’t gone by since we’d got to the top of Col de Voza when, whilst catching our breath under a small train line on top of the mountain, a group of black clouds came in from north-west and swallowed the tip whole. For the following hour we sat on the terrace of the Villages Vacances Col de Voza (a place that serves bottled spritz and entertains its guests with Bingo Wednesdays and Kindergarden Disco) in the middle of a raging storm some of us sipping hot tea and some of us straight vodka. Glad that we hadn’t been obliged to spend the night in the hotel we set off as soon as the sky cleared only to walk another twenty minutes and camp right next to the train tracks, after all we are city boys.
Night walkers from Col de Voza to Bionassay — Picture by Teo Poggi 2018©
Day 6, Bellevue (Col de Voza) – Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme.
Waking up on the sixth day had a certain twist to it, it felt like we’d got into the right rhythm, we looked at the map and determined that we would need two days and a half, including that day, to get back to Courmayeur, have lunch and take the bus back to Milan. So, with the right attitude we waved goodbye to Bellevue and made our way to Les Contamines after which another great climb was waiting for us. After a quick resupply in town we headed for Refuge Nant Borrant, there we had a sandwich, we charged our phones, dried our sweat drenched clothes under the beating sun and as soon as Pietro had finished the last sip of his after-lunch ritual mint tea we headed towards the second half of the climb up to Col du Bonhomme, this, we were soon to discover, would not be an easy one. Soon the vegetation line was crossed and all that was left was us, again, minuscule on the mountain side, spread on rocky steps, across short grass paths, into snowy patches but, this time it seemed, part of a rhythm that would have taken us safely to the top of the pass. This conviction rung true between the three of us until Pietro turned around to look at Teo who, with a surprised tone, told him that he looked slightly paler than usual. Pietro isn’t one to control his fears well when they concern his body and in the feeling of faintness that had suddenly grabbed him he lost his speech, in broken grunts he told us to carry on and that he would meet us up top and so we did, in the meantime he slowly reached round the back of his pack and with worryingly trembling hands he picked out a scrunched up pack of black chocolate, broke a bit off, shoved it in his pocket and, rapt by nervous tics, he turtle paced up the last bit of the climb. He surfaced stone faced half an hour after the others had reached the Col du Bonhomme, chocolate wrap clenched between his hand and his walking pole, pupils dilated with terror and not much to say. It took him another half an hour of deep breathing and religious silence to come back from where he’d gone off to but it was soon after that the realization of where they were swept the remaining anxieties from his mind countless valleys opened up in front of them and the mountains on the west horizon looking into France cut sharp lines between rock and sky, the sun setting behind them.
Teo and Yuri near Col du Bonhomme’s very top.
It took us another hour to reach the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme where, at nine pm, we were greeted by a common room full of hikers, a vegetable soup, a plate of polenta and some bollito misto. Eternally grateful to the refuge managers we walked a few minutes east and pitched our tarps, a more scenic goodnight could not have been asked for and a few hundred meters from the tallest point of the tour we slept undisturbed until the first lights of the morning after
Day 7, Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme – Courmayeur.
As the sun shed first light on the surrounding valleys Pietro and Yuri cleared their swollen eyes with cold knuckles and slowly bent upwards to look at the view only to realize that Teo’s tarp, that was pitched just in front of them, had blown five or six meters to the right, his stuff distributed in the surrounding area but, most importantly, he was gone. Still stirring out of the night haze we half slipped-on our shoes and ungracefully stumbled across to the refuge to see if we could find him and, as we had hoped, as soon as the terrace was in sight we spotted him, wrapped up in his sleeping bag, sat on a pic-nic table. When we reached him there wasn’t a pretty sight waiting for us, Teo was gazing fixed into space, hair stuck to his forehead with morning dew, fire like eyes but without anger in his look, a half-smoked unlit cigarette in his hand, a cold cup of coffee in the other, veins pumping and forcefully deep breaths. After a few more minutes to pull himself back together Teo told us that around one am the wind had taken his tarp away, a few times he unsuccessfully tried to re-pitch it and then, blinded by the freezing gusts, decided he would go to the refuge to seek asylum in the dining room. Here, not happy with his already tiring performance, his fears compounded by the dark night, he convinced himself that the rest of us had gone into hypothermia in our sleep so he ventured out into the cliffs to come and check that we were still alive only to find us all in quiet peaceful sleep. By the time he had reached the refuge again it was around three am, this meant that flustered with the recent events Teo would only enjoy a few hours sleep on the hard tiled floor before management started setting up for breakfast when, full of resentment, he would retire to the terrace where we would have found him an hour or so later. After laughing about the whole ordeal and having breakfast we, once again, got our stuff together, filled up our water bottles and headed towards Col de Fours, the highest point of the tour at 2665m. An hour on: orange, unstable, rocky territory separated us from the peak but the feeling of touching the summit bore the efforts of the past six days and did them perfect justice in theory from here, it would be all downhill.
Col de Fours summit
After enjoying the view with a cigarette and a on top of Col de Fours we headed down for Refuge des Mottets where we faced the last big climb of the Tour, the climb up to Col de la Seigne that marks the border between France and Italy. At the feet of the Col we behaved according to the routine that we’d adopted in the past week: count the hairpins, decide where to rest, where to have a snack, squeeze walking poles, start walking (all apart from Teo that is, he just goes, even with two hours sleep). When we got to the top and saw home spreading out in front of us things changed, up to that point having lunch at Rifugio Elisabetta seemed an unreachable goal but from where we stood it was just at the bottom of a two hour downhill walk, we put our packs back on and privately played with the idea that we might even be able to be in Courmayeur by The end of the day, a whole night and half a day early. At Rifugio Elisabetta we ate and stared at the map, we knew it was possible, we just didn’t want to say it out loud. Pietro set off immediately because he was having trouble digesting his ham and cheese sandwich, he was reached by Yuri and Teo at the feet of the very last climb, here we received the confirmation we needed, on the right side of the path, hidden between some bushes, lay a sign pointing north-east, Courmayeur five hours, we looked at one another and with no further hesitation we stated that we would spend the following night in Courmayeur. At the top of the last climb Yuri and Teo waited for Pietro who still hadn’t completely recovered from lunch, as he surfaced, last of us, he asked with loud but firm voice: “Is this the last one?” and when a choral yes reached him from the other two it was collective excited bliss, Pietro’s poles flew forwards on the path and laughter echoed through the valley beneath, from here it really was all downhill. Things get a little blurry from this point onwards for all of us, it may have been how tired we all were or the fact that the prize was by now in plain sight but suddenly all inibitions were lost, we had let go to the folly we had been holding back for the past six days and now, all was allowed. We ran, fell, laughed, in a constant downwards direction towards the bottom of the valley, Yuri shouting at large crows telling them to shut up, as if we had happily and consciously regressed to three giggling six year olds. The last thing we hadn’t confronted was a small piece of path that connected the last bit of downhill to Courmayeur, on the altimetry it looked like a vertical wall, going down nearly 800m in the space of 200m horizontally. This was something else we hadn’t talked about collectively so it happened that Pietro came round a corner and fifty meters further he saw Yuri and Teo standing still as if they were looking down at something from the top of a wall or a cliff, when he reached them the scenario wasn’t so different from what they’d imagined, the path went down, sandy, half meter stepped hairpins, for an hour and a half, through a forest, straight into Courmayeur. From there we could see it, nearly touch it and definitely taste the drink we would have at the Baretto in the Piazza. This was undoubtedly the hardest part of the whole tour, the combination of hard sweat and orange dust created a gritty patina over our bodies, we didn’t speak a word unless it was to curse the path in a loud whisper and the only audible sound was Teo’s distant moaning and shouting.
As we emerged, orange and broken from the forest, Courmayeur laid spread out in front of us and we aimed straight for the Piazza to touch the yellow kilometer zero plaque. To crown the ending of the trip twenty meters from the Piazza a little girl stepped out of the family car and stared at us walking closely by, she then turned to her father with a perplexed look on her face, turned back to us and said:”Where did you come out of?”. We laughed hard and walked up the stairs, from here we could see it and the next thing we knew we all had our hands on it, we laughed more, kissed the floor and lay down, we had finished. In a semi conscious state we stumbled over to a bar and toasted with a drink, Yuri and Teo took it well, Pietro had one sip of his amaro and was drunk, in seconds Yuri had booked a hotel room for all of us catching a last minute offer, we headed there to realize that we could not have been more out of place, three dirty, smelly, now retarded hikers in a four star, ski resort hotel filled with pensioned white collar couples. Obviously we got assigned a room in the far depandance, in a basement two floors down but we were far from caring about the quality of the room, that night we ate out, washed off the orange dust in a real shower and slept on a hotel mattress, we hadn’t slept that well in years.
Exhausted at 0 Kilometer in Courmayeur
The way back to Milan.
The breakfast was included in the deal with the hotel and we weren’t about to let that slip so, still semi in the hiking routine, we woke up at half eight and headed down to the dining room where all sorts of delicacies were waiting for us, ham, cheese, all sorts but, most of all, a wide dish at the end of the room filled with croissants. When we approached the dish we were all slightly disappointed to find that they were all empty, we soon enquired with the staff that told us they were plain so that one could stuff them with their preferred filling, we quickly regained our high opinion of the hotel catering by having ours filled half with custard and half with chocolate (in one croissant that is). At eleven we parted ways to get back home, some by bus and some by train, both solutions turning out to be pretty hair-raising for various reasons.
That same evening we rejoined with our departed companions, all six of us (one had fled to the seaside) at Moscow Mule, a legendary bar in Milan. Here we recounted the stories and drank and laughed into the early hours of the next morning. Often at the end of a trip one expects a grand finale but like in most of the cases the greatness of the experience lies in the trip itself and our memories are in the huts, on the paths, by the lakes and under the rocks while we slowly head back to normal life.
Orange dust washed off of us for the following three showers, Thanks TMB, Thanks friends xxx.