Out of all the things we have underestimated in our lives the Tour de Mont Blanc is definitely the most recent and one of the most glorious. With the idea of testing out some gear as well as our selves on one of the most famous trails in the world we found ourselves sat in Pietro’s lounge, fitting noodles into plastic bags and mapping out the refuges on the course, unaware of the fact that we had no clue what was ahead of us.
The TMB was established in 1955 after a series of modifications and improvements to exhisting trails, 170 kilometers of paths with several variations and deviations and more that 10,000 meters of climbs and descents. The route crosses Italy, Switzerland and France ad can be walked clockwise as well as counter – clockwise. Kilometer Zero is placed in Les Houches, on the French side of the massif, but we’re Italian so we thought it would be more fitting to start from home and walk back home. We arrived one day before set-off in order to gather our last bits of gear, get a good night’s sleep and reconvene in front of a nice plate of food at Maison de Filippo, a traditional Aostan chalet restaurant tucked away in the backstreets of Entreves, a fraction of Courmayeur.
On the morning of the 27th of July at sunup while some of us were heading into their last half day at work and some of us were asleep, in Courmayeur you could already find Yuri and Riccardo, childhood friends, they’ve been travel partners for some time, raced alleycats and played Magic The Gathering. Riccardo is apparently calm and quiet but his power is unprecedented. Shortly after they were reached by Teo and Pietro the first of which, fresh back from Australia, Tasmania and Sri Lanka, had to run home for dear life to cure the Dengue Fever he’d caught on his travels. He is now in better shape than any of us. The last to reach us in Entreves while we were sipping an Alpine Liqueur were: Momo “The Architect”, our web designer, he is also a childhood friend of Yuri’s and Magic The Gathering avid player. Lapo, very talented sound engineer, producer and push-bike courier with constant Tinnitus, a recipe for success, and his friend Giovanni with the heaviest backpack but no fear in it whatsoever.
As we licked the remaining amaro off of our lips and finished greeting each other with the ominous Mont Blanc Massif staring at us we settled into our Air Bnb for our last night inside four walls, we found a nice restaurant to treat ourselves to a proper meal and ecstatic with the prospect of the following days we headed into the center where the celebrations for the town’s patron saint were waiting for us. An eclectic mix of music ranging from gabber to alpine folk accompanied us trough the windy streets of Courmayeur which had turned into a town-wide bloc party. Here, baffled by how surreal the place that we’d been dropped in was, we served ourselves to beers and silently marveled at the event unfolding before us. Of all the places we had visited in our life none of us thought that Courmayeur, known as the dainty and upper class Italian retreat and ski resort, now populated with sweaty drunks and teenage looking go-go dancers, was going to be the one that would have made us ask ourselves if we had seen it all. Shortly after a slow walk up to the house ended the difficult digestion of polenta and Courmayeurtense Soup we each retreated to our beds and, without too much fuss, fell into a deep peaceful sleep.
Around seven o’clock the undisturbed ringing of alarm clocks colored the rooms of the house where with our respectively slow rhythms we all pulled ourselves up to start our morning routines and it wasn’t long before the majority of the tasks had been absentmindedly completed leaving the most important one left, Get out. Around nine o’clock after having filled up our water bottles, a few croissants and a Bombardino (classic italian trail drink) we were ready to join the path that we would follow for the following seven days and so, laughing and joking, we all slapped the yellow kilometer one plaque that signals the beginning of the walk and we headed on into the woods.
DAY 1, Courmayeur – Gran Col Ferret.
The sun was high already and as we walked through patches of dense forest and no forest we could feel it beating on our untanned necks and ears and legs. The first section up to Rifugio Bertone was not forgiving and we soon realized, in the quiet of our own privacy, that as much as we may be able to reach our goal we certainly weren’ t ready for it. We didn’t have time to reach Rifugio Bertone that we were swallowed by a thunderstorm so we took the chance to have a cigarette and eat an energy bar while we waited for it to blow away and a few minutes later we set off, into the mist, towards Rifugio Bonatti. Aside from the breathtaking views the way up to the next rifugio was widely uneventful until a loud thud followed by a disappointed groan echoed across the mountainside but, because we were all well spread out along the walk, five of us continued on without stopping convinced that there was nothing to worry about. When we reconvened at Bonatti an hour or so later we realized how wrong we’d bene, Giovanni had twisted his ankle and it was now the size of a small melon. Half way through day one we had our first casualty and Giovanni went home, sad and in pain, but still noble enough to take some excess gear that a few of us had back home with him. That night we camped at the feet of Gran Col Ferret, with the range in front of us and Rifugio Elena beneath us, heavily aware of the fact that we were half a day behind on our original schedule.
After the first escalade, full of dreams and hope.
DAY 2, Gran Col Ferret – (Somewhere above) Som-La-Proz.
Summiting windy Gran Col Ferret with blue skies, decent temperatures and after a small rifugio breakfast was quite the treat for our second day and it lightened our hearts before we headed into what would be our first serious descent, up to that point we had cursed steep uphill climbs and wished for a cartoon like downhill run but things were changing before our eyes without us even noticing and apart from the odd snow slide the way down was hot sweaty and painful. We reached La Fouly for lunch and allowed ourselves an hour to pull ourselves back together, have a sandwich and refill our water bottles; the divide between Italy and Switzerland had at this point become sharply clear: mountain huts looked like they had been laser cut into shape, supplies had become uncommonly expensive and everything around us was postcard beautiful. After our short break we got back to the path and headed for Champex – Lac where we were looking forward to a quick cool down in the lake, however, it was this fairy like, seemingly unharmful stretch of path that took its toll on another one of us. Momo “The Architect” has nordic blood flowing through him and that day as well as not restoring his periodic sun cream supply he’d neglected his cap, this resulted in what at first looked like a common sunburn but which slowly developed, throughout the day and following night, into a full blown sunstroke. He could be heard muttering incomprehensible curses to himself through his teeth and and twitchingly look at his direct surroundings with mad, bloodshot eyes. That night we camped under a small crag, one hour away from Champex – Lac. There, when we took off our bags, Teo decided that after a good ten hour walk it would be the case for him to free solo a ten meter 5A sport climb, we sat and watched, silent, marveled and terrified.
Woods near Champex-Lac (Switzerland) — Picture by Teo Poggi 2018©
DAY 3, Som-La-Proz – Vallorcine.
In the morning the two things that had become apparent were that the lactic acid stagnating throughout our legs and backs and arms had reached its concentration peak, turning the following day into the most (in theory that is) physically demanding of the trip. The other, that Momo had reached a parallel dimension which, it seemed, he had no quick way of coming back from so, absorbed in the concern we collectively felt for him we packed our stuff, filled our water bottles and headed for Champex – Lac through a chilly, freshly lit, elf like pine wood. We were caught by surprise by the beauty of the scenario on arrival at the lake but we knew things were soon to change when we turned around to watch Momo enter the square making precious use of what looked like his last breaths. We hugged kissed and waved goodbye to our friend who gradually became smaller and smaller as we walked further until the last we saw of him was his figure reflected in the lake walking into the gap between the Mont Blanc Massif and the opposite mountain range which would have slowly led him home, later to find out that he was to spend three days in bed with a temperature. We still didn’t know but it wasn’t going to be a smooth path for us either, in front of us was Col de la Forclaz, one of the hardest climbs of the tour (the map said). We have seemed to identify two types of climbs on this walk: in the first scenario you can look at the face of the mountain, count the hairpins and plan it out in your head, this makes it a lot easier to deal with the workload. The other scenario is more disconcerting, you follow the path with your eyes and watch it disappear into the bends and cracks of the mountainside unaware of what waits for you round the next corner but, most importantly, without being able to see the end. It took us four hours to climb up to La Bovine, the refuge at the highest point of the ascent, across rocky stepped paths, across streams, across jungle like patches, on sand and water, through forests and high grass, over the vegetation line, under the beating sun, round the last corners and finally in sight of a cooked lunch. I won’t over bore you with the digestive difficulties which some of the components of our team were experiencing, but it is important to know that this was an integrating part of our routine for you to understand the terror that those same members experienced when they were told that the only available food at the refuge was the meal that the locals, somewhat over confidently, just called tranche. A tranche is a small piece of white or wholemeal bread under a slice of ham which is then placed into a deep plate filled up to the brim with cheese, the whole dish is then placed in the oven to melt. The result, as you will imagine, is interesting, reminiscent of those bucolic vignettes depicting a fisherman fishing for something in a very small pond and, no doubt, very very hard to process. After a mint tea we left the refuge headed for the descent that would lead us to Col de la Forclaz, needless to say that the gradient of the path was unforgiving and that once reached the next checkpoint we were in plain sight of the bottom of the barrel. It took Yuri and Pietro three hours to reach the bottom where Teo had been waiting for them for at least forty minutes, however, it was Lapo and Riccardo that we were wondering about because it took another hour before we saw the two of them emerge from the last patch of bush. Now, there had been signs to warn us, but it was still a shock when after a short sit down and a cigarette the debate started between the two of them as to whether they should abandon ship and go home. Despite our efforts to focus on the bright and beautiful sides of the trip we didn’t succeed and so, once again, we hugged and kissed our friends goodbye and walked off, decimated, into the woods towards the not so distant border with France. It was at the bottom of the valley facing the next bifurcation in the path that we looked at one another and, seeing as we were still half a days walk behind schedule, we decided to take the lower, quicker route, to secure some miles under our belts. Milking the last drops of fuel we had left we arrived in Le Châtelard-Frontière, the bordering town between Switzerland and France, where the feeling was a lot like walking through a village in the Far West: shops closing as we walked along the main (and only) road, very few people in sight who would look at us with enough vigor to burn holes in our t-shirts and only one place left open which was, of course, a pizzeria. Here we decided to treat ourselves to a cold drink and a cigarette and while doing so we started chatting to an italian truck driver sat directly next to us who insistently remarked the fact that we weren’t in the company of any girls and that a few kilometers on there were some huts on the side of the road where we could spend the night for free. Pietro, his mind clouded by the circumstances, convinced himself that the intentions of the italian truck driver weren’t clear and convinced the others that they should stay well away from the road side huts. It resulted so, purely by chance, that we headed up into Vallorcine, not long after the border, and read on one of the small village’s wooden doors a notice that said: “Free access, shower, hot meal, cold drinks”. Not entirely clear as to what was going on Pietro entered the front garden and, followed by the others, went round the back where Samuel, in his mid forties, and his son greeted us and invited us to pitch our tarps in their garden, have a shower and relax. We could not have been more grateful. After a long moonlit chat with Samuel we were reached by another small family of campers who pitched their tent right next to us, Samuel was clearly more of a celebrity than we had imagined.
First and only christian night with: “Free access, shower, hot meal, cold drinks” in Vallorcine