TMB Day Three: Refuge du Bonhomme to Refugio Elisabetta
*The Tour du Mont Blanc is the most famous and celebrated hike in Alpine Europe and is the fifth Bucket List Hike that Brian and Sylvia have completed together. It is also our first hike together of any kind in Europe.*
Morning of Day 3 began with our Isreali roommate bursting into the room shouting, “Goat! Goat Goat!” Pointing as he did to the window.
Sure enough, frolicking a hundred yards or so from the Refuge were a foursome of what I think were Chamois…close enough to goats for my money.
Goat-gawking, general malingering and some misunderstandings about what time breakfast would actually be served led us to be late, and thus by the time we appeared downstairs the meal had mostly been served. There was no coffee left, but plenty of baskets of somewhat stale bread, some of which had only been crawled on by a few flies. (The Bonhomme was the most fly infested of the places we stayed in by far, and competition for this honor was robust.) This would be the worst breakfast of the trip.
We set out soon after breakfast and confusion immediately ensued. There were many trails going many directions, but no clear signs which one of them the TMB followed. We set off on one likely one, became confused, asked directions, were told it was the wrong way, backtracked, and ended up climbing all the way back to the Col…where signs directed us back down to the hut. Drat.
Yesterday’s clouds were still lingering sullenly in the Col.
But we learned too that a high variant of the TMB led from here, a sort of shortcut that would take off a few miles but would also add substantially to the difficulty. I had not planned on THIS variant; in fact, after two punishing days I was thinking an easier, more lethargic one might be the way to go, and had planned to follow the admittedly much less scenic route to Les Chapieux. But after consulting the guidebook, talking it over with some passing hikers and with Sylvia (who of course argued in favor of boldness) we decided to give it a go. It seemed reasonable and we had already started uphill.
This was the Col des Fours variant, which matches one other later in the trip as the highest point reached by the TMB at any point on its route…2665 meters, or roughly 8750 feet. However, it is only 250 meters higher than the Col du Croix du Bonhomme, so once you get there, most of the work has already done.
A short, stiff climb through broad grassy hillside flanked by power towers, surrounded still by the remnants of yesterday’s clouds, carried us to the Col des Fours. As we approached we crossed some short snowfields, and ahead we could see more…which led to some concern on my part that we had made the right decision. The Reynolds Guide specifically warns against taking this route “…if much snow is lying.”
Well, snow was lying, a good ten feet of it, but in the end it was no impediment. We easily gained the col and achieved an amazing, if somewhat cloud obscured, viewpoint. We knew that it was all downhill from there…for now. Later on in the day we would once again have to cross a major height of land to reach our destination. But that was to come. For now, our trail led down.
We quickly left the snow behind and descended through rock and scree on an eroded trace where great care was needed…yesterday’s rain had churned up the ground quite a bit making passage somewhat laborious. But our efforts were rewarded by staggering views of this very wild ravine, which opened out before us as the weather cleared.
We made good time and within forty minutes reached the confluence with the stream that drains the valley. From here, we could look all the way back up to the col, now in full sunlight, clouds having finally burned off.
It was an epic place. We passed a gigantic sluiceway carved out of solid granite by the rushing stream…here, late into summer, the snow still lay and the stream had forced a channel beneath it.
At the stream crossing we faced a decision. Go right and follow a steep and narrow valley that descended to pastureland and farms far below…or stick left and follow a path that undulated across high meadows toward more buildings straight ahead. But which way? Most people seemed to be breaking left, which seemed easier at least for as far as could be seen, and put us on the correct side of the stream. But it was hard to say…we were aiming (according to the guidebook) for a collection of buildings known as “The Tufs.” But buildings were clearly visible in both directions, so which ones were the aforementioned Tufs?
I found a clear path going left and debate ended…we followed the hikers ahead of us to the distant, beckoning roofs of what we hoped were the Tufs, but was undoubtedly somewhere. I conjectured that in all likelihood, both ways led to the same place.
Some distance into the meadows I began to have doubts. Many hikers were headed this way but…were we just all just mislead? The trail itself seemed more like a faint track made by cows. But we had no choice now except to follow it toward the buildings which turned out, when we reached them, to be abandoned. From here, various dirt roads led off in all directions.
We sat down to rest and snack, mildly confused. I was now beginning to think we should have turned right at the stream crossing, and that the buildings we had seen down the narrow valley (now hidden from view) had been the true Tufs, and that we had come to a set of ‘false Tufs.’ A Frenchman ambled by a few minutes later, question mark clearly hanging over his head. He was wondering the same thing…were these the Tufs?
As we stood consulting the map, a Chinese man who had passed us about five minutes earlier retraced his steps to the spot, confused. “I don’t think that’s the right way,” he said to us. More consulting of maps ensued; an entire pack of French hikers now appeared, and two more Chinese women we had met at the refuge. Everyone was confused, it seemed.
A consensus was quick in forming, however. The Chinese fellow had a working GPS and from it we quickly established that, indeed, yes, these were the authentic Tufs. The international gaggle moved on, while we lingered behind to finish our snack, curiously watching to see which way they went. They went down the road a hundred yards to an intersection, where another debate ensued, and then the gaggle moved off to the right. Which was exactly where we had seen our Isreali friend who had suffered the cold shower go earlier. The Minister of Expedition Planning (M.E.P.) was now satisfied this was in fact the right way, and we soon followed the gaggle down.
(In point of fact it was the right way, taking us to a spiraling road that led down to our destination at the Villee des Glaciers. However, as events would show, my original hunch was proven correct…the other way that broke right at the stream would have led to the same spot, with both routes joining halfway down.)
The detour over the Col de Fours proved to be the second successful bit of improvised navigation on this trip, with some of the most memorable scenery thrown in for good measure. Though it had seemed at times to be a half-assed plan, in fact it had been assessed and executed quite rationally. Yes, this had been a full(y)-ass(ess)ed plan and had brought as exactly to where we wanted to be, exactly as the M.E.P. had predicted. Or so the M.E.P. would claim.
But we were tired, and soon would have to cross the second of the high passes…this being the Col de la Seigne, which also marked the point where the TMB temporarily departs France and enters Italy. This is not considered one of the harder climbs of the route, but unlike the Col de Fours, we would not have the benefit of a high start. We’d have to climb this pass in its entirety, and then down some, to get to the next Refuge…the Elisabetta.
The climb to the Col was as expected not very bad, but seemed to take forever, with several misleading false summits appearing in sequence before the real one. Scenic, yes…but the Col de Seigne was also a strangely lonely and windswept place, almost devoid of people; here we crouched for a while in the rubble foundation of a long vanished building before moving on. Ahead, we could see all the way to the end of the valley, right to the Swiss Frontier…but we could not yet see the Elisabetta. The end of the day remained elusive.
Nearly an hour would pass before the Refuge reluctantly appeared, easing out from behind a massive pile of glacial debris. The Elisabetta sits atop a small hillock formed by the outflow of a glacier. You have one more climb to reach it, a bummer at the end of a tiring day. But the Elisabetta has a hell of a location, perched beneath two remarkable glaciers that dangle above it in Sword of Damocles fashion, seeming about to crash down on it. The glaciers have thus far refrained from doing so, and politely continued to do so for yet another night while we slept beneath them.
It was our first night in Italy. We had heard very mixed things about the busy Elisabetta; crowded it was, but it also turned out to be a surprisingly good experience. This opinion however may have been influenced by the fact that we had a small private room this night (small as in, a fair-sized closet.) We did manage to stick our heads into the largest of the dorms in this refuge and…well, I’ve seem some crypts that looked worse.
Another factor that might have contributed heavily to biasing my opinion was the enormous cooler full of beer just inside the door. My personal ban on alcohol during hike days ended on this one, and did not resume for the duration of the trip.
We met our Isreali friends there, both of our roommates from the previous night and the young man who’d endured the cold shower at the Bonhomme (who was in a much better mood, enquiring earnestly as to our condition, then jokingly chiding me for wearing rain gear despite the fact that it was not raining. But it HAD thundered on the way in. Gosh, that Isreali humor!)
I also noted an exhausted looking man dressed in a khaki hiking outfit lying passed out on a bench. Later, he would sit across from me at dinner, introducing himself as Stuart (a variant on his actual name) from Holland. He had begun the Tour near the Col de Forclaz in Switzerland, and was traveling counter clockwise, tenting, and taking unusual routes…often climbing high in the mountains to camp. His body was clearly paying the price.
It was he that told us that the Refuges and other property owners often drive away campers from nearby spots – for obvious reasons in the case of the Refuges who want to sell overpriced rooms. He had apparently been driven from several spots already.
As we sat and dined with Stuart, a plucky girl from California who was also tenting, one of our new Chinese friends and another couple, the nightly ritual began…That of swapping personal horro stories from the trail. Particularly, those doing the route in different sections/directions enjoy regaling each other with doomsday warnings of what to expect on the trail ahead. We were told that the descent in to Courmayeur was absolutely awful; the climb out of it, worse; and the section of trail that included the Col de Balme yet worse still.
Everyone complained about the steepness of the trails; and here we also learned what we had already suspected, that most hikers cheated at least to a certain degree. Most people were planning on taking the cable cars at least once to avoid a bad section, such as the first and last climbs of the hike around Les Houches. More than one confessed to be skipping the almost infamous descent into Courmayeur at the conclusion of the next section, using ski lifts to do so. And no small number were skipping whole sections by bus or train due to simple time constraints.
After dinner we retired to our tiny room (which had a fine view of the next day’s hike, up the Val Veni all the way to Courmayeur) to contemplate the next day. This would be the final day of the crucial first leg of the journey…I was still betting that if we could make Courmayeur and still be walking, we could do the whole circuit. But today had been the hardest and longest day yet. What would tomorrow bring? In particular, I was concerned about that last descent from the Col Checrouit, which I had heard described now by several eyewitnesses as being ‘brutal’, ‘awful’ and ‘just very bad.’
Bad by the standards of this terrain, ‘bad’ must be very bad indeed. But we were determined not to cheat. The prize of a a day of rest lay waiting for us. Did we have enough left in our knees and ankles for another ruinous downhill and claim it? Only one way to go to find out…Down. Or as the Italians say…Giu!
Next: The Hard Button