TMB Day 4: Rifugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur
*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.*
After a very satisfying breakfast we said goodbye to the friends we had made in the Elisabetta. Stuart from Holland and the young lady from California were headed clockwise, and most likely out of our story; others were headed the same way, but whether or not we would see them again remained unclear. Some were bound the same way we were; but a planned day off waited for us in the Italian town of Courmayeur. While we rested, many of the by now familiar faces would keep moving.
Whatever misgivings we may have felt about parting ways with our new friends, we had no misgivings about the scene that greeted us outside of the Rifuge. Blue skies devoid of clouds and a wondrous soft light that caused the glaciers on the surrounding peaks shine with that strange unaccountable warmth. The word for this phenomenon, fittingly, is Alpenglow.
Below the Rifuge stretches the broad lower half of the Vallon de la Lee Blanche, which beyond the Lac Combal, becomes the much larger Val Veni. This is a stupendous place in good weather, and we were fortunate enough to have it. Steep walls of ancient granite loomed up on either side of us; but the left commanded attention, for these were the jagged knuckled walls of the Mont Blanc Massif, over which peered the towering summit itself, looking closer here than it does in Chamonix.
“Our Buddy,” as Mont Blanc was now being referred to by Sylvia. In 2014 we had visited the Pacific Northwest, where Brian had insisted on a visit to Mount Rainier the way a child in a toy store insists that he MUST have a skateboard. We did in fact get a room in the Paradise lodge with a view of the celebrated peak. “There’s your Buddy,” Sylvia would say, looking up at the mountain during one of the rare times when it appeared from behind clouds. Suffice it to say she less was less impressed by the icon of the Pacific Northwest than with our new buddy, the Monarch of the Alps. “Mont Blanc is much more dramatic,” she said. Well, Brian for his part likes both mountains, but there is no doubt that Our Buddy, Mont Blanc, simply rocks.
Glacier after glacier revealed itself in the huge gaps between the stone ribs of high ridges. First the impressive duo of the Glacier de Estellete and the Glacier Lee Blance, both of which overhang the Elisabetta…and then the massive Miage Glacier, one of the largest in the Alps, which extends nearly all the way to the bottom of the valley amidst a gargantuan pile of shattered rock and debris.
One of the most unmistakable terrain features along this part of the hike, visible throughout the day, is the towering black needle of the Aguille Noire…literally translated from French as “Black Needle.” Let’s see if you can find it in this photograph. (Hint: It’s the big black needle.)
The trail goes easily at first along a road built by Italian Army engineers. (The Elisabetta sits just above an abandoned army barracks.) After winding across shallow Lac Combal, it reaches another Rifugio (the Cabane du Combal) where there is parking area and a confluence with a more improved road coming up from the Courmayeur area. Here we encountered a large herd of wandering tourists who were just exiting a bunch of buses. We quickly turned uphill and left them behind, following today’s suggested scenic route (which doesn’t really count as a high variant because it is in fact the main route…the low variant just follows the road downwards.)
This route delivered the optical goods as advertised. View after stunning view slid past, one fantastic glaciered ravine followed by another. The roar of distant waterfalls, some many times higher than Niagra Falls, was continual. The Val Veni opened wide ahead, while over all like a king stood the fantastic Monarch of the Alps…aka Our Buddy, Mont Blanc.
We passed a group of at least a dozen Korean tourists all hiking together as a single file unit Seven-Dwarves style. And after this came…more great views…and more great views…and then, finally, the best great viewpoint of all located on a high saddle across the valley from the Mont Blanc massif.
Some of the pictures of us were taken by a woman trail friend who was from China but living at the time in Germany – I won’t even try reproduce her name here (I could only fail) but she was a very intrepid hiker doing the trail solo. We would hope to hear from her again, as we have no idea if she completed her hike or not. But we’re betting she did.
After this greatest of great view points the trail begins to slant down crowds appear, foretelling of the cable cars ahead that run out of Courmayeur depositing human cargo on the mountainside. Soon the trail enters the trees and begins to cross the less scenic ski slopes. A few happy dogs busily chased scores of piping marmots here, who scurried into their holes only to re-appear quickly and pipe some more in whack-a-mole fashion.
An interesting encounter here: a woman escorting a man of not less than eighty years. The woman turned to us as we passed, and asked a question in Italian, which I understood to be, roughly, “How much further to the little lake ahead?” (we had passed it maybe five minutes earlier.) She spoke no English, and so I did my best impersonation of an idiot or gorilla walking a short distance uphill, but this pantomime did not translate into visual Italian.
Here was Sylvia’s first opportunity to communicate with a true Italian (the hut crew had all spoken good English.) The attempt was only partly successful, with Sylvia struggling to find the correct words for feet, miles, minutes etc. But happily, a group of Italian high school age girls who happened to be descending came to the woman’s rescue and all was saved. She continued uphill with the active but elderly grandpa, we continued down. We can only assume they made it to the small lake intact.
Soon we arrived at the place all the touristy people were spilling from…the junction that is the Col de Checrouit, where dangling lines of chair lifts converge from multiple points of the compass. We sat down for a long rest here, well aware what awaited us just down the trail. After the col, the trail enters the trees and begins that blood curdling plunge which hiker after hiker had been warning us about…the descent into Courmayeur. Here it was, at last…what my knees had been dreading. Cam Honan of The Hiking Life, one of the most accomplished walkers on the planet, calls this his least favorite section of the TMB, though I suspect it has as much to do with an overabundance of ski-related landscape clutter than with any difficulty it presented him.
At any rate, it was worth a rest here before beginning what promised to be a hard slog down. We stopped for a good long lunch and drinks at the busy Rifuge Maison Vielle, served to us by a pleasant, singing gypsy woman. After lunch we took off our shoes, piled on sun screen and lingered a good hour, sitting on lawn chairs in the grass, while children and dogs ran circles around us. I had my eye on some thunderstorms building across the valley, but mostly my interest was on the ski lift. One by one I saw hikers walk up to it, stand for a moment, give it a hard look, then either move on up and take a seat for the easy button option, or move on along to press the hard one. We saw our Chinese friend opt for the chairs; she had already told us she was taking the lift down to find a recommended pizza place.
But… We still had something in the tank, the day had not been so hard…and once we reached the bottom we were done hiking for a blessed 36 hours! Soft bed, hot shower, Italian food and wine…what else could you ask for? All we had to do is walk downhill, right?
And so finally we stood to do just that and…uh oh. There was something…not quite right about my ankle. I hadn’t felt anything amiss while hiking but now that I had stopped it had tightened unaccountably and my foot seemed almost ‘stuck’ in the raised position. I straightened it with some effort and stretched it out but…it tightened again after a few minutes. Not good. Boy, that ski lift was looking better every moment.
But Sylvia would have none of it…she was determined to keep me honest about walking the whole way, plus the fact that those wimpy looking chairs swinging in the breeze did nothing to encourage her. “I don’t like that,” she stated.
Our catch phrase for this trip would be: There’s No Easy Button. But there was always a hard one. And so, the self-service way we went. Gui, as the Italians say…down. Press the hard button, we did.
It proved to be actually not that bad. A hard and tiring descent it was, to be sure; but if a hiker is prepared, takes it slowly and does not rush, there are only a few very difficult sections. The main issue is a fine, powdery dust that covers much of the badly eroded surface, making traction poor.
But I had seen worse trail back home in the White Mountains. We took it one step at a time …sometime, unnervingly, with Gondola cars from the main cable car route passing right overhead. I didn’t much care for that, things can sometimes drop from the cars onto the heads of people below, but I had to shut that out and just stay focused on the trail. Risk of mechanical injury from a fall was the greatest threat here, far above that of any earthbound objects.
We did get one plus on this downhill…at a bend in the trail an opening in the trees treated us to a birds-eye view of Courmayeur, still a good way below. And boy this view across the sea of rooftops was an eye opener. I had been under the impression that Courmayeur was an Italian village. Small Italian city was more like it…and quite urban, with plenty of busy streets swarming with buses, cars, trucks and people…construction cranes seemingly on every third roof…it was the second largest city of the tour after Chamonix, and not that far behind.
And then, it was over…, we had reached the bottom and boy were we happy! We emerged into a city park pleased as punch with ourselves…WE HAD DONE IT! The first four critical days were over! The opening section of the TMB was behind us, and we had proven to ourselves that we had what it took to finish the entire trip. Any doubts we harbored vanished over the horizon like the clouds of yesterday.
What a great feeling it was! We had endured the toughest four days of hiking either of us had ever experienced, entitling us to a well-earned rest and maybe dinner. A pizza, perhaps. Some Gelato. A bottle of Italian wine. All we had to do now is find the hotel, and check in. Which had to be around somewhere.
And here was where the Tour Du Mont Blanc threw us yet another of its ugly end of day surprises. Brian and Sylvia…You should know by now, there is No Easy Button.
To start, we were not yet even in Courmayeur. Rather, we were in the neighboring suburb of Dolonne. Thinking that we were in Courmayeur, we trudged through this charming little enclave toward the cable car station, assuming the hotel would be beside it. It was named the Hotel Funivia…’funivia’ in Italiano being cable car. But this was not so…there are MANY funivias in the greater Courmayeur area. This was but one, and not the right one.
Not only were we not in Courmayeur, but as it turned out, neither was the hotel. When we finally pulled out the phone and pulled up the map, we discovered that we were in fact on the opposite side of the valley from our intended place of stay…it was at least a 40-minute walk from where we stood. ☹
Without our knowing, the Hard Button had been pressed, again.
At this point, Brian and Sylvia had one of those polite, intelligent and well-measured discussions that married people have when they are sore, tired and cranky, resulting in Sylvia trudging down toward what she believed to be the center of town and the bus station, and Brian stomping after, limping on a gimpy ankle like a rodeo clown in floppy shoes, shouting, “There’s nothing down that way!”
Ah, but the M.E.P. was not quite right. There WAS a noisy, dusty construction site down that way, which we ended up in the middle of. Just as an exasperated Brian was about to throw up his hands and utter some choice Anglo-Irish words of wisdom, a man came hurrying over to Sylvia speaking in Italian. Instantly Sylvia’s Tarzan Italian was deployed…the man was offering to help, and quickly explained to us where we’d have to walk to catch the bus. We thanked this very polite man and walked off in the direction of the bus terminal.
Here, we found idling buses, a lot of people waiting about, but no one who could answer where we needed to go or what bus we needed to take to get there. Finally, we figured out that the bus we needed to be on was leaving shortly, bound for the little town of La Palud, were one of two buildings named ‘Hotel Funivia’ was located — this one being the one we THOUGHT was our hotel. It was so far out of town that it was off the edge of the tourist map.
We rode the bus, packs seated beside us, to La Palud and exited where we thought the hotel was…Brian stumbling as he exited the bus and nearly being thrown into the lap of an old Italian lady sitting across the aisle. Still the Easy Button eluded us. Then we stomped some more, uphill of course, both of us debating which side of the street to walk on to avoid being run over by passing Fiats, Peugeots and Citroens. We crossed over the freeway to Milan, the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel yawning below, and Our Buddy looking down on us from above, perhaps shaking his mighty, snow-covered crown in disapproval. Surely the monarch of the alps would not have booked a hotel THIS far out of town.
Well, the Minister of Expedition Planning (M.E.P) had miscalculated yet again. But when we finally arrived, footsore and weary, we both found the Hotel Funivia to be really quite nice. This was the largest (and not by any means most expensive) room we had on the whole trip and the staff – particularly the woman at the front desk – was exceptionally helpful and attentive. The breakfast served the next morning was quite memorable, with great meat and cheese.
There were other advantages and other drawbacks to having booked a room this far out of town. But for now, all we cared about was…we didn’t have to hike the next day! We could relax, take a shower, get some laundry done, enjoy a good dinner at a real Italian restaurant (We had our choice and decided, upon recommendation of the hotel, to visit the Ristorante Pizzeria La Palud. Strongly recommended.)
(Postscript: The M.E.P. admits that upon further examination, we could have in fact used an alternate route down from the Col de Chercout that would have taken us directly into the town of Entreves, just a few blocks south and East of La Palud and our hotel. This is described by Kev Reynolds in his Guidebook as the “Rifugio Monte Bianco Variant” of stage 4. The route passes by a church named the Notre Dame de la Guerison…this church was clearly visible right from our hotel window, see the picture above.
This route may not be any easier than the main approach and is certainly longer; but it would have saved us the bus ride and at least an hour of stomping about Courmayeur in confusion. All this might have been on our radar in the planning stages but was forgotten later. The M.E.P. also might have been misled by a sign on the trail which said “Funivia” with a big arrow pointing the way we were going…forgetting that it likely referred to the cable car station, not the hotel. At any rate, The M.E.P. offers the following statement in defense: “Oops!”)
Tomorrow, after a deserved rest, we would do some exploring the next day in Courmayeur. But before we did that…we had our sites set on something a bit higher.
Outside the window it loomed. Our Buddy!
Next: Our Buddy Monte Bianco!