Tour du Mont Blanc: Our Buddy, Monte Bianco!

TMB Rest Day One: Courmayeur

After four days of hiking we were more than ready for a rest. So what better thing to do on our rest day then head up to 11,000 feet for a close look at Our Buddy, Mont Blanc? Our Monte Bianco, as it is called on the Italian side.

Fortunately, today we DID finally have an easy button option, which meant not having to walk a single step of the way. Our hotel had placed us in an inconvenient location the night before. But now it proved very convenient indeed…just a short work from the front door was the Skyway Monte Bianco…reputed to be the most expensive cable car system in the world. We intended to find out what all the fuss was about.

015a5c276c388065ef87dae6f49e4bbb2611c4f6fe

The Skyway transports guests first to the Pavillon Du Mont-Frety at 2,173 meters, where the passengers change cars for the second (and more spectacular) leg of the trip to Punta Hellbronner, at 3,466 meters (11,358 ft.) The gondolas of both sections rotate slowly giving passengers, of whom there might be 80 in a car at a time, a continually shifting view.

01d2372a90d22f594cdd9914ef4a3e2672cbeb27e3

0150df1998659a5f5dba297820ce401d6546264755
Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley below. In the distance are the snow capped Grand Combin and Monte Rosa.

 

Here at Punta (Point) Helbronner is a restaurant and fully exposed observation deck that gives unparalleled views…when the mountain’s escort of clouds allows it. The rest of the time it is a meteorologists dreamland, offering unparalleled views of clouds.

01582706967de4e58316be81bafde8b221ea7e4821
Panormaic of the observation deck at Punta Helbronner

We expected it to be brutally cold at Punta Helbronner, but it was just mildly chilly, with very little wind. The summit stayed hidden but many views of the glaciers and adjunct peaks, including some right over the mountain into France, did present themselves.

IMG_4903
Looking toward Chamonix. Note the walkers on the snowfield below.

A kind woman took this picture of us and after Sylvia returned the favor, complimented her for speaking ‘very good Italian.’

01edad5bb2cb22aa887a9ca9bf131a96411288be82

After taking in the sights for a while, or what the clouds allowed us to see of them, we went back inside the snack bar. It’s not cheap but this place had REALLY good food, just unnaturally good for a snack bar. The sandwiches looked ridiculous, but I opted for lasagna.

01b1ed689c0cf9e1ba25e3e88d38fb7c3c9e2d7821
Sky-zania. Really quite good.

After eating it was back outside for another look, and the weather had indeed cleared. We chatted for a while with a couple who were staying at our hotel – the man had completed the entire Appalachian Trail some years back so he and I talked of familiar trails in the White Mountains. They told us they had gone down to the Rifugio Torino, which is some distance below the cable car station and connected to it by an elevator and tunnel. We could see it below us; they had also stated that from there, it had been an easy thing to walk right out on the ice field and had in fact done so. The man assured us the signs stating ‘Do Not Go Past This Point!’ could be safely ignored. We filed this away for later.

01a5a659322a40c952bd70f738c9f6339fa92748d1

Brian was hoping to catch a glimpse of the Matterhorn since it is apparently visible from Punta Helbronner on a clear day…but today was not one of those, and no amount of  searching revealed any sign of that unmistakable Swiss peak. Alas, on a trip full of splendors, Brian was not fated to see that one. He’d have to be content with all the rest.

01edd7ece779e0254da5828a2c0219af77d33c2adc

01f0445ac8865249c5922ca2488691556d2b86ba48
Old man yells at cloud, which do sometimes hinder the views at Punta Helbronner.

Below us on the icefield we could see many walkers fully equipped for glacial traverse (ropes, helmet, ice axe and crampons, and of course the training to use them all) walking about. We also saw a team of about fifteen climbers gathered near a large crevasse, no doubt practicing for crossing or perhaps even rescue from these icebound danger zones.

IMG_4909
Note the cornice of snow at the top right of the photo…VERY dangerous.
IMG_4916
You don’t want to fall into that.

As we watched, a helicopter (there are no shortage of helicopters in the Alps) came up from the valley and landed right on the ice in front of us. At first we thought this might be a SAR rescue, but it quickly became apparent that it was actually just an airborne taxi, transporting climbers and equipment to the glacier. To watch the helicopter drop back down to Courmayeur, quickly becoming a speck lost amidst the high ravines, put the tremendous scale of the Mont Blanc massif into perspective.

Having watched people walk on the ice for a while we decided to do a bit of ice walking ourselves and took the lift and tunnel option down to the Rifugio Torino. We had it on good authority that the hot chocolate served here is quite good, but we did not sample it ourselves.

011d8f4f4da384145c23b36d36b04371986da8f921
The Rifugio Torino, photographed from the Skyway.
017e3fe66d887e747b06fee8c64d69c5c623d0545a
The approach to the Rifuge is via an enclosed tunnel through rock.

We were more interested in what lay beyond the refuge. Just outside the door is a short fence, where the warning signs the couple had spoken of were posted. Well, those two had survived — so could we.

01893e0f1ffff49d880ae0b389356ca9d81ce0a469
Outside the Torino…What warning signs???

We stepped over this fence and went a SHORT distance out on the snow field. What an experience this was, being right on the edge of Mont Blanc’s snowy shoulders! Though the summit was hidden by clouds, we could at last touch the frosty crown worn by Our Buddy, Monte Bianco.

010e2a84fdd43d184ec8b1c5ea5307a4655511d647

018054e7fdabd137a6ebe79772fe60234485680b8d

019592ce5d89ee6a87794e1f50cd1307b044e01da1

01c227b91e4996d88d280d5f18fa8c97027102e50a

IMG_4919

Sylvia took the time to pose right in front of a befuddled group of mountaineers, fully equipped, returning form an expedition. The crew politely paused while she occupied the trail taking selfies. Her husband, meanwhile, made a snowballs and flung them at her.

IMG_4917
Note the mountaineer behind Sylvia pausing to check his harness so as not to photo bomb Sylvia. Such polite climbers!

IMG_4913

IMG_4912

 

***DISCLAIMER: It is DANGEROUS to walk on glaciers, snowfields or permanent ice fields in the mountains. In fact, walking out onto a glacier without proper equipment or training is one of the stupidest things a person can do, akin to sailing into deep water without safety equipment or boating experience. Note that Sylvia and I only walked a VERY SHORT DISTANCE out onto the parts of the snowfield that were not very steep, and in no way endangered ourselves. If you choose to do so yourself, please give careful consideration to the risks, and remember that only a trained and equipped person should try snow crossings at high altitude. END DISCLAIMER***

IMG_4918

IMG_4915

 

After seeing the snow firsthand there was little to do but return by scenic gondola to where we had departed from, the still quaint (but developing quickly) little town of Etreves. Note that these Gondola cars can get VERY crowded.

Back down in the valley, Sylvia saw more ‘good doors’, more ‘charming wood with character’ and more ‘casitas’ of interest. What especially interested Brian was the slate roofed houses of Entreves, which he had never seen the like of before.

01ea1b198e9a7d127b32c22a4f502e9b1b677349f2

01797ef39ee4cd5e7c19db8ca75e8b9895bae2421a

016a1efdd907e4cc64bdcffc7c283fef38d7a3f512

015667b010e20f7de1b0a668deb63a05cdd6914625
The La Palud Ristorante, where we ate dinner the night before.

Then it was onto the town of Courmayeur, which is practically off the scale for chaaaaaam.

012ef91abc9b4fd4f84572e32d9efdc7d7ea117aa6

 

0119456919f51d8d0e8abfff5234cd31548e76a40c

0105de99494cda1a2e42b6e90a20ea5187251c1970

01e1db491e1ac0e7aae5076581bc57a017bd9f8bb3

We had less time to spend here than we would have liked, as much of the time was spent searching for a camera charger we never found…and even after shortening our stay, misjudged the bus schedule and had to pay a fairly ridiculous amount for a cab ride back to La Palud (the alternative was to walk for an hour along the roadside, which would have defeated the point of our rest day.)

While we liked the Hotel Funivia a lot, and found it a good value for the money paid, The M.E.P. continues to be of two minds about where we booked the hotel…it helped in some ways, hindered in others. But of the city, neither of us can complain. We both found Courmayeur and the days spent in Italy to be among the highlights – maybe THE highlight – of the entire trip.

0101033b25a2310f852c01c3e3e46c7b94936a74a6

We returned to the Etreves/La Palud area for another great Italian meal before turning in for the evening. As soon as we reached our hotel, the heavens opened and the promise of thunder we had heard earlier was delivered.

The rest had revided our spirits and done our bodies much good. Tomorrow, we would have to get up, deal with what still hurt, and hike again. We were sad to be leaving Courmayeur, where we really could have stayed for another day or two; but happy that tomorrow night we’d again be staying in Italy. The morning’s climb would be hard, but the scenery was reputed to be awesome. We still had far more to see of Our Buddy.

01edd7ece779e0254da5828a2c0219af77d33c2adc

Next: Bertoli, Bonati, Bene!

One thought on “Tour du Mont Blanc: Our Buddy, Monte Bianco!

  1. Pingback: Charm-on-ee…The Cradle of Alpine Mountaineering – BecauseItzThere

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s