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.
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.
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.
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.
A kind woman took this picture of us and after Sylvia returned the favor, complimented her for speaking ‘very good Italian.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
***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***
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.
Then it was onto the town of Courmayeur, which is practically off the scale for chaaaaaam.
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.
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.
Next: Bertoli, Bonati, Bene!