TMB Day Five…Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonati
*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.*
It was with only the greatest sadness that we departed Courmayeur, Italy. It remains our favorite town on the Tour, and Italy the section of trail that we both think back upon with the most fondness. If only we could have stayed there another day, another week, another year…well, we’d probably be broke and twenty pounds heavier, but it would be great anyways.
(We walked away with such a heavy heart, in fact, that we also walked away with the key to our hotel room at the Hotel Funivia. In his grief the M.E.P. once again found his judgement clouded almost to the same extent as the summit of Our Buddy, Monte Bianco. The hotel staff, reached by email that night, was very understanding about this. As penitence for his incompetence, the M.E.P. was forced to bear the burden of the absconded key like a cross until we arrived back in Les Houches at the end of the tour. Damned key!)
But we had much walking left to do, and not one mile of it easy. Today’s route was a long one that started with a big uphill out of Courmayeur, which matched if not surpassed the one into Courmayeur. We’d heard many hikers on the clockwise route talk about it, in the hushed whispers usually reserved for the recently departed.
We set out with our packs (mine slightly heavier due to the cursed key) to catch the bus into town. One thing to be aware of when doing the tour…don’t assume that you are the only person with the idea of taking a bus, train or other person to the trailhead while carrying a heavy pack. We witnessed this in action as we sat waiting for the shuttle bus.
Across the road, literally scores of day hikers with packs attempted to crowd onto this bus going the other direction, so many that half ended up being left behind.
We suspected that many ‘tour groups’ were in fact half-assed outfits taking advantage of whatever cheap public services were available rather than arrange such services themselves. This phenomenon would continue to rear its ugly head again in Paris.
Even more ominously, a swarm of tourists who seemed to be with the same organized group appeared suddenly at the shuttle stop on our side of the road, every one of them carrying at least one suitcase. The M.E.P. began to wonder if he’d miscalculated…the next bus was not for an hour. But luckily, when the bus pulled up it was mostly empty.
Day five begins as a hike right in the center of Courmayeur, then follows roads as it makes its way out through the surrounding suburbs before hitting dirt trails and starting the steep climb upwards.
On the way it passes an aqueduct with a pleasant set of waterfalls.
We soon began the ascent, for the most part in the trees with no views worth talking about. Though not especially difficult, it is a hot and dusty slog, made more unpleasant for us by the presence of a pack of day hikers who surrounded us for two thirds of the way. I am not sure who these people were, but they obviously weren’t true hikers, they had no conception of hiking etiquette at all…the whole bunch alternately refused to yield the trail to faster hikers, and then refused to give the slower hikers in front of them any space whatsoever.
They also were very obviously (and stubbornly) refusing the take wind breaks, pushing themselves onward and upwards in a futile and annoying race…and talking loudly the whole way. Well before the end of this section they had all exhausted themselves from all their sprinting and jaw flapping, and Sylvia and I finally left them all behind. No tears were shed parting company with that bunch.
The tree line ends abruptly as the trail reaches the ridge known as Mont de La Saxe and views of the Aosta valley open out…we found ourselves perched high above the town of Courmayeur, with the high walls of Mont Blanc rising to our left. At this scenic spot sits the Rifugio Bertone, which has one hell of a view from its open deck, which is without doubt one of the best decks of the trip (The Plan Praz further on has another.)
In fact, we will offer the opinion that, collectively, the Italian Rifugios were hands down the best of the tour. The Bonati, Elisabetta, Elena and the Bertone had unbeatable views, and the Maison Vielle in Col Checrouit had a very friendly staff and great food. We have nothing bad to say about any of them.
On the expansive deck of the Bertone we spent some time talking to a German hiker who had done the entire tour ten years ago and had now returned to do hit the highlights of it. No surprise, this section was one of them. Like many Germans he was quite talkative once you got him going, he rattled off a list of some of his favorite places to visit…which included Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and Oregon. He also told us that they had a record spring snowfall in the Alps that year, which explained why so much snow was still lying even at the end of July. And like too many people we met on the tour, once we parted ways we did not see him again.
Just above the Bertone is a broad, grassy area where many trails meet, and here we watched a flock of hundreds of sheep climb a nearby hillside…a rolling tide of fluffy white. Here as well dozens of day and section hikers were sprawled about, weary from the climb up from Courmayeur. This would be as far as they would go into the Alpine wonderlands. A shame, because the views here are…well, take a look.
There are several high and low options along this stretch, all of which are spectacular…and all afford views of the towering Grand Jorasses, a subordinate peak of the Mont Blanc Massif which is itself the eleventh highest point in the Alps. Elite mountaineers consider the high cliffs on the upper regions of the Grand Jorasses to be one of the six great north faces in the Alps…a list that includes the Matterhorn and THE North Face, the legendary Eiger. Of the six, the Grand Jorasses was the last one to be climbed in 1938.
Not only is this section of the TMB almost one continuous view, but from the Rifugios Bertoli to the Bonati it mostly flat walking…so one can simply stroll at leisure gawking at one astounding view after another, or pause for as long as one likes whenever a particularly appealing view presents itself. The favorable terrain also allowed for a lot of GoPro filming.
We saw almost no crowds at all past the Bertoli…the day hikers quit there and turned around.
I searched the opposite slopes for the cable car station of the Monte Bianco Skyway and was able to find the lower of the two stations, but was unable to locate Punta Helbronner, which must have been hidden by the contours of the mountain high above.
We also had our eyes open for chamois or ibex. We did not see any here, but there were plenty of marmots.
It didn’t take along, or at least didn’t seem to take very long, before signs appeared that we were close to the day’s end destination…the Refugio Bonati, perhaps the most remote of the refuges on our Itinerary (remote as in, if you don’t stay here, it takes some serious walking to reach the next place with a roof under which one can sleep.) Compared to the earlier stages of this trip day five was of only modest difficulty. Both of us agreed that the first three days were brutal, with day two or three being hardest. Day four marked the first in the series that was less difficult than the previous, and day five would continue this trend.
But none of it was by any means easy…there is no truly easy mile on the TMB. Regardless, some of the eight or so miles we covered on day five were as close as any to being the exception to this rule.
Still, we had come to expect a nasty surprise or two at the end of the day. This seemed to be all too easy…easy buttons being hard to come by here, something just HAD to lie in wait for us. The TMB excels at throwing something unexpected at the hiker, usually late in the day when one is tired.
Sure enough, when we arrived at the Bonati, we found the Rifugio perched at the top of a considerable slope, much as the Elisabetta had been. But this slope is even more imposing, and the ‘Crankle’ I had developed at the end of day four had by now become quite cranky and threatened to quit on me entirely. I was forced to limp to the top of the slope, stretching my left foot every ten steps.
Cranke aside, the Rifugio Walter Bonati turned out to be wonderful place, one of the highlights of the trip. Brian rates the experience at this Rifugio, named in honor of the pioneering Italian mountaineer Walter Bonati, as the best overall of any stop on the Tour.
Once inside the door, the first thing we noted was the Rifugio is quite spacious. Built recently (1998) this is one of the most modern we stayed at, and certainly the most well designed, yet still maintains a very rustic feel. The rooms are large, the main dorm the most spacious of any we saw, and even the bunk beds well-made and roomy.
Our room, which was a ‘small’ dorm for seven, had plenty of storage room and even a window that overlooked the Grand Jorasses. The bathrooms here were also markedly better than those of the Truc, Elisabetta or the Bonhomme.
One of the things we ended up being most glad for was that, thanks to an early arrival, we had our pick of virtually everything. We were stunned by the sight of an entire electrical strip without ONE single phone plugged into it. Our excitement was such that it amused the caretakers. Jackpot! Electricity! By Jove, we were rich!!!
Beating the crowds also allowed Brian to go downstairs to the basement and take a shower. He reports that SOME hot water did in fact appear amidst the freezing torrent. Others at the refuge reported a better experience…perhaps the M.E.P. timed it wrong yet again.
After showering we went outside for a glass of beer/wine. And some crackers. And chocolate. The temptation to eat drink oneself into a stupor at the end of the hard days hiking is strong and difficult to resist.
Sylvia managed to find a hewn log planter which she declared to be ‘charming and rustic’ and began to scheme how we could get one of these home with us in the luggage until I dissuaded her by pointing out we’d have to carry it in our packs for the duration of the trip.
Leaning against our log we sipped beer and wine and watched hikers come up the hill. Across from us was the eye-popping wonderland that was the Mont Blanc Massif, glaciers lined up in file for review, and the multi-pronged crown of the Grand Jorasses overhead. Further to the right we could see some way down the Val Ferret where, tomorrow, we would cross into Switzerland.
At dinner – judged to be one of the best on the trip – we made more friends. A couple from Ireland, another from England, two well-travelled girls from Australia, and an American couple from Ohio rounded out our table. We spent some time talking to the Aussie girls about their adventures trekking in Nepal and Northern India, while we relayed our experiences in Peru. Sylvia however remained unconvinced that the Himalayas are for her, having heard poor things about the bathrooms there, which the Aussie duo did little to refute.
All in all, a good day. We slept well that night, Sylvia in the top bunk and me below. Tomorrow we had the last hard climb before a couple of easier days presented themselves, and then another rest day after. This, sadly, would be our last night in Italy. Tomorrow, we would sleep in a country whose very name is synonymous with the Alps…Switzerland.
NEXT: No Easy Mile