I was shocked when I woke up to see that it was actually sunny outside. It was still freezing cold this early in the morning but I packed up my tent and wolfed down my breakfast (I’ve bought an industrial-sized sack of croissants to last me the whole week) so I could get as much walking as possible done while it was sunny.
I immediately began a long climb, soon rising up past the snow line again and crossing several large and often steep drifts. Yesterday someone had told me at the refuge there is a minor avalanche risk here, and walking along this huge snow shelf precipitously perched on the edge of the mountainside was a bit nerve-wracking.
I was passed by a trail runner who quickly disappeared into the distance. He would be the only person I saw all the way until the town of Courmayeur later that day. The path should have been a fairly easy undulating ridge but with all the snow to navigate through it was hard work. Fantastic views to the Miage glacier and the whole southern face of the Mont Blanc range. At times it was almost like being in the Himalayas.
I soon reached another creepy abandoned ski area at Col Chécrouit where the last rays of sun disappeared and the familiar heavy rain returned. I headed steeply downhill through endless steep and slippery switchbacks in the forest until I emerged into the charming village of Dolonne from which it was only a short walk to Courmayeur.
Courmayeur is the largest town on the trail and I had thought about stopping for lunch here. It would have been a crime to pass through Italy without getting a pizza. Strolling into town I had estimated it it must be about 12.30, but not having a watch I wasn’t sure. However, on entering the first pizzeria I found, I was told they weren’t serving food yet as it was only 10.45. I had made a lot faster progress than I thought. None of the restaurants opened until at least midday and I couldn’t be bothered to hang around here that long as it was raining and cold.
Not wasting any time, I quickly resupplied and decided to find a café in which to warm myself up before I headed on. Unfortunately I was told to sit outside because I was dripping wet and filthy. I bought a quick cup of tea and continued chomping my way through my increasingly dishevelled croissant sack. Sitting on the veranda of an Italian café with tea and croissants sounds like quite a decadent morning but if you had seen the state I was in – bedraggled and filthy, hunched over a sack of mangled croissants – you would have realised it was anything but.
I climbed out of Courmayeur following a track for a couple of miles before turning off onto a footpath rising steeply through the forest. For a short while the sun looked ready to come out again but of course it was too good to be true and by the time I reached the top of the climb it had started raining again.
The rain got worse and worse and around 2pm the storm hit. It was supposed to be just over two hours to the refuge where I had conclusively decided I was going to stay tonight, despite having no idea whether it was open or not. I just went as quickly as I could.
The trail was fairly easy but it became increasingly muddy and slippery as the rain continued to fall. It was a miserable couple of hours but I was spurred on by the knowledge that there might be food and shelter at the end of it.
A couple of miles before the refuge I reached a fast-flowing stream where there should have been a footbridge to the other side. As luck would have it, it had been washed away. Two other hikers from Israel were standing there – the first hikers I’d seen all day – looking up and down for a place to cross. They’d been there for 15 minutes trying to find a way to get to the other side without getting wet. I pointed out to them that they were already as wet as they could possibly be so they might as well get in the water.
We found a crossing point that was wide but not very deep so one by one we waded across without too much difficulty but getting freezing cold and somehow even more wet in the process.
We walked the rest of the way to the refuge together. They had phoned ahead from Courmayeur to book and luckily it was open. Apparently the guardian had told them not to come as it was too dangerous (because of the bridge) but they had ignored the warning. It wasn’t actually as bad as it looked and although an uncomfortable crossing it was fairly easy.
Finally the refuge appeared and we raced eagerly up the steep, muddy slope, each one of us falling flat on our faces at various points. The refuge was basic but the very fact that we had a hot shower, food and a comfortable bed made it seem like a five-star hotel. Not camping tonight was one of my better decisions of this trip.
The refuge, at over 2000 metres of elevation, is not accessible by road, and the nearest village is La Vachey, a two hour walk away at the bottom of the valley. The guardian, who is quite an elderly woman, regularly hikes back and forth from the village. Even in winter she cross-country skis through the heavy snow. Supplies are sporadically brought in by helicopter. I was quite impressed with the whole set-up.
The Israelis – Moshe and Erez – are on a month-long tour of Europe and are taking their time with the Tour du Mont Blanc, aiming to complete it in about twice the length of time I am. However, we’re all aiming for the same destination tomorrow – La Fouly, in Switzerland – so we’re going to hike together.
Apparently the weather will be much better – nothing but sun – but so far everything I’ve been told about the weather has turned out to be false so I’m not getting too excited. We’ll cross over into Switzerland tomorrow. We were told there is a lot of snow up on the pass so it’s looking like it’ll be a challenging day.