Tuesday, November 27, 2018

TMB Day 5: Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti

Day Five
July 21, 2018

Starting point: Courmayeur, Italy
Ending point: Rifugio Bonatti
Distance: 7.9 miles
Height gain: 3691 feet
High point: Tete de la Tronche (8478 feet)
Lunch: Rifugio Bertone
Accommodation: Rifugio Bonatti

Our rest day in Courmayeur was over, and it was time to hit the trail again.  For that whole day, we did not use the stairs even once - nope, not one downward or upward step was taken in excess.  With pomp and circumstance, we rode the elevator down (at first the door wouldn’t close because apparently our packs were so large that they obstructed the sensor) to start this fourth leg of our trek.  It’s always a little bit hard to get started for the day, whether we’re coming out of a mountain refuge or an actual city, but today it was much harder because we had just had the most indulgent and relaxing time in Italy. On top of that, it looked like it actually was going to rain, so we stuck our umbrellas and rain jackets on the outer pockets of our packs.

The croissants from this hotel breakfast were stellar.  Funny because we're in Italy, not France.  Breakfast at the hotels were always so much better than the ones at the refuges, no doubt. We had these awesome croissants (both plain and chocolate!), cured meats, cheese, yogurt, muesli, and a large dose of old Italian people on vacation. The coffee came in a small tin pitcher and it was pretty much straight pulled espresso.  Wake-up call!

Here's an elevator selfie in the elevator that we could barely fit us and our backpacks into!

And as if all of that bread from breakfast wasn't enough... we had to pop into this bakery on our way to the start of the trail.

Maybe we were trying to savor as much of civilization as we could and delay our start just a little bit more.  It was a worthwhile stop, though.  Unlike the prim and polished French patisseries, this Italian bakery was much like the other ones in Courmayeur.  It was teeming with piles and stacks of wonderful rustic-looking cookies, breads, and focaccia. The ladies working there were really nice, almost motherly.

The words “Pane Nero” on the sign at their door were what initially drew us in--that was one of the Aosta Valley specialty foods that we didn't get to try yet. Since we would probably never be in the Aosta Valley ever again, we bought a loaf of it, even if it would mean added weight to the packs. It was funny though because at first, the lady helping us took out a huge, 12-inch loaf from the shelf when I requested “pane nero,” and she must have seen the aghast looks on our faces before she quickly offered a smaller, 5-inch loaf. Wes and I simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief as we paid for it. We also bought four thin, burnt-edged hazelnutty cookies (tegole) for 1 euro, which was yet another Aosta Valley specialty that we’d be unlikely to ever find again.  I like to think of these as the 'Nilla Wafers of Courmayeur.

Finally it was almost 11:00 by the time we hit the TMB road. We walked on narrow streets up to the luxurious neighborhood of Ermitage, which we dubbed “The Hills” of Courmayeur, with Maserati’s and Porsche’s zooming by. Wes was so entranced by seeing all of these luxury cars in their “natural environment,” haha. The road got narrower and narrower when finally we turned off the actual road and into a dirt hiking trail through trees that reminded us very much of Chantry Flats at home.  From here until the top, the incline was relentless.

Do we look tired? Yes, we do.

After 30-45 minutes of hardcore climbing, we were breathless and sweaty when we stopped to look through our binoculars back down into the city and at the mountains all around us.  It looked like a cluster of little lego buildings - we were in disbelief what our bodies had just been through in such a relatively short period of time.  The trails here are merciless - no switchbacks.  We took this opportune moment to break out the pane nero and took some epic photos of our magical little loaf over its city of origin.

Now, this small loaf of bread was worth the extra trouble. It was really grainy and wholesome-tasting, with the perfectly crackly crust and a soft interior, dusted with flour on the bottom. It's something I wish I could buy again and just eat plain like a peasant girl in the fields, ha!  It didn't even need that packet of hazelnut spread that Wes snuck out of our hotel for me last-minute.  We happily gobbled down half the loaf and then went back on the trail.

We soon arrived at the Rifugio Bertone, where we were going to simply use the toilet but then decided to sit down and have some food.  I know, we’ve basically been eating all day right?  It's been the theme of Italy, pretty much.  We saw that they had pasta with mushrooms, and we had seen dried porcini mushrooms in all of the shops back in Courmayeur so we knew that this must not be something to pass up!

We talked about the ominous weather with one of the servers, who spoke English well.  She didn't seem too concerned, but admittedly I was a little worried that sitting down to eat would delay us too much and get us caught in the oncoming storm.  Wes checked the forecast and apparently storm had been pushed back by a few hours (no surprise), so we went ahead and ordered a porcini mushroom tagliatelle and a salad topped with a generous amount of mocetta - Aosta region thinly sliced cured beef.  The food was amazing (Italy, man) and the view was gorgeous, but we had to hurry at this point!

We opted out of the higher route for today due to the weather, but the next leg of this hike was just so beautiful, despite being lower down.  This path was quite a treat.  Gradual, vast, and simply breathtaking with a full-frontal view of a series of glaciers, snowfields, and rock walls known as the Val Ferret flank of Mont de la Saxe.  It was both majestic and scary with those gray rain clouds hanging overhead. You’d normally be able to see Mont Blanc from here and the spiky tips of these Grandes Jorasses, but the clouds shrouded every peak. No matter, though. We appreciated it all the same. We had to stop every few minutes to take it all in...and there's obviously tons of photos!

The trail meanders through meadows bursting with alpine wildflowers such as juniper, bilberry, and larchwoods.

What cool blue metallic bugs! Okay, clearly we were making verrrryy slow progress but today was meant to be a nice, laidback first day back on the trail, anyway.

There were also more cows from the pastures down below.  The cheerful jangle of cowbells is always a welcome sound.

Here, we looked over our shoulders at this view all the way back to the Col de la Seigne on the Italy-France border.

We continued to go up and down these rolling green hills, feasting our eyes on the sheer beauty of the Alps.  Despite this being the main route, we only saw a few other people.  Some were families from around here who appeared to be doing only a day-hike with their kids.  It was nice that it felt so private, despite being so vast.  Most of the trekkers like us were probably far, far ahead...long gone this late in the day!  Everyone whom we met was so nice, we made sure to say, "Ciao!" instead of "Bonjour!"

Then we started to wind uphill and then just as we were going to cross a waterfall, raindrops began to fall. We still had another 45 minutes to get to Rifugio Bonatti, so we threw on the rain gear just in case it would worsen. Luckily it never got any worse and so we got by with just a few droplets here and there! It was a scary thought, though.

The most annoying part of today was hiking up to Rifugio Bonatti. Why must they always stick a refuge at the very very top of a steep hill???  The sign said 0.1 miles or something super insignificant, but it felt much longer!  Well, of course it wasn’t anywhere near as steep and long as anything else we'd done, but it’s just that much more excruciating when you can see and almost taste the ending. Anyway, we finally got up to its cobblestone footpath and saw some people who we had met at a gelato shop in Courmayeur during our rest day.  They looked super well-rested and comfortable, as if they had been there relaxing for hours.  Probably true.  It was supposed to take only 4.5 hours to get from Courmayeur to here, but it took us a good 6.5 hours because we were savoring it so much!  We would rather spend extra time out on the trail than sitting at a refuge, anyway.

Upon checking in, the Rifugio staff said that they accidentally gave away our private room to somebody who checked in under my name, so we freaked out a little, but then it turned out to be an error and our room was waiting for us. Thank goodness, because we were really looking forward to not having to sleep with a ton of other people!  We were so happy with our private room! It had an amazing view of a glacier, totally awesome and unreal.  Best view award goes to this refuge.  We didn’t have to share hooks or plugs with anyone and we vegged out in peace after dinner. We still had to share bathrooms, but the showers were not being used when we arrived (since it was so much later than the rest of the guests), so we hopped right in. Then after showering, dinner was ready and we shared a long table with the same two Californian trekkers that we had met on Day One, and another Asian American couple from San Francisco. We realized that they must group people by nationality, to make conversation easier. We didn’t mind that, really.

Dinner was very good! It started with a salad with a Ritz cracker (haha), then came a hearty barley and bean soup with homemade croutons, then a platter of personal-sized quiches surrounded by cooked cabbage, and a big bowl of coarsely mashed potatoes. I loved all of it! Also, servers came around with a large bowl of lentils and pieces of fontina cheese, and then there was a dessert of panna cotta with a chocolate cookie crust on the bottom and a few red currants on top. It was homey and comfy in there, and fun to chat with everybody who was sitting with us and share our separate experiences.

After dinner, we did the usual: laundry (yuck, things were sweaty today because the rain shells aren’t breathable, and there was some humidity in the air), looked through Go-pro photos, picked out a rock for our daily collection (it’s going to be an art project when we get home), organized our gear, and previewed the next day’s hike in the Reynolds book. It was at that moment that we realized that we were at the halfway point! Wes crashed before I did, as always, since I stay up later to journal. It was supposedly an easy day but we extended it quite a bit by eating lots and stopping to admire all of the small things along the trail. It was nice to change things up by not taking a variante route this time. Our day still felt very fulfilling and fun - basically, you can’t go wrong on any part of the TMB.  We felt like we definitely had plenty of energy left for the rest!

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