Sunday, December 9, 2018

TMB Day 6: Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly








Day Six
July 22, 2018

Starting point: Rifugio Bonatti, Italy
Ending point: La Fouly, Switzerland
Distance: 13 miles
Height gain: 3301 feet
High point: Grand Col Ferret (8323 feet)
Lunch: Rifugio Elena
Accommodation: Maya Joie



Just as we were getting used to saying “Buon giorno” and “Grazie,” we realized that we needed to go back to saying “Bonjour” and “Merci.” Today we were crossing the Italian-Swiss border at the Grand Col Ferret. It was an exciting prospect, but we knew that we’d miss Italy so much. The views and the culinary scene were pretty much unparalleled, in retrospect. We made sure to budget some time to enjoy one last meal in Italy during lunch, though we had quite a long day ahead of us. 








That morning, the alarm rang at 5:00 AM and we were so, so sleepy.  But, one look out the window made us wide awake. The sunlit tips of the Grande Jorasses were mesmerizing. I leaned my head further out the window into the cold air and thought that I could see something else, glowing brightly in the back. I actually got a jacket on and ran out of the refuge in my shorts and confirmed that it was Mont Blanc! It was lit in light orange and just barely covered by a thin layer of clouds. Wes came out to look at it too, and we took some pictures, but the photos do not do this awesome view justice. It was our first time actually seeing Mont Blanc for sure, and it was definitely king of the mountains. People were stirring inside of the refuge and clomping their way into the dining area for breakfast, but we continued to stick around outside, shivering, to watch the sun paint the mountains. Finally, the cold forced us back in, but we set up my phone to take a timelapse video of the view anyway. By the time we had our regular clothes on and were ready to go eat something, Mont Blanc’s domineering snowdome was out of sight, covered completely by clouds again. I guess you just have to catch it early in the morning. The clouds rolled in ominously and I was a bit worried about rain, but as luck would have it, it never truly rained today.


Breakfast at this refuge was one of the more forgettable ones. The bread all seemed packaged and pre-sliced and there was only cheese and butter to go with it. Coffee was made in bulk and in a huge dispenser - we thought it was random back on Day One when the couple running Refuge Nant Borrant asked us at dinner who would be drinking coffee the next morning and at what time, but now we realize that they were just ensuring that anybody who needed it would have a fresh pot all to themselves. Well, I still had half the loaf of pane nero from Courmayeur, so I got it out of our room and ate it in lieu of the perfectly-square pieces of toast for breakfast. Also, I finally ate the apple from our sack lunch from Day Two - it would have been too much to carry it across yet another country border, as if it weren’t already ridiculous enough that I hadn’t eaten it until now.




We were getting used to being the last to leave our refuges. Most people had cleared out by the time we were done bandaging our feet (preventative measures are totally worth it - no blisters yet), taping sensitive rub-spots, lubricating our toes (we use Trail Toes), medicating, applying sunscreen and deodorant, and hanging our forever-wet laundry over our packs. I’ll also take the blame for always eating so slow, even if it’s just an old piece of bread with a packet of peanut butter (from the United States).






The first part of the day was actually very comfortable, which is a plus side to cloudy weather. The constant wind kept us cool while we walked along an easy, rolling trail. Of course, this was too good to be true. As we continued further, the trail looked like it was curving down into the valley beneath us. Weren’t we supposed to be going up to a Col? Wes checked the map and I checked the guidebook in disbelief, but both sources confirmed that we were about to go downhill for a very long way to cross the river and then back up to get to the Grand Col Ferret, which was nowhere in sight now. We ended up finding a shortcut through flowers and tall grass, but it was hard to appreciate how pretty the flowers were while we shook our heads. It struck us both as very odd (and a waste of energy!) that we had to go all the way down to the valley it and then swoop back up to the Col. This trail really keeps things interesting!






























So we cross the river at the base of the Val Ferret and follow an easy walking path for a while, seeing local people strolling leisurely along its banks. We reach the base of steep, rocky mountain. This was where all of the TMB through-hikers continued and the local day-walkers stopped. Here we go again. With this climb rising endlessly over my head, I paused to remove my jacket and stuff it into my pack, and I removed my hat and buff. I deliberately tucked the buff into the waistbelt of my pack, making sure that it was accessible should I need to dry my sweat, yet out of the way. Well, by the time I finally crested the hill and caught my breath to say hello to the Korean group of trekkers up there, I realized that my buff was gone! I was pretty distraught because this was a special buff, emblazoned with the TMB map, that I had found at a store in Courmayeur. The owner had said that nobody else sells this buff, so I felt really happy to have it (sure enough, I just Googled it and the product is nowhere to be found online). So anyhow, I was wringing my hands and earnestly thinking about going all the way back down to retrace my steps. Wes looked like he was going to kill me. Just as we were about to start arguing, this girl with two braids comes huffing up behind us and asks, “Are you looking for a buff?” Yep, she saw my buff a few feet back. What a relief! From that moment forward, I was pretty attached to this buff, much to Wes’s amusement.











We chatted with her a bit and found out that she is from Australia but lived in Bishop, CA before. We all crossed a small waterfall and then we outpaced her on the way to Rifugio Elena. It was only a little past 11:30, but we figured it would be a pretty good time to catch a hot meal, especially since we were probably not going to come upon another hut serving food for a while.







After checking out the up-close view of the Pre de Bar glacier just outside of the Rifugio (sadly it's pretty receded), we went inside to see if we could order some food. The lady at the cash register spoke no English, so I used Spanish words to request a menu. She responded to me in Italian words that did not sound anything like Spanish, much to my chagrin, but I thought that I recognized the French words for “half past the hour” (“midi”). Based on the fact that other places typically are well into their lunch shifts by this time, I assumed that lunch service was about to end at 12:30, so we quickly checked over the little menu and picked out what we wanted. I tried to order with her, but she seemed a little dismissive and kept pointing at another seating area to the left. I was thinking that she wanted us to sit down at a table to wait for a server to take our order, so we sat down and waited, but nobody came. I was starting to think that maybe they didn’t want to take a last-minute lunch order, when Wes saw a paper sign that said something with regards to “12:30.” We finally figured out that lunch service did not start until 12:30, which is why the lady was telling us to wait over here until we could be given a proper table in the dining room! Well, with about 20 minutes left to kill, I decided to get a cappuccino (first and last in Italy) and it was good, strong, and small. The Italian way. Also, we polished off our last hazelnut cookies.





For lunch, we ordered the antipasto della casa - the best plate of charcuterie ever, ever, ever! I’m convinced that we’ll never find another plate like this anywhere else in the world, and at the very reasonable price of 13 euros. It came with 8 or 9 different cuts of meat: filzetta valdostana, speck, crudo di Saint Marcel, salamotto suino, salame felino, coppa al ginepro, mocetta bovina, prugne con pancetta, lardo con castagne calde, cotechino, along with warm honey-drenched chestnuts and a slice of poached pear with some blue cheese on top. It was all typical stuff of the Aosta Valley region, which I have really grown to adore. I am just very appreciative of this overall experience for opening my mind and stomach to foods that I otherwise would be wary of consuming. Wes was positively ecstatic - never did he think that we’d be sitting down to our third cheese-and-charcuterie platter together within the span of three days.






We also ordered capriolo con polenta, a positively hearty venison stew with chestnuts and red currants served with a large bowl of polenta. The polenta wasn’t as good as the one we had at Rifugio Elisabetta, but that one’s a hard one to beat. I’m glad that we tried another polenta just to verify the fact that Elisabetta’s was truly that outstanding. And so, with a very large smack of the lips, we sent Italy off with this surprisingly stellar mountain meal.







We were actually able to finish lunch pretty quickly (for my snaillike standards), only because we were the first to put in our order and they brought our food out so fast. We also learned to be aggressive about getting the check (only took us three days). Eager to hit the trail again, as we were not even near halfway, we busted up the next hill and saw how the Rifugio Elena shrank to the size of a dollhouse in the span of only ten minutes. Our ascent to the Grand Col Ferret had already begun.

























For the next long, 2-hour ascent to the Grand Col Ferret after lunch, I consciously tried something new today and intentionally hiked very slowly, almost exaggerating every step and every breath. This method proved to be a good one, as I needed no breaks and never felt too exhausted. I was emulating the older trekkers out here, admiring their grit and endurance, even though I was speeding past them on the previous days.  I think that Wes was always better about maintaining his heart rate and breathing rate than I have been, so this did not seem to be all too revelational to him. Anyway, this got me to the very top much more painlessly than I thought!









The Grand Col Ferret was the most incredibly windiest mountain pass of the entire trek. Even Wes had to slip into his jacket. I felt like I could have been knocked off balance and my trekking poles were flapping in the wind when they were held up in the air. We wanted to take a picture on the Go Pro together, but the voice command function was not working because the sound of the wind was so loud that it muffled the microphone. Other people probably got a kick out of seeing us holding each other and futilely yelling “GO PRO, TAKE PHOTO! GO PRO, TAKE PHOTO!” at the little camera arched over our hooded heads. We could see behind us the Val Ferret to Val Veni, and spread out before us was rolling, green, grassland with mountains in the back, dotted with bits of snow. Here before us lay Switzerland, and the eastern extent of the Mont Blanc range.








We wasted no time leaving this windtunnel of a Col, and within a few minutes, it was decidedly calmer. The ensuing path was very peaceful and easy, mostly. There were even more cows and sheep than before!









We stopped at a humble cow farm to use the bathroom and saw someone cutting large cakes of fresh, white cheese right there. We walked past people milking cows in trailers and even had to walk around a bunch of brown cows, with cow bells clanging and tails whipping. I took note of their very sharp-looking horns and tried to hurry by.



The walk was a little bit more lackadasical right about now, as we followed a dirt road swerving in large turns through the grass. Then, things got interesting when I saw a sign that said, “Glace au lait d’alpage. Gobelet et cornet, arome du jour.” My French is far from good, but you better believe that I know the word for “ice cream” when I see it! Translation: Ice cream of milk of the Alps. Cup and cone, flavor of the day. I did not bother to confirm the translation in that moment - I told Wes that I was 100% sure of what the sign meant and we dashed towards the house a few yards away.














This was a little cheesemaker’s cottage and storefront. Inside, there was only a small refrigerator display case and two tables with some stools. The display case carried perhaps a dozen types of homemade cheese (including chevre!), and white cups of yogurt that looked totally handcrafted. No expiration date printed, no nutrition facts. Just the flavor and the name of the maker. The owner was an older Swiss man who spoke only French, but he was so pleasant to us. I inquired about the sign, saying “glah-say” before he politely corrected my pronunciation, “glahss.” He showed us that he had a soft serve machine, with two flavors: vanilla and (he held up the actual fruit) apricot. Of course we had to get both. I was so beyond excited right now because the entire trek, I was fantasizing about stumbling upon a local ice cream maker in this land of cows. The taste and texture of the ice creams lived up to the fantasy. The vanilla tasted like a very deeply aromatic French vanilla, and the apricot one just as milky with only a hint of fruitiness. They were almost the exact same color, which of course means, no artificial coloring! The sizes of these cups of ice cream were generous, but we couldn’t resist trying one of the yogurts too - we picked one that had cacao nibs in it! The owner came outside to our table and tried to make conversation with us (his only trekker customers) even though there was a clear language barrier - that was really nice of him. Among other things, we talked about the weather (of course), and he looked up at the sky and told us that he did not think that we should be worried about the rain. Relieved but still a bit skeptical, we bade him farewell and moved on. I wished that we could have bought some of his cheese (who am I?), but we didn’t know if we’d have refrigeration at where we were going to be staying for the night.
















I realized that we’d already be close to La Fouly by now if we hadn’t stopped in for ice cream, but hell that was the most worthwhile stop ever. Now it looked like it was definitely going to rain on us, but we had still an hour or so to go. We noticed a bus stop and that there would be a bus arriving in 5 minutes, but we didn’t truly entertain the idea - I was set on not taking any buses unless we absolutely had to. A lot of trekkers take the bus even before this point, skipping through much of the Swiss valley and making straight for the next stage of the trek far away. We chose to complete the loop in its intended entirety, but I’m not judging anybody who doesn’t. We just happened to have the time and the energy. Anyway, the road was flat and easy to follow and we clipped up the trekking poles and walked freely, like normal pedestrians (but with big fat backpacks on still). We admired a glacier and some really tall waterfalls the whole 45 minutes to Maya Joie, our refuge in La Fouly, and discussed just how lucky we’ve been with the weather and timing of everything!











Maya Joie was, as far as we could tell, a pretty new accommodation.  It was very quiet, as was this little town in general.  It seems that many trekkers actually do skip this part.  We were happy with how spacious our room was and how private it seemed - we knew we wouldn't be hearing boots clomping around in the hallways or toilets flushing.  We were staying on the second story of a detached wooden house on the property.  We shared a bathroom with one other couple, but we never were in there at the same time and it was never a problem at all.

We got to Maya Joie pretty late, and they were about to start their dinner service of unlimited raclette.  Raclette is just as much a type of cheese as a format of eating: a large, half-wheel of cheese is heated on its flat side and then scraped over potatoes and meats. It’s a Savoyard specialty, but I was really not into the idea of it, even though I had been making such good progress with my cheese-exploration thus far. Wes was fine with deviating from Savoyard cuisine for a night anyway, so we went to the restaurant attached to Auberge las Glacieres (another refuge) and I had a big salad with fried goat cheese (ok, I make an exception when it comes to goat cheese!) and Wes had lamb ribs with fries. I think he missed fries equally as much as I missed big salads. We coincidentally were able to eat with some trekking companions - the Canadian couple that we had met a few days ago in Courmayeur was here too, so we shared a booth.













We poked around town a bit before heading back to our refuge, where we had a fine, woodsy private room. We washed our laundry in the bathroom sink and hung them all over the room using clothes hangers that were conveniently in the closet. I took a late shower today and finally we rolled into bed (two twins pushed together).  Today was hard, but the next day would be supposedly a pretty easy day, so we were looking forward to that!


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