Wednesday, August 15, 2018

TMB Day 3: Refuge des Mottets to Courmayeur

Day Three
July 19, 2018

Starting point: Refuge des Mottets
Ending point: Courmayeur
Distance: 17.6 miles
Height gain: 4170 feet
High point: Col de la Seigne (8255 feet)
Lunch: Rifugio Elisabetta
Accommodation: Hotel Edelweiss

Today was the unintended longest day of the trek for us. We would be leaving France behind and crossing into Italy at Col de la Seigne. Inspired by our dinner companions the night before, we made a last-minute decision to combine Day 3 and 4 in order to give ourselves a much-needed rest day in Courmayeur, a bustling small city in Italy that many trekkers use as a start/stop point.  It's informally known as the "Chamonix of Italy."  Many people manage to get all the way to Courmayeur at this stage of the trek by taking advantage of a cablecar ride leading down the mountaintop into the Aosta valley. Since we were doubling up on days, we decided that our tired joints could benefit from the cablecar ride, too. Plus, we were really looking forward to having Day 4 as purely a rest day. Little did we know that the last cablecar was to leave long before we could arrive, so we ended up walking the entire four miles down to Courmayeur on weak knees and burning thighs. Maybe it was the extended lunch at Rifugio Elisabetta (a side-hike in itself, and our first meal ever in Italy) that did us in, but that food was totally worth the stop. At the end of the day, we celebrated with two enormous pizza pies - undeniably the best pizza of our lives!

Despite the hearty dinner last night, I hadn’t slept well.  It was a little too cold, and then after I put on extra clothes, I woke up again sweating.  I wasn't alone, though.  It turned out that other people couldn’t sleep either because there was apparently a loud thunderstorm during the night. No wonder our laundry was wetter than it had been before we hung them on the line! I guess when there’s an abundance of laundry lines, it’s just too good to be true. So once again, we clipped the underwear to our packs to dry off while we hiked.

The breakfast provided at Refuge des Mottets was nowhere near as good as dinner the night before- just bread, butter, apricot jam, some preserved figs, milk, cereal, and orange juice. I grabbed a pack of peanut butter that I brought from home and spread it on the bread. I went back for thirds and fourths of the orange juice though, which was freshly squeezed and pretty good. We tried the preserved figs and didn't really like them very much.

Au revoir, Refuge des Mottets! Once again, we were the last trekkers to leave the refuge. 

The Refuge des Mottets shrank quickly before our eyes and the chorus of cowbells grew softer as we distanced ourselves.

So our first high point was to be the Col de la Seigne. It was an undulating pathway up to there on a clearly marked path that was deceptively hard. Although there weren’t rocks and streams to pass through, it was a relentless one-and-a-half-hour ascent. We ran into the group from New York who we shared a room with on our first night at Refuge Nant Borrant on this trail, and we were all yelling at each other, “See you in Italy!” and “Last one in Courmayeur buys gelato!”

The view down into the valley was gorgeous.

When we were nearing the top of the Col, we could see the tip of a massive, white mountain.  We immediately thought that it was Mont Blanc.  Guess what?  It wasn't.

There was less fanfare than expected, getting into Italy.  No big flag or signage, no border security, no big deal.  The only evidence I saw on paper (literally) that we were actually in a new country was on this white laminated flyer posted here, which says "Welcome in Aosta Valley - Italy" in three languages.  However, it seemed much more important for visitors to know that camping was prohibited.

We reached the top before the New Yorkers, but they joined us there soon after.

One of them took a Polaroid photo of us and gave it to us.  Leave it to the young-uns to be willing to truck up a Polaroid camera!

After I applied some leukotape and a bandaid over a developing blister on my left foot arch, we descended into the Italian Vallon de la Lee Blanche and then into the Val Veni.

Descending from Col de la Seigne was magnificent.  What an introduction to Italy!

We stopped by La Casermetta, a renovated former customs house that is now a museum and mountain information center. The person working there gave us a little history lesson about this valley, which was the site of the Italian invasion of France in 1940, also known as the Battle of the Alps. This was the first major Italian engagement of World War II. She pointed out some sniper holes embedded into the mountains and I was able to find them through my binoculars. I hadn’t realized until now that we were walking through a historic battlefield. It was quite disturbing to think that such a beautiful place was the scene of bloodshed.

After that educational stop, we continued on our way.  We told ourselves not to stop anymore until reaching Rifugio Elisabetta, where we'd be eating lunch.  We walked through the valley floor, feeling small and insignificant.

Food was on our minds, and we knew that Rifugio Elisabetta would be the only place to get anything to eat in the middle of this valley.  Plus, we had to swing by to cancel our reservation anyway, as we had originally planned to stay here tonight before deciding to skip ahead to Courmayeur.  Well, “swinging by” wasn’t exactly the right phrase for this situation.  It was quite the little hike to get up to Rifugio Elisabetta, which was a stone house planted at the top of a very rocky cliff. It’s funny how it all gets put into perspective, though. The considerably steep hike to this Rifugio was nothing much compared to all that we had been doing.

So anyway, we pound up the face of the cliff to get up there, where we knew that lunch would be waiting. We took a seat on the porch at a small table for two and marveled at how close we were to the Glacier de la Lee Blanche.

It was interesting - the Rifugio Elisabetta did not have a paper menu. The server would come to the table and verbally list out the options (thankfully, in English), and then we would pick what we wanted on the spot.  Everything sounded downright awesome, it was our first Italian meal!

We went with the polenta with ratatouille and the beef carpaccio with shaved parmesan and arugula. It came with so much!! The polenta was the best we’ve ever had- it was more coarse and rustic than the runny goop that we see more commonly in America.  The beef carpaccio was excellent as well!  A meal like this would have probably cost much more in any proper Italian sit-down restaurant, but here at this refuge, it was just as delicious (if not more!) and cost us less than 30 euros, including a delightful homemade tiramisu for dessert and a bag of tomato-basil flavored potato chips.  However, the bread was not as good as bread in France, and it also does not automatically come with butter in Italy.  In fact, they only have butter with bread during breakfast.

Polenta with ratatouille

Raw beef carpaccio

Tomato basil flavored potato chips

Homemade tiramisu

We had hung our laundry on the railing to let it dry while we ate.  It was breezy and so idyllic that we got too comfortable... At the end of the meal, I decided to ask the owner of the refuge what time the cablecar that we were planning on taking into Courmayeur closes. His answer was 6:00 PM. Uh oh… it was already 2:15 PM and we would probably not make it, given that we still had about 12 miles to cover. Well… so much for saving our knees. I remembered that there were other refuges that we could stay at close to the cablecar and that we could take it down first thing in the morning, but Wes wanted to just bang it out and go down to Courmayeur tonight, on foot, no matter how long it would take us. We had headlamps and we’d done night hikes, so we weren’t fazed by this idea.  It didn't matter though, since the sun was not going to set until 9 PM.

We walked back down from Elisabetta’s high perch and continued through the flat, lush valley floor. We saw the Australians from Day 1 again, and that was awesome!  You never really know if you'll see people you meet again.  So, they were taking a bus to Courmayeur from a spot only about 45 minutes away!  It was a very tempting thought, but we wanted to tackle Day 4 in all of its glory. We apologetically hurried past the Aussies, probably thinking that we could miraculously make it to the cablecar station in three-and-a-half hours, although we both had already come to terms with the fact that we’d be most likely getting into Courmayeur on foot by 8:30 PM.  We never saw them again after this last encounter.

We almost blew past the narrow, wiggly, little path that would lead us to the Col Checrouit, the Day 4 variante route.  It looked steep from the get-go, but we wanted to do it anyway.  The weather was good and we were energized by the polenta and meat plate.  We realized that there was no point in trying to beat the clock to the cable car - the sign said "Courmayeur 3 h 50 min," so it was literally impossible to be there by 6 PM unless we took no photos, filtered no water, and never stopped to refer to a map.  Plus, we were asking trekkers coming down from the other direction about the cablecar and they all seemed pretty dismal about the prospects of us making it - some of them hadn’t even noticed a cablecar at all.  All the more reason not to rely on the cablecar to get us down into Courmayeur.

After about two-and-a-half hours, the trail led up to a most beautiful view of the south side of the Mont Blanc range at the Mont Favre spur, at an elevation of 7972 feet. Kev Reynolds says in his book that the walk from Col de la Seigne to Col Checrouit would alone make the TMB worth tackling. I agree- after we had reached the flat spur, I told Wes that I could go home happy now. The view was the most beautiful thing I’d laid eyes on this day only after the gorgeous mountain of polenta with ratatouille at Rifugio Elisabetta. We were just surrounded by glaciers and way below us was the Val Veni with the long, endless river slicing through its center. There were tiny lakes that were the size of my pinky fingernail and the buildings were even smaller than monopoly gamepieces. No humans in sight, because they were probably all smart enough to do this before the cablecar closed.

We never saw a sign for Col Chercrouit, but actually it ended up being a very unassuming saddle with a little refuge planted in the middle with a myriad of signs pointing in various directions. It was like something from Alice in Wonderland. We saw the darned chair lift that could have lowered us to the Courmayeur cablecar station, stopped in its tracks. From this most uninspiring Col, we followed the signs for Courmayeur down a wide rocky road. Wes almost slipped here, funny because this was an actual road versus the snow and mud that we had to go through earlier! Then we reached the actual cablecar station and they were 100% motionless. Those damn things!!!

We milled around the closed gondola station for absolutely no reason, as if we needed it to completely sink in that they were legitimately not going to take us down. The city of Courmayeur lay miles beneath, after a massive forest of pine trees.  It looked like a Lego city. Wes dug out the pocket WiFi and we actually had reception, so he went onto and spontaneously found an available room for tonight at the hotel that we had already booked for Day 4. Luckily, the price was the same as what it would have been at a refuge.  We hoped that the hotel would combine the two separate bookings and let us stay in our same room for both nights.  Now that we settled where we'd be sleeping that night, we gratefully ate some more chips from lunch and continued the four miles down with an appeased state of mind.

As we were descending, we realized that we were walking down the slopes of a ski resort. It was amusing for us (as avid snowboarders) to see a naked, off-season ski slope. We made sort of a scavenger hunt out of it, spotting an old snapped off binding, ticket check-in machines, freestanding maps and signage for the runs, pipelines for snow makers, the bunny slope conveyor belt, and snow mobiles.  After we got sick of playing this game, we ducked into the trees to follow the main TMB route - it was steep but the dirt felt nice underfoot and the trees were all quite pretty, all things considered.

We saw the houses and buildings of Courmayeur get closer and closer!  We also could hear city sounds, like honking and explosions (still not sure what those really were) - it had been a few days since we'd heard these kinds of noises.  Aah...the sounds of civilization...not entirely unwelcome, to be honest.

At long last, we burst out at ground level at dusk.  Luckily, the sun sets very late here at this time of year so we didn't ever need to get out the headlamps.  I wanted to kiss the earth as I sheathed my trekking poles once and for all (well, for the next 24 hours). We still had another 30 minutes to walk to get into Courmayeur, but that sounded like nothing compared to what we’d been through! It was only minorly annoying that the last bit was going to be an uphill crawl to get into the city center, since Courmayeur is built in tiers into the mountainside.

Just before getting into Courmayeur, we passed through a neighborhood of Dolonne, a striking little town made of stone houses and walkways.  It felt quite storybook-like.

Then, we crossed a bridge to get into Courmayeur.  We followed an uphill sloping road next to speeding cars, walking next to old ladies with their purses and canes and other pedestrians in summery street-clothes.  We stuck out like sore thumbs with our bright backpacks and hats, but at least we had put away our trekking poles already!

Right when we got there, we saw the other end of the closed-down cablecar station.  That would have saved us two hours, but no matter, we'd made it!  Next door, a casual pizzeria called La Remisa glowed warmly. We could have eaten anything at this point, but being the foodies that we were, we checked TripAdvisor to make sure that this place had generally good reviews before walking over to ask for a table. We were seated outside, like all the other diners, where we could leave our clunky backpacks on the ground.  It felt so awesome to have those packs off!

The menu was easy to read, even though it was all in Italian. All we knew was that we each wanted our own pizza, plus a salad to share. These pizzas were life-changing!!! They came out, HUGE, longer than arm’s length, with a smattering of toppings thrown over the top, served on wooden pizza peels, unsliced. We could barely contain our excitement. The Energetico tuna and egg salad which we ordered was also refreshing and gave us some much-needed energy.  But THIS PIZZA THOUGH. We don’t think that we could ever look at a pizza the same way again.

The texture was so, so good... it never fell apart, but it was so thin, and it was still able to support all of the sauce, cheese, and toppings!

Also, we were brought a jar of their homemade chili oil, which the lady told us was molto picante - emphasis on the molto.  A billion times more flavorful than any that we've had in the U.S.

A few incriminating tourist mistakes have been documented in the photo above (don't worry, we fixed our behavior soon after!).  Italians don't actually dip their bread in balsamic vinegar and olive oil - that was something made up by Americans.  Also, glass bottled water costs extra - you really just want to ask for it in a jar (or, carafe).

This was a humble, family-owned restaurant.  The wife takes the orders and cleans the tables and the husband makes the pizzas. We didn’t interact with him much, but I saw him deftly rolling out the dough and putting on the toppings when I went inside to use the restroom.  The lady was really really nice and spoke only in Italian. I was very surprised that the language was very similar to Spanish and quickly realized that I could get away easily with speaking Spanish to communicate!  My brain was hurting from speaking French ever since landing in Geneva.  We saw the husband casually walking their children home after he was done making pizzas.

We were never rushed out and people all around us were sticking around to chat, drink coffee/wine, smoke, or sit quietly on their phones in the nice evening weather. Also, we noticed that people eat A LOT here. This chic old couple polished off two whole pizzas next to us, and a table of two younger boys did the same. We also noticed that people eat very late here; it did not seem uncommon to sit down to dinner past 8 PM, and then proceed to hang around for at least two hours thereafter.  This was clearly a local's spot.

Our tiredness had finally become a reality by the time we dragged ourselves to Hotel Edelweiss, where we now had two nights booked. We checked in and they did give us the same room for both nights, hurray!  We couldn’t believe what we had been through in one day - Refuge des Mottets seemed like a distant memory.

Finally, we showered and hand washed the laundry (we really gotta commend ourselves on how good we’ve been about that).  We also admired the glass carafe, the feminine product disposal baggies by the toilet, the trapezoidal wooden doors, the old-fashioned brass room keys, and the big wall unit hair dryer.  So far, we were very intrigued by Italian culture and excited to bask in it all day the next day!

Previous Tour du Mont Blanc posts:

1 comment:

  1. Wes, I'm enjoying seeing your photos of this wonderful trip. Thanks for sharing.