Saturday, July 28, 2012

One last glacier

Somewhat thinner than a month ago!

Down valley towards the Grandes Jorasses

Mont Blanc, wreathed in clouds

One of the many glaciers

View back up valley towards France

Stage 27 -- Refuge Soldini to Courmayeur... last day!!

Short summary -- beautiful balcony trail.

Rifugio Soldini was OK, but not great, but we did have a piece of good luck: I had been unable to reserve for Père Ephrem (a combination of poor network coverage in the Alps and apparent chaos at the refuge) so I asked Lidia to reserve another space as soon as she arrived. The result was that instead of 8 of us being in a 30 bed dormitory with many others, we were put into a 7 bed dorm room and a double. Much better!

The last day's hike turned out to be shorter than expected because Beatrice found us a shortcut into Entrèves that allowed us to avoid an extra hour along roads to and from Courmayeur. We set off around 8:15 and arrived around 2:15. After a pleasant stroll along the bed of a dried out glacial lake we climbed a few hundred meters up to a beautiful (there's that word again) balcony trail with superb views across the valley to the Mont Blanc massif and its glaciers. I'll post a couple of photos, but I could post a hundred.

The final descent into Entrèves was hot and dusty... but not only was it, as mentioned above, shortened thanks to Bea, in addition she camed out to meet us so we didn't have to search for the hotel, and to top it off she had the hotel lay out champagne and orange juice and some sandwiches as a welcome buffet! A delightful finish to the first part of the H3H!!

Some final thoughts tomorrow....

Sent from my iPad

Rifugio Soldini with Mont Blanc


Crossing the frontier

The Black Wall

Crossing a stream

Postglacial landscape along the trail

Crossing scree

After the ascent

Climbing to Refuge Robert Blanc

Some mountain or other

Southwest view

End of July, 2500m

Down under clouds to Mont Blanc

Lidia makes it up to the pass!

The way ahead

We went over the lefthand pass...

Lidia and Arnulf arriving at the Pierra Menta

Christophe and Roxane arriving at the Pierra Menta

Ioana arriving at the Pierra Menta

Sofia arriving at the Pierra Menta

Père Ephrem at the Lac d'Amour

View forward to Pierra Menta

View back to Refuge de la Coire

Stage 26 -- Refuge de la Nova to Refuge Elisabetta Soldini

Short summary -- exhilaration instead of disaster.

Earplugs!! I love them and hug them and squeeze them and call them George.... In other words, I slept well. We were all in a single bunkroom just off the shower room (except for Père Ephrem, because I had booked for him later) and it wasn't conducive to a good night's rest unless you had earplugs. Dinner had been excellent, by the way... but the bunkroom causes the Nova's overall rating to slip.

At dinner we had discussed what to do with the next day's hike. The dilemma was that there were two options: one shorter, and a second much longer and more difficult. Having seen how Lidia and Christophe and Roxane had done with the previous day's hike, it was pretty clear that they should take the shorter option. Père Ephrem, Sofia, and Arnulf were all experienced enough to handle the difficulty and in good enough shape to keep the day from getting too long. The tricky decision was Ioana. I felt that she would be able to handle the difficulty, but her stamina and fitness, as has been mentioned in earlier blog posts, are not back to where they used to be, and I felt that she would need much longer than the rest of us... and it was already going to be a long day. To her credit, she took the decision well, although I'm sure it must have irked her given her love for the mountains. So we split into two groups of four each.

My group set off around 8AM. The first part of the hike was about an hour and a half up a road... generally not my favorite thing to do, but in this case with very little traffic and beautiful views. And then, as Sofia put it, the good life ended. We began to climb steeply towards the Refuge Robert Blanc -- very steeply. We had about 700m of ascent to do, and after we had done about half I called a halt and we sat for a few minutes to recover. The second half was worse. Whereas the first half was a trail, albeit steep, the second half was rather a combination of suggestions and confirmations.

We were going up an area of rock that had probably been under a glacier not too long ago and was worn smooth in places, scored in others. and steep most of the time... difficult to walk up, and even more so when you are looking around for badly worn trail markers and cairns. By the time we reached the refuge (around midday) the other three were near exhaustion... at any rate, their postures strongly suggested this (for example, Père Ephrem had his head in his hands lying on the lunch table, Arnulf was lying down on a bench), as did their lack of desire to order lunch (I mean, hello? Midday = lunch, people! :-).

However, an hour later, after some good omelettes (with Beaufort cheese and sausage), a fresh salad, bread, hot chocolate, coffee, and a few liters of mineral water had done their usual magic, they were ready to go on. We had a difficult traverse ahead of us to the Col de Seigne -- the border with Italy -- which didn't look very far on the map, but according to the signpost would take us three hours... in other words the implication was that it would be very difficult. And so it was.

Very steep ascents and descents, lots of scree, lots of glacier-polished rock, tumbling streams to cross, a twisting and turning trail, cables, pitons to step on, a single beam bridge... challenging! A very good thing actually that we went up that pass next to the Pierra Menta yesterday, because as a result it was clear who should and shouldn't come on the difficult hike today. Without that experience yesterday, and not knowing how difficult the trail would turn out to be, it could easily have happened that we all (or almost all) would have taken the difficult hike... with disastrous results. Either people would have had had to turn around (but the way back to the Robert Blanc hut, the descent from it, and then the rest of the standard way over the Col de Seigne would have taken an age), or we would all have soldiered on and it would have taken until evening (at least).

And I haven't yet mentioned the final barrier: we came around a corner after over two hours to see a black wall ahead of us that must have been 80m high, and a faint zig-zag trail visible climbing up it. Urk. And almost simultaneously we heard then saw a rescue helicopter fly into the ravine between us and the black wall. It hover landed (one side on the ground, the other in the air, the rotors turning) and someone was helped/carried in from a group on the ground. After a quick stop in a flatter area downslope (probably to stabilize the person injured), the helicopter flew off. A short time later as we were going down to the ravine we saw a lot of blood on the trail -- perhaps a falling stone had hit someone on the head? A sobering reminder of how quickly things can go wrong in the high mountains.

And we still had the wall to climb. Fortunately it was well-secured with cables, but by the time we got to the top we were ready for the day to end. But it didn't, of course: we still had over 500m to go down to our refuge for the night -- Elisabetta Soldini.

Phew! A lot of fun, but I'm glad we don't have to do hikes like that every day.

PS The other group reported that they had an exceptionally nice day -- quite relaxed and unpressured: they arrived around 3:30, and we, surprisingly, only about an hour and a quarter later at 4:45PM.

Sent from my iPad

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stage 25 -- Refuge de la Coire to Chapieux (Refuge de la Nova)

Short summary -- stress test.

Dinner at the Refuge de la Coire was OK. The soup was so-so, as was the dessert and the wine, but the main course was excellent: pasta with cheese and sausages and zucchini and cream and there was lots of it... fortunately... because we were all very hungry (except for the Day One-ers -- I may have mentioned before that it seems to take a day or two for the natural post-hike state of near starvation to manifest).

There was not much doing after dinner -- a little desultory conversation, and then to bed. But not, at least in my case, to a full night's sleep. Unfortunately there were two snorers in our bunkroom. Murder was narrowly averted, but I DIDN'T SLEEP VERY WELL.

The following morning the bunch managed to be ready to leave only seven minutes later than the requested 8:15... not perfect, but an improvement. Not a cloud in the sky. The hike started off with a bracing climb of 400m or so up to the Col du Coin, from which we had immense views, especially of the Pierra Menta (a huge monolith we were heading for). Then we traversed to the beautiful and seemingly aptly named Lac d'Amour (there were a couple of tents pitched next to it from which, despite the late hour, people were only just appearing). And then there followed a second, longer, and steeper climb to a 2600m pass next to the Pierra Menta with the odd name of the Col de Tutu. This proved to be very difficult for most of the group, and I took candid photos of each as they arrived (which will be shared later once I have Internet access again).

Lidia in particular was exhausted (although in her case it seemed to have as much to do with an unruly tummy as with the climb), but Christophe and Roxane were not much fitter. In fact Christophe had to stop about 60m down from the pass to catch his breath and eat something... during which rest break he yelled up to me that he hated me and my mountains because we made his legs hurt :-).

Then came a steep little descent (marked on the map as being difficult) and this was exceedingly challenging for the three mentioned above. Lidia came last and by the time we had finished the descent and a tricky following traverse we were probably 10-15 minutes behind the others. We caught up with them because they had sat down to have lunch, and while we ate I pondered what to do.

Lidia was not in good shape. We could see the pass we had to cross (over 2650m) ahead and she wasn't sure that she would be able to do it (it did look pretty imposing). She had asked whether there was any other way down (which there wasn't really, or rather, the other ways down would take pretty much the same time as the planned route). It was clear that she wouldn't be able to keep up with the others, and moreover, since clouds were in the meantime gathering, it seemed unfair to ask them all to wait around if it meant that they would get caught in a rain- or thunderstorm.

So, I called Arnulf over, gave him the map, explained where they needed to go, and sent everyone on while Lidia and I came after.

The climb to the pass was... difficult. And slow. But fortunately Lidia's stomach began to settle and some time after crossing the pass and after a while we started to make better time. But we were over a half an hour behind the others... and the clouds got darker and thicker. Eventually it becan to thunder and the first raindrops fell. But we were once again lucky and none of the thundershowers that were around did more than brush us. (Side note: 25 days hiking on the H3H so far, and this is only the third time I have had to put on raingear... and in all three cases the rain was very light. How's that for weather planning?)

We eventually arrived at the refuge around 6:15PM... oddly enough only 15 minutes after the others. They had also had a few problems -- in particular, Roxane's knee had not been reacted well to the 1500+m of descent, so they had stopped to bandage it and for the last couple of hours Père Ephrem carried both his pack and hers (Christophe's conjugal failure due to his not being in much better shape than Roxane!). Pretty impressive of Père Ephrem, who is not a big man and of undisclosed, but clearly not particularly young, age!

All in all, a challenging day, in many ways and for many people.

Sent from my iPad

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Stage 24 -- Montchavin to Refuge de la Coire

Short summary -- downs and ups.

You know how you can tell that you've got a group of new hikers? You give them 8:30 as a departure time and you finally get underway around 9. Fortunately there was no reason to hurry today: 7.75 hours of hiking and fine weather. An added benefit: Beatrice (who isn't hiking) offered to take everything that was not needed for the next two days with her in her car (two days because we'll see her again two evenings from now at the Refuge de la Nova). You wouldn't believe the amount of stuff that suddenly was unnecessary -- the back of the car was full. Me, I wonder what they all have with them that they'll need the last two days but not the first two???

Eventually everyone was suncreamed up, provisioned, packed and repacked, hats adjusted and I don't know what else and we set off. The first part of the hike was a little dull -- a fairly steep descent of about 500m through woods down to a bridge over the Isère River. But the ascent on the other side was much more pleasant -- woods and fields, quaint Savoyard villages, beautiful views back to the high peaks of the Vanoise. It was warm though, and lunch shortly after midday in a dark shady spot was very welcome.

After lunch we were immediately confronted with a steep climb of about 100m up to the road leading into the village of Granier. Several people were leaning on their poles at the top (but no names will be divulged out of respect for their egos!). Then... disaster -- walking along the hot road one of Christophe's soles suddenly separated from the rest of his boot. I tried a quick repair with glue... which might perhaps have held if we had been able to leave it to set overnight, but under the circumstances it was at once clear that it was useless -- he would have to go back down into the valley to a larger town to find a sports store and buy new boots.

Père Ephrem quickly flagged down a passing car, Christophe was bundled in, and the rest of us continued on the hike. By now it was getting quite hot and Lidia started to flag <Lidia speaking: not true, I was hot, not flagging> <Guy speaking again: walking slower than before is flagging, regardless of the reason, IMHO, but what do I know?>. It is only her second day and, as has been mentioned, her "training" was quite limited. After one particularly slow stretch I doused her arms and head with a little cold water, which seemed to help some, but only temporarily.

Around 4PM we saw a taxi go by on a parallel road -- undoubtably Christophe. And whether by luck or design, it let him off a km up the road... where he decided to wait for us rather than walking back down in our direction. The thought occurred to more than one of us that things had worked out suspiciously well for him. Said suspicions were only strengthened when we heard about the beer he had enjoyed in Aime while waiting for the sports store to open.

I find climbs at the end of a long hike to be difficult... very difficult. Just when you are ready for a shower and some horizontal time, you have to exert yourself again. Well, the climb at the end of the day up to the refuge was... difficult. And for some more than others. At some point Lidia decided that she didn't feel like rushing up (her words) and sat down on a rock for twenty minutes to admire the view. Since, however, she had neglected to tell anyone why she was sitting on the rock, the rest of us became concerned and I dropped my pack and walked back down to see how she was. Fine, she said. Can I take your pack, I said. No, she said. It would be faster, I said. I don't want to be faster, she said. And so it went. So, I walked back on ahead... to find Christophe and Roxane kindly watching over my pack. And then I walked the final 20+ minutes to the refuge, to find the others waiting patiently for me to decided how they should divide themselves up between bunkrooms. Ah, the many and various tasks of the H3H organizer! So I told them to choose, which they did, and then 10 minutes later Lidia arrived and told them that they had chosen wrong. So some of them got moved.


Ups and downs.

Sent from my iPad

Rest day in Montchavin

Relaxing! Carcassonne in the morning, Ioana mare and Jorge and Erik left around 2PM, laundry and blog and organizational things in the afternoon. Arrival of replacement hikers (Christophe and his wife Roxane, Arnulf and his wife Beatrice (who will however not hike due to knee problems), and Père Ephrem), and our friend from Eygalières, François (just for dinner). Good dinner, early bed.

Sent from my iPad

Monday, July 23, 2012

Stage 23 -- Champagny to Montchavin

Short summary -- first day, last day... and Mont Blanc.

Dinner at the refuge was the polar opposite of the previous night -- copious and very good (we all had Tartiflette). However, since I hadn't slept well the night before, it was one of those evenings where I struggled to stay awake after dessert (the 100ml of pear brandy that I was served when I asked for a digestif may have also played a role)... and in fact I was in bed by 9PM. I'm not sure when the others retired.

The following morning I was responsible for a little comedy of errors. To begin with I realized that the night before I had forgotten to ask for picnic lunches to be prepared. But in the morning only the hut warden was there, and he apologised but said that he had too many other things to do preparing breakfast and taking payments. So I was fortunate that another hiker, overhearing my problem, offered to drive me down to Champagny-en-Bas (where there was a bakery and an épicerie) to buy stuff. Then during breakfast I managed to spill a large quantity of rice crispies on the floor when the dispenser malfunctioned... which the by now thoroughly harried hut warden cleaned up. I let Jorge pay and snuck out... I figured the warden probably would be happier if he didn't see me again :-).

Today was Lidia's first hike, and the last day for Erik, Jorge, and Ioana mare. I should perhaps explain -- half of all Romanian women are called Ioana, at least in my experience, and we have two of them on the hike... one smaller and thus "mica" and the other large, thus "mare" (Romanian for small and big, respectively). Ioana mare is Jorge's partner, and Ioana mica is the one whose pack I carried over the high pass a couple of days ago. Ioana mare has been suffering from a bad cold that Jorge thoughtfully passed on to her just before the hike... and it has been very impressive to see her, despite the illness and sleeping very poorly, march up and over each pass along the way. I'm pretty sure that, in her circumstances, I would not have done as well.

The hike started out with a bang -- climbing steeply over 600m before changing to a more gentle incline most of the rest of the way to the almost 2500m pass. Even Lidia's second set of lungs (which she normally uses to talk with, while the first set are used to gather oxygen for her legs) were pressed into service during the steep climb (I could tell because she stopped talking for a while ;-). But the extensive training she did yesterday when she climbed up to meet us on the way down to Champagny was clearly suffiicient, and she made it up to the pass without undue difficulty.

We had lunch shortly before the pass and then spent almost four very pleasant hours walking down to our hotel in Montchavin, talking in various configurations and languages. We'll miss all three of them when they leave during the rest day tomorrow... a rest day, which, I should add, I'm very much looking forward to -- I've spent 28 hours on the trails over the last three days and my body needs a break!

And Mont Blanc? Well, on the way down Lidia pointed it out. Erik and I were sceptical, thinking that it lay in another direction, but we both figured that expressing doubt would not be the wisest course of action towards the end of a long day of hiking. And just as well -- at dinner our charming waitress (an English girl from Cambridge) confirmed that it was indeed Mont Blanc. A narrow escape :-).

Sent from my iPad

Stage 22 -- Roc de la Pêche to Champagny-le-Haut

Short summary -- lovely balcony trail.

We were not overly impressed with the Refuge du Roc de la Pêche... well, actually it was the worst place that we have stayed at on the trip. Which didn't make it truly awful... accommodation has been excellent in general... but it wasn't very good.

The bunkroom assigned to the six of us did indeed have six beds, but when all were pulled out from their storage places there was hardly room to turn around. We asked if it would be possible for some of us to move to another bunkroom, but were informed that they were all full. However, this was clearly not the case as there were only four groups at dinner... and there were several bunkrooms. The blatant lies continued when we asked if there was a wireless LAN... no, they said, although we subsequently saw on our iPads/iPhones that there was.

Then dinner was so-so (with the appetizer being skimpy and bland, and dessert frankly inedible). Throughout it all the service was a little grumpy -- the general impression we got was that they didn't really want to have anyone staying there overnight. And to top it all off, it wasn't cheap either (for a refuge). So, a place to be avoided. They clearly haven't heard of the power of the Internet... I intend to make some honest and uncomplimentary posts on a few travel sites once I'm back home.

It rained, at times quite hard, during the evening and overnight, and morning arrived cold with fog and drizzle. So, for only the second time since leaving Eygalières on June 19th we broke out the rain gear. Pretty amazing when you think about it. The morning refuge chap told me that it had snowed overnight up at the pass we took yesterday....

We hiked for a couple of hours down roads, tracks, and trails to the town of Pralognan where we bought a few things for lunch (we hadn't felt like trying our luck with picnics from the refuge :-). And then the strenuous part of the day's hike commenced -- with a steep climb up to a rolling balcony trail, followed by a further climb up to a mountain shoulder at over 2000m (Pralognan was around 1599m, if I remember correctly). The drizzle had stopped before Pralognan, so at least we were unencumbered by rain gear during the climbs.

We had lunch at the shoulder then descended, at times steeply, to another balcony path, while enjoying some wonderful views of waterfalls, villages in the valley below, and of course all around the mountains of the Vanoise. In the mid-afternoon came another steep climb of almost 500m that was almost too much for Ioana mica... but only almost: this time she made it up with her pack. And we were in no hurry -- the weather just kept improving.

Midway through the final descent we came across Lidia, sunning herself by the trail. She had arrived in the early afternoon, and decided that, since she needed some training (never too late to start ;-), she would walk in our direction. She even had her full pack with her! Hugs and kisses ensued and we were all presented with wildflowers before continuing on down to the refuge, where we arrived shortly after 6PM (we didn't hurry today :-). Fortunately the refuge seems far nicer than the previous night!

Sent from my iPad