Saturday, August 02, 2014

Stage 6 -- Rif. Cuney to Rifugio Barmasse

In which we rebound, do a lot of up and downs, wade through muck, and find that a swim in a lake is better than a(n ice-)cold shower.

I ended up not falling asleep after blogging yesterday, because I was still too cold. I just lay there and shivered. I had actually eaten after we arrived, but it didn't seem to do any good. Russell, always taking care of his brother, came in and piled another couple of blankets on me, which helped, but I kept shivering. The solution was, as it turned out, a hot meal. After the first course of dinner (a large bowl of pasta, tomato sauce, sausage bits, and parmesan cheese) I felt normal again. And we had a really nice evening -- plenty of food, good conversation, some singing, and afterwards, nobody snored!

The following day we woke up to rain. In fact, it poured while we were having breakfast, so we were a little concerned... but then it stopped and we were able to walk for the first couple of hours without rain-gear. The trail was very up and down -- oscillating between passes at over 2700m and mountainside traverses dropping down a few hundred meters lower. We couldn't see into the valley much of the time because we were in the clouds, which was a pity because when we could see it was spectacular.

After a while it started to rain, but it wasn't very cold and it didn't rain very hard, so we were able to hike just with rain-jackets, which isn't much of an irritation. A greater irritation was the poor state of the trails towards the end of the day -- muddy and used, unfortunately, by cows at least as often as hikers. Yuck.

But all in all it was a nice hike. We arrived about 15:30, and found that we didn't have to take a cold shower (yay!), because there were no showers at all (urk!). Several of the more robust members of the group headed off to the nearby lake for a swim... while Corinna and I opted for the sink. The swimmers came back and announced that the lake was much warmer than the showers had been the night before, although Glen was heard to say that he travelled all the way here from Finland to swim in a cold lake?

A few images from earlier days that I forgot to mention:

o after reaching the col yesterday (after a climb of some 1430m), we were feeling quite pleased with ourselves and spontaneously broke into a rousing chorus of Don MacLean's American Pie accompanied by the music playing on my cellphone.

o a few days ago Jean-Paul said, upon hearing that the first and third day's hikes were rated as "easy", and I quote, "And my ass is chicken?" ("Et mon cul est du poulet?" in the original French). It has become an oft-used phrase on this hike :-).

o Kristof, each day at lunch, making espressos for us all with his portable coffee maker. We decided that we would like such a device... but only if it came with a Kristof:-).

o drinking the "cup of friendship" the second night at the Maison d'Antan -- a complicated concoction withsugar, several different types of schnapps etc. and coffee, in a large covered bowl with several spouts, which is then flambé-ed and passed from hand to hand for everyone to sip.

The weather hasn't been perfect, but it hasn't been terrible either... and the company has been great. Thus far the H3H Part 2 has been thoroughly enjoyable!

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Friday, August 01, 2014

Stage 5 -- Balmes to Rifugio Cuney

In which we are put to the test, and pass, just.

What a great rest day. A warmer reception than at the Maison d'Antan I don't think I've encountered elsewhere, and the food and rooms were also excellent. There are times when one regrets having a plan....

After a copious and very good breakfast we set off shortly after 9AM. We were now seven, having added Kristof & Corinna and their son Benni, Arnulf, and our cousin Glenn. A tough hike awaited us: after a short initial descent of 175m, there woukd follow an unbroken ascent of over 1430m, at times quite steep. And once at the 2780m pass, we would still have about 2 hours of hiking still to do, including a couple of hundred more meters of ascent (almost 1700m all told). For those who haven't hiked in the mountains before, this is a ton.

To cut a long story short, because I'm exhausted and lying in bed covered by four blankets typing with one hand, we made it, but I think that a few of us, including me, were near our limits when we got here.

And why four blankets and one-handed typing? Because the showers here were not just cold, they were glacial, and that plus being close to hypoglycemia gave my system a shock from which it has yet to recover.

I think I'll take a nap.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014


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I am soooo ready for a rest day...

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Stage 4 -- RIf. Champillon to Balme

In which we learn the truth of Korzybski's dictum that "The map is not the territory".

After an appalling night in Rif. Champillon we set off before 8AM the following morning under partly cloudy skies.  The night was appalling because one of the people in the room was, as the Germans say, "hüttenuntauglich"... in other words, he snored.  And not just a gentle, decent, civilized snore... no, this was a primal, bellowing, bestial snore that declaimed to all and sundry that here was a man with hair not only on his chest, but also on his upper arms, neck, and perhaps even on his back.  Of course, I don't know if Jean-Paul actually has hair on his back, but that is what it sounded like.

Being a gentleman I will of course refrain from saying who the culprit was.

Ahead of us was a long day, but not as long as it might have been, because we had decided not to do the 8.75 hour planned hike over a high pass, but instead a variant along lower trails.  Frankly we were tired when we started... in particular me, due to two and a half tough days of hiking, inadequate training and, I have to add, unnecessarily inadequate sleep.  Not that I bear a grudge or anything against the b*****d responsible ;-).

Still, even the shorter route would take us over 6 hours, and would have over 1500m of descent... very tough on the legs.  And it started off with a bang:  1100m steeply down to village of Ollemont.  Still, the weather was fine, and the day was young, so we arrived about 2 hours later in good spirits, which only got better when we bought large and heavily laden (cheese, mortadella) panini for lunch.  Then we walked off further downhill, bottoming out around 1150m... 1300m lower than we had started the day.

We strolled along a traiil that followed a disused aqueduct before stopping for lunch at a place with great views of the valley, of a huge waterfall opposite, and stunning mountains all around.  The panini were GOOD.  All was well with the world again... until I stood up.  Feet, back, legs... all were feeling beaten up:  I was so ready for the upcoming rest day.  But first we had to finish today's hike, and the trail led us off up the mountain.   

It was a secondary trail, unlike the "major" trail we had originally planned to take, and we soon found out that this meant two things:  the trail was much less well marked than a "major" trail, and it looked like it had not been maintained for a decade or more.  At any rate, we were soon confronted with stretches where it was very unclear which way to go, and several times we had to bushwhack for a while (wander around the mountainside) until we found the trail again.  We were not helped at these times by our unreliable map, which (we had already ascertained during the previous couple of days) bore only a passing resemblance to the actual state of affairs on the ground.

We eventually did find our way to Balme... but it took much longer than planned... about 7.5 hours of hiking time.  At least the weather had been good.  And a rest day awaited us!!!!

And now it is the afternoon of the rest day.  The Maison d'Antan where we are staying is wonderful -- superfriendly and helpful service, excellent food at dinner last night (cooked by "Mama"), lovely rooms, comfortable beds, great showers, a sauna and a jacuzzi... the list of pleasures seems endless.  Jean-Paul, who had a room to himself last night (:-) left at 9AM... we'll miss him!  Except at night.  On the plus side, our friends Kristof and Corinna and their son Benni showed up around 3PM and we are expecting our cousin Glenn and another couple of friends, Bea and Arnulf, to arrive in the next few hours.  During which time I will be in the sauna and/or the jacuzzi working up an appetite for what will without doubt be another great dinner.

I love rest days.

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Col de Champillon -- we worked for this one!

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The three stooges

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Stage 3 -- St. Rhemy to Rifugio Champillon

In which we confront... and conquer... the challenge of bad weather and a high pass

I must have been really tired that night in St. Rhemy -- I titled the previous blog post Day 3 when it was only Day 2. Please rest assured that this blog post really is for the third day... I know this because I'm not tired... it's our first rest day (after four days of hiking), and we are in the beautiful Maison d'Antan in Balme taking it easy!

But back to Stage 3.... Dinner in the Hotel des Alpes was excellent... both the food and the service... but the weather the following day, well, that was not so good. The forecast was for heavy rain in the morning, and less heavy rain in the afternnon, with the snow line climbing from 2550 to 2650m... a little disconcerting since we were facing a 2725m pass. However, we woke up to suprisingly sunny skies, and allowed ourselves a ray of hope... which didn't last long. By the time we walked off after breakfast the sky had clouded over, and around 11AM a steady rain set in.

At noon we stopped at a convenient ruined hut... the first shelter we had seen for a while... and wolfed down lunch. It was time, both because we were running out of energy, and also because the big climb of the day -- some 900m up to the Col de Champillon was just ahead. Climbing in rain gear is never fun... it restricts one's movements and one tends to oscillate between being too cold and overheating. Add in the slippery footing and you can imagine that my two hiking partners didn't react with enthusiasm when I reminded them that we were here to have fun.

The climb was relentless, and some two and a half hours later morale was low, and we were getting hungry again, when we saw the pass ahead for the first time... covered with snow. You could almost hear the last reserves of energy fizzle away. Fortunately there was another ruined hut... the first one we had seen during the whole climb, right there... so we stopped for a second lunch before the final stretch. And when we came out of the hut we found that the rain had stopped... and we even had a little sun as we went up the last couple of hundred vertical meters to the pass. Things were looking up!

It turned out that there was only a little snow on the ground, so we had no problem following the trail, and the grassy pass was reached without further ado. Another challenge on the H3H surmounted!

After the pass we had a short 300m descent to the Rifugio Champillon where we found the hut full of soggy hikers, a tiny room shared with two others, minimal water pressure in the shower, and uninspiring food. But we weren't bothered... after such a day minor annoyances are seen for what they are: just minor annoyances.

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Before Malatra (sorry... not in order)

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Maximal sweat line = maximal effort!

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What one looks like after crossing Col Malatra

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Looking back at Malatra... how the heck did we get down?

Highest pass yet!

The path to Col Malatra

Happy hikers!

Mont Blanc

Looking back at Courmayeur... are we there yet?

Courmayeur... the last time we'll feel this good for a while!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Day 3 -- from Rif. Bonatti to Saint-FRhemy-en-Bosses

In which we cross the highest pass we have ever done in the Alps.

We shared a room at the refuge last night... and a liter of wine at dinner. Not a good mix. One or both of my otherwise charming hiking partners snored vigorously on and off during the night. Oddly, I wasn't that bothered... because I felt that I couldn't sleep anyway. First night in the mountains, or being overtired after the day's hike? I'm not sure, but although of course I must have slept, it felt as if I hadn't. Not a big deal... were it not for the hike we did today -- over the 2928m high Col de Malatra, the highest pass we have done in the Alps (even higher than the infamous Hohtürli in the Berner Oberland (2820m) that was our previous best).

Breakfast consumed, good-looking packed lunches received, we set off under partly cloudy skies. Whereas the day before the trails had been crowded (a beautiful day, a Sunday in August, a hike near Courmayeur, and, most importantly, a part of the famous Tour de Mont Blanc, which attracts tens of thousands of hikers every year from all over the world), today we saw exactly one other hiker between Rif. Bonatti and Rifugio Frassati (on the far side of the pass), where we stopped for lunch (I had forgotten that it had been built in the years since my map was made... not the only map error of the day...). It was a good example of something I often say to people who ask if the Alps are not perhaps too crowded: it depends where you hike -- there are plenty of beautiful trails where you will only see a couple of other hikers all day.

The climb to the pass was gentle, but relentless -- by the time we got to the top the sweatline on the brim of my H2H hat had advanced to the very edge... something that only happened a few times on the H2H. And I was only wearing shorts and a light short-sleeved hiking shirt. So I was really working... and Jean-Paul and Russell confirmed that they felt the same way. The pass itself was a jagged rock barrier, looking like something out of a fantasy novel, and the descent on the far side was extremely steep for the first 100m or so... partially secured with cables, but even so not something for anyone with even a trace of vertigo. When we looked back 20 minutes later it was hard to believe that we had been able to come down from the pass -- the slope looked completely vertical.

We stopped for lunch at Rif. Frassati, which was the most Italian place we had been to... meaning that no-one spoke anything other than Italian. Which is how we came to be sitting at a table at 11:30, ordering lunch, and then learning that the kitchen wouldn't provide food until 12:30. That was too long to wait, so we were ready to go with our packed lunches when we were made to understand that something warm could be done by noon... and that convinced us to stay. We had a simple bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan, which was heavenly -- it really is better in Italy, followed by a mixed plate of charcuterie and cheese (including one that Russell pronounced as being the most ammoniac he had ever tasted... not usually praise, but in this case it was also an excellent cheese!).

We left at 12:45, as a few drops of rain began to fall, triggering the usual series of raingear on, raingear off to remove underlayers that were too hot, raingear on, raingear off again because it was still too hot and had stopped raining, raingear back on because it started raining again, and so on.

It was a long descent into Saint-Rhemy-en-Bosses, over 1250m from the pass, a major test for my ankle. Fortunately, although I was very tired by the time we got down, the ankle was fine. I was also pleased to hear from Russell that he was very surprised at how fit I seemed to be, given that I had essentially done nothing for the previous 10 months. I shared, and share, his suprise. I think it must be that once you get really fit for mountain hiking, it takes a long, long time to lose that condition. Nevertheless, by the end of both Stage 1 and today I was really tired... more so, I believe, than either Russell or Jean-Paul.

And what I'd really like to write now is that we arrived at the hotel and all was well. But that's not what happened. We arrived at where the map says the hotel was, to find... no hotel. The map was just wrong. The hotel was about 1.6km and some +/- 100m away... a hike I was NOT happy to make at the end of the day (ahem... well, relatively speaking... we started at around 7:30 and arrived at the hotel at 3:20PM). And of course it started raining fairly hard about 10 minutes before we got there, so there was that too.

But then we finally arrived at the hotel, and all was well. We each had separate rooms and I think everyone did the same thing: took a shower, got into bed, and went to sleep. It is now 19:15 and dinner is at 19:30, so I think I'll go and find out if they are still asleep!

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Stage 1 -- Courmayeur to Rifugio Walter Bonatti

In which we have a perfect first day of hiking.

Today dawned bright and sunny, and by the time we set off at 10AM it was already quite warm. The hike being short, only 4.5 hours, and with a great lunch spot about midway, there was no reason to leave earlier, so I had to suppress my martinet instincts. After a short stretch along a road climbing out of Courmayeur the fun began.

First woodland, then high pastures with a myriad flowers and clouds of butterflies. We have heard from a few people that the summer has been awful so far here, so my guess is that the normal flowering time at this height (we spent most of the day walking between 1900m and 2050m) has been delayed vis a vis normal -- at any rate I wasn't expecting to see so many flowers at the end of July this low and this far south.

We had a very satisfactory lunch then followed a balcony trail, with stunning views across to the glaciers and cliffs of the Mont Blanc massif, for a couple of hours in the afternoon to RIfugio Bonatti, our accommodation for the night. Quite a nice place it is too -- we have a four person room with two single beds and two bunk-beds, and clean sheets! The only flaw thus far has been the instructions for the shower, which omitted to mention that if one turns off the shower mid-flow (a standard thing to do to economize on the limited amount of hot water available in a refuge), the token drops... i.e., no more hot water. I found this out about 30 seconds into my shower... and the rest of it was icy cold :-(. As in bye-bye meat & two veg level of cold (thanks to Russ for the image).

And now, to answer the question that I expect that quite a few of you have -- how's my ankle doing? -- the answer is, so far so good. Just a little discomfort while hiking today, and very limited swelling. I think tomorrow morning I'll probably feel fine... but the real test comes in tomorrow's hike: 900m up to a 2925m pass, then 1275m down to our hotel. If the ankle is still fine after that, I'll start to feel pretty optimistic about its chances of holding up for the rest of the month.

We all agreed that we are lucky dudes. A great way to start off a long hike. Now, the weather forecast for the day after tomorrow is a little scary (everything from heavy rain to thunderstorms to snow to, on a few weather sites, just showers)... but we'll cross those snowfields and raging torrents when we get there. For now, life is good.

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On the train to Chamonix... mountains!

Day 0 -- Travel to Courmayeur

In which I suffer an attack of "this is not my beautiful train"-itis.

The day of departure having finally dawned, I grabbed my pack (which had been ready for two days) and at precisely 8AM headed out the door. Everything had been carefully timed so as to get me to Entreves, where the first part of the H3H finished, in time to walk from there to our hotel in Courmayeur (thereby allowing me to say that I "walked the whole way"). S-Bahn arrives on time, check. At the airport on time, check. Flight leaves on time, check. Arrives on time, check. Luggage appears, check. Purchase train ticket to Chamonix, check. Train leaves on time, check.

And then it all goes kablooey. We get to the station in Geneva, and I surface from reading Tolkien on my phone to hear the announcer list the stations at which the train will stop. Urk! Martigny, my destination is not one of them. I'm on the wrong train! I jump off the train, thinking fuzzily while I do that I thought there was something wrong because this train was going to Brig, to the east, and Chamonix is to the south. I run to the next information point and explain my dilemma... only to hear that I was in fact on the right train: they just don't list all the stations they stop at. By the time I'm back on the platform, the train, of course, has left. There should be a word for this sort of sudden fear that one is on the wrong train... it isn't the first time that it has happened to me, and Russ says it has happened to him more than once as well.

Anyway, as a result my arrival time in Chamonix is pushed back an hour... and we won't have the time to hike from Entreves down to Coumayeur. Drat. I SMS Russ to tell him why I'm going to be late and he says, why didn't you just take the bus from the airport? The bus, it turns out, takes 40 minutes and costs 35 Euros... the train takes 2 hours and 20 minutes and costs 65 Euros. Hmmm... who planned this trip? I feel as a result even more disoriented and that is perhaps why, in Martigny, I take Swiss Francs from an ATM so as to be able to pay the taxi driver who will take us from Chamonix to Courmayeur through the Mont Blanc tunnel. Ahem. Chamonix is in France and Courmayeur is in Italy. Oh well.

On the plus side, the train ride along Lake Geneva via Montreux, then up the Rhone valley to Martigny, then on a cog railway climbing up a mountainside and through a high valley to a pass leading to the Chamonix valley is spectacular. Much better than the bus ride would have been. Seriously. No, really. Honest, I'm not just saying that. Why are you laughing?

So, aside from the fact that there is this niggling gap in the H3H that makes it impossible, at the moment, for me to say that I have hiked the whole way, everything is fine. Met up with Russ in Chamonix, and Jean-Paul in Courmayeur, the hotel is fine, we had a good dinner, and the sky is blue this morning. Not sure where the other five hikers are who reserved... but that's a story for another blog entry. The trails call....

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