Saturday, August 09, 2014

Alagna... not poor

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Walser hamlet

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A hamlet at 1700m

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Russell, at the second pass of the day, just post-mistake

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Thomas and Gabi on the trail

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Stage 10 -- Alpe del Gabiet to Alagna

In which ibex are seen, a mistake is made, and an unexpectedly beautiful corner of the world is discovered. Oh, and it doesn't rain... again :-)

Dinner last night, because I always start with dinner, was OK... which was OK, because I wasn't that hungry. My appetite has been decreasing as the days go by... which I take to be a good thing, since my effort is certainly not! And the resultant weight loss might explain why my long pants no longer stay up without my shirt being tucked in :-).

We all slept well -- being in a hotel we had proper beds and sheets -- and awoke to... rain. The forecast was for showers and showers it seemed was what we would have. We had breakfast and considered what to do... and while we were doing that, the rain stopped. So we left.

The initial climb was nothing special... up what in winter would be ski slopes, and through low clouds so without much of a view. But shortly after we crossed the high pass (2880m), things started to get interesting. We saw an ibex -- a large mountain goat with huge horns and essentially no fear of humans (which is how it almost became extinct) -- ahead of us next to the path. We got closer and closer until I was about 5 meters away before it deigned to acknowledge my presence and walked off. We also saw a second one a little further away, and Russell got photos of two young ones playing around up-slope behind us. Impressive animals.

Then the sun came out as we descended what would have been a beautiful and wild valley if it had not been for the ski-lift infrastructure... OK, it was still pretty wild and beautiful. We took a slightly less direct trail that climbed towards a ridge to our right, and that is when the mistake was made.

We came to a small ravine with a snow drift, and, rather than scramble down 10 or 15 meters to go around the lower end, I decided to try to cross it. Gabi and Russ followed and just before I got to the other side I heard a deep crack behind me... the snow had given way underneath Russell. Fortunately it and he did not slide down the mountain, but he bent a pole and got some abrasions on his legs. There is a saying that you live and learn, of which the corollary, I suppose, is that when you stop learning you die... today we lived and learned. Next time we come to something similar, we will do everything we can to go around rather than cross it.

We hiked on in ever warmer and sunnier weather, descending into a deep valley with huge cliffs. After lunch we walked around a corner and found ourselves in a Walser hamlet that could not have been prettier if it had been a film set. Beautiful old houses with unusual half-enclosed balconies set into the hillside with access to the upper floor via stone steps set into manicured turf, flower bedecked, and with donkeys as the primary way to move goods around. Lidia would say that it reminds her of Romania... and indeed it reminded me of Romania... complete with a painted church. Just idyllic.

Around mid-afternoon we came down into the large village of Alagna, which is apparently a fairly renowned ski resort for free-riding (which if I was more clued into the skiing scene I could explain). However, what was clear to me is that it must be popular, because Alagna looks very prosperous. We walked through it and found our hotel... which is in a large old Walser-style building. As we arrived a couple of raindrops fell upon us... the first of the day. Our legs were quite tired... we had descended over 1700m since crossing the pass... but it had been an excellent hike.

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Beautiful and rich Alagna

Romanian transport :-)

Look closely...

Romania in Val Sesia

Walser architecture

Walser hamlet


Mistake... consequences

Descent to Alagna

Ibex, up close

Friday, August 08, 2014

Following the Bilys!

Dramatic landscape

5PM, Rifugio Ferraro... is it bedtime yet?

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Big country

More ruggedy goodness

Descending from Col de la Cime Blanche

Rugged landscape from Col de la Cime Blanche

The Matterhorn

Stage 9 -- Rif. Ferraro to Alpe del Gabiet

In which we do another pass, see more great views, and go a second day in a row without getting rained upon!

But first, dinner last night at the Rif. Ferraro was... extreme. Six courses: pasta, soup, meat & veg, salad, cheese, dessert. I knew that the refuge had a reputation for good food, but I wasn't expecting what we got (and it was good too). The bunkroom was another matter... nice in various ways, but the two upper bunks had beams crossing them a mere 30cm or so above their mattresses. Saint Gabi Bily and Saint Thomas à Bily said they would take them since neither Russ nor I thought we could contort ourselves sufficiently to a) get up, b) turn over, and c) get down. I was quite exhausted (having made the mistake of hiking at Bily speed during the day), and went to bed shortly before 8:30... the others came about an hour later... but despite a lack of snoring no-one slept well. I think it was the oxygen and effort of the day.

So we got up this morning intending to hike at a more moderate pace (we being Russ and I). I'm not sure I succeeded... I once again arrived at our lodging (a small mountain hotel) exhausted after a 5+ hour hike (well, it should have been 6 hours, but Bily speed, you know). Still, a shower and a few games later I'm feeling better again. Tomorrow is another similar hike, but Sunday we have 9.5 hours to do, so I hope that I'm able to pace myself better then!

As for the hike -- up and over a 2672m pass, spectacular views, a dozen marmots and a couple of deer, no rain... just lovely hiking, as usual :-).

These valleys and ridges just south of the main Alpine ridge are quite beautiful. Very rugged, some ski infrastructure, very high average altitude of the passes, and surprisingly connected to the world. Last night there was Internet access throughout the refuge, same thing tonight... although we are 500m up from the head of a remote valley. As a result I've been able to stay more connected with the world than has been the case in the past... which has its plusses and minuses. The times they are a-changing....

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Stage 8 -- Cervinia to Rifugio Ferraro

In which the shy Matterhorn is finally seen without its veil of clouds.

The rest days in Turin were great. And for me at least, they were truly rest days, since I kept mostly to the hotel with my ankle elevated (which, I think, helped). The downside was that I hardly saw anything of the city... but what I did see looked lovely: I'll be coming back, next time not in the middle of a hike! The hotel was excellent, with a great breakfast buffet, beautiful internal courtyard, and helpful service. And, lastly, the restaurants we went to were top-notch... so it is just as well that I ate nothing between brunch and dinner each day, or else I would have reversed my (suspected) weight losses from the first week of the H3H/2.

There was quite a bit of coming and going while we were in Turin. Monday morning (early) Glen left... great to see him for some quality time. In the evening, Kristof, Corinna, & Benni arrived, fresh from a climb of the 4000+m Pollux peak that they started at something like 4:20AM... and as of 1AM the following morning they were still going strong... stunningly fit and energetic people, the Nast-Kolbs. They left Tues morning, and then Tues afternoon Thomas & Gabi Bily arrived... they will be hiking with Russ and me for the next few days. And finally on Wed morning Bea & Arnulf left, with Lidia and Madeleine, heading back to Munich, and at midday we four hikers headed back to Cervinia.

Had a nice dinner in Cervinia in a little hole in the wall restaurant that nevertheless cooks excellent steaks and makes their own pasta -- Jour et Nuit. Interesting thing about Cervinia... there are lots of Russian tourists, and you see Russian language signs all over, with Russian servers in some of the restautants. Hardly any Japanese though: seems as if they all go to Zermatt on the Swiss side of the Matterhorn, while the Russians all come to Cervinia.

Today dawned sunny and almost cloudless... so we had some great views of the Matterhorn as we were hiking up out of Cervinia... it is indeed a stunning mountain. We had a long climb to the (new) highest pass we have ever crossed in the Alps -- the Cime Blanche at 2982m. It was signposted as 3:30 from Cervinia, and we did it in about 2:20... showing two things: that the Bilys are as fit as ever, and that Russ and I have not lost any fitness as a result of laying around in Turin! Or, I suppose, the sign could have been for out of shape Russian tourists....

It was a little chilly and windy at the pass, so we walked down for a half an hour before stopping for lunch in the hot sun. But by the time we were finished the afternoon clouds had started to roll in, so we opted to finish the hike and hang out at the refuge rather than stay where we were.

Around 3:20 we got to the refuge, which is a little gem: for one thing, it has free WiFi with a good Internet connection. Then there are the unlimited hot showers, with free towels. And I've heard that the food is also excellent... looks like the gravy days are back again!

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Monday, August 04, 2014

Stage 7 -- Rif. Barmasse to Breuil-Cervinia

In which we fail to see the Matterhorn and head of to Torino for a few days rest and reflection.

Rifugio Barmasse, was, except for its lack of showers, a nice place, well-heated, and with pleasant small bunkrooms. I, for one, slept well... and long, falling asleep around 9:30PM and getting up around 6:45. The day dawned grey and rainy, and with the forecast suggesting no improvement before lunch (by which time we hoped to be in Breuil-Cervinia), we set off without much enthusiasm around 8:30.

As it turned out, the weather cleared up by mid-morning, and we were able to do the second half of the hike without raingear. The clouds remained low, so we were not able to see the Matterhorn, but they were high enough for us to see the waterfalls pouring down from the mountains on all sides. At one point I counted 20 separate waterfalls along one cliff face. Those were small, but there were some larger spectacular ones as well.

We wandered into Breuil-Cervinia, our destination for the day, around noon, at the same time as Beatrice arrived by car (her knees being in the meantime a cartilage-free zone, she doesn't do big hikes any more). Having spent the last couple of days being pampered at the Maison d'Antan... she looked (and smelled :-) far better than our unwashed and scruffy selves :-). Nevertheless she and Arnulf offered to take Russ, Glen and I down to Turin with them, saving us a longer bus/train journey, which was very nice of them... and particularly of Arnulf, who sat in the back with Glen and I, and with two backpacks spread out across our three sets of knees.

Before we left, however, we had a pizza together in a nice local restaurant, and then said a temporary goodbye to Kristof, Corinna, and Benni (aka the Energizer Benni), who were heading off up high to get some altitude acclimatization (for an upcoming climb of Kilimanjaro), as well as to cross glaciers while climbing Pollux -- a 4000+m peak to the east of the Matterhorn. Clearly our hikes of the last few days had been insufficiently challenging! We'll see them again Monday night at Lidia's birthday, and we are looking forward to hearing how things went.

After an hour and a half drive down to Turin we checked into the very nice Hotel Victoria in the middle of the city, and all, except for Beatrice, made beelines for baths and showers. The first third of the second part of the H3H was over.

So, how has it been so far? In a word: very good. We haven't had the best weather (at times we have had to remind ourselves that it is summer :-), but the number of hours spent hiking in the rain has probably been only around 20% of the total, which is pretty average for the Alps. And given the amount of up and down we have been doing, cooler temperatures are far preferable to hot ones (we've been drinking 2-3 liters a day while hiking despite average temps in the low teens celsius).

From the perspective of condition, I have probably been the least fit... but not by much, so I haven't held the group up. Frankly I've been surprised that I have done as well as I have -- three hikes in 10 months prior to starting in Courmayeur is not really adequate preparation for the hikes we have been doing! Russell arrived in very good shape, and has suffered far less than his wont (although he has added armpit rashes to his list of hiking ailments... poor fellow). And both Jean-Paul and Glen have an excellent basic level of fitness that meant that although they found the hikes hard, they had no serious difficulties. Of the hyper-fit Nast-Kolb family, the less said the better (for the egos of the rest of us :-).

And the landscapes and trails have been superb -- great variety and stunning vistas: it is a lovely part of the Alps. And so it is somewhat suprising that, despite it being August, we have seen so few other hikers (after the first day along the Tour du Mont Blanc, which always has hordes). We've seen perhaps a half a dozen other hikers a day on the high trails... which is really not much. Perhaps it is because of the weather forecasts, which have been gloomy -- worse than the weather actually turned out to be. Or perhaps it is because this is a pretty remote part of the Alps unless you are coming from Italy... and I don't have the impression that the Italians hike as much as the French or the inhabitants of the Germanic countries (Switzerland, Germany, Austria) do. Whatever the reason, we have felt as if we have had the mountains and, to a large extent, the huts more or less to ourselves.

But I'm nevertheless glad to have a break. My ankle has been swelling a little more these last couple of days and I think it will do it good to keep it elevated and largely unused for a bit. And of course it will be nice to enjoy the comforts of a fine hotel, the pleasures of fine dining, and to spend some time with Lidia and Madeleine!

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

Russell, contemplating...

The Alps, not the Rockies or the Sierras!

We have to go up there?

One of many beautiful sights along the H3H

Cup of friendship at Maison d'Antan

Near the end of Stage 6... rest days beckon :-)

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Four happy hikers

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Glen arrives at the pass after a climb of 1430m... a little tired

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Mountain beauty

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Hanging out shortly before Rifugio Cuney

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Hiking up from Balmes... another day brim-full of sweat!

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