Day Two: The Miracle of La Croix du Bonhomme
Morning in Le Ferme de Bon Papa, and we scurried upstairs for breakfast. Oh, my goodness. Did I suggest the downstairs was nice? This was their own living area and our breakfast setting and it was amazing. They even had a telescope for spying on chamois up on the mountain. And the breakfast was sublime: great bread and jam, all manner of fresh fruit and the best muesli I've ever had, with three types of chocolate in it.
So I mentioned that last night Cathy's husband, M. Roux-Guerin who is a skilled mountain guide, and a cracking fellow (*) came back and reviewed our Day Two route and plan, with a view toward seeing if any of it was remotely possible with current mountain and snow conditions. His verdict: Non.
He asked what our planned next stop was. Extremely pleased, and slightly embarrassed, that we were getting the benefit of such expert advice, I rapidly and fumblingly got out my TMB cheat sheet, and read off our next destination: Rifugio Elisabetta (just over the border with Italy). He mulled this and consulted his maps. Aside from the not insignificant issue of there being a quite lot of snow still in the passes and ridges we were planning on traversing… well, his face grew very dark in that concerned Gallic way, and he told us it was simply too far. We couldn't realistically cover that distance in a single day certainly not trudging through snow, potentially thigh-deep, which seriously slows you down.
He told us the only thing to do was to book in at a closer stop for the night. In this case, that would be Refuge des Mottets, just this side of the border. Now, I knew Mottets, and it had a reputation as a slightly scuzzy joint; while Elisabetta was supposed to be pretty magnificent. That's why I'd taken pains to string things together the way I had. But, if we couldn't get to Elisabetta safely and didn't want to die trying then there was nothing for it. M. Roux-Guerin even volunteered to call and make our new booking, as well as cancel the old one. It seemed a fait accomplis.
We had only one other issue to deal with before setting off: Alex. I had suggested to him that the swelling in his knees would go down overnight to an extent that would amaze him. But his only amazement was at how much they still hurt in the morning. He simply didn't think he could do today's walk. We agreed that giving them a little time off might salvage the rest of the trip for him; and that he should take transport to Courmayeur (sort of the Italian Chamonix), we would meet him there in two day's time, and he could start anew. (*) M. Roux-Guerin arranged for a cab him. And we set off.
Oh, though first we had to hit the grocery store on the way out of town where we bought all the food we could reasonably hump into the mountains, and Tim rather diabolically managed to offload his change on everyone (including and in particular us). More power Tim, I supposed. Then we set off briskly!
Mark [admiring the gorgeous weather]: I can do 18km in this.
Indeed. And the 7-day forecast was all exactly like this: bright, sunny, 68, cool. I didn't say anything, but I was starting to get a sense this walk was charmed.
So our first long segment involved following the local river through a forest for some distance, occasionally passing other towns, and with a bit of rocky trail climbing.
Mark: “Darby Danger sent me this hat.”
Me: “She's here in spirit.”
Mark: “She also sent me the Ace of Spades Christmas card.”
Me: “She might not have, if she'd ever had to face you in the Assassination Game.”
Mark: “‘I'm glad I'm your 52nd friend.’”
Me: “That's not bad. She's very popular.”
Then we followed a gorge for a bit; and crossed over a Roman bridge ("Chemain Romaine").
As we walked, we reflected on the awesomeness of Le Ferme de Bon Papa. We'd just paid €160 (40 each) for two beautiful private rooms, an amazing main room, an entirely winning breakfast, professional guiding advice, and restaurant/accommodation/cab booking services. This was a reminder that, amongst camping, hostels, B&Bs, and hotels, B&Bs are by far the price performer. They're an eerily good value.
Soon the path opened up, and became properly Alpine looking with burbling streams, and flowers, and chalets, and mountains in the background and also some nice cows. It was getting quite warm, so I pulled over and put on shorts.
It occurred to me that both the French and Italians as we approached the border, we met more of the latter are just so good about always saying "Good day" to everyone they meet. It's lovely.
Michael: I wouldn't worry about it. I just put on shorts, for cripes sake!
Remember that line. Because the mountains were coming. And, as we were to learn, on the TMB they were always just around whatever pretty field of flowers had lulled us into thinking it was summertime. But it was only summertime in the valleys. And, today, up top, the snow-blanketed Col de la Croix Bonhomme still towered between us and the next valley, the one with our refuge in it.
And just like that, and once again, we had walked right out the back of the valley. There was nowhere to go but up.
Okay, you see that nice group of older French people with the walking sticks? → That's them going. But before they did, I had this sort of amazing conversation with them in my terribly broken French. It was amazing because, for once, our hides depended on me actually being able to communicate. Because these guys had just come down from the passes. And we really needed to know if the high route to La Ville des Glaciers was open i.e. passable, not snowed in. This turned out to be a not-totally-straightforward issue.
When I asked the French if the high route was passable, they had some questions of their own.
Frenchman: And you have no walking sticks?
Frenchman: The low route.
Team TMB huddled up and discussed the matter. Tim pointed out that mountain safety should come first every time, and there being any doubt about the safety of the high route, and there was we should take the low route. Mark suggested that maybe the French were just being sniffy. "No walking sticks? Amateurs!" I articulated two other data points: one, that it was a lot warmer than anyone had expected, and getting warmer every minute maybe the snow was melting away as we spoke; and, two, the high route was a traverse, straight across the mountain ridge; whereas the low, safe route was down into the valley and then back up again longer, and a hell of a lot harder (and for much less great views).
Finally, we agreed to table it for the time being. There was a refuge up top, right at the point at which the two routes diverged, and the people there would certainly have the best information and advice for us. All we had to do was climb up there.
We took a brief stop at the first amazing overlook. I ate the Best. Nectarine. Evar.
Tim: On any other day, it would be like: "Good job! We did it, guys!"
Mark: I'm not even sure it qualifies as a good start.
Basically, we had most of the mountain left to climb. Then we had a big snowy traverse over to Col de la Croix Bonhomme. And after that we still had seven miles to Refuges des Mottets. Endurance sports are all psychological; and we were taking great care to be mentally ready for what awaited us, in the rest of this huge, potentially dangerous day.
On the upside, the scenery was turning drastically dramatic, severely beautiful. On the downside, it was becoming impossible to avoid walking and climbing on snow.
That was our first slightly dodgy snowfield crossing, on the right there. → It was getting slick and, mainly, it was getting steep. We started being able to imagine taking a tumble, or a long slide. And we remembered those ice axes mountain trekkers mainly carry them to have a chance of stopping themselves if they lose it and start sliding down the mountain. It can be life-or-death.
It was time to break out the gaiters. → Gaiters are semi-recommended for the TMB they basically keep snow out of your boots. But they represent pack weight and volume and there's not snow on the vast majority of the route and so you can do without them. In my gear-buying spree, I'd just about classed them as a "nice-to-have" when I unexpectedly found a set of half-length gaiters at one of the frou-frou outdoors shops in Covent Garden. After a long, whiny, annoying debate with myself, finally Anna said, "What's going to happen if you do need these, and you don't have them?" So I bought them, and I packed them and you can't imagine how glad I was about to get that I had. (Tim already had his full-length ones deployed.)
I also broke out the gloves, and the fleece. Our warm sunny valley was suddenly a long way behind us.
And then, as if to underscore that we were a long way from Kansas, the sun went away, the wind came up and some distant, high-pitched bird started calling from above. Gulp.
I began to see, or so I thought, how the Everest climbers do it just digging in one single step at a time. And it did occur to me: crampons wouldn't go entirely amiss here…
And then suddenly we had done it. We were over the top.
And as we sat and savoured our triumph, somebody spotted, not a trail, but just footprints in the snow curling around along the steep ridge, beneath and below that stone whatever it was. → There was some brief confusion about whether we were at the point where the high route diverged. We weren't.
We all agreed to break out some food before we set off again.
And then onward.
So that right there → is the first of what we would come to know as snow diagonals. Basically, take a nice flat, stable bit of trail cutting across the face of a steep slope, maybe 45 degrees. No problem. But then cover the whole slope, trail included, with snow much of which is frozen and/or melting. Suddenly your path doesn't really exist anymore all there is is a diagonal sheet of snow and ice. Maybe, if you're lucky, some people have come by before you, and there are some boot impressions for you to try and place your feet in.
What you see in that image isn't that steep but, in sections, it was a damned long way down. Hundreds of feet. Farther than you could see. Okay, wait, I've just found a shot of Tim's that captures a bit of it. Here ya go.
Mark: Let's hope it stays the dodgiest thing.
Michael: I started to get complacent then I saw Le Chute. You could be one step away from dry ground, and if you slipped and went down that, it wouldn't matter.
Mark: That was probably the most dangerous part right there.
Mark was right: that did prove to be the most dangerous bit at least on this mountain, and on this day. But more and worse was to come later.
As you can see, we took a bit of a stop.
Michael: I'm pretty confident this is the most remarkable spot I've ever been in… I can't think of anything to rival it.
We stopped again, not long after in part because we knew this was a really special place, and we might never be there again; and in part because we desperately needed to break out the sun goop, and slather it all over ourselves. The sun coming down through the thin mountain air was deadly enough; but, also with it bouncing up from the literally perfectly white snow, we were getting it from every direction, and feeling the burn.
Incidentally, we determined along here that you literally couldn't do this walk without sunglasses. Taking them off for two seconds and trying to squint into the glare demonstrated that.
And with that, the flaps came down on the ole Intrepid Jungle Explorer hat. The sun was actually getting as brutal as it has been in equatorial Africa.
And then… and then, the most astounding thing happened. First we saw the refuge up ahead in the distance the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. This was the one that marked the split between the high route and the low route, and where we hoped to get good advice about mountain conditions and from whence we would start our final seven mile slog to the end of the monstrous day.
But as the refuge began to swell in our vision… it suddenly looked strangely familiar to me. I've seen this place before, I thought to myself. Where had I seen it? I must have been on its web site, when I was planning the trip. Fair enough. But it seemed really familiar. And something began tickling at the back of my brain. Wait a second… And I dug into my pack, for my TMB cheat sheet the one with every important detail about routes and timings and particularly lodgings…
And there it was.
Out ahead for once, I reached a sort of marker post out front of the refuge, and waited for the others. When they arrived, first Mark, then Tim, I said:
No, seriously. It was. It was clearly marked in the cheat sheet that we had four beds, dinner, and breakfast all booked in this here refuge, which sat in the most impossibly remote and beautiful setting imaginable. Don't believe me? Check it out. Moreover, check the facial expressions and body language on the other two:
That's them trying to get their minds around the fact that we were actually done for the day. Tim, in particular, had done such a thorough job of mental preparation of steeling himself for the enormous slog that was to come that he literally didn't believe me for about the next five or ten minutes. He initially just couldn't get his head around it.
So what the hell had happened? Well, remember the night before, when M. Roux-Guerin had asked what our next stop was, so he could assess the viability of our route? And I quickly and fumblingly got the cheat sheet out? And was all pleased and embarrassed to get this personalized expert attention? (And desperately wanted and this is a regular thing with me not to waste the man's time?) Well I had simply misread our next destination off the sheet reading out instead the stop two days hence at Rifugio Elisabetta.
This ought to explain why he was so horrified, and insistent that no one could cover that distance in a day. Because it was actually two days.
And I only realised this when we got to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, and it seemed so damned familiar. I'd screwed up but at least in the right direction. (Could you imagine if it turned out we had seven more miles after the place they thought was the finish?) There was almost no harm done. Not to mention that this was pretty much the most amazing spot imaginable and we got to stay.
So we simply walked upstairs and checked ourselves in. It's also worth noting that this was the first night the refuge was open for the season! Hence all the boxes of provisions all over the floor. They were basically moving in at the same time we were. Continue to note Tim's delighted expression.
We got our kit sorted and stowed, showered (during the posted hot-water hours solar power only up here!), bought some hydrating beverages at the front counter in my case, this peach iced tea to which I would grow inordinately attached over the next few days and availed ourselves of the absolutely unbelievably amazing front patio.
Anon, we picked up some real beverages, to amplify our joy and numb our pain. The beer wasn't cheap up here everything had to be helicoptered in but we didn't begrudge them a eurocent. Everything tasted, and felt, ecstatic.
Michael [to Mark]: The amazing thing is: this walk is almost certainly harder than the C2C and yet you're bitching about 1/64th as much as on that one.
It was true. Mark's old cranky curmudgeon routine had gone missing. Maybe it was impossible to be cranky in such a magnificent place.
Someone shouted out something about ibex. We raced around to the other side of the refuge, and just caught these guys, in the distance, on a ridge. → (We were to have much closer encounters with ibex later, but this was still very exciting at the time.)
We then heard some Anglophone voices. It turned out it was a couple of Aussies, Aaron and Lara. We made their acquaintance and pal'd around for the evening. We didn't know though it would have been reasonable to suspect, the way you sometimes get in sync with other walkers that we'd be seeing them on and off for much of the rest of the walk. They were completely lovely, fascinating to talk to, and seriously hardcore (as outdoorspeople), so this was our great good fortune to meet them.
Dinner was soup, baskets of bread, and for the veg-heads some veggie thing [my notes reveal no more] along with puréed peas; and brownies with apricots for dessert. We ate, of course, like kings. This is the table reset later, for tomorrow's breakfast. → We were already looking forward to that.
After the meal, a large and lovely French group at the other end of our table were passing around a bottle of something. When they caught us looking, they made us all have some, too. It was some liqueur they made themselves, and always brought into the mountains with them; a tradition. They told us it was "the spirit of the Alps."
The gobsmackingly unexpected end of our wandering in the mountains we dubbed: The Miracle of La Croix du Bonhomme.
What miracles might tomorrow bring?
In selling Alex on this whole caper in the first place, one of the selling points was that if it ever became too much and we knew that this was extremely ambitious for a first long-distance walk he could, in many if by no means all places along the way, hop on a bus, cab, teleferique, or helicopter, and meet us at the next stop. I stressed to Alex now how much Day One of the TMB was like Day Two of the C2C, which had almost crushed us, not least me. And how, on his dive into the deep end, so far he had done everything we had asked of him. But you can't fight your knees.
He was also one of these Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc maniacs we'd hear more about. Basically, the UTMB is a single-stage mountain ultra-marathon, where these ultra-badasses cover a slightly modified version of the same TMB route we were covering in ten days but RUNNING, and ALL IN ONE DAY. That's 166km, with 9400m total climbing. In one freaking go. M. Roux-Guerin, when quizzed, told us he does it every year. His time is generally about 40 hours. We thought that was astounding. Then he told us the winner does it in: 21.
The slope basically narrowed, and steepened, and curled up at the edges all of which would presumably accelerate anyone sliding down it before disappearing from view, presumably over a cliff. (There are no photos of this because I was naturally focusing on not falling down it and dying.)