Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Day Three: The Frontier

Awoke in Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme to the luscious sounds of Curve – the alarm on my phone. I think I must have set it because, in a refuge, you're on a schedule. Miss breakfast and you've missed it. Also, the Italian frontier awaited us – but not until we climbed our arses all the way up to Col de la Seigne…

Returning from the bathroom, I reported:

“Mark, the room marked ‘Douches’ is for you.”

Actually, that probably better applies to me, as I am here uncharitably showing Mark first thing in the morning. → But he's a very evolved man, and can take it. Breakfast was mountain bowels of coffee and tea, juice, baskets of bread, and marmalade. Alpine trekkers, one took it, need no more.

There followed an endless wicked descent through snow and wilting sun. But it was also wicked fun, and amazingly pretty.

Gaiters on! Adieu, Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme

And who was that up ahead of us, but Aaron and Lara. (We would soon get used to them being ahead of us.)

Once we were clear of the snow line, we paused to ditch the gaiters. → We also stretched, ate a bit more – and put on more sun goop! Did I mention there was not a cloud in the sky – and the sun was just punishing? This was becoming a real issue – and it was not one I'd anticipated at all in planning. When I packed sun goop, my only was concern was: What's the smallest, lightest tube I can find? By now, those better provisioned were sharing it around; it had become an indispensable team resource.

And down And down Mark checks out an aqueduct – his kind of thing! And down on a hard dirt trail

And then… and then… oh goodness, what was that? A sharp twinge on the front of… my shin. AWW, sh!!!###…

Obsessively regular readers will remember how I came down with pulverizing shin splints at the end of the West Highland Way. They almost scuppered our ascent of Ben Nevis; they had me hobbling around, barely able to get from the lodgings to the pub; and they came out of nowhere, and would only go when they cared to – RICE and staying off it were the only treatments for the condition.

And it was happening again. Mild at first, but that's how it started last time – until it accelerated and came on like a bullet train. I was suddenly looking at the end of my TMB – when it had only just begun. I was gutted, and terrified. I immediately started keeping my weight off it – and placing that foot on the grass verge, to reduce the shock and strain of the descent.

And I prayed, very hard indeed, for this to go away – for it to not really be happening at all.

I also kept it to myself for the time being. I'm not totally sure why. I suppose I A) didn't want to whinge; B) didn't want to worry the others prematurely; and mainly C) didn't want to make it any realer by speaking its name. Though I was having trouble keeping up, and would probably soon have to explain why… For now, I just jauntily remarked on the utter absence of clouds in the sky, and its growing impact on our exposed skin.

Michael: If strong sunlight is our biggest worry trekking through the Alps, we're doing pretty well.

At the bottom of the mountain was a village – more like a little outpost – called Les Chapieux ("The hats!" How great is that for a place name? (*)) They had a tiny little cafe where we got drinks; and a really tiny little shop where we picked up what provisions we could.

And, after that, we were looking at a long, hot, sun-exposed slog up a road (to Refuges de Mottets). Pretty much every one of these walks has one slog up a road. But at least we were doing it today, rather than last night! It was getting harder to keep my afflicted leg on the grass verge. The three of us talked animatedly about jQuery. (*)

Thank Eff

By the time some bit of shelter from the sun appeared, in the form of this random one-story building, we were seriously ready for it. This trip really was like cycling through all four seasons every day. As we huddled in the shade, Tim worried aloud that we were all running out of sun goop. We hadn't been able to score any in tiny Les Chapieux; and there was by no means any guarantee of scoring any at the isolated Rifugio Elisabetta.

Most of these numerous 'streams' we forded were actually just runoff from melting snow up above us Increasingly, from <i>a lot</i>of melting snow above us… Mottets!
La Pêche!

And at long last Refuges Mottets. I got some of that winning iced tea, while Tim scored some glacé. → The refuge had a helpful sign indicating the nearest mobile phone reception in each direction. Neither was close – nor at anything like our current altitude (up, actually, at 2600m cols, in both directions). Why was this an issue? Because the Miracle of La Croix du Bonhomme meant that we were not going to be meeting Alex when we had told him we would. We had to get him an updated itinerary. And so far we were coming up empty on getting texts or calls out. Zero Bar City – population: us. This didn't bode well for ever seeing Alex again.

The climb up out of Mottets was zig-zaggy, and steep as hell – we were definitely feeling it by now – but also starkly beautiful.

Adieu, Mottets – we hardly knew vous Tim & Mark – in pano-zig-zag-vision! Heck of a setting that refuge has

Great news: climbing now instead of descending (or slogging), my shin felt fine again! Had my TMB death sentence been commuted…?

Tiny Mottets Bubble, bubble… …increasing snow melt runoff trouble

Terrible news: after a little while, the shin pain came back – along with pain in the opposite knee! (“Bastards!”) I decided one can build up, and I have built up, huge amounts of heart, lung, and leg. Its the piston parts that wear out, and you can't do all that much about those. Gulp.

As we gained altitude, the wind really started to pick up – so I clipped in my hat to my rig for the first time this trip. As I like to quip, that hat has survived the Zambezi River, the Okavango Delta, the North York Moors, and the cliffs of Cornwall; I'm not going to have it blow over a damn cliff edge now.

That's why it's on my shoulder here – when it's clipped in, I can't take it off any more than that! This is also the perch from which, intuitively, I took the next couple of awesome shots. Tim waiting for Mark to bite it

We took a little break there, because – well, jeesh, obviously.

Mark: On any other day, this would be like – ‘this is the most beautiful vista I've ever seen’… since yesterday.
Michael: On any other trip, this would have been the hardest climb I've ever done.

But enough quips, because just ahead lay the raging runoff stream that would brook no dissent. I initially tried to find a dry way across, but it just wasn't happening – moreover, I started to consider how ridiculous it would be if I got swept over the cliff edge trying to save a couple of minutes of fuss. Tim had the right idea from the get-go: we had to ditch our boots and wade.

“Waitin' for you guys” Dammit Good luck with that Oh, <i>fine</i>.<br />(The reason the picture is of me is because, by the time I embraced the obvious, Tim was already across and contentedly air-drying his feet.) Thank God for travel towels Ooh, pretty flowers…

…no flowers! Shut up and get climbing again. Climb, damn you!

And up I could actually <i>hear</i> the runoff water raging <i>underneath</i>the snow and ice we were walking on. Smilin' Tim. In fairness, Mark is probably saying something hilarious. Also note the return of Tim's Mighty Buff! And up

More clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, and you could feel the temperature drop. I was pretty sure my rate of breathing had doubled.

Mark: We've passed the conversation line.
Michael: Everyone's communing with his own misery.
Mark: This ascent is like a Russian novel. It just keeps going and going. With a little bit of beauty here and there.

We recalled the climb up to Loft Beck on the C2C, which had seemed to us like a monster at the time. That seemed a bit laughable now. We stopped, lay on our packs, and gathered our strength for the last section of the ascent.

It was sublime. We realised it was still only 3pm. But the col called, and the rest of the climb wasn't going to suck itself.

But, as we were about to learn, the vista that lay ahead was worth every gasp and stumble.

Here it comes: …the crest of the col, and the frontier with Italy The cold wind was blasting through the notch – everyone bundled up Brrr And there she is, dead center…
…Mont Blanc, her head veiled by a riot of clouds

This setting also provided what was just about our first proper look at the queen of the massif: Mont Blanc herself. → We'd be spending quality time with her in the days ahead. But right now we had to climb all the way down from this exalted place.

Oh – our phones also turned up with a whole single bar. Well, when I held mine high and jumped, it did. We managed at least to get some frantic update texts out to Alex. As to whether and when they'd be received…

And down And down

We came across this amazing snow cave that the runoff had made.

Cave paintings Critter
God's front room

We took a short stop at the bottom, just to take stock. → It was an absurdly dramatic setting, and aspect out into the valley.

Michael: It's like being in God's front room.

Some ways up this valley lay the refuge.

Refuge over left shoulder of shrine

That's actually the refuge in that last photo there, just up above the shoulder of the shrine. Son of a BITCH! After everything we'd been through today, they had to put the refuge UP on the slope of the valley? It couldn't just sit down here, where we could stroll into it? Oh, well. It was hard to be mad when there was so much beauty in the world.

Michael: This is absurd. Every time I click the shutter it's like National Geographic. The last 50 photos I've taken are better than ALL of the previous photos I've taken. Ever.

We had one, last, tiny, murderous climb up to Rifugio Elisabetta.

Damn you, rifugio persone. Damn you all to hell.
Badass Aussies!

And who were waiting for us when, gasping, we finally got there? ← Aaron and Lara, just sunning themselves and sipping beer – not only as if they hadn't a care in the world, but as if they'd been sunning and sipping all day. Badasses. (Incredibly nice badasses.)

This was also, I think, the second night open for this refuge, and they were having some serious teething pains. Ouchers. We stowed our gear – in a somewhat less nice, if more spacious, six-bunk suite (which again, luckily, we had to ourselves). I towelled up and prepared to hit a much needed shower. Oh – don't believe the sun was a serious threat on this walk? Check the leg. →

I raced downstairs – eager to beat out for shower space and hot water the group of nine French who had rocked up right behind us – bought some shower tokens, piled in, jammed the tokens… and didn't get drop one. GodDAMMIT. I found the hostel guy. Not at all incidentally, it turned out that he was the only hostel guy. (At least for a while.) When he couldn't make the damned shower work either, he incredibly graciously invited me in to use his, at the back of his private quarters. Oh, sweet, soapy lather…

At which point – fully lathered – the water reduced to a trickle. I was a long damned time getting the soap off of me, I can tell you. But I had it easy, compared to poor Mark and Tim. Not to mention every other poor bastard staying there that night. Because I was the only person to get any kind of a shower. Tim and Mark had to wipe themselves down with towelettes. Not quite the end-of-walk luxurious soak one ardently hopes for, and not to mention deserves.

Pump, damn you!

We actually saw the poor hostel bloke going down the well pump to try and get it going. I'd swear we actually saw him kicking it, even from 100 meters away. But these are the photos I ended up with.

So, maybe nobody (but me) got a shower, but we had birra, and we had this amazing setting. And dinner was – as it is after absolutely any day with this much walking and climbing – awesome.

View from the front porch The problem with Tim is he's too dynamic, and won't hold still for panorama shots, and always looks as if he'd had the Photoshop Transform tools liberally applied to him. Here's a topographic map of the whole massif, which they had on the wall. We were walking around it.

Tomorrow, we'd be skirting the steep, snow-covered slopes and ridges above Val Veni, all day enjoying amazingly clear views of Mont Blanc across the valley… on the other hand, those snow-covered slopes were going to prove nearly too steep for survival, at least for those of us who made dodgy decisions about footwear…

For now, here's your Day Three highlights music video reel!

(asskicking music by Celldweller - "Solaris")

Tomorrow, Day Four: The Day My Vegan Boots Tried to Kill Me

  danger     hiking     intrepid jungle explorer hat     mountains     pitely     tim     tmb     walking  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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