Day Four: The Day My Vegan Boots Tried to Kill Me
I won't beat about the bush or keep you long in suspense. The photo above depicts me in, or just before, the moments when I felt, more than at any other time before or since, that it was possible I might lose my life. Obviously I didn't die, and reasonable people seem to disagree about how much danger I was actually in. But there can be no question that I've never been so scared. In my mind, at the very least, this was a no-bullshit, breath-stealing, pulse-supercharging, this-could-really-be-it (the end of my whole story, right here and now) tango with death.
When I woke that morning, of course I had no idea anything like that lay ahead. I only knew I had to get enough water into the toilet to flush it, or whomever came in there after me was going to have a very breath-stealing experience of his own…
Morning in Rifugio Elisabetta. As the water was still not pumping, we awoke and stumbled out to find great buckets of water outside the bathrooms. These, it became horrifyingly clear, were for flushing the toilets. We supposed that beat not flushing the toilets. In better news, I also awoke to a flurry of incoming texts on my phone (none, alas, from Alex.)
We had breakfast and set out. This involved descending back to the valley floor…
…where we stopped to hit a pumpable water trough and fill our hydration sleeves. Aaron and Lara rocked up as we did so. I suppose all the Alpine creatures had to come by the watering hole.
Then a bit more descent. While clambering downward, we discussed as Tim and I so often do the future of travel blogging. We figured the end game would probably be a small swarm of nanobots, which flew all around you as you walked. They would videograph your entire trip, from multiple angles.
The problem with having a second-by-second video record of your trip would be, naturally, editing it. That's where you'd need a really good AI, to give you both a video montage and a photo album. You could say: "AI, give me a 100-photo album of the very greatest vistas" or "give me a 15-minute short video montage of the most amusing bits." It would have heuristics like, "If people are laughing, it was probably a funny moment" and "if people are standing in one spot looking out in the same direction it was probably a scenic spot". (*)
Finally we hit the valley floor. And we discovered where the nice rifugio employees parked.
We had a bit of a chat about a jQuery solution for more cleverly displaying all these panorama photos I was taking. Then we got on with the serious business of walking the length of this valley.
Then, naturally, it was time to climb our backsides out of there. We had read, beforehand, that every day on this walk was mostly up and then down, or often up then down then up again. But it took a few days to internalize what that really meant the visceral feel of multiple ferocious climbs and descents on every single segment. Mark and I kind of agreed that every day on the TMB was about like the toughest day of the C2C multiplied by about 1.5. Every day was huge.
We soon caught our first clear look at Mont Blanc. That's her in that that last photo there, her head shrouded in cloud.
Tim: Because it's significantly higher than everything else.
Very soon even the cloud at the top would clear out, and we'd have totally unobstructed views of the summit, virtually all day.
There were good ole Aaron and Lara, seemingly waiting for us up ahead! Unfortunately, what they were up ahead OF was the dodgiest iced stream crossing yet. Where it turned from ice cover to stream was a very fluid concept. Check it out:
It was only when we got across safely that Tim pointed back and said:
It looked like a damned severe and unforgiving place.
In fact, we'd learn later that several climbers had died attempting the ascent at almost the exact time we were within sight of it. This mountain's prettiness belies her lethality: she claims the lives of nearly 100 hikers and climbers a year. Seriously.
We took a bit of a break, along with some others, at this defunct refuge. Then onward!
Hey! It's Aaron and Lara. They were (seemingly) waiting for us at about the most spectacular promontory going in God's Alps. We laid around and shot the $#!^ with them for a while, and drank in the absurd gloriousness.
Okay, that was a fairly dodgy, if blessedly short, snow diagonal there. We debated, just theoretically, and as we were crossing it, what a fall/slide off of that would mean:
Mark: Could we not be having this conversation right now?
Michael: It's only about 100 meters down, but it's every bit as dangerous as that earlier 500-meter precipice. You'd be exactly as dead when you hit the bottom.
Then another bit of a break, because, hey, obviously. The only sound was the distant rumble of the water channels crashing off the mountain below the snowline. You could actually hear it all the way across the valley.
Onward! (Unto near-death, as it turned out…)
And, at long last, the diagonal that (I believe) almost killed me. Take another quick look at that again for me. → That shot shows the verticality pretty well. And it falls off several hundred feet below that. For some reason that I wasn't able to work out at the time, Aaron and Lara were stopped waiting on the other side watching our traverse. I'm pretty sure now they were waiting to make sure we got across okay.
As usual, I was trailing behind, taking photos and scribbling notes. By the time I reached the snow, Tim and Mark were already well out onto it. Simple social pressure applied here. If they went this way, I needed to go this way. ← I was halfway out across the first section before I realised I was in trouble. By the time I got to the little snow-free island in the middle, I knew I was in serious trouble. But, by then, there was no safe way out. I sat and tried to get my breathing under control, and tried to work out how I had gotten into this pickle…
Let's pause here briefly to talk about hiking boots.
Regular readers with great memories will recall that, after obsessive research and some sizing follies, I bought this pair of Garmont Vegan hikers for the Coast to Coast Path back in 2005. Now, I'd done a bit of hiking before that, but had always relied on whatever non-leather hiking boots were going at Payless Shoe Source. But I wasn't so naive as not to realise that, for a 191-mile walk, I needed something a bit better. I was also pretty determined to avoid leather. The Garmonts were awesome high-tech, carefully and cleverly designed by hiking footwear experts, non-leather, and even very cool-looking. They took me across England, around Cornwall, and through the Highlands, as well as on a number of shorter day hikes. But they now had seven years and hundreds of miles on them. They had also turned out to be, to my considerable disappointment, not quite waterproof. That was a problem. So, as part of the extensive gear-buying phase of TMB preparation, I sought new boots.
To keep the story brisk: Over months of looking, I basically just could never find anything that was as comfortable as the (of course, more than completely broken-in) Garmonts; in fact, I could never find anything that felt at all comfortable in comparison to the Garmonts. This was very frustrating. I was also having trouble finding anything free of someone else's skin. In the end, I concluded the following: On a 168km walk, with over 30,000 feet of climbing and descending (that's the equivalent of going up and down Everest from sea level), COMFORT TRUMPED EVERYTHING. Nothing could be more important than comfort. So I was going to stick with what I had for just one more walk.
On the day currently under consideration, however, I learned nearly to my substantial cost that one thing actually DOES trump comfort: SAFETY.
Basically, the tread on the Garmonts was shot. Kaput. And I'd totally failed to anticipate (which a reasonable preparer for such a walk, at such a time of year, might well have anticipated) that there would be times that I would be on snow and ice on steep slopes and around cliffs. (I'd also failed to realise that all that cushy comfort was in part a symptom of all the stiffness being gone from the boots, meaning they probably weren't providing adequate support.) I'd had a few hints of this on the earlier snow diagonals. But here was where it came home to roost.
After I'd made it across safely, Tim maintained that I was probably never really in that much peril. Mark was a little more sympathetic; he said something like, "I didn't think I was going to slip; but I was aware that if I happened to slip there, that would be it." And both of them had more or less strolled across this expanse. Why couldn't I? The difference, I maintained and still maintain, was the shoes and the others had never been in mine. They had not had the experience of feeling those tread-worn boot soles slide out from under them, or start to slide out from under them, about 10,000 times so far on the snow and ice we'd been walking on.
The difference was: now, if my feet went out from under me, I was going to die.
I could picture so clearly the beginning of that slide, me heading down the slope and picking up momentum, and then going into open air at the cliff edge at the bottom. And suddenly I realised: this could actually be IT. The end. I realised that every step I took, every little foot-hold I dug out for myself with my toe, every way I shifted my weight, could potentially have a fatal and eternal outcome that every little move I made had life-or-death consequences. And that my life was utterly in my hands. And mainly I realised that suddenly, somehow, I was in a very, very serious situation.
From my pause at the halfway point, I managed to communicate some of this to the others. In a magnificent gesture of bravery and solidarity, Tim offered to come out, get my pack, and carry it across for me. As I thought this might well have a strong impact on whether or not I got to live the rest of my life, I happily took him up on it. Now all I had to do was cross the remaining distance. There → is a photo of me doing that. Here's the video Tim shot:
I initially didn't think I would include any account of this episode here. Why worry and terrify my loved ones? But finally (pretty quickly, actually) I decided A) it was all over, and I was fine; B) I'd sure as hell learned my lesson, and wouldn't be making that mistake again; and C) it was, subjectively at least, such an extreme and primal and affecting experience that I just couldn't leave it out. In closing, here are the notes (verbatim) I made in the next twenty minutes or so after getting through this. I was very keen to capture my mental state in those moments.
+ Consciousness of being just on this side of the knife edge of slipping and being able to imagine so clearly what it would be like just the other side: This is it.
+ Knowing that every single one of these footsteps has to hold for me to make it. And only one has to slip for me to not make it.
+ Was so scared at 3/4 point of first section, that I actually wanted either to make it across, or to slip, just so it would be over. Last 10 steps same thing, rushed through the step-making just to get it over.
+ Haven't gotten my breath back 20 minutes later.
+ Muscles, including legs, weak from adrenaline wash/fatigue.
I vowed I wasn't going to put myself in that position again. And I knew one other thing: I had to buy new hiking boots in Courmayeur.
We descended out of the snow into, a bit ironically, an area of snowless ski slopes and dino-skeleton chair lifts. The guidebook said it wasn't very nice; but only by the standards of this walk.
Michael: Heck, that's the most dramatic mountain I've ever seen before this trip.
There followed what was a truly brutal, unrelenting, and seemingly totally never-ending descent through a forest. We quickly wished we had taken the cable car down. (Though I'm not sure, now, that it was running.)
Somewhere on the descent, I passed a hollow, dead tree stump that had been redeveloped as a huge swarming nest of ants. I pulled up short to take a few photos. As I did, one of the ants somehow smacked me in the face. At that moment, Mark caught me up.
Tim: [sensibly goes dashing by, wordless]
Michael: And that's why we bring Mark along.
Mark: Yeah, if those were safe, I'd be stopped looking at them.
We carried on down what we dubbed the Escherian Mountain Trail every time it looked impossible that it could go down anymore, it somehow did. Finally, after a lot more time and pain than you would guess from the mere four photos depicting it above, the descent ended, and we emerged into, well, the suburbs of Courmayeur.
At long last we stumbled into the lovely Hotel Berthod. And who was there but Alex! Yay! He'd recuperated, gone para-gliding, laid in a whole bunch of great food and drink in the mini-fridge and, most amazingly of all, he was there! He hadn't gotten any of our texts, hadn't heard a peep out of us. Instead, he still thought we were supposed to be there the prior day but he hadn't panicked, and had hung out and waited for us anyway, and here we were!
The funniest part was that as I stood in the doorway to our room, relating the whole story he had missed (of The Miracle of La Croix du Bonhomme, the near-death diagonal, etc.), suddenly his phone on the end-table starting rapid-fire chiming. It was all of our frantic texts from the past two days coming in. We'd beaten them there by about ten minutes. (*)
After blessed showers and settling in, we all went out and hit the town.
Our first port of call was, of course: any (and every) place selling hiking boots. As this was a total skiing/mountaineering town I'd had my boot failure/near-death experience in a propitious locale this shouldn't have been much of a problem. It was anyway, as I brought much of the pickiness that had resulted in me not managing to buy a pair in the first place. Everything was too uncomfortable, or too expensive, or too leathery, or too gay looking. Luckily, Tim went into well-practiced Michael Management Mode. The crankier I got, the more patiently he brought around new pairs for my consideration, dug up my size amongst the stacks, made soothing suggestions and other calming noises, etc. etc. I finally got a nice pair of Asolos (a great Italian boot maker) for I think about €120. They were a little too stiff for my taste, and they had leather in the uppers but, as I've always maintained, if it's the cow or me, the cow's going down. That isn't the case often in life, but it certainly was here.
Much to my disgruntlement, Alex then took us to a burger joint called… the American Bar. In fairness, it was the only place open for food right then and, moreover, I extracted agreement from the others to go to a real Italian restaurant later on. No one had a problem with two dinners. While the waitress addressed us in English, and the others scoffed burgers and onion rings, I sullenly sipped beer in the corner.
We then headed back, took siesta and finally headed out for second dinner. I got a recommendation from a local for a place called La Terrazza. It lived up to its name (it was half lovely terrace) and the beer, pizza, and salads were bellissima. The enormously entertaining owner kept dropping by our table, dripping character. He handed me my pizza, which I had asked for "senza formaggio" with, erm, whatever the Italian is for "with a shitload of cheese!" He brought us out some free hot peppers, I think mainly to see our reactions when we tried to eat them.
Back at the hotel, I became the hero of laundry, when I picked up our big service wash, and distributed the spoils.
It occurs to me now it may well have occurred to us then, but if so it didn't make it into my notes that, if one really did record the video from all angles, then (at that stage of technology) it should certainly be possible to create a 3-D VR environment which would allow you to jack in and re-experience the whole trip or just jump into favourite bits of it, optionally taking along friends with whom you wanted to share it at any time.
Tim, who has done quite a lot of development integrating SMS services, had a decent understanding of how they worked, and somewhere along the line posited what was probably happening. Basically, the network tries to deliver your message and if it can't find the recipient, it queues the message, and waits some short period of time (seconds? minutes?) before trying again. But each time it fails, it more or less doubles the delay until the next attempt. So, basically, if your recipient can't be found in the first day, the queued texts will only go looking for him at like day intervals.