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


Day Five of the TMB was a day of superlatives, including:

  1. The longest, hardest climb I (for one) have ever done;
  2. The biggest single hunk of towering massif we'd ever see in one place (the Grandes Jorasses) – at the foot of which sat:
  3. By far the most amazing refuge (or, perhaps, lodging of any kind) most of us had ever enjoyed: the sublime Rifugio Bonatti.

But there were many miles, and thousands of feet of elevation change, between us and that magical place…

Up at 5:15am, the church bells of Courmayeur chiming the hour gently through the dual thrown-open windows, which had remained open as we slept. Downstairs for an awesome buffet breakfast, which I nearly immediately regretted not photographing; then out the door of the pleasingly Alpine-themed Hotel Berthod – did I mention they had laundry service? – and then up the trail!

Though we had to do a grocery store run for trail food – and, mainly, sun goop and lip balm! Thank eff.

Michael: When you need lip balm on a trip like this, nothing else will do.
Lovely breakfast room; awesome buffet sadly omitted Mountaineering-themed lobby Team TMB gears up

I should pause to note two additions to Tim's kit. First, in playing around with Alex's trekking poles he'd been sold him on them, so asked Alex pick him up a pair while on his recovery day. Secondly, you'll note that, previously, Tim has always declined to wear a hat. Now, Mark and I both thought this was insane (mad dogs and Englishmen and all →), but we're also both pretty slow to tell anybody what to do, plus had plenty of respect for Tim. But when he sunburned his head on the first couple of days… then had his buff out and wrapped around said head to prevent further burn… and, finally, on day four, when he was trying to cool down in another one of the bits of shade that he was always searching out… I said something like, "You know, heaven forfend that I should ever lecture you, or pretend to have all then answers… but I will suggest that wearing a hat is a little bit like being in the shade all the time." I think Mark made some supporting comment.

And somewhere along there in Courmayeur, Tim bought his hat.

‘Vision’ PS1MarkP Shrine-age Into the forest

Since we'd pretty much been doing the hard/spectacular variantes so far; and since Alex, with war-torn knees, had rejoined the party; and also I think because Mark said he wouldn't have problem one with getting some forest scenery instead of the high-level, snow-and-ice, amazing-mountain-view type scenery (that there was no denying we'd get plenty of; even if I for one couldn't get enough), I relented before popular sentiment and agreed to do the alternate low route today, via Val Sapin.

I'll go ahead and tell you here what we didn't find out until later: 1) this route was actually a bit longer, distance wise, than the high-level traverse that cut across and above the valleys; and 2) there was NO route out of Courmayeur that didn't involve a monstrous, crushing, unrelenting climb. (*) For now, we walked through some forest – which had some very nice flora and fauna. (June is flower-time in the Alps.)

Definite change of scenery I have SO many photos of Mark in this mode The climb begins But first a beetle break – WOOHOO!! Just gotta get… …up here… Yeah.

Amid all this splendour in the grass, a few words about my boot situation. As you will recall, I was forced to replace my beloved Garmont Vegan hikers, which had tried to kill me on a snow diagonal. So far the new Asolos were working out nicely: fairly comfy, good stiff platform for climbing – and, mainly, it was lovely not to have to worry about spending the external waterproofing at every stream crossing; nor spending the remaining chunks of the soles on rocks or roots. We hadn't got to any snow or ice yet, so the main virtue of keeping me alive hadn't yet been put to the test.

There's one of the new boots

However… I was making the small rookie error (admittedly, compelled by circumstances) of taking a huge walk in boots that I hadn't broken in, nor even tried out, first. The new risk was that they were going to give me horrendous blisters, which was as dangerous to the completion of the walk as absence of tread had been dangerous to my neck. The necessitated – yes, bringing the old boots along for awhile, in case the new ones gave me trouble. Accordingly, I had them strapped to the outside of my pack. In my notebook, I wrote this:

These boots have carried me hundreds of miles – now I shall carry them a few, to lay them to their last rest in the Alps.

We emerged from the mountain forest up near some sort of long-defunct mining apparatus.

What a 30x zoom does for you – it was the only way we were able to work out what that was down on the valley floor (a package tour group of some sort)

Then a bit of a traverse across what used to be mining country.

One of the dodgier ice ledge/stream combo crossings Alex laughing all the way to taking the easy way around that obstacle

Once again, we had the trail to ourselves.

Mark: Give it a couple of weeks and I'm sure this field will be full of flowers and butterflies.
Michael: When sane people do this walk… Actually, the people density has been just what I would choose – we're alone most of the time, but every time we need to cross a snowfield and find the col, there are prints in the snow and specks in the distance.
Mark: Just enough to be signposts.

Soon enough returned the snow.

Maniac trail runners

As you can see from my position in taking these photos, I got safely across. And I never had another problem with snow diagonals. To my mind, this – that the change of boots totally changed the experience – kind of vindicated my sense from the day before that I'd nearly bought it. Tim had something to the effect of, "Well, you slide a bit, but then you stop." My notebook here says:

I now see what Tim means about sliding a bit and then stopping – versus sliding and not ever stopping.

But now the climbing was to begin – in earnest, in spades, seemingly in perpetuity.

Sure enough, every way out of Courmayeur went over the mountains – we could see this now, clearly enough, looking back upon it. Ours was just the shallowest path; and not the least bit shallow at all.

Michael: Ain't that just like the TMB – today's "flat" route has the steepest ascent we've seen yet.
Like the bottom of a well Alex, still hanging in

We soon found ourselves looking down on some black mountain that we had been looking up at most of the day.

Michael: Alex, you basically just climbed THAT – how does that feel?
Alex [checking watch]: We've gained 1,200 meters.
I love this photo – but f&^%ing hell

Around this point, I decided this was the most sonofabitching climb I'd ever even heard about. Tim didn't think it was all that bad. Clearly, he's a total badass.

Michael: And I LIKE to climb!
Tim: I like to climb.
Michael: Sorry, mate. I just meant I thought I was the only sick masochist here…
On… and on… and on…

Given that Alex was on his first long-distance walk; had never climbed anything remotely like this (the rest of us had a lot of slightly less crushing climbs behind us); and hadn't had a ton of time to train, due to finishing up a PhD while working as a super-high-powered executive in the software industry… I was slightly surprised he was still alive at all. But he was definitely showing the strain. (Hell, I was showing the strain.)

Luckily! it had occurred to me in advance that there might come a moment like this. So I'd had Anna prepare the "Alex Motivator" and load the sound file onto my phone. I chose this moment to break it out:

As things worked out, it didn't motivate him in the least. (I really should have known this. Hard experience has shown that, for a person being crushed by a physical challenge, the last goddamned thing they want to hear is motivational pabulum.) But, funnily enough, it had an amazingly revivifying effect on me. I laughed pretty much all the way to the top from there.

And, eventually, to the top we got: Col Sapin, 2436m.

Tim: professional badass (even in a hat) Panorama mode here actually gives you a pretty good sense of what a col consists of Not a screaming goat, but a screaming chamois From up on that escarpment is actually where the high route hooks up with the low one again

Having battled through such hell, to such a heavenly spot, we naturally kicked it here for a while. It was amazingly nice.

It was so nice I think Alex even stopped cursing my name fairly quickly

There was sort of a high ridge that jutted back behind us, overlooking the valley we'd just climbed up out of. Me being me, I took myself out upon it.

It was inevitable: the panoramic selfie Here's me looking back at Tim, who stood at the beginning of the ridge… …ah, there he is And through the miracle of file sharing, here's him looking back at me Here he is shooting down at Mark And here's Tim photobombing <i>his own photo of Mark</i> – classic

Eventually, it was time to get moving again, off the col and down into the next valley.

As you can see, we descended into a dramatic, scooped-out valley, surrounded by dramatic peaks, and covered in snow. I stopped to get my gaiter on.

Somewhere out in the middle of this sprawling snowfield, I stopped again on a little rock oasis. I was getting some hotspots on my feet – new boots! – and, as any hiker will tell you, the time to deal with hotspots is NOW. Later, you'll be dealing with blisters, which is a MUCH worse problem. I got the aid kit out, got the boots off, Compeeded up, and then did up the laces tighter than I'd had them. This project left me trailing some ways behind the others; but, on a trip like this, foot maintenance is one investment worth pretty much whatever it costs.

Ole ‘Detachable Hand’ Heublein

Just as we had entered this valley through a cut, we were going to have to climb up to another one to get out. Mark “Vision” Pitely naturally spotted the waymarker; then when the path up to it split, chose one (wisely).

Once again, we racked out for a few minutes to enjoy being on the lip between one valley and another. But the next valley awaited, and it was to be a lot longer than this last one (plus snowier)…

Michael: I'm starting to get that “getting my ass kicked at the end of an asskicking day” fatigue…

Another little col between little valleys, another short but gorgeous break. Somewhere along here we bumped into Aaron – he and Lara had knocked off the high route of this segment, and now he was bored and still had energy to burn, so was out billygoating around.

Then the last push. But it was a hell of a push, and this day still had a couple of big surprises in store for us.

Ski slope – looks like too much fun to pass up. Whoo hoo! Video. :)

That 18 seconds alone made the gaiters worth bringing.

This last valley was spectacular – like the finale of a great fireworks display.

Amazing conclusion to huge, amazing day.
The Sage of the Alps

The seamy underside to all this glory was that Alex was paying for it in knees, sweat, and pain. (Did I mention that, on his rest days, he'd bought not only knee braces – but a whole new smaller, ligher pack, jettisoning much of the contents of the original one? That's commitment.) But no matter, now he'd just done, on his second ever day of long-distance walking, what I considered to be the steepest and longest climb I'd ever seen. This was followed by – and we'd all experienced the murderousness of this routine before, though he hadn't – a crushingly long slog at the end of the day. His knees were ground beef at this point. Luckily, we were in such a remote location, he had no choice but to keep on slogging. >^o

Bringing up the rear, but hanging in Roofs of ruins that, tantalizingly, we thought was the damned refuge
Aaron and tricksie ruins

There was sort of this ruined wooden structure just over this hill – and given our exhaustion, and keenness to be done, we naturally thought it was the damned refuge. But it wasn't – it was, basically, a mirage. Luckily, Aaron turned up again (like Hawkeye emerging uncannily from the Kentucky forest) to lead us home. Both the ruined structure, and Aaron (in red), are visible in that last photo.

Unfortunately, right about this point – I told you the day had more surprises in store for us! – the rumble of thunder sounded across the valley, and a knot of big black storm clouds started to roll in from right over the peaks! It was headed right toward us. Tim, who has a very good track record in such things, opined that the storm was only a few minutes away – and that when it hit, it wouldn't be a little sprinkle.

We started running for the refuge – albeit on feet like nerve-ridden wood stumps. I had a bit of a dilemma here, because Mark and Tim were making good time and pulling ahead; but Alex, whose legs were worse than wood, was falling behind – and, having drug him out here, I really couldn't leave him behind. That said, I didn't want to get soaked, particularly so close to shelter…

Rumble, rumble, storming trouble

We'd been getting peeks of this section of massif that ended the valley, but… well, verbatim notes are probably most apt again:

Go over rise – to most amazing section of massif yet. Literally have my breath taken (for first time).
You can also make out the real refuge for the first time – yeah, it sat RIGHT AT THE FOOT OF <b>THAT</b> Not that – just another last ruin on the path; the real one's not as close as it looked!
Mark, staying ’til end of watch
Refuge is absolutely amazing. Kinghouse [previously the most isolated and grand logding we'd ever seen at the foot of a mountain, on the West Highland Way] was amateur hour.

Mark, in his inimitably faithful and generous way, was sitting outside – until he'd seen everyone get in safely. Alex got in safely, but not what we'd call happily. I seem to recall some clattering of trekking poles, and something about being "f&^%ing done." I didn't blame him at all – knee pain with every step makes enjoying anything impossible – but also didn't have the heart to tell him that pretty much the only two ways out of this spot were on foot or by helicopter.

For now, he (and all of us) had Rifugio Bonatti to soothe our pains.

Meet the most heavily laden man in the Alps – he looked suitably pissed off, and we were glad we weren't him (we also speculated that he had killed and eaten his walking partner, whose bag he now carried) Meet the refuge pooch – sweet old thing

It was immediately obvious to everyone that this place was a total knockout. Aside from being completely beautiful, it seemed to have everything.

Awesome showers, beautiful rooms, unlimited shower tokens, multiple beers in bottles and on tap – including Weihenstephaner – and not to mention Menabrea e Figli, which is just delightful.

Tim and I sat out on the patio, chatting breezily, drinking excellent beer, and (for me) catching up with notes. Having fought through what we'd just fought through, to get to such an utterly magical place, was seriously happy-making.

Yeah. <i>Yeah.</i> YEAH.

We only learned a bit later that the magical monstrosity in the shadow of which we sat was the wild south face of the Grandes Jorasses – evidently a single mountain, but with six distinct summits. It, too, was just a total knockout. (None of the pictures nearly do it justice by the way – the camera seems to lie about scale – and it was much bigger and grander in life.) I also continued to wax rhapsodic about the amazing refuge that sat beneath it:

Power points everywhere! Hot water! Bins! Absolutely sparkling lavatories. 4 bars!

That's 4 bars of mobile reception (not 4, erm, bars). And if you think power, hot water, and rubbish bins ought to be pretty basic things to have, then you've never been in a remote mountain refuge where the only power is solar and all rubbish has to be flown out on a helicopter.

Michael: You know what this place is like? Rivendell. It's like being in Middle Earth

And thence the title of this dispatch.

Dinner was outstanding, the company excellent, the little touches around the place continued to knock me out – Bonatti had evidently gone everywhere and climbed absolutely everything, and the walls of this place showed it – I even got a post-prandial peach ice tea, and we all finally slept like the righteous dead.

(asskicking music by Celldweller - "Razorface")

  alex     gear     hiking     mountains     pitely     tim     walking     tmb  
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.

You can reach him on .

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