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

Day Six: The Enchanted Valley

Today's walk was to include:

  1. A leisurely ramble through a flower-and-butterfly-filled valley;
  2. A climb up to an entirely decent col overlooking a big ole glacier, with a herd of ibex down on some cliffs below, and which took us over the border into Switzerland; and
  3. A couple of hours of actual rain, and a slog therethrough – the only real rain event we experienced on a TEN-DAY WALK.

But first let's just linger a little while longer at the absurdly magical Rifugio Bonatti, as we did on this morning.

The breakfast buffet was your pretty standard, and basic, refuge fare, though beautifully done. But the packed lunches! Most refuges will do you some kind of packed lunch for your next day's walk as, generally, there's nothing remotely like a shop or restaurant on your next segment. But Bonatti! Bonatti's packed lunches made the others' look like five miles of bad road. They included panettone nocciola – as well as big squares of excellent dark chocolate, stamped with the refuge name and crest. That's quality.

Brekkie! Gourmet trail grub! One last fawning action photo of Walter Bonatti

So the lovely old refuge pooch, who was getting pretty long in the tooth, and who was called Skip, had the charming habit of opening the doors to let himself in and out. I wanted to capture this, so came up with a food-related gambit.

Finally, it was gear up, head out – and farewell Rifugio Bonatti!

The official Team TMB photo! What a pack looks like with a pair of boots strapped to it Arrivederci, Skip!

Looks cheesy now, but here's what the notebook actually says:

I've never been anyplace like it. It's my new favourite place in the world. I hate to leave a spot like this so soon. But I know with great certainty that I will remember it all my days.

The first segment of today's walk would contour the wall of the valley opposite the Grandes Jorasses and other sections of the massif on the northeast side. As you can see, the morning was without blemish.

Ah! – as you may intuit from seeing Alex pictured above: he actually experienced that massive overnight knee recovery that I had promised him, but he didn't really get, after the first night. Good thing, because he also had very little choice but to walk himself out of here! But he was certainly feeling much better than at the end of yesterday.

Alex started wondering aloud about the relative size of the Alps. Impressively, Tim was on the spot with answers.

Tim: “Well, Everest is about twice the size of Mt. Blanc. Ben Nevis [the tallest peak in British isles] is a quarter of Mt. Blanc, thus one-eighth of Everest.”

For my part, on this day (the whole walk, really) I kept trying to decide whether to shoot at 8-megapixels, or 16. It still seemed like 8 was more than plenty for just about any use – and I was getting the fantods thinking of my old machine slowing to a crawl as Photoshop tried to open thousands of gigantic 16MP files – but, then again, it wasn't so long ago when I thought 640x480 (i.e. about a quarter-megapixel) was plenty. (*) And it also occurred to me that, one day, probably sooner than we imagine, we're going to have wall-sized displays. Alex pretty much convinced me that you may as well get the resolution now – because you can never go back and retrieve it later.

This was getting really nice.

Amazing traverse along contour of valley – massif towering to left, roaring river below that, sun ahead and above, flowers in yellow, pale yellow, white, soft red, and purple – and butterflies.

Even the Great Curmudgeon was being won over.

Mark: “Nothing but the sound of birds and rushing water.”

The panettone, it became apparent on a short break, was "to freaking die for."

That last shot isn't the kind of thing you get every day.

This is the best, most amazing day of walking ever. Butterflies, flowers, and chirping birds, as we enter a pine forest on a slope. This is a Magic Land.

I'm starting to think maybe they put something in the mountain bowls of coffee that morning. But boy was I happy.

This is the most beautiful place I've ever been. Two white butterflies doing aerial circles right ahead of me, and then peeling off in opposite directions like daredevil pilots as I approached. It's as if God said, How can I make this a little more magical? Ah – butterflies flitting in and out of the path.

For some reason I don't really have any photos of the forest we descended through – due to ogling and dodging butterflies, perhaps – and nor do I have any of Chalet Vel Ferret which we reached at the valley floor – probably because it was kind of crappy. People had driven their cars up the valley to stay there, if that gives you any sense.

Michael (to Tim): “Remember in Cornwall how we raced past all those beaches full of daytrippers? I'm having the same sense: these guys are all ‘Look how beautiful it is here!’ – and we're all, ‘Let's get the hell out of here!’”

To underscore this sense of the place, they even had the noise of a gas-powered generator.

The next stop on today's route was going to be Rifugio Elena, at the end of the valley, and at the beginning of the climb up to Col du Grand Ferret. There were two ways to get there: 1) you could take the official path, which took you back up the side of the valley a bit and contoured it; 2) you could just go straight there via a flat stroll up the valley and beside the river (and the road). If you've read any of these before, you probably know Mark's feelings about going pointlessly out of your way. We decided to divide and conquer: Alex & Mark would take the river road; Tim & I would take the path.

Michael: “I can't believe we're almost at Col du Grand Ferrett – well into the trip.”
Mark: “We're not almost there.”
Michael: “Sure we are – two hours thirty!”

I was parrotting the most recent waymarker sign. These things all had estimated walking times to nearby cols, refuges, etc. In our experience, their estimates were laughably ambitious. We got a good chuckle out of the ‘2:30 to the next col’ notion. In any case, we got going – our separate ways. The path of Tim & Michael led up the hill.

Since we seemed to be off the mountain for awhile, at the chalet I had switched into my old boots, for comfort's sake. Of course we nearly immediately encountered a snow diagonal steep and high enough that I had to switch back. (These were the wages of wishy-washiness – wanting to have it both ways with footwear.)

I believe I can fly

As I changed shoes again, I realised Tim had disappeared down into another snow cave of some sort. He came up rock-climbing the boulder rising out it. I've got video, but it's probably best sampled in the compilation music video at end.

Tim: “Thanks for changing your shoes – and giving me the chance to do that.”
Michael: “It is funny how on the best trips, problems turn into the best experiences.”

Of course, it helps to have the best, and most gracious, travel companions.

Shortly after, we rocked up to Rifugio Elena, and reunited with Mark and Alex. The joint did have a pretty great front patio, facing the Glacier de Pré de Bar, which sweeps down from Mont Dolent. But, then again, most of what you need to know about the place is embedded in the fact that you can drive there. Two fantastically annoying boys rode their bicycles up and down the patio – the older one intentionally veering so close that I was one fiber of self-control from putting him over on his side with a stiff forearm. In retrospect, I think we (or maybe just me) were chafing at being back so close to civilisation again.

Viva Italia Hot glacier action

We had a quick spot of lunch/drinks, then got climbing again! We knew we had a 450m ascent between us and Switzerland – with a thousands-years-old glacier for a backdrop.

The glacier would be staring across at us the whole ascent

Mark: “This walk is a lot like an Italian supermodel – all hard edges, and beauty, and drama. Whereas the English countryside is more like a Pre-Raphaelite beauty.”

On the way up, I had a serious discussion about leaving my old boots on top of the cairn that would no doubt sit on Col du Grand Ferrett. I wondered: Would they pass into legend – and the guidebook, in five years time, say, "Cross into Switzerland at the Garmont Vegans?" Or, rather, would mountaineers fantasize for years about finding the sonofabitch who left his boots at the col? Would some famous mountaineer volunteer to climb up there and hump the disgusting things back down again? Tough one.

Tim: “I don't think it would take too much searching of the web to figure out it was you.”
Michael: “‘TMB’ + ‘vegan’ would pretty much do it.”
Michael: “I can't get over this glacier. It's probably worth noting that none of us has ever seen a glacier in person before this trip.”

Perhaps not all that surprisingly, it turned out Alex actually had.

Unlike back in the snowfields, I was now enjoying taking off my sunglasses when it got a bit cloudy. The view felt less mediated, more immediate. Which is particularly helpful for a guy to whom everything pretty much just looks like a photograph at this point.

We hit an amazing overlook just shy of the top, looked down – and there was a whole herd of ibex, just kicking it on the side of the cliff.

Tim's signature move: the selfie photobomb

We just kicked it up there ourselves for a while, ogling the majesty of the valley and the remoteness of the spot and the grandeur of the glacier across the way. I made some notes. Tim auto-photobombed me. By and by, we carried on up to the col.

Another classic Mark pose The view across the frontier – Switzerland!

Not only did the path ahead look very snowy and a bit forbidding; but the weather was starting to roll in. We were, once again, facing that to-rain-kit-up-or-not-to-rain-kit-up decision point.

I've realised why this moment is so lousy: 1) getting out all your rain kit and kitting up is profoundly annoying; 2) getting soaked through is catastrophic (and quite possibly dangerous); and 3) putting it off and getting quite wet before having to kit up anyway, plus kitting up in the rain, plus being wet inside your Gore-Tex, really sucks. I'm usually so inclined to gamble, because the only really good outcome is not kitting up and then having it not rain.

I (alone I think) decided to gamble. But with snow once again imminent, the gaiters returned. And down we went.

Smart people kitting up Getting ready for snow, and cold, if not rain Good to go! Bonjour, Suisse!

And somewhere, not too far into the descent, the rain started in earnest. Still, we could hardly complain – the first (and, as it would turn out, last) real rain was on Day Six. We were absurdly lucky.

Not incidentally, I realise now that much of what made the trip so magical – all the picturesque snow on everything, and this due to us being so early in the season – only worked because of the ridiculously good weather. Some of those vertiginous cols, ridges, and snow diagonals would have been impassable, or at least stupidly dangerous, or at the very least no fun, in foul weather. I'd like to tell you to go when we did, in early-mid June – but I can't.

Darkening sky

On the other hand, being suddenly thrust back into a bleak, cold, rainy snowscape, so soon after gambolling through the enchanted valley, was slightly jarring.

Michael: “Hey, remember that time we were walking through those beautiful fields of pine trees and butterflies and flowers?”
Tim: “Oh, yeah – that was today.”

We got below the snow line, and it turned into a bit of a slog through a green and misty valley. Here's my proof that it really rained:

We passed by some weird opportunistic farm-cum-restaurant. We kept walking.

Rare sighting of me fully kitted up for rain battle Shiiiitt…

As you can see from that last photo above, we had a stretch along a shoulderless road that was not unfrequented by huge tractors. Not least because of the long descent, Alex's knees were also murdering him again. And, for some reason, the tops of my feet were none too happy – once again, probably the incessant descending. Finally, just as we stumbled into the tiny Swiss town of Ferret…

Oh, wait, remember at the start of Day Three, how I'd had that terrible scare with shin splints? Well I forgot to mention that, after my careful nursing, they went away entirely!

…just as we stumbled into Ferret, my right shin totally blew up. But we were in.

This was the only lodging in town, and it was an actual hotel. Unfortunately, the proprietor spoke (or, we later slightly suspected, tactically declined to speak) a word of English; and my French was far too crappy to express the concept, "Yes, we have paid in advance for dinner, along with the rooms. However, we do not believe the set menu dinner will be sufficient to power our gargantuan walk, and so we wish to order these additional food items from the menu, for which we are happy to pay, on top of the set dinner for which we have already paid."

This resulted, the next morning, in sticker shock at the bill (which, again, was supposed to be pretty much prepaid). My French was also too crappy to effectively argue the point that we were being ripped off. Tim, as usual, made the excellent point that it only came to about 30 Swiss francs apiece – too little to let ruin our day.

Anyway, the cold bottles of Swiss lager, with the cow and cowbell on the label, and we saw more than a few of them as I recall, were very nice indeed.

  alex     hiking     joy     mountains     photography     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.

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