Day Six: The Enchanted Valley
Today's walk was to include:
- A leisurely ramble through a flower-and-butterfly-filled valley;
- 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
- 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.
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!
Looks cheesy now, but here's what the notebook actually says:
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.
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.
Even the Great Curmudgeon was being won over.
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.
I'm starting to think maybe they put something in the mountain bowls of coffee that morning. But boy was I happy.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Michael: “‘TMB’ + ‘vegan’ would pretty much do it.”
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.
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.
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 (alone I think) decided to gamble. But with snow once again imminent, the gaiters returned. And down we went.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(music by Amish Rake Fight - "Sir Wellington du Beuf")
It's also worth noting that, in retrospect, the quality of images from that, my first digital camera 15 years ago, is just atrocious.