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

Day Nine: On the Air of Heaven

“Why, if the Soul can fling the Dust aside,
 And naked on the Air of Heaven ride…”
- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Morning at Relais du Mont Blanc, Trient. Breakfast was the standard (bread, jam, and coffee), and conversation was about the day's walk – our second to last of the trip. It would commence with a 400m-ish climb out of this valley, up to Col de Balme. But it would culminate with the vaunted steel ladders bolted into the cliffsides below Téte aux Vents – the longest of them nearly 100 feet up a sheer face; and it would end at the remote and magical Refuge du Lac Blanc.

Little did we know – the ladders would turn out to be under refurbishment! And a detour had been put in place – one involving ropes and steel spikes pounded into the rock! But first we had to get moving, and climb ourselves up out of there.

Alas, the day began as it meant to go on – with a detour. The main path up the side of the valley was now the site of some sort of heavy construction. And, if we even understood the construction guy correctly, the detour was a ways further down the path. Yeah, there's nothing for morale like starting out a huge day going the wrong direction – not only out of our way, but also losing a bunch of elevation that we were immediately going to have to climb up again. We fell in with another couple who made us less apprehensive we were going completely the wrong way. →

Divert, all ye who enter here

At last, the damned alt path. ← We could finally get down to the business of getting our asses handed to us by this climb. As we slowly, laboriously started to get back up toward 2000m again, it began to cool (thank eff) – and I found I was feeling more at home. From notebook:

The valley's okay – but it is by no means where the spirit of this walk, or for that matter the spirit of the Alps, live.

We finally reached the end of the diversion – and finally found out what they were doing with all the heavy equipment up there: "Exploitation Forestiere par Telepherique" →

Me: “Well, if you're only diverted once on a 168km walk, that's not so bad.”
Strong sun – hat flaps down! Though we definitely take a coolness hit with flaps down

We stopped for a rest just past the end of the diversion – and after 505m of climbing, according to Tim's iPhone's GPS's altimeter. I broke out my cached panettone nocciola, from way back at Rifugio Bonatti. This made me very, if briefly, popular. After all, I was responsible for, well, as the guidebook had it:

“This is one of the steepest and longest ascents on the Tour, on a par with the ascent out of Courmayeur…”

And, as usual, there was nowhere to go but up. Also, inevitably, the people we'd reached the detour with were catching us up; and one doesn't like to do that annoying, unending pass-and-be-passed routine. So we saddled up.

Tim: “Uh oh, here come the pacemakers.”
Me: “Sorry, Mark, if you want longer breaks, you'll just have to further outpace these people.”
Mark: “Throw rocks at 'em.”
Me: “Set traps.”

Finally the path topped out and opened up to, well (from guidebook):

“The trail soon reaches the crest of the wide Aiguillette des Posettes ridge with its rocky outcrops and dwarf rhododendron. This is a simply magnificent vantage point with views in every direction. To the south is the Chamonix valley and to the north the craggy peaks of the Montagne de Loriaz on the Swiss border.”

We fleeced up, as it was getting properly cold up here, and out in the open – particularly after sweating through our clothes in the climb out of the valley. And we soldiered on.

We ended up having to do a pretty big down-and-up, instead of just staying up on the ridge and traversing across, due to a totally unnamed party member blasting through a crossroads without waiting to confer. But, obviously, he'd blasted through because he'd thought the best route was obvious, and it worked out fine in any case.

The great chain of photography: Me shooting Mark… …Tim shooting me shooting Mark… …Me shooting Tim shooting me.
“At the summit cairn the twin peaks of Aiguille Martin and Aiguille Morris across the valley brood menacingly and tempt you onwards.”

What tempted me at the cairn was my gloves. We were starting to get up into cloud.

Snow diagonal – and gloves
To climb a mountain is to travel into winter.

Bit of a snow diagonal there. My internal marching cadence along here, if you're interested, was that great 90s anthem of self-loathing, "My Own Worst Enemy" by Lit. Heavy downbeat, good for climbing. You can listen along if you like. →

As you can see it got a little socked in up in there. Just when we were pretty sure we weren't at all sure we were going the right way, a knot of hunched figures trudged toward us out of the soup.

Me: [pointing the way we were going and they were coming] “Col de Balme?”
Them: “Oui.”
Me: “Merci.”

As we approached the notch in the mountain (the col), the cloud soup came blasting right through it – I literally watched a whole cloud blow through the slot at high speed – and then off, and away. And, just like that, we walked out of winter.

There were some minor route-picking follies/palaver at the top.

Tim: “As long as we stay just to the right of Mt. Blanc, we can't go far wrong.”

Tim made a good point – the Mt. Blanc massif bordered us on the left, and the west wall of the Chamonix valley to the right. But of course this was also reminiscent of Mark's admonition, from the Coast to Coast Path, to "keep Scotland on our left." And it worked out every bit as well. We carried on over the top – and down toward the Chamonix valley.

Mt. Blanc over my right shoulder.

Back into summer again, we stopped to gear down – and apply sun goop. And to nibble.

Nectarines continue to make me very happy.
“Keep Mt. Blanc on your left.”

And then… and then, we got on the damned cable car. Basically, the descent down to Le Tour, which sat nestled at the northernmost edge of the Chamonix valley, looked like a slog, and a relatively charmless one. (It was all laid out right below us.) And it wasn't like we weren't doing plenty of descents. (And it was a descent! Taking a cable car up would have been a whole different Rubicon.) And it looked like fun! Down we flew.

Except for Mark. As you can see from that last photo, it wasn't fun for Mark at all. (I forget why – vertigo?) But Mark being Mark, he went along with the idea anyway. Then we had a little walk through town, down the valley, and back up the side of it.

Seeing glaciers in person feels a bit like seeing dinosaurs walking around. "What, we still have these?"

I had a bit of a hide'n'seek session with a chamois there. Got pretty close. Then things started getting rocky again, and there were climbers about – as we approached the famous, dramatic needle of rock of Aiguillette d'Argentiere.

Climbers – both of the human and ibex variety! Ogling the climbers

Along the way: our first closest encounter with a young ibex! Awesome.

Classic expression – ibexen clearly have a sense of humour Pretty smile… …alien eyes “<a target='_new' href='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJmqCKtJnxM'><i>Wasssuupppp…!!</i></a>”

And then Aiguillette d'Argentiere came into view. It was a flawless summer Alpine day, and there were climbers upon the spire.


And then… they pulled the ladders out from under us. That last photo shows where they were supposed to start. And it also shows the big X and one of the workers. I guess it makes a certain amount of sense. If you're going to have ladders up sheer cliffsides you'd better keep them in good nick. (Though I've certainly been on trails that had ropes and Ladder maintenance kit steps and whatnot that weren't.)

We never got to see the ladder route. But I'll wager the diversion was probably even cooler. Real boys'-own-adventure stuff. It started with a rope up a cliff; and proceeded with steel bars bunged onto the steep and jumbled rock.

Rope Steel bars Well, this freaking rules

So, realising the profound unsafety of trying to use the camera while climbing up all this, I initially put it away. But then I pretty quickly realised I could leave it hanging round my neck, turn it on video, and capture an FPS version of some of the climb. Here's that!

And there was plenty more!

We stopped for a bit of food and wonderment – before carrying on up toward the mountain-top lakes that awaited.

More hot ibex-on-mountain action – with extreme close-ups!

And more ladders! Yay.

Another bit of a stop. The light up here was just amazing.

Me: “I think this might be the new most amazing place I've ever been.”

I sort of belatedly worked out that today's segment definitely represented the most total climbing of any day of the walk – and I thought the most total mileage, as well. But we hardly noticed it. There was really only one more big push up to the lakes, and the refuge. But we were in absolutely no hurry.

So as you can see, we were getting back up to the snowline, plus much more jagged terrain. And the first of the lakes! They were absolutely magical up in that high and remote setting.

First glimpse of the refuge!

Tim's expression there pretty much tells the tale (of this segment). He was smiling out loud, and non-stop. I wasn't far behind.

And then the final ascent. As it turned out, this was no joke! – we weren't 100% confident of being able to get up a snow-covered grade this steep with no technical equipment!

Walking up to top in staggered file, taking baby steps, like summiteers.

We made it – Tim with his smile dimmed not one watt.

And finally in for the day! Refuge du Lac Blanc was a hell of a lot smaller than it looked in pictures. But were we tickled to be there.

Menu – including drinks menu – posted out front. Quality.

The dortoir was truly cosy. But, once again, we didn't mind. At check-in, apologetically mentioning my dietary proclivities turned out to save me from another omelet! Nice. After throwing our stuff down (there was actually no room for kit in the dorm – it all had to go in lockers in an outbuilding!), we repaired out onto the unbelievable patio – for coffee, since it was still a bit early for the good stuff.

<i>Whump whump whump whump…</i>

A helicopter buzzed right in over our heads for resupply – of propane tanks, it appeared. We ducked in, both to check out the main area – and to get beers going. Then I was sort of in and out; both to oggle the scenery – and to bury my next beer in the snow for better chilling! Hey, it's cheaper than generating electricity for the fridge! A whole tour group of Japanese rocked up. The frosty air turned into a pleasing mélange of Français, English, and 日本語.

Takusan Nihonjin

And then… and then, of course, the long wait 'til dinner. When it finally rolled around, we shared our table with four 日本人 – including three very lively, funny ladies. As per always, I did my performing monkey gaijin routine, trotting out my university Japanese. They graciously acted delighted. And, as often happens, the more I drank, the better my foreign language got. By dessert, I felt positively conversational.

Dessert, not incidentally, was a vegan fest! Peaches (tinned, but what do you expect at 2352m?), chocolate sauce, and almond flakes.

Me: “I get pudding!”

For once in my life.

Our table was a tumult of polyglot jokes and laughter. And, at some point, I realised I could actually see the clear summit of Mt. Blanc out the window over Mark's shoulder. Finally, Tim and I stepped outside one last time.

The sun is behind the escarpment, and so off of our little lofty bowl of lake and refuge. But it is still emphatically lighting up the massif, including the grand old white beast, Mt. Blanc herself, out to our east. The sight is completely majestic and magnificent. “This is it,” Tim says. And I know he's nailed it. This is everything we came to see, in one sprawling, stunning, glowing, larger-than-life tableau. This is it.

And the customary Day 9 Music Video! (Not my very finest work, either videography or editing, but it does get better as it goes on…)

  tmb     tim     pitely     mountains     joy     hiking  
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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