Fuelled up on multiple croissants (our hotel had not one, not two, but five different types to choose from), yogurt, apricot tart, fruit, bread and juice, we hit the trail. Yesterday, Courmayeur’s piazzas and winding streets bustled with gelato aficionados, window shoppers and holidaymakers. This morning they’re empty, save for a few walkers trickling out of the city towards Rifugio Bertone.
As per, there’s a hill on the menu: today, it’s a steady incline through a coniferous forest. We spied little lizards soaking up the sun’s rays; they disappeared into crevices as we drew near. Further on, we met an American couple from Ohio, who were following a fairly similar itinerary to ours. ‘Where are you from?’ was the default introduction; I don’t recall anyone introducing themselves by name, so we referred to the people we met by the cities, states or countries they were from.
Every so often, we caught a glimpse of Courmayeur through the conifers. We reached Rifugio Bertone within a couple of hours of leaving Courmayeur, and stopped to admire the view. Below us, the road snaked towards the foot of Mont Blanc. Cars bound for Chamonix zipped into the mouth of the tunnel, while those for Courmayeur emerged, gleaming in the sunlight.
We couldn’t believe our luck with the weather. On the forecast: fourteen straight days of thunderstorms. In reality: cerulean skies and wispy clouds for eight days out of nine, and a mere fifteen minutes of rain in all the time we were out on the trail. The TMB stretched ahead of us, fringed by wildflowers. Lots of walkers split off onto the variant route but we stuck to the main route, as we (a) wanted to see Mont Blanc and (b) didn’t fancy adding any extra miles to the day.
Twelve kilometres in, our stomachs decided it was time for lunch. I tucked into my leftover pizza (mmm….), while Laurence noshed on some rye bread with cured ham from a deli in Courmayeur. While we’re chomping away, Laurence’s water bottle rolls across the path, gathering speed. Neither of us react quickly enough; it sails off down the hillside, coming to a halt a few metres below the path, its path blocked by a fallen tree. Pole in hand, Laurence sets off to retrieve it. Had it travelled any further, it would have been a goner (and we’d have been a litre of water down).
Before long, Rifugio Bonatti (named after Italian alpinist Walter Bonatti) came into sight. If you’re in need of a petit pause, this refuge commands stunning views of Val Ferret and the Grandes Jorasses. For us, it was onwards and (for once) not upwards. We crossed a raging torrent bedecked with bunting and passed a crumbling shepherds’ hut set against a backdrop of snow-capped granite. Italy has no shortage of beautiful views, that’s for sure.
Behind us, Val Ferret. Craggy peaks dissolve into a carpet of green; La Doire de Ferret meanders across the valley floor, under the watchful eye of Mont Blanc. We descend into the valley, collapsing in a heap in the shade by Chalet Val Ferret for a much-needed sugar stop.
We follow the road for a short distance, before the trail climbs up towards Rifugio Elena. We spot some familiar faces, all of us headed for the last refuge before Grand Col Ferret. Rifugio Elena doesn’t get the best of write-ups (in fact, it has more ‘terrible’ ratings than ‘excellent’, ‘very good’, ‘good’ and ‘average’ combined on TripAdvisor), but it does the job. I wasn’t especially keen on the hole-in-the-ground bogs – after a day’s walking, the last thing you want is a squat toilet!
After freshening up, we bought cans of Coke and a packet of crisps from the bar and headed outside. Despite its many shortcomings, Rifugio Elena does have a lovely view of Glacier de Pré de Bar. Tea turned out to be a four-course affair, with sliced meat to start, followed by spaghetti Bolognese (Laurence helped me out, as I can’t stand pasta), a pork, ratatouille and polenta dish, copious amounts of stale bread and cake smothered with a thick chocolate sauce for pud.
- Rifugio Elena has heaps of space; half-board in a dorm cost €47pp in July 2019. You can’t book a bed via the Au Tour du Mont Blanc website, so you’ll need to drop them an email (contact details are available on their website). Don’t forget to pick up your shower token when you check in!
- You’ll need copies of both the IGN 3531ET and IGN 3630OT maps to hand; today’s route is split across the two maps.