TMB, Day 4: A Curious Welcome

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Today turns out to be an unintentionally short day in terms of distance. In the planning stages of the TMB, many months ago, we decided to not stay in Courmayeur (either due to cost or availability or both—we can’t remember!). Instead, we chose Rifugio Randonneur which was another 1.5-2 hours beyond and uphill from the town.

By a stroke of good fortune, we were given a lift yesterday by the owner, Annalisa, skipping a tiring downhill and uphill trudge at the end of the day, thus saving our legs and making for a more pleasant stay last night. We would certainly have missed dinner by a long shot. Plus it gave us time to do some laundry and get it out to dry while the sun was still up!

We wake up at 6:30. I thought our dorm was super quiet last night and slept peacefully and deeply. Turns out, I’m embarrassed to say, that, after complaining to our bunkmates about a loud snorer who kept me awake the night before at Rifugio Bonatti, I was the one to snore through the night here. I get a gentle ribbing from the Welsh runner couple and the two guys from Holland, but everyone is cordial as we pack up for the day. Oops, sorry!

We saunter down to the cozy wood interior restaurant where breakfast is laid out for us: bread, jam, OJ, and yogurt. We order two cappuccinos knowing that our time on the Italian side of Mont Blanc is limited. They are made to perfection! The dining room clears out quickly, and we take advantage of the cozy, quiet space to get a little work done.

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We pack up, stretch and consult the book before finally leaving the guesthouse at 9 am. We think we only have about 12-13 km to cover today, and the path is relatively gentle. We climb up initially along the road and then onto a track past the ski lift and Rifugio Maison Veille, which looks like the “backpackers” version of where we stayed last night.

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The path today keeps the Val Veni to our right for the entire day. At first the peaks have blue sky behind, but slowly white clouds filter in. We stop for a snack around 11, mostly to take in the stunning view.

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Today is one of those days we can afford to take it slow and appreciate all the details of this alpine splendor. The camera is ever our governor, the pace setter that keeps us in a contemplative space and encourages attentiveness. We spot some pretty flowers and a few marmots wrestling in the fields, but we are too slow to break out the long lens to capture the action. We manage to get one shot off before this one scampers out of sight.

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As I’m gawking at the mountains to the right, Alison spies a tarn that has an incredible reflection of the mountains. Two sets of eyes are better than one. With a little bit of maneuvering, we get, what may be, the shot of the TMB so far! 

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In addition to fantastic landscapes, there are many wildflowers and water features to concentrate on. Alison notices a patch of snow, and it draws my attention to some glacier lilies. It is so great to work in tandem with your best friend. We make a great team, on the trail, in photography and in life!

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We climb steadily up to the high point of this part of the trail where a few groups of hikers are relaxing with boots off and enjoying the warmth of the sun. There is a big race going on today and tomorrow called the Gran Trail Courmayeur, a 30/55/105! kilometer ultra race. Everywhere there are red flags marking the race route. Occasionally, we are passed by runners, who hardly even seem to notice us or the magnificent scenery all around them as they push their bodies to the limit.

We find a comfortable perch out of the way above the trail, take off our boots and enjoy our last chunk of cheese for lunch. The view of the rock face of the mountain directly in front of us is simply awesome in scope. No conversation is needed…this is a prime picnic spot, and we eat quietly, side by side, as we take it all in!

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We set off after a while on a gentle downhill. Mont Blanc is still hidden to us, but the Glacier du Miage and the immense moraine left by its recession come into view and stay with us for many hours. There are glacial streams cascading down which cause us to stop and admire. The sunlight is too harsh for great photos but the acoustics of the water are mesmerizing as we approach and then later leave them behind.

Different flowers come into focus as we descend. There is an impossibly blue glacial lake below us, made by the moraine, but we can also hear thunder and see dark clouds looming behind. We decide to skip the bonus climb up to see the lake in favor of making progress toward our rifugio for the night.

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The last portion of our journey finds us walking for a long time on a flat straight gravel road with Rifugio Elisabetta in view high up on the hillside the entire time. We also have the Glacier du la Lee Blanche to our right with its many waterfalls cascading off the ice and scouring the rock below. 

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The glacier never seems to get closer no matter how far we walk. All sorts of pretty flowers, including some impressive giant indigo columbine, line the roadside.

We cross a stream on a pretty, stone bridge and then divert for 20 minutes or so to explore a series of waterfalls. I pull out the tripod to slow down the water and am pleased with the results.

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The final approach to Rifugio Elisabetta is an uphill climb switchbacking along the road. Occasionally, a trail short cuts the road, and we take advantage whenever possible. It’s hot for the first time all day and the thought of a shower at the rifugio is becoming more and more appealing.

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We see several runners coming down this steep section of trail. Two of them slip and one takes a bit of tumble before picking himself up and continuing on. These guys are hardcore!

After a few more switchbacks, we are walking into Rifugio Elisabetta, a delightfully cramped but cozy mountain guesthouse with a stunning view. 

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There is a Latin quote above the door “Odi profanum volgus et arceo. Favete linguis.” This quote by the Roman poet Horace translates, “I hate the profane masses and keep them at a distance. Keep silent.” It’s not the most welcoming quote for a guesthouse. I wonder how many who pass under it know what it means. 

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We change out of our boots, grab a complementary pair of Crocs to wear inside, and check in for the evening. We are shown our postage stamp-sized dorm room, which has three bunkbeds crammed into it. We are warned that the rifugio may be full tonight and that a 7th person may join us on a trundle bed that rolls out covering up much of the limited floor space. Yikes! That would make things quite tight.

Luckily, this doesn’t happen, and we end up being a party of five. The other three are a family from Britain who are rather quiet. We shower, and then I head outside to rinse out our pants and hang them out to dry while there is still sun. I order a double espresso to perk me up, and then it’s time to write a little.

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Soon we are called to dinner. The dining room at Elisabetta is so small that dinner actually has to be served in two shifts. We have the first shift. We are sat at a table with, among others, two Americans from Colorado and a couple from Ireland. The conversation is quick and lively. The Irish couple is fun: John is a high school teacher of drafting and engineering who enjoys hiking in Ireland but bemoans the decline of traditional pubs, citing tougher laws about drinking and driving. What are the old people supposed to do?!

James and his girlfriend live in Colorado. He has hiked and climbed extensively all over the world, and he tells us Peru is his favorite country. We talk about several different places he’s been including a crazy story about how he made it into Tibet but was unable to hike Mt. Kailash. We carry the conversation out to the picnic tables after we are asked to clear the dining room for the next shift.

Soon a group of five Israeli guys from Tel Aviv sit down and kick up a conversation with us that ranges from hiking to traveling with kids to unplugging from technology and really engaging with people. These guys have known each other since high school. Several have young children, and all are grateful to have some time together in a special place. It’s fun to meet interesting people from all over the world who share our passion for hiking.

Before we know it, it’s almost dark and time to turn in for another night. We excuse ourselves and try to climb quietly into our beds so we don’t wake up our roommates. I fall asleep quickly. We are now fully on “mountain” time, going to bed with the sun and waking with the sun.

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