We woke up in Rifugio Elisabetta to one of the most beautiful sunrise views I’ve ever experienced. Once again, the refuge began stirring early as hikers started to get ready for their departure. It had been a cool night which was a refreshing change from the blistering heat we had been experiencing. Our small little room housed two single bunk beds so cuddling up in the night wasn't an option. We opened our window and watched the sun rise in the distance, the misty air and wispy clouds adding to the beautiful scene. I swear I stood there, mesmerized for ages before starting to dress.
The first few steps every morning were always uncomfortable as we took inventory of the last day’s damage:
Blisters: One on my heel, and one developing on my baby toe but still manageable
Feet: Bruised and painful on each step with a small stabbing feeling in the heel (likely a plantar fascia issue)
Quads: Tired and sore and not fully able to straighten but nothing a little massage and shakeout wouldn’t fix.
Shoulders: Feeling surprisingly okay! No permanent damage from the heavy bags we were lugging around.
Overall, we were feeling pretty good as we prepared for our 4th day hiking. We rolled out our feet and legs with our balls, did a few stretches once our muscles had warmed up and went down for breakfast.
Breakfast at Elisabetta was once again simple with the typical spread of bread, butter and jam on the table. The coffee however, was the biggest disappointment - I’m certain it was instant. I’m trying REALLY hard not to let the disappointing coffee situation alter my opinion of Rifugio Elisabetta which for all other purposes was delightful. There were also a few Melba toast packages and small packaged lemon muffins which we pocketed for later in the day. They clearly served packaged food because they expected us to take it away with us… right? We weren’t doing anything wrong, so I’m not sure why we were so stealth, pocketing crackers and stuffing jam packages down my bra.
Day 4 was looking to be a much easier day than any of the days so far which was a welcomed relief. The route would start by descending from Rifugio Elisabetta into the lower Vallon de la Lée Blanche, and then start to climb upwards, ending with a beautiful balcony walk along grassy slopes. Following a few rolling hills, we would then descend through the ski hills into the Italian town of Courmayeur. We would be staying in a hotel in Courmayeur, and were looking forward to the luxury of our own bathroom, comfy bed and hotel ‘comforts’ (aka room to wash and hang all our clothes up!). We were also excited to see the town of Courmayeur, and have a nice dinner in a real restaurant! We were hoping to get some Italian gelato and we had a couple drug store purchases we needed including more bandages, tape and blister pads. All in all, we were looking forward to reaching Courmayeur.
After packing up our bags, and doing one last sweep of the room to make sure we hadn’t left anything, we waved goodbye to Rifugio Elisabetta and started the steep and winding descent to the main TMB trail. Once the ground levelled out, we had a very nice 45 minute section of flat trail while our bodies slowly woke up. Although less demanding, this section was not without it’s beauty. We meandered past streams and lakes with the mountain reflections bouncing off the water around us. We absolutely loved this section of the trek and we spent most of it in silence, just allowing the feelings and emotions to wash over us.
But being the TMB, it didn’t stay flat for long. After 2.5km's, we turned off the road to start the climb up towards Mont Favre Spur. The incline was steep as we made our way up the hillside passing the ruins of Alpe inférieur de l'Arp Vieille. We examined what remained of the ruins stoping for some water and then continued to press on upwards. We crossed a stream and continued to climb up, each step exposing more of the southern face of Mont Blanc in all her beauty.
One thing to know about the TMB is that because there are classic stages, you end up on a similar schedule to other walkers. By this point in the walk we had started to recognize people doing the hike around the same time as us, staying at the same refuges or making the same lunch spots. As we made our way up this climb, we passed a father daughter team wearing MEC gear which obviously caught our eye (MEC = Mountain Equipment Co-op, an incredible Canadian outdoor wear company Luke and I love to support). We ended up stopping and having a little chat with them. The father was originally from Montreal but they lived together in Switzerland with her mother. It was nice to see our home town co-op making an appearance on the TMB trail.
A little later we passed an American couple from New York we had shared a refuge with for the past 2 nights. We had a little chat, shared a few km’s with them and then eventually spread out as we walked at different paces. It wasn't long before we ran into a couple from London (British and South African) who we ended up walking with for the rest of the day. When the conversation turned to brewing your own beer and the craft beer scene, I knew we’d be sticking with them for a while. Before we knew it, we had hit the highest point of the day at 2430m where a magnificent view of the mountain range greeted us. We stopped for some photos and water at the top, savouring that feeling of standing on top of the world.
The time flew by as we chattered away with our new friends, looking up from the trail from time to time to enjoy the magnificent views. The path was quite easy to manage meandering up and down the gentle grassy slopes. We got lost in the conversation and beauty surrounding us hardly noticing the time passing by.
Before we knew it, hours had passed and we arrived at Rifugio Maison Vielle just in time for a much needed rest, and a little sustenance. Since my disappointing morning coffee at Elisabetta, I had been dreaming about that delicious espresso I would order at the next refuge we passed. Luke and I had planned to just order a coffee and have some of the snacks from our bag but we were enjoying the company with our new friends and realized we were actually hungrier than we thought so we ordered a salad to share, along with fresh bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I was really craving fresh vegetables and when the salad arrived, I quickly regretted not getting my own. Together with our travel companions we ate, drank and continued to get to know each other. We hung around the refuge for a while, until thunder in the distance brought us back to reality. Realizing we should probably get moving again, we quickly paid up, visited the toilets and started back to the trail. Everyday rain threatened in the afternoon, and everyday we made it to our destination before the rain came. We didn’t want today to be the exception.
We had been told by one of the tour group guides we met along the trail that the final section into Courmayeur descended along a ski hill and was underwhelming to say the least. He recommended taking the cablecar down and enjoying more time in the town of Courmayeur. None of us could stomach the idea of taking a shortcut, and 'cheating' our way through the hike so against our better judgement we headed back to the trail. The descent was steep and due to the lack of rain in the past week very dry and dusty. Switchback after switchback, we made our way down the path sometimes exposed to the hot sun, sometimes shaded by the trees.
It was a long and endless path but butterflies were abundant and we chatted with our new friends to pass the time. Here and there we would catch glimpses of Courmayeur through the trees below, and though we were certainly moving down, it never felt like our destination grew any closer. This long and exhausting portion of the trail was definitely character building.
Finally, after what felt like an endless descent, we reached the valley floor, and made our way into the small town of Dolone, where our friends were staying, just across the water from Courmayeur. We bid them farewell, and agreed to meet up for dinner in Courmayeur later that night. We continued for another few km’s weaving through the cobblestone streets of Dolone to make our way to Courmayeur. The sky threatened above and thunder roared in the distance as grey clouds moved in. Once again, we had made the rookie mistake of not checking the location of our hotel. You’d think we would have learned after our experience is Les Contamines. We weren’t too concerned though, knowing we’d figure it out. Four days on the trail had installed a new sense of confidence - although perhaps it was un-qualified confidence. Either way, we finally arrived in Courmayeur and popped into a shop to ask if they knew where Hotel Christalla was. “200m down the road, just after the main square church”. Perfect.
We managed to make it to our hotel just as the rain began to fall. It was the first rain of the tour and we were safely in our hotel.
Once in the hotel we followed our typical routine of stripping, washing our clothes, washing ourselves and then plopping ourselves down on the bed and chatting about our day. The luxurious double bed and balcony were so much more appreciated after two nights in mountain refuges. We made plans from our hotel wifi to meet our friends in the town of Courmayeur and after a bit of a lie down headed back out to explore the town.
I immediately fell in love with Courmayeur. Sometimes described as a sister town to Chamonix I could feel the warmth of the town and the genuine love of nature and the outdoors. We ran into our friends on the main road as if we had planned it all along, and then headed off together for our first priority: gelato. We had some time to kill before restaurants would open for dinner so we found a pharmacy and purchased our blister tools and ate delicious gelato. The rain was gently coming down but we were sheltered from the rain.
We all agreed that being in Italy, the only appropriate dinner would be pizza so we wandered up the main road, until we found the best looking pizzeria. By this point the rain had slowed down so we settled down on the covered patio and ordered some wine. One of the tour groups from China that we had been leapfrogging through the past few days were at the same restaurant and the tour guide, recognizing us from the trail, came over to tell us we had chosen the best restaurant in town. I am SURE he wasn’t getting any commission from the restaurant for the recommendations but he was correct, the food was delicious. Dinner was wonderful, with delicious food, wine and company. As the sky grew dark and the rain finally subsided, we all agreed it was best to call it a night and head home so we bid farewell with a ‘see ya if we see ya”. The next day, Luke and I were planing on moving ahead, starting the first day in our “three stages in two” schedule. Tal and Caroline weren’t sure what their plans were for the next day, seeing what refuges had availability and going with the play it by ear approach.
Full from our pizza and wine, Luke and I slowly wandered back to our hotel. The rain had settled but the air was misty and the cobblestone roads slippery. Hand in hand, we walked along the main road, taking detours when we could to lengthen our walk back home. Once we arrived at the hotel, we had a short sit in the lobby and then head up to the room to call it a night.
I lay in bed that night, with a wonderfully full belly, a gentle breeze from the window and a softness in my chest. Today had felt easier than the days earlier, but I also felt stronger, and able to manage more. I could feel the training effects of walking in the mountains day after day and was excited to start again tomorrow. Before I knew it, I had drifted off to sleep.
Start: Rifugio Elisabetta (2196m)
End: Courmayeur (1226m)
Height gain: 547m
Height loss: 1469m
Time hiking: 5:02
Total elapsed time: 7:49
To see the full data on the day's hike, you can find me on Strava