Day 5 of our Tour du Mont Blanc adventure was when things started to get interesting, and not in a way we had anticipated, or hoped for. This day ended up being our most challenging day both physically as well as mentally. Positivity and mental stamina were used in spades ... but that came later. Let’s start from the beginning.
We woke after a wonderful night sleep in Courmayeur. I had been worried I wouldn’t sleep well after our giant pizza dinner but I fell asleep almost immediately and my eyes didn’t open until morning. Breakfast didn't start until 7:45 am, much later than the typical 6:30 am breakfasts at the refuges so we planned to allow ourselves to sleep in a bit. No such luck though - our bodies were so used to waking up early, my eyes shot open long before the alarm sounded. We put our morning time to good use though, doing some Pilates, writing, reading through the days hiking directions and then headed down for breakfast. Staying a hotel, we were back to a luxurious full breakfast spread of yoghurt and granola, various breads and croissants, jams, cheeses, ham and... coffee. There were also hard boiled eggs which we both stashed in our pockets for lunch later that day. One of the true benefits to staying in a hotel were the substantially better breakfasts which allowed for some takeaways for lunch.
Both Luke and I were feeling exceptionally refreshed after our night in Courmayeur. Interacting with people other than trail walkers and feeling like we were in a real town had given us a mental reboot. Physically, I was also feeling great. By day 5, I felt that my body had really gotten the hang of this hiking thing and was starting to cooperate more with what it was being asked to do. The one remaining problem was the blister on my left heel that was making a stunning appearance this morning. Once I bandaged it up, and taped it down it felt okay but there was still the hint of a sharp pain on every step. I resolved to just dealing with it and trying to ignore the pain.
Blisters are such a fascinating form of pain as they are just that : Pain. They differ from an injury as for the most part, you're not doing any lasting damage per se, but there is something SO uncomfortable about the sharp sting of a rubbing blister. It’s a pain that re-occurs every. single. step. No reprise, and no explanation. Just pain.
On the way out, we stopped in town to pick up some food for our lunch (one of the many benefits of staying in a town). Fifteen minutes later we waved goodbye to Courmayeur with our bags full of fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, warm bread and a chocolate croissant.
Feeling rested and completely refreshed we started up the house lined road, eyes peeled on the mountains we were making our way back into.
Day 5 was the first day we were planning on combining two stages to finish the hike in 10 rather than 11 days. Our plan was to complete all of stage 5 plus 1 1/2 hours into stage 6. Therefore instead of stopping at the infamously beautiful Rifugio Bonatti, we would make it a bit further down the line to rest at Chalet Val Ferret. Although the day would be longer than normal, it didn’t look overly difficult. Day 6 however, would be our biggest day where we would finish the rest of stage 6 to La Fouly (another 4 1/2 - 5 hours), and then hike all of stage 7 as well.
There were once again two options for the days route. After one climb up to Refuge Bertone which was nestled high up in the hills overlooking Courmayeur, we could either take the high route and walk along a mountain ridge which boasted incredible views, or take a slightly lower route that hugged the side of the mountain. We decided to once again complete the first climb and then see how we felt. We were feeling great for the most part, but Luke’s hip was still bothering him from time to time. We would make a game time decision when we got to our first break.
The road from Coumayeur began as a gentle incline, speckled with trail hikers and day walkers. Courmayeur is obviously a popular location to start day trips from as the trail was much busier than we had ever seen it before. We crossed a bridge over a waterfall and then turned off road to follow a footpath as switchbacks led us up the mountain. With 750m's of elevation to climb in just over 4.5 km's the climb to Rifugio Bertone was challenging but completely doable.
Higher and higher we climbed mostly through shaded forest, however every once in a while the trees would open up and we would catch a glimpse of Courmayeur growing smaller and smaller below. We climbed with ease stopping every so often to take a photo or drink some water and then quickly powering on. Knowing we had a longer day than usual ahead of us kept us focused and on track.
Before we knew it, we had arrived at Rifugio Bertone and took a quick break to fill up on water and apply sun screen. We both couldn't believe how much easier that climb had felt on our bodies. The path had been steep but it hadn't taken the same toll on our bodies as climbs had in previous days. We were feeling strong and rested and both agreed we could conquer the high route - no problem! The weather was beautiful once again and we were excited for the views that lay ahead.
The trail from Rifugio Bertone started with a short and very steep climb for about half an hour levelling out to become a gentle but continuously uphill path for another few hours. The book had boasted 'the most incredible views' along this portion of the trail and we were not disappointed. Mont Blanc’s full southern face was exposed to us on our left, while grassy hills greeted us in front. We had the trail mostly to ourselves and the stunning mountains surrounding us made us feel like we were in a movie.
We hiked with these incredible views surrounding us for another hour or so, stopping often to take photos or just pinch ourselves. Looking back I think these views were probably the most spectacular of our entire hike. Combined with the warm sun and fresh air we truly felt on top of the world.
Eventually the path began to narrow and the grass began to grow higher on either side of us. The sun was beating down relentlessly and the flies were buzzing around like mad. Luke was about 50 m ahead, powering his way onwards and I was slightly behind daydreaming about something or another. Despite the stunning views, I started to grow tired of this section of the trail. The high grass was itching my legs and the flies were causing me to constantly swat them away. Lost in my own thought I hardly realized Luke up ahead, stopped on the side of the trail. His pack was still on, but he was crumpled on the grass, curled up almost in the fetal position.
My initial thought was "What on earth is Luke doing? Is he hurt"?
I rushed over to him, and he turned to me and with dread in his eyes simply said “I’m hating this”.
I could completely relate to how he was feeling. Although there was so much beauty, I was really uncomfortable at the moment as well. It was hot, the grass was itchy and the flies were driving me crazy. "I feel the same way Luke, let's try and make it past this section and I'm sure there will be some shade ahead".
“No, I’m hating this”. This time he repeated himself with much more conviction.
“Oh. Wait what? You’re hating this portion of the trail? You’re hating the whole thing?” I was trying to understand what Luke was trying to say. He wasn’t making any sense, just hours before he had been going on and on about how amazing this trip was and how he would recommend this walk to anyone.
“We have to turn around and go back”.
“WHAT?” He was making absolutely no sense. Of course we weren't going to turn around and go back. That would be ridiculous.
“Luke, are you hurt? Did you injure yourself?”
“I’m hating this, we can’t go on, we have to go back “.
“Ummm… Why? What's wrong?”
I took a moment to allow the situation to settle in, and started racking my brain for how to proceed. Luke had this look in his eyes and was almost shaking on the side of the trail. I sat there in silence, hoping he would offer more insight into the inner workings of his brain at this moment.
“It’s the height. I can’t handle the height”.
What?!?! In the 6 years I had known Luke, I had never known him to be afraid of heights. Apparently neither had he. We also weren’t even as high as we had been in previous days. I spent the next few minutes trying to persuade him to just get up and start walking again but there was no way he was moving forward.
Finally after some coaxing It became clear that it wasn’t so much the height, but the fact that we were walking along a ridge that was continuously narrowing. The peak was only a few hundred meters away but looking ahead it was difficult to see how narrow the path got. In my option, Luke’s imagination had gotten the best of him and his brain was perceiving the walk along the ridge of the mountain just ahead, as dangerously narrow. Likely combined with some vertigo, dehydration and fatigue the mind can play tricks on you.
I didn’t know what to do. Going back down and then following the alternative route would be hard enough if we were ending at Refuge Bonatti (where the stage typically ends) but with the extra 90 minutes of stage 6 we had tacked on at the end it seemed undoable. But Luke wouldn’t budge. His voice was shaking as he downright refused to go on.
My mind was going wild with what to do. I knew if we were going to go back down and follow the alternative route we needed to move immediately but I was still holding on to a small bit of hope that Luke would change his mind. Maybe if I gave him a few minute and we had some water and a bite to eat he would change his mind.
But even sitting on the side of the trail was hard for him.
“I’ll go back down and around you continue on the high route. We’ll meet at Rifugio Bonatii” Luke suggested.
“Absolutely not, are you crazy? We’re not splitting up, that is quite literally the stupidest idea. If you’re going down then we’ll go together. Common, let’s get moving”, and just like that, our bags were on our backs and we were making our way back along the trail, retracing our steps. We had an energy gel to give us some quick calories and agreed to stop for lunch when we reached the bottom.
By this point, we had been on the trail for over 4 hours and it was past 1:00pm. We paced it back along the ridge trail, and I mean PACED it, completing the return journey in approximately half the time it had taken us to climb it. We powered through the flat portions and then flew down the descents using our poles to catch us as we leaped down the trail. I remember feeling so shocked at the situation and although I had no anger towards Luke (it was very clear he didn’t WANT to have to retrace our steps either) I was really quite worried that we wouldn’t make it to our accommodation that night in time for dinner. What would happen if we came in late and missed dinner? Surely they would feed us… right? It was exhilarating to be on this mission. Adrenalin pumped through our veins as we descended down the mountain we had just climbed.
By 3pm we found ourselves back at Refuge Bertone, where we had stopped for water 4 hours earlier. Although we were eager to keep moving, we knew we needed to eat so we agreed to stop for a quick lunch. We found some shade and dug into our lunch, an assortment of goods from the hotel, fresh fruit and cheese and some fresh vegetables with bread. Once stopped, I decided to re-asses my blister which had been the biggest casualty of the day. It was painful at times, agonizing at others. The skin had completely fallen off and it was red and shiny. The last thing I needed was an infected foot so I hobbled my way over to the water fountain with one shoe on, and washed it out. I then dug into our first aid kit and applied polysporin and some bandages.
The alternative route was actually really pretty, hugging the side of mountain. It was comfortable terrain not overly steep or technical. We were moving well, not killing ourselves, but definitely not diddle-daddling. Luke lead the way at a nice clip, and I followed closely behind. We weren’t talking, just simply enjoying the moment, each daydreaming about different things. My blister was still providing a fair amount of discomfort, however I tried to put the pain out of my mind and focus on the task at hand. At points during this section I noticed my mindset turning negative as my legs grew tired, or the heat started to get to me. I quickly changed perspectives and decided to approach this day with a new outlook. What we had in front of us what a challenge. Something to overcome. A time to rise to the occasion and show what we were made of. The 2 1/2 hour stretch we did in about 2 hours, arriving at Rifugio Bonatti at 5:30pm.
We stopped at the beautiful mountain refuge to refill our water and use the toilet, with the intension of being in and out in 10 minutes. The views from this mountain refuge was absolutely spectacular as we had heard from other travellers previously. It would have been nice to have set our bags down and cracked opened a beer at Bonatti, nestled high in the mountains, but we also knew we still had 90 minutes of hiking to do and the day was coming to an end. Most people were off the trails by this point, settling into their accommodations, showering, reading and enjoying a cold drink.
Immediately upon arriving at the refuge, we ran into our London friends who we were surprised to see had gotten a bed there! We recounted our adventure of Luke’s anxiety attack, and how we had somehow managed to make it through the day without actually getting in a fight! We had a laugh and did the usual pit stop activities (water, toilet, blister care, buff readjustment) and then bid them farewell (this time for good) to conquer the final kilometres of the day. With our packs back on and our water filled we made our way back to the TMB trail.
The trail from Bonatti to Chalet Val Ferret was lovely and being so late in the day we didn’t encounter a single other hiker. The path started by climbing steeply above the refuge then meandered along a gentle trail crossing streams and lined with alpenrose and bilberry. It’s funny to say now, but these kilometres alone on the trail were actually some of the most enjoyable of the entire hike. The sun had gone down just enough to make the temperature perfect and the evening light was simply magical.
After about an hour of walking at quite a good pace, we saw a building in the distance. Assuming it had to be the chalet we were staying at we picked up our pace hooting and hollering, congratulating ourselves on making such great time after such a long day of hiking. As we got closer and closer to the building I started to notice it looked quiet and almost empty. Usually there was more of an energy surrounding the refuges with people mingling around outside. We maintained hope that this was in fact our accommodation up until we were literally in front of an abandoned dilapidated building, with one boarded up window and one barely in tact.
“Maybe it’s just rustic?”
I forced us to do a full circle around the building before agreeing it was in fact, not our chalet. We had gotten a bit lazy with reading the guide book as the TMB was so well marked. We opened the book and read through the directions recognizing the old alp building as the one we had mistaken for our resting place. Reading through the directions, we realized we had one final descent to the valley floor to reach our accommodation.
This descent will forever be etched into my mind as never ending switchbacks. Our bodies were tired and achey, our feet swollen and bruised and every step we took reverberated throughout our entire body. We had been walking at a steady strong pace for almost 10 hours with hardly any rest. The end was so near yet still felt so far away. Each switchback would give us a view of the valley below. At first we tried to guess how many turns we had left until we finally gave up. This could have been one of those times when we were both tired and grumpy and short fused but we somehow managed to maintain a light-hearted energy. It was really quite comical how the day had turned out. Luke was starting to be able to laugh about his little freak out on the ridge, and even managed to say “maybe I could have done it, if I had just forced myself to..." I stopped him. Let's not go there.
Eventually we got to our last switchback and there, right in front of us was Chalet Val Ferret in all it’s glory!
It was 7:15 pm and we had finally made it!
There was a man at the front desk who spoke only French, and so with broken sentences we managed to find our reservation which, thank god, there were not any issues with. He told us dinner would be at 7:30 - again a small miracle it was so late here - and he showed us to our little room in the basement. We didn’t complain.
We immediately stripped off our clothes and had, what I still think to this day was the best shower of my life. We were covered in dirt from head to toe and it took serious scrubbing to clean off our legs and ankles. Knowing we were staying at a hotel the following night in Champex we decided to skip washing our clothes, and left them on a smelly pile on the floor, quickly dressing for dinner. Even putting my sandals on was too painful on my blister so we head up to dinner, bare feet and dripping wet hair. The dining room was full of hikers already eating their appetizers but our late appearance didn't seem to be too big of an issue. The waiter came over and told us the menu for the night. A vegetable soup for me, and a meat lasagne for Luke as the appetizer, a plate of polenta with mushrooms (for me) and beef (for Luke) followed by a bowl of fruit for dessert. With wine for the table we were in heaven. The meal was delicious and a nice alternative from all the cheese we had been eating in France. We hung around the dining room for a few minutes after dinner, enjoying the last of the evening sun before heading back down to our basement room for sleep.
As I lay down in bed that night, I wrote in my journal “My body aches! My blister is throbbing, my legs have little spasms every few minutes but I am so happy. I feel alive. This is life. This is what life is all about. What a day”.
Now, weeks later with the trauma of the day in our rear view mirror we’re able to look back on this day and appreciate that without this funny incident we wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to see the TMB in the evening light and enjoy that quiet and magical experience together.
The funniest part of this whole experience was that the FOLLOWING day was the day we had planned to be our longest day. So with excitement and relief blended into one emotion, we turned off the light. The cool mountain breeze and light from the moon drifted into our room as we quickly drifted off to sleep.
Start: Courmayeur (1226m)
End: Chalet Val Ferret (1778m)
Height gain: 1743m
Height loss: 1213m
Time hiking: 7:28:08
Total elapsed time: 9:52:40
To see the full data on the day's hike, you can find me on Strava