Day 3: Refuge De Mottets – Courmyour (27km)
Well it isn’t getting any easier! Another harder day than the previous one starting with a long, steep 750m climb from the refuge up to our high point of the day, Col de Seigne (2517m) which took us three hours. This col marked the border between France and Italy and there was a surprisingly significant difference in the landscape when you crossed the col. Spread out in front of us was a wide flat valley floor with gentle slopes leading up on the left to the dramatic snow capped peaks of Mont Blanc. There was much more overwhelming feeling of remoteness here than the valleys we had experienced so far with the only building appearing miles in the desolate surroundings being the well known Refugio Elizabetta.
The descent down from the Col was fairly gentle but still managed to play havoc with Luke’s growing number of blisters. The going however, remained good and we notched up some fairly speedy miles passing the remote and beautiful overlook held by Elizabetta. The descent continued gently and at good pace down to Lac de Comball but then the path turned and with it so did our mood as we started instantly up a very steep 500m climb. We were already four hours, 14km and one steep climb in to the days plan and I was barely half way up this second climb before I thought “this one could be too much for me today”.
Having not booked anywhere before coming and not knowing how far we where going to manage each day we where planning each day as it came with only a rough idea of where we would make it too. We would try and set a long, medium or short plan each evening/morning based on the Refuges and the distances between them from where we were. However, being 23 year olds and carrying a certain weight of bravado on top of our huge rucksacks we always aimed for the longer day not only to appease ego but to give us more time for trickier days or if something went wrong.
This day was a classic example of that. Walking to Elizabetta would have been far too short and would have ended our day well before lunchtime (although if we had shortened the previous day that would have worked perfectly). There wasn’t really a medium option as the next refuge after Elizabetta would make our day 23km anyway and was also a temptingly quick cable car ride away from the Italian town of Courmyour i.e. beer and pizza!
Back on the ascent it took everything I had to get to the top. The path levelled out and we ambled our way across the last few kilometres to Rifugio Maison Vielle where, after six hours of non stop hiking, we collapsed on a bench outside. Exhausted and in pain we decided to break out a new revolution for us – self cooking meals in a bag – absolute genius!
It was only 2.30pm and we had has smashed out a big day. With the promise of a relaxing afternoon/evening in town and buoyed by the consumption of some energy we resurrected our dreary bodies in search of some transport down. Disaster! Apparently the ski lifts don’t run here in the summer months and we were now faced with a joint crunching, blister bursting, soul crushing descent down into town.
Nestled in a steep sided valley junction of text book beauty Courmyour has everything going for it as a tourist location in Winter and Summer and with the sun shining there was a noticeably lively buzz in the atmosphere as we limped into the town square. Tourist information found us the cheapest one star accommodation possible with an available room and it wasn’t to long before we were collapsed on an actual bed negotiating who got to use the only communal shower first.
Skin scrubbed, blisters counted (Luke 10, Andy – 0) and fresh clothes on we felt brand new (well, more reconditioned) and ready to reward ourselves with food and beer. With a plentiful selection of bustling bistros available to us we did the only thing you could do on your first stay in an Italian town – find the restaurant that served the biggest and best pizza – the perfect end to and epic day.
Day 4: Courmyour – Rifugio Elena (24km)
Refreshed and ready we were looking forwards to get back out into the mountains and covering some ground again. Walking up through the upper slopes of Courmyour heading into the Val Sapin we donned happy faces and an air of enthusiasm which lasted only up until the end of the valley where the path turned dramatically up hill, up hill in the tune of 800m in an energy sapping 3km. Happy thoughts of beer and pizza where but distant memories as we approached the top of the Col De Sapin (2436m). Luke was ok being “the fit one” but I was struggling and cursing my way through promises to work on my fitness when I return home.
I have always found that the mental and physical strength required to get to the highest point of any walk, climb or journey has always been worth it.
This is most obviously true for the views and this particular occasion was no exception as we were treated with fantastic vistas across to the dramatic south faces of the Mont Blanc Massif. However, it is also true due to the almost indescribable feeling you get when you stop, stand and come to terms with what you and your body have just achieved. Surprise, pride, accomplishment, strength, happiness, pain, perspective, privilege, relief and an over all a feeling of wellbeing.
Roles were about to be reversed though as my fitness didn’t affect me going down hill, in fact it was a welcome relief that rejuvenated me. No amount of fitness however, can detract from the pain of multiple blisters and the 8km descent down to the small hamlet of La Vachey really took its toll on Luke as his steps coming down the final section of the descent felt like walking on glass.
The second we arrived outside a restaurant in La Vachey his bag dropped. Boots were replaced with flip flops and he slumped in a chair refusing to walk any further.
We made some lunch and discussed the way forwards from here. Our original plan was to extend this day slightly to get to a refuge further up the valley but with Luke refusing to put his feet back in his boots we were going to have to change that. I didn’t want to stay here, it was too early and it would make the next day too long so I bought Luke an ice cream to sweeten his mood and we had a deal. We would catch a bus a few miles on to the end of the valley where the road stops and then walk the remaining 45 min up a dirt track to Rifugio Elena a well known mountain hostel at an altitude of over 2000m. The deal was agreed as long as Luke could do the final walk in his flip flops.
Elena was a great refuge with comfortable and well laid out dorms. It was equipped with a small bar and we had a very pleasant evening with a fantastic four course meal that was only slightly marred when our tables second portion of pork was demolished by a man mountain of an Italian – devastating but you wouldn’t argue with him.