Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tour Mont Blanc Stage 6: Rifugio Walter Bonatti, Italy, to Fouly, Switzerland via Gran Col Ferret


Previous stage
Stage 6 is one of the most spectacular of the Tour Mont Blanc: a traverse along the side of a valley, then down to the valley floor to start a tough, steep climb to a perfect mountain col with spectacular views into two countries, and then a (mostly) reasonable descent to a tidy Swiss village. Definitely a highlight of the trip.
Trail leading to Gran Col Ferret

We left Rifugio Bonatti right after breakfast and started along the side of the Italian Val Ferret with lovely swirls of color on the massif across from us. It was a nice morning warm-up – until ten minutes in when we ran smack into the largest fauna we spotted on our trip: the dreaded and highly subsidized Italian dairy cow. Much hilarity ensued (as the accompanying video demonstrates) before I took it on myself to herd the cows with my hiking poles. It was a little scary as the cows who climbed above us didn’t exactly seem sure of their footing and I had a vision of ending up underneath several hundred kilos of cow. Fortunately we made it through and then enjoyed a gentle descent to the valley floor.
Italian Val Ferret from col
From here, we had a 900 meter switchbacked climb up the head of the valley to Gran Col Ferret. One-third of the way up, we came to Rifugio Elena (closed for the season) built into the side of the hill like a World War II bunker (to protect it from avalanches after an earlier version of the refuge was destroyed). The remaining two-thirds of the climb was a bit of a slog, under bright sun next to gullies that required some twists and turns. The col revealed itself finally, however, as a perfect line of green between ridges below crystal clear skies.
 
The views from the col are among the best on the whole TMB, particularly into Italy where we could see three valleys stretching all the way back to Col de la Seigne, where we had crossed from France into Italy three days earlier. The view was more restricted into Switzerland as the Swiss Val Ferret twisted to the left, requiring us to leaving the trail 15 minutes after leaving the col to climb to a grassy overview of this lovely, pastoral valley.

After lunch in the col (and a comic moment as I dropped my apple and watched it bounce 200 meters down the hillside) and the aforementioned side trip, we dropped rapidly down into Switzerland. This is the French section of the country, known as Valais. While the architecture is similar to what we’d seen in France and Italy, the Valais was distinguished by a quieter, more rural character – and by less spectacular views (due to the fact that we dropped below the eastern shoulder of the Mont Blanc Massif and were too deep in the valleys to see the peaks). We also encountered the first of a number of mountain bikers we saw over the next few days. Apparently biking the whole TMB is somewhat of a “thing.” One of the poor bastards was already walking his bike uphill and a second joined him about the time we returned to the trail from our side trip. The third kept going but I could have walked uphill faster than he was cycling.
Swiss Val Ferret

From the dairy farm of La Peule at 2071 meters, we opted to stick to the side of the valley above the narrow road below where the TMB is officially routed. This made for a much more pleasant experience than road walking, although it was required a very steep but fortunately short descent to the river that we followed into La Fouly, our stop for the night.

Lacking tents, Laurie and Mari stopped at Hotel des Glacier while Tom and I continued 10 minutes out of town to a lovely (and very large) campground (where the campground manager actually preferred my German to my French!). We headed back in for dinner and then decided to do a “pub crawl,” a bit of a joke given only two bars in the whole town! It was a late and hilarious night, especially as Tom and I crawled back to the campground with headlanterns on in the pitch black.

Stages 7 and 8: La Fouly to Trient via Champex du Lac, Switzerland

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