The first day of our walk on the Tour de Mont Blanc had taken us through Alpine meadows and pretty hamlets, but we hoped that today would take us up into wilder terrain and over the high mountain pass into Italy. Over breakfast at Hotel Col de Fenetre, we chatted to a group of four American ladies who were doing a self guided tour on the Tour de Mont Blanc. Their walk was part of a pre-arranged holiday package and we secretly congratulated ourselves that we had arranged it all ourselves and spared the expense. The hamlet of Ferret was shrouded in mist but Madame at the hotel assured us that it would would clear and that it was forecast fine weather for the rest of the week. “Don’t worry” she said, “Il fait beau en haut” – the weather’s fine higher up.
As we prepared to leave the hotel, a couple were outside, saddling up their mule to carry their bags. I stopped for a chat about Quartz the mule and had my photo taken with him, rather wishing that he could be carrying my bags too. I just had time to take a look at the small chapel near the hotel; the motif above the door said “Quiconque aime Marie ne lui refuera pas un Ave Maria en passant devant cette Chapelle” – “Whoever loves Mary, will not refuse her an Ave Maria as they pass before this chapel”. We retraced our steps back to the river that we crossed the day before, then made a few false starts before we picked up the TMB trail again and were confident we were on the right track.
We climbed a muddy path, gaining height and just as we had been assured the mist cleared and the sun came out. After an hour of steady walking, we could spot the toytown houses of the hamlet of Ferret below us. We were now high enough to get a clear view down the valley with the stony river and the road snaking along the bottom of the valley, ending just beyond Ferret with tracks to a few isolated farmsteads. From the valley bottom, the sounds of civilisation drifted upwards, the rushing of the river and the cars driving along the road. The distant sound of cowbells alerted us to the herd of cows in the valley, moving in a single file along the road, like a line of black ants trailing along a silver path. “It doesn’t look like we’ve come very far” said Julia.
A little higher at the concrete hut at the combe of Les Creuses we paused for some photos with a fantastic view down the valley. Although we were high above the valley and well away from the road, the phone signal was good and i one of those wierd “Miles from anywhere” moments, my friend Julia took the opportunity to ring and book her hotel in Edinburgh for a business trip on her return.
Next the walk took us to the Refuge at La Peule, at 2071M, a long low building marked with a couple of yurts at one end. With the Swiss flag flying from a pole, I thought this might mark the border into Italy, but later realised that this was much further along the walk. The terrace in front of the Refuge that was probably once a cowshed, was full of pretty tubs of geraniums and flowers planted in walking boots. Walkers were sitting under shady umbrellas eating raclette or other variations of toasted cheese and we also unloaded our rucksacks and sat down at this welcome stop for a glass of apple juice “Pomme de Maison”. After our refreshment, we continued up the path above the Refuge and sat on the hillside to eat the lunch of bread, cheese and salami that we had in our rucksacks, with a steady stream of walkers passing by.
Here the scenery was more wild, with scrub dotted with pretty yellow and purple wildflowers and star flowers that I thought might be edelwiess but turned out to just be thistles! The path now took us on a steady climb up towards the highest point of our trek, the Grand Col Ferret at 2537M. On the opposite side of the valley, the mountains were becomming more jagged, their grey rock faces covered with shale and lower down with rivulets of snow.
I had been walking in shorts and a vest in brilliant sunshine and wondered why the walkers coming down from the Col were dressed as if for ski-ing with jackets zipped and hoods up. Now the temperature started to drop noticeably and I also put on my fleece and jacket, passing pockets of snow just below the Col that hadn’t melted through the summer. The Grand Col Ferret marks the border between Switzerland and Italy, and the streams from these slopes feed the River Po that flows into the Adriatic on the Italian side and the Rhine on the Swiss side.
Reaching the trig point on the summit of the Grand Col Ferret, I walked along the ridge, now well wrapped up as the wind was biting and cold. Kestrels circled above on the upstream and the two glaciers of Pre de Bar and Triolot hung before us, feeling close enough to touch. A few paces below the summit it was more sheltered and I found Julia laid down in the sunshine to meditate on the glorious scenery, while I showed my appreciation of the landscape by taking a few more photos.
Further down near the trig point, I was intrigued by the sight of a man taking photos of a large orange inflateable plastic elephant, so I went down to investigate. He was explaining to crowd of interested walkers, that it was part of an artistic Hannibal project where the elephant travels to various different mountains and beauty spots around Europe to be photographed. You can find out more about Thomas Falk and his Hannibal project at tfkunstkonzept.wordpress.com. After having had my photo taken with the orange elephant, I took a few of Thomas and his little dog for his album.
On the Italian side of the Col we could see Rifugio Elena in the valley below us, although experience told us that while it looked just a stone’s throw away, it would take another hour or two to walk down to the refuge. The path down the mountain was braided and in places rope mesh had been placed over the muddy tracks to prevent erosion.
Finally in the late afternoon we reached the terrace of Rifugio Elena and immediately realised that we were in Italy switching our Bonjours to Buongiornos and our Mercis to Pregos and Grazies.
We were shown to our en suite twin room at the end of the corridor, which although simply furnished, felt like luxury after a long and sweaty walk. We had a beer and by 7 o’clock were sitting down to dinner with two jolly Dutch couples who recounted to us, in perfect English, their tales of walking through deep snow on other parts of the Tour de Mont Blanc. The Italian refuges have a reputation for serving better food than the French ones and here the menu had turned Italian with a plate of pasta to start, followed by pork and a small slice of polenta and ratatouille. Desert was a big bowl of green apples followed by slices of jam tart.
By 9pm we realised that it was time for bed when the lady from the refuge started stacking the stools up on our table, and once she had started hoovering around us we took the hint and turned in for the evening. We needed to be ready for an early start the next morning when we would continue to Refuge Bonnati. Stay tuned for the next installment of my Tour de Mont Blanc diary.
To be continued ……
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More tales from the Tour de Mont Blanc
The Tour de Mont Blanc Diaries Day 1 – Champex Lac to Ferret and a walk in the woods
The Mountain clothing you’ll need for treking the Tour de Mont Blanc
A tale of Two Refuges – on the Tour de Mont Blanc
Resources for walking the Tour de Mont Blanc
At Ferret, Switerland we stayed at Hotel Col de Fenetre. The twin room with en suite bathroom cost 95 CHF per person including dinner and breakfast. The hotel does not have a website but reservations can be made by e-mailing [email protected] Tel. 027 783 1188
We walked to Rifugio Elena in Italy where we had a twin room with en suite bathroom which cost €57.50 per person including dinner and breakfast. The Refuge has room for 130 people in both dormitory accommodation and private en suite twin rooms. There is an e-mail address given on the website but we did not get any response to our e-mail reservation request. We learned later that there is no e-mail at the Refuge itself, so they do not monitor e-mail, therefore you will need to telephone them for a reservation either before your trip or ask one of the previous refuges to do so for you once you arrive on the TMB. Staff at Rifugio Elena speak Italian, French and some English. Tel (+39) 0165844688
For women’s mountain clothing I used mountain sports specialist, Ellis Brigham who have a wide range of waterproof jackets, trousers and other walking gear you might need for a trek on the mountains, which are available both through their website and UK stores.
We used the Cicerone Tour of Mont Blanc guide by Kev Reynolds – we found it to be an excellent guide for both the clockwise and anti-clockwise route with detailed route guide, maps, accommodation information and points of interest along the route.
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