Tour du Mont Blanc Day 4: Courmayeur – Rifugio Bonatti – La Peule
In an effort to get on the trail at a reasonable time today, I actually woke up fairly early this morning. Of course, I still need to pack my bag, but I’m trying to be quick with it. Before too long, Katy and I walk down the hall to the breakfast included at our B&B and I gorge myself on Nutella croissants and drink about 2L of orange juice in preparation for the day.
We still haven’t worked out the specifics of Katy meeting me at the campsite in Champex, Switzerland tomorrow, so she is frantically searching for transport options over breakfast. At the last minute, she decides it will be better to travel to Chamonix today and then onwards to Champex tomorrow, rather than trying to cram all the trains and buses into a single day, which requires her to make a mad dash back to the room to pack her things so we can go into Courmayeur together on the bus (our hotel is a fair bit off the main square), and surprisingly we do make it.
But the bus itself, however, doesn’t actually arrive, so we are stuck waiting a full 45 minutes for the next one. This is particularly annoying, as I would have really enjoyed an extra 45 minutes in bed if I didn’t need to rush to this earlier bus. Not long before the bus finally comes, a flock of about 30 retired Italians descends on the bus stop, all of them shouting and gesticulating wildly. A few even try to have a conversation with us, which is not extremely successful given that we don’t speak Italian and they definitely do not speak English. When the next bus pulls in (late as well, I might add), it’s absolute chaos. Under ordinary circumstances, I would give preference to the elderly in boarding a bus, but I’ve been waiting here for nearly an hour and I refuse to be left behind.
Once in town, I say goodbye to Katy and attempt to follow my map towards the trail. As always with me, this proves challenging, so I have to flag down a couple with trekking poles and ask where they are going. We manage to navigate to the correct road together, and then I shoot off ahead. It must be all that orange juice energy.
The route follows a long, steep road out of Courmayeur, which eventually becomes an actual trail that zigzags up the hill above the town. Right away, the trail is gorgeous— there are wild flowers everywhere and frequent glimpses through the trees of the tiny buildings in Courmayeur.
Ahead of schedule, I arrive to Refugio Bertone and have to immediately throw off my boot to inspect the worsening blister situation. I have about 10 nasty blisters all the size of small toes, although some have already burst, but the mother of all blisters is on my actual small toe and still the size of a 6th toe. It’s burst several times now, so it is now a blister within a blister within a blister (blister-ception), and it’s not looking good. Nor is it feeling good. I’d totally consider having the whole toe just cut right off if I could be assured there would be no blisters on the nub.
From Bertone, the route climbs for a few minutes before levelling out to a beautiful rolling trail, the easiest stretch in a long while. The ascents and descents are incredibly mild and I take the opportunity to fast walk and make up some time on my way to Refugio Bonatti.
Once at Bonatti, stage 5 is actually done, even though it’s only early afternoon. Even more exciting: I crossed the TMB half-way point! I have a delicious lunch of leftover pizza crust from last night’s dinner and southwest corn and black bean salad from my mountain pouch, and then have a lengthy lounge in the sun before setting off again.
Once again, the trail is pleasant and rolling, and there are whole swarms of little butterflies flapping around as I walk. The wild flowers are still everywhere and the clouds over the tip of Mont Blanc have even started to clear, so the scene is stunning and I stop frequently to take photos.
My toe blister is throbbing intensely and it seems like I’ll be lucky to even make it to Refugio Elena, which is only 2 hours into stage 6 and my minimum end point if I hope to make it all the way to Champex tomorrow. The trail transitions into switchbacks down the mountain and I try to power ahead, using the downhill as momentum, but I get stuck behind a pair of English ladies for what feels like an eternity. I know they know I’m back here, because they’ve said hello before returning to their conversation, so it’s a true mystery why they don’t move. Eventually, their husbands stop to wait for them and notice me stuck behind, waving at the women to move aside. Finally, I zip past and continue my walk-run down the hill.
Once at the bottom, I have to take off my bag and boot to deal with this toe. It’s looking horrible, but it feels even worse. Just as I’m trying to fashion a blister pad out of toilet paper, the English hikers appear and ask me if I’m camping just there. I tell them I’m actually attending to the world’s worst blister, and the women immediately rush over to play mountain nurses, whipping blister tape and pain meds from their bag. One lady even alcohol wipes her hands so she can put the blister pad on for me. This is just another great example of the generosity of hikers!
I limp away from the scene, unable to put hardly any weight on my toes because of the blister, using my trekking poles more like crutches. In a few minutes, thankfully, the Neurofen kicks in and the pain subsides to a dull ache, so I motor on up the hillside towards Refugio Elena.
I’m pretty tired by the time I arrive, but it’s amazingly windy and there really isn’t a good place to pitch a tent. Unfortunately, the only other option is to walk another 2.5 hours up and over the Grand Col Ferret into Switzerland and look for camping in La Peule. While it’s not a super desirable option to ascend steeply all the way up the mountain at 6pm, I feel it may be smart to take advantage of the pain killers I’ve already taken and attack more of the trail while I’m reasonably pain-free, saving myself time tomorrow when the pain may be worse.
Half-way up the mountain, I catch up to a pair of hikers, Noam from Israel and Yacine from France (who is carrying a bike on his back), and they are also hoping to camp in La Peule, so we continue the ascent together. Apparently they have heard that there are yurts to camp in, which is certainly an appealing option considering how cold I’ve been in my tent. Not long after we all start walking together, we reach the top of the Col that marks the border between Italy and Switzerland. The wind is so intense that it nearly blows me off the mountain, so we stay only long enough to throw on extra layers and take a quick photo before continuing down the other side.
I actually made it to the Col in less time than the sign indicated, but it’s still 830pm by the time we arrive to La Peule. Sure enough, there are yurts! Yacine goes inside to enquire about the cost, which is 15sfr, the same cost as pitching your own tent outside. Obviously, we opt for the yurt, which is cluttered with tables and food storage, but has a wood chip and dirt ground that should be fairly comfortable.
I inflate my mattress and pillow, roll out my sleeping bag, and trudge off to the showers. I’m covered in dirt and it feels amazing to actually be (relatively) clean again. After the showers, we all sit down inside the main hut to enjoy drinks. The boys have beers, but I always crave sugar after a long hike, so I opt for a giant glass of grapefruit soda. It hits the spot like you wouldn’t believe.
It’s easily 10pm before we return to the yurt to eat dinner. I have a bread roll and the rest of my southwest corn and black bean salad, but Noam whips up an Israeli feast of tahini and rice with some cheese they bought from the main hut and shares with everyone. It’s a lovely evening and I go to sleep feeling satisfied with the day.
TMB Day 4 stats
Distance covered: 28km
Elevation gain & loss: 1710m & 611m
Trail time: 9.5hrs
Variations: combined stage 5 & part of stage 6 into one day
Campsite: camping in a yurt at La Peule (15sfr)