I wake up this morning to the sound of several hundred cowbells right outside my tent. When I stick my head out to investigate, there are easily that many cows just milling about in the grass opposite my campsite, mooing and clanking their bells, but I am slightly distracted by the incredible view straight ahead. I sit up and stare out in awe as I eat my baguette and some mountain food for breakfast.
After the requisite number of photos, I pack up my bag and hit the trail. If I make good time this morning, I should reach Col de la Seine, the mountain pass that marks the border between France and Italy, in about 2 hours. Immediately, I am huffing and puffing my way up an alarmingly steep hill, passing and being passed by a pair of girls every few minutes. The girls eventually introduce themselves as Melanie and Sara from Vancouver, Canada and we all decide to walk together since we are moving at such a similar pace.
After much struggling, we reach the mountain pass and are nearly bowled over by the intense wind, but also stunned by the amazing views of Mont Blanc. Due to low hanging clouds on the first day of my hike, this is actually the best view I’ve had yet of the mountain I’m walking around, so I am elated― another one of those moments where all the struggling seems worthwhile! We can’t stay long at the col because of the freezing wind, so we soon take our first steps into Italy and begin the descent towards Refugio Elisabetta.
Whenever I’m climbing upwards and struggling to breath/lift my legs, I’m begging for the sweet relief of downhill, and whenever I’m going downhill, I’m begging for the sweet relief of death. I find it incredibly taxing on my knees and ankles because I’m basically living in the body of an arthritic 80 year old, so I absolutely hate it. Main takeaway from the story: I can never be satisfied and I will whine about anything.
We have about 45 minutes of a fairly steep descent before we reach Elisabetta where we’ll have lunch, but that’s about 40 minutes too much, if you ask me. Once we reach the hut (thankfully in one piece), we park ourselves behind some bricks to shield against the wind and dig in to our respective lunches. The girls’ lunches have come from the refuge they stayed in last night and include whole tomatoes, which they find very strange, but which I am more than happy to devour. They are like “who eats whole tomatoes?!” Me. I do.
Refugio Elisabetta actually marks the end of stage 3, but it’s only midday, so it seems silly to stop already. My original plan was to try and make it a few hours past Elisabetta to save time on tomorrow’s hike and reach Courmayeur early on day 4, where Katy is waiting to meet me. The girls, however, are going all the way to Courmayeur today, so I decide I may as well capitalise on the good company and we can all suffer together.
Just as we are struggling to discern the correct trail away from Rifugio Elisabetta, the girls spot a friend they made on the first day, Ryan from England, who then joins our hiking party and we all set off down the steep path. According to the sign we’ve just passed, we have 5 hours to reach Courmayeur, which doesn’t even sound that bad (famous last words).
After about half an hour of downhill, we reach the longest stretch of straight trail I’ve seen yet, and my entire body is singing with joy not to be doing extreme uphill or extreme downhill. All good things come to an end, though, and we soon reach a sign that directs us straight upwards into the hills.
As it turns out, this trail is incredibly steep. Since the book said we only had some 460m of elevation gain during this 4th stage, I was foolishly expecting that it wouldn’t be that difficult, but apparently the entire gain is happening on this section of trail, over not much time at all. It feels never-ending, and I am really struggling under the weight of my pack more than usual today. Just when I want to collapse, we look up and see little specks on the hill way above us, and it’s obvious that we are only half way, try as I might to convince myself that they are on a different trail and surely we aren’t going all the way up there.
After a good hour and a half, we finally reach the top and are met by even stronger winds than before, but also a spectacular view. As I’m trying to take a few photos, I am nearly blown clear off the mountain. Still, I am so happy to have finished the ascent that I could cry. The next hour and a half follow a relatively manageable trail, undulating fairly moderately up and down past cute little mountain lakes and across patches of snow.
It doesn’t feel like much longer before we reach Refugio Maison Vieille, where I drop my pack and eagerly go in search of the bathroom I’ve been dying for. I’m incredibly surprised to find squat toilets, I didn’t even know they had these in Italy, but I’ve spent enough time in Asia not to be overly phased. And also I drank a lot of water today, so you just can’t be picky.
While Melanie and I go to the bathroom, Sara goes inside to enquire about where we buy tickets for the cable car that sits just a few hundred metres away. It’s been our plan all along to take the cable car down the rest of the way and save ourselves the steep descent into Courmayeur that has been fairly ominously described in the book. In fact, our mantra all day has been: cablecar, pizza, gelato. We are going to save an hour and a half of walking downhill, and then arrive in Courmayeur to all enjoy pizza and gelato. It’s everyone else in the group’s first time to Italy, and the girls will only be here today before moving on to Switzerland via bus to pick up a later stage of the trek, so pizza and gelato are an absolute must.
Much to our surprise, the lady tells Sara that the cable car won’t actually open for two more days, meaning we have no choice but to descend on foot. This is pretty awful news, especially as the sign says 1h50m to Courmayeur. With no other options, however, we all make our way towards the trail and it’s not long before we get into the descent.
Immediately, we are all in agony. It’s by far the steepest section of trail we’ve had, and it’s over gnarly tree roots and rocks, making stability even worse. As we walk down, we discuss the pizzas we will get and make jokes about just throwing ourselves down the hill to save time. Even with trekking poles, I feel unsteady, even somewhat lightheaded, and my legs are shaking from exhaustion. I can actually see all the legs in front of me vibrating the same way, so it’s clear we are all struggling. The promise of gelato is the only thing keeping me moving. I also really want to shower (and I’m sure everyone else wants that for me as well, because it’s been a long time.)
After what feels like an eternity (1h15m), we break through the trees and are finally on asphalt, making our way into Courmayeur. I could cry, I’m that happy to be done. At first, we try to find the tourist information centre so everyone can sort out accommodation— the girls already have a place booked and need directions, I need wifi to find Katy, and Ryan has also wisely decided to skip camping tonight and splurge for a Refugio. We quickly abandon that idea, as we are all too tired to even think straight, and instead park ourselves at a nearby pizzeria.
I order a pizza with goat cheese and ham, which turns out to be incredibly delicious, but also large enough to feed a family. I also get the juice I’ve been craving all day, which helps to abate the hangry-ness. I only finish about a third of the giant pizza, but I pack the rest away for Katy, who I’ve been able to contact on wifi, and we all leave. Ryan goes off to a Refugio we passed not long ago, and the girls and I continue to the tourist office.
Katy comes running at me as we approach, so I say goodbye to the girls and immediately demand gelato. She takes me across the road to a place she’s already been, and then, gelato in hand (and mouth), we make our way to the bus that will take us back to the hotel. After just a few minutes, we arrive and Katy navigates us inside, where we are met by an incredibly old Italian woman that is very shocked to see me. We try to explain that I’m staying in the same room as Katy, on the room’s second bed, but she eventually just calls someone, presumably to translate. A few minutes later, her grandson shows up and explains that we must pay more for a second person.
It’s annoying, but I’m too tired to care. While we wait for them to “prepare the second bed”, I show the grandson in my book where I’ve been these last few days. He says he wants to do the hike himself, and just yesterday he went hiking with his sister along the exact route I will take tomorrow. I am encouraged by claims that it wasn’t too difficult, as I really don’t think I could manage another hard day just yet.
Finally, we go up to the room and I jump immediately into a bath. And then run several more after that, because the water quickly turns brown after just a little scrubbing. The dust from the descent was all over my legs and my hair was quite ratty, but I’m feeling like a million bucks after the baths. Well, not quite, considering I took off my socks to find half a dozen blisters on my feet, all the size of small toes, but I’m definitely feeling better. I muster the energy to wash some clothes and socks, and then collapse into bed to write this all down.
An exhausting day, to say the least, but nonetheless the most spectacular day so far. Many more to come, I’m sure!
TMB Day 3 stats
Distance covered: 30km
Elevation gain & loss: 1464m & 1818m
Trail time: 8.5hrs
Variations: combined stage 3 & 4 into a single day
Campsite: hotel in Courmayeur