Day Nine: On the Air of Heaven
And naked on the Air of Heaven ride…”
Morning at Relais du Mont Blanc, Trient. Breakfast was the standard (bread, jam, and coffee), and conversation was about the day's walk our second to last of the trip. It would commence with a 400m-ish climb out of this valley, up to Col de Balme. But it would culminate with the vaunted steel ladders bolted into the cliffsides below Téte aux Vents the longest of them nearly 100 feet up a sheer face; and it would end at the remote and magical Refuge du Lac Blanc.
Little did we know the ladders would turn out to be under refurbishment! And a detour had been put in place one involving ropes and steel spikes pounded into the rock! But first we had to get moving, and climb ourselves up out of there.
Alas, the day began as it meant to go on with a detour. The main path up the side of the valley was now the site of some sort of heavy construction. And, if we even understood the construction guy correctly, the detour was a ways further down the path. Yeah, there's nothing for morale like starting out a huge day going the wrong direction not only out of our way, but also losing a bunch of elevation that we were immediately going to have to climb up again. We fell in with another couple who made us less apprehensive we were going completely the wrong way. →
At last, the damned alt path. ← We could finally get down to the business of getting our asses handed to us by this climb. As we slowly, laboriously started to get back up toward 2000m again, it began to cool (thank eff) and I found I was feeling more at home. From notebook:
We finally reached the end of the diversion and finally found out what they were doing with all the heavy equipment up there: "Exploitation Forestiere par Telepherique" →
We stopped for a rest just past the end of the diversion and after 505m of climbing, according to Tim's iPhone's GPS's altimeter. I broke out my cached panettone nocciola, from way back at Rifugio Bonatti. This made me very, if briefly, popular. After all, I was responsible for, well, as the guidebook had it:
And, as usual, there was nowhere to go but up. Also, inevitably, the people we'd reached the detour with were catching us up; and one doesn't like to do that annoying, unending pass-and-be-passed routine. So we saddled up.
Me: “Sorry, Mark, if you want longer breaks, you'll just have to further outpace these people.”
Mark: “Throw rocks at 'em.”
Me: “Set traps.”
Finally the path topped out and opened up to, well (from guidebook):
We fleeced up, as it was getting properly cold up here, and out in the open particularly after sweating through our clothes in the climb out of the valley. And we soldiered on.
We ended up having to do a pretty big down-and-up, instead of just staying up on the ridge and traversing across, due to a totally unnamed party member blasting through a crossroads without waiting to confer. But, obviously, he'd blasted through because he'd thought the best route was obvious, and it worked out fine in any case.
What tempted me at the cairn was my gloves. We were starting to get up into cloud.
Bit of a snow diagonal there. My internal marching cadence along here, if you're interested, was that great 90s anthem of self-loathing, "My Own Worst Enemy" by Lit. Heavy downbeat, good for climbing. You can listen along if you like. →
As you can see it got a little socked in up in there. Just when we were pretty sure we weren't at all sure we were going the right way, a knot of hunched figures trudged toward us out of the soup.
As we approached the notch in the mountain (the col), the cloud soup came blasting right through it I literally watched a whole cloud blow through the slot at high speed and then off, and away. And, just like that, we walked out of winter.
There were some minor route-picking follies/palaver at the top.
Tim made a good point the Mt. Blanc massif bordered us on the left, and the west wall of the Chamonix valley to the right. But of course this was also reminiscent of Mark's admonition, from the Coast to Coast Path, to "keep Scotland on our left." And it worked out every bit as well. We carried on over the top and down toward the Chamonix valley.
Back into summer again, we stopped to gear down and apply sun goop. And to nibble.
And then… and then, we got on the damned cable car. Basically, the descent down to Le Tour, which sat nestled at the northernmost edge of the Chamonix valley, looked like a slog, and a relatively charmless one. (It was all laid out right below us.) And it wasn't like we weren't doing plenty of descents. (And it was a descent! Taking a cable car up would have been a whole different Rubicon.) And it looked like fun! Down we flew.
Except for Mark. As you can see from that last photo, it wasn't fun for Mark at all. (I forget why vertigo?) But Mark being Mark, he went along with the idea anyway. Then we had a little walk through town, down the valley, and back up the side of it.
I had a bit of a hide'n'seek session with a chamois there. Got pretty close. Then things started getting rocky again, and there were climbers about as we approached the famous, dramatic needle of rock of Aiguillette d'Argentiere.
Along the way: our first closest encounter with a young ibex! Awesome.
And then Aiguillette d'Argentiere came into view. It was a flawless summer Alpine day, and there were climbers upon the spire.
And then… they pulled the ladders out from under us. That last photo shows where they were supposed to start. And it also shows the big X and one of the workers. I guess it makes a certain amount of sense. If you're going to have ladders up sheer cliffsides you'd better keep them in good nick. (Though I've certainly been on trails that had ropes and steps and whatnot that weren't.)
We never got to see the ladder route. But I'll wager the diversion was probably even cooler. Real boys'-own-adventure stuff. It started with a rope up a cliff; and proceeded with steel bars bunged onto the steep and jumbled rock.
So, realising the profound unsafety of trying to use the camera while climbing up all this, I initially put it away. But then I pretty quickly realised I could leave it hanging round my neck, turn it on video, and capture an FPS version of some of the climb. Here's that!
And there was plenty more!
We stopped for a bit of food and wonderment before carrying on up toward the mountain-top lakes that awaited.
More hot ibex-on-mountain action with extreme close-ups!
And more ladders! Yay.
Another bit of a stop. The light up here was just amazing.
I sort of belatedly worked out that today's segment definitely represented the most total climbing of any day of the walk and I thought the most total mileage, as well. But we hardly noticed it. There was really only one more big push up to the lakes, and the refuge. But we were in absolutely no hurry.
So as you can see, we were getting back up to the snowline, plus much more jagged terrain. And the first of the lakes! They were absolutely magical up in that high and remote setting.
Tim's expression there pretty much tells the tale (of this segment). He was smiling out loud, and non-stop. I wasn't far behind.
And then the final ascent. As it turned out, this was no joke! we weren't 100% confident of being able to get up a snow-covered grade this steep with no technical equipment!
We made it Tim with his smile dimmed not one watt.
And finally in for the day! Refuge du Lac Blanc was a hell of a lot smaller than it looked in pictures. But were we tickled to be there.
The dortoir was truly cosy. But, once again, we didn't mind. At check-in, apologetically mentioning my dietary proclivities turned out to save me from another omelet! Nice. After throwing our stuff down (there was actually no room for kit in the dorm it all had to go in lockers in an outbuilding!), we repaired out onto the unbelievable patio for coffee, since it was still a bit early for the good stuff.
A helicopter buzzed right in over our heads for resupply of propane tanks, it appeared. We ducked in, both to check out the main area and to get beers going. Then I was sort of in and out; both to oggle the scenery and to bury my next beer in the snow for better chilling! Hey, it's cheaper than generating electricity for the fridge! A whole tour group of Japanese rocked up. The frosty air turned into a pleasing mélange of Français, English, and 日本語.
And then… and then, of course, the long wait 'til dinner. When it finally rolled around, we shared our table with four 日本人 including three very lively, funny ladies. As per always, I did my performing monkey gaijin routine, trotting out my university Japanese. They graciously acted delighted. And, as often happens, the more I drank, the better my foreign language got. By dessert, I felt positively conversational.
Dessert, not incidentally, was a vegan fest! Peaches (tinned, but what do you expect at 2352m?), chocolate sauce, and almond flakes.
For once in my life.
Our table was a tumult of polyglot jokes and laughter. And, at some point, I realised I could actually see the clear summit of Mt. Blanc out the window over Mark's shoulder. Finally, Tim and I stepped outside one last time.
And the customary Day 9 Music Video! (Not my very finest work, either videography or editing, but it does get better as it goes on…)
(asskicking music by Sebastian Komor - "Ascend" and "Threshold")