Tom was hard to rouse this morning. He blamed being cold overnight in our somewhat austere three bed room. We blamed staying up too late to watch a movie… Anyway we got to breakfast late which meant something of a mad dash around the buffet, grabbing the last of the bread and the muffins and a dribble of cool coffee. Actually they took pity on us and gave us more coffee, but these refuges are pretty clear that you are not there to while away the morning. They want you to have eaten breakfast and be on your way by 8. We picked up three splendid packed lunches and found places to put the sandwiches and peaches and slabs of black chocolate and panettone cakes. Then we went to find our boots in the boot room where everyone swaps their hiking boots for loose fitting slippers. The smell in that room is almost visible.
OK, time to go. The sun was on the other side of the mountain which made for a chilly start. We filled our bottles from the spring water which is available at troughs all along the TMB.
We were about the last people to leave Refuge Bonatti, which is a good way to start the day as you don’t find yourself stuck in a clump of hikers.
The route started off fairly level for a change, hugging the side of the valley. Either side of the path were hundreds of gentians coiled and ready to flower. They will be stunning in a few days. We’ve been amazed by the variety of flowers; marigolds and daisies of course but harebells and rosebay willow herb, tiny yellow snapdragons, eidelweiss and wild cotton and a host of others that our parents would identify with a roll of their eyes at our botanic ignorance.
There were ruins here and there although one old house looked as though it might be inhabited. A man was drinking from the stream outside, his face tanned almost black by the sun and his dog moving quietly nearby. We said buongiorno and he replied with a greeting that we couldn’t make out.
The path turned down towards the river where we stopped at a little cafe selling unbelievably good hot chocolate, in mugs with long spoons. This was not supposed to be a particularly hard day so we’d decided to take it easy and stop everywhere that looked nice. Chocolate downed, we headed on along the valley floor until the inevitable yellow TMB sign told us that it was time to start climbing. And it was quite a climb, more than seventeen hundred steep feet, up to the 8,500 foot Grand Col Ferret which marks the Swiss border. It’s these steep climbs where having hiking poles is a real boon; helping you haul yourself up and keep your balance. I’d been a bit sceptical about them at first but they’ve been great.
A little way up we came to the Rifugio Elena, a great modern barn of a building that replaced a refuge that was swept away by an avalanche in the fifties. Outside was incredibly windy; inside was a bit cheerless, so we went on and found a sheltered place to sit and have a handful of trailmix looking over at a glacier, before heading for the path summit and Switzerland.
The only advantage of these steep, knee-crushing, hip-grinding, lung-busting paths is that fairly quickly the place where you started is a faint dot way, way below you and you feel to be making good progress. But inevitably there is So Much Further To Go.
Each ridge we approached we thought must be the last one, but another one would sneak up from the horizon and snigger into its hand.
When, finally the ridge top was in sight, we stopped for lunch looking back into Italy. Rifugio Bonatti had given us each a square slab of chocolate, 64% cocoa and imprinted with its own logo. It was fantastic stuff, shattering in your mouth with a bitter-sweet creaminess.
The top of the ridge was marked by an official cairn and dozens of sunbathing hikers. It looked like they’d all been felled by the wind, which was pretty keen. And beyond was Switzerland. The mountains seemed rounder and less imposing. The high traces of snow sparkled in the sunshine and as we descended through the deep green valley it got warmer and warmer.
We scrambled up to a viewpoint looking along the valley we would be walking along tomorrow.
The rounded hilltop was a perfect rock-garden with deserty flowers poking through shards of flat slate.
Hours later, at the bottom of the valley we stopped for a cold drink at a dairy farm where I watched a man stacking great wheels of cheese. The sun was searingly hot and looking at the map we were pleased to see our route go through trees.
The dappled shade was a relief as we continued our descent through pine and larch and eventually to the village of La Fouly. We walked on a main street lined with big wooden chalets to our hotel – a big wooden chalet. Hello Switzerland!