Stage 1 with its constant rain and accommodation challenges would prove a walk in the park compared to Stage 2. It started the same: clouds, mist and drizzle as we followed a road that snaked through woods and pastureland. About 15 minutes into the hike, very wet snow started to fall. As we climbed, the snow became worse and started to stick. (Check out this brief video I made for a sense of this.)
In these conditions, route finding became a problem, particularly once we entered open pastureland. We were the first on the trail (so no footsteps to follow), there were no cairns, signs only at trail junctions, and trail markings were restricted to occasional white and red stripes on rocks, which were rapidly disappearing under snow. It came down to instinct as we looked for places where grass didn’t show above the snow – an indication that a trail (hopefully the trail) lay beneath.
Now Tom and I have done most of our hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, one of the most difficult winter environments around, in spite of relatively low elevations, and we’ve both (me in particular) had to navigate through difficult conditions, occasionally retreating when visibility dropped below a safe level. In spite of all this experience, this was one of the toughest days I’ve ever had. By the time we reached Col du Bonhomme at 2330 meters, visibility was down to less than 100 meters, the wind had picked up, and we were soaked through in spite of wearing very good technical clothing. The snow simply stuck and slowly melted through even our supposedly waterproof shells.
We entered the tiny cube of a warming hut in the Col, had a snack and tried to dry off. We looked at our map and trail guide, and then headed out, just as a large guided group entered the hut. I could see a trail heading off at 90 degrees from where we’d come but my mind just couldn’t accept that it was the correct trail. If I’d pulled out the map, guide and compass all at once, I would have figured it out but with the wet snow and wind, this was difficult, so we winged it – and found ourselves 15 minutes later (and 200 meters lower) at a hut not on the route. We found shelter, checked the map and realized our mistake.
Back up we went to the Col where we found the guided group had left already. Through a combination of instinct, picking up occasional footprints (the wind and continued snowfall had already scoured much of these away), and sporadic sightings of trail markers, we made our way to the even more windswept and desolate Col de la Croix du Bonhomme at 2480 meters, then rapidly descended (through snowdrifts to our knees) to the refuge below the col, which had left the main room open for self-service. The guided group was very surprised to see us, having watched us depart ahead of them!
From this point on, it was a relatively easy trip down. “Relatively” because while the first third of the descent was a breeze (the snow was deep enough for a classic “boot slide”), the middle third was like trying to ride a greased pig: a thin layer of snow over mud and grass with nothing to get a grip on. I fell four times and bent one of my hiking poles severely. Tom fell at least as many times (and he’s much more coordinated than me). Needless to say, frustration was high! At least the snow started to clear and we were able to get occasionally atmospheric views of the snow-covered valleys and peaks.
Fortunately, the bottom third was snow-free into Les Chapieux, a tiny village consisting of not much more than 3-4 houses, an auberge and a artisanal cheese shop, sitting in a spectacular position at the intersection of several valleys, including Vallée des Glaciers, where we head the next day. We had planned on camping but after the day’s soaking and freezing, we gladly took a spot in the auberge and settled in for a nice social night with some of the folks we’d seen during the day.
Stage 3 – Les Chapieux, France, to Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini, Italy