We had planned on camping near Rifugio Soldini, which was closed for the season. However, it was a beautiful day and so Tom and I decided to continue into Stage 4 and camp in the valley below. Unfortunately, the valley proved ill-suited to camping: the left side was marshy and soft, and the right side was a cow pasture: we could deal with the cow patties, which were impossible to avoid, but didn’t want a few thousand kilos of cow walking over us in the night!
This forced us to keep going and start uphill. Things were looking a bit grim as we couldn’t find flat ground anywhere near water, but I eventually noticed a projection of land a hundred meters below us near a stream crossing. It turns out to be perhaps the most spectacular campsite I’ve ever seen, directly across the valley from Mont Blanc. In fact, once we set up our two tents, it looked like a photo in an ad!
The sunrise from our campsite was beyond spectacular: just look at what I saw leaning out of my tent! (Just click on any photo to see the full picture.) The sun set the mountain tops glowing pink and purple, the air was luminous, if cold. (This was the coldest night of the whole trip and we had every item of clothing on.)
After a delay while Tom dried his gear after an accident with his water bladder, we started our only climb of the day, 250 meters to the top of a ridge, where we spent the next couple of hours winding along with a front-row view of the Mont Blanc massif across the way. This was the first of five days on the TMB that follow this pattern: hiking on the side of a valley, occasionally rising to high points with 360 degree views, directly across from the complex of peaks, glaciers, and valleys. A truly spectacular way to gain different perspectives of a mountain!
We had lunch at Rifugio Maison Vieille, nestled in a col between several peaks and at the top of a network of ski lifts. (It was here, when I tried to order a beer for lunch, that I realized I didn’t know any Italian!) From here, we had a long drop into Courmayeur, our destination for the night and the formal end of Stage 4. The bottoms of our feet were hurting from the descents on the previous two days. We vaguely talked about bailing out and taking the cable car, although I knew that, in the end, I wouldn’t do it: I wanted to walk the whole thing. It didn’t matter anyway: the cable car wasn’t running so we had no choice but to drop steeply down the switchbacks to the valley floor. The path was well graded and mostly shaded (which unfortunately meant limited views) but it was still painful.
We finally emerged above the small village of Dolonne, across the river from Courmayeur. We followed an open slightly sloped field that was outfitted with a type of conveyor belt ski lift I’d never seen before: it was obviously the bunny slope in the winter. Then we entered the village itself and enjoyed an atmospheric walk through the stone buildings and archways.
Courmayeur is a lovely resort town tucked near the top of the Valle d’Aosta, a semi-autonomous region in northwestern Italy. Just north of the town, the motorway disappears into the Mont Blanc Tunnel, an 11.6 km tunnel linking Italy to the Chamonix Valley in France.
Unlike the French towns we’d been through, Courmayeur was open for business and very accommodating. We found a nice room in a hotel right on the main town square and then spent the rest of the afternoon buying provisions, including a huge roll of “American tape” (as duct tape is known in Europe) to help keep my poor boots going. (The sole of one boot had come loose at the toe and had a tendency to catch on the downhills so I’d run through my whole stash of duct tape already to keep it going.) We then enjoyed a spectacular dinner featuring some of the Aosta Valley’s specialities (simple, robust pastas).