Stage 5 was lovely and relatively easy, with the same perfect weather we’d had for the previous two days. It started with a steady uphill walk through the streets of Courmayeur and into the nearby village of Villair. The road became unpaved and after a couple of curves, we entered a trail that climbed steadily upward via switchbacks – and eventually through a large scree field – to Rifugio Bertone, another of the well-made, quaint and superbly sited Italian refuges.
The climb was over 800 meters, but that completed our uphill for the day, leaving us with only a couple of hours of easy walking along the flank of Mont de la Saxe, a long ridge defining the south side of the Italian Val Ferret and offering the now expected exquisite views of the south side of the Mont Blanc massif. (Until 2006, the TMB proper climbed to the very top of Mont de la Saxe and followed the ridgecrest. This added an additional 400 meters of climbing to reach the top and then another 300 or so later on to get back to the main route. We were still getting our trail legs so we decided to skip this option and follow the lower trail that is now the main TMB route. I can’t imagine that the views were any better from the top!)
We arrived at Rifugio Walter Bonatti in early afternoon. (Walter Bonatti was a famous Italian mountaineer who, coincidentally, had passed away just a week before we arrived at his namesake refuge.) Talk about a five star refuge! Incredibly well constructed and appointed, it’s like a hotel in the mountains: big dining room with expansive views, boot and drying rooms downstairs, several bathrooms with running water, a full equipped bar, and a combination of private rooms and four-person dorms. The only drawback is that hot water is limited. We were given a token for the showers and when I used mine, I discovered it was only good for about a couple of minutes of hot water. Unfortunately, I discovered this after I wasted my hot water on shampooing so had to wash and rinse my body in cold water! I had to remind myself that any shower at all is a luxury on a backpacking trip.
We caught up with Laurie and Mari, the two women we’d hiked with on Stage 3. They had arrived the day before but, after two very long days, they wisely decided to take a rest day at the refuge, a superb place to hang out for the day, as we discovered spending the rest of the afternoon and evening hanging out on the patio, watching the mountains, an amazing sunset and delicious twilight skies – all accompanied by several rounds of beer and wine!