Monday, April 11, 2016

Day 7: Weather Tease

September 1: I first woke up at 4:00 in the morning to a very light sprinkle. The weather forecast I had checked back in La Fouly barely 12 hours before had predicted no rain until late in the afternoon so I hadn't bothered to set up my tarp--a fact that now concerned me.

The sprinkle was barely perceptible and if that was the worst of it, no big deal--I'd just sleep through it. But how could I know what the weather had in mind? I grudgingly got out of my sleeping back and quickly set up my tarp over it using rocks from the fire ring to secure it in place. Then I went back to sleep. Protected under my tarp, I slept easy.

The light sprinkle continued on and off throughout the morning but never did require the use of the tarp. I didn't regret putting it up, though. It still gave me peace of mind.

I woke again a couple of hours later, eating breaking and breaking down camp, hitting the trail just before 7:00. It was an early start, but I hoped to get in as much hiking as possible before any real rain started late in the afternoon.

The next couple of miles I passed a series of wood carvings made from stumps and stags alongside the trail. I'd seen the start of them just before setting up camp, but most of them I'd pass early in the morning. I had trouble getting good photos of them since they were in the trees and the sun barely up. The clouds didn't help increase the light levels either, but I did my best to photograph them all. (I won't be posting photos of all of them, but definitely a good subset of them!)

A short while later, the trail popped out in Champex, a cute little lakeside town. I stopped at the grocery store in town which was supplied considerably better than the one in La Fouly, but prices still seemed absurdly high and I didn't buy much. I didn't really need much, though.

Out of Champex, I had a choice of routes: the main TMB and an alternate route that would take me to the highest point (okay, tied with the highest point) of the trail at Fenêtre d'Arpette. Both allegedly had great views, but the better views, naturally, were the ones higher up the mountain and that's where I wanted to go.

However.... my guidebook provided this warning about the higher route:
The crossing should not be attempted other than in good conditions and with a forecast of settled weather. In the event of neither of these provisos being met, you are advised to use the main 'Bovine' route....
Yeah, well. There was still a light on-and-off sprinkle going on, and the clouds overhead certainly looked angry. And most definitely, the weather forecast for later in the afternoon most certainly did not include the words "settled weather." But screw it! I'm going! I hoped the warning was for less experienced hikers than myself.

My guidebook continued....
Along with Col des Fours, which shares the same altitude, the Fenêtre d'Arpette is the highest point reached on the Tour of Mont Blanc, and its crossing from Champex is the toughest of the whole route. The statistics of height gain and loss provide a clue as to its strenuous nature, but the reality of this will only be felt on the final approach to the pass where, after negotiating a chaos of boulders, a steep slope of grit ensures that your arrival the Fenêtre is cause for relief.
Is that all? Shesh! I could probably do that in my sleep nowadays! =)

Out of Champex, the light sprinkles stopped and the sun even broke out of the clouds a few brief times to wash me down with sunlight. As the trail rose in elevation, however, temperatures plummeted. Partly due to higher elevations, of course, but that couldn't explain all of the drop in temperature. I was certain whatever storm was rolling in was coming in on a cold front. When I woke up in the morning, it was considerably warmer than it was now.

The trail followed alongside a little irrigation channel for several miles, which fascinated me. I'd never followed an irrigation channel next to a mountainous trail before. It seemed odd. Often times I've followed alongside streams and creeks following down a mountain, but never a man-made stream like this one that was so uniformly controlled along its entire length.

I passed a couple of refuges without stopping, pushing quickly hoping to beat the worst of the weather to the top of the pass. Much of the trail was surprisingly flat--down in the valley that slowly rose to the pass, but once the trail left the valley bottom, the elevation gained rapidly into some gorgeous mountains.

My views of the gorgeous mountains weren't perfect, however. Most of the clouds were high enough that they didn't block the views of the mountains--except at the very tops. As I continued higher up the mountain, however, and the weather continued to worsen, the fog and low-hanging clouds obscured more and more of the dramatic views. Go away, clouds!

The last couple of miles before the summit, the trail turned positively nasty--a rock scramble on par with the White Mountains of New Hampshire. What the hell?! I mean, yeah, sure, my guidebook warned of "a chaos of boulders," but who'd have thought they were really serious?! I was just happy that the rocks and boulders weren't slick from rain.

Not only did the weather continue to grow colder, but the winds started picking up as well. I put a buff up around my face to help keep my head warmer and continued onwards. I wasn't quitting!

Near the top I caught with half a dozen hikers who had left Champex earlier that morning. They had a good head start on me since I had started further back on the trail than they did, and we complained to each other about the rocks. Mostly just because it was fun to complain--the trail was tough, but none of us were discouraged by it. One of them who stopped to eat a snack offered me a Swiss chocolate which I happily accepted. Pure chocolate isn't my favorite, but I won't say no to it either!

I saw two people on Fenêtre d'Arpette while I scrambled to the top, but when I had reached the pass, they had already left and I had the summit to myself. At least I did for a few minutes before some of the folks behind me caught up.

The views were wonderful! I could only imagine it would even be better on a nice day. I found a place at the top with a good wind break to sit down, rest and eat a snack, and immensely glad I made it to the top before any rain started.

Looking down the other side, it looked steep--but it had a real trail--not the rock scramble I came up on. I could also see the Trient glacier, which hypnotized me with its deep blue colors that I could at its terminus. I've seen photos of the "blue ice" in glaciers, and I'd seen glaciers before, but all of the glaciers I'd ever seen looked white (or covered with rocks and boulders and looked like land). The blue-ice glacier was a new one for me, and I marveled at its color. The blue only poked out at the very end of the glacier near its terminus.

Within 10 minutes of my arrival, half a dozen others reached the top. In another 10 minutes, another half dozen arrived. At this point, I started feeling crowded with so many people in such a small area, and I had finished eating my snacks in any case. It was time for me to move on. I picked up my pack and prompted did just that. Maybe if I were lucky, I could reach camp before the rain started--although that still seemed more like wishful thinking than reality.

Downhill, I traveled fast and far, reaching the Chalet du Glacier Buvette a bit over an hour later. The chalet was no refuge--it served food, but included no lodging. And apparently, it had already closed for the season because it was locked up tight and not even serving food.

Which was fine--I had plenty of food with me--but I found some campsites behind it and decided this was a great place to stop of the night. Technically, I think my campsite was illegal (still being in Switzerland where camping was only allowed at official campsites) so I wouldn't have felt comfortable setting up here had the chalet been open and busy with crowds.

And miraculously, it still hadn't rained yet! I quickly set up my tarp in any case, prepared for the rain I knew could arrive at any time. I took a short nap under my tarp, tired from the almost non-stop hiking since morning. I must have slept for an hour or so, and then I got up to pee at which point I noticed another tent set up not even a hundred feet away. That definitely had no been there when I set up my tarp. I had, in fact, examined that specific site as a possible location for my tarp but selected this one instead because it was a bit more hidden and secluded. Someone had set up camp practically right next door and I completely missed his/her/their arrival!

Whoever it was was in their tent so I didn't meet them, then it soon started to sprinkle so I dived under my tarp and read my Kindle for another or or two.

The sprinkles stopped, and I got out from under my tarp to get water where I finally met my neighbor: a Frenchman named Claude who actually knew English--although he did speak with a very heavy accent. I asked if it would be okay to join him in cooking dinner, which he was agreeable with, so I brought my stove and dinner over to his campsite and we chatted while making dinner.

He wasn't hiking the entire Tour Mont Blanc, but had done parts of it before. We compared notes, of course, and I told him that after I finished, I'd be flying down to Corisca and hiking the GR 20. Which, as it turned out, he'd done the previous year and had lots of advice and suggestions--specifically about the Cirque de Solitude--a feature that I had, until then, never heard of.

He told me to not do it in bad weather. No Matter What. What about if it was like today, I asked? (He'd just gone over the Fenêtre d'Arpette himself today.) No, he told me, if the weather is like today when I reached the Cirque, don't do it. It's much worse, and much scarier than anything we had today. In fact, he told me, five people died on it a couple of months ago. It's wicked dangerous, he told me.

Well, that didn't sound promising. Hopefully I'd get there on a day of good weather and it would be a moot point.

We had finished dinner and continued talking, but when the sprinkles started up again, we said our goodbyes and I dived back under my tarp and he went back into his tent.

Which is where the spent the rest of the evening, listening to the patter of rain the rest of the night.

Not sure what this was doing in Champex!
A leftover marker on the pole from the ultra run.

Champex is a beautiful little lakeside town!
Downtown Champex. (I stopped in a grocery store in that building on the left.)

The trail followed next to this irrigation channel for a good mile or two!

The water flow in the irrigation channel was controlled with this gate, filled from the natural creek bed behind it.

Heading up into the mountains again!

Yeah, let's leave this guy alone. He doesn't look too friendly!

Looking back from the way I came.

Looking back again. Up until the trail reached this valley, it was a typical trail with an easy-to-follow tread. Now, though, the trail is becoming more difficult to follow over and around all of the rocks and boulders. And now I'm exposed to strong winds that hadn't been present before!

Views were still spectacular--despite the weather.

You call this a trail?! Well, it is! =)

My buff keeping me warm! You know it has to be cold if I'm wearing a buff while hiking uphill on strenuous terrain!
Getting close to Fenêtre d'Arpette! (It's the gap near the left side of this photo.)

Fenêtre d'Arpette! You can see two people at the top of the pass already, and those two black dots near the bottom of the photo are two others hikers nearing the top.

Reached the pass! It's all downhill from here!
Looking down the trail from far side of the pass.

Trient Glacier
The end of the glacier was mostly covered with dust, but the deep blue ice in the glacier could still be seen peaking out. (However, I will admit, my photos do not do the colors justice! I was actually very disappointed with how they turned out.)

Okay, one point heading downhill was steep enough that they added this chain--but it was almost more hassle to use it!

I set up camp up the hill (to the right) of the Chalet du Glacier Buvette which appeared to be closed for the season.
My camp for the night! =)


Karolina said...

Some of those carvings weren't there when I hiked TMB in 2014. Neither was the cannon in Champex.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tortuga. Those irrigation channels are very common in the Alps. If you ever get to Tirol in Austria you will see a lot more of them. There they are called Waal. Water has always been a valuable resource to the farmers in the valley. Up until not so long ago farmers would put together for a guy to maintain those channels. His job (Waaler) was to keep the water flowing at all times. During the day he would hike up and down the mountains and check the gates and channels for any blockage. He would also set up little water wheels that would generate periodic sounds. If those sounds stopped during the night he would have to get up and fix the blockage (a true 24/7 job ;-) ). Love reading your blog. Best regards, Quirks.

Mary said...

Thank you, Quirks! That's educational and informative information. I love learning things like that!

Ryan said...

OMG! Quirks--as in the German fellow I met hiking the AT?! Hello there! I had no idea you were reading my blog! What a nice surprise! *waving*

*waving to Karolina and Mary Mac too, but I knew you two were reading my blog!* =)

Mary Mac--thanks for the post card! It arrived today!