The Haute Route Italienne: in the shadow of giants
8 minute read
Andy Hodges, author of the Cicerone guidebook Trekking the Giants' Trail and an International Mountain Leader, took a group of nine students and two staff from Coombe Dean School, Plymstock, on a 95km trek from beneath the Matterhorn to the foot of Mont Blanc.
With over 6000m of ascent, 12 cols to cross, a high point of over 2900m and days lasting up to 8hr, this was a significant challenge for a group of 15 to 18-year-olds. The full trek is known as the Giants' Trail because it makes its way beneath some of the biggest mountains of the Alps including Monte Rosa, Grand Combin and Mont Blanc. We called the mini-trek The Haute Route Italienne.
Arriving in the Alps amid a torrential thunderstorm (the same storm system that caused havoc in 2019’s Tour de France) meant I had to modify the following day's itinerary to avoid crossing streams that might have suffered in the rain. Volunteers were sought to shop for packed lunch ingredients for the next two days; with no Italian speaker among us, we were lucky that French is widely spoken in the Aosta valley, a throwback to the days when it was part of the kingdom of Savoie.
An afternoon in Courmayeur helped the group to begin to get a feeling for the grandeur, steepness and cultural differences of the Alps.
All the team members had completed the Army's Ten Tors challenge of 35, 45 or even 55 miles in two days across the remote regions of Dartmoor (I am their team manager and proud to see them cross the finishing line each year) and Duke of Edinburgh Award participants.
I briefed them about exactly what 1200m ascent looked like. It looked like Mont Chetif, a rock pinnacle towering above the town. To the team it looked impossible; they were far from convinced that only the day before my wife Sue and I had completed a via ferrata to its summit.
After the rain of the evening before, blue skies returned to send the team of intrepid explorers on their way. The true grandeur of the Alps can sometimes be forgotten by those of us lucky enough to visit regularly. The students’ faces reminded me of just how magisterial the Alps are; they pointed out summits high above and were amazed to see snow in late July (it rarely snows in Devon, even in winter!)
A 4hr walk (all uphill) to reach Rifugio Barmasse (2100m) was quite a surprise after the rolling hills of Dartmoor, which is the team's familiar home ground; but, with the usual 'Alpine Pace' introduced, everyone began to get into the rhythm.
The first night in the ambience of communal living in a mountain hut was well received; sharing tables with people from all over Europe on their own adventures was an eye-opening and uplifting experience for all.
The respect shown to the young people for taking on the Giants' Trail was as heart-warming as the home-cooked food and Italian hot chocolate. Is it a drink or a dessert? Either way, it was a hit!
With a 'standard time' of 7hr the second day was going to be long; rain was forecast and made an appearance before lunchtime but didn't hang around for long. Everyone was beginning to get into the pace of Alpine trekking, somewhat more relaxed than the pace of Ten Tors training.
We took lunch among the boulders above the tree line. The trek was also becoming something of a geography field trip and, luckily, we had the Head of Geography with us! After crossing several cols and a snow field we arrived at the second refuge, high in the mountains and next to a remote chapel. Our appreciation of the scenery and steady pace meant the day was our longest, at just over 9hr.
The third day was shorter, and the weather was warmer and drier. After crossing another col we descended through a winter avalanche-scarred valley to arrive at my favourite mountain hotel, Hotel Valentino, which provided a warm welcome and a chance to hand-wash some clothing. Pizzas in the nearby restaurant were also very appreciated, as was the Spritz for the adults before dinner!
Day four dawned bright and sunny; the hotel's breakfast buffet was scoured clean by nine hungry teenagers. Maura clearly enjoyed having them to stay, possibly reminding her of her son and his friends (now members of the Italian biathlon team, who train in the valley year-round).
The team were on the road by 8am, a relative lie-in for team members used to wild camps and 6am starts. An afternoon climb of over 1000m in the sun was eased by an ice-cream stop in the hamlet of Rey and a welcome arrival at Rifugio Champillon.
A private yurt with stunning night views of the stars with no light pollution was another not-to-be-forgotten moment.
A couple of diversions were part of the expedition plan; a short climb over the nearby Col Champillon the following morning and a leisurely descent through forests and ancient terraced fields that could easily have dated back to Roman times saw us arrive in the village of Saint Oyen and Chateau Verdun, a former staging post and stables for pilgrims travelling along the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.
The mighty St Bernard
Our diversion continued the following day with an ascent of the pilgrims' road to the mighty St Bernard Pass. This road is over 1000 years old and has seen many historical figures treading its stones; today it was our turn. Passing through St Rhémy, we began the climb to the pass and its world-famous monastery.
A coffee break at La Cantina ended in a large-scale draughts competition on the outdoor chessboard. We followed the Roman road, passed the site of a Roman temple and crossed into Switzerland, passing little more than a road-side stone and closed customs post (which was something of a surprise for our geography/politics students!).
In keeping with the monastery's tradition, all those arriving on foot are offered sustenance from the monks living there. After tea and a welcome from one of the brotherhood, we explored the kennels (where the St Bernard breed has its origins, as does mountain rescue) and the museum. Some members enjoyed returning over the border to Italy for their first independent international trip and much cheaper souvenirs.
The following day was the longest. With three significant cols to cross and some fixed rope sections this was likely to be a challenge. Everyone was up and out early and, at this height (over 2400m), the early morning chill was noticeable, even in August.
Having crossed two cols, some scree and a few permanent snow fields we arrived in good time at Col Malatra, the highest col on the entire route and a place that sits above all vegetation growth, a real moonscape. At 2928m it is more than twice the height of Ben Nevis and the altitude was certainly apparent. Mont Blanc seemed to be within touching distance.
An evening at the busy Rifugio Bonatti was something of a surprise after the relative quiet we'd grown used to and served as an introduction to just how busy some treks can be. The solitude of the Giants' Trail had been replaced with the hustle and bustle of the world's most famous trek, the Tour du Mont Blanc. With well over 100 people in the refuge this was certainly a different kind of hut.
Most of the previous huts had fewer than 20 other people in them, and we were 12 of them.
The eighth and final day was the long 'balcony path' towards Courmayeur. The Tour du Mont Blanc shares this section of the path and we met dozens of trekkers from all corners of the world. With Courmayeur far below, the team descended the twisting and turning path into town.
The adventure was completed with final photographs outside the central church and a well-earned trip to a local gelateria for local ice cream. The hustle and bustle of a busy mountain town was something of a shock after eight days of peaceful mountains and tranquil balconies.
After returning to the traditional Alpine welcome of Auberge Edelweiss and a chance to spruce up, everyone had an afternoon exploring the town, its shops and cafés and the Alpine museum. A perfect end to a perfect journey.
The team were fortunate to be offered support from AlpKit Foundation, Tilley hats and Bam socks; their support is both valued and appreciated.
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