Bluebird day

The snow made a squeaky crunching sound under my boots. It was cold up here, and I kept wriggling my fingers to keep them from freezing in their ski gloves, but the sky was blue and we would soon be in the sun. All around me mountain peaks stood guard, single rock fingers pointing up, bulkier rock formations flanking these, snowcapped mountain tops and a large valley spreading downhill, funnelling into the distance until it would do a sharp left turn leading to the mountain village of Chamonix.  All around me were the Mont Maudit, the Aiguille du Midi, the Dent du Géant, the Grandes Jorasses and of course Mont Blanc itself. Names I had read about, seen on maps, but never seen like this.

Giorgio, our guide from the Courmayeur Alpine Guides, was roping us up together for our snowshoe excursion. We were a mixed bunch, all brought here by the promise of seeing this incredibly beautiful corner of the world on a spectacular morning of snowshoeing. He told us that the day before, the weather had been all fogged in and bitterly cold when he had taken clients climbing, but he promised today would be a bluebird day. We had all convened at the cable car station in Entrèves in the valley below and taken the Skyway Monte Bianco to Punta Helbronner. And now we were ready for our snowshoeing trip in the Vallée Blanche.

I hadn’t planned on visiting Courmayeur, a famous Italian ski resort, had it not been for a work presentation that I had to give to a group there. At less than two hours drive away from Milan, I really had to wonder why I had not gone there earlier, and I jumped at the opportunity to do the presentation and add the weekend for some time in nature. Courmayeur is a typically pretty ski village, with one main street full of hotels, restaurants, cafes, and apparel shops. But nothing there is as beautiful and as breathtaking as the mountain ranges surrounding the village.

We were now all roped up together and Giorgio led us on a gentle uphill climb at an easy pace to test us out and see what our ability was. There were young couples in our group and an older couple, which made for differences in ability. He was pleased with our progress and decided to take us a bit further afield than he would otherwise do, given the weather was so good. He would take us towards the Aiguilles du Diable, the Grand Capucin and the Col Maudit.

Walking in snow shoes may look easy, but you do have to get used to them and when you’re roped up and you have someone in front of you who is struggling with balance, you can find yourself doing some interesting balancing exercises yourself to stay on your feet. At one point the slope was becoming steeper descending into the valley and our guide slowed us down by making us do switchbacks, otherwise we would have all potentially slid down the hill in an unruly tumble.

Skiers would occasionally pass us, as they assessed the trail ahead of them, considering which way would offer the best descent for their abilities. You used to be able to ski down to Chamonix, but this year there was no snow in the village at all. Climate change is increasingly causing a decrease in snow and is destabilising glaciers in the area, particularly above the nearby village of Plampincieux, which was recently evacuated for fear of the glacier above being at the point of collapse. 

As we continued our hike the only sounds were those of our own breaths, the swishing sound of fabric and the crunch of the snow shoes on the packed snow. Everything was reduced to the experience of the natural world: white snow, brown and grey colours of granite towers around us, deep blue skies. I took deep breaths, finding myself tiring quickly – my condition wasn’t as good as I would like. I had a flu-like illness in early December that really knocked me around and I still coughed a lot and the cold mountain air wasn’t helping.

Every now and then Giorgio would pause, assess his charges and give us a moment to drink some water, before moving on again. Time became an abstract concept, how long had we been out here? I didn’t know and it didn’t seem to matter either. We finally arrived in the cirque; you could see the moat running along the outlines of the cirque, from where the granite towers rose. Above in the distance, blasted by winds so that wispy white filaments were trailing from it, was the summit of Mont Blanc. The scene had an ethereal quality and was so breathtakingly beautiful that it felt like we had been given a precious gift. One to behold and rejoice at and then leave it right where we found it for the next person to find it. Eventually, reluctantly, we turned our backs on Mont Blanc and the Col Maudit and returned in the direction we had come from.

At first we were walking on an even level, but eventually what had come down, must go up and we had to start ascending the hill that skiers were effortlessly and elegantly skiing down. No such elegance in our snowshoes; it was simply hard slog and for the slightly older ones amongst us (yes, that includes me), the going was slow, painfully slow. This was particularly felt by the younger ones roped up with us, who were getting impatient and started to try and overtake, causing more ropes to tangle. But we did get there and when we returned to the access point for Punta Helbronner, we enjoyed the view into the valley and towards Courmayeur first, before taking the snow shoes off and climbing up a steep ladder to reach the ramparts of the cable car building. I was astonished when I looked at my watch. I had been convinced we had been out there for much longer than we had signed up for, but only three hours had past from when we had gone up to Punta Helbronner. Time does fly when you’re having fun.

Dolomites Delights

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The Dolomites have been on my to do list for a while and once the summer crush was over, I managed to convince a friend from Germany to join me for a week of walking. We planned for a flexible itinerary and a good thing we did, as the weather forecast turned increasingly bad for the first day we would be there. So we revised our initial plan and dodged the rain – and as it turned out snow! – by alternating sitting in the steam room of the hotel with testing bars nearby for the best aperol spritz.

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For our first day of walking the day cleared to a beautiful blue sky, but it was cold and the snow line had moved significantly lower on the surrounding mountains, making for some spectacular scenery. The planned walk was the Sassolungo circuit, which involved first making our way up by cable car to the Rifugio Demetz. That cable car was an experience in itself, but it did make for some neat photos (the photo above was taken from inside the cable car). Having arrived up high we stepped out in howling winds that were whipping up the powdery snow that had fallen overnight. We added an additional layer before tentatively exploring the path downhill. Fortunately someone had already broken trail and so each armed with a walking pole we descended carefully, occasionally sliding in the fresh snow which reached up to our mid-calves at times.


The scenery was out of this world: sheer rock faces dusted by snow, luscious green hills beyond and the faint outline of the actual snow-capped Alps. Magical. After an hour we reached Rifugio Vicenza and treated ourselves to a hot chocolate. From there we were snow-free and walked the path towards Rifugio Comici where we had an excellent late lunch, before finishing up at our starting point on Passo Sella. Our aperitivo waited for us in Canazei after the obligatory steam room.


The next day the snow line had retreated a little and we made our way to Campitello to take the cable car to Col Rodella. From there we walked the well-frequented Sentiero Federico Augusto to Rifugio Sassopiatto and then returning through the Val Duron to Campitello. A far more popular route, we found ourselves with many more walkers on the trail and enjoyed seeing the Sassolungo from a different angle. The descent was hard on the knees and when we thought the worst was behind us, there was a very long walk on road surface (and at one point very steep) to get back to Campitello.


For our third day of walking we had chosen the Viel del Pan, described as an easy walk. When the bus we were supposed to take didn’t arrive, we opted to take the car to drive to Alba and take the cable car to Col dei Rossi to start our walk. Another blue bird day meant spectacular views all around (the photo above is a composite panorama of Sassolungo on the left and Sella Group on the right) and the walking was easy (and again quite busy). After an hour and a half we got to the point where we would commence our descent to Passo Fedaia, another descent requiring hard work from our knees.

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Once we got to Fedaia Lake we walked across the dam to the other side to see if the lift to the Pian dei Fiacconi was working. Well, if we thought that Monday’s cable car was interesting, we had something else waiting for us: metal baskets for two people at the time, with the door bolted shut after you and up you went, standing for 20 minutes or so in the open air as we ascended. Great views of course, but not sure about the WHS aspects of this contraption! At the top we met some people who had walked up, which had taken them three hours of tough walking, particular as conditions high up were challenging in the slippery snow on steep terrain.


Although there are many more walks to do in the Val di Fassa area, we decided to move to Cortina d’Ampezzo to explore another area. An early start the next day was well rewarded when we didn’t have to queue for too long to get access to the parking area at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (at a steep 30 euro for the privilege). This is another very popular walk and an early start is really worth it to avoid the crowds.


Even so, we walked in between large groups of people, but once we moved off the main path to continue on our circuit, we were almost by ourselves, enjoying the views, which almost make you feel you’re on a different planet. By the time we finished our circuit the first drops of rain started to fall, further confirming our excellent timing that day. In Cortina the sun was shining and we enjoyed a nice aperitivo on a terrace in the sun.


On our last day we made our way to Ortisei, a beautiful village, specialised in woodcarving and did some sightseeing before checking into our luxury accommodation of the trip in Hotel Jakoberhof, just outside of Ortisei itself. More spa and aperitivo time, and an outstanding dinner to finish up a great week in the Dolomites. The problem now is that I want to go back for more walking, but winter is here…



Il trenino rosso


This is the name the Italians give to the Bernina Express, operated by the Rhaetische Bahn between Tirano and Chur / St. Moritz; it means the little red train. It crosses over the Bernina Pass in a magical landscape and is the highest railway over the Alps. According to Rhaetische Bahn the train negotiates 55 tunnels, 196 bridges and steep inclines. The highest point is at 2,253 metres above sea level and part of it (from Thusis – Valposchiavo – Tirano) has UNESCO World Heritage status.


Two weekends ago, I took the train from Milan to Tirano at 10:20am to connect with the Bernina Express in the afternoon to Chur. The train left at 14:25pm for its steep climb to Alp Grüm and Ospizio Bernina. The weather was perfect and the surroundings were incredible. The train makes its way out of Tirano through the streets and shortly after reaches the spiral viaduct of Brusio. Not long after the Lago di Poschiavo is reached and the train runs along it until it starts its steep climb.


Looking back provides some neat vision


It then climbs ever higher to Alp Grum and Ospizio Bernina, the highest point. From there it runs along the Lago Bianco, which at this time of year is covered in ice and snow. It is a spectacular landscape travel through, and even more so in the comfort of a train. It then starts its descent towards Pontresina, Samedan and Bever through some great skiing areas. The final stretch the train runs through the Albula viaducts and tunnels to descend steeply and eventually reaches the small town Chur.


After an overnight in Chur I took the train back again and had another day of perfect weather. Travelling at a different time of the day, the light and the colour of the landscape was completely different. The sun on the snow made everything sparkle.