We arrive to Courmayeur a little sad for leaving the incredible sights of wilderness in Sardinia, where I spent the last couple of days with 24 other ladies (see next blog post). It is raining in the evening, no moon these days and very dark. The village seems completely empty. And I am supposed to show the beauty of my favorite place on earth for a young Finnish journalist at her first time in the Alps?
We are sort of lost when we enter the Sport and Congress center, a huge building ready to host big events, and get to the organized Pasta Party that inaugurates the Race. Nearly 800 racers and 1500 volunteers, plus families and friends are involved in the race, without naming all the people who work on the trail at rifugios and in the villages that will be passed by.
Still I can not really understand the dimension of this race at this point, feeling a little off as I am only following a journalist in her visit at the Valley. I am not sure we should see so much of the race, but perhaps see the rest of the beautiful Aosta Valley instead.
Problem is that you cant be here these days without being involved yourself. Everything talks of the Tor des Geants everywhere in the region, and all the people we meet in 3 days are following the race, directly working for the event or indirectly listening to the evolving of it, often with a friend or a relative participant in mind.
This is the fourth year of the competition, classified as one of the toughest ultratrail in the world. And most beautiful. The start is in Courmayeur at the foot of the Mont Blanc, still in the clouds today, and the trail is the houte route (Alta Via) n 1 and n 2, which together build a ring of 330 kilometers around the whole Aosta Valley with an uphill of 24000 meters. Maximum time to accomplish the race is 150 hours, but the first runner is expected back in Courmayeur after only 3 days.
After a very rainy start, confusing for the mass of people squeezing in the small lanes of the village, Reetta and I jump in my Fiat 500 dropping rain and drive to La Thuile. Aosta Valley is like a rectangular bowl surrounded by Europe’s highest mountain ranges (Mont Blanc, Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and Matterhorn among the most well known). In the middle runs the Dora Baltea river, which carved the Valley during millions of years and on the sides there are a decade of smaller valleys formed by the Dora’s tributaries. Each smaller side valley has its own villages and traditions. In the past, without roads and cars, the only contact people had between the valleys was through the high passes or down the winding paths to the main Valley, but this happened mostly at market time.
The Tor des Geants, on the two Alte Vie, connects all the side valleys flowing as a snake up and down through the rocky grey of the high passes, the green meadows above 2000 meters and the deep shadows of the forests, interrupted only by the eyes of clear blue lakes and the indigo sky of September. At night the sky is a blanket of stars. No wonder that the runners come from all over the planet to run in this spectacular environment!
We go by car to La Thuile and the runners walk in the rain to the Arp Pass at over 2500 meters and down again to the 1200 meters of the village, but we are barely able to come in time to see the first pass by. Now I start to feel the excitement of this incredible race.
I have hiked a lot during my days, and I still remember my mother telling me to be careful with the bad weather, with the high peaks and with the coming of the dark. But today I start to realize that these runners are supposed to walk and run day AND night, without any longer stop to sleep and not considering the rain, the cold or the hot sun of the lower points, and this for nearly one week. AND mostly alone on the track.
This is amazing and this requires not only an incredible strong body, but even more an incredible strong mind and will power. And I am hooked and in love with the whole idea.
Time for us to proceed and leave the Tor to continue our planned tour, going (by car) to Ayas Valley, where Champoluc lies, at the feet of Monte Rosa. And it is still raining. We arrive around 7 pm and Fausta Bo, the owner of the rifugio Ferraro in Resy at 2000 m above Champoluc, picks us up by jeep (again not walking). But the participants of the Tor are still running in the rain, I cant avoid thinking.
The Rifugio Ferraro is a typical small building in a Walser village (Walser were the first people who lived here in the Middle Age and who build many of the trails to the high passes all over the Alps). Fausta and her husband Stelio welcome all passers by with the same interested warmth and good homemade food and a warm bed for the night. Here is also a stopping point for the TMR (Monte Rosa Tour, which goes around the whole Monte Rosa massif in a ring between Switzerland and Italy).
The Tor des Geants will also pass in a few days and the couple is ready to help 24 hours a day for a week. We eat a gorgeous dinner with homemade pasta, rostbeef and cheese, and spend the night here after a good chat with the owners about their travels. Fausta leaves the Valley twice a year to go trekking the Himalayas or Patagonia or the Andes. Stelio was born in the village of Resy, composed by probably 10 houses and with no other access than a tiny trail. At the rifugio we meet two ladies from Switzerland and Germany on a trekking of 10 days between Switzerland and the Aosta Valley. They walk the whole way on the contrary. Mountain is a spell.
In my nice bed this evening I hear the rain falling even heavier, and I imagine the hundreds of small frontal lights still walking and running in the mountains through the night. Crazy or beautiful?
The sun is shining at last when we awake as I am reached by the news of one of the Chinese participants fallen due to the bad weather and loosing his life the night before. I search my mind and remember that I cheered all the first runners last day on the trail in La Thuile. probably even this guy.
Time for us to go on to our nice hike I have planned for Reetta from Finland. Sad but I understand that the Tor is not stopped by this tragic accident. So many years of training, so many people from all over the world, the mountains remain a spell. We walk, I pray.
Our tour in the valleys and to the passes goes among animals. Cows are now grazing the last green summer pastures, before they start their annual descent down to the low valley, to spend the winter. Sheep and goats are collected by the incredibly good sheepdogs, which set off at the exactly right moment when the heard whistle at them and tell them that way what they must do.
At the Rifugio Tournalin, 2600 m, we eat a great polenta and peperonata based lunch together with a couple of rangers. This is a protected area and the rangers control and count the wild animals that live around the rifugio, on the slopes of the surrounding mountains: Grand Tournalin and Falconetta (Becca di Nana). These mountains separate the Ayas valley from the valley of Valtournenche and Cervinia. Here will the competitors of the Tor des Geant pass on their way towards the goal, on the Alta Via n 1, and they will probably see the ibex and he chamois, hanging on the rocks and curious to check who is passing. The night they will be surprised by the lights in the animals’ eyes, stronger sometimes than their own head lamps.
My legs are already aching when I get back to Champoluc (last part by jeep….) and I cant help getting my mind back over and over again to the people who are running round the Aosta Valley, to the dead Chinese, to the local inhabitants of this incredibly beautiful region who will be up tonight and meet all these men and women, and give them shelter and food, and a word of hope and strength on their long way. Reetta is leaving tomorrow, but I will get back up to the mountain to see if someone from the competition already comes over to Ayas, as they are expected to be extremely fast this year!