Backpacking and hiking are done a little differently in Europe compared to what we do in the states. A typical backpacking trip for us would involve carrying our food and shelter in a backpack and finding a campsite along the way or at least somewhere that has a clearing for a tent. At least in the alps, we found that there are refugios and bivaccos situated along trails for overnight stays instead of pitching a tent. The rifugios are staffed during the summer months and will provide a place to sleep and a cooked meal all for a fee. Bivaccos are not staffed and are mainly just sleeping shelters that mountaineers frequent in and out of during high alpine travel. This was highly appealing to us since we would not have to carry a tent, sleeping bags, and supplies to cook food.
We had decided upon a hike that led to Bivacco Gervasutti located in the Aosta Valley of the Italian Alps. The futuristic, modern, secluded bivouac was very intriguing to us and the hike was definitely going to be difficult, but within our realm of abilities.
We began in Courmayeur and took a bus through multiple stops in the valley until we arrived at our trail head. The first mile or so was an increasing incline, but we took it slow and felt comfortable. Clouds moved in and around us from all the humidity and high elevation for the duration of the beginning of the hike making rain inevitable. Never pouring, but steady rain kept our heads down until the blessed sun peeked through and dried us.
Then we arrived at the first via ferrata. Via ferratas are well known throughout the alps as more adventurous routes that include added support like hand rails and ropes to follow the trail that would normally be unaccessible without. Our hike involved two sections that included bolted roped portions where the terrain was similar to rock climbing. We rented harnesses, clip ins, and helmets from 4810 in Courmayeur before taking the bus to our trailhead and strapped them all on when arriving at this section.
With few actual foot holes, the via ferrata section required a lot of upper body strength as we pulled ourselves up and mainly used our feet for balance. Clipping in and out of the ropes, we felt secure but also on edge knowing that a slip could mean falling to the last bolted section that we clipped into.
After that first section, it was a series of snow, rushing rivers and boulders. The snow was harder to cross than we initially thought since it wasn’t fresh powder or anything of the sort. The snow consistently melts and freezes making it hard and slick. Inch by inch we crossed the snow fields and foot by foot we crossed the boulder fields following. Getting closer to the glacier located by the bivacco, it got increasingly colder and our bodies were wearing thin from the elevation gain. Located right below the actual bivacco was the last via ferrata section. We were particularly exhausted from the 5 hours of hiking and this section was more steep than the previous, however we held on to the glimpse of the bivacco above us to finish it off.
Arriving at the bivacco was surreal and a major accomplishment for us both. We immediately changed into the crocs that were located just inside the door for guests and started cooking dinner. Thankfully, the views were clear and the sun sweeping through the valley made for some epic views as we finished off dinner.
Shockingly we were the only hikers there that night, come to find out the weather we would get the next day was probably the reason why. Gervasutti has 12 beds with two blankets and a pillow for each one, requiring each person to bring a sleeping bag liner to use the provided supplies. We took advantage of being the only ones there and used two blankets on bottom and 5 blankets on top keeping us nice and toasty through the night.
I got served dehydrated breakfast in bed from D as we discussed our options for going down the next morning. With it feeling about 35 degrees outside and sprinkling on and off, we debating holding off a couple hours to descend. Somehow, I got enough service on my phone to get the weather forecast, which was going to be cold and rainy the entire day.
I don’t know how our hikes down are always worse than the hike up (see Half Dome and 14er for reference), but we were both miserable and at different points seriously concerned about injuring ourselves when descending. Going back down the via ferattas with no gloves and slippery cold rocks was a combination I do not want to experience again. Because we were scared of slipping or falling, we took our time and went slowly, which was necessary but also made the hike longer and extended our misery.
About two-thirds the way down, both the via ferattas behind us, and five rushing rivers crossed, the sun peeked through and the rain stopped for about 30 minutes which was enough to turn us from soaking wet to damp and renew our spirits. After that point, it was smooth sailing with a steady trail downwards.
Returning to the bus stop, we stood in the pouring rain/hail for 20 minutes which was a fitting end to the descent of misery. We returned our via feratta kits, grabbed some coffee and a croissant and hopped on a bus to Chamonix, France where we would paraglide and experience beef bourguignon and macrons.