In good old Italian Catholic fashion, I should begin with a confession; the best trail we encountered on this mission into the Aostan backcountry does not even feature in this story. Loose, flowing turn after loose, flowing turn, through untouched evergreen forest, on a ribbon of sandy loam, it was to be the final trail before the return to civilization and the tarmac of the valley from where it all began.
Struggling to focus our watering eyes, we bunny-hopped fallen trees and two-wheel-drifted on this unknown masterpiece of singletrack. Our cheeks ached from grinning as much as our cramping grip on the bars and the roost was exploding every which way. Holding off the brakes to the max, it was a true sight to behold all the way down, but there's really nothing to show for it because I didn't shoot a single photo there. It is entirely not included. Probably shouldn't even have mentioned it.
That's what happens when a lunchtime flight gets nonchalantly booked at the end of an exploratory adventure deep into the mountains. And I'm sure there's other photographers and riders who can relate to the mental anguish of shooting on mystery trails. You never quite know which section's 'the one'; now or the spot you just sailed through without stopping to look back. Would that bit around the corner have the better backdrop? How many pictures should we even be taking?
Well on this mission 'that bit around the corner' was always better. Or at least it was every bit as good as the last. The Aosta valley always delivers and this time we had e-power and refuge beds waiting for us, dramatically increasing the ground we could cover. Hopefully then, it won't matter too much that the best trail is missing from this story. But again, do rest assured it was fantastic. In the words of Tenacious D then; this is just a tribute.
While transitioning into Italian mode over exceptionally strong espressos, our guide, Massimo 'The Moustache' Ferro of Aosta Valley Freeride, has good news. We'd be getting a helping hand with a casual 1000 height-metre shuttle to accelerate the adventure. Under normal circumstances, beginning a ride more than one full charge away from base with only the one battery each, would be a questionable approach. This time we had solid back-up in the form of two mountain refuges with newly installed Bosch fast-charging stations.
In another welcome twist of fate, we found Italian refuges are much more at the luxurious end of the spectrum than anticipated. No way were we expecting extravagances like power sockets, pillow cases and farm cheese. And to think we were about to go full 'caveman' and leave the toothpaste out of our backpacks.
Leaving the scores of road bike heroes to celebrate their conquering of the mountain pass, we felt a world away entering a widely-spaced spruce-scape only metres from the shuttle drop-off point. Any guilt about skipping that part of the climb was a distant memory and honestly it's possible there was none in the first place. However, the trail steepened rapidly to the point our legs forgot we had e-power; a sure sign that we wouldn't be enjoying our efforts to crush this climb on our regular steeds. Massimo was stoked we were getting away with it, still in the saddle. Although our Aosta local had ridden almost the entire catalog of trails to come, he had never linked them up this way. On our schedule it would be a stretch without a motor.
Tackling the narrow trail and occassionally cutting across sections of spongy grass, we traversed the mountain to begin a flowing descent across cow pastures and into the fir trees. This forested rollercoaster delivered us to the small village of Étroubles. A coke and the token esophagus-gouging ciabata was about all we had time for and we cracked on with a pretty significant climb, the only part of our trip on fire-road.
'Hydrate or die' is a motto the World's best riders like to live by; they and much of the human population. Thankfully a shepherd's hut just off the trail provided some life-giving liquid as supplies had quickly dwindled for Olly with his wallet-sized backpack. Reaching our first refuge an hour so later, coffees and a hearty slab of peach cake with custard, propelled us further up the mountain toward our goal for the evening; to summit beautiful Punta Chaligne. And as indicated by jet-black skies at 4pm, we apparently wished to do this during an intimidating electrical storm.
While seemingly appropriate, at first glance, given the electrified nature of our bikes, Massimo deemed this timing with the storm to be poor and suggested we shelter behind what little was available so high up; a few large boulders. Holding long-range conversations from our rocks of choice through the sideways rain, we eventually established by screaming that the biblical downpour was subsiding and it was time to press on. I don't have great photos of these moments because it just didn't seem wise to drown the camera before sunset on day one. Apologies for another miss.
When the Lord makes a promise, he keeps it. And with the merciful, multi-colored note that the creator wasn't going to flood this planet for a second time, we were off up this mountain making a beeline for the cross on the top ridge. Of course the dreaded moment came soon enough that we'd have to get these burly beasts on our shoulders, but it didn't last more than a few awkward switchbacks.
The summit proved every bit worth the struggle and even the odd pedal pin scratch to the back of the neck. We took some good time to marvel at the views across to the Monte Rosa and Gran Paradiso. Even Olly seemed somewhere close to speechless, so powerful was the medley of moody storm-clouds and illuminated peaks before our rain-soaked faces. Still we had a dinner deadline and we'd be damned if we were going to forfeit it so we pulled our knee guards back into place and prepared to drop in.
Beginning the descent tentatively on jagged bedrock, we made our way down to the tree line. Here things got steep and technical with some severe rain ruts ready to snatch a front wheel with any slight lapse in concentration, but it wasn't long before we found ourselves warping merrily along a more mellow trail of a thousand bus stops in the dwindling light. Bring on the cheeseboard.
Mountain-fresh Fontina cheese and a potent, local grappa accompanied our much-needed evening sustenance. The term 'hut' hardly cut it for a place with a restaurant this stocked up on high-caliber treats and the bedrooms were not the stale and dusty affair of your average high-alpine establishment. We had some good laughs, feeling like the luckiest survivalists in all of the Alps and several hours later, bounced out of our bunks ready for more bicycle action under blue skies.
'Hills? What hills?!' laughed our jovial legs setting out on day two. I recall that as a slight exaggeration of our feelings, tackling two pretty severe climbs right off the bat. Still we were mighty grateful of our overnight recharge of both body and bike. The epic terrain and massive peaks continued to blow us away and the dirt was gripping exceptionally well after all the rain the day before.
Even harvest spiders, pretty pink flowers and billowing cumulonimbus could do nothing to hold us back on this glorious day as we rolled on through the Italian high Alpine toward some ice cold refreshment at Lago Fallère. Following a long and technical traverse on unforgiving trail, a carpet of grasshoppers parted in front of us as we walked off-trail down to the water. Deep summer in the mountains at its best.
Coming in to land at refuge number 2, we aggressively let loose with the parmigiano on our already extra cheesy gnocchi. When in Rome as they say, or at least the same country. Massimo took the time, after his less excessive lunch, to go over his ideas for the next part of the mission. We picked our route across a physical paper map like old-timey explorers of the pre smart phone era, and peered out at the weather hoping the typical late afternoon storms wouldn't come to fruition.
Once again the top of the trail was tucked away several hundred height metres above us, but the soft, black dirt and sweeping curves of the ascent made a good time out of the climb. We found ourselves carrying the bikes a second time, but if we wanted to get up and over the steep ridge for a next-level descent in front of Mont Blanc, it was the only way.
Finding the flow on the upper, grassy single-track was a ride to remember and we swapped complaints of weary arms and legs for some quality meditation on oil-dampened springs. While the sun never really showed in any serious kind of way, the heavy skies and surreal evening light were quite something.
Returning to base, we knew it was all over except for one 'last hurrah' in the morning. In fact that would be coming slightly sooner than we knew. Just when the second beer hit, Massimo dropped into the conversation that we'd need to be well on our way before sunrise... this being the time of year when the sun is expected at 5-something. Would the bikes even be charged? Unfortunately yes they would, thanks to those darned trusty fast-charge stations. The irony. At least as a photographer there are benefits to such scheduling and I managed to suppress those few Italian swear words that I know. The light would be worth this mild suffering and zombie status for the trip home.
Fumbling on bobbly, cow-affected paths in the dark with just the one head torch between us, we eventually found our way to the trail head. Thankfully more across the hill than up and over, we were now in position, just waiting for those precious first rays of light to bounce off the path that would be the last descent of the trip. It was a long wait in the dark, but some trusty chocolate-filled pastries saved from supper the night before kept the blood sugar levels up.
Sunrise was a good hour late, but hey, those beams finally did come dazzling their way between the thick banks of cloud. It was glorious and so was the top of the trail. Long strands of golden grass-lined a mostly smooth and flowing single-track that meandered into eerie patches of dead trees. It looked super unique, more Idyllwild than Italian, and I could see that there was still photography gold to be had if I could muster the mental strength to keep the shutter clicking and barking orders at these poor, exhausted athletes.
And with the final photo snapped, my unbreakable promise to Olly and Kathi that it was all over, bound physically with the camera already being broken down and stowed irretrievably deep in the backpack, it began.... The best trail of the whole damn adventure. Again; not pictured. You've got to believe me' and 'I wish you were there' etc etc.
Olly Wilkins; not a serious man. Or a great planner of flights. Nonetheless, cheers to he and Kathi for their flawless riding and company, big thanks to Massimo of Aosta Valley Freeride
and our highly committed video crew for one dreamy, Alpine e-mission. Full approval all round for this Italian adventure.