Halfway up the Mont-Blanc in Courmayeur’s impressive 360°-turning SkyWay cable car, we suddenly leave the sun in the valley as we enter a layer of clouds that are spitting out snow in a fury. Our small group of adventurers had been hoping for sunshine, but once at the top, the glacial wind and relentless snow seemed somehow more appropriate for mountaineering on Mont-Blanc’s glaciers.
Our guide, Alberto, starts to rope us together and give us a safety briefing. The glacier has been changing rapidly over the summer and there have been an increasing number of crevasses appearing, so we need to be vigilant. We venture out, following in single file, stepping over deep fissures in the ice that seem to descend to the center of the Earth. We have three hours to make our circuit. I check the time on my Montblanc Summit, which is snug and warm under my jacket. I play with the compass and the gyroscope (these could come in useful if we get into trouble) and check our altitude — we are at 3,466 meters. Alberto asks us if we know how high the Mont-Blanc is and my hand flies up like an eager pupil. Anyone who loves Montblanc watches will know that their 4810 Collection is named after the height of the brand’s namesake!
The striking peaks of the Mont-Blanc massif, or the Monte Bianco, as they call it on the Italian side of the mountain, stand majestically above the valley and the villages of La Salle, Morgex, Pré-Sainte-Didier, Courmayeur and La Thuile. At the top, the Glacier du Géant (the Giant’s Glacier in English) covers 1,719 hectares and offers a passage over to the French side for experienced mountaineers.
Walking on the roof of Europe is almost surreal as the snow whirls around us. I get a sense of why so many people are addicted to mountaineering. It is an experience like no other. We stop at a particularly large crevasse and Alberto asks us who would like to climb down. My hand is not quite so eager to go up this time, but after watching the others venture down, I find some courage and take my ice picks and descend backwards into the ice. It is calmer inside, out of the wind, and the ice is a mesmerizing mix of gray and turquoise. As I am figuring out how to dig my shoe spikes into the ice and use the ice picks to steady myself, Alberto jokingly shouts down to me “What’s your heart rate reading on that watch of yours?” But I’m not looking!
We make it back to the SkyWay station cold but exhilarated, and devour a fabulous lunch of local meats, cheeses and polenta. The Italians can even lay on a feast at the top of a mountain!
On the way back down to the valley, I check my steps, I’m at 10,600 already, and I enjoy the panoramic ride while experimenting with changing the look of the dial by flicking between the electronic replicas of the 1858 Automatic with date, the 1858 Small Seconds, the 1858 Chronograph as well as two TimeWalker versions. It is so much fun, I almost forget to look out of the window.
The afternoon activity takes us to the thermal baths of Pré-Saint-Didier where warm water enriched with iron gushes from the heart of the mountains. This thermal spring has been easing aches and pains since Roman times. This historic spa is housed in a magnificent building that dates back to 1838. There is more to do than there is time to do it in with over 40 thermal activities from a variety of thermal baths, saunas and Turkish baths to music therapy baths, mud baths and, my favorite, the rain room where you lie down and warm water rains on you from the ceiling.
Tired and content, we eat dinner at the Lo Tatà restaurant in the hamlet of la Petite Golette in La Thuile, where we sample some of the most delicious local cuisine that ranges from traditional Italian pizzas to authentic Italian pasta and barbecued meats accompanied by local wines that had us rolling all the way back to our hotel. I’m grateful the Summit doesn’t count calories!
The following day, Alberto takes us on a hike to the Rutor Falls with three of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Aosta Valley. The falls come from the Rutor torrent which is fed by a number of small lakes at the north-west end of the Rutor glacier. The walk takes us through some of Northern Italy’s most stunning scenery, but also traces the history of La Thuile’s old silver and coal mines, as we pass by abandoned mining installations and houses that are a reminder of how hard life in the mountains was in the 19th century.
On our return to our cosy design hotel, the Nira Montana, I sneak down to the spa to soothe my aching legs, and after a swim in the beautiful indoor pool and some bubbles and steam, I am suddenly feeling quite ravenous. I check the Four-Square city app, a pre-installed application on the Summit that allows you to find all kinds of interesting places while traveling. I check the restaurants and places to visit for fun, when suddenly a text message flashes on the dial: “We are meeting in the lobby at 7pm for dinner at Les Granges.” I hit the handy quick reply button “I’m on my way.”
Les Granges restaurant is an institution in the area where we eat more than we should, but the local cuisine is too good to refuse. The owner suggests a Coupe de l’amitié. I have no idea what this is so I use my voice-activated translator function to discover that this is a “friendship cup,” but I am still none the wiser. Our host explains to me that it is a local tradition where a large wooden cup with several spouts is filled with a hot local liquor and is passed around the table. The only rules are to not put it down or stop drinking until it is finished! It probably wasn’t a good idea considering we were going to be trying the downhill mountain-bike course the next morning, but our friendship was sealed!
The following day, we discover that La Thuile features one of the best mountain bike parks and trail circuits in Europe, with 220km of paths. It was the location for the fourth leg of the Enduro World Series in both 2014 and 2016. I am not sure if this is a good thing considering my level of mountain-bike expertise! The trail area is accessible by two cable cars — the Bosco Express and Chalet Express — which take both bikers and their bikes up to an altitude of 2,600m.
At the top, there is snow on the ground and the wind has a nasty nip to it. Our guide, Luca, from the mountain-bike school Scuola di MTB La Thuile, takes us on one of the easier downhill trails and it is a thrill to hurtle down the mountain at speed. We are riding Norco Range Carbon mountain bikes with front disk brakes that even make an amateur like me feel like I’m not doing too badly at all!
When we reach the bottom of the mountain I reluctantly hand my bike back to Luca and decide to walk to the hotel using the navigation function, which is simple and easy to use. I regret not bringing my headphones as the Summit allows users to upload music directly onto the watch too. I realize that I haven’t even mastered half the functions in this smart watch and really wish I could keep it just a little bit longer. I would also quite like to stay in the Aosta Valley a little bit longer too, as it has been an unforgettable weekend.
All the Details
- Sophie Furley went hiking on the Mont-Blanc glacier with Alberto from Zero Vertigo (+31 39 338 27 22 764 www.zerovertigo.com), who offers hikes from €75 per person.
- Access to the glacier is served by Courmayeur’s 360° rotating SkyWay, €48, www.montebianco.com.
- Les Thermes de Pré-Saint Didier, www.qcterme.com from €48 (including towels, robes and slippers) and there is also a combined SkyWay/Baths ticket at €78.
- Hotel Nira Montana offers weekend specials from €270 for a deluxe room, www.niramontana.com.
- Lo Tatà Restaurant, Frazione Piccola Goletta 102/103, La Thuile, +39 0165 884 132.
- Walking trail maps available at www.lathuile.net.
- Scuola di MTB La Thuile [email protected].
- La Crêche restaurant, Via Paolo Debernard 5/A, La Thuile +39 347 907 3216.