Mountains Part Two: Verbier, Via Ferrata and handsome young Danes

During a well deserved and delicious supper with Melody at Canteloupe where we feasted on a particularly tasty dish of feta cheese swathed in delicate sheathes of filou pastry and drizzled in local honey and cashew nuts, she told me about a remote lake, complete with its own refuge, high above a village called Fionnay and a walk you could do there via the track from La Chaux.  I decided it would be our destination for the following day’s excursion.

After bidding Melody a fond farewell and after an extremely nail biting and stressful never-to-be-repeated blind reverse out of her driveway, Tiggy and I drove up to Verbier and checked into Hotel de Poste. We were staying there as our lovely host was heading back to Newcastle for a wedding.

By 11am we were back again in the Medran bubble, ascending up to Fontenay once more where we warmed our legs up with a gentle stroll down the hill to La Chaux. The rain that had fallen yesterday had settled as snow on the higher ground – we were below the snow line, but the high mountain crests looked very wintery considering it was the end of July.

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The emotionally draining drama of marmot-gate from the previous day was firmly etched in my mind and so, much to her bewilderment, Tiggy remained firmly attached to her lead and was thus rendered physically incapable from disappearing off in high speed pursuit of any bushy tailed creatures.

Today I had two walking poles with me – further practice for Nepal trekking, and a first for me as the more forgiving and gentle inclines of the Isle of Wight have never required me to use more than one, if any at all. Having been taken aback by how cold it had been, I also had a couple of extra layers with me, some biltong and a snack bar, plenty of water and Tiggy’s collapsible drinking bowl.

Two walking poles and an energetic dog at the end of a lead were actually a bit of an exasperating handful, so after attempting more than a couple of fruitless dog lead/walking pole combinations, I threaded the lead’s handle onto the waist strap of my rucksack which left my hands free to ‘pole’ without being tugged whilst ensuring Tiggy remained steadfastly tethered.

Consulting both the signs and the walking map at La Chaux revealed two potential routes to Lac De Louvie. The track, as recommended by Melody, was a lower route and a ‘blue’ on the walking map. The other route, which already had a few hikers on it, was a red route on the walking map, a path that appeared to zig zag round the side of the mountain to reach the lake.

Quite why I ignored Melody who has lived in Verbier for most of her adult life is, with hindsight, something I’m slightly embarrassed about, (hubris perhaps?) but I did, and duly set off following the other walkers along the red route.

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We soon caught up and passed the two hikers who were having difficulty with the rocky terrain which had slowed them down to a snail like pace– apart from having to concentrate on where to put your feet the path was pretty horizontal and not particularly challenging at all.

A little further along, at a fork in the path, we bumped into a couple with their Labrador who were taking a breather. The view was so lovely that I stopped and asked them to take a photo of Tiggy and I. The lady kindly obliged, I enquired if they had come from Lac De Louvie – ‘mais non’ she replied, looking slightly startled and alarmed, ‘on a faisait une petit promenade’. Oh, I replied, “nous allons la”. She looked even more startled, saying she’d never done it, and that it was ‘tres dificile’, which she repeated a number of times, glancing at her husband to back her up, which he did by nodding slowly and sagely.

I smiled confidently, ‘ca va’ I said, emboldened by the ease of the path thus far and confident in the fact that we were on a route clearly marked on the map. Pleasantries concluded, we started on our way.

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The path wound on a gentle incline around the side of the mountain and we soon rounded the corner leaving the civilisation of Le Chaux and the Mont Fort cable car behind us. In the distance I could see two hikers, one with a bright red rucksack clearly making their way. The air was cool, but I had all my layers on and the effort of slowly rising upwards kept me warm. Low hanging cloud meant that the top of the mountain was shrouded in mist, but I could still see the snowline above us.

It wasn’t long before I caught up with the red-rucksacked hikers who were two young Danes called – I kid you not – Hans and Christian. They politely smiled at my fairy tale quip, but I couldn’t work out if they were bored of similar digs or they simply didn’t understand. They were on a ten day hike of the haute route, the infamous walking trek taking in high pass routes in Switzerland and France.

The boys were making way more slowly than us as they were carrying all that they needed with them. They, like Tiggy and I, were also bound for Lac de Louvie, except they wouldn’t be descending to Fionnay to bus it back to Verbier, they were going to spend the night at the lake in the refuge.

Lashed to their rucksacks they had carabiners, ropes and a harness each – which I remember thinking was probably a bit overkill for a hike, but I assumed they maybe perhaps needed to use them on other routes of the haute route.

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The gentle incline soon turned into a steep uphill slope and we were all, with the exception of Tiggy, breathing heavily (the boys especially so with the weight of their rucksacks); the effort arrested our amiable chat. I was glad of my double pole strategy, it definitely made navigating the challenging gradient a bit easier. It was certainly excellent practice for Nepal.

We feel into a natural cadence and order – Tiggy and I in front and the boys behind – Tiggy taking every boulder and slope in her stride, remaining absolutely resolute in her determination and desperation to err from the path in the hope of a chance to chase marmots.

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We walked in silence, up and up, and higher still; the snow line and clouds getting closer with every switchback. Looking ahead I could see some steep crevasses, covered in rockfall and scree, slicing deeply into the mountainside. My heart sank slightly when I realized that the path wasn’t traversing the side of the mountain all, but in order to successfully navigate the crevasses, we were going to have to go high enough so that we could cross either above them or at their narrowest point. This ‘red route’ was beginning to feel more like a black.

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The air temperature cooled further still and after about an hour and a half we found ourselves in the snow line – clouds rolling up the side of the mountain towards us, either enveloping us completely in its chilly cloak or dancing around us offering tantalizing glimpses of what was to come. Over a vertical mile down below in the valley floor it looked lovely and warm – I began to appreciate the appeal of the blue route.

At times the path was confusing, but for the most part it was pretty clear, flags painted on rocks along the way helped us, indicating that we remained on the correct route.

We came across our first major challenge, a landslide, after about two hours.

It was at the point in the walk when I was beginning to get a bit irritated, just as we turned another switchback and I thought, we must be at the top now, there was another one, and another and yet another. Mountain hikes are devilishly cunning in that way. I placated myself with the reassurance that this was, indeed, a great Nepal warm up.

I was slightly concerned about Tiggy, who had never been at altitude before, but she continued to bounce along, leaping like a bunny rabbit up over rocks and boulders and waiting patiently for me at the top of every one before trotting on ahead, pulling at my waistband with her lead.

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The landslide was at the top of the first crevasse we had to cross (yes, there was more than one). The unseasonal rain must have caused the path to slide away leaving a slippery slope of hazardous wet mud; it was a very, very steep gradient and a very long and extremely sheer drop to the side.

The boys, nonplussed, slipped off their rucksacks and quietly went about the businesses of attaching their harnesses and started to lay out one of their ropes.

“I go first” announced Hans, “Tiggy” he said, pointing at her “will go next, then you, and Christian will go last”. Ok, I said, smiling on the outside and feeling rather anxious on the inside, I thought I could just about manage, but how would Tiggy cope? Should I put her in my rucksack I wondered?

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Hans clambered like spider-man up the scree to the left of the mud slide, it was about one and a half storys high. He was clearly a competent climber and made it look marvelously easy. He lowered the rope with a carabiner on the end saying “this is for Tiggy”. I attached it to her harness and, keeping hold of the lead so she was tethered above and below, I bent down to pick up her to lift her as high as I could (not very high as it turned out, being only 5ft 3”). This was to try make it easier for Hans to winch her up – rather like someone being rescued by the RNLI helicopter from the sea.

Tiggy wriggled which made me nervous, and before I could even say ‘ok’ for Hans to take up the slack and start pulling, she’d managed to get all four paws onto the scree and, completely non-plussed, bounded up the sheer face like a little mountain goat. Once at the top she peered back over the edge as if to say ‘come on mummy, what’s taking you so long?’. We were all rather incredulous at how easily she’d sprung up such a tricky and steep incline.

The carabiner was unclipped from Tiggy and lashed around my waist, a hefty tug from Christian made sure all was secure. Heart in mouth (I’m strong and fit, but am no climber and have no experience at all) I took my time to secure each foot and hand as I made my way methodically up the scree to the sound of encouraging comments from Hans above and Christian below.

A few of the rocks skidded beneath my feet, but I made it without needing assistance from the rope. Shortly afterwards Christian arrived and we sat down for some water and a bit of a breather whilst the rope was coiled.

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“I definitely owe you guys a beer at the refuge”, I said. They smiled and explained that the walking route they were doing shouldn’t need harnesses, but they bought them to be on the safe side for moments such as these. They were only in their early twenties, I was so impressed at their maturity and how well prepared they were and extremely conscious that I was there – alone with a small dog – and whilst not ill equipped, I was certainly guilty of not having researched my route at all.

Therefore, I had no idea whatsoever what was coming up next.

After about another half an hour of further ascent a triangular sign with a red boarder stood out brightly in the mist; the image was of a rockfall and the warning was written underneath in four languages.  Poorly translated into English it said: “For the following 300m of the trail there is a risk of falling rocks.  It is prohibited to stop on the trial and deviating from the path is not recommended”.

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A sneaking thought entered my mind that perhaps I should turn back – but I was now over halfway to the lake, and I thought it would be safer and more sensible to keep going with the boys than to turn back alone. Plus the idea of going down the mudslide/scree without a rope as a failsafe in case Tiggy or I slid was not one worth entertaining.

Out came the harnesses again – this part of the path, which was no wider than two footprints had a sheer drop down the mountainside to the right, a Via Ferrata style chain to hold onto at waist height to the left, whilst whatever sinister danger hovered above was covered in clouds and impossible to see.

We all stashed our walking poles in our respective rucksacks. I made a makeshift harness out of a shorter piece of rope, impressing the boys with my nautical knots – who knew that a bowline would come in handy at 2500 metres in the Swiss Alps?

The safety rope went from Hans’ harness, to a carabiner which was attached to Tiggy, then to me and then to Christian. Slowly yet with an unspoken sense of urgency to get across promptly we inched our way along in silence– I kept my eyes firmly ahead, hand over hand holding the iron chain and taking up the slack in Tiggy’s lead. Clouds kept rolling up and over us, making the visibility very variable, that didn’t bother me too much, but the moisture in the air made the path, particularly the rocky parts, quite slippery. This was not a place to be less than very sure of foot.

Every now and again Tiggy peeped over the edge – a swift yank on the lead from me ensured she didn’t go any further, I think she was just being inquisitive – I couldn’t imagine this was a particularly hospitable dwelling place for any mountain animal, let alone a marmot who requires the ability to burrow into soft ground.

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We crossed in about fifteen minutes and on the other side we all breathed a sigh of relief. Then the clouds cleared and we looked back and caught sight of the perils that had been looming above us – a menacing overhanging cliff of granite from which spewed a tumbling ravine of rocks of all sizes. It was easy to appreciate how a landslide might happen – it was vulnerable, exposed and appeared somewhat unstable.
“I think I owe you two beers,” I said, laughingly.

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On we plodded – still ascending, until out of the mist we suddenly were standing on the narrow ridge of Col Termin (2,648m) – we had reached the top of the route! And from there, once round the narrow corner of the Col we could see down the other side of the mountain to the inky blue depths of Lac de Louvie (2,214m).

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It was a breathtaking view – probably made all the more so because it was because it was such an unexpectedly arduous a climb to get there. It’s so true the harder you have to work for something, the better you feel when you achieve it.

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We descended fairly rapidly – I was starting to become a bit twitchy and conscious of the time – the last bus from Fionnay left for Verbier at 5.20pm, it was already 3pm and it was at least an hour’s descent into Fionnay from the lake itself. Of course the boys were staying at refuge so it didn’t matter to them.

We wound down and around, and around and down. It’s a cruel trick of hiking that the uninitiated may be fooled into thinking that going up is the hardest part – and we’d been ascending steeply, non-stop for nearly four hours – but the reality is, it’s three times harder on your thighs to go down.

Gravity may keep us on terra firma and stop us from flying off into outer space, but it makes going down hill a lot harder as it accelerates the forward movement of your body,  meaning your quads have to work terrifically hard to keep you at a controlled speed. Someone once told me it’s rather like driving your car with the handbreak on.

We were descending 434 vertical metres to the lake below, which would take only an hour – conversely it had taken four hours to ascend a mere 388 vertical metres via 4 miles of torturous switchbacks and taxing traverses.

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We skirted round the edge of the lake – the snowy peaks from whence we came looming high above. I was fairly relaxed by now, it wasn’t far to Fionnay and we were on the homeward stretch.

One of my many regrets of the day was that I didn’t have time to treat myself to a wild swim in the lake.  Oh how invigorating it would have been to toast our arrival with a bracing plunge into its icy cool depths, I longed to float on my back, gaze up at the peaks above and take a few moments to bask in the contentment, and relief, of safe passage. I’m sure it would also have been great cold-water therapy for my muscles too, which weren’t aching…yet.

I made a mental note to return another time with a swimming costume and an overnight bag and treat myself to a night’s stay at the refuge although, of course, it was not without some chagrin that I wouldn’t be guaranteed the company of two disarmingly handsome young Danes.

We collapsed euphorically at the refuge (2,214m) and I kept good on my promise of an extremely well deserved round of beers. I can’t begin to tell you how good they tasted! Tiggy had a little paddle, a long drink from the fresh water trough and some of my biltong. I wolfed down my snack bar. Glancing at my watch I saw it was already 4pm and time for us to go.

The signpost said it was 1 hour 10 minutes to descent to Fionnay, nestling snugly in the bottom of the valley a reasonably hefty 724 vertical metres beneath us.

After a slightly smelly but very warm and heartfelt hug with the boys and a tickle for Tiggy, we waved goodbye to our walking companions and unassuming heroes. Whether it’s sharing a connection over poorly dogs, as I’d experienced in Spain when Tiggy swallowed a stone, or bonding over a challenging hike, my gap year really has reaffirmed my view that the majority of human beings truly are kind, generous and good, and that we share far more in common with each other than we have differences dividing us.

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I’d like to say it was a pleasant and meandering stroll down to Fionnay – but actually it was an hour and fifteen minutes of extreme thigh burn and screaming knees, even the magnificent views of lakes, dams and glaciers didn’t and couldn’t make up for how much my legs and knees hurt. We’d been walking for five hours by then and, all in all; the top of Col Termin to Fionnay was a total descent of 1,158 vertical metres (0.72 miles). Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch.

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I reckon we must have been about half way down when the striking blue lake of Fionnay came into view. The stunning turquoise colour comes from glacial flour, created when rock underneath the surface of the glacier is ground into very fine sediment that runs off with the melt water in spring into rivers and lakes. Glacial flour is so fine and light it stays suspended in water for a long time and, when the sunlight reflects off the floating flour on a lake, it creates a dazzling turquoise hue. It really has to be seen in person to fully appreciate the richness of the water in all its glory; photographs, even with an Instagram filter, don’t do it justice. I ran out of time to even take even the hastiest of snaps, so this photo is borrowed from one of Melody’s portfolio.

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(c) Melody Sky photography

Looking at my watch it was 4.50pm, we had only 30 minutes to get down and find the bus stop – we were cutting it more than fine. I reckoned just by eye-balling the path, we were only about half way down.

Tiggy was still attached to my waist strap, but now instead of striding out in front, she trailed behind me. Her short legs must have been absolutely spent at this point. Picking her up, I put her in my rucksack and hoisted her onto my back – her little head sticking out and resting on my shoulder. And then, with an extra 8 kilos of load, I started to jog down the hill. If my thighs were burning during the first half of the descent, they were now absolutely screaming and my knees were extraordinarily painful.

 

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It got warmer and warmer as we descended – a drastic difference from the icy cool snowy and misty peaks above – sweat streamed down my face. We must have been quite a sight – me, as pink as my t-shirt, puffing and panting and Tiggy’s foxy face peeping out of the top my rucksack. I’m sure she would have been ok to keep going on all four paws, but I was worried she might implode if I made her run down after already having walked so far – Tiggy is super fit, but also such a loyal and devoted companion, she’d keel over and die before she would give up and stop following me.

Of course, if we missed the bus from Fionnay I could have arranged a taxi I’m sure, but I’m reasonably confident that a 20k winding trip in a Verbier cab would have more than blown my daily budget. I was pretty jolly keen to get on that bus.

Given that we were out of the clouds, it would have been wonderful to be able to saunter slowly down, stop and admire the view – the impressive glaciers, the intense blue hues of the lakes, the richness of the foliage and the vast variety of alpine flowers. Not today! Twist after twist and turn after turn, I kept on jogging, very thankful for having ‘double poled’ as at least they helped take some of the impact from my poor quads and knees.

I could see a small group gathering on the roadside beneath us, I assumed that must be the bus stop – my watch said seven minutes to go and I could see that I wasn’t going to make it if I kept to the snaking path. Jogging more rapidly I ignored the switchbacks and took the direct line of flight straight to the gate – the steep incline wreaking even more agony on my creaky knees.

The bus came into view at the far end of the village. I waved my poles in the air to the crowd at the bus stop and puffingly shouted ‘Arretez le bus, s’il vous plait’. No one even lifted a hand to acknowledge my plea, at this point, I was pretty sure I was stuffed.
The ground finally flattened out, my jog turned into as fast a run as my knees would allow, Tiggy bouncing uncomfortably in my rucksack behind me. The bus pulled up, the small crowd jostled to get on.

My lungs burned. I tripped over my feet but managed not to fall. I caught the eye of the driver as the last person was getting on – he held the door open for me as five seconds later I arrived. Totally spent and unable to speak, I nodded a grateful thank you as I heaved my tired limbs up the steps onto the bus. I flopped into the front seat and gulped down all that was left of my water, saving a mouthful for Tiggy who, as soon as she was freed from the confines of my rucksack, curled up on my knee and went straight to sleep.

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I leaned my forehead against the window as the bus wove its way down the valley. I looked up to the dizzying heights of where we had come from – still blanketed in cloud, it was almost unfathomable to believe how cool it had been up there, it was so scorching hot down in the valley.

The bus deposited us in Le Chable then, as the bubble had already shut, we waited for another bus to take us up to Verbier. I finally opened the door to our hotel room just before 7pm, I was wrecked and boy, was I smelly! Tiggy was fed a very generous portion of kibble for supper whilst I wallowed in a bath until the water started to go cold. Post bath I stretched my legs out in a variety of gentle yoga poses, hoping beyond hope that this would help reduce the almost certain onslaught of stiff and sore muscles the next day.

We had walked over 11 miles, taken 27,784 steps and climbed 163 floors. Distance wise, that’s longer than any single day I’ll be doing in Nepal – except there the challenge will be the altitude and not just the distance.  In Nepal I’ll be averaging an altitude of 4,200m where the air has 50% less oxygen than at sea level; the highest point I’d been to in Verbs was 2,650 where oxygen levels are just over 70% of that at sea level.

Melody had, thankfully, fed me a substantial breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs – so I had been well fortified for my unexpectedly challenging and long hike – but apart from that, the only things I’d had eaten all day were a snack bar and half a packet of biltong. I was ravenous.

It was a pleasant and blissfully short stroll out of the hotel and up the hill to Verbier’s infamous Fer a Cheval, scene of many boozy apres ski adventures. There, I perused the menu whilst gulping down more water and sipping on an ice-cold glass of dry white wine.

Tiggy curled up on my puffa on the bench next to me and continued her restorative snoozing. A friendly, local ex-pat couple on a neighbouring table came over to fuss over Tiggy and enquire what bought us to Verbier. I explained the rationale behind vising friends and getting my legs fit for Nepal. That naturally took us onto converse about the day’s hike – when I told them what we’d done they were really impressed. They couldn’t believe Tiggy had managed it, I was both pleased and relieved we’d done it, but still had an internal niggle of guilt that I had risked stretching little Tiggles beyond her physical capabilities.

I asked them what they’d recommend to eat. ‘The lasagne’ the chap replied ‘but you only need a half portion’ the lady added ‘it’s really big, we’ve just shared one’. I didn’t have the energy to explain that I hadn’t eaten for eleven hours – so I just said thank you and ordered a full portion along with a token side salad.  I ate every single delicious morsel, if licking the plate was socially acceptable, I probably would have done that too.

It can’t have been more than fifty steps downhill from the Fer a Cheval back to the hotel – every single one was agonizing.

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Getting out of bed the next day was somewhat of a comedy affair; I commando rolled like a beached whale onto my tummy and shuffled my legs off first, face down and with my torso still on the bed, I pushed myself up to standing so that I could try a few tentative steps. Actually it wasn’t bad at all! Walking out of my hotel room I was hugely relieved that my legs definitely felt weary and a bit stiff but not nearly as bad as I had thought they would be.

And then I attempted to descend the three flights of stairs from my bedroom to reception; a meager three steps down proved so painful that I had to turn around, come back up and somewhat shamefacedly push the button to call for the lift.

A hearty breakfast of crepes and coffee was thoroughly enjoyed on the sunny terrace of the Milk Bar, and then we could dawdle no longer.


Time to climb back into The Beast to commence our long drive back up through France. As a regular reminder of the prior day’s escapade, clambering down and hobbling round to the passenger side to pay the toll at every peage was utter agony.

The five hour drive back up through France offered plenty of time for musing and rumination; it was an arduous hike but not impassible or impossible. If I hadn’t been up against the clock it would have been a lot easier, and the walking map was scant in details as to the difficulty of the route. It was demanding, but certainly far from the hardest trek I’d ever done. I’m usually a cautious and careful person when it comes to matters of safety, so whilst we were never truly in grave danger, I was definitely a little bit unsettled by the escapade.

Why had I ignored the route Melody had recommended, as well as not heeding the advice from the local couple walking their dog?

On reflection, the beginning of both the blue and red run looked beguilingly similar and un-taxing. A subsequent conversation confirmed Melody had recommended the blue route more for Tiggy’s sake than mine. I’m a very contrary person and when the local couple said that the red route was very hard, the obstante part of me looked at them (they were quite a lot older than me) and assumed that their yardstick for ‘hard’ was different from mine. I’m particularly of the mindset that when someone tells you something shouldn’t be done; it’s more a reflection of their limitations and not yours.

Hmmmm.

In Nepal, thankfully, I will be led by guides who are always to be obeyed and I’ve read enough about disasters at altitude and in the Himalaya to gladly acquiesce any decision making to those far more knowledgeable and experienced than I.

The Alps have taught me a number of important lessons before heading out on much more challenging adventures. As Sir Edmund Hillary so aptly said

“It’s not really the mountains we have to conquer, but ourselves.”

Chapeau, Sir Ed, chapeau.

Choose happy – heed the advice of locals (except for portion sizes on lasagna) and always befriend handsome young Danes.

Love, Sophie, Tiggy and The Beast XOX

La Chaux 2,260m to Col Termin 2,648m = 388metres (0.25 vertical miles up)
Col Termin 2,648 to Lac Louvie 2,214m = 434m descent (0.27 vertical miles down)
Lac Louvie 2,214m to Fionnay = 724m descent (0.45 vertical miles down)
Col Termin to Fionnay = 1158m descent. OUCH (0.72 vertical miles down)

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