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Monday, 24 July 2017

TMB Last Day: Refuge Lac Blanc - Les Houches

The last day of this magnificent walk began with bright sunshine and as picture perfect a view through the window of our bunk room as you could wish for. The three of us shared the tiny room with a Danish couple. It's always a bit strange to share your sleeping quarters with people you've never met, but we all got on with it and it was worth it to wake up high in the mountains on such a magical morning. Breakfast was a rush of plates and cups and bread and coffee. Everyone was buzzing about the sparkling day outside. We were on our way by eight; somewhat weary after three days in a row of big hikes and an even bigger one to come.

We tried to be the last out of the refuge, to have the mountains to ourselves as we set off.

It was hard to put the camera down and get going, but today was to be a big day; a fair bit of up but seven thousand feet of descent too. This was to be a walk in stages, stopping at every refuge on the way for a chance to recharge.

The first was at a cable car station a couple of hours away. We sat with coffee in the sunshine as fresh faced hikers arrived by the cable-car load ready for a day in the mountains. There were wannabe rock climbers with helmets and a guide - and walking boots - which suggested they were going to be clipped to a safety line somewhere and taken up a tourist thrill route. They had group photos taken with Mont Blanc over their shoulders; thumbs up and much back-slapping bravado. The actual mountaineers arrived too, lean and wiry, with slim fitting climbing shoes and coiled ropes in garish colours. We were still a long way from finishing but we were no longer in the remote mountains.

The next bit of the track was a long, level walk along a steep mountain-side in hot sunshine. The trail was busy with people walking back down to Chamonix below us; summer holiday shorts out for the first time and white calves that were going to be pink in an hour or so.

Another ski lift station came into view on a ridge ahead of us, the path plunging down and then steeply up to it. It had a broad wooden deck and we had lunch, watching the parascenders take off from a grassy slope below us.

Tom was all for for getting back to Les Houches that way. But that would have meant missing the steep bit of uphill to come and where would be the fun in that!

Climbing the rocky col behind the restaurant was hard work with a belly full of lunch, but soon the ski station was just a little square of building far below us. The sky was on the turn though, with grey clouds rolling in. We met three young English women coming down. They said they'd been told the big cable car at the summit was closing because of a storm and they'd decided to turn back. Our only alternative option was a long, steep switch-back path down to Chamonix. We were halfway up the col and decided to press on. If we got wet, we got wet.

We didn't. The storm never came and at the top of Col du Brevant we were rewarded with the sight of little Ibex, blending perfectly with their surroundings.

They weren't that bothered about us, but we were thrilled to see them having more or less given up on the idea.

Behind the col was a rocky basin; utterly still with no wind and no noise apart from the occasional click of Ibex hooves on rock.

It struck me how rarely it is actually silent in these mountains. There is always some sort of breeze as an underlying soundtrack and as you move over ridges and into valleys the low roar of a glacial river across the valley or the trickle of a steam nearby, come and go as you rise and fall. There are always birds too; invisible larks with their constant, complex song high in the air, the echoing shriek of a bird of prey, and the more familiar sounds of blackbirds and crows. Often there is the distant clatter of a helicopter, or the shouts of another group of hikers or climbers somewhere unseen.

We stayed for a while in the bowl, and realised we could watch these ibex for as long as we liked but it was now coming up to three and we still had a ways to go.

Around the back of it there was a short ladder section which compared to The Ladders Of Death was a walk in the park.

We kept thinking we were at the top, but suddenly we could see the top and we weren't at it. It was a viewing platform above the Brevant cable car. From a distance it appears to sit on a death defying pinnacle of rock but as we got closer we could see that the pinnacle was fairly broad. It seemed to take forever to get up to it up a gravel service track.

It was the highest point of the day, and the last ascent of the TMB.

Once again there were crowds of people coming off the cable car for their taste of the mountains. The cable car was also our escape route if we wanted it; a chance to avoid what the guide calls one of the hardest continuous downhill sections of the whole route: three hours of steep descent into Les Houches where our journey began. It was tempting, given that it was now four o'clock and we still had 8K to cover. But we'd always said that if our knees were up to it, we should complete the circle around Mont Blanc. So down we went.

Initially it was tough going, over big rocks and under grey skies. Both P and I were feeling weary and secretly wondering if we had made the right choice. Les Houches seemed a long way off...
But the path smoothed out over a ridge and down the grassy slope and after an hour of walking we came to the tiny Refuge de Bellachat perched on the mountainside. Its wooden deck was buzzing with people including some we'd seen at Lac Blanc that morning. The women working in the tiny kitchen were all smiles "Bonjour, bonjour". All the hikers outside were in a jolly mood, either having nearly finished the TMB or having finished their day's walk at this pretty refuge. There was lots of laughter and a big buzz of conversation. It lifted our spirits and we had coffee (and Sprite) over myrtleberry tarts which stained our fingers red. The final six K didn't seem so far now.

The way down from the refuge though was very steep, switchbacking down a grassy cut between rocks. Occasionally we had to cross little gorges along narrow goat paths in the rock, set with chains or handrails which were too low to really grip. The thing P and I both noticed though was that we felt up to this final, steep descent. Our knees weren't protesting and after two weeks of this our bodies seemed entirely comfortable with this sort of walking.

The settlements down in the valley got a little nearer at every turn but we still seemed to be way above them.

The path began to even out and we came into to pine woods, the path a springy relief after all the rocks. We walked along a fence marking the edge of the Mountain Zoo and all of a sudden we hit tarmac. A couple of families were leaving the zoo, and walking down the road with us. The sky was dark and it began to rain. The families were picked up in cars and it was just us, in our waterproofs in the final hour of the walk.

The path left the road and cut through the woods where the rain was kept at bay by the foliage overhead. Thunder rolled around above us and a church bell rang. There were signs for the railway station at Les Houches and we crossed and recrossed the road down the mountain, passing slate-roofed wooden houses dripping in the rain, and a giant statue of Christ looking down the valley. The sky was getting ever darker and the rain was falling in rods when we popped out onto the road for the last time.

And there was Les Houches station, a tall nineteenth century building, its shutters closed and a train pulling out. We'd missed the 1933 and the next train to Chamonix was an hour away.

But we'd made it! We walked the TMB with no short cuts, no taxis, no cheating at all in fact - and we did all of the toughest route variants. Well done us!

We were almost too tired for euphoria and we still had to get to our hotel in Chamonix. I rang a number on the notice board which promised taxis and "English spoken". Neither were offer though. "Desolet" said the lady at the other end. So we waited for the train, watching the rain fall and finishing the trail mix.

At 8.33 precisely the train arrived and the smiley conductress charged us two euros each to get to Chamonix, fifteen minutes away. It was the first time in more than two weeks that we'd used something other than our legs to get somewhere and it felt strangely smooth and fast.
The rain was still pouring when we got to Chamonix and walked through mostly empty streets to our hotel. Tom was ready to sleep but the friendly young woman at reception suggested a cosy Italian restaurant in an old stone basement five minutes away which seemed like a good idea. Pausing only to dump our packs we went straight there and sat in our damp, muddy hiking gear toasting our success. Tom, who never missed a beat on this whole trip, never complained when it was hard, and always maintained his enthusiasm, had a garish mocktail His parents had "Mont Blanc blonde". It seemed appropriate.

Total Distance Walked: 115 miles/185 KM
Total Ascent: 41,097 feet/12,526M

Argentiere to Refuge Lac Blanc

As we lay-in to the extraordinarily decadent hour of 8.30 this morning we were all glad not to have stayed in the Auberge. P went off for a swim, T and I kept reading and then we made cups of tea, before heading down for a magnificent breakfast. Everyone at the Auberge would have been up, out and hiking for two hours as we were still pondering a second pain au chocolate. We didn't check out until eleven and walked back into Argentiere in bright sunshine, to get the makings of a picnic lunch.

P and I were in artificially high spirits, while actually secretly dreading today's stage. It was only about five miles to the refuge, so easily the shortest section so far. Neither was it the greatest ascent. What was preying on our minds was The Ladders. Two sections of vertical ascent by iron ladders set into the rock face. While this was the section that Tom had really been looking forward to (possibly the only section), P and I were a little less enthusiastic about dangling over thousands of feet of rocky emptiness, with the possibility of death by multiple blunt force injury just a slippery hand away. We walked back up to Tre le Champ and its pretty Auberge.  Then across the road and up towards the inevitable appointment with the ironwork.

As we got closer, we could see a distant spire of rock with climbers all over it. 

The spire was obviously a good deal more terrifying for those of us who are actually breakable, as opposed to in our twenties, but somehow it didn't make us feel much better about our own imminent challenge.

There is no alternative track up there; no go-around for the vertically challenged. I had been thinking that they couldn't actually have ladders that would allow you to fall off to a certain death would they? And then we came to the first section and yes, yes they would. The ladders begin where the path in the photo below ends. You can just barely see the lower section rising into the green patch at the top of the dark vertical crevice.

The ladders were in sections that made you get to the top of one and then reach across for the next, while the drop below didn't bear thinking about. What you can't see is that the crevice plunges down into a narrow vertical gorge. P and I stared grimly at the rungs and plodded up step by step, hand over hand.

Tom of course scampered up, and then wanted multiple videos of him going up and over for the film he is making. That meant one of us following him one-handed over the appalling death ladders.
There was some negotiation.

T: "If you walk backwards to film me across this narrow ledge here, then I can walk around you and up the next section!"
Dad: "Or, how about I just stand very still here on this tea-tray sized flat bit and film you from a distance with my other hand gripping the railing like it's the only thing preventing my certain death. Which it is".
T: Sighs, eye-roll...

But we did it. Hearts pounding, adrenaline surging, knees knocking, but we got up The Ladders. And just as we were feeling like invincible heroes of the mountain, a bloke came up with his three kids, aged probably 7, 8 and 9. "Incroyable, les enfants" I said to him "Ils sont Chamois" he said with a wink.

After The Ladders came a section of path so steep and narrow that a couple of weeks ago we would have been seriously concerned about our choice of holiday. But after what we had just climbed, it seemed merely dangerous.

We popped out by a cairn and devoured our picnic on a nice big flat stable rock. P and I did a lot of staring into space. T did a lot of looking for more chocolate.

The sign said the refuge was just forty five minutes away and we could see it up the mountain. As we left there were several cracks of thunder and we could see the rain moving through the valley like a haze. We were getting the edge of it and couldn't tell whether it was going to envelope us or move in the other direction. The rain got a bit heavier, cold drops that felt sharp on scalps toasted by the sun. I made the call for us to put on our waterproof gear. Which all but guaranteed that the sun came out and we sweated our way up the next bit before feeling ridiculous and taking it all off again.
The rain was still pounding away on the other side of the valley, but our slightly damp path took us past small lakes speckled with drizzle but in full sunshine. The track was so steep that sections of log had been fixed into it as steps and it was some of the hardest going that we have had.

Inevitably there were a few more ladders, but the first section had been the scariest, and a relief to have behind us.

P and I emerged exhausted at the refuge where Tom, had been waiting for some time.

The small wooden buildings sit next to a little glacial lake offering what is supposed to be an amazing view of the mountains. But not today. As we found our beds in the communal dorm, the rain began falling heavily.

We are now sitting in the dining room which is a buzz of French voices. Big panaches for me and wifey; big hot chocolate for our mountain goat. Outside the rain is falling and the grey cloud is so thick that you can barely see to the end of the terrace.

We will sleep well tonight. Tomorrow we start the last day of our hike around Mont Blanc.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Trient to Argentiere

We woke to overcast skies for the first time in days. The cloud obscured the mountains and all looked rather unpromising. Breakfast in the dining hall was basic but what we needed. I saw one of the Handsome Dans briefly but Kaitlin had gone, off over the mountains by herself. We ate our bread and cheese and jam and yoghurt with bananas and coffee and orange juice by ourselves. This hotel is an odd sort of place. It feels like an old municipal building with its rough granite stairs but Trient doesn't seem as if it would have ever needed such a place. So maybe it was always a hotel, although one that now caters to sweaty people with backpacks. When we got back to the room it was raining outside so no rush. We read for a bit until the cleaners knocked on the door and we realised all the other guests had gone. And so had the rain. 

We loaded up the packs and headed out onto black and shiny roads. Long strands of cloud drifted low across the mountains and we put on gaiters against the wet grass we expected in the woods. Of course by the time we walked though Trient and into the woods, the sun was out and the clouds were burning off. 

Trient marked the northern tip of the Mont Blanc range for us. Having been gently travelling north west, we turned on our heels and started walking south west. We could see the little notch we walked through yesterday.

And then came perhaps the most boring stretch of the TMB. The guide had talked about "settling into the rhythm of the steady ascent" or some such. But actually that meant "now you will come to about 400 identical switchbacks flanked by trees so that no matter how many you do it doesn't feel like you are making any progress at all". Ooh it was boring. And hot.

Just as we were beginning to wonder about those holidays where people lie on beach chairs and are brought drinks with umbrellas in them, we emerged through the trees at the upper valley. We could see right back down to Trient with its pink church. Far up ahead on the crest of the ridge, was the little refuge we were aiming for.

It was still a bit of a plod, over a rocky path, but at least we had a view.

We passed a cluster of ancient huts built into the mountainside with curved stone roofs. Signs on the doors said they were being restored.

It was a lonely spot but with stunning views and had clearly been a fairly sophisticated farmstead that required a lot of indoor space.

We pushed up into a stiff wind and as we got towards the top, Mont Blanc suddenly came back into view for the first time since we left Rifugio Bonatti.

 Clouds built and dissolved across it to reveal its icing sugar snow dome gleaming in the sunshine with jagged black peaks around it. The refuge at the top of Coll de Balme was a welcome sight. It was a funny old place that hadn't changed much since about the nineteen fifties.

A tiny, wizened lady took our orders from behind a beaten-up wooden counter. On the walls were ancient racks of super-sized photos for sale (not postcards) that had clearly been taken decades ago.

We were hungry after the long climb and ordered steak and chips (and an omelette) and panaches and myrtle-berry tarts and coffee and sat outside in the sunshine to eat it. It was my best refuge lunch I think, sitting in the lee of the wind against the warm stone wall of the building, watching the clouds dance slowly across the face of Mont Blanc. We left Switzerland and walked into France.

The way down was along a sharp grassy ridge which gave us fantastic views down into the Chamonix valley.

We could see Argentiere far below us and beyond that Chamonix itself where we will spend our last nights of this trip. It brought home just how close we are to the end of our walk. We walked under ski lift pylons and past piste markers on poles. The landscape felt much more managed than the places we have been over the past few days but the view over to the big beasts of the Mont Blanc range was exceptional.

 Across the valley the gush of glacial water kept up a constant roar and larks tweetled high overhead. It was a long, long plod downhill in the heat, with many games of "twenty questions" to keep us going.

We eventually popped out on a main road with traffic whizzing by and a sign saying it was another twenty minutes down to the hamlet of Tre le Champ. We walked down the old road - now a gravel track - to the old buildings of the hamlet.

One of them is a beautiful Auberge where we stopped for a cold drink in the shade. The wooden tables were all set neatly for dinner and it felt so perfect. It was also just a couple of minutes downhill from where the route takes us tomorrow, and our hotel was another mile and a half downhill at the other side of Argentiere. After our long day I played briefly with the idea of just ditching the reservation and staying at the Auberge but we drank up and pressed on.

 The old part of Argentiere is really delightful; narrow lanes through pretty wooden houses. We went through, and out the other side towards the cable car station. Then beyond that, through the RV parking area. Despite our love of all things motorhome We were beginning to feel like we'd been taken for a ride with this reservation. Not only were we a mile and a half downhill from our route, we were not in pretty Argentiere either. P and I grumbled as we trudged up to the fairly nondescript chalet style building where we would be staying the night. But inside...ah, inside... It was all mood lighting and low wood beams and stone floors; an antique sleigh here and a historic wooden truckle bed there. And at reception "Your bag is in your room and here is your key which will let you into the pool area. Breakfast is until 10 and please let me know where I can book dinner for you". And big smiles all around. Our room, though decorated like a Victorian bordello, was cosy and comfortable and T had his own mezzanine upstairs. Oh it was nice.

 As was supper at a restaurant called 214 back in the heart of Argentiere. We sat outside until the long-promised thunder finally rolled in and everyone scuttled in as rain began to fall in rods. The owner/maitre d'/waitress was slightly stand-offish with us at first as though she was fed up with our bad French and our questions about wine options she didn't have. But the food was terrific. Everything served with originality and flair. After the meal she chatted with us a bit and was clearly worried about the lack of passing trade at the moment "Usually at this time of year we are busy but now we are saying 'perhaps next weekend will be good' and it never is." A shrug and a half smile. I wonder whether the fall in the pound after the Brexit vote is keeping British hikers away. I wonder how all these mountain border crossings are going to work in a couple of years time...

 We walked back to the hotel through dark wet streets, fell into our beds and slept like the dead.