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.