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. ┬áThen 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.

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.

Champex to Trient

We are sitting in our room in the Hotel Grande Ourse in Trient listening to the wind groaning outside. It has just blown up in a big hurry, and at the point when it started to push things over in the garden we decided to come inside. Apart from the wind and the river and the crickets there is total silence in this room with the three of us reading/movie watching/writing after a heck of a day.
It began early at the Alpina with Madeleine bustling to bring our breakfasts at 7.15 all smiles and “Did you sleep well?” She’s such a lovely person and we shall miss this gorgeous place. It is not fancy, but everything is perfectly done. Last night’s meal was unbelievably good. A rich mushroom tart with a blob of whipped cream full of chives to start, then lamb falling off the bone on a bed of couscous and tiny vegetables steeped in gravy and finally the remaking of what Madeleine said was an old French classic “oeuf de la neige”. Egg whites whipped with lemon, on top of a passion fruit mousse, sitting on a banana and vanilla cream. We were all rendered speechless. Tom told a Madeleine (in French) that it was the best meal he’d had on this holiday. She beamed. To be honest it was one of the best meals I’ve had full stop. She’d made us packed lunches too – boiled eggs with potato salad and roast beef (cheese for P).
It was sad to leave such a friendly, exceptional place. We were on the road at eight walking along Champex’s little lake. Where I discovered my camera battery was dead. All pix courtesy of my iPhone or Philippa.

Then up beside streams, through the trees.

After forty five minutes or so we stopped at a refuge to fill our water bottles and take stock of the trail ahead.

Today we are taking a TMB Variante. Ignoring the unfortunately named “Bovine” route and crossing a high mountain pass – the joint highest on the TMB along with the Col des Fours. It is the Fenetre d’Arpette and It’s a little notch in the ridge you can see in the picture above. It’s supposedly the toughest pass of the whole TMB.

To start with the walk was gently uphill through fields in hot sunshine. There were no clouds and no wind and we baked. Of course as you get closer to a mountain, the more of it there is to climb…

The trail began to get steeper and soon we came to a vast boulder field. The trail came and went, signified only by splashes of red and white paint but how we chose to hop over the boulders from one painty splash to another was up to us.

It was so steep that at times we had to use our hands to haul ourselves from one boulder to the next, our poles rattling behind us.

The final thirty minutes was over loose rocks and grit on a range of tracks which zig zag up to the ridge.

From there we could look back back down into the broad bowl of the valley we’d just climbed up, and down into the next too, with the Glacier du Trient spilling down from the mountain beside us.

We had our lunches on the rocks, eyed by a confident blackbird which hopped about around us hoping for some er, potato salad with hard boiled egg and roast beef.

It was a grand spot, 8,900 feet up. But that meant we had a lot of down to do. And it turned out that the down was every bit as testing as the up.

There was no boulder field and the path was clearly defined but it was covered with loose dust and very slippery. And steep!

As we descended, so did the cloud which now looked grey and imposing over our lunchspot on the ridge. A couple of girls with full packs were walking up the other way and asked if we knew the weather forecast. It’s tricky because every day it has warned of thunder, but apart from the first day it’s been mostly sunny. Madeleine had laughed off the forecast when we set off. “It’s been saying thunder all week…it will be fine” but now it really did look a bit threatening up there. P went into Motherly mode, warning the girls that it looked a bit grim, but they decided to press on and up. And actually though the clouds spat a little drizzle, there was no storm.
It was still hot and the glacier meltwater roaring down the mountain looked like the perfect place to dunk your head and cool down but we never got quite close enough on the way down.
Having left the level of wildflowers and butterflies, we descended back into it.

After about three hours the path levelled off and we stopped at a tiny refuge serving overpriced drinks and delicious sorbets. We had both and it was very good to sit down for a bit. It had been five hours of very steep climbing, up and down.

We walked on along the side of the valley, passing through an area of considerable devastation on both sides of the river. Trees lay fallen everywhere and piled in the river. We thought initially it had been the result of a landslide but there was no real rocky debris and some of the tress were snapped in half high up the trunk. I wondered whether there had been some kind of high wind.

The path followed a carefully maintained irrigation channel that sometimes followed boxed-in sections to carry the flow to the next ditch. There were expensive explanation panels about the place, but our French wasn’t quite up to it.

And so, after a long day, we switchbacked down the grassed-over old road into Trient. Another silent Swiss mountain village. Our “Hotel” is really a refuge with nice bathrooms but it’s all we need. We sat in the garden over panaches until the wind blew in. But it eventually blew out again too.
Supper was a communal affair and we shared our a table with two English guys called Dan; “Just call us the handsome Dans”, and a young woman from Colorado. Kaitlin was doing the Chamonix to Zermatt walk on her own with a full pack, no poles and trail shoes rather than hiking boots. She’d been travelling by herself in Europe for two months and was perfectly at ease.
It was an easy, enjoyable evening with everyone swapping experiences, but when supper is done, everyone drifts off to bed. The three of us lined up in the dark to watch “Batman Begins” with our resident movie buff. And aching knees.

La Fouly to Champex

This, says “Trekking, the Tour of Mont Blanc”, is the easiest stage of the TMB. Looking at the stats, it is a mere 9.3 miles, climbing a negligable sixteen hundred feet and descending a piffling two thousand feet. Why, it is barely a walk at all. Hardly worth doing up the bootlaces…
Still, we have a hotel booked in Champex so might as well get on and do it. But time enough to plunder the breakfast bar first, under the watchful gaze of the rather officious owner. A hapless group of middle aged Israeli women made the mistake of ignoring the sign about not taking breakfast food for a picnic, and were told off. “I saw you taking the food! Some people haven’t had breakfast yet!”. We would never dream of doing such a thing. Oh no.
We planned to stay longer, lingering over wifi and coffee, but the sun was getting stronger and these valley walks are always a bit warmer without the altitude so we set off through La Fouly and then crossed the small dam and into the woods by the river. The sunshine was hot on our necks and without any real gradient to worry about we ambled along chatting. Above us a waterfall tumbled down the flanks of the mountain.

There was a wide, stony river river bed next to us which Tom decided to explore.

He hopped from rock to rock over the narrow channel of water – little more than a stream really – as we kept parallel with him along the path. Then we saw the sign warning us that the river bed was a runoff from the dam and could turn into churning torrent at any moment. And up to seventeen times a day in fact. Tom! Come back!
We continued on through the woods and found ourselves walking over such a sharp, straight ridge that it felt manmade, until we read that it was actually the ridge of a moraine formed by some vast, long-gone glacier.

Eventually we came to the first in a series of villages running through the valley. The original dark wood chalets have been steadily surrounded by modern versions but the old hearts of these villages are still remarkably unchanged.

That said we barely saw a single person and there was a slight sense that what we see now is preserved in aspic for the holiday-home crowd.

The main road was busy with farm vehicles loaded with hay, zipping from field to field, but still the villages were quiet. We continued our walk downhill through carefully tended fields and perfect, weedless vegetable patches. The chickens had their own chalet.

Though there was one front garden that rebelled against the chocolate box perfection of its neighbours

Les Arlaches was a classic Swiss village of dark beams and stone. Every chalet had the perfect logpile stacked against it but again, we didn’t see a single person.

Occasionally there was a clink of a plate through an open window and there were duvets aired over windowsills but those were the only signs of life.
In the next village, Issert, we stopped for lunch by the roadside. Spaghetti for me and the lad, and a cheese omelet for herself.

Not eating meat is a custom with which the Italians and Swiss are mostly unfamiliar, so P gets rather a lot of cheese omelettes. Last night in La Fouly when T and I had chicken curry with vegetables and rice, they brought the same dish for Philippa minus the chicken and with a piece of cheese instead. And in Rifugio Bonatti when they served everyone falafel, everyone got a piece of cheese too. Maybe that says less about the status of vegetarian food in this part of Europe and more about the status of cheese.
All morning we had walked down hill, but after lunch we knew it was time to start going up to Champex which we could see on a ridge about fifteen hundred feet above us. After hours spent coasting and then a heftyish lunch we were not ready for any work. The path was steep, the air was sticky and we were feeling distinctly post-prandial. The path up through the woods is known as the “mushroom trail” and every so often there are notice boards advising passing funghists about which ones will be delicious and which ones will kill you. Local artists have also set up a series of wooden sculptures every ten minutes or so up the track, which are rather nice.

After an hour and a half of solid Up we emerged in Champex and found the hotel Alpina perched on the side of the mountain. There we were met by a beaming lady who showed us our room and served us panaches on the terrace.

Madeleine couldn’t be more friendly or gracious. Breakfast is usually from 7.30 “but as you are not walking tomorrow maybe 10..?”. We’d read in the TMB book that dinner here was not to be missed and…it really isn’t. There was a little bowl of broth in which sat a piece of fried white fish with a delicately flavoured mousse on top. Then thin slices of rare beef with curls of thin sliced carrots and courgette and a soft cake of lentils bound with cheese and butter. And finally a pistachio pannacotta with an apricot crisp and fresh strawberries, which are grown in this valley. Wot joy. Even the view from our room is a treat.

Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly

Tom was hard to rouse this morning. He blamed being cold overnight in our somewhat austere three bed room. We blamed staying up too late to watch a movie… Anyway we got to breakfast late which meant something of a mad dash around the buffet, grabbing the last of the bread and the muffins and a dribble of cool coffee. Actually they took pity on us and gave us more coffee, but these refuges are pretty clear that you are not there to while away the morning. They want you to have eaten breakfast and be on your way by 8. We picked up three splendid packed lunches and found places to put the sandwiches and peaches and slabs of black chocolate and panettone cakes. Then we went to find our boots in the boot room where everyone swaps their hiking boots for loose fitting slippers. The smell in that room is almost visible.

OK, time to go. The sun was on the other side of the mountain which made for a chilly start. We filled our bottles from the spring water which is available at troughs all along the TMB.

We were about the last people to leave Refuge Bonatti, which is a good way to start the day as you don’t find yourself stuck in a clump of hikers.

The route started off fairly level for a change, hugging the side of the valley. Either side of the path were hundreds of gentians coiled and ready to flower. They will be stunning in a few days. We’ve been amazed by the variety of flowers; marigolds and daisies of course but harebells and rosebay willow herb, tiny yellow snapdragons, eidelweiss and wild cotton and a host of others that our parents would identify with a roll of their eyes at our botanic ignorance.

There were ruins here and there although one old house looked as though it might be inhabited. A man was drinking from the stream outside, his face was tanned almost black by the sun and his dog moving quietly nearby. We said buongiorno and he replied with a greeting that we couldn’t make out.

The path turned down towards the river where we stopped at a little cafe selling unbelievably good hot chocolate, in mugs with long spoons. This was not supposed to be a particularly hard day so we’d decided to take it easy and stop everywhere that looked nice. Chocolate downed, we headed on along the valley floor until the inevitable yellow TMB sign told us that it was time to start climbing. And it was quite a climb, more than seventeen hundred steep feet, up to the 8,500 foot Grand Col Ferret which marks the Swiss border. It’s these steep climbs where having hiking poles is a real boon; helping you haul yourself up and keep your balance. I’d been a bit sceptical about them at first but they’ve been great.

A little way up we came to the Rifugio Elena, a great modern barn of a building that replaced a refuge that was swept away by an avalanche in the fifties. Outside was incredibly windy; inside was a bit cheerless, so we went on and found a sheltered place to sit and have a handful of trailmix looking over st a glacier, before heading for the path summit and Switzerland.

The only advantage of these steep, knee-crushing, hip-grinding, lung-busting paths is that fairly quickly the place where you started is a faint dot, way, way below you and you feel to be making good progress. But inevitably there is So Much Further To Go.

 

 

Each ridge we approached we thought must be the last one, but another one would sneak up from the horizon and snigger into its hand.

When, finally the ridge top was in sight, we stopped for lunch looking back into Italy. Rifugio Bonatti had given us each a square slab of chocolate imprinted with its own logo and 64% cocoa. It was fantastic stuff, shattering in your mouth with a bitter-sweet creaminess.

The top of the ridge was marked by an official cairn and dozens of hikers sunbathing. It looked like they’d all been felled by the wind, which was pretty keen. And beyond was Switzerland. The mountains seemed rounder and less imposing. The high traces of snow sparkled in the sunshine and as we descended through the deep green valley, it got warmer and warmer.

We scrambled up to a viewpoint looking along the valley we would be walking along tomorrow.

The rounded hilltop was a perfect rock-garden with deserty flowers poking through shards of flat slate.

Hours later, at the bottom of the valley we stopped for a cold drink at a dairy farm where I watched a man stacking great wheels of cheese. The sun was searingly hot and looking at the map we were pleased to see our route go through trees.

The dappled shade was a relief as we continued our descent through pine and larch and eventually to the village of La Fouly. We walked on a main street lined with big wooden chalets to our hotel – a big wooden chalet. Hello Switzerland!

Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti

The guide says this is the toughest and most spectacular stage of the TMB and having just finished it, I think that’s probably about right. It’s not the longest in terms of distance, nor does it have the greatest altitude gain. But my knees are telling me this was a hard day, and some of the views we saw today were utterly spectacular.

We got up early this morning and were first into breakfast at the hotel. The team of waiters were eagerly waiting for us as usual. At least they looked eager… It is a very old fashioned sort of dining room, with many be-jacketed flunkies and everything just so. When they brought us drinks they were careful to turn the cup handles to the right position in the saucers. Our table was right next to a vast window looking out on the mountains we’d climbed down from and there was much cereal, and many dried fruits, and fresh rolls with curls of butter and tiny jam pots on a revolving server and fresh cheeses to cut and glass jars of yoghurt and flaky croissants and cappuccinos and hot chocolate like a dark night in a mug. It was all good.

We were on the road by 8.30 relishing the cool morning air and a mountain town beginning to sort itself out for the day. We walked through the new bit of town, and then the older bit by the church and past the grand wooden chalet that is the headquarters of the mountain guides’ association. The road narrowed and took us into an even older bit of Courmayeur; smaller, plainer buildings of stone and with ironwork across the windows. Beside the road, a stone water trough lined with wooden planks for beating washing. I wish I’d taken a photo, but I didn’t so you will have to take my word for it.

Soon the road became a track through trees and the sounds of cars and people faded to birdsong and crickets. The path was gently uphill but smooth and easy and we plodded up occasionally overtaking other hikers, occasionally being overtaken, but it wasn’t busy. Then the TMB route left the smooth track for a steep rutted path which zigzagged up in the shade. Eventually we were looking down on Courmayeur stretched out across the valley floor

Up we went, the track getting steeper and narrower and more rutted.

We emerged from the tree line to see Rifugio Bertone basking in the sunshine, so we walked up to it, got some drinks and sandwiches and did the same. A little pet goat came and snoofled about, looking at us with its goaty eyes. It smelt a bit goaty too, but then they do of course.

It was here that we had to decide whether to take the standard TMB route along the side of the valley, or up to the top of the ridge and along it, which involved the same amount of steep climbing that we had just done over the previous two hours. But the sun was shining, the air was clear and the high route was supposed to be a bit special, so we set off uphill again.

It was steep, but doable and before too long we were on the spine of the green grassy ridge with views back down towards Courmayeur and across to the Grandes Jorasses, which were certainly very Grandes – pointy and snowy and worthy next door neighbours to Mont Blanc.

This is how I imagined the TMB to be – high mountain passes with towering snow-covered mountains under a crystal blue sky. It was marvellous.

We’d been under the impression that the ridge would continue more or less level, but all too soon we were heading downhill only to start climbing again to the Col Sapin, which is 2534 meters, or just under 8,500 feet. The ridge was knee-tremblingly narrow in a couple of places, but the top was a round smooth grassy dome where we spent half an hour or so drinking in the 360 degree view.

When we got there a skinny chap with a goatee beard was packing up a drone he’d been using to film other members of his group as they made their way down. He was an enthusiastic outdoorsman from Otley in Yorkshire and was particularly taken with the idea that Tom was filming something for the Kendal Film Festival. He set off back the way we had come, intending to then take the lower route to the refuge we were aiming for. We stayed on at the summit though. The air was full of honey bees which seemed particularly attracted to me and kept sunbathing on my t-shirt sleeves, which was a little unnerving.

Eventually though we had to tear ourselves away from this high little world. As we were packing up, a sudden gust of wind picked up the foam mat I’d been sitting on and shot it high into the air. It billowed about above our heads and I thought we’d seen the last of it, but all at once the wind deposited it down on the ground ten feet away. Tom grabbed it.
Going down was hard work, on a very steep narrow track covered with powdery dirt and loose shale. When we got to the bottom of the col, I realised that the blue and red blobs I had taken for recycling bins of some sort were actually a French couple sunbathing. At this point I’d been under the impression that we would just head all the way down to the refuge, skipping gaily through soft meadows and pausing only for handfuls of chocolate and to admire the view. But it turned out we had to go over another ridge first, climbing several hundred feet before we could start descending. Ag. It was fine.

We spotted marmots on the way up too. At the top of the ridge a herd of cattle wondered what we were doing. One of them was quite keen on licking me in a friendly sort of way, though on the whole I was against it.

We walked down through a broad glacial valley with the imposing rock wall of the Aguille de LEveque facing the end of it – all 11,700 feet of it, craggy with glaciers and topped with grey clouds. We spotted the refuge and quickened our pace with the prospect of food and a bed. But it turned out to be a farmstead.

Half an hour further and after a little more marmot spotting en route, we were having a drink in the last of the sunshine on the refuge terrace.

Supper was a delight. A mixed salad with a tiny piece of bread cheese and honey, followed by a pea, bean, lentil and pearl barley soup, a piece of cheese then falafel balls with potatoes and leeks and nutty little courgettes. Then a lemony cream posset for pudding. All served simultaneously to about ninety people.

We were good for nothing after that. The older members of our party are feeling somewhat weary (the younger member has barely noticed that we’ve done anything physical at all). Observations over supper…
P: “This holiday is much harder work than our normal life”
T: “All our holidays are like that…”
Our path over the mountains is the purple one and the figures miss out a couple of hundred feet and half a mile or so when I turned the device off by mistake…whoops.