Thursday, April 27, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 1:  Les Houches to Les Contamines – 7/11/16 – 11.7 Miles

Key notes:

* Guidebook The Tour of Mont Blanc divides the route into 11 stages, several featuring two alternate routes, low and high – wisdom is to go high if weather permits
* we’re hiking anti-clockwise, the more traditional route
* signs are great but know your next waypoint, not just your ultimate destination for the day
* between signs at junctions, look for red/white bands or yellow diamonds with a black “TMB” painted on trees, rocks and buildings
* a “col” is a gap, a pass, a low point between mountain ridges and they are WINDY

Today we’re hiking from Les Houches to the town of Les Contamines and we’re taking the alternate high route over the Col de Tricot.

What a lovely breakfast of granola, fruit, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, meats, cheeses and croissants!  Jim said the coffee was rich (I’m abstaining until after the trek).  Two fellow lodgers just off the trek said the forecast looks especially ominous for tomorrow. Let’s just stay here…

We made our final pack edits.  Electronics accounted for a significant amount of weight but were necessary to maintain phones and cameras, including adapters, chargers, extra batteries, and a portable battery charger. Although the guidebook was heavy (because it’s chock-full of useful information in addition to navigation notes), I opted to carry it and tear out the pages for each day to keep handy in my pocket.  I referred to them incessantly throughout the trek as a sort of talisman to reassure me that we were on course (and more than once to confirm that we were not).  At the fromagerie we bought sandwiches and fruit, not yet trusting that food would be plentiful along the route as the guidebooks claim. We each carried a stash of candy and Clif bars.

Beginning 8:45 a.m. Our starting point on the TMB just across the street from Hotel Slalom.  Thanks, Stacey!  We’ll see you in 10 days!

First lesson: follow the guidebook precisely through the twists and turns of leaving or entering a town even if you feel confident in recognizing markers and signs. This morning we’re headed to Col de Voza.

Follow them, they look like they know the way!  After five minutes of this little track, the first kilometers followed pavement and then gravel roads winding past ski lodges, hazy snow-covered mountains, probably exquisite in wintertime but pretty darn steep, and I was soon sweating with heat and effort.  Not a good beginning.  I regretted filling up on that breakfast buffet, a little queasy, and of course that’s how I’m going to feel for the entire trek, right?  Jim was ahead of me as I plodded along at a (hopefully) sustainable pace.

At the Col de Voza sits a large hotel and a station for the Tramway du Mont Blanc (bathrooms!).  [The tracks in the photo are old, no longer used.] Across the tracks is a small bar-restaurant. Jim and I sat down on a little bench to contemplate our madness and were joined by a British fellow hiking the TMB in the clockwise direction, meaning this was his final day.  He good-naturedly encouraged us and gave a few tips.  We asked about the high routes and he confessed he hadn’t taken many of them, but another hiker reported that the Col des Fours has an unusual amount of snow and it’s not advisable to try it.

Note:  Tomorrow we are supposed to go over the Col des Fours.

From the Col de Voza the TMB climbs alongside the cable car tracks
The Hotel Bellevue’s “nice view” of Mont Blanc
From here the trail angles to the right and undulates gently across a steep wooded mountainside looking into the Bionnassay Valley, opening up to a rocky moraine created by the Bionnassay Glacier. 
We heard the thunder of a whole lot of water as we scrambled across the moraine.
A wobbly suspension bridge over the glacier melt flow – my kind of excitement!
Torrent de Bionnassay cascading toward the valley

Exhileration from the bridge crossing burned off in short order as I realized the steepness of the next challenge:  1,200 feet elevation gain to the Col de Tricot. My legs were exhausted and several times I stopped to rest for a count of 30.  The trail rose above tree line into grassy meadows filled with alpenrose (similar to azalea), wandering sheep, and cows wearing enormous bells around their necks – take a deep breath and turn around and LOOK. These were the views we’d imagined – only bigger.

Glacier de Bionnassay
Alpenrose and Glacier de Bionnassay
Jim is still ahead of me
Col de Tricot is a broad gap or saddle between mountains that separates the Bionnassay Valley and the Miage Valley, each carved by glaciers flowing down from the Mont Blanc massif. Sheep wandered among remains of a building and a stone wall. Famished, Jim and I unpacked to eat our lunch in this 360-degree masterpiece.

The sheep were ready for lunch, too. Like pigeons at the park or squirrels at the campground (only much bigger), they approached looking for a handout and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  We shooed them away with our hands, pushed them away with our boots, but when one fellow began vigorously licking my knees it was time to abandon lunch and move on.

From the Col we could see our next waypoint, the Chalets de Miage, down in the Miage Valley.  We could see them for the next 90 minutes of descent (1800 feet), each step a punishment even though mitigated by switchbacks.  The guidebook urges caution to hikers on their first or second day, as going too fast down steep grade with a loaded backpack can cause knee damage requiring a lengthy recovery. Besides, going slow allows for savoring the view.

Jim is a speck on the mountainside
Descending to Miage Valley
Lupines at the Refuge de Miage

Note to TMB dreamers: Refuge de Miage would be a great place to end your first day. But we didn’t.

Jim and I had come to the realization that this trek was going to be a serious challenge.  These were not the mountains we’re used to on the East Coast, and even though the heights don’t equal the mountains of the American West, the average grade of the TMB was proving to be steeper than I remembered back home.  At the Refuge (bathrooms again!) we bought Cokes at an exorbitant price, establishing a new habit to get us through the tough times.  And it worked – we were revived and ready to face the next climb. 

Which is over that little ridge there known as Mount Truc.

A look back over the shoulder at the Refuge de Miage and the Col de Tricot.  Looks pretty simple from here, doesn’t it?

On top of the ridge of Mount Truc the majesty of the mountains spreads out unobstructed, the Dômes de Miage.  (There was a trailside site map display naming the features.) The green arrow indicates Miage Glacier (which we'll see again on Day 3 in a BIG way).  The yellow arrow indicates Pan Glacier, the grayish flow separating from Miage Glacier.  The blue arrow indicates Mont Blanc peeking out from a wispy cloud. There is nothing in the photo to indicate scale.  I remember feeling a little emotional at the vastness: this is real, we are standing here on this ridge, in this meadow, and this is laid out before us, this is nature’s magnificence. Then we turned and continued on our way. 

Next we passed by Auberge de Truc, another great spot to end the day.  But we didn’t. 

Our ambitious first day ended in the town of Les Contamines, another couple of kilometers of steep descent.  A charming place that we might have enjoyed if we weren’t so tired. 

We got cell phone service, checked in with our son back home…

…and walked all the way through town to our accommodations at Chalet CAF, featuring bunk beds and hot showers.  Bed and full board (supper and breakfast) was 45€ per person. We knew that supper was served at 7:00 p.m. and we learned quickly that seating was assigned by the hosts, no hiding in a corner alone.  Over courses of soup, salad and chicken curry we attempted to talk with a Spanish family of four and a young Spanish couple (the woman spoke English and translated cheerfully for everyone). Jim seemed to enjoy practicing Spanish and French with a New Jersey accent. Sharing our bunk room was a handsome young Australian fellow named Adrian taking a three-week holiday.  He heard about the TMB last week and decided to just do it.  We discussed tomorrow’s dismal weather forecast and whether to attempt going over the Col des Fours.

In our single-minded focus to find the Chalet, we had forgotten to pick up food for tomorrow’s hike, but the hostess had bag lunches on offer.  With a bit of daylight left, Jim retrieved some more cash from an ATM (insurance) while I tried to get organized, feeling overwhelmed, difficult to think things through.  Fatigue dragged me to bed, but I didn’t sleep well, thinking about what tomorrow would bring.  Are we having fun yet? 

Jim carried his Garmon GPS to record our mileage, elevation gain and loss each day. [Sometimes he forgot to turn it on right away.]

Miles:  11.7       Elevation Gain:  5,007 feet     Elevation Loss:  4,314 feet

“When you’re safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.”  ~Thornton Wilder

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc: Les Houches, France

Tour du Mont Blanc – Getting to the Beginning in Les Houches, France – 7/9 & 7/10/16

TMB 2016: Less-Hooch-ez? Lay-Zoosh? How to Make the French Laugh At Your Silly American Accent, Episode 1

Travel itinerary:  Fly from Charlotte to Washington D.C. to Geneva, Switzerland.  Bus to Les Houches.  Walk 105 miles around a mountain. Trains to Paris. Return home flights from Paris to Washington D.C. to Charlotte. 18 days.

Packing, packing, packing.  I have a lot of gear – how much should I take?  Jim needs a lot gear – how much should he buy?  We won’t need tents, sleeping bags or cooking equipment, so going light, right?  Well… And how will we haul it all around on planes, trains, buses, subways and taxis? 

My tried-and-true backpack and Jim’s fancy new one, one small rolling suitcase, one duffel bag, and one string bag to assure we look like tourists.  Endure the requisite uncomfortable, middle seat, overnight flight to Geneva. Little sleep due to anticipation, excitement, nerves.

We arrived in Geneva at 7:40 a.m., quickly retrieved our luggage and began our long wait for our reserved 12:30 p.m. Alpybus to Chamonix Valley (I wanted to make sure we had time for transfer.)  We got our first a cup of coffee (Starbucks) at the food court and sat outside breathing that Swiss air with all the smokers, of which there are many in Europe.  We skipped getting Euros at the airport because the fee was pretty steep (we’ll find an ATM near our hotel). We finagled our way onto an earlier 12-passenger bus (11:00) and were on our way.  We’re in Switzerland!  Cute chalets! Snow-capped mountains!  And it’s hot! 

Alpybus deposited us at an intersection on Les Houches’s main street in the early afternoon. Not a soul stirring. Just a few doors down we found Hotel Slalom, our home for tonight and for the two nights at the completion of our trek (should we survive).  All doors were locked. A peek in the windows revealed a tidy, empty reception-desk-breakfast-room-bar.  

At the restaurant next door we inquired about the hotel’s hours, and the owner said (in that exquisite French accent that makes Americans feel… not French), “I shall call Stacey to tell her that guests have arrived.”  Back to the hotel where Stacey, a British expat, welcomed us and showed us to a lovely second-floor room with a balcony overlooking the street.  She mentioned that tonight is the Euro 2016 final football (soccer) match between France and Portugal and to expect noise all night if France wins. Either we will be too tired to hear it or we will be too wired to sleep.

After a quick freshen-up, Jim and I returned to the restaurant for lunch: the randonneur plate.

[BTW, a randonneur is a long distance endurance cyclist.] Here Jim learned how to say “it is delicious” in French: C'est délicieux. Adorable.

Rue de Bellevue

The corner market

La Ferme des Agapes
Drinking water.  We would see this many times walking through towns and passing by farms.

We found and conquered an ATM, got cash for the first two nights on the trek.  (The majority of accommodations are cash-only; failing to have the correct currency would prove problematic at one stop.) Low on energy, we returned to Hotel Slalom where we enjoyed an eyes-closed inspection of our room, followed by hot showers and a renewed purpose.  Time to pack FOR REAL for this monumental expedition.

All over again:  what to take and what to leave at the hotel?  Weather conditions on the TMB in summer can vary from hot and sunny to freezing rain and high winds - be prepared or be miserable.  I’ve had a starring role in this play many times, yet I still have the same stage fear of not having something I might need (aka want). 

So we packed until we were tired of it and ventured out once again into our adopted home town, this time to the Kitsch Inn for a beer, where we watched some of the football/soccer match on the flat screen with not-too-rowdy locals.  We left before the end and it was a quiet night (France lost).

“Life for two weeks on the mountain tops would show us many things about life during the other fifty weeks down below.” ~Benton McKaye