Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 2: Les Contamines to Refuge des Mottets

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 2: Les Contamines to Refuge des Mottets – Day 2 - 7/12/16 - 17.4 Miles

“It could be that the purpose of [this hike] is only to serve as a warning to others.” ~Ashleigh Brilliant

Val Montjoie and the looming Aiguelle de la Pennaz

My biggest mistake in planning our TMB hike was making our second day too long (the next biggest mistake was making our third day too long). Of the 11 stages recommended and outlined in Tour of Mont Blanc, I shortened Days 2, 3 and 4 to two days.  My Day 2, from the town of Les Contamines to the isolated Refuge des Mottets, via the high route of Col des Fours, was more than 15 miles.  It turned out to be our worst weather day as well.  Looking back at my notes and the photos, I am transported to that cold, miserable, never-ending sufferfest.  But hey!  I’m here now with a triumphant testament of survival.  And the sun was shining at the end.

Thunderstorms rolled through the night as I lay in my bunk at Chalet de CAF. Hikers were subdued during a cold breakfast of cereal, juice and bread with (delicious) butter.  Jim and I collected our bag lunches, laced up our boots, shouldered our packs and departed before 7:30 a.m.  We were still indecisive about hiking the high route, looking to get the pulse of other hikers along the way.

What is our first waypoint?  Notre Dame de la Gorge

Crossing over Le Bon Nant to get back on the TMB

Le Bon Nant was looking swollen to full bank and opaque gray with glacier silt, misty, and the sky was a dull gray too

Fill ‘er up, it’s “Eau Potable”

Le Bon Nant

The first kilometer was easy, flat, no rain, stopping several times for the usual comfort adjustments, coat on/off, hood up/down, pants legs on/off. 

Notre Dame de la Gorge

At the parking area groups of dayhikers were loading up and joining the pilgrimage.  From here we were shocked into climbing mode, finding that our legs were not quite over yesterday’s exertion. The TMB rose steeply up through a wooded ravine, then popped us out into a beautiful, misty valley.

A steady drizzling rain set in and pack covers appeared.  At the Refuge Nan Borrant more hikers joined the flow, literally, up the valley.
At the Refuge de la Balme we sought respite, but only paying customers were allowed inside the dining area.  As the rain intensified, we huddled under the eaves to eat a Clif bar and pull on rain pants over our hiking shorts. 

Not fit out for man or beast

A cascade flowing down from Lac Jovet, which I understand is lovely

Plan des Dames, a memorial cairn said to commemorate the place where an English woman died in a storm.  Reminiscent of the memorial to hiker Ido Keinan on Iceland’s Laugavegurrin trek.

The next significant waypoint was the Col du Bonhomme, which we couldn’t see in the clouds, and our only motivation was in our imaginations.  I stowed my camera deep in my pack and relied on Jim’s smart phone camera to record our progress.  The temperature dropped sharply and small snow fields appeared, followed by larger snow fields, now slushy and slippery.  We crossed gushing big streams and newly formed rivulets flowing alongside and over the trail.  I followed a little old French fellow who was slowly but carefully and methodically choosing a good path over the snow.
Turn around, that's Lac Jovet behind you
At Col du Bonhomme sits this tiny wooden shelter, at the moment crammed with teeth-chattering trekkers who did not appreciate anyone opening the door to see if there was room inside (no). My opinion of the situation is obvious.  After just a few minutes of wind chill factor, Jim and I pushed on, thinking that the worst was behind us. It was not.

Looking back at the tiny wooden shelter

I was dismayed to find that the path continued to climb, now over rough jagged rocks.  Great cracks had collected snow, making any obvious path barely discernible save for footprints of those going before us.  We unashamedly integrated ourselves into a guided group for the next hour, at times separated from each other but never totally alone. I am the red dot following other red dots in the upper left of the photo.
Our hands were numb in rain-soaked gloves and underneath our rain gear we still wore only shorts and tee shirts (remember way back at Refuge de la Balme when we hastily put that layer on?)  Hypothermia is possible in much better conditions than we were experiencing.  At the next saddle, Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, was the decision point for taking the high route over Col des Fours.  At the sign for the turn, other trekkers were stopping, looking, then continuing on the lower route.  Jim and I didn’t even slow down: we were aiming for the Refuge five minutes ahead on the lower route.

The Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme is a popular winter ski hut with sleeping space for 113, serving soup and refreshments to day visitors, which today included every single person on the TMB.  Like most accommodations along the trek, boots are not allowed inside so we left ours on the covered porch and pushed our way inside and claimed seats as far away as possible from the door (which wasn’t far because, you know, people.)  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a young woman quietly crying into her boyfriend’s shoulder and I silently empathized.  Do we really have to go back out there? 

Hot chocolate would have sold for any price at the snack bar.  We ate our lunch that we had carried all that way, but I had little appetite.  Over an hour’s time we slowly warmed up to almost normal, but every minute spent sitting delayed arrival at our final destination – which was now 2 hours farther away since we were bypassing the high route.  Whose idea was it to hike all the way to Les Mottets?  Oh, that would be me…

In light rain we faced a steep two-hour descent, more slippery snow, a little less fog.  When we looked up from our feet the view, even in these conditions, was magnificent.

What is our next waypoint?  Le Chapieux, where reasonable people spend their second night on the TMB.  But not us. At the tiny visitor center (bathrooms!) we read signage about a shuttle bus to Refuge les Mottets and I asked the staff person about the timing versus the distance walking. I was fast convincing myself to take the bus, but Jim coached me to “go for it and hike the last 5 km."  The sun was coming out!
Bridge crossing Torrent de Glaciers
The clearing skies around Mont Jondu

Sunshine, however, didn’t disguise the uphill we still faced (an additional 900-foot gain) and I struggled mightily, whining, muttering to myself and taking it out on Jim, even though I was the master planner.  With my lower lip protruding, I sat down beside the trail to rest.  Jim coaxed me with a Twix bar, and eating just that little something gave me a bit of energy to pull it together for the last kilometer. 
Refuge les Mottets

Refuge les Mottets dormitory (we paid 56€ per person half-board in a four-person room, bathroom and showers down the hall)

We arrived at 6:45 p.m., just 15 minutes until dinner, no time to unpack or hang out clothes to dry, just remove boots and find assigned seats in the crowded common room. 

At our table we joined three personable guys from Holland and a young Asian guy named Hai from the U.K. who spoke in an almost indecipherable British accent.  Digging into the first course of bean and vegetable soup, then lamb stew, more veggies, bread and butter, we deconstructed the day (bad weather, still better than a day at work) and tomorrow’s forecast (better).  

I didn’t linger over the crème brulee, instead went outside to spread some clothes out in the fading light.  I had no desire to take a shower, just get a little bit organized (mentally and literally).  Jim and I shared a four-person room with two men from Holland (not the same ones we met at dinner), congenial but also focused on their preparations for the next day.

Was the worst behind us?  What awaits? I was as tired as I’d ever been and eight days more seemed impossible.  Best to break it down into one day at a time.  Meanwhile, another night of light sleep, another thunderstorm rolling through.

Miles:  17.4       Elevation Gain:  5,997 feet     Elevation Loss:  3,652 feet

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”  ~Nelson Mandela


Jennifer DiMaggio said...

I love your photos and your detailed description of this very difficult day of the TMB! My husband and I did the tour for our honeymoon in early June, and Col du Bonhomme was definitely the trickiest day, as there was still a lot of snow (it had snowed the day before and some hikers got stuck in the little shelter overnight!) and I felt much anxiety crossing to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. Looking back, and reading about your day 2, I realize we were lucky we had decent weather, and ended up camping in Les Chapieux after deciding not to attempt the Col des Fours either (though that made our Day 3 to Courmayeur a long day!). Thanks so much for your wonderful trail diary, it's been such a joy to relive our trek by reading yours!!

smoky scout said...

I can imagine that early June has much more snow than we did in mid-July. When you travel such a distance and at such an expense to hike the TMB, you take what you get in weather and trail conditions, right? Congratulations on your marriage and on your great choice of honeymoon destinations :)