Tour du Mont Blanc: Col de la Forclaz to Tré-le-Champ – 7/18/16 – 12.3 Miles
Planners take note: Yummy croissants and jam are not enough fuel for a hiking day. The Hotel du Col de la Forclaz’s breakfast looked, smelled and tasted delicious, but was short on protein (cream cheese?). The takeaway lunch for two was also skimpy. Have a few protein bars stowed in your backpack for this section of the TMB.
Jim and I made it all the way across the paved road before taking our packs off to check out a souvenir shop opened early – this is Tour de France day! Jim got a great deal on a Col de la Forclaz cycling jersey and I paid entirely too much for a cowbell for the Christmas tree (yes, I did).
We started the day with Amy, backtracking for a few minutes on the Bisse du Trient and then descending a steep path to cross the paved road again. The signage has gotten more complicated and it is more important than ever to know all the waypoints to our final destination. The green TMB signs are ambiguous; the itty bitty red-and-white blazes for the TMB going through Trient and Le Peuty to Col de Balme are for us. (This sign seems to say that Col de Balme is in both directions?) The Col de Balme is our last mountain pass of the TMB which will return us to France.
And this cute goat’s house.
Here on Day 8 at last I was familiar with the pattern: at the far end of the meadows we crossed the Nant Noir stream, then the trail entered the forest and climbed steep switchbacks, heat building up. Just before we popped out of the trees we took a break to eat a Clif bar (so glad I carried these for eight days) and apply sunscreen for the deceptively long distance to the Col de Balme. Along this forest section we leap-frogged a young couple who would help us out later in the day.
Beyond the trees the grade moderated and opened to a spectacular, surreal valley view on this clear, cloudless day.
Alpenrose, more zig-zags and teeny Trient in the valley
See the tiny dots on the snow field? Peeps crossing! This looked insane, even more so when I became one of them
An intense blue sky and no wind - let's eat our lunch à l’extérieur. Two sandwiches, two apples, one coffee-flavored yogurt and two melted chocolate bars. Bon appetite!
This area just happens to have the TMB running past it. There are myriad hiking trails from the valley up to Col de Balme and it is a premier skiing paradise in the wintertime. We didn’t go inside the refuge (crowded) except to inquire about bathrooms, and I was directed around the side of the building to a miserable portajohn with a rusty door and a hole in the floor, evoking memories of Peru. Not impressed, France.
The trouble began as we stood at the signpost for the next leg of the day’s hike. There are many trails intersecting in addition to the TMB and I couldn’t sort out the sign. The TMB arrows didn’t indicate anything at all and I only realized in hindsight (that night) that Col de Posettes was the next landmark we needed en route to Tré-Le-Champ. We tentatively started in one direction, and then I second guessed and we changed to a different path. My punishment was crossing three treacherous snow fields to an intersection that was obviously wrong. So… back across the snow fields.
The snow crossings were slushy and slippery and one was particularly long and nerve-wracking. Nothing to stop you from sliding right off the mountain. People were waiting at both ends to try their luck.
SO…Back to the signpost at Col de Balme. I felt fretful at my mistake. When conditions in real life don’t match the map, I doubt myself rather than thinking the maps are crappy. In this case, though, the maps really were inadequate for the tangle of trails we faced. By now we’d hiked a few extra miles, I was feeling fatigued, and we still weren’t sure of the route. We started again in the direction we first tried.
At the next signpost, we knew we were now at the Col des Posettes, but confusion still reigned. Do we want to go the high route via Aiguellette des Posettes or do we want the low route through the village of Le Tour? The young couple we’d encountered earlier in the forest was studying the sign, too. At this point I was not a fan of the high route, particularly if I didn’t 100% know where it led. So Jim and I chose (unintentionally) a mid-level route that was a delightful balcony walk, lovely flowers and a front row view of the Mont Blanc range.
As fantastic as this trail was, and although we knew we were headed in the right direction, a couple of trail intersections had no indications of the TMB. We were overtaken by an energetic hiking group going in our direction and, between their limited English and our utter lack of French, they understood that we were trying to get to Tré-Le-Champ. They indicated we should keep going… but where? They disappeared in a flash and Jim and I kept trekking.
At the next intersection, our new hiking friends were waiting for us to make sure we took the correct direction – very kind to look after the Americans! From that point we followed the trail to the inevitable steep downhill back into a forest, twisting and turning to reach a group of buildings and our home for the night, gîte Auberge la Bourne. We arrived at the respectable hour of 4:00 p.m., having walked 12.3 miles instead of our expected 8.4.
Auberge la Bourne consists of an 18th century building that has endured additions on all sides and enclosing the original roof. It’s unlike any hostel or hotel or…anything I’ve ever seen. They offer campsites, too, or you can buy just a meal while passing through. Check out the photos on their website and you still won’t understand its construction. Small rooms with bunk beds tucked everywhere, all different, tiny toilet rooms fashioned from closets and tinier shower stalls fashioned from cupboards. There was an attic of sleeping space that I stuck my head into. One adult half-board per night is 44€, worth it just to ramble around and explore, and you get supper and breakfast to boot.
Eight bunks in our assigned room, three high on one side, one turned sideways under the eaves, totally inadequate lighting, watch your head!
I met a young Canadian woman named Kristen who was hiking the TMB solo, tent camping seven days so far, and she planned to complete her circuit tomorrow in Chamonix. She seemed eager to chat, had spent most of her time alone, moving faster than most hikers, and she admitted that she wasn’t really enjoying her experience. I introduced Kristen to the other young women we knew, and she perked up at the chance to socialize.
The weather was cooperating so well that the staff served dinner outside. Jim and I were seated with two other couples, one of them the young couple we’d leap-frogged with and conferred with about the trail confusion. They were from Bulgaria and were hiking a three-day section. The other couple was from Brussels, and they were also camping. Dinner was perfection with local ingredients: fresh salad and dressing, white rice, lamb in white peppercorn sauce, a cheese course of gruyere, brie and something stronger, loaves of fresh bread, and fresh yogurt for dessert to which our Bulgarian friends coaxed us to add sugar (it was delicious).
Everyone at our table spoke English. We talked about outdoor gear, places in their countries that they like to hike and camp, and we sang the praises of American national parks. When the conversation turned towards politics, the man from Brussels observed that the whole world was a bit crazy these days. When Jim said we were happily out of the news loop, the fellow joked, “I heard today that Donald Trump has been named President.” We all laughed uproariously and said that in that case we would not return to the U.S.
Aaaahhh. If only we could turn back time.
Miles: 12.3 Elevation gain: 3,635 feet Elevation loss: 3,983 feet
“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.” ~Friedrich Neitszche