Monday, June 12, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 7: Through the Fenêtre d’Arpette

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 7:  Champex to Col de la Forclaz via Fenêtre d’Arpette - 10 Miles

Somebody once said, “Your body can stand almost anything. It’s your mind that you have to convince.”

Jamie, owner and head chef of Ptarmigan, prepared a delicious breakfast for us at 7:00 a.m., despite his lack of sleep due to his new baby in the back apartment.  Jamie is a native Scotsman who seemed very happy to have landed in this idyllic Swiss community. His fruit coffee cake was especially tasty.  We made our takeaway lunch from the remaining breakfast cheeses, meats and breads and were on our way by 7:45 a.m.
From the Tour of Mont Blanc guidebook:  “A note of warning before setting out: the crossing [of Fenêtre d’Arpette] should not be attempted other than in good conditions and a forecast of settled weather.” 

Now, where have we heard that before?

“Like Col des Fours” – OH, YEAH – “which shares the same altitude, the Fenêtre d’Arpette is the highest point reached on the Tour of Mont Blanc and its crossing from Champex is the toughest of the whole route.”

The conditions were fine and the forecast was calm, so Jim and I and most of our TMB friends (Amy, Cassie, Niki, the British family and other familiar faces) were going through the fenêtre (“window”).  John and Graham, however, chose the low valley Alp Bovine route; consequently, we would not see them again.
Clear, crisp, chill morning air invigorated our road walk out of town, leaving Champex behind (we’ll be back someday, right?) 

After a brief climb through a forested hillside, we passed the Relais d’Arpette (a nice place to stay but this time we had no regrets) where sleepy-eyed TMB trekkers were hoisting their packs.  The road became a dirt track as it rose gently through the Val d’Arpette, bursting with wildflowers and ringed by mountain peaks.  

Val d’Arpette

We are committed now

Friends began catching up and then passing us tortoises, including some Irish brothers we’d heard about who looked a bit hung over this morning (I’ve omitted their photos to protect the innocent.) 

The British family (we probably learned their names at one point but…)

Cassie and Niki

Rising out of the valley – see that low notch in the peaks?  Well, that’s not our final destination, but we are going past the notch as we circle to the right. 
A last look down into the valley we’re leaving behind

Through the notch into a higher section of the valley

Jim took most of the photos on this section as we leapfrogged, me gasping for breath, climbing very slowly but steadily. (Okay, the only way I passed him was when he was standing still.) Photos are looking ahead as well as back.  We’re talking one mile per hour from here to the “window.”

Colors in the rocks 

Looking backwards down the trail 

Looking to our left, Aiguilles d’Arpette in full display.  Imagine everything covered in snow.  There are ski huts up in there! 

Looking straight ahead on the trail at this point, left to right, the green arrow points to Pointe d’Orny, red is Petite Pointe d’Orny, yellow is the Col des Ecandies (the Trient Glacier flows down and away from this point), pink is Pointe des Ecandies.  Our col/notch/pass/gap is outside of the photo to the right.

The fenétre is the lowest notch on the left 

So close yet..not really…the bouldering has begun, slowing us down even more

And closer…still aiming for the lowest notch on the left

A quick look back to see where Jim is

Yes, there are snow fields, my least favorite thing next to bouldering.  We didn’t have crampons on our boot soles because we didn’t feel we needed them – except when we did need them.  Why was the snow so scary?  It may look like just a couple of inches, but the depth varied, deeper between the rocks (which were not always visible), and there was water melting beneath the snow in places.  Jim punched through one leg up to mid-thigh, stomping down into a flowing stream. 

And closer… 

Final stretch?  Well…. 


Dear Lord, how long, how long?  The path unbraided in multiple strands where sure-footed hikers cut short paths while cautious hikers who valued their lives created switchbacks.  The final-final-final climb was about half an hour of gritty scree so steep that my calves burned. All I saw was the next step in front of me.

But I heard cheering!  Cassie and Niki were applauding, whistling and yelling encouragement, making us feel like winners at the finish line.  This is my most prominent memory of the Tour du Mont Blanc: reaching the Fenétre d’Arpette, Switzerland, at 8,000 feet.

The ever-present wind was not as chilling as at other cols we had crossed so far, inviting all hikers to sit in the window for a while, because what else is better than this?! Don’t you want to be there?

Jim took the following two panoramas without taking a step, just pivoting front to back:

Looking back: Val d’Arpette

Looking forward: Vallée du Trient

Our friend Amy arrived carrying a big stick that she had picked up at the beginning of the day.  She said she wouldn’t have wanted to attempt the boulders and snow without its added stability.  Here she is with new friends Toby and Abby.

Amy with her walking stick, ready for the downhill

The real reward for taking this TMB high route:  Trient Glacier is visible for the entire (very steep and sometimes painful) descent.  It felt close enough to touch.  I would forget about it as I concentrated on my steps, and then look up to see it again from a slightly different vantage point, still magnificent.  I’ve read that during the 19th century ice blocks were blasted from the glacier and transported by rail to major French cities.  Sadly but not surprisingly, Trient Glacier is rapidly shrinking and now terminates at its icefall over steep slabs of bedrock.  Its light blue iceberg-y tint is hard to discern in the photos but was quite distinct in real life.

According to the guidebook, the descent takes 2 hours, but for us it was closer to 3 hours, at first negotiating boulders similar to the climb, and then just plain old steep switchbacks requiring small careful steps. Amy was long gone past us.

I grew bored and irritated with the slow progress; consequently, I lost focus, tripping and falling four times.  In the most spectacular event, I took my eyes off my feet for a quick second, slipped on a rock, and fell sideways off the trail.  I rolled over once and began sliding down the mountainside!  I grabbed for grass, flowers, whatever I could touch – and then Jim came around the bend.  He began to laugh, and laughed some more, and laughed some more.  Okay, I wasn’t actually sliding down the mountainside, but for that moment of panic it sure felt like it.  I struggled to unclip my backpack, shrugged out of the harness, and stood up.  Jim was still laughing.  (It took me a while to see the humor.)  I’m sure he loves me.

A reenactment, but you get the idea

Vésevey ruins

Hikers standing still and looking off trail means a wildlife sighting. This ibex must have been getting paid by the hour to put on his show.  

Trient Glacier and trees!

Jim coming down the mountain

Jim and Trient Glacier

Last look over Jim’s shoulder:  Pointe d’Orney in the center and Trient Glacier on the right.

Three hours and 3,250 feet of elevation loss later, we stopped at Chalet du Glacier for a sit-down and two Cokes (7€).  This is an important decision point on the TMB, so those of you making plans must do some research for an overnight stay, with consideration of today’s effort:  continue on to either Col de la Forclaz (hotel and dortoir spaces), Refuge les Grands (dortoir spaces, no staff, no meal provisions, bring your own), Le Puety (gîte and camping), or the village of Trient (dortoirs).  The most comfortable accommodations but also most out-of-the way is at Col de la Forclaz. 

At the time I was making reservations a couple of months prior to our hike, the only accommodations I could find were at Hotel du Col de la Forclaz.  In hindsight now, I know there are more choices and recommend Trient as the best location so try hard to find options there.  [FYI don’t be fooled, the Hotel’s address is Trient but the physical location is not in Trient.]

Jim and I marched on to Col de la Forclaz, a level walk but still 45 minutes tacked onto the end of a demanding day (and well aware that this was a detour off the TMB).  The hotel sits in a deep oxbow curve in the road which appeared very busy with people, cars, motorcycles everywhere.  The check-in process was chaotic as well, as though the staff was overwhelmed – and indeed they were, for tomorrow a stage of the Tour de France bike race would pass through!  The roadway looked freshly paved and barricades were in place. Media and cycling enthusiasts added to the hikers and plain old tourists for an apocalyptic mix of patrons.  Poor Jim was almost sick with regret that we didn’t know this beforehand, as we might have planned an off day to stay and watch.

Hotel du Col de la Forclaz

Barricade fences for the Tour du France

We found our reserved bunks in the dormitory (bathrooms and showers elsewhere in the building) but after a short while of trying to assimilate into the ridiculously cramped space, I marched back to the front desk and asked if there were any private rooms available.  Yes!  There was one room with a sink (showers and bathrooms down the hall but on the same floor) for 160CHF half-board.  For comparison, two people in bunk beds half-board was 130CHF.  The best part: our room was a second floor corner with windows on both sides. Yes, we hung laundry out the windows again. 

(Side note once again, and not for the last time: Europe is mostly unisex bathrooms and showers.  I waited patiently for my turn while a couple took showers side by side, chatting away. The underwear-is-cool-in-the-hallway rule still applied.)

The previous night in Champex (was that really less than 24 hours ago??) Jim and I had blown nearly all our Euros on that elaborate meal with John and Graham.  I paid for today’s hotel room with a credit card. There would be no ATM’s on tomorrow’s hike and we would be crossing the border back into France, where no one cares for Swiss francs, which was all the cash I had.  Back to the chaotic front desk: would the nice lady possibly exchange my 140 Swiss francs for Euros?  At first she shook her head, no way, but I waited until everyone else transacted their business, and when we were alone the clerk looked left, looked right, raised a finger to her lips – sshhh – and swapped currencies for me.  You didn’t hear this from me.

Clean body and clothes, money issues resolved, a private room with clean sheets – what we need now is an adult beverage!  The hotel patio was the place to be, watching race preparations and hikers coming in from the trail.  Debbie and Claire, our Charleston, South Carolina mother-daughter friends, invited us to join their table, and Amy appeared fresh from the showers too.  After a couple of beers the day’s stresses were just a good survival story to tell.  Cheers!

Dinner assigned seating as usual, but this time Jim and I had a table for two with soup from a huge copper tureen, chicken ratatouille, cauliflower with cheese sauce, shoestring French fries, and two dishes of ice cream.  We talked about tomorrow’s hike (easier, we think…) (nope…)

Miles: 10   Elevation gain:  3,999 feet   Elevation loss:  3,993 feet

“The body achieves what the mind believes.”  ~Unknown

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