Monday, July 3, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 9: Lac Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc:  Tré-le-Champ to Refuge La Flégère via Lac Blanc– 7/19/16 – 5.9 Miles

Inhabitants of our hobbit house crept about all night long, every step announced by creaky old floor boards and muffled curses following stumped toes and bumped heads. Not my best night’s sleep. To be fair, I was also eagerly anticipating today’s hike: short miles on the Grand Balcon and a side trip to the famed Lac Blanc, with stunningly clear skies in our favor.  Umm…what’s that you say about ladders on rock cliff faces?

At breakfast we were introduced to the custom of drinking coffee from a large bowl (oops, thought that was for cereal).  We shared a table and conversation with a retired German couple, both very tall and serious and experienced in “hill walking.”  This was their second time walking the TMB. Today they planned to take the variante Col des Montets, which bypasses the ladders and handrails of the “passage délicat” main route.  Most other hikers, including Jim and I, were getting psyched for the scary stuff.

Will Jim’s supply of duct tape be sufficient for two more days? He doesn’t complain at all.

Not sure how we missed them last night, but this morning we were reunited with the Spanish family we met a hundred years ago on our first night in Les Contamines.  All smiles for a group shot!

Leaving Tré-Le-Champ in the valley

The ascent intensified when we got above tree line. We passed beneath rock walls where tiny adventurers scaled up to the top. Soon the trail passed by the base of a significant rock feature: Aiguillette d’Argentière. Here’s a good place to take a deep breath and strap on our courage as the real cliff climbing begins.  (For scale, the tiny red dots = people.)

Looking down at the Aiguillette d’Argentière and the village of Argentière
At the top of each ladder I discovered another ladder – more than 20

Here comes Cassie

Lots of hikers in front of us, at least we will perish among friends

On the Grand Balcon. This is why we hike. What a privilege to walk in this scenery.

Bonjour, Mont Blanc, so nice to see you this fine morning

In the valley, the town of Chamonix (home of the first winter Olympics in 1924)

Tête aux Vents, the junction where the Col des Montets variante joins the main TMB 

Flowing from the Mont Blanc massif:  The Glacier d’Argentière
Friends gathered at Tête aux Vents
Chocolate reward

Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France

All of the Mont Blanc glaciers are shrinking due to climate change, but the story of Mer de Glace is stark and disconcerting. It saddens me that it is a tourist attraction featuring a manmade grotto (dug out new each year because the glacier moves) with exhibits, restaurants, a museum and a funicular to access it. Is it any worse than all the hikers walking on the TMB? I hope that the hikers have less impact.

A helicopter delivering supplies to Refuge La Blanc

Looking back towards Col de Balme, the low saddle in the middle ground, that we crossed yesterday.  Beyond it are the alps of Switzerland.

After our rest we lightheartedly shouldered our packs for the quick (not) easy (not) walk to Lac Blanc. Several trails crisscross but the junctions are well signed and we got oriented for first the Lacs des Chéserys and then Lac Blanc.

First look at Refuge du Lac Blanc, still can’t see its namesake behind it.

The largest of the Chéserys and Glacier d’Argentière across the valley

Home free? Do I see more ladders??? Lordy, yes, another ladder section. I am so surprised (and annoyed) that I leave my camera in my pocket.

Still climbing

Can’t have a day without snow fields. They said last week this section was impassable.

And there she is at last:  Lac Blanc, still partly frozen, chunks of ice floating invitingly. Such an intense deep blue sky!

Beyond that small hill where people were exploring lies another portion of the lake, mostly ice-covered, surreal serenity.
Walking back towards the refuge

Refuge du Lac Blanc - another great place to stay but we didn't - I hear that evening time after the daytrippers are gone is wonderful

Who cannot resist a plunge into icy waters, knowing he may never be here again? That would be my husband.

We explored, marveled, lounged, and sat in amazement for nearly two hours at Lac Blanc. Future trekkers take note: do not skip this side trip if weather permits. It is truly a wonder among wonders.

Now, how did all those people get here, some leading young ones by the hand and a few carrying infants? They caught a ride on the cable car from Chamonix up to La Flégère cable station.  From there Lac Blanc is a bit more than an hour’s walk, 1,500 feet elevation gain, which Jim and I next hiked in reverse to our home for the night at Refuge La Flégère.

La Flégère cablecar station. The refuge is downslope behind the big building. This looks close but still took some time to reach. Teeniest tiniest black specs are hikers on the gravel road.

Refuge La Flégère (not my photo, from Refuge La Flégère Facebook page). Primarily a ski lodge, it is a huge rambling wooden structure, two stories of sleeping configurations (small rooms and big open dormitories), dining hall on the bottom floor opening onto a simple patio with a majestic this-can’t-be-real view. We paid 57 euros per person.

Our distance today was only 6 miles but I still felt exhausted when we arrived at the cablecar station. Hurray for the snack stand that accepted credit cards! We gobbled up croissants and sodas as we descended the short path to the refuge, parked our boots and hiking poles in the gear room and checked in. The staff showed us the general area of our bunks and we took ownership.
View from the window at the end of the hall

The unisex bathroom (the last one of the hike, tomorrow we return to the luxury of Hotel Slalom!) was one large room with a row of sinks and mirrors, a bank of 3 toilets on one end and 3 showers on the other, topless old women brushing their teeth and the ubiquitous men’s briefs at every turn. How will I transition back to American privacy?

Cleaned up and freshly attired in the same evening clothes we’d worn for 8 nights, we returned to the cablecar station to join Cassie and Niki, and Debbie and Claire, the mother-daughter pair from South Carolina, in a celebratory round. Another day conquered on the TMB. Cheers!
On the dinner menu at Refuge La Flégère: fresh salad and individual casserole dishes of potatoes, bacon, ham, cheese and onion in a creamy white sauce. Impossible for me to eat more than half; Jim had no difficulty consuming both his and mine. And just why is the food so piping hot? Don’t forget the cheese course. Dessert choices were a chocolate mousse, an apple tart or a cream cheese type thing.

We were seated with the Bulgarian couple and a father-son duo from England out hiking for a couple of days. The 8-year-old boy bore a striking resemblance to McCauley Culkin in “Home Alone.” We expressed amazement at his ability to climb all the ladders on this section; he shrugged like it was no big deal, said it was fun. The dad was up on the latest Tour de France news, so he was Jim’s new best friend.

On the patio at Refuge La Flégère

 By now Jim and I had developed good bedtime habits, preparing as much as possible for tomorrow, filling water containers, corralling electronics, airing out hiking clothes, etc. Our bunkmates were our German friends from breakfast (was that really just this morning?) Lights out, full dark, I thought for a moment about this adventure ending tomorrow but…ZZZZZZZZ

Miles: 5.9   Elevation Gain: 4,216 feet   Elevation Loss: 2,631 feet

 “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ~Ernest Hemingway

No comments: