Sunday, June 18, 2017

Tour du Mont Blanc Day 8: Col de la Forclaz to Tré-le-Champ - The Long Way

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.

Early morning Trient

Walking on the gravel road through Le Peuty, which is simply a row of houses, we saw signs of staging for Tour de France team vehicles and the press.  And this cute goat’s house.

Walking through the Vallon de Nant Noir – Trient Glacier in the upper left

Trient Glacier

Looking back to say goodbye to Trient

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.
In the saddle between the mountains: Refuge du Col de Balme

Zig-zagging TMB
Alpenrose, more zig-zags and teeny Trient in the valley

In the distance to the right, snow pockets

See the tiny dots on the snow field? Peeps crossing!  This looked insane, even more so when I became one of them

The white bump in the center = Mount Blanc

Bonjour France! Mont Blanc dominates the horizon as Chamonix nestles in the Vallée de l’Arve

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. 

Must go all the way back.  Will this be the last sight I see before I meet my Maker?

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.

The trail going up the center leads over Aiguillette des Posettes – next time we’ll take it

But we’re taking this one

Glacier du Tour

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.  

Aiguille du Tour

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!

The communal washroom sink was a huge wooden trough with four faucets

Boot rack by one of the staircases

The emergency evacuation plan did not make us feel safer

Dinner prep - notice the cupboards with keyhole openings to reach inside

After carefully orchestrated showers in the cupboard too small to turn around for the soap, we retired to the charming spacious patio filled with tables and umbrellas.  I had dreamed of an Orangina all day long with a beer chaser.  
Jim was popular with the young ladies

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

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