05.07.2014 - 12.07.2014
My recent trip to the Alps is best summed up by a quote from Woody Allen: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."
It began with what should have been a quick, painless trip to Chamonix, the base for our alpine adventure. Unfortunately for me, easyJet had other ideas. My flight was delayed by some Belgian fog. I missed my transfer at Geneva Airport and was bumped onto the last bus. The bus was delayed. I finally arrived at my destination at 1:30am, only to find my hotel room locked and no sign of the promised key. So the following morning I was not in the best frame of mind to start trekking round Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. The rain hammering down in Les Houches, our starting point, wasn't helping either.
On the other hand, I was in the Alps again, after a regrettably long absence, and the Tour du Mont Blanc (the official grande randonnée around the mountain) had been on my bucket list for a while. The trip had come together at the last minute. I should have been surveying garment factories in Bangladesh, but an eleventh-hour cancellation left me at a loose end, so I hurriedly made fresh arrangements to join Jen in France.
We couldn't hang around in Les Houches either, as Jen had decided that it was not enough to merely complete the trek in the normal fashion. Carrying only a tiny pack and aiming to run the downhill sections, she had compressed the standard 12-day itinerary into eight and had warmed up for the challenge with a week of skyrunning in (or rather above) the Chamonix valley. This caused me some concern. Number one, I run for trains, not for pleasure, and number two, I was carrying three times as much gear. "Hang on", you're thinking. "Hasn't this guy heard of alpine-style climbing? Did he pack a hairdryer? Was he planning on a spot of extreme ironing?" The unfortunate truth is that I was a victim of timing. My last-minute phone calls and emails to the mountain refuges confirmed my fears. Some were fully booked, and I would need to carry a tent and a sleeping bag as there was no guarantee of a bed. My holiday was going to be more like a Royal Marines boot camp, except that I don't possess a firearm.
Things started promisingly. The rain died off and thanks to an indulgent breakfast, I was powered up the first climb to Col de Voza by four kinds of cheese. Our aim was to skirt round the southern tip of the massif via a high trail over the Col de Tricot (a variante to the standard TMB route), finishing at the Auberge du Truc. This we managed to do, arriving in beautiful late afternoon sunshine, but a painful left knee left me limping the last few kilometres like a peg-legged pirate. It was a recurrence of an old football injury, which has a habit of flaring up when I ask a few questions of the knee. (At the end of the day, I suppose it was my body's way of telling me I was never going to be a footballer, at the end of the day.) The fabulous setting and clement weather helped to take my mind off the problem, but I already knew my TMB was in jeopardy.
Leaving Truc the next morning, we had a long walk ahead of us. Our destination was Refuge des Mottets, the final accommodation before the Italian border, crossing no less than three passes en route. We built in two variantes; a climb to Tré la Tête at the beginning of the day and a crossing of the Col des Fours at the end. (The latter is the highest point on the TMB at 2,665m.) This was a day my knee will remember for years to come. That's just a figure of speech: my knee can't actually remember things.
Tré la Tête allowed us to bypass the descent to Les Contamines, and it proved to be a worthwhile detour. We were treated to fine weather, fine views and a photogenic cat.
It was followed by a steep but lovely descent through shady, spring-fresh pine forests. I had every opportunity to enjoy it because my progress was painfully slow, in every sense. Clouds were building as we climbed to the Col de Bonhomme, and a sudden storm at the top sent most other walkers scampering for the nearby refuge. It was by now late afternoon, but we had to carry on.
At the Col des Fours the sun reappeared, transforming the landscape from threatening to majestic in an instant. We lingered on the summit snowfield, enjoying the grand vista. But time waits for no man, and nor would the gardien at Refuge des Mottets. Jen took my heavy pack and bounded off ahead to make sure we got a bed and a meal at the refuge. I inched, winced and grimaced my way down cursing whoever was responsible for designing the human knee. It rained, it poured, dinner time came and went and I was still on the damned hill. As night fell, the refuge finally came into sight.
Inside, the dining room was full of well-fed trekkers. A girl was attempting to play the accordion, but every few bars she lost the tune and started playing random notes. It was a bit too avant-garde for the French guests, who drowned her out with sympathetic applause. Jen had ordered our food, but it took a long time to arrive. The staff ate their dinner, people started drifting off to bed and still we waited. Eventually, a family-size pot of stew landed on the table, and we attacked it like ravenous wolves. After four bowlfuls I was starting to feel pleasantly full. Then it was replaced by an equally large pot of boeuf bourgignon, accompanied by a platter of rice and vegetables. We had made a tactical blunder – it was a three course dinner and the stew was the starter!
The next day I soldiered on through the pain. I gritted my teeth, kept a stiff upper lip and did all the other things my British upbringing had taught me to do in adversity. But I knew deep down that my knee needed R&R, and the hardest day was still to come. I tried to think positive thoughts. “Don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high and reach the top.” Wise words, S Club 7, but you forgot about the bloody downhills. It was time for a plan B.
My mind was made up by the long-term weather forecast we picked up at the Casermetta information centre of the Italian side of the Col de la Seigne. Rain, rain and more rain. No thanks! I would walk as far as Courmayeur, then take a bus through the Mont Blanc Tunnel back to Chamonix and rest up for a couple of days. Continuing our descent down Val Veni, we stopped at the impressively-situated Rifugio Elisabetta and ate chocolate cake on the terrace. Moments later the sun withdrew, and that was the last time we saw it.
It was still raining in Courmayeur the next morning as I boarded the bus. Jen was bravely carrying on, climbing the Val Ferret to Rifugio Elena, then crossing the Grand Col Ferret into Switzerland on Day 5. Back in Chamonix, I set myself up in a hostel near the Brevent cable car station and planned some knee-friendly activities for the next two days. That afternoon I grockled in town, where gear shops outnumber cafés with free Wi-Fi by at least ten to one. In the time-honoured fashion of trekkers returning to civilization, I ate pizza and crêpes. That evening I went to the Chamonix Adventure Festival’s film night and marvelled at the likes of “Touch”, “Spice Girl” and others. On my second rest day, I swam in the local pool and tested the knee with a wet walk in the beautiful Gorge de la Diosaz.
Having declared myself fully fit, I decided it was time to get back on the trail. A short train ride and a two-hour hike brought me to the Col de Balme on the French-Swiss border where I had arranged to meet Jen. The pass was snowbound and there was no sign of her, so I retired to the nearby refuge for a hot chocolate and an omelette. Entertainment was provided by the gardienne, for whom the phrase “hell hath no fury...” might have been written. Woe betides any poor sod that breaks the house rules. It seems she has quite the reputation: the Chamonet website has this to say: “Known to locals as the "dragon lady refuge" due to the charming disposition of the proprietress, worth a visit just to see how much wrath you can incur.” It certainly was!
The usual descent from Col de Balme to Tre-le-Champ is direct and easy, so I decided to try the obvious variante over the Aiguillette des Posettes. Jen couldn’t be persuaded but let me off the leash to try it alone. Despite the wind and rain it was a lovely walk, glorified by a standoff with a brave marmot.
That night we slept at the rustic Auberge La Boerne, which somehow manages to be full of charm and a complete death trap. How we would have extricated ourselves from our cubby hole of a bedroom in the event of a fire, I don’t know.
The final stretch of the TMB involved a sustained climb (with a few ladders thrown in) to the Grand Balcon Sud, and then a high-level walk with stupendous views of rainclouds. Lac Blanc, picture-postcard perfect when Jen had run up here the previous week, was now framed by snow and rock and looked distinctly uninviting. On the Brevent, cable cars emerged from the mist, depositing another batch of disappointed tourists on the summit. That evening at Refuge de Bellachat, the clouds teasingly parted, but never quite lifted, as Mont Blanc stubbornly refused to reveal her full glory. So we were more than ready for the descent to Les Houches the next morning. We arrived at the train station only to find a replacement bus service was operating, which just about summed up our week.
The TMB may have disappointed us weather-wise but the mountains have a habit of drawing us back, whatever hand they may have dealt us in the past. So don’t be surprised if we’re back with another blog from Chamonix next year...