A Travellerspoint blog

August 2014

Le Crock Monsieur: trekking round Mont Blanc on one leg

rain

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

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Posted by Chris Parsons 11:40 Archived in France Tagged mountains rain france trekking chamonix alps passes tmb Comments (0)

The F1 experience: a weekend at the Hungarian Grand Prix

storm 29 °C
View Budapest 2014 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

I've been following Formula 1 since the heyday of Senna and Prost in the late 1980s. I've grown up with sounds of the sport: screaming engines, Fleetwood Mac's The Chain and the hyper-enthusiastic commentary of Murray Walker. I've cheered to "Our Nige" winning in '92, cried at the horror of Senna's death, endured the never-ending era of Schumacher-Ferrari dominance and cheered once again as first Lewis Hamilton and then Jenson Button scored back-to-back championships for British drivers. But I'd never been to a race - until this year!

The Hungarian Grand Prix is a somewhat unlikely event for this most glamorous of sports. The inaugural race at the Hungaroring in 1986 was the first to be held behind the Iron Curtain, and the place hasn't changed much since then. It's a tight and twisty circuit with a reputation for processional races because of the lack of overtaking opportunities. It's also the slowest track on the calendar after Monaco. Despite this, there have been a few classic races, including Mansell's charge through the field in 1989 and Button's maiden victory in the wet in 2006, and it remains popular with the drivers.

My home grand prix in Britain was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014. But a weekend ticket to Silverstone in a decent seat would have cost me a minor fortune, and Hungary was half the price. Then there's the location: the Hungaroring is only 20km north west of Budapest, meaning I could combine my F1 experience with a weekend break in a city I know and love. It was an easy decision.

I based myself at a hotel close on the Buda side of the Danube, where the main attraction was an open-air 50m pool. It was handy for the Castle District and trams to the sights in Pest. Budapest deserves more than a brief aside in a motor racing article, so I'll return to it in a future blog post.

Lengths in the pool and laps of the track: the story of my F1 weekend

Lengths in the pool and laps of the track: the story of my F1 weekend

My first stop was Bikebase (near Nyugati Station) for a hire bike to get to and from the track. Why cycle? Well, the Hungaroring is not the easiest place to get to by public transport and I didn't fancy the idea of standing in a long queue for a shuttle bus. With pre-loaded maps on my iPhone I managed to navigate my way out of the city, following the busy Kerespeci Road. It wasn't the most scenic of routes but it got me to the circuit in an hour and a half, where the stewards let me lock the bike to a fence just inside the gate.

The hybrid bike was heavy and unable to carry luggage, but reliable and coped with the variable quality of Hungarian road surfaces. On the return to Budapest I discovered a more scenic route by following a cycle trail on my map (I used the Gaia GPS app for IOS with preloaded maps from OpenHikingMap). This included a short but unavoidable off-road section across farmland near the village of Csömör, followed by a pleasant ride through the leafy suburbs and the City Park.

Just how many times can a road be repaired?

Just how many times can a road be repaired?

The Hungaroring lies in a wide, shallow bowl ringed by low hills. The main straight is at a slightly higher elevation than the infield section, giving spectators in the big grandstands views across to the far side of the circuit. My seat in the Red Bull stand was opposite Turn 13 and the pit lane entry. After settling in for Saturday morning's final practice session, I used the opportunity to observe the drivers in action and for some practice of my own, learning how to focus my camera on a 200mph machine – which takes some doing!

A panoramic view of the Hungaroring from my seat

A panoramic view of the Hungaroring from my seat

Prospects for an exciting race were enhanced by some unexpected events in Saturday afternoon’s qualifying session. Lewis Hamilton, who had topped the standings in each of the practice sessions, retired with a spectacular engine failure without setting a time. With Maldonado’s Lotus also exiting the session early, the rest of the teams gambled that the remaining four to be knocked out in Q1 would be the Marussias and Caterhams. The gamble backfired for Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, as Jules Bianchi pipped him to the final place with a late flying lap.

Lewis Hamilton suffered a dramatic engine failure in Q1

Lewis Hamilton suffered a dramatic engine failure in Q1

At the start of Q3 a short rain shower nearly claimed pole position favourite Nico Rosberg, who just managed to avoid the tyre wall after running wide at Turn 1. Kevin Magnussen, next on track in the McLaren, was not so lucky, and crashed. He would join Hamilton in starting the race from the pit lane. With 3 fast cars at the back of the field, we were guaranteed some action! Rosberg’s Mercedes claimed an easy pole position, ahead of current world champion Sebastian Vettel and the two rising stars of Formula 1, Valteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo.

On race day, a heavy thunderstorm at noon turned the track into a skidpan and meant a hurried change to wet weather tyres for all the teams. From a spectator’s point of view, the timing couldn’t have been better, for these "wet to dry" races often turn out to be thrillers. After taking refuge in a barbecue and beer marquee, I headed back to my seat. Formula 1 has always attracted the rich and famous, and Hungary was no different, with Santa Claus, two Smurfs and a Viking all taking their seats in the stand. This race also attracts lots of Germans and Austrians, showing plenty of support for Michael Schumacher, and legions of Finnish fans (hence the appearance of Santa).

Storm clouds over the starting grid

Storm clouds over the starting grid


An off-duty Santa

An off-duty Santa


Support in the stands for the F1 legend Michael Schumacher

Support in the stands for the F1 legend Michael Schumacher

The crowd rose to their feet as the red lights lit up on the gantry, and at lights out the race was underway. We were able to follow the action on a giant screen on the opposite side of the track, with accompanying commentary in English, German and Hungarian (not all at the same time, I should clarify). And there was no shortage of action!

On the first lap Hamilton span and kissed the barrier, but was able to continue. A few laps later a more spectacular crash for Marcus Ericsson left debris from his mangled Caterham strewn across the track, and the safety car was deployed. Some cars took the opportunity to dive into pits for slick tyres, but the front runners missed their chance. This shook up the running order leaving Ricciardo and Button to duel for the lead. Unfortunately McLaren had already sabotaged Button’s race by putting him on another set of wet weather tyres, thinking more rain was coming. It didn’t, and Button was back in the pits a few minutes later.

Fernando Alonso in action during the early, wet phase of the race

Fernando Alonso in action during the early, wet phase of the race


The view from the grandstand

The view from the grandstand

Lap 23, and just as things were settling down Sergio Perez ran fractionally wide out of Turn 13 and put a tyre on the grass, sending him careering across the track into the pit wall. Perez walked away unharmed, the safety car was back out and the field bunched together again. Ricciardo sacrificed his lead to Fernando Alonso and pitted for fresh rubber, a decision that was to prove crucial to the outcome of the race. Another driver who profited from the safety cars was Jean-Eric Vergne, running in second behind Alonso. Behind him, a queue of faster cars was starting to build, led by Rosberg, Vettel and – incredibly – Lewis Hamilton, who had brought himself right back into contention after a surge through the field. Rosberg should have been able to pick off Vergne quickly, but the Toro Rosso held its position for lap after lap. Meanwhile Hamilton was harrying Vettel, and eventually the German made a mistake, spinning after running wide out of Turn 13. He was very lucky not to end up in the wall like Perez.

After the second round of pit stops, there were four cars in with a chance of victory, but they were running different strategies. Alonso and Hamilton were trying to get to the end of the race on two stops by eking out the maximum life from their tyres. Ricciardo and Rosberg were going to pit a third time, but could lap at a quicker pace because of the shorter stints. The stage was set for a nail-biting conclusion as first Hamilton caught Alonso, then Ricciardo caught them both. The Red Bull fought past to take the lead right at the death, and the chequered flag. It was Ricciardo’s second victory of the season. Alonso clung on for second after a remarkable 31-lap stint on the soft tyres, and Hamilton blocked an attempted pass on the last lap from the charging Rosberg to snatch third, which could be crucial for his world championship prospects.

Ricciardo chasing down Alonso and Hamilton in the closing stages...

Ricciardo chasing down Alonso and Hamilton in the closing stages...


...and enjoying the taste of victory!

...and enjoying the taste of victory!

Hamilton was strangely subdued on the podium, and I couldn’t understand why after a stunning recovery drive. It was only later that I read about the controversial radio messages, which explained his reaction. Mercedes had asked him to move aside to let Rosberg through. It was a poor call, as even they admitted afterwards, and Hamilton was entitled to ignore it.

The podium ceremony (from a distance!)

The podium ceremony (from a distance!)

Formula 1 is doing a lot of soul-searching in 2014, after criticism from several leading figures in the sport. The new formula, with quieter V6 turbo engines and hybrid technology, has inevitably resulted in winners and losers up and down the paddock, and it’s no surprise that the strongest critics are from those teams who are struggling. Some fans lament the end of the ear-splitting V8 era and the perception that the sport is more about tyre and fuel management than out-and-out racing. Add to this the unpredictable stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone, whose latest bright ideas include the controversial staging of a Russian Grand Prix and the gimmick of double points at the final race of the season, and there are surely grounds to complain. The best answer to this is for Formula 1 to do its talking on the track, and those of us at the Hungaroring on 27 July 2014 certainly could not complain!

F1 fans on track after the race

F1 fans on track after the race

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:57 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest f1 Comments (0)

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