France

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Ten (Tré-la-Champ to Les Houches)

If the guide books are anything to go by then most hikers who are intending to walk the full route often do so in 11 days. Due to the availability of our schedule, we only had 10 days. Therefore we decided to combine the last two days together to make it a rather difficult ending to an already challenging walk.

Tré-la-Champ - Refuge La Flégère

Day 10! 

Day 10! 

To begin our mammoth day we left Tré-la-Champ at the crack of dawn before anybody in the refuge had woken up. This is a great time for walking. The early morning mist whispers through the trees, everything is dewy and the forest is silent. As we made our first ascent climbing over huge boulders we realized that this section's terrain was unlike any other section of the walk so far. Half way through the forest we startled an ibex which jumped out in front of us, breaking the silence. The route is varied but generally fairly steep and as you emerge from the tree line you see the gigantic rock climbing wall of Aiguillette d'Argentière with it's sheer monolithic walls.

Cloudy pinnacle.  

Cloudy pinnacle.  

This final day is also unique in the fact that it involved climbing up and over metal ladders that have been bolted into the rock face. As you near the top of the ascent to Tête aux Vents a series of ladders emerge which for the unsteady walker may seem a terrifying obstacle. Despite the engulfing drop into the abyss on your immediate left, the ladders are secure and not particularly tough unless you have vertigo!

Reaching the top you are faced with a variety of paths to take with a signpost that clearly states the way to take (and also which some numpty has decided to write his name on with a marker pen). Why is it that people feel the need to write their names with marker pens on signs and toilet doors etc? I can almost understand it in the city but what sort of hiker gets up in the morning and thinks 'waterproofs, check, lunch, check, mountain safety kit, check...marker pen, check?' It seems even the mountains are not free of brainless gits!

A diversion at Tête aux Vents to Lac Blanc on a sunny day is a great wander off of the main route. Lac Blanc is a high elevation lake that is crystal clear and surrounded by snowy peaks. Some friends of ours from Alaska showed us a picture they had taken a few days previously and it looked incredible. However, cloud surrounded us and we continued on to Refuge La Flégère and ski country.

The wife storming up the ladders! 

The wife storming up the ladders! 

Refuge La Flégère - Les Houches

We had every intention of completing the full route to Les Houches on our final day but then we didn't intend on getting lost half way along the route. On approaching the general area of the refuge the landscape changes dramatically. This is ski country. Bulldozers were digging up land, trucks were transporting materials and to make matters more confusing it was very cloudy. With the ski lifts closed and the punters gone it can only be described as a work zone and trucks are constantly changing the landscape (and knocking down signs).

The beer that never tasted so good

The beer that never tasted so good

After a few fruitless attempts to find the right route we descended on a path down to Chamonix before heading to Les Houches feeling only marginally defeated at not being able to complete the last few miles on the right track. Down in Les Houches, we met other hikers from the walk (who comfortingly for us) told us they had also gotten lost at the top so we didn't feel so bad.

Setting our tent up in the same field we began in Les Houches you get the 'full circle' feeling and lots of nostalgia for the endurance of the past ten days. Sitting at a table of a local bar with a pint of beautiful bubbling beer, my wife and I talked about the trail with other hikers who had been with us at various points during the trek. The trail changes you although I'm not entirely sure how.

Perhaps it's just the feeling of completing a 170km journey that has over 29.000ft of ascent but you get a huge sense of accomplishment and beer has never tasted so good.

The final campground! 

The final campground! 

Tour Du Mont Blanc - Day Three (Les Chapieux to Refugio Elisabetta)

Les Chapieux - Refuge des Mottets

FREE campsite at Les Chapieux! 

FREE campsite at Les Chapieux! 

There is a shop in Les Chapieux that sells local cheese and fresh bread and it is open from 7:30am. I would highly suggest stocking up there. We bought a fresh crottin of goat cheese, a sizable baguette, two croissants and two apples in readiness for the day for only €8. The route to Refuge des Mottets used to meander along the road but it now cuts along the hillside on the other side of the river, past plenty of cows all donning bells around their necks and hence making the whole experience feel very alpine. The cows were in the process of being moved from one side of the bridge to another and gruff farmers in wooly jumpers were to be seen shouting angrily at some of the more uncooperative bovine beasts in the bunch.

Cows on the move in the sun! 

Cows on the move in the sun! 

Refuge des Mottets - Col de la Seigne

Refuge des Mottets is great. It comes into view at the end of the long valley from Les Chapieux. It's a perfect spot for a brew before making the ascent up to the Col. Although a cup of England's finest is rather on the expensive side at €2.50 a pop, the refuge is well worth seeing due to its museum like display of old cheesemaking equipment decorating the walls. As you sip on your caffeine and look up you can see a Swiss flag flying in the wind and beyond it the vast hill that awaits you.

Looking back down the valley from Les Chapieux

Looking back down the valley from Les Chapieux

The Cicerone guidebook describes this section of the hike up to the Col as 'not arduous' but I highly doubt Mr. Cicerone was carrying camping gear up the hairpin paths. I also doubt that he had a near gale force wind blowing in his direction as he made his ascent. Signs advise the hiker that it takes two hours to get to the Col, which isn't far off depending on the size of your bag (and your calves). Helpfully for the hiker, the path does get less steep the further you ascend but to counteract this the wind gets stronger. Or it did when we went up. Reaching the top you'll find a stone edifice showing distances to far off cities and a small, crumbling wall to shelter behind whilst you eat fresh goat cheese and bread. Standing on the top, the view is incredible. On the edge of two countries, you can look ahead towards the wild Alps of Italy whilst looking over your shoulder at the French valley you have just climbed. That's providing you're not shielding your face from the wind and murmuring expletives.

Goat cheese and bread on the top. €3! 

Goat cheese and bread on the top. €3! 

Col de la Seigne - Refugio Elisabetta

After the 'not arduous' climb up to the Col, there is relief in the form of an abundance of downward paths into the valley beyond. If Refugio Elisabetta is your destination, ensure that you take the paths leading downhill and not the one to the right that continues uphill, even though it may look the more obvious route. The web of paths eventually mold into one and it descends all the way to the Refugio, which can't be visibly seen until it's right under your nose. It's a pretty impressive sight, the only building in view it commands your attention. Whilst wild camping is not permitted in Italy below 2500ft (and the whole area is), you can pitch a tent as long as you are not in view of the Refugio. I know you can because I asked. Eating in the Refugio costs €25 for what is a really good three course meal. Alternatively you can stay half-board for €45 per night. Under normal circumstances we would have camped but the weather was terrible and Refugio looked excellent! This seems to be one of the more popular Refugio's and it's not hard to see why. The Italians are good hosts!

9.7 miles

The route onwards to Italy from Col de Seigne

The route onwards to Italy from Col de Seigne

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Two (Les Contamines to Les Chapieux)

Les Contamines - Col du Bonhomme

The Cicerone guide book I have suggests that the gradient to begin this day is more difficult than Les Houches to Col de Voza but I am inclined to disagree. The route to Col du Bonhomme is long and fairly challenging (especially with a 15kg bag on your back) but the way is varied and feels more like a mountain path. Whilst still steep, there are steps up's, protruding rocks and Roman slabs to maneuver your feet around thus making the walk interesting and less demanding. The route from Les Houches on day one is simply a road on an incline. Not good for the feet.

The route to La Balme

The route to La Balme

La Balme

La Balme

As you rise up through the valley the eyes set view upon two refuges, the second of which is called Chalet la Balme which serves a nice cup of tea with a great view down from where you just walked. This is well worth a stop considering the next leg of the journey is considerably more challenging. Leaving Chalet la Balme behind and feeling refreshed from the tea, the track continues to rise more steeply to the top of Col du Bonhomme. The view from here is arguably the best of the day and a great stop for a picture. Our picture was taken by a lad we met at the top named Dustin who turned out to be just one of the friends we made during the ten day hike.

Col du Bonhomme - Col de la Croix

The route up Col du Bonhomme

The route up Col du Bonhomme

Admiring the view from every angle there are two paths to take from Col du Bonhomme, one to the right and one to the left. The left path is the one to take and it continues immediately uphill to the next Col - Col de la Croix. By the time the second Col is reached, you've gained 2500m of elevation and conquered the highest point in this section. The refuge just past the Col appears all of a sudden almost out of thin air, perched on the hillside of the valley you are about to descend providing you are taking the standard TMB route and not the variant route. We didn't make a stop but refreshments are available should you need them and apparently they are pretty good!

Col du Bonhomme! 

Col du Bonhomme! 

Col de la Croix - Les Chapieux

Col du la Croix

Col du la Croix

It's all downhill from here. Literally. Taking the path left of the refuge begins the long winding route to Les Chapieux. Les Chapieux cannot be seen from the top (and can only just about be seen from the bottom!) and there are no signs until you get much further down the mountain. Just as you think there can't be any civilization in the valley, the small hamlet can be seen from the stone bridge that crosses the river. The best thing about Les Chapieux is that the camping is FREE and it is situated in a large field behind the tourist information office, you literally can't miss it. If you do miss it you must be a halfwit. The Auberge de la Nova is large and many people stay and eat there. We met up with our Italian friend from the previous night's camping and made a new friend from Chicago. The best thing about hiking is that you meet so many different people.

Les Chapieux just peeping out! 

Les Chapieux just peeping out! 

Even though we were taking the opportunity to camp for free we still needed to eat. We had the set menu of a three course meal involving soup, beef cheeks, cheese and pannacotta all for €22 per person. We went to bed with full bellies. Can't say fairer than that.

11 miles.

Tour Du Mont Blanc - Day One (Les Houches to Les Contamines)

 Les Houches - Col de Voza

Setting off early is the key to any successful hike so we packed up the tent, threw on our packs and gallantly walked to the start of the trail. With only a small divergence into the bakery to buy €1 croissants and a tuna sandwich we set of for Col de Voza, our first milestone for the day and the highest point at 1653m. I consider myself to be a relatively fit thirty year old hiking enthusiast, a middle of the road kind of guy. With that in mind, the first section of the walk is not easy. It is an uphill climb, on a road, for two hours. It's pretty steep at the start, it's pretty steep in the middle and then steep at the end. Nevertheless, it certainly elevates quickly and there are grand views down to the valley where Les Houches is situated. A wonderfully positioned picnic table near the top of the Col is a perfect spot from where you can ravage a recently acquired tuna sandwich.

Tuna sandwich eating spot

Tuna sandwich eating spot

Col de Voza - Bionassay

As an Englishman with a terrible hold on any other language except my own I have no idea how to say Bionassay, so I either plump for Beyoncé or Beyond the Sea. However it is pronounced, one can't deny that it is a huge glacier that fills the view for most of this section, slowly luring you in with it's icy, glistening majesty.

As well as being a hiking route, the TMB interlinks frequently with a bike trail therefore you can expect to be dodging cyclists at various points along the route. We stopped to talk to a traveling band of of bike enthusiasts who were attempting to ride up a hill far too steep for comfort. I exchanged stories about our routes so far with a German man who had leg muscles the size of Munich. I described how our bags felt like they were filled with rocks and he laughed. With him stretching in his Lycra and I averting my attention from a potential view of a budgie smuggling, he boasted that he was cycling about three million miles a day. After a few minutes of comparisons regarding effort, I had been reduced from feeling like I was conquering Everest to acting like I was complaining about taking a short stroll from the kitchen to the lounge! Not to mention that this guy was in his late fifties and physically fitter than me, our interaction came to an end with his sarcastic comment of 'perhaps one day you'll be a man and get a bike!' I bid the leg-flexing German goodbye and only fleetingly hoped he fell off his bike into a pile of cow dung.

IMG_1653.JPG

Bionassay - Gruvaz (via Le Champel)

This section evens out under foot and passes through two tiny hamlets of Le Champel and La Villette of which the former has a Gîte that is open all year round if you so desire to retire for the night. Passing uniquely built houses with flowers on every corner you would have to do really well not to enjoy this stage of the walk. Nearly all villages along the TMB route and especially the ones in France are accompanied by a spring that continually splashes out fresh, cold water that can be taken advantage of by the thirsty hiker. We stopped here to replenish our bottles.

Gruvaz - Les Contamines

Home of the man who found Neptune! 

Home of the man who found Neptune! 

The last slog of day one is generally flat and pleasant with only the occasional hill to keep you in check. After passing through a dense wooded area with copious amount of red ants, the trail brings you to the small hamlet of Tresse which is where Alexis Bouvard was from. If you hadn't heard of him then don't worry neither had I but it turns out he was pretty famous around these parts from 1767-1843. He was the man who discovered Neptune which I found quite entertaining considering by this point the huge bag on my back was telling me that I'd in fact walked to the outer echelons of the solar system myself. Hauling our feet the last mile to Les Contamines which involves a mean uphill struggle right at the end, we were greeted by an aesthetically pleasing, quintessentially French, alpine town. Diving into the local supermarket for much needed sustenance we noticed yet again that this town has lots of amenities for the traveling walker. Whilst we munched on our food we looked up at some of the perfect, wooden hotels and contemplated our next move to find the campsite. The campsite (Camping Le Pontet) turned out to be a 40 minute walk from Les Contamines therefore taking our total to 12.5 miles for the day. At €14 for the night plus the option of a three course meal at the campsite for €15 each we decided that this was the place for us. Having dinner at this campsite I would highly recommend. You are sat round a table with people you don't know and eating enough to keep you full for a week. We sat with an American couple, 3 French blokes and a guy from Italy. Despite the language barrier from our side of the talking block we met some great people who all enjoyed walking, traveling and laughing at my terrible attempt at speaking French.

 

12.5 miles.

Les Contamines

Les Contamines

Tour Du Mont Blanc - Day Zero (Geneva - Les Houches)

Intro

To explain very briefly (and it doesn't take a genius to work it out) the Tour of Mont Blanc is a winding, circular hike around the 15,771ft massif that is the mountain of Mont Blanc. The snow covered, glacier-ridden peak is the highlight of a range that includes some of the most impressive mountains not only in the Alps, but in the world. Much in line with many other long distance hikes, the tour attracts huge numbers of people who aim to traipse the 110 mile (approximately) journey every year. Most walkers who attempt this feat generally stick to the summer months of July and August when the trail can be unbearably overpopulated. Also, the majority of people choose to stay in hotels or refuges for the entirety of their stay. Whilst a comfy bed can ease aching body parts at the end of long walking days it can also hike the price of the trip (no pun intended) to astronomical proportions - a great luxury if you have the funds but not really feasible if you don't. Based on the above, we decided that if we were going to actually enjoy the trail we would have to go in September and if we were going to afford the trip we would have to spend a considerable amount of nights in a tent. The official guide books for the trail are great but they don't go into great detail about camping options, so here is our experience.

The view from the Ouibus! 

The view from the Ouibus! 

Les Houches

The excited wife

The excited wife

Taking a 'Ouibus' from Geneva airport in Switzerland to Les Houches (very reasonably priced at €19 per person) was our choice of transport to the trail. The journey takes about an hour. Les Houches is a sensible starting point situated close to Mont Blanc, five miles south of Chamonix. Along with Chamonix it is probably the most popular spot to begin the anti-clockwise route. We camped for the night in Bellevue campsite on the south entrance to the village from the highway near the TMB trailhead. At €13.50 for two of us we snapped up a spot on the green grass, pitched our tent and went to explore Les Houches. More importantly we went to have our last beer for 11 days; a crazy, addled last minute decision of mine to build some will power! The main street is wonderfully neat and orderly, dotted with a mixture of bakeries, hotels, clothing stores, restaurants and the occasional cheese shop! If a good, cloudy beer and some cracking food is what you are looking for you should go to 'La Delice' where a very smiley English girl will make you feel welcomed. The town has everything you might require before starting a bloody long hike but beware, if you arrive on a Sunday as we did, nearly everything will be shut until late in the day.

 Preparing for the Off

Having slept in Athens airport in Greece the night before our flight to Geneva (different story) we were in need of some serious shut-eye and so made our way back to the campsite to prepare our bags ready for the start of the big walk that lay ahead of us. Guide books can tell you endless amounts of stuff but the best advice you can gain is from somebody who has just finished the trail as you are about to start. This opportunity arrived for us in the form of three guys from three different countries who meandered into the campsite and slumped down next to our tent having taken their last few steps of the hike. They told us in glorious detail about the conditions of the trails, the highlights, the details of refuges and campsites along the way, and how they felt at various points during the tour. Therefore, one conversation later we had gained a ski pole (they really do help going downhill) and found out that we could leave anything we don't require at the refuge in Les Houches for only €1 per day! I watched the three friends crack open a Heineken to celebrate their achievement and got into the tent with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Laying down on my makeshift pillow (which was in fact a crumpled shirt from my backpack) I thought to myself 'tomorrow I'm walking 12 miles with a bag the size of Jupiter and I'm not even having a beer again until I've done that very thing 11 more times.' And so the journey began...

Roquefort Papillion: Ravishingly Pleasing!

Roquefort is one of the world's most well-known and well-loved cheeses. Produced for centuries and matured in the Combalou Cave systems of Southern France it's historic story of discovery is one of chance and coincidence. Way back in time, when Jack was just a lad, it is said that a shepherd sat down to rest in a cave with a bag of rye bread and sheep's cheese. However, it was not food that he had on his mind but instead the pursuit of a stunning shepherdess! In his haste he set off to track her down (and presumably start a family of mini shepherds) but as his mind was all a flutter he forgot to take his food with him. Sources say that only when he realized he was as hungry as a hippo on a hamster's diet did he return to the cave to find that his cheese had all this weird green and blue mold on it. Famished, he demolished the lot at once and was pleasantly surprised to find it tasted bloody fantastic!

Pretty Papillon

Pretty Papillon

Roquefort has protected status of origin, it has been revered by kings and it has seen and survived many wars. In comparison with the Roquefort produced for centuries, Papillon is a toddler of a producer. First made in 1906 it is only just getting it's adult teeth. The are only 7 producers of Roquefort and Papillon is one of the largest.

It is pretty much the best sheep's milk blue cheese that there is. The milk comes from Lacaune Sheepand whatever it is that these ewe's eat, the milk they produce is so rich! The flavor is not for the faint-hearted. It's bold, it's intense, it's salty and it's powerful. In all honesty, it's a little strong for me but I can absolutely appreciate what an incredible cheese it really is! When the outer silver foil is pulled back the inside is like a picture of modern art; a bright white paste, interjected with blue and green mold. As a bonus, this particular one is organic!

If you want a piece of history eat it with rye bread.
If you want it warmed up put it on a burger.
If you wanna get sloshed, eat it with a stout!

Cheese-o-meter rating: 8/10