Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc: Part 3

Our first day in Switzerland was also meant to be the easiest day of the TMB. Most of it was sidling or downhill. Although everyone’s knees might have been a bit happier if there was a bit less downhill. We stocked up on food in La Fouly then kept heading down the valley. Along the way we passed the same kiwi couple that I had met while walking backwards a few days earlier. When we passed them for the second time a while later the guy asked “is that Brittany?” It turned out to be Dan who had gone to the same hall of residence as me. With our sunglasses and hats on, neither of us had recognised the other, although I had been thinking that his voice sounded eerily familiar. Dan had also been cycle touring so it was great to catch up and compare notes.

We came out of the bush and passed through a cute little Swiss village that appeared to be deserted except for several old men, each sitting by themselves in their front yards. My personal highlight was the property with an extraordinary number of garden gnomes.

Two of the many gnomes

After a steep climb we made it to Champex for the night and woke up the next morning to find ourselves back in a Tour du Ruan-type scenario. There was an alternative route that we could take which would be more interesting, however it was a much higher route and the weather forecast wasn’t looking so flash. In addition, Tiffany’s knee had been playing up a bit on the downhill. The high route really did seem much cooler though. We decided to go for it.

The climb up was pretty, zigzagging up through a rocky and grass covered valley. Just before the final climb there is a bit of a boulder field to negotiate. This was about at the snowline and the boulders were a little bit icy. and covered in snow in some places. It wasn’t too difficult but it was starting to feel a bit colder. Up ahead we could see several people standing on top of the pass.

Andy on the way up the valley

Right as we were making our way up the final climb to the pass the clouds rolled in and it started to snow. We had arrived 20 minutes too late. By the time we reached the pass we couldn’t see a thing and it was a bit miserable and cold. We waited in vain for the weather to clear again but after five or ten minutes we really had to keep moving to stay warm.

Happily, after the initial unpleasantness of snow driving in our faces as we started the descent we began to get below the clouds and out of the worst of the wind. Slowly the glacier on the opposite side of the valley started to appear through the clouds.  It was a scenic but long walk down. Especially for Tiffany, her knees were really giving her grief and she had to take it pretty slowly. When we finally reached Trient she wasn’t happy to discover we were booked in the Auberge all the way on the far of the village.

Descending from the pass

Another day, another pass, classic TMB. The next day’s one had a refuge on top so we devised a cunning plan to buy hot water and cook our dehy meals for lunch. We had been carrying them the whole time so we were pretty keen to eat them. We arrived at the refuge, straddling the border between Switzerland and France, and went inside to suss out the situation.

At first glance it didn’t look good. One of the other hikers told us that they had waited half an hour just to get drinks. Hank had tried to ask about hot water but the woman didn’t speak English so we sent Tiffany up. Not only did the woman reject our request (to be fair, she said they didn’t have enough water), she also rudely corrected Tiffany’s French when she asked about getting to the town down in the valley and mistakenly said ‘La Tour’ instead of ‘Le Tour’. Tiffany is a native French speaker and that seems like an easy mistake to make but the woman made a point of correcting her twice in one conversation. We decided to move on.

The weather was miserable once again but we pushed on down towards LE Tour, stopping at a cafe halfway down. This area is a ski field in winter so Tiffany was able to take the chairlift down to save her knee. It was nice being able to have some hot food after the miserable temperatures outside, and the staff were much nicer and less stressed out. We did hear that because the other refuge is on the border it has been burnt down several times by either the Swiss or the French whenever one side gets angry with the other. So maybe there’s a reason why the staff there are so unfriendly.

Walking down the ski field under the chairlifts

That night we were staying in a proper hotel because once again we hadn’t been able to find a refuge with beds available. Hotel Le Dahu was surprisingly nice for a two star hotel and certainly luxurious compared to shared dorms in refuges. We took extravagantly long showers then spent the evening playing cards in a local pub.

The next morning we ended up saying goodbye to Tiffany a day earlier than planned, it didn’t seem worth pushing her knees any further but it was a shame she couldn’t continue. One big advantage of most hikes in Europe is that there are lots of public transport connections along the way which makes it easy to finish early if necessary (although this can also be seen as a big disadvantage, you’re never really properly in the wilderness). We did have a delicious farewell breakfast in the local bakery, although Tiffany was unimpressed with some of our choices. Apparently croque monsieurs (ham and cheese toasties) are not a suitable French breakfast food.

Tiffany’s exit interview

Once again the weather was a bit marginal so we hummed and hawed over whether to take the longer route to view Lac Blanc (white lake). In the end we decided against it, figuring that if the weather suddenly improved for the afternoon we could head up for a look from the refuge without our packs. This was totally the right decision. We arrived within sight of Refuge de la Flégère and when we were about 50m away it suddenly started pouring down. We were completely soaked in the 20 seconds it took to sprint to the refuge and get in the door. We would not have fared well if we’d been caught mid-track. Honestly I’m not sure we could have actually gotten any wetter as it was but at least this way we were able to put on dry clothes and warm up straight away. With no inclination to leave the sanctuary of the refuge again we spent the afternoon playing cards. We had discovered a new game, 99, which was keeping us entertained in addition to several rounds of Hearts.

The weather cleared for our last day and we made full use of it by shooting video interviews, drone shots and even shooting advertising photos of Noka Smoothies for their social media pages. This is how I imagine people in LA spend their weekends. (Parker had got some free smoothies from a friend in return for taking a few photos.) So if you follow their Instagram there is a small chance that one of Andy’s or my hands might be in one of the shots.

Noka shooting location

The views were really great, we could see Mont Blanc most of the day. The only time we couldn’t see it was when we were trying to take photos of it and the clouds would roll in. We tried once again to buy hot water to cook our dehy meals but the restaurant we asked at was going to charge us at the rate of tea (something like €3/cup and we needed 1.5 litres) and they still wouldn’t let us eat them on the premises. In the end we just bought lunch.

Rest stop on the way down

 

The return to Les Houches was very long and it was about 6:30pm by the time we finally made it back to the Hotel du Bois. Andy had literally been looking forward to this hotel stay for the entire TMB. We had seen the pool and the sauna and the lobby before the trip and it was a step up from the places we normally stay. Unfortunately because it was so late and we were so tired all we managed was to go a block down the road for an Indian meal, say goodbye and then head to bed. Hank and Parker had to leave and some ungodly hour the next morning to catch their flight back to the States. The hotel was pretty awesome though, and we definitely made use of the pool and sauna before checkout the next morning.

Mont Blanc in all its glory

Overall the Tour du Mont Blanc (round two, minus Italy in my case) was really enjoyable, as always mainly because of the group of people we were with. The walk does have some really stunning scenery but it is very popular now and the refuges can get very busy. To be honest, I think I would probably recommend doing some other walks in the French or Swiss Alps over the TMB just because of the number of people.

If you do decide to do it, definitely book your refuges well in advance unless you’re very flexible with dates. We thought we were avoiding the high season in early September but many of the refuges were full and the stress of trying to sort it all out was definitely not worth it.

Comments

  1. Noice! A few spots look pretty familiar. It is a pretty relentless up and down slog, sucks it was so busy. Looks like you have reasonable weather for the most part though!

  2. Yeah we were generally pretty lucky with the weather. Relentless is definitely a good way to describe the constant up and down!

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