Saturday, September 19, 2015

TMB - extended cut... day by day details

Here's the real detail behind each day along the Tour du Mont Blanc as I've chosen to remember it. Some is recall, some is based on notes I jotted down each night. The photos that accompany the journey are here and should be in fairly good chronological order.

At the start we joked that the journey was just to walk around this can of Mont Blanc (like French pudding). But in reality we went through 3 countries, in 10 days, walked for 53 hours, covering something more than 170km, all with a total height gain and loss of 10,000m.

Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines
Accommodation: La ferme du Bon Papa
Distance: 16km

After a nice drive through the mountains to get to Les Houches from Cannes the day before and scouting out where the trail actually began in the town we were ready to head off on day 1. The trail starts at the bottom of a ski slope and little did we know we were going to essentially go up the ski slope and down the other side. One of the few restaurants still open in Les Houches (since we were on the tail end of the Summer season) was a British Cafe called Kitsch Inn next to a long term parking lot and right at the start of the trail. We ate dinner and then breakfast there before heading off. They were nice enough to let us leave the car in one of the spots right in front of the restaurant for the ten days.

As we started off on the hike and headed up the hill the sun was out and it was a great start. By the end of the uphill and then back down the other side my legs were definitely tired. Henrique started to feel it in his knees after just one day. Not a great start! We didn't see too many other hikers on this day. More mountain bikers than anything else. However, this would change as we moved on and caught folks and stayed in refuges.

Les Contamines is a small town with a few spots but since we were late in the summer season not much was open. The accommodation for the night was great though - a small three room bed and breakfast in an old farm house called La Ferme du Bon Papa. The owners were incredibly nice and provided a fantastic breakfast in the morning!

For dinner was our amazing fondue that we won’t soon forget the enjoyment of at la Table d'Hotes Savoie!

Day 2: Les Contamines to Refuge Bonhomme
Accommodation: Refuge Croix du Bonhomme
Distance: 14km

The weather was looking iffy and calling for rain as we picked up sandwiches at the bakery on our way out of town and set off. We were prepped with our rain gear at the top of our bags and ready to use it. Most of the morning was just foggy but as we reached higher elevations the precipitation started and it was more like sleet and snow than rain. This was somewhat better because it wasn’t then too wet but it was quite cold and the path wasn’t too easy to follow as we were walking along rocks much of the time.

As we got up and over the pass the cold was setting in. There was a hut that I’d read about at the top of the pass which turned out to be perfect for getting out of the cold snow and having a little snack.  Luckily we’d planned to stay at Refuge Bonhomme which was only about 45 minutes further. This was the most ‘rustic’ of the refuges though with solar power and wood burning stove. Upon our arrival we had hot beverages and stood around the stove for a good period of time to warm up. We were offered that we could take a shower but since there was no sun during the day it would be cold. Umm, no thanks! I’ll go for a cleaning with baby wipes today.

We settled in with wine and a game of scrabble before having quite a big dinner. I was very much impressed - soup, beef stew, local pasta with cheese, cheese plate, and chocolate cake. All quite tasty.


Day 3: Refuge Bonhomme to Refugio Elisabetta (France to Italy)
Accommodation: Refugio Elisabetta
Distance: 19km

The skies were clear as we woke up and got organized to head off. We had a fair bit of elevation to go down as we started off the day and then head up and over another pass into Italy. There was snow and ice on the ground so it was a bit of slow going at the start for fear of completely wiping out but the views were beautiful. This turned out to be one of me favorite days of walking - and our first purchase of cheese directly from the farmer after passing the cows. A perfect stopping point and snack for the day with plenty to keep enjoying the cheese for a few more days.

After coming down about 1500m in elevation we had to go back up and over a pass to cross into Italy. It was a long trek up but continued to have fabulous views. At the top of the pass it was quite nice but freezing so we didn’t spend much time - just a few pictures and headed on wards to the refugio for the night.

Elizabetta was quite fancy compared to Bonhomme - there was wifi, power outlets, and apparently hot showers. I sadly didn’t have a hot shower so I didn’t really get much more than a face wash and would later realize that it was indeed supposed to be hot and the machine was just not working. At that point I had finally gotten warm and didn’t want to deal with getting wet so just began looking forward to a shower the next day.

Dinner was quite filling again - started with a massive bowl of risotto and then a meat dish that I think was pork but not 100% sure and then dessert.

Day 4: Refuge Elisabetta to Courmayeur
Accommodation: Hotel Crampon
Distance: 18km

Having been in a dorm room with four other people we were up early and after a basic breakfast of bread and jam we were off for the day. There was one route we were considering taking but I think we missed the turn off for it so ended up just along the standard trail - it was quite beautiful though as we essentially stared at glaciers, waterfalls, and hills the entire time.

Around lunch time we made it into a ski resort at the top of one of the lifts where there was a restaurant - a perfect stop in the sun for something to eat. The way we ended up heading down though was not ideal - we essentially were zigzagging in the woods for over an hour heading down the side of the ski slope. Not the nicest feeling on your knees! Henrique did not enjoy this afternoon at all!

Once we finally made it to the bottom we were in the rather large town of Courmayeur which is a very popular and looked like pretty expensive Italian ski town. There were quite a number of hotels, shops, restaurants. Best part of this day was that we were staying in a hotel meaning a hot shower and I didn’t even have to worry about how long I was in there. It felt so good!! After showering and a little rest we wandered the town, found some local thin hazelnut cookies that were delish and stopped for some wine in the sun. We’d later return to the same spot for dinner as we’d eyed their food which looked simple and what we were in the mood for.

Day 5: Courmayeur to Refugio Bonatti
Accommodation: Refugio Bonatti
Distance: 12km

In addition to a lovely shower and a much needed good night’s sleep the hotel had a great breakfast. I think I ate at least two sliced peaches as I was so excited for fresh fruit! The had a great spread of breads, homemade jams and cakes, cheese, ham, and the even cooked us some eggs. Great start to the morning!

We picked up some ham and bread in town to go with the remaining cheese from a few days before and headed off. The start was pretty much all up hill and then some up and down as we made our way to Bonatti. This is one of the newest refuges and was quite fancy. You could tell that it was all relatvely new and very nicely maintained. We noticed their helicopter landing area next to the building and would later learn that yes indeed all of their supplies are brought in via helicopter.

The showers had hot water but the coins only gave a brief amount - luckily I was trying to be as quick as possible and wash some clothes at the same time. This is the refuge where we ended up in a big room with all the beds lined up. I would have a surprisingly good night’s sleep - perhaps just thanks to the ear plugs!

We had our usual wine and relaxation hour before dinner. We sat outside and soaked in the views. It was absolutely beautiful in all directions.

Dinner was pretty good but we had an Italian guy at our table who took more than his portion off the serving plates for both the cheese and main dish of meatballs. He became my nemesis for a few days as we continued to see him and each time I thought about him taking too much food. Luckily they did later come around offering additional food so we weren’t going hungry!  

Day 6: Refugio Bonatti to La Fouly (Italy to Switzerland)
Accommodation: Auberge de les Glaciers
Distance: 20km

Today we headed into Switzerland. The sunlight against the mountains in front of Bonatti was beautiful and made for great pictures during breakfast. The first part of the day’s walk was just some up and down but we soon saw the height we’d need to gain to get up and over the pass into Switzerland. As we were at the bottom of it the people looked so tiny as they made their way along the hill side.

I think this uphill was one of the hardest it felt like it was incredibly long but at least there were nice views along the way. At the top of the pass the views continued to be great as you looked on way back into Italy and the other into the valley’s of Switzerland. We set off downwards and hoped to find a bit more cheese from a farmer as we saw lots of cows and sheep along the way. After stopping at a refuge for a snack we realized we missed them likely selling cheese but luckily once we got down to the bottom of the valley we found more. We were now re-stocked for cheese snacking and continued along the valley to the town of La Fouly.

Our accommodation for the evening was the most expensive of the whole trip. I’d booked a double room here with a shower which was nice to have but at $100/person for the night with dinner and breakfast it was quite expensive. However, to be in a dorm room was still about $70. We enjoyed some wine and other local cheeses as we rested and admired the mountains and glaciers in front of the hotel. We stuck to a glass of wine here because bottles were way more expensive than needed to be.

Dinner was nice. We eyed the couple next to us with the vegitarian plates and decided that from now on we’d likely get one veggie option to help increase our odds of actually having some veggies to eat!

Day 7: La Fouly to Champex
Accommodation: Pension en Plein Air
Distance: 15km

Quite a good breakfast offered - one of the few that actually had ham and cheese and nice fresh bread. Despite the sign causing us some stress about taking bread we snagged four slices along to make a snack with the cheese purchased the day before.

We were anticipating quite an easy day ahead which was the case until about the last hour or hour and a half. I hadn’t read the book’s description clearly enough to take note that it even says after two or so hours of easy terrain along hill sides and through cute tiny little villages the train heads upwards for the final hour. I was definitely not mentally prepared for this so even though it wasn’t any harder than any of the uphills we’d done previously it felt endless and I was not having it! Not to mention I was starving by the end and felt like I was just shuffling my feet along the path. We finally arrived at the edge of the town of Champex and stopped for some much needed cheese and bread snacks.

Champex sits on a very nice lake surrounded by mountains. We were finished so early in the day that the place we were staying for the night wasn’t open until three to check in so we went to a cafe next door and killed about two hours. Once we were finally able to get in, drop our bags, and shower we decided to enjoy a wander around the lake trying to enjoy any and all sun before it dropped behind the mountains. Picked up a bit more cheese and half bottle of wine from the local market and enjoyed the evening.

I’d opted for the veggie meal at dinner and it was a good choice. While there weren’t really veggies it was quite tasty - cheese tortellini in a cheese and butter sauce. Sat with a small group of three and their guide. They were all incredibly nice and the guide was great. One woman in the group was 71 years old and when we saw her out on the trail the next day they were moving!

This was the first spot where we noticed people and their full on luggage. I’d read about options where you can have taxis transport all of your luggage day to day so you only carry a day pack. We’d seen mules carrying people’s stuff but this was the first we’d seen people with such large amounts of luggage.

Day 8: Champex to Trient
Accommodation: Hotel Grande Ourse
Distance: 18km

Had a great night’s sleep and a few more breakfast options than usual made a good start to the day despite a little rain. The rain coat was on but didn’t last for too long. Despite missing a turn off to remain on the actual TMB path and walking on the road for a while we cut through someone’s yard to catch the correct path just in time to start heading up hill to the Bovine pass. In talking with the guide the night before we were hoping for some cheese from the farmer at the top. We saw lots of cows - right in the path and not at all disturbed by all of the hikers - but sadly the little cafe was closed. We’d have to wait until we got to the next pass to pick up our cheese for the day. 

We did indeed find a woman selling cheese, yogurt, eggs, and honey. All looked delish. We got two different types of hard cheese and then a soft ricotta type cheese. All were very good and we’d snagged some honey from one of the breakfasts so that was great with the ricotta!

From the pass at Forclaz we headed down into the town of Trient. Again we were super early before the spot for the evening appeared to be open so we found the nice owner from the place the night before dropping off the massive suitcases of other folks and he showed us where we could drop our bags before checking in. After about 5 minutes wandering the town we’d seen it all and there weren’t any restaurants other than in the two hotel/dorms where we were staying.

The Hotel Grande Ourse was quite nice. It’s an old building that was recently renovated so all of the facilities, rooms, etc we great. We lucked out in a dorm room for six people with just four for the night. Dinner was tasty with soup, a rice and curry dish, and ice cream with fruit for dessert. Everyone at the table was quite excited for the fruit because it continued to be hard to come by at meals.

Day 9: Trient to Le Flegere (Switzerland to France)
Accommodation: Refuge La Flegere
Distance: 25km

After watching the weather forecast for the last few days and rain looking like it was coming our way in the next day or so we decided that we’d take advantage of the sun and go all the way to La Flegere today. This was essentially going two days worth in one but we knew that neither of them was particularly long. After calling Flegere to confirm that they had availability for this evening rather than the following one we committed to the plan.

As we went up and over Col du Balme to re-enter France it was a long hike up but just below the top and little restaurant we suddenly got views of the mountains again. These are views we’d have for the rest of the day and the entire following day making this some of my favorite parts of the 10 days. The snow against the green and brown landscape was was beautiful. As always long the trek we didn’t quite know what was Mont Blanc vs other mountains but great none the less.

From the first pass we took a path up and over another high point before heading down into the town of Tre le Champ where we were intending to stay. We stopped for lunch at a super cute little refuge, fueled up, and headed onto the second part of the day. After lunch we headed right up hill and made it to a section of ladders that I’d read about in the book. There were actually a lot more of them than I anticipated! On our way to them we passed a section of rock with tons of rock climbers on it and even saw some mountain goats! One was right next to a climber just basically staring at him.

On wards and upwards we went until we reached the White Lake which was a variant route we decided to take. It was more uphill and more ladders and we were so tired by the time we got to it we didn’t even really stop to look around. Apparently we missed the actual large lake and only saw the small one which was in front. Oh well. We were getting very tired and the clouds were starting to roll in and we knew we had about an hour or more to go down to the refuge. 

We finally made it down to the refuge after what turned out to be about 8 hours of walking. Just in time to shower, check out the massive dorm we were in (luckily it wasn’t full), rest a moment, and get dinner. Dinner here was fantastic. Perfect for after the long day we’d had, but also local cuisine that I hadn’t had before. Tartiflette which is potatoes, cheese, bacon, onions, and likely cream all heated in a ramekin. It was very tasty and hearty. This was preceded by a simple pasta dish and then followed by a lovely cheese plate and dessert where there was a choice of three. For the last meal on the trail this was a good one!  

Day 10: Le Flegere to Les Houches
Accommodation: Hotel du Bois
Distance: 17km

The forecast was rain all morning and then hopefully clearing in the afternoon. From Flegere we had a few options to end up back in Les Houches. One was walk all the way and then there were two cable car options down to Chamonix depending on how far we might want to walk. I was just planning to take on the day based on the weather.

When we started out it was totally foggy but no actual rain so we figured we’d head to Brevent which was the second cable car option and supposed to be on a clear day one of the best views of Mont Blanc and one of the highest points we’d reach on our way around. As we made our way there the fog started the lift and the skies cleared a bit. The views weren’t totally clear but certainly better than when we began the day and most importantly better than wet and rainy. After more ladders and some scrambling on rocks we made it to Brevent.

From Brevent to Les Houches it was all down hill for two to three hours. Henrique decided this wasn’t the best idea for him so he hopped on the cable car to Chamonix and we agreed to meet in Les Houches. Since it wasn’t raining and the views were stellar as the clouds continued to lift I wanted to keep going.

I headed down and stopped at an incredibly cute refuge called Bel Lachat where we’d been planning to stay if we didn’t speed up the trip. It’s a small little place built into the hill side run by a very cute and nice old woman. There’s a great deck out front staring at the mountains. I popped in to tell her we wouldn’t be staying the night and she nicely told me I was welcome to have a rest for a few minutes before continuing down.

From Bel Lachat it was to be about two more hours down for about 1300 meters. The views continued to be great, just staring right at the mountains and glaciers. I would judge my progress against on of the glaciers feeling like I was making it somewhere when I finally felt like it was further to my left. The last hour or so was in the woods with some occasional views of the mountains. By this time I was ready to be at the bottom and was trying to move as fast as possible.

I eventually made it into the town and of course though I knew which direction the hotel was because we’d passed it when we started but  luckily I didn’t go too far before deciding to check my phone and realize I turned right instead of left. After finding the hotel and Henrique enjoying the views from the room and a nice comfy bed I had a long shower and quick rest. The hotel was great - pool and sauna felt amazing post hike - and the people there were fantastic. We’d changed the reservation twice because of the adjustments to our timeline and they were very easy about it.

The weather was still holding so we decided that we’d drive over to Chamonix and check out the town. We’d heard it was cute and worth a look. So we headed over and wandered a bit and found a place for a celebratory bottle of wine and view of the mountains. For dinner we had talked days before about heading back to the same spot where we’d started - especially since they let us leave the car there and had been so nice previously - so back to Kitsch Inn for burgers and fries!

After a nice evening rest we made our way back to Cannes via Beaufort and the Co-Op (to learn more and pick up some cheese of course) and then to the Chartreuse distillery to learn and taste about this mysterious naturally green liqueur made by monks for centuries. In Beaufort I saw my first ever cheese vending machine. These need to be everywhere!

And with that the Tour du Mont Blanc journey was now complete. Time for the next bit of fun to begin!

TMB - 3 countries, 10 days, 53 hours, 170km, 10,000m

After a few day of rest, relaxation, and shear laziness I’m finally getting myself organized for a Mont Blanc Post - also I’m on a five hour train ride so I figured I might as well do something other than stare out the window as the French landscape passes by.

The short and sweet of it is that the Tour du Mont Blanc was fantastic. 3 countries, 10 days, 53 hours, 170km, 10,000m - complete!

The scenery was stunning, the walking was strenuous at times but totally manageable, and the weather cooperated. For yet another trek I carried my rain pants and never needed them. All in all it made for a great 10 days. 

The Caprinae and the Canard, the goat and the duck as we began to call ourselves, made it from start to finish with smiles at the beginning and end of every day and very few threats of calling it quits along the way. For clarification I was named the goat because apparently I went too fast and scurried up the uphills like a mountain goat. Henrique, who I convinced to join this crazy trek, was the duck as he found himself walking a bit like a duck after feeling the downhill in his knee following the first day. We obviously needed some entertainment along the way! Flat Stanley, visiting from my niece's first grade class, made it a few days before bailing out once we got to Italy. He'd had enough, but did enjoy riding along for some of the sights.

The initial plan was for the trek to take about eleven and a half days but with some adjustments and slightly longer last two days we finished in ten. Could we have done it even faster, yes I think so, but the distances and hours that we were going each day meant that usually we were lounging with wine and cheese by mid-afternoon after a shower and rest. Perfectly fine by me - wine and cheese makes your forget that you just walked more than ten miles.

Since the route is a circle and there are towns along the way it’s possible to start essentially anywhere and there are a variety of routes that can be taken each day, some dependent on the weather, so the hiking can be changed up. We stuck to mostly the traditional TMB trail with a few variants to check out some sights. Only a few times did we end up on the wrong path - whew! While we ended up seeing a fair number of the same people over and over again we’d often pick up and pass groups over the days. Unless we were in a larger town there was usually only one or two places to stay for the night so it was fairly certain we’d see people again.

The route that we took was the following:

Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines
Day 2: Les Contamines to Refuge Bonhomme
Day 3: Refuge Bonhomme to Refugio Elisabetta (France to Italy)
Day 4: Refuge Elisabetta to Courmayeur
Day 5: Courmayeur to Refugio Bonatti
Day 6: Refugio Bonatti to La Fouly (Italy to Switzerland)
Day 7: La Fouly to Champex
Day 8: Champex to Trient
Day 9: Trient to Le Flegere (Switzerland to France)
Day 10: Le Flegere to Les Houches

If you want the blow by blow or each day and where we stayed I'm putting that in a separate post so that this one isn't ten pages long (detailed post here). Also, since I found myself researching and reading other people's blogs trying to figure out how on earth to plan this thing I figured I might as well detail it out too. There was a Google spreadsheet involved and lots of reading in preparation. For now here are some general thoughts about the trek in no particular order...

**All of the photos (phone and real camera) with only a few edits can be fund here.

**The trail is quite well marked throughout the route, definitely best in France and sometimes spotty in Switzerland. We didn’t have a fancy map but it might have been helpful to know what we were really getting ourselves into each day - mostly elevation gains and losses which my book indicated but their drawings were certainly not to the best of scale.

**You need to be in fairly good shape at the onset of the hike. But mostly be ready to carry 5-10kilos and be on your feet for anywhere from 4-6 or more hours a day. For me the backpack was what gave me the most issues - just killing my upper back after hours each day. Not everyone out there is an ultra marathoner (thank goodness, though we saw a few of those) and the age range certainly varied. It was a big mix of folks ranging from 20s/30s to a lovely 71 year old woman we met one night at dinner. Definitely lots of older folks - I just hope I'm rocking it that well 30 or so years from now. If your knees and legs can handle it and you've got the mental stability to go day after day you will indeed enjoy the TMB.

**Downhill is a bitch (and poles can be your best friend). I knew this from running but when you're going every day up and down, up and down you feel it. It's just unnecessarily hard on the legs and there's no real way around it (other than taking a cable car if you're lucky). Using poles at least let you take some of the weight off the impact with every step down so I used them occasionally on the really long down hill stretches, Henrique used them all the time. Even though it was a lot more effort and often times lead to a full sweat I much preferred the uphill. Henrique was told by a guide that we met that my need to go fast and power up the uphill was totally normal for people who run marathons - it's boring if it's not hard work. Yeah, I'd pretty much agree with that. Slow and steady wasn't really my thing very often.

**Switzerland was much more expensive than Italy and France both for accommodation and food/beverage. This was to be expected but when you're staying in essentially dorm or basic type rooms it's more noticeable. A glass of wine in Switzerland was the same price as a half liter of wine in Italy.

**Unless we were in a hotel breakfast was pretty much the same everywhere - bread, jam, butter, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and if we were lucky some cheese, cereal, or yogurt. We took to ‘stealing’ bread each morning from breakfast to have with cheese later in the day. One place in Switzerland had a sign indicating that any sandwiches made at breakfast (I assume from the bread, cheese, and ham) would be charged CHF 7 (essentially $7) so we attempted to be stealthy on our bread gathering that morning. We were to claim that we were not actually making a sandwich, just taking the bread :)

**For dinner we had a variety of dishes - a few times we ate at restaurants when we were in hotels and towns that had options but otherwise it was in the refuge. Overall the food was quite good - maybe it was that we were always really hungry! One thing that was lacking though was veggies, we asked for one vegetarian option at a few places in an attempt to have something other than carbs and meat/chicken. The best dinners in refuges were probably in Bonhomme and Flegere - both places we had cheese plates and then dessert to top off the meal :) But the best meal of the time was a fondue place in Les Contamines called La Table d'Hotes Savoie. We ordered cheese fondue with mushrooms and it was served not only with bread but also a charcuterie plate and salad. We were stuffed after the massive pot of fondue but the gal came over asking us if we wanted more - we would have loved more but there was no room left in the bellies!

**Cheese eating was a large part of our trip and now I might be spoiled forever! I began to joke that I’ll only buy cheese when I’ve seen the cows grazing on the hills, then I see the milking station (most of them are mobile so the farmer goes out to the cows twice a day), and then see the farmer. We had a few cheese purchases that were just delicious and we’d get enough to have some then and carry more for later. Hard cheese and cool temperatures meant it traveled nicely in the backpack :)

**I was glad to have booked ahead on all of our accommodation as there were a few places that were full or very close to full. We heard from folks that even though people think September is quieter there are still quite a large number of people on the trails so accommodation could be booked up. Booking ahead also allowed us to have different types of rooms and not be in a big dormitory room every night. But the few adjustments that we made at the end of the trip were easy to make and we didn’t have issues of availability. Luckily when we were in dorms the noise wasn’t too bad. In Refugio Bonatti we were in a room that had twenty beds and it was 10 single beds lined up on each side one right next to each other. We’d joked about this a few days earlier in Elisabetta where they had that arrangement and another room of bunk beds that were three high and twelve across - yikes! With earplugs and sleeping pills at the ready I was prepared to hopefully sleep through anything.

**Dinners are assigned tables when in the refuges. This is fine except when your hiking partner is French and checks you into the refuge and therefore they think we both speak French so you're then at a French dinner table. I am exceptionally good at the smile, nod, and pretend I know what the hell people are talking about. I pick up about every 5th or 10th word depending on the conversation and I always know when they're talking about me. To not have to talk at every meal was fine by me - 9 nights of talking to people about hiking is really not that exciting after about the first two :) Though we did meet some very nice folks along the way who I thoroughly enjoyed cruising by the next morning.

**While the scenery was lovely all along the route there were a few highlights...
  • The descent from Col de Fours (after a cold and snowy night at Bonhomme) to Ville des Glaciers

  • Early morning post sunrise light on the mountains from Refugio Bonatti

  • Approaching the Col de Balme and catching the first view of the snow capped mountains in a few days

  • Following the glaciers and mountains for two days from Col de Balme to Bel Lachat

There's probably a whole lot more to say but enough for now. While the trip takes a bit of planning, prep, and willingness to walk through any and all weather conditions it's definitely worth it.

After my few days of rest, a quick stop in Paris to see my mom, Jane, and Wally before they headed off on their river cruise, I'm off to Dublin tonight and Iceland tomorrow. Looking forward to many adventures to come in Iceland and a proper fist shaking at that dang volcano that stranded me in Dublin!