Saturday, September 19, 2015

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!

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