Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc, day 11: La Flégère to Les Houches

Day Eleven: La Flégère (1893m) to Les Houches (1032m) 
Sleeping: Hotel in Les Houches
Distance: 18km
Ascent/Descent: 1100m/1970m
Highest Point: Le Brévènt (2535m) 

The final day was a poignant day of contrasts. As we trekked along the valley wall, the Aiguilles Rouge to the north and the north face of the Mont Blanc massif to the south across the Chamonix valley, the panorama surrounding us was deeply stirring but the path winds through the intense scars created by the skiing industry. It was a stark and salutary reminder that this is a heavily industrial trek as the area in the Chamonix valley, whilst beautiful, has been conclusively exploited for winter and summer sports. How can I complain? That’s why we’re here - to take part in one of those activities. It seems somewhat hypocritical to muse over the impact of tourism on this amazing area when I am one of those tourist. Even so, it's somewhat saddening to see, but there are still many wild places left in the world - none of this detracts from the majesty of the Mont Blanc massif. 

We trekked through forest initially in the cool, fresh morning air, the blue sky again suffusing the milieu. After a swift egress from the distinctive and archetypal alpine arboreal surrounds, we found ourselves winding through the craggy hillside again, picking an ascent through deep, imposing rocky buttresses. Mont Blanc again stands proud and resplendent across the valley. It is to be a long day with an interminable, draining, technical descent to Les Houches and the conclusion of the TMB. The ascent up to the Le Brévènt itself is not to be underestimated either. A fitting final day of exertion and elevation. 

After some hours of climbing, we find ourselves at around 2368m at the Col du Brévènt and spy an opportunity for some impromptu scrambling. It’s playful stuff - the only danger provided by loose rocks and tourists who have taken a wrong turn and who begin to panic. I see them down, wondering what they thought they were doing beginning a climb like this anyway - it's so obviously not the path - but we all make mistakes so I am patient and diplomatic - I wouldn’t want to start an international incident. It’s nice to get my hands dirty and Yotam and I find ourselves atop a small arête, picking our way along for 100m or so under the watchful stare of the Queen of the Alps. It is diverting as we wait for the rest of the team, but before long, we make our way down and continue along the TMB.

The ascent up to Le Brévènt is not an arduous one, so this aspect of the TMB is not a lonely trail. We are besieged by day-hikers, some with guides and some without. We wait patiently as there are more ladders to ascend, but when we see the reason for the delay, my blood boils. Despite the fact that there are dedicated MTB tracks, and the fact that one of us still limps from a collision with a moronic biker, three British MTB riders are hauling their bikes down the ladders grumbling about the facilities and the hikers ahead of them. It is all I can do to keep my mouth shut but eventually we pass them, and the day hikers, and make our way up a stony, expertly maintained (read: might as well be asphalt) path to Le Brévènt. The view is, of course, amazing and in the shadow of the cable-car terminus, we have delightful hot onion soup and a coke. It’s a pleasant moment, as the sun beams down on us and the steam drifts from the meniscus of our soup into the cool mountain air. We tarry for some time, mindful of the descent to come, and muse over the fact that our trek is nearly over. It is a sentimental moment as we realise that the time will come when we bid farewell to our friend across the valley - it's odd, we felt as if we'd never need to leave...

Across the valley, thrill-seekers - paragliders - soar, catching thermals and rising every bit as gracefully as they fall. It is a popular sport in the Chamonix valley - the next day, in fact, when we took the bus into Chamonix having finished the TMB, we would see many of them on the bus with huge rucksacks carrying their kit. I watched for what seemed like eons, entranced, tracking the progress of these courageous characters, savouring their fluid elegance. Set against Mont Blanc, they seemed as close to that sonorous queen as anyone could be, without ascending its summit. 

The descent from Le Brévènt, at 2525m, was a protracted, debilitating siege against the lower body. It is as comprehensive an argument in favour of trekking poles as there could possibly be. The ground, in places, is steep and technical; careful threading of a route is required - considered foot placement is essential. On occasion, hands would be required. That said, the views across to the rocky, green alpine landscape to east is breathtaking and accompanies us for much of the descent. We passed the final hut, a beautiful place set within a diminutive depression in the mountainside, and stopped for some refreshment before continuing on to through more alpine forest into Les Houches. By now, all that occupies my mind is the thought of a burger and chips - gloriously sumptuous trash food - at Le Delice, the British-owned café we came to the day before we started the TMB. The end of a wonderful trip is impending and, albeit still sad,  I look forward to some good food and a long shower.

As we pulled down the final stretch and into the environs of Les Houches, I am suddenly taken by what we've done - a classic, majestic, arduous and life-affirming trek through some of the most amazing scenery I have seen for a long time. Hugs are exchanged for it has been an emotional time - the savouring not only of views, but of friendship and camaraderie. I know that, in reality, it was not as challenging a trek as it might have been, and we might well have completed it in 9 days rather than 11 without a great deal more avidity or stamina but there was never any rush. It has been a genesis for me - the beginning of a movement towards something different and exciting. The affirmation of what I have loved for years and the impetus to progress.

Before long, I will detail some lessons I learned for the future, for the undertaking, as I see it, of a trek like this with particular reference to the Tour du Mont Blanc. Things I would have liked to have known before I left.


  1. It’s almost impossible to take poor images in country like this but the scenes you have chosen to blog are certainly fine ones.
    I’m sure your library will be worth a view.
    When you do a walk like this with a number of people it can be a life changing experience. The camaraderie, the fun, the gear chats, the spills etc stay in the mind for an awful long time.
    By the time you come down from the high it will probably be Christmas.
    We have loved the posts. Thanks.

  2. I think I journal this sort of thing more for myself than anyone else, something that I can look back on with my family at some later date, but it really means something when people like you comment in the way that you have. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  3. All things come to an end. What am I expected to do in my breaks now?

    Inspiring stuff. Thanks.

  4. From someone with your prosaic skills that's high praise. Thanks for reading and thanks for comments!

  5. I think I journal this sort of thing more for myself than anyone else, something that I can look back on with my family at some later date, but it really means something when people like you comment in the way that you have. I am glad you enjoyed it.