Monday, 4 October 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc, days 7-8: La Fouly to Trient

Day Seven: La Fouly (1612m) to Champex (1467m)
Sleeping: Gîte Bon Abri
Distance: 15km
Ascent/Descent: 420m/565m
Highest Point: La Fouly (1612m)

After the annoyances of the previous day, and an injury, it was a fortuitous quirk of fate that the next section would be an easy, rolling day without much stress or demand. That said, the route from La Fouly to Champex is a necessary, but intensely dull, leg of the TMB. In many ways, it was viewed by all of us as 15km, and a little ascent and descent, which would be sufficient to keep our hand in and nothing more. Mr. Reynolds describes it gamely as an opportunity to experience the ‘pastoral nature of the Swiss valley’. I would describe it as a means to an end. From Champex, the next day, we would ascend to what I felt would be the high point - in more ways than one - of the Tour: the Fenêtre d’Arpette. First, however, we needed to get to Champex. We initially received news that severe weather had meant that the Ultra Trail had been abandoned at the Col des Fours. We were relieved in that, if I am honest, but then found out they would simply be departing from a different location. 

The rain came down in great gushing torrents that seventh day and our membranous carapace provided a recalcitrant aura. We were not sweating particularly profusely, such was the lack of real exertion so, in reality, we simply plodded with the precipitation tapping a stentorian rhythm on the stiff fabric. It was the first day that Jean-Rémy and I had a chance to walk and talk - given he would be departing at the mid-way point, it was a welcome chance to converse and ridicule each other’s command of the other’s language. He has more english, of course, than I do french but we mocked equally nonetheless. 

The day began by punctuated forest along a rocky path next to a wide river. Civilisation is never left far behind on this part of the TMB and typically Swiss chalets proliferate. As the rain came down, less forcefully now, we quickly made our way along the track - we knew it would be a fairly uninteresting day so we wanted to get to Champex as soon as possible - as much to avoid the Ultra Trail runners as anything. My friend, nursing an injured ankle, was able to make his way along the path without any real difficulty and, in truth I think he was grateful for an easy day. He’d been given a set of walking poles by one of our group and they seemed, despite his never having used them before, to help gratefully. When we got to Champex, he resolved to secure some for himself. 

It became a very civilised day in fact - we stopped at a café for tea in Praz de Fort and waved a sad farewell to Jean-Rémy, we strolled an easy perambulation through small villages and even ended up chatting to local farmers. It was pleasant enough. As we got the bottom of the valley we were faced with a small climb up to Champex through the Sentier des Champignons within deeply forested hills. Mushrooms of all types dotted the pine-needled, leafy ground and we would often stoop down to examine them - they were frequently brightly coloured and, as is the way with nature, probably toxic.

Throughout the forest, there were ornate carvings from the stumps of felled trees - some are beautiful, enchanting sculptures - others more reminiscent of the consumption of the mushroom in the previous photograph (a groups of anthropomorphised mushrooms in a schoolroom setting, for example, the 'teacher' with spectacles on). It is an odd thing, to walk through a forest and happen upon these strange carvings. It certainly does not feel like wilderness but then Champex is close at hand, so how could it?

Champex itself is an attractive town. Set by a lake, the main thoroughfare is indubitably geared towards the outdoors and the mountains but it does not fit, in size or spirit, with the likes of Chamonix or Courmayeur. Our first port of call was to book into the same Gîte as Yotam, some way out of town as it transpired, before booking into the Au Club Alpin for some dinner and purchasing some Leki Makalu Carbonlite poles (I am going to deal with the poles, and my thoughts on poles in general, in a separate post). 

The Gîte Bon Abri is located a bit of a walk out of town so we headed over quite swiftly. The only space left, fortuitously as it turned out, was in a small
dortoir deep within the roof of an outhouse building. With its own kitchen and bathroom, it was clean but ancient inside. We stared around the room, hoping no one else would come and take up the space, but no one did. We dominated the room with our kit and after a short period of rest headed out for dinner in Champex. Tomorrow would be a challenging day. 

Day Eight: Champex (1467m) to Trient (1417m)
Sleeping: Relais de Mont Blanc
Distance: 14km
Ascent/Descent: 1093m/1320m
Highest Point: Fenêtre d’Arpette (2665m, 2700m)

The Fenêtre d’Arpette is, along with Col des Fours, the highest point on the TMB. It is also one of the pre-eminent aspects on the TMB. It is a variante, the main route of the TMB going across the Bovine Alp, but a variante that is simply unmissable. However, as with Col des Fours, it is not a route to be taken in bad weather. So it was we awoke from our slumber to peek nervously outside. 

There was no wind or rain but the peaks surrounding us were shrouded in mist obscuring them completely five or six hundred metres above us. Taking our bearings, we located the Fenêtre d’Arpette route and watched the mist slowly clear through breakfast as the sun burned the cloud off. When we set off, a sizeable packed lunch ensconced securely in our packs, long, thin swathes of cloud still eclipsed the peaks ahead of us but it moved regularly and we hoped that, when we arrived at the Fenêtre, the cloud would have cleared and the weather would be auspicious. There was a chill in the air, the sun disappearing periodically behind great cabals of cloud before re-appearing.

It’s a steep climb to begin with with a goodly amount of ascent ticked off quite swiftly. Arrival at the very obvious edge of civilisation, a final caucus of farm buildings and clear path leading away from them, is a moment of some trepidation as the massif ahead is an imposing, rocky and scree-garbed morass. 

The path led quickly into a tiny forested area within the Val d'Arpette before climbing steeply again across rocky, grass-tufted ground. It was arduous stuff, the path climbing seemingly without remorse - a relentless siege of ascent sapping our legs. We paused to eat, munching on energy bars and sucking in the calories. The effect was instant and we began again. The path never becomes equivocal, the markings clear and unambiguous because, later, they become fundamental. 

After what seemed too short a time, the Fenêtre d’Arpette appeared, long in the distance like a beacon. A deep saddle, it is breathtakingly high and the steep scree slopes leading up to it are clearly, and somewhat depressingly, visible for the last few kilometres leading to it. As the path wound through the valley, caressing the north wall of the massif to the south, it led to what our Mr. Reyonlds described as a ‘chaos of boulders’. I can do no better. It was bedlam - a maelstrom of huge, rocky nightmares with a deep, inky breaches between them. As we clambered across that anarchy, three points of contact for at least half the traverse, we again gave thanks for the red and white symbology picking a path across. 

At the culmination of that rocky chaos we reached a dramatically steep scree field punctuated by further tufts of grassy undergrowth - a dozen paths lead in sharp switchbacks up to the Fenêtre d’Arpette and although it seems no more than 150m above, it must have been a full kilometre away on the path.  The view behind us keeps us going - it is a majestic sight the mist-framed mountains that we left behind, the promise of an even more sumptuous feast to come.

The Fenêtre does not seem to get any closer as you ascend, before suddenly, without the vaguest shadow of a warning, you pick your way over a final bouldery crest into a huge amphitheatre of rock. It is a breathtaking moment - an awe-inspiring, thrilling reward for that vertiginous scramble - nothing on the TMB had come close to that first moment, staring open-mouthed at the valley beyond - the Val du Trient. As we walked, stumbling with excitement, deeper into the bowl of the Fenêtre, the Glacier du Trient came into view, gushing forth from the Plateau du Trient, a petrified glimpse of eternity. It is a rare beauty, this frozen river, framed by the Aiguilles du Génépi and du Tour and d'Orny to the east.

We scrambled up to 2,700m, finding a place to sit in the shadow of Le Génépi (I smiled wistfully and thought of Jean-Rémy, wishing he could see this) and pull out an insulating layer - the wind was fierce and chill. Munching with unadulterated glee on our delicious packed lunch it was a moment of pure joy. After something to eat, I left my pack and scrambled some more, back down the Fenêtre and up again the other side, over more boulder with cavernous crevasses between them, hopping and skipping from one to the other, grabbing handholds and footholds like a giddy schoolchild. It is a moment to treasure being here, where I have always wanted to be. I didn't want to ever leave.

We stayed for about an hour, crows circling us like predatory hunters seeking prey, before beginning what would come to be a tortuous descent. My friend has found it all hard going - his ankle injury mitigated by his Leki poles - but the descent was an even slower, more laborious process. Initially, it was not easy in any event - the descent into the Val du Trient is as steep as the ascent to the Fenêtre the other side but it evens out over time and becomes a winding but straightforward path, benevolently granting wondrous view of the Glacier. 

As we descended, four times the Glacier, shrinking day by day, lost part of itself in great, thunderous avalanches - deep, strident rifle-cracks resonating across the Valley. Imagine, I thought, if someone were on the Glacier when those tranches separated and came crashing down the mountainside. It was a sobering reminder of the precariousness of alpine walking.

When we arrived at the Relais du Mont Blanc, we were inordinately fatigued. It had taken something of the order of 9 hours in order to get our friend down the mountainside as we painstakingly picked our way along the rocky, winding, tree-root rutted path. We took frequent breaks as he got used to the poles and as he rested his ankle - the prospect above us, back up the Val d’Arpette, would have been magnificent at any other time but as we descended painfully slowly, we were more concerned for our friend than with the vista. Bizarrely, the weather was much improved on the Trient side of the Fenêtre - warm sunshine bathed us, soothing the ills of that sheer, technical ascent leading up to the Fenêtre. Were the conditions worse, the descent might have been a more challenging proposition. 

When we finally reached the road into Trient, we were relieved to be on more forgiving terrain and, when the Relais came into view we breathed a shaky sigh of relief and dove inside for a cool beer, some welcome food and a fitful night’s sleep. The Relais itself is a fine establishment, with good food and a lively refectory area. We drank and chatted, just the three of us now, as Eli was camping not too far from us, wondering what the weather, forecast to be cold and precipitous, would bring tomorrow. Whatever it would be, the Fenêtre had rewarded us with something to treasure for decades to come.


  1. Quite inspiring! So different from what the UK has to offer. Watch out for those mushrooms though, that fly agaric won't kill you but will give you funny visions ... but there are some far more innocuous looking white ones that will kill you!

  2. Maz, another great post on the TMB. I have enjoyed your series, it gives an excellent insight into alpine walking.

  3. We have really enjoyed reading the TMB. Some great shots too. I think the toadstool is the Fly Agaric. It's not deadly as far as i can remember but it can make you ill and cause hallucinations. Best not touching it.

  4. Thanks everyone! Fly Agaric seems to be the consensus - wish I'd known about the visions/hallucinations as it might have made the La Fouly to Champex leg slightly more interesting! Certainly seems to have inspired some of the carvings we saw. The next three days, to come shortly, are really something rather special too - not quite as strenuous as the Fenêtre (or perhaps we were simply accustomed to the arduous walking by now) but spectacular scenery. The TMB runs along the Chamonx valley for the last three days so it's not wilderness, but the views of the Mont Blanc massif, coupled with the oddly perpetually improved weather in the valley, are simply splendid.

  5. What a contrast days 7 and 8! The latter an epic high mountain day.

  6. It really was a deeply contrasting change of fortunes - we very nearly could not have done the Fenêtre had we been a day later...