Saturday, 9 October 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc, days 9-10: Trient to La Flégère

Day Nine: Trient (1417m) to Trés le Champ (1401m) 
Sleeping: Auberge la Boerne
Distance: 11km
Ascent/Descent: 860m/831m
Highest Point: Col de Balme (2201m) 

We left the Relais de Mont Blanc after a quick but fulsome breakfast. We had not booked our refuge for that night but it would be a relatively short day so we were not concerned. There are few problems arriving at Auberges and refuges, especially in the Chamonix valley as there is a proliferation of accommodation. Yotam had booked into the Auberge la Boerne so the four of us all resolved to head there. 

As we left the Relais du Mont Blanc, we had intel which suggested a day of some precipitation so we pulled on, with some wistfulness I admit, our waterproof fabrics yet again and ventured outside. It was bitterly chill as we walked back part of the way we had come the day before, ready to turn off to take the steep, forested path up to the Col de Balme. We picked up Eli at his campsite and moved off. Foggy breath billowed from our mouths and it was around then that we noticed the mountains ahead of us were blanketed in a snowy white dusting. They had been lush, green forest yesterday at that altitude - the veil of white indicated like a beacon that there had been snow overnight and we were heading into it. Then the rain came. The forest canopy gave us little shelter as we trudged along the muddy, tree-root infested path, hopping from rock to rock to keep a stable foothold. A genuinely surreal moment was when we happened upon a makeshift shelter with chairs within - we stopped, the rain barraging the roof in frustration at our chagrin, and mused plaintively, willing the weather to change. We moved off and again the rain smiled as it had its way. 

Before long, we exited the forest and, within moments, the rain ceased its relentless fusillade. Before us, some kilometres ahead, the mountains were garbed in white with a glorious, silky sheen of snow. As we ascended towards the magical snowscape, a chill breeze gusted, but we could only stared in adoration at the enchanting vista ahead of us, reveling in the ivory wetness beneath our feet and the cool sunshine over our heads. For that moment, it was heavenly. Yotam, Israel sadly lacking in a snow, threw snowballs and, for a while, we acted like children. The trudge of the early morning forgotten, we fairly danced that penultimate part of the day’s ascent. 

It was on a short time before the Col de Blame segued into view and the black and red old refuge dominating the saddle sat like a beacon. And it was ever thus - thick cloud threatened ominously to swathe the building in a murky, grey mist and, by the time we arrived, we were cocooned in a squally, misty oblivion. It had grown bitter and raw, and as we approached the refuge we quickly shrugged off our packs, ensuring they were sheathed by their silnylon covers and placed them next to those already there, sitting on the benches outside. When we entered, the warmth assailed us. The demeanour was one of cosy, lively geniality. Walkers chatted excitedly about the walks surrounding the Col, and the snowy milieu whilst others still warmed themselves next to a hot stove. We procured some hot chocolate and a snickers each from a diminutive, wizened old lady in halting French before retiring to a corner to get warm and mix with the patrons of the veteran, homely refuge. My camera fogged irreversibly and imagery was exposed in a 1940’s soft-focus. 

It was some time before we withdrew into a changed firmament. The sky now took on a gelid blue tone - an arctic sapphire sheen, contrasting sharply with the black and white of the snowy peaks surrounding us. The wind had abated, not completely but enough, and we strolled, almost nonchalantly, down to Le Tour and Trés le Champ, and an early arrival at our Auberge. We had taken the choice of an easier descent to give the injured among us, especially after yesterdays exertions, the chance to recover. I was saddened by this, but accepting the group’s limitations and adapting to them is a crucial part of hillwalking and, indeed, any outdoor endeavour. Nevertheless, we took great pleasure in the changed panorama surrounding us, savouring the snow-clad Chamonix valley. 

Le Tour is at the head of the Chamonix valley, a cable-car that reminded me (invoking broad smiles) of "Where Eagles Dare" runs up to, and down from, the Col. Rather like a man-possessed, I muttered various classic lines from that exemplar war film, which engendered among us a vehement discussion of preferred and best-loved war films.

The Leki poles had provided a stable platform from which our injured companion could increase his speed and supported him sufficiently to both ascend and descend the mountainside in considerably less pain than the previous day. Before long, we passed Le Tour and took a forested path to Trés le Champ at the culmination of which the Auberge is to be found just to one side in a small hollow, to the right, between the path and the road.

The Auberge la Boerne is a quaint, pleasingly ramshackle old place and we entered, somewhat early in the day, and spoke to the genuinely pleasant and informative owner about securing a room. She smiled warmly and welcomed us with an almost military precision into the Auberge. She took us to a room she surmised would be unlikely to be filled that night and which we would probably have to ourselves. We gaped and gasped as we ducked beneath ancient beams, turning corner after corner in a seemingly endless rabbit-warren of a building. Every nook and cranny had been turned into a dortoir of some description and, as we dropped our packs onto our beds, we chattered excitedly. It was a convoluted, labyrinthine place with an almost arboreal demeanour within so much ancient wood was there. We showered lustfully in the hot, endless water before descending to the refectory, ordained with mountaineering ornamentations and photographs from decades hence, ordering a huge slab of wonderful fruit pie and a hot tea, and mulling over the day. It had been short but we’d probably needed it as a group. As the wind buffeted the windows, we debated and conversed about all manner of things, and drank beer, until dinner came. Sleep came easily that night and, for the first time in a little while, we slept well. 

Day Ten: Trés le Champ (1401m) to La Flégère (1893m)
Sleeping: Refuge La Flégère
Distance: 11km
Ascent/Descent: 1020m/525m
Highest Point: Le Lac Blanc (2373m) 

The weather was excellent when we woke. Bright sunshine, clear blue sky and little in the way of wind. Although it was cold, I braved shorts as I knew, once we started moving, I’d begin to overheat in anything more. We’d, again, decided to take a variante route by heading up to Le Lac Blanc (2373m) from the Tête aux Vents (2211m) and the Chalet nearby for lunch. It added a few hundred metres of ascent and we’d do some scrambling once up there as the previous day had been a short one and we were well rested.

The initial part of the day took a path through more vigorous forested terrain before becoming a steep, dusty, rocky melange buttressed either side by grass and lush green flora. Every step of the way, the beguiling snowy peaks of the northern side of the Mont Blanc massif gradually uncloaked themselves, appearing from behind the dark, craggy mountainside. The northern aspect of the Mont Blanc massif, when compared with the Grande Jorasses to the south, for example, has a far more striking and awe-inspiring facade. As we climbed, we could not but pause frequently to regard this majestic sierra. with each century of ascent we gained a clearer, more complete picture of the north faces of each regal alp. It was a intrinsically pleasing ascent for precisely this reason.

Perhaps the most infamous component of this, the penultimate leg of the Tour, are the ladders above the town of Argentiére. Great iron constructs embedded into the mountainside, we stood for a moment, taking in both the views across the massif and the ladders themselves. Eli went first, his enormous pack seemingly no hindrance at all, so I followed quickly, scaling the ladders in short, quick bursts. There are more than you think at first, and after each one, we climbed over more craggy outcrops, ducking between leviathan boulders in the mountainside and climbing again on these most human of additions. From time to time, there would be small pedal footholds of iron, or steps on the ‘shallower’ gradients of thick wooden logs. There is little magic in ascending this way, nor is there anything to be concerned about. It was a straightforward, expeditious method of scaling the mountainside.

It was an inordinately short period, to my mind, before we reached the Tête aux Vents. Joined by others, some of whom we’d met in the Refuge de Balme the day before, we sat by the idiosyncratically alpine cairn and mused contentedly while we continued our admiration of the massif across the valley. It was not far to the Chalet de Lac Blanc, where we could eat and relax, before engaging in some scrambling on the steppes of the Aiguilles Rouges to the north - our companions for most of the day and able understudies to the leviathans across the valley.

 Although it was not much distance, in linear terms, the climb up to the Chalet was a steep one. We consumed it with gusto, even those carrying injuries. This is the way of things on a long distance trek, or thru-hike - there comes a point, early on, when you get your ‘mountain legs’. I think, after that, there comes another point where a second increment is passed and digested and you are capable of even more. The human body, the mind included, is a remarkable machine but I feel strongly that its most impressive characteristic is its adaptability. We react to our environment and the pressures put on us and limits we thought beyond us become a distant memory - a hurdle crossed an eon ago. The TMB, as I have said on numerous occasions, was well within us and I sometimes wish we’d done more, but it was an introduction to Alpine walking nonpareil, and a foundation from which I will progress my core skills. Experience, in this game, is everything.

 The Chalet du Lac Blanc is a place of some beauty. The vista to be savoured from its patio is truly magnificent. The food they serve - omlettes a speciality - is deeply pleasing and the hot chocolate is sumptuous, thick, heart-warming opulence. God only knows how long we sat but eventually, sated and grinning, we left our packs and went for a scramble among the Aiguilles Rouge, eventually gazing down from our vantage points, after a gratifying shinny across craggy outcrops, on the Lac Blanc and the range beyond it. It was a profoundly enjoyable moment.

The descent is not much to describe - easy terrain along a path intended for people arriving by mechanical means to La Flégère and thus not necessarily possessed either of the fitness or technique for mountain walking, it was dull and uninspiring. Within a blessedly short time we passed the cattle market that is the area just before the refuge at La Flégère - an acutely depressing place: the mid-point of a ski-resort’s major lift system and all that goes with it - a scar on an otherwise wonderful landscape. We circled it and went down to the refuge speedily. We booked into our dortoir, showered, washed what we needed to and then headed outside for a beer. Perhaps a slightly doleful end to a wonderful day - but in reality, the TMB is not about wilderness and this does not detract from the beauty and majesty of vast parts of this wonderful walk.


  1. Stunning scenery on day ten. Did you take these with the Lumix TZ10 ?

  2. They were indeed taken withe the Lumix TZ10 - at this stage I am still using IA mode.

  3. They were indeed taken withe the Lumix TZ10 - at this stage I am still using IA mode.

  4. Enjoy your writing, keep it up!  We're headed for similar surrounds in late August, hiking the haute route to Zermatt

  5. Many thanks. If you take a look round the blog, you'll see I am doing exactly the same - Chamonix to Zermatt on the Classic Haute Route (the high-level version of the Walkers Haute Route). Enjoy it.