Monthly Archives: Jul 2018

Switzerland – Zermatt’s Matterhorn & Randa’s bridge

After the successful completion of the TMB hike, we rested up at Le Grand Champ for a further two rainy nights.  We tasked ourselves with the necessary jobs of laundry, photo-sorting and rest.  But we also had an eye towards our next mini-adventure, so were cooking up a few ideas.  After some deliberation, Switzerland was put on our agenda.

Zermatt (church in Tasch)

We left on a quiet Sunday morning, stocked up in a busy SuperU then headed east towards Switzerland.  We drove back through Chamonix, Argentière and Trient, spotting many places we had recently walked, before climbing up towards Martigny.  A few kilometres and many hairpins later, we were duly summoned into Switzerland with a bored look and a casual swipe of the arm at the nominal border point.  Tall stone terraces bursting with vines and soft fruits, predominantly apricots, lined the steep valley sides. We dropped drastically to the valley floor and on long straight roads made easy progress.  This part of Switzerland was more business than pleasure.  Dominated by light-industrial sheds and strips of garishly-coloured store fronts heavy with parking areas accessed by over-wide roads, it looked much more American than European.

Zermatt (on route from campsite)

Zermatt (on cycle route to town)

We turned off towards Zermatt, heading south through a series of villages on the only road into the valley.  We considered stopping in a cheaper aire in Täsch, nearer to Zermatt, but on inspection it was only the back corner of a car-park, behind a garage on a busy section of road, so we passed on it and doubled back to Campsite Attermenzen to overnight.  The site was an open field, so siting was entirely at your own discretion.  We picked out a quiet spot on a small plateau behind the main field and set up a cosy camp.  As it was only 2.30pm we had a decent portion of day left, so made the decision to quickly grab our bikes out of the garage and go see Zermatt immediately.  20 mins later we were organised and away, assuming the 9km route there would be a simple jolly along a cycle-path by the river.

Zermatt (us at Matterhorn)

Zermatt (Matterhorn and cloud)

It started well, in bright sunshine, rolling through the centre of Täsch, but soon after the track crossed the railway and rose steeply up through the forests on the opposite slope.  We faced a steep, difficult and technical ascent, a narrow dirt trail with gnarly roots, large boulders and overhanging nettles.  Whilst we thought we had had a decent, active summer, filled with swimming, running and hiking, we soon found our fitness for this type of off-road cycling was sadly lacking.  With lungs bursting and legs screaming for mercy, we had to dismount and walk portions of the trail on several occasions, decrying our inability to get up the track on our bikes.  We had underestimated the cycle, judging it by the short distance and not thinking of the height differential.  But we made it into Zermatt eventually.

Zermatt (walking bikes through centre)

Zermatt (happy chappie)

Our first impressions of Zermatt were not great. We had visualised a cutesy ski-resort, wonderfully car-free, all stone, timber and glass, in a comforting cauldron of snow-speckled mountains.  Instead we entered by a rough, debris-strewn building site, both sides of the road lined with dirty piles of stones, discarded bent materials and desolate-looking buildings.  It was a disturbing and rather grim first impression, but we were very soon distracted from it all by our first sighting of the incredibly imposing Matterhorn, standing tall behind fast-moving clouds.  We followed the river and cycled straight through to the southern edge of town for a closer look, stopping near an Activity Park to take in views of the iconic mountain.  Yet even here the parks were lined with red builder’s tape, degrading the view.

Zermatt (central streets)

We pushed our bikes through the glitzy, kitschy, touristy centre, the busy streets lined with top-end branded stores and expensive hotels.  We passed neat churches, almost apologetically nestled into tiny corners, their importance lessened in the face of the new, dominant religion of commerce.  Visitors mingled with quirky locals in national dress, popping in and out of cafés and souvenir stores selling the usual T-shirts and tea towels.  We heard mostly German being spoken, but smatterings of French, English, Spanish and Japanese completed the cultural melting pot.  At one point a herd of long-haired goats were driven through the streets by young teenagers, dodging the constantly buzzing electric hotel taxis, looking more like a scene from Nepal than Switzerland.  We cycled on, passing yet more hotels and shops in traditional timber and stone, with an ever-present snowy mountain backdrop framing each view.

Zermatt (bikes and goats)

We’d been lucky with the weather, as the forecast had suggested thunderstorms in the afternoon.  But grey clouds were now gathering overhead and the air changed; rain was brewing.  We decided to stick to the road going back, and found it a fantastically long, sweeping downhill for most of the way.  We reached Täsch in minutes, flowing at over 50km/hr, definitely enjoying this direction more.  Large, slow drops of rain plopped on us and the smooth road surface as we passed through the town, threatening much more.  We pushed on to reach our campsite with only moments to spare before the main deluge finally arrived, with us safely back under cover.  We packed away our bikes, made tea and chilled for the rest of the evening, feeling glad we had decided to make the effort to quickly visit Zermatt.

Randa (the path upwards)

Randa (mini cairns on path)

We set an early alarm, had a quick breakfast and got our boots on before 8am, as the forecast was for more storms.  We wanted to complete a circular hike, from the nearby village of Randa, and to visit and cross what was reported to be the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world.  It was still chilly when we left, the sun slow in rising and not yet having warmed the air.  We first passed through the traditional timber buildings of Randa, enjoying the colourful vegetable patches and hanging baskets decorating the houses.  We filled our water bottles from a spring in the village then started our ascent via a narrow street between ancient timber hay barns.  We rose quickly on steep, rooted paths through the woodland, our legs dealing easily with the gradient after the gruelling miles of the TMB.

Randa (first look across the bridge)

Randa (n + a on bridge)

Randa (Nicky on bridge)

We were all alone when we reached the 500m long Charles Kuonen Hängbrücke, the suspension bridge, so we had the fortunate opportunity to play around and take a few photos and videos.  We then crossed over, apprehensive at one short portion that looked only loosely connected and rather shaky, but made it safely across.  From there we walked further up the mountain to the Europahütte refuge at 2220m, guarded by a huge resting black dog that eyed us suspiciously.  The view from their verandah was quite spectacular, but we didn’t linger.  Instead we climbed a further few hundred metres through a boulder field to reach a classic picnic spot with an unbeatable view of three separate glaciers.  We sat a while, eating apples and soaking up the view with only the sound of calling birds to distract us.

Randa (nicky and mountains)

Randa (picnic with a view)

There was the possibility of continuing around the mountain and returning to Randa by a different route, but instead we retraced our steps past the Europahütte and down to the suspension bridge, this time passing under the northern end and dropping quickly downwards.  Another steep woodland path led us down past a few groups of walkers now struggling upwards, until eventually levelling out in rolling grassy meadows back near to Randa.  We paused a while on a lonely red bench to eat sandwiches and take in the overview of the village.  We said goodbyes to neighbouring horses and descended to the village church, circled the beautifully kept cemetery, then continued back to camp. Our wonderfully fresh morning walk was a hilly 12km, taking the best part of four hours, with almost 1000m of ascent.

Randa (village view from red bench)

Randa (Benny at campssite)

Our afternoon was spent doing little more than people-watching and gentle stretching on the grass, until the dark clouds rolled back in overhead and drove us inside.  It was here we made the decision that it was best for us to move on, and that meant a return to France.  We had business to attend to back in Limousin.  In less than two weeks’ time, our new house purchase would complete, so our slow march westward now begins and our new responsibilities await.

A&N x

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France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 3)

Continued from previous posts:
Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)
Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 2)

Day 9 – Refuge Les Mottets to Les Contamines

We awoke early, ate breakfast before 7, packed and were out walking by 7.35am. It was still dark in the valley, with a low haze that soon burnt off in the morning sun. We followed an easy path to start, passing small glacial lakes and supine cows with wide leather collars supporting heavy brass bells. We then faced a long, steady slog uphill on a winding gravel track, before cutting off to the left to join and then conquer a grassy bluff. The terrain looked just like fells on Welsh mountains, rolling grassed slopes with tiny flowers adding colour.  The path forward rose steeply up dusty shale slopes, passing by wave-formation rocks formed by curvy, coursing waterfalls and groups of calm marmots nuzzling in the long grass.  The long steep shale continued unabated, with almost three hours of hot, sweaty work and several false summits to be defeated; the true top continued to elude us.  We reached a wide plateau before the final climb, filled with snow patches and the first walkers we’d met today.  We managed to avoid most of the snow by keeping to the right and slowly shuffling up a narrow route marked by small cairns.  We continued up this steep, loose shale, breathing hard, all the way to the hardened snow capping that marked the domed top of the Col des Fours, at 2685m.

 

After catching our breath and enjoying the moment, we faced a long descent over red rocks and well-trodden snow, following the easy trail ever downwards.  Various grassy plateaus punctuated these downhills, adding a welcome vividness to the otherwise stark landscape. We soon passed Refuge Bonhomme, a popular stop for walkers on this route, but we were pushing on further.  We ran little portions of the downhill trail as it was easier on our knees than to continually fight against gravity.  Soon we stopped at another popular refuge for snacks and Nicky bought herself a TMB T-shirt as a memento.  We followed a long, dull path constantly downwards, with many walkers slowly clambering upwards to the Col.  Nearing the valley floor, we stopped to examine a colourful display of photographs of Norway set outside a small church, recognising many of places we’d visited to on our travels there last summer.  We crossed a small stone bridge that had smooth, swirling blue pools under, formed by a raging waterfall.  We followed the river into Les Contamines, undertook a quick supermarket shop and then checked-in to the wonderfully boutique Hotel Gai Soleil.  We were treated to a great room with a lovely balcony overlooking the gardens, where we enjoyed beers until dinner. The in-house chef prepared us a stylish take on a traditional raclette meal, with salad, potatoes and hot, melted Camembert, followed by a wonderfully tart berry sundae.  Satisfied, we then retired to our room to sadly watch England lose to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final.

Day 9 - Refuge Les Mottets to Les Contamines

 

Route / Distance:  Refuge Les Mottets to Les Contamines via Col des Fours / 18.59km

Full tracking details of DAY 9 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 10 – Les Contamines to Les Houches

We ate a leisurely breakfast at 8, in no rush to be on our way today.  We were nearing the end of our walk, and feeling stronger every day.  We understood we had plenty of time to complete today’s trek back to Les Houches.  The town was still and quiet under another cloudless morning sky.  We returned to the church then followed a flowing forest trail alongside the river for a few kilometres before the path diverted and began to climb.  It took us on harshly steep gravel tracks through picturesque tiny hamlets, with pretty rolling meadows and neat timber chalets on all sides.  The path had a quiet charm rather than the spectacular mountains of previous days, with simple alpine views surrounded at a distance by the big peaks.  The path meandered into shaded woodland areas with small waterfalls and past small local churches in tiny villages once cut-off entirely during snowy winters.  We faced a steady climb to reach Col de Vosa at 1672m, where we paused for a while to examine the mountain railway and enjoy views of expansive valley below.

TMB Day 10 (Cute mountain cottage before Col de Vosa)

TMB Day 10 (Balcony beers at Hotel du Bois)

The mountain train line ran steeply up to visit glacier de Bionnassay and back down to the valley floor, centred on a huge hotel complex on the col plateau.  From here we could have caught one of two cable-cars down to the valley floor in Les Houches, but that then would leave a portion of the loop unwalked, our main task incomplete, so downwards on foot it was.  We followed the long, steep descent, again enjoying jogging short portions of the easy trail to utilise gravity and save our knees.  There were many mountain bike trails in this area and we watched a few riders struggle up the steep climbs, alongside a few others not struggling so much as they had electric-powered full-sus downhill bikes, a new sight for us.  The last few kilometres were on the side of the main snaking road, easy walking down close to town.  We found a narrow off-road cutback that led us back on to familiar roads in the heart of Les Houches.  We had our usual pit-stop in a local shop and then on to Hotel du Bois.  we settled into our quite luxurious room with a sunny balcony offering great views of Mont Blanc massif.  Again we treated ourselves to beers until dinner, where we truly enjoyed the treat of steak and chips and crème caramel to finish.

Day 10 - Les Contamines to Les Houches

 

Route / Distance:  Les Contamines to Les Houches via Col de Vosa / 22.01km

Full tracking details of DAY 10 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 11 – Les Houches to Chamonix

We treated ourselves to a long lie-in as our bag was not being transferred today.  We felt  like with being back in Les Houches we’d already finished, and that this final day of hiking was a separate day-walk, unconnected to all our recent efforts.  We enjoyed a late breakfast (complete with usually elusive bacon) and were out walking just after 9am.  We crossed a bridge over a raging stretch of river before turning right and following a typically root-strewn forest trail.  The path was mostly in welcome shade but the air was still very close and stifling, and we were soon soaked in sweat.  We later faced a tough, unrelenting gradient over tall boulder steps, climbing ever upwards.  We passed lots of others on the trail, going our way but moving slower, as we pushed on.  We were both inpatient to break out of the suffocating heat of the forest and find some cooling air. so were moving fast, working and sweating hard as we went. After two hours we finally escaped the grasp of the tree-line and received our reward of a cool mountain breeze and spectacular views.  We faced a few scramble portions with fixed chains and hand rails to assist, before arriving on a grassy plateau, next to Refuge Bellachat.  The refuge, very disappointingly, would not to give us any water, the first refusal on the whole TMB route.

 

We sat on the grass nearby and ate fruit cake and cooled off.  The path headed ever upwards, over a few small snow portions to reach another wide grassy plateau area, almost like moorland, peppered with narrow pathways in all directions.  The terrain soon changed again to large loose boulders and we slowly rose up a series of tight hairpins to finally reach the lookout at the top of Brévent lift at 2525m. It took us 3 hours 20 mins of hard work to reach here, so we celebrated with an ice cream and coke, reclining in deckchairs with one of the best views of the whole TMB.  We are surrounded by milling crowds, the most on any stretch of the hike, as a gondola lift smoothly transports Chamonix-based visitors directly to this high spot.  We dropped down loose shale and across several snow patches, past lots of rock towers with trainee climbers and paragliders circling above us. We had only 3km further of easy downhill on dull grey moraine to reach the top of Plan Praz, our circuit fully complete.  We walked slowly, both wanting and not wanting it to be over.  We paused here a while to stare at the view and reflect on what the last 10 days had entailed, before catching the lift back down to Chamonix centre.  We caught a bus back to Les Houches to collect our luggage at Hotel du Bois, then walked with our bag the short way back to our campsite and to our patiently awaiting Benny.  TMB – complete!

DAY 11 - Brevents panorama

Day 11 - Les Houches to Chamonix

 

Route / Distance:  Les Houches to Chamonix Plan Patz via Refuge Bellachat and Brévent / 12.58km

Full tracking details of DAY 11 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

 

 

France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 2)

Continued from previous post:  Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)

Day 5 – La Fouly to Refugio Elena

We were up for breakfast at 7am, perky and ready to go. The view of the surrounding mountains was now clear and impressive, set under deep blue skies. From our room we  watched a large balloon release to mark the start of the 42k / 111km mountain Ultra-race. We dropped off our bag then walked out of town along the road, then cut off right to move gradually uphill in grassy fields.  At one point an angry rogue cow partially blocked our route and we had to detour around her aggrieved grunting.  We faced a long ascent but with a steady gradient and a good path underfoot we made good progress. A cyclist passed us going up, looking hot and bothered. We arrived at Refuge La Peule and considered buying lunch, but didn’t as it was not yet 10am and we’d have to carry it. Instead we continued upwards towards Le Grande Col Ferret, passing over five or six wide patches of remaining snow, each with a well-trodden path that was easy to cross. It was cold and breezy as we passed the tall stone cairn at the Col, but we soon dropped down the opposite side, out of the chilling wind, where we found a nice spot to rest and eat snacks.

We had an amazing view of two crawling glaciers buried deep in steep mountain sides, a vista that dominated our route most of the descent.  We passed many people coming up, their heads down and struggling, as we bounced easily along the descent, stopping often to take in the view. We chatted to a few about the route ahead, and what they had yet to face on approaching the Col.  We arrived down at Refuge Elena around 12.30pm, much earlier than we’d expected. We are told we can’t enter our dorm room until 2pm, so instead we order paninis and eat them in the bar, before chilling on a nearby grassy meadow, out of the wind, until 2pm.  The dorm was very new with nice bunks, each with enclosed sides and personal storage units, all neatly done and relatively private.  We showered and had some lazy downtime with beers to wile away the afternoon.  Dinner was served at 7pm, with 5(!) large courses, although that included a rather random apple as a mid-course palette cleanser.  We were stuffed from course 2 onward (spaghetti) but with determination and grit we persisted and ate all that was set in front of us. Later we had a quick, breezy walk outside to look at the sky, and then headed off to an early bed.DAY 5 - Refuge Elena and glacier panorama

Day 5 - La Fouly to Refugio Elena

 

Route / Distance:  La Fouly to Refugio Elena via La Peule and Le Grande Col Ferret / 12.69km

Full tracking details of DAY 5 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 6 – Refugio Elena to Courmayeur

We had another night of poor sleep, courtesy of a noisy, and very smelly, snorer nearby.  We reluctantly got up at 6.30am, munched through a simple breakfast at 7, packed and were walking by 7.35am. Against some advice we took the gully rather than the road down from Elena, where we soon encountered three portions of steeply sloping snow that we tentatively crossed using poles for balance.  We later heard that someone fell here and had to be rescued by helicopter. From here we dropped to a bubbling river, headed across a small bridge and began the climb back up the opposite side of the valley. There were stunning views of mountains and glaciers as our path wound up through wildflower meadows and larch forests. It was a fantastic running trail once it levelled out, and we were passed by smiling groups doing just that.  We looked on jealously.  We paused at Refugio Bonatti for an hour to sync my ‘memory-full’ Polar Flow watch so we could continue to track our walk, then we bought sandwiches and pressed on.  The kilometres passed quickly, us distracted by the fantastic view and pretty alpine flowers.

Now in Italy, we stopped for lunch with a view, enjoying the downtime and silence, and just in time as soon after we reached the highest point of the day where large crowds had gathered.  From this pass we dropped steeply down to Refugio Bertone, it also consumed with noisy day-tripping walkers.  We then descended quickly through dusty forest trails to reach the outskirts of Courmayeur.  We passed thickly-cut slated roofs and dark timber buildings as our road arrived into the town centre.  We cut through a pretty, manicured park, with many sunbathers and kids playing, to reach Hotel Crampon.  We dropped very satisfyingly into our very nice room where we slowly showered, then headed out for a mini-city exploration.  Dinner was not included in the hotel room tonight, so after a lovely walk meandering through Courmayeur centre and all its shops, we sipped chilled beers in small café and sat people-watching.  Afterwards, we enjoyed some lovely pizza and red wine in a nearby restaurant, then back to our room for packing before sleep.

Day 6 (1) - Refugio Elena to BonattiDay 6 (2)- Refugio Bonatti to Courmayeur

 

Route / Distance:  Refugio Elena to Courmayeur via Refugio Bonatti & Refugio Bertone / 19.55km total

 

 

Day 7 – Courmayeur to Cabane de Combal

We sat our alarm for 7.30am, but even in a lovely double room we had a night of poor sleep again.  Just after the alarm our room phone rang to tell us our bag-lift is here early. Frantic packing ensued.  We got organised and dropped off our bag, then returned back down to find a very yummy Italian breakfast, complete with several cake options. Full to brimming with breakfast cake, we plodded uphill through silent Courmayeur villages then faced a very hard trek up steep shady forest trails for over 3km, working very hard and dripping wet with sweat. The path wound its way under a working gondola lift and we wondered what the smug customers must be thinking of us, struggling up under them as they rode up the mountain in comfort.  The path finally opened out to flowery meadows that formed an expansive, recognisable ski area with multiple lifts dotted about. We refilled our water at the restaurant on Col de Checroit before beginning a long, manageable uphill trek with great views of the Mont Blanc Massif, replete with glaciers.

DAY 7 - Col de Checroit panorama

Nearing the top of the Col, we had to cross several patches of snow to progress.  We passed large groups of students near here, and other campers resting in hammocks. We finally passed the highest point of today at 2434m, where we met Colorado resident Sam and chatted about our lives on the descent.  He was trekking alone and camping wild, a very different and personal experience than what we were doing.  He was also excited to hear about the ease of motor-homing life in France.  We parted ways at a small junction towards to Cabane du Combal as Sam continued on around the TMB route.  We spotted marmots on the slopes, then later two young ibex feeding just outside the cabane.  We checked in, this time in a 3-bed room shared with a French gentleman called Thierry. We walked up a local climb in our flip-flops, to view a glacial lake and enjoyed the vista down the expansive valley, then enjoyed several beers in the sun as we awaited dinner.

Day 7 - Courmayeur to Cabane de Combal

 

Route / Distance:  Courmayeur to Cabane de Combal via the Col de Checroit / 12.63km

Full tracking details of DAY 7 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 8 – Cabane du Combal to Refuge Les Mottets

Dinner in the cabane was terrible, our first poor food experience on the hike.  We spent a reasonable night in our shared room, then up for a very basic breakfast of bread and jam, but still better than the slop served at dinner.  We were packed and gone by 8am, along an easy gravel road heading to Refugio Elisabetta and beyond, climbing slowly up to the Old Italian Customs House, set just before the French border.  We saw lots more marmots on the path, them either lethargic or unafraid.  We enjoyed some time with the nice Italian museum curator, learning about local wildlife, flora and fauna. We then continued up to Col de la Seigne, finding the cairn area packed with people enjoying the expansive views.  We crossed back into France and stopped for a quick lunch with yet another spectacular view. There were several more snow crossings on this side of the Col too, and one specific one we chose to ignore and forded the river instead as the snow bridge looked very thin and weak.

DAY 8 - Approach to Mottets panorama

From here, we had an easy downhill following hairpins on dirt paths, to reach our accommodation at Refuge Les Mottets. No check-in until 2.30pm, so we very naughtily enjoyed a carafe of wine on deckchairs in a nearby meadow, with horses and donkeys for company, as we waited.  It was very sunny or chilly depending on the changeable clouds.  We slowly drunk our litre of red before checking-in, a little squiffy. We had a very nice double room, well away from the terrible dorm rooms that were just lines of beds, touching side by side, 32 to a room.  We snoozed part of the afternoon then attacked our 5-course dinner with gusto. We enjoyed the food with an accompaniment of traditional and pop music tunes on an organ-grinder turned by our host. Annoyingly, even in our double room we had poor sleep, caused by  doors slamming most of the night.  We both wrote a detailed suggestion note to the refuge to ensure they adjust all the door closers to stop the doors from slamming so loudly, or at least add signs to tell people to be aware.DAY 8 - Col de la Seigne panorama

Day 8 - Cabane de Combal to Refuge Les Mottets

 

Route / Distance:  Cabane de Combal to Refuge Les Mottets via the Col de la Seigne / 11.50km

Full tracking details of DAY 8 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Our Tour du Mont Blanc hike synopsis to be continued…

France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)

Disclaimer:  We are finding it difficult to find a way to encapsulate the highs and lows, physically and emotionally, of the overall experience of hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc circuit, so the following three posts are more of a simplified, chronological walk around the loop with us.  We will likely revisit this hike and write a more reflective, compelling post in weeks to come, but for now we will let a simple description, alongside our many vivid photographs, reflect on our days.  

Overview route map for the TMB:

021-13 PASSY-74 - RIR TMB - INC6MM 900X710V 925X720T - GABARIT.i

Day 1 –  Chamonix to Argentières

We started from our tiny campsite Le Grand Champ under cloudy skies and walked along the empty road to catch a free bus into Chamonix centre.  From here we had a steep path up to reach Plan Praz lift, the top of which would form the true start of our TMB hiking loop.  We arrived and started hesitantly,  following the Balcon Sud traversing north east around the slopes, through an expanse of fir trees.  We passed large stone walls, snow breaks we guessed,  with wide spaces between. It became a busy path with many people on the trail, the majority of them coming towards us.  After a few hours, we took an optional variant route to visit Lac Blanc, adding 45 mins to our day, but more beautiful scenery.  It was a tough climb, with many day walkers from Chamonix adding to the numbers. It was slow going as we faced large stepped boulders to climb and bodies to navigate past as we inched our way upwards towards the plateau with the White Lake.

There were occasional small snow fields here, but all well-trodden and easy to cross.  It was a slow, hard climb to reach the lake where we paused for lunch.  We then followed a long path down, passing by another beautiful mountain lake, to find a run of vertical ladders and handrails with the feel of a via ferretta. We watched climbers play on a tall needle rock as we descended the ladders, then we took the wrong route down through a deep forest, a lovely but steep trail signposted to Argentières.  We ran out of water 30 mins from end, having carried over 3 litres but having found nowhere to replenish them,  on this sticky hot and rather draining day.  We finally popped out in Argentières 50m from our hotel, La Couronne, and were quickly gifted a lovely room with a bath – a perfect way to relax with the beers and snacks soon collected from the nearby supermarket. This, our first day, was much harder than expected, and we both had sore legs.  We began to worry that our hiking fitness was not fully what we had expected. This was classed as an easy day on paper, so we were apprehensive over what was to come.

DAY 1 - Lac Blanc panorama

Day 1 - Chamonix to Argentieres

 

Route / Distance:  Chamonix Plan Praz lift to Argentières via Lac Blanc / 14.26km

Full tracking details of DAY 1 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 2 – Argentières to Trient

DAY 2 - Aiguilette de Possette panorama

There was heavy rain overnight, wild storms that were fun to watch, but it was dry once we began walking.  After a filling 7am breakfast we were packed up and ready by 8am. We headed steeply uphill out of town, found our route and rose quickly through the treeline, passing several campsites with multiple colourful tents.  The path was generally easy underfoot, pine needles and tree roots, but with a solid, consistently steep ascent for over two hours. We were rewarded with breath-taking views of the Mont Blanc Massif behind us, and stopped often to gaze at it in wonder.  We followed the l’Aiguilette de Possette ridge up to 2209m, a beautiful, rolling path with views to both sides, before dropping down into Switzerland, then rising again to reach Col des Balmes.  We paused at an old mountain cabin with a small shop inside, busy with trekkers as a key point on route.  Beyond us we could see lots of winding, dusty downhill paths with grunting and desperate people, heads down and making their way up in what looked like misery.

We bounced down, an easy path in this direction, really a wide gravel track at this point. We passed four hardy bikers heroically cycling up this path on fat bikes, and soon after found the lower part of their route had been very steep, rutted with roots and stones.  We had a long, monotonous drop to reach the valley floor, losing 1000m of height, but with the sound of cowbells and flowering meadows around, fulfilling the required Swiss stereotype. We crossed two lightly-flowing rivers and then walked the length of Trient, passing a bright Pink Church, to reach Hotel La Grand Ourse.  We were unavoidably in a dorm room here, with eight beds. There was no shop in town, but a small bar in the hotel.  We discovered that even with my sunhat on and 50+ cream I still got rather burnt today., but at least there was no sign of the snow we had been told we would need mini-spikes to cross.  We enjoyed some slow beers at 5pm chatting to a US couple hiking as a family of four.  We had a loud, communal dinner at 7, like a Harry Potter feast, where we chatted lots, then everyone was suddenly off for an early bed.

DAY 2 - Col des Balmes panorama

Day 2 - Argentieres to Trient

 

Route / Distance:  Argentières to Trient via l’Aiguilette dPossette and Col des Balmes / 15.46km

Full tracking details of DAY 2 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 3 – Trient to Champex

We had a poor night’s sleep in our dorm, due to loud snoring by someone.  We were then rudely awoken very early, by a 5.45am alarm set by one of our roomies. At 7am we faced a free-for-all scramble at breakfast, then, to escape the madness, begin walking by 7.35am.  We headed back uphill through dense forests, a quiet trail passing lots of tents, to reach the shops at La Forclaz col, where we looked around but bought nothing. We refilled our water bottles here, then followed an easy path that levelled out, allowing a striding pace, with steep meadows falling away on our left. We faced more long rises on smooth stone and dirt paths to reach the top of today’s main climb, Bovine.  There were flowering Swiss meadows with noisy cow bells everywhere.  We met an Aussie couple at the top of the Col and again at Bovine café where we enjoyed a slice of apricot pie. Our path ahead was blocked by resting cows, so we took an alternative route behind the café through patches of nettles to avoid them.  From here we followed a long, easy drop downhill, meeting hundreds of fellow walkers struggling up the persistent route.

As we dropped, we passed spectacular snowy peaks with waterfalls and rivers running down their face. We felt a little smug as we easily dropped down as others struggled up. We crossed several rivers, much easier than had been suggested to us, and finally broke out of the tree-line onto a flat path about 90 minutes later, still meeting others only now starting up the climb to the Col. We followed a long easy road into Champex, a flat fire track through thick fir forests.  It began to rain as we approached the centre of town, so we nipped into what turned out to be a very expensive supermarket for a few lunch items, before getting decently soaked as we made our way to Hotel Splendide.  We passed by a large lake with some hardy fishermen braving the heavy rains to catch their dinner.  We were checked in by 1pm, enjoying the great view from our lovely double room with a balcony, so glad not to be in a dorm again.  We ate our supermarket lunch and showered, then relaxed and snoozed all through the afternoon. Our luggage arrived later, then we dressed up for dinner at 8, which proved to be a rather posh affair with four courses.

Day 3 - Trient to Champax

 

Route / Distance:  Trient To Champax via La Forclaz and Bovine / 17.33km

Full tracking details of DAY 3 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Day 4 – Champex to La Fouly

After heavy rains all through the night, we decided on a leisurely start, enjoying a lovely breakfast at 8.30am.  We then left to begin walking dressed in waterproof jackets due to the light but persistent morning rain, but with shorts on as still quite warm. We had a damp walk downhill through a neatly forested area filled with many carved wooden statues of mushrooms and various woodland animals; a treasure-trove of curiosities. From here it was mostly low-level walking through quaint, ancient villages – we passed wheat drying barns with traditional timber-work and stone-plinthed hay barns. It was all easy walking on rolling paths through the valley, no big climbs or big mountain views, but lots of interesting chalet houses and pretty meadows.  There were gnomes galore at one over-decorated home.  We later faced a few short woodland climbs, but nothing strenuous in comparison to previous days. We passed a huge dry riverbed with massive boulders strewn around that must be entirely wild when in full flood.  We also found a patch of deep, icy snow, kept insulated with a coating of landslide soil, solidly unmelted.  We then passed a tall waterfall, admiring it from a distance, as we approached La Fouly.

We passed a large campsite with climbing walls and tree-top walkways and a dam with raging water control to enter the village of La FoulyHotel Edelweiss was not yet ready for us to check in, so we went for another short walk, completed a small supermarket shop and ate lunch before checking-in. Low cloud darkened the valley, hiding the surrounding mountains, but we could see La Fouly would be a beautiful place if the weather would only allow us to see it. We spent a lazy afternoon with a bottle of red, watching Wimbledon in our room, then had an early dinner beside an interesting English couple from Canterbury who were walking the TMB the opposite direction to us.  We later watched Brazil vs Belgium in the World Cup quarters, then chilled in our room, glad of the restful downtime.  We could hear a noisy set-up was happening outside for the grand start of an Ultra-marathon race in the morning.  This had definitely been the best day for us to have had poor weather and visibility, safely away from the big views.

DAY 4 - Appraoch to La Fouly panorama

Day 4 - Champax to La Fouly

 

Route / Distance:  Champax to La Fouly via Issert and several small villages / 14.03km

Full tracking details of DAY 4 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)

 

 

 

Our Tour du Mont Blanc hike synopsis to be continued…

French Haute Alps – St Gervais, Les Houches & our upcoming plans

After leaving the wonderful shores of Annecy we drove into the mountains to the nearby town of Thônes.  We found a space in the town’s free aire, then walked around town and looked in their shops, before getting a bottle open and chilling in the warm evening sun.  It was 36 degs this day, and we were already missing the cooling breeze of the blue lake.  We had a slow riverside walk later, when the sun had finally disappeared below the peaks, offering us respite.

Thone - (church)

Thone - (street temperature)

The next morning was market day, and we awoke to find the allegedly dedicated motorhome aire was over-ran with badly parked cars at all angles, blocking the road and a lot of other vans in.  Thankfully we were able to squeeze out and be on our way, leaving several cars to salivate over the additional space we had freed up for them.  We had read a little on the Cascade de la Belle Inconnue, a short hike to a local waterfall spot with a dipping pool, and decided to investigate.  After a few false starts we found the entirely unmarked path and climbed up the steep forest trail, difficult and awkwardly crossing fallen trees and scrambling up pine-needle coated tracks, only to find the feature pool was clogged with fallen trees and debris, like a wild storm had recently ravaged it.  A lower, smaller pool was clear so we had a very refreshing skinny dip under the chilly waterfall to cool off before returning back to Benny.

Cascade de la Belle Inconnue - walk

Cascade de la Belle Inconnue - pool

Originally we planned to stop at the top of the Col des Aravis, but it was so busy and rammed full with other vans that we kept on moving.  We stopped for a bite of lunch in a glamorous Casino Hypermarket car-park in Megève, but the expected services there were not in service, so we had to move on to search for others.  We arrived in the next main town, Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, where we found the aire, a long thin car-park behind the ice rink, perfect for motorhomes.  We were parked quietly out of the way, surrounded by high trees offering some shade, yet it was an easy walk into the town. We doodled down the road, drained in the heat, where we saw a large wedding party all dressed to kill in the central church square, and visited lots of shops so we could benefit from their cooling air-con.

Les Houches (Lac des Chavants)

Later the France vs Argentina World Cup match was on in a local bar, creating lots of yelling, gnashing of teeth and intrigue as the goals flew in. “Don’t cry 4-3 Argentina”.  We passed another quiet evening, snuggled into the foothills of the mighty Alps.  The next morning we made the short hop up the valley to the town of Les Houches, where we parked up in the free aire by Lac des Chavants, in the shadow of Mont Blanc.  We were deliberately moving slowly, biding our time until the start of our next mini-adventure. We walked into the centre of town and back, pausing only to buy new trekking poles, before spending the rest of the afternoon resting in the shade of the light woodland surrounding the lake. It was incredibly hot, and felt strange to be looking at glaciers and snowy peaks in such heat.

Les Houches (village centre)

After one quiet but sticky hot night, we left the free aire at Les Houches and moved only a few kilometres up the road, to settle into a small campsite set on a grassy slope midway between Les Houches and ChamonixCamping Le Grand Champ.  We had a reservation here for a few nights, and had arranged to be able to store Benny for eleven further days, for a nominal fee, whilst we disappeared into the mountains.  The glacial views walking into the site were incredible, but we picked out a shaded pitch with no mountain view, deciding that staying cool was more important.  We would be seeing quite enough of the jagged, snowy peaks in the coming days, so could forego it for now.  We chatted to the amenable owner and she suggested we didn’t need to move Benny to storage, but could remain on the pitch as it was unlikely to be used.  Perfect for us, and would prove much less hassle on our return.

Chamonix (Nicky and flowers)

Chamonix (central street)

The reason the injury sustained to Nicky’s ankle on Puy de Sancy was so concerning to us was that it happened just over a week before we were due to begin our summer main event – the Tour of Mont Blanc hike, or TMB as it is commonly known. We had spent a good portion of our rainy downtime in Cazeneuve, last winter, pulling the trip together.  It is a 170km circular walk with the Mont Blanc Massif at its centre, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland.  Distance-wise, it is roughly equivalent to walking a full loop of the M25, the concrete ring road around London.  But apart from the addition of magnificent mountain scenery, the difference is that the elevation change over the TMB route, up and down, is more than the height of Mount Everest.  In fact there will be over 10,000m of elevation change over the circuit.  It will likely be a tough, yet satisfying, and hopefully very beautiful, challenge.

Gramp Champ - our shaded site

We have accommodation booked at each stage, generally half-board and mostly private rooms, so we are walking the trail the posh way, and self-guided throughout.  We have one bag being transferred between our hotels or mountain refuges, so we only have to carry essential safety items, clothing, water and cameras in our day-packs.  Everything else is taken care of, leaving us to concentrate on the walking and the views. We opted to begin our hike early in the season’s weather window, and to walk clockwise, whereas most favour an anti-clockwise loop.  We will be against the flow of people, but will have a few glorious hours each day of solitude and quiet aloneness before we meet any crowds head on. The high mountain passes, several over 2500m, are still thick with snow in early July, and there has been talk that we may need crampons and ice axes, or at least spikes and poles, to pass them in safety.

021-13 PASSY-74 - RIR TMB - INC6MM 900X710V 925X720T - GABARIT.i

We are both itching to get started, to discuss the minutiae of each days hiking with Andrew and Rafael, our tour organisers at Pygmy Elephant, and learn exactly what we need to do to ensure a safe, fun and happy circumnavigation of the White Mountain.  Tomorrow we meet them in Chamonix to finalise our plans, then we walk, and walk.  And walk.

A&N x

 

France – Lake Annecy swims and cycles

After leaving the quiet beauty of Serrières we drove over and down the mountain to reach the neat, bustling town of Annecy.  The only central carpark suitable for motorhomes that we knew of was full to bursting and the busy traffic dissuaded us from attempting to stop elsewhere.  We were staying close by and could return easily by bike, a much more convenient way to see the main town.  We had booked ourselves in for four nights at a campsite, Les Rives du Lac on the western lake shore, one with a private beach, taking full advantage of their last days of cheap ACSI rates before peak season began.  We serviced and signed in and were given a prime spot, with shade, only a few spaces from the beach that we soon snuggled into and called home.  Then we were off to survey our domain.

Annecy - (first view of lake)

Annecy - (our private beach)

Annecy - (local wildlife)

We scanned the site and were quietly amazed with the mountainous backdrop behind the shimmering blue lake, and smiled smugly that this was our home for a few days.  After an enjoyable celebratory night chilling, we got up early the next day for the short cycle into Annecy town, as it was their market day.  It was an easy cycle on a well-utilised cycle path, with many joggers, bikers, walkers, rollerblading maniacs and even the odd summer cross-country skier rolling along its smooth tarmac.  We passed a long line of almost static traffic heading into the centre and were glad to be able to roll past it easily under our own steam.  After spinning around the lake frontage and through several busy and beautiful parks, we locked our bikes up next to a quiet portion of canal and walked to the historic centre.

Annecy - (cycle to town)

Annecy - (town canals)

Annecy - (walking the old town)

There was a sudden explosion of noise and colour as we reached the covered markets, along with a huge increase in English being spoken, although mostly with American accents.  We followed the stalls along winding streets, dodging the crowds and taking in the wares.  The centre was as curving, winding and steep as any medieval centre we had walked before, interesting and fresh.  The managed rivers had piercing blue water that defined each scene, lifting each vista to a different level.  We walked up a steep, narrow pathway to reach the Château d’Annecy in the heart of the old town, before dropping back down into the heart of the market stalls. We later passed a complicated fish sculpture exhibit being slowly built over the water near le Palais de L’Île, its very construction drawing in a crowd.

Annecy - (fish sculpture)

Annecy - (market day bridges)

We returned to our bikes and cycled slowly, always aware of the milling crowds around us and giving ourselves time to observe the local sunning rituals. Every small patch of grass in the burning sun was filled with supine, unclothed bronzing bodies soaking up the intense heat.  We passed the casino on the north shore and reached a packed public beach where we joined the party, found a space and began our personal sun worshipping.  We had a few refreshing dips in the shallow lake, so necessary to cool our burning skin. We ate snacks listening to the conversation buzz of locals at lunch.  On our return we were passed on the cycle path by a few road bikers in time-trialling mode, and considered attempting a chase, but thought better of it on our rickety old mountain bikes.  We’ll get ‘em next time.

Annecy - (canals and bridges)
Annecy - (boathouse on route home)

Arriving back at base, we rewarded ourselves with more dips to cool off, reading and relaxing on the beach in proper holiday mode.  The beach led straight into a lake of soft sand.  Its texture was like groping mud, offering a weird gripping sensation on our skin as it enveloped our sinking feet. We could swim 300 or 400m out from the pontoon and still stand up, the whole beach basin was like a wave pool of constant depth of 1.5m, with a soft, sandy bottom.  We later sat in the shade, drinking chilled wine and picking at bruschetta as small birds hopped around on our pitch, searching for discarded crumbs, showing no fear.  It sparked memories of afternoon tea at Grantchester Meadows near Cambridge where greedy birds once ate cake crumbs right from our hands one glorious summer afternoon.

Annecy - (lakeside cycle)

Annecy - (town beach spot)

Annecy - (lake from beach)

Another day we got up earlier than is usual for us, ate a small, quick breakfast and set off down to the pontoon.  We had planned a longer swim in the still morning waters before the wind picked up and lifted the surface waves to a sea-like chop.  We set off for a distant beach we could see across the curving bay, having no idea how far it was away.  We were coolly passed by three ladies on SUPs as we swam, along with happily floating coots and grebes, all with cute young.  Sun-worshippers lay supine on their anchored small leisure boats, incuriously watching us go by.  The beach turned out to be almost a mile from our pontoon, or 1580m as measured on my watch, it attached to the handle on Nicky’s visibility tow float rather than my wrist for a more accurate read.  We exited the water to rest a little.

Annecy - (view from our beach)

Annecy - (n lake swimming)

Annecy - (sunsets at beach)

We paused here for a few minutes, watching a small, vocal group undertake lifeguard training.  A Dutch couple sat near us on the beach with their fun-loving black collie, throwing a ball into the lake. Two floppy ears approached us out of the water and with a very friendly manner proceeded to shake themselves dry all over us, to much hilarity.  We took this as a sign to get ourselves back in the water and dropped in from an old concrete digue to begin our swim back.  The waves had picked up in the time we had sat, so rather than stopping for casual sight-seeing as we did on the way out, we swam straight and true, back to base.  We climbed back out onto our pontoon with a little over 3km swam, in beautifully clear 24deg water, feeling buzzed and happy.  And it was time for second breakfast.

Annecy - (Chateau at Duingt)

Annecy - (boats and sunset)

Another day we decided to try the voie verte in the opposite direction to Annecy, to reach the village of Duignt.  A pleasant ambling along the traffic-free cycleway brought us to the shadow of an impressive château, set on a narrow peninsula, although it was privately owned and inaccessible.  Deciding we had better places to swim, and to not linger due to the busy through-road, we instead detoured through the lovely village centre, replete with colourful hanging baskets.  We meandered through their ancient streets then returned to our campsite, to enjoy chilling for the remainder of the day.  We spent time planning out longer swims to various spots we could see around the lake, but ones we may never find the dedication to undertake.  It was all too easy to slide into doing as little as possible.

Talloires (view of lake)

On our last night, we packed up slowly over the day, then sun-bathed and swam for much of the afternoon.  This wasn’t like us at all, but the sun was too repressive to attempt much more.  Later after dinner we returned and sat at the water to watch the slow red glow light up the faces of the mountain rock opposite.  The next morning we slipped out and got back on the road, but we were not finished with the lake just yet. After discounting stopping at a golf course, we parked on the side of the road and walked back to a set of stone steps leading up through a tall retaining wall to reach a path into the Réserve Naturelle du Roc de Chère.  We followed shady woodland tracks through the park, searching for a way to drop down to the coast of the lake.  We eventually found a route that would serve us.

Talloires (swim spot)

Talloires (nicky on boat pier)

Talloires (marina and mountains)

We followed a steep downhill path with metal bars drilled into the cliff face to assist descent, finding a glorious swim spot. White rocks and clear blue water combined to create a special corner of coastline, perfect for a cooling dip after a hot, hilly walk. Bikinied girls sitting chatting on SUPs glided past, and a bearded guy on a small sail dingy nodded a hello.  After drying off, the path led into Talloires town centre.  This was the posh end of Annecy, with a scattering of high-priced hotels and neat restaurants.  We heard American accents pass us by, them seeing Annecy through a different, more monied lens.  There was a gyrating patchwork of colourful paragliders circling the nearby peaks above us, and new wooden pontoons with sunning bodies lying all over them.  A scene of casual perfection.

A&N x