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.
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.
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.
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!
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)