Tour de Mont Blanc – hiking the TMB (a personal reflection)
Through scratched perspex, we looked down like giants on the rows of tiny buildings and straight roads that littered the flat valley base, carpeting the flat plain in dense, interlocking patterns. It all became toy-like, insignificant in the deep shadow of the high mountain massif. Opposite, we watched as the white domed cap of Mont Blanc came slowly into view as we rose higher in our gently-rocking cocoon. The famed peak would be the focal-point of our next ten days as we hiked a 170km oblong circuit around it, through three countries. We were both buzzing with anticipation.
We arrived at the top of Plan Praz from Chamonix, France, to begin our trail. There were others here, colourful, noisy day-trippers, but we saw no one likely to be starting the hike alongside us. This was unsurprising, as we had chosen both an unconventional place to begin, and were walking the opposite direction to most. With a little trepidation, partnered with nervous excitement, we followed a dusty path of loose gravel up behind the lift station, gaining height with each forward step. We felt alive, readied for the challenge, eager to get moving and to begin discovering the path ahead. We were soon engulfed by the tall sides of nearby mountains. Their dry faces towered above us in grey knuckles of coagulated rock. Smudges of pristine snow remained set in deep gullies and rubbed high on deeply shadowed slopes.
Around them the earth smoothed to a shrub-speckled plain, and on all sides the horizon was closed-in by snowy peaks, pale in the distance. We traversed this stony face on a well-used trail, leading through pockets of vivid-green fir trees on narrow, dusty trails. Combined with the remaining blotches of greying snow this created a Christmas postcard feel, jarring in our imaginations with the muggy heat of the late morning air. In the next valley, deepened with heavy shadows, we could see dots of colour approaching, lined like caterpillars along the obvious snaking path. These were the groups of tradition-respecting anti-clockwise walkers we expected to meet each day. We nodded and smiled our way past them, glad for each spark of company but occasionally craving the clear and quiet solitude of an empty trail.
With us walking clockwise, against convention and crowds, we experienced wonderfully alone mornings, full of welcome solitude. We could stumble and sweat up our morning climbs in peace, without witness. Around halfway through each day’s walking we began to meet others, usually on a downhill stretch, for us. We enjoyed these sociable afternoons, brimming with cheery greetings and occasional chats, as we silently, selfishly, revelled in the thought that we had completed the most difficult stretch of our day. All those we passed had still to face the climb we were now descending from. On occasion we jogged small stretches of downhill trails, slow in hiking boots, but it was much easier on our knees to fall with rather than fight against gravity. We were occasionally passed by committed cyclists on fat-tired bikes, belligerently forcing their way up the steep, rutted trails, or joyously falling fast down them.
The circuit contained a continuous accessible beauty, and we never tired of the new vistas each section brought. Flowering meadows crowded with bell-ringing golden cows, villages of perfect timber chalets decorated with climbing roses, and high mountain peaks topped with snowy domes, scarred with deeply-clawed gullies. Set above the treeline, in shaded crevices, we stared at the ragged tongues of rough-surfaced glaciers as they prodded menacingly towards the valley floor. At smaller scales, tiny alpine flowers brightened each path, their tiny star-blues and butter-yellows a reflection not of insignificance but robust hardiness. We longed for each upcoming change, to see what was next, just as we wished a favoured view could stay with us longer. Nothing was permanent, yet every change was valuable and worthy. We soaked up all that we could, breathing in the views alongside the fresh, clean air of the high mountains.
We saw this trip as a break from our normal van life, each night after walking a treat of long showers, clean sheets and prepared food, away from the usual daily chore of shopping, cooking and washing up. Both the daily freedom of the mountain hiking and the welcoming comfort of the hotels were our reward. In such clear weather there was no mistaking the path, so we walked free of concern. Each day, rather than bringing weariness, made us stronger. We got hike-fit by doing, each completed climb a strong, building session for legs and lungs. We grew to crave every tough rise, the constant sweat and burn of sustained effort and the joyous reward of a newly earned and compelling mountain vista. Each passing Col brought us the next visual wonder and a new valley to explore on the opposite side.
At Les Mottets, we were sat on long wooden benches, by long tables, in groups of fourteen or more. Each course was brought out in huge serving bowls or platters to be distributed by each table of guests. We hesitantly plated up what we thought our share, trying to judge a fair portion and not offend our neighbours. But we need not have been cautious as unending refills were available to any who requested them. We ate hungrily whilst discussing the trail so far and sharing a sketch of our outside lives with the nearest others. Our hosts entertained us with traditional organ music from a colourful box, the tunes magically read from punched cardboard sheets fed into one side. Once sated, the majority retired to a night in the dreaded bed-lines of the cramped dormitory, but we had a coveted double suite.
Despite our private room, we still suffered a disturbed night. Stiff from sleeplessness, we stepped slowly back into the glaring sun. Our day began with another cloudless sky over a dusty gravelled path that carried us upwards. We passed supine cows wearing thick leather necklaces hung with heavy brass bells before rising sharply along a series of stony hairpins to reach a grassy bluff, surrounded by a curtain of sheer grassy slopes. The dusty grey valley turned to green-yellow slopes lined with deeply-worn brown tracks. Minute alpine flowers speckled the grasses with dots of vibrant colour. We passed idle, furry marmots nuzzling in tall grasses. We crossed rivers flowing over wavy rocks, worn smooth with time. We marvelled at the swirling-lined strata under a shallow waterfall, veined with vivid colours, a freak creation of geology and water. Our rich salty sweat, mixed with sun-cream, all but blinded us as we rose sharply.
Hours passed and the stubborn mountain greens gave way to patches of loose shale, steep and crumbling, and a return to a hard, all-grey landscape. The only softness found here were the ribbed blobs of last winter’s remaining snow, pristine white, untouched. A bright sea of hikers was dropping down the opposite slope, giving scale to our path, our only true reference in the monotone greyness. We stumbled onto a hard-to-see path, denoted only by knee-high cairns stood grey on grey against the discarded shale, and followed this up a long line of tight turns. Eventually we were led to the snow-capped summit of the Col des Fours, at 2685m. We paused here, satisfied from our efforts. We took time to savour the moment, breathing in the thin cool air and examining the expansive view.
As beautiful as each vista was, we always felt a constant impatience to keep moving. We knew we still faced a long downward path to reach Les Contamines. We dropped off the Col on long stretches of crisp-topped snow, with well-worn deep channels of muddy-brown slush denoting the path. The kilometres fell away easily as we lost height, passing multitudes slowly slogging their way up to the Col des Fours. We fell alongside the green-glass river, passed pristine churches and scalloped rock pools of deep, frothing blue, to reach the outskirts of Les Contamines and our boutique Hotel Gai Soleil. We were treated to a tidy, characterful room with a balcony overlooking the gardens. The in-house chef prepared us a stylish reinvention of the traditional French raclette, serving salad, potatoes and hot, melted Camembert, followed by a wonderfully tart berry sundae. The hard kilometres fell away in sudden luxury.
Our days passed in a familiar pattern, each flowing inexorably into the next. We crossed from France to Switzerland to Italy with little change but the daily greetings we shared on the mountain pathways. Each day we climbed high and each night slept low, secure in small valley settlements or in lonely mountain refuges. We rose early to breakfast and began walking before the sun broke in glorious rays over the peak-lined horizons. Days began with a steep return to re-join the main circuit, and the cooler dawn air was a welcome relief as we forcefully regained the altitude lost the day before. We found the trail became a series of moments, of views, sounds and smells, each vividly distinct yet impossible to separate from the whole. Everything seen was but a glimpse, an ephemeral whisper of the landscape.
Rising out of Les Houches, the deep shade of the woodland trees brought some relief from the sun’s direct oppression, but offered little respite from the intense heat of the still, close air. When the wind blew through the branches we instantly felt renewed, revitalised, our repressive tormentor temporarily removed from our burning skin. The path was formed from gnarled, swollen roots jutting out of dust-brown soil like giant arthritic knuckles attempting to escape a grave. Grey boulders sat immobile between the roots, forming helpful steps or high barricades to assist or slow our progress. The dry soil was scalloped in places from the passing of a million boots. We climbed in silence, and with no view out through the dense trees, we both looked inwards instead, pushing ourselves with a quiet intensity.
The burning satisfaction from our steady efforts kept us striding out strongly. We rose high, yet were more affected by the intoxicating closeness of the stifling afternoon heat than any achieved altitude. In many ways the higher passes, over 2000m, were a relief to us as they came packaged with a welcome breeze and much cooler air. We passed by Refuge Bellachat and entered a different landscape, a grassy plateau of bumps and lakes. This suddenly changed again to a sculpted path of flat boulders, built as steps, weaving through a loose, grey moraine. Beyond here we reached the crowded lookout at the top of Brévent lift at 2525m, our final climb complete. With quiet celebration, we began our short descent through snowfields and grey dust to return, days later, to the top of Plan Praz, set above Chamonix.
We completed the walk, our distances measuring a total of 183km including offshoot tails to reach accommodations. The route may have looked wild, challenging, even escapist on occasion, but it never truly felt it. We were always close to safety, to other hikers, to the easy comforts of a hotel. We never thought of ourselves as being alone, isolated, even if experiencing that hint of danger or spark of adventure was something we both deeply desired. It was a tame, civilised hike, a calm and comfortable multi-day wilderness walk. It may not have proved to be the difficult, testing physical or mental challenge we had expected, even craved for, but it remains a wonderful route replete with quiet, thoughtful beauty and deeply impressive mountain scenery. And we can’t rightly fault it for that.
Previous posts (of a more chronological nature) from the same trip:
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 2)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 3)