Thursday 12 September 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 1: Up, Up and Away

Anyone who walks the full Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) inevitably conjures with numbers. One metric of the TMB is that it’s a walk of some 170km through 3 countries, around one massive white mountain (Mont Blanc), and among countless other glacier-fringed peaks. The total distance alone doesn’t convey much. The ascents and descents increase the difficulty exponentially. Over our 10 walking days we would need to climb a total of nearly 9,500m. By way of comparison Mt Everest is 8,848m. And what goes up must come down: look out knees!

[Mont Blanc centre/back, with some of our group] 
4 months out, back in Tasmania, those scary numbers were messing with my head. So too was the fact that I’d be doing this reputedly gruelling walk at the age of 66, and with a group I didn’t know. (The exception was my brother Ian, who had invited me to join the group.) When I learned that the rest of the group was already training hard for the walk, my apprehension only grew. There was nothing for it but to start my own training. Thankfully I wouldn’t be doing that solo, but with the welcome guidance and participation of my wife. Even though Lynne wouldn’t be doing the walk (it was a “brother thing”, for which our wives had generously given us “shore leave”), this looming deadline gave us both the perfect excuse to shed some weight and get fitter.

[On the right track: an obvious TMB sign] 
Fast forward to August 15, 2019. A short bus trip from Chamonix sees us at our start point in Les Houches. It’s high summer in the Alps, and the forecast storms are holding off. A disorganised group of clouds jostle the higher peaks, mirroring our own last minute fussing. Most of us have had a couple of days in Chamonix to meet up, and to overcome jet lag, but we’re still nervous about what’s ahead. There are 13 in our group, four of whom are 70 plus years old, with most of us nudging 60 or more. It’s fair, then, to call us “experienced”.

At Les Houches we meet our French guide Julie, and a mule named Nikita. The mule has been waiting for us, braying impatiently from the hill above us. Nikita will carry our overnight bags – strictly limited to a 7kg maximum per person – for the first half of our journey. We walkers will carry a similar weight of gear in our day packs. We watch – and assist – while Julie loads our mule. It’s something we’ll get very used to. And then we set off, falling in behind Nikita: something else we’ll get used to.

[Following our mule, Nikita]
It’s all uphill for the first 2 hours, initially through what looks like alpine suburbia, then across grassy, semi-forested slopes, which are grazed by cattle as well as groomed for skiing and mountain biking. The views, deep into Chamonix's Arve Valley, and up to the vast Mont Blanc Massif, are a major compensation for our huffing and puffing.

[Looking back as we climb out of the Chamonix Valley] 

We chat, as breath allows, and I learn a little about some of my companions. I also pick up that I’m not the only one having trouble convincing myself that my training is making any difference. Still, we eventually top out at the Col de Voza, just shy of 1700m. Shortly afterwards we unload Nikita and spread ourselves out on the grass for our first lunch. It’s bread and cheese – both French, of course – with assorted salads and fresh fruit. While we’re munching, Nikita finds a dry patch of grass and rolls in it extravagantly, as glad as we are of the break.

Another pattern is soon established. After our 650m climb, we have to descend again. Our steep path takes us through forest, towards the village of Bionassay. We by-pass most of the village, but not before learning that the glacier that hangs above it – Glacier de Bionassay – had killed 200 people in 1892. The glacier had collapsed, and a huge chamber of meltwater trapped beneath the ice had catastrophically flooded the valley, wiping out the lower village of Bionnay. Today the glacier has retreated considerably, and looks more picturesque than dangerous.

[View towards the Glacier de Bionnassay] 
We soon have a minor water issue of our own. A couple of days of rain have swollen the Torrent de Bionnassay, which we have to cross. Nikita would normally ford this without difficulty, but Julie decides that’s not possible today. It’s no problem for us, as there’s a footbridge. However that’s too narrow for a fully-laden mule, and Julie isn’t sure Nikita will happily cross the bridge, even if we take off her whole load. We try it regardless, and our brave mule – after considerable encouragement – trots quickly across the narrow bridge. She looks as though she’s holding her breath, like a child accepting a dare.

Once we’ve re-loaded Nikita we climb out of the valley, then up, down and around more hillsides. Our views now open out to the south-west, where there are some impressive distant mountains. But we’re heading south-east, up towards even higher mountains. And towards our next glacier – Glacier du Miage – part of which sits high above our first night’s accommodation. Of course there’s a climb involved, some 350m, and we’re both late and tired as we reach Refuge de Miage.

[Our weary group approaching Refuge de Miage] 
Clouds have descended on the mountains, so we make do with the lesser rewards of rushing water, chirping marmots, and green, flower-laden slopes. And did I mention warm showers, soft beds and cold beers? We’ve survived our first day on the TMB. So far so good!

[Looking good: our accommodation at Refuge de Miage] 

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