Monday 16 September 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 2: A Long Way Up, A Long Way In

        “We climbed and climbed; and we kept on climbing;
         we reached about forty summits; but there was always
         another one just ahead.” 
Mark Twain (“A Tramp Abroad”)
In the morning we could see what we’d missed on arrival. Where the steep meadows had ended in cloud last evening, they now gave way to peaks and glaciers and a soft blue sky. If that wasn’t enough to lift our spirits, we’d also eaten and slept well. Despite a map briefing from Julie that promised a long, challenging day, we felt oddly – perhaps naively – optimistic about the day ahead.

[View from the Refuge de Miage]  
With that dollop of Day 2 innocence fuelling us, we left our homely refuge, crossed the Torrent de Miage, and trudged steeply uphill towards Mont Truc. The alpine meadows, full of wildflowers, kept our spirits up. 

[Alpine wildflowers] 
So too did the fact that we didn’t actually have to ascend Mont Truc. Instead we sidled through cow-dotted meadows, a brilliant blue sky setting off improbably beautiful mountains. There were even wild raspberries to pick once we started to descend through the forest.

[Levelling off after Mont Truc]  
A long descent followed, mostly on a wide track, and through beautiful coniferous forest dotted with deciduous trees. Eventually we reached the town of Les Contamines, deep in the Montjoie valley. The small town was bustling, with a market selling a large variety of outdoor clothing, and fluttering banners set up for the UTMB – the ultra marathon event that would follow our route in less than two weeks.

[Our sometimes tangled route] 
We caused a brief traffic jam as we processed behind Nikita the mule up the main street, but we soon dived off the road onto a shady track along the valley floor. The track was now easy and flat, but somehow we were behind time, so we had to hustle along. By now we’d been walking long enough for aches and strains to become evident. I was finding my pack in uncomfortable balance with my front-mounted camera gear, leading to neck and shoulder pain. (A quick adjustment later fixed the issue, but at the time it felt as though there was no time to stop for that.)

I was far from the only one facing challenges. Joan, at 75 still a leading light in the walking group around which our TMB party was based, was having trouble with the pace. She and a couple of others had been late arriving into Chamonix, after democracy protests at Hong Kong airport had seen them diverted to Frankfurt, then Paris. They’d only joined the rest of us late on the night before the walk. It had not been an ideal preparation, and Joan had begun to feel that the pace was beyond her, and that she was delaying the group.

Despite our pleas, Joan made the decision to travel back to Chamonix for a few days to re-gather herself. She said she’d aim to join us again in Courmayeur in a few days. Just before our valley ended – at the gothic chapel of Notre Dame de la Gorge – Joan waved us off. It soon began to look like a wise choice, as we immediately began a severe climb, first up an old Roman road, then over a deep and narrow gorge of the Torrent Nant, before winding around to a welcome stream-side lunch spot.

[Torrent Nant rushes through a narrow gorge] 

The sun was strong, with high cirrus clouds striping an otherwise blue sky. It was warm enough for some of us to seek shade. But too soon lunch was over, and we began a particularly long uphill section. As we got beyond 2 000m, still short of the Col du Bonhomme, the forest began to thin, and give way to expansive alpine meadows. Soon we stopped seeing – and hearing – cattle, the going now rockier, the grasses sparser.

[The long climb to the Col du Bonhomme] 

I tried to concentrate on what was immediately in front of me, or chat with whoever was beside me. But any time I stole a look ahead, the col was a good deal higher still. On one of these sneaked looks I noticed a large patch of dirty snow, with the signs of foot traffic across it. We followed Julie and Nikita onto the snow, curious about the mule’s ability to walk on snow. With her head stoically down, she just kept plodding. 

[Julie leads Nikita across a snow patch] 

Once we were above the snow I took the same approach. Finally, just shy of 2 hours after lunch, we topped out at the Col du Bonhomme. My brother Ian and I posed happily, if wearily, for what we hoped was a celebratory photo of the top.

[Brothers at the Col, (Ian right, Peter left)]  

But at 2 325m, it was still more than 100m below our day’s destination. We wearily turned south-east and began sidling across broken rocky terrain. Nikita seemed as done-in as we felt, and at one stage she stumbled to her knees. She also threw a shoe, and although it didn’t seem to bother her, we were concerned. Julie was too, and took extra care to lead Nikita around the rockiest sections. 

[A tricky rocky section near the end of the day] 

Nearly an hour and a half after the col, we finally saw our haven for the night, the Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, taking almost as long to say as it took to reach! We’d come nearly 22km, over 7 hours of walking, not counting our lunch break. At an altitude of almost 2 500m, this would be one of our highest nights.

[The Refuge at last!]  

If we thought we’d end the day with a quiet victory drink and meal, we soon learned another lesson of the Alps. Even when you’re a long way up, and a long way in, there are people everywhere. Still, it was a bit of a shock to enter the refuge and find over 100 other walkers already ensconced. The atmosphere was ripe with the smell of food, the fug of sweaty clothes and stale socks, and the multi-lingual hubbub of many nations. Once we had our beers, we sat down and added to the ambience. Day 2 was done at last.

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