Monday 23 December 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 10: Encore?

If the other guests in Hôtel du Buet’s dining room had been wanting a quiet night, they were in for a disappointment. The magnum of lovely French wine that Julie shared with us may not have helped. But it was our last night together, and speeches, toasts, and thank yous were a pleasurable necessity. We especially wanted to thank our guide Julie and our leader Keith for their hard work.

[A defiant Joan: ready to go] 
Despite the revelry we were in surprisingly good form at our very early breakfast. This final day was forecast to be sunny and warm, and given that it would be a long day, starting with a strenuous climb, we were keen to get the hardest part done in the cool of morning. As we entered the Réserve des Aiguilles Rouges, it was in deep shadow, though beyond we could see the sun already shining on the snowy peaks of the Mont Blanc Massif

And then the climb began. Despite the shade and the cool air, we were very soon sweating. We’d done steep before, but this climb towards the Aiguille Rouges felt a notch steeper. Near one bluff it was too acute for standard switchbacks, and ladder-like steps had been cut into the slope.

[Ascending the steps. (photo by Ian Grant)] 
One good thing about steep is that you gain altitude quickly, even if you don't rejoice about that at the time. We were more keen to rehydrate, now that the sun had added external warmth to our own internal combustion. 

 [Liz and Ian have a break on the ascent]
But eventually, after a climb of more than 1,000m, we reached the Grand Balcon Sud. Here the track began to level out, and we were rewarded with extraordinary views across to the shining Glacier d’Argentiere, the sharp Aiguille Verte and much of the vast massif beyond.

And now we wandered more easily. For the next 4-5 hours our views across the valley were a roll-call of the glaciers, peaks and deep valleys that make this one of the very greatest walks in the world. On our own side of the valley we had the red peaks of the aptly named Aiguille Rouges, and a series of beautiful small lakes nestled beneath them. We climbed a little further so we could walk around Les Chèserys, a set of exquisite cirque lakes.

[Les Cheserys mirroring the Aiguille Rouges] 
This grand scenery was complemented by the more humble beauties of rocks and mosses and wildflowers, and at one point an almost luminescent green emperor moth caterpillar. At one drink stop a couple of ibex walked by, seemingly unconcerned by the gasping and noisy scrabbling for cameras this induced. We’d mostly seen these lovely creatures at a distance. As with marmots, they seemed tokens of a wildlife that has largely withdrawn to places less travelled by humans.

 [An emperor moth caterpillar]

[An ibex on the Grand Balcon Sud] 
Seeing this wild creature now, I start to ponder how far from true wilderness the Alps are. Yes they are wild and spectacular, savage even. But they're also hemmed in, nibbled at, and changed by human activity, including our own walking. Add skiing, climbing, farming, housing, hydro development, parapenting, gliding, mountain biking, gondolas, cafes, and much more, and the mountains don’t seem to have much privacy.

[Looking across to the shrinking Mer de Glace] 
And then there’s climate change. Even in the six years since my first visit here, the glaciers have retreated noticeably. These are the kinds of changes that are supposed to happen at, well, a glacial pace. Right now they are galloping. On such a sublime day, in such a wonderful place, I feel incredibly privileged. But I also feel sobered to think how radically altered it will be for future generations.

[Feeling privileged to be near Mont Blanc] 
We’re all sobered by a more quotidian TMB challenge: yet another long and slow descent. We had earlier talked about finishing the last day with a chair-lift ride from Le Brevent direct into Chamonix. But Julie has told us this is closed for maintenance, so our only option is to use the engine of our own honest legs. We just hope we have enough fuel for that effort!

[Mike starts the long descent] 
And of course we do. We descend from the heights of La Flegere through thick forest, seemingly forever, towards the town of Les Tines. We finally come to the valley floor at the adventure playground of Les Praz de Chamonix, where children are running, and riding and yelling: sights and sounds designed to bring us back to earth. The rest of the walk does that too, being mostly a road walk through the suburban streets and lanes of Chamonix.

[Road walking on the outskirts of Chamonix] 
It should be an anticlimax, but really, how can anyone feel let down by any of this? We are at the end of an epic walk, having covered more than 170km over 10 days in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges on earth. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company; have shared moments of joy and pain and fun, and everything in between.

[Moments to savour!] 
Tomorrow the UTMB, an ultra marathon around the Tour du Mont Blanc, will commence. Banners, stalls, runners and spectators are everywhere, and we have to jostle our way among them down the lane beside the Arve River that leads to town. We pass a couple of numbered runners. I look across at my brother, and almost say to him "Encore?" Almost.

[Entering Chamonix alongside the Arve]

Friday 20 December 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 9: Paying Attention

Our start from Col de la Forclaz was a relaxed one. We’d chosen not to walk until the bus transporting Betty to our next stop had arrived. A ride was necessary because Betty had been limping badly, and today (again) involved a lot of climbing. But first we had to descend from the col towards the town of Trient, which we bypassed after crossing a pedestrian bridge over a main road.

[Le Peuty Valley]  
We paused at the small Refuge le Peuty, a few buildings and a yurt set in a verdant valley surrounded by small farms. We’d dropped almost 250m to Le Peuty, but promptly had to make that up times three. As we climbed out of the valley, through a mix of meadows and forest, our views gradually became more expansive. Behind us loomed the impressive Plateau du Trient, with its large icefield and glaciers, and dark peaks reaching to more than 3500m.

[Climbing, with Plateau du Trient behind] 
The climbing was slow and steep, but after 8+ days of this, our legs were surely growing accustomed to it. And the usual signs of progress – a thinning of trees, and a greater expanse of pasture – helped us along. 

[Looking back towards the Plateau du Trient] 
In one meadow we passed close to a massive black bovine, which we initially took to be a bull. A closer anatomical inspection showed it was a female. Whether it’s true that cows are less aggressive than bulls, I don’t know. But this one seemed outright friendly, coming right up to the fence when I stopped to photograph her. And after the photoshoot was done, she licked my offered hand with her strong, raspy tongue. She may have liked the salt on it, though I’m not so sure about the sunscreen.

[The Big Friendly Cow] 
And the sunscreen was needed up here today. A brilliant blue sky was broken only by a few contrails and some wispy, peak-hugging clouds. In a larch forest near Les Tseppes we paused for a drink and snack, then sidled through meadows beneath the steep slopes around Croix de Fer and the Col de Balme

[Ascending towards Les Tseppes] 

[A short break near Les Tseppes] 
Across the valley were yet more sharp peaks, including the snow-spattered Les Dents Blanche. Beneath that, at about the same altitude as we were walking, we could see the reservoir of Lac Émosson, part of a hydro-electric scheme whose power is shared by both Switzerland and France. Given the number of hydro schemes in the Alps, perhaps that water running out of the bath/cattle trough yesterday wouldn’t be wasted after all.

[Ian and me across from Lac Emosson] 
For lunch we stopped on an elevated knoll with vast views, across to Lac Émosson and the mountains beyond it, and right around to the Massif des Aiguille Rouges. If all went well, we’d be walking beneath that range tomorrow. 

[Lunch on our knoll with a view] 
But for that to happen, we had to finish today, and we weren’t sure how straightforward that would be.  Over lunch we’d watched a large flock of sheep being taken down the slope through a small pass. They’d climbed steeply up to the pinch-point before tumbling down the other side, flowing like sand through a crooked hourglass. It looked narrow and difficult, and if it was hard for sheep, how would it be for us?

[A flock of sheep on the move] 
For once the TMB was kind to us. Our track, while steep, avoided that sheep track, instead executing a series of elegant switchbacks through the sloping meadow. Just as I was thinking how good parts of the track would be on a mountain bike, voices from behind called a warning. And through came some mountain bikers, hooting as they jumped across some drainage ditches and slalomed down the track.

[Looping down towards Vallorcine] 
We eventually re-entered forest, and began a long trudge down towards the town of Vallorcine. That town felt quite far enough, but the TMB now returned to its hard-taskmaster mode. There was still another 2km to walk, uphill, past a pub heaving with drinkers (but no time for us to join them), before we would reach our lodgings at the Hôtel du Buet.

Of course we were used to it by now, and simply put our heads down and did what was required. But as the sun descended behind the mountains, and the shadows stretched across the valley floor, I remembered that after Le Buet we only had to do all this for one more day. 

[A scarce copper butterfly (?)] 
And so I decided to savour this extra bit of walking: to notice the smell of newly mown hay; to watch butterflies making the most of the soon-to-close wildflowers; to trace the swooping flight of welcome swallows on their late afternoon hunt; and to watch happy campers setting up for a final weekend before school returned. This afternoon, this beautiful alpine valley deserved as much attention as I could pay it.

[Our hotel at Le Buet] 

Tuesday 17 December 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 8: The Bovine Route

[Champex-Lac viewed from the La Breya chairlift]  
When walkers have a day off, you’d think that walking would be low on their to-do list. Not on this trip. While Julie took a proper day off – guiding for more than 7 days-in-a-row being against guide rules – we chose to walk back down to Champex-Lac for a proper look at the many and various attractions in and around the town. That included a coffee in town, a chairlift ride up to La Breya ski-field, a walk to the fascinating Flore-Alpe Botanical Garden, lots of walking in between, and finally the inevitable steep walk back up to our hotel. In short, we had a busman’s holiday.

[Edelweiss in the Flore-Alpe Gardens, Champex-Lac] 
Nevertheless we were well rested and ready to go by the time Julie returned the next morning. We had our familiar red bags waiting to be loaded, this time not onto the mule, but into the van that would transport them to our next stop. And then Julie told us about today’s walk. We wouldn’t be taking the steep and hazardous Fenêtre d’Arpette route, which would have led us from Relais d’Arpette up to the sharp peaks and “savage black cliffs” (as Jim Manthorpe’s guidebook puts it) at the head of Val d’Arpette. Some of the group had been keen to try this apparently spectacular haute route variante, especially in what looked to be fine, settled weather. But with just one guide, and some walkers carrying slight injuries, we had to stick together. The “softer” route via Bovine won out.

[Forest walking after Relais d'Arpette] 
So instead of ascending through rock and scree to 2600m, we sidled gently through forest before dropping down to about 1300m. However that’s where the gentle walking ended. We then began a long, steep ascent alongside the Durnand de la Jure stream, craning our necks to see which high point ahead we would have to attain. We had a short respite when the track sidled across the slope, but after crossing the stream, we began climbing again, this time north-west and towards the tree line.

[Ian and Ken on the steep climb near Durnand de la Jure]
Our lunchtime destination was the area known as Bovine, and we supposed we were close when we began seeing and hearing cows and their bells. The fortunate bovines had, for today at least, the most beautiful of meadows to feed in: lush, flower-dotted pasture, with plentiful water. I’m not sure whether cows appreciate views, but we certainly did. Of more interest to them, I suppose, was their drinking vessel: a repurposed enamel bath, fully topped up with clear mountain water. It was a little shocking to our Australian sensibilities to see water gushing into, and then out of, the old bath, and running away down the slope.

[Our group approaches Bovine] 
Shortly after this we turned a corner on the flank of the grassy slopes and began to approach a small stone barn that had been turned into a kitchen/cafe, complete with outdoor tables and umbrellas. Today they were selling biscuits, cakes, rolls, and hot and cold drinks. What this place would be like on a wild and wet day, we wouldn’t find out. But today it was superb: blue skies, verdant meadows, tiny puffs of white cloud, and views past happy cows, across a deep valley, to yet another range of high mountains.

[The refuge/cafe at Alpage de Bovine] 

[Happy cows and great scenery near Bovine] 
Despite the alpine meadow feel, and the plethora of mountains, we were now seeing more signs of population. In the valleys below us were roads, and a more densely settled network of towns and villages. After lunch we topped out at just over 2000m and then began a long descent through a forest of ancient larch towards the town of Trient. 

[One of the ancient larches on our descent]
As the afternoon wore on, we may have been tempted to feel a little weary, or perhaps slightly heroic, after all our walking. But on the way down we gained a little perspective when we passed a young mum with two little girls. The 4 or 5 year olds were walking happily and chattily, without the slightest complaint, up the steep track some kilometres from the start of the track.

As we wound our way down those few kilometres we began to hear traffic, and eventually we came to the road that joins Martigny, Trient and Vallorcine to the Chamonix valley beyond. We’d reached the Col de la Forclaz, and for once there was no final uphill push to our accommodation. Right beside the road was the Hotel Restaurant Col de la Forclaz, our more-than-comfortable home for the night.

[Relaxing at Col de la Forclaz] 

Tuesday 10 December 2019

The Tour du Mont Blanc 7: It’s the Simple Things

What a difference a border crossing makes. I doubt many prefer Swiss cuisine to Italian. Fondue is all very well, but it could hardly challenge bolognese. Nor is rösti likely to beat pizza in world-wide popularity. But then there’s breakfast ...

[La Drance de Ferret Valley] 
After a warm, dry and very comfortable night in our Swiss hotel, we ambled down for a buffet breakfast. And there, among many plates of delicious looking food, was a large serving bowl full of beautiful bircher muesli. There was also a cornucopia of both fresh and stewed fruits, and a wide variety of dairy. Oh how I had missed fruit and yoghurt and muesli! Regardless of how good the cheeses and meats looked, the Bircher was my bliss.

If this focus on food seems a little forced, it’s worth remembering that food is a vital part of home, perhaps even more so when you’re away from home. We’d been walking continuously now for 6 days, we’d been strangers in three strange lands, far from our homes. Seemingly simple things that we usually take for granted, like drinking water, dry clothes, hot showers, clean toilets, comfortable beds, and the enjoyment of food, had barged their way to front-of-mind for us.

After that blissful breakfast, the morning continued on an upward trajectory. Although the cloud hung low, the rain had gone. We left La Fouly and quickly joined a pleasantly graded downward path that offered views across a steep and impossibly green valley. Yesterday’s downpour had enhanced water flow too, and La Drance de Ferret river, the side streams, and the occasional waterfall, all gushed exuberantly.

[A waterfall after the town of La Fouly]

[A steep traverse after La Fouly] 
Gradually the alpine grandeur of previous days gave way to a quieter, more bucolic beauty. Certainly the mountains were still there, but it was as though they’d stepped back to give someone else centre stage. Where we’d been tramping on steep mountain tracks, we now traipsed through green meadows filled with wildflowers, dotted with cattle and goats, and interspersed with exquisite Swiss villages. The heavens joined in, blessing us with large patches of blue sky and bright sun.

[Walking through meadows near Issert] 
We stopped to stare – and photograph – frequently, and to admire the quintessentially Swiss firewood stacks, particularly in the little village of Les Arlaches. Who said passion was just an Italian trait? Clearly some of these Swiss villagers have a passion for neatness and order, and especially when it comes to their firewood.

[One of the wood stacks in Les Arlaches] 
At the village of Issert we crossed the river, and began climbing towards the town of Champex. Before long we’d found a suitably shady spot for lunch, deep in a coniferous forest, and close to an intriguing tunnel. Julie explained this was once a slate mine. All of those slate roof-tiles had to have come from somewhere!

Lunch included boiled eggs. Intriguingly these had been preserved with coloured wax, which brought out Mike’s playfulness. He carefully hid the eggs under logs and behind bushes, and declared an egg-hunt. It may not have been Easter, and tiredness might have prevented some from appreciating Mike’s whimsical humour. But hunger was enough to ensure we all joined in the spirit of the occasion.

[Julie find the right sort of mushroom!] 
And then, as we trudged higher, Julie found a new game for us to play. The forest hid treasures of which we were unaware until she enlightened us. Once shown, we started spotting mushrooms everywhere in the pine-needle undergrowth. Some of them had Julie capering about very happily, especially a variety of highly sought-after edible mushrooms. Some of the others could have made us quite ill, so it was no free-for-all. But with Julie’s help, Keith, Mike and a couple of others got their eye in, and before long Julie had a healthy load of mushies.

For a time we walked on at that relaxed, mushroom-plucking pace. When we weren’t spotting fungi, we were catching occasional glimpses through the trees into the valley below. There, surrounded by a mix of cleared fields and industrial complexes, we could see the sizeable town of Orsieres. Rather than heading that way, we continued to climb towards Champex-Lac, our almost-destination. It sat high above Orsieres, the two towns separated by a formidable switch-back road. By the time we’d reached a lookout point, we were warm and thirsty, and very glad to find a gushing water fountain there. Sometimes it’s the simple things.

[Ian fills up at the fountain] 
After that we veered left, and began the steep descent into Champex, a pretty ski resort town with a plethora of hotels, set alongside the charming Lac de Champex. While our printed itinerary had indicated we’d spend our one-and-only rest day here, Julie had let us know earlier that we would actually be staying “a little out of town”. So after a brief rest by the lake we again hoisted packs and headed for the hotel Relais d’Arpette.

[Still climbing: nearing Relais d'Arpette] 
Need I say that this was uphill from the lakeside town? And so it was an hour or so later, that we finally reached what looked to be a sizeable and comfortable hotel. It had a restaurant and a bar, and there were dozens of patrons relaxing and taking in both beverages and brilliant mountain views, including towards the famed Fenetre d’Arpette. Our feet may have been sore after a week of walking, but once again – in the other sense – we seemed to have landed on them.

[Sunset over the Fenetre d'Arpette]