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]

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