Every year Jason and I peruse the world for some sort of hike or trek. We had seen articles about the Tour du Mont Blanc for years; however, we had shied away from it due to its’ popularity; as well as, we weren’t keen on the idea of sleeping in mountain huts in dormitory style conditions. Believe it or not, I would rather sleep in a tent than in a room with 30 wet, smelly strangers. We decided that if we were ever to do the trek, we would have to do it on a shoulder season. Shoulder seasons are usually less travelled due to chances of inclement weather. In my research, it had been suggested that we hire a guide if we weren’t going to go between the end of June and September. We were in luck on that front. In 2011 whilst hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, we met a young British officer by the name of Mark Brightwell. He was stationed in Nepal at the time, and was taking his family on the same trek. Over the course of 13 days, we would see Mark and his family every other night or so, and we usually chatted for a while. After Nepal, I followed Mark’s adventures on Facebook and saw he was doing lots of trekking in Scotland, England, and the Alps. Last August, we were still stumped about a hike so I decided to reach out to Mark for some general information about the TMB. As it turned out, he was a full alpine guide, so I asked him if he would be so inclined to do a private trek with a couple of “older hikers”. Luckily for us, he said “yes”!!!!
We met Mark on Friday, June 7th in Chamonix, France to go over our gear and itinerary. The Alps had an unusual amount of snow this year, and all of the passes were still covered. Mark said he believed we would have a genuinely challenging yet rewarding adventure. He was right.
Day 1 – Chamonix to Les Contamines
We began our hike on Saturday morning in Chamonix and a boy did we have a grueling first day. 10.5 hours, 18 miles, and a about 2970 feet elevation gain and about the same in loss. However, the day did start out with a 6k walk to Les Houches and a stop at a boulangerie for some fresh quiche and a chocolate croissant. Something about starting the day with “fresh baked” food. On a side note, even though I am a trainer, I had really become a bit lazy in my overall diet over the past six months. I was looking forward to using this hike as a way to put me back on track. I have always told people that “You cannot exercise your way out of a bad diet.” I knew I would basically be pushing myself with regards to cardiovascular strength, and I was going to watch how I ate. Not off to a great start with fresh baked goods and local goat and cow cheese in every village. We hiked over two cols (passes) and hit a small patch of soft snow our first day. After passing over the second col, there was a mountain refuge in sight, but it was closed for a private event. Too bad as that would have been a nice time to stop walking. But, no, down the trail we went, and were met by 5 Ibex hanging out on the trail. The ibex seemed quite put off by having to move off the trail for us to pass. We ended the day at a small hotel Les Contamines. I guess Mark was assessing our preparedness in starting with a LONG day. When I look back at end of our first day, I was happy to note that we had only seen a handful of hikers, and none of them were going our way.
Day 2 Les Contamines to Nant Borrant
Rain started the prior evening and continued into Sunday morning. We left our small hotel and walked into Les Contamines looking for another boulangerie. Success. We started the day with another fresh quiche and were able to buy some snacks. The rain went from a general mist to steady fall. We reached a fork in the road where Mark gave us the high option or a low, much faster route to what would be our first actual refuge. Here began our motto for the whole journey, “Go High or Go Home”. We knew that if the sky cleared we would have some spectacular views, but also knew if it didn’t, it would be a long slog in the rain. Well, guess what, it was the latter! About four steps into taking the high route, I whispered to Jason, “I hate you!” For the most part, we had the correct gear, but I quickly learned that my liner gloves were not going to be enough. They were soaked and my fingers chilled to the bone. We reached the snowline and continued hiking up through the ski areas. No real reason or area to stop for lunch. Eventually, Mark found some cover and suggested taking a break. Would have been fantastic if my frozen fingers worked. I couldn’t unclip my pack, undo my zipper for my jacket or unzip my pack for food. I guess if I were alone, I would have found a way. Instead, I was the brunt of quite a bit of laughter at my full ineptitude. Once, Mark and Jason successfully put on Mark’s liner gloves (well almost successfully) on my shivering fingers, we began our descent through a lovely forest to Refuge du Nant Borrant. Lovely, except for very slippery trunk roots everywhere. This was our first night in a refuge, and although Mark had tried to get us our own room in most of our refuges, we were sharing a 6 bunk room. However, Lucky us! Only, Jason, myself, and Mark. Not too bad. No ensuite bathroom, but 2 toilets and showers down the hall. We were there early enough in the day that the showers had plenty of hot water. We spent the afternoon sipping tea (holding the cup to warm my hands) and trying to dry our boots. I don’t think my boots really dried after that day. Every day after that we spent a large portion of the day hiking in snow. My waterproof boots were bound to get and stay wet. However, as long as I have fresh dry socks to put on every morning, I will never be afraid of getting my boots wet again. Dinner is served at a set time and name placards for each group set on a table. Dinner was a wonderful soup, amazing french bread (oops, diet), followed by a decent meal; however not too memorable. Our first night at a refuge, not too bad. I don’t have the mileage for this day because we took the HIGH route… 🙂
Day 3 Refugio de Nant Borrant to Refuge de la Nova
This by far was my favourite day. We began by walking along a single track road through a beautiful valley before beginning to climb. We hit the snow fairly quickly. Many times on this trek, we crossed streams that were frozen over. We noticed that many people would follow the prior persons’ track. This wasn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do. Just because one person chooses a specific path, it doesn’t mean they chose the safest path. Quite often, it seemed like it would have been smarter to trek across the snow a bit higher than where the footsteps were. Mark rarely followed in others footsteps. In just a month, this entire path will have lost all of its’ snow, but for us, it was packed. In the picture below with me in the foreground, look down behind me and in the distance, you can see other hikers. Hope that puts some of the distance into perspective. We had just reached the col when the storm clouds began to gather. After a quick traverse to another col, we were starting to get small rain drops. There is a refuge high on this path that was supposed to be closed. My fingers began to freeze, and it wasn’t much fun any more. Mark trekked ahead to the refuge and disappeared around the side. I guessed we would just huddle under the awnings for our lunch. However, Mark popped his head back around and said for us to come on in as the refuge was open. Not only was it open for us to come in, the staff was serving hot beverages. A hot chocolate and a coffee later, my hands had warmed up enough to take of my jacket and enjoy the refuge. Mark found a guitar, and we relaxed and had a nice, dry lunch. About 10 minutes after we entered the refuge, other hikers looking liked drowned rats started coming in. After what didn’t seem like long enough, we grabbed our packs (mine weighed 20-25 lbs) and off we went. It is amazing how being warm and fed can change ones’ attitude. Thus began our descent for the day and learning how to basically telemark down the hillside by just sliding our feet and bending our back knee into a lunge. I was pretty clumsy at that. Then Mark upped his ante by introducing us to the “Brightwell bum slide”. What better way to lose altitude that sit on the snow in your rain pants, legs out in front, poles in the air, a nice flat spot to slow you down at the bottom and AWAY you go!!!! After a couple slides, we were well on our way down the mountain. Looking behind us, the weather was building again. Just our luck that up ahead were a couple dilapidated buildings. Based on the wind direction, we were able to shore up on the far side and stay somewhat dry. What followed was a fairly scary thunder and lightning show. I have never been out in the open for a weather event like this, and the thunder claps were astounding. Of course, Jason opened up his pack and pulled out the whiskey. Had a shot with Mark and enjoyed the scenery. Within 20 minutes the sky cleared and away we went. As we were coming close to our refuge, we noticed a semi truck with cows going in the back and coming out plastic on the sides. How cool, a mobile milking station. Into the refuge we went, and down came the rain. Jason and I had our own room with a shower inside. However, no toilet. At dinner, we overheard five other backpackers talk about their experience. Luckily for them, the day before, the refuge had allowed them to stay the night. I believe out of MERCY. They were so unprepared. Mark said in the military, he would call that “Bad Admin” Almost scary to a point. At least they were taking the bus to Courmayeur the next day to assess instead of attempting another pass.
This day was about 11 miles with about 3300 feet ascent and 2970 feet descent. A good 8 plus hour day.
Day 4 – Refuge de La Nova to Elisabetta
Our hike into Refuge De La Nova ended up with hail and rain. This rain continued through the night, but the morning was just over cast with some low mist. We began our hike walking up another beautiful valley looking at old WWII fortifications (bunkers). A quick break and then switchbacks, here we come. Unfortunately, there were a group of three hikers quite a bit ahead of us, and one had a bright red rain cover which meant I could see what was to come. Lots and lots of switchbacks. About 40 minutes into our ascent, Mark realized he had lost his hat. (BAD ADMIN) :). So being a trail runner, he took off to find it. I think I may have just done without. The wind started to pick up which made the climb even colder. Mark would start out our day with an overview of what was to come, and for some reason, my vision of what he said was quite far off. He had said after the switch backs, it was a long, slow, gradual uphill to the col. Long doesn’t describe it. In addition, we had many false summits. I would get hopeful that we were almost there, but then as I reached the top of this one area it leveled off and then up again. I am sure all of the marmots were having quite the laugh. Jason asked me how I was doing. From a cardiovascular standpoint, I was fine, but was exhausted. I think the wind and cold were wreaking havoc on my mindset. Finally, we reached the col and after the 9th time of me saying NO to Jason’s gloves, I grabbed them and loosely put them on my hands. So as per our usual routine of going up, up, up, coming to a pass, then down we go. Looking down the valley, we could see some potentially very bad weather. Mark said he would like to make it to the refuge before it hit so would we mind picking up the pace. I wish I had a video of Mark and Jason walking quickly and me jogging in the snow behind just trying to keep up. Good timing though. We made it just in time and once again, it rained ALL day. The majority of hikers coming in after us were soaked to the bone. One young lady actually stood in front of the fire and just cried. Again, I just don’t think they were prepared for all of the snow especially at the beginning of June. Jason and I had our own room, and the showers were lovely. I believe we completed a little over 9 miles with 3300 feet of ascent and only 990 descent.
Hope you enjoyed reading this …. Days 5-11 to follow. 🙂