Tuesday, August 7, 2018

TMB Day 1: Les Houches to Refuge Nant Borrant

Day One
July 17, 2018

Starting point: Les Houches
Ending point: Refuge Nant Borrant
Distance: 12.1 miles
Height gain: 3547 feet
High point: Col de Tricot (6955 feet)
Lunch: Refuge de Miage
Accommodation: Refuge Nant Borrant

"The bare statistics of height gain and loss, and the amount of time calculated to walk this stage, underline the fact that it's a demanding route for a first day.  But it's also a magnificent section, rich in high mountain views and a worthy introduction to the Tour of Mont Blanc." (Reynolds 43)

The nerves were prickling when I woke up this morning. The first thing we did was check the weather.   It had been nice and sunny the whole day before, with only a little rain at night, so it really surprised me that today it was forecasted to rain pretty much all day.  We continued to gape at the raincloud icons on our phones for a while longer, in disbelief, as if we had the power to will the predicted storm away just by staring at the screen.  Reservations tonight were at an isolated refuge twelve miles away on foot.  In fact, we were locked into reservations for the next nine nights at a variety of huts, hotels, and BNB’s in France, Italy, and Switzerland.  So, waiting another day to begin the trek was definitely not an option.

I was momentarily distracted from the thought of this house of cards falling to pieces as I buried my face (and dignity) into multiple helpings of mini-croissants, hearty slices of baguette, silky European yogurt, hazelnut-studded granola, thinly-sliced cured ham, and large gulps of coffee.   I even ate numerous chunks of cheese - maybe because I figured that if I were going to die today, I may as well conquer one of my worst enemies beforehand. (Disclaimer: more food was consumed than pictured above)

After we reluctantly stopped eating (thanks for the best breakfast ever, RockyPop Hotel!), we checked the weather on our phones again.  Miraculously, the storms were pushed back a bit.  Well, we thought, at least the first part of the day will be nice, then.  Little did we know that this weather fiasco would almost become a running joke for the next ten days.  Turned out that the weather in the Alps had a mind of its own every day, and much of the time it was not anything like what the weather forecast said it would be.  It also seemed as if storms were predicted every day, but that they got pushed back as the day went on.

Coincidentally, as we were making our way to the trailhead at the end of Les Houches, we ran into two trekkers from Northern California (a mother and daughter pair). They were on Day 2 of the TMB (everyone starts from different points around the loop), and they were actually headed for the cablecar station to ride it up to a certain point one mile upward in order to get a head start on the impending weather. We thought that this would be smart, especially because we were hoping to tackle the harder route while the sun was still out. So, we swallowed our pride, paid the cablecar operator, and stood inside of this human cage with maybe fifteen other trekkers, who all had the same idea. These other people were from Singapore, and they were already on their eighth day. It was great to get some pointers and tips from them on the way up, and it was here that we confirmed the bullshitness of the weather forecast. None of the Singaporeans seemed concerned about any storm, and since they were 80% done with the trek, we took their word for it.

After disembarking the cablecar around the Col de Voza area, we found ourselves at the fork between the main route and the more demanding variante route.  In our trusty Tour of Mont Blanc trekking guidebook, Kev Reynolds writes:

"This is a true high route, for the trail ventures close to the world of glacier, moraine and rock, crosses a 2000m pass (Col de Tricot) and avoids permanent habitation until Les Contamines is reached." (43)

He also leaves a cautionary note:

"Check the weather forecast in Les Houches, and if a storm is predicted, opt for the main TMB route via Bionnassay, for there's no real shelter between Col de Voza and the Chalets de Miage, and crossing Col de Tricot in stormy conditions is inadvisable." (43)

Judging by how the sun was shining and the skies had cleared up, we decided to just go ahead and try the variante.  We were so excited to be up here in the Alps that it was too tempting.


The trail immediately angles upward steeply towards the Bionnassay glacier. I was high-stepping for what seemed like an eternity, going up these big rocks, and then popping out at a meadow filled with wildflowers.  Then, it's back into the wooded hillside and down into the Bionnassay valley, across a suspension bridge (the only one on the trek) spanning the glacial torrent, and into a large field, filled with sunshine and surrounded by the mountains.

We took our first break here, and then continued onward. I could feel every liter of water and every bundle of clothing in my backpack as the sun beat down on all of us. What thunderstorm?! Soon, we found ourselves crossing a series of snowfields, still moving up a steep incline, and then finally reaching the Col de Tricot after about three hours.

I quickly learned that col is the French word for “mountain pass.” I also quickly learned that in France, switchbacks are not as common on hiking trails as we are used to in the States.  When coming up to a col, the trail mostly goes straight up, which is pretty visually overwhelming, but also quicker than winding through switchbacks.  Same for coming down, and you can't exactly tell yourself, "Don't look down."  We could always see little tiny people in the distance far ahead as we were struggling our way along. We soon got used to this view: tiny people way up high = a col; tiny people way down low = a vallée, vallon, or val. The great thing was, we were constantly reminded that we were all tiny people doing this thing together.

We saw some sheep along the way - they sure made it look easy...

Finally, we arrived at the cradle-shaped curve between two mountains, our first mountain pass!  The Col de Tricot forms the partition between the valleys of Bionnassay to the north and Miage to the south.  It gave us our first open view into an expansive, magnificent valley.  Views like this would almost always be a treat to look forward to when cresting a col.

We didn’t hang around at the Col de Tricot too long, because our energy stored from all of that ham and cheese and French carbs was finally dwindling.  Looking down into the valley before us, we could see a little teeny tiny cluster of houses. This was the Refuge de Miage, 2000 feet directly below us.   Going down to it redefined the expression, “it’s all downhill from here.”

Our knees were trembling by the end of the long descent, as the tiny house finally turned into the Refuge. Good thing it hadn’t rained yet - this would have been really slippery and hard to do if the trails were wet, much less without trekking poles.  (Another disclaimer: no photo evidence during the hardest parts of the trail! Not a hands-free kind of hike)

We stopped here at the Refuge de Miage for a quick lunch, which didn’t end up being very quick given the fact that only one or two servers were responsible for like a hundred people! There were plenty of tables with umbrellas in the grass, and we had no trouble finding a spot to sit, but getting our order taken and then getting the check was sort of a process. We later found out that getting the check was always like pulling teeth in all three European countries.  It is part of the culture in Europe to have long meals, but here, I think the poor servers were just too overwhelmed.

We were pleasantly surprised by the offerings at this refuge.  Going into this trek, we were unsure of what food we'd be able to find along the way; we figured that there would always be dinner and breakfast at the refuges, but we had no idea what to expect for lunches.  We had our energy bars and peanut butter packs, but we realized that if lunch at the refuges always looked this good (and were this affordable), then we'd never have to touch them!  Since our breakfast was pretty filling, we just shared a sandwich and a salad, which both exceeded our expectations in quality and size for the amount of money that the refuge was charging.  We considered this awesome-looking blueberry pie that people were getting for dessert, but decided to skip and forge ahead in the interest of time and weather.  By the time we were done with lunch (after waiting about 30 minutes to finally settle the bill), it was about 2:15 PM (well, 14:15, since nobody does the AM/PM thing).  It still had not rained...although the clouds were starting to roll in.

It was not too horrible of a 2-hour walk to get to the village of Les Contamines-Montjoie from Miage.

When we arrived there, we sat down on a bench by some public toilets (yes!) and refilled our camelbacks, ate an energy bar, and took some Ibuprofen.

It seemed like everyone was stopping here in Les Contamines for the night, as it was sort of like a small town with stores and things, but we still had another two hours to go! I was wondering why the heck I decided to book at the Refuge Nant Borrant instead of picking something in Les Contamines, which seemed to have tons of overnight options.

^ Ugh, why??? Guess that was our warning sign for what was to come...

It was a pleasant walk right up to the Notre-Dame de la Gorge (some people take a bus for this part).  Right after passing through Les Contamines, we walked alongside a peaceful (and sort of quirky) family resort and a little chapel.  We were both already thinking that the worst was over for today, going up the Col de Tricot and down into the Miage valley, plus all of the rest before and after.

After the chapel, we were totally caught off guard with a steep series of inclines going up a rock road in waves.  Right after we crested one, we were greeted with another.  We were literally walking up steep, slick rock from the gorge that was part of the trail - the Notre-Dame de la Gorge.  I was cursing myself under my breath until we finally saw the words, “Nant Borrant” show up on some trail signage.  Hallelujah, that meant that at least we were nearing the darn place!

About 20-30 minutes later, a white house with a dark brown roof and cute flowers in the windows appeared...all the way up a steep hill. No time to be frustrated - we were so happy that it was finally in sight.

I pounded up the hill in a last-ditch effort and we checked in with Pierre, the very nice male counterpart of the husband-wife team that runs this refuge. Finally, we put down our sweaty packs in a room of five bunkbeds and jumped into the showers.  It was a simple, but perfectly divine shower!  Luckily, no one was using it because we were among the latest ones to arrive.


When our senses had come back about us, we were able to settle in and really appreciate how woodsy and cute this little house was.  Every piece of furniture was made of wood, including the bunks, and the blankets were all a very homey pattern that reminded me of Christmas. The hallways were narrow and the dining room was cozy, fitting no more than thirty-five people. There was a lot of charm here, and maybe I was glad that we decided to stay here instead of something in Les Contamines. Apparently, this inn has been run by the same family since even before 1870, passed down from Mattel to Mattel.

It was wonderful to dig into warm, rustic Haute-Savoie food for dinner. Fat sausages in tomato sauce, bread, cheese (possibly another Tome De Savoie like the one from breakfast this morning, which already felt like a different day ago), squash soup, and Savoyard potato gratin. I skipped the gratin because that gooey-looking cheese that the potatoes were swimming in was still a little bit too vigorous for me. There was also an apple tart for dessert. Everything tasted homemade. We shared a little wooden four-top table with an Australian couple, and they were the nicest company we could have asked for. The man entertained our foodieness by posing for Wes’s photos with the soup!

Before going to sleep, we hand-washed, wrung out, and hung up two shirts, our underwear, and our socks on the line outside of the bathrooms. There was no space before dinner, as everyone is trying to get their clothes washed.  We learned later that laundry simply does not dry in this cold and somewhat wet climate.   Oh well, that’s what buckles on a backpack are for, right?

We also made it a post-dinner habit of opening Kev Reynolds' guidebook to preview the next day’s demands.  All of the trekkers had their own books in various languages and formats - the Americans were all using the one that we had.  A group of recent college-graduated New Yorkers sharing our room showed us that we could consider a shortcut, another TMB variant route, that crosses through a high pass (Col des Fours - one of the highest points on the trek) to get to our next night’s accommodation in less time than the main route. Of course, it would be a lot more strenuous, but likely more scenic. They were going to the same accommodation, but had actually already decided not to do the variante and to take it easy.  The Australian couple would also be doing the non-variante route.  Our legs, too, felt limper than Savoyard gratin at that moment, so we decided to wait until morning to see what we felt like doing.

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