Friday, August 10, 2018

TMB Day 2: Refuge Nant Borrant to Refuge des Mottets





Day Two
July 18, 2018

Starting point: Refuge Nant Borrant
Ending point: Refuge des Mottets
Distance: 10.5 miles
Height gain: 4446 feet
High point: Col des Fours (8743 feet)
Lunch: Sack lunch from Refuge Nant Borrant
Accommodation: Refuge des Mottets



Apparently it never rained on Day 1, so when we looked at the forecast on the morning of our second day, we shrugged off whatever we saw and used our physical state to make the ultimate decision on what route to take. Going down the creaky wooden stairs to breakfast still felt like I was balancing on invisible rocks, and both of our thighs and calves were burning still, but we both knew that we were destined for the high route, anyway.  We came here to maximize our experience and we never shy away from a challenging hike back home, so since it was only Day 2, we figured we could stand for another beating.


The variante route would take us over three mountain passes and into the Valley of Glaciers.  This route also reached one of the highest points on the entire trek: Col des Fours. After that, it was a long, tiring descent into the Valley of Glaciers, eventually reaching the Refuge des Mottets. Coming down from the Col des Fours was even longer and steeper than coming down from the Col de Tricot the day before, and it also involved some waterfall crossings and some very rocky areas that would have been really difficult to do without trekking poles. We barely saw anybody else on this trail, but that was probably also because we had taken, as always, an extended lunch break in the middle of the day.





While I had been cursing myself for booking at Refuge Nant Borrant the day before, I was thanking myself this morning because that meant that we were about 1.5 - 2 hours ahead on the trek, plus, we had gotten those gnarly uphills from the end of last night out of the way!




We went down to breakfast at 7:00 AM and ate cereal with milk (Wes professed that it had been 15 years since he has had chocolate-flavored cereal), oranges, coffee, croissants, and baguettes with butter and jam. We decided last night to order a sack lunch from the couple running the refuge for 10 euros.  We received it in a plastic bag during breakfast, so we supplemented our breakfast with the hard-boiled egg that was inside, considering that it would be pretty annoying to peel with dirty hands later. We sat with our Australian friends again for breakfast. Then, we topped off our water supply at a spigot at the refuge and collected our laundry. The clothes were still not dry so we hung them from our packs to air out while hiking.






We got out later than most people, as we were wrapping up all of these little chores and stretching, but we knew that we’d have enough time to get through the day’s hike. It was going to be another hard day, but we were excited to see what was in store.




We loved getting up close and personal with these happy cows throughout the trek.  Their clanging bells were a comforting and cheery sound during the hard times.  (Embarrassed to admit, we totally caved and bought a cow bell to bring home when we were at the airport, haha!!)





I remember fixing our eyes on the faraway electricity pylons and talking about how we would have to get up to them.  It seemed impossible to get underneath them, but eventually we came under the shadow of one of them, and then left that behind us, a tiny tower once again.


The trail kept climbing up a rocky, narrow section squarely towards the Aiguille de la Pennaz, a really epic-looking rock formation.







Not sure why there was a random jeep on the side here...




For a moment, I thought that this pile of rocks was maybe the cairn that Kev Reynolds was referring to at the Col de Bonhomme de la Croix...boy, was I wrong.  We were still miles away!  This rockpile does have some significance, though.  It marks the Plan des Dames, which is said to be the spot where an English woman perished in a storm.  Per Kev Reynolds, tossing a stone onto the pile is something of a ritual.







The underside of these snowfields is intense!  Wes also noticed how the earth changed colors dramatically at this next point in the trail.  We aren't sure why, but it just goes to show what a geographically interesting area this was.  If you look closely, you can see people at the top of the ridge in the picture below.







Ugh, so steep!








We were taking breaks but making steady progress. After crossing through large patches of snow sloping upward, we reached the Col du Bonhomme at around 11:45.



We found a good, secluded spot to sprawl out, eat lunch, and nap.  It felt like we had the Vallon de la Gittaz all to ourselves, from our vantage point, with nobody else around.








The sack lunch that we bought from Refuge Nant Borrant was plentiful.  In addition to the hard-boiled egg that we had already eaten this morning, it included an apple, a tomato, cheese wedge, potato chips, a long jambon-beurre (French ham and butter) sandwich, and chocolate.  It was a little bulky to carry, but worth it!






We enjoyed every bite, with the sandwich in one hand and the tomato in the other.  I ate the thin tip of the cheese and then donated the rest to Wes, who stuck it into his sandwich.  We also really liked these Balisto chocolate bars that they gave us--they were shaped like Twix bars and also had a cookie center, but rather than caramel, it had a honey-almond filling around the cookie that I found much more satisfying than its American counterpart.



We were there for a while watching hikers march up the hill that we needed to get onto...and at long last we put on our packs after applying extra sunscreen and moved along. Oh yes, and we peed beneath a small hill. One little issue about all of these trails is that there isn’t a lot of trees or boulders to crouch behind to do one’s business - everything is quite exposed. So, when you see a good private spot, you take it!





The final push to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme went through a stony region of scree and rocks, and some late-lying snow patches.  It was long and open, with really great views into the valleys all around us.  We could see some lakes too: Lac de la Gittaz and Lac de Roselend, on the way up.






We reached the Col de Bonhomme de la Croix next after another heart-pounding and unforgiving uphill climb. We talked to Patrick, a retired local who still does this shit and worked a super high position at Energizer. Oh, the irony. He gave us some tips on what to do in Courmayeur, Italy (Day 3’s destination) and essentially made us really consider spending a rest day there. He also told us of a place to eat in Chamonix! He even invited us to his house. How adorable and hospitable!


So from here, the trail split into two directions.  One side went up to the Col des Fours, which was more treacherous, but would lead more directly to our refuge for the night and would also reduce Day 3 by about 1.5 hours.  Again, Kev Reynolds wrote in his book that this route should not be attempted in bad weather.  The weather looked fine, so we went for it.





Col des Fours - the third mountain pass of the day.  It's official, we're crazy.  Here was the highest point on the entire TMB trail second to the Fenetre d’Arpette (to be done on Day 8). We were basically walking over the tops of super crazy boulders towards the end - the trail was no longer clear and we had to pick our way to the top. It was rough getting up there but we were really excited!








Going downhill sounded awesome after this, but the awesomeness lasted all but five minutes. It was hard, scary, and slippery.  I could see tiny sprinkle-sized people dotting the trail downward, so far away.  Looking back up at where we came from was even more unnerving.  Another U-shaped col, far above our heads.





After a long time of going downhill and focusing really hard on not slipping, I suddenly realized that I had to pee again, and it could not wait.  There was nowhere to hide, so I literally just popped a squat around a bend in the trail and nearly gave two English guys a free show. Good thing they were a gay couple (I think).






Coming down the backside of Col des Fours was probably the most confusing part of the TMB. Trails were marked, but they seemed to fork in many directions, so we didn't really know which one to follow.  Also, there was one point where we had to cross over a waterfall and it didn't seem clear whether that was the right thing to do or not.  It’s thanks to Wes and his navigation skills that I am not still up there to this day.  This was the Valley of Glaciers. Beautiful and all, but so annoying.












After coming all the way down through the glacial melt-off area, we crossed over wide pastures and passed deserted farm buildings before descending to a farm road, leading to La Ville des Glaciers ("village of the glaciers").  We followed the trail across the river and then up to the converted dairy farm of Refuge des Mottets.








Finally, finally, finally, we reached Refuge des Mottets!!! Refuge des Mottets. Those three magic words on the sign were the best words I’d ever read in my life.  There were a few resident donkeys and a gorgeous white horse.  After checking in, we dropped our packs off in our 4-person room.  We didn't see our roommates, but their things were already in the room when we arrived.  Ten minutes before dinner was to start, the chef himself came around to all of the houses to call everyone into the dining hall.  I had just finished showering and was drying my hair off.  Wes had finished long before I did (I must have pushed that water button twenty times) and was hanging up our laundry outside.













Now this dinner was insanely good: cabbage salad (no photo), braised squash with rice, beef bourguignon, mixed bean soup, bread, cheese, and vanilla pudding. Even the thyme in the bourguignon was from their own farm, 25 km away.  The thyme was oddly branch-y, though!



And guess who we reunited with!  The mother-daughter pair from Northern California, who we met at the start of Day 1.  It was so nice to see them again and catch up on the past two days!  It felt like so much time had gone by and that we were old friends already.




There was even live music. That is, live music coming out of a traditional Savoyard musical instrument that looked like a cabinet with a singular hand-crank. It didn’t seem like you needed to be musically trained to play it, although I could be wrong.




This dinner totally blew last night’s out of the water, but I still credit the little place from the night before (Refuge Nant Borrant) for being a true family-run mountain hut. There was maybe ninety people staying at Refuge des Mottets that night. They had a large kitchen with many workers in matching T-shirts, and there were four separate buildings on the compound (it used to be a cow farm) with a variety of sleeping situations.  It was a lot more commercialized, but it did still have the charm of an alpine hut.  We were glad that we got a small room and not a bunk in the cowshed!


We met our roommates, a nice young couple from Austria - the guy is Polish and the girl is Russian, and they speak German to each other.  Wes popped a blister on his foot that night using one of the safety pins that we brought, and our roommates offered us ointment and other first-aid things. They also offered to let us keep one of their massage balls too, when we ooh-ed and aah-ed over how clever they were to bring them. Everyone on this trek has been so generous and so supportive of each other, whether it is with material things or with knowledge and advice. It’s just amazing, the amount of kindness and openness that we had witnessed already, not but two days in.


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