Saturday, March 9, 2019

TMB Day 8: Champex to Trient

Day Eight
July 24, 2018

Starting point: Champex, Switzerland
Ending point: Trient, Switzerland
Distance: 10 miles
Height gain: 3940 feet
High point: Fenetre d’Arpette (8743 feet)
Lunch: Picnic at Fenetre d’Arpette
Accommodation: Auberge Mont Blanc

This was by far the hardest day of the trek, even though every day had been truly hard.  We have to thank Mont Blanc (and Mother Nature) for keeping the impending storm at bay so that we could have the opportunity to reach the Fenetre d'Arpette (window into the glacier): the "highlight of the tour in every sense," a "true mountain pass," the "toughest of the whole route" -- honest words from Kev Reynolds, the writer of our guidebook.  Although we knew that it would be daunting, there was no way to fully prepare for what we were about to encounter.  This may also have been the most epic packed lunch, ever!

When we woke up this morning, there was one thing on our minds: the Fenetre d’Arpette.  Literally, the "window into Arpette," Kev Reynolds' book describes it as the highest point and the toughest crossing of the whole route.  Wes solemnly showed me the weather report on his phone. Rain. I tried to stay optimistic about it, but Wes seemed resigned to the fact that we’d be taking the main Bovine route today. But sometimes the weather report is incorrect, right?  I had just about had enough of pastures and grazing cattle by now, and also this Fenetre d’Arpette was supposed to be the most thrilling part of the trek, if attempted. Anyway, we pack our things wordlessly, trying not to get into a disagreement (he probably thought that I was foolish for even being hopeful and I thought that he was a party-pooper for being realistic). 

All tensions were lifted when we walked into the breakfast room, which smelled incredible. There was homemade apricot juice, homemade jams, the fluffiest loaves of bread (kept whole so that they don’t dry out), butter, cream cheese, ham thinly sliced, Swiss cheese thinly sliced lengthwise, alpine honey, bananas (haven’t seen one of those in a while), apples (took one for the road), yogurt, and cereal (nice oat clusters, none of that yellow corn puff stuff at the other refuges). Both the white loaf and the multigrain loaf were spongy, springy, and still warm. As if this weren’t already enough, the owner brought in two croissants in a basket and took our drink orders. These croissants were the best that either of us have ever had - so flakey that it caused a total mess of buttery shards on our plates with each bite or tear.

After this very carbalicious and indulgent breakfast, we got our things from upstairs and sadly left Hotel Mont Lac. I would say that this was the nicest place we have stayed since our honeymoon. We were still raving about our stay while walking past Lac Champex, which was perfectly reflecting the mountains and a beautiful blue sky. It was hard to believe that it was going to rain and thunderstorm later that day...

We dropped into the tourism office to ask them whether they thought we should do the Fenetre d’Arpette or not, even though we both knew that the answer didn’t matter. Wes said that it would be almost unethical for anyone to tell us it was “safe,” especially if there was imminent rain. He was right, the girl working there warned us that it would be a bad idea and that the other side was washed out, making the descent almost impossible. But of course, we knew that people would be doing it anyway, and we have experienced hiking in poor conditions back home too. Plus, if those pitiful-sounding English girls were going to try it, then why not us? Being officially denied must have fired Wes up, because all of a sudden he was all gung-ho about the Fenetre. In the end, we both wanted to prove to ourselves that we could do it.  One final weather check showed that the storm was pushed back another hour, so we took it as a sign to just go for it and try to finish it as soon as we could. Maybe the storm would be pushed further and further back as the day progressed, just like many of the other days.

Anyway, as Wes was starting to feel more self-assured, I was starting to feel more nervous when we got to the fork in the road between the Bovine path and the Arpette path. Kev Reynolds warned, “this crossing should not be attempted other than in good conditions with a forecast of settled weather.” Also, he wrote that this was the highest point reached on the TMB (same height as Col des Fours from Day 2), but unlike Col des Fours, we’d be negotiating “a chaos of boulders” and “a steep slope of grit,” making this a “true mountain pass.” I could hear each of these terrible little phrases verbatim, uttered in fretful British accents on replay in my head from when the British girls were reading this part of the guidebook aloud in the Issert restaurant yesterday. Maybe the British accents made it sound even more dramatic than it was.  If a group of German men were talking, maybe those voices in my head wouldn’t sound so anxious!

But then, all nerves were calmed by Noisette. Noisette, “hazelnut” in French, is a four-year-old lop-eared bunny rabbit with a white fuzzy cotton tail. She was hopping around in the grass in front of a cabin by the trailhead when her owner swooped her up and carried her over to let us pet her. This was definitely not something we were expecting out of the hardest day of the trek!

Finally it was about 9:30 when we set foot on the rocky trail. There were a few other people, so that made us feel better. It was soooo rocky on the way up, we both thought that this must have been the referenced “chaos of boulders” (again, in the stupid British accent) in the guidebook. But we were wrong, it was definitely a lot worse when we realized that we needed to stash the trekking poles and use our hands to hoist ourselves up these boulders like climbers. It was just a totally unreal climb up.

We constantly looked at each other and asked why we were so crazy and what we had gotten ourselves into. We spied people struggling up ahead of us too and wished we were them!  It was nice to see that other people were here, though, since the weather forecast was supposedly bad.  Despite the sweat rolling down our backs and our hearts thudding in our ears, we stopped frequently for photos because the view just got better and better. The sweeping lines, the endless rocks and boulders, the snow capped peaks behind and before us, the valley (Val d'Arpette) below, and the spiky peaks silhouetted against the sky. There might have been a rain cloud or two in sight but that was about it.

The path continued to climb up the flank of the valley towards "its wild upper reaches,"  where "you fight a way to the foot of the final slope," as detailed by the guidebook.  While I bumbled from rock to rock, Wes was watchful of the trail markers painted onto rocks every 25 feet or so.  They were sometimes sort of hard to see.  Still, we figured that as long as we were going upward towards that U-shaped curve on the horizon at the top of this humongous rockpile, we were going the right way.  It looked super far away and super impossible to reach, but that was definitely the Fenetre d'Arpette.

Just when we thought that it couldn't get any harder, the slope became so steep that we realized that the trekking poles needed to be put away so that we could use our hands and knees to climb from rock to rock.  None of this felt legit at all.  I had never heard of scrambling for this long on a hiking trail!!  It took over an hour on all fours, only interrupted once by a slippery snow patch that we had to cross (yup, whipped those trekking poles back out for that part). I guess this would definitely be my first time experiencing a “true mountain pass.”  Even though this was pretty rough, we both thought that this was much more fun than all of that flat-walking we’ve been doing in Switzerland so far. The strenuous full-body experience was a great distraction from the clock and the weather. We recalled that time seemed to have dragged on while we were just walking on the road through those three deserted hamlets yesterday.

Finally we reached the top, a little incredulous that we had finally made it to this rock-cradle that seemed so unattainable. We found a good place to sit overlooking the next valley on some flat spots and suddenly realized how hungry we were. Pulling out our supermarket haul from yesterday, we laid our picnic out on a flat rock. I think I’m now inspired to pack picnics like this for our future hikes back in California! We started with taking big, grateful swigs of our Swiss yogurt - spoons were not needed for texture like this. With yogurt cups empty, we finally let it sink in: we were looking through the window into the Arpette valley, from a vantage point of 8743 feet in elevation.

A few people admired our lunch as they hiked over the top. What kind of badass trekkers actually pack ten separate items to eat for lunch?  We let a girl who happened to be from Seattle have some of our goat cheese and seedy crackers. It turns out that the goat cheese came from the same cheesemaker whose cottage we visited, the one with the fresh ice cream!  I was glad because we were unable to buy any cheese from him when we were at his little store on the way to La Fouly, but it turns out that he supplies to the Champex market.  This goat cheese was the best we've ever had; it tasted floral and not gamey at all, and it was so delicate that we could just dip our rather brittle seed crackers into it and scoop it right up without needing a blade or spreader.

Then it suddenly started blowing cold wind and we whipped on our jackets and hurried through the last of our food. That storm was very late now, but it still didn’t mean that it wouldn’t come. Going downhill in the rain would be almost worse than coming up. It was very unnerving to look down between the mountains into the deep, deep valley (Vallee du Trient) and mentally prepare ourselves to do it. The river that was not more than a pipe cleaner in width was going to be next to us in a few hours’ time.  I was sort of in a state of denial about going all the way to the valley floor.  Was it humanly possible?!  Especially after all we had already been through?

For the first part of the descent, we feasted our eyes on the Trient Glacier and couldn’t believe how close we were to it- literally eye level. It sure was something! It had obviously shrunken a lot, and it was melting even before our eyes. Waterfalls tumbled down the face of the rocks and into the river directly from the glacier.  A stirring sight.

Then, we realized that going down was just as rough, or maybe even rougher, than going up the other side.  So... Kev says in the book that it would take 2.5 hours to get down. This was a gross underestimate for us! It took us four hours to get into Trient. Our limbs were already sore from the ascent, not to mention the previous seven days of trekking, and then we still had PTSD from those long downhills on the first and second days. To make things worse, the girl in the tourist center this morning was right (well, of course). There was some serious trail damage here and it was very dangerous to maneuver through all the loose rocks and scree.  One bad step could have led to a disaster--we were fine though because it was not raining! Anyway, the descent was much farther than the ascent (since we started at Champex which was at a higher elevation already) and we took it slowly because of the loose footing. Four hours later, our backpacks and butts were dirty and dusty from sliding on our bottoms down some of the especially sketchy dirt areas, or from just literally sitting down on a rock to get down to the next one. It was grueling to say the least. I literally don’t know which one was worse - up to the Fenetre or down from the Fenetre. In any case, we agreed that this was definitely the most demanding hike we had ever done.

We finally reached the bottom of the Vallee du Trient and were about to collapse--actually we did collapse, onto a rock, to snack on some leftover greens and chili mangoes, but then we had to muster up a little bit more energy to walk to our auberge in Trient.  It looked like we wouldn’t be there until after 7:00 PM, so we had someone at a small refuge (the Chalet du Glacier) at the bottom call the Auberge Mont Blanc to ensure that they wouldn’t give away our private room and to save us some food for dinner!  The river that seemed so far away when we were looking down from the Fenetre was now literally flowing right next to us.

I really started to feel the pain in my feet when walking the flat trail to the Auberge Mont-Blanc when we got to the edge of Le Peuty.  We recognized the group of Ukrainian guys from the cave yesterday sitting at their campsite on our way there. They yelled out, “Glacier?!” We were excited to reply, “Yes!” It was then that it finally clicked that we had done it: the infamous Fenetre d’Arpette! We looked back at where we had come from and were in disbelief.  It was unreal.  Also, the weather cooperated massively.  We couldn't have been luckier.

Finally after what felt like the longest 15 minutes ever from La Peuty, we arrived at Auberge Mont Blanc in the tiny town of Trient.  We flopped through the front doors and they checked us in immediately.  Many trekkers were staying at this three-story abode, and so the dining rooms (yes, there were 3 dining rooms!) were abuzz with activity.  I washed my hands immediately and the water came out dark brown. We sat down to dinner right away - no time for a shower or anything else, but we did get to stick our shoes into the nastiest-smelling walk-in closet in the whole world.  We found our seats at a long table with the dirtiest trekkers - all of the late-comers like us who hadn't gotten a chance to shower before dinnertime.  We were so happy to share our day's adventures with everyone - all of them had done the Fenetre d'Arpette route also (which would explain why they were all late).  We didn't know each other, but we instantly felt like we were the best of friends because we had all been through that crazy ridiculous adventure today.  It's always so nice to talk to other trekkers and hear about the other parts of the trek or other plans that they might have.  Two of them were on the Haute Route, which is a totally different trek that happens to intersect with the TMB at the Fenetre d'Arpette.

For dinner, we had a choice of pork coconut curry with saffron rice or tomato fondue with boiled potatoes.  It ended up all being served family style, so I'm not sure why we had to make a choice...but anyway, I chose the curry and Wes chose the fondue.  I didn't think I'd dig a big bowl of hot cheese, but that shoe closet made the fondue smell heavenly in comparison.  Before the main courses came out, we shamelessly unleashed the rest of our salad greens that we couldn’t finish during our picnic into their salad bowls.

 This soup looked pretty but it was super bland!

Salad - very, very simple... but we added our leftover greens to amp it up.

Finally, we went up to our room, which was up three flights of stairs and at the very end of the hall - a practical joke for people who chose the hardest route for the day. We showered in the communal showers while everyone else brushed their teeth and finally, after plugging in all of our electronics and hanging up the undies, we lay down in bed to rest. It was a comfortable, no-nonsense private room and we were so glad that we didn’t have to socialize after dinner tonight because we were dead tired! Then again, that’s how we felt pretty much every night.

Today was definitely the hardest day.  We felt so fortunate that the weather did not kill us and that we had the physical stamina and willpower to make it through.  It was bittersweet to think about it, but we were now already 80% done with the trek that had once felt so long.  I look back on this day with the most joy, because it definitely was made possible by a combination of everything good.  That picnic at the top will also be a meal to remember forever.  

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