Thursday, April 4, 2019

TMB Day 10: Argentière to La Flégère

Day Ten
July 26, 2018

Starting point: Argentière, France
Ending point: La Flégère, France
Distance: 6 miles
Height gain: 3747 feet
High point: Lac Blanc (7716 feet)
Lunch: Picnic at Lac Blanc
Accommodation: Hotel de l'Arve, Chamonix

I silenced the 5:00 alarm that I had set in hopes of getting an early start on our last day and continued to snooze until 5:45. We were planning to get up earlier and start shortly after sunrise to guarantee a final view of Mont Blanc. This was Day 10 of our trek - the ultimate day - although we were both too groggy to let this fact register. So finally when it was nearly 6:00, we opened the window to see a pink-tinged sky, with the shadow of the mountains against it. The street down below was peaceful and quiet, and there was a cool breeze blowing into our room. We decided not to rush it anymore and took in the sunrise from our stellar hotel room view.

After packing away our dry laundry and bandaging our toes/arches/hips/shoulders for the last time, we hit up Le Fournil bakery for breakfast and lunch. I had a warmed spinach quiche and Wes got a raisin pastry, his favorite. We also got two sandwiches to eat for lunch later and everything was 15 euros only! Wes stuck his long baguette sandwich into the side pocket of his pack and I was able to get my stouter ciabatta sandwich into my pack’s main compartment. The quiche was very good and extremely generous on the spinach.

Naturally, Wes finished eating before I did and went out to the market nearby to get some last minute accoutrements to our lunch sandwiches: an heirloom tomato and a bunch of pink radishes. Then as we were walking out toward the trailhead, we walked by a crate of avocados and I couldn’t help but touch them. One was ripe, and it was calling my name! Wes conceded, saying, “You can take the girl out of California but you can’t take California out of the girl.” So we purchased the avocado (it was 1.5 euros, not too bad) and also a small wooden-handled Opinel knife so that we could cut everything.

We were going to complete the trek by going up to the Grand Balcon Sud, a famously scenic path that day-hikers like to frequent by taking a cablecar up from Chamonix. Kev Reynolds wrote in his book, “Pray that the weather will be kind enough to allow you to enjoy these stunning views, for they will ensure that your experience of the long circuit will end of a visual high note.” We saw that visibility still looked pretty good, despite our later start time, and breathed a sigh of relief that we weren’t doing this yesterday, when it was cloudy and rainy. There is also an option today to head up to Lac Blanc, passing other alpine lakes along the way. We figured that as long as the sun stayed out, we would try to do that too.

Rather than leaving from Tre-le-Champ like it says in the guidebook, we found out about another trailhead that also goes up to Lac Blanc leading out of Argentière, just a few paces down from our hotel. On leaving Argentière, the path ascends immediately towards the main TMB trail, and joins it after just over a mile of uphill hiking through the trees. This was all pretty steep, but shaded. We caught snatches of the beautiful view to our left. Then, we bursted out of the trees and onto the open and rocky Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges area, and we saw Mont Blanc! There were no clouds covering its tip, the sky was blue, and the valley below was green and beautiful as could be. We felt so lucky.

After gaping for a bit longer, we followed the trail to continue going right up to the base of the Aiguillette d’Argentière, a needle-like cliff where climbers bravely attacked its sides.  This would be where our separate trail met the main trail.  The guidebook did not make it sound like it would take that long, but it took much longer than we thought it would, and it was steep and rocky.

Right here, we were faced with a series of metal ladders, fixed to the cliff face, “definitely not for the faint-hearted,” says Kev Reynolds. There was also a non-ladder alternative route, but I basically gave Wes no choice but to climb the ladders with me. To me, it was “thrilling,” and to him, “terrifying,” in those exact words.


Eight or ten death-defying ladders and rickety wooden stairs nailed into the cliff later, we found ourselves at the top of Tete Aux Vents (6995 feet in elevation), looking across the north flank of the range, all bowing down to Mont Blanc, with its perfect, white crown, almost like a halo.

This seemed to be the spot that many people stopped at, but it wasn’t over for us yet. We continued upwards in search of Lac Blanc, the famous lake with a popular refuge on its shores that ended up shutting down this year due to “legal issues.” We actually were supposed to stay there and we reserved very far ahead of time (only to have it cancelled), so we were curious to see what all of the hype was about.  We did have to climb a few more even sketchier ladders to get there, much to Wes's chagrin.

It's a bumble bee!!

The lake was a pretty color, but it was very small, nothing compared to lakes in our Sierra Nevadas, and the refuge looked pretty run-down. Staying here for the night would have actually been a bit boring, considering how quickly we had made it up to this point. Also, it was really crowded with day-hikers.  We breathed a sigh of relief, we were glad that the booking fell through so that we could leave earlier and get back down to Chamonix, especially since it was starting to rain.

The rain drove many of the dayhikers under the awning of the closed-down refuge, but we were happy to perch atop a large boulder jutting out above the lake to eat our picnic lunch.  It rained gently and intermittently while we ate, and our sandwiches had held up really well.  Wes's sandwich was much better than the one that I had picked out, though, I must admit.  He gave me half, haha.  Are we pretty extra for bringing up this entire bushel of radishes?  That's how we do.

We stopped to take a last batch of photos and had some wonderful intruders stumble into our shots, haha.

While we were admiring Mont Blanc from this spectacular vantage point one last time, it began to disappear behind clouds and we took it as our cue to hike down to La Flégère, to catch our much-anticipated cablecar ride down into the Chamonix Valley, the bittersweet end of our long trek.  The rainclouds were definitely rolling in, and the guidebook said that this final descent was "never-ending" and "the steepest and most tiring of the whole circuit," (though I'm not sure that the author was counting the alternate routes that we chose), in addition to the fact that the landscape had been "badly scarred" and "bulldozed" by the ski industry.

It was about 30 euros for each ticket for the Flegere cablecar.  We saw the young couple that we had met way back on Day 2 here, they were actually going to walk down the whole way, but we were definitely done with long descents on foot, so we bade them farewell and good luck.

We squeezed tightly into a gondola with a bunch of other visitors, and we silently watched the view zip by as we descended.  It was a very great, yet sad ride.  It was all over now, and it was hitting me just how much we'd done.  All of the miles that we had walked, the people we had met, the friendships we had made, the different foods we had eaten, the countries we had seen, the decisions we had to make, the companionship we had developed between ourselves.  It was all going through my head so quickly, like waking up from a dream.

As soon as we got off the gondola, it was raining pretty hard (how do we always somehow manage to escape the rain?), so we took the free bus back into Chamonix. We checked into our hotel, Hotel de l'Arve, which was conveniently located near a bus stop at the edge of town. It was right up against the banks of the Arve river. We saw two people who we had met at Refuge Bonatti sitting in the lobby, looking very clean and dolled up. Clearly they had been here for a while! We were happy to see anyone we had recognized who had been through what we’d been through.

Our room turned out to be a suite with lots of extra space.  We threw down our stuff and went out into the familiar town of Chamonix again to indulge in some food and souvenir shopping, now that the trek was over!

Some much-needed gelato was followed by figuring out our bus situation to Annecy tomorrow (that was a bit of a mess!), and dinner followed shortly after: rotisserie chicken and all the fixin's, eaten by the window in our hotel room!

The chicken was from a place called Boucherie du Mont Blanc.  Only 12.50 euros!

1-euro French baguette from Chalet 4810.  So cheap!  (Mont Blanc is 4,810 meters in height, so that's where the bakery gets its name)

And yes, you did see those French macarons in my other hand!  They were bomb.  This one was a chestnut (marron) one.  The girl working at the bakery gave us the other one for free because she really wanted us to try the salted caramel one!

We also got a framed print of Mont Blanc that we had been eyeing before the trek.  I guess you could say that this was our prize for finishing it.  It was hard to resist taking a bite out of the tip of that baguette there.

You know how French butter costs an arm and a leg here in the U.S.?  It was only a little more than 1 euro at the Super U for a stick.  It tasted so good, I wished that we could have snuck some back home.

Also got a side salad and couscous salad from the Super U.

The hotel graciously provided some actual plates and silverware for us to use for dinner.

Tearing into a juicy, whole chicken with our bare hands and smearing obscene amounts of French butter onto hunks of crusty-on-the-outside-but-soft-on-the-inside baguette was a heavenly, yet low-key way to wrap up the long and extravagant trek.  We couldn't believe that a few hours ago, we were just up in those mountains outside of our window, eating lunch above a lake, wondering when the storm would come.  A few hours before that, we were climbing a bunch of scary ladders.  And a few hours before that, we were flipping through the final pages of the guidebook while dusting raisin pastry and spinach quiche crumbs from our clothing.  I could keep going back in time, all the way to Day One, when we were hoisting our packs onto our backs for the first time and searching for the start of the TMB trail in Les Houches.  The last ten days were truly an experience of a lifetime; we could not have predicted any of what happened, and that was the best part.  We loved every turn of the corner--you can tell from the sheer amount of photos that we took!  I hope that these days were documented with enough detail so as to never let their memories fade. 

I'll do one last post about the trek as a whole, to review the stats of each day in brief and include some helpful tips and advice for anyone who is interested in doing it!

Previous Tour du Mont Blanc posts:


  1. What sort of camera or tripod do you have that you guys have such great shots of the two of you from a distance?