Thursday, May 2, 2019

Tour Du Mont Blanc Self-Guided Trek: Survival Tips & Recap

If you have an insatiable appetite for mountain views, the energy and willpower to trek for 100 miles, and a passion for great food, the Tour du Mont Blanc is for you!  The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is the name of the 105-mile loop trek (or, "tour") that circumvents the Mont Blanc group of mountains in the Graian Alps, which is a section in the western part of the Alps that dips in and out of three countries: France, Italy, and Switzerland (specifically, between the regions of Aosta Valley, Italy, and Savoie and Haute-Savoie, France).  This is a highly variegated geographical area that has around 400 summits and more than 40 glaciers, carved out by 7 distinct swooping valleys.  The accumulated elevation gain over the course of the trek is something like 32,000 feet, with an equally large elevation loss, and 10 or 11 passes to cross as the trek progresses from one valley to the next.  This trek was something that we wanted to do for the challenge, the food, the alpine views, and the multiculturalism. Our expectations were surpassed in all categories.

The thing that was most unnerving to us was venturing into the unknown on our own.  We researched as much as possible, but we still had no idea what it would all be like since we weren't going with an expert guide or an organized group.  Physically, the trek was demanding, but combining that with being on our own and not knowing what the trail conditions would be like was another beast to defeat.  Did I also mention that we also each have our share of joint issues? To be honest, though, that pesky patellar subluxation and threatening ankle tendonitis were far less of an obstacle than the volatility of the weather.  Fortunately, we totally lucked out with the weather, but we felt like we were gambling every day!  The upsides to DIY-ing this thing outweighed our insecurities, though.  Significantly lower costs, the freedom to go at our own pace, getting to stay where we wanted, and stopping to eat as much and as often as we wanted--that's how we wanted to roll.

We were exhausted and dripping in sweat by the end of each day.  But, much to our surprise, the ten days flew by.  Our packs felt lighter and lighter by the day, and there was more pep in each step, even as we approached those long, rocky descents.  Going through the three different countries and various types of terrain kept us on our toes mentally, and we never knew what to expect visually after cresting a hill or rounding a bend.  Socially, we were also constantly meeting fun fellow humans, who mostly were doing the trek on their own as well.  This trek has so many amazing things to offer, though what I can say for sure is that being prepared is the best way to guarantee a safe, and fun self-guided experience.

Like most, we had a lot of questions and uncertainty going into it, so I thought it would be good to put together a post like this to clear some things up that we hadn't known going in.  It's also another excuse to take a walk down memory lane!  I also wrote up little 3-sentence snapshots of each of the 10 days for a little taste of how it all went, before you go and tediously read all of the actual posts from each day.

What did we pack?
  • Trekking the Tour of Mont Blanc Complete Two-way Trekking Guide (everybody had it!)
  • Passport
  • ATM card
  • Cash (euros for France and Italy, Swiss francs for Switzerland)
  • Electronics
    • Phone (for taking photos, taking notes, journaling, storing trail maps, language translation)
    • Camera (we used a Sony RX1 - it's lightweight, full frame, and takes DSLR-quality photos)
      • Charger, extra batteries
    • Go Pro (Hero 4 - love the tripod and the voice command functions)
      • Charger, extra batteries
    • Portable USB charger and cables
    • Travel adapter
    • Pocket WiFi (useful in the cities, checking the weather)
  • Trekking gear
    • Trekking backpack (48L for Wes, 35L for me), with rain shell
    • Trekking poles
    • 3-liter camelback bladders
    • Stuff sacks, to compartmentalize everything
    • Ultralite stuffpack (for wandering around town on your rest day)
    • Drybags (to put away the electronics in case we got soaked)
    • Lightweight hiking umbrellas
    • Water filtration device (we used the Katadyn BeFree Filter with collapsible bottle - it's got a good flow rate and is so easy compared to other filtration devices that we've tried)
    • Sunscreen, chapstick, deodorant
    • Sunglasses
    • Whistle
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Small first aid kit (band-aids, Neosporin, scissors, gauze, tape, tweezers, nail clipper)
    • Blister prevention tape (we used Leukotape)
    • Anti-friction cream (we used Trail Toes)
    • Multi-tool
    • Toilet paper
    • Trash bag
  • Items for the refuges
    • Sleep mask, ear plugs
    • Quick-drying towel
    • Small bottle of all-purpose soap (for hand-washing your dirty laundry!)
    • Sleepliner (silk, for more lightweight)
    • Toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, soap, facewash, toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, lotion, contact solution, Q-tips, hairties, comb, pads/tampons, etc.)
    • Comfy socks
    • Glasses
    • Instant coffee or tea bags (sometimes you never know!)
  • Clothes
    • 3 pairs of quick-dry active underwear (we recommend ExOfficio); for women, 2 sports bras
    • 3 pairs of good trekking socks (we recommend Darn Tough)
    • 2 trekking shirts with UV protection
    • 2 tanktops / 2 T-shirts
    • 1 lightweight jacket (i.e. compressible wind resistant hoodie)
    • 1 midlayer hoodie
    • 1 waterproof rain shell
    • 1 pair of hiking pants (preferably waterproof)
    • 1 pair of hiking shorts
    • 1 buff
    • 1 hat for the sun
    • 1 beanie
    • 1 pair of thermal leggings
    • 1 pair of lightweight gloves
    • Lounge top and lounge bottom for the refuges (tanktop and shorts worked great)
  • Footwear
    • Hiking boots (we recommend Vasque)
    • Flipflops/slippers for the refuges (though some of them do make you wear theirs)
    • Lightweight street shoes
  • Medication
    • Melatonin
    • Advil
    • Tylenol
    • Pepcid AC
  • Snacks (keep them light, though)
Note that some of these things were not super necessary, but everything was good to have and I wouldn't eliminate anything from this list, even in hindsight.  It's ultimately up to you what you want to prioritize.  Also, this list is assuming that you'll be staying in the refuges, not camping.

How long did it take?

We completed the circuit in 10 days (with one rest day in the middle).  If you don't have the luxury of extended time, you can totally take advantage of gondolas and buses that are sometimes available, or by covering more miles in a day on foot.  I would say that 10-14 miles per day was a comfortable pace that allowed us to take our time in the mornings, eat a long lunch, and stop for photos along the way.  You won't want to rush through this trek - it's so beautiful and it's totally worth the extra time to seek out the unique cultural experiences along the way!

Where did we start?

The guidebook suggests starting in Les Houches, a small mountain town just outside of Chamonix in France, and going anti-clockwise.  However, people start from anywhere along the way - some people prefer to start and end in Courmayeur, Italy.  Both Chamonix and Courmayeur are well-appointed ski towns.  Also, it's up to you if you want to go clockwise or anti-clockwise.  You'd be more likely going against traffic if you go clockwise since most people like to go anti-clockwise, so that's nice if you want to feel like you're on your own.  As for us, I didn't mind seeing the same people over and over - it was fun, and it never felt crowded at all.  Also, I liked the way that the views unfolded going in this direction, though I'm sure that you can't complain either way.

Is there only one route, and how easy is it to follow?

The great thing about the TMB is that it is super customizable, and at the same time, clearly marked for the most part.  Not only can you go clockwise or anti-clockwise, but there are a lot of alternate routes available, though most people stick to the main route.  There is almost always an easier or harder alternate route that ends at the same point each day, and even some forms of public transportation to help along the way (also, if the weather gets so bad that it is not possible to walk safely, the transportation can be a godsend).  So, it can be forgiving, if you want it to be.  It can also be punishing, if you want it to be.  But no matter what route you choose, the views are world-class!  There is ample signage and the trail is well-marked in most areas, but the alternate routes are quite a bit less obvious, so it is important to refer to a map, the guidebook, and perhaps use an app like All Trails to be able to line up your GPS location with downloaded digital versions of the trails.  There were times when we were completely alone and had nobody to follow or ask, but we used all of those resources and Wes has a good sense of direction (unlike me), so thankfully we always found our way.

What is the best time to go?

Supposedly, June through August is peak time, and you definitely want to go when the weather is most likely clear.  But, the thing about the weather forecast in the mountains is that it's just not super predictable.  80% of the time, it never rained when it said it would. Scattered thunderstorms were predicted nearly every day for all ten days even in July, but we only received rain on two of those days at the time that it said it would actually rain. Otherwise, it rained much later than predicted, and when it did rain, it was very light. We felt extremely lucky at the end of every day, because we almost always took the more difficult routes with fingers crossed that the weather would cooperate.  Studying the clouds and asking the locals is the best strategy, we’ve found.  Plus, we had all of the rain gear we could possibly want (internal dry bags, lightweight umbrellas, rain shells for our packs and our bodies, waterproofed trekking pants) so we definitely would have been prepared.

What can you expect of the terrain?

The pictures say it all.  It ain't a walk in the park, and each day can be so different.  Switchbacks are pretty much nonexistent on the TMB - we're talking going straight uphill until you can't anymore. And then, straight back down the other side all the way to the valley floor, sometimes up to three times a day. Also, there are rocks, loose dirt, mud, snowfields, waterfalls, and roots to negotiate while doing all of these steep ascents and descents. On one particular route (it was an alternate), we had to literally put away the trekking poles and scramble using all fours for an hour, and then sit down on our butts to carefully maneuver down a washed-out section of the trail on the other side. But all of this stuff is worth it - to be eye-level with a glacier, or to be at the top of a ridge line, with fellow humans who went through the exact same thing.

Is it worth it to stay in a refuge/hotel?

Camping is fun and cheap, but we opted to spend each night in a mountain refuge or an established hotel when possible.  For about 50 to 75 euros per person (includes a bed to sleep in, dinner, breakfast, shower facilities), it was totally worth it.  Not only is it nice to be able to carry a lighter backpack, take a shower at the end of each sweaty day, and eat hot meals, but also it was so fun that every place had its own character and its own distinct vibe. At the refuges, it was very easy to bond with whoever we were sharing a table or bedroom with and we ended up cheering each other on for the next few days on random parts of the trail. The TMB camaraderie among people from all over the world was something special indeed.  The refuges were definitely a big part of the European trekking experience.  Hotels, if you can get them, are also a great reward and can be surprisingly economical if you start looking early.  Sharing a room is also a plus, when it comes to pricing.  So, this trek is great if you're traveling in a pair.

I think that if there's something we would recommend doing the most, it would be to book all of your nightly refuges in advance.  We might have booked at least six months in advance.  There are a lot of refuges along the trail that offer places to sleep (dortoirs or private rooms available), but because of the increasing popularity of this trek and the fact that some of the refuges are the only ones for miles, there could be a chance that the one you intended to stay at will be fully booked by the time you arrive.  Also, believe me, you'll be dead tired by the time you reach the end of the day and even an extra half mile to the next refuge would be borderline excruciating.  Because we knew that we were guaranteed spots to stay overnight, we were able to take our sweet time, especially since the sun sets late.  We hit up almost all of the highest points and we even had plenty of time to indulge in lunches featuring regional specialties at refuges along the way and packed ourselves elaborate picnics of local food and produce.  We also didn't feel pressured to start super early each day to beat everybody else - we took our time and were often the last few to hit the trails.

How much did we spend?

Totaling this up, it cost about $650.00 for 10 nights (not including the last night back in Chamonix) per person, and that includes spoiling ourselves with a few hotel stays here and there.  That comes out to about $65 per day on average for room and board, and many of these places also included dinner and breakfast.  We did not hold back with food, but even then it was maybe about $15 per person for lunch each day.  There were a few expensive dinners here and there, and we spent more on our rest day, but if you budget about $100 per person a day, you would be really safe, and treatin' yo'self.  Do note, though, that if you're taking any gondolas, tickets can be around $30.  If you have a tighter budget, you could camp for cheap and survive off cheaper food, but splurging is worth it when you're all the way out here.  The refuges you'll stay in, the food you'll get to try, and the people you'll meet along the whole route are so unique to trekking in Europe.  Most places take credit card, but it's good to have euros and Swiss francs in cash as well.  Speaking of francs, Switzerland was the most expensive in terms of both lodging and food, so if you want to try to speed through that part, you can take a bus through the Swiss leg and start up again in France.  Disclaimer: prices may have gone up this year.

How do you book accommodations?

We referred to this guidebook to plan out each day, and we basically followed the author's 10-day plan, which allots about 10 - 14 miles of trail coverage per day.  Then, we either picked a refuge that he listed in the book or found something online at the location we would end up at for each day.  This website was helpful, and it also has a direct booking platform that gives you confirmation right away. But not every refuge is on this website - for a few of them, we had to reach out to the manager via email or online form to request booking.  We also used when we knew we would be in a more established city, like Chamonix, Courmayeur, Champex, and Argentière.

What is the food like?

Experiencing the French, Italian, and Swiss regional food was just as big a part of this trek as soaking in the ever-changing views. As we were going through three different countries, we were able to partake in three different cuisines. We were totally willing to splurge (I mean, some backpackers lived off top ramen and dry baguettes), but overall I'd say that we were spending a lot less on more authentic food than what we would be spending in a metropolitan European city.  Some trekkers pack granola bars and dehydrated meals, but we didn't.  We ate whatever was available--even if it was stanky cheese--and there was only one day in which we had some trouble finding food.. haha (that was Day 7).  There's plenty to buy along the main route, as some of the refuges serve lunch, a lot of the time for under 10 euros.  Also, you can see if your refuge offers a sack lunch, but we only did that one time.  They can be hit or miss, based on what we heard from other trekkers.  Since we were so into the food, we have photos of every single thing that we ate each day in the posts!  So if you're not sure what to expect, take a look at those.

What are the people like?

In addition to the locals, we met people of all ages from Singapore, Taiwan, Denmark, Austria, New York, Seattle, NorCal, New Jersey, Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, France, Israel, and probably more. The TMB brought all of us together and we all felt like we were working toward a common goal. Fellow trekkers offered each other anything that they could, from a simple "Bonjour!" to medication, to mole skin, and even Polaroid pictures.  The people who worked at the refuges were always friendly and most spoke some English, though it's good to know a few basic French phrases.  No one in France was snooty, they were actually very friendly.  In Italy, beware of judgmental waiters, but they only judge because they know their food better than you.  And in Switzerland (the most expensive country), people seemed to be the most polished, and much more customer service oriented.  Overall, since we were in a more secluded mountain area, the local people seem to take a lot of pride in what they've established.

Is the Mont Blanc always visible?

Mont Blanc was like a guardian spirit, watching over our trek. It reigns supreme over the entire Alps range, and it looks as powerful as it is. Towering at 15,771 ft, its signature white dome is an unmistakable, awe-inspiring sight, when you can see it. Do not get your hopes up.  It is a highly elusive vision Throughout our trek, we looked for it, knowing when it would appear based on our trusty guidebook. Yet, it would be ensconced in a thick cloud layer, or blurred by a storm at its peak. It was only visible from certain angles during the trek - often, Mont Blanc was hidden behind other amazing mountains, aiguilles, and glaciers as we wound our way up and down through the many passes and valleys that the TMB route took us through. We saw it clearly at the Rifugio Bonatti (Day 6) at sunrise and on the way to La Flégère (Day 10). It’s a very special sight to behold!

Were we nervous?

Yes, totally.  First of all, we had to tolerate each other's company for ten days straight...haha.  And then, there was my irrational fear of eating cheese, and Wes's (less) irrational fear of ladders.  I'm kidding - those parts were actually exciting.  We go backpacking a good amount, and we've been on a 5-day guided trek in Peru, but this would be totally different.  It was good that we weren't planning on camping, but we still would need to have the physical and mental endurance to churn through all 10 days without a guide, on our own, in unfamiliar terrain.  There wasn't much information out there about what to eat, what to expect at the refuges, or how to plan, but every source that we confided in raved about the trek as a whole, so we at least knew that we'd be in for a treat!

More Tips:
  • By all means, bring the guidebook, and also have maps loaded into your phone.  We downloaded the circuit on All Trails, but you can't always rely on your phone either... the book has some good information and literally every trekker had his/her own copy.  We also took photos of the pages out of the book and stored them in our phone to have easier access during the trek.
  • Pack waterproof gear - you never know when you'll need it, even in the height of summer.  Alpine weather is fickle.  We had lightweight hiking umbrellas, dry bags, and rain shells for our backpacks.
  • Bring a little bit of laundry detergent - you can handwash your clothes at the refuges but they don't provide any laundry soap.  No need to bring 10 days' worth of underwear, and you will definitely want to wash your gross clothing.
  • If you are willing to pay a little extra, it's very nice to sleep in private rooms when possible.  We shared a room with 8 other people on the first day, and that was fun, but towards the end it was nice to just unwind without having to socialize too much.
  • Take the time and patience to maintain skin/foot/joint/hygienic health even if it means starting later or sleeping less (and carrying more weight once again).  We brought Leukotape, band-aids, body balm, trail toes, knee brace, ankle brace, Ibuprofen, nail clippers, and invested in good trail socks.  We hand-washed our socks, underwear, and shirts every night using a small bottle of detergent that we brought from home.  All of the refuges have laundry lines, and you definitely won't be the only one washing your clothes!
  • Pack a few back-up snacks.  We went through an area of Switzerland where we thought there would be food for purchase, but everything was closed... it was like all of the townspeople were on vacation or sleeping, or something.  It was very unexpected!  Also, sometimes the breakfasts at the refuges may not be very filling, so you might want to bring some peanut butter packets.
  • Pace yourself and take legit breaks.  Eat well for sustenance, have plenty of water and bring a water filtration system of some sort.  You're surrounded by glacial run-off (streams, waterfalls, etc.) so there are lots of opportunities to refill.  We used 3-liter camelback bladders which we filled at the refuges every morning and made constant use of our water filter.
  • Take a rest day.  We didn't know we would want it and we probably could have done without, but it was nice to be able to sleep in, pause, and spend a solid 24 hours without a 20-pound pack attached to our backs.  We stopped in Courmayeur for Day 4, and it was such a great city to explore - not too big, not too small, full of local charm, and yes, there was a gelato shop!
  • Eat pastries in France, pasta in Italy, and cheese in Switzerland!  Don't feel guilty about the calories, you'll burn them all off.
  • No shame in using the gondolas, but check the hours! We used one in the very beginning to get us out of civilization and one at the very end to get us back down, just so that we'd have more time to enjoy being among the Alps.  We almost used one in the middle for our rest day, but it had stopped running by the time we reached it, so we walked all the way down 4 miles to Courmayeur after combining two stages.  You have been warned!  Also, make sure that you have money to pay the fare.  
  • Remember to be optimistic. That sounds like a no-brainer, but it was sometimes hard to be positive when it looked like it was going to rain or when our knees were killing us.

We took extensive photos of almost every turn of the corner (how could anyone not?) and every bite that we ate, even if it was just a sack lunch or a half-melted KIND bar.  Wes also uploaded maps of the route that we took each day.  If you want to see it all and hear about the nitty gritty details, I've included links to each day of the trek below.  Don't worry, these won't spoil your experience - every day on the TMB is full of surprises!

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 (shared room with 8 people)

The first day on the TMB - scary and exciting!  It was supposed to rain, but it never did, so we got to see much more than we thought we would.  We took the gondola out of Les Houches to beat some weather and deviated from the main trail soon after, to take the high route to our first mountain pass, Col de Tricot.  We had to learn how trekking works in the Alps - it's very different from what we are used to in California.  Lots of ups and downs, wide open views.  The final push to Refuge Nant Borrant on paved roads was killer.  We spent the night in adorable wooden bunkbeds and ate a very typical and hearty Haute-Savoie dinner with new friends, hailing from Australia!

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 (shared room with 4 people)

Going down the creaky wooden stairs to breakfast still felt like we were balancing on invisible rocks, and our thighs and calves were burning still, but we chose the high variant route anyway because it wasn't raining, woot! Three passes and descending through the Valley of the Glaciers is pretty ambitious for one day, but was it worth it? Yes!!! Also, best refuge-appointed dinner of the trip goes to Refuge des Mottets.

July 19, 2018
Starting point: Refuge des Mottets
Ending point: Courmayeur
Distance: 17.6 miles
Height gain: 4170 feet
High point: Col de la Seigne (8255 feet)
Lunch: Rifugio Elisabetta
Accommodation: Hotel Edelweiss (hotel room)

Day 3 (well, and 4). We combined the two days we had originally planned and made this day the longest of the trek in order to reward ourselves with a total rest day in Courmayeur, Italy. It was a great idea at the time because 1. Everyone was doing it, and 2. Everyone was taking this magical gondola down at the end to cut down on time. Well, we were enjoying ourselves so much (distracted by Italian food and jawdropping scenery) that we missed the last gondola, but we made it into Courmayeur on foot anyway, at 8:30 PM! Good thing people in Italy eat super late dinners! No lie, the best pizza of our lives was eaten here, at a quiet restaurant on the edge of town, in our dirty hiking clothes. I also must mention that if you're gonna avoid staying at the crowded Rifugio Elisabetta like we did, you must at least do yourself a favor and eat their polenta and tiramisu for lunch.

July 20, 2018
Starting point: Courmayeur, Italy
Ending point: Courmayeur, Italy
Distance: 0 miles
Height gain: 0 feet
High point: 3rd floor of Hotel Edelweiss
Lunch: Le Vieux Pommier
Accommodation: Hotel Edelweiss (hotel room)

Yup, we didn't even ascend/descend a single staircase today.  It was 0 day.  I wore flipflops and Wes wore his lightweight street shoes all day while we poked around Courmayeur, an extremely charming Italian town with a strong Italian food and car culture.  That day, I ate sooo much cheese...and liked it!  I discovered Tête de Moine, the "top of the monks," a delightful Swiss cheese with monastic roots, thinly grated into the shape of a rosette to crown overflowing plates of charcuterie.  We also indulged in pasta multiple times and got told off by a waiter, because when in Italy, these things are bound to happen.

July 21, 2018
Starting point: Courmayeur, Italy
Ending point: Rifugio Bonatti
Distance: 7.9 miles
Height gain: 3691 feet
High point: Tete de la Tronche (8478 feet)
Lunch: Rifugio Bertone
Accommodation: Rifugio Bonatti (private room, shared bathroom)

This was the halfway point. We stuck to the main route today because it was obvious that the weather might be unsuitable to venture higher, but we really took our time and stopped to smell (and photograph) the many Alpine flowers along the trail. We saw a few young Italian families doing this section as a dayhike, and we also saw sobering evidence of the receding glaciers against the Grandes Jorasses. We also tried pane nero "black bread" and tegole hazelnut cookies which were unique to the Aosta Valley, and sat down to morel mushroom pasta and mocetta even though we weren't hungry!

July 22, 2018
Starting point: Rifugio Bonatti, Italy
Ending point: La Fouly, Switzerland
Distance: 13 miles
Height gain: 3301 feet
High point: Grand Col Ferret (8323 feet)
Lunch: Rifugio Elena
Accommodation: Maya Joie (private room, shared bathroom)

We saw Mont Blanc glowing beautifully first thing in the morning from Rifugio Bonatti, which definitely had the best view of all of the refuges on the trek.  This was the day that we left Italy behind and trekked into Switzerland!  This was also the day that I actually deciphered a nondescript sign in 100% French that led us to hidden, fresh ice cream made from the very cows grazing beside us in the middle of the Alps.  Mission accomplished.  Not to mention the minor Italian language barrier that almost cost us one of the most amazing lunches of the whole trip at the Rifugio Elena.  Then, we went out to dinner with a couple of trekkers from Toronto who we not only overlapped four days with, but also coincidentally chose the same refuges and hotels to stay in on all three of those nights!

July 23, 2018
Starting point: La Fouly, Switzerland
Ending point: Champex, Switzerland
Distance: 9.9 miles
Height gain: 2192 feet
High point: Champex (4810 feet)
Lunch: Cafe du Chatelet, Issert
Accommodation: Hotel Mont Lac (hotel room)

We could have taken a bus through this part of the TMB route, but I'm glad that we didn't! What it lacked in trail intensity and views was made up for in the amount of quirks and pleasant surprises that this day in Switzerland had to offer.  We did something that Kev Reynolds did not mention in his TMB guidebook: walk into a random, unnamed cave that looked downright welcoming (not).  The trio of guys from Ukraine put us up to it!  We didn't realize that Champex, the destination, would be such a swanky little lakeside village.  It was the opposite of what many of the other towns were like, but we relished it unabashedly.  The chanterelle mushroom toast at Mimi's Lounge (our hotel's restaurant) was TO DIE FOR, as was their sauna!!

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 (private room, shared bathroom)

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 encountered, it was another world.  Also, we packed ourselves the most epic picnic of local Swiss goods and ate it on a flat rock while staring at the Trient glacier and valley 3,800 feet below.  The walk down to that valley was excruciating and dangerously slippery and muddy, but we made it down by sitting on our butts for some of it and slowly taking our time.  Apparently, it's less bad in other years - it all depends on the type of winter they got.  Dinner was somewhat underwhelming at Auberge Mont Blanc, but at least we finally got to try some fondue.

July 25, 2018
Starting point: Trient, Switzerland
Ending point: Argentière, France
Distance: 10 miles
Height gain: 3241 feet
High point: Col de Balme (7188 feet)
Lunch: Le Fournil Chamoniard Bakery, in Argentière
Accommodation: Hotel de la Couronne (hotel room)

This was the day of our 3rd wedding anniversary! We started off the day with some horrible coffee from Auberge Mont Blanc (bring some trusty instant coffee for these occasions!), experienced some legitimate rain, rode a bus jam-packed with wet trekkers, raided a French bakery, and finally had some foie gras and escargot to celebrate! We also fell in love with génépy ice cream.

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 (hotel room)

The last day--so bittersweet. It started out with the most glorious, spinachiest quiche of my life. We hiked and ladder-climbed to Lac Blanc and finally locked eyes with Mont Blanc, uncovered by clouds. Sandwiches from the bakery were eaten on a rock overlooking the lake while it drizzled lightly. The first photo of this post was taken on this day - the views at the Tete aux Vents ("top of winds") were breathtaking. We treated ourselves to a much-deserved, but also poignant gondola ride back down into Chamonix.


And that's the end! Bonne chance et merci!

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