Tour du Mont Blanc: À la montagne, monsieur le chef de train!

TMB: A Travel Lesson

It is ironic that the longest single part of the voyage – the 4,035 mile transatlantic flight to Paris – was also the most uneventful, even quite scenic…including my first glimpse of Ireland, lying green, resplendent and out of reach just thirty thousand feet below.

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Somewhere over the Atlantic

It seemed the closer we got to our destination the more confusing things were bound to get. Our first experience with this was the Paris Metro. We never got close enough to the city to get even a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower…instead, we were treated to mile after of construction yards, graffiti painted warehouses and tenements before the train eventually entered a tunnel and spared us any view at all. We changed trains once, uneventfully, before arriving at Gare de Lyon station.

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Regardez vous le Metro de Paris.

From there, it was just a long, tiring rail trip to Chamonix. The TGV trains were fast as advertised but surprisingly lacking in comfort. The second (TER) train we judged to be the best and most comfortable, and the last train quite scenic. None had enough room for our luggage; we often shared a seat, crooked and uncomfortable, with our bags.

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If this looks comfortable, trust me, it wasn’t. Even the suitcase complained.

The only really unpleasant surprise came at St. Gervais le Bain where it turned out we had to go down and then up several flights of stairs to reach our platforms, heavy suitcases in tow. Apparently, escalators have yet to reach this provincial town. Damn suitcases.

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Is there an escalator in the house?

We had booked a train ticket all the way to Chamonix. However, the hike technically begins in the outlying village of Les Houches, and that’s where our hotel was. Thus when the train happen to roll into Les Houches several stops before Chamonix, the Minister of Expedition Planning made a snap decision to evacuate the train as this point, figuring our hotel could not be far away.

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The last of five trains this day.

This turned out to be…not entirely untrue. The hotel was not THAT far  — unless one is on foot dragging two heavy suitcases. As it was, we lugged the suitcases out of the deserted train station, across a bridge, up a hill, then up a dirt slope for reasons I still can’t understand, to finally reach the main street of Les Houches…and find that our hotel was nowhere in sight.

A quick map check showed it to be a 17-minute walk away, or a few minutes shuttle ride…we opted first for the shuttle bus, but after it passed us by while we were waiting in the wrong place for it, became discouraged and decided to just walk.

But just a glance up and…there it was. Snow-capped monarch of the alps, wreathed in clouds. Western Europe’s highest point. It. What we had come for.

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Even for a person who is tired, encumbered and suffering from train and jet lag, the first glimpse of the Mont Blanc massif cannot be anything less than encouraging.

Thus began the great suitcase drag of Les Houches, where Sylvia and I rumbled along the side of the main road through the little Alpine town, which turned out to be not so little. Sometimes we were aided by mostly level sidewalks, and sometimes we walked in the road because there was none, and at least once we dragged our luggage over gravel. Was this a taste of what was to come?

One thing I can assure everyone is that ittle wheels on suitcases are definitely not made for off-roading. Oh, and the bus did eventually come by again and politely stopped for us, perhaps 200 yards short of our hotel…so that the driver could smile and offer encouragement that we were nearly there.

I am shocked we made it to our hotel at all without the wheel of the suitcases coming off but made it we did, finally. It was after 8 pm when we walked in the door of the Rocky Pop. We were exhausted and had not hiked a single step yet.

But then the view out the window was…well, this:

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Beats your typical Motel 6 with a view of the dumpster.

One benefit of the suitcase steeplechase was that we rolled our way right from where the hike effectively begins – the Les Houches Train Station – and thus knew the route now as far as it went through town, including the location of a needed market.

Though tired and a bit peeved, we had done what we needed to do…arrive in Les Houches in one piece and more or less on time, so that we could begin our odyssey the next day. We had learned the hard way the first lesson of the trip which was…

Lesson One: Don’t hike the day after arrival following a long voyage if you can avoid doing so, and if you can’t avoid it, travel as lightly as possible for maximum mobility and minimum inconvenience.

But while we had learned a lesson, we’d also survived striking railroad workers, pickpockets, baggage screw ups, record temperatures, broken escalators, short tempered travelers and even gravel under our suitcase wheels in order to arrive here…Les Houches, the beginning of our hundred miles of hiking. We had survived the journey here… but could we survive what we had come here to do?

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We made it! Now, what?

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