TMB Day One: Les Houches to Refuge de Truc
*The Tour du Mont Blanc is the most famous and celebrated hike in Alpine Europe and is the fifth Bucket List Hike that Brian and Sylvia have completed together. It is also our first hike together of any kind in Europe.*
Despite a long and difficult day of travel we were able to catch some much needed sleep before arising for the inaugural day of the TMB. Our small room, while not overly comfortable, was likely to be the best we would inhabit until at least Cormayeuer. And on that account we ended up being mostly right.
Brian, the Minister of Expedition Planning, was nervous going into the hike. A lot of questions remained unanswered…Sylvia had developed a Cranky Ankle, or Crankle, after our last pre-trip shake out hike in Virginia. Brian, meanwhile, was nursing his usual ‘trick knee’ no better or worse than usual…usual meaning, gimpy.
Neither of us had never hiked this far before. The most I had ever previously done in one continuous stretch was fifty something miles broken up over seven days. We were about to do twice that many over twice as long a span of days. Though we had built two rest days into the plan to prevent the miles from piling up, it was a still a big ask. Just the first four days in front of us would likely equal the entire Santa Cruz Trek in terms of elevation gained/lost. And that would be followed by four more days of the same…and then three more. It was like doing Santa Cruz, Salkantay and Colca Canyon in one trip, minus the high altitude.
My attempts to learn French had yielded less favorable results than hoped, another fact which disturbed me. Even a French speaking chimpanzee would be unimpressed by my “Francais du Tarzan.” I was nervous about the miles, nervous about the weather, nervous about our conditioning and injuries…even nervous about being able to communicate with those we met along the way. My head, as it often is at the start of a big hike, was filled with possibilities of what might go wrong.
Sylvia as always was somewhat more optimistic. As we checked our luggage into the hotel’s storage, not to see it again for nearly two weeks, excitement did begin to rise. We were cutting ourselves off from the outside world, about to go forth with just what we had in our backpacks…which amounted to less gear than we had taken for just two nights on the Appalachian trail.
True, we would be crossing a countryside far from a complete wilderness. Some of it is wild country but most is pastoral landscape dotted with farms, cows, roads, ski slopes and cafes serving pizza and beer. Each night would be spent in some sort of bed with a roof over our head, with meals served at beginning and end up day.
But those things could only be purchased with sweat, miles and aching feet. Each day we had to slog an average of ten miles, regardless of the terrain and weather. It remained to be seen if we could really do this. Hope and positive feelings alone would not carry us through.
We left literally from the door of our hotel straight to the hike, passing the market of yesterday where we purchased water and snacks, and the M.E.P. demonstrated his advanced diplomatic skills when an irate resident shouted at him for failing to dispose of the plastic bottle in the correct container. So much for my attempts at international relations. Chastened, we moved on, past the train station and the start of last night’s suitcase roller derby, to the center of Les Houches where the first of many trail signs pointed to where the TMB diverged from the road and started attacking the hillside with a vengeance. The hike had begun!
I cannot imagine what crimes justify the vengeance it begins with. Few descriptions of this hike that I have read – certainly not the Guidebook we carried – fully convey the awful nature of the first climb of this hike to the Col de Voza. On the map it looks entirely simple, and it is in truth not technically difficult. It is, however, a steep, dusty, confusing, airless road walk across a series of paved and dirt tracks, winding in and out of buildings and ski slopes, then through woods and finally to more ski slopes. During almost this entire slog there are perhaps a half-dozen partial views, making it the least interesting major climb of this hike bar none. It is for this reason that many hikers simply skip this section and take either the funicular train or ski lifts to the col.
But we didn’t know this yet and wouldn’t have considered it anyway – taking trains and lifts is just cheating, and Sylvia and I would have none of it. We had come here to walk and intended to do so all the way unless forced to do otherwise.
This rude introduction started me to wondering…this was just the FIRST climb of the FIRST day. What would the next one like, and the next after that, and the next after that, and…? I knew that by all accounts it only got harder. Doubts began to cloud my mind as onward and upward we stumbled…had we in fact gotten ourselves into more than we had bargained for?
The Col de Voza itself is somewhat of a letdown after all the walking, just a big grassy area where there is a hotel, a junction, some small restaurants, and the above mentioned funicular (or as we’d say in New England, a ‘cog railway’) train station. A pair of trains, which pass through on the way to a higher viewpoint, arrived as we took a much-needed rest.
(As an interesting postscript, two weeks later when we passed through the village St. Gervais les Bains on our return leg, we would see these trains again at the other end of their line.)
At a water spigot we chanced to meet a young man from Kansas who was doing the trek on a ‘complete lark,’ or so he claimed. He had been visiting Italy with his family and apparently decided that, hey, I’m not in Kansas any more so…why not try my hand at one of Europe’s great treks? He seemed a bit put out now, thirsty and confused, perhaps as the realization began to dawn that the Alps are not an ideal place for larks. He asked me directions, which I gave him, I believe quite incorrectly. I have no idea what became of him; we never saw him again.
As we rested, I contemplated our situation, for we had come to a decision point. The TMB in several places divides into high and low variants. The high variants are generally more scenic, but also rougher and more exposed. The low are conversely less scenic, but safer and easier, often being road walks.
Here at the Col de Voza was the first such branching of the hike into high and low routes. Our guidebook, authored by none other than Kev Reynolds (THE definitive guide by THE definitive author on the subject) suggested the high route if conditions allowed, while confessing openly that it was “…a demanding route.” Only the unfolding of events would prove this to be a sharp warning indeed from the usually laconic Mr. Reynolds.
At any rate, I had planned to stick to the high route on this day, even going so far as to book our night’s accommodation on the tail end of high route. This had been a gamble to be sure…one that I was now starting to admit we might have lost. Rapidly gathering storm clouds, portending an afternoon thunderstorm, had me thinking. Dead ahead lay the formidable Col de Tricot – much steeper, rougher and more exposed than the Col de Voza. The Reynolds guide specifically warns against the crossing of this high pass in bad weather. Plus, the hard miles we had already endured had me deeply uneasy. It was a lot to ask for on day one.
In the end I chose discretion over valor, and Sylvia, chafing beneath a pack which refused to sit properly on her back, did not complain (this time.) We decided that for the time being we would stick low.
The low route first followed actual vehicle roads so steep they had us laughing in dismay, and then diverged onto wooded trails that were pleasant but not much less steep. The M.E.P. had gotten us into a bit of a pickle and knew it; by booking a hut on the high route (the Refuge du Truc) I was now faced with the prospect of backtracking at least a mile to reach it from the town of Les Contamines, all of which was uphill and (according to the Reynolds Guide) quite steep…and then, come next morning, we’d have to go back DOWN and forward-track again! I didn’t like this one bit but could see no way around it; changing our booking at that late point would be no easy thing.
I was pondering this quandary as we stumbled into the little village of Chapelle. Here, in addition to passing several ‘casitas’ (small houses) which Sylvia proclaimed to be ‘charming’ and containing ‘wood with good character’ and boasting ‘good doors’, we chanced upon a side trail, clearly marked, which indicated that the Refuge de Miage was just an hour away. Well, heck…I KNEW the Miage was on the TMB high route, and I knew that just 40 minutes beyond it lay the Truc. So, it stood to reason that taking this side trail would allow us to cut back to the high route while still avoiding the Col du Tricot.
I quickly explained this to Sylvia, who listened silently, suspect perhaps of the M.E.P.’s bright ideas or perhaps just still contemplating another of the ‘good doors’ to be found lying about. But a Frenchman sitting on a bench overheard me and came to my rescue. “You can do it,” he drawled. And so, we set off uphill following a nameless side trail, in search of the Miage, beyond which lay our day’s end destination.
It turned out to be one of my better feats of navigation. The trail – which I later discovered to be simply called “Le Route des Chalets do Miage” — was quite steep at first, but well-traveled (as evidenced by the many people descending) and eventually led us by means of a scenic path to exactly where we wanted to go…the massive ravine that opens onto the Bionassay Glacier below the looming Domes de Miage. Here, the attractive collection of chalets known as the Refuge de Miage is located, and here we picked up the TMB high route without issue.
Alas, the Truc proved to be uphill through a minor col rather than down, as expected. This however did allow us an appreciative view back toward the steep and savage looking Col du Tricot, a view which utterly convinced me we had made the right decision to bypass it. The weather would have allowed the crossing; our bodies on the other hand might not have.
It was drizzling when we arrived at the Refuge du Truc, a collection of old farm buildings so rustic that they had their own cows in an adjoining pasture and served us homemade cheese with breakfast. Here we were shown our sleeping accommodations (a vaguely dungeon-like chamber full of bunk beds) and an outdoor bathroom. (This was the only refuge that would have an actual separate outhouse, though it still contained a flush toilet.)
Then, after exchanging our muddy boots for sandals or battered “hut shoes”, we were served a very fine and well-organized meal. It began to pour rain as we sat down to enjoy our dinner of bread, cheese and soup chatting with various other hikers…one from China, another man from Isreal and a trio of New Zealanders, once of whom was an ex-pat originally from South Carolina. We would see some of these hikers again in the coming days.
While we were both tired to the bone we had still made it to our first destination intact and done so by means of sound improvisation, without having to backtrack. Brian was so exhausted he fell asleep the moment he hit the bunk, a decision he later regretted (he had not even changed clothes or gotten his sleeping liner out of his gear; once the lights went out it was impossible to do anything without making enough racket to wake the whole room.)
While not all had gone according to plan, it was still a promising start. But what would the next day bring?
NEXT: …And we’re just getting started(?!)