Tour du Mont Blanc: And We’re Just Getting Started(?!)

TMB Day Two: Refuge de Truc to Refuge du Bonhomme

*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.*

Day two got off to a gray and drizzly start, but still not quite as bad as we had expected (the hut caretakers had forecast a full day of nonstop rain.) Neither of us had slept badly, despite being surrounded by snoring sleepers. We felt pretty good considering the previous ten miles or so of brisk hiking and two stout uphills, but neither had we any illusions…both worse and better were yet to come. This trip had only just began.

A good breakfast and we hit the trail. We faced a steep downhill to the town of Les Contamines-Montjoie, where we figured to pick up some water and maybe some supplies (at this point we were still purchasing bottled water; we would soon abandon this in favor of ‘free handouts’ from ubiquitous waterspouts.) The downhill turned out to be not so bad and Les Contamines turned out to be a charming, if busy, town. (Sylvia would later lament that she missed a ‘chance to do some shopping in the Salomon store’ located in the village. Also, more ‘good doors’ were spotted.)

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We leave the soggy Truc and its cows behind and head off into the drizzle

I had glimpsed the lights of this town the previous night from the Truc during a break in the rain, shining in the valley below like a narrow band of bright jewels.

We made good use of an hour spent in the town square, using the bathrooms at the tourist office, purchasing water and snacks from a nearby market, even buying fresh-baked baguette bread from a bakery. Then it was back on the trail for a relatively easy walk of a few miles through the town’s remarkable network of parks and recreation areas…every conceivable sort of activity was available here, from running to archery to to boating to summer snowboarding tracks to golf (a man sped past us on a bike, clubs slung over his back.) This was clearly a place built for almost insanely active people.

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Entering Los Contamines, the nicest French town we visited after Chamonix.
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Sylvia, as ever on the hunt for rustic boards she can re-purpose for her woodcraft business, had to be dissuaded from pulling the clapboard siding from some of these buildings and stuffing it into her pack.

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Here the trail passes the chapel known as the Notre Dame de-la-Gorge, a local landmark. We didn’t tarry long. After all, we had an appointment to tour another, slightly larger chapel that goes by the same name later on in the trip.

After a while the trail began to slope up quite steeply and leave the populated areas behind. Once again we were headed for the Alpine wilds. Our final destination that day was the Refuge de la Bonhomme, recognizable to the M.E.P. (Minister of Expedition Planning) as the only one on the whole trip that he had to call directly in person to make a reservation (one of the earliest indications that Brian’s Francais du Tarzan would not pass muster.) It lay across not one but TWO high passes, with a mile of broken ground separating them. We knew we had our work cut out for us this day, and all the hard stuff lay ahead.

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As the rocky trail steepened to that punishing pitch which we’d become accustomed to as the ‘new normal’ of the Alps, I noticed something odd about it…concrete had been poured over the gaps between the rocks in what seemed to be an attempt to fill them. This seemed an odd way of paving.

Only later did I discover that this was the remains of an old Roman Road…centuries ago, roman legions had crossed the Alps to conquer and later pacify the territory they knew as ‘Gaul’ and they had built roads like this one to facilitate the movement of armies and commerce. They had paved the roads with poured concrete which they were masters of. Much of it still remains in these sections.

At a certain point outside Les Contamines we also passed a ‘Roman Bridge’ (I was unable to confirm through research that the current stone structure is in fact a Roman Original…more likely it is much more recent, though perhaps still centuries old.) Here there is a remarkable set of cascades, one of many, many waterfalls we would pass in the Alps, so many that by the end we hardly looked at them in passing; proof that when the uncanny becomes routine, it simply stops being uncanny.

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Alas this photo, like many taken of waterfalls, does not do this place justice.

Not long beyond this the trail entered a steadily narrowing valley and began to head uphill more steeply. Here we paused to rest and devour most of our remaining bread supply before continuing. It began to rain on us as we entered the Alpine areas below the first of the day’s two passes, the Col du la Bonhomme. We could already see that the col lay a great way above in the mists; a lot of work still lay ahead of us.

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Water + Steep slopes = waterfalls. No shortage of either in the Alps.
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“On a misty day…this can seem an eerie place,” writes Kev Reynolds of this vast and primal landscape.

We traversed a long but easy snowfield in a drizzle before hopping back on rock. (This was not the last time by any means we would walk on snow; though there are no glaciers or permanent snowfields along the TMB route, we were told there had been a heavy snowfall in the Alps this year, and much still lingered even into August.) The drizzle intensified and soon the views were lost completely as we trudged uphill encased in cloud, only a few feet of trail visible before us.

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Approaching the Col du Bonhomme we felt little fellowship from terrain or weather

Here, Sylvia managed to catch her second, third and fourth wind all at once. Brusquely stating that she ‘could not rest’ and ‘had to keep hiking’ she vanished into the mist ahead, leaving her indignant husband to trudge after her wraith-like form. When finally he caught up with her, it was in the lonely upper reaches of the Col du Bonhomme. There is doubtless a good view here in clearer weather; today there was only clouds, wind, and the icy rain being driven before it.

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Sylvia calls for a snowplow.
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Wet, muddy, cold and rocky. And steep.

This weather was clearly worsening, and the temperature had dropped as well, so we did not tarry in this forlorn place. A mile or so ahead of us, so the guidebooks declared, was the second high saddle of the day…the Col du Croix du Bonhomme, just beyond which was our Refuge, third in the trilogy by the name of ‘Bonhomme’ (which translates, one suspects inexactly, as ‘fellow.’) Between the two cols lay a rocky wilderness through which no exact path ran…just a ‘route’ over boulders and scree, marked by painted blazes and stone cairns. We would have to take care to follow this route with visibility being limited.

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Sylvia dutifully photographed every height of land we crossed, including the dismal Col du Bonhomme, where on this day sunglasses were indeed not needed. The small structure in the background is an emergency shelter.

And it quickly got worse. The path was obvious for a short distance beyond the col, but soon we were hopping from rock to rock, only able to see the next blaze or cairn. Often the route would disappear entirely, only to re-appear in its entirely for a few seconds, with a glimpse of a skylined figure laboring up a hump of rock some distance away; and then this visage would again vanish behind a rolling curtain of fog quickly as it had come. It was a confusing, humbling place.

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This was one of only two pictures I managed to snap in the rugged mile between the cols, and only because the rain slackened for a just few minutes. Things got much worse right after this.
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The TMB hiker quickly comes to recognize the distinctive red and white blaze which marks all the European”Grande Randonnée(Great Routes.)

And the weather matched the vexing nature of the landscape. First, a cold rain began to fall in earnest, quickly followed by an even colder sleet lashed against us by a stiff gusty wind. The rock became slick and treacherous, and our hands numb. Worse yet was the realization that my rain gear was no longer stopping the rain; I would have done well to remember my own advice on rain gear — that no waterproof fabric remains waterproof for long, and mine was old and worn.

I was cold and soaked in no time, and began to fear that hypothermia might be fast approaching. I began monitoring myself for the signs; the chattering of teeth, the uncontrollable shivering…but I was reluctant for the moment to don more layers which would only become equally soaked. We could not be far from our destination, I reasoned.

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A confusing landscape of rock, ice and swirling fog.

Then we passed through the worst section of this Hades of rock and shifting mist…at once, the cairns leading us forward vanished and then re-appeared, seemingly in a different place, leaving us stranded in a gully of steep walled granite slabs alongside a glacial stream through which water was currently gushing. The markers had appeared to lead us this way but it had been an illusion; if we kept on we’d be halfway to our knees in freezing, rushing water. I saw that the only way to regain the route was to cut upwards across the rock, and shouted as much to Sylvia. Though dismayed, she agreed this was the best way; carefully we inched, lurched and clawed our way up the rocks like clumsy, waterlogged spiders.

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The trail in places seemed a to be just the faintest scrape inflicted on a stubborn landscape.

And then we were back on level ground, not much worse for wear. We hopped the stream at a convenient point, scrambled over some more boulders, then up a gravelly slope to reach a marker…strangely and discordantly, power line towers appeared suddenly from the fog. We had reached the Col du Croix du Bonhomme, and as I reached the lip of the col, almost immediately I spotted a roof below. I pointed and Sylvia, more exited than at any point until the end of the trip, let out a whoop of delight. We had made it to the Refuge!

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Salvation. The Refuge du Bonhomme, and the end of a hard day at last.

Here we found another ‘good door’ – this one good mostly because it opened up on a warm, in fact sweltering, room. We checked our shoes in the mud room and entered the very crowded refuge, where perhaps a hundred people were staying. (This place had one thing going for it…LOCATION.) The noise of myriad conversations in multiple languages, the stink of sweaty bodies, of food and beer, and even the yapping of a few dogs hit us as we crossed the threshold. It was a lot to take but it was still shelter.

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A closer view of this odd building.

We gratefully checked in and were given the tour of the place. Interestingly, the name of the small four-person dorm room we were assigned was familiar — Alpamayo, the Peruvian mountain which gives the name to yet another trek on our Bucket List. The picture on the door recalled to us the memory of Freddie, our guide on the Santa Cruz Trek four years earlier. He’d led us to a point where we could observe this very mountain. Seeing it here was like meeting an old friend in an  unlikely place.

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Alpamayo as we photographed it in 2014.

We shared a room that night with an Isreali man and his son. (Many, many Isreali citizens can be found on the world’s great hikes…we met several in Peru and would have dinner that evening with yet another, who told us of her experience doing the Huahuash Trek many years ago. That’s a walk so intense it’s not even on our list, at least not yet.) These two proved to be decent roommates. We also met several of our companions from the Truc, including the other Isreali man who assured us the ‘douche’ (shower) was ‘so cold it had nearly caused my heart to stop.’ I did not even bother standing in the lengthy line to make the attempt.

We had survived two hard days now and while very worn out, our confidence was growing. Tomorrow’s hike promised to be no harder than today’s, or so we thought. We went to bed that night confident that whatever tomorrow would bring, we would be equal to it.

But somewhere in the darkness a quietly nagging voice in my head must have whispered to me: Beware confidence when it is misplaced.

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NEXT: An Improvised But Fully-Ass(ess)ed Plan

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