TMB Day Seven: La Fouly to Champex
*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.*
There aren’t many good things to say about getting a poor night’s sleep, but one of them perhaps is this: a person who has slept poorly is strongly motivated to get going as early as possible the next morning.
And get going we did, as soon as breakfast (a decent meal to be fair) was served. We sat talking to a Swiss couple who were finishing up a section of the Swiss Alpenpasse-Weg, or Apline Pass Trail…which in its full version is three times as long as the Tour du Mont Blanc. They were doing only a mere seventeen continuous days of it. Shy at first, the couple warmed to us as they talked of their adventures, showing us pictures of them standing in knee-deep snow drifts scaling passes over three thousand meters. They had also completed the Walkers Haute Route, one of our other Bucket List hikes. And here we were complaining after JUST six days of hiking!
I asked them what motivated them to do such challenging route. “We love mountains!” the man replied with a grin. Our kind of people!
(In fact, we were so impressed with their descriptions of the Alpine Pass Trail that we are strongly considering adding a section of it to our Bucket List.)
This day of the TMB figured to be nowhere near as punishing as an average day on the Alpenpasse-Weg…in fact, we were counting on it being the least punishing day of the trail, with mostly level walking, maybe a few modest hills and no major passes to deal with. No easy miles are to be had on the Tour du Mont Blanc, but these ten miles on the agenda today would be the closest thing to it.
We started the day off in typical style by getting completely lost in the town of La Fouly. The M.E.P. once again displayed his Shackeltonesque navigational skills by misreading the signs, then backtracking us down the opposite way, only to discover that either way took us to roughly the same place.
The trail follows besides the La Dranse de Ferret River, a tributary of the mighty Rhone, through most of this stage. The terrain is wooded, undulated hillside. There are however occasional views overlooking pastoral landscapes across the valley, and some glances up at Mont Dolent and the Tour Noir (“Black Tower”) lurking in the distance. Some of the downhills are steep and there is one section that traverses an escarpment that marks an old slide zone, where a chain assist has been placed for safety. But for the most part, this is not a difficult walk.
The also trail snakes directly through several small, bucolic, sleepy Swiss Towns, many of which boast buildings that must be decades, maybe centuries, old. The first of these is Praz de Fort. The trail follows the road right through the center of the town.
The town is obviously inhabited, but nobody seems to be home except for a few cats and small children. Sylvia did spot a profusion of ‘good doors’ and ‘wood with good character’ and well as a great many ‘cute casitas’ of note.
As with all the Alpine villages we passed through, public water fountains were plentiful and always running.
After Praz de Fort comes Les Arlaches, and beyond that is Issert. The last of these is the only place where we saw any store or restaurant open for business. Of most interest in Issert was the way that land forms such as boulders had been incorporated right into the layout of the town, and in some cases right into the foundations of houses.
We passed a good many fields full of nothing but flowers being watered by huge irrigation sprinklers of the types farms use. No sign of crops or livestock grazing…just acres and cares of grass and wildflowers, being tended as if scenery itself were being cultivated.
Even before we got to Issert we knew what was waiting for us…that end of day surprise the TMB always seems to keep behind its back like a fist ready to be thrown at the hikers jaw. We had been eyeing a cluster of buildings on a high bench of land in the middle distance. The map did show us going uphill prior to the end of the day but…surely, not all the way up there. Nah, that just can’t be Champex. Too high up and this day is supposed to be easy…Champex must be behind the hill, or so we convinced ourselves.
But as we inched closer it became increasingly clear that ours was a delusion destined to crash headlong into reality. That was indeed Champex sitting up there, and we going to have to climb up to it…and in fact the last mile of trail is all uphill, and does not let up until reaching its destination.
Before the uphill got serious we paused for a rest break. For some reason we always ended up taking our rest break in the absolute worst possible location, and this was no exception…on a steep and dusty slope without any view or flat place to sit.
Amusing story time…at the well-stocked market in La Fouly we had purchased a chocolate bar for later. It was Switzerland after all. One of them was a special chocolate bar apparently made with Grand Marnier Liquor, which may point to other ‘real’ things Sylvia had in mind.
Well, we had been foolish enough to think that perhaps the popular liquor had been used simply in the manufacture of this chocolate bar…as a flavoring. In point of fact, what we had purchased was basically a jug of Grand Marnier made of chocolate. Imagine an egg crate fashioned from candy, and each of the little chambers is filled with liquor. This was the first chocolate bar we ever saw that could cause you to flunk a field sobriety test. The Swiss are pretty hardcore when it comes to their treats.
Anyway, Brian had forgotten about the chocolate for most of the day…the bar had become half melted and warped, which is why we don’t usually hike with chocolate on warm days. But Brian figured, hell we paid for the pleasure, and calories are calories, melted or no, so…
So, Brian naively takes a bite and instantly ruptures two half-melted compartments full of liquor. Out squirts two shot-glass-sized jet of hot alcohol, like Old Faithful…right down into his throat and out the sides of his mouth and into his nose…his tongue went immediately numb and smoke began to issue from his ears.
Such a thing might have been welcomed warmly at another time, but hot liquor was not quite the pick me up Brian needed at that moment. Suffice it to say it was the last chocolate bar we’d buy in Switzerland. The Swiss don’t mess around.
The final climb into Champex is an unremarkable slog over wooded hillsides, mostly devoid of views. There are some interesting wood carvings placed along the way to lighten up the trip a bit, in the form of birds, animals, people, etc. Sylvia was not amused by these carvings, believing that these were neither ‘rustic’ nor ‘charming’ and did not in any way match her home décor scheme.
At length, the first outbuildings of Champex come into view, followed by a road crossing and a sign welcoming newcomers. At this point, we were just ready to be done with the walking.
Champex is an attractive small vacation hamlet on the shore of a very fine little lake (the villages full name is actually Champex-Lac.) The place is a bit overdeveloped but retains some of its charm…not overly crowded or noisy when we were there, with most of the activity is centered around the lake.
We had to walk all the way across to the other side of town to get to our accommodations – the Pension en Plein Air (Which translates from French as “Outdoor Boarding House” or something to that effect.) When we showed up at 3:30 pm, it was still closed. While we sat we pondering where we could go to have lunch, the door abruptly opened and the proprietor announced that the Outdoor Boarding House was accepting guests.
We were the first ones to arrive and had the place all to ourselves, which meant we could shower in complete peace and privacy without being rushed, a fact we took full advantage of. Our room was (for Brian’s money) the best of the whole trip excepting the Funivia. (Sylvia would vote for the Refuge Boerne, later on in the trip, but only because it had a private bath.)
In fact, in terms of convenience Brian would rate the Pension en Plein Air the best accommodations of the trip. The room as huge, with big windows, and even a balcony; the bathrooms were large and everything for a change was working (showers, toilets etc.) There was even a large balcony right outside the room, albeit one that faced the road. Plus a spacious deck out back.
The place was in general quite large and roomy, and the bathroom even had a sort of trough-like sink for washing clothes, the only place we saw that had such a thing. (Other places had washing machines and dryers or a wash service but charged for it.) The location was also good, near several bars, restaurants and a fine market.
The only drawback was that, like all the hostels we stayed at in Switzerland, it was an in-town setting with no particularly grand views of anything. Sylvia also thought the meal to be just so-so. But they did make her a fine cup of coffee later on.
After washing up we went on down the street to an open air café and enjoyed a few drinks (it was one of the few places on the tour that served real German beer, much to my delight.) Then back to the hostel where we dined alongside a young Korean couple who had just started the hike a day earlier and were planning on finishing in just eight days. The man looked a bit more confident that the woman did. We wished them luck…but we did not see them again.
We had a good night’s rest in the PIPA and this put us in a good position for the next day’s hike…and we had come to yet another decision point. Tomorrow’s hike could be either relatively straightforward or anything but, depending on what route we chose. We could stay the low, main route again or attempt the harder and riskier but more scenic high route. Sylvia as usual urged boldness, but the more cautious Brian was on the fence about it…much would depend on the weather the next day. The forecast when we went to bed that night was not good. The M.E.P. decided to sleep on it and see what the morning brought.
NEXT UP: The Bovine Route!