TMB Day Eight: Champex to Trient
The eighth day of our trek dawned ominous and cloudy, a low gray ceiling that promised a near certainty of rain.
Weather was on our minds. The M.E.P. had seriously debated taking the high variant for day eight, described by Kev Reynolds as “…The toughest of the whole route.” This was the Fenetre d’Arpette, the wildest and most rugged mountain pass of the Tour du Mont Blanc. The upper reaches of this high ravine are a wilderness of boulders and scree; it shares the honor of being the highest point of the trek with the Col de Fours, but is a much tougher nut to crack.
The nut could only be cracked in good weather, though, and the presence of storm clouds coupled with a forecast of poor weather clinched things for the M.E.P…we would not be doing the Fenetre de Arpette this day. We would stick to the low route.
(*Editors Note: After the fact, we spoke to some hikers who DID in fact do the high route through the Fenetre this day and obviously lived to tell the tale; as it turned out, thunderstorms did strike, but not until the afternoon. The M.E.P. believes we could have made it over the pass intact. He did later regret playing it safe here but the bottom line is, we are alive.)
(For a very good description of this route, check out this trail description from the blogger Brooke Brisbine, which gives a good visual illustration of both the the roughness of this route and the very substantial visual payoff.)
(As a further postscript, the Fenetre is on the Swiss Walkers Haute Route — so when we get around to that Bucket List item, we still have another chance at this beautiful but challenging mountain pass.)
(Also note that Sylvia wishes to be clear that she did not agree with the decision to abort on the Fenetre; that ‘We’ did not make this decision, ‘certain people‘ did. End Note.*)
The main route of the TMB day eight is considered the easiest of the trip apart from the previous day…it crosses no major mountain passes, and the high point of the trip is a large open ridge known as the ‘Alp Bovine.’ This had a nice pastoral ring about it…how hard could an Alp be if Bovines resided there? The M.E.P. counted on a relatively straightforward day, which would lead into a rest day, which would leave us in great shape for the expected challenges of the tour’s three-day finale.
And it did indeed open with an fairly straightforward walk over roads, without any views of note. But this easy walk soon transformed into a surprisingly earnest climb across wooded hills, with high walls of rock and snow looming above…giving some indication of what we would have had to climb through had we selected the high variant.
After a nifty viewpoint back down toward now hidden Champex, the trail crosses some broken ground and several rushing streams, and for a while one of the streams actually flows right down the trail for a good twenty yards. This is a surprisingly rough and tiring section, not very bovine in our opinion.
Somewhere past this point the trail turns up and begins attacking the flanks of the aforementioned Bovine Alp. And who should we chance to meet here but Stuart, the Dutchman!
We had first met Stuart back on day three of the adventure in the Rifugio Elisabetta, where, utterly exhausted, he’d told us his tale of camping high in the hills and dragging his tent along with him. He had been doing the trip in the clockwise direction, having begun in Champex; as our routes took us in opposite directions, we had not expected to see him again.
But here he was! This was his last day of hiking, he was just a few hours aware from completing the Grand Circle of the TMB. This was his final downhill. He seemed even more exhausted than before; so much so he barely recognized us at first. He told us of the days ahead of us (now behind him) and in particular the horrible climb up from Chamonix…”The absolute worst of the whole hike,” he said, shutting his eyes as if to blot out the bad memories.
We talked of the trail for a bit but we had our miles to do and he had to go back home to the Netherlands to resume his real life. We watched him go with some sadness…again, here was a friend from the trail walking out of our lives, probably for good. We wish him luck in all things.
Meanwhile, back to the trail…which wound steadily upward as the trees fell away, giving us open views of mostly nothing across fog bound alpine meadows overhung with dark clouds. About here it began to rain. We pulled on our rain gear for only the second time on the trip and slogged forward just as the first peel of thunder echoed out.
We were thinking to ourselves that the Bovine Alp needs to be renamed to something just a bit more bristling and ornery than a cow…Warthog Alp, perhaps.
But we did see a bunch of cows, so this was not exactly fake news either.
At times, the curtain of clouds would part and some views would appear, down into the Rhone Valley, or of the lurking mass of the Grand Combin on the opposing side of said valley. But the scenery was more bleak and threatening than splendid…dark apparitions adorned with boiling thunderclouds. None of it made us want to linger here in this exposed place, especially not with lightning in the offing.
Eventually we threaded through a cattle fence, went up over a minor col and down steeply through the trees and into the dubious covering safety of the forest. From here on to the end of our plodding there would be only occasional views, though there would be a few more bovines.
We have no distinct memories of this section of squishy mud and soggy trees until finally bursting out of the woods to a road clearing. Here a small store and a busy hotel/restaurant sat right by the side of what appeared to be a major highway. This was the Col de Forclaz, one of the least impressive passes of the whole hike. The hotel offered hot food, drink and shelter to lure in weary travelers…and we certainly counted as that.
The Col de Forclaz is a popular place for day hiking. In fact, only the fact that the weather was awful kept the crowds to a minimum. When we came through the next day by bus on our way to do some sightseeing, the weather was much better and the col a complete madhouse…hundreds of cars and motorcycles were parked by the side of the road. Sylvia took this picture of the much more crowded restaurant from the bus:
At any rate, we found a dry table and stopped for a while to have some coffee and soup at the Hotel do Col du Forclaz…but one glance at the menu (forty dollars equivalent for a hamburger) told us that we’d do better to have lunch elsewhere.
In fact, everything on the TMB in Switzerland is quite expensive. It’s an expensive country overall, but a contributing factor is that almost all the refuges on the Swiss leg of the tour are located near populated areas and roads and thus effectively function as ‘low cost’ hotels, luring in regular suitcase tourists, which makes them very crowded and drives up the prices. Our advice is that when you stay in Switzerland, try to stay as far from the towns as possible.
Alas, we didn’t follow this advice, because we did not yet know.
At the Forclaz we also met up with our Swiss friends, whose hike of the Alpine Pass Route had them temporarily following the same route as the TMB. “Remember to put your sunscreen on,” the man told us with a smile as we stood dripping before him. Oh, that Swiss humor again! But I did notice he wasn’t eating the hamburgers.
We had two more nights to spend and Switzerland…this one and a rest day tomorrow. We only had to hike down about another 45 minutes to earn our rest in the little town of Trient.
The most recognizable building in Trient is easily the pink church, which we spotted right away from the col. It looked tantalizingly close, but also still a long way down.
The descent was brief but somewhat nerve racking because the trail was steep, muddy, blocked by numeroius downed trees, and had at least partially been washed away by a recent landslide. Several times we questioned if the trail we were on was even the right one…but eventually we trudged across the gravel and mud at the bottom of the slide, across the main highway to Chamonix, and into Trient
Here the M.E.P. made the mistake of listening to his copilot, who stated that the sign for the hostel was “That way.” (Fact: it was the other way.) Thus it was that we did a full circumnavigation of the village before arriving back where we began…which was very close to the Auberge du Mont Blanc, where we shortly arrived.
The Auberge du Mont Blanc is a big hostel…but still very cramped, with small rooms and lots of stairs, managed by a single overworked man who seemed to be doing everything, including pouring the drinks and making the beds. It took us twenty minutes to check in…the place was very crowded, and many of the guests were not hikers (it was right off the main road, and traffic was constantly flowing past.) The room we had was private and not at all bad, though once again it faced the busy road, and was on the opposite side of the building from the prevailing breeze, and thus seemed to get no air at all.
We would stay in the Auberge Mont Blanc and the village of Trient for two days. This is a decision I’d like to have back. For one thing the Mont Blanc itself is just okay…it’s nothing great. And for another, apart from a couple hostels and the pink church, there is absolutely NOTHING at all in the town of Trient (nor in its companion town of La Peuly.) It’s a quiet and scenic mountain hamlet, but not place to spend a day in. Not a restaurant, not a cafe, not even a market.
Sylvia and I would take the bus into the neighboring city of Martigny to break the monotony. But as we had arrived so that Sunday was our rest day, the bus only ran three times the whole day…so we barely had two hours to spend there. Enough for a pizza and a coffee. And as a city, Martigny is really nothing much anyway. It nowhere near compares to Chamonix or Courmayeur in charm or vitality.
The M.E.P. had booked two rest days because he felt it necessary to restore health to our tired bodies. The last sections of the TMB were reputed to be the hardest, including the celebrated “Passage Delicate’ above Chamonix. This weighed heavily in his decision to stage a rest day here in Trient.
In retrospect, we didn’t really need it. The rest did us good and was not by any means wasted, but the extra day certainly could have been spent in other ways. For one thing, we weren’t really all that worn out. The last four days had been tough but much less so than the four previous ones. By the time we had got to Courmayer we had NEEDED a rest. Not so now. We’d had a shower and a good night’s sleep in a private room the night before.
A better plan might have been to stretch the last three days out into four…and especially the wicked final day of the hike, which in itself ended up being the equivalent of two average days.
About the only thing we did get accomplished was that we were able to wash and dry our dirty clothes…but we might have been able to do that anyway, as we accomplished it the first night. So, the benefits of staying an extra at the crowded refuge in tiny Trient seem in retrospect dubious. If anyone is thinking of doing it…think it over carefully.
But the food at the refuge was not bad, and the beer quite good, and the view of the pink church from the back deck is very fine.
NEXT UP: The Return of Our Buddy, Mont Blanc!