Tour du Mont Blanc: The Delicate Passage

TMB Day 10: Tre-le-Champ to Refuge La Flegere

*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.*

The tenth day of the Tour du Mont Blanc was in some ways the whole trip. The entire thing boiled down to this one significant day.

Because this day had been in the back of our minds since the very beginning…the infamous Passage Délicat; the steep, ladder assisted climb up the Aiguilles Rouges, to perhaps the best views of the entire trip…the Grand Balcon Sud (Great South Balcony), with its birds eye views into of the Mont Blanc Massif.

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The Delicate Passage. if we could make it here, we could make it…anywhere on the TMB

The views OF Mont Blanc from its adjacent peaks, like those of many great mountains, are reputed to be as good or even better than the view FROM the mountain. And the best views of the massif are universally held to be those from the opposite side of the Chamonix Valley (The Vallee de L’Arve)…the impressive high country along the margins of the Aiguilles Rouges.

And that is exactly where we were going…but first, we had to negotiate the delicate passage. We had answered every challenge this hike had thrown at us so far, and that is a long list. But one challenge remained. Today, we were going to find out if we were equal to that final challenge.

We said good bye to the Refuge La Boerne and Sylvia’s favorite room of the trip. Almost immediately the trail crosses the main road into Chamonix  just a bit south of the Col des Monets and begins attacking the opposite slope. The first hour or so is in the woods, just a slog without views. But pretty soon the trees begin to peel away and the panoramas unfold. And if the weather holds, they will not cease until the trail re-enters the trees above Les Houches on the final descent of the trip.

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Anything less than a spectacular view is hard to come by along this, the most visually impressive section of the Tour du Mont Blanc.

Soon the trail passes the base of the impressive Aiguillete de Argentiere, a favored spot of rock climbers. Kev Reynolds notes this as being ‘monolithic’ and ‘most impressive’ among the rock formations in this area.

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The Aiguillete de Argentiere from above.
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The line forms at the head of the ladders.

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Just after the Aiguillete is a rocky area with a fine view, good for sitting and having a scenic snack break. This is precisely what we did, because we could already see what was ahead — the foot of the dreaded Passage Délicat. The first ladder stood nearby, leaning ominously against  a shear rock face, and a tour group was queuing up to ascend. We waited and snacked as the group slowly cleared the ladders.

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The first Ladders. Note the ‘crooked’ ladder above the first, which was one of the longer ones of the passage.

Staring up the ladders, Brian was mostly re-assured. They did not look as precarious in person as many of the videos and photos of them had caused them to appear — in fact they looked quite solid.  And the first section of the Passage is actually very short.

Sylvia was less re-assured. And so Brian, ever the gentleman, said…you go first! (Okay, actually he was trying to GoPro it.)

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Into the wild you blunder…or, is that…into the wild blue yonder?

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The ladders turned out to be (in Brian’s opinion) fairly straightforward. There is nothing technical about them, all you have to do is exercise caution when transitioning off the ladders onto the little balconies that have been bolted into the rock.

Sylvia likewise had no serious issues.

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Transitions between ladders…such as this one…were probably the most problematic issue on this section.
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The ladder sections were entirely non-technical and, all things considered, not very difficult.

There are actually very few ladders on the entire TMB route…if you include all the high variants over the last two sections there are probably no more than ten, total, and some of these are no more than six feet high. There are a few that are in fact much taller than this…maybe 20-30 feet high.  The second ladder of the first section is one of these.

Most of these could be bypassed, thought there is no reason to.

Above the first ladder I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were only two or three short ones remaining in this section.

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Hot dog! I’m at the top of the first ladder!
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Example of a ladder and other appliances bolted onto the mountains…we found these to be very well secured and presented no great challenge.

However, I was MUCH less thrilled about the re-appearance of the high wooden rung-steps bolted directly into the rock. We had had our fill of these yesterday descending from the Col de Posettes, and yet here were more, and these ones steeper still. Some sections also had chains, rails and at least one length of rope as aids along them, while others didn’t. As with the steps we had trod upon yesterday, one in five at least was rotten or loose (or both.)

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In fact, if given a choice, Brian would have easily traded all these damned high steps for an equal length of ladders. The ladders look scary, but in fact are quite safe and easy to climb. The wooden rung steps on the other hand don’t sound like much of a problem, but in reality are neither safe nor easy. A person with very good balance and strong legs could probably high-step right up them; Brian which his ‘trick knee’ and ‘inflexible body’ is neither. And that’s a on a good day when all parts are working as they should.

Brian found the steps to be quite bothersome; ascending these obstacles had him chimpanzee walking, bent over nearly double like one of his early ancestors. He finally solved his woes by deploying his hiking poles, telescoped down to the shortest height possible, as a sort of truncated pair of forelegs.

At any rate, we soon saw the second section of ladders in the distance. These ended up being slightly more involved, and in fact the longest single ladder is in this section. But even this was not greatly challenging; the main obstacles here were tired, nervous hikers in front of us, taking the ladders with great deliberation and causing some delays.

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Sylvia ascends the second and somewhat tougher section of ladders

*** Brian hastily adds that going slowly and deliberately on these ladders IS STRONGLY RECOMMENDED. In fact, the only real danger here would involve a failure to exercise caution, so take your time, wait your turn and don’t rush or be rushed. ***

At the top of this second ladder section, there is only a short walk to a trail junction at the Tete aux Vents, where there is a big cairn, a big view and (on this day) a big crowd of people. The ladders were, for the most part, behind us, and so we were greatly relieved.

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Horray! No more ladders! Well, okay…there’s actually a few more.

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We had entered into an Alpine wonderland…the start of the nearly uninterrupted scenic path known as the Grand Balcon Sud. Below us, in the deep valley, was Chamonix; across the way from us the splendid glaciated skirts of the big range of mountains that is the Mont Blanc Massif. The summit of Our Buddy, wreathed in clouds, loomed ahead; and above us towered the spires of the Aiguilles Rouge, the ‘Red Needles.’

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“Pray that the weather will be kind” on this section, writes Kev Reynolds. It was, as you can plainly see.

We had in fact come to the alpine national park know as the Reserve Naturelles des Aiguilles Rouges…the Red Needles Preserve, an outstanding area in itself that looks out upon a still more impressive one. Here the hiker finds themselves amid rocky Alpine barrens, high meadows, turquoise picturesque tarns and the jagged spires of massive rock formations. It is the home of marmot, chamois and the elusive ibex. One would, in fact, think this a wild place, distant from the press of humanity, remote and devoid of people as a place can be.

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Not just any ape can be the Minister of Expedition Planning.

And so it well might be if not for the ski industry. In fact, the slopes of Mont Blanc and most of its attendant peaks are threaded with cable cars and ski lift lines like a Christmas tree adorned with garland. Here, above Chamonix, this garnishment is quite thorough; very few places on the high country adjacent to the city cannot be reached by a comfortable ride, seated in a chair or standing in an air conditioned gondola. Many, many people do in fact pay for the pleasure of doing just this…to the detriment of the trails above.

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So it is that this alpine paradise can in fact be very, very crowded – and crowded with hikers with very light (or no) backpacks, in tennis shoes, and with very fresh legs. August is the French national month of holiday, and half its population seemed to be here. These racing day semi-hikers were everywhere above the junction, swarming like flies. As we climbed, their numbers would multiply, and the M.E.P.’s pleasure correspondingly decreased.

At the junction we rested and pondered our situation. It was still quite early and the worst of the climb was behind us. Ahead of us lay a decision…we could continue on to our day’s destination, the Refuge de Flegere, by the scenic main variant of the TMB…or we could ascend another thousand or so feet to the even more scenic Lac Blanc area. The first option was easier, but the second reputed to be better. Lac Blanc is thought by many to be the most scenic spot of the entire trip.

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Sylvia looks up at the Lac Blanc Refuge.
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Oh well…might as well join the crowds!

In fact, we had originally planned to stay at the Refuge Lac Blanc, right by the lakes of the same name. But that plan had fallen through when the refuge announced that it had closed for the year due to legal troubles.

Sylvia and had already decided that, barring some injury, we were exercising the Lac Blanc option. It would mean some more climbing and a few more ladders, and after that a somewhat steep descent, but both of us wanted to see the storied lakes. We could in fact see the refuge buildings loomed high above us, seeming to be quite close and tantalizing us. It was decided…we were going to the White Lake (Lac Blanc)!

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Note the look of extreme pleasure on the M.E.P.’s face at the size of the crowds near Lac Blanc. You could almost call this a ‘Blanc look.’

First, we had to go further uphill…this is a steep section of trail, with great scenery, including some lesser alpine lakes. These are the Lacs du Cheserys, actually small ponds whose splendor is eclipsed by the bigger lakes above. After the lakes there is a second, but short, ladder assisted section…here is a curious pair of side by side ladders, almost forming a slow and passing lane, which is rather long but no real trouble. Atop this there are some more annoying high wood rung steps and then, after what seems a long way considering the buildings have been in sight for the whole of it, the hiker arrives at Lac Blanc.

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The larger of the Lacs du Cheserys. The Refuge Lac Blanc is visible as the dark objects between the two bright snow patches.

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Alas, we were not prepared for the scene. The trail we had come up is the harder way, and had not been too crowded. But there is an easier way to reach Lac Blanc from the cable car station at La Flegere, where we would be going next; and many, many people had come up this way. Lac Blanc was THRONGED with people. Hordes of day hikers, unprepared tourists, sunbathers, families, infants, dogs, leering hairy chested European men in Speedos…suffice it to say that Brian, the M.E.P., was a bit put out. This was NOT his idea of the wild outdoors.

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Lac Blanc Refuge

Sylvia, more tolerant of her fellow human beings than Brian, was quick to wade into the lake to bath her aching feet. Brian, in his curmudgeonly way, soon followed suit.

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One of the few views from Lac Blanc nobody was standing in front of.

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It is easy to see why Lac Blanc is such a popular place.

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Brian studiously attempting to ignore the man beside him wearing what appears to be the remnants of a shirt.

Brian found Lac Blanc simply too crowded to enjoy. But if you walk just a short distance away from this, there is a much larger and more beautiful lake that is much less crowded. Another piece of advice…if the hut is open, stay there, and wait until the crowds go away just before sunset. The cable car station closes around nine p.m., and most people leave well before that to catch the last car (sunset in the Alps being well after nine o’clock in summer.)

We looked around the outside of the hut for a while, but could only confirm that it was closed. The views from here, if you could escape the crowds, are fantastic.

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Brian plods downhill, while behind him comes a continual human wave attack.

After our foot soak we proceeded downhill. The remaining trail is steep, but not unusually so. Brian however thinks that this one of the least pleasurable sections of trail. Every thirty seconds or so we were overtaken by at least one, if not dozens, of lightly loaded, fresh legged walkers rushing back to the cable car. We had a choice of either stepping to the side over and over again or walking with people bottled up right behind us…Brian does NOT like to hike with people riding shotgun, so he stood to the side…only to have another one, two, three, four, ten, twenty people appear. It was a non-stop river of humanity flowing from Lac Blanc to the cable car station. This continued almost the whole way down to La Flegere.

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La Flegere cable car station appears in the distance with Mont Blanc in the background

For Brian’s money the detour to Lac Blanc was a scenic stunner but partly negated by the mobs of tourists; the presence of so many noisy and touristy people ruined it for him. Sylvia liked it much more and stated that she ‘just ignored’ the other people, something the M.E.P. sorely wishes he could learn to do.

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Sylvia has this section of trail to herself.

Had we known what to expect, we might have done things differently. We could have hiked directly to Flegere by the low variant, stashed our packs at the Refuge, waited an hour or two and then climbed up by the easier route, with no packs and maybe a water bottle, and enjoyed the early evening as most of the day trippers hoofed it back to the cable car station. Doing so would have added no miles to the trip at all. But, we didn’t know…I had not expected those crowds at Lac Blanc. Live and learn. For the M.E.P. the lesson was…beware the trails around the cable car stations!

(Editors Note: Sylvia disagrees with the above, stating that we ‘did things the right way’ to begin with.)

We finally arrived with the mob at the very large and elaborate La Flegere cable car station, where one gondola after another comes up from the valley loaded with tourists. Just a short distance down slope from this busy hub, and surprisingly isolated from it, is the Refuge de La Flegere. The Lac Blanc might have the best view of any refuge on the tour, but the Flegere was the best of any we stayed at. From it, the entire length of the French side of Mont Blanc range is visible, from the Col do Balme all the way to the Col de Voza, where the tour had begun twelve days earlier.

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The view from La Flegere.
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“…Nowhere along the Grand Balcon Sud does that panorama offer anything less than perfection.” Kev Reynolds.

We realized with a bittersweet mixture of regret and relief that this would be our last night on the tour. We could not have picked a better place to go out in style.

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The busy cable car station
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Now that’s a snack bar with a view.

The La Flegere is another of the refuges that might best be termed ‘rustic.’ There are no private rooms here; just sectioned off smaller dorms, many of which are actually like honeycombed cells in a single larger one. Space is tight, the windows few, the upper bunks of the beds nearly touch the ceiling. And anytime you got up during the night to pee, you end up waking up a minimum of twenty people because the floors groan and creak, and door latches crack like explosive charges.

But that’s the negative stuff. Here’s the other side of the coin…

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Our Buddy basks in twilight.

That, and the fact that the staff was the nicest and most helpful of the whole trip. The meal, served in a large room where there was plenty of space for a change, was also excellent.

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If you can find anything wrong with the views from La Flegere, you are trying way too hard.

One of the hut crew was actually a Nepalese Sherpa who worked in the French huts during the Himalayan off-season. He also said he did some guiding up Mont Blanc. “Everest is easy,” the Sherpa said, in reply to a question from another hiker. “All the work is done for you!” Of course, it should be emphasized that what is easy for a Sherpa may not necessarily be easy for a flatlander.

For a very long while we actually lounged in the outdoor snack bar at the cable car station, where we each enjoyed a sandwich and ice cream. The view here is extraordinary, the food is not bad by any means, and once the crowds departed for the lowlands it was actually quite relaxing. Soon, the only ones in attendance were ourselves and a few British and American hikers who were tent camping, and were waiting for the cable car station to close so they could set up their tents on the lawn.

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Confined as we were in a stuffy dorm once again that night, we did not sleep particularly well. But nonetheless we did so with great satisfaction…day ten had not been an easy one, but we had conquered it. The dreaded delicate passage had been ventured and turned out to be less of a tiger than expected…and while the hordes of hikers had detracted from Lac Blanc, still we had done what we had set out to do.

We had one more night in a refuge and then…it was all over. It seemed strange to know that tomorrow we would return to the full-on civilized norm, albeit the norm of a vacation. We were ready to be done walking…but at the same time, it felt strange and sad to know that the Tour du Mont Blanc, which Brian had been looking forward to for many years, was nearly done.

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But we still had one more day of hiking ahead of us, and we knew this would not be an easy one. It was NOT all downhill. Day 11 would take us to Brevent, considered by some to be THE place to view Mont Blanc. And then down, down down…a long descent into Les Houches, and back to our hotel, where we would at last be done. All we needed to do was survive one more day, and that was it.

Now, how hard could THAT possibly be?

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Next Up: …We all come out like it’s Halloween

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