Tour de Mont Blanc, Part 4
In Part 4, we celebrate my birthday in a spectacular alpine refuge ringed by glaciers, tackle a ladder section over nearly vertical cliff faces, and wrap things up back where we started in Les Houches.
Here are my earlier posts on the TMB:
- Intro to the TMB
- Part 1: Went to a Party and a Hike Broke Out
- Part 2: “I Carry Nothing But Cheese”
- Part 3: The Mayor of Grand St. Bernard
NOTE: Just to prevent any unwarranted and duplicative birthday wishes, it’s not actually my birthday. My birthday was in September when I was on the hike. One per year is plenty.
In addition, I’m currently hiking the Everest Base Camp/Three Passes trek. You can follow the action here.
Travis and I almost succeeded in making an early departure. We were up early, but after a leisurely breakfast we were only on our way toward the Fenêtre d’Arpette (2,665m) by a little before 9.
Our itinerary for the day included yet another alternate route and this one was a beast. The climb out of Champex to the Fenêtre would ascend over 1,200m in less than 8 km. We dug in and made good time reaching the crest.
The top of the pass was crowded with people recovering from the long climb. Typical of the TMB, the crowd included hikers we’d met earlier in the trip. We talked with them a bit, then dropped over the pass and began the 1,100m descent to the Chalet des Glaciers (1,583m). As we left, I threw out an invitation to my birthday party, which we would be having that night at whichever refuge we ended up in.
The steep and jumbled trail forced a slow pace as we moved down the backside of the pass. It was nearly 5:00pm by the time we reached the Chalet. This marked the junction of the main route, which continued down for 45 minutes to the town of Trient (1,279m), and an alternate route that we had hoped to take all the way to Le Tour nearly 15 km away.
We faced a tough decision. Le Tour was still 4.5 hours away, which would mean a brutally long hike deep into the night. There were two other refuges between us and Le Tour on the alternate route. The second, Refuge du Col de Balme (2,191m) was about 3 hours away and was terrible according to several different sources on the trail. Primarily because of the grouchy proprietor.
We had very little information about the first, Refuge Les Grands (2,113m), except for a guide’s warning that it probably didn’t even exist.
We rolled the dice and turned onto the alternate route. We crossed the Trient River and then leaned into the 600m climb toward the possibly fictional Refuge Les Grands.
Travis had taken off as soon as we made the decision and quickly out paced me up the mountainside. He was soon out of sight as I took my time and wore out my shutter capturing the sharp peaks and hanging glaciers towering above me. I eventually reached a crazy stone staircase that had been hacked into a massive cliff face. The staircase lead steeply up to a blind corner and great views across the valley to the Pointe Ronde.
I rounded the corner and looked up to see Travis peering down at me with a wide grin from the very real Refuge Les Grands. Next to him stood the refuge proprietor, Claude. I double timed it up the remaining 25 meters eager to get the scoop on the night’s lodgings.
Travis quickly informed me that the refuge had everything we were looking for. In addition to overwhelming, 360-degree views of the surrounding peaks and glaciers, Refuge Les Grands offered food, wine and comfortable beds. The only serious weakness was the open air shower fed by glacier melt water.
We were ultimately joined at the refuge by a handful of other TMB’ers, including the hikers we’d met on the pass earlier in the day. We cracked open some wine (red and white this time) and sat at the small table trading trail stories.
Following a quick dinner that we cooked ourselves, Claude came through with a serious surprise. I’d seen him moving around in the kitchen but had not paid much attention to it. He reached into the stove and came over with a blueberry tart made with berries he’d picked near the refuge that afternoon.
Apparently Travis had spilled my secret early and Claude had decided I needed a birthday cake. Later, Claude upped the ante further when he broke out freshly made bread and then immaculately sliced some hard salami to go with it.
All in all, it was a perfect night at a cozy alpine refuge with fantastic company and a wonderfully kind and engaging host. With all due respect to my friends from Laos, I have a new No. 1 on my list of best travel birthdays.
We moved on from Les Grands the next morning fully cognizant that the night before would be impossible to match during the rest of our trip. We climbed west following the contour line as we headed toward the Col du Balme (2,191m) and the French border, then quickly skipped by the Refuge du Col de Balme grateful that we hadn’t pushed on the day before to test our luck there.
We descended from the col to Le Tour (1,453m), our scheduled stop the day before. Next came Tre-le-Champ (1,417m) as we began the climb over the Aiguilles Rouges. After a steep climb, things got interesting as the trail scaled a series of ladders and metal footholds over nearly vertical cliff faces.
The trail peaked at the Tête au Vents before descending gradually to the Chalet de la Flégère (1,875m). We reached la Flégère just before the 7:30pm dinner service, tossed our packs on some bunks in the enormous dortoir upstairs, and then plowed into a tasty dinner.
Yes, we had red wine too.
The last day on the trail found us eager to reach Les Houches. We bolted from la Flégère, took a lower altitude alternate trail toward Plan Praz, and then climbed up to Le Brévent (2,526m). From there, we headed to Refuge de Bellechat (2,152m) where we treated ourselves to a surprisingly good bacon and cheese omelette. We destroyed the omelette then raced down the steep and treacherous descent from the Aiguilette de Brévent toward Les Houches (1,007m).
Heading into Les Houches, we were disappointed to find that the trail generally followed a series of paved and unpaved roads, except for the occasional shortcutting of some switchbacks. Even that far into the hike, we had difficulty giving up the joys of the trail despite our desire to reach the end.
We arrived in Les Houches a few kilometers later, physcially spent but satisfied by a fantastic adventure.