They did a much better job of capturing what the walking itself was like.
The TMB is one of the classic alpine walking trails, and I’d whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone with any interest in hill-walking. If you do it over two weeks, you should be able to manage it if you have a reasonable level of fitness … e.g. if climbing Ben Nevis, Snowdon, Scarfell Pike or Carrauntoohil doesn’t sound like an impossible challenge.
The TMB is usually done by people who have booked overnight stays in the many mountain refuges along the route, although I guess you could also carry your own tent and camp. The easier option, where you only have to carry a daysack, is to organise it through an adventure travel company like Exodus or UTracks either us part of a group with a leader or self-guided with your gear transported between refuges.
A word on gear. The weather is seriously changeable in mountainous regions such as the Mont Blanc Massif, so you don’t want to skimp to much on your gear. We brought:
- Good (Gore-Tex) waterproof and windproof jackets
- Lightweight waterproof boots (Goretex lined Brashers)
- Waterproof trousers and gaiters (you could manage without the latter)
- Two fleeces, a light one and a heavier one
- A woolly hat and turtlekneck scarf
- Gloves – don’t be afraid to bring ski gloves, you’ll probably only use them when it’s both wet and cold
- Walking trousers with zip-off legs
- Quite a few pairs of decent hiking socks
- Good 20l to 35l daysacks
- Waterproof covers for our rucksacks
- Telescopic walking poles – don’t worry about looking stupid, they come in very useful on the descents
- A hydration pack and water bottle – you should carry about 2 litres with you each day
- A map of the region and a compass
- For emergencies, a whistle, first aid kit, space blanket, pen knife and thermal bottoms
- A good sleeping mat for camping – got 5cm thick “trail comfort” Therm-a-Rest mats and didn’t regret the cost
- Inflatable pillows
- Trek towels– we had a Lifeventure trek towel each and they stood up pretty well to a fortnight’s usage without being washed
Time to go home! Up at 06:00, we packed up everything for the last time, loaded up the van and had breakfast. At 07:00, we left the campsite, said our goodbyes to Liz and got on the bus with Charlie and headed down to Chamonix to pick up the hotel group.
The journey to Geneva airport was uneventful, with most people catching up on some kip, and at the airport we all parted with hugs and promises to meet again. Our flight wasn’t until later in the afternoon, so we just hung around the airport reading our books and killing time until we could check-in and relax in the business lounge.
By the time we reached home in Dublin, we were completely shattered and looking forward to some of our own home cooked food, a nice shower and a real bed with clean sheets.
We may have been tired, though, but both of us were already itching to get out the Exodus brochure and plan our next trip. I think we’re hooked on these adventure holidays …
Our last day, and supposed to be a rest day. Janina, Vanessa, Catherine and I were up at the usual 07:00 along with Liz and Charlie as we were all off (not together) to the glaciers for the day. After a quick breakfast, the three girls and I headed off to les Praz where we met Neil McNab who was to be our guide for the day on a glacier walk between Helbronner and the Aiguille du Midi.
We felt we were paying a lot for this day out – €170 all in – so we were pretty relieved when we could sense straight away the caliber of guide we’d managed to find ourselves. Neil struck us immediately as quietly confident, mature, experienced, softly spoken and someone who very much knew what he was about. As he chatted to us about being a “quite well known snowboarder”, his training through french to be a mountain guide, his snowboard training camp business, the six remaining Mont Blac ascents he was booked on as a guide before the end of the season, the many different climbing routes around the area … we were left with no doubt that we were in safe hands.
(Later on, we googled him and came up with a “Neil McNab Saves Life On Mt McKinley” story which further improved our impression of him 🙂
Anyway, Neil drove us down to Chamonix where we first bought our cable car tickets and then headed to a nearby sports shop where we hired out proper rigid alpine boots, crampons, climbing harnesses and ski axes. Leaving the shop, we started getting seriously excited because we felt like the real deal in all our gear. We headed straight for the cable car and ascended to the Aiguille du Midi where Neil pointed us out various peaks and climbing routes and then caught the little cable cars across to the Helbronner. The views from the cable car were absolutely amazing – it’s like a different world up there hanging above the Vallee Blanche – but it was especially cool to watch all the little dots picking their way across the glacier and thinking “yep, that’ll be us in a few minutes”.
At Helbronner, we had one last chance for a toilet stop and then headed out onto the snow where Neil showed us how to put on our crampons and then got us to stomp around for a bit. Crampons definitely take a bit of getting used to. You have to do your best to get a firm footing with all spikes in the ground so as to not strain yourself too much and you also have to be careful not to trip over them. Once we felt we’d got the hang of that, he roped us together with him at the front and me at the back and we set off across the glacier.
Most of the walk was pretty straightforward, but really interesting. We had amazing close up views of the glacier, crevasses and the surrounding mountains. After walking steadily for a couple of hours we started to feel we were really getting the hang of walking in crampons and stopped for a quick lunch. Quickly getting going again, and plodding along the narrow path, I think we all started to wonder whether Neil just wanted to finish the walk as quick as possible and get home again, but it was only later that we realised that he knew we were going to be tight on time given the difficulty of the final stretch. We had no idea what we were in for.
As we approached the Aiguille du Midi, gently ascending, we passed a group of climbers pitching tents and building walls of snow, obviously planning on spending the night. From there, the going got steeper and steeper until we were all struggling to keep going. I guess the high altitude and the trouble we had in using the crampons on such steep an incline was what gave us such difficulty. On and on it went, with no option of stopping for a breather since we were roped together, we eventually made it up to a bit of a plateau. There, Neil roped us much closer together and pointed out where we were going next – an extremely steep ridge, with sheer drop-offs on either side, all the way up to the Aiguille du Midi.
Without any further fuss, we got going and as the going got steeper, and we got more exposed to the wind, we all really struggled to keep going. I was breathing hard, exhaling sharply and loudly to get decent breaths, but Janina directly in front of me was almost baying like a mountain goat. I didn’t even consider going after my Fedora baseball cap when it blew off. Catherine, up front, said that Neil was almost dragging her along using the rope and she was just following his footsteps. Eventually, with much encouragement from Neil but no stopping, we got to the top of the ridge but as we walked along the last few metres I found myself shouting at Janina “Watch your feet! You’re going to trip on your crampons!” as I was terrified she was going to trip and send us off the side of the perilous ridge where we’d no doubt plummet to our deaths.
Once we got in out off the ridge, we all fell about the place laughing and gasping for air. What an experience! Catherine was beaming from ear to ear and looked about 15 years younger … I’ll never forget that look. To any experience climber, we must have looked like complete beginners, but we didn’t care … we felt like we’d just climbed Everest …
We didn’t hang about long, but took off our crampons and some layers of clothing before catching the cable car back down. Once we’d returned our gear to the rental shop, Neil dropped us back to les Praz where they four of us had a celebratory beer on the sunny terrace of a hotel.
Back at the campsite I had a quick shower, left Catherine to pack up most of our stuff for the flight home and set off jogging and walking fast with poles towards Chamonix in order to catch the start of the North Face Ultra Trail Tour du Mont-Blanc which was starting at 18:30.
Ever since learning about this 170km race around the Massif over two days and reading Aisling Coppinger’s account of finishing it, I was absolutely fascinated by it. Trying to get more into distance running myself, I just couldn’t fathom how people could run that distance. I mean, running up mountains in the cold, wet and dark and keeping going for over 40 hours … it just doesn’t make any sense. Looking at the times from the year before it was incredible to see that the winner ran down from the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to Chapieux in about 20 minutes at the dead of night, whereas it took us about three hours to walk up there in daylight.
Chamonix was thronged with people when I got there and, after stopping for a second to chat with Brian, Gary, Neil and Valerie, I made my way around to behind the start line where I just soaked up the atmosphere and watched the 2,500 runners preparing to set off. Some were deep in mental preparation staring into space, while other were joking around with their friends as if they were waiting to get into the pub. One runner was sitting very close to me with his wife and young daughter chatting and as the start time approached they hugged, kissed and said their goodbyes. Very sweet. As soon as they started, I went through some side streets a good bit away from the start and cheered them on running along the main street out of Chamonix. Amazing to watch them, and if I ever feel remotely able for a challenge like that I’ll be very tempted to give it a shot.
Snapping out of that daydream, I had my own little race ahead of me. I had to make the 45 minute walk back to the campsite, change for dinner and meet everyone at the restaurant in just over half an hour. That worked out fine, in that I made it on time, but when I got there I was so seriously over-hyped from the glacier walk and watching the start of the race that I just babbled away to people until I caught Catherine’s “calm down!” look.
In the restaurant, we all lashed into our beers and wines and jostled for position in the queue for the buffet starter of cold meats and “stuff”. For main, most people had steak and chips and for dessert we had chocolate pudding or apricot tart.
Atfer dinner, Brian gave an excellent speech thanking Liz and Charlie and Teressa gave them our card with a contribution to their “Mont Blanc Fund”. Charlie, the poor fella, and Liz both had to give a speeches in return thanking us all for being the best group ever (of course!). By the end of it, we had certainly disturbed everyone elses’ dinners in the restaurant …
Leaving the restaurant, we strolled down to the bustling (okay, deadly silent) les Praz main street and convinced an English hotel owner to serve us drinks (thanks Gary!) on the terrace behind his hotel. Nearly everyone had a cognac, and we all toasted a most excellent holiday and had a good laugh chatting in the dark. It was pretty clear that we were all shattered, though, so we only had the one drink before going back to the campsite and turning in.
Up bright and breezy for our last days walking. After breakfast, where Brian managed to eat some of last night’s dessert, we headed off out of the campsite, across a river and climbed through the forest to the animal park at Merlet. After a quick break we started up the steep path towards the summit of the Brévent.
Catherine, Felicity and I stuck together once we’d managed to convince the hotel group to allow us pass them and really enjoyed the climb, going in and out of a couple of gullies and picking our way along very narrow little cliff paths. Along the way, I met a guy called Greg from Manchester who was in the area supporting his wife, Kathleen, who was doing the ultra-marathon the following day. We had a great chat as we walked, talking about running, the TMB, other walks and the like. What really cracked me up was his description of the TMB, in a deep northern english accent, as a “luvely footpath” … not a walk, or a trail, or a trek, but a footpath.
I let Greg head off and the three of us finally made it up to the Refuge de Bel Lachat where we were absolutely blown away by the views of the Massif. It was a glorious day, with very few clouds and you could admire all the peaks and glaciers from what seemed like a very close distance. I heard various people describe this as one of the best panoramas in Europe, if not the world, and I can well believe it. We plonked ourselves down in some deck chairs, ordered some “vin chaud” and took it all in. From the terrace, Greg pointed out to me what he reckoned was one of the best walks of the area … up the Montagne de la Cote, through the woods to nearly 2600m where you’re in the midst of two glaciers. If we ever go back to Chamonix, I definitely want to give it a shot.
As self-satisfied as we all were at that point, we still had a bit of walking to do. From the refuge, we continued up along the ridge towards the very obvious peak of the Brévent where the cable car station looked like Alcatraz or something. Along the way, I passed a guy wearing a GUADEC 2007 t-shirt which was a bit bizarre, but I didn’t have time to stop and find out who he was. When we did finally reach the Brévent, we all congratulated ourselves and took lots of photos, since this marked the finish of our TMB.
We still had to get back down to Chamonix and les Praz, though. The options were a) take the cable car down all the way, b) walk down to Planpraz and get the cable car from there or c) walk the whole way down. After much humming and hawing, most people decided to take the cable car the whole way down while I was the only one really up for walking down. I was glad when David also piped up and said he wanted to walk down, because I was starting to feel a bit guilty about subjecting Charlie to the long descent, knowing that his knees were playing up.
On the way down to Planpraz, we had a great chat about climbing and Charlie stopped and pointed out some climbing routes he fancied trying. At Planpraz, we discovered that the most direct path to Chamonix was closed and instead we contoured across to Chartanon and descended straight into les Praz from there. It was quite funny at the start, because Charlie was clearly game for a quick descent since he usually had to go at the pace of the slowest in the group but it didn’t take long for him to pull back and decide that he didn’t quite want to go at my pace … “I’m not going to run down the mountain Mark!”. The rest of the way down was good fun, the three of us chatting about lots of different stuff. Nice to get a chance to talk to Charlie for long, and to David who I hadn’t really talked to much over the whole trip.
Once back at the campsite, we didn’t have long to put up the tents, have showers and wash some socks before we sat down for dinner. Our last “night in”, we had a really nice meal – vol-au-vents for starter, chicken tarragon with cous-cous for main and a custardy chocolatey biscuity mix for dessert.
After dinner, I took advantage of the free wifi for a bit and then showed Janina and Vanessa our wedding photos (why do girls like wedding photos so much?). When we wandered back to the mess tent, the air was thick with cigar smoke because Brian had gotten out the cigars he bought back at Trient and was sharing them around. It would have been rude not to have one. Even though it was the end of our last days walking, everyone was pretty shattered and the conversation was broken by unusually long periods of contemplative silence. Nice for a change. When Felicity came in asking for Janina, I piped up with “You see how quiet is in here? Of course she’s not here!”. I’m really not very nice sometimes, but it got a good laugh out of everyone. We all hit the sack not long after.
The usual deal. Up early and packed everything up. Luckily, though, we could actually see the surrounding mountains and, although the sun wasn’t over the ridge yet, we could tell that is was going to be a nice day. Once we were ready, Charlie sent us off to meet in Contamines so that some of us could take out some money and buy a few things.
Setting off from Contamines, we made our way up through the eastern outskirts until we reached the TMB variant route and then continued up steeply up to Chalets du Truc where we just continued on after admiring the amazing views of the Glacier de Miage. From there, we descended again to the Chalets de Miage where we all had our lunches and ordered their famously huge portions of “tarte aux myrtilles”.
Munching on our lunch, we got the chance to take a good look at the next segment of our walk – the extremely steep 600m ascent to the Col de Tricot. Charlie told us about an informal challenge that people try where they time themselves from the gate at the bottom to the top of the col. I think he said the best time he’d heard of was 31 minutes, that he did in 39 minutes when he tried and that another guide said that doing it in under 35 minutes nearly killed him. In the same breath he warned us against trying it because one of his previous clients tried it and suffered from a sudden drop in energy levels half way up and nearly collapsed even though he was young and fit.
All this talk was just supposed to prepare us for the difficulty of the climb and persuade us that slow and steady was the best option, but I couldn’t resist giving it some sort of a shot and seeing what time I could get without killing myself. Off I went, quickly passing a guy who had passed us a couple of minutes before and ploughed on up the steep zig-zagging path. I pushed pretty hard, but made myself take breaks in an effort to be somewhat sensible. Each time I took a break, though, the guy behind me going at a steady pace would start to catch me and I’d set off again. On and on, up and up the path went, but all of a sudden I was at the top and stopped my stopwatch at 36 minutes, 40 seconds.
That was probably the most satisfying segment of the trek, and it was pretty cool to see the rest of the group trickle within ten minutes either side of the hour mark. Everyone seemed to enjoy the challenge of pushing on up to the top of such a steep ascent.
From there we descended and then ascended again to the top of the of the Téléphérique de Bellevue where Brian, Felicity and Xen decided to take the cable car down to les Houches rather than walk. After following Charlie for a bit down what would be ski slopes in the winter, we found the path and I headed off down the steep descent at a jog. The girls had been joking that I was trying to look like a superhero because I had my towel hanging out of the back of my rucksack to dry and it looked like a cape. So, when I set off down the path I could just hear a load of giggling from above because apparently my “cape” was billowing behind me as I ran off.
The descent to les Houches was long and steep and I took shortcuts wherever I could, so at one point I was fairly sure I’d gotten lost. I knew I was supposed to be following the cables of the cable car down, but I could see a cable car far to the west. That turned out to be a different cable car, and I eventually figured out from the map that I was on the right path and continued on down into the town in time to meet the others off the cable car and have a drink in the bar across the road.
Since we’d somehow run a little behind on schedule, we had to wait a while longer for the next bus so I took the opportunity to take out some cash. The barman’s response to me “Avez-vous une banque ici?” was either “Oui; cent metres.” or “Huit cent metres” so I jogged up the road for what turned out to be more like the latter 800m, took out some cash and nosed around an outdoor sports shop.
Back with the group, we all had a good laugh at the fact that Gary had somehow been one of the last to arrive in the town even though the last time anyone saw him he wasn’t far behind me. He must have got waylaid a bit, but we never did figure out exactly what route he took. To further pass the time before the bus came we just pestered Charlie with teasing and questions until he had to give up trying to read the sports section of the newspaper.
Finally the bus came and we went up the road to our campsite at les Montquarts, between les Houches and Chamonix. Since we were fairly late, we had to quickly pitch the tents, have showers and get ready for dinner. That night we started with soup, had crêpes and a tuna dish for main and a custard and caramel mix with pastries for dessert. After dinner, we washed up and once Brian had beaten me in chess again, I joined Catherine in the site’s games room where she was charging our phones while reading and then we went off to bed.
Our second rest day. Given that it was still raining and miserable, Janina, Vanessa, Felicity, Catherine and I decided we’d go into Contamines to look around the morning market, go to the tourist office to try and get information about doing a glacier walk from Chamonix and then get a bus to St. Gervais in the hope of going for a swim and sauna or something.
In the end, when we got to Contamines the bus wasn’t for ages, so after a look around the market we sat in a café reading our books for a while. Then Janina did a little research on the Internet before Catherine and I decided to give up on the St. Gervais idea and went and bought crisps, chocolate and a box of beer (“to take the edge off the day”) and wandered back in the drizzle to the campsite. Once there, we spent the afternoon reading books, playing chess, backgammon and cards with Brian, chatting with Dean, Janina and Felicity and generally just passing the time.
Once it came to dinner time, the six of us at camp were pretty chilly and damp and decided to wander back up to Notre Dame de la Gorge to try the restaurant we had spotted by the church. Thankfully, it turned out to be a brilliant choice. Inside, it was warm and cozy with low-beamed ceilings with nice, welcoming staff. For dinner, we mostly had steak, but Vanessa asked for an “assiette de legumes” and got the most appetising vegetarian meal I have ever seen. And “steak” doesn’t do our meal justice … this was good meat, really well prepared with tasty, tasty sides dishes.
Dinner was especially nice since it was just a small group and, so for example, I got a chance to talk to Dean much more than previously. Being a fellow programmer, but working on very different stuff, it was an interesting chat about our different perspectives. For dessert, we had crème brûlée and a couple of cognacs. We were all a little tipsy walking home, but hugely cheered (and warmed) up.