Days 12-14: Yay, neighbor!

After our trek around Mont Blanc we spent a rainy day in Chamonix followed by a couple days exploring the canals of Amsterdam by foot and by boat while enjoying the local food and beverages.

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TMB – Day 11: Completion!

Le Flegere – Plan Praz – Brevent – Les Houches

We were woken early by many people on creaky floors getting up ridiculously early (before 6! Don’t they know we’re on vacation?!) and took the opportunity to get an early start. The weather was great – mostly sunny and nice temperature but we were worried about facing another hot day and there was rumor of afternoon storms. Before we left, Matthew had to duct tape the soles on to his boots (one was nearly completely detached and the other, seemingly out of sympathy for its partner, had started to fall off yesterday afternoon). 

The hike started relatively flat with some maneuvering through talus fields. Unfortunately, after about two steps the duct tape fell off Matthew’s boots and he had to cut holes in his boots and use some scrap strong to tie the soles on (good thing we are finishing, right?). The path was hugging the side of a mountain with full views of Mont Blanc right across the valley – the closest we had been to it. We soon reached Plan Praz and started the last ascent of the trip. 

Gentle switchbacks turned relatively steep and rocky until we reached a very large snowfield. We climbed uphill and then traversed a narrow path of snow edging along the side of a mountain. The trail was somewhat difficult to find and we continued along snow and rock until we found the ladders we knew were on the trail. We climbed up and scrambled on the snowy, barren landscape. 

Finally, we reached the top – over 2525 meters, one of the highest points on the entire trip. Mont Blanc was right in front of us with all its glory. We enjoyed the most delicious tasting beer and a quick snack. We took pictures of our accomplishments. Unfortunately, the weather rumors looked like they might be true for once as thick clouds started to roll in. 

Kate and Trent took the knee-sparing gondola down to Chamonix while Matthew and I attempted to outrun the rain down the mountain. We quickly passed through different terrain and ecosystems – dry, barren, windy to pine forest to lush meadows. We trekked downhill for about three hours (including about 20 minutes of getting lost right at the very end!) when we finally popped out onto a road in Les Houches – right near our hotel, where we had started 11 days prior. 

We sat in the yard of our hotel and enjoyed sone huge, well-deserved beers, and rested our aching bodies. We had an informal ceremony to commemorate the end of Matthew’s boots, which have taken him over 2500 miles. We showered, took naps, and had a great dinner- more local specialties, heavy on the cheese, with wine and dessert all around. As we went to bed, the weather finally rolled in and we watched occasional thunder and lighting in the valley with Mont Blanc in the backdrop. 


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TMB – Day 10: The former and ladder routes

 Argentiere – Tete Au Vents – Lac Blanc – Le Flegere
We woke up extra early today to get a jump start on the day since there was a chance of thunderstorms early this afternoon. Today’s route is known for scattered ladders to help ascend some of the steeper sections. There is a way to avoid the ladders but it involves some backtracking. Matthew was really looking forward to climbing something so we decided to go that route while Kate and Trent opted to go the longer version. We decided to meet at Lac Blanc which is an optional excursion off the main trail known for a beautiful lake. We parted ways around 630 am and planned to rendezvous in a few hours. 

Kate and Trent had a long, steep, uphill climb but they were joined on their journey by a family of mountain goats including a baby – so much cuteness!! 
Matthew and I thought we had to backtrack some before we found a convenient shortcut. We walked uphill through a beautiful forest then more uphill on a sun-exposed track. It was extremely humid and difficult. We kept looking for ladders but never found any. All of a sudden we found ourselves in Le Flegere, our destination for the night. Somehow we had accidentally bypassed the ladders and Lac Blanc. Oops. 

Somewhat frustrated at our mistake, we then left Le Flegere and headed back to Lac Blanc. The trail was rocky and uphill and it was uncomfortably hot. Luckily, just as we made it to the top, Kate and Trent arrived. The lake itself was beautiful but still mostly covered with snow. The parts we could see revealed vibrant blue and turquoise waters. We had a snack at the top, ran into our British friend again (and for the last time this trip since he planned to finish today), and relaxed for a bit. Lac Blanc is a popular day hike in this part of France since you can take a gondola most of the way up and do only a short ~2 hour hike, so it started to get pretty crowded which was our cue to leave. Matthew and I got in one more alpine sledding experience and we were off down a very crowded trail. On the way down one of the soles of Matthew’s boot started to detach – we all felt that this was symbolic as our journey was nearing its end. 

Once we arrived at Le Flegere we had a baguette and enjoyed the views. This refuge is at the top of mountain where there is a gondola and chairlifts. Actually, many hikers seemed to take this opportunity to cut the trip early by a day and head down to Chamonix – not us! The mountains are wildly beautiful from here and we spent some time watching the paragliders in the skies above. We enjoyed hot showers and spent the afternoon playing many rounds of farkle and rummy. 

For dinner we were seated with a pharmacist couple from Philadelphia who we have seen a few times over the course of the trip. Dinner was tartiflette, a traditional dish of the area that is potatoes, onions, and bacon covered in lots of cheese and baked until bubbly. Very filling. 

Before bed we sat outside and watched the clouds roll in. No rain today but the clouds are constantly moving and threatening weather. The refuge was fairly rustic and everything was wooden. Old skiing and mountaineering equipment decorated the walls. It made for a nice feel, but man were those floors creaky! Sleep was somewhat difficult but bearable as this would be our last night in a refuge. 

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TMB – Day 9: Kings of the hills 

Trient – Col du Balme – Col du Posettes – L’Aguilette des Posettes – Tre Le Champ – Argentiere

We were up early as usual and had a simple breakfast. The hike started as steady switchbacks through the forest then became a gentle uphill around the edge of the mountain. The sun was shining and the views were beautiful. Upon reaching the top (Col du Balme) we crossed from Switzerland back to France. Mountains all around. There was a small hut at the top with a tiny French lady selling soda and counting change meticulously (though giving it back in half Euros and half Swiss Francs). 

After stopping to enjoy the amazing vistas we headed sharply downhill then immediately back uphill on a rocky, craggy, steep climb to the second peak underneath a hot sun. We stopped at the top for a snack and some water before the long difficult descent into the valley. 
Trent’s knee made the downhill very challenging so he and Kate took it slow and steady. Matthew and I headed down to Tre Le Champ and had a delicious lunch – eggplant, zucchini, and goat cheese quiche with salad and the plat du jour, pork tenderloin and a rice medley. And a well- deserved beer. Soon Kate and Trent caught us and kept going to Argentiere to get some lunch themselves. 

We reconvened at our hotel for the night. Yes, hotel. We had an amazing shower (one of those rain head things) and a fresh, clean towel. The luxury! We headed to a local cafe where we had spotted a Ben & Jerry’s sign so we felt obligated to partake. Then we explored the small village of Argentiere and did some errands – pharmacy for some Advil refill and medical tape, the grocery store for some snacks, and the bakery for more snacks. 

We checked out the local options for dinner and settled on a spot. They weren’t serving dinner for about an hour so we had some beer on their front lawn and did some excellent people-watching while we listened to a cover band play across the street. 

Dinner was an experience. We decided to dine like kings and our menu includes a local white wine, escargot with garlic/pesto sauce, French onion soup, chèvre salad, leg of lamb, shrimp with garlic sauce, classic cheesy fondue, creme brûlée, and a baked blueberry and almond cream. It was fantastic! And, all with Mont Blanc looming behind us. 
We went to bed early partially because of the big day we had hiking, partially due to food coma, and partially because we decided to get an extra early start the next day. And we were not disappointed to sleep in comfortable beds without sleeping bags!

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TMB – Day 8: Mile high apple (and cherry) pie

Champex – Alp Bovine – Col de a Forclaz – Trient

We woke up early to chilly morning air (and, surprisingly, not to the rooster which didn’t crow until about 730… Lazy!). We had a simple breakfast and headed out for a gentle walk in the woods which soon became rocky, steep, and long. It was very humid and we were sweating like crazy. We had one large stream crossing and some relief with occasional cloud cover. 

Finally we reached a plateau – Alp Bovine, where there is a tiny place to take a break. They had homemade pie! Apple and cheery. Delicious. We also got some baked goods for the road. 

We had a bit more to climb before reaching the high point for the day then started the long downhill into Forclaz. We had been making great time so we stopped for a beer and chatted with some Americans that we had been seeing off and on. There was a little souvenir shop across the street and we picked up our obligatory TMB tee shirts and some Swiss chocolate. 

Next we headed down to our home for the night, Trient. This is a tiny town with pretty much just two refuges. We were quite hungry but all our place had was ham sandwiches – which were delicious since we were so hungry. We had some warm showers then walked up the street to explore the town church and cemetery. Our refuge had good wifi so we spent some time internetting. Kate and Trent attempted laundry with an actual washing machine but dysfunctional dryer. We played a few rounds of Rummikube and anxiously waited for dinner. 

Dinner tonight was a salad, local cheese, and a tomato and cheese fondue poured over potatoes. Scrumptious! We went to bed in our dorm with a group of older people from South Africa and a duo from the Canary Islands we had been talking to over the last few days. Everyone agreed that we wanted to keep the window open in order to prevent the dorm stuffiness and we all slept better for it. 

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TMB – Day 7: We’re going the distance

Le Peule – Ferret – La Fouly – Praz de Fort – Issert – Champex

We woke up early, as usual, and had a wonderful breakfast of homemade bread, butter made on site, homemade raspberry jam, honey, and yogurt. Simple but delicious. We packed our bags, put on our sunscreen, and headed out for our longest day by kilometers. 

The hike started downhill to the bottom of the valley. There were giant waterfalls cascading down the sides of the mountains opposite of us. When we reached the valley floor, we followed a river on a pleasant flat path. 

Our journey today took us through multiple tiny and ridiculously cute Swiss villages. Not long after starting we decided to stop for a break at a restaurant for some real coffee (just had the instant stuff earlier) and a snack. The treats they offered were delicious! We had slices of pie and a creme brûlée – each with fresh fruit and a scoop of the most delicious vanilla ice cream. 

We left feeling satisfied (second breakfast? first dessert?) and continued along our gentle path. As we walked, Matthew admired the giant slabs of granite and planned future climbing trips. The path followed a river, through cow pastures, and more quaint villages and luxury vacation chalets. 

We stopped for lunch in Issert and had delicious omelettes. We had already walked almost 20 kilometers at this point and unfortunately this was the end of the flat path. We started a steep, sweaty climb into Champex. Once we made it up to the top we found ourselves in a little vacation nook. There is a beautiful lake with people paddle-boating, canoeing, and fishing. We bought some cold drinks and soaked our feet in the cold water. 
We then headed to our refuge at the far end of town, about 30 minute away. This refuge is nestled in a valley with surrounding mountains. The woman checking us in was extremely nice and jovial. She showed us to our sleeping area known as the pagoda (my book calls it a teepee) – it was really a platform tent. Interesting. We had some beers and did some yoga on the grass. We took some hot showers and handwashed a few things. We investigated the chickens on the property which appear to have been pecked on (the jovial lady assured us they were just ugly but we are pretty sure the chickens were chewing on each other). Dinner was bolongase over rice, salad, with vanilla pudding for dessert. We went to bed in a chilly tent after our longest day of hiking (distance). 

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TMB – Day 6: Into Switzerland by way of wildflowers

Rifugio Bertone – Bonatti – Val Ferret- Elena – Col Gran Ferret – Alpage le Peule

We woke up to a beautiful morning in the mountains and a simple breakfast. We had a big day ahead of us so we got an early start. The trail was so pleasant – flat and winding around the edge of the mountain. No major hills (a welcome change!) and millions of multicolored wildflowers everywhere. The trail was in and out of tree cover and we could hear a chorus of chirping birds. There were lots of small river crossings and we could see an amazing golf course in the valley below. This was all with a view of Mont Blanc and the surrounding massif – we could even see as far back as the pass between France and Italy. So beautiful!

Heading downhill was steep and caused some minor injuries (knee pain for Trent and pre-shin splints for Kate), so we decided to stop for lunch in the valley (Val Ferret). We had sandwiches and some pie and did some stretching in the sun. 

Soon enough we were headed back on the trail, only now it was very steep and uphill. There is a refuge a little ways up and we stopped for one last espresso in Italy. This refuge (Rifugio Eleba) is at the edge of a cliff and is fairly new since the old building was destroyed by an avalanche. 

We continued on the steep uphill and the landscape became more and more barren. The winds picked up and became icy. But the sun kept shining and the muscles kept burning. We expected this section to take almost two hours but about 90 minutes later we found ourselves at the top – we made it to Switzerland!

After a few choice pictures we headed down the Swiss side of the pass. The terrain was immediately different – gentle, rolling, grassy hills versus the rough rocky trail on the other side. There were still small patches of snow but as we lost altitude the temperature warmed and snow became mud. 

After lots of downhill we spotted our destination – Le Peule, a working dairy farm and refuge. We rested our tired feet, grabbed a few local beers (Grand St. Bernard brewery), and indulged in our first dessert of the day – warm peach pie. We played some farkle and watched all the cows get herded in for milking. These cows were really wanting to get milked and were pushing and shoving to get in line next. The farm’s dogs were proud of their work and kept all the cows in check. 

We headed in for dinner and were surprised with an amazing homemade Croque Madame – homemade bread, cheese from the farm, ham, topped with a fresh fried egg. We each received our own sizzling skillet. Of course, wine was the cherry on top. We had a more sensible but just as delicious dessert of fresh fruit. After dinner we had less than warm showers and crawled into bed.

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