Two years after trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc Easterly Route with Sara and a Mont Blanc Treks fully guided group, I finally set about completing the entire hiking trail by trekking day 1: Chamonix to Les Houches.
Day 1 of the Tour of Mont Blanc was explained as a "big day"! At the trek briefing, Sara and Alex our mountain guide described the day as a shortish "up" on the rocky traverse behind the Brevent, followed by down, down "and more down" to Les Houches. (pronounced ‘Layzooch’) Alex mentioned that day one had a bit of everything!
Armed with a 20L daysack containing trekking poles, waterproofs, sensible footwear, a cheese and ham baguette, boiled egg, nuts, raisins and the required 1.5 litres of water in a camelback, I joined Alex’s group of five friendly trekkers from USA and Ireland.
The Chamonix start at 8am held a little trepidation for me - I guess all of us were feeling a little the same? We were four solo trekkers and a couple: three nationalities. Would we gel as a group, would we manage to keep pace with each other and Alex? We all had time to reflect on our readiness for this day as we walked through Chamonix, which in early September is cooler, clear and quiet. We made our way through shady streets lined with outdoor stores and coffee shops alongside a few other trekkers who were also on their way out of this lovely Alpine town and dropped by the boulangerie to buy lunch.
For us, The Tour du Mont Blanc started with swift uplift to 2,000m at Plan Praz by cable car. It was a sunny, clear day - a perfect temperature for trekking in shorts and a t-shirt. After a customary group picture, Alex explained clearly that we would begin with a really steady uphill pace which she described as her ‘Alpine Plod’. I looked at Alex, who can only be described as athletic with super long legs and wondered if I would manage to keep up with the plod! True to her word, Alex lead us out with an easy uphill pace. The start to day one was perfectly orchestrated, with short stops for Alex to feed us interesting snippets of trail information. She identified each of the fabulous snow-capped alpine peaks that surrounded us along with the snowy dome that is the summit of Mont Blanc and the majestic Mont Blanc was ever-present throughout the day.
After about an hour of uphill walking, way above the tree line on a gravelly trail we had a longer break for a quick snack. Alex chatted about the flora and fauna we would likely come across during the TMB. Then, like magic, around the next corner a pair of horns emerged from behind a high rock. We were about 30 meters from two impressive Ibex (or do you say Ibexes?!) Following that, a soaring golden eagle came in to view and we began to notice the azure blue of harebells and gentians and myrtilles (blueberries). Alex did a great job imparting local knowledge and even identified seven gnarly alpinists trekking up the mountain shouldering wooden gardening rakes as a trail maintenance team!
Then things started to get rocky, scrambly and steep. Alex suggested carrying poles in one hand to leave the inside hand for clinging on. Alex led by example, but also showed her surefootedness as an alpine guide by not needing to hold on at all. I made sure to hold on and watch my step. Then the trekking poles were stowed away. From the back I heard the word ‘ladders’. However, without time to think Alex moved us on swiftly up a couple of vertical pieces of metalwork attached to sheer rocks - and before we knew it we were all having frothy coffee on deckchairs at the top of the Brévent lift. Well done Alex, no time at all to get anxious about ladders!
And what a view of Mont Blanc. This majestic mountain looked so close you could almost touch it, but we were not alone! Suddenly a bride appeared in a meringue white wedding dress; hitched up to reveal traditional leather hiking boots, next to the suited groom and a photographer! The wedding photos featured bride, groom, many parascenders and Mont Blanc! A most impressive backdrop of the highest mountain in Europe under a clear blue, cloudless sky. I began to wonder whether they had met and proposed on the mountain or it was to be a honeymoon trip to the summit. These thoughts were quickly interrupted as a loud whirring helicopter dropped down supplies for Brévent cafe and we clung onto our rucksacks to stop them blowing off the mountain.
After our most unusual coffee break, Alex explained our next section to be pleasantly undulating. It was a rocky traverse that culminated at a grassy lunch stop again with the cleared view of Mont Blanc. During lunch, Alex identified the various routes and huts on the way to the summit. It was clear that Alex had been there more than once and she casually explained that she had most recently ski toured up and then skied down from the summit via the Mer de Glace. I’m not a great skier and quite sure I’ll never be ready for that either up or down! Dry mouthed at the thought of skiing up and down Mont Blanc I sucked on my camel back tube… suck harder, hmm, to find it empty. Quelle horreur! 1.5 litres of water had dripped out, possibly whilst I removed the rucksack at the Brévent. Note to self: "always carry a spare bottle of water". Do not trust in bladders alone.
Alex explained the ‘down, down and more down’ section would take us into the tree line and out of the hot sun. We needed to tighten our laces and use our poles if we didn’t want to lose our toenails! I had the feeling that my right big toe was already a problem. Some of this descent was off-camber with steep drops, so not for the faint-hearted. We threaded our way down carefully to the afternoon tea stop at the rather intimidating 1930s statue of Christ the Redeemer deep in the forest above Les Houches. A most imposing point to take a break and only an hour or so away from our final destination. I took a look at the toe and made sock adjustments, it red and felt bruised. By now I was also very thirsty and unable to swallow the boiled egg (essential downhill protein needed to maintain concentration). I explained my water situation to Alex, non judgemental, always helpful and prepared Alex kindly gave me a spare bottle which I was more than happy to trade for nuts and raisins. Rehydrated I had what was to be my first ‘comfort break’ of the day in the woods close to the statue of Christ, but not too close. Alex had explained that toilets were available at the lift stations and at the Brévent café. Second note to self: ‘never pass a toilet!’ The forest was quite private though and I was careful to leave no trace.
Feeling much better now after egg, water and sock adjustments it wasn’t long before we saw the sign to our day one finish: Hotel Campanule Les Houches. We sat in the Campanule’s very pleasant garden whilst Alex got our room keys. A quick briefing from Alex, our bags were there and we had time for shower and a lie down and change before dinner.
What a great day one on the TMB! Thanks to Alex and her group for allowing me to finally finish this journey. A unique experience of three countries, three cultures and the most interesting and beautiful terrain. Mountains, meadows, carpets of flowers, traditional villages and Alpages. The backdrop of stunning Mont Blanc is ever present and draws you around the next corner. Having completed a few other treks in the Alps, UK, Ireland, Iceland, USA, Far East and Africa I can quite surely say that the Tour of Mont Blanc is a fantastic circumnavigation journey
Janet. September 2021