Back to the Alps

Getting dragged around the Alps on a bit of elastic was one of the low-lights of last year. With ‘the other half’ working in Grenoble for most of July, it was a good excuse to head over again and DIY it.

As a non-French speaking, slow-moving, vegetarian I decided to stay in hotels in the valleys (no rushing to make it to refuges for a dinner I couldn’t eat most of). This meant a couple of long days, but also more comfortable accommodation, with no snoring!

The 1st challenge was working out which of the 3 St. Gervais I wanted a train ticket to. And the 2nd was working out how to get to ‘St. Gervais’ from ‘St. Gervais Les Bains Le Fayet’ train station which is actually in Le Fayet (and 300m lower in altitude). Day 0 was a gentle stroll up the valley to Les Contamines. With my Run24 niggles still niggling, walking to loosen my legs up seemed like a good plan. Since this stretch is mostly not on the main TMB route, route-finding was a bit tricky in places. I’d done this section twice before, but hadn’t paid too much attention to where I was going (at UTMB itself the route was marked, and on the training camp last year I was desperately trying to keep up with the person in front). It was generally uneventful though, apart from some evil insects biting me through my shorts. As I settled down for the night the forecast storm arrived, but at least it was due to clear over night.

When my alarm went off at 6, it was surprisingly dark and there was a loud roaring noise. Sticking my head through the curtains it was still bucketing it down. Not the sort of weather you want for crossing multiple 2500m passes. I checked the weather forecast again. It was now forecast to clear by mid-morning, so I donned my waterproofs and headed off.

By La Balme (where the first hikers were beginning to stir) I was soaked. It was easing off though and by the top of the Bonhomme, after a bit of snow and hail, it had stopped. The climb itself had seemed a lot easier than before, but at least part of that was hitting it fresh rather than with 25+ miles already in my legs. The descent to Les Contamines was every bit as unpleasant as I remembered though... After a brief stop to buy a baguette for lunch, remove layers and add suncream it was off over Col de la Seigne. This descent was better, but on one of the snowfields still lingering on the route I decided a controlled butt-slide was better than risking falling.

The views from Arete Mont Favre were stunning and I saw loads of marmots, including a couple of babies. Down to Col Checruit it became clear that my rucksack was far too heavy for running. Largely due to the miscellaneous electronic crap I was carrying: a GPS (why? the route is largely marked), a spare phone (why? I was also carrying two chargers) and an international plug adapter (why? ‘because normal plug adaptors don’t fit the sockets at the theory division at CERN’, ‘but you’re not visiting CERN. you’re attempting to run around Mont Blanc!’). And my knees were objecting. Going down the steep decent to Courmayer was agony, and the blister on one of my toes burst as I hit the outskirts of town. And to add insult to injury the tail end of an ultra was passing through Courmayer and I kept having to explain (in sign language) to marshals and supporters that I wasn’t taking part.

Next morning I felt a lot fresher and the climbs to refuge
Bertone and Grand Col Ferret were no problem (apart from the frustration of getting stuck behind a pack of walkers moving excruciating slowly at one point). Initially I’d been worried about making it to Champex before the hotel check-in closed at 8. But it quickly became clear that the cut-offs after Courmayer are significantly more generous, and even with very little running I was going to make it in time. Having failed to find an open supermarket in Courmayeur I was surviving off of a packet of biscuits from Day 0. At the supermarket in La Fouly it was therefore time for a mega-picnic.

Along the flat-ish section to Issert I realised the tongue of my left shoe had moved and was irritating my ankle. So I stopped and adjusted it. 5 minutes later it was back in the same place. And this routine repeated itself for the next hour or so. I was tempted to throw my shoes in the river. But going barefoot didn’t seem like the greatest idea. Eventually I managed to ignore it and made it to Champex. After a brief rest I decided to go out for dinner. And discovered that my ankle had swollen up and walking was painful. Was this game over?

By the next morning the swelling had gone down a bit, and I’d worked out how to lace my shoe to keep the tongue away from my ankle. So I decided to head to the base of Bovine and see how it felt. After a couple of mile (and having watched the bus to Osieres station go past, and wondered whether I should be on it) it eased off. My memory of Bovine was a nightmare of clambering over rocks (and for the past 2 years I’ve had at the back of my mind ‘how am I going to get up that with 75 miles in my legs’). But it was far, far easier than I remembered. Literally as if someone had removed the rocks.  The descent into Trient was almost pleasant, and the climb to Catogne was fine too. But the decent into Vallorcine was never ending, with the trail indicators seemingly lying about how far it was.

Another mega-picnic and it was off to Le Tetes aux Vents. Here the only problem was the constant stream of day hikers come the other way... The traverse to La Flegere seemed never-ending, with a series of hidden dips. And the fun really began with the descent into Chamonix which went on and on and on (and took me longer than the cut-off for this section).

After that I was seriously considering getting the train back to St. Gervais. But next morning (after a lie-in and getting my 14 euros worth at the hotel buffet breakfast) I felt perkier and decided to complete the circuit on foot, arriving back into St. Gervais a little under 96 hours after I left. Not bad for a route which takes the average hiker 7-10 days. But at the end of August I’ve got to do it less than half that time...

On the plus side, I’ve well and truly lost my fear of climbing. A couple of times I was even disappointed to reach the top sooner than I expected! The hill repeats, stair-climbing and weekends in North Wales have done their job. But the descents were a nightmare. Fingers crossed a lighter rucksack, and hopefully no lingering niggles, will help there...