Day 1 - Impure Thoughts

Five minutes from our hotel is the cable car to Bellevue. For €10 we can avoid a tough two-hour slog up 815m of mountain. Alec airs the purist view that we should walk every step of the way, but Bill, Martin and I put him right: the Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB, is not simply one line on a map: it is about choices, about variantes, and (it is our earnest belief) about cable cars.

Straight after breakfast, we four step aboard with a young French couple hiking GR5 from Geneva to Nice. Hemmed in by a large group of enthusiastic climbers bearing miles of rope, tons of steel and a couple of litres of stale sweat, we ascend in awed silence to find that Graham has already walked up.

‘Have you seen my lady?’ he asks.
‘She appeared at breakfast with a big smile on her face,’ I reply. ‘Was your walk worthwhile?’
‘Not really,’ he sniffs. ‘Loose and shaley. Nothing special.’

Thus our trek begins in style. The path contours along a steep slope, vegetated by a cool and fragrant forest of conifers, before emerging into a rough floral pasture under the lofty presence of the Aiguille Goûter and the Aiguille de Bionnassay. The intervening glacier sulks in the sun, spewing its roaring torrent of milky melt water over a steeply plunging, boulder-strewn bed, which we cross on a Nepalese-style suspension bridge.

At the start of the Tour du Mont Blanc: l to r Alec, Pete, Bill, Martin

The 520m climb to Col de Tricot is steady but hot. Perspiration drips from our brows. Downhill walkers breeze coolly by with a smile and a ‘Bonjour!’ while we plod through the scrubby woods to a level pasture blessed with a profusion of flowers. There we take a short break, drink water, and admire the magnificent scenery. Alec scans the summits with his binoculars and picks out mountaineers descending a snowfield some 2000 metres above us.

Resuming the climb, we cross residual snow banks and reach the Col itself, elevation 2120m, where we congregate with some of our fellow travellers. The Party of Five (Dave, Anne, Emily, Reg and Nancy) are there. Martin soon discovers that Reg and Dave are ex-Merchant Navy, and that Dave’s family lives in the village next to his. Small world!

A new valley lies below, and a zigzag path leads us steeply down on loose stones into the broiling heat. Bill keeps his eye on us and the ascending parties: watchful in best bushwalker practice, he sees the bigger picture. And, literally, the landscape is huge: for some time, the buildings below never seem to grow closer. Braided glacial streams that rush down the broad outwash fans promise cool relief, if only we can get there. Cow bells clang across the void, and horses slowly graze their way across the pastures between picnic parties and children playing amongst the flowers.

Dôme de Miage

The icy crown of Dôme de Miage dominates the tiny chalets at the confluence of the streams, where we hide from the sun beneath a bush. Bill pulls a €2 bottle of red wine from his rucksack; Alec carves a spicy sausage; Martin slices a cheese. There is bread, tomato and apricot. We gratefully consume our simple lunch amidst magnificent scenery, while families dedicate themselves to the quintessentially French pursuit of a civilised feast at tables, with cutlery and wine glasses and serviettes, in the open air.

Another climb awaits us, and although it is only 160 metres it feels much more. The heat is intense. I pause and look behind: Martin and Bill have also stopped to lean forward and catch their breath. Alec plods ahead, steady as ever, quiet and self-contained.

At last we reach the shoulder of Mont Truc, deny ourselves a cold beer at the chalet, and begin a long descent on forest tracks.

Wearily approaching Chalet de Truc after the last climb of the day

The afternoon grows heavy, and rumbles of thunder prompt us to hurry downhill. The gradient is just too steep for comfort, and we are all sweaty and footsore by the time we hit Les Contamines-Montjoie and enter Hotel le Grizzli.

Never were showers more welcome, but still we perspire. A session outside the adjacent bar cools us down. The Party of Five already has a table, Mark and Robyn join us, and Graham and Lesley take a seat. Conversation with our fellow travellers and a bunch of mountain bikers who are following a similar route quickly confirms the camaraderie of crazy people pursuing their dreams amidst the mountains.

A spattering of raindrops lowers the air temperature, and the gathering breaks up. I go with Bill to research the limited choice of restaurants and provision shops, leaving Alec and Martin in charge of drinking. Reporting back, Bill and I persuade the others to move a hundred metres along the street, where an initially unwelcoming waitress serves us an agreeable meal with a litre of red wine.

Bill, ever serious about his walking, points out that although we have completed the day’s walk in the benchmark time listed in the Sherpa notes, we managed this only by using the cable car to bypass the toughest climb. This means we have to do better tomorrow, when dinner at Les Chapieux will be served at 7pm. After agreeing a strategy of buying lunch at 7.30am and breakfasting at 8am, we crash out in a deep sleep.

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