Day 2 - Travelling Light

The shop that should open at 7.30am remains firmly shuttered, but the obliging owner of its competitor invites us in well before his scheduled start time of eight o’clock. He and his staff refresh the fruit displays, serve us cheese and sell us ham and sausage.

Bill and Alec ready to depart from Hotel le Grizzli, Les Contamines

We return to Hotel le Grizzli on schedule, where breakfast is chaotic. The self service counter consists of two narrow shelves in a dimly lit room with cramped tables and chairs. The whole caboodle needs a radical redesign. Fortunately, the good nature of our group and the cyclists helps us through. We say goodbye to our luggage, which we shan’t see until we reach Italy two days hence, and we make a steady start up the valley towards the church of Notre Dame de la Gorge, where our climb begins.

A Place to Offer up a Prayer before or after crossing Col de la Croix du Bonhomme

Today’s profile consists of one long, steady ascent. From Les Contamines at 1167m we shall walk to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme at 2479m, followed by a somewhat more abrupt descent to the tiny hamlet of Les Chapieux at 1553m. The weather is cooler after overnight thunderstorms but more humid. We sweat our slow way up the vehicle track in woodland shade, pausing to look down into the dark, narrow slots of smoothed black rock, through which the foaming Bon Nant Torrent roars and churns.

Emerging into gentler territory, we stop for coffee at the chalet of Nant Borrant, where Jo and Adrian are already relaxing. Madame appears and takes our order with a chirpy ‘D’accord!’ and we enjoy fifteen minutes in the shade of a tree. As we shoulder our rucksacks to resume the plod the cyclists pass by in low gear.

‘Mad, if you ask me,’ Martin mutters.

Jo, Adrian and his characteristic titfer at Nant Borrant

We are to see just how mad they are later that day, but first our eyes light upon the languid movement of the long and lovely legs of a young woman. Our uphill pace is such that we don’t expect to catch up with other walkers, but to our surprise we are rapidly gaining on her and her unusually short shorts. Mentally twirling our moustaches, we approach with straight backs and what we hope are winning leers. She turns on hearing us, smiles beautifully and greets us with ‘Bonjour!’ Now we see why we have caught her: as well as her backpack, she is carrying someone else’s rucksack in her arms. A brief conversation in French reveals that her companion has had to return to the car at Notre Dame de la Gorge to collect a key he had forgotten, so she is sauntering uphill until he rejoins her. Despite our innate sense of gallantry, once we know the score none of us volunteers to help carry her load. We wish her well and push on along the gentle gradient of the upper Bon Nant valley, walking easily on a broad gravel road through cattle-grazed pastures towards the frost shattered pinnacles of the high mountains, which play hide and seek amongst the shifting clouds.

The upper part of the Bon Nant Valley

Near the Chalet la Balme we eat an early lunch.

We’re not quite halfway in terms of distance or ascent, but steeper and colder work lies ahead. Cyclists pass us, pushing their steeds up an unrideable section of the trail. Once more we gird up our loins to slowly and methodically tackle the next segment: when eating an elephant, it is best to take one bite at a time. And suddenly we reach the level of the residual snow banks.

The path turns right up the green slope in the centre for the final approach to Col du Bonhomme

The gradient eases and we scamper along. When another brief but steep climb slows us down, I glance back and see a familiar pair of short shorts and long legs, this time accompanied by a man.

‘Vous avez le clef?’
‘Oui. J’ai le clef, le monsieur, et il a le sac,’ she says, and gives me a dazzling smile.
‘Bonne continuation,’ I call out to her retreating legs.

‘Bon courage,’ she replies, and then she is gone, leaving us bereft as we struggle over the sparsely vegetated final kilometre to the snowy Col du Bonhomme and its wind-whipped stone box of a shelter, where the cyclists have occupied all the best spots, just as they do in England’s cafés.

Looking back from Col du Bonhomme

‘What kept you?’ Alan demands to know.
‘A young lady’s legs,’ I reply.
‘The one with short shorts?’ asks Hilja with a knowing smile.
‘The same,’ I admit, and looking through the doorway I see our inspiration striding away across the snow.
Martin arrives.
‘Which way now?’ he asks.
I point the direction.
‘*!%$£^)*’!’ he says. ‘I thought this was the top!’

The Col is chilly, so we decide to press on to the refuge a couple of kilometres distant. Unfortunately, all the cyclists and a guided party some twenty strong set off at the same time, so we have a traffic jam. The way takes us across steeply sloping snow banks, a rare experience for Bill which he tackles with caution. There is bare rock, and even some rideable lengths of path. Bikes have to be shouldered frequently, and there is a sense that they are more than somewhat out of place.

By this stage of the day we are all suffering personal wear and tear, and with relief we reach the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and descend to the refuge for tea and cake. The jagged ridges above and to our left invite further exploration, but they’re not for us on this tour.

The way to Col de la Croix du Bonhomme

The Refuge at Col de la Croix du Bonhomme

We’ve made the climb in the standard time displayed on the signposts, which tells us we’ve quickly risen to ‘match fitness’. After half an hour we begin our descent.

Leaving the refuge en route to Les Chapieux

As we leave, the cyclists set off too, and we pull out our cameras just too late to catch a flying action picture of man and machine hurtling down improbably rough terrain. They soon vanish, and we drop steadily into the valley, content that we shall reach the auberge before dinner. We have time to chat with ascending Aussies, gaze in amazement at a hippy type struggling up with a load of fruit in a wooden shoulder frame, and observe a pair of mules carrying heavy loads up the pass to the refuge. Nevertheless, the descent extracts a physical toll, and we catch up with Martin near the bottom, sitting by the trail.

‘Big Issue! Big Issue!’ he cries, a smile on his face to match the irrepressible British humour, and then he struggles to his feet and says, ‘Christ! I’m at the end of the *&^%$£’* envelope, mate.’

The auberge is a busy place where we are quickly processed, and we set about some very acceptable Amstel beer. So welcome is it that we don’t rush to shower (we have nothing to change into, as we are travelling light) and before long we hear the call to dinner. First course is soup – no problem – but then someone asks what we shall have as main course. The answer: pig’s cheek and polenta! Resigned distaste floods across many faces, but I can assure the doubters that the dish is nourishing and tasty, and it goes down very well with a couple of bottles of the local red wine.

After dinner Alec places another beer by my elbow, and any intention to freshen up fades from my agenda. Margaret and Colin join us: we have them down as Kiwis, but they were born in southern England.
A long evening of drinking ensues.

‘Alec,’ I slur, ‘apart from a touch of grey in your hair, you seem no different from how you were forty years ago.’
‘I’m still the same weight.’
‘So, have I changed?’
He smiles and then says, ‘You’re noisier.’

Despite that, we sleep soundly until early departures disturb the peace of our Alpine cul de sac.

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