Everyone warned me against doing this day first on the Tour du Mont Blanc.
From the guidebook, to every blog and online guide I read, they all said it was not advisable.
In fact by the time I was sitting at the dinner table at Gite Michel Fagot in Les Houches I didn’t even want to mention my plans for my first day’s hiking to my fellow guests because I knew they would disapprove.
But because it was easiest logistically for me to start at Les Houches, and because I wanted to walk the Tour du Mt Blanc clockwise, this is what I had to do.
Later in the tour I met a Danish couple who had booked their Tour du Mont Blanc self-guided organised tour and their company had arranged for them to get a taxi and cable car to miss out the first half of this day!
It is a steady 1,500m climb from Les Houches to the refuge at La Flegere, with only a couple of short downhill sections along the way. It took me six hours and it was a hot day in the Alps – nearly 30 degrees Celsius.
I kept telling myself that if I could handle this day I could handle anything. I kept telling myself that I had all day to get to La Flegere and I could take my time. Finally, I kept telling myself that I had waited a long time to do this walk and I should try to enjoy every minute.
It was a strenuous day. Walking up through the forest from Les Houches the church bells were chiming for 8am and echoing through the trees, fortunately in a way that was more awesome than ominous.
The long climb up to Bellachat seemed never ending and then it was steeper still up to the high point of Le Brevent. And there was still such a long way to go! My feet and knees were feeling every stone in the tough terrain.
But the views, oh the views were spectacular – especially between Bellachat and Le Brevent. Truly spectacular views across the valley to Mont Blanc – my head seemed at the same level of those incredible peaks and glaciers. I’ve not been amongst such beautiful mountain scenery since trekking in Nepal.
Descending from the viewpoint at Le Brevent, which was crowded with daytrippers who come up on the gondola, there were people rock climbing. Walkers (including children and dogs) were doing all sorts of routes in the area.
Finally there is a break from the gradient as the path traverses through the flower-rich meadows of Charaflon. Then a last climb up to the refuge at La Flegere that would have been no problem if it did not come on top of the 1,300 metres I had already climbed that day! It had been a very hot day and the air is dry at altitude so I actually ran out (2 litres) of water in my system half an hour before the refuge. When I stumbled into the hut a cold drink was first on my agenda.
La Flegere is an old refuge and in places seems to be falling apart but it is clean and one of the most spacious refuges I stayed at on the TMB. I had a shower and filled up my water bottle to rehydrate. There is no potable water up here but bottled water was included in the price of the room (55 euros for demi pension or half board).
There is a cable car at La Flegere (this is a ski area in winter) but that stopped quite early, leaving us long distance hikers in peace to enjoy our sense of accomplishment. I washed out my hiking shirt in the sinks provided and hung them to dry in the breeze. Most places I stayed had places where you could do simple laundry.
That evening, I was sitting on the terrace outside the refuge, with the Chamonix Valley and the Mont Blanc Massif laid out before me.
Dinner was Tartiflette, one of my all-time favourite European alpine dishes – potato plus bacon plus cheese equals a happy hiker. The starter was a pasta and tuna salad and the main was followed by an excellent plate of local cheeses. Finally, there was a choice of desserts – tartes au pommes, mouse chocolat or creme caramel. A hot shower and a gourmet meal – it’s not like this hiking in New Zealand!
From the window of the dormitory I could see the cogwheel train line that runs up to the Le Montenvers Hotel that perches above the Mer de Glace glacier. I watched the light and the clouds move and change over the mountains for a long time. Such massive glaciers, rushing down the mountainside, wrinkled and powerful.
I felt tired but exhilarated and a shower, a rest, a drink and a meal saw me recover quickly. By morning I was ready to go again…
By Natasha von Geldern
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