The wings of the plane moved up and down at such extremes I was scared they would clip the ground as we came just a buildings height away from the runway on our first attempt at landing. Circling around Lake Geneva for the second attempt did little to ease my worries as the beautifully dramatic yet unnerving view of a ferocious electrical storm amongst the surrounding mountains increased my anxiety.
Our flight had been delayed at take off so darkness was already starting to blanket the foreign land around us as our small minibus, comprising of five non English speaking travellers, us and a mad French driver, hurtled its way towards Les Houches, Chamonix. The second attempt at landing had thankfully been successful and having also survived the uncomfortable transfer from the airport we were dumped on the side of a road in the pitch black and pouring rain by our gesticulating driver.
This had not been the idillic start to my first international trekking adventure I had imagined. Nothing had gone perfectly to plan so far but the process of working out the situation and the anticipation of what lay ahead kept the spirit up.
I was struck with contrasting thoughts of fear and excitement doing battle in my mind.
After finding the campsite and throwing up our tent we drawn to sparkling glow of lights close by. The lead us to a bustling pizzeria and as we sat in the warm, dry restaurant with a beer in hand the feeling of excitement won the battle. Things were starting to look up.
Day 1: Les Houches – Les Contamines (14km)
My good friend Luke Gander and I were walking the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 110 mile alpine route circumnavigating the Mont Blanc massif starting an finishing in the Chamonix valley and crossing three borders through France, Italy and Switzerland.
After two years of numerous hiking trips in the Lake District and Snowdonia back home I was keen to spread my mountain adventuring wings to bigger and further afield expeditions and this seemed like the perfect next step.
On the morning after the journey before we did not start in the true spirit of the trip as we rose above Les Houche in the early morning cable car. We had read advice to do this cheeky cheat as the first two kilometres of ascent were supposed to be very un-rewarding and with no accommodation booked we didn’t want our first day on the trail to be longer than it needed to be.
We stepped from the cable car and the walking began – no turning back now. We were instantly treated to beautiful views across the western slopes of the Mont Blanc massif in the clear blue morning. We started with a moderate descent to a stunningly placed suspension bridge followed by a long trek up to our highest point of the day ‘Col De Tricot’ (2120m). From the col we could see our first rest point in the distance of the valley below and after a tricky descent we arrived at the picturesque Refuge De Miage where we had some much needed food.
The climb after lunch was the most challenging of the day mainly due to the heat but Luke was left rueing his very kind decision to take the cooking equipment and thus, the heavier sack. I remember cries of “have you packed the bloody kitchen sink in here!”. From the resulting second high point of the day we were taken aback at the scale of the descent to Les Contamines unfolding magnificently below us. Two hours later with legs like jelly we made it to the centre of this picturesque little town and rewarded ourselves with a chilled beer before finding our campsite.
We set up camp at a camping and caravan site just outside of town and Luke set to work making full use of all the equipment he’d been carrying all day by knocking up a lovely spaghetti bolognese (the quality of which I still get reminded of to this day). While the chef was at work I went to the site shop to buy wine where I managed to unknowingly leave my wallet. Later on in the evening, bolognese and wine polished off I noticed someone cycling around calling a name out, my name, and to my delight I was reunited with the wallet I hadn’t noticed I had lost! Trip saved.
Day 2: Les Contamine – Refuges De Mottets (20km)
And we thought the first day was demanding! It turns out two (maybe three) bottles of wine is not the ideal preparation for a monster day trekking in the Alps but hey ho, these trips are designed to make you live and learn. Physical and mental barriers were pushed from the off as a mixture of heat, exhaustion, hangover and heavy packs left us feeling slightly faint after the relentless five hour uphill slog to our high point of the day, Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme (2443m). We could barely lift our feet leading up to spot where we would take a very well earned hour long lunch break.
This was, however, the days half way point. There was still a hell of a long way to go and as the cliche says “what goes up, must come down” . Never before had we been so brutally reminded of this as we were during the painful four hours it took us to complete this days hiking. The large proportion of the afternoon was spent descending steep switch-backs wincing as the weight of our rucksacks penetrated our joints with every downward step. To make it worse we were regularly treated to the sight of other hiking groups casually strolling past us with mules carrying all their luggage for them. By the time we reached the relative level of the Vallée des Glaciers it was all we could do to muster the energy to crawl up the last kilometre to our destination for the evening, Chalet Refuge de Mottets.
Despite the description of this day suggesting otherwise this was a wonderful days hiking. Yes it was challenging and painful but ultimately these are important ingredients in the recipe of fulfilment. Throw in incredible landscape, camaraderie with a great friend and finish it off with remote accommodation as quaint and charming as I had ever come across then you have served up a pretty perfect day trekking in the mountains.
Refuge de Mottets was comprised of a charming farm house and a single story converted cow shed designed to provide beds for 30 guests in the form of two long, single height sleeping bunks running the length of each wall sleeping about 15 people each side. It was basic but basic was all we needed and after a well needed shower we headed into the farm house for a hugely anticipated dinner. We sat on a table with a lady long distance hill runner from Australia (she was running the entire TMB in 4 days!) and a gentleman from Cambridge with whom we shared more wine and good conversation all evening. After platefuls of hearty stew a lady working at the refuge came out and started playing the accordion, much to the delight of a rowdy organised hiking group (yes the ones with the mules) who had already been playing drinking games and now proceeded to get up and dance.
We took the last of our wine outside to finish while staring at the stars and the enormous silhouettes towering around us. I felt so pleased at this moment that I had travelled across Europe and walked over mountain passes to to experience this wonderful atmosphere. That was before a night full of untuneful snoring began.