Due in part to passing out early last night from sheer exhaustion, and also due to monumental excitement, I wake up at 530am this morning and go outside for a wander. The only other people milling about at this hour are mountain bunnies, and they are everywhere, just hopping about with their cute little tails in the air, so naturally I run around trying to photograph them for the better part of a half hour. Unfortunately, I have nothing to show for this, because they are quite fast, but we (the bunnies and I) had fun all the same.
Eventually, I retire back to bed and read my book until it’s a bit more reasonable time to be up and active. Around 630am, I get up again and get changed, pack up my backpack, and go downstairs to boil water for breakfast. I even have the distinct pleasure of telling Katy to get her things together, which is probably the first time in my life that I’ve ever been awake before anyone. It’s a fun time.
Over a nutritious breakfast of tortilla soup, we discuss our plans for the day. Katy is happy to be sitting out for the rest of the hike after a taste of the trail on day 1, but that leaves her with the frustrating task of getting from Les Contamines to Courmayeur, which apparently will involve going all the way back to Chamonix, so that she can meet up with me when I descend into the valley on day 4. As for me, I’ll be blazing ahead alone, delighted to be taking on 3x yesterday’s elevation gain and tackling a few more kilometres to boot (that’s a fun hiking pun that I’ve been eagerly waiting to weave into conversation).
Not long after our pow wow, I am saying goodbye and setting off, which actually turns out to be me wandering confusedly around the camp looking for the trail for 15 minutes until I spot a straggler fiddling with his pack behind his group and power-walk towards him in the hope that he will know the way. Sure enough, Philippe does know the way, and introduces me to the rest of the group as we catch up. They are all retired Frenchmen from Dunkirk with names like Jean-Claude, and we are all travelling at a pretty similar pace, so I spend a good portion of my day with them.
The trail starts off almost immediately uphill through beautiful green forests that look very PNW, and continues this way until we reach Refuge de la Balme, where we sit down for a rest and some drinks. Because I’m a young child who can’t handle coffee, I opt for an orange juice, hoping the sugar will give me a bit of a boost.
While we are sitting, one of the men remarks “and now the climbing begins!”, which is very confusing to me because I feel like we’ve been climbing for hours. When I look behind me, though, I notice the dramatic increase in the trail gradient and the little specks of hikers ridiculously high up on the mountain, no doubt following the trail we are now heading towards. Oh, goody.
The incredible steepness of the trail is immediately noticeable and we are all huffing our way on up. Still, we manage to make it to the Col du Bonhomme nearly 1 hour under the estimated walking time on the trail signs. Even more exciting, we manage to spot a marmotte along the way, which is to say that one of the 60 year old men with better vision than me spots the marmotte and spends 10 minutes pointing to it and trying to describe its exact location before I actually see it.
Once at the col (which is, fun fact, the French word for mountain pass, Philippe informs me), we all sit down to our various lunches and I run around snapping photos, as I am wont to do. I forgot my spoon with Katy, naturally, but one of my French friends has an extra, so I am able to enjoy my delicious maragarita pizza wrap (sans actual wrap) without making a complete pig of myself. For some reason, the other French men find it incredibly funny that I’m using one of their spoons and start calling their friend “Mr. Spoony”. Not that I needed confirmation of this, but all men are children, seriously.
As I’m digging in, a huge herd of either ibex or chamois come charging through (I really should brush up on my animal identification skills), and it has everyone grabbing for their cameras. Mouth full, I manage to take a photo of nothing in particular, so I have no photographic evidence to show, but it was pretty exciting nonetheless.
After a lengthy rest in this windy spot, we continue upwards along an even steeper trail towards Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, which incessantly winds through many scree fields that I wound never be able to navigate by myself. Despite the annoying loose rocks, we, once again, manage to arrive to the col well ahead of schedule.
At this point, I must sadly say goodbye to my French friends, as they are continuing downward towards Les Chapieux and I am going upwards again towards Col des Fours to try and cover more distance that will lessen my trail time tomorrow. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and I feel like that applies here, even though I’m not totally sure how.
Having to turn away from the downhill trail to Les Chapieux is immensely difficult, especially seeing as my trail upwards is the steepest yet, but the views are well worth it once I’m at the top in about 25 minutes. Col des Fours, at 2665m, is actually the highest point on the TMB, tied with only one other point during stage 8. If there was just a little less cloud cover, the view would be even more breathtaking, but I’m still not complaining.
From this point, the trail descends basically straight downwards and it only takes about 5 minutes for me to miss the crazy uphill. I’ve got my knee strapped up with a brace, which is definitely helping, but it’s still agony. To make matters worse, the first couple hours of descent are on loose rock and I am struggling so hard to maintain footing and also not snap my ankles in half. By the time I cross the first river in the valley, I have a splitting headache and I’m incredibly dizzy. I’m not sure if it’s caused by me intently looking down for hours, as that’s been known to happen to me, or if it’s caused by the tremendous neck pain I’ve developed over the course of the afternoon, but either way, it is miserable.
I’m pretty frustrated with the loose rock and the fact that it’s taken me nearly double the estimated trail time to make my way downwards, but I come around the corner to spectacular views of gorgeous snowy mountains and all is forgotten. Luckily, the trail past Les Tufs starts to become more dirt than rock and the gradient even decreases to a more moderate decline.
Spirits are restored as I reach Ville des Glaciers, by which point I’ve made up all of the trail time I lost in the initial descent, and there’s a sign showing that Refuge des Mottets is only 30 minutes away! I power through the final half hour and stop about 100m short of the refuge when I see a sign that says “camping” and then something beneath it in French. I have a quick lay down in the beautiful little meadow, and then set up my tent to have the most scenic view of all time. Just as I’m inflating my mattress, some angry French man appears and tells me I must move. He is disturbed that I would think to camp somewhere that specifically says no camping. So that word below “camping” on the sign isn’t the French word for camping as I thought, apparently means “prohibited”, as in “camping prohibited”. A simple mistake that any idiot could make.
Now I must move all of my things a few hundred metres away on the other side of the river, so I carry over my pack and most of its contents first and then come back for the tent, which I just un-stake and move across fully assembled, despite it behaving like a kite in the wind and threatening to carry me off.
Finally, I’m happily set up (on the world’s biggest slant) and I traipse down to the refuge to see if I can possibly buy some bread to go with my dinner. I step inside to find about 5,000 people, or so it seems, sitting down to delicious hot meals. I lurk at the door for about 10 minutes before one of the girls finally comes over and we must play the awkward charades-like game of trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. She returns moments later with basically a metre long baguette, and when I go to pay, she says it’s free since it didn’t sell during the day.
I am pretty happy walking back to the tent, where I enjoy some baguette with my remaining margarita pizza wrap from lunch and marvel at the stunning mountain view in the distance. Today has been incredibly draining, and I am so happy to lay down in the tent that I suffer from the dropping temperature for a good hour before I muster the energy to put on more clothing. Despite being exhausted, though, I have had the absolute best day. The weather was very agreeable, I managed to find great company right off the bat, the views were unbelievable, but, most importantly, I did it myself!
It is such a phenomenal feeling of accomplishment to survive even one challenging day of hiking on your own, especially fully laden with camping gear and food, and I dwelled on that whenever I was feeling discouraged today. I had a little mantra in my head: you are a strong, independent woman.. you can do absolutely anything.. nothing worth doing is easy..
Lame as it sounds, it was very motivational! I really believe that it’s not my physical ability or mountain experience that will carry me through this challenge, but just my raw determination. I will finish this.