The first thing I check when I wake up is my feet. The blisters seem to have dried out a bit overnight, but the blister under my toenail is looking yellowed and the blister on my small toe is looking more than a touch infected. Only a few days to go, though, so I’ve just got to suck it up and push on. As my dad always says: Blisters fade, but mountain memories are forever.
As we pack up the tent, Katy and I discuss plans for her to meet me at Lac Blanc around midday on day 8 (the final day of my hike!). Apparently a cable car from Chamonix can get her within a few hundred metres of the lake, so it shouldn’t be too hard on her. I know that day 8 for me is going to be a big one, as I plan to cram both stage 10 and 11 into a single day, but I will have all the excitement of finishing the hike (and the promise of cold treats in Chamonix) to keep me motoring along.
In anticipation of that massive final day on the trail, I’ve decided to just stick to the main TMB route today rather than take the high mountain pass variante. The alternative route via Fenêtre d’Arpette is supposedly the most difficult stage of the entire hike and involves climbing straight up to 2,665m (the highest point of the TMB along with Col Des Fours on day 2) and then straight back down again, so it seems ill advised on already suffering feet. I’m sure you can tell from the title of this post, though, that I ended up doing it anyway.
I say goodbye to Katy, saying again how glad I am to be taking the main route today that is much easier, walk not even 10 seconds to the sign that points one way towards Bovine and one way towards Fenêtre d’Arpette, and decide “eh, how hard can it be”. I have a serious problem with knowing when to take it easy.
The route starts out with a moderate incline right away, following a little stream upwards through the trees, and pops out about 30 minutes later in front of some big old mountains. As I walk along the flat for a few minutes (before the path starts climbing again), I take photos of the jagged peaks ahead, hoping I’ll get some better close-up photos once I get to the high mountain pass. Imagine my surprise when I realise that I am climbing all the way to the top of those mountains (see photo above and gasp).
Not long into the morning, the incline increases dramatically, and, before I know it, I’m travelling nearly straight up. I’m so focused on keeping my footing and avoiding pressure on my blister that the time passes surprisingly quickly, though. The next hour and a half involve ridiculously steep zigzags up the mountain, getting slowly closer to the high peaks, but still feeling ages away. Eventually, I can spot tiny ant sized people milling about at the top, and that’s when it really sinks in just how far I’ve got to climb.
The trail soon becomes more rock than dirt, and then rock completely. I have to put my trekking poles down to half height so I can use them to help me scramble across boulders, although I’m still grabbing at things with my hands and just doing everything possible not to fall and die. It’s amazing how much harder scrambling is with a huge pack on, and scree is nearly impossible to navigate across safely even without a heavy load.
Finally, I make it across the never-ending field of rocks and follow the steepest trail yet as it switch-backs up the last part of the mountain. It takes me about 3.5 hours from Champex to reach the top of Fenêtre d’Arpette, which is the exact time indicated in the book and a surprisingly good time for someone who struggled through yesterday, the so-called easiest day. I wouldn’t dream of saying that today’s climb was easier than the rolling hills of stage 7, but I certainly powered ahead today so much better than yesterday and even found it throughly more enjoyable. Perhaps energy from my breakfast of apricots and cheese.
Just as I’m coming over the top of the pass, I see Ryan, the English guy I walked with for a couple of hours on day 3, and Noam, who I crossed the Grand Col Ferret with on day 4. They are both surprised to see me, considering that I was adamant about doing the low route today, but they fill me in on their plans to camp in Le Peuty, which is apparently a really lovely and cheap spot.
They left much earlier than me this morning and have already been sitting at the top for an hour relaxing, so they begin their descent while I whip my boots and socks off and settle into lunch and a good book. I have a donut peach, the remaining block of goat cheese, some several-days-old bread (still tasty), and a large helping of skittles while I read on my kindle in the sun.
I can tell I’m getting a bit roasted, despite having sun screened up multiple times, but I’m running incredibly low, so I try to ration the remaining sunscreen for the important places like face and shoulders and neck. My legs get largely overlooked on the reapplication, and they do end up a few shades darker by the time I finish the day, but they’ll be right. The end result is a very stylish tan between my mid-calf socks and my knee brace.
After an hour of relaxing and letting my feet and socks dry out, I set off down the other side of the Fenêtre, where I’m immediately treated to stunning views onto the Trient Glacier. And equally immediately, I miss climbing upwards. I have to move incredibly slowly to avoid sliding on rocks and even then I still slip a few times and have to cling to boulders for support. Thankfully, though, this side of the pass has far fewer rocks and much less scree, so the scramble down to the path is shorter and not quite as treacherous as it would be on the opposite side.
Once at the path, I do my best to travel sideways, which serves the dual purpose of taking pressure off my patellar tendon and also keeping my toenail blister from jamming into the front of my boot, as it’s bandaged quite bulkily. I may look ridiculous, but at least my knee and even my feet are doing much better than expected.
With all the focus on my feet and just keeping myself upright, the descent positively flies by and soon I am on a reasonable path and can start moving a bit faster. I pass a cute little restaurant after about 2 hours of downhill, and then make a turn towards Le Peuty, which is about 45 minutes away. The end is in sight!
After crossing a river, most of the walk is on a concrete road that switch-backs down the hill, but it’s not too long before I can see tents ahead of me and I know I’ve arrived. I pay just 4sfr for camping and enjoy gorgeous views of the Trient Glacier I just walked past on my descent into the valley.
I ask the campsite lady if there is any food nearby and she indicates a spot just 100m down the road, so I go for a walk in my sandals to get a big sandwich and a bottle of coke, because I’m really craving a sweet drink again. A handful of campers all sit together on picnic tables, and I join in the conversation while I munch. A pair of British girls and a Spaniard are doing the Haute Route, which follows some of the TMB before diverging towards Zermatt, but most are doing the TMB and will be doing the same stage 9 as me tomorrow, which maybe means I’ll have some company as I walk.
Both yesterday and today, I have been entirely alone on my hike. I certainly haven’t minded, and I probably needed to be alone today to properly focus and not rush over the rocks, but I was a bit bored yesterday and could have used a diversion from just staring at the trail all day.
I’m feeling really positive tonight after having made it through the hardest day of hiking without much struggle, so I’m ready to knock out the relatively easy stage 9 tomorrow and then finish stage 10 & 11 in a long day that will take me back to Chamonix. I’m excited to get off my feet and let them heal, but also a bit sad that the trek is ending. Hoping for two more fabulous days to go out with a bang!