Day One: Les Houche to Les Contamines
Morning in the quad room of the Auberge Beau Site.
Alex: Shoulda had the cheesecake. That'll teach you.
Michael: The problem I'm having is that there are just too many great quips flying for me to record them all.
Mark: Maybe you should stop.
Michael: Hey! Some of us have walking to do today!
Ah, the first schism of the TMB.
As per the opening quote, TMB Day One is not a gentle intro. But Day One also contained an awesome alternate section (or "variante", in the parlance), one that I really wanted to do. The question was whether the team was going to be too knackered by that point to reasonably tackle it. But a solution appeared: there was a cable car, or téléphérique, up the first climb. We had agreed that Alex and Mark would take it, to keep their legs fresh; while Tim and I assiduously slogged up the hill, by way of bloodymindedly making sure that we walked every inch of the loop. (*) Obviously, people being human, this resulted in immediate and ongoing piss-taking.
Michael: What do you need?
Alex: A couple more Power Bars.
Michael: What, in case the cable car breaks down?
Breakfast in the Beau Site was fabulous, and included baguettes, croissants, chocolate croissants, museli, juice, multiple pitchers of coffee and don't miss the "mountain bowls" the coffee was served in. These were basically, I don't know, soup- or cereal-sized bowls, which one brought to one's face and slurped out of, by local convention. Our kind of place.
Tim: And then there were two.
We parted ways on the main street, they heading for the cable car station and we heading up the mountain! Then there was some good old slogging and our first overlooks back down into the valley. We thought it was pretty great having no way of knowing how all this would pale before what lay beyond…
Regular readers will recall this infantile stunt I always do, trying to take photos (or movies!) of poor Tim while he's weeing by the trailside. You'll also recall where, when Tim needed a break, he'd just distract me with a tiny piece of flora or fauna, so I'd squat down in the grass and play with the camera for 10 minutes. Well, now he distracted me by pointing out a pretty thistle, except then dashed over to wee. By the time I looked up, and had worked out his ploy, he'd finished. Point to Tim.
Tim pulled over to zip the legs off his trousers and magick them into shorts of course also magically and instantly causing the temperature to drop. Thanks, mate!
So the panorama mode on the camera works like this: I point at the left-most edge of what I want to shoot; press and hold the shutter release; pan the camera smoothly around; and it takes a bunch of shots along way, then stitches them all together at the end. You can see where this can go awry if anything moves while you're panning.
Michael: Dual Tims!
Tim: It's like your dream walking trip, Michael.
And, just like that, the climb topped out.
Michael: Done and dusted.
Clearly, the guidebook writer had lower standards for "relentless and punishing" than those to which we had become accustomed.
We had a bit of trouble hooking up with the cable car riders, which was not aided by spotty phone service. Turns out Mark and Alex had made an assumption about where we couldn't possibly miss them which was A) different than the meeting place agreed upon; and B) not so obviously unmissable from the perspective of the other guys. This caused me (going into Dad mode) to have a go at Alex and Mark, the gist of which was: I'm here to f*&^ing walk and if you don't want to walk, then fine, but I'm NOT going to spend my trip chasing you bozos all over the f*&^ing mountain (because you didn't want to walk and also couldn't stick to an agreed plan).
I calmed down reasonably quickly, which process was aided by Mark making me a peace offering of juice and a banana, from the town. Basically, he'd been sagging for us, so that wasn't so bad, then.
Finally it was time to hit the trail!
Looking at what surrounded us now (the Alps), Tim and Mark and I agreed: English Lake District? Scottish Highlands? Molehills.
Mark & Tim: [knowing laughter]
Tim: This is normal behaviour. He's usually either way ahead or way behind.
Michael: Hey! Look at that snail!
Tim: Ten-minute break!
Mark: Whoah, he's makin' a break for it! [the snail]
Alex, catching us up now, and slightly winded, offered his opinion that "variante" actually means "catastrophe".
And then we reached… the Indiana Jones Bridge.
Michael: Indiana Jones action! Is it missing planks?
Tim: Go for it.
A bit later, in the forest, we came upon a nightmare-fuel giant ant-hill. Actually, of course, Mark spotted it. When he put his gloved hand in, one of the badass critters started both stinging AND biting his glove. Jeesh!
Now we were all feeling the burn, with this asskicking climb following right on a long-ish stop (at the bridge). I admitted to the others that we were still looking at a 400m ascent to the col. "But don't worry, the book says it's not taxing." We took a bit of a break to gird our loins.But soon we kitted up again. The trip's first col the lowest point of a ridge or saddle between two peaks, and our way over the range awaited!
That last photo above, and the second below, also show our first glacier! We'd be seeing a lot of these. But of more immediate interest was: the first snowfield we had to cross. It started subtlely, as terrifying things sometimes do.
We stopped on a flat rock, where Mark insisted that I eat something, thrusting a nice baguette end into my hand. Nothing like a proper French baguette end.
And there was still nowhere to go but up.
And just like that, there we were on top of the world: specifically, Col de Tricot.
And then there was nowhere to go but down.
Tim had been envying Alex's high-tech, carbon-fiber trekking poles. So he improvised behold his tree-fiber trekking poles! Organic, naturally sourced, and free range.
Next stop? Lunch! At the best, and only, place in the valley: Refuge de Miage!
Heck of a spot, no? It was said to be a cracking place, but it didn't fit with our schedule to bunk there, and so I figured it for lunch. Having been in the sun all day, we initially asked to sit inside which of course was crazy talk, in a setting like this.
I got an apricot juice; Mark and I shared a huge salad with bottomless bread basket; and Alex and Tim tag-teamed on a thorax-sized omelet. Wowzers!
Alex [sensibly ignoring me and gawking at the setting]: It's really something.
Michael: Yeah. I picked this walk because I wanted something more dramatic than anything I've done before. Job jobbed.
So we set off again, full of beans, and full of lovely food/fuel…
…until we came to… a trail marker that seemed to point straight up. Oh, God, no… No but yes. This actually was our first rodeo, and we had yet to learn, as we would, and to our great cost, that there's only one way out of an Alpine valley. Well, okay, there might be a lot of ways out, but they all go the same direction: UP. We were not done climbing for the day. Crap.
When we finally topped out, after a long, painful slog, especially this late in the day, I said:
Obviously, I had done this to people (a lot of them) before: either forgotten about, or didn't know about, or (most often) lied about additional climbing and/or distance remaining on the day.
Then we encountered our first cow herd. They had these huge, heavy, clichéd cowbells, that, ringing all together, made a God-awful clanging racket.
Mark: “More cowbell!”
So the climbing was over now but the pain wasn't. There followed this seemingly endless, soul-flattening, knee-destroying descent through a forest, mostly on a dirt road, I think. You can tell it was bad because I have zero photos from this segment. This is also where Alex's knees first started blowing up. Particularly if you're not used to it, loaded descents are even worse rather worse than loaded climbs. Alex was whimpering quietly by the time we got into town. I actually took his pack for a while, as we carried on our death march winding through the suburbs of Les Contamines, though that didn't help very much. His knees were murdered by this point.
But we made it! We got in!
The photos above are from the incomparable La Ferme de Bon Papa B&B. I rocked up to the door, knocked, and when an attractive middle-aged woman answered, I said:
Cathy [after the briefest of hesitations, but then with a huge, winning smile]: Enchanté!
Cathy it turned out spoke no English; her husband, who came in later, did but they both spoke the language of glorious hospitality.
We got out of boots. We had amazing, steaming hot showers. We washed clothes in the sinks. It was a magical place like no other. They booked us in for dinner at a local restaurant. We got spectacularly frustrated trying to find it.
So I'd originally had my eye on this well-reviewed pizza joint in town. But when our hosts at Bon Papa wanted to hook us up, we didn't feel rude enough to refuse. Of course, it ended up being this completely traditional French joint (most of the B&B's clientele probably love it) with not one single thing on the menu I could eat. There was almost nothing vegetarian and Mark's vegetarian and vegan seems not to translate in these parts.
At first I kind of freaked out and got all sniffy and was campaigning for finishing our drinks blessed beer! ← and clearing out for the pizzeria, smartish. But the very nice matron came out, and she started trying to take orders and also started trying to work with me, albeit exclaiming in amazement.
Michael “Et sans buerre, s'il vous plait.”
In the end I got a perfectly Michael-optimized meal: every vegetable in the house, stuffed tomatoes, and great baskets of whole grain bread. Oh me of little faith.
We walked back, fat and happy, in the glowing night, and beneath the glowering mountains.
I'll save for tomorrow the bit where Cathy's husband came home, checked our planned route against the current snow conditions in the passes and advised us that we were totally doomed if we tried tomorrow's walk the way we had been planning it.
Also, we lost Alex. (Temporarily! though also for rather longer than we'd planned…)
For now, here's your Day One video highlights music video reel!
(asskicking music by Blue Stahli - "Smackdown")
I'm pretty sure Mark was so willing to do it this way in order to underscore his general position that (as I described it on the C2C): "he had absolutely no need to complete the walk, or get to certain towns by certain dates, or trudge in the rain when he could spend the day sitting in a nice pub, or in any way be macho or prove anything to anybody." (To see the full passage, go to this page and click on "Mark Management".)