We woke to a sunny, blue skied Les Houches.
I bolted out of bed as the alarm went off after a wonderful night sleep. Luke wasn't as lucky with his sleep, waking multiple times throughout the night likely due to jet lag but he brushed it off saying he felt well rested. Denial and positivity were two strategies we both used repeatedly throughout our ten days hike.
With most of the packing and organizing done the night before, we headed right down to the hotel dining room for breakfast. Breakfast at the hotel was a giant spread of bread, jam, more bread, more jam, croissants, chocolate croissants and again more bread... mmm. There were also apricots and peaches, sliced cheese and meat and lots and lots of coffee. European breakfast buffets make North American hotel breakfasts look like child's play. There was a large tour group staying at our hotel the night before so when we got down to breakfast at 7:30am on the dot, the dining room was already bustling with middle aged French walkers. The dining room was packed so we headed out to the terrace, speckled with rain from the night before. Giving the table and chairs a quick wipe, we settled in for a deliciously glutinous breakfast with a view. The tour group quickly dispersed so we were left to enjoy the rest of our breakfast in silence, surrounded by the mountains. The cool morning air combined with the towering Mont Blanc sent shivers downs my spine. I wanted to bottle us this feeling and hold on to it forever.
[Note: For anyone with food allergies or sensitivities, the TMB is a challenging one to do successfully. Especially if dairy and wheat are the culprits (gulp!). Luckily none of my food sensitivities are life threatening so I decided from the start that given the fact that I would likely have limited choice over my food during this walk I would just go with the flow and eat what was provided trying my best to choose options that would be good for me but not stressing when they weren’t available. I was prescribed a digestive enzyme from my naturopath that I could take with food with wheat or dairy in it that would help my body digest it, and it was honestly a life savour (Thanks Niki!) My philosophy - don’t stress what you don’t have control over and make the best choices that you can in the moment. That being said, it is possible to do this trip with serious food restrictions, it would just require carrying a lot more food on your back and making more inquiries with the refuges in advance, asking what they would be able to provide. I wouldn’t say it's a complete hindrance.]
Anticipation and excitement are such wonderful feelings. As we ate our breakfast on that glorious first day, our minds were full of wonder - what would this experience be like? How would our bodies manage? How would our minds manage? What would we see? There's something so mysterious about the not knowing and allowing your imagination to flow wild. I tried to let that feeling stay with me for as much of the hike as possible.
After we had eaten to our hearts desire, we packed a few extra treats into our pockets for the trail when the hotel staff weren't looking (a practice we would perfect throughout the hike) and headed up to our room to gather our belongings. Excitement and a bit of nervous energy powered us through the morning as we double and triple checked our bags to make sure we hadn't forgotten anything. We had planned to get out slightly earlier but as usual, everything takes longer than you think on the first day. By 9:15 we were finally out the door ready to take on Day 1 of the TMB.😳
The route began by taking us back into the town of Les Houches and it was then we experienced our first delay. Luke realized he hadn’t given our room key back to the hotel. ‘Luke NOOOOOOO!!’ Frustration and annoyance bubbled throughout me. We had just gotten out the door after what felt like ages waiting for him. We were planning on staying at the same hotel at the end of the hike so I suggested we just hold on to it until then but Luke, worried they might charge us an exorbitant amount for the missing key thought it best we go back. Plus of course there was the added weight of a key (seriously?! Classic Luke). Nonetheless he dropped his bag and headed back to the hotel while I sat with the bags in the centre of town steadying my breath and annoyance.
This delay was my first chance (of many) to practice mindfulness and letting go of negative thoughts. Things don’t go as planned, delays happen, life goes on. Little did I know it would be great practice for the many mornings ahead I would be ready to go, waiting for Luke. It’s all part of the fun of the hike right? Using the time to my advantage I took out our Mont Blanc book and studied the route ahead. Before I knew it he was back, a huge coy smile plastered on his face. I couldn’t help but match his grin and we were off.
There are two possible routes from Les Houche to Les Contamines. One is relatively straightforward and an easy first day with only 646m of elevation gain and loss. The second is much more challenging with 2 more km’s in distance and about double the elevation gain and loss. Weather plays a huge role in determining the route you take. The shorter and easier version is known as the 'bad weather alternative' as it stays much lower and is less exposed. We had decided to play it by ear, and see how we felt the day of. If there was any threat of dangerous conditions we would take the lower elevation route. When 'the day' finally arrived, a decision had to be made. It was our first day of hiking so we were excited and motivated but also thought it might be best to ease into this whole mountain hiking thing and see how our bodies responded. The two routes started off the same so we decided to postpone our decision and hike the first 2 1/2 hours. From there we would see how we felt when we reached the end of our first big climb.
After about 20 minutes of road walking, we bid farewell to Les Houche and turned off road following a steep wooden staircase to start the first climb of the day. And what a climb it was! For about two hours we climbed into the mountains, alternating between walking on narrow roads, gravel pathways and tree-lined trails. The route was straightforward however steep at times passing little chalets and refreshment points. To add to the incline, the sun was out and it was HOT. Our destination of Col de Voza at 1653m seemed to grow further and further away as the sun moved higher into the sky. With our heads down we focussed on putting one foot in front of the other with determination and focus.
Looking back on this first climb now, having competed the full Mont Blanc trek, I wonder whether it really was that hard or just a shock to the system of two relatively inexperienced mountain hikers who live 100m above sea level. Either way we jumped in head first, slogging our way up to our peak. When I asked Luke at the end of the hike if there was ever a time during the walk that he regretted signing up for this 'holiday' he said that first climb on day 1 was the only time his loyalty wavered. I can't say I actively questioned what we were doing, but I would warn others that first climb can come as a shock to the body, especially if you are inexperienced in mountain hiking.
We arrived at Col de Voza around midday, hot, sweaty and yet fully alive. Here we had a short rest, refilled our water and munched on some snacks. It was quite lively at Col de Voza, with a café, restaurant and lots of hikers. We saw there was a yoga class on the grass and lots of dogs and kids running and cartwheeling around. It had come to the point where we had to decide how to proceed with the day. Perhaps it was the fresh fountain water, or the fruit and nuts that gave us a new sense of energy but with hardly any deliberation we agreed 'what the hell'! We came here to hike and see beautiful views so that's what we'd do. Weather looked great (if you consider sunshine and blistering heat great) and anyways, when would we be here next? Throwing caution to the wind we quickly gathered our bags and planned to conquer the high route.
And so up we went again! Our climbing continued, exposing beautiful views along the ridge line that overlooked the Chamonix valley below. This time, it was less steep and really quite enjoyable - plus we had a perfect view of Mont Blanc, inspiring us with every step. The path steered us down and turned into an undulating wooded path. The relatively flat terrain allowed conversation to flow easily. Laughing and chatting about life and reminiscing about memories from our wedding, this was one of the most enjoyable sections of the whole walk.
I was happy - just so happy. Feelings of intense gratitude overcame me. Gratitude to be spending the next 10 days traversing through the mountains, and to have found a partner who wanted to spend his holiday doing the same.
The easy flat surface didn't last long though and before we knew it the path turned into steep rocky terrain as we experienced our first real bit of decent. It was steep and challenging at times as we negotiated whether to use our hands or poles. We came to a suspension bridge hovering above wild water below and this was the first time fear gripped me as I made my way to the other side. I'm not usually scared of heights, but the intensity of the rushing water below and the heavy pack made me feel wobbily and unsteady. Once safe on the other side, the trail started to climb upwards again.
Over the next few hundred meters, the steep rocky ledges transformed into grassy exposed hillside. We zig-zaged our way up the slope with the midday sun beaming down on us. The intention was to make it to the top and then rest but the combination of the sun and our poor tired legs made us re-evaluate. With no shade in site, we found a slightly flatter grassy section off the trail and lay down for a breather. We munched on fruit and croissants from breakfast as well as coconut chips and dried apricots and that seemed to bring us back to life. Back in action, we powered our way up the final stretch to reach Col de Tricot (2120m) .
The goats and sheep welcomed us with their music as they danced around the hilltop. The peak was also busy with fellow hikers making Col de Tricot their resting spot. Knowing this was our highest point of the day, we lay down our bags and rested for a short while enjoying the view of our hard days work. Only just past midday, it felt like we had lived a week in this one morning. Looking behind us we could see the long shallow pathway we had travelled up, however our view to the south showed a different story. A steep and narrow decline awaited us on the other side. With excitement to finally be moving down we started our descent into the valley below. I couldn’t have imagined if I tried how difficult the downhill section would be but it took it’s toll on our quads. To this day we both remember this descent as the most challenging of the entire hike (and it was on our first day). It’s hilarious to be so relieved when you reach a downhill section, only to wish you were back climbing when you realize how hard going downhill truly is! The grass is always greener right?
When we got to the bottom we looked up, amazed at how far we had descended in such a short distance. We finally got to a relatively flat portion where we could stretch out our legs and bring life back into our shaking quads. A refuge awaited us at the bottom of the slope, full of people eating and drinking in the sunshine so we paused and filled up our water bottles. We had a nice chat with a brother and sister from Bermuda who were doing hikes in the area. The man was living in London and Luke and he had a nice chat about drunk people on the tube - a commonality all Londoners can relate to.
With only 2 hours left for the day, we picked up our bags to start our final ascent - a steep but relatively short climb. Whether it was the excitement of knowing we were almost at our destination or the lack of a real lunch propelling us towards a proper meal, we ended up doing this climb in half the time the sign posts suggested. When we were on, we were on! It felt amazing to be passing people on the trail, climbing efficiently and with purpose. Cows greeted us at the top of that climb with their bells singing joyfully - it felt like they were celebrating our success!
The last portion of our day was mostly a gentle downhill bringing us into Les Contamines-Montjoie where we would spend the night. Alternating between walking and running stretches we chatted and dreamed about our future together. The guide book describes the first day as a challenging start to the TMB trail and it truly was. However, walking through that final section of the day, we carried a new confidence with us. A knowledge that we had gone through a day of both intense beauty and struggles and had come through the other side better for it. Looking back, that confidence was reflected in our conversation; We were dreaming big.
One final steep descent took us right into the town of Les Contamines. We were still riding the high of the day, when we suddenly realized we had no clue where we were going. We had been so focussed on the trail portion of the day we had completely neglected to think about what would happen when we reached the town. With no wifi or local map, finding our hotel while hungry and with limited stamina could prove to be a challenge. But as all things tend to work out if you just let them be, we happened to turn a corner and standing in front of us was Hotel Gai Soleil in all its glory! It was a TMB miracle.
Within minutes of entering our room we stripped off our sweaty clothing and soaked them in the sink. I've never considered myself a smelly person, but a full day hiking the TMB trail is enough to make you accutely aware of your odour. Once they were hanging to dry on our balcony we showered and had a short lie down using the hotel wifi and recounting our days adventures. Because of our late departure that morning, it was already 6:30 and we were both starving. We dressed in clean clothing and made our way down to the town's main street to find some dinner. We passed a crepérie and both immediately jumped at that idea. We filled our bellies up with fresh gallettes made from organic buckwheat and washed it down with delicious French red wine. As we made our way back to the hotel I was overcome with pure happiness. Joy is such a powerful and overwhelming feeling and in that moment it overcame me. A day walking in the mountains, a full belly and company with the man I love, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my day.
Back at the hotel, we plopped ourselves down on the comfy back garden reclining chairs and read/ wrote until the light from the sun was so minimal we had to squint. Mountains surrounded us in all directions and excitement for the day ahead began to grow. With our eyes slowly closing we made our way back up to the room for an early night. It was a long and exhausting first day, but one of the most exhilarating days too.
Another challenging day awaited us tomorrow so with that we bid goodnight.
Start: Les Houches (1007m)
End: Les Contamines (1167m)
Distance: 19.6 km
Height gain: 1494 m
Height loss: 1382m
Time hiking: 5:35:02
Total elapsed time: 8:25:47
To see the full data on the day's hike, you can find me on Strava