Our alarm sounded at 6:30am, and I groggily rolled over in bed. Despite being utterly exhausted, neither Luke or I slept well on that first night. I was sure I would fall asleep the second my head hit the pillow, but hour after hour passed without a hint of shut eye. When the alarm finally went off I was almost relieved that fretful night was over. Taking that first stop out of bed, I was immediately reminded of the day before’s efforts. Isn’t DOMS not supposed to kick in for 24-48 hours? Using every effort not to wimper, I hobbled my way to the bathroom. Staring into that mirror at myself, I almost laughed. What on earth did we think we were doing?
Eventually the legs started to ease out and life was brought back into my feet, but I knew only one day into our hike, we were in for it.
Leaving Luke to get himself up, I stumbled downstairs with coffee as my motivator. Breakfast didn’t start until 7am, but I went down a few minutes early to do some writing and mentally prepare for the day ahead. The mountain air was chilly as I sat in the back garden gathering my thoughts. By 7am there was a lineup of hikers outside the dining room eagerly awaiting for the doors to open. You would have thought food was being rationed here the way people were waiting; like hawks scoping out their prey. Most hikers were fully dressed with their bags packed, clearly ready to leave immediately after eating. I was so confused… did NONE of them need to go back to the comfort of their hotel room for their post coffee poo?
Finally the doors opened and we were welcomed in for breakfast. I scoped out what was on offer this morning and then found a seat in the corner of the dining hall to put down my journal and pick up a coffee mug. Breakfast at Hotel Gai Soleil was even better than the morning before with fresh sourdough bread still warm and not yet sliced into, multiple types of fresh jams, croissants, fresh cheese from the region and the best coffee I could have imagined. I settled into my seat and as the coffee started to flow through my blood, my body began to wake up. The dining room was alive with people from all over the world on different portions of the TMB hike chatting away. I didn’t have the energy to participate in the chatter this morning but I enjoyed listening to other travellers' stories of the trail ahead. Luke joined me a few minutes later and we slowly filled our bellies to capacity, and then grabbed a little extra for the trail. After one last cup of coffee we went back to our room to pack up our belongings and headed out the door by 8:30am - a much more reasonable hour than the first day.
We walked through town and popped into the supermarket and bakery to grab some peaches, a cucumber and a ham and cheese quiche (for Luke) for our lunch and then searched for the start to the trail. South was easily found with the help of our guide the rising sun, and before we knew it we bid farewell to Les Contamines, a town I had grown to like. Secretly, I knew I'd be back again one day.
TMB signs were abundant leading us to an easy 3.5 km flat section that followed the river. Days that started with flat terrain were always greatly welcome especially on those early days as our bodies were still adjusting to the mountains. It was a nice way to wake up our legs, which were definitely feeling the effects of yesterday's effort.
Walking along the river, we began to chat to two guys from Israel who were also doing the full Tour. The 45 minute stretch flew by and before we knew it we arrived at the Church Notre-Dame de la Gorge at the base of the climb. We bid them farewell realizing we would be staying in the same refuge in 2 nights time, and took a stop to apply sunscreen and use the toilet (aka bushes). We ended up seeing them a few more times leapfrogging each other throughout the day. We ultimately passed them when they stopped to make coffee on their camping stove (I knew I liked them!). One of the greatest parts of the TMB is seeing people multiple times on the hike on various days and developing friendships as you navigate the experience together.
With our water bottles full and our blisters bandaged, we started to climb what would be one continuous 6 hour incline of the day. The terrain was rocky; at some points steep and at other points really steep. Small stones lined the path which turned into large slabs of flat rock. Our climbs from the first day were quickly put to shame as we encountered the full intensity of the mountains on Day 2.
We passed various refuges where people had stopped for lunch or refreshment breaks but we continued our walk, stopping for water and photos often. The views were magnificent and kept us moving.
[Note: there are various ways to approach eating schedules along the TMB trail. On most of the days (aside from a few stages) you can stop at refuges along the route and purchase full on lunches which is what many people do. The refuges will often have sandwiches, drinks and hot meals. Although I will admit the smell of hot melting cheese that emanated from the refuges was temping both Luke and I preferred eating large breakfasts and then just munching on fruit and snacks we picked up throughout the day (or stole from breakfast) and then having a large meal at dinner. Many people we talked to along the hike were shocked that we could go for so many hours without 'real food' however we preferred to keep moving. On days we passed through towns we would pick up fruit, cheese, veggies and patisserie treats and take what we could from breakfast. We also had brought some food from home including a few Cliff and Lara bars, coconut chips, dried fruit and a few emergency energy gels but tried to keep these to a minimum as we had to carry everything on our backs. There is also the option of ordering a packed lunch from the refuges which we did one day, but they were heavy and expensive (10-12 euros each) and we found we could usually gather together enough food through various sources for less money. Again, this is not for everyone! We’re both kind of rabbit eaters - If you need three full meals a day it is possible. We never felt deprived of calories and on the one day we did have a large lunch we both felt heavy and lethargic for the afternoon walk]
The terrain began to change but the incline remained bringing us closer and closer to the target of Col du Bonhomme (2329m), our first peak. We passed our first section of snow as we climbed higher up the mountain pass. We carefully traversed over the icy terrain; what nice relief to feel the cool air emanate from the snowy ground. So different from the feel of the beating sun above. Slipping and sliding we found great humour in this section of the course.
The day was starting to take it's toll on us, so we decided to have a short break, and lay our bags down to refuel. Again, no shade was available so we found a grassy section with a large rock as our back rest and chowed down. It sounds ridiculous, but an entire cucumber is just about the best thing to have on a hot day when water is running low and the sun is out in full force. Combined with some cheese and a croissant from breakfast and some coconut chips and banana energy squares, we left our picnic spot refreshed and energized.
With only 300m of incline left until the peak we put our heads down and focussed on putting one step in front of the other. The hot sun was beating down and we stopped often to dip our hats and buffs in the cold streams which provided incredible relief. Once we arrived, the views from the Col were incredible and we took our time at the top to take it all in.
We carried on for 45 minutes to reach the summit of Col de la Croix du Bonhomme (2483m). It was a challenging 45 minute trek, as we navigated steep rocky ledges and crossed a rushing stream while balancing on wet slabs of rock on tired legs and weary bodies. It took a lot of concentration not to slip and fall and the somewhat dangerous nature of the hike became fully apparent. I couldn't imagine what it must be like doing this part of the UTMB race in the middle of the night.
When we eventually did arrive at Col de la Crox du Bonhomme, our bodies were hurting. I had two fully developed blisters that stung sharply with every step I took and Luke was battling a pulled quad muscle we think he probably upset on the descent the first day. Luckily he was travelling with a massage therapist and with daily treatments, it resolved itself after a few days. We had both run out of water about an hour earlier and our sugar levels were getting low.
50m down from Col de la Croix du Bonhomme was a refuge we were unfortunately NOT staying at. Our refuge was another two hours away in the little hamlet of Les Chapieux. We did however stop to refill our water (which I was absolutely desperate for), and lay down our bags for a short break as we studied the route ahead. We stopped and looked up from our books to admire the view and I had another moment of ‘is this real?’. I was reminded of the incredible adventure we were on and how grateful I felt for being able to experience this. I reminded myself that physical discomfort is only as bad as you let it become and pain is very different from suffering. With this beauty all around us, how could I be suffering?
The views from Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme were incredible and the refuge itself looked warm and inviting, but we didn’t allow ourselves to stay too long. Before we knew it we were up and ready to conquer the last section of the day.
It's incredible what a little break, a refuel of water and a change of perspective can do to the mind. Coming into the refuge I felt on my last legs, depleted and drained but after our break I gained a second wind. We started the descent to Les Chapieux where we would be spending the night and it was here that I experienced, for the first of two times in the whole trek, what I believe was an enlightened experience. My energy skyrocketed and both Luke and my spirits were high. We had been hiking uphill ALL DAY so the feeling of finally moving down was incredible. We began to fly down the trails as if nothing could stop us. There was no one else in sight, just us and the trail. I had this strong overwhelming urge to run and Luke followed. Of course we couldn't really run with such large bags on our back but I started bounding down the grassy slopes. There were multiple paths that weaved in and out and Luke and I each took our own, laughing and hollering at each other across the hilltops, racing and flying with the wind in our faces. The feeling at that moment is unexplainable but it felt so inexplicably wonderful. Eventually the decline became much steeper and our pace slowed down as we carefully maneuvered our way down the grassy slope. I wish I could say that feeling of pure joy stayed with me for the entire descent but it slowly started to fade, until it became a fleeting memory. Down down and down we went as the path became steep, the novelty and excitement wore off and we were left with achy tired quads, bruised toes and a deep longing to reach our destination. How quickly excitement can turn sour.
Tired and hungry my GPS watch began flashing, and then completely shut off. I couldn't help but feel a similar desire to shut off myself. Resentment for the piece of technology on my wrist erupted inside of me; surely if I could find the reserve to keep going my watch could dig deep and continue on for the final stretch as well. But, it was a reminder humans are so much more than a machine. Finally, what seemed like hours later we saw the refuge below and steeply descended into Les Chapieux to reach Refuge de la Nova.
A note for future travellers, there is a sign that reads REFUGE DE LA NOVA 10 MINUTES with an arrow pointing down. Do NOT be fooled, it is at least 30-40 minute from this sign to the actual refuge, and we were moving well! We met many travellers who all laughed remembering this sign and feeling so excited thinking they had 10 minutes left only to be surprised by the loooooong walk still to come, DO NOT BE FOOLED! Someone should rip that sign up. But I digress.
Les Chapieux is a tiny hamlet, consisting of the auberge we stayed in, a couple other little hotel looking buildings, a small fromagerie with a few other food items and a large area for camping. We arrived at our refuge and were happy to see our names reserved for a private room. There was always a small moment of panic when we arrived at the refuges as we hadn’t given any deposits and were relying merely on an e-mail confirming our reservations. We were shown to our room which was small with two little beds and a private sink! Absolute luxury. We started the usual process of soaking and washing our clothes and hanging them up to dry on the ledge outside our window to catch what was left of the afternoon sun. We then rolled out our feet, shoulders and legs with the balls. We did a few stretches (what we could in the small cramped room) and then headed to the shower. The toilet and shower were shared with the floor but neither of us had to wait too long ever to use them both. Once again, a warm shower never felt so good on our tired bodies.
Once dressed in our clean evening clothes, we headed downstairs and ordered a beer from the bar. Settling into a seat in the refuge garden the sun was up and we read, wrote and played cards. After such a long day of walking it felt so nice to just sit and let the day sink in. As we drank our beers we stared up at the mountains surrounding us.
Dinner was at 6:30 and it was our first experience of a typical refuge dinner. The dining room area was filled with long tables with name tags designating where to sit. We were sat at a table next to two men from Belgium (who we ran into again many nights later in Trient) and a man from the Basque Country. The meal was family style and we chatted away with the travellers at our table as the staff brought out the multiple courses of food. Although food allergies didn't seem to be too cared for, you did have the option to say if you were vegetarian which I was relieved to hear as every single refuge meal consisted of a main meat dish. Dinners at the refuges were always large, consisting of multiple courses. They knew their customers, hungry hikers, and never disappointed with portions. Our meal consisted of a first course of vegetable soup with bread and butter, a main course of lentils for me and pork for the meat eaters with delicious roasted potatoes. The meal capped off with a cheese plate and a dessert of pana cotta. I had a glass of red wine and Luke had another beer to accompany our meal and we were absolutely stuffed by the end. We bid farewell to our dinner companions and took a short walk around Les Chapieux taking in the last of the days’ sunlight and then headed up to our room to settle in for the night.
I worked on Luke's left quad before bed and then we turned off the light, praying for a better nights sleep. The refuge was quiet and it was lovely to be in bed by 10pm - my kinda schedule! With the days events flowing through my head my eyes closed and I drifted off into a peaceful and sound sleep.
Start: Les Contamines (1167m)
End: Les Chapieux (1554m)
(approximations as GPS watch lost battery near the end)
Height gain: 1396
Height loss: 929m
Time hiking: 5:40 (approx)
Total elapsed time: 8:30 (approx)
To see the full data on the day's hike, you can find me on Strava