We woke to the sound of our alarm on day 6. I groggily rolled over in bed to stop the sound penetrating into my head. There was no way it was morning already, I could have sworn my head had just hit the pillow. I swung my legs out from under the covers and the second my feet hit the cold concrete floor it all came rushing back. We were staying in the little basement room at Chalet Val Ferret (likely all they had left due to our late arrival the night before - read TMB Day 5 if you’re interested in why). This morning was a huge milestone as it marked the halfway point of our TMB adventure. The room was freezing and the cold jolt of my feet hitting the floor made walking to the bathroom an adventure on its own. I hobbled over to the window to open the curtain exposing a magnificent full view of the mountains surrounding us. I took a second to soak it all in realizing our view back home of the No Frills parking lot would never quite compare to this. I wanted to fill up on the beauty and never let it go.
It was a relief when both Luke and I woke feeling quite refreshed as we had just had our most challenging day of hiking so far and were gearing up for an even longer and more challenging day ahead. Our bodies on the other hand were another story. If we were to describe them in one word it would be achey.
Again, I took inventory of my body. My feet were stiff and bruised, my calves super tight and every time I took a step I could feel the ground force reverberate up through my entire body. I took a look at my nearly infected blister and was relieved to see the polysporin I had smeared on the night before had done the trick. The once bright red skin was starting to settle into a paler pink colour. It was no longer throbbing and burning so I took those both as wins for the day. Luke was still feeling some discomfort in his hip however everyday it was feeling better and better and this was without full rest! We gave ourselves these first few minutes in the day to complain about our aches and pains, and then moved on.
We had some time before breakfast so I gave Luke’s hip a little treatment along with my own calves and feet and that seemed to do the trick. We were ready to conquer the outside world. Breakfast at Chalet Val Ferret was a delightful spread of all the usuals, plus warm apricot filled croissants! Luke wasn’t as fussed so I wrapped his up in some tissues and pocketed it for later on in the day. Combined with a bowl of yoghurt and muesli, fresh bread with butter and jam and of course coffee we filled our bellies to capacity. Today was not the day to hold back on fuel as we had almost 30 km's of trail to cover. What is typically done over two stages we were attempting to complete in one.
Once we finished breakfast, we headed back to the room to pack up our bags. After double and triple checking that we hadn’t left anything behind, Luke went to check us out while I headed outside to take one more look at the beautiful views and snap a few shots. Being low in a valley we had the unique view of mountains surrounding us on all sides. It also meant that our day would start with a big climb.
We officially headed out at 8:40am. We had a short road section (about 200m) until the trail lead us up on a 45 minute climb to the next refuge. We weren’t used to having to use our legs so early in the morning as most of the days had a relatively flat portion to start the day so we were slightly shocked by the early morning effort. Slow and steady we made our way up the mountain, our bodies feeling tired and heavy but our spirits flying high. The cool morning air was a delight as the sun was still low in the sky keeping the temperature at bay. We focussed on putting one foot in front of the other.
We crossed paths with cows and other trail walkers steadily gaining height until we saw Rifugio Elena in the distance. Usually, our pace was slightly faster than the guide book suggested but this morning we knew we were moving slowly as we were right on track with our guidebook's timing. No problem, we had lots of time to make up distance later on in the day.
We took a short break at Refugio Elena to get water, apply sunscreen and use the toilets (they were squatter toilets!). We then headed right back out to start the big climb of the day: up to Grand Col Ferret. Many of the other hikers were taking a longer break here, ordering an espresso and admiring the beautiful mountain views. The refuge was beautiful, built right into the hillside for protection which was smart seeing as the original Refuge Elena was destroyed by an avalanche in the 1950s. Considering how much ground we still had to cover we skipped the espresso this time and headed back onto the trail.
From Refuge Elena, we only had more height to cover. We began to head up to the switchbacks leading up to Grand Col Ferret. For the next 2 hours, we marched on moving in a continuous upwards direction. It felt like we were moving at a snails pace and although each step was a massive effort the climb was enjoyable. We were definitely feeling the effects from yesterday’s long day but slow and steady we continued, stopping every so often for a photo or some water. Thank goodness for the incredible views which kept us engaged throughout the climb. Although the climb was long it was never overly steep (compared to other climbs of course) which meant we were able to maintain momentum and a consistent steady pace. When we made it up to the top and looked at my watch, I realized we had been moving much faster than we had thought. The views from the top were once again spectacular. With Italy in our rearview mirror and Switzerland up ahead, we revelled in the progress we had made. How fast time flies - it was hard to believe we were now about to enter into the third country on our hike.
It was busy at the top of Grand Col Ferret and the wind was fierce. We layered up before getting too cold and took some photos. We stopped to chat with a young guy from England who was doing the full TMB hike with his father and his little brother who looked to be no older than 10 years old. They were carrying all the gear while the little brother was running and skipping around the trail, care-free and full of energy. What an incredible family bonding experience I thought. Our new friend told us about his father and his summit of Mont Blanc the year before. I hadn’t realized how dangerous it was to actually summit Mont Blanc, with the death toll higher than Everest!
After a little break at the top, we bid farewell to our new friends and started the descent down into Switzerland. The rest of the day would consist of a steady downhill until one final climb to bring us into Champex.
The trail down into Switzerland was gentle and the views spectacular. We meandered our way down the path chatting away to each other. All of the sudden, I heard the sound of footsteps behind me and turned around to see a runner zoom down the path with a Buff hat and short split shorts on. Luke and I stepped off the trail to let him pass. My mouth dropped open and my eyes bulged when I realized I recognized this guy!
“Do you know who that was?” I said to Luke, when he was far enough away not to hear. Luke looked at me blankly. Clearly he wasn’t up to date with the current trail running celebrities.
“That was Zach Miller! A pro trail runner from the USA probably training for the UTMB race!
“Mmm hmm” Luke said, clearly not that interested.
I later found out that when we saw him, he was in the process of running 4x around the mountain in preparation for the UTMB race only to have a heartbreaking injury mid race requiring him to be helicoptered off the mountain. When we saw him, he was in good form though, and the celebrity siting was a nice boost to my day.
In just under an hour, we arrived at our next resting point which was a summer dairy farm called Algae de la Peule. We decided to stop for a coffee (for me) and soda water (for Luke) and munch on a few snacks from breakfast. Being a dairy farm, cows roamed around and the music from their bells accompanied our refreshments. By this point we had fully woken up and were feeling great. The sun was out in full force and the views were incredible. We were so content we could have stayed there for another hour, just admiring the scenery but with so much distance to cover we quickly picked up our bags and continued down the trail.
We planned to cover the next section to La Fouly in one go, picking up some lunch when we arrived in the town. The walk to La Fouly wasn’t all that exciting but that might have been because we missed a path somewhere and spent a large portion of the next section on road. We cursed Kev Reynolds for somehow leading us astray. Either his descriptions were outdated, or we hadn't been paying enough attention; either way we didn't let it get to us. A little road walking wouldn't hurt anyone and it was actually a nice break from using our poles. Little did we know the later part of the day would include much more hard, asphalt, pounding on our feet which would not be as enjoyable.
Eventually we made it to the small town of La Fouly where the stage was supposed to end. It was 2:00pm and although we still had a whole other stage to hike that afternoon we were in great spirits. We knew however, we needed to be quick. Our first order of business was to find a toilet, and that we did quickly. Next we needed to sort out some lunch. We saw a supermarket and decided to grab some goodies and make a picnic for ourselves. We were in and out in no time with a fresh bread roll, goats cheese, tomatoes and two underwhelming peaches. We found a bench and took out our Swiss army knife to prepare our meal. We sat and ate while we watched people meander in and out of the town. It was days like these that I was so grateful for my digestive pills which allowed a dairy/gluten rich meal go down effortlessly.
We were in and out of La Fouly in about 45 minutes total which was just over our somewhat overly ambitious aim for a 30 minute break. We filled up our water from the fountain in the middle of the town and found the TMB trail markers. This section of the course was supposed to be the easiest section estimated to take 4 - 4 1/2 hours flat or gently downhill for the first 3 hours and then end with one climb up to Champex. Looking back through photos, it’s hard to believe that we classified this section to be the ‘least interesting’ portion of the hike as nothing about the photos induce boredom. This however, likely speaks more to the intense beauty we experienced throughout the full 10 days, combined with our tired and weary minds by the end of this long day. This afternoon portion has kinda merged into one in my mind - just a constant repetition of one foot in front of the other.
From the service road leading out of La Fouly, the path turned into a wooded trail perched on the side of the hill. The path was mostly shaded with a overhanging canopy of trees which was a nice change from the blistering sun induced heat we had been used to. We were careful with our footing dodging rocks and roots. One wrong step and we could fall ... far. I couldn’t help but notice the terrain closely mimicked that of the Bruce Trail in our home turf of Ontario. Without any major elevation changes we found ourselves in a monotonous almost trance like state. We chatted at times, were silent at others. We felt like we were moving quickly and efficiently while enjoying the 'easy' terrain.
We eventually made it out of the woods and although we were feeling good, weariness was starting to get the better of us. What we needed was instant energy! Good thing Luke had saved our last package of Jelly babies he had picked up when he was last in London. He had been rationing them out throughout the trip and we now had 5 left in the bag. Perfect. Two jelly babies each was just the sugar we needed to get through the next section. That left one ‘emergency jelly baby’ in case things got bad…
NOTE: for those who are not familiar with jelly babies they are basically larger gummy bears that are infinitely better. I’m honestly not a big candy person however jelly babies are my exception.
Once out of the woods, the path turned to road. We entered into a small village that consisted of beautiful chalets.
“Hey Luke, how nice would it be to own a chalet in the Alps and vacation here every summer? I could go trail running through the mountains, and you could play football with the kids in our huge back garden”. We both burst out laughing. Ah to dream.
We entered and exited small villages, crossing roads and filling up water from the fountains. Although it may sound charming and quaint, the next few hours were some of the roughest of the trip. We were used to the soft padded forest floor but after over an hour of the harsh asphalt the impact started to make it's way into our joints. This portion of the trail will forever be etched into my mind as the most painful pounding of the entire tour. Each step felt like a shock through the body, and at this point we were ready to throw in the towel. Unfortunately we had little choice in the matter if we wanted a bed to sleep in so on we went, one foot in front of the other.
Additionally, because the ground sloped downhill and wasn't technical, we were sure we were moving at record speed. When the guide book said it would take 30 minutes to reach the next small town we estimated we could do it in half that time. When however, the start to the trail leading up to Champex never arrived we began to grow annoyed. Ohhhhhh ego, you humbling humbling friend.
We were getting on in the day, waiting for that final climb which seemed to never arrived.
Finally, at 5:25pm we saw in the distance what we thought was the start of our final climb into Champex. Whatever ‘meh’ and ‘blah’ feelings I was experiencing before melted away and I instantly developed a second wind. Luke stopped briefly to grab a sip of water. I told him I would continue on knowing he would catch up in no time (he was always quicker moving than me). But at that moment something came over me and I had the urge to move fast, and I mean FAST. I wasn’t thinking, I was just MOVING. I started pushing the pace and before I knew it I was powering myself up the hill at record speed. It felt amazing. I didn’t hurt, or if I did I didn’t notice. Up I went, breathing hard and sweat was dripping down my face. I felt like I was flying, one foot in front of the other somewhere between a fast hike and a run. The feeling of using all those muscles that had been dormant for so many hours walking downhill was invigorating. The climb was steep with large rocks acting as steps forcing me to hoist myself up. The feeling I was experiencing in this moment was that of elation.
I kept looking back to make sure Luke was coming but he never arrived. I started to grow bit nervous. Was he okay? Was I moving that fast? I had no sense of speed or pace, or even time for that matter. All I cared about was continuing this momentum that felt so incredibly good on my body. I was also really enjoying the solitude and the feeling of pushing hard with no one around. Whatever movement I had was coming from me and me alone.
But where was Luke? I was just about to stop and call out his name when I turned on a switchback and saw him just below. Within a few minutes he had caught up and I heard yelled from behind “holy shit Hannah, you’re setting a punishing pace”. Without even turning around I replied 5 words …
“Can’t talk. In the Zone.”
And I truly was. I felt like I had an overflowing vault of energy and I wanted to use every last ounce of it. Luke stayed with me, and I could hear him breathing heavily behind me. I stuck with this pace for a bit longer (with no concept of time) but eventually that elated feeling started to wear off and I started to slow down my pace. Gradually I was brought back into my body and started taking a bit more notice of my surroundings. I had been so focused on pushing up the climb I hadn’t even noticed the beautiful trail we were on. The softly packed dirt trail was lined with beautifully carved totem polls. We stopped to admire one of the pieces of art work and I had a sip of water. I relayed to Luke my out of body experience and he relayed how he had been holding on for dear life just trying not to get dropped.
And then just like that, my watch died for the second time on our hike. Damn, I thought. Even my watch couldn't survive the length and endurance of the day. A good reminder we are stronger than the technology we posses.
I wish I could say that energy was maintained for the rest of the day but the last 20 minutes of the climb to Champex were nothing short of merciless. What seemed like ages later we finally arrived at the top of the climb and saw the sign for Champex. We had made it!
We had finally made it!
Immediately, all the pain in my body from my feet to my shoulders came roaring back. And with a vengeance. Unfortunately the sign to Champex was at the bottom of a HUGE hill leading up to the main town. Those evil urban planners. Those final 500m from the sign into Champex into the town centre were punishing. They pushed us further than any other day on the trail and brought out a toughness I don't know if I could replicate.
Anticipating Day 6 being a challenging day, we had booked a somewhat nice hotel for the evening. What we didn't know was that it was a REALLY nice hotel... or how disheveled we would look upon arrival. Although we weren't sure the precise location of the hotel in the town, we knew we were looking for a yellow building with the name Hotel Splendide on it. I can still remember that feeling as we crested the hill and there, standing before us was a beautiful yellow building. Although likely just a trick of the sun I swear when we saw Hotel Splendide the sky opened up and a ray of sunshine hit the hotel. Golden and yellow the universe was speaking to us, celebrating our accomplishments.
Hotel Splendide in all her glory! We both burst out laughing. We were there.
Relief rushed over us. Delirious we hobbled our way into the lobby. In this fancy environment I suddenly became acutely aware of how we must look and smell. Trying to stay a few feet away from anyone we encountered I really did feel for the lady at the desk who had to check us in. At one point she even offered to carry our bags up to our room, bless her soul. We thanked her and said we could manage.
We were shown into a beautiful big room with a large queen sized bed, a balcony that overlooked a terrace and and large bathroom with a bathtub! Luxury at it's finest! The second we arrived into our room we pulled off our shoes and socks letting our feet breathe again and then stripped off all our dirty clothes.
I then began to focus on recovery. We were the most exhausted and broken we had been yet, and I knew tomorrow was another day on the trail. I filled up the bathtub with ice cold water and forced Luke to sit with me on the bath ledge as we soaked our feet. I then emptied the bathtub and filled it up with hot water for another round of soaking. We continued this pattern another few times alternating hot and cold water. The temperature change stung and burned on our poor blistered and overworked feet but I could feel the blood pouring out of my feet and new nutritious blood rushing back in. I swear to this day, it was THIS contrast therapy I forced us to endure (and let me tell you it was not comfortable ... at some points during the ice bath I would have considered going back to the trail) but we woke up the next morning with our feet feeling brand new. Miracle of the TMB? Or contrast therapy? The benefits of travelling with an RMT.
Once we had taken care of our feet we moved on to the next step which was the washing of all our clothes. It took a few rounds to get it all done, but before we knew it they were clean and hanging to dry on our balcony. We hopped in the shower ourselves praying for enough hot water left and washed and southed our bodies. How glorious this felt. Once the tasks were complete, we collapsed on the bed.
Our initial plan was to take some time at the hotel to wash our clothes, stretch and chill and then wander into town to grab some dinner. Our bodies had other things in mind. Once showered and freshly dressed there was absolutely no way we were putting shoes back on, let alone walking into the town. Instead, we called down to the front desk and asked them to make a reservation for us at the hotel restaurant and continued to have the most expensive meal of our trip (potentially our life?). To this day, we don't regret a thing. I couldn't even put shoes on to go down to dinner, so I waddled into the beautiful. dining hall in socks and we both immediately ordered the most expensive beer of our lives. The three course meal that followed was nothing short of spectacular with fresh salad, rice, fish and vegetables. We savoured the meal and laughed at the funny accounts of day. Humour took us through the difficult times and humour took us through the moments of pleasure.
Back up in the room, we opened our balcony doors and sat together watching the sun go down. We talked, sifted through photos and wrote about the day. When our eyes wouldn't stay open, we transitioned to the bed and let the events of the day soak in. It wasn't long before we were both fast asleep with Day 6 on the TMB a memory of yesterday.
Watch died 2-3 km's early so all data is approximate.
Start: Chalet Val Ferret (1784m)
End: Champex (1466m)
Distance: 30 km
Height gain: 1156m
Height loss: 1613m
Time hiking: 7:30:00
Total elapsed time: 11:22:23
To see the full data on the day's hike, you can find me on Strava