TMB, Day 1: Off We Go!

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The alarm goes off this morning, and, even though we would love to snooze just one time, we are mindful that we are sharing our dorm room with three other people. Breakfast is at 7, so it seems that the whole pension is rising at the same time to make sure that they are ready to rush the buffet when the dining room doors open. It’s our first morning on the TMB, and we are still trying to sort out what we can leave behind on this trek to make our loads lighter. We finally get it all figured out and then head down to breakfast where we are seated with the same two pairs of hikers from last night.

Breakfast is buffet-style, and there is plenty to choose from. There are a couple of types of granola and muesli, yogurt, fresh bread, Nutella, honey, and jams. The all-you-can drink coffee, tea and orange juice, makes Matt, the coffee addict, quite pleased. We eat as much as we can before bidding farewell to our tablemates and roommates. We grab our backpacks, settle our bill, and, suddenly, our TMB adventure is officially underway.

We head down the main street in Champex Lac, which takes us along the shoreline of the lake. It is quiet and sleepy in this little mountain town, and the lake is producing a glassy reflection as if to emphasize the tranquil vibe. We have been warned by everyone we met in the hotel last night that today won’t be the most scenic day of the TMB. We will mostly be passing through charming little Swiss villages and even doing a little bit of road walking. Alison’s terrible heel blisters are doing much better now after three full days without hiking, and a day of easier terrain sounds like the perfect way to get back on the trail.

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There are several fisherman out on the lake this morning, casting their lines for lake trout. At least one of them has caught a fish already, and none seem eager to leave this idyllic spot anytime soon, regardless of whether the fish are biting or not.

On the far side of the lake, we start to see our first sign for the TMB. It points us up a road toward the Fort d’Artillerie and some really swanky looking hotels. From there, we pick up a trail and start heading downhill past a series of carved wooden animals, including a squirrel, a slug, a deer, and a chamois, among others. We don’t know the story behind them, but they are rather cute and provide a nice trail distraction.

After a while, we come to a camping spot. We pull off to take a bathroom break, but, out of nowhere, we hear a large group tour catching up to us. We are super stealth as we take care of our business and get back on the trail as fast as possible. We continue downhill through the forest, and come to a footbridge and a small waterfall. We find a patch of fresh strawberries when we step off-trail to check out the falls and become completely consumed with picking the tasty berries. 

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Before long, the group catches up to us, so we take the opportunity to photograph some of the pretty little wildflowers growing near the falls as well while we wait for them to pass. We spot a big, old slug there, too, who seems to be enjoying the moist environment as well.

Just over the bridge, Matt notices a small entrance to a cave and goes to check it out. It’s a lot bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. All I can think is that it looks like the perfect hangout for bats, but Matt shines his flashlight on the cave roof and tells me that no one is home.

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Why is Matt holding his poles like that? Weird, huh?

We continue down the trail and eventually pop out just at the start of the Val Ferret where a series of cute Swiss villages hug the Drance de Ferret River. Issert, Les Arlaches and Praz-de-Fort are a stone’s throw from each other and are all equally charming.

We walk past the typical Swiss chalet-style inns with their charming window boxes filled with red geraniums. But there are also many dark wooden barn type structures that remind us of the architecture in Nepal. The bottom floor is designed to house the farm animals, while the families live in tiny rooms on the floor above to take advantage of the warmth that the animals provide from below. We had no idea this sort of thing existed in Europe.

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All of the villages have fountains with running water, so we are able to hydrate and cool off with little to no effort, which feels like a treat when you are used to filtering water. We are being spoiled in all kinds of ways, and we are liking it!

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We notice that many of the residences have impressive wood piles, where the logs are almost exactly the same length and organized by type. The residents of these little hamlets must consider this an art form of sorts, and the care and attention to detail is notable. Can an entire village be OCD?

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In-between each village, we begin getting our first glimpses of the mountains, and it puts a little pep in our step.

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After the last village, we duck back into the woods and then face a steep uphill as we climb an old moraine for a couple hundred meters. The trail levels off but takes us high above the river below on a narrow, exposed trail that offers hikers some chains to hold on to if nervous about the drop off on our left. Once we sense that the uphill is done, we stop for a short lunch break in the shade before continuing on.

The trail now is fully exposed, and it is hot. To make up for it, the views continue getting better and better. We can finally see mountain tops, and there is an attractive waterfall running down the sheer face of the wall of mountains.

We spot a side trail that will get us to the base of the waterfall and decide to take it to get a better view. The trail is steep and rocky, but it feels like child’s play after hiking in the Balkans. There is a direct correlation between experience and confidence, and tackling this steep trail with relative ease feels good. Our extra effort is rewarded nicely with some great vantage points of the beautiful falls.

After collecting our bags again, we head to the town of La Fouly, passing a fun-looking ropes course just on the outskirts of town. I don’t know what they charge for such a thing, but there are tons of kids giving it a go, and it looks like they are all having a blast. We press on and walk all the way through town before coming to a small supermarket where we buy some food for lunch tomorrow. We flirt with the idea of grabbing a beer in a cafe, but we opt for a cold soda and a bag of chips from the grocery store instead and eat at the picnic tables placed conveniently outside.

After our snack break, we hit the trail for our final destination of the night, Ferret, a Swiss village about 45 minutes up the valley. 

We make good time and check out the tiny village church adjacent to our hotel.

We check into our hotel in time for a shower and a little downtime before dinner. We relax at a picnic table in the delightful grassy area behind the hotel to catch up on our trail notes before enjoying a wonderful dinner of salad, baked polenta and panna cotta with a little local red wine to wash it all down.

By the end of the meal, we are both stuffed and ready for sleep. What an excellent introductory day to the Tour du Mont Blanc!

TMB, Day 1: Champex Lac to Ferret, 18 km, +650m/-420m
Lodging: Hôtel Col de Fenêtre

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