It pays off to have only two other roommates, particularly if they happen to be exhausted from trail running some 40 kilometers yesterday. Our French roomies don’t make a peep all night, and we have a blissful night of sleep before my alarm rudely goes off at 6 am and wakes the entire room. We enjoy a quick breakfast (the usual, but with Nutella!) and hit the trail by 8. We make it all of 25 paces before I detour to the local boulangerie to nab two fresh croissants. Vive la France!
We are still pinching ourselves about how impossibly cute Les Houches is. I realize now that I have been avoiding France for two decades for all the wrong reasons. When I first backpacked through Europe in my twenties, I was on a shoestring budget. I completely skipped over France back then because I had heard it was too expensive, too stuffy, too difficult for non-French speakers to navigate.
Twenty years later, our circumstances have changed, of course, and my new perspective embraces this charming country. France feels more affordable, and all the people we have encountered here in the mountains have been so hospitable. We definitely will be returning in the future for more stays in these quaint small villages, and, of course, we are already setting our sights on other excursions into these beautiful mountains. Off we go!
Today promises to be a long and challenging day. We descend from the town center, cross a bridge over the L’Arve River and turn right down the valley toward Chamonix. Soon, however, we begin climbing the ridge opposite the Mont Blanc massif and start ascending through a forest at a fairly steep angle. We will eventually beast our way up nearly 5000 vertical feet before reaching the pinnacle of La Brevent! And then we’ll only be halfway to our destination for the night.
We begin our climb, getting better and better views of the Mont Blanc range from the French side. The clouds lift a bit, and we steal a few open glances of Mont Blanc proper as well as some of the smaller peaks surrounding it. We haven’t been gone all that long, but Les Houches already appears to be far, far below us.
We stop briefly to view the large statue of Christ Roi that presides on the hill overlooking the city and then keep pushing uphill past the mountain zoo.
We move above tree line contouring the hillside getting better and better views of the hanging glaciers clinging to the mountainside across from us. Their slow-motion dance with gravity keeps us spellbound as we march single-file to a nice vantage point that feels like the perfect spot for our elevensies.
Next up, we come to a rocky, uneven stretch of trail. Luckily there are chains to help get through the worst bits.
We make another big vertical push to what looks like a pass. It turns out to be just the look out from Refuge Bellachat where we run into James from Colorado whom we met over dinner at Rifugio Elisabetta a few days back. He and his wife Julie finished their TMB adventure yesterday. She is taking a spa day with friends, while James makes one last climb up to Brévent. We chat for a bit and keep moving.
It’s a relief when the trail flattens out, and, once we finally catch our breath, we are able to appreciate the gorgeous landscape that we are in the midst of.
We know that we have finally made it to Brévent when we spot the teleferique station that appears to be clinging to a small spike of rock. There are loads of people milling about here who have taken the cable car up from Chamonix. We pause to check out the view before pressing on.
The descent from Brévent is rocky and steep. We have to negotiate a small section with iron hand rails, foot steps jammed into the rock that look like pedals, and even a few ladders. We cross a rocky section below the ridge that temporarily blocks our view of Mont Blanc but causes us to appreciate the stunning view to our left.
At a junction where the GR5 splits off, we spot two ibex near the trail and run into a couple from Holland who is section hiking the 2500+ mile hike from the North Sea to the Mediterranean! It’s amazing what serious hikers are willing to do.
There is something alluring about walking under your own power over long distances. We are not yet to those kinds of distances, but we can certainly see the appeal. We’ve already been hiking in Europe for nearly 3 weeks, and we have grown accustomed to the idea that our primary objective each day is to simply walk and enjoy the secrets that the trail gods have in store for us.
Continuing on, we can see way off in the distance the Refuge de La Flégère where we will stay tonight, but the signs and our book indicate that we still have over two hours of hiking to go, which seems almost impossible. Our feet are sore, but it’s Day 8 so we’ve got the legs to keep going, plus we have no choice. And, of course, fresh food and a soft bed at the refuge is the perfect motivating factor!
After coming down the hill for nearly 2000 feet, we begin walking, for the first time all day, on a bit flatter trail. We contour our way around the hill, past an avalanche zone, through fields of blueberry bushes starting to produce ripe berries. At one point we each separately spy two chamois (alpine antelope), but we can’t maneuver fast enough to get a picture.
We pass a couple camping in a meadow. They are sitting in their tent, enjoying the incredible view of the mountains in the late afternoon sun, and we wish for a moment that we had our tent with us.
We are ready to be done, but the trail has one last challenge in store for us. A steep set of stairs with hand rails stands between us and excellent French food, and so we give it our all. Just when we think we can’t go farther, the refuge finally comes into view. We arrive, exhausted, just as dinner is being served. Serious TMB faux pas.
We quickly toss our bags on our bunks and head down to join dinner in progress. The friendly staff sets up a private table for us and then serves up a culinary feast that would make any hungry hiker happy. We start with a fresh salad with Greek olive oil and Italian balsamic vinegar followed by a main of potatoes au gratin and then a cheese course. To top it all off, we have a decadent chocolate mouse for dessert. La vie est belle!
As an added bonus, Mont Blanc finally reveals itself at sunset. There are a dozen photographers on tripods feverishly trying to catch the best moment. We join in and grab a piece of the action. This is likely our last and best view of the mighty mountain from the trail. Tomorrow is our last day in France, and then we will cross back into Switzerland where we began.