TMB, Day 10: A Challenging Return to Champex Lac

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We wake up this morning in the quaint, Swiss hamlet of Le Peuty in a tiny refuge with only one other occupant, David from Australia. There is a certain amount of excitement as today is the 10th and final day of the TMB for us, a worthy achievement in its own right. This is tempered by the fact that this is also simultaneously Day 3 of the Walker’s Haute Route for us. The Haute Route goes from Chamonix to Zermatt for 112 miles so, when we arrive back in Champex Lac, we’ll just continue walking for another ten days on to Zermatt!

But there is also a bit of trepidation as well because we have elected to climb the Fenetre d’Arpette (2665m) which is the alternate high route back to Champex Lac. It’s a beastly 4400 foot climb to the top and then an equally challenging descent back to civilization. It helps, however, that David (age 32, taking 4 months off between jobs) is super eager for the climb and for some company.

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After a quick, light breakfast, we step out of the refuge and make our way to the trail. David sets a vigorous pace up the hill and keeps us talking which takes our mind off the climb. We come to a footbridge at Chalet du Glacier and cross the glacier-fed river rushing below us.

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Once we edge above tree line we start to catch ever-improving glimpses of the impressive Glacier de Triente and the snowfield above it.

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The climb is fairly steep and challenging. It doesn’t help that we had a calorie-deficient meal last night and an underwhelming breakfast. Today for the first time I am cognizant of how many calories are needed to sustain the kind of hiking we are doing. And we are definitely falling short!

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As we draw even with the tongue of the glacier, clouds start to billow up from below, and, within seconds, the glacier completely disappears. For the rest of the climb the views come in and out every few minutes, and the clouds lend a quiet, atmospheric quality to our climb.

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During a snack break, we meet a young American couple who we discover are Triple Crowners (people who have hiked all three of the US long-distance trails: the AT, the PCT and the CDT). We chat for a while about all things hiking and camping gear, as well as their experience on the Colorado Trail, which we hope to do next summer. 

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The time has come to power up to the top, which is now in a complete fog. Soon hikers who have come over the pass from the opposite direction start to descend, and we get passed by several groups as they pick their way down. This is usually not a problem, but the path is narrow, steep, and filled with boulders and slippery scree which makes finding space to step out of the way or catch our breath a bit more challenging. As we start to slow down, David bids us adieu. He is staying in Champex Lac tonight, too, so chances are good that this won’t be the last time we see each other.

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Slowly but surely we make our way to the top. There are dozens of folks paused for a rest at the pass, including several we have met previously. It’s good to see these folks and realize how far we’ve come. We take some photos to celebrate the feat and begin the long, steep descent on the other side.

If we thought going up the Arpette was challenging, going down certainly takes it to a new level. By now we are accustomed to epic ascents and descents, but this one begins with a long section of steep scree footpaths that are slippery and difficult to negotiate, especially for Alison who is a Nervous Nellie on this type of terrain. It is really slippery, and, at one point, she just decides to sit down and slide down on her bum. Oh, boy, this is going to be a long day!

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I’m not sure what it is, but today does seem tougher overall. Despite this now being our 10th day on the TMB and our 19th overall hiking in the mountains of Europe, the going is slow. I can’t really blame it on anything but age and a sense that it’s important to be cautious about each step to avoid a fatigue injury. 

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After what seems like an eternity of this, we hit a giant boulder field that goes on for the next two hours! Every step has to be chosen carefully on this terrain, and it is exhausting. This is technical hiking, where our eyes stay rooted to the trail. When I do glance up at the glaciated valley in front of me, sometimes open and other times socked in with cloud, I risk tripping or losing my footing. Still, this glorious a view demands a serious look!

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Finally, we reach something of a turning point. The boulders disappear, and the trail smooths out. We find a spot where we can pull off the trail for some lunch. I know we need to eat more calories to pick up our energy. Thankfully, we are carrying enough food with us, and our moods pick up as we refuel, knowing that the toughest part is behind us.

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All day, we have seen pretty alpine flowers. Here is a sample of what we managed to get pictures of as we crossed this tough terrain.

It’s still a long way down over rocky paths as the valley pinches down to a little stream. We eventually level out into a forest with lush green undergrowth that dumps us out onto a dirt track road and into a wide open grass meadow. We see several chalets off in the distance. A river comes in on the right with attractive waterfalls. We pass a refuge and see a sign indicating that Champex Lac is only 30 minutes away. It seems too good to be true.

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The last part of the TMB is a pleasant single track that follows a rushing, clear water stream for a kilometer or so. Finally we step out onto a tarmac road and, within a few hundred meters, we find ourselves in a familiar spot, right where the bus dropped us off 11 days ago a short way above Pension En Plein Air. We can’t believe we are arriving before 6 pm. It’s been 10 days, 100 plus miles, and more elevation gain and loss than the Wonderland Trail, but we made it!

We are relieved and eager for a few creature comforts. We check in, retrieve our suitcase left behind and head up to our dorm. I shave. We shower and then hand wash some laundry before it’s time for dinner. We sit with a young British couple and a father/son duo from San Francisco who are now living in Japan and trade stories. With the Haute Route beckoning, we call it an early night.

Happy Bastille Day, France! Happy Birthday Eve, Alison!

8 thoughts on “TMB, Day 10: A Challenging Return to Champex Lac

  1. Thanks for taking us on another wonderful trip. I love reading about your adventures and seeing the beautiful scenery.

    1. You are most welcome, Sheri! And you should definitely give hiking a try yourself. You don’t need to be too ambitious to start. A trip to Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin or Indiana Dunes State Park is a great way to get your feet wet and see if you like it!

  2. Hello Allison and Matt,
    Sue and I have enjoyed your Mont Blanc trek; it brought back some great memories. We did the trek in 2016 after meeting Jennifer Pharr Davis at a book talk. I asked her to name her favorite backpacking trip. At first, we dismissed Mont Blanc as too tough, but she urged us to give it a go.
    Well done to you!
    Reg and Sue

    1. Thanks so much, Reg and Sue! We are glad that we were able to bring back some good memories of your time on the TMB. We did this back in 2017, so it has been a fun stroll down memory lane for us, too. How cool that you met Jennifer Pharr Davis in person. I read her book and really enjoyed it. A little encouragement like that can go a long way–good on you for taking it! Cheers!

  3. So beautiful! Your photos and blog really provide an incredible sense of the beauty as well as the challenges of the trail. Do you think the alternate high route was well worth it on this stretch of the TMB? Also, I’m really curious about your opinions of going clockwise on this trail. I’ve read that counterclockwise is the usual choice. Were you happy with your decision to “hike upstream?”

    Thanks again for sharing. Reading your blogs with my morning coffee is the best way to start a day. It also gets me planning for another trip!

    1. Thank you so much, Laura. Those are great questions! Taking the high route into Champex Lac was definitely a challenge (especially for me), but we are glad we did it. We hears that the alternative for this section is through the forest and doesn’t deliver many views. It was tough, but, if you take your time, it is manageable for almost anyone. One caveat: if the weather is sketchy at all, they advise against taking this route, and I would definitely heed that advice. I wouldn’t want to go down either side in wet conditions.
      We chose to go clockwise for a couple of reasons. Most people start the TMB in Les Houches (near Chamonix), but we wanted to start in Champex Lac, so we wouldn’t repeat ourselves when we continued on with the Haute Route. Based on that, clockwise seemed like the best choice because we would begin with an easy (and relatively boring) day in the Swiss countryside and end with taking the high route to the Fenetre when we had our hiking legs and were more accustomed to the terrain. Day 10 would have definitely been an intimidating way to start!
      We find ourselves hiking “upstream” quite a bit, and generally we don’t mind it. It means that the trail is pretty quiet at the beginning and end of the day–we pass most people around lunchtime. The downside is that you don’t always get the trail camaraderie that you might have if you hike in the same direction as everyone else. That can also be a good thing, depending on what you are looking for. 🙂
      Are you thinking of doing the TMB? It is one of our all-time favorite trails. We hope you do it, and feel free to ask us any questions to help with your planning.
      Happy trails to you!

  4. Thanks so much for your helpful, detailed response here! And yes, after reading your blog, I’m seriously considering hiking the TMB this year- maybe the last week of August, first week of September. I pretty much followed your blog to a T for the Colorado Trail and it was so incredibly helpful. (Too bad a broken leg took me off the trail early)

    I will probably follow your same itinerary on the TMB, but I hope to stay at campgrounds when possible. And I’m considering the Haute Route as well, depending on weather. I’ve bought the Cicerone guide book for planning. If you have any other suggestions for guide books, websites, or apps, I’d be so grateful. I feel indebted to you both for being my tour guides! 🙂 When I get back to Chicago, I’ll have to treat you to dinner!

    1. That’s great, Laura! The TMB/Haute Route combination is an incredible hike, and you are sure to love it. We used the Cicerone guidebooks, and all of the contact info was current back in 2017. Have you found the TMB website where you can book a lot of the accommodation yet? It doesn’t have all of the places mentioned in the guidebook on it, but it makes it relatively easy to book many of the huts along the way on the TMB.
      https://www.montourdumontblanc.com/uk/index.aspx
      Also, if you are on Facebook, you should consider joining the Tour du Mont Blanc group. You can gather intel and pose questions there about camping and things like that.
      The Haute Route is not quite as organized, and you will have to do a lot of emailing/calling ahead to book places. Google Translate is very helpful for this!
      We would love to meet up next time you are in Chicago. Keep us posted of your progress! 🙂

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