Haute Route, Day 5: A Fellowship Forms

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After a beautiful night of sleep in our cozy, quiet room at Hotel La Poste in Le Châble, we head down for breakfast, which our host Marc has laid out in a pleasantly decorated room with lots of wood, leather couches and warm colors. Fresh croissants, coffee, yogurt and plenty of goodies to choose from make this a good start to the day.

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We are rested after a few quieter days, catching up on sleep, doing laundry and nursing some sore feet. I feel strong again today and “on top” of my hiking game. I feel like I needed to reestablish my calorie balance on the positive side and, to be honest, I’ve eaten like a horse the last 2 days. I saw myself in the mirror yesterday for the first time in a while, and I can see that I have lost weight and am back to my JMT physique, which is to say…I need to eat more!

We are ready to tackle the first big stage of the Haute Route for us, a monstrous and unending 5300′ climb up to Cabane du Mont Fort. We cross the river, walk through the neighborhood of Villair where the street fest was going on last night and begin heading up hill.

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The first hour or so has us winding uphill through little villages, past old chalets with the odd cat or dog looking on at us. We find little shrines to the Madonna and Christ-on-the-Crosses around every corner, it seems. It reminds us of how the Hindus express their faith in India, the way in which religion—at the level of the people—is everywhere, a constant reminder of the faith. It is quite pleasant.

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We keep looking back at Le Châble and seeing the church steeple diminish in size. We notice paragliders floating leisurely in the sunny blue sky as they meander their way down to a grassy landing just outside of Le Châble. It looks so relaxing, and I might be tempted to give it a try if the opportunity presents itself.

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We also notice the cable trams ferrying people virtually all the way up the hill to where we are going. Should we have taken the easy way up the hill today? I wonder. But, if we did, we would be missing the slow arc of the sun as it marks time on a lazy Sunday morning in the mountains of Europe. I reason that this is of greater contemplative value than the quick way up the mountain. Every day, we each have to climb our own mountain.

We meander sometimes on small tracks through forest, sometimes on dirt roads alongside avalanche fences, past mountain chalets and eventually up to Clambin, where the meadows start to open up.

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We decide this is a good place for a picnic lunch and park it on a bench with a view of the Argentieres mountain range. Today is a bit gourmet as we have baguette with tomme du Verbier (a soft cheese) and sun-dried tomatoes, plus a juicy white peach and piece of chocolate. Life is good. We kick off our shoes and enjoy the sun without being overheated for a change.

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Soon enough, the packs are back on, and we are muscling our way up the hill again. While still in forest for the most part, the trees are thinning, and we start to get glimpses of the ski runs, the lifts and the ridgeline above. We can tell we are getting closer to the top as paragliders overhead temporarily cast a shadow and block out the sun. There are also mountain bikers careening downhill at breakneck speeds and kicking up loads of dust that just seems to linger in the air on this hot, summer day.

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Occasionally the walker’s path crosses the biker’s path, and we have to be careful to look before we cross. As we emerge above tree line we step firmly into the summer playground below Mont Fort: there are lots of people experiencing the mountain in different ways from the aforementioned paragliders and mountain bikers (who can take the lifts all the way to the top of the mountain to begin their descent) to dayhikers and families renting chalets. Sprinkled among these we can pick out a few backpackers who are on the (seemingly) one-way route from Chamonix to Zermatt.

It’s at this point that we run into The Four Blokes: Nev, Simon and Graham (who all met on an Everest Base Camp Trek in ’09 and were our three snoring bunkmates in Champex Lac) plus our Le Peuty bunkmate David, all of whom are from Australia in some way, shape or form. We join up and overlap each other and mix in conversation as we contour around the mountain.

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The sun is bright, and the skies are blue with views to our right of the Grand Combin massif and Mont Blanc peeking out from behind and to its left. We can also see the Argentieres range and Aiguilles Rouge. We figure out where the Fenetre d’Arpette is. It still looks daunting from a distance!

Cabane Mont Fort is now in full view beneath the rock wall of Mont Fort. We have only a few hundred feet further to climb, and, by the time we have done so, we have ascended a full vertical mile today. We reach our destination before 4 pm! And we feel good.

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The Cabane is much less-populated than similar refuges on the TMB which is a nice change. There is not such a rush to take care of chores and scramble for the bathroom. We have our own private little room on the top floor, which should help insure a better night of sleep.

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After a quick shower, I spend a little time out on the terrace chatting with Graham about New Zealand and Nepal before dinner. He and his lady friend have hiked the Dusky Track, and he shows us some pictures of a wet and muddy experience.

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Dinner is minestrone soup, salad, pasta with red sauce and a bowl of ice cream. We also chat with Tony and Jenny, two Haute Route hikers from Atlanta, about community, sociology, hiking and travel. Then it’s off to photograph the sunset before bedtime. We are in luck as the sun goes down slowly and gives us time to ponder the shot. Although there are few clouds to extend the color we do get a clear view of the Grand Combin and, as a bonus the entire Mont Blanc massif.

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There is a great sense of satisfaction and reverence to be able to say we walked around the whole thing. To circuit a mountain is to begin to know it. And there is also a sense of anticipation about where the Haute Route will take us next. All is well, as long as we keep putting one foot in front of the other. I think there’s a lesson in that.

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