13 Aug Les Houches to Les Contamines – D7 & D8
A day of rest followed by an easy day’s hiking.
Les Houches & Chamonix – Sunday 12th August
We arrived at the Hotel Chris-tal (odd spelling) in Les Houches at 1730 after a wearying, hot plod down from the Brévant late on Saturday afternoon. Fortunately, we didn’t have far to trudge before throwing off our packs. A couple of beers were also in order before an early meal, washing stinking clothes and sleep.
An old chum from the 1 PARA days in the 1980s, Ben Clayton-Jolly, had a flat somewhere in the Chamonix valley. Though he lives in southern Austria with his partner Sigrid, he’d said he might be around as we passed through the area. A text from him that night confirmed that to be the case though he wouldn’t be available until the following (Sunday) evening as they were both climbing somewhere in the area in Italy. We’d been at school together, virtually joined the army together and joined 1 PARA more or less at the same time. But he’d left the army in the early 1990s to pursue a career as a business coach. Curiously, one of the Fools had been Ben’s Commanding Officer in 3 PARA as he left. I hadn’t seen him for over ten years so a catch up was in order.
The following morning Richard and I met Ali for breakfast after which we parted company. I’d miss him and our fun races. It’s always comforting to find someone who is even crazier.
After the bootlace incident the previous day I’d checked mine. Starting to fray. I had a spare set, but suspected they wouldn’t last the trip either so we caught a bus up the road (for free!) to Chamonix. I’d never been there so Richard, an old Chamonix hand, showed me around. We made straight for Snells Sports, a Mecca for all things climbing, with prices that eat chunks out of you credit card.
A second pair of laces and 5m of 3mm cord ensured that the broken bootlace threat was mitigated for the whole of the trip. Most of the stuff we carry we never use, but is there to mitigate risk. I’ll do a separate blog on kit, probably when we are two-thirds of the way down rage. What works. What doesn’t. What’s vital. What isn’t. Strictly for those who do this kind of stuff.
The other pricey purchases I made were a couple of Morino woollen tops. I’d resisted going down that route for some time, never fully convinced that the wool on skin was anything I’d really want to do again.
Those of us who joined the army before they started pampering soldiers with comfortable cotton shirts will remember with no fondness and only utter loathing (unless you happened to be a masochist) the ‘shirt, man’s, KF’. I think the KF stood for Khaki Fatigue. In fact is was made from think wool as abrasive as a Brillo pad. In summer they were torture. We went to extraordinary lengths to shave them, saturate them with starch, iron them, wash them over and over all in the hope of softening them up. After about thirty years it was almost wearable without frantic itching. Horrible, horrible, horrible things.
But, the el-cheapo Go Outdoors synthetic thing I’d been wearing wasn’t up to the excessive sweating and racing I’d put it through. It and I stank and something had to be done. Marino wool apparently has magical properties much like a Thermos in reverse. While a Thermos keeps hot things hot and cold things cold (how does it know how to do that?) the Marino woollen garment is reputed to keep hot people cool and cold people warm and had, so the Marino wool de piles maintain, pong-proof properties. So, I bought two tops to trial, fully expecting to throw them into the nearest bin.
Chamonix was packed. Paragliders were stacked up at various altitudes in the clear blue sky. Richard showed me the statues honouring the first two climbers who conquered Mont Blanc in August 1786, Saussure and Balmat.
But the place he really wanted to show me was the cemetery. Despite the crowds thronging the town, the cemetery, by contrast, was the most empty place in the whole of Chamonix. He told me that he always brought his climbing groups to the cemetery before leading them up into the mountains. I could see why. It focuses the mind on the realities of duelling with the mountains. The connection between the cemetery and the surrounding heights is inescapable.
A very sobering experience, the greats are buried alongside younger climbers. A memorial wall records those whose bodies were never found or who came from other countries and died locally. I was struck how young most of them were and also how many guides have died up in the mountains. In one part of the cemetery lies a roll of honour cast in bronze to dead guides through the centuries and decades. It reads like a First World War battle casualty list.
We returned to Les Houches by bus to write and pack our gear for the next day. At 8pm Ben and his partner, Sigrid, arrived for supper. They’d been held up in the Mont Blanc tunnel returning from Courmayeur where they’d been climbing for the day. It was great to see him. We meet once a decade as he lives permanently in the Alps.
And so to bed after some packing. I had a weird dream that I survived only a few minutes in the woollen sackcloth before ripping it off and casting it aside.
Les Houches to Les Contamines, Monday 13th August
Todays’ hop was mercifully short at 17kms and involved an ascent of Col de Voza of about 1,000m and thereafter a steady undulating drop through countryside that reminded me of Bosnia – wooded, alpine, small hamlets, deserted and dead. In Bosnia, during the war the houses were burned out through ethnic cleansing. Here, the deadness seemed more to do with the lack of occupancy of cottages and chalets that were clearly holiday homes. The following mapping from Paddy Dillon’s Hiking The GR5 gives you and idea of the elevations and route:
We set off in light rain and 100% cloud cover, a nice change from the previous baking hot days. Absent also was any desire to race even against the clock. We have two pretty hefty days of tabbing coming up after Les Contamines so we trundled along chatting and talking to the many people we met along the way who were hiking the Tour de Mont Blanc – many Americans, some Chileans. These became living subjects in yet another of Richard’s research projects.
To those who spoke English he asked one question, ‘If I was open your pack, what would be the first item I’d see?’ The results were always mixed: waterproofs, water, sandals/footwear, medicines and in one case a passport. Richard’s theory is that we put at the top of our packs the item of kit we hold most important.
During the ascent to the Col de Voza we bumped into a British couple from Jersey. The gentleman was shortly to celebrate his 80th birthday and was still hiking. His wife had interesting Rastafarian bootlaces and a troll hanging off her sack with which Tatiana immediately made friends – two redheads together.
In contrast to the lifeless but pretty countryside with its deserted villages en route to Les Contamines, our destination, reached in little over five hours, was a bustling haven of sports shops, cafes, restaurants and migrant hikers. A major watering hole on the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB), Les Contamines is gearing up for the Ultra TMB at the end of August. The overall distance of the TMB is approximately 170kms. Dillon’s book warned that we’d meet many walkers en route to Les Contamines. And we did.
Q: How do you turn potable water into non-potable water?
A: Drink it from your hat!
On the approach to Les Contamines as we were paralleling the river through isolated farmhouses we rounded a corner to be confronted by the birth farm of a certain French gentleman, Alexis Bouvard, who went on to discover the existence of the plant Neptune. How random is that?
The Morino woollen gear is a total winner. I’m a convert. Out with the old and on with the new. The ghosts of KF shirts have been laid to rest.
We’ve got four more days of hiking before another enforced rest day in Val d’Isere prior to Hell Week, for which we are joined by another of Richard’s friends, Geoffrey. I wonder if he’s up for some racing?
New Hiking Terms
Track Envy. A jealousy that overcomes you when you think that your hiking partner appears to have found firmer footing.
Stick Shame. Profound self-loathing and disgust when you feel you’ve resorted to using hiking poles unnecessarily.
Thermos Anxiety. A deep despair when you realise that age has crept up on you, evidenced by a preference for convenience.
Battery Anxiety. The panic that creeps through you when you realise your devices are going to run out of juice.