Les Houches to Les Chapieux

I’m still trying to wrap my head around what had transpired the two days of traveling on foot from Les Houches to Courmayeur.  So many things goes on while on the trail, it’s hard to capture or remember everything after a day or two.  The word to describe the experience is “amazing!”

We wrapped up the two days with 41.2 miles and 13,249 ft of total elevation gain.  The one thing that stuck to my mind after this short experience was UTMB.  The deep feeling of being inspired by those who are participating in the toughest mountain trail races of all time.  It is VERY tough!  The experience we had in the two days made us respect the racers, every one of them even more.

The first leg of our “feet” adventure started from our apartment through the small quaint town of Les Houches to the base of the climb up to Col de Voza.  We started at 7am and the sun was just starting to peak from the mountain glaciers of Chamonix.  We knew the day was going to be sunny and with very good visibility.  The climb up Col de Voza was steep on a ski run and on the summit were small cafes and refuges.  I wanted to use the toilet but it was still locked, we were too early.  There was a potable water fountain but we didn’t need a refill.

The downhill was mostly again on ski runs and then to a small park right above Bionnassay.  It’s another quiet village but there, the toilette at the parking lot was open so I was able to relieve myself before a very long downhill.  Our strategy is to get to Contamines in good time, before the big climb.  We took a more direct route all the way to Le Champel.  I love passing through small villages like this!  Every town has something unique and all have something similar like a chapel or church.  Bells rang as we ran down the main road towards La Chapelle.  By the way, Le Champel is not La Champelle – which confused the heck out of me but we figured it out.  We took the road that climbed to Le Ouy which worried us a bit but in the end, we actually took the right way.  It was just climbing so high and we didn’t know what to expect or where the road led to.  We then found the trail sign that pointed down a dirt fire trail to Les Contamines with a “TMB” or Tour du Mont Blanc symbol.  It was about 9:30am when we got to Les Contamines.

Les Contamines is a bigger town and hikers stay there for the first day of their ten or twelve days around Tour du Mont Blanc route.  We found the trail with a fountain to refill and this time we refilled our water bottles and flasks.  The trail was a park trail leading into a bigger park to de la Gorge.  Right after passing through the chapel or church at the de la Gorge was the start of the three tiered climb up to Col du Bonhomme.

It was steep.  Granite rocks, smooth and slick was how I would describe it.  There were waterfalls or gorges running both sides of the trail.  It was also getting warmer as the morning progressed.  There were a few refuges and campgrounds along the way but the two main ones we needed to pass were Refuge de Nant Borrant and Refuge de la Balme.

It was steep again but then the trail sort of flattened out after Refuge de Nant Borrant then a gradual climb up to Refuge de la Balme.  Everything got steeper after Refuge de la Balme!  I was hot but we kept moving forward.  There were a lot of people on the trails.  There were groups of 15 hikers all together, there were 3-4 in groups, solo and all of them chugging along the climb like us.  It was like a party of relentless climbing and a lot of bonjours.

We can see the trail and where it is headed to from where we were.  Over and over again, I look up but didn’t panic.  I could panic and get intimidated but it is what it is.  It’s going to be a long climb.  My watch is telling me, we still have a long way to go – up, that is!  Keep moving.

The grade got steeper and the trail was exposed in the hot sun.  The terrain also changed into a much more technical climb.  Finally, we made it up to Col du Bohomme with relief but it’s not over yet.  Another climb of about a hundred feet towards the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme.  On the way there, I was feeling bonked so I asked Doug if we could stop for a sandwich.  We stopped right by the waterfall to also refill our water containers.  We ate our sandwich quickly and then moved on.  I was really hoping to see some marmot for a bit of entertainment, however seeing dogs on the trails was a bonus.  Dogs were on their harnesses climbing mountains, cute.

We got to the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme at about 1pm which meant it took us 2 hours to go down the 3 miles to our destination for the day!  Our pace at that point was the same us our climbing pace, oh God!  We were tired and don’t trust our legs to run down the very steep, technical crazy switch backs.  There were trails all over the place. Some were very muddy, some with sharp rocks and it’s hard to pick a good line most of the time.  The many minutes of navigating and gingerly walking down the hill was also a knee killer.  Ouch.  Finally, we made it to a manageable downhill but we were still hiking only.  We were so beat up finishing 21.3 miles with 7855 ft of total gain.  A big day for us and a very good training day!

We looked so dazed entering the Auberge de la Nova and walked up the bar to let them know that we made reservations.  A gentleman with long hair, looking very Italian greeted us with a smile.  “Ah, Aldrich I know” he said.  He then explained to us that we have to take our shoes of and pointed to a room by the staircase where we can store our nasty, dirty and muddy shoes.  The room had backpacks laying around and shelves with boots and slippers.  We took our shoes off which felt amazing and then wore the clogs provided by the refuge.  The gentleman or host also explained to us where our room was, it was right past the showers and toilets.

The dorm room was nice, in my opinion.  Hey, if you’ve trekked in Nepal this dorm room is luxury.  We read that it’s recommended to bring sleeping bag liners but we didn’t and it was fine.  The sheets, pillow covers and comforters were very clean.  Believe me, we’ve slept on some not to be trusted beddings in Nepal and India but came out okay so this was again, a luxury.  We both took our hot showers and as the first people in the dorm room, we lucked out in beds that were made for two people.  Basically, two bunk beds together so there was a second level combined sleeping beds, too.  We picked the one at the bottom of course.  The toilets were super clean with toilet papers and a sink to wash hands.  No towels provided but we have our camping towels which worked out great.  We changed into our relaxing light weight clothing and started to rest up.

I ate the rest of my sandwich and trail mixes like there was no tomorrow while lying down feeling the throbbing of feet’s nerves, my tight calves and very tired body.  It felt so good to be laying down on very soft mattress.  We rested a bit and then went down for an afternoon coffee.  I ordered a cappuccino and the bar tender smiled and said, “milk coffee?”  I said, “Okay, milk coffee” which came out to be a cappuccino.  It was good and as always, 4Euros for each!

We headed back to the dorm room to rest some more.  We got to the refuge at 2:45pm and even after all the shower we still had a few hours before dinner time.  Dinner in Europe starts quite late and this is why it’s hard to socialize for dinner because we eat at 4:30pm and are usually in bed by 8pm.  7pm dinner is late for us.  The dinner and breakfast were included in our dorm reservation.  Dinner was a wonderful four course meal of squash soup with bread, very tender beef cooked in gravy, cheese and then blueberry Panna Cotta for dessert.

Interestingly, we met an older gentleman from North Carolina US and he is an avid hiker.  He’s hiked in so many places, most of the time solo.  He said he like socializing during his hikes and he is a very sociable person.  We chatted a bit when he came in to the dorm room from his hike and then at dinner.  His son is coming to Chamonix next week to hike with him.  All the dorm room guests had names on the table so we knew where we were seated.  The North Carolina native along with a young couple of the UK were great company and we shared mostly about our experiences on Tour du Mont Blanc. It was a great evening and right after dessert, I headed up to the dorm room because I was ready for bed!  Doug waited until he can pay the rest of our balance of our reservation.  We put a deposit down to reserve our beds and paid the rest at the refuge.  Doug did all our refuge reservation online.

The night was interesting as another big group arrived earlier and all had their places in the the dorm room.  They were all French but spoke some English.  A very lively bunch, always laughing and having a good time.  It was a night of lots of snoring so reading some of the recommendations to pack ear plugs were good advice!

We both were very tired and thankful for such an amazing day on the mountains.  The next day’s forecast was rain on the mountains…

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