Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tour Mont Blanc Stage 10: Tré-le-Champ to La Flégère, France


Previous stage

Aiguillettes d'Argentière: there's
a trail there somewhere!
On paper, Stage 10 of the Tour Mont Blanc is the shortest at only 8K. If you’re uncomfortable with heights or, even worse, acrophobic, then this stage will seem much longer! That's because it includes the famous" delicate passage," a series of ladders, railings, wooden steps, metal grating, and other hand and footholds to help hikers climb through a very steep section of rock above the small French village of Argentière. I’ve done a number of exposed hikes – Crib Goch (a link to someone else’s photos – I was too scared to reach for my camera) on the Snowdon horseshoe, the Knife’s Edge on Mt. Katahdin in Maine, and Cloud’s Rest in Yosemite N.P. – so I wasn’t particularly concerned. Still, having read and heard so much about it, I was a little apprehensive.

The first ladder
We had a late start from Tré-le-Champ, the small village where we had spent the previous night, after I spend a futile hour looking for my wedding ring, which had disappeared the evening before after I left it in the shower at the auberge. Feeling a little depressed about the loss, I was somewhat self absorbed as we started up the trail, after first walking up a rocky track from the village and crossing a busy road. The trail rose steadily through woodlands and then into more open areas with rocky features above (part of the Grand Balcon Sud above the Chamonix Valley). I soon accepted the inevitable, however – that the ring was gone – and got into the spirit of the day, another beauty with blue skies and a slight haze.
Okay, so maybe it feels a
little exposed!

Then we came to the narrow spire known as the Aiguillette d’Argentière (often tackled by rock climbers). Just past this solitary pillar, the delicate passage begins with a single metal ladder up the rock face. From here, the trail turns and we had to dance delicately along a narrow point of rock while holding metal hand railings. It was perhaps the only section where I felt exposed: most of the rest of the time, we were facing into the rock as we climbed the ladders and, particularly with backpacks on, it was difficult to look around and get a sense of the exposure. (To capture the feeling, I hung my camera off my backpack and got some excellent video of what it would look like facing outward!) The only other sections that I found a bit delicate were the wooden steps. Although these were used on less steep sections with less exposure, the angle was such that there was nothing to hold onto (and we’d collapsed our hiking poles and clipped them to our packs – they would have been in the way otherwise – so couldn’t rely on them), requiring a bit of a balancing act. Although this section only climbed a little over 200 meters in elevation, it was tiring, particularly as much of it was straight up and therefore particularly hard on the quads.
Once we’d cleared the many obstacles (and could actually turn around and enjoy the view), we were treated to a stupendous view of the entire Mont Blanc range as we hiked the last bit of trail to a junction at a spot known as the Tête aux Vents. We could see virtually every glacier, aiguillette and peak on the north flank of the massif. At the junction, another trail joined from the east (our right). This is an alternative trail through Col des Montets that we could have taken to avoid the delicate passage and I’d highly recommend this for anyone who’s uncomfortable with ladders and handholds.

To follow the regular route to La Flégère, we would have turned left. However, the guidebook (as well as people we’d met on the trail who’d done the TMB previously) recommended visiting Lac Blanc and its beautifully sited refuge, which involved heading straight from Tête aux Vents and, unfortunately, another 200 meters of elevation gain (not significant but we were tired after the ladders, not to mention 10 days of hiking, many without sufficient calories for me). It was worth the effort, however: the view was spectacular and we ate our lunch on the deck at the refuge, ordering local beer and potato chips to go with our bread and cheese.

The technical end of Stage 10:
La Flégère
From the refuge, it was an easy, if somewhat rocky and occasionally confusing (due to lots of minor trail junctions) descent to La Flégère and its refuge, located below a cablecar station. The refuge was closed for the season, but we knew this already and had planned to continue hiking into Stage 11 and find a place to camp. More in the Stage 11 description!

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