Friday, April 13, 2012

Tour Mont Blanc Stage 11: La Flégère to Les Houches, France

La Flégère

Previous stage


La Flégère is where Stage 10 normally ends. When we arrived, however, it was Sept. 27 and everything was closed. We knew this in advance and so had planned to continue and camp at Plan Praz, about two hours into Stage 11. The hike to Plan Plaz was lovely, a fairly flat contour along the side of the valley, sometimes in the open and sometimes in the trees, but regularly providing spectacular views of Mont Blanc across the valley.

Plan Praz
An hour into the hike, we dropped slightly to the open area of Charlanon, a pasture area with a water trough. Had we known better, we would have loaded up with water here for when we arrived at Plan Praz an hour later (after getting briefly lost in one of the few confusing trail junction areas on the trek), we couldn’t find any water at all. All the buildings were closed and there wasn’t so much as a pipe or a stream. It was rather surprising given the sheer amount of buildings up there: a restaurant, a rescue service cabin, old and new alpine club huts, and a few side buildings. We had to make do with about two liters to get us through dinner, breakfast and up over Le Brévent the next morning.

Sunset from our campsite at
Plan Praz
On the plus side, we were perched right opposite Mont Blanc at the foot of the old alpine club building. The sunset over the mountains was spectacular, as were the stars that came out after dark. And the sunrise equaled the previous night’s views with that incredible sapphire blue reflecting off the glaciers.

Sunrise from Col du Brévent
We had a good look at the sunrise as we were up before dawn, needing to ensure we got to Les Houches in time to catch our train. I used the last of our water to make a coffee mocha for “breakfast” and off we headed for Le Brévent, at 2526m one of the high points of the whole trek. We started on a reasonably inclined track but soon switched to a trail that became steeper and rockier to Col du Brévant at 2368m. It was an absolutely perfectly formed alpine col, a rocky notch with views of Mont Blanc behind us and the Aiguillettes Rouge directly in front.
Aiguillettes Rouge from
Col du Brévent

From here, we wound behind the rocks and into a protected gully. The guidebook mentioned that ibex (a species of wild goat) were often sighted here and, true to its word, we soon spotted a family of four ibex silhouetted perfectly against the dawn sky. I managed to grab a decent video of these lovely and majestic creatures. Then we continued on a steep climb up the backside of Le Brévent, eventually joining a road that took us to the cable car station that’s attached improbably to this high point. The cable car wasn’t running yet so we had the place to ourselves and were able to walk out on the metal grid platform for a somewhat vertigo-inducing view of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix Valley.

Unfortunately, because we arrived at the summit so early, nothing was open so we couldn’t get water. We could have waited but given our timetable, we decided to continue. I’d spotted several small ponds on the map and could see one from the summit. They turned out to be a little muddy so we kept going and eventually found a nice stream in a rocky notch where we filtered water.

From Le Brévent down to Les Houches was a very steep drop of almost 1600m. It made for a fast, if foot-pounding, knee-aching descent. Most of it was in the open so we continued to have great views. Along the way, we passed Refuge de Bellechat, one of the most spectacularly situated huts on the whole trek. It was closed but we enjoyed a quick snack on its front deck, which hangs right over the valley. As we got closer to the bottom, the path took more frequent turns and we even went through another brief section of metal handrails and steps. Then we hit the edge of Les Houches, passing by the edge of a zoo and behind a huge statue of Christ. It seemed we’d never get to the bottom, continuously coming to new turns as we wound through the town, but eventually we came up over a bridge and saw train tracks and in the distance the train station. We were finished!

Trail casualties
We greeted our friends Laurie and Tom (who had finished the last three stages in two days) and celebrated with some champagne, strawberries and cheese. I celebrated by tossing out my hiking boots (the toes had come loose earlier and I’d held them together with duct tape, or American tape as it’s known in Italy), sunglasses (crushed when my backpack fell on them) and hiking pants (split the butt out of them during the snow day on Stage 2).

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