Day 2 Wednesday 17 August. Montroc to Trient

Gites in mountain areas are geared for an early start. Breakfast is usually served starting about 6:30, ideal as you can do a lot of the day’s climb before it gets too hot. Today there were fresh croissants, a welcome surprise, French bread and cheese, jams and marmalade. Everywhere has blackcurrant jam, I guess it’s what is left after the tarte aux myrtlles served up during the ski season. Last nights meal was good too: tomato salad, vegetarian risotto with local cheese and caramelised apple tart.

I left the gite and walked up the road to Le Tour. I was reminded of the other danger of living in the alps. There was a memorial to 12 people killed in an avalanche in 1999, five were from the same family, presumably their house was in the path of the snow.

Le Tour is the road head for one of the ski area in the Chamonix valley. The ski terminal was a hive of activity as they are modernising it. The lift has been removed and there were large reels of cable. I would have liked to have watched them load it on to the support towers but I had a walk to do.

The path started under the towers and zigzagged up the hill. There was a field of cows to one side so I was accompanied by the sound of cowbells, one of the things I really like about alpine walking. I gained height quickly and was rewarded with a view back to Le Tour, Montroc and the Chamonix valley

As I approached the middle station of the lift at Charamillon I could see my target, the Col de Balme in the distance

It is steeper than it looks from the photograph, there is a 750metre difference between Le Tour and the col. as I dragged my way up the hill I was reminded of the flyers I have seen (and would continue to see) for the ultra TMB race next week. About 2500 runners will do the TMB (or part of it) next week finishing in 32-48 hours, the record is about 20 hours. Most walkers take 10-14 days to complete the 170km circuit. If 170km is not enough for you there is a 300km non-competitive run as well.

I arrived at the col at lunchtime in lovely sunshine. The col is at the border of France and Switzerland. Only a sign marks the border. Have the Scots thought about border control if they get independence? There are two signs marking the border, the French have measured the height of the col as 13 metres less than the Swiss. There is a Chalet-refuge on the col precisely on the international border.

Chalet-Refuge Col de la Balme

It’s nationality has been debated over the years by the French and Swiss. I don’t know who owns it at present but the entrance door is in Switzerland but they prefer euros at the cash desk. I had lunch with me but the food there looked nice. I did buy a slice of chocolate cake though.

I settled down to eat and admire the view. The Aguilles Rouge were spectacular

The Drus could be clearly seen but Mont Blanc summit was covered by cloud

I set off down the mountain into Switzerland. Route finding is rarely a problem. All the footpaths are signposted with their destination and the approximate time it takes to walk there. Once you have been walking for a couple of days you know how to adjust the suggested time to your actual pace. National trails are marked with a red and white striped logo, usually painted on the rock but here it was a metal sign.

The haute route is not an actual long distance path but it uses parts of others, the TMB being one. The initial descent from the col was easy and gentle. I soon arrived at a collection of buildings called Les Herbageres.

Now the descent became steep. Despite my walking poles my knee began to hurt and, worryingly, it felt like joint pain rather than muscular. I just took it slowly and kept stopping.. I found this very depressing as there are steeper descents to come. On the way down I met a German who checked I was OK. He is also doing the Haute Route. We are walking similar stages so I hope I will see him later in the week.

Eventually I came into a clearing and I could see Trient in the valley below.

I re-entered the forest. To my surprise, at intervals, there were barbecue kettles adjacent to the path. I would have thought this would be too much of a fire risk with dry wood and pine needles around but the forest hasn’t burnt down and the Swiss are noted for their safety first approach.

As I got down to the valley floor I could see the valley that leads to the fenetre d’arpette. It is steep and narrow at the top and from here I could not see a feasible way up.

I arrived at the gite. As last night it was very busy. The TMB is recognised world wide as a good walk but I was surprised to see the number of Americans who are walking the Alps. I shared a table with a group from California and a couple from Hong Kong. The man from Hong Kong had studied architecture at Manchester University in the 80’s, it’s a small world.

Day -1 Sunday 14 August

My second walk of 2022 is the Walkers Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. The original Haute Route is a high level route that crosses glaciers and so requires mountaineering experience or a guide. There is also a winter ski mountaineering route that is way put of my ability. The walk I am doing crosses lower passes, keeping below the summer snowline, but is meant to be one of the more spectacular Alpine walks. It runs from Chamonix to Zermatt, so starts at the foot of Mont Blanc and ends just below the Matterhorn, two iconic mountains. It is still a fairly high level route, the highest pass reached being about 2900 metres above sea level. It is a fairly tough walk, crossing 11 passes and involves a total ascent of over 10 000 metres. Some days I will descend to valley inns or gite d’etape, others I will spend in remote mountain huts. The climax involves the crossing of a 500 metre long suspension bridge, high above a ravine on the Euroweg.

No technical experience is necessary but some of the route is weather dependent and I know part has been rerouted due to rockfalls during the spring melt in 2022. The first 3 days are shared with the Tour du Mont Blanc that I walked in the 1980s. I am hoping for good weather. On the TMB we had to avoid the Fenetre d’Arpette because of storms and this is meant to be a dramatic pass

When I returned from the Offas Dyke path my knee was not in good shape. I couldn’t fully bend the joint and I was being woken at night by discomfort. I saw a physio (Trish) who advised getting an x-ray to make sure there wasn’t anything structural that would preclude rehab exercises. I was very disappointed that it showed a lot of OA change as well as loose bodies. |I spoke to an ex-colleague, Waqar, who is a musculoskeletal radiologist. He advised and kindly preformed an ultrasound and MR scan. It did not look good, there was a loose body which was preventing me fully flexing the knee and he thought I may need arthroscopy to disimpact it. I certainly could not have walked 120 miles across mountains on it at that time..

The following night I was woken by pain in the knee. I must have tried to curl up into a ball and dislodged the offending bit of cartilage. I could bend the knee most of the way. I was still very pessimisitic of going, particularly as I had planned several more walks to keep mountain fit and I was now limited to rehab.

Thanks Waqar, Trish and Connor (my PT). The pain settled with rehab. Last week I walked up Jacobs ladder, across Kinder and down Grindsbrook so I can do steep ascents and descents, although the Alpine climbs will be more sustained. I am moderately confident about doing the walk. It is possible that I will need to break my usual rules and use valley buses or cable cars to rest the knee, we will see.

Day 1 Tuesday 16 August. Chamonix to Montroc

It is not every day (at least in Manchester) where you go out of the front door and see a glacier above you. I was also not expecting to see about 20 hang gliders swooping round above the valley.

Room with a view

I walked into the Chamonix for a coffee and a rather nice pastry (filled with lemon custard). I then had a wander round the centre of Chamonix which was rather nice. Yes there were a lot of ski shops, which were concentrating on walking, climbing and mountain biking as it is summer but there were some nice old buildings as well.

Chamonix is a slightly uncomfortable mixture of the old and new. It claims to be the original centre of modern mountaineering . The first ascent of Mount Blanc was made from here in 1786 and is commemorated by a statue of Jacques Balmat, who was the first to climb the mountain, with Horace-Benedict de Saussure who put up a cash prize for the successful climber

A short distance away is a statue of Michel Passard who made the first ascent with Balmat. The street is named after Edward Whymper, an English mountaineer who lived in Chamonix and was the first man to climb the Matterhorn (four of the party were killed during the descent).

I left Chamonix by walking alongside the l’Arve river initially through the town and then a municipal park and sports area before entering woodland called le Bois, I wonder why.

The path began to climb steeply. My original plan was to descend to Le Lavancher but as I stopped to check the map a lady suggested I continued up to Le Chapeaux as there was a spectacular view of the Mer du Glace and the Grande Jorasse. As it was early I thought this was a good idea, although it added 6km of distance and 200 metres of ascent. It was worth it but I was horrified to see the amount that the glacier has retreated over the last 25 years.

As recently as 1995 the glacier extended as far as the lake at the bottom of the picture.

There were also good views down the Chamonix valley, I didn’t realise how built up it is from the valley floor.

I retraced my steps back down the mountain and worked my way through the chalets of Le Lavancher . I now took the petit balcon sud path which climbed high above the valley. Initially it was a farm track but it soon became a narrow path winding through the trees. It was a bit disconcerting here as the path is shared with cyclists but there were no mishaps. Every so often there were small clearings and the Aguilles Rouges could be seen across the valley.

I dropped down to the northern end of Argentiere to get a cold drink. I returned to the path through the churchyard and it was sobering to see the first two graves were of Brutish climbers who were killed in the 1920s. Ice climbing is still a very dangerous sport, even with modern equipment.

I now had a steep climb up to the chalets of Les Frasserands and Montroc where I was staying in a gite. These are the equivalent of an English youth hostel but are privately owned. Gites, and mountain huts, offer dormitory type accommodation but unlike in the UK the dormitories are mixed. Most provide an evening meal, always tasty and filling even when you are halfway up a mountain.

One of my roommates, Richard, is a Korean, now living in the US. This is his third trek of the summer, in the US and Europe. He is doing Tour de Mont Blanc so he has nearly finished, the Haute Route follows the last few days of the TMB route.