Day 8 - Le Lechère to Champex-Lac (16.5km - 480 ascent - 690m descent)

After another pleasant evening in a refuge, chatting with fellow walkers, we were up and ready to head deeper into Switzerland. The sky was yet again cloudless, but there was a distinct haziness. Was it just because we were deep in the valley or was it a sign of change to come - time would tell. We left the gite to the jangling of cow bells form a neighbouring field, descending through the herbfields to cross the Drance du Ferret and follow a sealed road to the edge of the village of La Fouly. Here we once again left the road, recrossing the Drance and passing through a campground before the track took us into a pleasantly cool fir forest.

Heading downstream towards the peak of Les Six Niers

Crossing the river flats

The wide gravel bed of the Drance du Ferret

Waterfall plummeting into the valley

The tranquil forest

Old houses in Praz-de-Fort

As we followed the river downstream, it broadened into a stony eroded bed, down which the water found its swift-flowing route past little hamlets in their chocolate-box settings beneath forest-clad slopes and snow-tipped mountains.

Choughs riding a thermal

The valley again narrowed to form a small gorge, obliging us to climb for a short distance to round a steep rock-face before descending the Crête de Saleina, the boulder-pocked and tree-covered lateral morain of a long-retreated glacier. It was only mid-morning and the still valley air was already heating up.

Lower valley of the Drance du Ferret

At the base of the morain, we crossed a broad flat to enter the village of Praz-de-Fort, first through modern holiday chalets, then past the traditional brown wooden valois houses and barns.

The hamlet of Prayon

Nello crosses the rock face near Saleina

Narrow streets of Praz-de-Fort

Heading down the Val Ferret towards Le Catogne peak

Chamois on the steep slopes

The route now crossed the river twice more, passing through several traditional villages and offering great views up and down the valley. The final crossing of the Drance du Ferret brought us to Issert - at 1055m, it was our lowest point on the TMB since leaving Les Houches. As we sipped our coffee on a narrow terrace in Issert, we could look up to our destination 400m above in a hanging valley beneath the bulky peak of Le Catogne - Champex-Lac was waiting.

Wood carving on the Sentier des Champignons

A final stretch on the flat road, followed by a long climb up the Sentier des Champignons, which alternated sharp ascents up spurs with more gentle traverses across the forested slope, brought us to the old terminal morain holding back the waters of the lake above.

On the way we spotted our first (and only) chamois on the slopes above - now that made our day!! Passing one of the many discrete bunkers that the Swiss army has bored into the mountainsides here, we finally emerged into the town of Champex after an hour and a half of perspirational climbing.

The houses of Issert

Moorhen on the lake

Une pièce d'art flottante

The little chapel in the forest

Lac Champex and Les Clochers d'Arpette (2814m)

Champex had a lethargic air, the pretty little lake framed by mountain and forest and lined with chalets, fishermen dangling their lines, couples strolling slowly around its edge. It was going to be a good place to while away the rest of the afternoon - a cold beer on a lakeside terrace watching the ducks, moorhens and pedalos, a short stroll around its perimeter and a bit of essential shopping.

Lethargic afternoon at Champex-Lac

The tranquil reed beds of Lac Champex

After several days of spectacular high mountain scenery, today was more "aaaah" than "wow!!!!!" A break from this sensual overload was probably good, but the TMB can make you blasé and, truth be told, there were times today when we felt like we just accumulating the kilometres. Still, what better place to do so than in this postcard-pretty part of Switzerland.

Day 9 - Champex-Lac to Trient (15km - 810m ascent - 980m descent)

Every long walk has a dog day - a day when for no reason in particular the spirit sags, the landscapes seem less inspiring and the track seems longer. It has nothing to do with physical tiredness, but everything to do with mental fatigue. Today, our ninth on the TMB, was such a day despite the ongoing fine weather.

We left Champex-Lac, heading eastward alongside the sealed road that led down to Champex-en-Haut and Champex-en-Bas, small farming hamlets tucked away in the conifer forest. The path took us past flower-filled meadows, soft bell-jangling cows and black-faced sheep, picturesque wooden chalets and the odd military bunker full of ammunitions - aah, Switzerland, what an enigmatic place you are! At the edge of Champex-en-Bas, we left the road to traverse the cool and shady forest on a north-facing slope, as the valley floor gradually fell away below us.

Just another military bunker

Nello and the giant fir trees

Between Champex-en-Haut and Champex-en-Bas

Passing the Plan-de-l'Au, the TMB started to head up into the Valley of Six-Fours, dense with larch and fir. Our real climb of the day had just started as we headed steeply up to the bare rock walls of the Clocher d'Arpette above, a narrow torrent plunging down the valley to its right.

A little way along, we crossed a branch of the torrent to follow a rocky path that climbed up a scrubby slope between patches of forest - crossing other branches of the torrent on the way. After the last crossing, a very steep series of zig-zags up a rocky and root-gnarly path beneath the larches brought us out above the tree-line, 400m higher and dripping with perspiration.

Mixed fir and larch forest

Near the top of the climb - looking back to the Clochers d'Arpette

Crossing yet another torrent

Scrub and larch beneath Six des Orgues

The meadows of Bovine

Still, the breeze on the ridge was cool and, as we wandered around the contour line, the views opened out over the pastures and down the broad valley of the Rhone.

View over Martigny and the Rhone Valley from Bovine

Reaching the small buvette at Bovine, we stopped for a well-earned lunch, before one final climb along a track lined with rhododendrons just coming into flower. This took us to our high point of the day at the Collet de Portalo and from here it was all down hill.

The route down sidled around the long valley wall through beautiful fir and larch forest, sometimes steeply, sometimes gently, on a path sometimes even, sometimes rocky and root-covered. As we descended, the road from Martigny in the Rhone Valley below gradually ascended on the far side of the ever narrowing valley. The noise of the traffic grew louder until track and road merged at the Col de la Forclaz.

The route down from the Collet de Portalo

Bird's-eye view of Trient from the col

Near the Col de la Forclaz

The col was too noisy to stop for a break, so we continued on, first following a flat smooth path alongside an old irrigation canal, then descending steeply through the forested slope to reach Trient, a cross-roads for wayfarers and traders for thousands of years and our home for the night deep in the valley.

A touch of the unusual
- is this the Scottish soldier who wandered far away?

Forested section on the descent to Forclaz

The neogothic church at Trient

A cold shower (due to a faulty water heater at the gite) was followed by a cold beer, while outside a cold rain fell from the clouds that had again gathered in the afternoon. The gite was full, and the most of the people seemed to be in the lounge watching the football world cup match - the feeling of isolation that one had in the mountain refuges was distinctly lacking.

It must be said that, while the Swiss part of the TMB is very pretty, it is a hard act to follow the spectacular initial sections in France and Italy and, despite the fact that the walk had been superb to date, we found ourselves looking to the end. Yes, today was the dog-day of our circuit around Mont Blanc.

Day 10 - Trient to Tré-le-Champs (13.5km - 1110m ascent - 1050m descent)

The TMB is a track of extremes. At times it offers sheer exhilaration, at other times sheer hard work. This morning we were to start with the latter - a climb of almost 900m from Trient to the Col de Balme and the Swiss-French frontier. Luckily, Trient sits deep in the valley and the sun was still well behind the eastern ramparts when we set off at 8am for a cool and quick stroll up the valley floor, through the hamlet of Le Peuty to the base of the Pointe du Midi.

Our gîte in Trient

Early morning on the Glacier du Trient and Point d'Orny

The initial part of the climb would take us 500m straight up its face in a series of zig-zags beneath the fir and larch forest. Faced with such a climb, there is only one thing to do - find your rhythm matching breath to stride and stick to it - which we did steadily for 50 minutes, passing the early bolters to reach the tree-line across from the impressive rock ramparts of the Croix de Fer, shirts soaked with perspiration.

Face of the Glacier du Trient

Lookng down on Trient from the west

Upper valley du Nant Noir

Track below the Croix de Fer

Thankfully, the hard part of the climb had been in the shade of the forest. From this point, the refuge on the Col de Balme looked deceptively close, but it was still a long haul - traversing the treeless upper slopes of the valley leading up to the pass, slopes covered in rhododendrons just coming into flower. Passing the buildings of the Bergerie des Herbageres, a few more long switchbacks finally brought us to the refuge sitting on the top of the col.

Looking up to the Col de Balme and its refuge

Refuge du Col de Balme

Side view of the Aiguille du Tour

Cresting the col, the TMB switched rapidly from sheer hard work to sheer exhilaration - before us lay a sweeping panorama of the Mont Blanc massif with its numerous rock needles and glaciers, forming a snow-capped rampart above the Chamonix Valley. Aaah, the Chamonix Valley - our circuit was closing fast! Back in La Belle France again, it was time for soaking up the views and the sunshine and a chance to dry out our sweat-wet shirts. What better way to cast off the moody funk of yesterday, than to be back in the expansive landscapes of the high mountains.

The vaste panorama from the Col de Balme of two mountain ranges and two valleys
- Mont Blanc massif, Chamonix Valley, Les Aiguille Rouges and the Vallorcine

To the east of the refuge, in front of the bulky peaks of Les Aiguilles Rouges, lay the narrow crest of the Aiguillette des Posettes. It was our route for the rest of the day, so feeling a bit drier and in better spirits, we set off to descend the alpine pastures to the Col des Posettes before starting a much easier climb up the rocky spur beyond. It was a beautiful ridge-walk, climbing up the rocky crest with its wind-stunted shrubs and the odd dwarfed firs. From the top, we could look straight down into the Vallorcine to the north and to the valley of Chamonix to the south - a great spot for lunch in a cool breeze.

On the Col des Posettes

Climbing the narrow ridge of the Aiguillette

A tiny pondage on the ridge

Looking down into the Vallorcine

The Aiguillette des Posettes

View from Les Posettes across the deep valley to Les Aiguilles Rouges

The descent was steep, down the western crest along a rocky track, helped by the occasional set of wooden steps. After a while, we left the ridge-line and its breeze to zig-zag down a sunny flank, still and hot with butterflies flitting languidly amongst the flowers of the trackside herbs. Eventually, the track took us into the shade of fir and larch, descending with increasing steepness along a series of very tight, rocky and root-gnarly bends beneath the tall trees. It was a long descent, ending at the main road, which we were obliged to follow for a short distance, before deviating into the village of Tré-le-Champs.

Descent from the Aiguillette des Posettes

Entering the larch trees

In the shade of the firs at last

Hamlet of Tré-le-Champs

Face of the Glacier du Tours
Here we checked into the Auberge de la Boerne, a traditional wooden building that probably breaks every Occupational Health and Safety Regulation known in the way that they pack walkers into dorms. We may well have considered it a charming rabbit warren, had we not ended up sharing an attic with three others, sitting room only and not much more than one cubic metre of space per person! Still, the alternative was to descend further and one does not give up precious metres so easily.

Storm clouds gather over the jagged peaks...

.... only to clear and let the massif gleam in the late evening light

The intriguing mountain weather pattern continued - a thunderstorm threatened in the late afternoon, but passed by with nothing more than a brief shower. Much of the cloud disappeared with it, leaving us to admire the mountains across the valley in a superb evening light. As usual, we sat down to a filling and tasty meal - if sleeping arrangements were occasionally "interesting", food was one thing that remained consistently good at all the refuges on the TMB. Pass me some more cheese, please!