France encore

Day 11 - Tré-le-Champs to La Flegère (7.5km - 1110m ascent - 510m descent)

We were up very early, keen to escape our claustrophobic sleeping quarters, to be greeted for the first time by cloud in the morning sky. Nonetheless, the interplay of light and shadow gave us a different perspective on the mountains - it was good to have this change. Today was going to be a short but interesting one - not only over 1000m to climb, but a rock cliff to negotiate in the process. We quickly doubled back to the main road from our auberge in Tré-le-Champs and crossed it to commence the steady climb up the flank of the Aiguilles Rouges range.

Morning haze on the peaks above Tré-le-Champ

The sun breaks out on the Dent du Geant (4013m)

Looking down on Argentière from the TMB

The footpath led us through scrubby woodland to the base of a long line of smooth rock face high above Argentière, which we followed to reach the spectacular rock needle known as the Aiguillette d'Argentière.

Crossing the slopes above Argentière

The Aiguillette d'Argentière

Here we stopped to look up and take in a deep breath as we studied a series of steel ladders and hand rails heading upwards and out of view - it was the way over the cliffs. As we were taking it all in, a group of French walkers arrived and we deferred the ladders to them, so that we could watch an ascent. It looked much easier than it first appeared and the fair Nello was keen to go, vertigo-challenged me not quite so. Still, you must confront your fears and off we climbed. The fair Nello told me that the views from the ladders directly down into the valley of Chamonix 800m below were quite amazing - I found the views of the rock face itself much more comforting.

A group of French walkers start the rock climb

The fair Nello on a ladder

Dent du Geant above the Mer de Glace

View from the rock face

The climb continued at the top of the cliffs, pushing up steeply through the dense low shrubbery along a rocky track with the occasional set of wooden or metal steps bolted into the rock at more difficult passages. Finally, we emerged at a cairn marking the Grand Balcon du Sud, the track famed for its views of the Mont Blanc massif across the valley. They were indeed impressive, despite or even because of the cloud that formed around the peaks or drifted by.

The fair Nello climbing high above Chamonix

Views from the Grand Balcon towards cloudy L'Aiguille du Tour...

... and the sunny snow-capped dome of Mont Blanc itself

Alpine lake beneath Aiguille du Belvedere

Refuge du Lac Blanc on its rocky perch

Portrait of a young ibex

However, we left the Grand Balcon as soon as we reached it - our goal was even higher, at Lac Blanc. It was our fourth and last "variante" of the TMB. The path took us up towards the immense rock walls of the Aiguille de Belvedere, past grazing ibex and past the pretty pondages of the Lacs du Chesery, sparkling in their mountain hollows.

Ibex - père et fils

One of the Lacs du Chesery

A last push up to the snow-line brought us out at Lac Blanc and the refuge of the same name. The wind that cooled us on the ascent now had a distinct chill, so we put on our fleeces and had a cup of hot chocolate, taking in the panoramic views of the turquoise coloured lake surrounded by snow-covered mountain slopes. The ten or so people who were there when we arrived soon grew to a couple of hundred as big groups of French day-walkers began appearing. It was the first Sunday of the summer holidays and France was on the move.

The grand panorama from Lac Blanc - from the Aiguille Verte to Mont Blanc

The turquoise waters of Lac Blanc

Refuge du Lac Blanc

The weather closes in

Looking down La Mer de Glace

Telepherique de la Flegère facing Mont Blanc

Mists swirling around Le Dent du Geant

The rocky landscape of Les Aiguilles Rouges


After an early lunch, we decided to leave Lac Blanc to the locals and head for quieter pastures, descending via another route to a small pondage to laze on the grass nearby and watch the interplay between cloud and peaks.

Aiguille Verte (4122m)

Unfortunately, the clouds began to take on a distinctly menacing grey tint and the patches of sunlight were becoming rarer. We quickly headed down a rocky goat-track towards the telepherique of La Flegère. It was the source of all the day-walkers, many of whom were still heading up to the lake as we were coming down - it must be one of the most popular day-trips in the area.

Descending the slopes of Les Aiguilles Rouges

Aiguille du Midi (3842m)

Refuge de la Flegère

The stark profile of the rock needles

Interplay of cloud and peak

A sunny break on the jagged peaks of the massif

As well as a telepherique, La Flegère had a pleasant refuge and it was good to be in early for a hot shower, cold beer and siesta, which was disturbed only by the sound of rain falling on the refuge roof. The clouds had clearly won the day (I hope the day-walkers made it back in time) though by evening a gap had opened in the west, allowing the setting sun to to bathe the peaks and cloud above in a pale pink light - exquisite!

Sunset over the mountains

Alpenglow on the Aiguille du Midi

It was our last night on the track and, after the claustrophobia of the previous night, we found ourselves alone in a 20-bed dormitory, right next to a window looking out onto Mont Blanc and its glaciers - from the ridiculous to the sublime in one night. With the usual delicious refuge dinner, it was good to have this stay as our take-away memory of the refuges on the TMB.

Day 12 - La Flegère to Les Houches (16km - 710m ascent - 1630m descent)

Our good luck held to the end, the clouds cleared away over night and, on our last day, the TMB was back to greeting us with the usual clear blue skies. Our wet weather gear would remain untouched in the bottom of our packs after 12 days. The last day of a long walk is always a day of mixed emotions - sadness that the experience is about to end but looking forward to a good sleep in and a few days of rest. Long walks tend to take on a personality of their own and thus it was with the TMB - a walk that had made big physical demands of us but had rewarded effort with spectacle. It had one surprise left for the end, one we hadn't expected given the weather conditions - fog!

More a golden sunrise on Mont Blanc than the pink of last night's sunset, but soon changing to ...

... the brilliant white dome that gives the mountain its name

The TMB just west of La Flegère

Leaving the refuge at La Flegère, we picked up the track of the Grand Balcon du Sud and followed it southwards, soon dropping down to avoid a series of rock cliffs, before crossing a broad basin split by a section of boulder scree. Across the valley the face of Mont Blanc and its glaciers grew gradually larger, as we began a long and winding traverse of the steep slopes through the coniferous forest and across the small grass prairie of La Charlanon. From here, the track began a steady climb around the now open slopes to the grassy platform of Planpraz, a favourite launching spot for parapentists.

The beauty of fir

Crossing beneath the Aiguille Pourrie

Traverse near Charlanon

On the Grand Balcon du Sud

High above the valley the parapentes soar

Just below Plan Praz

It was fascinating to watch the parapentes take off, drifting slowly out over the Chamonix valley, soaring upwards with the thermals, sweeping gently past forested slopes or crossing distant glaciers, some even vanishing into the cloud above. Cloud? ..... now that wasn't there when we started. Indeed, for the first time, cloud seemed to be forming within the valley itself and rising upwards. When we looked up towards the tops of Le Brevent, where we were headed, they were fast disappearing into the developing mists.

The splendid whiteness of Mont Blanc

Mountains are such fascinating things!

Mont Blanc and the Glacier des Bossons

The cloud descends over Brevent

Why we walk!

Looking back down from the climb up to Le Brevent

The reverie of flying with the parapentes evaporated as fast as the cloud didn't and we headed quickly on, climbing up the steep rocky track that wound its way up to the heights of the Col du Brevent.

By the time we reached the snow-covered saddle we were enveloped in the cold mist of swirling cloud. A small group of walkers had formed at the col, and we found ourselves as part of a convoy for the climb up to the peak of Le Brevent itself. A short steep pinch up the soft snow brought us to the northern face of the mountain and a further traverse across a steep snow drift and down through a snow- and boulder-filled hollow surrounded by towering rocky knobs.

Foggy arrival at the Col du Brevent

The convoy heads up from the Col

Crossing a snowy slope at the back of Brevent

It was a fascinating crossing, made even moreso by the fact that the cloud spilling over from the farside valley was dispersing rapidly, offering curious views of the rocky surrounds and the distant sun-filled valleys.

A break in the cloud to frame the distant green valleys ...

Clear view down the Gorge de la Diosaz

Ibex, ibex (encore les bouqetins)

The final climb up to the peak of Le Brevent

Boulder scree on the south side of Le Brevent

Le Brevent disappearing into cloud again

Out of the corner of an eye, we noticed small dark sihouettes moving on the rocky ridge above us - a family of sure-footed ibex were watching us trudge by on the snow below - was it with amusement or disdain, I wondered.

Crossing ibex country at the rear of Le Brevent

A steep final climb over a series of drifts and rocky ribs, with one small section of ladders and rails, brought us to the top of Le Brevent and back into the cloud. Today, it was not a place to hang around for the views, so we started our descent on the southern side almost as soon as we arrived. We had climbed over 11,000m since starting out on the TMB and from here it was all downhill - 1500m down, down, down to Les Houches.

The view from the top of 2520m Le Brevent - it is one of the most spectacular on the TMB (but perhaps not in a fog)

From the peak, the track wound its way down an impressively steep slope of boulder scree, tinted grey and pink and marbled with green lichen. We were soon below the cloud layer and found ourselves crossing a barren rocky bowl that cradled the still blue waters of Lac Brevent.

Cloud streaming over the cliff-face from the valley below

Lac Brevent in its rocky setting

Passing the lake, we rejoined the long crest of the range from where we could once again admire the immense panorama across the valley, from the Aiguille Verte to the snowy dome of Mont Blanc itself. We may have missed the view from the peak, but from this vantage point it couldn't have been much less impressive.

The grand panorama of rocky needles, snow-capped domes and glistening glaciers

A little further down lay the small Refuge de Bel-Lachat, where for us the TMB really ended - on the high point of enjoying a bowl of hot soup with fresh bread and superb views from the refuge terrace, while reflecting on the adventure that we had lived over the last 12 days.

In awe of Mont Blanc

The 4122m Aiguille Verte poses for a photo

Looking down on Chamonix - over 1000m below

The descent from Bel-Lachat

The last 2½ hours and 1100m of descent were just a necessary job to complete the loop, descending rapidly at first on an endlessly zig-zagging track in a very steep basin, then down through fir and occasional birch forest, across a small ravine and more coniferous forest to reach an enormous concrete statue of Christ-Roi - blessing the people of the valley, but looking away from the humble TMB walkers.

One last collection of flora and fauna

The temperature seemed to rise quickly as we did the last couple hundred metres of descent through the still steep forest, to reach the valley floor, cross river, rail and autoroute and stroll down the main street to the centre of Les Houches.

Les Houches - the end of the TMB!

Getting close to the valley floor

Pondage near Les Houches

The end seemed anticlimactic for such an incredible journey - we simply sat down at the bar where we had eaten our breakfast before setting out 12 days ago, downed a cold beer and caught the bus back to Chamonix. Still, the lesson of our recent pilgrimage on the Chemin de Saint Jacques was still there - it is the journey that is important not the destination. Without a doubt, the TMB has to be one of the great treks of the world and its impression would last a very long time.