On the last day of the Tour du Mont Blanc I climbed all the way out of the valley, to the panoramic views of Le Grand Balcon and Le Brévent. It was a long way down again to reach the TMB finish line in Les Houches.
Day 9: Argentière – Les Houches
End: Les Houches
Distance: 26,4 km (16,4 miles)
Highest point: Le Brévent, 2.525 m (8,284 ft)
Elevation gain: 1.418 m (4,652 ft)
Elevation loss: 1.661 m (5,449 ft)
Time: 8:45 hrs moving time; 11 hrs total time
Date: August 21, 2019
TMB Day 9, map by France IGN Topo / Gaia GPS
Le Grand Balcon
I woke up at 5 am and made my breakfast with two left over yoghurts, half a baguette and a piece of Swiss cheese. Yesterday evening I already prepared my backpack for today’s trip, so without any hurry I was on the trail at 6 am, just before sunrise. The sky was clear with stars and the moon and I walked up to the trailhead close to the hotel, that pointed to La Flégère. I followed the signs through the dark woods, using my headlamp at first, but soon it was light enough to turn it off.
The trail was so quiet: I love it that way early in the morning. The first hour I saw nobody on the trail, except one little tent under the trees a few yards off the track. After an hour I met some kind of a park ranger, for the first and only one on my tour. When the trees eventually thinned out, I had my first panoramic view of the Mont Blanc Massif, and my first good look at the mountain range that I had been hiking around the last one and a half week!
View of the Mont blanc mountain range from the Grand Balcon du Sud
This part of the trail is called the Grand Balcon du Sud, and a great balcony it is! The entire range of mountains, from three sharp Aiguilles on the left, then the Aiguille du Midi with its distinctive building on top, to the Mont Blanc with its Glacier du Géant and the Aiguille du Gouter on the right.
I hiked on with this wonderful panorama in sight all the time, following the signs to La Flegère. This is is a ski lift location and restaurant, where I planned to have a short break. But it was closed for the entire season due to roadworks, and there was a small detour from the trail. Without a good place to sit (the ground was still wet with morning dew), I decided to hike on.
At 10 am, after 4 hours of continuous climbing, I reached Plan Praz, another ski lift and restaurant. I was running very low on water and ready for a break. But the restaurant wasn’t open until 11 o’clock! This was the last possible place to get water before the final climb to Le Brévent, so I really needed a water source. I walked back and around the building and in a shady corner I found a tap! I refilled my bottles, and found a wall to sit on and prepared a Skratch lemonade energy drink.
View on the Mont Blanc from Plan Praz
Rehydrated en remineralized, I felt I was ready for the final push to the top of Le Brévent. In the meantime, I was not the only one on the trail anymore. A lot of people had reached Plan Praz with the lift. The busy trail started quite steep and would continue to be steep all the way to the top.
The next 2 hours of climbing to Le Brévent was one of the more spectaculair parts of the entire TMB. The panoramic view returned around every corner of the trail.
I met a father with an 8 year old son who were hiking up as well. The father told me he had climbed the top of Mont Blanc 25 years before. The little boy was not as enthusiastic though and sat down on the rocks every 5 minutes.
Col du Brévent
Halfway I reached the Col du Brévent at 2.368 m (7,769 ft) elevation, which is still 1 hour before the top. This col is actually hard to be recognized as a mountain pass, as trail is going further up.
At this point the trails turns around the mountain to end up on the North side, where there is a completely different view. Here the trail connects with the GR5 trail from Geneva tot Nice.
Junction of the TMB with GR 5
Hiking on the north side of the mountain now, the trail had changed into a barren and rocky path, quite different from the south side. This part of the mountain is apparently quite popular with climbers. A group of about 6 people were ascending the almost vertical wall to the top.
Climbers ont the North face of Le Brévent
The trail now made another curve around the mountain, revealing the valley of Servoz. A thick layer of clouds filled the valley like a bed of cotton, an amazing sight.
There was a small group of sheep walking around near the trail. I wondered what these animals could find here, I didn’t see much grass to eat, just the huge piles of rock.
Getting very close to the top now, the trail had one surprise left: a very steep part of trail with two nearly vertical ladders! I folded my tracking poles and fit them tightly on the outside of my backpack, took a deep breath and climbed up the thin metal rungs (I am quite afraid of heights – what am I doing in the mountains anyway, one could ask?).
Climbing up, my hands clenched to the ladder, I wondered how my hiker friends had done this yesterday in the pouring rain and mist!
I reached Le Brévent at 12:15, after more than 6 hours of ascent. On top of the mountain it was suddenly very crowded, such a strange (and not a very pleasant) experience: probably 99% of the people had come to the mountain top with the telecabine.
I had two delicious crèpes on the sun terrace before I walked a bit further up to the actual mountain top. With today’s clear sky, there was a magnificent view of the valley, from the Col de Balme (where I was 2 days ago) in the Northeast to Col de Voza (my first day on the trail) in the Southwest.
A panorama of the Mont Blanc mountain range, so wide I had to cut it in two.
Looking at the mountain range, it was wonderful to be aware of what was behind it: more than half of the Tour du Mont Blanc, with all its amazing views.
A Long Way Down
At 1 pm I started my final hike down to the valley. The guidebook had warned me that the walk to the village of Les Houches would feel endless, and the author was right. The first part was still very exciting though.
The trail went down at the North side of the mountain, but soon turned to the other side again, with once more the marvelous views of Mont Blanc.
A small reflection lake on the way down from Le Brévent
I might have missed Lac Blanc two days ago, but this was a good second choice.
Within an hour I reached the refuge de Bellachat at 2152 m elevation. A charming little refuge – never mind that a small bottle of Coca Cola costs € 5,50: they have to carry it in by mule I guess. I was disappointed though that they didn’t have drinking water. A letter on the door explained that their well was running dry and they could not afford giving away water anymore. The simple toilet was free though.
So on my way down I was running out of water. With my water filter not working, I got a little nervous. But when I finally reached the valley, I still had some drops left. The last part of trail was a bit boring, walking down and down under the cover of trees. And being closer to the valley it was also getting quite hot. Reaching a gated animal park, I thought I was already there, but I had yet another hour to go.
Finish in Les Houches
It took me 3,5 hours to finally reach Les Houches. I was exhausted. I hiked another 15 minutes west to reach the AirBnB at the holiday homes Le Grand Balcon – which turned out to be exactly on the corner where the TMB goes up in the mountains, at Le Fouilly!
Start and finish of my Tour du Mont Blanc: Le Fouilly (1.010 m / 3,314 ft)
After 179,3 km (111,5 miles) and 54:30 hours of hiking, 11 cols and one mountain top, and a total height gain of 9.810 m (32,185 ft), I was back where I started. And ready for a hot bath, fresh food and lots of sleep.
Later that afternoon I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment, and I saw many hikers starting their hike on the TMB. This was truly a very special place to end my wonderful hike.
View from my apartment: the wooden steps that mark the real start of the TMB
Thank you John & Grace, the siblings from LA, for meeting me every day; Lea, Miri and Zahara from Israël for lending your tent; Jelle & Suzy for beer with yoghurt at Tronchey; Liisa & Mikhal for being such good neighbours; Doug from Colorado for pointing out the Rock with a Door; Chris the Canadian for joking with the Sicilians; brothers Finn and Connor for being two fools; the ‘Zpacks’-Koreans for being brave hiking with a young kid; Robert & the Phd’s for hiking along in the rain; the New Zealanders whose name I forgot for saying hi, and the Irish boys from the Les Houches bus stop – to all of you: without your company this hike would not have been as awesome.
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