Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Day 2: Ultra Tour Mont Blanc

August 27: I woke up in my improvised campsite at the first hint of sunrise. I wanted to get packed up and moving before anyone caught me camping here since I wasn't entirely sure if the site was actually legal or not. Nothing I saw said that camping was prohibited, but neither did it say that it was allowed. And anyhow, even if it was legal, I didn't much like the idea of a bunch of strangers walking by and admiring my camp. Nope, I wanted an early start!

Little did I realize when I went to sleep the night before that I had to watch out for kangaroos!

I still needed photos for Walking 4 Fun, however, so I couldn't start walking before it got light enough for me to take decent photos. Especially since I got so few photos the evening before hiking up to here. So I woke early, then ate breakfast and wrote in my journal until it was light enough to move.

During which time three vehicles and two hikers passed by. I don't think any of them saw me nestled behind the trees and brush where I had camped, which I was perfectly fine with.

My guidebook showed two possible route between Les Houches and Les Contaimines. They both leave Les Houches in the same direction and would split off from each other a bit further up the trail, and I had to decide which option I wanted to take.

As with almost all choices like this, it's usually a choice of harder, more strenuous and more spectacular, or easier, shorter and less spectacular. Naturally, I was inclined to go for the alternate route that was most spectacular regardless of difficulty, and that's what I decided to do this time around. =)

The trail continued to climb steadily higher, eventually reaching Col de Vosa, over 2,000 feet (600 m) higher than where I started in Les Houches. The trail crossed a railroad--the Tramway du Mont Blanc--and I joked to myself what a dunce I was--I could have just taken the train up here!

This is also near where I saw the first person jogging down the trail in the opposite direction of me. I didn't think too much of it at the time, but I should have given it more consideration. By the tracks, the main TMB continued straight towards Bionnassay, but I veered left and followed parallel to the railroad and towards the Hotel Bellevue.

The trail was wide and easy to follow here! =)

I passed a few more runners heading in the opposite direction, then reached what appeared to be a check-in station for the ultra run. The ultra runners must be passing through here today. In the opposite direction I was headed.

The number of runners then increased dramatically until I was passing a dozen or more people a minute. At first I said "Bonjour!" to everyone I passed (I was in France, after all, so "Hello" wouldn't have been appropriate!), but that lasted for about five minutes before my throat grew dry. There were just too many people to wish everyone a bonjour.

The trail soon approached a suspension bridge over an angry-looking creek--the runoff from Bionnassay Glacier. It was a narrow bridge, and clearly a bouncy one (my favorite kind!), and I saw two of the runners jogging across it while a few others hung back at the far side of the bridge.

As the two on the bridge neared the end and stepped off, two more jumped onto the bridge and started to cross. Although I didn't see any signs saying as much, it was clear that only two of them were allowed to cross on the rickety suspension bridge at a time.

I took some photos and waited for them to cross, and waited for a few other people to cross as well since I could see that they had been waiting longer than myself. But while two of the runners would cross the bridge, two more would show up at the far end of the bridge waiting their turn to cross.

I stood there for about five minutes waiting for a break, but there was never a break. The runners would arrive at the bridge erratically. One here, a few there. A delay of 20 seconds when nobody arrived, then four more would arrive at once. I soon realized that if I waited until there was a break in runners crossing the bridge, I could be sitting here for hours!
'Twas a wonderful and rickety suspension bridge!

So I got more aggressive and stationed myself right next to the end of the bridge--clearly a sign that I wanted to cross in the other direction. The second the next two runner stepped off the bridge, I'd jump on and cross.

Except it didn't quite work out that way. Just as the two runners neared the end of the bridge, the next two jumped onto the other side. Hey! Wait a minute! It was my turn to cross, you jerks!

They crossed the bridge and just as they neared the end, two more runners jumped onto the far end. HEY NOW!

Now I was getting a little angry. Those bastards weren't going to let me cross at all!

And this time, I stepped up onto the bridge anyhow. Screw 'em!

Of course, I met the runners about halfway across the bridge, and one of them told me in broken English, "Only two people on bridge!"

And I replied, somewhat testily, "Then one of you better off, shouldn't you?" It was a rude comment to say, but I had been standing at the end of the bridge long enough to know that I had been waiting to cross considerably longer than they had, and I felt no sympathy for them.

They didn't get off, however, and I pushed my way around them, which was a little tricky to do carrying my heavy pack on that narrow bridge.

But I made it to the other side, with a lot of disapproving frowns from the other runners waiting their turn to cross. Screw you all! I thought uncharitably.

I charged up the trail, at this point wishing I had taken the easier but less scenic route to Les Contamines just to avoid all of these runners. They were ruining my hike.

The trail climbed steeply again, up to a spectacular panoramic view at Col de Tricot. At the summit was an aid station provided for the runners, with a large room that looked like it must have been helicoptered into place since there was absolutely nothing resembling a road to this summit.

Although I found the runners an inconvenience, I didn't hold my bad experience crossing the suspension bridge against the others. They all had numbers on them, usually attached somewhere near their waist, and I recognized that it included their name and a country of origin written in French with their country's flag printed next to it. I started wishing people "Hello" in their local language when I recognized the flag on their ID--except if they were French. Not that I was holding a grudge against the French, but there were just too many of them. Hundreds of hundreds of French.

So I focused on saying 'hello' to those who I know were nowhere from this area and might be surprised to get a 'hello' in their local language. I saw a couple of US flags and I wished them "Hello" in a genuine American accent! =) I also told the English I'd see a hearty 'hello' in an American accept because let's face it, I can't fake an English one to save my life. A couple of the runners had Polish flags and I about floored them when I wished them a hearty "DzieƄ dobry!" (also in an American accent). I told Spaniards "Hola"--in my best Spanish accent. I can make my "holas" sound very authentic, even if the rest of my Spanish sounds like I'm speaking with an American accent.

I recognized flags from all over the world. Japan, China, Brazil, Canada, South Africa. But definitely, by far the most common nationalities were the countries the trail went through: France, Italy and Switzerland. But especially the French. The French were everywhere! But that's to be expected in France. =)

I stopped to rest at the summit, eat a few snacks, and watch the runners go past. Looking down the steep slope ahead, it appeared that the number of runners was finally starting to thin again. I hoped, somewhat optimistically, it meant I'd be through the runners within the next hour or so and be done with them.

And within an hour or so, I had passed what appeared to be the last runner. I was through them! Woo-who!

At this point, I enjoyed the hiking considerably more. The number of day hikers increased throughout the day, but with nowhere near the numbers of those runners. I felt like I was back in nature, and the only sign of civilization were the clanging of bells on all of the cows, goats and sheep running loose. Those bells would become a constant and often times annoying sound along the entire hike. There would be times when I could hear bells clanging but not see any animals around. I knew they were nearby. Somewhere. Behind trees and bushes, munching whatever grass and leaves they could find. If it was quiet enough, you could always hear bells somewhere far off in the distance.

Early in the afternoon, the trail entered the small town of Les Contamines, and I finally did some grocery shopping at Carrefour. I picked up a few days of food, and denatured alcohol for my stove. I was, at long last, fully resupplied for the next segment of this hike.

Outside, I shared a bench with a Canadian named John. He had just hiked in on the easy route and missed all of the runners I had to push through, although the town here clearly had many signs of the runners recently passing through. Barricades lined the streets and a stage had been set up for the festivities, although now that the runners had already passed through, there wasn't much going on anymore.

This ramp is for bicyclists, but I was amused at the sign for people who didn't want to use the ramp.

John filled me in on some more details of the ultra run, however. There wasn't just one run. Oh, no... there were four of them of various lengths. Another set of runners was expected to run through this town--again. He heard that they were expected to pass through somewhere around midnight in another day or two. The last ultra run, he told me, was scheduled in a couple of days.

My heart sank. I wasn't done with the runners after all. *sigh*

I lingered in town for a few hours. This town was my goal for the first day of hiking, and I had arrived far earlier than I dared to guess! I didn't even try to find any accommodation assuming they would all be booked by the ultra runners or spectators already. And anyway, I had no reason need accommodations. I wanted them the night before because I had arrived at the trail so late and wanted to buy food and denatured alcohol for the trail, but it wasn't late and I had finally resupplied. I'd camp somewhere up the trail.

And another reason I lingered in town was because the post office and tourist offices didn't open until 3:00. They both closed for lunch and I wanted to hit up the post office to mail postcards I purchased in town, and I wanted to hit up the tourist office to get a recent weather forecast and--hopefully--they had some sort of Internet access that would allow me to get online and send a quick email to Amanda that I had arrived and was okay. The last time she heard from me was when I sent an email from the airport in Barcelona. She'd have known I should have arrived in Geneva by now, but I didn't have a moment at the Geneva airport or in Les Houches to give her an update on my progress. And my smartphone didn't work in Europe. I couldn't call her using that. I needed a wi-fi connection or a computer attached to the Internet, and I had neither at the moment.

Lots of ski lifts near Les Houches!

The weather forecast for the upcoming week looked good. No rain expected, and daytime temperatures would actually be quite warm. Near 80 degrees. Overnight temperatures would drop, although not below freezing. Chilly perhaps, but not cold. I struck out on the Internet, though.

Later in the afternoon, I headed out of town, which seemed to sprawl as nearly as badly as Les Houches did. The trail led through neighborhoods, and parks, and for the most part meandered alongside a nice creek my guidebook labeled Bon Nant Torr.

I stopped in the late afternoon at a location next to the creek, in a valley surrounded by dramatic, snow-covered mountains. This campsite was entirely legal--they had a sign pointing down to it labeled "Aire de Bivouac." Which, I don't speak French, but I got the impression it meant "wild camping." =) Although I was a little concerned about the part that read "Autorisee de 19h a 9h" which--I suspect--meant it was only available for camping from 7:00 PM until 9:00 the next morning. I arrived closer to 6:00 PM and hoped it didn't mean that I'd be busted for setting up camp an hour early.

Even later in the afternoon, two other guys hiking together set up camp nearly and the three of us would have the entire area to ourselves. It was wonderful! I can't tell you anything about the two other guys. They set up their tent and went inside and I never saw them again.

Coolest rain gutter ever! =)

Bells! Bells! Everywhere! This goat was actually behind an electrified fence. I did not realize, however, it was electrified until I tried to take this photo and tried to frame the photo so the fence didn't show up in it--when I touched the fence and WOAH! It's electrified! =) So I got zapped by an electric current to get this photo for you!
I'd love to come back someday to ride this train. =) It actually climbs up as high as the Bionnassay Glacier!

The cows are asking for us to leave them alone! (In both French and English, otherwise I wouldn't have known what they were asking for.)

It wasn't until I hit this check-in station for the ultra run that I realized I was in the direct path of the runners.
The runners are starting to arrive fast and furious now!
I didn't want runners in most of my photos, so I often times had to wait a surprisingly long period of time before there was a break in them long enough for me to get a photo. I still couldn't get them all out of my photos, though!
These are actually the two hikers who passed me when I was in camp. They got caught in the runners too. Turns out, they were from Portland, Oregon. "I used to live there!" I exclaimed. =)

So the runners didn't get lost, they installed these markers to follow.
I wasn't exactly sure what this sign said, but it didn't seem good!
Nearing the summit of Col de Tricot. (Looking back from the way I came up.)
An aid station and check-in point on Col de Tricot.

Looking down from Col de Tricot--it's a long way down, and very few runners now! We're through the worst of it! =)
The TMB descends to that small bit of civilization at the bottom of the valley, then climbs up the ridge behind it towards that plateau at the top of the ridge.

You'll find multiple shrines along the trial, like this one!
Most people don't camp along the trail, but rather stay in refuges located every five to ten miles along the trail. Like this one, the Refuge de Miage. It's also a place where you can get safe drinking water and meals so you don't even have to carry food except for the occasional snack between refuges. But I would largely avoid them.

Another refuge--this is the Auberge du Truc.

I supplied myself here for the trail. I can't even say that I "resupplied" myself since I had been unable to supply myself  in the first place like I initially intended to do in Les Houches!
Yea! I can cook now! =)
Church in Les Contamines.
Water fountain (eau potable) along the trail. =)

Not only are there these adorable donkey signs with sunglasses someone put on him...

....but you can even rent real donkeys to take you down the trail! =)
That looks fun! But I just passed it by....
Pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame de la Gorge

This is a natural arch, but I had trouble getting enough to fit in my camera frame so it's obviously an arch!
Hey, zoom in on that little window in the building.... is that what I think it is?
Yes, that's what I thought it looked like. Cute. =)
I like this fountain! See that line coming out from the back of it, though? That's where the water is coming from. It looks like it's piped directly from the creek to the fountain and doesn't appear to be treated in any form of way, but I don't care. I'll drink it anyhow! =)
It's not 19:00 yet, but hopefully I wouldn't be busted for setting up camp too early!
That's my camp on the right bottom corner of the photo. What a wonderful place to camp! (You can see the back of the sign in the previous photo near the left side of the photo.)
After dark, I watched the moonrise from camp. =)


Karolina said...

The sign in French says: "Keep your dogs on leash!"

Mary said...

You saw lesbian cows! That was a cow and not a bull!