Friday, December 3, 2010

Day 2: Les Contamines

A quick note: we switched off writing this blog, so take your best guess at who's voice you hear. :)

We woke up the next morning to a sky of grey clouds, under which we filtered some water (nasty-looking, but safe) and continued down off the mountain. Half an hour later, we arrived at a ski staging area where the gondolas
departed for the top of the mountain. The local hostel, fittingly named Chalet
de Prarion, was sadly closed. Instead, we chose to eat lunch in a large grassy field, complete with a little wooden bench. After a short rest, we headed toward Bionassay, passing through long stretches of green with many intersecting paths -- at one point we got lost and had to find the route buried under overgrown grass. We made our way down the side of the
mountain through thick dense trees, which evoked thoughts of Robin Hood and the Sherwood Forest. The route often passes by flocks of sheep -- their shepherd is rarely seen, though in his place are guard dogs. Although these dogs do not look intimidating, we were warned in Chamonix to exercise caution: these dogs are very territorial and will act on any perceived threats to the flock.

We walked as slowly and as carefully as we could on the far side of
the trail, not making eye contact with the dogs or even glancing at the sheep. We treaded quietly as the dogs tailed us for a good 10 minutes before we realized the dogs showed no signs of aggression -- I even managed to snap a few photos of them. Though the dogs got less threatening the further we strayed from the flock, one still followed us all the way to the border of Bionassay, just in case. Good dog.

Bionassay

Happiness is a stone bridge. After our very long and steep descent, we were greeted by a beautiful view of the small town of Bionassay. Except for a lone llama, the town looked vacant; a few cars and houses populated the roadsides, but we saw no signs of people. We walked down the main road and found Auberge Bionassay, the only hostel in town, which also eerily vacant. We later found out that since we arrived in June, before tourist season, the hostel was not yet in business. However, the owners nicely invited us in, where we ate a filling breakfast of baguettes, jam, and butter with some hot chocolate.


After breakfast, we refilled water at a local fountain and checked our gear for the next section. We realized that although it had stopped raining, our shoes were soaking wet. To remedy this, we used plastic bags to act as a barrier between our socks and the rain.

The bags also acted as a vapor barrier, preventing sweat from escaping. Vapor barriers have benefits and drawbacks. When resting, skin will naturally produce sweat. Without a barrier, the small amounts of vapor will seep slowly out of a sleeping bag. However, a vapor barrier will prevent the sweat from escaping, increasing the vapor pressure between the skin and the environment; in response, the body will stop sweating. This is beneficial because it keeps the body warm and slows dehydration. However, when active, the body will sweat regardless of vapor pressure. In our case, we had to deal with water entering our shoes from the rain/ground, as well as sweat building up in the bags. Therefore, we had to routinely swap out bags to keep our feet dry and prevent blisters.

Side note: This was NOT comfortable. But it kept the water out, and we were grateful that we had extra zip-loc bags around. What did we learn? Be prepared for lots of moisture.

Leaving Bionassay, we traveled down the hill. Here, the map got confusing, and we could not tell where to go in the spiderweb of roads. After getting not-so-great directions and taking a random detour across a bridge, we finally found the road to Les Contamines. It was drizzling the majority of the time we were walking, with occasional rainstorms.


One noteworthy sign we passed denoted the site
which was the birthplace of Alexis Bouvard, the alleged discoverer of Neptune. We were impressed until Julia’s high school computer science teacher posted on her Facebook album, noting that there is contention as to the legitimacy of the claim.

We arrived in Les Contamines after a big push (2nd wind much?); the trail plopped us conveniently in front of a supermarket and close to the tourism office. We resupplied and headed to the tourism office for camping information.

Camping in Europe is different than camping in the States; this “campground” was very well stocked with lots of amenities - we ended up staying in the hostel which consisted of about 20 beds in a single room. We had a nice long shower, did some laundry, and ate dinner at a nearby restaurant (the only nearby restaurant). NOTE! When checking in to the hostel, we mistakenly thought that the price included dinner (we were amazed at such a good deal!) and after a full 4 course dinner, we were stuffed. We left the restaurant only to be told by the hostel manager that we had inadvertently dined-and-dashed. Whoops!

Before going to bed and during the night we were pretty beat - Julia’s knee was bothering her, as was my back (previous injury from work) - and we were discussing options of taking a day off. Had a very comfortable sleep in a big bed!

Day 1: Les Houches

The best place to start the hike is Les Houches. One main road connects the entire town, along it the tourist office, supermarket, and multiple inns and restaurants. The only camp in town, "Camping Bellevue,” costs about 10euro/night for 2 people. A fountain spouting potable water is sits right outside the Tourism Office. Depending on the season, a hostel East of the Tourism Office offers great deals (queen bed + cable came out to be 40euro + minimal fees). We stocked up on a few day’s worth of baugettes, sauccion, cheese, and snacks to sustain us until our next stop, Les Contamines (about 10 miles away)

Tip 1: Lodge Pricing
Camps: Total price is cost of 1 tent (with restrictions on how many can be included) + per head cost.
Hostels: Per head cost. Sometimes includes breakfast, and another option includes dinner, breakfast, and lodging.
Inns: We were too cheap to stay at any.

Note: Starting in Chamonix
While there are trails extending from Chamonix, most routes are unnecessarily tedious. Chamonix is a good place for day-hikes but not as a starting point for the Tour.

The start of the trail is very subtle, located on the left side of the only major road when heading east out of town. We took the Tour du Pays (country tour), which allowed us to summit Prarion before leading us back down to Bionassay. Two steps off the concrete, the path starts ascending uphill immediately, decorated with a few trail markers. Make sure to keep on top of the topo map to stay on track, as there are many other roads and trails along the TMB itself. The trail alternates between tarmac, gravel, and dirt paths. The
trail up the north side of Le Prarion weaves between logging trails, muddy and severely rutted. The path is relatively well marked until the last 100m up to Col de la Forclaz, where it meets a logging road with no signs. Make sure to head uphill (right) up the logging trail to meet back with the TMB in 50m. For the weary, there is a table up at
Col de la Forclaz to rest. Take this time to recover since the remainder of the
trail up is very steep and narrow, with the mountain on one side and a drop on the other. At exceedingly rocky/steep situations, there are chains attached to the mountain, but they are unreliable, short, few and far between.

A stone table at the top of Le Prarion provides a panoramic map that points out noteworthy landmarks in all directions, as well as amazing views of Les Houches and Les Contamines. We relaxed for a few minutes at the top and then moved south, continuing towards Bionassay. It started to rain, so we decided to stop early on the back (...can we think of another description? The East side? What’s the technical term for that?) of Le Prarion; a small grassy area 100m south of the peak served as a perfect place to pitch. The rain picked up as we set up camp and continued throughout the night.

Preface: Landing in Geneva

We began our hike in Geneva, after landing at the Geneva International Airport (GVA). From there, there are two options to reach the head of the trail: by bus and by train. At GVA, alpybus offers a pick-up service where a charter bus goes daily to Chamonix (alpybus). It cost us approximately $33/person USD and took us on an hour-and-a-half long scenic tour from Geneva to Chamonix in France.

*At the time of travel, the exchange rate was 1:1.22 (EUR:USD)

Note: The alpybus may be booked either online or in person at the Help Desk right outside the baggage claim. The alpybus comes two times a day most days without a reservation (excluding holidays and weekends). The best option is to double-check with the Help Desk or book online in advance.

The other, better option would be to take the train from GVA to St Gervais/La Fayet and transfer from La Fayet to Les Houches. By train, we paid only $12/person though elongated our travel time by a few hours.

For those that prefer more quiet and open paths, plan to end your hike before June 28, as tourist season starts soon after.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Preparing to Leave

Departure date: June 14th.

I took the week off from hiking so I don't tire myself out (yes, I actually did some 4-mile hikes for a week). Also, the weather around here turns deathly hot anytime after 9am and before 8pm.

The forecast for Chamonix in the next week is light rain in the 70's-80's, with a low of 50's. Since we are on a self-guided tour, our main goals are to:
1. Pack lightly
2. Not get (really) lost

Between the two of us, we have decided to bring 2 packs with:
1. Thermal underwear
2. Light waterproof windbreakers
3. Thicker jackets (ski/mountaineering jacket)
4. Hat/bandana (for sun)
5. Sweat-resistant shirts
6. Waterproof pants
7. First aid kid
8. Towel
9. Knife
10. Tent for 2
11. Sleeping pad
12. Sleeping bag (-40degrees! That I use in +40degree weather)
13. Hiking socks
14. Hiking boots
15. Gaiters
16. Maps
17. Cash (exchanged in Euro)
18. 2 2L containers of water

Now for maps, hikers prefer 1:25000 ratio ones, especially for first-timers around Mont Blanc. The two recommended by most Tourist Offices include the Chamonix-Mont Blanc Topography Map IGN 3630 and its companion the Massif du Mont Blanc Topography Map IGN 3531. You need both to cover the entire Tour du Mont Blanc.

The maps are French-made, which makes finding it in the States just a bit harder. There are online retailers that sell these maps (omnimap.com, chesslerbooks.com) Amazon has a very limited amount of used maps for sale (at a much steeper price!). REI does not carry it currently in store but offers a link on its website for purchase. When Justin called to inquire, they told us they plan to start carrying it around June.

I would recommend purchasing the maps early so you can ballpark how much you can travel a day based upon the terrain and the elevation changes.

That said, the price of acquiring one is much higher in the States. While it's $40 here per map, you can purchase both at most bookstores or tourist shops for 20 total.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

FX Forecasting


For about two months before the departure date, I watched the FX market.

The hardest part, for me, is deciding when stop playing the FX market. Despite the wholesale exchange rate, most consumers will have a higher rate since the majority of financial institutions (banks, FX desks) charge a fee. However, your personal bank, if it has a foreign or international department, will almost always give you a better rate than a FX desk at an airport or other places.

The other issue is determining the amount of cash you want to have on you. For hotels and tickets, I prefer using a card. Many smaller merchants prefer cash, so if you hope to go off the beaten track, bring some cash.

A credit card is more secure to me (if lost/stolen, call the company and cancel it. Cash? Eh, not so much). My preference has always been either cash or credit card. Traveler's Checks are more secure, but to me, convenience weighs in higher (and always: constant vigilance and monitoring of my personal things).

Keep in mind: many of the hostels around the Tour du Mont Blanc do not accept Carte Blanche (a credit card) since there is little need to in the middle of a mountain pass. Save the credit card for larger cities such as Chamonix or Courmayeur.

Right now, I have estimated expenses at:
Tickets (Train/Plane to Barcelona): 150
Accommodations on Mont Blanc (8 days camping at ~15/night): 120
City accommodations (21 days in hostels for 15-20/day): 370
Food (30 days for ~5 breakfast, ~10 lunch, ~15 dinner): 900

Round up to ~1500 Euro per person. Exchange rate $1.22:1Euro

From the WSJ:

More EUR Weakness Ahead - But the Worst is Likely Behind

John Hydeskov, Senior Analyst, Danske Bank

In several issues of FX Forecast Update we have written about the risk related to the debt situation in the PIIGS countries. Admittedly however, we did underestimate the impact on the FX market – not least on EUR/USD. We revised our 3M EUR/USD forecast lower on 28 April to 1.27, see FX Research: The good, the bad and the ugly EUR scenario, but as
EUR/USD is currently trading below 1.24 – a level not seen since the beginning of 2006 – the revision was obviously too modest. See the grey boxes below for a detailed insight into EUR/USD going forward.


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Adjusted Itinerary

We did not purchase our tickets until less than a month remained before our planned departure date. Though prices did not deviate dramatically, cheaper options began dwindling fast (and the transfer options were getting worse and worse). With some quick searching using AmericanExpress.com Travel (loyal AmEx holder here :)), we purchased two multi-destination tickets.

On that note, AmericanExpress always has been my top choice for airline tickets. An account is not required, but by providing your email address, they send you instant updates on flight changes and cancellations, if that happens. They do not charge a convenience fee, and the price displayed is the total you would pay, taxes and fees all-inclusive.

Also, the service is amazing. Last time my flight times changed and my connecting flight left BEFORE I arrived at the connection. I called AmEx, who started to work immediately on the problem. Instead of connecting me directly to Delta, they went on hold for me and called me back after everything was settled. I love the people there. :)

While round-trip tickets appear the most cost-effective, it really depends on the itinerary. For us, we prefer convenience over saving a bit of money. Had we been leaving Europe right after hiking, we would have round-tripped from Geneva. But Spain calls, so we flew out of Barcelona for a bit more money but a nice cap to the journey.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Introduction and the Plans

Ever since I took a short hike in Interlaken during my semester abroad in Europe, I had set my sights on the Tour du Mont Blanc. Back in the fall of 2008, the day trip practically wiped me out. To put this in perspective, the thought of exercise never crossed my mind until the summer after I had returned to the States. My motivation to get in shape was the idea of completing the "moderately difficult" hike around the majestic Alps.

From what we have heard, the road is a well-traveled one. With some common sense and two good maps (1/25000 recommended over 1/50000 for those tricky curves), the hike can be done by beginners.

So starting in April of 2010, Justin (the boyfriend) and I decided to put the plan into action. The best time would be right after I graduate, the last summer before I start working and he grad school. Slowly, we started researching about our upcoming hike and preparing. I began relearning my French, the unofficial language of the trek, and hitting the gym more.

That healthy regime lasted...about a week. My gym membership at the university had expired, and the SoCal heat made me want to stay indoors all day. Suddenly, my 3-times-a-week 2-mile jog and weekly hikes ended rather abruptly. All motivation to keep exercising ended, and vegetation commenced. NetFlix was just too appealing.

As Justin's very much an outdoors sort of guy, we went camping almost every weekend around California, one weekend Death Valley, another weekend Sequoia National Forest, and so on. Of course, long off-road drives with few and short walks in-between hardly replaces a regular workout schedule.

Literature-wise, we read up on other travelers' experiences online and started compiling information about what materials and equipment we need to bring. We wrote out a short itinerary about our ideal pace, based off of multiple schedules determined by guided tours. Though the idea of a guided tour, in which we had to carry next to nothing, sounded great, REI's $4175 per person tour was unfortunately out of our budget.

So now, we have our mission: complete the Tour du Mont Blanc without declaring bankruptcy (that happened after the hike in Barcelona).

To minimize our costs, we took the following steps:
1. Camping > Hostel
At the time of travel in the summer of 2010, hostels charged approximately 15 to 20per head for just a bed. Alternatively, camping costs about 15 per tent of two. However, had you chosen to not pack your own food, many hostels offer a 1/2 pension deal which includes bed, dinner, and breakfast the next morning. That averages approximately 40€.

2. Simple meals on the trail
Baguette: 0.90-1.00; Saucisson: 5-8 pending quality/freshness; Cheese: 2-3; Chocolate/biscuits: 2-3. These foods are all light and easily stored in our bags. Breakfast would be We typically went through one baguette per day, and half a saucisson at lunch or dinner. With this, we were spending little more than 10 per day.

3. Pig out at restaurants in towns with 3-course menus
Meals are typically 3 courses in Europe, and many restaurants offer special menus that include an appetizer, main dish, and dessert, all for 15 to 20. Eat up!

We planned to bring two cameras, one for scenic pictures and one with a zoom capability: a Ricoh GRD and a Canon Powershot A430

The main debate centered around DSLR or no? Pros: ...it's a DSLR. Come on. Cons: heavier and may get rained on.

Surprisingly enough, we saw a lot of hikers who did bring out the nice lenses, though I doubt I'd be graceful enough to not break one along the way.