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.


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.