I hadn’t even started walking yet and already I was soaking wet and shivering, with blood all over my sleeping bag.
I flew into Geneva the day before and caught an airport transfer to the small French skiing town of Les Houches where I pitched up in the local campsite. With ski season firmly over and summer visitors yet to arrive, there wasn’t a single other person to be seen.
I was ready to start walking the Tour du Mont Blanc the following morning. All that remained was to buy some last minute food and a gas canister. It was warm and the sun was shining and so I strolled the mile into town in my t-shirt and shorts to complete my chores. But as I walked out of the supermarket with my shopping the most furious storm I have ever witnessed came out of nowhere. The sky turned from blue to dark grey in seconds and I was instantly soaked by an onslaught of torrential rain. The streets of Les Houches were submerged by a deluge and before long the thunder and lightning kicked in. It was insane.
I couldn’t face the long walk back to my warm, dry tent so I hid in a rickety bus shelter that stank of urine to wait for it to die down. It didn’t die down. After 30 minutes or so I decided I might as well just make a run for it as I was already drenched, freezing and starving so I dashed back to the campsite as quick as I could.
Of course as luck would have it the minute I zipped up my tent the rain stopped. And as if I wasn’t already uncomfortable enough I then proceeded to cut my finger open with my knife while attempting to slice into a sausage a bit too eagerly. Blood everywhere. Not a good start to my walk. Yet despite my calamitous evening I was still hopeful that everything would go well.
There was no one else in the campsite and I felt a bit lonely. Being alone is one of the things I love most about doing these adventures, but there is a fine line between solitude and loneliness. I always feel like this before a big adventure, especially when the weather is miserable. However it always wears off after a while and the excitement of the adventure takes over.
It rained through the night and I rose bleary-eyed at 7am ready to go. My pack was way too heavy, but mainly because I had oversupplied on food as usual, so I was looking forward to eating it all.
Like all adventures seem to, it started with a big climb. A 650 metre ascent rising steeply out of Les Houches towards the Col de Voza. It’s crazy how changeable the Alps weather is. One minute I was trudging along in full rain gear and the next I was putting on my shades and slathering on the sun cream. The weather was up and down all day. Mainly horrendous mist and rain punctuated by a few short bursts of sunshine in the afternoon. It was a long and difficult climb but I was surprised at how fit I felt compared to the beginning of all my other adventures. Usually I would be stopping every few minutes but I barely took a pause the whole way up. My training for my Gibraltar to London ride in August is paying off.
At the Col de Voza I had considered veering from the TMB to take a higher-level alternate route via the Col de Tricot which was supposed to be spectacular, but seeing as there was absolutely no visibility I figured it was pointless. I continued on the official route down through the village of Bionnassay (pronounced like Beyoncé with an extra syllable) where on a good day I should have been faced with a superb view of the Bionnassay glacier but unfortunately today there was nothing to be seen.
It was here that I met François, who was hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc for the second time, and we walked together for the rest of the day. At lunchtime we stopped in the tiny village of La Vilette where we sat looking pathetic in the rain eating our lunch until a lovely old lady took pity on us and invited us into her house. By which I mean she brought two kitchen chairs into her garage and let us sit there while we ate, staring out at the miserable scene outside. We weren’t complaining. It was a really bizarre situation but it was nice to have a roof over our heads. In return we helped her move some big rocks in her garden before continuing on our way.
We passed through several small villages trapped in time, including Les Hoches which we learned was the birthplace of the astronomer Alexis Bouvard who discovered the planet Neptune in 1846. In the slightly larger town of Les Contamines the sun came out and we stopped for a beer, at which point François told me it wasn’t acceptable behaviour to order a pint in France as only alcoholics do that. I’m not convinced that’s true.
We continued on our way, stopping at Notre Dame de la Gorge – a lovely Baroque chapel in the middle of nowhere. François had done his research and informed me that this is apparently one of the few churches in the world in which the Virgin Mary is depicted as being dark-skinned. Yet when we entered and quietly sat down among the congregation, he very loudly and embarrassingly exclaimed “She’s not black!” at which point we had to immediately leave and never return.
As the poor weather descended once more we began the final climb of the day. A steep ascent up a rocky incline culminating at the Refuge Nant Borrant. I had intended to wild camp a mile or so further but François, who had planned to stop here tonight, managed to convince me to do the same. It didn’t really take much convincing. I was freezing and most of my clothes were still soaked from the night before so it was a good opportunity to dry them out by the fire.
We sat outside and cooked our dinner, and François, on seeing the haphazard way I hacked into a nectarine with my knife, told me he couldn’t believe I survived five months walking across America. I told him I could hardly believe it either.
I hadn’t been planning to spend my first night on the TMB warm, clean and in a comfortable bed but I wasn’t exactly distraught about it. I’m going to have to shoot ahead tomorrow and do a long day if I’m going to make the remaining 150km. That’s an average of 25km a day which doesn’t allow much room for error but I think I can do it.