Chamonix to Trient – Distance: 35km, Elevation gain: 1226 metres, (4022 feet)
After the initial adrenaline rush of embarkation wore off, I realised that I had underestimated the physical element of this endeavour. Though I felt I was prepared from an equipment perspective, coming out of lockdown, I wasn’t match-fit. Even though I had opted for a light, hard-tail rig (more about bike and equipment here), it was still far heavier than I was used to and months of a limited amount of virtual biking had done little for my core fitness.
After an hour or so, as I cycled up a stony path next to the fast-flowing river L’Arve from Chamonix to Argentiere, my back spasmed and I crumbled to the floor in agony – A few years previously I had snapped every ligament in my right shoulder. I was cycling out of the hotel carpark (again in Chamonix) to fetch a baguette when my chain snapped ten metres from the hotel foyer and though the surgery has been successful, the combination of the weight of my backpack, and my legs-only fitness regime had already taken its toll. Thankfully, once I had sat down and dropped my bag, the pain began to subside. I loosened the strap on one side of the backpack, so most of the weight was on my left shoulder and hike-a-biked up a root-garden until the gradient and terrain became rideable again.
Around midday, I descended into Le Tour at the foot of the first big hill. In the winter, Le Tour is a major ski destination, and I began the long zigzag climb towards the Col de Balme occasionally crossing under the telepherique, with bikes clipped to the sides, mocking me as it zoomed up the mountain.
At the top of the telepherique, I ordered a coffee, a baguette, an Orangina and another coffee and sat down, and looked over the magnificent valley towards Chamonix, my favourite place in the world. From three years old until my early twenties as a family we have visited Chamonix every year to walk and ski and I recalled the many times I had sat with my father, brother and dearly departed mother, in this very spot. I video-called my wife, assured her I was fine and began the second part of the climb up to the Col de Balme which peaks at 2191 metres.
In early afternoon, I reached the summit on which perched a wonderful Refuge with red shutters, the welcoming smell of patisserie wafting from within – I made a mental note that I ever I do the TMB again, I would stop here for a cake, or lunch, or probably both.
Part of the joy of the TMB is that it is one of the bucket-list hiking routes of Septuagenarians and Octogenarians from all over the world, and as hikers of a certain age invariably enjoy their food and a bit of camaraderie…and have the disposable income to pay for it, the TMB is well served by Refuges and campsites. The standard of food, though not haute cuisine, is high and full of calories which can be burned off the next day.
On average I would pass between 2 and 5 such refuges every day, and if I didn’t come across a refuge or campsite at the right time in the evening, the plan was to just pitch my tent in the wild…
As I wrestled my bike up and over the ridge to begin the descent into Switzerland towards Trient, I got my first puncture. The compromise of a riding a hardtail is there is no rear suspension to absorb the hits. The Swiss side of the Col de Balme has multiple drainage ditches across the path, made from rock which you need to hop over. I must have slammed down my rear tyre onto one of these ditches and was now faced with a 1cm sized tear along the sidewall of my rear tyre right by the rim. Deflated and faced with a long walk back to Chamonix to the nearest bike shop, I attempted to plug the hole using a device I had recently purchased called a Dynaplug – effectively a metal plug with a multi-stranded sticky rubber tail which you jam into the hole. Thankfully (and unexpectedly) the fix worked and within 20 minutes I was descending down glorious cow-lined single-track, towards Triente where I hoped to find somewhere to sleep.
At about 5pm I spotted the refuge du Peuty, which had a campsite, a shower cabin and a yurt which promised an evening of Gastronomy for 20 euros. It was here that I pitched my tent, on the Swiss border against the backdrop of pine forests and a distant glacier. After a decent three course meal washed down with unpronounceable German beer I retired to my tent to a fitful night of bizarre dreams.