Les Houches to Les Contamines
My morning began with a quick breakfast in Chamonix and a trip to the local train station. From here it is an inexpensive 15 minute ride to a smaller village named Les Houches (Pronounced Lay Joose for my fellow American friends). A very nice semi-english speaking attendant was able to get me a ticket and show me where to board the train. This was my first train ride in Europe, and the step by step tutorial this woman provided would prove to be invaluable throughout the trip.
Upon arriving in Les Houches, you can begin searching for signs that say TMB. There was luckily a group of Brits headed to hike the TMB as well, so I asked them which direction I should be headed. The confident male responded “Just follow us, I think this is the way.” His wife turned back to me and said “He has no idea….the blind leading the blind.” An expression that I ended up hearing multiple times during this trip 🙂
There are a couple ways to start the first day on the TMB hike — 1. you can take the cable car and eliminate several uphill miles or 2. you can begin at the roadside trailhead and climb your way up.
It is about a 15 minute walk from the train to the hiking trailhead, although I will point out that I passed through the town 3 times before actually finding the location to begin….. (It is through town, pass the visitor station & cable car, then under an overpass on your left)
I was here to hike, so I chose option 2 deciding to get a solid day of elevation gain. The trail starts with several hundred wooden stairs. The wooden steps and dirt trail gains elevation quickly before transferring back to a mixture of steep paved/gravel streets. Leaving the town, you will get a great view of the village and it’s surrounding mountains. This was the last point, I had phone service for the majority of today — the trailhead was a good spot to touch base with family before disembarking.
I happened to be in Europe during a complete and unforgiving heat wave. It was easily 90F outside and the sun was beating down upon the roadways. About 1/4 way into the climb, i regretted not taking the cable car and avoiding this part 🙂
The views though……do continue to expand as you climb through the first 5 miles of your TMB hike. Its steep and unforgiving, but it’s a beautiful beginning to this trip. Much like leaving civilization behind as you head into the great unknown escape of the Alps.
After much climbing, huffing, and puffing — you reach the first summit location (Col) known as Col de Voza; on top of which there is a large hotel that was serving a buffet style lunch for guests and hikers. $20 Euros for all I could eat, coffee, and drinks? Sounds great after climbing for several miles! Hotel name is: Village Vacances Col de Voza
I had lunch with some Irish friends while on top of the Col. We had met previously several times today; once while trying to find the trailhead and again while leap frogging during today’s grueling paved incline. Me passing them taking a break, to only be passed by them later on. They were a interesting bunch and I enjoyed the comradeship that comes so easily to hikers trekking in similar directions. I’ve hiked many different places, and there is no easier way to strike up a conversation than sweat stained eyes viewing uphill together at upcoming hardship. It breeds conversation.
Leaving Col de Voza; the trail immediately begins to descend steeply. Downhill was a nice break from the constant uphill I had just traversed. On the other side of the Col, views immediately begin to open in front of you…and they did not disappoint.
After entering another valley and crossing a river, the trail switches back in an upwards direction until you reach the small village of Bionnassay. From here, the hike continues with extraordinary views, quaint small mountain villages, and a mixture of trail/road walking.
The journey after Col de Voza is significantly easier, and my pace was greatly accelerated. I was gaining Kilometers far quicker than the original uphill climb.I even had time to stop and chat with some fellow hikers utilizing one of the many public fountain areas located in a small town.
The next stop was arriving in Les Contamines and finding a place to rest my head for the evening. Having booked no accommodations ahead — I chose to stop by the local tourism office. An action that I would do throughout my European adventure, as these offices are HUGELY useful in Europe and the workers are always quick to offer assistance/advice.
The nice gentlemen working here (seeing I could not speak French) called around to every hostel/inexpensive hotel seeing if they had a vacancy….sadly they did not. Good planning Luke with his ‘no booking ahead’ clause 😦
Luckily there was a campground with a hostel building that had a bed for me. I just had to trek another 2 KM outside of town to reach it. Not thrilled with the extra walking for today, I decided to have a quick beer on a patio in Les Contamines. My Irish friends from lunch arrived shortly after and we spoke briefly before I needed to set off and find my campground hostel. Those lucky bastards were smart enough to book a hotel ahead of time within town — cheers to planning ahead I guess.
I continued down the highway searching for Camping le Pontet, and a needed nights rest in the hostel.
The campground itself was very clean and the dormitory area was full of fellow TMB hikers. I received a top bunk and had opted for the communal hiker dinner. This was served family style with tables of 6-8 people all sharing communal dishes. My particular table did not include any English speakers, but I was happy to sit there eating dinner and enjoying a nice local beer while listening to stories that I couldn’t understand. Overall, it was an inexpensive place to stay and the dormitory area had partition walls between many of the beds for privacy, a shared common area for boots/relaxing, and a massive shared shower/bathroom area to clean today’s sweat off of me.
In summary, this was a very good start to my European hiking adventure. I felt good about my pace, hiking ability, and was not overwhelmed at any point. Onwards to tomorrow; where I knew my journey would become more secluded from towns and further dive me into the mountain wilderness.