Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Day One: Les Houche to Les Contamines

“Talk about throwing yourself in at the deep end – or rather, the steep end. From Le Hôtel Slalom it is a relentless and punishing ascent of 600 meters. On a positive note, the view up the valley gets better and better with every step.”
- Jim Manthorpe, Tour du Mont Blanc (Trailblazer Guides)

Morning in the quad room of the Auberge Beau Site.

Michael: Well, I've already had the first equipment failure of the trip – either the new hiking trousers I bought are too big, or else I lost weight yesterday.
Alex: Shoulda had the cheesecake. That'll teach you.
Michael: The problem I'm having is that there are just too many great quips flying for me to record them all.
Mark: Maybe you should stop.
Michael: Hey! Some of us have walking to do today!

Ah, the first schism of the TMB.

As per the opening quote, TMB Day One is not a gentle intro. But Day One also contained an awesome alternate section (or "variante", in the parlance), one that I really wanted to do. The question was whether the team was going to be too knackered by that point to reasonably tackle it. But a solution appeared: there was a cable car, or téléphérique, up the first climb. We had agreed that Alex and Mark would take it, to keep their legs fresh; while Tim and I assiduously slogged up the hill, by way of bloodymindedly making sure that we walked every inch of the loop. (*) Obviously, people being human, this resulted in immediate and ongoing piss-taking.

Alex: What time does the grocery store open?
Michael: What do you need?
Alex: A couple more Power Bars.
Michael: What, in case the cable car breaks down?
Baguettes and mountain bowls

Breakfast in the Beau Site was fabulous, and included baguettes, croissants, chocolate croissants, museli, juice, multiple pitchers of coffee – and don't miss the "mountain bowls" the coffee was served in. These were basically, I don't know, soup- or cereal-sized bowls, which one brought to one's face and slurped out of, by local convention. Our kind of place.

Michael (to Alex and Mark): If you two are really nice, I might let you be in the start of the walk photo.
Tim: And then there were two.
Adieu, Les Houches Official start-of-walk <strike>group</strike> photo

We parted ways on the main street, they heading for the cable car station – and we heading up the mountain! Then there was some good old slogging – and our first overlooks back down into the valley. We thought it was pretty great – having no way of knowing how all this would pale before what lay beyond…

Pines and peaks (snow-covered) Trailblazer Guides' clever little hand-drawn maps with lots of terrain features to keep us from getting lost Selfie over the valley! The red-and-white trail markers would become our very good friends Chair lift, out of season

Regular readers will recall this infantile stunt I always do, trying to take photos (or movies!) of poor Tim while he's weeing by the trailside. You'll also recall where, when Tim needed a break, he'd just distract me with a tiny piece of flora or fauna, so I'd squat down in the grass and play with the camera for 10 minutes. Well, now he distracted me by pointing out a pretty thistle, except then dashed over to wee. By the time I looked up, and had worked out his ploy, he'd finished. Point to Tim.

There were these wonderful little fluffy things falling out of the sky, I didn't know what or where from

Tim pulled over to zip the legs off his trousers and magick them into shorts – of course also magically and instantly causing the temperature to drop. Thanks, mate!

So the panorama mode on the camera works like this: I point at the left-most edge of what I want to shoot; press and hold the shutter release; pan the camera smoothly around; and it takes a bunch of shots along way, then stitches them all together at the end. You can see where this can go awry – if anything moves while you're panning.

Michael: This was inevitable.
Tim: What?
Michael: Dual Tims!
Tim: It's like your dream walking trip, Michael.
We would many times see this strange needle thing on this peak. We never knew for sure, but assumed it to be some arch-villain's mountaintop fortress. We first heard, then got to watch, this mountain rescue helicopter doing training drills Sudden flatness

And, just like that, the climb topped out.

Tim: So, sorry, is that the 600 meters done? Or are we still doing them?
Michael: Done and dusted.

Clearly, the guidebook writer had lower standards for "relentless and punishing" than those to which we had become accustomed.

We had a bit of trouble hooking up with the cable car riders, which was not aided by spotty phone service. Turns out Mark and Alex had made an assumption about where we couldn't possibly miss them – which was A) different than the meeting place agreed upon; and B) not so obviously unmissable from the perspective of the other guys. This caused me (going into Dad mode) to have a go at Alex and Mark, the gist of which was: I'm here to f*&^ing walk – and if you don't want to walk, then fine, but I'm NOT going to spend my trip chasing you bozos all over the f*&^ing mountain (because you didn't want to walk – and also couldn't stick to an agreed plan).

I calmed down reasonably quickly, which process was aided by Mark making me a peace offering of juice and a banana, from the town. Basically, he'd been sagging for us, so that wasn't so bad, then.

Mark: I've seen a whole lot of Swiss chard on this mountain. We could just live on salads.
Official <strike>start-of-walk</strike> group photo

Finally it was time to hit the trail!

	Two other quick points on panorama mode: 1) It can go it all the way to 360 degrees; I ultimately concluded this was too weird and illusion-shattering, but I did have to try it. 2) It took me a while to work out that the more squirrelly one's panning of the camera… the narrower the resulting photo! If you think about it, any top or bottom that gets cut off in any frame has to come out of all of them – you only end up the narrowest section that was present in every frame! Finally, as you can also see here, I managed to confuse the camera into going 360 degrees – and then some! Oh, yeah! Panorama mode can go vertical, too! Useless, but also had to try it. That's my boot this text is covering up.

Looking at what surrounded us now (the Alps), Tim and Mark and I agreed: English Lake District? Scottish Highlands? Molehills.

Rather harrowing descent
Michael: Just in case Mark or Tim didn't inform you, Alex, I'm not actually setting the pace – I'm just running ahead to get shots.
Mark & Tim: [knowing laughter]
Tim: This is normal behaviour. He's usually either way ahead or way behind.
Michael: Hey! Look at that snail!
Tim: Ten-minute break!
Mark: Whoah, he's makin' a break for it! [the snail]

Alex, catching us up now, and slightly winded, offered his opinion that "variante" actually means "catastrophe".

And then we reached… the Indiana Jones Bridge.

Tim: There's a slightly dodgy bridge ahead.
Michael: Indiana Jones action! Is it missing planks?
Alex: “All those rocks down here used to be up there.”
Michael: You know what I didn't do while I was out there shooting all those pictures? Take a second to actually experience it. I'm going back.
Tim: Go for it.

A bit later, in the forest, we came upon a nightmare-fuel giant ant-hill. Actually, of course, Mark spotted it. When he put his gloved hand in, one of the badass critters started both stinging AND biting his glove. Jeesh!

Michael: That's why we bring you along – we would have walked right past it. That was awesome!

Now we were all feeling the burn, with this asskicking climb following right on a long-ish stop (at the bridge). I admitted to the others that we were still looking at a 400m ascent to the col. "But don't worry, the book says it's not taxing." We took a bit of a break to gird our loins.

But soon we kitted up again. The trip's first col – the lowest point of a ridge or saddle between two peaks, and our way over the range – awaited!
First glacier

That last photo above, and the second below, also show our first glacier! We'd be seeing a lot of these. But of more immediate interest was: the first snowfield we had to cross. It started subtlely, as terrifying things sometimes do.

First glacier redux First snowfield – looks harmless, doesn't it?

We stopped on a flat rock, where Mark insisted that I eat something, thrusting a nice baguette end into my hand. Nothing like a proper French baguette end.

And there was still nowhere to go but up.

And just like that, there we were – on top of the world: specifically, Col de Tricot.

And then there was nowhere to go but down.

I quite like this one

Tim had been envying Alex's high-tech, carbon-fiber trekking poles. So he improvised – behold his tree-fiber trekking poles! Organic, naturally sourced, and free range.

Next stop? Lunch! At the best, and only, place in the valley: Refuge de Miage!

Heck of a spot, no? It was said to be a cracking place, but it didn't fit with our schedule to bunk there, and so I figured it for lunch. Having been in the sun all day, we initially asked to sit inside – which of course was crazy talk, in a setting like this.

Nice Refuge Lady: For three days it rains, and you want to sit inside…?

I got an apricot juice; Mark and I shared a huge salad with bottomless bread basket; and Alex and Tim tag-teamed on a thorax-sized omelet. Wowzers!

Wrong coloured dirt
Michael: Well, Alex, I clearly bought the wrong shade of dirt trousers. I think you actually nailed it, though.
Alex [sensibly ignoring me and gawking at the setting]: It's really something.
Michael: Yeah. I picked this walk because I wanted something more dramatic than anything I've done before. Job jobbed.

So we set off again, full of beans, and full of lovely food/fuel…

Stark (if temporary) disbelief “Uh… that kind of goes UP…”

…until we came to… a trail marker that seemed to point straight up. Oh, God, no… No – but yes. This actually was our first rodeo, and we had yet to learn, as we would, and to our great cost, that there's only one way out of an Alpine valley. Well, okay, there might be a lot of ways out, but they all go the same direction: UP. We were not done climbing for the day. Crap.

So up we went Going up always does afford nice views back

When we finally topped out, after a long, painful slog, especially this late in the day, I said:

Michael: Well, you gentlemen were remarkably easygoing about this unbidden final climb. I can't help but feel that on an earlier walk, I would have been facing mutiny – if not outright lynching.

Obviously, I had done this to people (a lot of them) before: either forgotten about, or didn't know about, or (most often) lied about additional climbing and/or distance remaining on the day.

Yeah – I got away with it Blessed Alpine virgin

Then we encountered our first cow herd. They had these huge, heavy, clichéd cowbells, that, ringing all together, made a God-awful clanging racket.

Alex: “Turn off the cows!
Mark: “More cowbell!”

So the climbing was over now – but the pain wasn't. There followed this seemingly endless, soul-flattening, knee-destroying descent through a forest, mostly on a dirt road, I think. You can tell it was bad because I have zero photos from this segment. This is also where Alex's knees first started blowing up. Particularly if you're not used to it, loaded descents are even worse – rather worse – than loaded climbs. Alex was whimpering quietly by the time we got into town. I actually took his pack for a while, as we carried on our death march winding through the suburbs of Les Contamines, though that didn't help very much. His knees were murdered by this point.

But we made it! We got in!

The photos above are from the incomparable La Ferme de Bon Papa B&B. I rocked up to the door, knocked, and when an attractive middle-aged woman answered, I said:

Michael: Bon jour! Je m'appelle Michael Fuchs – et mes amis. [big arm sweep behind me]
Cathy [after the briefest of hesitations, but then with a huge, winning smile]: Enchanté!

Cathy it turned out spoke no English; her husband, who came in later, did – but they both spoke the language of glorious hospitality.

We got out of boots. We had amazing, steaming hot showers. We washed clothes in the sinks. It was a magical place like no other. They booked us in for dinner at a local restaurant. We got spectacularly frustrated trying to find it.

But it was a nice place to be frustrated We were just, as might be imagined, a little tired of walking

So I'd originally had my eye on this well-reviewed pizza joint in town. But when our hosts at Bon Papa wanted to hook us up, we didn't feel rude enough to refuse. Of course, it ended up being this completely traditional French joint (most of the B&B's clientele probably love it) – with not one single thing on the menu I could eat. There was almost nothing vegetarian – and Mark's vegetarian – and vegan seems not to translate in these parts.

At first I kind of freaked out and got all sniffy and was campaigning for finishing our drinks – blessed beer! ← – and clearing out for the pizzeria, smartish. But the very nice matron came out, and she started trying to take orders – and also started trying to work with me, albeit exclaiming in amazement.

Matron: “No fish? No cream?!”
Michael “Et sans buerre, s'il vous plait.”

In the end I got a perfectly Michael-optimized meal: every vegetable in the house, stuffed tomatoes, and great baskets of whole grain bread. Oh me of little faith.

We walked back, fat and happy, in the glowing night, and beneath the glowering mountains.

I'll save for tomorrow the bit where Cathy's husband came home, checked our planned route against the current snow conditions in the passes – and advised us that we were totally doomed if we tried tomorrow's walk the way we had been planning it.

Also, we lost Alex. (Temporarily! – though also for rather longer than we'd planned…)

For now, here's your Day One video highlights music video reel!

(asskicking music by Blue Stahli - "Smackdown")

Tomorrow, Day Three: ??? Miles to… ???

  alex     hiking     mountains     pitely     tim     tmb     walking  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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