A Daunting Day
See our video recap of Day 2 here.
There’s no other way to slice it: Day 2 was the toughest of the whole TMB. It started off on a positive note with a delicious and filling breakfast of yogurt, granola and fruit. The first hour of the walk was also pleasant, meandering through forest and parkland until reaching Notre Dame de la Gorge, a lovely church tucked in a meadow by a river. Then the fun began.
The vast majority of the rest of the walk is uphill, and by uphill, I mean uphill. After an initial sharp ascent, the path is mostly flat to gradually inclining, and there is a beautiful stretch through pastureland with incredible views of the Aiguilles de la Pennaz. The path then takes a steeper incline before coming to Refuge de la Balme, which served as a nice spot for us to have lunch. Unfortunately, we arrived at 11:30 a.m. and lunch was not available until 12 p.m., so we had some time to kill. Had we procured lunch items in Les Contamines as we originally planned, this would have been avoided. Nonetheless, since we had nowhere to be but the next refuge, the wait wasn’t a problem and we had a pleasant meal of salad and omelette. (Yup, an omelette – standard lunch fare in French cuisine).
Let me tell you, that omelette was vital in our ability to survive the last part of the day’s journey. After departing the refuge, the entirety of the remaining leg consisted of very steep inclines. Though you can see Col du Bonhomme in the distance, it feels as though you may never arrive. But alas, arrive we did. The col provides a majestic 360-degree view into valleys on either side, but it was so cold and windy that we spent most of our time at the top tucked behind a hut out of the wind before taking a few quick snapshots and continuing on our way.
From here, a sign indicates 45 minutes to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, our destination for the evening. Though we typically met or beat estimated hiking times for trail segments along the Tour, this was an exception. That final leg was deceptively long. As time continued to pass with no view of the refuge in sight, we started to despair. “It has to be around that bend.” “It must be at the top of that ridge.” Finally we arrived, so ready to unload our packs and rehydrate ourselves. There was nowhere to get water between our lunch spot and the refuge, which made that portion of the hike all the more difficult when we ran out of water. (Though we were at fault for not refilling at lunch.)
Upon entering the refuge, we quickly checked in and were escorted to our room – a semi-private space shared with two other people. An upgrade! We had booked dortoir lodging, so this was a nice surprise. We then returned to the common area to refresh with a Leffe. Unfortunately, that’s where the positive experience ended.
The shower rooms didn’t open until 5 p.m., so we had to wait for more than an hour to freshen up. The common area was cold (there was a wood furnace, which went inexplicably unused), which made sitting around in our sweaty hiking clothes all the more uncomfortable. We were assigned seats for dinner and sat with two young Scottish guys hiking the GR5. Let’s just say that the conversation was significantly better than the food. The meal of beef burgandy, pasta, cheese and chocolate brownie was mediocre at best and proved to be the worst we experienced on the TMB. While the refuge is well situated with nice views, it was the most unpleasant stay of our trip, though located as it is, it has quite the monopoly on TMB hikers.
All in, our second day was just less than 7 hours* (8:40 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.). We had conquered our toughest leg and were feeling good about the road ahead.
*Note the Kev Reynolds book recommends walking from Les Contamines to Les Chapieux on Day 2, another two hours past Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. I could not fathom going further than we did, and I wouldn’t recommend it.