Some of my favorite quotes for backpacking motivation:
Photo Credit: Hank Langhals & Beth Langhals
House Renovating, Traveling, and Sustainability
Photo Credit: Hank Langhals & Beth Langhals
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.
Part 1 = Getting to the start of Tour Du Mont Blanc
I decided it was time for me to do some backpacking in Europe; However, I could NOT decide if I wanted to do the Camino de Santiago or Tour Du Mont Blanc…..so I decided to try and do sections of both in June/July of 2019 🙂
My plan was to do 3-4 days on the Tour Du Mont Blanc, visit Avignon to scratch my history itch, move across France to begin the Camino, Run with the bulls in Pamplona, and continue walking across northern Spain for as long as possible — easy enough right?
I chose the French side of the tour because most other hikers move counterclockwise and I wanted to start with the “herd.” The TMD crosses through the corners of Switzerland, France, and Italy. I thought one country at a time made the most sense for a partial trip on this amazing hike.
I began my journey by flying into Geneva.
Funny Travel Note:
My planned flight left Columbus, stopped briefly in Toronto, landed in Montreal to refuel, and then off to Geneva, Switzerland.
My flight between Toronto and Montreal was slightly delayed, but from my understanding — I would be staying on the airplane which would continue onwards to Geneva. However, upon landing I was notified that the plan had changed and I would need to disembark the aircraft and go to a different gate to make my international flight.
I went to the desk after hustling off the airplane and asked which gate my next flight was leaving from. The women typed some details into her computer, looked up and said “The Geneva flight is going to be leaving from Gate 56 in 5 minutes, and we are currently at Gate 1.” I stared at her trying to grasp the small window I was being provided, and she looked back to say “I don’t need you to walk fast….I need you to run!”
This was my first time ever sprinting through an airport. And oh boy did I sprint. I would be damned if I would miss my flight to Europe and postpone my trip. I dodged, and shoved, and ducked between confused fellow airport travelers. The intercom spurred me faster — “THE GENEVA GATE WILL BE CLOSING IN 2 MINUTES — ALL PASSENGERS MUST BOARD IMMEDIATELY.”
During my stampede through the crowded airport, I thought that this was ironic that I would be running with the bulls in Pamplona within the next 2 weeks. For in this airport in Montreal, I was the bull. Parting the crowed and slamming through with no consideration other making my connecting flight.
I arrived at the Gate with a few other sweating and frazzled passengers. The shut and locked the gate behind me as we boarded and took our seats. I made it 🙂
Upon arriving in the Geneva airport, I had planned to explore the city and begin my European adventure with a day walking the streets of Switzerland. However, upon landing, I could feel the mountains pulling me and the hustle bustle of the city immediately disenchant me.
I had discovered the OMNI app before heading to Europe. This amazing little phone application will show you the time & costs for buses, trains, and flights between any two locations in Europe on any given day. Pretty nifty for getting last minute connections around the continent.
OMNI was nice enough to find me a bus from Geneva to Chamonix, France — leaving the airport within 2 hours. The bus pickup location is a little difficult to locate; it is directly across from the main terminal exit, but you need to cross the taxi/pickup lanes to get to the bus pickup area.
Phone Apps for Traversing Europe:
OMNI (Bus, Train, Ride Share, Plane)
Hotels.com (Private Rooms and Some Hostels) *Free night every 10 nights booked
Hostel World (Hostel booking)
Hiking Project (Trail Maps and Topo maps with GPS location tracking)
After a couple hours on the bus, I finally arrived in Chamonix and was soooo happy to finally see mountains surrounding me. Mountains and raw nature always provide a calming effect on my soul.
Using the Hotels.com App, I found an adorable little hotel with a private balcony in downtown Chamonix within a 10 minute walk from the bus stop. I decided against a hostel knowing that I would be staying in hostels for the foreseeable future and wanting some luxury for my first night in Europe.
After checking in and assembling my pack in preparation for beginning the hike the next day; I ventured out to explore this quaint mountain town. Chamonix France is an outdoor lovers paradise. A ski town in the winter and a mountain adventure in the summer. I passed many shops selling ski/snowboard equipment, hiking gear, and mountain bikes. The streets were a hodgepodge of unique French countryside architecture, small cafes with outdoor patios, and restaurants. I was reminded closely of another town in the United States that I like to visit — Chamonix is comparable to Steamboat Springs in Colorado.
Overall, I’m glad that I made it to Chamonix and spent a day exploring the town and preparing to begin this section of the Tour Du Mont blanc. The following morning I would need to find my way to the trail head.
Driving from Columbus, OH to Myrtle Beach takes roughly 10 hours. About halfway through this drive, you cross the Appalachian Trail, and I never like to miss an opportunity to hike on the AT!
The McAfee Knob view point is one of the most famous sights on the AT. It has graced book covers, movie screens, and countless social media sites. It is a true gem in the Appalachian mountains and a pretty easy hike.
Parking access is simple to find at VA 311 (you can literally type McAfee Knob into google maps). The Appalachian Trail crosses the parking lot here and although the parking is often crowded — I didn’t have any trouble finding a spot on a Thursday in April 2019.
The hike is about 8.5 miles from parking to summit and back to parking. Out and back.
We didn’t arrive at the parking lot until 6 pm; our plan was to reach the second shelter and camp for the evening. Saving the majority of this out-and-back hike for the morning and enjoying the sunrise on McAfee’s Knob.
We parked our car and headed across the road where the elevation immediately starts to rise. Being as this is on the AT — you can follow the white blazes for this hike, which makes for easy navigation.
Within 1/4 of a mile, you will reach a information kiosk that directs you towards McAfee’s Knob — bear right of the kiosk and continue following the white blazes.
Along the trail you will pass two shelter locations with ample camping sites nearby. Both shelters have a well maintained privy and several established fire pits. The first shelter is within a mile of parking and is named John’s Spring. We met two through hikers here and I was able to hear about the exciting life on the trail….the comradery of long distance hiking is something I miss very much, and I always enjoy talking with people who are making the long trek.
After leaving John’s Spring shelter, we continued for another mile and found ourselves at Catawba Shelter while dusk was quickly approaching. The shelter itself was crowded with eager backpackers and we set up camp roughly 100 yards away at a designated camping area.
I had my friend David with me as a first time backpacker, which I always enjoy. We made camp and settled in for some campfire stories and an early bedtime. I used my old faithful backpacking tent and David slept in a hammock. There were various semi-flat tent sites near Catawba Shelter and many well spaced trees for hammocks. In April, I was toasty warm in my tent, but David said he was pretty cold in the hammock. Insure you check the temperature before your hike and more importantly the wind speed. Hammock’s can get cold pretty fast when the wind picks up….especially at elevation.
We awoke at 5 am and used headlamps in the darkness to get back on the trail. We wanted to reach the famous McAfee knob sunrise and we flew up the trail for the remaining 2+ miles of this hike.
As dawn began to approach, so did massive amounts of fog. The trail was coated in a beautiful white cloud that made hiking spooky and beautiful. I knew we were growing close to the viewpoint, which is about 30 yards off to the left of the trail. However, the fog made us miss the McAfee Knob sign and we accidentally traveled too far. The trail started to descend quickly which was our clue that we were leaving the summit. Luckily, we were able to notice this mistake and turn around to find the correct viewing location. If you make the same mistake, you will eventually reach the Pig Farm Campsite or Campbell Shelter — Turn around and retrace your steps back to the summit.
The sign for McAfee’s Knob is mounted on the side of a boulder to the left of the trail. Keep your eyes open and you shouldn’t have a problem finding it.
Walking up to the summit; I was hoping for a viewpoint that spanned across miles. I was planning to be stunned by the rolling landscape and beautiful sunrise…..
However, mother nature disagreed with my plans. She chose to give us a slightly different view on this fine morning. We approached the jutting stone ledge and found ourselves fully encompassed within a foggy cloud. No distant view points for us this morning — but I still was not disappointed in the summit. The stone outcropping is beautiful and continues down for 100 yards. Obviously, the biggest photo opportunity is on the ledge/knob, but there are several different stone ridges that awarded us some fun while meandering around the summit.
Below are some pictures from on top of McAfee’s Knob
Me on McAfee’s knob in the fog
After playing in the fog for awhile, we returned to the trail and had a pleasant downhill trek back to the car. A very enjoyable 1 day backpacking trip!