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We arrived in Chamonix at the end of June rather weary from the long drive south from Aviemore. The French roads are great and well worth the tolls (approx 62 Euros) that we paid on the autoroutes. The roads on the UK side are very poor in comparison!

Anyway, Chamonix... the weather was the first thing to find out about and whilst it was better than back home, it wasn't great for anything high up so we turned our attention to the Tour du Mont Blanc, the classic walking route that encircles the Mont Blanc Massif. We chose to do the section from Courmayeur to Les Contamines-Montjoies then over to Les Houches. Traditionally, the route starts in Les Houches then travels in an anti-clockwise direction through Chamonix, Champex, Courmayeur, Les Contamine-Montjoies and back to Les Houches. Accommodation can be hotels, gites, mountain huts, camping or sleeping out under the stars.

Starting off from Courmayeur

Day one and we were on the bus from Chamonix to Courmayeur. This is a cheap, easy and quick way to get through the Mont Blanc Tunnel though it is a good idea to have passports handy as the Italian border guards weren't too happy with Ron's insurance card as identification. Luckily, he didn't get thrown off the bus and after a quick trip to the tourist information where great free maps are available, we were off.

The road wound up through the pretty village of Dolonne then ski trails took us uphill to Plan Checrouit. The route follows the south side of the valley at a fairly high level giving amazing views of the Italian side of the Mont Blanc Massif. I had never really looked at Mont Blanc from this side before and we sat for a while working out which glaciers and ridges now faced us. The Peuterey Ridges and the Miage Glacier were the most distinctive features then we were able to pick out the Gonella Hut and the direction of the Italian Route to the summit, up the Aiguilles Grises Ridge. Two tiny moving dots appeared, climbers descending after reaching the summit perhaps?


The track continued through meadows where the alpine flowers and marmottes distracted us from the mountain views surrounding us then we dropped down into the Val Veni towards Lac Combal. Evidence of the work of the glaciers is very apparent here and the lake itself is the remains of a lake formed by glacial meltwater in times gone by. Now it is bordered by the grey, stony moraine ridges but it is not difficult to picture where the glaciers were and to understand why the land is shaped in the way that it is. The Val Veni itself is a long, u-shaped valley with  meandering river winding its way across the valley floor. The track is wide and level but seemed long as it came at the end of a fairly energetic day! The hut came into site above us at the end of some zig zags. Our stop for the night was to be just beyond the hut in a grassy meadow at the head of the Vallon de la Lex Blanche (2,300m).

That first day we reckoned we climbed about 1800 metres and covered a distance of 18 kilometres to reach our overnight destination behind the Refugio Elisabetta. Our guidebook was misleading on timings, distances and the amount of height gain for each leg in an understated way. Throughout the trip we found the heights and times were definitely on the conservative side and we don't walk particularly slowly and we were both independently using altimetres to record height gain. Our lesson learned was to take what the guidebook said with a large pinch of salt! 


We carried enough food for two nights and three days, lightweight sleeping bags, bivvy bags, foam sleeping mats, tiny gas stoves and not much else except for some warm clothes and waterproofs. This meant that our rucksacks remained light so we could keep moving unencumbered by a heavy tent or unnecessary clutter. Generally the weather is dry in the Alps but even when it is wet and stormy as on our second night out, this combination of gear works well. Though I have to admit, sleeping out in a thunder storm with pouring rain, lightning crackling overhead and strong winds is quite an experience especially when it feels like the wind could almost pick us up and carry us away!

During our first night we had a visitor - a curious fox in search of food came over to have a closer look at Ron whose face was poking out of his bivvy bag. A "gerrof" chased it away briefly but it came back to receive a sort of grunted scream! It moved away but only to where we had stored our pots and stoves. It smelt food and sensed that there was something there worth pursuing. It darted forward then ran off only to creep back a minute later then it disappeared into the night. I had only a brief glimpse of a dark, dog-like shape before it sprinted off into the boulders around us. In the morning we realised that it had lifted a bag of rubbish then dropped it nearby but a can was missing. It must have run off with the can because our search found nothing else. Apparently foxes can be a problem because they have come to associate people and camps as a source of food. It has been known for them to rip into tents and even rucksacks to find food.

Our second day began pleasantly with a gentle walk along the valley with the alpine flowers as our distraction again then up past an stone building, an old and derelict customs house on the border between Italy and France, to the Col de la Seigne at 2,516 metres. The views changed here as we turned away from Mont Blanc into the valley and started down towards the Refuge des Mottets. This is very much a farming area and we walked along to the clanking sounds of many cow bells.

Beyond the Refuge at La Ville de Glaciers, we chose an alternative route which would take us up and over the Col des Fours (2,665m). There are many variations to the original Tour du Mont Blanc, some are more direct routes, some follow more mountainous trails, some even make use of cable cars and trains - the choice is very much up to the individual. We chose to go over the Col des Fours as it seemed more interesting which it was in that the weather deteriorated into thunder, lightning and heavy rain, chasing us into a nearby cowshed for shelter and a brew. The storm slowly passed and we ventured out and upwards over grass and mountain tracks to just below the Col. As we climbed up a movement on a nearby ridge caught my eye - there on the ridge in silhouette was a bouquetin easily distinguishable by his large, gnarly horns. He posed for photos then trotted off down the ridge. We trotted off in the other direction towards the Col only to be attacked again by the weather. Massive hailstones this time which hurt as they bounced off our heads and stung our bare arms and legs. As is always the case though, as soon as the waterproofs are on, the sun comes out!

The last section up to the Col was a surprise, an easy-angled snow slope of about 100 metres. It was mid-afternoon and the snow was soft and easy to walk on and by slowly plodding, we reached the top. Early in the day though when the snow is firm, this slope would be quite a different matter as a slide would be long and pretty unpleasant. The descent on the other side was great - glissading down the snow slope almost all the way down to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme (2483m). The Refuge is often the stopping point for this section of the Tour du Mont Blanc and fairly busy as a result so we continued on as it was all downhill anyway.


Beyond  the Refuge, the path crosses bouldery ground then descends to a little wooden hut at the Col du Bonhomme at the head of the Val Montjoie. We continued on through grassy meadows to reach Chalet de la Balme, a catered chalet this time with an area set aside for overnight camping. The campsite was really just part of a field with an electric fence around it to stop the cows from walking over the tents. We found a spot amongst the grass for sleeping and some planks of wood to sit on whilst we cooked. It was all very pleasant until later that night when the storms that had been threatening, broke overhead and we had the full force of it thrown at us - thunder, lightning, heavy rain and wind that felt strong enough to blow us away. It came as quite a surprise to wake up to a peaceful morning with blue skies, sunshine and gently clanking cow bells.

The route changed at this point from mountainous tracks to roads and villages as we headed towards Les Contamine-Montjoies. Some very fit-looking people were taking part in some sort of race or challenge - all walking quickly up the valley to Chalet de la Balme to where a circuit of rock climbing and scrambling problems had been set out for them to complete. Most were cheerful obviously enjoying the challenge whilst a few looked miserable especially those towards the end.  I suppose it must have been some sort of competition or trial. We went on in a leisurely manner spurred on by the thought of getting more food in Les Contamines-Montjoies. We had eaten our breakfast cereal / porridge type stuff for pudding the previous night so had only hot drinks and cereal bars to left to eat that morning. I have to admit though, cereal as a pudding is good but not quite the same as a thermal mug full of hot custard!


Arriving in Les Contamines-Montjoies with its busy outdoor market was quite a contrast to being in the mountains so after buying food, we sought out a pleasant place to sit down by the river to eat our picnic. We were walking in the opposite direction to which the Tour du Mont Blanc is traditionally completed and often found it a problem locating the signposts and waymarkers that point the way through the village. So a couple of wrong turns here and there meant that sometimes we were walking on roads instead of paths but the direction is easy to follow as the line of the route heads straight down the valley. After being in the mountains, the tracks and trails of the valley seemed fairly tedious and lacking interest but soon we were rising up again, towards Bionassay and the last uphill section to the Col de Voza (1653m).

Again, there are two options for the walk to Les Houches. Our choice followed tracks to the Col de Voza whereas the alternative was a higher, more mountainous route. The weather was wet and gloomy, we were feeling fairly tired so the lower route seemed more appealing. More ski trails down through the woods to Les Houches where we arrived just in time to get the local bus to Chamonix. We did go back another day to to walk the section from Les Houches to Chamonix and it gives a very pleasant day out especially if the ascent to Le Brevent is included.

I have been to Chamonix many times before for climbing trips but these were two or three week holidays. Climbing and getting acclimatised took priority over other trips so the Tour du Mont Blanc and walking on many of the tracks around the village had been very much neglected. It was therefore quite an eye-opener to find that the Tour du Mont Blanc is a big undertaking but the beautiful, Alpine scenery makes the effort well worthwhile.





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Copyright Fiona Chappell 2003-2012 (updated Wednesday, 10. October 2012)