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.
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
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