Tour dates: 02 Aug to 24 Aug 2007.
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This holiday was inspired by the Tour du Mont Blanc, which I have done in 2005 and 2006. The original idea was for my wife and myself to cover the southern part of this classic walk at a leisurely pace with plenty of time to stop and enjoy the surroundings. Accommodation would be in the huts and hotels favoured by TMB walkers and we would stop at nearly all of them, meaning that the days would be short and there would be time to explore each area.
As you will see, we modified this to become a series of walks based on hotels and huts in the areas around Chamonix, Les Contamines and Courmayeur. The result was a pleasant and comfortable holiday during which we found and walked some excellent footpaths.
Repeat visit in 2008
My TMB info page
We began by flying from East Midlands to Geneva and then taking a minibus ride to Le Tour, near Chamonix. We were booked in to stay at Chalet Alpin du Tour, which is a valley-level CAF establishment. It lies at the Swiss end of the Chamonix valley and is a place I have found a very convenient start and finish to tours in the area.
The following day we left most of our belongings in our room and walked up to the Col de Posettes. This starts with an ascent through woodlands and emerges into moors and grasslands with spectacular views of the surrounding area. Just what we needed for a gentle start on our first day, then back down to a cool beer followed by a pleasant meal.
The following night we had a booking for the Refuge Bel Lachat. This is a tiny refuge in a spectacular situation, perched on a steep hillside opposite Mont Blanc. I had visited it before while passing by, but I had never been able to book in to stay there. Now I was to realise that ambition and I was to be lucky enough to have perfect conditions for the visit. But first we had to get there. My wife Joan is entirely unfazed by narrow vertiginous paths and was very happy when she did some rock climbing. However she admits to being among the world's worst when it comes to long hard ascents, particularly when carrying a heavy rucksack. But we had a good solution planned.
First we took the bus into Chamonix and wandered around happily and spent a lot of time sitting and watching the world go by. Then we we took the téléphérique up to the Brevent, from where we set off along the ridge leading to the Bel Lachat. This is a splendid walk and downhill too. We were the first arrivals of the day.
We put our gear in the dortoir and settled down to admire the view from the wooden terrace. A very spectacular view it is too! Opposite the full Mont Blanc range is laid out in clear view and we had a blue sky apart from a few small clouds scudding past. We watched from the terrace, we wandered over the steep grassy slopes around the hut and lay there in the warm sunshine and admired the view. Later we returned to the hut and sat drinking cold beer, talking to pleasant people and admiring the magnificent view. Life does not get much better than this.
At dinner time we retreated inside for a very good meal (don't believe those websites that say the food is rudimentary here - it is good). Finally we went back out on to the terrace where, before our eyes, the white slopes of Mont Blanc turned to orange as the sun set. All this with a glass of vin chaud in one's hand!
So, after a good night's sleep and a pleasant breakfast we retraced our steps back to the Brevent. Joan was worried by the fact it was now uphill and that we were just into the range of heights that can begin to affect one. No problems; we took it steadily and without the slightest problem. From there it was mainly downhill to La Flegere. About 2/3 way there it was getting rather hot, so we sat in the shade of some trees for an hour or so before continuing.
The final part of this route is a delightful path. I had done it four times before, but it was a pleasure to do it again. We arrived with plenty of time in hand and got settled in to La Flegere. It is a big hut and not very many visitors so we had a comfortable time having hot showers and getting a little washing done before dinner.
The following morning was a little grey. The plan was to go to Lac Blanc, which is not far although it is an uphill journey and then to explore the area around the hut. In the event we got there very early but the weather was deteriorating a little. We did a little scrambling around the lakes behind the hut but we were soon back and rather killing time in the hut as it became cold grey and somewhat damp. Dinner was enjoyable, as well it should be: the hut serves the same (good) menu every evening. Most of the clients stay there for only one night so the repeated menu. I did once stay here with a friend for two nights and we were delighted when we got a special dish cooked for us so we would not have a repeated meal. I like the warden here and it was a pleasure to see him again on this, my fifth visit.
The following day dawned grey and damp, which was a pity since our route led us past les Lacs de Chéserys. This is a place where I have previously enjoyed spending some time sitting in sunshine beside one of the lakes. Today we were not stopping. The walking was pleasant but the grey and the drizzle was not conducive to lingering. Our route took us down the (in)famous ladders above Argentière. These are great fun and nobody should be worried by them. Indeed, when I have taken groups down these ladders for Ramblers Holidays it has been a time for me to relax: the ladders are well made and secure and nobody is ever going to fall from them. This was Joan's first visit to the ladders and she enjoyed the experience despite the grey conditions.
Lower down on the route and into the wooded regions we came to a junction with a path signposted to Argentière. This was a new path for me and we took it, since Argentière seemed a very suitable destination. It was a nice path. All of it was in woodlands and early on it went down steeply past some giant boulders in the woods. Later it joined up with a bigger path but still retained its charming character all the way down to the centre of Argentière. There we stopped for some lunch before taking a bus to Chamonix and another on to Les Houches.
By this time the weather was really gloomy and rain was starting. We wandered along the main street of Les Houches and settled for a rather elaborate looking hotel with swimming pools and suchlike things. The rooms were excellent and we got ourselves and some of our clothes cleaned before dinner. By now it was pouring rain and we had an indicator in the form of the water-spill pipe on the traditional building behind the hotel: it never stopped streaming torrents into the soakaway below.
After a good buffet breakfast with cabaret we set off. (The cabaret was Joan taking what she though was a cooked egg and slicing the top off it. After cleaning the results from the plate we spotted a cauldron of boiling water into which you are supposed to hang your eggs to get them cooked.) We walked down the main street with umbrellas up and took a ride in a téléphérique up to the Bellvue and walked down to the Col de Voza before turning off the ridge to make our way down to our destination at Les Contamines. The paths were a mix of quiet roads, village streets and walking paths. Some of the latter were entertaining paths through steep woodlands. There was always some rain about and by the time we reached Les Contamines we were very wet and Joan was getting quite exhausted.
A large coffee in a warm bar helped a lot but the real antidote was the proprietor of Le Grizzli saying he would dry our boots and Joan's waterproofs while we settled into our room with jacuzzi. Le Grizzli does not do evening meals so we went out looking for a restaurant. The place we found some 100m south of Le Grizzli on the same side of the road had an excellent set menu serving in its basement room. I have forgotten the name of the place, but if you find it you will not be disappointed.
The next morning the weather had improved. We were booked into La Balme for the night. It is a short day and there are Notre Dame de la Gorge, the Roman bridge and the Pont Naturel to see on the way. It is also a bit of a slog in places. Still we arrived very early and had much of the day ahead of us. We left our gear at La Balme and explored the road ahead. Joan was somewhat dubious. There was snow down almost to the level we were at and it felt cold, even in the sunshine. We agree to walk on upwards in the morning with the proviso that we could turn back if the going was too hard.
In the morning we set off upwards. Progress was reasonable, although just above the Plan des Dames we wasted some time. We were going up the centre of a snowfield which I knew was not the normal route, but quite a few people had been that way and I though it would be good to see how it worked out. For us it was a mistake. We needed to get up a steep grassy bank overlaid with 10cm of fresh snow. If we had trekking poles to give us that little extra purchase we could have done it. As it was we had to retreat and go the correct way (there was a horse laden with baggage being brought down it).
From there the climb to the Col du Bonhomme is steep and the path was mostly overlaid with snow. We took our time but Joan made it OK. Onwards from the col to the Refuge du Bonhomme involves only a little climbing and the path is interesting. Enough people had been along it in the snow to render it fairly easy.
So we did reach the refuge successfully (Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to give it the full name). It is one of my favourite refuges and I like the two families of the men who rebuilt it; there is a good atmosphere to the place. In the evening one sits by candle-light after dinner as the family have their own meal. The whole place is comfortable and well looked-after.
The problem now was that there was quite a bit of snow on the Col des Fours and the forecast was for thunderstorms. To add to this, I was suffering from a running cold. It seemed a shame, but rather than heading on to Les Mottets and so across into Italy we decided to turn back. It was an unfortunate decision since the forecasts were incorrect and the weather improved. By that time it was too late and we had lost all our hard won height. However we were going to enjoy our new plan although in a different way. We retreated back to the Col du Bonhomme and back down to Les Contamines where once again we stayed at Le Grizzli.
Our evening meal was again south along the road but on the other side. Good food and warm & friendly service, but too heavy for our tastes. In the morning Le Grizzli was not able to let us stay as they were fully booked. They sent us to Hotel Christiania which was a good choice and where we were to spend three nights.
After leaving much of our equipment there we set off up the hillside in the direction of Lac d'Armancette. We got to within a signposted 20min of the lake and then turned on to a minor track that led off in the direction of the Refuge de Tré-la-Tête. This proved to be an excellent walk through the woods and led us to one of the main tracks to the Refuge de Tré-la-Tête. We did not go the whole way to the refuge but stopped on a sunny corner looking up at it still some 40min ahead of us. We turned back and down another path that led us to le Cugnon and so back to our hotel.
The following day we started on the same path but this time we turned the other way to traverse and climb to reach the Auberge du Truc. The place was heaving with people who had come up for lunch and were sitting at the outside tables while the Warden her son and their helper frantically prepared and served the food. Joan and I did not need any food but we did get a full bottle of chilled cider which we sat and drank on the bench by the door in watery sunshine. From there we returned to the hotel.
These two walks had been good, especially the walk up towards Tré-la-Tête. Our next walk was to be outstanding. If one looks from Les Contamines towards the Col du Bonhomme, the hillside on your left below Tré-la-Tête starts fairly steeply and then angles to become very steep. Across that hillside is a well made path going to the Cascade de Combe Noir. It is a walk that rates well against any other. It picks its way across the steep ground, nearly always sheltered by the trees growing above and below it. It is attractive and fun to walk all the way. Surprisingly we did not see any other people the whole of the way, although it is well maintained and obviously gets enough use. Even more surprising is that it leads to some rustic houses that look to be holiday retreats. These are approached by another path and from the other side. The cascades are pleasant enough and one can now return by another path that crosses the less steep part of the hillside. By most standards this is a good path although not in the same class as the outward one.
The forecast for the next day was bad and we had arranged to move on. It was raining as we waited for the bus to take us to Salanches. We got off at what we assumed to be Salanches bus/train station only to find later that it was an outpost of St Gervais. However we waited and got a train rather than a bus to Chamonix and that dropped us at the station with minutes to spare before the bus departed for Courmayeur. It was still raining as we entered the tunnel to Italy and it was dry when we came out the far end.
After a quick tour of Courmayeur centre and a stop for an ice cream in a pavement cafe we headed for Dolonne, which is just across the river. It is quieter and cheaper than Courmayeur and offers a good view of Courmayeur.
We stayed at the excellent Hotel des Glaciers where we got what was probably the most eccentric room in the hotel. I say this because it is approached by the slimmest spiral staircase I have ever seen. Once up the staircase the room is very good and has a little balcony with a direct view across to Courmayeur and the mountains.
A little piece of advice here: most of the locals speak French as well as Italian, so no need to communicate in pidgin English if you are able to speak French.
For our first day we chose to walk up to Col Checroui, behind Dolonne. The first part is a walk up through the woods but the upper part is through ski slopes. After stopping for a drink at the Maison Vielle we elected to go down the other side of Mont Chétif past the Rifugio Mont Bianco. The logic was that I had never been that way before and it would be satisfying to circumnavigate Mont Chétif and the initial footpath is very attractive. This was a dreadful mistake. Admittedly the map shows a long section where the footpath follows the road, but I had never expected there would be no footpath at all. We walked miles on tarmac dodging fast-moving cars. Don't ever think of doing this walk and warn-off your friends too.
The following day brought better walking. We got the bus from Courmayeur to the end of the public road in Val Veni. From the bus stop the road continues steeply upwards on tarmac with quite a long section lined with parked cars.
Along this road you are looking at an impressive piece of geology. The whole of the Val Veni was blocked by the terminal moraine of the glacier to the north. It cut off the upper half of the Val Veni, creating a huge lake. The scale of this moraine is mind-blowing. The pile of moraine debris is bigger than any of the hills in Derbyshire (near where I live in the UK). At a more recent time the water broke through the moraine and the big lake drained, leaving today's two smaller lakes.
We continued on the unsurfaced road until we reached the level of the first lake. At that point the path back to Courmayeur rises to the left of the road. We plodded up this with stops at both the Arp Vielle and the Arp Vielle Sup. by which time the views were excellent. The path follows rolling ground high on the mountainsides with fine views of the Mont Blanc range on the other side of the valley.
At one point we passed a large herd of cows in the middle distance. The cowherd was trying to catch his donkey and twice it passed close to us as the owner indicated that we should try and catch its bridle. We did not manage this, but later we saw the donkey being driven back along the path by another local. The owner walked away from the donkey which then followed him closely. When it got close enough he spun round and grabbed its bridle. A cunning strategy!
The route eventually led us back to Col Checroui and the Maison Vielle. From there we took the ski slopes and woodland path back down to Dolonne.
The next day we left the hotel and took the Val Ferret bus from Courmayeur to the head of the valley. This is a cheap way of gaining a lot of height. At the valley head we set off to the Rifugio Bonatti which we reached early in the day. It is a marvellous place. Not only is the building new and comfortable, but it is very well run too and would embarrass many valley hotels by its good quality in all respects. Not many huts boast a boot room, a drying room and adequate storage for possessions in the dortoirs.
Since we were early in arriving we were able to walk up the valley above the hut as far as Alpe Sup. Malatra. I also walked a little higher to the lip of an old terminal moraine to look again at the upper valley. I wanted to see if it was still as bare as I remembered it from 2005. It was.
From the Bonatti there is a path leading straight downhill. If you follow it for 200m or so you will find a path going off to your left. It will take you to the Rifugio Bertone by a series of little-used paths. I found it in 2006 and immediately liked it. The views of the Mont Blanc range are as good as the Monte de la Saxe path and the immediate scenery is a million times better. The path is part meadow, part woodland with lots of flowers and many butterflies if you are there in early July. Also it passes two rather poverty stricken farms where the path skirts the farm and avoids the dogs. We were treated to the sight of a local farmer galloping bareback on his horse along a narrow footpath across the steep hillside. Later we met him again; this time saddled-up and followed by a small pack of dogs. It is a picturesque route.
We had considered stopping at the Bertone. I have good memories of meals there but bad memories of the washrooms and showers. We noted that the washrooms have been rebuilt since last year and are much improved. On balance we decided to go down to Courmayeur since it was still early in the day. That was a good decision for us since there was plenty to do in Courmayeur for the rest of the day and the rain set in and lasted to the following day, so we would have got wet coming down from the Bertone.
So, the following day we walked in the rain to the bus station and took the bus back through the tunnel again to Chamonix. It was still pouring with rain there so we did some shopping for a few books then sat for a long time watching people strolling past under their umbrellas. In the early afternoon the rain relented and we took the path beside the river to the La Flegere téléphérique. We took this and at the top we walked the 150m in the rain to the refuge where we stayed for the rest of the day. Entertainment consisted of a shower, reading the new books and having dinner. The rain fell relentlessly outside. We had taken the precaution of buying return tickets and we were prepared to go down to the valley and take the bus to Le Tour.
We had been a bit apprehensive of the forecast for the next day, since it was vague and mentioned showers and thunderstorms. In the event the day started cool with quite a lot of cloud but it improved steadily as the day progressed to finish with blue skies. We were now heading for Le Tour and we chose the Balcon route which by-passes the Argentière echelles, which we had followed a couple of weeks earlier. This proved to be an excellent choice and we enjoyed the longer footpath. If, like us, you pass the same way twice then I urge you to try both routes.
There was a huge treat in store for us during the day. At one stage on the path we saw a herd of Ibex above us on the hillside. A little further along we came to a rising path that doubled back up the hillside and I suggested to Joan that we go along it to get a better view of the ibex. It proved to be a magical strategy.
We found the herd had settled down astride the path and that half or more of the herd were males with huge horns. Previously I have only ever seen females and young in the Lac Blanc region: the males I had only seen in the Bonhomme region. I presume it must be the start of the mating season although we witnessed no aggression between the males. Ibex are always very tolerant of humans so I carried on through the herd while talking softly to Joan the whole time so I did not surprise one. All the time I was taking photos at ranges down to about 3m. The only effect this had was that a few got out of the way if they though I was going to step on them! I got some super photos.
By early afternoon we were back to Chalet Alpin du Tour again. We tidied up ourselves and our belongings and sorted out the stuff for our final walking day tomorrow. We also got our Cartes Hôte from Gilles Pouëch for gratis bus rides into Chamonix.
To our relief the morning was good, if not perfect. We took the bus to the Midi téléphérique and decided it was sufficiently free from cloud to buy tickets (€38). It paid off and the day improved. The best deal for walkers is to ask to go to the top and then ride down as far as the Plan de l'Aiguille where you have a fine walk to Montenvers and then take the rack and pinion railway back down to Chamonix.
At the top there was a little cloud about but generally good visibility. This was nice for Joan who had not been up on the Aiguilles du Midi for thirty years. We stayed for some while and visited all the many lookout points. We had heard that conditions were bad this year with a lot of snow around. Certainly the rock routes were thoroughly plastered with snow and where one might usually be able to count ten or so ropes coming up there were none. There were people on the snow ridge though and we ended up taking pictures of them taking their own pictures as they started down the spectacular snow ridge.
Once back down to the Plan de l'Aiguille we sat in the sunshine at a cafe table and enjoyed a drink before setting off on our walk. The balcon route is a charming path. Last year I finished it by taking the lower branch to Montenvers (an excellent path). This time we took the upper path to Signal Forbes. It was a rather longer climb than I expected but the end point was a good viewpoint for the Mer de Glace and well worth the effort. Afterwards we descended to Montenvers and took the train back down to Chamonix.
That was almost the end. In the morning we had breakfast and at 08:00 the efficient Mountain drop-offs minibus came and took us to Geneva Airport and our homeward flight.
That had been a good holiday indeed and a very relaxing one with plenty of time to appreciate our surroundings.
Repeat visit in 2008
My TMB info page