Shadow of Mont Blanc

Tour dates: 20 Aug to 04 Sep 2008.
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This holiday was largely a repeat of last year's holiday, but with a few new walks. Last year's 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 the TMB at a leisurely pace with plenty of time to stop and enjoy the surroundings. This changed to become a series of walks based on hotels and huts in the areas around Chamonix, Les Contamines and Courmayeur.
It makes a pleasant and comfortable holiday with some excellent footpaths. So this year's repeat visit was done because we liked the area so much and also it was so easy for us to organise it.

View Photo Set 1/3 | Set 2/3 | Set 3/3 | Diary
Our visit in 2007

20 August

Easy transport is an attraction of this trip. A quick bit of lunch. To East Midlands Airport by local bus. Then a flight to Geneva, a pickup by Mountaindropoffs minibus and an arrival at Chalet Alpin du Tour slightly after dinner had started. (We were kindly given the first course as well, even though we were late)

21 August

Our first morning dawned bright although Joan was not feeling too well. We walked along a traverse through the woods to Tre le Champ with several stops to sit in the sunshine. Joan never felt quite right all day, but we did make our way up to les Aiguilles de Posettes, going slowly and stopping frequently. The views are great all the way up the ridge and at the top. Joan was feeling a little recovered on the descent and brightened up as she sipped a cold jus de pommes in the sunshine of a cafe near the lift. Veronique, the new warden at le Tour, had cooked an interesting North African style meal for everyone.

22 August

Another day with Joan unwell. We took the 9:50 bus to the Lognan Telepherique and went up to the middle station. From there we walked up to the lateral moraine with views down on to the glacier. It was cold and windy with the occasional light shower. The views were good. Afterwards we descended to the comfort of the Lognan Refuge for a short stay before starting down the attractive descent path. The path had a notice saying it would lead to the "ski track", so we had been warned. To anyone reading this: I suggest you traverse back to the middle telepherique station and onwards to take the descent track through the woods there. (We have not tried that track, but it could not possibly be more boring than the lower part of the descent we took with a choice of steep rolling pebbles or slippery grass!) Our outing finished with a stroll into Argentiere to buy a missing item then a bus ride back to le Tour.

23 August

Still not well, and after waiting for the 9:50 bus we discovered that the timetables had changed! We decided to walk to Argentiere and see how things were progressing. In the event we walked all the way into Chamonix finishing across the park and sport fields. The route taken was the Petit Balcon Nord for most of the time and was really quite a satisfying day for a valley walk. We can recommend this walk for a fill-in or poor weather day. After a little while in Chamonix we caught the 17:40 bus back, where we found it had been raining. We had a dry day! Before dinner we sampled a few strange ridged mushrooms which had been picked by a French couple and cooked by the warden. They were very nice (both the mushrooms and the French couple!)

24 August

Anticyclonic conditions today: clear blue skies. Joan was rather better today. Took 08:35 bus to get the La Flegere telepherique. Walked back along the Grand Balcon Sud to Tre-le-Champ and the woodland path back to le Tour. This traversing path through the woods is difficult to find from this end, but it is the only really nice path back from the main road and/or the col. The best description I can give is to take the main footpath from Tre-le-Champ to Montroc until you meet the main footpath running up to the hotel/ train-tunnel and then go back about 5 metres and start up the steep bank on your left (no signs and not much wear on the grass)

25 August

Departed from le Tour with all our belongings and took the 8:35 bus into Chamonix. We wanted to cross over the Mont Blanc range by telepherique today. However, that did not work on two counts: first one should really be in the queue at 8am and secondly there was some cloud about. The forecast for the next day was good. So we booked in to a small hotel in Chamonix; which proved to be a very pleasant choice. Then we wandered round Chamonix for the day and treated ourselves to a restaurant meal in the evening. During the day we heard of the recent accident on one of the standard Mont Blanc routes with a collapse of a serac plus a snow avalanche killing 8 people and injuring others.

26 August

Hotel routines meant we did not get to the Midi telepherique queue until 9am and started up about 10am. None the less the day stayed perfect and our trip worked well in stable good weather. We repeated last year's viewing from the Midi and then took the small gondolas onwards to the Pointe Hellbrun . The views of the glaciers and snowfields are superb. The distance covered is substantial and there was a benefit from five mid-air stops while the other gondolas on the cable empty and refill, so there is plenty of time to look around. We took a lot of photos. At Pointe Helbrunner there is an opportunity to walk out on to the snowfields. We did this despite some cloud formed in the area and this proved to be a good decision, since the clouds cleared to give us good conditions again.

We now had to pay for the Italian descent route, which makes the whole traverse more expensive than an out-and-return from the return from the French side (a better option for most people, with two long rides and a smaller cost). That said, we found the full traverse from France to Italy very satisfying and I suppose you can always argue that you saved the tunnel bus fare! The descent on the sunny Italian side contrasted with the icy and gloomy ascent on the French side. It made me think back to the Matterhorn years ago, when I ascended on the sunny east face and had to detour on to the cold and icy north face near the top. During the descent one changes carriages half way down and there is a sunny cafe terrace where we spent some time admiring the view and soaking-up the sunshine.

Once down we took a local bus to Courmayeur and walked across to Dolonne to check-in at the Hotel de Glaciers. It was pleasant to meet the hotel owners again, who remembered us from last year. Later we had a stroll around Courmayeur while dressed-up as tourists.

27 August

Took the bus up the Val Ferret to Arp Nuvaz at the end of the road. Walked back on the path that rises to somewhat below the ridge. We stopped for a glass of beer in the sunshine at the Rifugio Bonatti. The onward path has changed in the space of a single year. It is still not well-marked on the maps but it now has some more path markers and there is evidence of some maintenance and improvement work. This is all good: it is a much richer experience than the path along the whaleback ridge above.

We had another stop at the Rifugio Bertone before the long descent into Courmayeaur and then across to our hotel at Dolonne.

28 August

Today we took the bus to the end of the main road in Val Veny and then walked up the road towards the Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini until we reached the TMB path that doubles back towards Courmayeur. We walked back along this path to Dolonne with a stop at the Maison Vieille on the way. The weather was glorious and this is a satisfying walk in good weather. We had earlier met some people doing the TMB who said they had taken a bus from one valley and to the other because "there is no good walking on the Italian side". The poor misguided things!

The Ultra-Tour du Mont Blanc was to be raced the next day and our whole route was marked by red and white plastic markers with a piece of reflective material at the top. [The Ultra-Tour is a race round the whole TMB route in which the winner will complete the course in less than 24hrs.]

29 August

Back to France today. At the bus station had an interesting conversation with a French competitor in the "Half-length" version of the Ultra-Tour, which was about to start in an hour. Travelled back through the tunnel to Chamonix and then walked to Les Houches along the river path. There we took the cable car up to Le Prarion. This proved to be a great success with us. The Hotel/Refuge is on a high point with 360* views and it provides either hotel or dortoir accommodation and gave us an excellent fondue for dinner.

We had a pleasant time wandering around along the top of the hill in the afternoon. After dinner there were fine sunsets in the West and orange-lit snowfields in the East, not to mention sparkling valley lights below! It is obviously a perfect ski resort in winter but little-used by walkers because it is slightly to one side of the main flow of TMB. Do try it if you can, particularly on a clear day which will let you see the views.

30 August

Took the path via La Charme to Bionassay and then the "normal" route to Les Contamines. The day was hot and we stopped frequently on the way. We had genteel drinks in the refuge at Bionassay and less-genteel drinks at a horse trough at la Gruvaz after ascending the steep path up past the school in the full glare of the afternoon sun! Our destination was les Contamines and we checked in at Hotel la Christiania, as last year.

31 August

Some high cloud today. We repeated last years walk along the superb higher footpath to Combe Noir and did it without seeing a soul for the second year running. A hidden gem, if anything ever qualified for that description! Had a cold beer near Nant Borant. Then set off up a side path posted as an alternative route to Notre Dame de la Gorge. It proved to be quite a tough and long path but interesting. It took a lot longer than going down the road, although it was signposted as 10min longer. Back at the hotel, we had a big thunderstorm during the night.

01 September

Decided to stay another night. Walked to Notre Dame de la Gorge and took a cablecar from there. There was a definite end-of-season feel today and the upper lift had closed until the ski season. The area on this side of the valley is not really walking terrain: too bland. Came down passing a near-deserted lake with cafes and sunloungers, which looked a little out of place.

02 September

Luckily we went early to catch the 10:40 bus. As we walked up through the village and were surprised to find the main road sealed off for a market day. We were even more surprised to find the bus did not access that end of the village and we had to walk back in the other direction, past the hotel we had left earlier. Made it in time!

The bus took us to le Fayet where we had quite a long wait in the vicinity of the Mont Blanc rack and pinion railway station. Continued to Chamonix via a more conventional train and took the telepherique up to la Flegere where we checked into the refuge. There was enough left of the day for a pleasant out and return trip across the hillside and a chance to eat lots of Myrtilles (Blueberries ). The refuge was full of a vast Japanese group who, very charmingly, bought the rest of us some wine for dinner because they said they "had been making too much noise with their conversations".

03 September

Set off to walk to le Tour, this time taking the Petit Balcon Sud route which is the only route here that I had never done before. Started the day with a view of several small deer. I think they were Chamois but they were not close enough to be sure of the little hooked horns and the badger faces. They could have been some other small deer. Simultaneously we saw two Marmots, which are the only ones we saw this year. The walk was enjoyable and had a lot of very attractive forest paths. Continued all the way to le Tour by footpaths. The forecast rain started in the late afternoon, but we had had good weather for our last walking day.

04 September

It had rained heavily during the night. Our minibus was not due until early afternoon and the rain stopped just after breakfast. We managed to walk to Argentiere in the dry and then the rain got going in earnest. We sat around in a cafe for some time and then took the bus back to le Tour. Mountaindropoffs were their usual efficient selves and spirited us back to Geneva Airport in good time for the flight back to East Midlands and home.

View Photo Set 1/3 | Set 2/3 | Set 3/3 | Diary
Our visit in 2007