Tour of Mont Blanc part 2 / by Jerry Gillham

DAY 7. REFUGE BONATTI TO LA FOULY

Distance 21.73km, ascent 1473m, descent 1897m, time between hostels 6hr 10min.

A promising start with a partial rainbow on the Grande Jorasses, the view from the refuge.

An early breakfast and start after a very good sleep. It was cloudy outside and felt constantly on the verge of rain. We headed out in lightweight windproofs for a pleasant traverse of the hillside, crossing streams and heading through trees until we had to descend at the head of the valley as there was an uncrossable ravine.

Clouds pouring over the col and into the head of the valley, swirling round like a waterfall.

Then immediately back onto zigzag ascents up to the next refuge, We sheltered from the wind and mist behind it while eating a few snacks before tackling the major up. This was through increasingly thick cloud and not so warm so just a case of powering on through. We got good views back down the valleys but up near the Grand Col Ferret visibility dropped to around 15m. We caught up with the French girl we'd been chatting to the previous evening who was also carrying full camping kit, and at the top talked to a pair of Americans who warned us that the weather in the valley we were dropping into was even worse. So, throwing on our waterproofs, we headed down into Switzerland.

Descending into Switzerland.

This was a nice descent, not too steep, very green and even going and, as the cloud did begin to clear it started to warm up. We stopped for a coffee at the refuge at La Peule and then continued traversing the slope before dropping down around Ferret. That bit of the journey was full of trees, flowers and birds and I was a bit sorry I hadn't gone with the extra weight of binoculars and ID guides.

We stopped a while beside the river where I dipped my feet in, ate some nuts and tried to do a handstand. The path carried us along beside the river into the little village of La Fouly, a pretty little town with supermarket and ATM (though everywhere in Switzerland accepted Euros anyway).

We checked into the Hotel Edelweiss, certainly the poshest and most expensive accommodation so far, however it seemed that's just Switzerland. We were still in a small dorm on the very top floor. We picked up ice cream and refreshments and took them down to the river where we entertained ourselves skimming and throwing rocks in.

Dinner was a nice ratatouille and a disappointing chicken curry. As it was served early we walked into town where celebrations were being held for national Swiss day. Not much was happening at the big marquee so we went back for a beer, but when we came out of that bar there was a brass band approaching us menacingly from the far end of the street, driving us back to the marquee, clearly the centre of events.

We sat down in the beer garden with a view of proceedings. Paddy wanted a glass of wine but they'd run out of large glasses so he got served two small ones, which was an amusing sight. Overhead was a fireworks display and then a line of flaming torches carried down the slope by the children of the town. We were worried it was all going a bit wicker man as they crowded round the unlit bonfire, but the only people getting too close to that were the guys pouring petrol over its base. It lit with a proper 'woosh' and I swear I saw one guy rolling round on the grass trying to put himself out, but no one else seemed bothered about it.

Like any regional celebration you're not used to it was utterly bewildering fun.

 

DAY 8. LA FOULY TO CHAMPEX

Distance 20.22km, ascent 989m, descent 1148m, time between hostels 5 hours.

Maybe the best breakfast of the trip - good bread rolls, cheese, an apple and a cappuccino option in the coffee machine. We weren't in a rush and departed about 8:30, heading first for the supermarket to get some bits to lunch.

The day took us north up through the Val Ferret, winding through forests on either side of the river. Not far out of La Fouly, at one of the stream crossings, we deviated from the track to go and explore a waterfall, running up close to dry and dip our heads in and get soaking wet in the process. Luckily it was a warm, if not properly sunny, day.

Camera care before waterfall enjoyment.

We did have proper showers every evening, but not were as invigorating as this.

We gradually lost height as we wound through the villages of Praz de Fort and Issert, picturesque but slightly odd little places. Lots of beautiful wooden buildings but a good number with ramshackle balconies, skewed doors and antlers or stuffed animals mounted over them.

Looking down on the village of Issert and up to the col where Champex lies.

From Issert the track went across the valley and unexpectedly steeply up through the woods to Champex. It was hot climbing, though the locals had thoughtfully placed a series of sculptures at the side of the path - local wildlife, flora or mythological beasts.

Furious wooden marmot. Mind you, it appears he's been interrupted at a rather personal moment.

Up at Champex we stopped for our lunch. Paddy and I split a huge chunk of breadin half, hollowed it out and packed in as much of the excessive amount of cheese and lettuce we'd bought as was physically possible. The end result was tasty but it felt like one had to dislocate a jaw to bite into it. Ric ate nuts, as he had done at every stop for the past week.

We walked through town to find our accommodation, Gite Bon Abri, about a mile past the last buildings and deep in the woods. Also I'd forgotten it wasn't open until 5:00. That meant it was a slightly frustrating half hour or so, walking and waiting, though I was happy as I'd found bilberries nearby. We spent a short while incompetently playing table tennis on an outdoor table before stashing our bags and heading back into town for a drink.

We'd booked accommodation in a tent that night (one supplied with camp bed and blankets) to reduce the price a bit. Upon returning we found we were the only people booked in to it so were able to spread ourselves out a bit, though we wondered how it would keep out the cold or sound of cowbells.

Yes, that'll keep the cold out.

All mod cons.

Dinner was a chilli. A good one. Maybe my favourite meal of the trip, but then I like chilli. The place felt more of a hikers hostel and the staff there spoke good English and were very helpful and welcoming. Another group were drinking beers with a drop of grenadine in the bottom. I wanted one. I don't know if this is a Swiss thing or what but from now on it's a drink I'll associate with Switzerland.

 

DAY 9. LA FOULY TO TRIENT

Distance 16.58km, ascent1677m, descent 1839m, time between hostels 7hr 20min.

It was a cold night in the tent, though the cows did stop moving around (except for one mad one) and I only felt cold when I woke up if the blankets had slid off, though I did sleep in a thermal and hat. Woke up fairly early with the light shining in and some chickens that I thought was Paddy making silly noises. 30 years I've known that man and I still can't tell the difference between him and some chickens.

For the first time in a week our journey started with a chairlift. It took us a little way off the main route and we had to drop down again to miss the main path, but it cut off about 400m of ascent and gave us some great views down on the Val Ferret we wouldn't have otherwise got.

Views north from the top of the chairlift.

We dropped down a big piste track, rounding the corner to see the all route ahead become a seemingly unbreakable wall of rock at the head of the valley, the col barely a dent in the jagged skyline. An immense view and one I was very looking forward to approaching, knowing it would be difficult but excited to see what it would be like. The path up from Arpette wound its way up through trees and meadows, between boulders and back and forth over the stream.

Stopping in shock at the task ahead.

Gorgeous views but still no obvious route through.

We probably would have been quicker if we hadn't had to stop and check under every Christmas tree in case there were presents there.

Feeling high up in the mountains.

As we pulled above the tree-line we started to have to wind our way through steeper and steeper boulder fields. I felt the need to try a diversion, climbing a small knoll to attempt a good photo of the path from a different angle. Unfortunately I found no simple way of rejoining the path without losing the height I'd gained, so embarked on a long circuit round the edge of the valley, through a maze of huge boulders that took much longer than I expected. I rejoined the path for the final incredibly steep push, the zig zags crammed in so closely you could high five the person on the next one.

That's the Fenetre, that little dip in the ridge. Just all these rocks and that near vertical slope to get past first.

A tiny figure pushing onwards across the snow patch gives the boulders a sense of scale.

The Fenetre d'Arpette is well named. Like a window cut into the ridge, it's only a few meters wide yet the views from there are stunning; back into the lush green valley or ahead to the Glacied du Trient with the rest of the massif laid out beyond. We took a lot of photos up there, climbing around to get a better view and enjoying the feeling of success.

The Fenetre d'Arpette.

Awe-inspiring views from the Fenetre.

It took about 3 hours to ascend. Three hot, sweaty hours so we enjoyed the chance to dry off a bit in the breeze. I ate a lime that I'd been mocked about buying to rehydrate, and very much enjoyed it. Much less I enjoyed Paddy revealing to us (in every sense) a huge rip in his shorts. As we descended the incredibly steep west side, in places more a climb than steps, I could only pity the poor people ascending, partly because of the effort going in, partly because of the views they must be getting of Paddy's pants and inner thigh.

The Glacier du Trient stretching down the valley the way we were headed.

It got really pretty down through the trees and I kept turning round to admire the view of the glacier (though averting my eyes from Paddy, lest I should catch a glimpse of his unmentionables).

Scenery changed by the hour, exposed rock to forest to meadow.

We stopped down at a path-side cafe for refreshments and those of us who needed to changed shorts. It was much busier here with people coming up for day walks to admire the glacier. Continuing along we wandered along a flat, well-built path with a constructed water channel running its length. At one point it appeared to be driving a pair of hammers, though for no purpose other than to make a hammering sound.

These crotchless shorts are great for ventilation, but consistent wearing of them will end with you on a register somewhere.

Turning off on a smaller path down to Trient I learned some useful Italian; "non, non, pee-pee" apparently translates as "traveller! do not approach any closer, for a lady is urinating on the path". A handy phrase. Once she had finished we were allowed to pass and enjoy our descent into Trient and Auberge Mont Blanc. There was a good combination of sun and wind so a good chance to get a bit of washing and drying done. Paddy's shorts went the same way as his boots, and so did one pair of my socks.

The postcard village of Trient.

Dinner was a tomato and cheese fondue with potatoes. I was glad I'd picked it over the rice and pork option as it was much more exciting, and if there was any evening we could justify artery-clogging amounts of cheese it was this one. We were sat beside the same Israeli family we'd been beside for dinner at Refuge Bonatti and there were several other folk we recognised from the last few days.

We had a couple of drinks to celebrate our time in Switzerland and played Connect 4, at which it turns out Ric is a master. 

 

DAY 10. TRIENT TO TRE LE CHAMP

Distance 18.66km, ascent 1383m, descent 1261m, time between hostels 6hr 10min.

Which boots to wear today?

There were a few options for this days route, but we decided to go for the long one for the potential views. This meant retracing our steps for the first few kilometres, back to the cafe where we'd stopped yesterday. On the path I found a dead mole, the second I'd seen in two days. I mused on what tragedy might be befalling continental moles. From the cafe we crossed the river and started zig zagging up through the trees. It was cool in the shade but as we broke through the tree line it got hot and turned into a sweaty slog up to the refuge at Les Grandes.

Heading up the valley.

Well paved mountainside.

The ascent continued for a short while afterwards, including terraces carved out of the side of the cliff. Once over them it turned into a very pleasant undulating path, working its way through boulders and miniature trees.In one direction we were looking back to the glacier and col we'd passed yesterday, and ahead we could see the valley and Trient, where we'd ascended from.

Trient, where we started the day, in the valley.

As the path approached the col there was a small patch of snow which most people were walking around, but which Ric and I decided to strike out straight across. It was a traverse of some difficulty and cold enough to numb the hands.

Making things unnecessarily difficult.

We stopped at the col for a can of coke and a short break. It had taken just under 3 hours to reach.

Crossing the border back into France, with Mont Blanc gleaming in the sun.

From the refuge there we traversed beneath the peak beside it and dropped to another col before heading back up to the Aiguille de Posettes. This was a nice little path through broken rocks and low shrubs that reminded me of the Forest of Bowland on a sunny day. From this little peak we got great views of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley.

Looking east from Aiguille de Posettes.

Mountains, blue skies, and Chamonix below us.

The track down was a series of steep drops and sharp turns that were hard on the knees so we took our time getting down to Tre le Champ and Auberge la Boerne. We were early enough to get a sandwich and a beer for lunch. You could tell we were back in France as you got a 65cl beer for 6E rather than the 40cl we'd been getting in Switzerland.

It is a charmingly weird hostel, an absolute wooden rabbit warren, rooms all different sizes and crammed in wherever possible, seemingly defying physical space like an Esher painting, or like Jareth's palace in Labyrinth depending on your frame of reference. We had our own room, which would have been nice to spread stuff out in, except by the time I got to it that had already been done.

It started raining and then a thunder storm passed overhead. We sat and watched it a while before heading to bed. It was very hot during the night, we tried opening the windows but one just opened onto the corridor and the other onto an adjacent room, through which Paddy passively observed a naked Frenchman.

 

DAY 11. TRE LE CHAMP TO CHAMONIX

Distance 15.17km, ascent 1040m, descent 1407m, time between hostels

It was still rainy in the morning so we didn't hurry off, especially with the rather cramped porch where everyone was getting ready. Ric, Paddy and a nice Danish girl called Leah, who we had been chatting to the previous night, headed off on the main TMB trail through the woods and to the ladders, chains and half-pipes of the via ferrata. I however had a plan for getting above the cloud that involved going up the horrendous-looking path we had observed on the descent yesterday. The others were not keen as it involved starting the day with 46 zig zags, then a more gradual ascent along the exposed balcony overlooking the valley.

Now what is unappealing about that path?

As good as the weather got.

Knowing the number of turns was a big advantage as I was able to count them down as I ascended, knowing how far I was getting. Near the top of steep part I encountered a young ibex who was completely unconcerned by my presence, trotting slowly ahead of me then stopping to et beside the path. As I was walking to the audiobook of Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife it seemed appropriate that the ibex was my spirit guide / daemon, urging me on.

Guide me young ibex. Oh, you've just stopped to have something to eat. Well maybe I should do that too.

The gentle slope at the top of the zig zags should have provided amazing views but visibility was actually around 15m. There were a lot of streams swollen with all the rain that needed deviations from the path to find dry ways across.

I ignored the first turn off to Lac Blanc as it was still wet, but in the 5 minutes to the next sign the cloud cleared a bit, and the sign said it was just 45 minutes away, which I reckoned on doing in 30, so I went for it. The weather didn't improve any more but there were some fun bits along the route with ladders and wooden steps. I reached the hut at Lac Blanc about 10:30, 2 hours after setting off, which I thought was pretty good going. There I met the first people I'd seen since the very bottom but didn't hang around to chat as the weater worsened.

The picturesque Lac Blanc.

I texted the others with an ETA for the refuge where we'd agreed to meet and started off down the slope, half jogging on the flatter parts. It's a part of the trail I'd love to do again as the number of lakes and interesting rock formations looming out of the mist would normally have called for further investigation. I knew I was getting closer to civilisation a I passed pistes, ski lifts and large groups of guided walkers. Then out of the mist emerged the imposing La Flegere station, looking for all the world like an abandoned farm building from a zombie film.

I stopped for a large coffee in the fancy, spaceship-like cafe and waited the 20 minutes for the others to emerge out of the rain. Grateful for our hot drinks we sat around an discussed our plans for the rest of the day: 1, a slow descent through the trees back to Chamonix, 2, a quick, steep descent then a walk back along the valley floor into Chamonix or 3, cable car down then a quick walk along the valley floor and in Chamonix in time for pizza for lunch.

Unsurprisingly we went for option 3. I felt I'd had a really good walk that morning and was only going to get wetter and colder as we headed slowly down the track. Plus my quads were beginning to stiffen up and I wanted a pizza. Leah decided to stay in the refuge up the hill for the night so the three of us headed down into the valley, walked alongside the river and sat down to our celebration lunch. Ric complemented his with a very cognac-heavy French coffee. 

It turned out our accommodation, back at the Gite Vagabond, wasn't open until later, so we ended up wandering around the town checking out sales in the gear shops and stopping for another beer, once again ending up sitting next to the same Israeli family we had almost been travelling with. It was interesting seeing a few other familiar faces pass by too, wondering who was finished and who on their penultimate day, who had been out up the hills that morning and who had sacked it off for a rest day.

 Worth paying a bit more for a private room so we could get a bit of drying done.

Worth paying a bit more for a private room so we could get a bit of drying done.

That evening we celebrated further with an excellent curry and a few more drinks.

Tour of Mont Blanc... done.

Where next?