hiking

It's been a while... by Jerry Gillham

It's been a busy few months, and for a long part of it we were without any comms as the phones and internet went down for about six weeks. But I've now got a bit of time in the evenings to try and catch up with my blog.

It's the start of winter now; there's a bit of ice in the bay, the fishing ships are around and there's currently only nine of us on station. We're having to draw the blinds around 5:00 in the afternoon and people are starting to get on with making midwinter gifts.

Here's a few photos from earlier in the year, I'll try and put up some more soon.

Erny (mechanic / temporary boating officer) and Kieran (higher predator scientist) checking out an impressive iceberg. Taking the boats past the ice and down towards the glaciers is fantastic, especially when you get these big ones with their crazy shapes. On a calm day you can hear the fizzing and cracking of the tiny air bubbles in the ice all around you.

Fraser (doctor) on the top of Petrel peak. We pretty much came straight up this one, walking up the snow rather than scrambling up the scree. Petrel has two peaks, the other, slightly higher one is a not-so-nice balancing act up some crumbly rocks but this one, the more spectacular looking, is actually really solid and pretty simple.

With Bob (mechanic), Thies (yachtsman / builder) and Fraser up one of the many no-named peaks within our travel area. To the right of the picture, covered in debris is the Lyell Glacier and before that the deep green Lyell Lakes. The central peak behind us is False Minden, a peak just over 1,000m that is right on the edge of our travel area. Thies had done it before but no one else had and it was very tempting.

Matthew (boating officer), Dave (electrician) and Kieran up the top of Anderson Peak on a cloudy day. It cleared up enough to give us some nice views down towards Maiviken.

Matthew investigating an ice cave that has reduced in size dramatically since he first came down in 2013. Then you could stand up in the entrance, today you can just about crawl through a tunnel if you don't mind getting your knees a bit muddy and your back a bit wet.

This was shortly after the day on the no-named peak when we decided we'd head out early and attempt False Minden.

Fraser and Thies high up False Minden. Although Thies had climbed this peak before he kept changing his mind about the route, often saying we should have done it slightly differently. Still, without his guidance we'd probably have turned back.

Nearing the summit and feeling the height as we looked down on the top of the glaciers. It was such a warm, sunny day we'd had to repeatedly fill up our water bottles in streams.

Looking down on Hamberg Lakes and Hestersletten. The colour of these glacial lakes amazing, as is the way it changes as the water filters from one to another.

Fraser moving along the top ridge, with Mount Sugartop looking close enough to reach (though actually another 1000+m of Himalayan-style ascent).

Stopping for a quick lunch break on the top, looking down on Lyell Lakes. This turned into a pretty epic 10 hour day but was worth the tired legs, sunburn, cut hands and knees (some of that scree is sharp stuff) for the views.

Higher in the Alps by Jerry Gillham

Walking the Tour du Mont Blanc was brilliant, but most of the way round I couldn't help looking up towards the snow line and rocky outcrops and wonder what it was like up there. Well this week I had a chance to find out. I'd booked on an alpine climbing course with KE Adventures, with the aim of improving my climbing and mountaineering skills.

Arriving back in Chamonix after a frustrating journey where nearly everything that could delay me did, I was pleased to find my accommodation, at the Yeti Lodge, comfortable and welcoming and the other two guys on my course, Rob and Brian, friendly and easy going. That night we met up with our guide / instructor, Neil, a good-natured and reassuring presence with 40 years experience of climbing around Chamonix. He checked over our kit and issued us with bits I was hiring rather than fly out with them - helmet, harness, crampons, ice axe.

Day 1; rock climbing.

So Neil could get an idea of our competency levels we went to a large crag near the road in downtown Chamonix for some climbing. It's a while since I've been properly climbing rather than just scrambling so there was some old stuff for me to remember (belaying, different ways of tying in) and some new bits to get to grips with (new rock shoes, though we did also do a few routes in big mountain boots). 

Busy times on the crag.

It was pleasing to see Brian, Rob and I were all of a similar level, challenged but completing a series of increasingly difficult routes.

 

Day 2; ice skills.

With all our ice gear we ascended the Grands Montets lift and walked out onto the glacier. First priority was feeling comfortable walking around in crampons and then roping up to move around safely. This is stuff I've done before but I was able to push myself onto steeper gradients and harder surfaces.

Playground for the day.

Clearly a popular place for training.

We moved to a wind-pocket where there was a good, steep slope where we could try a bit of ice climbing. This was supposed to be a fairly big part of the course but unfortunately for us there were very few appropriate places where it could be done, partly because of the time of year and partly because of the very warm summer we've had; much of the snow was soft and unreliable (planned expeditions to summit Mt Blanc couldn't go ahead, while rockfalls had been much more regular than usual. There have been multiple fatalities this season and our guide was wary of following the planned programme too closely, luckily with his vast experience and extensive contacts he was able to come up with alternatives that were at least as exciting).

Neil, showing us how it's done.

Our short ice climbing experience was great and it's something I hope I'll be able to expand on in the future. We also did some crevasse rescue training, setting up pulleys. It's something I've done before with BAS but was good to refresh myself and on real snow. We took the rope back home and set one up again in our flat, as well as a bit of knot-tying practice.

Setting up a crevasse rescue system.

Much conversation was about the strange people you meet on the slopes, particularly a preposterously alpha-male Canadian who worked in the Middle East and his much younger Thai partner, whose cartoon child-like voice made us all uncomfortable, though not as much as their poor guide.

 

Day 3; Aiguille du Coches traverse.

With the weather reports dubious for later in the afternoon we headed up the Aiguille Rouge side of the valley early, up the lifts to Index. A short walk and ascent up a steep scree slope put us on a sharp ridge where we roped together and started working our way along. A mixture of scrambling, climbing and lowering down with picturesque clouds drifting across the ridge and green valleys below. I really enjoyed this route, much of it is the sort of thing I would try to do in the Lake District or Scotland, but with narrower routes and steeper, bigger drops so I was glad to be roped in.

Ominous clouds over Mt Blanc.

The ridge ahead.

Looking back and watching the next lady mocking us by racing through untethered.

We finished with a descent to Lac Blanc, glisading down through the snow patches to reach the beautiful blue lake where I had been a month earlier in thick cloud and unrelenting rain. It was nice enough to stop outside for a coffee but the walk down to the lift station at Flegere was, once again, in the rain. We had timed the day well.

Down through the snow.

That evening we ate out as the Yeti Lodge chef, who had provided some amazing vegetarian food, had a couple of nights off. It was back to the all-too-common France, reacting with confusion and fear when I asked if there was a veggie option. Salmon? No. In the end I had a plain omelette, which was fine, but the massive bowl of profiteroles made up for it.

 

Day 4; glacier traverse.

Neil picked us up and drove through the tunnel to Courmayeur where we caught the swish gondola up to the high station at Pointe Hellebronner. We had to climb over a gate to get out onto the glacier where we knitted up with crampons and ropes. Happily tied together we started the crossing to the Aiguille du Midi, the high lift station over Chamonix. Crossing our first crevasses I had a slight giddy feeling as I looked down and saw basically nothing underneath my stride. Further down, where the glacier was spelling over an outcrop and the crevasses were larger and less predictable we followed an established route across snow bridges, marvelling at their shapes and the contrast between the white cliffs and black holes.

The sun beat down on us for the next few hours as we trudged slowly across the snow, stopping to admire the view and listen to Neil talk about climbs he'd done on the towering rocky cliffs and people he'd known who'd been lost amongst them.

Looking back across where we'd walked, from the hump on the right.

After a few diversions to look at the base of the Cosmic Arête and a potential ice climbing spot (where the snow was clearly too soft) we approached the Aiguille du Midi. Before we could reach the lift station however we had to ascend the narrow snow arête. For me this was the scariest moment of the week. As we set off I looked left to where the the snow fell away down a hundred metre slope and out onto the glacier. The edge of the path had holes through it where ice axes, put down for support, had poked all the way through the thin lip of ice. Glancing to the right I could see the snow slope dropping away, getting steeper for about 50m, then the next thing was Chamonix, the best part of two and a half kilometres below us. That was enough to make my head swim a bit so I made a very conscious effort to just stare straight ahead, concentrating on planting my feet firmly in the footsteps made by others, watching Brian move in front of me and matching his pace to keep the rope between us taut. 

Approaching the narrow footsteps up the arete.

Though it felt it that ascent didn't take long and at the top we de-knitted and enjoyed the views. Neil had to rush down to get the bus back to pick up his car, while we stepped out onto the terraces. Aiguille du Midi felt a bit mental; at the Pointe Helbronne there were several others with climbing gear and those who had gone up for the view looked at us with interest, one lady even took a photo of us as an example of 'proper mountaineers' (I didn't want to shatter that illusion with the truth so played along). Yet at Midi I really felt we were the odd ones out as groups of Chinese pushed past us, snagging themselves on our gear, sunbathers indecently exposed themselves and at least one person was carrying a rotisserie chicken. 

The view down into Chamonix. The drop I was trying to avoid looking into on the arete.

Come on France, if you're going to pass laws about what people can and can't wear I think there's an obvious candidate here.

That evening we ate out again and properly overdid it with nachos, veggie burger and a huge Hoegaarden. 

 

Day 5; to Switzerland.

We met a second guide, another Neil, and drove through to Champex in Switzerland. From there we caught a lift and walked up for about two and a half hours to the Cab d'Orny, a high mountain hut and one I'd considered a diversion to when doing the TMB last month. I was glad I hadn't as it was a steep, hot ascent in places, though with marvellous views back across Switzerland and forward to glaciers and peaks.

Cab'Orny beside the glacier and little lake.

After a while relaxing and acclimatising at the hut we headed to the cliff behind it for a little more rock climbing, not entirely unsuccessfully using the hut's crocs as approach shoes. There was enough time for three short pitches and a brief abseiling set up before we had to be back for dinner.

The hut was fairly quiet with a few more climbers and a larger hiking group, a mixture of Swiss and Americans. I slept well that night, feeling used to being on thin mattresses in big dorms.

 

Day 6; Aiguille d'Orny.

The cabin, first thing in the morning.

We started early and walked uphill for about 30 minutes to the base of the cliff. Brian roped up with new Neil while original Neil (origineil) lead me and Rob. The Rock was good for climbing - clean and dry gritstone with plenty of handholds. Yet there were some tricky moves that required time, effort and the problem-solving approach I most enjoy about climbing.

Aiguille d'Orny, 3150m.

We were chased up the cliff by an elderly Swiss guide and his client, frequently sharing the tiny belay points with him, indeed more than once I was feeding out the rope while sitting back in my harness a tight rope or sling the only thing keeping me there. Those were the occasions when it wasn't best to look down.

Looking down.

Looking up.

We ended up doing eight or nine pitches and the whole climb took us about three hours. Near the top we hit the sun and a view to the north that included looking down on the Fenetre, one of the most impressive cols from the TMB. When I reached the top I found the rest of our group already up there as well as two girls who'd come up from the other direction, with the Swiss pair arriving shortly it felt quite crowded, five of us on a point no bigger than a standard dining table. For that reason we didn't hang around, abseiling down the opposite side that we'd ascended, manoeuvring across the top of the cliff and then changing back into mountain boots to walk down the scree slope and gully. 

At the top. See the cabin in the top right

We were back at the hut for midday where we enjoyed a relaxing drink before the hot descent back to the car and back into France. We said our thanks and goodbyes to the Neils and enjoyed a final meal at the lodge.

 

It was a thoroughly enjoyable week - good company, a guide I felt safe with, old skills improved and new ones learned, every day pushing myself in some way.

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?

Tour of Mont Blanc part 1 by Jerry Gillham

DAY 1. CHAMONIX TO LES HOUCHES

Distance 15.90km, ascent 1625m, descent 1658m, time between hostels 5hr 30min.

Departing the Gite Vagabond after breakfast we walked up the road to the and got the cable car out of Chamonix and up to Planpraz, having decided we'd get stuck straight into the exciting walking rather than spend out first few hours trudging up the lower slopes. We were thrust straight into steep ascent though and within 20 minutes there were red faces all round, however by the time we hit the col, after avout 40 minutes, we were into our stride.

Team photo all fresh-legged and raring to go.

The top bit there felt high, with rocky spires and snow patches while atmospheric patches of mist drifted over the top of the ridge, cooling us slightly from the hot sun.

Snow patches around le Brevent.

Short via ferrata sections.

The descent felt long and I was glad firstly that I wasn't doing it with tired legs and secondly that I wasn't carrying full camping kit. Down through the woods we went, on twisting, narrow paths. Down past the an animal park and a big statue of Jesus and onto some slightly confusing tracks that took us into Les Houches and the Gite Michel Fagot. 

The guide book said this place was self catering only so we went and bought stuff from the supermarket. Then found out it wasn't, so put most of it aside for the next days lunch and went for pizza instead.

 

DAY 2. LES HOUCHES TO REFUGE DE LA BALME

Distance 26.4km, ascent 2694m, descent 1993m, time between hostels 9hr.

We had to stop immediately after breakfast as Paddy's boots were falling to bits. He wanted to ignore it but as the sole was coming off and we wouldn't pass any more shops for at least 2 days we persuaded him to invest in a new pair.

These boots will not last.

Again we started the day with a cable car journey and this one was memorable for all the wrong reasons as Paddy again disgraced himself, dropping a smell so bad we genuinely thought he'd shat himself.

Escaping to the clean mountain air we dropped over the railway track to join the TMB variant route down through the woods, across a Himalayan style bridge and up through lovely flower meadows to the Col de Tricot.

Looking ahead to the Col de Tricot, the gap on the right.

The Himalayan style bridge.

This was the first of the long, sweaty ascents we would get used to over the circuit but, as with them all the view from the top was stunning. The alpine visage was interrupted by the sight of Ric and Paddy, topless, eating ham from last nights abandoned meal. Is there anything creepier than half-naked men shoving fistfuls of cheap ham into their sweaty faces? Close by meanwhile another trekker got hassled by sheep.

A steep descent to Chalets de Miage was celebrated with a refreshing cola drink before the hot but short ascent to Chalets du Truc where we had our lunch; bread, cheese and a big box of cherry tomatoes. It did then mean I had a big bag of rubbish to carry but c'est la vie as they say round these parts.

Looking back to the descent from Col de Tricot from the next col.

Down through some forestry tracks until, at La Frasse, we had to decide whether to continue with the variant route or to drop down into the valley to meet the main trail. We opted for the former so started slogging uphill again. Half an hour later we had a similar choice that resulted in Ric and I heading up the steep zigzagged path into Combe d'Armoncette while Paddy took the main track straight on.

Good paths to walk along high above the village of Les Contamines.

Our ascent wasn't too bad as the path was decent. After about 40 minutes it struck off south along a really pretty route that seemed carved into the mountainside. It weaved in and out of the trees so there was limited shelter when it started to rain. Then came the hail, with balls the size of Birdseye frozen garden peas. The intensity increased as the thunder started so we threw on our waterproofs and picked up the pace, looking for better shelter.

Hail, rain, thunder.

The storm didn't last long but just as it was abating we came across a torrential stream of mud and rocks moving downhill fast in the flash flood. It looked a bit problematic so we spent a while sizing it up before finding a spot upstream where we could use our poles to help us leap across.

A problem.

The path then ascended to the refuge at Grande Roche de la Tete. Placed on a dramatic spur with views both ways down the valley it looks like it'd be a good place to stay, only a short walk from the next glacier. With it being the middle of summer we had booked all our accommodation in advance to be sure of having somewhere to stay so we had to press on. The track down was tough on the knees as it wove down very steeply through the woods, crossing some impressive gorges, and happily the sun came out again. We caught up with Paddy and trudged up the last hour or so of dirt track with aching legs.

Weary legs making the final ascent.

After a quick shower we sat down to dinner; soup, polenta, chicken (I realised that in the interests of getting well fed I wasn't going to worry too much about being vegetarian if the choice wasn't immediately available).

 

DAY 3. REFUGE DE LA BALME TO REFUGE DES MOTTETS.

Distance 13.71km, ascent 1165m, descent 994m, time between hostels 6 hours.

The elderly Scandinavian couple on the bunks below us had been awake for at least 45 minutes making noise by the time I decided to get up but apparently that wasn't enough time for them to get dressed as the image that greeted me that morning testified.

Clear morning views towards the Lost World.

With weary legs from the long day before we set off immediately up the hill, in and out of the shade as the sun rose over the hills in front of us. It took about 90 minutes to get to Col du Bonhomme up a path that was sometimes bogy and sometimes well eroded, through rain as much as people.

The paths were generally well marked, with TMB labels, destinations and often predicted walking times. Although we had a map and a guidebook we rarely consulted them apart from in the evening when researching the next day.

Looking up toward Col du Bonhomme.

The beautiful Col du Bonhomme.

A hot day was ideal for for drying pants and socks. The other advantage of drying underwear like this is that you feel safer leaving your bag unattended, knowing that only the most desperate pervert would think of rummaging through it.

A hot day was ideal for for drying pants and socks. The other advantage of drying underwear like this is that you feel safer leaving your bag unattended, knowing that only the most desperate pervert would think of rummaging through it.

At the Col we continued up to Col de la Croix and then up the variant route towards Col de Fours. This was some of my favourite walking of the entire trip as the path rose slowly through proper mountain landscapes, with snow patches and fresh amazing views around each corner.

Heading higher, toward the Col de la Croix.

The clouds were rolling in and out, adding to the atmosphere and sense of occasion as we crested the Col de Fours and saw the valley below, into which our continuing adventures would carry us.

Clouds adding to the atmosphere.

Shame about the pylons.

Col de Fours.

Leaving the other to rest at the col I dashed up to the Tete Nord de Fours only a few more minutes up the hill. At 2756m it was the highest altitude of the trip and the full 360 degree views were superb; the valley we had ascended and the one we were heading into as well as Mont Blanc itself, mostly obscured by cloud but just for the odd second poking through.

Descending the col was via a rather rough path, though Ric and I found it much quicker to throw ourselves down the snow patches, to the amusement of others and numbness of ourselves.

Walking poles are not as good as ice axes for arrests, but are more effective than just digging hands in.

Down the valley flowed a beautiful river, cut into the layers of rock that used to be sea bed, thrust up by tectonic forces to create the Alps themselves. The flower-filled meadows around it were also home to our first marmots.

Gollum, taking a break from fishing in the stream.

The final half hour of the day took us down a few dirt track zig zags then up the base of the next valley, past bathing French families enjoying the mountain streams and spreading themselves across the entire road. The Refuge des Mottets is attractively situated at the head of the valley. Our accommodation block was a big old cow shed with mattresses down both sides. Unlimited showers and a well built washing block although the lack of toilet seats seemed an unnecessary saving. That and the poor quality of the toilet paper were compensated for by a genuinely impressively powerful flush. Best of all there was a donkey outside that was rolling around in the dirt as we arrived and then, as we sat outside with a beer, started simultaneously braying like a foghorn and farting.

Refuge des Mottets.

Comfy and cosy bedding in the old cow sheds.

The place was busy for dinner but there were still plenty of beds free. Dinner was soup, beef boulion, rice and potatoes, with a little trifle. During the meal one of the staff played an old French song on a punch-hole accordion music box thing and a load of people loudly sang along while we chatted to an American about other treks and long bike rides.

 

DAY 4. REFUGE DES MOTTETS TO REFUGE DE RANDONNEUR

Distance 20.00km, ascent 1242m, descent 1204m, time between hostels 6hr 20min

A good nights sleep and an early start meant we were zig zagging up the hill in the shade and in fact needed the first 20 minutes to warm up, though the cloudless skies informed us we were in for a hot day. The ascent didn't feel too long or arduous, with the gradient easing toward the top.

The Col de la Seigne, looking east into Italy.

The view as we crossed the Col de la Seigne, entering into Italy, was something to behold; green valleys and glaciers, Mont Blanc just shrouded in cloud but the spires of those just below it, like Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, looking like an impenetrable fortress.

Stopping for smoko just below the col.

There was a chill wind blowing so we didn't hang round and set off down into the valley, passing cyclists and horses carrying large amounts of kit, and a museum explaining the formation of the valley and the Mt Blanc massif. 

Looking back up the way we had come from Lac de Combal.

Below the Refuge Elisabetta we dropped into the flat-bottomed glacial remains of the valley that developed into the very pretty Lac de Combal. Taking a slight detour we climbed up the steep slope of moraine to look down on the blue-green Lac du Miage. Goats were patrolling round the edge and we had an argument over whether all houses are basically the same or not.

Lac du Miage.

We retraced our steps and headed up the south side of the valley. This was a tough one, sheltered by trees at first but for the most part a long slog up an exposed slope in the glare of the mid-day sun. The gradient wasn't even that steep and the altitude gain less than what we'd done previously but I think with the heat and the fact that we'd put all our attentions into the first ascent of the day we underestimated this one.

Looking east towards where our route wends its way.

The views were worth it though. Mt Blanc was still in cloud but the twin glaciers; du Brouillard and du Freney, were in full view, with the Refuge Monzino perched between them. The Glacier du Miage, which takes up a huge swathe of the map, is nought but a remnant, a scar of moraine debris where the ice once was.

Glaciers and debris where glaciers once were.

Winding our way down the edge of the slope we passed some nice pools and plenty of wildlife; more marmots, chough, redstarts, kestrel, grasshoppers and crickets and loads of butterflies including a lovely swallowtail.

Eventually we reached the ski area above Courmayeur where the path started to be criss-crossed by lifts and pistes. Odd to see them in the summer. The ones here were less of a blot on the landscape than elsewhere but still made the place look artificial compared to the relative inaccessibility of the morning.

We stopped at Refuge Maison Vielle for a beer and a sandwich. On one side of us was a life size plastic cow, on the other a good looking couple in matching cycle gear, sitting beside their bikes for a photo shoot before putting it all in the back of a pickup and driving off. 

The price of beer remained constant all the way round, but sizes would vary. This was one of the best.

10 minutes down the road was our accommodation for the night; Refuge de Randonneur. This was possibly my favourite of the places we stayed though it's difficult to properly say why - modern feeling dorm room but still with character and a great patio on which to relax. At dinner we chatted to a couple of Belgian guys about the music in the hostel the night before, football, motorbikes and how brexit was nothing to do with us.

 

DAY 5. REFUGE DE RANDONNEUR TO REFUGE BERTONE

Distance 9.41km, ascent 854m, descent 781m, time between hostels 4 hr 10 mins.

Descending into Courmayeur.

It took about an hour to descend the steep, dusty track through the forest. At the bottom of the valley we wandered into Courmayeur and paused at the tourist information office where Paddy found a map. Our priorities were 1, cash machine (those beers had dented our predictions) 2, bits of food, specifically bags of nuts, and 3, new flip flops for Ric whose previous pair had gone the way of Paddy's boots. We were successful with the first two, then had one of those tiny coffees about which the Italians are so fanatical.

Making friends with the locals.

Trying to fit in.

We started out of Courmayeur about 11:00, heading up the big hill to Refuge Bertone, about 700m above the town on a rocky spur. It was swelteringly hot but thankfully we were shaded by trees as we struggled up for about 90 minutes. From the top we got a good birds eye view of the town and plenty of wildlife in the form of butterflies and a few lizards.

Refuge Bertone sits on top of the central hill.

Refuge Bertone in the foreground and Courmayeur below.

We sat outside having a few drinks and nice, if expensive, pasta as the sky clouded over and the water started falling out of them in the shape of small drops. Quite a lot of it so we ended up sheltering inside for much of the afternoon. It was a bit of a strange place - very busy when we arrived so we accepted the lukewarm welcome. Not much English spoken bar one very helpful lady who seemed to be doing everything while the rest just sat behind tills. Dinner was very good; a pasta started then cheese-topped polenta, beans and stew. We were sat with a French doctor who was trying to get round the whole think in 4 days, right when we were trying to justify having a couple of short days mid-trip.

It continued to rain loudly during the night, and thunder, and we had the loudest snorer this night too.

 

DAY 6. REFUGE BERTONE TO REFUGE BONATTI

Distance 12.32km, ascent 1048m, descent 988m, time between hostels 4hr 40min

It was a light rain when we set off that morning, but it soon eased and we climbed out of our waterproof layers. There was still a low cloud layer obscuring the mountain tops, a shame because the guide book had promised us expansive views of the massif from here.

A wet start. The umbrella proved a worthwhile piece of kit, keeping its occupant dry but not overheated as waterproofs can do. So long as it wasn't windy.

We took the high variant route, I think we were the only people to do so that day as we didn't see anyone else for the majority of the time. The initial push up the ridge was steep and muddy but as we passed the crest it it eased up, though still ascended slowly to Tete Bernada and Tete de la Tronche before descending steeply to Col Sapin where a family of kestrels hung in the air, apparently watching our arrival.

Like walking in the Lake District.

We dropped down and crossed the stream before heading uphill again to Pas entre deux Sauts, or Porks enter Dork Storks as Paddy pronounced it. The other two started down the slope while I went for the half hour round trip up to Tete entre deux Sauts, a short climb up a steep, grassy slope, rewarded with with a 360 degree view of cloud-decked mountains and the valleys we had both come down and were going up.

Looking back from the Tete entre deux Sauts with the route we had just come, the previous valley, and the Grande Jorasses to the right.

Dropping down I enjoyed the solo walk down through the meadows of Vallan de Malatra. There were loads of marmots about and I got a good view of a very young one as it ran across the path in front of me, looking like a chunky squirrel. The bird life included a lot of wheatears which are always nice to see.

View of the Grande Jorasses from the Refuge Bonatti.

I arrived at the Refuge Bonatti about 1:00. A nice place with a modern mountain hut feel - well built, warm and very accommodating. Not enough toilets and the drying room didn't really dry anything. Dinner was very good; salad, soup, veg quiche with mash. The first place to feel prepared for vegetarians.

I made sure I noticed my alimentation behaviour to the staff as soon as possible.