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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.