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Walking in Cumbria and Beyond

Tour of Mont Blanc

Tour of Mont Blanc

The TMB has been trod my many before me and many now have blogged about it but it is impossible for me not to add a few words and even more ‘images’ to what was such a visual delight.

We followed the classic anti clockwise route. Using Cicerone’s TMB book as our main point of reference. It was pretty accurate. Only on Stage 3 did we find a discrepancy. The book, though durable is somewhat heavy to lug round for 11 days and mine is now a shadow of its former self having been mutilated to make it fit for purpose.

Our map was the Carte de Randonnees 1:50,000 which was pretty accurate bar Italy.

Skip to my kitlist

Stage One – Les Houches to Les Contamines.

Les Houches being an easy transfer up from Geneva. It rained. Stair rods of rain. As I was hoping to get away from one of Cumbria’s most inclement summers this was not exactly welcome.

Still, accommodation having been booked several months in advance there was no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and hit the trail. Admittedly we did take the cable car up. Not being able to see much further than a stone’s throw was not an incentive to struggle up through dripping trees while getting used to weighty packs.

This was the day I learned the value of ‘rain capes’. They keep you and your pack dry without turning you into a slithery wet mess. Ventilation being upmost.

Being a bit miserable weather, and needing an ‘ease in’ we opted for the low route to Les Contamines. Once up on Col de Vozza there was not a great deal of height gain to contend with. Lots of alpine houses and lodges. All somewhat deserted out of the ski season but picturesque despite the never ceasing rain. A brief lull made us seize the moment for lunch at a carefully placed picnic table over looking Les Contamines valley. By the time we’d arrived in Les Contamines and my first taste of ‘Hut’ hospitality the deluge had eased and there was just the odd gap in the clouds

CAF Chalet les Contamines

Close company in a bunk room for 4. Food a delicious home crooked curry. Breakfast of cereals bread and cheese.

Certainly no need for an alarm clock 

Stage 2 les Contamines to Chapieux

Col du Bonhomme

Col du Bonhomme

Woke to the relief of blue sky. Happy. Then the down of being told we had no packed lunch as we’d not ordered the night before so the first stop was the shop, for what was to become regular lunch of bread and cheese.

Stage 2 starts with a lazy wander along a quiet valley. Strolling past recreational areas. Dog sleigh tracks and ski trails. A church and a car park the sign of increased activity. It was Sunday and day trippers, families and small children funnelled on to the trail. At first rising up a rocky Roman road, stretched along side a river full of angry rapids and deep green plunge pools.

Trees hanging over headed parted. Clearing to wide meadows. Flanked on either side by increasingly high peaks. Chocolate box houses served food and drink on sun facing terraces littered with deck chairs. A slow winding ascent around a round bowl of water meadow. Fed from small high lakes and still frozen snow.

Up to the Col de Bonhomme. The French Italian border. 2329m.There are several routes up and over the col. From all directions but most people you’ll see will be on the TMB so follow the rest up to Col de la Croix, up to 2483m. Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme is on the mountain but we headed down to Auberge de la Nova in Les Chapieux. A very steep, very long descent.

Bunk rooms but with little space to put bags. Most places allocate beds and story space but this didn’t so it was somewhat chaotic. Being the end of a long day we checked prices and an upgrade to a twin room was only 12€ each. We upgraded.

Food: soup. Beef stew and pasta.

Packed lunch adequate. Nowhere to buy alternative as Les Chapieux up is little more than the Auberge and a camp site.

Stage3 – Les Chapieux to Rifugio Elisabetta

Les Pyramids

Les Pyramids

An ease into the day along a gradually rising balcony walk in Vallon des Glaciers. The only real discrepancy between the Cicerone Book and the walk. The book says you have to walk along the road but there is now a trail along the right of the valley. Dipping down to meet Refuge des Mottets. Lovely lunch stop where I added a vast tomato salad to my packed lunch. I was already missing fresh fruit and veg.

The hard work then begins with a serious zigzag up to Col de Seigne, 2561m and Italy. Pass La Casermette an information centre and small museum of geology, to find Rifugio Elisabetta a bit down the hill, snuggled up close to the Glacier de la Lee Blanche.

Elisabetta is a classic mountain hut with ‘mattresses on shelves’. But given I was coughing and sputtering in a very unsociable manner we were isolated in a small section. Not a tactic I would recommend.

Be prepared to stand in line for a shower.

Hearty, tasty walkers’ dinner provided. Breakfast a little spartan. Merely bread and jam. Good Italian coffee though.

Stage 4 – Rifugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur

Glacier du Mirage

Glacier du Mirage

Down hill into Italy. Good warm up walk along the Vallon de Lee Blanche before a short climb up to a balcony route with full frontal views of Mont Blanc. Descending to Col Cherouite and ultimately Courmayeur.

We were going to stay at Rifugio Mason Ville on the Col, but though the food was good and we devoured salad and grilled vegetables with relish the accommodation looked decidedly basic. An opinion ratified by another TMBer we met along the way.

We drifted down to Courmayeur, myself via the cable car. Having had to give in to a streaming cold. Finding a pharmacy being high priority. The two nights in one place and the relative luxury of a small hotel definitely aided the recovery process.

Day 5 – A rest day

La Gran Capucin

La Gran Capucin

A glide up to the mountain on the Skyway Monte Bianco to Point Helbronner. 

Setting foot on the glacier before it gives way to global warming.

Hotel: Domina Home Les Jumeaux

Stage 5 – Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti

Mont Chetif

Mont Chetif

The day began. Straight up to 1460m. Zig zag trail through woodland to Le Pre and Rifugio Giorgio Bertone. Just beyond here there are several signed trails. Two high routes signed TMB. Our map showed only two trails where trails as TMB alternates whereas Cicerone refers to three. The official route is now the left most fork, at the time of writing the official left fork is neither signed as TMB or shown on the map we used as a TMB route. Only the absolute confirmation from an Italian runner persuaded us to take this ‘new’ official route to Rifugio Bonatti.

High up on the SE side of Val Ferret we walked through bilberry bushes and the summer smell of thyme. Yet an arm’s stretch across the valley is the grey face of the Mont Blanc range.   Glaciers scooping their way from the top, ending in torrents of raucous waterfalls and icy grey pools.

Rifugio Bonatti

New. Organised with rows of changing points for devices. Traditional shelves of mattresses but with super organised storage space for packs and belongings

Food. Usual good wholesome. Soup. Polenta chocolate desert.

Stage 6 – Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly

Val Ferret

Val Ferret

Time to revel in the closeness of the magnificent mountain.

Slowly walking from the ‘to die for location’ Bonatti. Though the day would climax on Col de la Signe it was hard to imagine much more than the overwhelming presence of Monte Bianco.

Not long and we were back down in the Val Ferret before another twisting ascent and country. Switzerland. There are two Rifugios to refuel en route to Grand Col Ferret.

In clear weather the Col has a 360 vista. This was truly a time to stand and stare and enjoy living in the moment. So clear was the air we could see back the full length of the Vals Ferret and Veni to the Les Pyramides Calcaires with the light glinting off Rifugio Elisabetta two and a half day’s walk away.

Unlike Col de Bonhomme there was a soft warm wind and so we were distracted from our journey. Taking pictures and matching the map to the mountains. It was hard to drag ourselves away.

But there was another unexpected treat in store. La Peule, recognised in Cicerone as merely a dairy farm has now diversified to take advantage of the steady stream of summer hikers and sells beer and other light refreshments, while providing accommodation in basic barns and yurts.

Take care to find the high path after your beer.  It’s hidden behind the yurts and confounded by a tangle of electric cattle tape.

Accommodation – Auberge De Glaciers;

There are a few choices in the small village of La Fouly but the Auberge was the first to see on the trail and conveniently above a grocery store. I expect run by one and the same. The food was good and for the first time well provided by salad and veg.

Stage 7 – La Fouly to Champex

La Fouly

La Fouly

Swiss chocolate box country arrives. Only 420m height gain and 565m lost. An easy day!

Wander along river valleys. Through fields deep with lush green grass and summer flowers. Smells of fresh hay and wild thyme.

The pretty wooden village of Praz de Fort was as deserted as a ghost town. Issert has a café and a place to sit and eat before the sting in the tail of the day with most of the 420m in a slog up hill to Champex. Or rather Lac de Champex. Being one of the hottest days we had to linger. To swim in the icy water and eat delicious ice cream.

And for us, and even higher climb as we’d book in to Relais d’Arpette. Hoping to walk over Val d’Arpette the following day this would give us a head start.

Best laid plans. It was not to be. The heat of the day and a wild thunder storm dropped its full force on the mountains.

Relais d’Arpette – Comfortable and cheap upgrade to a bunk room rather than a dorm.  Food good, tasty and filling.

Stage 8 – Champex to Trient

Bovine Route

Left from the Thunder Storm

We watched and waited and in the morning the mist hung low and the mountain guides all gave the same advice. ‘Don’t even try the d’Arpette.’

So down hill to the ‘Bovine’ route. It was not a soft option. We were soon climbing up through rocky tracks, rain drenched and dripping. Not a lot to see. The culmination for this route, and perhaps the reason for its name, is a working dairy farm, Alp Bovine. Now diversified to a café resplendent with delicious home cooked cakes and local specialities. And the best hot chocolate I’d had in some time.

A little bit more of a pull to the highest point of the day and the sun began to filter through the trees. From there we had a knee wrenching walk down to Trient and our accommodation in an hotel!

La Grand Ourse where we stretched ourselves down to our last Swiss centimes and upgraded to private room for a night. Luxury!

 

Stage 9 – Trient to Tre le Champ via Col de Balme

Col De Balme

Col De Balme

Though up at 2191m. the way to Col de Balme is quite benevolent on the legs. It winds at a steady pace up the hill side. Moving from trees, through bilberries to alpine grass and over to France. Where commercial reality strikes and the way is criss-crossed by the wires and structures of the skier. All strangely silent.

Another choice to make. Several ways down the mountain snake across the hill. From ski service roads to barely visible trails. We headed a little higher to Aiguillette des Posettes. A bump spread with purple heather.  Littered with white rocks, shrubs and small trees. Reminiscent of home, were it not for the re appearance of the white topped Mont Blanc range.

Accommodation; Auberge La Boerne in Tre Le Champ

Stage 10 and a half – back to Les Houches

Lac Blanc

Lac Blanc

Up and about with an alarm of some unknown guest at 6am. We followed a group from the British army out of the Auberge. They were running. We were not. But the early start was fortuitous. Starting in the cool pines the sun rolled over us as we approached ladders and steps up the steep rockface to be negotiated. The side of Aiguilles Rouges. Aiguillettte d’Argentiere an impressive triangle silhouetted as the sun slipped over.

The TMB follows the Grand Balcon Sud via La Flegere. But we were on a role and there are impressive detours to be taken if, as it was, the weather is kind. A series of small lakes fill pockets of ice scooped land just below the snow line, culminating the icy blue of Lac Blanc. As overheard, due to cable car accessibility, it is rather akin to ‘Snowdon on a sunny bank holiday weekend’, but despite the masses, a detour well worth the effort with the snow from Mt Blanc reflecting from across the Chamonix valley. Staying high we walked to Index Lac Blanc with a continuous view of Aiguilles d Chamonix and Mont Blanc. Continuing we followed the trail to Epaule and, by way of some more metal steps and hand rails, up to Col de la Gilere and Col du Lac Cornu.

Having taken the decision to ‘stay high’ we’d managed to cut our options down on where to stay and hoped to catch the cable car down, just to sail back up and finish one last peak, Brevent the next day. Unfortunately for us the time table had changed overnight and what was ‘last ride down at 6’ was now ‘last ride down at 5’. Which we missed by a meagre 15 minutes. There was nothing for it but to hike the tight zigzag path to the valley. Thankfully made before the need for head-torches, and just in time for a costly beer in Chamonix.

Brevent was completed after a decent night’s sleep and enjoyed in a relaxed way far more than if we’d tried to squeeze it in at the end of the day. Far better to have time to stand and stare!

Notes on Accommodation

At the beginning and end of our journey we stayed at Hotel do Bois in Les Houches.  We left a bag of clean clothes there.  So welcome at the end.

If you are not into communal living make your choices carefully. Mountain accommodation can be basic. The ‘Dortoirs’ (dormitories) are frequently long wooden shelves with individual mattresses. You can get to know your neighbour rather quickly. If this does appeal you can sometimes upgrade to a smaller room with fewer mattresses or even bunks. Check before you book. Auberge tend to be slightly more up market with bunk beds but if you want anything as luxurious as a private bathroom you’ll have to go for a hotel. This will limit your choices to the villages and valleys. Everywhere we stayed had an evening meal included in the price. There was rarely a choice and vegetables were rather sparse, but it was always good with plenty. Booking yourself makes it much cheaper but you need to be organised and book well in advance. Though the mountain huts will never turn you away, you aren’t guaranteed a bed without booking.

Packed lunches provided by all we stayed in but have to be ordered the night before and a little pricey at 10 to 12 € per person. If you’re in a village buying bread and cheese is a more economical option.

Keeping in touch with the outside world, if you must, is not difficult with the advent of 4G technology and the abolition of roaming charges. Wifi was available in some places but don’t expect it to be fast or stable.

Even the most ‘basic’ places I stayed in had electricity and showers. Showers will be shared maybe between as many as 20. Not exactly ensuite.

Route – Navigation

As mentioned above we planned our route using Cicerone, The Tour of Mont Blanc,

and a map.

I also downloaded free routes in to the ViewRanger App. Using the standard Street Map. I didn’t pay for the additional maps and found this worked very well just to check we were where we thought we were. I have an iPhone 6 and was surprised how well the battery lasted out even though I left the App running all day. I did switch to Airplane mode.

Kitlist – this is not definitive, just my choices, which worked well for me.

All clothing needs to be quick drying.

Essential Good to have Luxury
2 T-shirts   Camera – lenses etc
1 long sleeve shirt   Ipad
2 pairs knickers Extra pair knickers  
2 bras    
Light weight fleece    
Down jacket    
Waterproof/windproof jacket    
Rain cape/poncho    
2 pairs sock liners, 2 pairs socks Extra pair socks  
Shirt and light weight pants to wear in evenings/sleep in Extra shirt and light weight pants  
Rain pants/over trousers    
Gloves    
Sun hat and warm hat    
Scarf/buff (for cold and sun protection) GPS  
Phone Battery Pack  
Boots Short gaiters  
Flipflops or crocks for evening – though huts do provide    
Sun cream, toiletries etc but ditch the makeup bar moisturiser.  Towel    
Sleeping bag liner    

I used all the clothing listed. My friend carried the GPS which we never used. Nor did we need the battery pack or short gaiters. But the weather was kind.

I take lots of photos so I would have been miserable if I had not taken my fuji X-T1. I may not take two lenses in future and I would take sufficient batteries so I did not have to take a battery charger.

I used an Osprey 35l pack which fitted everything in. With a litre of water and lunch it weighed between 11 and 12kg. Most of this weight was my obsessive camera kit list.

We carried everything for the whole trip but if you want to make life easier for you then look on line for a company who will carry your bags between your chosen accommodations.

If you enjoy my pictures and words, please like and share.

2 Comments

  1. Spot on Alvina. Really enjoyed the trek. Love your talent for photography. Rose

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