It’s been a year now since I came back home a year ago from Peru now and getting back into society is really hard. I guess this is one of the reason why I went to Costa Rica for 3 weeks just before starting my job on the ski fields in the enclosed valley of Chamonix this winter. I now understand why travellers won’t stop travelling ever.
Chamonix has a lot to offer for someone like me. First of all, French is pretty much the second language here. Foreigners are everywhere and most of hospitality staff speak English first, French sometimes. The worldwide reputation of Chamonix towards Mountaineering, Skiing and Alpinism as well as the International Athletes training here attract sport enthusiasts who seek Big Mountain. Foreigners also help making the atmosphere more friendly and welcoming. Therefore the feeling of being back home isn’t as strong as it could be somewhere else.
I have met really nice friends too. This is truly important if you expect to settle somewhere one day. All of them practice many outdoor sport activities: Paragliding, Rock Climbing, Trail Running, … It’s still hard to find MTBikers mostly because MTBikers are hidden in the forrest…or at the bar! Therefore I’m going to join the MTB Chamonix Club very soon… once it stops raining! (Yes, which is why I have time to write such a long article!)
Anyway, I like Chamonix and today I would like you to discover it’s incredible mountain range I explored during a four day hike: The Tour du Mont Blanc.
Welcome at the Tour du Mont Blanc Express!
Julien (Romain’s belgium friend he met during his GR20 Hike in Corsica) got some holiday to share this experience with Romain and I. I wasn’t supposed to do this tour with them but after an odd set of circumstances I was in! It had been raining over the last week and we trully hoped for a good forecast during our hike. The winter season was weird this year, spring is following the same path. The last time we got snow in the centre of Chamonix was May 23rd and it is still snowing above 2200m.
Usually it takes 8 days to realise the complete Tour du Mont Blanc. However we wanted to do it in four. Romain studied the map to find some cuts that would be more interesting than the “Original Tour du Mont Blanc”. Instead of following the vallees that surround the Mont Blanc mountain Range we would cut through 7 Pass:
- Le col du Tricot
- Le col du Bonhomme
- Le col de la Croix du Bonhomme
- Le col des Fours
- Le col de la Seigne
- Le col du Petit Ferret
- Le col de Balme
Because of this, we got studs and sleds to walk on ice and slide down on the other side if the snow hadn’t started to melt. Our starting point is the city council at les Houches and we will end our Tour du Mont Blanc at Le Tour at the Bus stop.
Let’s start this Hike by a breathalyser test!
Our journey begins at 5:00am in Chamonix. Julien and Romain stayed at my place overnight. On the way to Les Houches we get pulled over for a breathalyser test! All of us are really amused by this and we tell the policeman there is no risk at all as we start our “Tour du Mont Blanc”. We are fully operational at 5:30 and start our hike that will lead us to the Pass of La Croix du Bonhomme almost 11 hours later.
Yesterday was still raining but it seems we will get a break today. The atmosphere is cold and misty but not cloudy yet. Clouds will form and follow all day long without catching up to us. The first difficulty is to cross the stream coming from the Bionnassay glacier as the footbridge was thorn to pieces over the winter season. As we are in advance on the Tour du Mont Blanc schedule, which starts mid-june at its earliest, which is why the bridge hasn’t been prepared. We have no other choice than walking up the stream to cross a pool underneath the glacier and then catching up with our azimuth. The Pass du Tricot is gently snow covered as expected from 1900m. Which is a good insight for our future difficulties.
We take a break at Les Contamines to refill our water tanks and get some bread (it tastes so good to be back in France!). Once at “La Chapelle de la Dame de la Gorge” we free our shoulders from our 15kg backpacks and relax to have lunch : Local cheese and dried yummy sausage with bread, our favourite meal! We have already walked around 20km but with 10km left. Clouds are still forming and following us. It is time to leave now. 40 minutes later we are back on the gently rising trail until we face the hardest difficulty of the day: 850m elevation gain on melted snow to reach the Pass of La Croix du Bonhomme…
Damn snow, why are you still here!
Snow is really pleasant when you expect it 8 months a year: snow flakes, deep powder, fun, christmas, skiing, … I love it! However this feeling might change after 4 months playing on or in it, especially on melted and slippery snow without good hiking shoes. Melted snow is not fun, … NOT FUN AT ALL! Fortunately after one hour walking with cold soaking socks, I don’t feel anything else, except this well known sponging feeling called Spouick Spouick… Poles are really helpful to find your balance in such situations. Without them I would have just fallen over again and again! Our way to the Pass du Bonhomme seems endless. I start to understand what the trailrunner we crossed 2hours ago meant by “guys, this is the easy part. It’s even worst up there”. Once I reach the small shelter at the Pass du Bonhomme, I take my windstopper out of my backpack as the wind gets stronger here. Julien takes the final lead to the Pass La Croix du Bonhomme where Tristan (the keeper of the refuge) welcomes us with three beers and starts the fire just before the clouds and the rain catch up!
We are his first guests of the season and he is happy to tell us the story about this refuge. He has been keeping it for 34 years. After a nap, way too short, we spent the evening together with Tristan, listening to his incredible journey around Antarctica and South Georgia.
Italy: here we come on sleds!
When the alarm is ringing, I just want to smash it. Our entire bodies are in pain at 4:30 am and opening our eyelids are hard. Fortunately there are no clouds outside and the view towards the Mont Pourri is blessing. This second day of the Tour du Mont Blanc seems easier than the previous day as we will be walking on ice before it starts melting and then, after the second Pass, the track goes slowly down to Courmayeur. Once our studs are attached to our shoes, we leave the refuge at 5:45 am. It is so much nicer to walk on something hard and stable rather than wet and slippery. The sunrise beams us welcome at the Pass des Fours. IT IS TIME TO USE OUR SLEDS!!! Unfortunately it is harder to slide than what we thought. It is either too icy and dangerous or too soft and slow. Our backbacks don’t help and stops us from leaning backwards. This idea needs improvement for next time!
Reaching the Pass of La Seigne was easy until 2200m where snow got deep and delicate. We take a break at 10:30am to enjoy some slices of cheese and dried sausage while enjoying the view. We will walk on snow and under a burning sun until the Refuge Elisabetta. The plateau at 2200m between the Pass de la Seigne and the refuge, reflects the sun beams and UV towards us like a Microwave would do. From now on, the way to Courmayeur is boring, straight forward and slow. Orux Maps indicates we walked the same distance as yesterday, so 60km in 2 days with full gear , in altitude, with melted snow and little sleep. At this point I’m not sure how long we will maintain this average before injuring our bodies. I start wondering how we will make it to Champex tomorrow, 40km further, into Switzerland!
Luckily, Julien came back late from shopping. We missed the shuttle bus to go to Palud to shorten the distance to walk. Why is that good news? We ended up leasing a Public bus for an extra €1/person and it drove us to the farest bus stop we asked for. Which is 2km away from the Refuge Elena and the Pass du Petit Ferret! For a total cost of €3/person, we saved 14 boring kilometers and a higher probability to reach Champex tomorrow, third step of the Tour du Mont Blanc!
5 Stars camping spot and freezing water before a technical climb
It didn’t take us long to find the perfect camping spot: a wide and flat area is looking at us, trapped between two snowy mountain streams coming from the Triolet Glacier. To reach this land, we use the longest footbridge available on ground. I first cross the frezzing cold stream to get the 4m footbridge and push one end to Romain and Julien to set it over the stream. We can now cross with our equipment safely. Once the camp is set up, the three of us go to the second stream to do a little bit of cleaning. I do not remember washing myself in such cold water, water so cold that it burns the skin directly at contact! On the other hand I don’t feel any need to stretch after my bath. I suppose cold water really helps recovering!
It rained a solid hour during the night but it didn’t disturb my sleep. I wake up more ready that ever to climb the Pass du Petit Ferret. Romain is leading us this morning and we attach the studs to our shoes at 2200m. The Pass du Petit Ferret is a really steep climb but pretty straight forward. Falling here can be a disaster and you might never return. We progress carefully, controlling our steps to keep balance. The adrenalin keeps us focused and alert toward eachother. Even though this section is dangerous, it is also rewarding and pleasant. We reach the Pass du Petit Ferret at 8:00am. During a short break I get my sled ready for the way down while the others don’t. This sled session was more fun than the Pass des Fours and I enjoyed it like a little kid, especially when Julien suggested to pull me with one of his poles! However, playing with my sled lead us in the wrong direction.
At this moment I didn’t know Romain started feeling pain in his right knee. He has a tendonitis and it won’t get better until we finish the tour du Mont Blanc. This was what I was afraid of: lack of sleep, intense day walking, weak training. This course will be up on Julien and I soon enough if we don’t get more rest soon. However this part of Switzerland is magical. Everything is wonderful where ever you look. Nonetheless something is even more astonishing: the chalets are gourgeous, the landscape beautiful and the tracks are…RACKED!!!? What the Hell, do the Swiss really rack their trails?
Indeed they do, we crossed paths with the person in charge of this duty from La Fouly to Champex. The swiss reputation about tidiness and precision is undeniabely true!
So far we have found fountains in every village we crossed. This is important to notice if you plan to do the Tour du Mont Blanc in the middle of summer. Every time I’m back to civilisation, I cannot resist taking pictures of the beautiful cabins surrounded by such beautiful wilderness. Flowers, hay, mountains and waterfalls are absolutely everywhere. The last climb of the day starts from Praz-de-Fort to Champex. This one really hurts Romain’s knee. Fortunately, a delightful beer will reward our effort of the day!
We will spend the rest of the afternoon bathing in Champex Lake (twice warmer than the stream we bathed in yesterday!) while our camping gear are drying. We will pack everything back before the thunderstorm hits Champex at 4:30pm. We apologize for the mess for the pedestrians who are passing us but Swiss people are really friendly and comprehensive about this. Some of them ask us questions about our Tour du Mont Blanc for who we are happy to answer.
Chairlift station camping spot: We’re not Gipsies, we’re hikers!
After we spend the end of the afternoon chilling at the “Broc’and’Pub” (very cool by the way), we share a fondue in a restaurant before heading to one of Romain’s brightest ideas for camping: a chairlift station. This one is a flat area protected from the wind and we don’t need to take out our tents. Waking up at 4:15am was impossible this time. This tour du Mont Blanc is wearing us out. We finally wake up 45min later and hit the road at 6:00am. I’m glad this is our last day on Tour du Mont Blanc. Tonight, we will sleep in a warm bed and have dry feet.
The way to reach the refuge Bovine is pointed out, yet the other following the GR6 (our direction) is not. Orux Maps was really helpful in this situation. This part of the trail reminds me Peru: thick vegetation, really steep and technical trail. We don’t feel like are in Switzerland anymore (especially because the track is not racked!). Once we are above the tree line, Martigny and Verbier appear. We take a short break before starting our long way down to the Pass la Forclaz. For the first time, we pass a group of Korean hickers and their guide. It is cliché but this is the truth! I hope their guide is well prepared because several steep area in the shadow are snow covered.
Noon o’clock. We take a big rest at Le Peuty just before starting our latest climb to the Pass de Balme. Once we stop at the sheltered picnic table, we fall asleep straight away until the wind wakes us up. Although Romain is in great pain, he’s impressively constant and he doesn’t slow down our team. We finish most of the food left during lunch and at 1:00pm we are back on our feet. The stream coming down from the Pass is powerful and it wasn’t easy to cross it. We found a narrower section along the stream where we threw boulders on each other in order to cross safely and to keep our feet dry. Once this challenge over, we start our long way up to the Pass de Balme with snow from 1900m. Even walking up sideways to preserve Romain from pain, it only took us 2 hours to reach the Pass. I’m still using my sled on the way down (at least, I didn’t take it for nothing!). Rain us upon us just after our break at the mid station to wear our Goretex Jacket. We could see the thunderstorm forming on our way down and faster it forms, more powerful it is! We finally reach the bus stop at Le Tour at 4:30pm and for the first time during this Tour du Mont Blanc, we are in the rain!
Now it is time to celebrate our Tour du Mont Blanc with Friends!
What a better place than Chambre 9 for such event? Yes we are in pain, but we also know we won’t be able to move the next couple of days in order to recover! I’m sure Chris’ medicine will be helpful as well as Eva’s dinner and Benoît to see us back! Thank you Romain and Julien for such journey! I needed to be back in the great outdoors where nothing else than the present moment matters. We are meant to explore the world and its beauty. It gets even better when this pleasure is shared together!