|The Tour of Mont Blanc (TMB)
|This page describes one of my early experiences of walking the Tour of Mont Blanc from June 2004. A friend and I completed the tour in 10 days, starting and
finishing the trip in Chamonix. After completion of the tour, we rounded the holiday off with an ascent of Mont Blanc in perfect weather conditions. The Tour of Mont
Blanc is a fairly demanding circular trek around the Mont Blanc massif. The tour passes through very impressive mountain scenery in France, Switzerland and Italy.
The length of the tour is approximately 160km and the route crosses several high mountain passes. The total ascent and descent of our tour was 16000m.
The English Cicerone guidebook by Kev Reynolds describes the route in both anticlockwise (the normal) direction, starting in Les Houches, and clockwise,
starting in Champex in Switzerland. I chose to start the tour in Chamonix due to public transport options via Geneva airport and due to our plans after the tour was
completed. We walked the route clockwise in order to reduce the chance of walking in the same direction as other people or groups. Indeed, the main reason for
walking the tour at the very start of June was to avoid the crowds. The tour is very popular in July and August. As it turned out, we saw no one else on the tour until
the second to last day. The early timing also meant that there would be more snow on the route than normal and we experienced that about 30% of the tour was on
snow (lying at altitudes above 2000m). Equipment wise, we were self sufficient with bivouac gear, a stove, walking axes and food for 2-3 days at a time.
|Day 1 Chamonix - Le Brevent - La Flegere - Lac Blanc
After a night at the Gîte Vagabond, run by a couple of British lads, and after we had shopped for 3 days worth of food we began the tour by taking the Le Brevent
telepherique from near the centre of Chamonix to the summit of Le Brevent. Leaving at lunchtime in great weather, we had the opportunity for a fairly leisurely first
day, just 9km to Lac Blanc. The initial few kilometers were on snow, along the ridge line to the NE of Le Brevent. We then descended to the halfway station of the
telepherique at Plan Praz, with its ski tows on the hillside, before continuing easily below the snowline, towards La Flegere. Below, Chamonix town centre.
|Day 2 Lac Blanc - Col Montets - Le Tour - Col de Balme - Les Grands
After a restless night caused by a determined rodent and stormy weather, we set off at 8:30am towards the Col des Montets. The first 2 hours descending towards
the col was on snow and in quite poor visibility. We passed a tent pitched near the Lacs des Cheserys, no sign of life yet though. We arrived at the Col Montets at
11:30am after descending the final steep section. From there we chose to walk to Le Tour rather than climb up onto Aiguille des Possettes in the poor weather
with no chance of a view. However, knowing this ridge, it is well worth choosing this route in good weather as the walk is superb with excellent views.
Below, our route from Chalet du Lac Blanc to Les Grands via the Col des Montets and Col de Balme.
|Day 3 Les Grands - La Forclaz - Bovine - Champex
Next moring we awoke to the view below that looks down into the head of the Trient valley with the Glacier du Trient and the col Fenetre D'Arpette on the right.
However, we had decided to take the more leisurely route to Champex, via the valley floor to La Forclaz and then Bovine - a route that is 5km longer than the direct
route over the col. We had judged that the time needed to walk the 5km on the flat would be less than the extra time taken over the col due to the snow cover.
|Above left, our day 1 route and above right, the lift to Le Brevent seen high
above. Left, at Plan Praz with gear and 3 days worth of food shared between
us. My rucksack weighed roughly 18kg. In the bright sunlight at altitude it is
important to keep your head covered, a cap also keeps direct sunlight out of
your face. Below, the view to Mont Blanc from Le Brevent.
|Left, consulting the map on the descent to Plan Praz. The route over the next
few days would take us into Switzerland and behind the mountains seen in
the distance. The highest peak seen is the Aiguille du Chardonnet. Below,
arriving at the Chalet du Lac Blanc. Almost all the huts first open in mid June.
|Day 4 Champex - Issert - La Fouly
After two long days in poor weather, we had the opportunity to enjoy an easier day from Champex to La Fouly along the floor of the beautiful Val Ferret. The day
started and ended with light rain, but it was fine during the middle part of the day. Before leaving Champex we called in at the tourist office and booked at night at the
Gîte Girroles in La Fouly. The route begins by following the lake to its SE end. The route passes fine alpine meadows, below right the anemone Pulsatille Soufrée.
|Day 5 La Fouly - Grand Col Ferret - Rifugio Bonatti
The Gîte Girolles has space for around 60 people and is open all year. On this occasion, however, we were the only guests. This did not detract from the service
though and we enjoyed a good 3 course dinner with several Swiss beers. When in these more remote areas of the tour having the ability to speak some French is
a great advantage. The couple who owned the gîte did not speak a word of English. After a good nights rest we awoke to another cloudy day.
|Day 6 Rifugio Bonatti - Tête Bernarda - Courmayeur
After another good evening meal and a leisurely evening watching the sunset and the clouds around the high peaks we woke to clear skies and glorious
sunshine. After breakfast we packed and left the hut at 9am. Our route for the day was over the Col Sapin and Mont de la Sax to Courmayeur. The route climbs up
above the hut to the Pas Entre-Deux-Sauts at 2524m before traversing to the Col Sapin and the Tête Bernarda at 2534m.
|Day 7 Courmayeur - Rifugio Elisabetta
Courmayeur offers a very well kept and friendly face. Those of you who are familiar with Chamonix should not expect the same bustling mountaineering town here
though. By comparision, Courmayeur is almost unaffected by the attractions the famous nearby mountains offer. There are only a couple of shops selling outdoor
kit, but don't expect to find resealable gas cartriges for your stove. We enjoyed a relaxing morning wandering around the town before setting of at lunchtime
towards the Rifugio Elisabetta via the Val Veni. The usual TMB climbs up over the Col Chécroui before descending into the upper Val Veni, however, we walked
along the foot of the Val Veni. Once away from the nearby road construction at the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel, the route is very pleasant.
|Le Tour was very closed. It was to become obvious that at this time of year
most shop owners, hoteliers etc. are on holiday - elsewhere! We had lunch
on the steps of the closed Col de Balme lift station before heading upwards
towards the Col. During the afternoon the clouds opened and it rained lightly
until we reached the Col at 3:30pm. The area was deserted and after a short
break we continued on a compass bearing towards Les Grands. The last part
of the day would again be on snow with only a few visible traces of the route.
|Above, two Alpine Ibex out of a
herd of 8 seen through the mist,
about 15 minutes walk above the
Col des Montets.
|Even though the final part of days route was only 3.5km and contours around the hillside at an altitude of 2050m to 2100m, it took us just over 3 hours from the
Col de Balme to the hut at Les Grands due to the deep soft snow and the fact that the route had not been walked this season. Under normal snow free
conditions, this part of the route takes around 1 hour and 15 minutes. After arriving at the hut we found shelter in a small winter room. After changing into dry
clothes and eating, we soon fell asleep. Below, outside the Refuge de Col de Balme and sheltering at Les Grands.
|Below, our route from Les Grands to Champex. We chose the longer route via Bovine.
|Above left, the path just a short distance below Les Grands where it passes an almost sheer rock face. The path here is roughly 1m wide. Below: The view from
the river Le Trient in the valley floor looking back to the head of the valley. From here the route is on the flat (above right) all the way to La Forclaz which offers time
to take it easy and enjoy the forest and views up to the Col de Balme. We sheltered from the rain and ate some lunch in La Forclaz before continuing through the
forest along the ascending footpath which climbs steadily all the way to Bovine. A few kilometers further the path descends steeply near Le Jure before dropping
more steadily into the valley to the northwest of Champex. From Champex d'en Bas the route climbs 130m along roads to Champex. After a full day in the pooring
rain we decided to get a room at the hotel on the high street in order to dry our stuff out and get a good meal and a couple of beers.
|Left, our route from Champex, the route descends steadily all the way to the
old village of Issert where wooden houses date back to the 16th century.
Indeed the whole valley displays an unchanged face, where modern
technology hasn't really made an impact. After descending out of the forest, a
kilometer or so before Issert, one can enjoy views up and down the valley.
Following a late start, we lunched in Issert before continuing through
meadows to Praz-de-Fort. From Issert, the route gradually ascends all the way
to La Fouly. Above Chanton, a small hamlet just above Praz-de-Fort, we took
an alternative route to the main TMB. Rather than walk eastwards along the
road, we walked southwards to point 1207m (on the 1:25k map) then through
the forest along the Saleina. Here one walks along the defined crest of ancient
moraines deposited by the once much more impressive Glacier de Saleina.
|Right, One of the many decorative water fountains seen on the
route, this one in the forest below Champex. Below, descending
out of the trees towards the hamlet of Issert in the Val Ferret.
Todays stage took a little over 5 hours including stops.
|As we where putting our gaitors on
outside the front door of the gîte, the
owner came out and we talked about
our route for the day before he offered
us a lift to the road head above Ferret.
We could only accept and we where
driven the 3km from La Fouly to
Ferret. This just shows how friendly
the local people are. From the road
head at 1950m, we followed the good
path zig zagging up the hillside to La
Peula. From here the path trends
south eastwards towards the Grand
Col Ferret and after a kilometer we
moved above the snow line.
Conditions did not improve and by
the time we had reached an altitude
of 2400m the visibility was quite poor.
Soon after, any traces of the route
disappeared completely and we had
only 10-20m of visibility. From here
on we walked on bearings and
counted steps in the Scottish winter
conditions until we reached the col at
2537m. The approach to the col was
not helped by some fresh snow cover
on top of the fairly soft and wet layer
underneath which didn't bear our
weight. However, soon after we
began descending from the col, we
dropped beneath the clouds into the
sun specked Italian Val Ferret. There
were several tricky places on the
descent due to a a few centimeters of
wet snow on the steep grass but we
soon reached the Rifugio Elena at
the head of the valley. Here we
enjoyed lunch in the Italian sun.
Reaching high above the north side
of the route along the valley floor is
the mightily steep and impressive
south side of the Grandes Jorrasses.
Behind is the Glacier de Pré de Bar
that reaches down from Mont Dolent
to the Rifugio Elena. Below, looking
back into the Swiss Val Ferret on the
approach to the Granc Col Ferret,
before the clouds closed in.
|Above, descending from the col before passing the closed Rifugio Elena. Below, walking westwards from the refuge in the Italian Val Ferret. From here we were
blessed with blue skies and sunshine for the rest of the tour - in complete contrast to the days spent in Switzerland. After a gently stroll along the valley floor to a
layby by the road at 1720m, we then took the path up into the trees towards the Rifugio Bonatti at 2150m on the south side of the valley with tremendous views over
to the Grandes Jorrasses, the Dome de Rochefort and in the distance the snowy crown of Mont Blanc. I had booked the night at the refuge before the trip began
and apart from us, there was only a group of Italian school children staying. The Rifugio Bonatti is only a few years old and is one of the best kept huts in the Alps.
The refuge is open most of the year and inside, the walls are decorated with pictures describing Walter Bonatti's impressive life story.
|After only a short distance we
climbed above the snowline into
the bowl below the pass. The sun
was intense and the snow soft. We
arrived at the pass after 3 hours -
much slower than we expected.
However, we were rewarded with
impressive views back towards the
Grand Col Ferret and towards Mont
Blanc. From here one descends
again to cross the Vallon d'Armina,
before ascending towards the Col
Sapin at 2436m. Once on the col, it
is possible to descend directly to
Courmayeur via the Val Sapin. We
chose to remain high and cross
the Tête de la Tronche at 2584m
before descending along the crest
of the Mont de la Saxe. This is the
place where Edward Whymper
studied the Grandes Jorrasses in
1865 prior to his ascent.
|Above, morning sun at the refuge and approaching the Pas
Entre-deux-Sauts. Below, the view to Mont Blanc from the Col
Sapin and the descent to Courmayeur.
|Left, a salamander sunning itself by the steep, almost never ending, path that descends towards
Courmayeur. Below, enjoying a large pizza (and a well earned beer) that evening, and the 1 star Hotel
Firenze in the centre of Courmayeur. This hotel offers adequate accommodation at very reasonable rates.
|Day 9 Refuge du Bonhomme - Col du Bonhomme - Les Contamines
After seeing the French group off, we departed too. As we left, a helicopter
began ferrying supplies to the refuge. After a cold night the snow was frozen
and I made good use of the nevé by teaching Jesper a few basic crampon
skills. From the refuge the route traverses the hillside north eastwards to the
Col du Bonhomme at 2329m. In this direction, this is one of the most
pleasant stages of the tour, especially in warm sunshine.
|Day 10 Les Contamines - Col de Vosa - Les Houches - Chamonix
After a bath and an afternoon of relaxation we ate out before having a good night sleep. Next day it was even warmer than the previous 4 days, primarilly because
we were starting in the valley rather than from a high refuge. From Les Contamines we followed the road to Tresse before taking minor roads up through pastures
and woods to the hamlet of le Champel. From there the path turns eastwards and contours the hanging valley below the Glacier de Bionnassay. We crossed the
torrent of the Torr de Bionnassay at Pont des Places before following the path to Bionnassay. From here the path ascends steeply again towards the Col de Vosa
at 1653m. The view opens suddenly at the col when you emerge from the trees and you have extensive views of the Chamonix valley.
|Day 8 Rifugio Elisabetta - Col de la Seigne - Les Chapieux - Refuge du Bonhomme
It dawned fine and bright once again which gave us tremendous views even before leaving the hut. We departed at 8:30am and descended slightly from the hut
before beginning the easy ascent towards the Col de la Seigne. The TMB passes below the limestone slab of the Pyramides Calcaires on the northern side of the
Vallon de la Lac Blanche, the valley at the head of the Val Veni, before reaching the ruins of the old shepherds quarters of the Alpe superieur de la Lée Blanche.
|Map excerpts from the 1:60000, 02 Mont Blanc, courtesy l'Association Grande Traverse des Alpes, Institut Geographique National IGN. The excerpts are not to scale.
|Once past Plan Ponquier at 1500m, the walking is almost on the flat for
several kilometers where one passes several quaint campsites and a perfect
lunchspot in the trees with tables and benches and even barbecues. Top,
looking along the Val Veni. After a break we continued along the road, which
soon becomes closed to vehicles. The road then steepens as it climbs
upwards alongside the vast lateral moraines of the Glacier du Miage that
flows down from the southern slopes of the Aiguille de Bionnassay and Mont
Blanc. The moraines once completely blocked the upper Val Veni, which
created Lac de Combal. Lac de Combal remains today as a small lake and
flat marshland. Above, approaching Lac de Combal with the moraines on the
right. The Elisabetta hut is in the distance on the snowy slopes in the centre of
the photograph. Above and to the left of the hut is the impressive Pyramides
Calcaires, a large tilted limestone slab on the edge of the main granite
massif. From Lac de Combal it takes roughly 1 hour to walk the final section
to the Rifugio Elisabetta, right. Just before reaching the rifugio, one passes
the ruins of an old military barracks. Below, the impressive view down into the
upper reaches of the Val Veni from the porch of the Rifugio Elisabetta. The
lateral moraines clearly seen almost blocking the valley. We enjoyed the night
in the company of two small groups of Italian and French. The group of
climbers had their sights on the Aiguille des Glaciers while the other group
were filming nearby wildlife including a pair of eagles.
|Below, descending from the Rifugio Elisabetta, with the Aiguille de Tre la
Tete (3846m) behind. The refuge is a perfect base for alpine climbing on
this side of Mont Blanc with quite a few easier peaks nearby. Right, on the
approach to the Col de la Seigne, one passes the derelict customs building
that was once used by Italian officials to patrol the Italian-French border.
|Left, looking eastwards from the level pastures of the Vallon de la Lac
Blanche with the rock spire of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey visible on the
left. Below, the extensive view east from the Col de la Seigne (2516m).
|Below, the view from the col into France is more limited, but after only a short while, one can see into the full length of the Vallée de Glaciers with the hamlet of Les
Chapieux nestling below. The alternative TMB over the Col des Fours can also be viewed from here, but until la Ville des Glaciers, the TMB has a common path.
We had chosen the route via Les Chapieux and after descending the valley, we enjoyed a cold Coca Cola and ice cream before ascending steeply from Les
Chapieux at 1550m to the Refuge Bonhomme at 2443m. On the approach to the refuge we met the gaurdian who had partialy opened the hut, which would open
fully for the season on the next day. He informed us that there was water and gas for cooking. We shared the evening and night with a group of 10 French walkers
who had just begun the tour from Les Contamines. They were very curious about snow conditions on the rest of the tour because they had struggled up through
the snow to the refuge and they were carrying rather large sacks. The refuge is situated in a splendid location with a grand view of Mount Pourri.
|On the Col du Bonhomme there is a small wooden shelter and once here, you are rewarded with views of the Domes de Miage with Mont Blanc behind. The
remaining part of today takes you northwards along the western side of the Mont Blanc massif into Val Montjoie and to Les Contamines. After the initial traverse,
the routes descends to Chalet la Balme at 1706m before descending more gently past Nant Borrant and then onto the valley floor. Arriving in Les Contamines at
1 pm, we checking into the Hotel Grizzles in the town centre. The town is especially quiet at this time of year, even so the views are impressive.
|Left, the Val Montjoie from the
approach to le Champel. The Col
du Bonhomme can be seen in the
distance. We arrived at the Col de
Vosa after just over 3 hours. Near
the station of the Mont Blanc
tramway, we enjoyed a lunch stop
in the shade of one of the
buildings. From the Col de Vosa,
with its large hotel and ski runs, the
path continues northwards along
open slopes before beginning the
long descent to Les Houches.
Below, only 5 minutes walk from
the col a tremendous view opens
up to the east. From left to right, the
Vallée de l'Arve, Aiguille Verte,
Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc du
Tacul, Aiguille du Gouter, Aiguille
du Bionnassay and finally the
Domes de Miage.
|The path soon descends into the trees and one is limited there efter with
occasional views of the mountains. The descent, although mostly on
roads is hard on the knees and one looses over 650m of altitude
descending to Les Houches. However, you arrive quite quickly in the centre
of the town, and a small bar/café is on hand with cold drinks to soothe your
thirst. Just across the street is the Telepherique de Bellevue and the bus
stop. After 10 fantastic days in all types of weather, carrying all our own
equipment, we had earned the right to a short bus ride to Chamonix. We
were soon back where we had started and we could once again enjoy
wandering around without our packs. After a shower and change of
clothes, we discussed our plan of attack for Mont Blanc over a beer. Two
days later we stood on the summit of Mont Blanc at 9 am in perfect
conditions after an ascent from the Italian side via the Refuge Cosmiques.
We descended all the way to the valley via the Aiguille du Gouter getting to
Les Houches at 7 pm in the evening before flying home after a days rest.
|Right, approaching the snow
covered hillside by Lac Blanc at
around 7pm. The picture is looking
southwards showing the snout of the
Mer de Glace glacier and the lower
ramparts of the Grand Jorrasses
behind below ominous clouds.
|Below, early Spring Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vernalis) in the valley and right, the evening view south from the Refuge du Bonhomme.
|Below, leaving the refuge with its winderful panorama
including Mount Pourri to the south.