On the trails of Tour du Mont Blanc
Adventure seeking and adventure travel is fairly mainstream these days. Folks don’t think twice about flying all over the world to hike or run a trail, to see mountain ranges and views we’ve previously only seen in books and magazines. In my family, a hike was something I might get my father to do for an hour or two somewhere, usually in woods walking distance from home. Fast forward to a new millennium and an outdoor industry that dwarfs what it was thirty and forty years ago, and the world is seemingly smaller, all places more accessible, and companies and guides aplenty to help you find your way wherever you want to go.
This, “everything is possible” adventure seeking attitude has gotten out of control in some extreme places such as Mount Everest, where folks, who don’t have the skills or physical conditioning to be there, climb to their deaths, and dangerous conditions are amplified by the sheer numbers of people finding guides willing to take them. (Not to mention the risks and dangers they are asking sherpas to make and the consequences to the environment.) I wasn’t planning to go extreme, but I did want adventure, to be within and somewhat at the mercy of my abilities and in proximity to a natural wonder.
In June, I decided to bite off a chunk of adventure on a manageable scale, and headed to Chamonix, France to hike in the Alps on the infamous circuit surrounding the Mont Blanc massif, commonly known as Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). A more reasonable, but still challenging morsel of exploration. For good measure, I threw in a glacier hike because why the hell not, when I’m surrounded by world famous, mammoth glaciers.
A group of 12 of us staying in Chamonix were picked up early by two guides for our glacier hike. We had all previously communicated with the guides about having suitable boots that can accommodate crampons, and the rest of the gear, ice ax and harness, was supplied. We each brought our own lunch. We had planned to step out of our hotel’s front door at Hotel l’Heliopic and head up the Aiguille du Midi cable car, but the lift, literally just outside the front doors, wasn’t working. We were to hike down the ridge from Aiguille du Midi to Pointe Helbronner, a four hour hike across Vallée Blanche to the Italian side of the mountain range overlooking Courmayeur, but it wasn’t to be with the Midi cable out of order. That was a huge disappointment as I had hoped to get some early morning photos from this famous vantage.
So, we headed through the 8 mile tunnel under Mont Blanc towards Courmayeur, Italy. After we were briefly detained at the border by the Italian police, whose flamboyant feathered hats seem to contradict the cradled machine guns in their arms, we were allowed to proceed. It was a beautiful, sunny day as we headed up to Pointe Helbronner on a relatively new, rotating gondola that held probably 40 people on each trip up. Two different cables get you to the top at Pointe Helbronner (3462m) station, which is an impressive, modern facility that appears well-equipped to handle the severe conditions and crowds of all kinds, but we didn’t hang around long enough to enjoy it.
As we headed down the platform to get on the glacier there was a waist high bar. We tried to find a way to release or swing it open. We struggled a few moments wondering what we were doing wrong. Our guides corrected us, “Just climb over.” Pretty sure there was a mental “stupid” ending that broken English sentence. Not sure if it was a subtle test to weed out those who probably shouldn’t head out on the glacier, but it struck me as an #SNL way to do it. If our guides were testing our experience level, we’d probably already either failed or received a very low score in the parking lot as they watched us struggle to put on our harnesses.
I was placed at the back of one of two tethered hiking groups we formed, so I could take photos. The sun was strong and the snow soft and slushy even at 8:30 AM. In the distance we could see ant sized lines of people heading in multiple directions on the various glacier fields and rocky landmarks poking through. None of us had hiked on a glacier previously, so we listened to the safety talk in earnest–keep our spacing in case someone falls through, follow the path of footprints, use the ice ax upside down as a trekking pole, if someone falls through just sit and wait for a guide to come help. Each directive seemed to end with the phrase, “. . . in case someone falls through”. I had purchased the special travel insurance that includes rescues and medical evacuations precisely because of this idea. We passed large, two or three story glacial outcrops, and jumped across an area where there was some undefined crevasse below without incident. There are no danger signs, just the natural kind from knowing the area and understanding changes in the snow’s surface and the patterns that form. That’s why you have guides. We stopped occasionally to catch our breath. It didn’t take long in the warm conditions to begin sweating as if we were back in Virginia doing the boot camp that brought most of this group together as travel companions.
I’ve hiked a rim-to-rim at the Grand Canyon, Angel’s Landing at Zion after running a half marathon, and numerous other destination halfs. It didn’t take long for my legs to feel the effects of hiking in the wet snow, which wasn’t altogether different than running in sand up and down dunes. If you’ve ever been to Jockey’s Ridge in North Carolina, it was similar to that sensation. At one point, I started to think maybe I shouldn’t have scheduled this the day before starting the TMB; my hips were not enjoying the sliding movement. As we hiked up to our lunch spot we saw climbers on the rocky outcrops far enough way that, at first, they didn’t look like humans. How long did it take them to get there, I wondered. Distances were skewed in the vastness and the clearness of the air. There were occasional tents off in the distance, belonging to climbers who spend days and nights near areas they want to climb.
We hiked two hours on the Cirque du Maudit, a circuit down into the depths of Glacier du Géant in a U-shape fashion swinging wide around Petit Flambeau and then ascending up to another ridge known as Col d’Entreves where we sat down for lunch overlooking Courmayeur. The temperature dropped probably twenty, or more, degrees and the wind picked up considerably at the summit. Our huffing and puffing on the climb up left us all sweaty. We added another layer to stay warm. There wasn’t any wondering around for different vantages because we remained tethered while we ate, and we didn’t want to become entangled.
We retraced our steps back to Pointe Helbronner after lunch where we were all grateful for the ride back down on the cable. Climbing the last part out of the valley up to the cable car you could imagine, to some extent, how hard climbing Everest must be. The hiking was fairly slow going, yet, we had ideal, downright pleasant, 60 degree, conditions. Our guides urged us to move faster to stay on schedule, which was met with general disregard from many in our group. By now, the crowd was very large at Pointe Helbronner with hiking groups.
After a shower and a steam back at l’Heliopic, I walked around Chamonix taking photos and shopping as dusk approached. The rest of the evening I spent nursing a sunburn on my face and lips. Four hours on a glacier on a perfectly clear day, and I hadn’t re-applied lotion. This was a costly mistake in terms of my comfort in the following days. Don’t underestimate the amount of discomfort caused by severely chapped lips.
The next morning we were to start the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB)
A mutual friend had used a small, boutique outfit in Switzerland, called HappyTracks GmbH the previous year, and returned with only good memories and great photos. The owner, Raphi, short for Raphael, a native of Switzerland, splits his time serving in the army, as is mandatory for Swiss men of a certain age, and his trail guide business centered out of Trient, a tiny Swiss town along the TMB. He creates personalized tours based on the needs and timeframe of guests. This year he added a hostel/refuge to the repertoire that serves hikers en route. Hiking the entire circuit takes roughly eleven days, but there are endless alternate legs and add-ons, so it would be easy to spend more time exploring. Our plan was to hike for five days, averaging about 10 miles a day, and left it to Raphael to choose the segments, as well as the hotels where we stayed. We ended up hiking the northern half of the trail. A second guide was necessary because of the size of our group.
Days 1 and 2 TMB
Our first and second days started from the Val Ferret in Italy heading in opposite directions. On the first, we had a moderate climb heading back towards Courmayeur in a southerly direction, along a natural balcony overlooking the valley with Mont Blanc in the distance the entire day.
The TMB is ornamented with an assortment of rifugios where hikers may spend the night or stop for a bite to eat along their journey. Some are known for their desserts, as well as coffees, teas, beer, wine and food are available, and most have spectacular views. Sleeping accommodations in these refuges are either open dormitory style, and some do offer more private options. They are usually quaint, stone and wood structures built to withstand the heavy, deep snow. They’re generally filled with trekkers and overnight guests sitting outside resting and enjoying the views that are hard to accept as reality. On the first day we stopped at two; Rifugio Bonatti was first and we ate our own packed lunches on the patio terrace, which they didn’t mind.
Our guide didn’t have to suggest too strongly that we patronize more than the picnic tables and restrooms. Most of us enjoyed some coffee, or more. Later on the first day, as we began our descent to Courmayeur, we enjoyed a beer at Rifugio Bertone that has a front row seat on Mont Blanc. One can only imagine what alpine spectacles one might see from this spot at sunrise and sunset throughout the year.
After our beer, the two plus hour climb down was impressively long into Courmayeur. As we left the forested trail towards our hotel for the night, we were revived by the details and beauty of the homes along the small roads. The town is clean, old world, somewhat Bavarian feeling. We made our way to the Hotel Crampon on foot, a family owned small hotel where we initially overwhelmed the ladies at the reception by arriving all at once. Our dirty boots were taken and placed in a common mudroom with cubbies as we were given our room keys, and we decide to meet in the bar after getting settled.
As with many of the hotels we stayed, the buildings were old and filled with the kind of charm that only time can bring. Our room was large, renovated and clean with heavy French doors constructed long ago, leading to a generous balcony overlooking town, and the very section of the Alps we had hiked the day before on the glacier. It was a perfect vantage for photos at sunrise. I was sharing a room with my friend Kathy, and we were very comfortable. We showered and headed downstairs to meet up for dinner and a drink. Cautiously, we asked the woman at the reception area, who checked us in, for directions to the bar. She had been a little frazzled earlier. She kindly showed us, and instantaneously transitioned to our server/bartender. As she poured our drinks we talked, she warmed up and we learned that she is a part of the Grivel family that owns the hotel, and her great grandfather and uncle were well-known mountain guides and forgers in the area who also developed the first 10-point crampons, followed by a 12-point version. In later years a newer, lighter model known as the “Super Light Grivel” was used by world famous mountaineers such as Sir Edmund Hillary as he attempted Mt. Everest. We had a great conversation with her. It was my favorite hotel and town of the trip. I got up early to take photos of the mountains from our balcony vantage.
After breakfast in the hotel’s white clothed table dining room, we were picked up by our guides and driven back to Val Ferret. Today we headed up to Grand Col Ferret the summit separating Italy and Switzerland and the two valleys that make up Val Ferret in these respective countries. On our second day we were now more comfortable crossing the occasional snow flows that adorn the mountainsides. Some were 30 or 40 yards across and the grade just steep enough, and the snow just wet enough that one slip could see you sliding down the side of the mountain a great distance that would culminate in either falling through the snow and ice to the fast running stream of water beneath, colliding into a boulder, or falling off some precipice to a rocky landing of a greater or less significance further down slope. It was the kind of surface that if you have a fear of heights or feel unsure of your footing, your nervousness could amplify the danger. As long as you remained loose and agile you were relatively safe. In these spots the trekking poles were critical for all.
Unlike the previous day which included open meadows of flower covered mountainside, so very “Sound of Music” looking with the occasional forested patches, today, was lush and green with many snow flows. There were no trees after about twenty minutes into the hike. The temperature fluctuated more dramatically, but steadily dropped as we neared the peak two and a half hours later. Shortly before the summit we got our only sighting of ibex in the distance, resting on a grassy terrace overlooking the valley. Unfortunately, there was no time to attempt an approach for a closer view. Not long after we reached the Grand Col Ferret at 2537 meters, where the wind blasted us as it had on the glacier hike summit. I would say we had 40 mph sustained winds. I struggled to find my hard shell and was shivering. Hikers took turns and jockeyed for position to take photos beside the summit and border marker.
As we headed down the Swiss side of Val Ferret it was primarily snow for the first 30 minutes, which was a little treacherous just off the summit wearing nothing but hiking shoes. We slipped and slid down the slope using our trekking poles as if we were skiing. In the distance the mountain sides were lush and green with the snow flows and streams decorating their steep faces. Once we were out of the colder and stronger wind and temps we settled on a bluff to eat our pre-packed lunches. Our preparers had listened to our whining about the soggy tuna wraps the day before and researched how to pack a dry sandwich. A good move, and much appreciated.
Besides the awesomeness and scale of seeing Mont Blanc this area was my favorite because the mountainside appeared so velvety, broken up by the myriad streams detailing the contours of the steep slopes. I remember commenting in an Instagram post that each turn was a lesson in scale and beauty. In any direction I turned the views were amazing.
As we descended the sound of cow bells ringing in the distance became more and more distinct until we arrived at Alpage de la Peule, another refugio tucked on the mountainside and surrounded by cows in pastures milling about or resting in the sun. Again, we had some coffee and used the bathrooms. It was all downhill, about 6 kilometers, from here into La Fouly where we were picked up by our vans and driven to Champex for the night. As if we needed more walking, we walked around Lac de Champex, a 45 minute walk, where we experience one of those cell phone, Shangri-La, picture moments of perfect light and legendary scenery after dinner. It all came together.
Again, our hotel for the night had special cubbies for our dirty boots in the main hallway. This one looked antique and was painted decoratively with doors on the front of each space. No boots allowed beyond the lobby. There was a bar and comfortable lounge where a crowd gathered to watch World Cup soccer. We ate in the adjoining hotel restaurant where the food and service was comforting. The dining room was large, and the service quick. Honestly, I can’t remember what I ate. I guess I was a little tired. The structure was old and the hallways were often dark. The lights, operating on a sensor, didn’t always come on, so finding your way through the darkened hallways added to the experience. I fell asleep early on this night in a comfortable and clean bed.
Day 3 TMB
The next morning we packed our lunches after breakfast, as was the routine, and walked out of Champex along the main road towards our trail. Unlike the first two mornings, we headed downhill towards Champex d’en Bas for the first four miles, rather than up, among private ski chalets scattered across a rolling countryside. As we started to ascend, the trail became forested, and the weather turned more damp, gray and foggy. The climb was steep and rocky for several miles. In these moments, I felt the extra weight of my camera gear. I was carrying about 20-25 pounds in my pack. Raphael warned us this was an intense, but short lived ascent. We crossed rocky, mountain streams, rather than snowy ones, reminiscent of Shenandoah, and around seven miles in left the forest behind. The mountainside opened up to grassy meadows, where we circled around to a ridge with a tremendous view of the valley below and the city of Martigny-Bourg. Not long after this we came to the refuge of the day where we had heard all morning that the desserts were worth the climb. They were, and accompanied with a delightful coffee. I thoroughly enjoyed my treat, and the time off my feet, but it was crowded with other hikers. The line was not as long as it was at La Peuty, but there was a line for the bathrooms and the food. This was often a good time to meet fellow travelers.
On our descent into Trient we stopped briefly in Col de la Forclaz which is a sharp switchback in the road where several touristy gift shops, restaurants and bathrooms are strategically situated. We left our trekking poles outside one shop. When it came time to leave one person’s poles were missing. Another recurring issue related to trekking poles was leaving them behind after a break. The longer the trip went on the more this seemed to happen. It’s easy to do, especially when your not terribly inclined to their use, and you’re fatigued. For many in our group this was their first time using poles. In almost every town where we stopped, their were outfitters where new trekking poles could be purchased, so it was only a temporary and minor inconvenience.
We walked into the tiny town of Trient and were shown to our guide’s hostel called Refuge Le Peuty overseen by both Raphael and his partner Anja. We waited in their side yard with a view of the mountain we’d just climbed down while Anja prepared a special refreshment for us. A few local men sat at a table watching us as they enjoyed a beverage or two, or three, but resisted attempts to engage with us, which was amusing. Raphael’s refuge is a two story structure that resembles a renovated barn. The upper level is only accessed by an exterior set of metal steps, and inside features rows of rustic styled, wooden bunks. It’s a cozy and clean environment, but not a private one. A shower is available, as well as homemade, open fire prepared meals, homemade cocktails and other snacks are available. If I were in a large group and could rent out the whole place, or a 20 something again, I would be interested in staying. Otherwise, sleeping in a room with 20 people, some complete strangers, listening to them snore, or whatever, wasn’t so appealing for our older group, prone to crankiness.
After enjoying our complimentary cocktail at Happy Tracks our transport vans arrived to take us to our most memorable hotel on the trip, Hotel du Buet, in Vallorcine, France. This chalet style inn was set very close to a winding country road. The area reminded me of any number of spots on most any small rural road in West Virginia or Pennsylvania, but with more impressive mountains and linguistic accents all around. Inside, the entry hallway and staircase were dark despite being open. A set of small French doors separated the hallway with a naturally lit large bar area that had a local feel. The old handrail made you wonder about previous guests and years gone by, and the hallways had framed vintage photographs of people traipsing across giant, icy crevasses on ladders in their turn of the 20th Century day clothes. The wallpaper was old world and in some circles probably fashionably retro. Each room was unique, a result of the structure’s age and renovations over the years. As an example, our room had a two door entrance–not to be confused with French doors. This was literally one door, immediately followed by a second door. I walked through another dimly lit staircase to our second floor room. The bathroom was renovated and large but with little or no thought to design of its elements. It was placement based on practicality and presumably cost. Inside our room I felt suddenly transported into Van Gogh’s bedroom painting, but with decorative touches spanning the 30’s through the 60’s, rather than 19th Century Dutch. I couldn’t help but post about it at the time.
I took a glorious shower while it seemed there was an endless stream of motorcycles passing by the hotel as Sunday evening and the weekend were coming to a close, foreshadowing our final night on the trek. I headed down for dinner, which was to be served at the hotel. As I entered the bar where our tour group had strung several tables together, I was met almost immediately by a fellow hiker advising me to order a beer, BUT be patient with the service, and be sure to say merci. Evidently, the female barkeep wasn’t too welcoming, so far. I approached the bar cautiously, and stood waiting to be acknowledged. It wasn’t happening. There was what appeared a local patron sitting at the small, eight foot bar talking with the attendant. The snub did seem purposeful as time passed, and I continued to be ignored. I finally inserted myself with as pleasant an,”Excusez moi.” as I could muster. I spoke my version of broken French with a typical American version of a French accent. The same one that made my fluent French speaking daughter cringe when we visited Paris years before. I just wanted a beer. I don’t remember exactly what I said beyond the initial greeting. I got my beer and got away from the situation, as fast as possible.
It was a beautiful evening so we soon moved outside with our drinks to a table and chairs on the lawn beside the hotel, and discussed the not so warm welcome we were receiving. At just about this time another person in the group was ordering some wine and it wasn’t going well because of the language barrier on both sides. Someone reported that we were getting boxed wine, not the bottled good stuff. The serious wine drinkers weren’t pleased. It was starting to get more uncomfortable as the same lady bartender and apparent hotel manager brought out several wine options trying to satisfy a clearly unhappy, perhaps hard to please guest. Some started asking her questions and joking with her to ease the tension. Soon she was joking with us, telling us about herself and the hotel. Similar to the woman at Le Hotel Crampon, the hotel had been passed down within the family from one generation to the next. She lives in the house next door to the hotel. She treated us to what tasted and felt like a homemade meat and potatoes meal served family style. It was just what we needed and our beds were only steps away after we were full. So, as it turns out, all that was needed was a little icebreaking, wine, and bread breaking to bring familiarity, for both sides.
Day 4 TMB
Not long after daybreak on the fourth day we crossed the small road in front Hotel du Buet and followed it for some time before hitting our trail in earnest. It was a clear day but we were shaded within the two summits sandwiching us, so it felt cooler. This morning it was back to the grind of a steady intense climb through a forested trail that lasted for five miles, several hours and peaked at Col de Balme (2204m) Here lies the border between France and Switzerland. As we cleared the trees we were treated to a new angle on Mont Blanc which sported a wispy cloud cap that morning. We were seeing it on the opposite side from our first two days of the trek. The peak we were climbing was somewhat rocky with bigger steps as we neared the summit. A coating of low lying flowers and ground cover draped over the tiers of rock we passed. I was starting to become accustomed to these views. This was our shortest hike of the trip at a little over eight and a half miles.
We took a brief train ride to reach our hotel for the night at the Excelsior Chamonix. This was the most modern hotel during the TMB hiking portion of the trip, and as it turned out, my least favorite. While this hotel was clean and well appointed with a lovely pool and spectacular views of Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi, the stay was made unpleasant by an overbearing motorcycle club spending the night. It started out humorously, as they mistakenly identified one person in our group as Peter Fonda, presumably an “Easy Rider” fantasy almost come true, but as the night wore on their over the top partying became more and more disruptive. Well into the early hours of the next morning, Kathy and I listened to their drunken screams and singing through our open windows. So much for trying to enjoy the refreshing mountain air. At 1 A.M., it ceased being funny or reasonable, and the hotel didn’t seem to be doing much about it. I was anxious to leave the next morning, but we had to share one more meal with them before the rumble of their Harley’s churned in the air and they drove off down the road to “Sweet Home Alabama” blaring from an onboard stereo. Not a scene I would have imagined occurring in France. So, I woke up early to take photos of sunrise on Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi from poolside, not terribly well rested.
Our last day of TMB started in Argentièr with a group photo in matching t-shirts and a stop at the local apothecary for, in my case, a chapped lip ointment. Everyone had some-something to remedy, it seemed. Five days later and my lips and forehead, cracked and peeling, looked as if I’d summited somewhere. I guess I had, but the severity of the burn didn’t match the severity of the hiking achievement, at least not in my mind. The dry alpine air only added to the dryness. I was a bit of a mess with gobs of lotion covering my lips.
Two hours later we broke through the tree line on a steep incline with many switchbacks. Raphael had pointed out this trail from the mountainside we climbed the day before.
In many spots this was a trail filled with loose rocks. It was a warm day, and we were in the open, but thankfully the air was getting cooler and cooler as we climbed. Just like the first day, we were treated to different angles on Mont Blanc as we headed back towards Chamonix. We saw folks hang gliding over Chamonix Valley, tacking back and forth across the opening. It seemed they could stay aloft for as long as they wished riding the dependable winds of the valley’s vast air currents.
By this time, even with the grandeur of the Alps at our doorstep each day, there was a certain monotony to the daily routine–wake, eat, climb a mountain, take it in, take photos at the peak, stop to eat, climb down, shower, eat dinner, and repeat. I would have liked to spend a night or two at one of the refuges, so I could wake up and capture the landscape during that golden hour of first light. This is a selfish, photographer’s idea of how to spend a day, and not practical for a group. Also, our group was simply too large for the average refuge stay, unless we were willing to spend the night in one of the dormitory settings, which most of our group was not willing to do, myself included. At the same time, the repetition made each of us hone our attention to packing the gear we needed to get through a long day of semi challenging hiking.
On this last day we sat on a field of boulders and ate our final lunch along the TMB. We passed a wonderful waterfall with a bubbling stream at its base, we passed dormant ski venues where Raphi told us about the rockus partying that goes on when they’re open during ski season.
Then our Alps mountain adventure came to an unceremonious end at the Flégère cable station. Some had decided to ride the rest of the way down, and some were going to finish off the trail on foot. We paused for another group photo with Mont Blanc in the background before we separated. As I recall it was another two hours on foot down to Chamonix. The trail passed by a wonderful spot called Chalet de la Flora tucked neatly on the forested mountainside with potted flowering plants draping the walls and window sills. Tables with umbrellas lined the rustic stone terrace with yet another view of Mont Blanc. Unfortunately, we were rushing to get to Chamonix to meet up for a final drink together, so we only passed through this quaint spot. It was full of tourists and we passed several hikers on their way up asking, “How much further?” Hiking up to this spot is a long, steep climb. By the time we made it to Chamonix our feet were tired from pounding downhill with pace. It felt good to be back in Chamonix with its small streets and familiar sites. Walking through town, fresh off the TMB, felt a little like coming home from a great expedition. We were dusty, sweaty and ripe from the trail. We sat outside together at a corner bistro with Raphael and enjoyed an Aperol Spritz which was wonderfully refreshing. My feet were glad to be done.
The TMB was an immersive experience. It was challenging, but not extreme, and very easily tailored to many fitness levels. A few years ago I completed a rim-to-rim at the Grand Canyon, a trip I was destined to make. No more can I stand at the edge of a natural jewel and watch it sparkle from afar, on tv or from a car window, than I can do without food, love or companionship. It isn’t the same as being within it, touching it, smelling it, sweating for it.
That’s all for now.
© Amy Linn Doherty and Pawpro Media 2009-2019.
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