Mont Blanc Circuit: photos and notes
Three months after completing Exodus' Mont Blanc Circuit trip - a clockwise circumambulation of the Mont Blanc massif - I'm finally starting the mammoth task of sorting out photos and notes (and memories) of my Tour du Mont Blanc. As I've mentioned previously, it's a great route, but hard work. We were really lucky with the weather, which made for stunning scenery and wildflowers.
One tip I'd pass on is that, even in July, it's cold camping - particularly when you're in glacial valleys such as you'll find at Le Peuty (Trient): wonderful doing the washing up with views of the glacier, but even with Phil's Ajungilak 3 season sleeping bag and thermals, I was really cold that night. So, add a season more to the sleeping bag you think you'll need. I also wish I'd taken a washing line of sorts - I usually hijack a guy rope, but our dome tents didn't have them.
My photos are accumulating on Flickr in my Mont Blanc Circuit set, and I've tracked down a few other collections too:
- Vicki's are on Exodus' TWB images page* - http://www.exodus.co.uk/holidays/twb/images - it's the July 2012 set
- Steve's are on Flickr: Tour du Mont Blanc
- Hazel's are currently MIA, but should materialise on Flickr too. Who am I to judge?!
A better Heathrow experience this time, flying Swiss Air to Geneva - although as it's a shorthaul route, they only offer a very small sandwich for lunch. More alarmingly, our fellow passengers were so abstemious on the alcohol front that Hazel and I were worried that there wasn't any, until the lady in the row front of us led the way with a bottle of wine. Phew. Nice Swiss chocolates for pudding too. A lot of waiting at Geneva for all the various Exodus flights to arrive, and then an hour by coach towards Chamonix where Frank left us with our hosts for the fortnight - trek leader Simon and cook and tent wrangler Ben.
A short walk from the drop off point brought us to the Camping Les Marmottes, where we settled into our tents and then settled onto camping stools to get to know our fellow walkers over tea and biscuits al fresco.
Simon gave us a pre-dinner briefing about the trip as a whole (heli evacuation - check your insurance covers it, or you'll have to buy Exodus insurance then and there - kit and safety), the plans for our first day up in the mountains tomorrow, and the honesty bar (it took me a few days to wear down healthy-H to indulge in the beer and chippies treats available therein...). We then adjourned to 'The Marquee' for dinner, where we polished off Ben's hearty three course meal (the first of many): hummus and things to dip, mushroom risotto and a pudding I've forgotten (everything paled in comparison with The Tiramisu). The other table drew the short straw and got washing up duty (although our luck was to prove short lived)
No sign of Bastille Day celebrations in Les Bossons, and no sign of any mountains either - just a disappointingly grey glacier on the other side of the valley. A cool and cloudy afternoon/evening with occasional spells of drizzle didn't auger well for a fortnight under canvas. I was feeling worried that I'd persuaded Hazel under false pretences - particularly after discovering that there was another Exodus, hotel-based trip running in parallel with ours....
Sunday 15 July 2012: Les Bossons (Chamonix-Mont Blanc) - Les Praz - La Flégère - Réserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges (Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve) - Col des Montets - Les Frasserands (photos)
We woke to rain, and after a damp breakfast and our first tussle with Kili (we had to pack up our "2 Seconds + III" each morning - it's not easy wrangling a c160cm diameter dome tent back into its 81cm diameter flat pack carrying case) we loaded our main packs into the van, said au revoir to Ben and headed off with Simon to catch the bus from Les Bossons school to the nearby village of Les Praz.
The Téléphérique de la Flégère took us up from the Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley floor up to La Flégère at 1,894 m, where we swopped rain for cloud and a good few °C. Togged up in windproofs and waterproofs, we headed off along the footpath following the signs for Col des Montets - Simon had told us that the poor weather conditions meant that we would not be able do the planned high level route via Lac Blanc with its vertical ladders...
Still, the cloud and raindrops made for lovely flower photos in the Aiguilles Rouges National Nature Reserve, and Waiora and I got some glimpses of glaciers on the far side of the valley ahead and behind, waterfalls and the bright green lichen on the rich red iron rich gneiss rocks that give the Aiguilles Rouges mountains their name - the Red Needles. There's something quite magical about walking through the quietude of cloud.
As the day wore on, the skies cleared and we got better views of mountains above us and across the valley, including the Glacier du Tour. Waiora and I even had our own close encounter with a pair of Ibex, grazing in between the Alpine Rose (Rhododendrons) that cover the mountainsides in this part of the world. Shortly after, having enjoyed an easy day's walking along undulating path (the cable car having done the hard work of the ascent for us) we started the steep, zig zagging descent back down to the road, where we rendezvoused with Simon at the information centre at Col des Montets (1,461m).
A short stroll later we were walking through the bucolic alpine village of Les Frasserands, where we found the rest of the group soaking up the sun at the campsite. After a rather late lunch, Hazel and I wandered into the town (Argentière, in fact - I think!) with Vicki and Rachel and treated ourselves to a jug of Jupiler beer served by a waitress from Wolverhampton at a bar in the village centre. A bit too cool to loiter for long once the sun went in/down.
Dinner was a feast served up in the dining room at Camping Les Frasserands - complete with a magnificent cheeseboard....
Monday 16 July 2012: Les Frasserands - Aiguillette des Posettes (1,997m) - Col de Balme (2,191m), cross from France into Switzerland - descend to Le Peuty (1,326m) (photos)
We woke to blue skies, the overnight rain having cleared the clouds. It left the lush green grass of Camping Les Frasserands soaking wet, so wrangling the tent into its bag provided a second morning ablution. The mountains were magnificent - white snow caps against bright blue skies, jagged grey peaks gradienting into the greens of the fir trees and alpine grass cover. We could just make out the cable car lines stretching up towards the peak at Les Grands Montets (3,295m).
After breakfast in the open barn we'd camped by, and baguette sandwich making from the vast array of fillings, we were off. Having retraced our steps past the picturesque village and Heidi farms, Simon paused at the signpost that marked the start of the day's climb up to the Aiguillette des Posettes and thence to the Col de Balme.
Waiora and I took it easy up the footpath through the forested slopes that cover the ridge, spotting flowers and butterflies en route, eventually emerging alongside the high grasses and flowers in the alpine meadows which led up to our first rendezvous with Simon, at a rocky outcrop which provided a great vantage point for beautiful views back down the Chamonix valley, and up at the various Aiguilles that tower above Argentière.
Up above the treeline, the path climbed wooden steps pinned onto rocks, with stunning views of the mountains, including a clearer view of yesterday's Aiguilles Rouges, the Vallorcine valley and the barrage d'Émosson (Émosson dam and resevoir) to the left; and to the right, Les Grands Montets and the Aiguille du Chardonnet (3,824 m) and the Aiguille du Tour (3,540 m) embracing the glacier du Tour.
We do-si-doed with the hotel group along the final stretch along the ridge that took us to the Col des Posettes where we took panorama after panorama of beautiful vistas before dropping down amongst the Alpine Roses and wildflower meadows with a dispersed herd of classic Milka cows. A short stiff climb back up took us over the Col de Balme and out of France and into Switzerland. We picnicked late and illicitly at the Refuge de Balme, supplemented by an overpriced 3€, lukewarm cup of tea from our less than gracious hostess. Switzerland stretched out in front of us and in the patch of snow below a party of Koreans who had made the ascent on the Charamillon-Balme cablecar took photos, and a hardy few tried their hand at sledge-free sledging.
The campsite at Le Peuty was classified as one of the two 'wilderness' ones on the itinerary. I'd call it 'basic' - it's set up and run as a campsite, located next to the public loos and with a covered seating/kitchen area. Boots off, I joined the rest of the group relaxing with beers and a fabulous view of the Trient Glacier which turned from blue to pink as the evening fell, providing a scenic backdrop for our half's first go at washing up, before turning in for a somewhat cold night's sleep under canvas.
Probably the coldest (and rather patchy) night's sleep of the whole route. I blame the Trient Glacier and the steep slopes of the stunning valley setting! It meant that morning tea and breakfast was very welcome, and fortified we set off on a brisk 45 minute ascent to the road at Col de la Forclaz - home to a hotel serving coffee on the terrace, and a shop selling squeaky marmots and 3D maps of the TMB. We indulged in the coffee but not in the shopping.
It was then a nice stroll to Bovine, aptly named as the area was rich in meadows and cows, and, naturally, a cheese farm. We walked with the hotel group for much of the way to our next stop at the Alpage de Bovine, which came complete with views out over the Rhône valley, the Mont de l'Arpille above and the large looking town of Martigny below, and reclining deckchairs....
Initially the route on took us along a fairly level footpath traversing the slopes and steams coming down from the Fenêtre d'Arpette. However, the descent to our picnic lunch spot on the banks of one of the streams was rather more vertical, and muddy. As well as the forested view out over the valley below, there were plenty of flowers and butterflies, and less idyllically, signs of path repairs by bulldozer.
After a cool drink with a view at another buvette (I forget the name, possibly Plan de l'Au) but it came complete with loos, splendid views out over the Arpette Valley, and a final glimpse of the Rhône valley as we turned south towards Champex. We took the route forestière, which made for easy walking, especially once we were on the tarmaced section from Champex d'en Haut. Declining an icecream at the collection of wooden houses clustered around the Auberge Gîte "Bon Abri" (I had in mind scoops, not Wall's/Miko), we continued to our campsite on the outskirts of Champex-Lac, where we soaked up the sun and tucked into afternoon tea and biscuits à la Ben at the tables and benches of Camping Les Rocailles reception lodge, which segued into beers and crisps and then dinner. I forget what glories Ben cooked up, but his meals were always great.
A relatively gentle day.
Saying au revoir to the Camping Les Rocailles, we strolled down to the Lac de Champex, admired the quirky wooden animal carvings and gathered as a group at the southern end. There Simon briefed us on the day's route to and through the Val Ferret.
The footpath to Issert lay mainly through woods, home to more carved wooden animals and a vertical ladder to the top of a look out rock which sadly proved to have a firmly padlocked metal door which precluded access to the view. Still, we emerged shortly after to be greeted with views out over towards Orsières which turned out to be pretty fine - lots of lush green colours, meadows, woods and forested mountain peaks - and the village cafe at Issert provided a fine double espresso (the one, admittedly small, complaint I'd have about the catering on the trip is that the coffee was instant....) and old wooden buildings.
Crossing the La Dranse de Ferret river, we wandered through the hyper picturesque hamlets of the Val Ferret - plenty of timber farmhouses and geraniums, plus the occasional gnome. We crossed back over the river at Praz de Fort, and once Wairoa had caught us up we headed out of the village and up a ridge to lunch amidst the pine trees on the west side of the river. If memory serves, the ridge actually covered the pipes of a large hydroelectric power plant above Saleina, hence Prise d'eau de Saleina.
The afternoon's route was at our own pace, with the footpath through the Forêt des Planereuses hugging the mountainsides above the river, before broadening out into meadows by the climbing wall and waterfalls at Tsamodet on the approach to La Fouly.
Another splendid campsite awaited at Camping des Glaciers - fabulous views up towards the l'A Neuve cirque and glacier and the Tour Noir plus plentiful hot water in the bathroom/kitchen block and a dining hut (almost) all of our own, complete with log stove. We whiled away another late afternoon soaking up the sun, drinking tea, chatting, washing, and I took the opportunity to recharge my camera batteries from the van's multiway plug socket set up. They thought of everything....
Dinner was delicious - tomato salad and bruschetta (I think), thai green curry, and the (in)famous tiramisu, which featured plenty of booze. We slept well!
Thursday 19 July 2012: La Fouly (1,600 m) - Alpage de la Peule (2,071 m) - Grand Col Ferret (2,537 m) - Refugio Elena (2,061 m) - Arnouva (1,769 m) - Camping Grandes Jorasses, Planpincieux (1,593 m) (photos)
It was a day to say Tschuss to Switzerland (our time here was short but sweet) and Ciao Italia as today's route took us to the head of the Swiss Val Ferret, across the Grand Col Ferret and into the Italian Val Ferret, aka the Val d'Aosta.
We left La Fouly along the road, catching views behind us of Mont Dolent, before turning off the road and onto the footpath towards La Peule. There were a few more stretches of tarmac en route, but having crossed back over the Dranse de Ferret at Les Ars Dessous the slow, steady climb we were on an unpaved track, overtaking and being overtaken by a large group of American schoolkids, carrying heavy looking packs.
After a breather at the Alpage de la Peule, where we admired the cows and the yurts(!), Hazel, Waiora and I continued our steady ascent towards the Grand Col Ferret. As we climbed under grey skies, it got colder, windier and bleaker, so our lunchtime stop at the Col was decidedly brief. Still, enough time for photos of us at the highest point of our TMB, and into Italy along the Dora di Ferret, winding its way down from the Pre' De Bar glacier towards Courmayeur, passing beneath the Grandes Jorasses.
A steep descent was broken by the need to take more photos at almost every turn, but eventually we reached our rendezvous with Simon at the Refugio Elena where we treated ourselves to the super gloopy Cioccolata Calda (I didn't realise at the time that the unctuous consistency is usually generated using cornflour... ) to fortify us for the final 45 minute stroll down the road to the bus stop at Arnuova (1,769 m), where the tarmaced road runs out. It was a little further (and less obvious) than we thought, and even with gravity assisting us we only just made it with a few minutes to spare.
The Savda bus brought us to Camping Grandes Jorasses on the northern edge of Planpincieux, where we were to have the luxury of two nights, and showers at 0.50€ per 15 liters of hot water. Exodus cover the first 0.50€ each day, and 15l proved enough (for me!). A cool afternoon and evening, so after sorting out our tent and a cup of tea and a biscuit, Hazel and I stretched our legs with a stroll down to Planpincieux and views up to the Grandes Jorasses, Pointe Helbronner and assorted glaciers before the epic 16+ pizza gluttony dinner, provided by the Camping Grandes Jorasses's onsite pizza oven.
Friday 20 July 2012: Rest day featuring the Funivie Monte Bianco up to Pointe Helbronner (3,466 m) (actually Rifugio Torino Nuovo at 3,375 m) and Courmayeur (1,224 m), and finishing up with a fine meal in Planpincieux (1,593 m) (photos)
Vicki, Hazel and I opted to get up early and head up to Pointe Helbronner (3,466 m). We successfully caught the Savda bus from right outside the Camping Grandes Jorasses down to La Palud, and whilst we were ahead of the crowds on the Funivie Monte Bianco cable car, our plan to cross the Vallée Blanche to the Aiguille du Midi was thwarted by major repairs being carried out on the Télécabine Panoramic Mont-Blanc, so we opted for the shorter hop up to Rifugio Torino.
At 34€ the tickets were Not Cheap, but the stunning views from the various viewpoints made it worth every €, and all 200+ steps up from the Rifugio Torino Vecchio (3,335 m) to Rifugio Torino Nuovo (3,375 m): to the east (and a tad north) Aiguille Noire de Peuterey and Les Dames Anglaises, Mont Maudit and Monte Bianco; to the south, Gran Paradiso and Grivola and more ahead, to the west the Dente Del Gigante (Dent du Géant), Aiguille de Rochefort, Grandes Jorasses, Grand Combin, Cervino (aka the Matterhorn), Mont Vélan and Monte Rosa, and to the north and closer by our feet the blankets of snow and glaciers.
Mont Blanc itself remained elusive however, keeping a shroud of cloud despite our best efforts to wish it away (and making no appearance on the information panoramas either!). The only (other) fly in the ointment were the construction works taking place to build a new cable car station above Pointe Helbronner. The building site looked terribly precarious teetering above us, and sent down small avalanches of scree.
After a good few hours (and lots and lots of photos), we took the cable car down to the Pavillon du Mont Fréty (2,173 m) where the air was warmer and we pottered around the Giardino Alpino Saussurea which provided photos and names of many of the flowers we'd seen so far.
There our luck ended as we just missed the once-an-hour bus from La Palud to Courmayeur and the walk along the main road proved longer and hotter than hoped. Still, once in Courmayeur we armed ourselves with an icecream from the gelateria yogurteria on Piazza Brocherel and having (quickly) explored the town, we settled at a pavement cafe for a light lunch.
Courmayeur clearly caters for the well heeled, and we were there at lunchtime shutdown, so with no shopping opportunities to keep us in town we caught the bus back to base to potter the rest of the afternoon away. For dinner, we headed down en masse to Planpincieux to eat at the Chalet Proment. An excellent suggestion from Simon and Ben (who ate there too, and booked us a table) - tasty local dishes, a good choice of wine and lovely waiters.
Saturday 21 July 2012: Camping Grandes Jorasses, Planpincieux (1,593 m) - Lavachey (1,642 m) - Rifugio Walter Bonatti (2,025 m) - Armina (2,009 m) - Tsa de Secheron (2,200 m) - Col Sapin (2,436 m) - Testa della Tronche / Tête de la Tronche (2,584 m) - Monte Della Saxe / Mont de la Saxe - Rifugio Bertone (2,000 m) - Courmayeur - Campeggio Aiguille-Noire, Val Veni / Val Vény (photos)
A wonderful day's walking. Despite an ominous weather forecast, the rain held off and although clouds stayed resolutely settled over the Mont Blanc Massif, we got occasional glimpses of glacier, smashing views of the valleys and the skies stayed blue(ish) above us.
Saying au revoir to Camping Grandes Jorasses we took the bus back up the Val Ferret to Lavachey (1,642 m) and, skirting the hotel, followed the signs for Rifugio Walter Bonatti (2,025 m). After a steep ascent through woodland we emerged onto the side of the ridge and wound our way along largely the level taking in the glorious views across the Val Ferret to Les Grandes Jorasses, and meeting plenty of people coming in the other direction.
After a breather at the Bonatti (where we watched a couple of Italian chaps photographing the glaciers and admired the 3D relief maps inside the Rifugio itself) and coffee and hot chocolate for some, we continued on along the path passing through alpine meadows to the shepherds' huts at Armina (2,009 m), and then turning left into the Arminaz valley, following the stream up to the ruins at Tsa de Secheron (2,200 m) - a beautiful green valley carpeted with wild flowers, and with those elusive marmots making an appearance.
We lunched at Tsa de Secheron, admiring the views back down towards Les Grandes Jorasses and the Glacier de Tronchey and Glacier de Praz-Sec (I think!), then put our best feet forward for the stiff zig zag climb up to Col Sapin (2,436 m), at the head of the Val Sapin. In between Val Sapin and Val Ferret rises the ridge of the Monte Della Saxe (Mont de la Saxe), which was to be our route back to Courmayeur.
But first we had a further 150 m to climb up a steep and slippery sandy path to reach the Testa della Tronche (Tête de la Tronche) at 2,584 m.... the stunning panoramic views from the cairn were worth it: to the east the exposed rockface / scree ridge we've lunched under turned out to be Tête Entre Deux Sauts, and continuing clockwise from there, a hanging valley that could take you back to Rifugio Bonatti, followed by grey views of the Grande Rochère (3,326m) and the Aiguille de Chambave (3,067) with the Arminaz / Armina stream tumbling down into the valley between them. Crossing the forested slopes of the Val Sapin brought Courmayeur into view, with Mont Chétif and Val Veni (Val Vény) bringing the panorama round to the Ghiacciaio della Brenva (Glacier de la Brenva) and the cloud shrouded peaks of the Mont Blanc Massif that loom over Val Ferret.
After photos and sweets we set off at our own paces downhill, relatively steeply at first until we'd passed the Testa Bernarda (Tête Bernada, 2,534 m) before the path levelled for a lengthy undulating stroll along the ridge of the Monte Della Saxe which runs pretty much East-West. Ahead of us we had the stunning pyramid of Mont Chétif while to the north we had elevated views of the glaciers that flow down and around Les Grandes Jorasses and the Aiguilles Rouges de Rochefort. Behind us, to the east, we might have been able to see our route down from the Grand Col Ferret had the weather been clearer but even so we had a great view back up Val Ferret, and further along the Monte Della Saxe a bird's eye view down onto Planpincieux. And everywhere, throughout the day, beautiful flowers.
As we drew closer to the end of the ridge, Pointe Helbronner, Rifugio Torino and the cranes at the construction site of the new cable car station came into clear view - but Mont Blanc and associated ridges, peaks and passes remained hidden.
A steep descent brought us to picturesque Rifugio Bertone (2,000 m) and more reclining deckchairs to take the weight off our feet. Another steep descent took us down into the tree line and - eventually (the walk down felt neverending, especially for the knees) - to pretty Villair Superiore and thence into Courmayeur... just in time for another double scoop icecream from the gelateria yogurteria on Piazza Brocherel, and the 4.30pm bus.
The bus took us up the steep, narrow and winding road into Val Veni.... with more than a few close encounters with other vehicles, before we reached the day's end at the Campeggio Aiguille-Noire. Glorious hot showers, stunning scenery (including, naturally the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, this time from a different angle) - plus a beer and chippies or two...
Once the sun went behind the mountains it got a tad chilly, but dinner at La Zerotta warmed us up - particularly the meat and cheese platters for starters! The tomato pasta main course was a bit ropey, but the kitchen won us back round again with the dark chocolate torte for dessert.
A smashing day.
Note: I must credit the map (fig 1) in Interactions between rock avalanches and glaciers in the Mont Blanc massif during the late Holocene by Philip Deline, for helping me to identify the glaciers, and Walking Europe & Beyond for the description of the route (albeit in the reverse) in Walk 6103 - Courmayeur - Mont De La Saxe - Val Ferret.... when Wikipedia and Google Maps don't quite give the detail I need!
Sunday 22 July 2012: Campeggio Aiguille-Noire, Val Veni / Val Vény / Val Veny - Rifugio Elisabetta (2,195 m) - La Casermetta (2,365 m) - Col de la Seigne (2,516 m) - Refuge des Mottets (1,870 m) - La Ville des Glaciers (1,789 m) - Les Chapieux (1,549 m) (photos)
After breakfast in the Campeggio Aiguille-Noire's newly built recreation room for campers, we took the bus to the end of the line further up the Strada Val Veny, thereby avoiding a couple of roadside kilometres on foot. After an easy tarmaced zig zag ascent, the road evened out and eventually dwindled to a rocky track which led along the broad base of the Vallon de la Lex Blanche / Vallon de la Lée Blanche, and alongside the still, reflective waters of Lago di Combal. Beautiful blue skies above, lush greenery all around and peaks and glaciers galore. Our morning route had taken us past the gravel and tree covered, Mexican moustache shaped Miage glacier without really noticing it.
A stiff climb brought us to our first rest point at the Rifugio Elisabetta / Refuge Élisabeth (2,195 m), with beautiful wildflowers in the adjacent meadow and a stunning view back down the valley and across to the Ghiacciaio della Lex Blanche / Glacier de la Lée Blanche.
After exploring the deserted buildings (apparently an old army/frontier post, called Alpe Inferieur de la Lée Blanche) we continued along the upper valley to the relatively recently restored La Casermetta (2,365 m). En route Vicki and I went off piste in pursuit of marmot photo opportunities and our descent back to the path involved a careful snow bridge crossing over one of the glacial streams.
La Casermetta is now an alpine information centre, complete with annotated panoramas so you know the names of the peaks and glaciers you're admiring - left to right we had Aiguille des Glaciers, Aiguille de de la Tré la Tête, Pyramides Calcaires, Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, Grandes Jorasses, Grand Combin, Mont Fortin, Mont Perchet, Col Chavannes and Mont Lechaud - together with display boards and posters about the local alpine flora and fauna, which has helped heaps with my flower identification! It was a perfect lunchspot, especially when the local marmot family came out to play.
Another 150m or so brought us to Col de la Seigne (2,516 m), the pass between Val Veny (Italy) and Vallée des Glaciers (France) where, as the English gent at the cairn commented, it was as busy as the Isle of Wight on an August bank holiday! Still, great views in both directions.
The descent into France was gentle at first but grew steeper, with a series of toe crunching zig zags bringing us to the delightful Refuge des Mottets. After a breather at the picnic tables and use of the loos (ever practical), Hazel, Jamie-Lee, Annette and I decided to forgo the minibus option and walk the 5 km of road that would bring us to our campsite at Les Chapieux. To be honest, the relentless tarmac made for pretty tough going, and I was very glad when the tents came into view. According to the trip notes, this campsite was the other 'wilderness' one - and again I'd simply call it basic. It was a little further to walk to the loos adjacent to the information centre, but the camping area was vast (handy given the number of Dutch camper vans in situ).
After a late afternoon's relaxation in the sun (with regulation tea and biscuits provided by Ben) we wandered up to the Auberge de La Nova, where we feasted on braised pork cheeks (for the meaties), lasagne (for the veggies) and roast potatoes, and treated ourselves to a carafe or two of vin rouge....
Monday 23 July 2012: Les Chapieux (1,549 m) - Col de la Croix du Bonhomme / Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme (2,443 m) - Col du Bonhomme (2,329 m) - Col de Balme / Refuge La Balme (1,706 m) - Camping Le Pontet, Les Contamines-Montjoie (990m) (photos)
The high ridges that surround Les Chapieux kept the warming sunlight away from our campsite's valley floor location, making for a chilly start to the day. Still, climbing up the hillside to the north of the village soon warmed us up, and once we were above the shadow line we were soon down to T shirts.
Just over an hour of uphill at a relatively good pace brought me up onto the windswept hilltop at the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme almost 1000m above Les Chapieux. The col is home to the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme - a lovely refuge, which comes with an amazing location and a stunning array of cake! Time to treat myself to a large coffee and an equally large slice of honey nut cake, with DIY spoonfuls of blueberry (?) compote - delicious!
Once everyone had caught up and made the most of the refreshments, it was back outside into the wind, contouring round to the Col du Bonhomme (2,329 m). Beautiful views east over the valleys, forests and peaks of the Beaufortain, and glimpses of the Lac de la Gittaz reservoir.
Great views of the valleys either side of the Col du Bonhomme, but the wind made taking photos (and standing upright!) tricky, so after a quick picnic lunch we headed down into Val Montjoie. A steep descent with a snowfield crossing became more gentle as we turned away from the Aiguilles de la Pennaz, only to turn steeper as we approached our next stop at the Col de Balme, where we sat at the outside tables of the Refuge La Balme (1,706 m).
Refreshed, it was an easy stroll on down the valley of the Torrent Le Bon Nant, crossing the Pont de la Téna and walking on Roman paving. The church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Gorge reassured us that we were on the right path, and 45 minutes later we were at Camping Le Pontet, our home in Les Contamines-Montjoie for a couple of nights.
Tuesday 24 July 2012: Les Contamines-Montjoie
Our rest day coincided with market day, so we walked into Les Contamines and browsed the stalls, refreshing with a coffee in a cafe before purchasing lunchtime goodies and checking email at the internet PCs in the excellent office de tourisme.
Back at base we did a bit of washing and rucksack reorganisation then picnicked on baguette, butter, cheese, céleri rémoulade and olives, washed down with a rather nice bottle of rosé. All of which resulted in a lazy afternoon.
Dinner at the onsite restaurant at Camping Le Pontet was rather disappointing in comparison.
Wednesday 25 July 2012: Les Contamines-Montjoie - Auberge Le Truc (1,720 m) - Refuge de Miage (1,560 m) - Col de Tricot (2,120 m) - Bellevue (1,800 m) - Col de Voza (1,653 m) - Les Houches - Les Bossons (photos)
Today would bring us back into the valley of Chamonix-Mont Blanc, and it felt far too soon to be returning to Les Bossons. Suddenly the end was nigh....
After our final tent wrangling, and Stephen and Ian demonstrating their double act tent-taking-down skills for the rest of us, we said au revoir lovely Camping Le Pontet and walked down to Les Contamines, turning off at the signpost for Le Truc. A steep climb up through pine trees eventually brought us out above the tree line at Auberge Le Truc (1,720 m). The morning's blue skies and bright sun made for poor photos of the Glacier du Miage and the peaks above, including the elusive Mont Blanc and the Aiguille de Bionnassay.
A descent into the next valley brought us to the Refuge de Miage (1,560 m) in its stunning location below the glacier and the Dômes de Miage (but the sun was still working against my photos!). Refreshed by coffee and cake (I declined the blueberry tarte at 7€ a slice...), we commenced the long haul and many zigs and zags up to the Col de Tricot (2,120 m). En route, it did indeed feel frustrating to have lost the 200m between Auberge Le Truc and Refuge de Miage! Still, the views from the col were smashing - north into the Bionnassay valley with the line of the Mont Blanc Tramway just discernable, and south back over the Miage valley and to the ridges beyond. A great spot to rest for a while.
The next stretch took us down into the Bionnassay valley and more great views of the peaks and glaciers of the Mont Blanc Massif up to our right, and we lunched with a stupendous view looking up the Glaicer de Bionnassay at the Aiguille de Bionnassay and Dôme du Goûter.
Accompanied by Alpine Roses and woodland we descended towards the Torrent de Bionnassay, and crossed, carefully, over the cable suspension bridge. A very busy section followed, up to Bellevue where the tramway and the cable car from Les Houches deposit strollers, hikers and mountaineers alike. Those with tired legs opted for the cable car down, the rest of us continued to the Col de Voza (1,653 m) and then took the black run down to Les Houches - the sandy/scree track made for tough going on the knees.
Having made a rainy rendezvous at a bar in Les Houches, we squeezed onto the bus back to Les Bossons - hello again Camping Les Marmottes .... and BONJOUR MONT BLANC! Yes, at last.... we realised what we'd missed on our arrival... the amazing views of the Glacier des Bossons, Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi - and many more peaks and ridges besides. The colours turned from blue to white to rose pink as the sun set. Beautiful.
Turning right onto the side road to Camping Les Marmottes, we crossed the river Arve and climbed up through the trees the cover the mountains on the north side of the Chamonix valley. A stiff section of road brought us to the Parc de Merlet (warning: music!) and then back into the trees to zig zag ever higher up the slopes of the Aiguillette des Houches. Traversing the flanks of the réserve naturelle de Carlaveyron we had splendid cloud free views back out over the valley to the Mont Blanc and neighbouring peaks, ridges and glaciers stretching from the Aiguille du Goûter (3,863 m) in the west to Aiguille Verte (and a bit beyond) in the east.
After a long hot climb we emerged onto the hilltop and Refuge de Bel Lachat (or Bellachat) came into sight. The terrace proved to be a lovely place to take in the scenery, including the paragliders soaring over the valley.
Refreshed we continued on and up, less steeply now and above the treeline, walking amidst the green-lichen coated rocks and green grassy uplands of the montagne de la Coquille. Plenty of photo opportunities, until the going got stiffer on the final slog up the boulder/scree path to Le Brévent. It had been a lot busier on trail than we'd become used to, and the cable car station and restaurant explained why. As did the views - the best of the whole trip - not just over to the Mont Blanc Massif, but to our north we had the reds and greens of the Aiguilles Rouges. Stunning.
After lunch looking out at the Mont Blanc Massif, as an English gent captured it in watercolour next to me, and a potter around the viewing area (taking a gazillion photos and panorama), Hazel and I headed off downhill to Plan Praz in the company of Annette and Jamie-Lee. At Plan Praz we hopped into the cable car for the final descent into Chamonix, catching up with the rest of the group at the bus stop by the Hotel Richemond.
Back at the campsite, another evening with magical rose tinted views of the mountains and glaciers above Les Bossons.
After coffee and macaroon at a cafe in Chamonix's pedestrianised centre we pottered around buying postcards, thinking about buying a 3D map, and eventually buying picnic treats for lunch, which we ate back at Camping Les Marmottes. A very civilised afternoon reading in the sun followed, hearing what everyone else had been up to as they returned from the town, and, in Vicki's case, the Aiguille du Midi.
In the evening, we glammed up (as much as it's possible to glam up when you've been living out of a rucksack for almost a fortnight) and strolled up to enjoy our farewell final group meal al fresco on the decking of Le Tremplin.
We had a free morning and the cloud had returned, so we took the bus into Chamonix for a final potter round, and coffee in a pavement cafe before making our way to the rendezvous-pick up point at Hotel Richemond, where the Hotel Group were staying.
The coach continued on to Les Bossons, to collect our bags and those of our group who were on the Geneva-London flight. Farewell to Simon and Ben, then, chaperoned by Frank and Mrs Frank, we were driven to Geneva airport. Knowing the 'rules' for the Swiss Air flight home, we enjoyed our glass of wine and minibar of milk chocolate, and landed in LHR to be greeted by the smoothest, quickest passport control there ever, several groups of enthusiastic games makers, and a marvellous atmosphere.
The London 2012 Olympic Games Had Begun, and London and the UK were on a high.
[Enfin le fin: 24 November 2012]
* 28 March 2014 Update: Well, that's a first - Exodus have asked me to remove my links back to their website as they're having trouble with their Google rankings due to "unnatural links" pointing to their website. Hence the unlinked URL to Vicki's photos! Here's the one for the trip (I note that the URL pattern has changed): http://www.exodus.co.uk/france-holidays/walking-trekking/mont-blanc-circuit/twb-0