tour of mont blanc – counter-clockwise
This is the photo diary / trip log / blog of Dave Butcher for two circuits of the Tour of Mont Blanc, TMB. The first was completed in July 1987 within 7 days and we travelled counter-clockwise from Les Houches in France using cheap hotels, a refuge and camping in a lightweight tent.
Wednesday 15th July 1987: My wife Jan and I arrived in Les Houches near Chamonix on a dull evening and stayed in a small hotel ready to start tomorrow. Hope it clears up.
Day 1, Thursday 16th July 1987: After breakfast we drove our car to the Bel Alp Hotel to leave it in their secure car park for the week. Just after 9 am we were off. It was a dull day but quite warm. We left Les Houches in the direction of the cable car to Col de Voza to pick up the footpath to the ridge above. The sun soon came out and it became very hot for walking. Lots of trees hid the view and it was muddy underfoot. We reached Col de Voza around 11am. We refilled our water bottles at the Chalet Col de Voza (a large hotel) and had a few minutes taking in the view. There were quite a few people enjoying the sunshine. From here we walked up to the Bellevue Hotel which was quite run down. Good views from here to the Bionassay Glacier and beyond. Saw a man with a parrot on his shoulder walking the other way, strange! We descended down through fly infested woods towards a new wooden bridge over the glacier stream where we stopped for lunch of croissant and flap jack. Bit of a breeze from the stream so it was cool here. We climbed up over wet rocks to the snout of the glacier, quite steeply at the top but steel steps and a hand wire helped. The glacier snout looked more like rock than ice, being dark grey not blue or white. We turned away from the glacier and climbed up to a plateau with views to the Bionnassay Glacier once again and ahead to the Col de Tricot. We heard, then saw, a huge avalanche from the upper part of the glacier. It sounded a lot worse than it looked. We reached the Col de Tricot at 2.15pm. It was overcast now and soon started raining heavily which made it very slippery underfoot. It was a steep descent from the col and we filled our water bottles from the run-off.
We reached the Chalets de Miage at 3.20pm, a group of houses in the foot of the valley. Had to refill again at the hostel, hot work this walking. From here it was up again to the Chalets du Truc where there were lots of people here sitting out in the sunshine. Pretty straight forward from here down to Les Contamines, reaching the village centre at 5.30pm. We stayed in the Edelweiss Hotel, small, basic and friendly.
Walk: 11 miles, 4882 feet of ascent, 8h 20m
Day 2, Friday 17th July 1987: First stop was the Croissant shop to pick up lunch. We left the hotel around 8.30am. There was light rain but it was warm as we walked south out of Contamines along the road and then a track past the camp site to reach the Notre Dame de la Gorge church at 9am. The rain had stopped as we carried on over wet slabs. It was very warm work so we stopped at the chalet-hotel at Nant Barrant to refill our water bottles. It was showery through the morning as we walked up to the Chalet Hotel of La Balme at 10.45am where we had a short break. There were lots of people ahead of us on the path. There were now snow patches across the path as we went higher. We stopped for a bite to eat at about 12.15pm and then on to the Col du Bonhomme half and hour later. There was lots of snow here, good views and it was cool. From here it was all on snow to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. From here we carried on up to the Col des Fours which we reached at 2.40pm. It was raining now. This was one of the high points on the Tour at 2665m / 8744 feet. The way down was over steep hard neve snow. We saw our first marmots in the distance. From here we continued down in heavy rain on muddy tracks to reach La Ville des Glaciers at 5.20pm. We crossed a wide torrent of water on a 3 inch plank of wood that was just below the surface of the water, quite exciting! Then just a few hundred yards more to reach Les Mottets refuge and dortoir at 6pm. The dortoir was interesting with 6 berths per sleeping section and 48 berths in the one room. It was a noisy night with most places taken and rain beating down on the corrugated metal roof. Wet socks and underwear hanging from chains down the length of the hut, above the centre walkway at face height, made for an unpleasant experience moving around the dortoir. Unfortunately, there was no electricity, no lights and the roof leaked. Not the best place I’ve ever stayed; more like a cow shed than a dormitory. The toilet just beside the main hut, opposite the door to the dortoir, was memorable for the wrong reasons. It was a small rickety structure and every other slat in the walls seemed to be missing so there was a good view in every direction from both within and into it from outside (!) with a hole in the floor overhanging the river underneath, not the most sanitary arrangement.
Walk: 12 miles, 5174 feet of ascent, 9h 30m
Day 3, Saturday 18th July 1987: It was pouring with rain as we awoke but it had cleared by the time we moved off at 8am. We climbed up a zig-zag path in mist, very wet underfoot, crossing a large stream by crawling over a partially collapsed snow bridge over the torrent. Then as we climbed upwards by 9am we were above the clouds looking down on an inversion with clouds below. We seemed to be in a cloud sandwich as clouds came down around us, thickening very fast. At 9.50am we were on the Col de la Seigne, the French/Italian border. The rain started here. The descent involved crossing some extensive snow fields but it was an easy angled slope so no trouble. We decided against making for the Col de Chavanne because of large steep snow fields just below it (probably a foolish idea anyway!). The rain stopped as we reached the path to the Elisabetta refuge at 11am. We left the road by the end of the Lac de Combal at 11.50am and climbed up through lush meadows with views across to the Lac du Miage and the Glacier du Miage, past the derelict refuge of L’Arp Vieille Superior. The path skirted some impressive cliffs, continued below Lac Checrouit and ski lifts to reach Col Checrouit at 3.15pm. We stopped at the dortoir for beer and a ham roll and it was sunny now. From here was pretty straightforward, save for one small section that had collapsed, to Dolonne. It was raining again now as we headed down the last section to the town of Courmayeur, which we reached at 6pm and a long queue at the tourist information centre for accommodation so we headed off to sort ourselves out by visiting hotels directly. We stayed at the somewhat dodgy Hotel Ferrato, we had to step over excess furniture and exposed cables to reach our room which was partially ensuite – a shower cubicle had been installed right next to the bed, on top of the carpet, but it was impossible to regulate the temperature to anything other than boiling hot or freezing cold. In fact you barely needed to get out bed to use it!
Walk: 14 miles, 3865 feet of ascent, 10h
Day 4, Sunday 19th July 1987: We left the hotel in Courmayeur at 8.50am in sunshine and blue skies. We had completed some tough days so we chose the low valley route to Entreves and then the Italian Val Ferret. We now had our first views of Mont Blanc since starting. The valley was easy walking and we soon reached Tronchey and Pra Sec at 11am for croissant and a bottle of water. We sat by the river for a break. The valley from here was very busy with people and horses. At Arnuva we stopped for ham rolls and more water at 12.30pm. From here we headed up the head of the valley to the Pre de Bar Glacier which was scallop shape at the snout. From here we decided it would be more interesting to go via the Petit Col Ferret rather than follow the procession up to the Grand Col Ferret. The path was covered in lots of snow so it was hard going in the hot sun and we moved across to the steep grass slopes to reach the col between Chantonnet and Tete de Ferret at 3.50pm (the Italian / Swiss border). There was snow on both sides here but it was easy ground across hard snow to reach a narrow ridge from the Cretet de la Perche from where we found a good path down to the road to reach the camp site at L’A Neuve at 6.15pm. A very busy cramped site. We managed to find a small area to pitch our tent and set about preparing some food and making ourselves comfortable.
Walk: 15 miles, 4262 feet of ascent, 9h 22m
Day 5, Monday 20th July 1987: We left the camp site at 9am by a track through some woods on the valley floor of the Swiss Val Ferret. It was sunny with a warm breeze. There were steep scree-covered cliffs on our left and large piles of boulders at the foot of the many gullies. Things didn’t look that stable around here! Across the valley there were rolling hills and green meadows (alps) to quite a high level. Slowly we gained height and the track narrowed then we came down through trees to the hamlet of Saleina at 10.50am. From here we followed the road to Praz de Fort. The sun made it hot work as we headed for Les Arlaches which had some very narrow streets and old sturdy wooden buildings. We reached Issert at 11.45am, it was very quiet, few people and another quaint old village. Issert and Arlaches both had impressive large decorated crosses in the village centres. We stopped for lunch at 11.55am beside the track to Champex. A few hundred yards along the path water was running off the hillside across the path and there were hundreds and hundreds of butterflies on the ground and flying around, lots of alpine plants too. The path continued to climb steadily, we crossed a stream by a narrow plank bridge joining the road on the edge of Champex, which is quite a large village in a pretty location with a lake and big mountains all around. The heat was draining so we stopped at the first cafe for a break and a ham sandwich at 1.15pm. They were very friendly bringing out a huge amount of food and lots of lemonade. We left at 1.45pm on the track up the Val d’Arpette, with good views back over Lac Champex to the Grand Combin mountain range beyond. The track went past the Arpette Gite (very busy) and up for a very long time on narrowing and steepening tracks. There was a substantial snow slope near the top with deep bucket steps that made it slow going, the surface was too soft to support our weight at this time on a hot day. We refilled the water bottle from snow melt water and reached the Fenetre d’Arpette at 5.50pm. This was the other high point on the Tour de Mont Blanc at 2665m / 8744 feet. Exactly the same height as the Col des Fours (Day 2). We were greeted with fantastic views back to the Grand Combin and ahead over the Trient Glacier with cotton wool ball clouds over the Trient Glacier but thick cloud further round over France. It was too hazy to see ahead to the Aiguille Rouge. Being late there was no-one else here and I spent some time taking quite a few photos. We moved off at 6.15pm and it was now clouding over but still very warm. The very steep descent was tackled slowly since Jan’s knees were seizing up. We passed the deserted Chalet du Glacier and crossed the torrent of water from the Trient Glacier by the small bridge there. It was now quite dull as we reached the water authority road and refilled the water bottles again, as well as filling our water bag for cooking our dehydrated food. We camped beside and above the very noisy river at 9pm, had a brew, a bit to eat in the dark then turned in just before the rain started. It wasn’t a very comfortable pitch but we were so tired that we were soon asleep.
Walk: 16 miles, 5299 feet of ascent, 12h
Day 6, Tuesday 21st July 1987: We were up early as it was quite uncomfortable in the cold light of morning. We were off at 7.50am just before the rain started and set off across a field to rejoin the TMB just past L’Odeyi and walked up though trees as we climbed. The rain stopped at 8.30am and we were now seeing lots of people on the trail ahead and behind. Jan was going steadily but slowly because of knee pain (too much hockey and squash on hard surfaces). We were soon above the trees on the open hillside, past the refuge of Les Herbageres (lots of people here) and into the clouds again. It went quite cool. We reached the Col de Balme refuge at 9am (the Swiss / French border) but there was no view although we had seen it in the sun just 5 minutes before we arrived! It was cold so we put fleeces on and descended the well trodden track out of the clouds around the ski area paraphernalia of Le Tour. The large cable car station was past at 10.55am and we continued walking under the cables to reach Le Tour at 12.20pm. We bought a few provisions and continued on to Montroc then round to Tre-Le-Champ and from here we went up the Balcon path from the road to reach the Col des Montets at 1.30pm (sign said Chalets de Chesserys 3h 30m). It was very humid and tiring but brightened up as we climbed. We reached the plateau area at 2pm and had a break by a small waterfall. We now had a view across to the Col de Balme in the distance. We refilled the water bottles, it was very hot. There were views across to the lower parts of the Mont Blanc range and the glaciers but the top was shrouded in clouds. We passed the Chalet de Chesserys at 3.15pm (1h 45m from sign that said 3h 30m) and briefly we saw the top of Mont Blanc before the clouds closed in again. The path followed up and down until we reached La Flegere chalet at 4.15pm. It was hazy sun now. We were out of French money so decided to descend to the valley. We passed the Restaurant La Floria at 5.30pm and continued down through the forest to the road in Les Praz de Chamonix at 6.10pm. Here, we went hunting for a hotel with a room available and ended up in La Prairie in a very large room with a quirky shower. We were too tired to go hunting for a restaurant so we ate at our hotel and the food was excellent. They spoke no English so our limited French was quite challenged!
Walk: 13 miles, 5200 feet of ascent, 11 h
Day 7, Wednesday 22nd July 1987: In the morning we couldn’t check out of our hotel since we had no French money left and, like so many other places on the route, they would not accept credit or debit cards. We left Jan’s rucsac as security that we would return and walked into Chamonix to find a Bureau de Change to change some travellers cheques. From here we continued along the valley floor to Les Houches, reaching the Bel Alp Hotel, and our car, at 11.15am.
We paid our car park charges, piled the gear in and drove back to La Prairie to pay our bill from the previous night and recover Jans rucsac.
It was a shame to miss the part of the official route between Flegere and Les Houches but at least we walked the whole way round and we took in some of the highest alternative routes. There were so few places that took cards that we ran out of cash and had to create our own alternative end. We had spectacular views and hot sunny days mixed with bad weather.
Walk: 7 Miles, No ascent, 2h 15m
Overall, it had to be one of the best walks we have done. Interestingly, we repeated it in the opposite direction in September 2004 and didn’t use our waterproofs once. It really is a spectacular walk! My notes and images for that trip have been added below.
Note: Water in the mountains – we drank lots of water as it was hot strenuous work and our 1 litre Sigg water bottles had to be refilled regularly. Each time we did this we tried to find fast running streams or snow melt away from habitation and used water purification tablets to kill any nasties that may have been present in the water. It takes about 30 minutes to dissolve and be effective. We didn’t drink straight from the streams no matter how clear and pure it looked.
Totals: 88 miles, 28,682 feet of ascent, 6¼ days of walking
Cameras: Mamiya 645 Super, 80mm lens, 20 rolls of Ilford FP4 120 film; Nikon FE, 50mm lens and 4 rolls Kodachrome 64 35mm film.
Total weight carried: DB 14.5kg (32 lbs), JB 11kg (24 lbs).
tour of mont blanc – clockwise
This is the photo diary / trip log / blog of Dave Butcher for the second circuit of the Tour of Mont Blanc, TMB. It was completed in September 2004 and we travelled clockwise from the Flegere lift station near Chamonix in France, staying in cheap hotels and gites.
We arrived in Chamonix on the afternoon of Monday 31st August in really good weather. It was warm and sunny and views were clear. In fact it was so good that we decided to go up the lift to Flegere to see the view in case the weather closed in the following day. It also let me take photographs in the late afternoon whereas the following day we would be here mid-morning.
The views were fantastic looking across to Mont Blanc, the Chamonix Aiguilles, The Aiguille Verte, Drus as well as the Grandes Jorasses and the Mer de Glace – all in clear view (no heat haze) and a thin line of cloud was hanging below the tops of the mountains to add to the images. If only we could have this for the next 8 days, I thought to myself remembering back to our first circuit of the TMB in 1987. For this trip there were 3 of us for the entire trip, Jan my wife, me, good friend Phil Moorhouse whom I had met on one of my ski mountaineering trips, and Phil’s brother Andrew as far as Courmayeur. The reason for the trip was it was just after Phil’s 50th birthday so this was his celebratory walk, although all except Andrew had done it before in the counter-clockwise direction.
Day 1, Flegere to Trient, Tuesday 1st September 2004: It was a clear day, no clouds at all (all day!) as we left Les Lanchers Hotel in Les Praz de Chamonix, a comfortable hotel owned by an Englishman that we have used several times before. We walked the few hundred yards to the cable car and were deposited at the top where I took a few minutes to take the spectacular views. They dragged me away at 10am heading along the balcony trail below the Aiguille Rouge peaks. We reached the road at Col Montets at 1.15pm. From here we diverted from the route we had taken the last time by going up to the Aiguille des Possettes, which we reached at 3.25pm. It was quiet and had better views than the track through the Le Tour ski area. What a good choice! We crossed the Le Tour ski area to the Col de Balme refuge (on the border of France and Switzerland) which we reached at 4.50pm and stopped for a break inside for 25 minutes. From here it was downhill to the village of Trient where we stayed in the Relais du Mont Blanc, reaching it at 7pm. The room was very cramped, although I guess we were fortunate it wasn’t dormitory accommodation, and my back went into spasm as I reached down awkwardly for something. Fortunately, Phil had volunteered to carry about 5kg of gear for us as part of the deal for being able to join him, which helped the following day.
Walk: 13 miles, 9h
Day 2, Trient to Champex, Wednesday 2nd September 2004: We were up reasonably early and left the gite at 8.45am, another clear day with no clouds and it was cold and clear as we started uphill reaching the Fenetre d’Arpette at 1.15pm. I took lots of photos, there were now a few small clouds and we left the col at 2.45pm. What a long lunch break! The steep descent was over boulders then good tracks and we reached the Chalet en Plein Air gite in Champex at 6pm.
Walk: 10 miles, 9h 15m
Day 3, Champex to Ferret, Thursday 3rd September 2004: We left the Chalet at 8.50am in the sun, with clear blue skies above. We walked around Lac Champex to the far end of the village where we picked up the TMB down through the trees to the Swiss Val Ferret to reach a pub in the village of Issert at 10.50am for a beer, or at least I had a beer and everyone else stuck to soft drinks. This was a pleasant break sitting outside beside the road. From here we walked on until we were about a mile from Prayon where we stopped on a bench seat for lunch. We heard lots of Nutcrackers in the trees and saw Crested Tits, a Pied Flycatcher and a Black Woodpecker as we headed for the Hotel des Glaciers in La Fouly which we reached at 3.45pm. We sat outside here and had great views to some big peaks above while we drank large beers and I had a ham sandwich. Just over an hour later we left, arriving at our accommodation for the night, the Hotel Col de Fenetre in Ferret, at 5.50pm. The place was being refurbished and the rooms were excellent although not all the trims had been finished. We were well looked after here too and had good food.
Walk: 10 miles, 9h
Day 4, Ferret to Bonatti Refuge, Friday 4th September 2004: The next day was sunny with a few clouds for a change as we left Ferret at 8.45am. We were heading for the pass and Italy up the Val Ferret. The trail weaved around a bit and we were on the Grand Col Ferret at 11.45am. It was time for lots of photographs and we didn’t leave until 12.30pm. There was now a cool breeze and white fluffy clouds. From here it was down to the Refuge Elena in the bottom of the Italian Val Ferret, which was originally Phil’s preferred accommodation for the night which we reached at 1.45pm where I had a couple of beers and a ham sandwich. Fortunately, I managed to convince him that the Bonatti Refuge would be far better. It is just as modern and has an unrivalled view across to the Grandes Jorasses on the other side of the valley from the edge of a plateau area (alp) quite a way above the valley floor. We left the Elena and stopped a few minutes later at the Pre de Bar Glacier (beside the road) for some photos at 2.45pm. This was quite a surprise as the shapely scallop shape we had seen at the end of the glacier snout had gone and it was several hundred metres uphill from where it had been in 1987 (the position every few years is marked by posts). A half hour later we were on our way again, reaching Arnuva at 3.50pm where we met Phil and Andrew again (they carried on while I was taking the glacier photos). Andrew left us here, walking along to Entreves to catch a bus through the Mont Blanc Tunnel on the first leg of his return to Geneva Airport. We started up to the hut at 4.20pm, reaching the Bonatti Refuge at 5.30pm. We all made use of the facilities – hot showers and indoor toilets, what luxury in a mountain hut! Unfortunately, the clouds had rolled in around the Grandes Jorasses but I took some record shots anyway, it’s such an impressive position for a hut.
Walk: 12 miles, 8h 45m
Day 5, Bonatti Refuge to Courmayeur, Saturday 5th September 2004: Unusual weather today – the clouds are down on the tops and we’re not used to this! We left the hut at 8.20am and headed towards the TMB high route alternative, rather than following the bottom of the Val Ferret. We had missed this bit the last time and were keen to see what we had missed. We reached the Pas Entre Deux Sauts where I received a mobile phone call from a friend back in Buxton who said he was waiting for me to turn up for a day taking pictures with a bunch from Chapel Camera Club. I explained where I was and that I had never had any intention to join them and wished them a good day in the Peak District! We quickly agreed to make our way up the peak above us, left our rucsacs at the pass and off we went up the steep slope, reaching the top of the Tete Entre Deux Sauts at 10.45am. Mont Blanc was above the clouds, which were hanging below the tops of the biggest mountains. On the summit there was a stone cairn with some scarves tied to sticks pushed in the top making it look for all the world like a Himalayan view with prayer flags blowing in the breeze in the foreground of my photograph. By 11.30am we were back at the pass. Next stops were the Col Sapin, the Testa della Tranche and the Testa Bernardo which we reached at 1.35pm. Clouds were still hanging around the Mont Blanc range making for more interesting photographs, particularly as we crossed Mont de la Saxe. This is a flattish ridge with several pools of water on the top in which the mountains on the other side of the valley were reflected. The views were now spectacular with the clouds at times looking like they were streaming off the Grandes Jorasses opposite, all reflected in the water as well. We passed the very busy Refuge Bertone at 3.45pm. From here it was down to Courmayeur and our hotel – the Hotel del Venezia, which was rubbish and clearly the worst of the entire trip. We don’t seem to have much luck with hotels in Courmayeur! On the other hand we had a really nice evening meal just around the corner from the hotel at the Restaurant du Parc, with very friendly staff and the food was great.
Walk: 11 miles, 9h 25m
Day 6, Courmayeur to Les Chapieux, Sunday 6th September 2004: We had intended to catch the cable car to Plan Checrouit and the high level route but it was closed so we changed plans and caught the 9.05am bus to the end of the road at La Vassaile. this saved a boring road walk and we started walking at 9.35am. From here it was easy walking to the Elisabetta Col at 11.30am, where we had a break for 15 minutes, well Jan and Phil did, I just carried on taking pictures. From here we climbed steadily up a good track to the Col de la Seigne at 12.45pm, the border between Italy and France, In contrast to our last visit here, it was sunny with just a few mountain tops in the clouds and was cool. After a suitable photo break we headed down, being over-run at one point by a large flock of sheep being herded up to the col. By 3pm we were at Les Mottets where I had a beer and a pate sandwich in the sunshine and a half hour break. The last section was along a track and then a road from Ville des Glacier, arriving at the Auberge de la Nova gite in Les Chapieux at 4.50pm. We had a room and Phil chose to stay in the dortoir. There was a good cheese shop just a few yards from the gite and Jan bought me some of the best goats cheese I have ever had. In fact they only sold goat cheese! I had the goat versions of both Tomme and Gruyere and they were fantastic. We sat outside the gite in the warm sunshine drinking beer for quite a while. We liked Les Chapieux!
Walk:12 miles, 7h 15m
Day 7, Les Chapieux to Les Contamines, Monday 7th September 2004: We were away at 8.45am on another clear blue sky day. It was a steady climb up to the refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, which we reached at 11.05am and had a break of 40 minutes in the sun, now with a few clouds around too. We reached the Col des Fours junction just a few minutes later and the Col du Bonhomme at 12.45pm; there were lots of people here – like Blackpool on a Sunday! We had a half hour break and then left, it was pretty much all downhill from here. We reached the refuge at La Balme at 3.15pm and stopped for the usual beer for a half hour, then it was on to the Notre Dame de la Gorge church which we reached at 4.15pm. We didn’t stop but carried on to Les Contamines, reaching the very pleasant Hotel le Grizzli at 5.20pm. This is in a good position near the village centre on the TMB. Unfortunately, Contamines seemed to be pretty much closed and we had the choice of just 2 restaurants for our evening meal, the rest having closed for the season.
Walk: 11 miles, 8h 35m
Day 8, Les Contamines to Flegere, Tuesday 8th September 2004: We left the Hotel le Grizzli at 8.45am, after a good breakfast. It was pretty straightforward up to the Chalet du Truc and down to our first stop – Chalet de Miage, where we stopped for a Coca Cola. It was a bit of a hot slog up the steep slope to reach the Col de Tricot at at 11.50am. After 40 minutes we walked down to the suspension bridge over the Bionassay Glacier torrent. I took a few photos at the glacier snout at 1.30pm then we were off to Bellevue, above the Col de Voza, which we reached at 2.30pm. There was a half hour wait here for the lift down to Les Houches (we just missed one), then we caught the 3.35pm bus to Chamonix, arriving just after 4pm, too late for the Brevent cable car so we caught the cable car to Plan Praz. At 4.25pm we were walking along the balcony trail towards Flegere, which we reached at 6pm to finish our second Tour of Mont Blanc. It had been sunny and warm all day. We stayed at the Refuge de la Flegere and it was quite busy.
Walk: 10 miles, 9h 25m
Totals: 89 miles, 8 days of walking
Cameras: Mamiya 6, 50mm lens, 20 rolls of Ilford FP4 Plus 120 film; Gitzo 1028 tripod and Manfrotto head. 3.5kg
Weights: DB 9kg (20 lbs) including camera; JB 5kg (11 lbs)