In July 2013 myself and my audacious co-adventurer, Mski, set out to hike one of Europe’s classic long-distance trails, the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). This trail circles the Mont Blanc Massif, taking hikers on a 180kms (112mile) journey through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. The entire circuit takes roughly 11 days to complete and hikers usually stay in mountain huts or refuges along the way. Having never been much of a conformist, I insisted that we wild camp. Plus we only had just over a week to play with, so our goal was to walk the French and Italian sections, missing the Swiss section where wild camping was generally less well tolerated.
After a gruelling 24-hour bus journey from London, we finally arrived in the beautiful French ski resort of Chamonix, just in time for a much needed petit déjeuner. Over coffee and pain au chocolat we gazed up in awe at the majestic peaks. Mski started to concern herself with exactly how we were going to get up, over and around these mountains and my reassurance of gentle switchbacks and easy climbs seemed to fall on deaf ears. After breakfast, we took a local bus back along the valley to Tre-le-Champ. Here the trail crossed the road, providing a suitably convenient starting point for our small adventure. We set off just before noon and immediately found ourselves facing a brutal climb into the Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve. This section of the trail promised one of the best chances to see ibex and we weren’t disappointed, enjoying several encounters along the rocky hillside. The ascent was tough going in the midday heat and we were more than happy to make frequent stops to admire the views, rehydrate and rest already aching feet and shoulders. After what seemed like hours of climbing the trail finally flattened out and we were now traversing the famous and aptly entitled Grand Balcon Sud. The panoramic views of the valley towards Mont Blanc were simply spectacular. It was a vista that needed to be savoured and so we decided to make camp. With Horlicks in hand, we sat back and watched as the setting sun provided a spectacular kaleidoscopic show of pink, purple and orange on the snow-covered summits across the valley.
The following morning we broke camp early and continued along the Balcon Sud route, traversing the mountainside all the while with the most amazing alpine scenery just off to our left. After a two hour steady descent, we reached the cable car station at Le Flégère and stopped for brunch before continuing on to Planpraz. From here we were faced with our biggest challenge of the day, a herculean climb to the top of the rocky summit of Le Brevent (2,520m). It was already really hot and I was starting to feel sleepy after the cheesy French bread brunch, so we cheated and took the cable car!
Once at the top the 360-degree views were breathtaking, so too was the wind. We layered up, found some shelter and munched on trail mix before beginning the long descent into Les Houches, our planned camp for the night. The down proved to be probably more brutal than the up would have been and the situation was not helped by several expanses of snow and ice that still lingered along the trail. Mski was not a happy hiker in the snow, and when a pair of octogenarians bounded past us like a couple of mountain goats, our egos started to feel as bruised as our hips and feet. After what seemed like an eternity of punishment to the knees we finally made it to the campsite, mustering just enough energy to set the tent up, but not enough to cook. I promised my stomach that I would eat two days worth of food tomorrow!
Exactly as forecast, it rained constantly the whole day, so instead of hiking we stuffed our faces with delicious French food, played cards and nursed our damaged feet … Mski’s big toes were looking particularly beaten up.
The following day we woke to what is best described as mizzle. Reluctantly we trudged off into the murk. Our objective was Les Contamines which meant that we had to get up and over the Col de Tricot at 2,120m. The good news was that we would be able to catch the cable car up to Bellevue at 1,801m, thus skipping nearly all of the climb. The really bad news was that the cable car wasn’t running because of the murk and mizzle! The supposedly easy morning was now a long uphill slog in the pissing rain. When we finally reached the top of the climb the clouds parted and the sun shone … fucking typical! After a relatively gentle descent into Les Contamines, we made camp at Le Pontet, scoffed a much deserved ice-cream and basked in the now gloriously warm late afternoon sun.
We started day 5 on a gentle forest track heading towards the famous church of Notre-Dame de la Gorge. After a brief cultural interlude at the church, the climbing resumed with a vengeance. The initial steep ascent brought us to flat upper valley which lulled us into a false sense of completion before it took off again, upward towards the Col du Bonhomme. At 2,329m, this was to be the biggest climb on our journey so far … (Le Brevent was higher but we’d cheated, remember). As we edged steadily upwards the snow and ice became more abundant and Mski’s level of anxiety began to escalate. Getting her across the slippery stuff became a time consuming chore!
It was late in the afternoon by the time we finally reached the top of the climb. The col was covered in snow, the temperature was dropping more quickly than the sun and all of a sudden wild camping had lost much of its appeal. We pressed on to Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and silently prayed that they had a bed for us. When we arrived all they had left were bunks in the basement room but, at this point, we were grateful for anything. The mountain hut provided a substantial and warming evening meal together with the convivial company of other hikers. The showers were a bit of a bun fight and the basement dorm proved to be only marginally warmer than a tent, but all in all, it was a fun experience.
We endured a restless night. Between feeling buried alive beneath a tonne of blankets and being constantly woken by a chainsaw (which turned out to be a snoring woman who the next morning had the audacity to complain about people making too much noise as they were leaving!), we didn’t get much sleep. However, breakfast was a hot and hearty affair which set us up nicely for the challenges ahead. Once the sun had risen sufficiently to make the outside temperatures more bearable, we made tracks. Today was mostly about the snow and the sun. We had to navigate some pretty treacherous sections, Mski was panic-stricken and I too had to admit to feeling a little perturbed by the precipitous ice crossings. Thankfully the snow quickly gave way to a gentle grassy hillside that soon had us skipping along in a very Sound of Music way … at least I was skipping, Mski was hobbling as her big toes slowly started to relinquish their nails!
Around lunchtime, we reached the valley floor and the beautiful hamlet of Les Chapieux. The day had turned into an absolute scorcher and the sight of a free municipal campsite, a refreshing mountain stream, basic bathroom facilities and a small French deli, collectively provided the perfect excuse for us to make an early camp and spend the rest of the day reclining in the sun and eating sweaty local cheese. While I took care of the camp chores, Mski took care of her feet, plunging her trotters into the icy snowmelt in a futile attempt to alleviate the pain.
All this lounging around meant that we now had a long and hard final day on the trail. We needed to get within spitting distance of the Italian ski resort of Courmayeur which meant going up and other yet another high pass, the Col del la Seigne (2,516m). Once at the top, we would cross into Italy and then it would be plain sailing all the way down. Despite the height, the climb seemed easier perhaps because our packs were lighter or perhaps we had simply toughened up. Sadly one thing that hadn’t improved much was Mski’s snow skills and on the perilous descent of Glacier du Miage she finally threw in the towel. I watched in helpless horror as Mski glissaded past me on her ass, the hooting and hollering suggested that she was not entirely enamoured by her icy enema!
We finally made it off of the glacier without further incident and began the incredibly scenic but painfully long plod along the Val Veni. The topography was dramatically different on the southern side of the Massif. The peaks were far more jagged and the glaciers seemed to defy gravity, hanging from the sheer rock walls and slowly evolving into spectacular waterfalls. The dramatic surroundings took the pain out of what was otherwise a real bitch of a walk. By the time we reached our final destination of La Visaille, every inch of my body ached and Mski’s big toes were beyond repair … she spent the evening bathing them in Germolene.
On our final morning, we caught the shuttle bus to Courmayeur. We ate the most fabulous pizza and scoffed an absolutely humungous plate of ice-cream before taking another bus beneath Mont Blanc and back to Chamonix. From here we would begin the long journey back to London.
It had been the most fantastic adventure, full of laughs, thrills and a few spills. About two weeks later, Mski finally lost both of her toenails. Rumour has it that she still keeps at least one of them in a small box in her bedside drawer. I guess very special adventures call for some very special souvenirs!