We arrived in Chamonix in good time on the 18th June and could have camped easily, however I always plan the first night in some sort of accommodation because if the weather's bad you have the shelter and space to get your kit organised, you're guaranteed a decent nights sleep and you can get a good start in the morning. For us it was the Hotel Langley Gustavia just outside the railway station in the centre of Chamonix, dropping the bags in our room we set about buying the things we needed, like fuel that we couldn't carry on the plane, and last minute food items.
We were eager to get an early start but the 19th of June was wet, very wet. The forecast promised a gradual improvement throughout the day so we had an extra hour in bed, a late-ish breakfast and donned full waterproofs for the trek out of Chamonix, leaving the hotel at about 9.00am. The clouds were at 'tall building' level. We trekked through woods to Argentiere, then gained height on the way to La Tour - around the highest point the path was closed and we were directed back down into the Chamonix Valley, which we followed to La Tour. It was about 1pm so we sat and had lunch, it had stopped raining but low cloud still clung to the sides of the valley obscuring and sense of the high mountains all around us.
There's ski lift access to the Col de Balme from La Tour which runs in the summer. I'd actually completed the Chamonix to Zermatt route some ten years earlier and on that occasion I'd taken the lift to the col and a direct route to the Fenetre d'Arpette and made it all the way to the Relais d'Arpette at the end of day 1 - however it was a tough day and not one I really wanted to repeat. We trekked up to the col threading through the ski lift gantries, it took about 2 hours to reach the top. From the col we trekked down the valley towards Trient - according to the map there was a campsite on the far side of the village and we would probably aim for that.
The Col de Balme is on both the 'Chamonix to Zermatt' (CZ) and 'Tour of Mont Blanc' (TMB) routes and both routes pass through Trient on the way to the Swiss village of Champex. The trek down from the col is through steep woods and the zig zagging path seems never ending, but at least we were going down, the traditional circuit of the TMB calls for an ascent of this route. We were relieved to reach the valley floor and level ground and could see Trient ahead, we soon arrived in Le Peuty though, which boasts a basic campsite by a bend in the road - it was too good to pass and as it was 6pm already we set up camp. The weather was good and in fact it we wouldn't see much rain at all for the next two weeks.
Got up to a fairly bleak morning weather-wise but at least it wasn't raining, condensation was heavy. After a leisurely breakfast and a chat with Kenny and Alex (doing the TMB) we set off at 8.45, two hours after getting up. We made a short cut to the Fenetre d'Arpette path, avoiding Trient, and headed up on a relatively easy path to the Cabane du Glacier, a cafe/bar at the confluence of two paths where we rested and topped up our water.
The weather was decidedly mixed - low cloud with occasional breaks. We made the steep, tough climb to the 'Fenetre', in places the path had been washed away by landslip and we later found that the French authorities were advising against taking this route. We picked our way carefully round the damaged sections leap frogging a group of five young french hikers. Finally we arrived at the Fenetre d'Arpette at 13.45, after five hours and somewhat lagging the french group by this time.
The 'Fenetre' is an awesome spot, you can take in two mountain ranges from the same vantage point and its the ideal place for lunch. The descent is amazing and there was a lot of snow on the upper slopes. We negotiated these with care and a few mishaps, funny not serious, it took us three hours to reach the Relais d'Arpette, which is a lodge/hotel with accommodation and a campsite round the back. We pitched our tents, got cleaned up and cooked or meal - finished off with a beer at the bar. The showers were just warm enough but the bar was nice and had wifi which gave us a chance to catch up with stuff back home.
Set off for Champex at 9.45am, arrived after half an hour. We went straight to the Tourist Information to ask about the ongoing route. The CZ route calls for an easy day today to Le Chable followed by a full days climbing through forest to Les Ruinettes and on to Cabane du Mont Fort. There's no camping at Le Chable, but you can get a bus down the valley to camp and get the bus back top the route the following day. Alternatively you can take the cable car from Le Chable to Les Ruinettes and make for the Cabane du Mont Fort the same day. Which was what we decided to do.
The walk to Le Chable is pretty rural and downhill most of the way, we arrived at 3pm. Getting on and off the cable car was fun with a large rucksack and we amused the locals somewhat. We setoff from the commercialised shelf of Les Ruinettes and hiked the 90 minutes to the Cabane du Mont Fort, complaining at the last steep ascent to the hut. Camping is not allowed around the hut but it was feasible and there was no one around. The hut was still closed for the winter, although one room at one end had been left open for travelers such as ourselves. I was tempted to camp but Gav persuaded me that sleeping in the entrance lobby was the best option.
We used the tables outside to cook our meal and settled down for the night, enjoying a great sunset and a starry night.
With the benefit of the hut we were packed and ready to go by 8.00am, ready to take on the Sentier de Chamoix (Path of the Chamoix), which is a spectacular high level precipitous path along the shoulder of Bec des Rosses. The path has a typical elevation of 2500m and was largely snow free, however we came a cross a number of steep gullies with snow lying and we crossed these with some care - the runout from a slip at any point here would have been fatal. We had not come prepared for snow rather we'd were prepared to turn back if conditions were not safe. Eventually we reached the Col Termin which gave us a god view of the route to the next Col de Louvie - and it wasn't good. There were large patches of snow to cross on the approach to Louvie above what looked like steep slopes - Gav was not impressed. It wasn't an easy decision but we concluded we were too early, probably only a week or two, but that made all the difference, we came off the route and descended to Lac de Louvie and the hut at its outflow to decide what to do.
The guardian at the hut had only seen one group come over Co de Louvie, a few days earlier, there was a lot of snow on the other side and route finding was very difficult if you didn't know the way. A plan was hatched over a coffee and a pastry. We knew the TMB was relatively clear and that there were other people on the route, so a switch to this route was possible.Logistically we could descend to the valley at Fionnay and get a bus and train back to Champex, which would put us back of the TMB route.
The path down was spectacular - only an hour descent but a treat to walk it. We caught the bus to Le Chable, a train to Sembrancher and a second train to Orsieres. It was quite late and although we were close to Champex the route was a very steep ascent that I estimated at three hours. Feeling it was important to get back onto the TMB route we paid 50 euros for a taxi to come and take us into Champex - as we only arrived at 8pm anyway walking it would have been out of the question. After our meal we got to bed around 11pm.
Organising for the TMB route was quite straightforward. We had effectively completed two days of the route from Col de Balme to Champex and established that we were going in a clockwise direction, opposite to the way most people do it. We would therefore end the route back at the Col de Balme. Before setting out we walked into the centre of Champex and found a bakery with a small cafe for breakfast. We met a few other hikers on the route and were able to verify that there were some patches of snow on the route but none were a problem or dangerous in any way. We also met Alex, a young man on his first solo long distance walk doing the TMB in the same direction we were.
Champex also has a sports shop where we were able to get the maps we needed and they also sell screw on gas canisters if you need to top up. We used the small supermarket to re-supply our fresh food. On the way out of Champex we met two Kiwi's completing the route in the other direction - we got a good assessment of the snow conditions - 'some snow but none of it dangerous' was the conclusion.
Today's walking was a comfortable valley route to La Foully where a campsite awaited us. Some trekkers get the bus along this stretch but we enjoyed to route and were rewarded by an excellent campsite with hot showers. Its possible to hike further but there are no campsites - there was a good place to camp just beyond the last village of Ferret but there were clear signs forbidding it.
Last night was cold - perhaps a few degrees above zero - but the sky was full of promise for a good day ahead. We supplemented breakfast with pre-ordered croissants and headed off around 9.30am. The target col for today was Grand Col de Ferret, about 4 hours of steady climbing, the path goes through a farm along the way with bunkhouse accommodation or a couple of Yurts if that takes your fancy. Days later when I met up with Alex again I was to find out that he had stayed in one of the Yurts, but couldn't sleep because of the cattle milling around!
There was a good deal of snow on the approach to the col but nothing like that which we had experienced on the Sentier de Chamoix and we reached the col in perfect weather at 1pm. The views down Val Ferret are magnificent, you can't quite see the summit of Mont Blanc until you move further on, but you can see the next 2-3 days of the TMB laid out before you.
We had a leisurely lunch and headed off down the valley. You lose the height gained in the morning very quickly and in fact the route twists down to the valley floor to Refuge Elena before making progress along its length. The route doesn't start to climb again for another three kilometres where a restaurant/bar marks the start of the switchback ascent back up the mountainside, having skirted two particularly deep gullies that defy attempts to put a path across them.
We stopped for ice cream at the bar before commencing the climb to Refuge Bonatti, intending to find a wildcamp somewhere near to it. There were no suitable spots along the route to the refuge so we asked one of the guardians, basically wild-camping was not allowed but if they couldn't see us then it would be alright! Heading directly up hill from the refuge there's a path that skirts a stream and what looked like terracing that could provide a camping place.
Refuge Bonatti is a plush refuge and the temptations turned Gav to the Dark Side, it was 5.30 and he didn't want to go looking for a campsite, the promise showers, hot meal and a proper bed affected him deeply - we decided to book in for the night. Never having stayed in a mountain hut it was also a good opportunity to 'bag' the experience.
The refuge was less than half full so the facilities could be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Dinner at 7.15pm was adequate but the company was good. We managed to get a hold of a TMB guidebook which allowed me to plan the next stages of the route. Although our map had the route marked on it there's so much more useful information in the guidebook.
Great to get a breakfast prepared by someone else, we filled our boots. Weather was fantastic and we set off on an easy 4 hour section to Cormayeur. We took the lower route but previously I had walked the Col Sapin variant which I think was better. The final descent into Cormayeur is through woods and along a track which brings you out quite close to the centre of town. We arrived at Noon.
Gavin had already decided that he would leave the trail at Cormayeur, pass through the tunnel to Chamonix and do some shorter day walks until I arrived five days later. We found a supermarket and I stocked up with trail food, and we bought some fresher food for that evening. There aren't any campsites in Cormayeur itself but there are a couple up Val Veni which is more or less on the route and you can incorporate a nights stay without having to double back to Cormayeur.
We hiked along the road to Peuterey and the Campsite 'Monte Bianco', this was tortuous in the hot sun, walking on roads isn't my favourite pastime and this one seemed to go on forever. I have to say though that the campsite that waited us is fantastic, a really good site with good facilities it was a pleasure to camp there, we took our time getting clean, checking gear and cooking a long evening meal before finishing off with a few beers in the bar. WiFi was useful.
Next morning we were ready to go by 9.00am, the weather was fantastic, bright clear skies. We retraced our steps a short way up the road before I peeled off to ascend a ski run to gain the TMB route again, Gav continued back to Cormayeur and the bus through the tunnel to Chamonix. The link route to get me back on the TMB was fairly unappealing but once I got there the route comes alive. The next section stays quite high and as you travel along the valley you get great views of Mont Blanc summit and the Monte Bianco campsite far below.
After a few hours the route descends again and meets the rising valley floor at Combal. After this its a relatively short level walk to Refuge Elisabetta. It was here I caught up to Alex with his massive pack - it was good to catch up - he had stayed in one of the Yurt on the farm, then the next night had camped above Refuge Bonatti at the likely spots we could see from the refuge. After Cormayeur he followed the main TMB path to Refuge Maison Veille and camped near there out of sight - so there was a clear choice for camping around Cormayeur - either wild camp on the route or glamping in Monte Bianco campsite.
I had lunch just outside the refuge and topped up my water, then set off for Col de la Seigne and arrived at 14.30 where Alex was taking a break. We took photos down the valley then descended to Refuge des Mottets. We asked about camping in the vicinity but were told to carry on to La Ville des Glaciers where there was a car park near which you could camp. We did this but the car park's disappointing as a place to camp! I decided to continue up the path a bit (actually up the high level variant to this part of the route) in the hope of finding a better place - but after about twenty minutes the way ahead was not looking promising, Alex was already heading back to the car park so I reluctantly followed suit.
The next day, after about an hour I would come across an ideal camping spot, quite high on the mountain, take note if you are thinking of backpacking this trip yourself - equally anyone coming in the opposite direction should camp about an hour short of the carpark. Later that night two Italians turned up and camped. They were asking about the route ahead and intended camping in Cormayeur itself - when I pointed out the lack of a campsite they said they would pitch their tent on any piece of ground in the town! Another option then - if a bit off the wall.
The weather wasn't as good today, I set off on the Col de Louvie variant and reached it after 3 hours. There was a lot of snow lying just below the col but traversing it was absolutely fine - it was cold on the top so I hurried over to drop down to Col des Fours. From here a 5 minute trek to the Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme was rewarded by a coffee and a dodgy cake served by a disinterested teenager.
My next section was to take me to the small town of Les Contamines Montjoie where there's a campsite just before you enter the town. I knew Alex was going to take a detour and camp at Lacs Jovet, and I was tempted to do the same. Looking forward though it seemed that making the detour would cost me quite dearly in terms of finishing time - by reaching Les Contamines Montjoie today I would be maximising the walking opportunites between campsites - by doing the detour I'd end up with a very short day later on that would cost me a full day before finishing time.
Not having that luxury I ploughed on - but the Lac Jovet detour would be a good option for someone wanting to wild camp as the options along the trail are quite limited - although there is camping at la Balme - a refuge a bit further on. I arrived at the campsite at 4.15, its a big site and family orientated - but we can't have everything! The best showers yet, decent wifi and somewhere to grab a beer.
Ready to leave at 08.40 I walked quickly into Contamines and presented myself at the small Casino supermarket on the main street. I re-supplied with fresh food, pasta and some dried soups then set about finding the path to Chalets du Truc, again I was taking a high level variant and it wasn't well signposted off the main street. At last I followed a path alongside the church and very quickly latched onto the signposted route. The ascent is very steep through woods but eventually breaks out into the open at Chalets du Truc, which offer accommodation and refreshments.
The route crosses a shoulder and then descends steeply to Chalets de Miage, from where you can see the next steep climb to the Col de Tricot - this was Sunday and a steady stream of hkers could be seen snaking up and down from the col. It looked like a furious ascent. I grabbed an Origina and contemplated it for a while.
The sign at Miage said 2 hours to the col - I did it 1 hour 20 minutes but it was a very tough climb - stopped at the top for lunch. After lunch I headed off down the valley to a long suspension bridge crossing a wide gorge, the route climbed out of the valley on the other side taking a precipitous path to Bellvue - then on to Col de Voza. Col de Voza marks the end of the variant and I would urge anyone to to take the variant as I did - the standard route is pedestrian by comparison.
From Co de Voza the path down to Les Houches is steep and unpleasant, a dusty track at an awkward gradient. I arrived at Les Houches campsite at 5pm, absolutely shattered, mainly due to the heat. My watch thermometer read 31C. I ate cheese and had a cold shower (I'd have preferred a hot shower but the option wasn't available).
A full meal was in order so I cooked soup and crackers followed by Pasta with Tuna, fresh onions and mushrooms, in a provencale sauce, rounded off with rice and strawberries. A trip to a local hostelry secured a few beers and a wifi signal.
Weather very hot from the start. The climb out of Les Houches up onto the 'Grand Balcony' on the opposite side of the Chamonix Valley is a tough one, it took me three and a half hours, I arrived at Refuge de Bel Lachat at noon. I drank an Oringina on the balcony and the guardian twisted when I asked to top up my water bottle saying that they sold water and therefore didn't give it away! She gave me a top up from the tap though.
Of course if you do the TMB in the usual direction then the ascent I'd just completed is actually a descent, though there is a corresponding steep ascent at the other end of the ridge so there's no getting away with anything. I hiked up to Le Brevent and had lunch near to the cable car station before trekking on to Col du Brevent. The route between the two is quite tricky, involving ladders and scrambly bits.
At Col du Brevent the path passes along the front of the ridge and down to Plan Praz, which is a major ski area. There's a drinking water tap at the back of one of the buildings which is one of the few water sources on the whole ridge. Although late in the afternoon it was still very hot and drinking water was uppermost in the mind. According to signs there was a water source at a hamlet midway between Plan Praz and La Flegre but I never found it.
In the main the path is quite narrow with few places to camp, I found one sot which would have been a good place but there was no water, it wasn't far after leaving Plan Praz so I could have carried enough water quite easily. As it was though I pushed on to Fegere, which has a cable car station, a comfortable refuge and a man made lake (to service the snow machines) that campers were allowed to use. Although a picturesque spot the ground was rock hard - still the views of Mont Blanc were amazing as the sun set.
My last day was still to be quite a long one. The section out of Flegere is moderately uphill, along the edge of the ridge until a steep descent for about an hour to the road at Col du Montets. Total time for this section was three hours. I had lunch. I was getting quite hungry now during the day which suggested that I wasn't eating enough, so I ate my fill. I was quite short of water, so an option was to walk into Trelechamps to get more, however I decided I'd make the ascent with the 2/3rds of a litre that I still had left, hoping to pick up more on the way.
The ascent to L'Aguilles des Posettes took about two hours and there was no water on the route. Once out of the forest the ascent affords fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and I lingered on the summit to appreciate the landscape. Another half an hour was enough to descend to the Col des Posettes where I took a short detour to a group of chalets for water. Although there was no water on the col I could have topped up from small streams on the final ascent to Col de Balme, though purification would have been necessary. As I was completely out of water I had decided to detour to the chalets to be certain.
The final climb to the col took an hour and I finished the route at 3.45 pm.
I gratefully jumped on the ski-lift down to Le Tour and had a beer and a sandwich as I waited for the bus which took me back to Chamonix.