Tour du Mont Blanc : les Houches to les Praz

Up bright and breezy for our last days walking. After breakfast, where Brian managed to eat some of last night’s dessert, we headed off out of the campsite, across a river and climbed through the forest to the animal park at Merlet. After a quick break we started up the steep path towards the summit of the Brévent.

Catherine, Felicity and I stuck together once we’d managed to convince the hotel group to allow us pass them and really enjoyed the climb, going in and out of a couple of gullies and picking our way along very narrow little cliff paths. Along the way, I met a guy called Greg from Manchester who was in the area supporting his wife, Kathleen, who was doing the ultra-marathon the following day. We had a great chat as we walked, talking about running, the TMB, other walks and the like. What really cracked me up was his description of the TMB, in a deep northern english accent, as a “luvely footpath” … not a walk, or a trail, or a trek, but a footpath.

A Luvely Footpath

A Luvely Footpath

I let Greg head off and the three of us finally made it up to the Refuge de Bel Lachat where we were absolutely blown away by the views of the Massif. It was a glorious day, with very few clouds and you could admire all the peaks and glaciers from what seemed like a very close distance. I heard various people describe this as one of the best panoramas in Europe, if not the world, and I can well believe it. We plonked ourselves down in some deck chairs, ordered some “vin chaud” and took it all in. From the terrace, Greg pointed out to me what he reckoned was one of the best walks of the area … up the Montagne de la Cote, through the woods to nearly 2600m where you’re in the midst of two glaciers. If we ever go back to Chamonix, I definitely want to give it a shot.

As self-satisfied as we all were at that point, we still had a bit of walking to do. From the refuge, we continued up along the ridge towards the very obvious peak of the Brévent where the cable car station looked like Alcatraz or something. Along the way, I passed a guy wearing a GUADEC 2007 t-shirt which was a bit bizarre, but I didn’t have time to stop and find out who he was. When we did finally reach the Brévent, we all congratulated ourselves and took lots of photos, since this marked the finish of our TMB.

The Brévent

The Brévent

We still had to get back down to Chamonix and les Praz, though. The options were a) take the cable car down all the way, b) walk down to Planpraz and get the cable car from there or c) walk the whole way down. After much humming and hawing, most people decided to take the cable car the whole way down while I was the only one really up for walking down. I was glad when David also piped up and said he wanted to walk down, because I was starting to feel a bit guilty about subjecting Charlie to the long descent, knowing that his knees were playing up.

On the way down to Planpraz, we had a great chat about climbing and Charlie stopped and pointed out some climbing routes he fancied trying. At Planpraz, we discovered that the most direct path to Chamonix was closed and instead we contoured across to Chartanon and descended straight into les Praz from there. It was quite funny at the start, because Charlie was clearly game for a quick descent since he usually had to go at the pace of the slowest in the group but it didn’t take long for him to pull back and decide that he didn’t quite want to go at my pace … “I’m not going to run down the mountain Mark!”. The rest of the way down was good fun, the three of us chatting about lots of different stuff. Nice to get a chance to talk to Charlie for long, and to David who I hadn’t really talked to much over the whole trip.

Once back at the campsite, we didn’t have long to put up the tents, have showers and wash some socks before we sat down for dinner. Our last “night in”, we had a really nice meal – vol-au-vents for starter, chicken tarragon with cous-cous for main and a custardy chocolatey biscuity mix for dessert.

After dinner, I took advantage of the free wifi for a bit and then showed Janina and Vanessa our wedding photos (why do girls like wedding photos so much?). When we wandered back to the mess tent, the air was thick with cigar smoke because Brian had gotten out the cigars he bought back at Trient and was sharing them around. It would have been rude not to have one. Even though it was the end of our last days walking, everyone was pretty shattered and the conversation was broken by unusually long periods of contemplative silence. Nice for a change. When Felicity came in asking for Janina, I piped up with “You see how quiet is in here? Of course she’s not here!”. I’m really not very nice sometimes, but it got a good laugh out of everyone. We all hit the sack not long after.


Tour du Mont Blanc :: Contamines to Les Houches

The usual deal. Up early and packed everything up. Luckily, though, we could actually see the surrounding mountains and, although the sun wasn’t over the ridge yet, we could tell that is was going to be a nice day. Once we were ready, Charlie sent us off to meet in Contamines so that some of us could take out some money and buy a few things.

Setting off from Contamines, we made our way up through the eastern outskirts until we reached the TMB variant route and then continued up steeply up to Chalets du Truc where we just continued on after admiring the amazing views of the Glacier de Miage. From there, we descended again to the Chalets de Miage where we all had our lunches and ordered their famously huge portions of “tarte aux myrtilles”.

Munching on our lunch, we got the chance to take a good look at the next segment of our walk – the extremely steep 600m ascent to the Col de Tricot. Charlie told us about an informal challenge that people try where they time themselves from the gate at the bottom to the top of the col. I think he said the best time he’d heard of was 31 minutes, that he did in 39 minutes when he tried and that another guide said that doing it in under 35 minutes nearly killed him. In the same breath he warned us against trying it because one of his previous clients tried it and suffered from a sudden drop in energy levels half way up and nearly collapsed even though he was young and fit.

Col de Tricot

Col de Tricot

All this talk was just supposed to prepare us for the difficulty of the climb and persuade us that slow and steady was the best option, but I couldn’t resist giving it some sort of a shot and seeing what time I could get without killing myself. Off I went, quickly passing a guy who had passed us a couple of minutes before and ploughed on up the steep zig-zagging path. I pushed pretty hard, but made myself take breaks in an effort to be somewhat sensible. Each time I took a break, though, the guy behind me going at a steady pace would start to catch me and I’d set off again. On and on, up and up the path went, but all of a sudden I was at the top and stopped my stopwatch at 36 minutes, 40 seconds.

That was probably the most satisfying segment of the trek, and it was pretty cool to see the rest of the group trickle within ten minutes either side of the hour mark. Everyone seemed to enjoy the challenge of pushing on up to the top of such a steep ascent.

Me and Charlie

Me and Charlie

From there we descended and then ascended again to the top of the of the Téléphérique de Bellevue where Brian, Felicity and Xen decided to take the cable car down to les Houches rather than walk. After following Charlie for a bit down what would be ski slopes in the winter, we found the path and I headed off down the steep descent at a jog. The girls had been joking that I was trying to look like a superhero because I had my towel hanging out of the back of my rucksack to dry and it looked like a cape. So, when I set off down the path I could just hear a load of giggling from above because apparently my “cape” was billowing behind me as I ran off.

The descent to les Houches was long and steep and I took shortcuts wherever I could, so at one point I was fairly sure I’d gotten lost. I knew I was supposed to be following the cables of the cable car down, but I could see a cable car far to the west. That turned out to be a different cable car, and I eventually figured out from the map that I was on the right path and continued on down into the town in time to meet the others off the cable car and have a drink in the bar across the road.

Since we’d somehow run a little behind on schedule, we had to wait a while longer for the next bus so I took the opportunity to take out some cash. The barman’s response to me “Avez-vous une banque ici?” was either “Oui; cent metres.” or “Huit cent metres” so I jogged up the road for what turned out to be more like the latter 800m, took out some cash and nosed around an outdoor sports shop.

Back with the group, we all had a good laugh at the fact that Gary had somehow been one of the last to arrive in the town even though the last time anyone saw him he wasn’t far behind me. He must have got waylaid a bit, but we never did figure out exactly what route he took. To further pass the time before the bus came we just pestered Charlie with teasing and questions until he had to give up trying to read the sports section of the newspaper.

Finally the bus came and we went up the road to our campsite at les Montquarts, between les Houches and Chamonix. Since we were fairly late, we had to quickly pitch the tents, have showers and get ready for dinner. That night we started with soup, had crêpes and a tuna dish for main and a custard and caramel mix with pastries for dessert. After dinner, we washed up and once Brian had beaten me in chess again, I joined Catherine in the site’s games room where she was charging our phones while reading and then we went off to bed.

Tour du Mont Blanc :: Contamines Rest Day

Our second rest day. Given that it was still raining and miserable, Janina, Vanessa, Felicity, Catherine and I decided we’d go into Contamines to look around the morning market, go to the tourist office to try and get information about doing a glacier walk from Chamonix and then get a bus to St. Gervais in the hope of going for a swim and sauna or something.

In the end, when we got to Contamines the bus wasn’t for ages, so after a look around the market we sat in a café reading our books for a while. Then Janina did a little research on the Internet before Catherine and I decided to give up on the St. Gervais idea and went and bought crisps, chocolate and a box of beer (“to take the edge off the day”) and wandered back in the drizzle to the campsite. Once there, we spent the afternoon reading books, playing chess, backgammon and cards with Brian, chatting with Dean, Janina and Felicity and generally just passing the time.

Once it came to dinner time, the six of us at camp were pretty chilly and damp and decided to wander back up to Notre Dame de la Gorge to try the restaurant we had spotted by the church. Thankfully, it turned out to be a brilliant choice. Inside, it was warm and cozy with low-beamed ceilings with nice, welcoming staff. For dinner, we mostly had steak, but Vanessa asked for an “assiette de legumes” and got the most appetising vegetarian meal I have ever seen. And “steak” doesn’t do our meal justice … this was good meat, really well prepared with tasty, tasty sides dishes.

Dinner was especially nice since it was just a small group and, so for example, I got a chance to talk to Dean much more than previously. Being a fellow programmer, but working on very different stuff, it was an interesting chat about our different perspectives. For dessert, we had crème brûlée and a couple of cognacs. We were all a little tipsy walking home, but hugely cheered (and warmed) up.

Tour du Mont Blanc :: les Chapieux to Contamines

Early rise to damp and cold after rain overnight. Once we’d gone through the usual morning routine, we started the climb to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme.

Val Ferret

Val Ferret

We started off in wetgear because it was raining a little, but soon took that off as the weather seemed to clear and the ascent was pretty tough going. Along the way, we passed a goat herder with a black dog and later spotted the dog high up on the ridge to the east. Amazing sight, but we couldn’t quite figure out what he was doing up that high.

As we got higher, the weather started coming in again and steadily got colder and colder. At one particularily steep, wet and rocky stage we passed a group on the way down with two donkeys. The donkeys didn’t look like they were having much fun. Knowing the Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme wasn’t too far away, most people in the group silently decided to stick the cold out without much gear on. Pretty soon, though, people were really suffering from the cold. Our hands got so cold we decided it would take us too long to find our gloves in our bags to be worthwhile. The refuge was further away than we thought, so by the time we got there we were really very, very cold. A lesson in how changeable the weather is at those altitude.

The refuge itself was one of the more interesting we visited. It was run by a pretty tough and weathered looking family, but they managed to create a really quiet and efficient atmosphere. And the big lump of chocolate cake was seriously good washed down with some hot chocolate. So much so that Charlie looked like his puppy had died when Catherine and I hid his cake. Nobody wanted to leave the refuge given the weather outside and the warm stove inside, but eventually we did.

Ascending through the mist and rain to the col itself, and then descending again, we felt pretty good now that we were all nicely warm and wrapped up again. At one point we had to walk across 100m of snow and ice and, bizarrely, passed a middle-aged man in a singlet and umbrella. That made us feel a tad over-dressed.

Not The Season For Skiing But ...

Not The Season For Skiing But …

Further on down we stopped in at the Chalet de la Balme which Vanessa accurately described as a very “ruley” place. We weren’t getting in unless we ordered something, and we weren’t getting in unless we took off our wet bags and coats. Still, the serving girls were nice enough and we were glad to get out of the weather.

Down, down, down, we passed the Cascade de Combe Noire which we nearly passed by thinking it was just your average bridge over a river. Looking down from the bridge and a viewing platform, though, we could see that is was an impressive gorge with a huge volume of water flowing through it. A nice diversion.

Further on down, we eventually came to the lovely little church at Notre-Dame de la Gorge and waited for the rest of the group. From there we only had a ten minute walk to our campsite outside Contamines, just after the télécabine. At this campsite, we had the use of a communal marquee which was good given the atrocious weather. We all arrived very damp and soggy, but were greeted by Liz with nice warm soup which cheered us up.

That evening wasn’t the most pleasant. We were all a bit cold, damp and out of sorts. The showers weren’t very warm and pretty awkward affairs. Our gear was all wet and the only way we could hope to dry them was using a tumble dryer on site. Teresa cheered us all up a bit with her “I hate camping!”, “I’m joining the hotel group!” and “I’m cold and wet and I want to go home!” outbursts which got us all on the verge of tears with laughter.

Dinner that night started snails – which Omar devoured … we got a bit worried about him – followed by a tasty sausage and bean cassoulet with slightly al denté potatoes for main course and a seriously guilt-ridden chocolatey trifle type affair for dessert. A constant source of conversation was how, despite being on a walking holiday, we were all going to go back fat and demanding food every two hours.

Everybody turned in fairly early to get warm.

Tour du Mont Blanc :: Val Veny to les Chapieux

Up early and packed up too efficiently again. Poor Charlie and Liz, after several months of this and neither exactly morning people, probably groaned every morning when they saw us up and about and ready and waiting for our breakfast before the agreed upon 08:00.

Off we went along the road to Lac de Combal. This was probably the stretch we least liked on the trip. Pretty much all of it was on tarmac and it just seemed to go on and on, fairly steep in place, with nothing much of interest to see. Eventually we got there, though, and continued along the flat on what was supposed to be an old Roman road and up to the Refuge E. Soldini. Several people seemed pretty tired at this point … Brian’s shin was still sore and Felicity had picked up a knee ligament injury which she was struggling with.



Inside the refuge was extremely cosy and warm and we all enjoyed our lunches and hot chocolate as it got more miserable and cold outside. From there we set off uphill towards what used to be a customs shed near the border with France. The girls got a good chuckle when I set off at a fast pace, Dean started running past me and then I ran after him … the problem was obvious … neither of us was going to want to be the one to stop running first …



On the way to the custom’s shed we passed more brown and white milka cows with their bells. Doing our best to keep warm at the shed in the cold wind, we debated how and when they get milked. Of course it was Catherine, the farmers daughter, who had noticed the portable milking rig further down the valley on the way up. Problem solved.

We continued on up to the Col de la Seigne, taking a photo of me on a patch of ice along the way. Once at the top, we quickly crossed over into Italy to get out of the cold wind and descended down the very steep path to Refuge des Mottets at a fairly leisurely pace in glorious sunshine. Along the way, Janina filled Catherine and I on all the current complexities of her love life which was a fun way to pass the time. Janina is a biology teacher in her mid (okay … early … I’ll be kind) thirties living in Brighton who was a constant source of chuckles. The slagging and teasing between us was non-stop, but even aside from that, her stories of skiing, teaching, travelling around the world etc. kept us amused for the fortnight. Also, for some reason, she was a tad obsessed with marmots and nearly wet herself each of the times we spotted some marmots down from the Col de Balme, down from the Grand Col de Ferret and above les Chapieux. We all teased her saying they were nothing more than fat rabbits, but she was having none of it.

Catherine and Janina

Catherine and Janina

Just before the Refuge des Mottets, we came across a Maremma sheepdog guarding a flock of sheep. We’d seen signs warning people to not antagonise the dogs so we stayed a decent distance away, but we couldn’t help spending a good while taking photos of him. We were all a bit entranced by this huge but noble dog quietly watching over the sheep.

Maremma Sheepdog

Maremma Sheepdog

After a bite at the refuge, we continued down the road to our rough camp at les Chapieux, spotting a couple of marmots along the way. This rough camp was a little rougher than the last and we washed ourselves in the freezing cold river that evening. No sooner had we pitched our tents, a car full of young dodgy looking French guys arrived back to their tent which was pitched amongst our tents. Teresa spent the whole evening keeping us amused with her scary theories of what they were up to and warning us all to tie up the zips on our tent when going to bed.

Dinner that night was at a hotel right beside the camp site. It was by far the best meal we had out on the whole trip and we all stuffed ourselves stupid. The starter was a really delicious soup, the main was boar with potato gratin and the dessert was a fruit tart. The only downside was that we were sitting outside all wrapped up, but the food made up for that. The staff, and even the chef, were all great fun and made for a really enjoyable night.

Tour du Mont Blanc :: Planpincieux to Val Veny

This morning, we were up again before 07:00 and ready to get back into the business of walking around the Mont Blanc Massif. This was by far the coldest morning, and we all stood about freezing once we had everything packed up.

By 09:00 we set off along an unmarked path up to a col on the Mont de la Saxe where we took our time over lunch in the sunshine and enjoyed the views of the Massif from this side, getting a good view of the Grandes Jorasses, for example. From there we descended to the Refuge Bértone and started the steep and seemingly endless descent into Courmayer.

On this last stretch, Catherine and I just tried to keep up with Vanessa as she jogged, skipped and jumped her way down the path. Vanessa, originally from Africa but teaching in Wales for years, was the oldest in our group in her fifties, was a real inspiration throughout the trip. Quietly spoken, but great fun, she seemed incredibly fit for her age. She had just completed her first marathon a few months before the trip and seemed to take every day’s walk entirely in her stride.



Once we reached the outskirts of Courmayer, we just strolled along admiring all the posh houses that would really make you wonder about the kind of houses we build in Ireland and the UK. In Courmayer, we met outside a church which was displaying a photographic history of the cable cars crossing the Massif. Some amazing photos of an incredible achievement when you consider the kind of gear that climbers wear when going up there these days.

Once re-grouped, we had a lovely ice-cream from an ice-cream shop and caught the bus to our campsite in Val Veny. Gary and I had been considering walking the TMB route from Courmayer to the campsite, but we were weary after the descent and Charlie reckoned it would take too long and we wouldn’t get much out of it.

Omar, Dean, Brian and Gary

Omar, Dean, Brian and Gary

At the campsite, we were pretty shocked to see that Brian – who had taken another rest day to give his shins a chance to recover – had pitched all our tents for us. Very grateful, we all just plonked ourselves down in the sun and I caught up with my journal which felt like a few weeks homework by the time I’d finished.

After showers, we headed down to a restaurant in a nearby campsite and had a few beers on the terrace before dinner. Dinner itself started with cold meats, followed by either sausage and polenta, or tagliatelle, or crépes for main and apple strudel or chocolate pudding for dessert. After dinner, Brian and I stayed around to play some cards. Once I’d beaten him a couple of times, he quickly gave that up as a bad lot and we ordered another litre of wine. Eventually, they kicked us out onto the terrace where we finished our wine and got into deep drunken gossipy conversation before heading back to our tents.

Tour du Mont Blanc :: Courmayer Rest Day

Our first rest day. Had a lie-in until all hours, getting up at 07:30. For once, though, we didn’t have to roll up the sleeping bags and mats, pack the bags and take down the tents, which was a great treat. Once we’d had breakfast, we split up into smaller groups to head off for the day. Most opted to catch the bus into Entrèves and catch the cable car up to Pointe Helbronner and some people even continued on across the glacier to the Aiguille du Midi.

For some reason, though, I got the notion into my head that I’d like to take the marked trail under the path of the cable car up to Refuge Torino at 3320m. Given that Entrèves is at around 1300m, that would mean a 2000m ascent. I guess the attraction was that I wouldn’t get much other opportunities to do a straight 2000m ascent and I wanted to get some idea what it would be like to walk at that altitude.

So, off I went at around 09:00 and walked down the road to la Palud, just above Entrèves, to where the path started. The sign gave two and half hours to reach the first cable car station at Mont Fréty, but I managed to do it in half that even though I wasn’t going very fast. The path was very steep, though, zig-zagging up through the forest and out into the sunshine a few hundred metres below the station. I really enjoyed the walk and it was cool to text Catherine and find out she was still at the bottom in the queue for the cable car.

I wandered around there for a bit and came across a sign that seemed to be suggesting that the path to Refuge Torino was closed but that there were a couple of other paths that branched off on the way up. The sign was in Italian, though, so I just ignored it … what do I know what “Chiuso!!!” means? I headed past the little alpine gardens and headed up the path a bit and passed by more bit warning signs, again in Italian so I just shrugged and continued on.

At this point, I was out in the open on a rocky path with the sun beating down, so I stopped at a little statue of Notre Dame to put on sunscreen. A middle-aged Italian lady, with what looked to be her father, struggled up the path behind me and accosted me with a very severe “Bon Jorno!”. That was a fun part of the whole trip actually … you always greeted people on the trail in the language of the country you were in, regardless of their nationality, so as you crossed from France to Italy to France the standard greeting changed from “Bonjour!” to “Bon Jorno!” and back.

Anyway, I continued up the rocky path and it got more and more dodgy as I went along. In places it trailed off where small rock slides had damaged the path and in other places it turned into a light scramble. The higher I got, the more I got slightly nervous since I was completely alone (I didn’t see another soul once I’d left the Italian lady and her father behind) and felt like I was up really high. On some of the steep bits, it really felt like I could trip and tumble the 2000m or so to the entrance to the Tunnel du Mt Blanc. Stunning views, but given the warning signs I’d passed over and the killer bee I had to fight off, I started thinking about turning back.



After a short while, I got to a place marked on some maps as les Portes at around 2600m where the path turned into what was described as a “passage délicat”. What was directly ahead, some would describe as a “heavy scramble”, but what I could see looked like an actual climb. With some company, preferably someone with some experience, I might have fancied it, but instead I sat down and had my lunch and started to head back down. As I set off I texted Catherine to tell her what I was doing, and she text back saying she was hugely relieved after seeing what was ahead of me from the cable car.

Back at Mont Fréty, I settled myself down in the grass amongst the hoardes of italians – some of which were in little bikinis which was a nice diversion – and fell fast asleep until Catherine, Janina and Felicity arrived back down. We then got into the queue for the next cable car and jealously watched the little groups of people with ice axes and crampons about to head up to Helbronner for some glacier walking and climbing. After a fairly long wait, we caught the cable car back down (only €9 for me, whereas it was €36 return from the bottom to Helbronner and back) and then caught the bus back from Entréves to the campsite.

After dozing about in the sun for a bit more, we had our showers and wandered down to the bar-ristorante in Planpincieux where the whole group met up and shared stories of the day. The group that went across the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi caught a nice break in the weather and raved on about the views they got of Mont Blanc, the Glacier du Géant and the Vallée Blanche. It was at that point that Janina, Vanessa, Catherine and I started talking about doing a glacier walk on our last rest day in Chamonix.

Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc and Chamonix

Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc and Chamonix

Dinner that night was pasta, steak and tart and cream in a very Italian (well, it was in Italy!) family restaurant. It was quite funny having to compete with the volume of an Italian game show on the telly while talking. Back at the campsite we had a few short games of cards before turning in.

Tour du Mont Blanc :: la Fouly to Planpincieux

Up before 07:00 again, packed up and tore down the damp tents. Just as we were eating breakfast in the communal shelter the rain started coming down heavily and it looked like it would be our first chance to walk in the rain. Out came all the jackets, waterproof trousers, gaiters and rucksack covers. For some reason – perhaps the pink laces on my gaiters – everyone decided to pull the mickey out of me and it got even funnier when the rain stopped just as were about to head off and all the gear had to come off again.



Learning how to figure out what to wear was one of the most important lessons from the entire trek. Starting off in the morning in the cold and damp, you’d be tempted to wear full length trousers, fleece, jacket and woolly hat but within five minutes you’d be boiling hot and it would all have to come off again. Most mornings we started off chilly enough in shorts and a fleece and took the fleece off as we warmed up. Whenever we stopped for a break, we had to quickly put on a fleece and maybe a jacket, depending on the wind, because you tended to get cold very quickly. If it started to rain, you’d delay putting on even a jacket since if it was only a drizzle your body heat would stop you getting too wet. It was all about not getting too hot, cold or wet, and not wasting too much time changing.

From la Fouly, we set off towards our highest point of the trek, the Grand Col Ferret at 2537m, a 1000m climb. At one point we stopped at an abandonded hut for a quick break, and since the weather was coming in Charlie wanted us all behind him. Since Teresa was generally the one at the back (even though she walked at a very steady pace which left us in no doubt she’d easily finish the walk), Charlie asked her to walk directly behind him to group together. It was this point that Gary made what I think was the funniest quip of the whole trip – “We’ll get a great view of the Grand Crevasse du St. Teresa!”. Poor Teresa, but fair play to her for just laughing along.

Gary, a business trainer living in Jersey, and Teresa, a deputy head of a school somewhere I can’t remember, struck up one of the closer friendships on the trip which was really nice to see. They often seemed to be at the back of the group deep in conversation or joking with each other as part of the larger group. It was probably this that made Teresa enjoy the trip more and more and open up a lot as time went on, to the point where she had us in stitches laughing some nights.

Along the way, we stopped at a nice refuge at la Péule where we went inside a low-ceilinged barn-like room with a log fire and had out first lunch with a hot chocolate. Very cosy in there with everyone huddled together and the rain starting to come down again outside. Before heading off, we all got geared up again in our jackets and waterproof trousers and continued climbing towards the Grand Col where we had spectacular views of Val Ferret both on the Italian and French side whenever the weather cleared for a bit.

Out front, as Omar and I approached the Grand Col a French leader with an American group came bounding towards us shouting at his group “Look at these guys with big smiles! Why can’t you lot not smile like that?! I’m going with these guys!” which was a bit of fun. Up on the col, I met Kevin from Cork again chatting with a French guy, Jean-François, who told us how he’d walked around these mountains many times. When I asked him did he live in the area, he replied “No, I live in Paris. Nobody is perfect!” and when I asked him had he considered doing the ultra-marathon TMB (more on that later) he held up the cigarette he was smoking and joked “No, I enjoy life too much!”. You’ve got to love French humour sometimes …

Big Eejit on the Grand Col Ferret

Big Eejit on the Grand Col Ferret

Me Messin

Me Messin

At the Grand Col, I got a little hyper and got Catherine to take some silly photos of me running around the place. We crossed over into Italy and descended to Refuge Elena where we had our second butties outside before going inside to have coffees and hot chocolates, the latter of which was the thickest we’d seen … you could nearly stand a spoon in the chocolate! From there, we only had a fairly short descent to the valley floor where we caught a public bus to our campsite at Planpincieux.

Back up on the Grand Col, Brian asked me for one of my walking poles, saying he was suffering from what sounded like shin splints. By the time we reached the bus, you could see the amount of pain he was in and I really had to sympathise since I had experienced shin splints running quite a bit. Luckily, the following day was to be a rest day so he knew he had some hope of recovering.

The campsite at Planpincieux was probably the busiest we stayed at, with lots of families. It was quite strange seeing that everything was noticably different now that we were in Italy. For one thing, the bathroom had only a single normal toilet with the rest of them being squatters, which we all tried to avoid. Also, the showers required tokens for hot water so we all shared strategies on how get the most out of one’s token.

That night we had soup for starter, which we were delighted with because we felt a bit chilly. For main, we had heaps of pasta with pesto and bacon and, for dessert, we had pastries with cream. After washing up, we really lashed into the wine and played shithead late into the wee small hours (okay, 23:00) until both Felicity and Brian had lost a game each. Brian was particularly upset since Catherine, Janina and I were blatantly cheating against him, flashing cards at each other and the like. Funny thing was, though, that we had so much wine at that stage we actually had no clue what we were doing. Still, he lost in the end and that’s all that mattered at the time.

Tour du Mont Blanc :: Bovine Trail to Champex

Rain again during the night, so everything was nice and damp and cold at 07:00 when we poked our noses out of the tent. At this stage everybody was so efficient at packing and loading everything we were starting to make Charlie and Liz grumpy by wanting our breakfast before 08:00 and standing around waiting to leave before 09:00.

Eventually we set off back up the road out of Trient, up into the woods and back onto the TMB. Once again, the path zig-zagged steeply up through the forest until we reached the Col de la Forclaz about 45 minutes later and stopped to buy chocolate and, bizarrely, cigars.

Along the way, I noticed that a walker passing us by was wearing a Guinness t-shirt so I asked him was he Irish. Turns out he was Kevin from Cork, and doing this half of the TMB self-guided on his own using UTracks. We met up again several times over the next few days and had interesting chats comparing notes on the walk.

From the Col de Forclaz we climbed steadily along the well known Bovine Trail until we came out of the trees to wonderful views north, brilliant sunshine and a pretty little refuge below us where we stopped for lunch and a beer, hot chocolate or coffee.

Cathy and Her Cow

Cathy and Her Cow

Contouring along from the refuge on a true alpine path we passed plenty more milka cows making an awful racket with their bells, and then descended through the woods, crossing a few streams, past the refuge at Champex d’en Haut down into the valley near Champex. At this point, everyone was feeling fairly tired after a long days walking and we still had a bit to go, so Gary, Janina, Catherine and I put the heads down and doggedly ploughed on back up the valley as fast as we could towards Champex, out onto as busy road and eventually came to the campsite.

Most people just collapsed when they reached the campsite, but somehow I still had a fair bit of energy for putting up the tent, unpacking, making some tea, having a shower (one of the nicest and hugely welcome after the previous rough camp), playing some frisbee with Brian and wandering down to Champex where I bought a TMB t-shirt. Dinner that night started with some bread, olive oil and spicey nuts (which worked suprisingly well), then a very cheesy carbonara with crab sticks (made a pig of myself with seconds) and a tasty mixture of yoghurt, fruit and chocolatey bits for dessert.

After dinner, and after a very frantic, noisy, but efficient washing-up session, we went back down to Champex and sat out on a terrace by the lake for a few beers. Catherine and I, Brian, Neil and Valerie sat outside in the peace and quiet chatting, but most of the others stayed inside where they met the hotel group and danced to music played by some guy with an accordian.

On the way home, Brian, Neil and Valerie had the two of us almost convinced that a bright red, five-pointed light in the sky was a star or planet until we could just about make out the silhouette of moutains around the Aiguille de Tour somewhere. Must have been some kind of mast or something, but it’s very strange when you’re not used to the landscape around you being so high.

We pretended to take offence at their duplicity and stormed on ahead back to the campsite and went straight to bed. Up in the middle of the night, as usual, to go to the loo but bizarrely Omar emerged, at the same time, from his tent on one side of us and Janina from the tent on the other side of us. We all just looked confused at each other, grunted and continued on.

Tour du Mont Blanc :: Champex to la Fouly

Up a bit later today around 07:30 as there was no real rush on us. It was to be a relatively short walking day and Omar had to go down to Champex to buy some new boots since the sole of his boot fell off the previous day.

Omar! Smile!

Omar! Smile!

Just as we were about to leave site, two girls appeared who friends of Charlie and Liz and who were doing the TMB anti-clockwise in three days. Apparently, they had come from La Fouly that morning and were going to continue back along the route we had just come, finishing that day in Chamonix. Crazy biscuits.

We strolled on down into Champex and around the other side of the lake with Brian, enjoying the early morning sunshine, the peace and quiet of the lake and the fishermen out catching tiddlers.

We set off from Champex, descending gently through the woods until we reach Issert where we met up with Liz and stopped for a bit at a café by the road there. The girls were very impressed with the immaculate toilets with Villeroy and Boch fittings.

Just before we set off, we all gathered around and sang Charlie happy birthday, mortifying him in the process. Some of the others – Gary and Janina, I think – had organised and card and present of a caribiner and temporary tattoos.

Charlie turned 23 that morning, which is funny when you think that he was leading a group of 14 adults for two weeks, all of which were older than him, and some much older. I don’t think any of us ever felt that his age was a problem though, as he confidently lead us around the route. All the way around, we really enjoyed his stories about rock climbing, getting his summer mountain leader qualifications and mountaineering in general. I certainly never expected to be so steeped in mountaineering culture on this walk, but Charlie’s clear passion for it and the many points of conversation always looming high on the sky line meant that we came away wanting to learn more and more. Charlie was an excellent leader for the fortnight for lots of reasons … patience, confidence, passion, knowledge and the ability to take constant teasing from the more gobby members of the group.



From Issert, we walked through the valley of Val Ferret passing by lots of typical Swiss houses, through the village of Praz de Fort and up into the woods where we stopped for lunch. Once again, we bumped into the hotel lot here and they told us they had left a “Happy Birthday Charlie” sign in a card of gnomes along the way but we had completely missed it. Sure enough, though, looking back through our photos later we had actually taken a photo of the gnomes and the sign amongst them.

Happy Birthday Charlie!

Happy Birthday Charlie!

From there we descended a little and came out of the trees into the blazing afternoon heat and continued along towards La Fouly. When we stopped and re-grouped at a huge climbing slab just outside La Fouly, we were all pretty wrecked by the heat. This was probably the only day that the heat got to people since we were walking down low in the valley.

From there it was a short walk to the campsite at La Fouly, where we were camped right under the Glacier de l’A Neuve right beside a torrent of a river coming down from the glacier. We also had the use of a lovely communal log cabin where we could eat dinner and hang about in, which made a big difference.

After the usual tea, biscuits and crisps we put up the tent and flopped down in the sun for a snooze. Felicity, the youngest in the group at 25, even went and showed us all up in her bikini. Felicity was definitely one of the interesting characters in the group – blonde and petite, but fit and almost tomboyish … a dairy allergy but a huge appetitie … chatty and giggly but a casting engineer at Rolls Royce …

After showers, and margarita’s made by Gary, we had dinner of parma ham and melon to start, chicken satay for main and ice-cream and birthday cake for dessert. Even though the chicken satay was very nice, we were all jealous of Vanessa’s spicy vegetarian nachos which I polished off when she couldn’t finish them.

That night we got a deck of cards out, quaffed a fair bit of wine and played reduction and shithead with Brian, Zen and Janina until fairly late. Good fun!