Hiking the Tour de Mont Blanc around the Chamonix valley in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.
This is a guest post by Heather Cowper, from Heather on her Travels. Heather is based in Bristol, in the west of England and travels mainly in Europe. You can read more about Heather’s walk on the Tour de Mont Blanc on her blog or by listening to her podcast.
When my friend Julia asked me to join her for a few days walking in the Alps around the Chamonix valley on the Tour de Mont Blanc, it sounded like an adventure I couldn’t refuse. She’d been convinced by another girlfriend who had walked the entire 12 day trek on the circular trail through Italy, France and Switzerland surrounding the famous Mont Blanc peak, and had come back raving about the beauty of the mountains.
The ice cave in the Mer de Glace
We flew into Geneva and transferred to our starting point at the small boutique-style Hotel Slalom at the end of the Chamonix Valley in Les Houches. Arriving at lunchtime with the sun shining, we were keen to make the most of our time in the valley. We took the bus into Chamonix and took an afternoon excursion up the mountain to see the famous Mer de Glace glacier and the ice cave that’s carved out of it each year.
The small train took us from the pretty Chemin de fer du Montenvers station up the steep mountainside. Every so often the trees would part to give us a view across the valley to the peaks on the other side. As we neared the crest, past the Grande Hotel Montenvers, the view of the glacier opened up before us framed by the mountain slopes and I was surprised at how grubby it looked with the grey scree covering the icy surface.
We looked around for the ice cave we’d come to see and spotted a path that we followed down towards the glacier, only to realise after we reached the bottom that the small red cable cars we had seen coming and going would have taken us there in only five minutes and without the aching knees. We crossed a metal walkway to a hole in the rather grubby ice and dodging the drips at the entrance were suddenly inside the manmade ice cave. The cave was lit with lights that changed colour in shades of blue and pink and there were sofas, easy-chairs, a coffee table, and even a fireplace, all carved out of the ice. As the glacier moves each year, so the cave is recut into the glacier in a slightly different position although the ice axes used in the past have now been replaced with heavy machinery.
We emerged blinking into the sunlight and took the bubble car back up the slope to the station above. We then followed the forest trail down the mountain again. I regretted that I didn’t wear my walking boots as I was terrified of twisting an ankle on the rocky path before we’d even started the main walk.
The climb to Refuge de Bellechat
The next day we set out in earnest for our three days walking on the high mountain paths, leaving much of our luggage in the hotel and taking small packs with the minimum we needed. The path took us out of the valley and steeply up through forest on a punishing climb. We were glad to be walking on cool, shady paths with an occasional glimpse across the valley through a break in the trees. We reflected that we might have planned something a little easier for the first day.
In less than an hour we reached the enormous concrete statue of Le Christ Roi or Christ the King. Just as we were continuing up the path, the bells hidden away in an adjoining wooden shed started to creak and then to ring, making us jump. Eventually, we emerged from the forest and the way became more rocky with a couple of mountain streams to hop across and a precarious section to negotiate with metal hand rails and foot-treads, embedded into the rocks. After tackling this steep section the way emerged into an open section of brush and heather with butterflies and beetles with crimson wings flitting around.
We could make out a winding path rising up to the crest with little coloured dots of other walkers coming down towards us, many of them having taken the cable car up to the peak at Brévent and now on their way back down to the valley. Finally after a seemingly never-ending climb, the small Refuge de Bellechat came into view. In the downstairs dining room with cheerful orange checked cloths and curtains, we were offered plastic clogs to wear and then shown up to the ‘Dortoir’ space upstairs with a single room full of communal bunks. Conditions were pretty basic with an outside toilet and a bathroom that consisted of a small shed with a cold tap and no shower in sight.
What the Refuge de Bellachat lacked in amenities it more than made up for in location, with a terrace that offered a grandstand view of Mont Blanc and its surrounding peaks and of the glaciers further down the valley. As we sipped our very welcome cold beer, we felt grateful to have been transported into this stunning mountain environment away from our city lives in Bristol. For supper all 28 guests sat down together at the long tables for a meal of soup, pasta with mince and a puree apple desert. Soon after 9pm the company started to thin out and settle down in the dortoir to sleep and after a long day of walking we were happy to get an early night.
Over the Brévent peak and on to Refuge Flegere
The next morning we took breakfast of brown country bread, butter, jam and coffee on the sunny terrace of Refuge de Bellachat. The sun peeped over the top of the Mont Blanc range opposite, while the Chamonix valley below was in shadow. We set off towards the peak at Brévent, looking down on the glacial Lac Brevant and passing only a few sheep with bells around their neck.
As we approached the Brévent peak where the cable car ascends from the Plan Praz halfway station below, we started passing less serious walkers who were just out for a stroll before taking the cable car back down to the valley again. We had a drink in the café with a panoramic view and then decided to take the easiest route down, following a wide stony ski-piste track down to the Plan Praz lift station. Passing rock climbers hanging from the cliffs, we arrived at an open grassy area where brightly coloured paragliders were taking off beside the cafe terrace.
After an expensive but tiny ice cream we finally set of for a further two hours walking to Flégère, skirting the side of the mountain through a rocky couloir with warning signs not to linger for danger of rockfalls and finally reaching Refuge la Flégère on the ridge beyond. This Refuge was much larger than Bellachat and seemed positively luxurious in contrast, with proper bunk-beds and hot showers. Over our supper of tartiflette and chocolate mousse, we decided that the next day we would press onwards and upwards to the glacial lake of Lac Blanc before descending once more to the valley.
Up to Lac Blanc and down to Chamonix again
By mid morning we had reached the milky blue-green glacial lake with more amazing views and reflections of the mountain peaks. We clambered around the rocky outcrops above the lake and enjoyed a cold beer and tarte au mytilles on the terrace of the Refuge Lac Blanc. As this was our last day of walking, we needed to make our way down to the valley and took an alternative route across a barren, rocky grey landscape, that was hard to walk on, before reaching the chair lift halfway back to Refuge Flegere.
We dangled in mid air on the chair, looking down on the heads of the mountain bikers descending the piste paths below. Finally we took the trail down switching from the slippery shale track to a much easier shady forest path hopping over the odd mountain stream. Towards the bottom, we reached the aptly named Chalet Floria, where a small chalet had been made into an out-door café terrace and a riot of colourful geraniums filled every possible space, with quirky figures and colourful metal tables and chairs. It was the perfect place to stop for a cool lemonade before continuing down to Chamonix and taking the bus back to Hotel Slalom for a very welcome long hot bath.
We were blessed with glorious sunny weather all the way and felt especially lucky since the next day the rain set in as we took the transfer back to Geneva. We were pleased with our petite adventure – but rather glad that we were not continuing for the whole 12 day trek. Perhaps we will return another year to complete another part of the Tour de Mont Blanc.
Roaming Tales is publishing a series of guest posts from fellow bloggers, while I look after my newborn twins.
Photo credit: All photos courtesy of Heather Cowper.