Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc, days 1-2: Les Houches to Refuge du Bonhomme

At 5 years old Reinhold Messner was led by his father to his first summit. By his early twenties, he was one of the world’s greatest climbers. Born in Brixen, Italy in 1944, the Alps were his playground in his early years and they shaped his climbing style - the Alpine Style - climbing with very light equipment and a bare minimum of external assistance. Messner considered the alternative expedition style to be disrespectful to nature and to the mountains. Nearly a century earlier, between 1854, and Alfred Willis’ ascent of the Wetterhorn, and 1865 when Edward Whymper ascended the Matterhorn, the Golden Age of Alpinism saw most of the major peaks ascended in the Alps for the first time. In 1857, the Alpine Club in London was formed. It was a golden age for science, as the summiteers, along with scientists like physicist John Tyndall, carried instruments up the mountains to be used in scientific observations. By 2009, the Eiger’s North Face had claimed in excess of 60 lives and, in March of that year, two recruits from the Swiss Army’s Mountain Training Centre died when trapped by a storm trying to climb the notorious North Face. Despite purportedly planning adequately, they were most likely taken by a dramatic change in the weather. Conditions were such that rescue attempts failed. 

The Alps occupy a holy, majestic and critical mantle for any mountaineer or hillwalker. Mont Blanc, at 4810m, is the Queen of the Alps. The massif standing sentinel around the White Lady is circled by valleys in France, Switzerland and Italy and contains 5 glaciers as well as in excess of fifty major peaks. When you arrive in the Alps to walk there for the first time, they are true drama. The landscape has a sense of the English Lake District about it, until the snow-capped summits then extend far above what would have hitherto ended in north-west England. Everywhere in the valleys encircling the massif, your gaze is drawn inexorably to the sonorous titans seemingly within touching distance. Yet mountains are dangerous, unforgiving mistresses - a fact Messner recognised well enough when he said that “we attract tourists to these regions where we cannot guarantee their security” - and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure our skill set matches our aspirations. The Alps are certainly no exception.

 So it was, that I lay in a chair gazing at Mont Blanc, just outside the Hôtel les Campanules in Les Houches on Saturday 21st August 2010, considering those very same sobering thoughts. It was not my first visit to the Alps, nor was it my first experience walking in the Alps, but it was the first time I would be taking a long-distance path in the region that had captured my imagination since my parents and I drove over it when I was 8 years old, over a quarter of a century ago. I had set aside those dreams, hatched in the back of a battered old Cortina, throughout my early to late twenties in favour of a career. No longer.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is a demanding and, in places, technical walk. It is not mountaineering and no amount of dramatic licence or posturing prose will make it so. However, it is as useful, comprehensive and effective an introduction to true mountain walking in the Alps as you could hope to achieve. For some, it will be a pleasant, scenic and memorable trek among one of the most amazing and beautiful massifs in Europe (if not, the world). For me, it was an induction - an inauguration to where the next 10 or 15 years of my life would be spent. I am an experienced hillwalker which is to say, as my father used to say of drivers - there are no good hillwalkers, only safe ones. The hills in the UK, dramatic and wonderful as they are, simply do not have the energy and attraction of the Alps and, indeed, grander ranges across the world. To walk in the Alps, at the highest level, there is a skill set required that I simply do not have. The first stage in remedying that was the TMB. The second will be in Scotland in January/February 2011 and a greater understanding of ice-axes, crampons and snow-holes.

We arrived in Les Houches on the Saturday and started out the next morning, Sunday. We had planned meticulously in respect of our kit. Both of us were carrying, without water an food, something in the region of 6kg. We had with us a 2-person tent as an emergency shelter. We never used it - a fact I do not regret for one second, nor do I regret its weight - take the mountains seriously, Messner intoned. We did.

Day One: Les Houches (1007m) to Les Contamines-Montjoie (1167m)
Sleeping: Refuge du CAF (Club Alpine Français)
Distance: 16km
Ascent/Descent: c.750m/700m
Highest Point: Col de Voza, 1653m 

Across from the Hôtel Slalom, along from the Bellevue Téléphérique, the TMB begins. It is a steep inauguration to the next 11 days and the heat at 1000m is exacerbated by proximity to the sun’s radiation. That day, at 28C, we drank in excess of 4 litres. We were granted only sporadic respite from the heat by the canopied shade of the forested, winding dirt path as we frequently emerged from the sheltered confines provided by the alpine evergreens. It was our first day and, despite training as religiously as we were able prior to the TMB, it was a hard one. We did not take the ‘variante’, a much harder baptism - I wish now, secretly, we had but I wonder if we would have been able to deal with the next day as comfortably as we did, had we done so. Too much too soon - maybe. Others did it and found it hard going but rewarding.

As we reached Col de Voza, a broad saddle at 1653m with the demeanour of a bijou ski resort, we rested and caught our breath in shallow raspy gasps. Looking back now, I am embarrassed that 600m of ascent could tire me so readily, but it was hot and we were amateurs without our mountain legs. It was perhaps unsurprising. Les Houches begins at 1007m and Col de Voza is at 1653m, and there is more ascent after that, so the estimate of 646m by our dear friend (as he became) Mr. Reynolds is, it seems to me, somewhat conservative. I would suggest it is nearer 700-750m but, as the days progressed, that disparity would become distinctly insignificant. It is here that the last option to take the variante can be seen. 

From Col de Voza, we descended towards Bionnassay and, not for the first time, but now most clearly and spectacularly, the Dôme du Goûter (4258m), the Glacier de Bionnassay and the Aiguille de Bionnassay (4052m) came into view (pictured above and described left to right), framed perfectly by the deep, blue sky. For several kilometres, they stayed with us as we descended into the tiny hamlets of Le Crozat and Bionnassay. 

Passing a tiny chapel, we again entered the confines of evergreen forest, suddenly taken by the roar of the raging torrent that is the Bionnassay, some way below us. We crossed over a bridge and rested next to the river, stooped beneath a boulder as a tributary crashed into the Bionnassay beside us, to devour salami, cheese and bread and fill our hydration bladders. It was a magical experience to eat almost within the boundaries of the river, watching it rage past us. It was a standing joke that my 75g Swiss Army knife would see little use - its first outing was here and I took some satisfaction in that.

We continued on, sated and ebullient, through the undulating and narrow forested path, across the Gorges de la Gruvaz spanning the torrent spewing from the Glacier du Miage, and down to Tresse and Le Quy. That first day was spent walking through many tiny French hamlets and farming communities before re-entering forested areas. It's a dimension I had not expected but it was a pleasant enough amble. Through the forest, we could see rocky crags adorned with pinewood across the valley. The sun continued to heat the air and we took comfort in the shade of the giant and ancient alpine evergreens. It is no feat of navigation to trek the TMB - periodically, signs are posted, often with time estimates, and, in France, the symbol for the TMB (red over white) appears on those signs and is painted onto trees and rocks. Getting lost is an embarrassment. 

The Refuge du CAF at Les Contamines-Montjoie is at the bottom of a large house and accessed by means of a door at the back. It is stiff and a notice, in French, tells you to shove it hard. We did so, entered, removed our boots and wandered into our first experience of a dortoir. One room had four bunks in, the other had rather more. We set our packs onto bunks in the smaller of the rooms and went upstairs to enquire about dinner. Usually, dinner (as part of demi-pension, which I strongly advise you book each time you stay in a refuge) is at 7.00 or 7.30pm. It is often a 4 course meal, consisting of a starter, main, cheese and dessert. Standards vary but at the end of a 7hr day, it tends to matter little what the quality of the food is. Generally, it is hard to get bad food in France. We had some time so, in the ‘brothel creepers’ (as we dubbed the Hot Socks), we crossed the main road into a small pizzeria dubbed 'Le Totem'. What connection this place had to Native American rituals I know not, but the determinedly bickering French couple who ran the place were good value. We quaffed beer for a few hours, discussing the days to come, before heading over for dinner. Two rooms marked the dining area and an Italian family occupied one, leaving us and the other refuge occupiers in the other. it was here we met Ping, a New Yorker hiking the TMB alone and Yotam, an Israeli man from Tel-Aviv, similarly hiking alone. It simply seemed natural that, chatting with the over dinner, they would join us the next day. The TMB is rather like that - it is virtually impossible not to meet others and often they will simply end up walking with you. We did not mind this and, over the coming days, they became friends.

Day Two: Les Contamines-Montjoie (1167m) to Refuge du Bonhomme (2443m)
Sleeping: Refuge du Bonhomme
Distance: 16km
Ascent/Descent: 1316m/100m
Highest Point: Col de la Croix du Bonhomme (2483m) 

We had decided long before that we wanted to do the day 3 variante between Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and onto Refugio les Mottets, then crossing the Col des Fours at 2665m, before heading across Col de la Seigne to Refugio Elisabetta. It would be a long, arduous day but, as day 3 of the TMB, we felt we'd be ready for it. Weather would be an issue so we would need to assess the situation once we arrived at the Refuge at Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. The day started easily enough with a 4km road/track walk to the church at Notre-Dame de la Gorge. Ping was with us by then and it was at Notre-Dame de la Gorge that we met up with Yotam and, his friend, Eli - another Israeli. Eli is a curious character - having walked the GR20 last year with an enormous pack (27kg), he had decided to go lighter this time round with only 22kg. He only has one pace - a determined, indomitable slow amble that maximises his endurance and means he can walk for great distances. He also errs on the side of packing for every eventuality. In some ways, he is the consummate backpacker - there is no situation he is not entirely prepared for. That said, he acknowledges his pace is not for everyone and we stretched away from him on the early, almost paved, riverside ascent into the valley leading to Refuge de la Balme (1706m), the Aiguille de la Pennaz ahead of us. 

As we sat at the white picnic tables outside the refuge, a surly character asked us, abruptly, what we wanted. I enquired as to food. Moments passed as he came to terms with my apparent chutzpah. “What do you want?” he asked. “What do you have?” I responded. “Blueberry pie,” came the perfunctory riposte. “Sounds perfect.” Suspiciously eyeing me, he retreated and returned with a shortbread biscuit covered in marzipan, topped with blueberries. I cannot tell you if, under different circumstances, it would have been edible, but there and then, in the shadow of the Aiguille de la Pennaz, on the first real day of our walk into the Alps, it was bliss. We had climbed nearly 600m and walked nine kilometres in around 2.5hrs. We were ready for whatever was given to us. We filled our hydration bladders again and set off. It was not an easy day - the heavens swiftly grew slate-grey and foreboding and eventually the first few spots of rain dotted our arms. As we trekked through the valley, great crags towering above us on either side, we climbed relentlessly. By the time we had reached the tiny shelter on Col du Bonhomme (2329m), the wind was ripping at our collars but the rain continued only to fleck tiny beads onto our jackets. The sun of the previous day long forgotten, the south side of the Mont Blanc massif, notorious for less clemency than the north, began to bare its teeth.

As we enjoyed a brief moment of solace in the shelter, a compact, cramped hut suffused with other walkers pulling on extra layers, we stared up at the path which now lay before us. We knew there was more ascent to come - at least another 250m - but it was at that moment I realised that, although I was physically tired, the muscles in my legs were curiously buoyant. It's a strange feeling when the body realises, and tacitly acknowledges, that this is no weekend hillwalk and the “mountain legs” ignite. The new path dipped down away from the Col, cresting a ridge to the right of an ugly slab of a summit. Dipping our heads beneath the wind, we surged forward.

We climbed again, traversing the uncomplicated but rocky path, the landscape hued incongruously russet, this time reveling in the fresh and unfamiliar, wondrously distant vista of the seemingly endless Alpine peaks surrounding us. It had been sudden, without a moments warning, the shelter standing like a gateway, and we had entered the wilderness of the massif. The nearest building to us would be the refuge. Supplies to this remote place would have to be airlifted in. For the first time, we felt truly in the mountains. After what seemed a tragically short time, we saw the cairn on top of the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and climbed up to it, elated.

 The Col de la Croix du Bonhomme sits at 2486m. From it, we could see the refuge and cantered down to it. It was 2pm and we'd set a fairly blistering pace knocking off the day's mileage in just under 5hrs. Bonhomme is a large refuge, and at least 100 hikers were staying there that night. Some were on different paths to us, some were trail runners setting off early on ultra-trail marathons. The atmosphere within was adrenalised satisfaction. It's no easy walk up there and, as we sipped thick, European hot chocolate, simultaneously munching on home made tarts and flans, we chattered jubilantly. Again, my friend & I were in a dortoir of only 4 - a small, but pleasant room within the rafters of the refuge. This is when we met Jean-Rémy and Thierry. The latter, a tall, rangy figure with a deep Gallic slash of a smile, would leave us the next morning at 6am to complete his run from Geneva to Nice. It had been a day of rest for him, a chance to ease his muscles - he'd only covered 40km the day we arrived. Tomorrow he'd be back up to speed covering 50km in preparation for his 80km race in Brittany later this year - a race to be completed in 20hrs. Jean-Rémy would stay with us until just short of Champex. The small team was growing. Within 2hrs of us arriving at the refuge, Eli and Yotam arrived and joined us at our table. This time, as the light faded, we ordered warm red wine. It was a good day.

 For some time, I sat outside on the balcony watching the weather grow steadily worse. In the distance, half expecting to see a glowering eye segue into view above it, I stared at an ominous looking peak, shrouded in a thick, moody, inky pall. That same sable shroud began to encircle the refuge, as the wind picked up and our hopes for the high route across Col des Fours began to swiftly fade into oblivion. Rain pattered the windows and even those insane enough to outside retreated inside. 

By candlelight we devoured lashings of boeuf bourgignon, cheese polenta, bread and cheese, and chocolate cake. Language was no barrier as we muddled our way through to make our meanings clear to each other. It was all joyously convivial inside, whilst outside, a maelstrom raged. Well into night, we retired to bed, wondering what the next day would bring us. The prospect of dropping down to Les Chapieux filled us with little cheer and we resolved, the six of us - myself, my friend, Jean-Rémy, Ping, Yotam and Eli - that it would take a very great deal to keep us from the high route and Col des Fours.


  1. Maz - I really enjoyed reading this. You have a nice writing style. Keep it coming - I look forward to the next installment.

  2. Thanks Mark. My intention is to deal with 2 days at a time, and then do a general TMB advice post as well, perhaps encompassing my thoughts on preparing for LDP's as well. I love writing - sometimes, I wish I could make something more of it - but I am very much an amateur at it.

  3. I'm enjoying reading your report of your TMB trip. It's years since I've walked in the French Alps (and we never got small dorms!)and this is making we wish to return.

  4. Thank you. I really got to thinking that next year I'm going to find a series of really high-level huts/refuges/cabanes and walk between those. I'm looking at the eastern end of the Mont Blanc massif heading into Switzerland and the Matterhorn. Not a real fan of the Walker's Haute Route so I am thinking of creating my own but as high as it is safe to go, possibly combining it with an ascent of one of the major peaks.

  5. You've really started to capture the essence of the Alps already - looking forward to the next installment!

  6. Thank you both. Yotam: welcome and feel free to tell everyone all about your experience of the TMB! The whole experience was edifying and enjoyable for me very much because of the people we met, so thank you.