Main Alpine Divide. Section 12. Mont Blanc and Beaufortain Alps

February 9, 2022

Day 80. Champex to Refuge du Col de Balme. 18 Km. 8 Hrs. 1920m up. 1230m down. I did not have a long sleep but it felt like I had a deep sleep and there was not problem in getting up at 0630. I packed a bit and then went down to the large breakfast at 0700 where I was the first there. I never feel guilty about piling my plate high and having multiple servings at expensive Swiss Hotels, and today was no different and I managed to cram in the 2000 calories I needed before the dining room was swamped by Americans. I left at 0800 and noticed the Americans bags and suitcases were already getting loaded into a large van to get transported to the next overnight stop for them. There was something going on in Champex today and much of it was cordoned off and tents were getting erected and music was blaring. It was probably another run judging by the barrier tape which was getting strung out. Champex must once have been an idyllic spot beside a beautiful lake but it was now a busy tourist spot and the smell of cooking oil palled over the town on this still morning. I walked to the west end of town to a modest ski lift and found the wide path beside an irrigation canal. The water in the canal was clear and fresh as it rushed down into the lake. I think the canal was extracted from the stream which went down the other side of the watershed Champex was on so the lake would have fresh water flowing into it. 

The walk along the canal was a delight as it was lush and damp. The rowans here were now heavy with berries which were just turning from orange to red. Their branches were so laden with fruit they were arching down, turning some leaves upside down. Yesterday’s rain would go some way to making the berries plump up. After a kilometre the canal contoured away from the path, which climbed away from it to reach a school outdoor centre or hostel. There was a guy catching me up all the way along the canal and he finally pulled level at the hostel. He was English and his name was Will and he was mid 20’s

533. The final slopes up to the Fenetre d’Arpette pass, 2665m to cross into the Trient valley was stewn with large boulders.

For the next 2.5 hours Will and myself walked up the Val d’Arpette chatting about all things outdoors. He worked in an outdoor store to make ends meet as an artist. However Will had grown up in an active family and he had the outdoors in his DNA. We shared a lot of stories as we went past the lower meadows in the valley where there was a herd of Heren cattle. Soon the track we were on ended and we started up the easy path which got rough and rougher as we climbed. Will was a fast walker and I was pushing myself a bit to keep up with him, gasping for air occasionally mid conversation but never breaking sweat. We started overtaking other groups who must have started very early. It was pleasing to see so many young people with tents doing the Mont Blanc Tour. There must have been nearly 50 going up the valley with us – all self-sufficient. As we climbed up the route suddenly became very gnarly as it entered a boulder field towards the top. The painted marks on the boulders were just an indication of a suggested route through this obstacle course as there was no path at all. It eased off as we approached the top with a braided path covered in stones and gravel. The rock here was granite and it had eroded and broken down into small pea sized fragments which covered the path. We reached the Pass, called Fenetre d’Arpette at 2665m, after a near 1200 metre climb from Champex in a little under 3 hours and I was still feeling fresh. It was the advantage of hiking with someone else, especially someone whose slipstream I could follow. The weather had not really been on our side with bands of mist coming and going but occasionally we caught sight of the serrated ridges on each side of the valley where there were still a couple of small glaciers. We each had some bread and cheese at the pass with the cosmopolitan throng of other hikers, all of whom were delighted to have arrived. Will decided to stay and see if the weather cleared a bit and take some photos, and I was keen to press on as I still had another big climb later in the day so we parted company at the pass. 

534. The remnants of the lower Trient Glacier clings on precariously to the bare rock. Authorities were afraid a serac would tumble off creating a flood in the stream. The reality of global warming.

The descent was initially in the mist with the odd heavier drop of rain. It made the descent quite slow and I had to be cautious. Although the rock was granite it was quite well polished by thousands of boots and the mist and wet fine dust made the surfaces a bit greasy. I slipped once in the first 100 metres and landed on my bum. As I descended lower the mist thinned and then cleared across the upper Trient valley so I could see the Trient Glacier. I had passed this way some 10 years ago and thought the glacier had shrunk considerably since then. I will have to compare photos later. What was left of this lower Trient Glacier was a narrow strip of seracs and ice blocks clinging to the bare rock. Streams were emerging from under these blocks and cascading down the bare rock to the valley floor where they joined the main torrent. The going got a bit quicker as I descended with more ground granite and turf and less slippery rock. What rock there was still quite slippery now as there was a film of mud on the damp surface. I slipped again in another place and my feet slid off the path and down the 40 degree grassy slope below it. There was an alder scrub here with springy branches and I grabbed one to stop the slide and haul myself back onto the track with mud on my knees and elbows. Soon the path entered the larch and levelled off a bit as it neared the valley floor where the torrent from the Glacier Trient was now a powerful stream. Through the trees I saw the Chalet de Glacier which was a day time cafe for walkers coming up from Col de la Forclaz, or over the Fenetre d’Arpette as I had done. It was quite busy being a Saturday so I found a seat on the outskirts of the throng next to a couple. He spoke to me in French and I said I was Scottish. He then said in broad Glaswegian accent “well so am I” 

535. Looking down the upper Trient Valley from the treeline after coming down the pass from the Fenetre d’Arpette. The Trient glacier is out of the picture on the left. In the middle upper photo is the Chalet les Grands alm above the line of cliffs.

He said the bridge I wanted to go over was taped off with signs and closed to pedestrians. I said I was going over it whatever, as the detour would have been a few hours extra. After our picnic bread and cheese we each had we went down to the bridge which was covered in tape. I could see nothing wrong with it, and even if there was the torrent under it was not enough to sweep me downstream. I straddled the tape and signs and crossed and so did the other two. A few others crossed it and seemed they were all French, while the Swiss were more obedient and did not cross. Once on the other side I was surprised at just what a well constructed path it was.

536. The steep path covered in slippery slabs and concrete going up the line of cliffs to the Chalet les Grand alm, 2113m. This is the shortcut from Chalet Glacier du Trient to Col de Balme missing out Col de la Forclaz.

The path climbed quite steeply, but it was an even gradient and the path was wide. large slabs from the nearby cliffs were used to cover the surface and it was easy going up them. It took an hour to climb up under the wall of these cliffs which loomed above us and was the source of the slabs. At the treeline the path changed direction and headed towards the base of the 30-40 metre high line of cliffs. I then saw in the mist that the path went up them. It must have been a natural sloping ledge which was enlarged and widened by the path constructors. It was paved with slippery slabs which were set in concrete. The path was about 1.5 metres wide with a cable on the inside wall. On the outside wall there was a drop which grew quickly as I ascended. I think the path was too steep for pack animals, but it was perhaps a precarious drove road. At the top the terrain levelled out onto a pastoral plateau where there was a newer shepherd’s house made from wood which was called Chalets des Grands, 2115m. The mist had cleared now but the path was still greasy. I was a bit slow and cautious so the Scottish couple took off here as they had a long  way to go. 

538. Looking down on Col de la Forclaz from the garnly path between Chalets les Grands and Col de Balme. This is on the shortcut route which misses out Col de la Forclaz.

537. Looking up to the Col du Balme from the small garly path between Chalets les Grands and this col. The refuge is just seen in the saddle of the col, 2203m.

The route climbed up still higher on a small rocky path often over outcrops and down small gullies. It was very slow going and I made laborious progress. It was partially because I was tired and also because the soles of my Salomon shoes were more slippery than the Lowa I recently had. This road was definitely not a drove road and only goats could manage it so the well constructed path earlier must have been for the alm I just passed. The path was about 2 km and it took well over an hour to negotiate it from the Chalet Les Grands round a ridge at the treeline and then across a bowl to another ridge where the path veered SW for the final leg. As I slowly clambered over the boulders and outcrops I could see the high village of Trient in the valley with its raspberry pink coloured church and the Col de La Forclaz clearly visible above it in a clearing in the forest. It was the way the Haute Route and the Tour de Mont Blanc went but I was making a shortcut by taking this smaller path. Once I passed the second ridge, where a small path went down to meet the path coming up from Trient, it was an easy half hour jaunt contouring into the side valley to the Col de Balme, 2203.m. About half way along I passed the preserved dairy at Les Herbageres below me with its two large stone animal barns with stone walls and vaulted roof covered in stone slabs which I remember going into 10 years ago and being in awe of the construction.

539. The old restored stone cattle barns just on the NE side of the Col de Balme at the the Les Harbageres alm, 2036m.

The Refuge du Col de Balme was right on the saddle itself. It was quite a stark looking building from the outside but cosy inside. It was just inside Switzerland by about 50 metres but was run by a Frenchman with French prices.  The host was quite a character, spoke great English and loved to entertain his guests. The food was very good and he made a great effort for me, the single vegetarian. Upstairs the 3 dormitories were quite simple 3-5 pairs of bunks in each room. I mentioned the bridge to the host and he looked to the skies saying he had an email about the closure yesterday with no explanation. I mentioned that the riverside access was also taped of for 500 metres with “flood hazard” signs above Chalet du Glacier by the bridge and then he said that it must be because the authorities were expecting part of the Trient Glacier to break off and tumble into the gorge creating a torrent which might sweep the bridge away. As darkness fell the skies cleared and it was very easy to see the whole of Mont Blanc now, which was very impressive with its high glaciers tumbling 3000 metres down the mountain. 

540. Loking NE from the Col de Balme, 2203m, in the early morning with mist covering the entire Trient valley.

Day 81. Refuge du Col de Balme to Chamonix. 19 Km. 6.5 Hrs. 530m up. 1690m down. It was a beautiful day when I woke at 0630. Breakfast was at 0700 and there was only one other person in the dormitory so I packed quietly and went down. It was an OK breakfast and I could have had more cereal and bread but was conscious the host was keeping an eye on who was having too much. I was thankful I could top it up later on my walk to Chamonix if needed. After saying goodbye to the various walkers and the host I went outside to put my boots on. To the north the Trient valley was full of mist which came up to pretty much the level of the col. Above it was bright sun but below in Trient and Col de la Forclaz it must have been damp, cold and grey. To the south though it was completely clear and all the mountains were tremendous with the low morning sun sharpening the ridges and gullies and even highlighting the seracs and the crevasses in the large glaciers. The main mountain was of course Mont Blanc, but there were a plethora of sharp needle like peaks on the vast ridge between Mont Blanc’s summit and where I stood some 15 kilometres to the north of it. It was the most alpine view on this trip. Nothing else I had seen could match this mountain scenery, not even the Zillertal or Valais. I took loads of photos and then started my trip down. 

541. Looking SW from the Col de Balme towards Mont Blanc, 4810m. The usual way up is up the erratic Grand Couloir out of picture to the right and then up the ridgeline from the right over the Dome du Gouter (extreme right) the two exposed Les Bosses humps (centre right) to the visible summit.

The path went down between small ski lifts and tracks. I generally cut across them but occasionally followed them. I could see Chamonix in the valley far below me. To the south was the Mont Blanc Massif which to the north was the Aiguilles Rouges Massif.  What was really striking was how far the Glacier des Bossons came down from the summit of Mont Blanc, 4810m, to about 1350 metres which was not far above the valley floor. My route would go along the bass of the Aiguilles Rouges on the northern balcony path of the Chamonix Valley below. About half way down the descent there was a new ski lift being installed and the track up to it had been upgraded. There were signs that the path was closed with an explanation of the detour. However in true French style, the few people about were ignoring it and going round the barrier. I did the same, went past the new ski lift and continued down to the lower end of the closed section to reach the place where the deviation rejoined the original path. It was a Sunday and there was no one working and no one about to shout at us. It was not long before I was dropping past a very eroded landslip on the opposite south side of the valley and then past some hay meadows to enter Le Tour. Le Tour was the uppermost village in the Chamonix valley and the start of the tarmac road. The rowans here were plentiful and heavy with red berries. 

542. Looking south from the Balcony Path on the north side of the Chamonix valley to Mont Blanc in the distance. On the left are the various Aiguilles above Chamonix with the Aiguille du Midi,
3848m, upper centre photo. It has the gondola.

I was not walking down the road but taking the balcony path on the north side of the valley. There was also a balcony path on the south side but it was not so well used and the views were not the same and it started at Le Tour also. The South Balcony path contoured round the mountainside in the firs and rowans for about two kilometres until it came to the pretty hamlet of Trelechamps. It had a lot of old wooden houses and all the chimneys were massive and square and covered in wooden shingles with a few large boards across the top. They were typical for the region. There was a large sprawling refuge here which was very popular with TMB and Haute Route hikers and I had stayed there myself a decade ago. It was called Auberge la Boerne and it was full of character with wood throughout and quirky alcoves and furniture inside and a vegetable garden and dozens of window boxes on the outside. 

Just after Trelechamps my route crossed the main road, which went up over the Col de Montets pass and to Switzerland, and entered the forest on the west side. This was really the start of the balcony path and it extended for some 10 kilometres. Initially the path was wide and easy. There was a procession of people going from Trelechamps to Refuge Lac Blanc or Refuge Flegere on the TMB route who had had a more leisurely start to my 0800.  I did not really catch anyone up as they were all moving well and had already stopped to take their jackets off on this beautiful warm day. We all moved along as one through the firs and rowans passing above the town of Argentiere. I could look to the SE here up the grotesque twisting gorge at the bottom of the Argentiere Glacier. This glacier had carved a brutal trench before it retreated. I had crossed this glacier some 30 years ago on skis when I started the Skiers Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt with a huge and unfeasible rucksack of over 30 kg. 

543. Aiguille du Midi on the left with Mont Blanc centre and right. The normal route up is across the unseen unpredictable Grand Couloir over the rocky ridge on the right and then up the skyline on the snow and ice.

546. The Aiguille Verte, 4122m, is just of the east of Chamonix on the other side of the Valle Blanc and the Mer de Glace, (out of picture to right) a huge glaciated side valley which had gouged a vast slot on the north side of the Mont Blanc Massif.

After an easy two kilometres the main path headed up the mountainside to first one and then the other refuge and the path I was left to follow was small and seldom used. It was the called the Sentier des Gardes. It was very undulating and in places quite gnarly with some big windfall firs across the track. There were great views to the south, especially to the huge spires of the Aiguille Verte cluster of towers on the south side of the valley. My speed slowed considerably as I picked my way along here for what felt like 4 kilometres. I passed no one else on the way on this forest path. About half way along there was a tremendous roar from the other side of the valley. It was a large rockfall just to the north of the Aiguille du Midi on which the top station of the large cable car sits. It took a minute for all the rock to tumble down the gully and onto the glacier where it would eventually become moraine. The dust palled above the glacier and above the mid station to this same cable car and the dust lingered there for a couple of hours. Eventually I got to the west end of this small path which despite being gnarly was a delight to follow as it was quiet with some of the best views in Europe. The end was heralded by a regular shadow going over the track ahead. Initially I thought it was paragliders but then I saw it was the cars for the Flegere gondola. I passed under the wires and descended a bit to reach a much larger and quite busy path, which must have been the pedestrian route up to Refuge La Flegere.

544. The Aiguille du Midi on whose sharp summit the gondola ends. This was just after the rockfall down the gully which reverberated around the valley.

Once on the large path the going was initially easy. In a kilometre it reached a delightful little old stone shepherds house which was now converted into a restaurant, called La Floria, with a stunning view across to Mont Blanc and over Chamonix. It was very busy with not a free seat on the 20 odd outside tables. From here the going went from easy to very easy as there was a rough track for the next 2 kilometres which went all the way down to the outskirts of Chamonix. I could really stride out down here and before I knew it I was surrounded by houses. I went past a paragliding landing field and then after a couple of blocks I was walking under the finishing arch of the UTMB race which was about to get under way in the next couple of days. It was a major ultra marathon which went the 170 km around the base on Mont Blanc pretty much on the TMB trekking route. The winners would be coming under this arch in a few days and probably be broadcast on live TV. Chamonix was absolutely heaving with the fittest people of the planet, their partners and other spectators. The average age was well under 40 and everyone was lean, cool and happy. There was a very enthusiastic feel to the whole place where runners and tourists from all over the world had come to enjoy the next week’s running festival. 

545. Looking from near Chalet Floria before the final descent to Chamonix in the valley below. Note the Glacier des Bossons coming nearly all the way down to the valley floor for nearly 3500m of descent. The dust from the rockfall is still palling in the air an hour after the event (left)

However all this excitement was dwarfed by the fact I was meeting Fiona in the next few minutes. She had flown from the UK to Geneva that morning and then had taken the bus from Geneva to Chamonix. Just as I passed under the finish line for the UTMB and entered the main square she phoned. She was at the other end of the same street, the main street in Chamonix. We walked in opposite directions down the street full of cafes which had burst out of their premises onto the street under awnings. They were crammed with diners.

At last I saw Fiona on her phone to me. We walked the short distance to the apartment and although it was just 1430 the keys were already in the key safe after the cleaners had tidied it up from the previous guests. We dumped our stuff and then went to the supermarket to get some bread, cheese and tomatoes and also some drinks as I had not eaten, drunk, or indeed stopped, since leaving this morning 7 hours ago. Back at the small flat we ate and caught up on our lives and then I had a soak in the bath and washed my clothes. That afternoon the blog was postponed as we had two free days here and no commitments. We went through Fiona’s rucksack and could only extract a kilo of unnecessary stuff to post on to my friend Magali to keep until the end of the trip. Her rucksack was about 9 kilos also now. That evening we went into town to eat but the restaurants were busy. It was like being in London as the offices empty after a day’s work. After 3 months of relative peace and quiet the swarm of very nice and active people was quite overwhelming. We managed to find a quieter Italian for a pizza each and then headed back to the apartment by 2100 as we were both tired.

Day 82. Chamonix to Contamines. 27 Km. 9.5 Hrs. 1620m up. 1470m down. After a couple of days in Chamonix, the Outdoor Capital of Europe, it was time to continue the walk again. It had been a good pause to catch up with everything and also enjoy the ambience of the town which was hosting the UTMB, a major running festival with perhaps 10,000 competitors and perhaps 20,000-40,000 family members and spectators coming to cheer them on in one of 6 races. We also had a meal with Andy and Nila, the very bright, worldly, couple I met while crossing the “closed” bridge a couple of days ago. Chamonix was full of high achievers most of the time but with this running festival it was brimming over with them and it was quite a privilege to be here at this time. 

547. Mont Blanc, 4810m, early in the morning. The summit is centre right and the large Glacier des Bossons which used to come down to the valley floor is centre

I set the alarm for 0530 as it would take a while to have breakfast and pack up everything. By the time they were all done it was 0730 and we were off. The first part of the hike took us downstream for a while until we crossed the railway line to the north side of the stream and then followed it down for another kilometre passing a couple of 2 star hotels. Just after these hotels a track branched off to the right (north) and entered the forest. There were a few hikers and a few dog walkers about now as the time was 0800 already. As we sauntered along the easy track a runner with a number on suddenly came round the corner heading towards us. Above the number were the letters TDS. It was the final stage of one of the 6 races of the UTMB festival. This one was the second most brutal of them with 145 kilometres with 9100 metres of ascent. The winner usually takes a little less than 20 hours to finish it. All the 1600 runners in this race started from Courmayour at midnight on the previous night with the winner finishing yesterday evening. The runner coming towards us had been on the go for 32 hours ! It was quite emotional to see what some people are capable of and how much character and grit they have to push themselves so hard. You could not help but be in awe of the runner. After he passed we continued through the forest on the path which undulated slightly for about 4 km. During this time another 50 runners passed us heading for the finishing line in Chamonix and I had great admiration for all of them. 

The easy wide track on the north side of the river soon finished and there was a bit of pavement walking over a bridge by a small dam on the river and then into the eastern parts of Les Houches, a small town a little in the shadow of Chamonix, but still a very desirable place. We walked along the street passing its small church and a few outdoor sports shops and estate agents. After a kilometre we reached the centre of the town just at the base of the Bellevue gondola. Just a couple of metres after that was the base of the Chamonix Kandahar, one of the most challenging of the world series of ski races. We left the road here and started to climb the ski piste which in 6 months time will be hosting this world series event. The road zig-zagged up the wide piste for almost half an hour. At each bend there was a cluster of exclusive chalets overlooking the piste. The route then left the piste and headed into the mixed woods at the side and continued to climb but now ups a small steep path. It veered SE across a meadow with a great view of the Chamonix Valley below until it reached another path. Here we met the runners on the TDS race again as they came steeply down the forest path and plummeted straight down into the valley without the gentle piste we had come up. Two Belgiums caught us up and one, Wim, was just out for a small jog before he started the main race the UTMB in 2 days time. It involved 170 km and 10,000 metres of ascent with the winners taking around 20 hours. We had to stand aside and applaud the runners as they went past. The two Belgium runners dragged us up in their slipstream and we chatted profusely, so suddenly we reached the edge of the woods, crossed a meadow and we at the upper station of the Bellevue Gondola, 1801m. We said goodbye to the Belgiums here and wished them luck for their upcoming races and then continued on. 

548. On the steep path up through the woods to Bellevue beside the Chamonix Kandahar ski piste with runners on the gruelling TDS race coming down.

The path was much busier now. Firstly there were all the TDS runners who were gathering at the gondola top station as it was a feeding and watering point for the runners and there were many spectators. Then there were all the day trippers who had come up the Gondola and were hanging about a bit bewildered at being near the treeline. There were also the punters who had come up on the Mont Blanc Tramway from Saint Gervais and some had disembarked here while the tram continued up to the Top Station at Le Nid d’Aigle. We negotiated a route through this throng, crossed the tram tracks and soon were back in the fir forest with the occasional runner coming towards us. 

This path contoured round the hillside under the tramline for a bit and then descended towards the snout of the Bionnassay glacier. There were cables in just a few places and they were not necessary in these good summer conditions, but I am sure in the snow and ice they are a godsend. Just before the path got to the snout of the glacier it descended steeply on a loose section with gravel and dust strewn over the boulders we had to clamber over. The runners kept coming and some were looking very tired now and almost stumbling with oblivion and exhaustion. The path did not cross the snout of the glacier but went over a suspension bridge well below it. The glacial torrent raged beneath in a smoothly eroded slot in the bare rock plates. Unfortunately the bridge was a bottleneck with the runners wanting to come one way and the hikers going the other. There was only room for one direction at a time and then only a few people on the bridge at a time. Some of the hikers were getting quite impatient and frustrated at the wait. When my turn came there was no time to stop and take a photo mid bridge. 

549. Crossing the bridge at a busy time over the torrent which emerges from under the snout of the Glacier de Bionnassay

The climb from the bridge over the glacier snout to the col de Tricot, 2120 was a long sustained ascent. However it was made much easier by the views up the Bionnassay Glacier to first the Refuge de Tete Rousse, 3167m high on the ridge above us. Then some 650 metres above that was the Gouter Refuge, 3817m, on the lip of the higher icefields covering the upper slopes of Mont Blanc. This was the usual route up but in between the two refuges was a steep wide gully called the Grand Couloir. The problem was this gully was plagued by rockfall which thundered down the gully, usually in the late afternoon once the snow and ice holding the rock in place had melted. This year there was no snow and ice holding the rock in place and it tumbled down actively, erratically and dangerously. So much so that the refuges were closed to prevent people making a possibly fatal ascent across this gully to the south side of it to climb further. There were many rowans on the hillside here and the bushes were heavy with ripe blueberries on the final slopes to the Col de Tricot, 2120m. 

550. Looking up to the Gouter Refuge on the left skyline and the Tete Rousse Refuge on the ridge below. Both refuges were closed to discourage climbers from ascending the dangerous Grand Couloir between the huts on the very left. The glacier in the middle is the Glacier de Bionnassay.

551. A zoomed photo of the Bionnassay glacier as it tumbles down its ice fall from the Dome Gouter high above ner the summit of Mont Blanc

At the col there was a great view down the other side to the meadows and alms in the valley at the Chalets de Miage. Many of the old buildings here looked like they were still pastoral while others had been converted into a busy refuge with many parasols visible. It looked like an idyllic place and we would soon descend the 600 metres to reach it. But first as we had been going for 6 straight hours it was time for lunch. We ate it on the col and watched the TDS runners. They were very tired after 2 nights and 2 days running and 125 kilometres under their belts already. However they had to tackle this hill which looked fiendishly brutal for them. There were about 300 coming up the zig-zags and all were walking. They had to get to the top by 1630 or they were eliminated. After lunch we walked down passing those coming up and most were shattered. As we got to the bottom we met the “sweepers” who were officials bringing up the rear. They were the ones who would eliminate those who were not going to mke it. When we got to Chalets de Miage it was a lovely place and I could easily have stayed here. It had a rich pastoral history and even now the pastures were alive with cow bells. The refuge looked very nice and lively and the meadow around it was full of hikers with tents setting up camp. It was a happy scene. Just after it was a parking place for cars and campervans and I spotted a few runners here distraught at not being able to finish and texting friends to arrange a lift to a bed. 

552. Looking north towards Col de Tricot and the near pastures of Chalets de Miage (right) from the easy climb up to Chalets du Truc. It was the 600m climb up the gully to Col de Tricot which was the fnal test for the TDS race runners.

It was getting on in the afternoon now and we still had one last climb. It was the third of the day and it was the shortest at just 200 metres. It went steeply up to the south of Chalets de Miage through a rowan and fir forest to the Chalets de Truc. The rowans were heavy with their berries and their leaves were all upside down as the branches were so arched with the weight. Indeed the hillside looked rust coloured with the silver undersides of the leaves and red berries. In no time we reached the pretty Chalet de Truc and stopped for some water. She had a place to stay but it was in a 20 bed dormitory and Fiona baulked at the idea. So after our drink we decided to push on for another good hour and try our luck in Contamines.  Had Chalet de Truc had a smaller bedroom we would have probably stayed at the menu was very pastoral with local cheeses and the refuge was pretty and the host was kindly. However they had very little water, so little you had to buy bottled water to brush your teeth. 

553. The small cosy Refuge du Truc, had a local menu and a dormitory for 20 people but it was suffering from water shortage this dry summer. It is only an hour further to Contamines.

It was not long to Contamines. The path soon entered the pine forest and descended quickly to reach a track. This track then traversed down the hillside for a few kilometres to reach the sawmill at Contamines. The route then followed a track which cut across the numerous bends in the road. Eachside of the track were lovely old charactful barns and farmhouses which continued all the way to the solid medium sized church on the main street. We passed one B&B where we stayed before, but the owner had retired and converted the house back to a residence. I could see there was only one option available online and that was a dull looking 4 star hotel a kilometre south of the church. Rather than waste time looking for something else we set off to it. We passed a few hotels en route but all were full. It was a shame we could not stay in Contamines itself as it was a lovely town oozing with charm and character. 

We found the hotel called Hotel Chemenaz and they had a room. It was expensive and not great value but we were tired and time was getting on. I thought the restaurant looked expensive, with a superfluous if not ostentatious menu which would have cost 100 euros for two diners so we went over to the supermarket and got some true hiker food; fresh bread, cheese, tomatoes, pot noodles, yoghourt and some fruit drinks and ate them on the balcony off the room. Then after a good soak and clothes wash in the bath it was already 2100 and time to write the blog.

Day 83. Contamines to Refuge de la Balme. 7 Km. 2.5 Hrs. 540m up. 0m down. We should have had a day off today in Contamines but the area was quite busy with tourists associated with the UTMB races. We did not care for the hotel we were in that much as it was in a remote and charmless corner of Contamines. Instead we decided to push on and do the next day over two days instead of one. So we booked a place at the Chalet de Balme which was not half way but would take a good chunk off the single day. It was just a 2-3 hour walk so there was no need for an early breakfast. We got up at 0800 and went over to the adjacent supermarket to get more bread, jam, yoghurt and milk to have on the balcony in the morning sun. We did not leave the hotel until 1000. 

We walked back to the stream which was creamy with glacial silt and followed it up. For the next kilometre we went through a very forward thinking and enlightened family sports and exercise complex which was part of a public park. There was a boating lake, running tracks, tennis courts, outdoor exercise machines and even tarmac tracks for roller skis so  cross country skiers could practise all year round. Indeed when we passed there was a biathlon competition with competitors from Switzerland, Italy and France all getting out of vans and warming up. This corner of the Alps seemed to be full of sporting events and it was great to see such enthusiasm. 

554. The beautiful Notre Dame de la Gorge church at the southern end of the Contamines pastures and parkland. It was at the start of the historical route over Col du Bonhomme and on to the Aosta Valley in Italy

At the end of the playing fields and parkland was an old church called Notre Dame de Gorge. It was a beautiful smaller church with a lovely old priest’s house beside it. It was in a rural location with no other houses around it so it must have drawn people from other areas and it was probably on an old trade route so catered for merchants, travellers and pilgrims who were heading to and from the Aosta Valley in Italy. The last time we went past there was an outdoor concert just outside the church and I noticed that they had some outdoor services through the summer. After looking at the church we started up the track into the mountains. To the north of us was the Contamine Natural Reserve and it encompassed much of the south western tip of the Mont Blanc Massif and included the 4th largest glacier in France, the Tre la Tete glacier, which tumbled down the SW tip of the massif, unseen from the Contamines valley. It started its slow descent from nearly 4000 metres and came down 9km to the snout at 2000m. It was the source of the silty water in the stream. 

Our route went up a steep track in the forest for a good kilometre climbing quite steeply. The track was quite busy. There were endurance runners warming up for the UTMB, long distance hikers with large rucksacks doing the TMB and GR5, day trippers going up for a walk and a meal, and family groups going up for picnics. It was a very earnest crowd and everyone seemed in good humour with lots of greetings and general bonhomie. The track went up to the north of the turbulent stream which was eroding a slot deep in the ravine beside us. Occasionally you could see down into the depths of the gorge where the river was hard at work gouging the slot deeper and deeper. Eventually we came to a small stone bridge over this milky torrent. The torrent seemed to be 100 metres beneath us, but it was probably half that,  tumbling over cascades in the very bottom of this narrow canyon. It was so deep and twisting it was difficult to see. Our route now carried on south up the main valley while the torrent headed up to the east to the snout of the Tre la Tete glacier, which was still hidden by buttresses. 

555. Looking up the beautiful valley from the top of the gorge in the upper Contamine Valley towards Refuge de La Balme in the photos centre and the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, 2476m in the distance.

After the bridge the valley opened out again into a series of large meadows and alm houses. Beside the pastures were some very large firs which diminished in size as they went up the hillside, eventually petering out at the high grasslands and the sharp jagged limestone peaks and ridges above. It was a peaceful pastoral scene especially with the grazing cows and the chime of their heavy bells. The alm houses here were old and full of ornaments hanging on their wall protected by the huge eaves. One of the alm houses, Chalet des Nant Borrant, 1459m, had been enlarged and was now a very nice rural restaurant and was adorned in the best window boxes I had seen. At the end of these pastures before the valley steepened was what the map said was Chalet de la Balme, 1706m, and we had a booking here. However they could not find it. I then realised this place was called Refuge de la Balme, 1706m. Balme is a very common place name in this area and it means “rocks which don’t hold the snow”. We had booked the wrong one. I had been warned about it before when I booked Refuge Col de la Balme 6 months ago. Luckily they had 2 beds in a dormitory free and we gladly took these. It was only 1400 hrs so it would be nice to have a lazy afternoon at and around this refuge. The refuge was a converted old dairy in its own pastures and although was quite busy with day trippers having lunch would soon quieten down in the evening.

556. The old alm and dairy at Refuge de la Balme, 1706m, was half way between Contamines and the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. Its name is similar to a few other refuges.

Day 84. Refuge de la Balme to Refuge du Plan de la Lai. 13 Km. 5 Hrs. 920m up. 790m down. The whole dormitory got up at 0630 and there was a bit of chaos until 0700 when everyone had finished packing and shuffled up for breakfast. Breakfast was probably the worst of the whole trip. It was very parsimonious with just 2 slices of bread, a tiny pat of butter and a spoonful of jam each. Perhaps 400 calories in all. Some people had ordered hot chocolate instead of coffee and it was served in a large jug at the self service beverages table. I helped myself to 4 cups which would help alleviate the hunger pangs in an hour. We set off at 0730 with the skies becoming more overcast with every step. Rain was forecast for the afternoon but it looked like it would arrive earlier.

557. Looking back down the upper Contamine valley over the miserly Refuge de la Balme on the green patch and Contamine town 10 km downstream from the climb up to Col du Bonhomme.

Initially the route went up the path at the end of the valley with a sustained ascent for 2 hours. There was a train of people going up with everyone plodding along at the same pace. As we climbed the mist came down on the higher peaks and then there was a bit of rain, but not enough to stop and put jackets on. We passed a couple of shepherd huts where there were signs that sheep were about like a couple of the big Pachou dogs sitting on a knoll, but I did not see any sheep. As we approached the first pass, Col du Bonhomme, 2329m, the drizzle ceased and the mist lifted a bit to reveal a lovely lake, Lac Jovet, behind us. We could also see south to the much lower and pastoral mountains of Beaufortain which were only about 2500 metres high and covered in pastures so they looked like they were draped in greenish brown velvet. Between us and the refuge we were going to was a grass covered valley and a ridge beyond it to cross to the unseen descent to Refuge du Plan de la Lai, 1820m. As we surveyed the view from the pass I spotted a huge flock of sheep moving across the hillside perhaps a kilometre away with about 1000 animals. They would undoubtedly be guarded by more large dogs. 

558. Col du Bonhomme, 2329m, was a 600 meter climb from the Refuge de la Balme to the saddle up pastoral grassy slopes where perhaps a flock of 1000 sheep grazed guarded by dogs.

However rather than drop into this valley the route went round the head of it to the east, climbing slightly to reach Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, 2433m. Virtually all the hikers were going this way and we continued up in a train for another 200 metres ascent. There were a few trickier rocky areas which were not on steep terrain but on bare rock, some of which had been polished smooth by millions of footsteps. It took a short hour to climb up to this second col and descend little to the refuge which was lost in the mist and only appeared when we were within 50 metres. We went in to top up with a generous cheese roll. As we ate the mist came and went and revealed some 10 ibex grazing near the refuge. We had done most of the climbing today and could now look forward to an easy couple of hours of descent.

559. The airy walk along the Crete de Gittes ridge was initiaklly covered in mist which soon cleared to reveal great views and many hunting kestrels.

At the refuge the path for the TMB went to the south east crossing huge slopes of smooth grassland descending down to Les Chapieux. Virtually all the hikers were heading down here. However there was another path going south west and it was where we were going. For the next 2 weeks we would now follow the route of the GR5, a long distance walking route from Rotterdam to Nice, through the Vanoise and Cottian Alps. After the Cottian Alps we would leave it for the final week through the Mercantour to Menton. It was a much quieter path and we were alone on it as we set off. It descended a bit into the mist and then followed a sensational sharp ridge on a good, wide path. The ridge was called the Crete des Gittes. On each side of the ridge the slope fell away at 45 degrees. On the east side it was mostly steep smooth grassland, brown with the drought and on the west side it was covered in friable rock debris from the schist rock. It looked like the path had been hacked out of the soft rock over the centuries to make it easy to pass. I saw an eagle on one occasion but it circled in and out of the mist half a kilometre away so there was no use to photograph it other than to identify it. After nearly an hour we reached the end of the ridge and dropped down to the Col de la Sauce, 2307m. Here we saw 4 kestrels working the slight breeze and they were cruising backwards and forwards together. By now the mist had cleared but behind us the Mont Blanc massif looked dark and ominous. 

560. Looking back north to the Col du Bonhomme from the southern end of the Crete des Gittes ridge across the alpine pastures of the Gitte valley.

561. One of ther distinctive milk cows of unknown breed found all over Beaufortain at Col de la Sauce, 2307m.

Col de la Sauce was very pastoral with about 40 large brown milk cows sitting at the saddle chewing cud. Not far away was a mobile milking unit on the back of a small red alp truck and portable generator beside it. We could look north, back to the Col de Bonhomme across the valley we had just circled round the head of via the refuge, quite easily and it was lush with pastoral grass although much of it was brown. Our route now was to the south down the path and track to the valley floor at Plan de la Lia, 1820m. It was an easy hour’s descent past more small dairies on the hillside where the milk cows were grazing. They would be milked twice a day and it was easier to milk them in the high pastures rather than drive them down to the valley and back each morning and evening. At the bottom we passed the Chalets du Plan de la Lai where there was a small private refuge and then just after the French Alpine Club where we were staying. Unfortunately it was beside a small tarmac road which was occasionally used by motorbikes and cars on a mountain drive. The hosts were very welcoming and offered us a choice of a 7 or 12 bed dormitory or a 6 bed yurt. Fiona chose the yurt. We then had a drink and snack in the variable weather with the threat of rain changing with bright sunshine. During the early afternoon I wrote the blog while the refuge filled up with a cosmopolitan mix of hikers. I was finished by 1700, still a good 2 hours before dinner, so I returned to the yurt for a snooze. As soon as I was in the rain started. Initially it was a drizzle pattering off the taught waterproof canvas of the roof but soon it built up into a crescendo as large raindrops and hail smashed into it. I had a look outside and it was the type of Biblical downpour which would see you soaked to the underpants within 10 seconds. There were about 25 of us for dinner and the refuge was full. We sat at a table with a French/Polish group of 4 girls who were close friends and were doing the Tour de Beaufontain, a week’s hike in the pastoral region south of Mont Blanc. They were very good company and passed much of their excess servings to me as my vegetarian quinoa pie was a small helping. The food however was very good otherwise and I was full at the end of the meal. We chatted a bit after the meal and then went out to watch the sunset at about 2030 and chatted with two very well informed, educated young french brothers in their late twenties who were on a trip with their father.  By 2100 everyone was going to bed and we went back to the yurt we were sharing with the very shy family from Brittiany. By this stage the main event of the UTMB running festival, the 170km circuit of Mont Blanc, had been under way for a couple of hours. 

562. The Refuge du Plan de la Lai was undoubtedly a summer chalet originally for the artisanal dairy industry which is still thriving all over Beaufortain.

Day 85. Refuge du Plan de la Lai to Bellentre. 24 Km. 8.5 Hrs. 1040m up. 2030m down. Everybody in the yurt seemed to sleep very well. It got quite warm in the night but once the door was wedged open a bit it cooled off. The floorboards under the blankets on the floor creaked a bit during the night whenever one of the 5 of us got up to go to the toilet but all in all it was a nice and novel sleep. Breakfast was great and the host really pushed the boat out. It was simple but there was lots of it and a lot of it was homemade. The French/Polish girls were good company at our table and it was a very social breakfast also. Everybody was ready to go at about 0800 and it was a glorious morning with just a patch of misty cloud to the north in the direction of Mont Blanc.

Initially we walked up the track to the SW. After just 500m we came to another refuge which looked quite simple and rustic. It was called Refuge Plan Mya. There were a few lightweight tents outside it, possibly from thruhikers doing the GR5 hiking route, which we were now on. From Plan Mya the path climbed gently for nearly an hour across grassland, yellow with the drought, up to a col called Le Petit Berge, 2060m. It was a very pastoral place and there was a mobile milking unit here with 7 stalls all in a trailer pulled by a small red alp truck with a generator mounted on the back of it. There was an old stone dairy here but it was locked up and probably just used to store supplies. All around were the rolling pastures of Beaufortain with just a few steeper limestone mountains here and there. This was prime alpine dairy landscape and there were small dairies and herds of milk cows scattered everywhere. We passed two milk tankers negotiating the small roads to collect the milk which was brought down to the road in large spherical urns. At Le Petit Berge we could also look back to Mont Blanc which was now some 25 kilometres to the north and about to fade from view. We spared a thought for the UTMB runners in the main race who were doing the 170 km race round it and they started 14 hours ago yesterday evening. Incredibly the winner would be at the finishing arch in Chamonix in just another 6 hours. 

563. Looking back to the mobile milking unit and old stone dairy on Le Petit Berge, 2060m with the mighty Mont Blanc, 4810m, in the background to the north

From Le Petit Berge the path continued SW for another 2 km undulating across pastures to Le Grand Berge, another gentle col before it dropped into the Coin valley by Trecol. As we descended into the valley you could not help seeing the scattering of old stone dairies under rusting corrugated iron roofs up the far side. Just at the bottom of the valley was the azure blue waters of the Lac de Roselend, a dammed lake with an ugly contour round it where the lowered water level exposed the bare rock. 

564. Dropping down into the Coin valley with its scattering of old dairies in the alpine pastures. The upper Coin valley is above the forested headwall and the Col du Bresson, 2469m, is to the left of the tower on the left.

Once we were on the valley floor we started the main climb of the day. It was about 700 metres in all and it rose in one unbroken 2 hour ascent. Initially it went to a headwall in the valley where a stream cascaded down a number of small waterfalls over slabs. Once we had climbed this we entered the Shangri-La of the upper Coin valley, which was really hidden from the world below. It was 2-3 kilometres long and ended in a steep headwall with a pass in it called Col de Coin. In this long grassy bowl there were perhaps 5 isolated dairies on the lower slopes in the pasture land. On each side the valley sides rose up to jagged limestone peaks which hemmed the valley in. Initially I thought we were going up the valley to the Col de Coin but then after looking at the map I realised we were climbing up the side of the valley to a weak point in the serrated skyline to the east. At the place our path forked east from the track in this idyllic valley we passed a herd of nearly 100 brown milk cows. They were all huddled together in a small lush patch of grass between boulder fields quietly sitting down chewing cud and looking very content. The clunking of their bells was ringing across the valley like a cluster of churches all chiming at once.  We had about another 350 metres to climb from the cows up the valley side which was strewn with boulders. Some were the size of houses and had toppled down from the jagged peaks above. The boulders were limestone and sharp to touch. After an hour weaving up the boulder-filled side valley the path reached Col du Bresson, 2469m.

565. A large herd of the unknown breed of milk cows found all over Beaufortain gathered on a pasture peacefully chewing cud. It was just at the base of the climb up to Col du Bresson.

At the pass we crossed the watershed from the Doron  catchment area to the Isere catchment area. Ultimately everything would join the Rhone river. The rock strewn valley, with huge slopes of scree flowing down from the limestone peaks, we now looked into was called the Ormente valley and we had to descend it. Just above the pass further up the valley a few hundred metres away was the very modern looking Refuge de Presset, 2514m. It was a CAF refuge and open all the summer season and all the winter season. We had to go the other way down the short zig-zags to the small clear stream on the rocky valley floor and then down beside the small stream for nearly an hour to reach Refuge de la Balme, 2010m. We stopped here for an omelette and drink as we had been going for nearly five and a half hours. I asked what Balme meant and this time the host said it meant “cave”. I also asked him if there was a shop in Bellentre and he said there was and it should be open when we arrived in 3 hours time. This refuge was owned by Aime town community and he rented it for the 4 months of the summer season only. 

566. The upper Ormente valley with the modern Refuge de Presset, 2514m, and the Aiguille de la Nova, 2893m in the background. Our route was the other direction down stream.

From Refuge de la Balme the going was much easier. The route went down the stoney track on the valley floor. Frequently it was washed out by Biblical deluges which had turned the small streams into raging and violent torrents carrying down vast amounts of scree depositing it at the sides of the ravines and on the valley floor. These violent events seem to be getting more common on the southern side of the Alps and especially the Dolomites. Once below the scree deposits the track became very gentle and pastoral as it gradually made its way down the valley between willow and alder scrub with extensive meadows each side. Pretty soon it reached another scattering of old dairies and Chalets d’Alpage where farmers would move to in the summer. It was very picturesque, especially when the conifer forests started. Many of the chalets had enormous stone and earthen embankments on the uphill side to deflect snow avalanches which might thunder down the bare hillsides above. 

567. Loooking down the Ormente valley from the Refuge de Balme. This valley folwws into the larger arterial Val d’Isere at the bottom. To the south of the Val d’Isere is the Vanoise which is the next section.

Our route left the track here, which crossed to the west side of the valley stream on a bridge. We now followed a footpath past a large cow barn at Les Plans d’en Haut and then headed into the woods. The path became very small and I hoped we had not made a mistake as the track on the opposite side looked easy. However after a trying half kilometre it met the ruins of the old Canal des Chapelles, an historic irrigation canal to take water from the Ormente stream round the dry spur it contoured across to the hamlet of Les Chapelles some 5 kilometres away. However the irrigation canal was too difficult to maintain with avalanches so it was abandoned, but the still path followed it. Below the canal were lovely south facing meadows which were still remarkably green. We passed many kestrels and also a honey buzzard hovering above the meadows searching for a meal. After 2 kilometres were reached a very pretty hamlet of scattered chalets called Les Fours which had a great view over the Isere valley to the Vanoise massif on the other side. There was a track up to Les Fours from the valley below and the path we had been on joined it.

568. One of the slpendid farmhouses of Valezan, where there were about 50 such houses. On each side and the back there were stone wall but the from was wodden with alcoves and balconies. Most strikiing was the enourmous open attic with massive timbers holding the huge roof with massive eaves up.

This track now started a 700 metre descent down the hillside. It was a beautiful descent slightly marred by two sets of electricity lines across the hill on two rows of large pylons. The whole time it was possible to see the village of Valezan sitting on its plateau on a shoulder on the ridge. We descended under the power lines and through the deciduous trees on each side of the track. Steep hay meadows were each side of the track all the way to Valezan. At the entrance to the town we passed some damson trees heavy with fruit and the track was covered in fallen fruit. Valezan was a very very characterful farming village. The houses were all large with a huge unique roof. They were all in the same architectural style and I had not seen it before in the Alps. They were 3-4 story high square buildings with much of the back and side made of solid stone and the front made of wood. The front was always south facing and was probably the living quarters of the farming family. It was adorned with with various balconies and alcoves. However a huge roof covered the entire building with large eaves of the back and sides and an enormous eave proudly sticking out of the front covering all the balconies. What was really extraordinary was the top floor was completely open so all the huge roof timbers and trusses were exposed, and the whole of this was a hayloft. Many were empty at the moment and under the roof was just an exposed void of timbers supporting the roof. There were perhaps 50 farmhouses like this in Valezan. Many had been done up and the attic eaves were now covered with glass panels or wooden planks to make another livable floor. There was a popular Gite and restaurant here for walkers and I could see why they would want to stay in the village. I went past the church and then plunged into the meadows and deciduous trees for another half hour, dropping the final 350 metres to reach the village of Bellentre. By this time the winner of the 170 km race round Mont Blanc, Killian Jornet, had already finished the Ultramarathon in less than 20 hours!

569. Looking down of the village of Bellentre from near Valezan in the Val d’Isere valley which marked the south edge of the Beaufortain. Beyond it to the right is the Vanoise massif, Section 13 of the Main Alpine Divide walk.

The Gite we rented for 2 nights was just on the outskirts of the village in a cluster of more of these characterful farmhouses. The Gite itself was the ground floor of a large chalet with the owner, Veronique, living above. It was in a garden with hens and ducks and surrounded by a meadow. The chalet was covered in geraniums and very tranquil. It was luxurious inside with a shower room and washing machine, a good kitchen and a couple of bedrooms. We settled in and then went to the shop in the village which was open until 2000. It was in a new complex housing a library, cafe and small shop with everything we needed. We had a drink at the cafe and then filled the rucksack with food and drink for the weekend. Back at the apartment we had pizza and yoghurt for supper, rehydrated with carbonated water and raspberry syrup and put on the washing machine twice. I then wrote the blog from 2100 until midnight so as to be free tomorrow when my friend Magali from Moutiers just down the valley was bringing us lunch for a long overdue catch up.  


Section 12. Mont Blanc and Beaufortain. 95 km. 35 Hours. 5650m up. 6420m down.


Section 12. Mont Blanc and Beaufortain. 20 August to 28 August 2022.

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