#mon Tour du Mont Blanc, 2016

For the British International Mountain Leader the Tour du Mont Blanc (or TMB) is somewhat of a mobile office in the sky, high on the slopes of Western Europe’s highest mountain. Whilst many other Alpine tours and linear trekking routes are available, the TMB seems to top them all in terms of interest from international trekking visitors with over 25 000 walkers completing the loop each summer season. It is very much a tour of the middle mountains (moyenne-montagne), the core domaine of the International Mountain Leader (or accompagnateur in French). The core route crosses 6 cols above the 2500 m contour whilst reaching only two summits;  Aiguillette des Posettes, 2201 m and Le Brevent, 2525 m. The Alpine tours are less about summit bagging and more about the wide ranging and grandiose vistas that present themselves to the walker throughout the mountain journey. The TMB is a fantastic introductory Alpine trek for any experienced British hillwalker looking to foray into the Alpine world or indeed for the seasoned Alpinist looking for some time off from the super-early Alpine starts in favour of a multi-day mountain journey that will take them through many well-known mountain landscapes in France, Italy and Switzerland.

My TMB reconnaissance journey took place in late-August, early-September 2016, and this account follows my clockwise itinerary over 9 days, consisting of 6 full walking days, 2 half days and a nicely timed rest day, midway round the circuit at the beautiful village of Champex-Lac in Switzerland. To comfortably walk the TMB, I suggest a fortnights’ trip all-in from the UK, this giving plenty of time at each end to zone in and out of the walking. As ever, if you’re looking for an accompanied journey around the TMB or would like to discuss a bespoke or shorter itinerary, please get in touch.

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The attractive village of Le Champel in the Val Montjoie. Looking out to the limestone Massif des Aravis (L distance) and Tête du Colloney (R distance).

Day 1: (Paris) – Val Montjoie – Chalets du Truc (Thursday 25th August)

All my European mountain journeys depart the UK by Eurostar train, with the Alps, Pyrénées and Carpathians all falling within my ‘no fly zone‘. After having reached Paris Wednesday evening and stayed overnight in a budget hotel near the Gare de Lyon, I had just the short hop on the TGV down to Bellegarde (Ain) followed by a local SNCF train to St-Gervais-les-Bains-le-Fayet remaining for Thursday morning. I was stepping off on the platform tarmac in the Arve valley to a warming 30C heat by midday. This was followed by only a short bus journey up the Val Montjoie, where I soon found myself deposited at a chunky wooden bus shelter near the hamlet of La Villette contemplating the task ahead; a mere 156 km and 10 500 m of ascent/descent… No time to loose then! The first stage was a relatively short walk up to the Chalets du Truc, located at 1750 m below the imposing west facing walls of the Domes du Miage (multiple summits above 3500 m) and Aiguille de Bioassay, 4052 m. Fresh out of the bus, I made short work of the 900 m climb up and out of the valley, reaching the refuge comfortably by late-afternoon. This section is a variant of the core-TMB, and merges with the Col de Tricot variant at the Chalets du Miage. Just up behind the refuge at Truc, there is a small knoll known as Mont Truc 1811 m, giving a fantastic panorama. After checking in at the refuge, I climbed this hill and studied the 1:100 000 série vert IGN map for a good half hour before returning for my first refuge meal of the trip. As Chalets du Truc is non-core, there were only 3 other ‘randonneurs’ installed that evening. With the warm, sunny weather, they served us our evening meal outside.

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The View from Mont Truc 1811, looking up at the Domes du Miage.

Day 2: Chalets du Truc – Refuge du Bonhomme (Friday 26th August)

Friday was the first full day of trekking on the grand tour. Firstly, I had to drop down from the Chalets du Truc to the village of Les Contamines-Montjoie. This brought me back to the official route of the TMB. Les Contamines is a lovely little village, and well provisioned with groceries and the usual ‘produits regionaux’, such as cheeses, jams and pastries. As I had two full mountain days ahead, I stocked up on suitable lunch provisions for both of these before heading onward and upward. I tend not to opt-into the refuge packed-lunches as it’s very easy to cobble something together for a couple of days or so without too much impact on rucksack weight. The clockwise TMB heads south out of Les Contamines, following the initially gentle upwards course of the Bon Nant (river). This takes a relatively gentle course up to the Notre Dame de la Gorge (church), where the Bon Nant itself takes more of a gorge-like course through much steeper terrain. As a result, the track starts to climb steeply up through spruce and pine forest through the Contamines-Montjoie Nature Reserve (the highest in France according to the interpretation signs). During the ascent to the treeline, two huts are passed; Nant Borrant and La Balme. There were bustling scenes at the latter as it featured as a major checkpoint on the forthcoming evenings’ passing of the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, mountain running race). Above La Balme, the landscape opens out among Alpine meadow. There are views all the way back north to the limestone plateau of the Dessert de Platé and Tête du Collonney of the Haut-Giffre massif. As the path wound its way up towards the Col du Bonhomme, I followed at first, but soon overtook one of the UTMB waymarking teams putting out high-vis markers for the race every 25 m or so.

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Col du Bonhomme, 2329 m.

The Col du Bonhomme 2329 m is the first major accomplishment of the tour. It forms the Arve-Isère watershed and from the col and the onward traverse, the views open out to the south towards the Vanoise National Park and the Massif du Beaufortain. Beyond the col, the route swings SE and upwards again, climbing to the nearby Col de la Croix du Bonhomme 2479 m. Seated on a broad shelf just below this latter col, on its SE aspect is the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. I arrived around 17:00, perfect ‘tea time’ and obtained the usual jug of ‘eau chaud’ to top up on (liquid) tea before showering. Dinners were a fairly consistent 19:00 or 19:30 at most huts and Gîtes on the TMB. I shared a 4-person dorm with 2 others (who had also been at Truc the night before). The meal was good and I had a big slice of quiche along with salad as the vegetarian option. The usual convivial atmosphere of the refuge dining was in full swing. As for the UTMB, it was due to pass during the first part of the night, but given most residents were on lengthy TMB’s, GR5’s or Tour du Beaufortain’s and thus in need of a good nights’ sleep, few (me included) stayed up to watch the runners file through by the light of headtorch.

Day 3: Ref. du Bonhomme – Col Chécrouit (Sat 27th August)

Saturday was set to be a big day, and I was aiming by the end of the day to have launched myself slightly ahead of the standard itinerary, well into Italy and the Val d’Aosta region. In order to do this, I took the shorter in distance but more challenging terrain of the Col des Fours (2665 m) variant as opposed to the standard route via les Chapieux. This col is only a shortly above the refuge so the climb is easily completed in the morning cool. From the Col des Fours, a further linear deviation from the variant leads to an outstanding viewpoint at Tête Nord des Fours, 2756 m. Unfortunately, as I was on a bit of a mission that day, I didn’t have time to check it out but the views from the col are still pretty fantastic. There was a very small patch of snow straddling the col, one of very few that I would encounter during my late-season tour. If undertaking early season tours however, its very much a different picture and large patches of snow can be expected at all the high passages.

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A small patch of snow straddles the Col des Fours, 2665 m.

Onwards from Col des Fours, its a steep descent on shale to the valley floor at Ville des Glaciers. A summer shuttle bus brings summer day visitors up here from Bourg St Maurice. The valley of the glaciers finishes very abruptly with the sheer South wall of the Mont Blanc massif, with Refuge des Mottets being the last form of civilisation on any form of level ground. The TMB then turns upwards to the northeast, towards the Col de la Seigne 2516 m and the Italian border. This next col was the first location where I encountered one of the helicoptered-in UTMB checkpoints. They looked like little lunar landing pods, particularly among the dust and scree dominated landscape. From Col de la Seigne, the view opens up northeastwards for the first time and you can see the far-off objective of the Grand Col Ferret looming yonder for one of the forthcoming stages. The arrangement of valleys in this part of Italy form a T-shaped trough-like feature, with Courmayeur sat neatly at the outlet of the hammerhead valleys of Veni and Ferret (heading West and East relative to Courmayeur respectively). The orientation of the landscape is very much influenced by the immense geological folding that has gone on here at the heart of the Alpine chain. For a full lowdown on the fascinating geology and geomorphology of the Mont Blanc massif and it’s environs, the Casermetta (old barrack hut) just down the west side of the Col de la Seigne has recently been renovated into well set out visitor centre relating to all things Mont Blanc massif; landscape, flora, fauna, mountaineering and sustainability. It would be a great place to spend a good deal of time but my ongoing route march required forward progress after a limited stop. Throughout the descent of the Val Veni, the sheer 1000 m + walls of the South Face of Mont Blanc dominate. I rapidly passed the Rifugio Elizabetta, the usual finishing point for today’s stage. Another 4 km or so along the valley, the regularity of the U-shape topography is interrupted by the active influx of Glacier du Miage, one of the remaining, but rapidly retreating valley glaciers in the massif that disgorges itself way down into the forest zone. Through bulldozing its way out across the Val Veni floor, it has created an immense lateral moraine. At this point, the TMB takes another uphill turn, this time ascending the South side of the Val Veni in order to reach and follow a natural balcony at approx. 2250 m. The major benefit of this climb (aside from the extra fitness boost) is to obtain an even finer vantage point of the intricacies of granite, schist and ice that form the heart of the Mont Blanc Massif. A high point in the traverse (and another UTMB space craft) marked the start of the descent into the Col Chécrouit. This is a N-S breach in the limestone ridge on the south side of the Veni-Ferret valley system, hanging above Courmayeur. My base for the evening was the Gate le Randonneur du Mont Blanc, with views to La Grivola of the Italian Gran Paradiso National Park. At this overnight stop, I met the next phase of walkers with whom I might reach some form of daily-stage synchrony. I sat with Dominique and Corrine from Aix-en-Provence for the evening meal.

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The imposing view down onto the Glacier du Miage in the Italian Val Veni.

Day 4: Col Chécrouit – Rifugio Elena (Sun 28th August)

Sunday began once again with a mega-steep descent! This time it was in order to pass through the well known Italian Alpine town of Courmayeur. The Col Chécrouit sits about 700 m above the town and most of that altitude is lost within the first two kilometres. Triumphantly entering 45 minutes out of the Gîte via the attractive satellite village of Dolonne, Courmayeur was a pit-stop for me, bright and early at 09:00 Sunday morning. A quick visit to the public toilets at the bus station (every detail) and on to the main street. When planning the trip, I had struggled to find much information on what would be open on a Sunday morning in Courmayeur, determining only that the Carrefour supermarket was closed. I need not have feared lunches consisting solely of my mountain of dried fruit and nuts for the next two stages; the town is very well equipped with all the usual local commerces. I was soon re-stocked with bread, pastries, fresh fruit, cheese and pounding up and out of Courmayeur on the long, gradual tarmac ascent leading up to the start of the zig-zag path up to Refugio Bertone. The ascent to the latter re-gained the altitude of the starting point at Col Chécrouit. Very satisfying to be back where you started in terms of altitude if only displaced by a few kilometres to the east after a good three hours or so of walking! Just after the Refugio Bertone, departs another variant, that of the Montagne de Saxe and Testa della Tronche. Formerly this was the way of the main TMB, but now, it takes a more level route on a balcony path along the North side of the Saxe above the Italian Val Ferret. As I was making good time and the weather good, I opted for the high level option. After all, I needed as much hill training as possible for the forthcoming sixth and most epic stage. The views from the Saxe and Testa della Tronche are excellent. After descending via the Col Sapin, I rejoined the TMB just short of Refugio Walter Bonnatti, which continues the local Italian theme of Refuges named after well known pioneer Italian Alpinists. There was a much welcome cold water fountain outside Bonnatti and I took on several litres of fresh water for the last few hours of the day. Beyond Bonnatti, the TMB remains on a reasonable shelf above Val Ferret, until a deep gully line cuts the hillside, making onward and relatively level progress to the nearby destination of Refugio Elena impossible. As a consequence, the route drops a couple of hundred metres to the valley floor and road-head, only to instantly re-ascend around 300 m. Refugio Elena has been heavily modernised, and whilst comfortable and well designed, it has lost a lot of the charm of the more traditional huts. It is also accessible by four-wheel drive track. Dominique and Corrine were in synchrony with me still and had made it to Elena too. We were joined on our table by Jasper from Denmark who was also on an anti-clockwise tour, and had come from Col Chécrouit area, but the stayed at Refugio Maison Viellle rather than the Gîte le Randonneur.

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The splendour of the Italian Val Ferret.

Day 5: Rifugio Elena – Champex-Lac (Mon 29th August)

The altitude profile for the next stage was one of the more unusual; a short sharp up and down in order to cross the Col Grand Ferret, followed by a very long, gradual decent of the Swiss Val Ferret, ending with a brief 400 m climb up to Champex-Lac. The day started clear and sunny once again and the usual departure time of around 08:00 enabled the climb to be completed in the cool of the morning. I reached the day’s high point and Italian-Swiss frontier of Col Grand Ferret (2537 m) around 09:00 and with very little surprise, my TMB table companions from the night before arrived within the same 15 minute period. The Mont Dolent, 3823 m dominates the northern view here, with Grand Combin and Mont Vélan on the eastern horizon of the Swiss Valais.

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Col Grand Ferret (Italian-Swiss border), 2537 m. Mont Dolent 3823 dominating beyond.

The descent into Switzerland and the Val Ferret starts gently on a broad sweeping path before zig-zagging more steeply via the Cabane la Peule to the valley road-end and nearby hamlet of Ferret. At this point, the TMB walker is presented with two options; to gradually descend 14 km through forest, open meadow and passing through several villages of the little-developed Swiss Val Ferret or to gain a few hours advantage on the final re-ascent to Champex-Lac by taking the bus. Determined to avoid any form of motorised assistance for the full TMB circuit, I opted of-course for the former. The efficient Swiss public transport system even gives the option of reaching Champex-Lac entirely by bus, with a change at the junction town of Orsières, where trains run to Martigny and buses up to and over the Col Grand Saint Bernard to Aosta. I soon settled into a good 6 km/h rhythm down the valley. At Praz-de-Fort, the Val Ferret is supplemented by the entry from the West of the meltwater of the Saleina Glacier, as well as at least some of that of the Glacier d’Orny. At the merger of the two valleys, the TMB suddenly takes a 90° turn to the east and runs along the now forested crest of the lateral moraine left by the Glacier de Saleina in times gone by when it extended right out across the Val Ferret floor. Normal, northward progress resumes where the moraine meets the Drance de Ferret whose course is forced right up against the eastern side of the valley by the 30 m high moraine. I took a long and relatively late lunch on a well positioned bench towards the end of the descent just short of the hamlet of Issert. From the bench, I could see the v-shaped notch on the west side of the valley that houses the picturesque village of Champex-Lac. A short, but tough (given its position in the day) forested climb with zig-zags concluded stage 5. My base for the coming two-nights was the Maison Flore-Alpe at the Champex Alpine Botanical Garden. This is a short way above the village and Lake on the steep hillside rising to the east. For the last couple of kilometres into Champex, I had obtained synchrony with Jasper, so we walked together along the lake shore. As he was advancing onwards on Tuesday, he continued an extra half an hour onwards and upwards, to the Gîte at Arpette where he would also join Dominique and Corinne. The maison Flore-Alpe was very quiet and is a hostel rather than refuge or gîte d’étape and thus self-catered. After the long day, I walked back into Champex in the evening and found a good restaurant-pizzerria.

Day 6: Champex-Lac, Rest Day (Tuesday 30th August)

It’s tempting not to break the day after day walking rhythm on Alpine tours, but I was keen for a closer examination of Champex-Lac than could be obtained in the short hours of one evening and swimming was also high on the agenda. Given that staying at the Maison Flore-Alpe provides free admission to the Alpine botanical garden, the ‘rest day’ also gave an opportunity to revise the important IML subject of Alpine Flora. The lake was relatively shallow and crystal clear. It is not fed by glacial meltwater, just springwater from the surrounding hillsides. The water felt cold at first and it took me a good while to get fully submerged. Once adjusted to the temperature though, it wasn’t too bad and I spent a good 20 minutes or so, swimming out to the middle of the lake and back. As I’d brought my goggles, I was able to look down and note the relatively consistent depth, probably around 3 metres. It would be a great spot for swimming with a wetsuit. Upon getting out, the cold hit my core and it took me a good half hour to get back to a reasonable temperature, despite the outside temperature being a very comfortable 25°C or so.

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The idyllic Alpine scenes surrounding the Maison Flore-Alpe and surrounding botanical garden at Champex-Lac.

The maison Flore-Alpe is a lovely wooden Swiss chalet and each of the dormitories has a balcony. Upon my return from the lake, I warmed up fully in the sunshine on my balcony and wrote postcards. I was the only one staying for the second night and I put together a basic meal in the self-catering kitchen. After dark, the botanical garden and wooden chalets had a certain spooky feel to them, with the Victorian decor and silence of the surroundings.

Day 7: Champex-Lac to Refuge du Lac Blanc (Wednesday 31st August)

This stage was epic! Following the rest day at Champex, the objective was to undertake a double-stage (according to TMB standards) and reach the Aiguilles Rouges to the north of the Chamonix valley. Champex-Lac is the easternmost point of the tour and the standard route swings back towards the west via a fine balcony above Martigny to reach the Col de Forclaz or Trient. There is also however a high-level ‘short-cut’ through the eastern end of the Mont Blanc massif via the Vallon and Fenêtre d’Arpette, the latter being a 2665 m ‘window’ through the mountains. Shorter in distance to Trient it may just about be, but the Fenêtre d’Arpette route is the more technical and remote way through. This would form just the first of two cols and three major climbs for my 6th stage, due to consist of 30 km distance, 2800 m ascent and 2200 m descent! No time to hang about on this one. Luckily, the weather forecast was mostly good, with a possibility of rain and/or storm late in the afternoon. I was walking away from Champex-Lac by headtorch by 04:00. Indeed, most of the climb up the Val d’Arpette was under the cover of darkness. I had set out a fairly solid time regime for the day, and was aiming for dawn to strike just in time for the steepest and most technical ground leading up the eastern headwall of the Fenêtre d’Arpette. Dead on time, the light arrived in order for me to see the way ahead through the vast boulderfield of the final 300 m. The col was reached at 07:00, around sunrise and the benefit of my early start meant that I hadn’t seen anyone else all the way up, and had the col to myself.

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First light at the Fenêtre d’Arpette.

From Arpette, I could once again see the ground to the North of the Mont-Blanc range. The mountains of the Haut-Giffre; le Cheval Blanc, Grand Mont Ruan and the Lac d’Emosson. 07:30 was my deadline to be on the descent into the Trient Combe. The west aspect of Fenêtre d’Arpette was equally as steep as the east but less boulders and more shale, mud and a little scree. The path zig-zags down to the tree-line and the Chalet du Glacier at 1580 m. From here it would be a nice short and easy trundle down valley to Trient (for an overnight stop), but I had merely completed around a third of today’s stage and it was barely 09:30. So onwards and upwards was the name of the game and after crossing the water of the Trient, the route of the variant climbs steeply, almost back on itself at first but trending westwards up to the Cabane les Grands. This is not marked as a refuge on the map, nor mentioned in the literature. However just after I had crossed the wonderfully engineered ramp leading diagonally across a rock wall in order to obtain the rocky alpage surrounding the hut, I crossed the paths of a hut guardian and friend heading toward the valley. He informed me that he had been in over the weekend looking after the hut on behalf of the Club Alpin Suisse but was now heading down (it turns out it is a reservation-compulsory hut owned by the CAS). Beyond les Grands, the variant takes a rocky balcony on it’s course headed ultimately for the Col de Balme, 2191 m. The latter is where the TMB core-route is re-joined and the Swiss-French border crossed. Aside from being the point at which the view west along the Chamonix Valley first opens out, La Balme is not one of the more spectacular cols on the Tour. The surroundings are largely dominated by ski infrastructure and large tracks that form winter pistes. The rather scruffy Refuge du Col de Balme sits on the highest point but reportedly has no water for passers-by. I didn’t hang around at La Balme and the surroundings were suddenly a lot busier than I had been used to; mostly due to the uplift from Le Tour, which was my next waypoint, around 800 m below. The descent took about an hour, followed by a trudge on tarmac down to Montroc where I began the final ascent of the day. The end-destination, Refuge du Lac Blanc was perched 1000 m above me in the Aiguilles Rouges. This range consisting of towering metamorphic rock runs parallel to the Mont-Blanc massif north of the Chamonix valley. The TMB traverses the Aiguilles Rouges for it’s final stage(s) in order to provide probably the finest views on the whole tour of the Mont Blanc summit itself as well as other well known high summits. The TMB ascent into the Aiguilles Rouges takes an interesting but steep and technical route via a series of ladders. These begin just after passing the imposing Aiguillette d’Argentière. Setting out from the valley, I soon settled into my ascending pace of around 600 m (height gain) per hour. This rhythm was interrupted by the ladder section and also by the first significant rainfall of the trip, almost timed perfectly to coincide with my ascent of probably the most technical ground of the entire tour! It was somewhat refreshing to be walking in the rain, although a little humid underneath full waterproofs. A large cairn at the top of the steep ground marks the start of an easier ascent of the shelf leading up to the hut. Sweet smelling heather and bilberry interspersed with greenish-grey rocky outcrops typical of the Aiguilles Rouges landscape are crossed providing plenty of further opportunities for some hands on rock. There’s a final double-laddered section (one for up, one for down) fifty metres or so below the hut. The final metres were tough and I my legs certainly felt heavy. I arrived at Refuge du Lac Blanc somewhat anti-climatically, in mist and drizzle around 17:30, thirteen and a half hours on the move from Champex-Lac.

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The wonderful setting of the Chalet-Refuge Lac Blanc at 2350 m in the Aiguilles-Rouges.

Refuge Lac Blanc is just wonderful. Certainly the best Refuge of my tour so well worth the extra long push to reach it. Consisting of two timber alpine huts perched on a rock promontory, the refuge sits immediately above the twin-lakes of Lac Blanc (inférieure and supérieure). The two are separated only by a short bank. Up behind and to the north of the refuge, is a steep cirque culminating in the Col du Belvedere and Aiguille du Belvedère (2965 m) to the left.

Just before dinner time, the clouds started to clear leaving an atmospheric scene looking across to the Aiguille Verte and Mont Blanc. I had caught up with Dominique and Corinne once again at Lac Blanc so we chatted about each others’ accounts of the Fenêtre d’Arpette and the last two days over the meal. I slept like a log in the comfortable top bunk of the refuge dormitory that night.

Day 8: Refuge du Lac Blanc to Les Houches (Thursday 1st September)

It was a fresh start to Thursday morning. The sky had completely cleared, leaving perfect conditions for Alpinists on their routes in the Mont-Blanc Massif. Refuge Lac Blanc sits directly opposite the imposing ice-capped needle of Aiguille-Verte. Just before breakfast, the high east facing flanks were just catching the first rays of sunlight. Dominique had spotted pre-dawn headtorch light on the summit of Aiguille-Verte, ‘good news if they are descending the Couloir Whymper of the voie-normale’ he remarked as it is important to descend this 50º SE-facing couloir leading down onto the Glacier de Talefre before the warmth of the morning gets going.

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Early morning reflection on Lac Blanc of the Grandes-Jorasses-Mont-Blanc panorama.

The route for Thursday involved a full traverse of the Aiguilles-Rouges via what is marked on the map as the Grand Balcon Sud. After a good explore and some photography of the Lac(s) Blanc after breakfast, I started the descent to the Chalet de la Flégère, summit station for a major télépherique (cablecar) from the valley. Things start to get rather busy from here, as the Flégère is a popular starting point for day excursions. I took a brief snack break on the (closed) terrace of a winter buvette and was joined by a French IML and his group of mostly British and American clients. It provided some entertainment as he gave them the overview of Mont-Blanc Massif summits and various anecdotes about the glaciers and climbing routes. From Flégère, the balcony really begins, and for the next 4 km leading to Planpraz the path remains largely on the level, just dipping in and out of the upper limit of the pines. Planpraz is another access point to and from Chamonix via the popular télécabine (gondola). From Planpraz, the TMB climbs steeply into the Col du Brévent 2368 m before traversing the wonderful gneissose rock scenery of the NW side of the Brévent and on to the summit, 2525 m. At Planpraz, I met Dominique and Corinne having their lunch. With Les Houches sitting 1600 m below le Brévent, the descent is rough and relentless. Corinne made a sensible decision in the interest of her knees to descend to the valley from Planpraz, thus saving the extra 600 m of ascent and descent involved of going on up to the summit. Dominique and I walked together from Planpraz over le Brévent to just before Les Houches (Gîte d’étape les Méandres where I was staying). It was great to have 5 hours of continuous French conversation on the go, certainly the best way to brush up on language skills and it was very interesting talking to Dominique and sharing experiences of our various excursions among the Alps. We took a late (or second for Dominique) lunch break overlooking the valley just beyond Refuge de Bel Lachat, before tackling the final 1000 m down through the forest.

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Spectacular rock scenery in the Aiguilles-Rouges near Col du Brevent.

Gîte d’étape les Méandres was my base for the final overnight stop on the tour. It is located a couple of hundred metres above the Arve River on the north side of the valley. Dominique and I parted ways outside the gîte as he continued on down to the station to catch a train to Servoz. The gîte was quiet, with just three others in residence. They had all just arrived fresh from America and the UK, to start out on their TMB the next day.

Day 9: Les Houches to Val Montjoie (Friday 2nd September)

Les Houches is normally the start and end point for the TMB ‘by the book’. Given my bespoke 7-stage itinerary, I had to get back over to the Val Montjoie in order to official complete my circuit. Between Les Houches and my trusty wooden bus-shelter at the hamlet of La Villette near Les Contamines, was a mere 900 m+/-, 15 km trundle over the picturesque Col de Voza 1653 m. Given the metrics of prior days, this was more like a walk in the park and as I was aiming for an early afternoon bus at La Villette, it would have to be ticked off at the usual brisk pace. Les Houches provided a welcome early morning boulangerie stop before I tackled the ascent through the trees to Voza. The official TMB unfortunately follows a tarmac road for most of its way up to the Col de Voza. I was not so keen on this, particularly on my last day, so I branched-off to the east on a footpath ascending via le Verney and les Grands Bois up to the Hotel Bellevue 1800 m. As the name suggests, this is a fine viewpoint higher up the ridge leading from Col de Voza to Mont Lachat. It is also the the winter summit station of the Tramway du Mont Blanc, which in summer traverses across the steep slopes of the the Aiguille du Goûter to le Nid d’Agile giving Alpinists heading out on the Mont-Blanc ‘voie-normale’ a good head start on the ascent to either the Refuge de Tête Rousse or Refuge du Goûter.

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The Tramway du Mont-Blanc at Col de Voza.

The Col de Voza is one of the more developed cols on the TMB, being of lower altitude and sitting in the centre of the Les Houches/St Gervais ski area. As such, there is no shortage of cafés restaurants and hotels. There is also a passing loop and station on the Tramway du Mont Blanc. I was progressing well on timing for the day, so to celebrate completion of all the ascent on my TMB, I took a 30 minute break for ice cream (genepi and myrtille) from the cafe next to the station. Whilst relaxing in the sunshine, I observed the busy scene at the station as ascending and descending trains passed and deposited some of their passengers.

From Col de Voza, little over an hour of descent down through the trees and pretty hamlets of Bionnassay and Le Champel stood between me and the end of the circuit. The familiar view of the Mont Joly and the Massif des Aravis dominated as with the first couple of days of the tour. For the last kilometre or so from the familiar water trough at Le Champel down to La Villette, I retraced my first steps on the TMB, 8 days ago. 156 km and 10 500 m of ascent and descent later, I was collapsing my Leki poles, and folding the map at the somewhat anticlimactic but comforting familiarity of my wooden bus shelter near Les Contamines. With half an hour to spare before re-entering the fast-paced life of mechanised transport once again, there was plenty of time to contemplate the last 8 days of near continuous movement through the mountain environment.

l’Après TMB

After such major excursions in the mountains I always like a bit of winding down time; not least in part to get used to the more stationary existence that inevitably follows. The Geneva basin provides an ideal staging point for the return to the UK, with around 9 direct TGV’s per day to Paris. Last summer, I discovered the French town of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, a frontier town just to the North of Geneva in the Pays-de-Gex arrondissement of the Ain Département. Geneva sits in an interesting location from both a physical and political geographical perspective and there’s an abundance of potential in terms of exploring both of these agenda. After my TMB, I spent two nights in Saint-Genis, which gave me a full day before the Sunday return journey to Lancaster. I was staying with some lovely airbnb hosts; Erika and Patrice, who made me feel very welcome and even provided me with a bike to explore the surrounding villages! I had a lovely Saturday morning ride in the sunshine along the foot of the Haut-Jura chain, followed by an afternoon walk through the vineyards of the Franco-Swiss borderlands, finishing of course with an essential taster of the red stuff. Hard to turn down after walking past thousands of vines bursting with grapes and a perfect conclusion to such an epic outing.

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