Day 1 - Les Houches to Les Contamines (18.5 km - 1480m ascent - 1330m descent)

I was feeling a bit on edge - I'd looked forward for a long time to walking the Tour du Mont Blanc (hereafter the TMB) and the day had finally arrived. We caught the train from our hotel in Chamonix to the starting point at Les Houches, at 995m the lowest point on the track. After breakfast in the early morning sun and the purchase of a few supplies for lunch, we were off.

Heading quickly out of town to pass the base of the telepherique du Bellevue and resisting the slight temptation to use it, we turned off the road for our first and biggest climb of the day, 700m up to the Col de Voza. The TMB is all about climbing and you get little time before you are right into it. The track followed a series of steep paths before joining a sealed road that wound up past the holiday chalets, with ever expanding views back over limestone cliffs in the north and towards the Chamonix Valley, hazily backlit by the morning sun. Eventually, we joined a very steep gravel road that twisted upwards beneath the tree-lined ski tows. The bright white dome of Mont Blanc was now becoming visible for the first time, part of a spectacular panorama of the massif stretching out to the east.

Start of the walk above the chalets of Les Houches

Heading up to the Col de Voza

First real views of the summit of Mont Blanc

One more push took us into flower-speckled alpine pastures, where we dropped onto the Col de Voza - time for a coffee break at a small bar beneath the clear mountain sky. From what we had seen so far, it was clear that this trip was going to be a wildflower wonderland.

Looking back down the Chamonix Valley

Leaving the col, we left the main TMB track to follow our first "variante" - heading steeply upwards once again for a shorter climb alongside the cog railway leading up to the Nid d'Aigle. On reaching Bellevue, squarely beneath the dome of Mont Blanc, we started a long traverse across a beautiful fir and birch forest that lined the steep slopes of the classic glaciated valley of Bionassay.

Coffee with a marmot on the Col de Voza

Upper Bionassay Valley and Glacier

At the head of the valley, we descended the rubble of old glacial morain at eye-level with the face of the Bionassay Glacier, its ice blackened with embedded gravel. The descent continued into the narrow upper valley to cross the glacier-fed torrent on a small suspension bridge.

Beneath the shady firs

Looking down the Bionassay Valley

Dark ice face of the Bionassay Glacier

The Bionassay Torrent

Crossing the suspension bridge

Rock garden near Tricot

From the bridge, we began the second big climb of the day - 420m up to the Col du Tricot. We climbed quickly and steeply out of the morain, before taking a more steady path up through a bowl of beautiful rock gardens, a mass of different leaf forms and textures, sprinkled with flowers.


View back over Mont Blanc and the Glacier du Bionassay
Higher up, we crossed our first snow drifts to reach a region of alpine pastures and the top of the col. The views from here were splendid under the warm alpine sun, back to the north over the path we had just travelled and southward to a sweeping panorama of the Domes de Miage and the deep valley below.

Crossing the first snow drift

Route up to the Col du Tricot

View over the Miage Valley from the Col du Tricot

It was the ideal spot for lunch, with the jangling bells of sheep grazing the alpine pastures and the chirrupping company of a flock of choughs, checking the col out for food scraps left by dining walkers. It was a beautiful spot to spend some time, but the Chalets de Miage lay way down the valley and we knew that we had to move on.

The way down to them was a very steep, rocky, knee-jarring, and narrow track that zig-zagged through the flower-filled pastures. By the time that we reached the bottom, 560m below, we considered that we well-deserved a rest and cold drink at the chalets, now looking up to the snow-capped domes, glaciers and waterfalls spilling into torrents that flowed down the valley from the massif.

Sheep grazing on the Col du Tricot

Descent from the Col to the Chalets de Miage

Stone bridge beneath the 3670m Domes de Miage

A curious water spout

Parapentiste soaring high

Leaving the chalets, we crossed the three braids of the Torrent du Miage to climb steeply up through woodland to Mont Truc. The climb was not particularly long, but after the three hard climbs before it and the break at the bottom, our legs felt ready to rebel. We cut them a bit of slack, resting at the top to watch the parapentes catching thermals and soaring by.

Looking across the meadows of Mont Truc

Fir forest on the slopes of Val Montjoie

It was now time to turn our backs on Mont Blanc, crossing the rounded prairie of Mont Truc to enter the fir forest that lined the deep Val Montjoie and start our final long descent to Les Contamines. Glimpses of the town appeared through the trees, as we followed first a wide gravel road, then a steep zig-zagging footpath in the cool deep shade of the fir forest.

Rejoining the road,we reached the town and wandered down through to the chalets to the main road. A short walk alongside it brought us to the Chalet de CAF, where we spent the first night. With perfect weather and scenery, it was an incredible introduction to the TMB.

Savoyard church at Les Contamines

The chalets of Les Contamines

View up the Val Montjoie

We'd crossed paths with several other people setting out to do the tour and, that night in the chalet, had dinner with a Belgian couple starting out on a 28-day walk along the GR5 from Chamonix to Nice, and three French fellows who had just returned from a successful ascent of the summit of Mont Blanc. The world is full of people seeking out the gems that this earth has to offer.

Day 2 - Les Contamines to Col de la Croix du Bonhomme (13km - 1330m ascent - 50m descent)

Having slept the sleep of the physically fatigued (aided by a shot of home-distilled genipi for a nightcap), we awoke to a fine day and by 8.30am were back on the TMB track. The sun had still not yet penetrated the depths of the Val Montjoie.

The Bon Nant near Les Contamines

Leaving Les Contamines, we crossed the rushing glacier-green waters of the Torrent to Bon Nant to follow it upstream in the cool of the morning shade. Passing through a winter cross-country skiing area, we reached the church of Notre Dame de la Gorge, a classic example of baroque Savoyard architecture.

Early morning reflections in Val Montjoie

A flat stretch in the valley

Steeple of Notre Dame de la Gorge

Interior of Notre Dame de la Gorge

The pleasant flat walking was over for the day and, after a quick look inside the church, we found ourselves on a broad stony road that climbed steeply up the eastern rim of La Gorge, itself. Here the valley had narrowed sharply, forming a deep crevice that wound though the fir forest of the mountain slopes. It was part of an ancient route across The Alps and a little later we crossed an old Roman bridge where the rushing torrent had carved a deep and tortuous cleft into the bed rock.

The road up La Gorge

Ancient Roman bridge

The Torrent du Bon Nant

Chasm beneath the Roman bridge

This brought us out onto a grassy clearing and the Refuge de Bon Nant, giving us a bit of respite from climbing as the road wound its way through cowbell-jangling pastures speckled with flowers. Ahead lay a superb panorama of Les Aiguilles de la Pennaz and the Tête de Cicle, forming a nice blocking wall to our path.

Grassy meadow at the Refuge du Nant-Borrant

Track up to the Refuge de la Balme

Another short climb brought us to the Refuge de la Balme, where we stopped for coffee and cake and to admire the expanding views behind us of our track up the Bon Nant valley. Leaving the refuge, the TMB took on the blocking wall of rock, climbing steeply up a stony winding footpath to leave the tree-line below and reach the Plan de Jovets, a bowl of fast running streams and cascades and the last respite before the final climb up to the still hidden Col du Bonhomme.

Looking back down the Bon Nant Valley

Rock spires of La Tête de Cicle

Rushing stream on the Plan de Jovets

Cresting a lip to reach the Plan des Dames at 2100m, we found ourselves surrounded by an enormous snow-splashed cirque - the rocky track winding through it awash with meltwater tinkling, babbling and rushing down in a lacework of streams to join the torrent below. High above still, to the right, we could see the snow-covered col for the first time.

The snow-dappled cirque at Plan des Dames

Leaving the sodden floor of the cirque, we crossed our first snowdrift of the day, to follow a long rocky spur up between two more drifts. These drifts eventually merged, leaving us to plod on through the wet snow to reach the Col du Bonhomme at 2329m. After a 1200m climb from Les Contamines, it was an excellent spot for lunch - we found a couple of dry rocks and took in the vast panorama to the south of the Beaufortin Alps and the distant Tarentaise, and to the north of the Aiguille de Tre-la-Tête and the now receding Val Montjoie.

Tracks leading from the Col du Bonhomme

Nearby, we could see walkers traversing the big drift that hung off the steep eastern side of Bonhomme - it was time to put the baskets back on our poles and head on, as the clouds to the south had built up and had a distinctly menacing look about them. We crossed the big drift, followed by a series of lesser drifts and rocky knobs that gradually led us up to the stone cairn marking the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, the high point of the TMB for the day.

View back towards les Monts Jovet

Crossing a steep drift

Looking down the valley towards Les Chapieux

At the cairn marking the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme (2483m)

Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme

Alpine chough on the wing

A little way below us lay the welcome sight of the refuge bearing the same name, on its lofty perch high above the Valley of Les Chapieux. It was a great place to while away the rest of the afternoon, surrounded by the incredible vistas of snow-dappled peaks in every direction, as bands of cloud and sunlight rolled across the sky.

It looked like the weather would hold, which was great, as tomorrow we planned our second "variante" to the TMB, across the even higher Col des Fours.

Ibex checking us out from the ridge

A family of ibex near the refuge

Evening light on the Crête des Guies

Still, that was for the next day - for the moment we just enjoyed the refuge hospitality and filling dinner, while outside the ibex stood silhouetted on the ridges as the full moon rose over the silvery landscape of The Alps.

Moonrise over the mountains

Day 3 - Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to Elisabetta (16km - 1010m ascent - 1270m descent)

As we had hoped, the day dawned clear and blue and we were up early to take advantage of it - eating our breakfast as a family of ibex ate theirs on the grassy slopes near the refuge. Soon we were out and climbing yet again, retracing our steps to the cairn and then heading up through the snowdrifts towards the Col des Fours.

Climbing the Col des Fours in the morning sun

Peak in the Beaufortin Alps

Ibex out for a morning graze

It was not a long climb, passing beneath a crackling high voltage line before reaching a broad snow-covered slope on the western side of the Tête Sud des Fours. The chill breeze kept us cool on the climb and the snow beneath our feet was still crisp in the shadows of this large rocky outcrop, with just enough softness for a good grip. The day was starting out well.

Ascent of the Col des Fours

The route down - panorama from the Col des Fours towards la Montagne de la Seigne

Snowy descent beneath the Tête Sud des Fours

Reaching the 2665m col itself, we turned eastward and into the sun to start the long descent to the Plan des Fours, 300m below - 300m down a steep corridor filled with sun-softened snow. It was time for a little controlled boot-sliding, the end of which left us with the simple pleasure of childhood revisited.

The Crête des Fours (can you spot the walkers on the snow?)

A second glimpse of Mont Blanc behind the ridges of the massif

Once we reached the end of the snow, the TMB continued down a steeply zig-zagging track of mud and loose shale, not long freed from its snowy winter mantle. A stream emerged from beneath the receding snowpack to form a rushing cascade that hurtled down a water-smoothed rock shute.

Aiguille des Glaciers (3816m) and the Col de la Seigne

Our first live marmot sighting

It was a brilliant landscape, made even better when the fair Nello spotted our first marmot of the trip. We spent a good twenty minutes watching this furry icon.

Stream rushing down a long rock shute

Fountain of rushing meltwater

The path followed it down, crossing the torrent below the cascades, from where we continued down an eroded and many-stranded track, which we shared with tinkling meltwaters finding the quickest way down. At least we were descending on the gravity-approved path, a path which took us further down into the intensely green pastures of this high valley, past deep ravines and long ribbon waterfalls, and a multitude of little streams tumbling off the mountain side - the thaw was well and truly underway!

Stream rushing down to the valley

Waterfall tumbling from the heights

Looking back up our path from the col,
beneath the Tête Sud des Fours

By the time that we reached the Chalets des Tufs and a wide gravel road, the day was warming rapidly, passing through a palette of herb-fields, liberally splashed with flowers of many forms and colours. As we followed the gravel road down, we were greeted by the janging of cowbells from the valley floor - their wearers grazing contentedly on the herb-rich pastures that produce the fragrant flavours of Beaufort cheese.

One of the producers of Beaufort cheese

Heading towards the distant Col de la Seigne

To the east at the head of the valley, we could see the Col de la Seigne framed on either side by the pyramid of Aiguille des Glaciers and the Mont Lechaud. It seemed very high, so we ignored the fact that we had to cross it after lunch.

Cutting the last curve, we reached the hamlet of La Ville des Glaciers, at 1780m our low point for the day and the spot where our "variante" rejoined the TMB proper.

From here a hot stroll in the still air of the Val des Glaciers alongside a fast-flowing torrent took us up to the Refuge des Mottets, our lunch spot for the day and the base of the climb to the col. It was pleasant to be in the shade, trying out our first refuge "picnic" as we listened to the soft jangling of bells (on black-faced sheep this time) and the sharp whistles of marmots on the rocky slopes.

The Torrent des Glaciers near Refuge des Mottets

View across the winding climb to the Val des Glaciers

Bienvenuto en Italia!

All too soon, it was time to push on, immediately picking up a set of switchbacks on a gravel road that climbed quickly up the southern flank of the valley high above the refuge. The views were opening up right down the length of the Val des Glaciers. Eventually, the road turned eastward and took a more gentle pitch towards the col, before we left it to follow a footpath that took up the relentless uphill slog, crossing a series of fast-flowing side-streams. Even with a cold wind blowing as we neared the col, sweat poured off us until, after crossing several small snowdrifts, we reached the cairn marking the 2516m col - 650m of climbing in 1hr40.

Bienvenuto en Italia!! Bienvenuto to a magnificent panorama of the highest reaches of the Val d'Aosta, surrounded by the peaks and needles of the Mont Blanc massif - we needed time to take it all in and to take on a bit of energy food before our descent into the Vallon Lee Blanche.

View into Italy - the Vallon de Lee Blanche

The wild mountains beyond

The track was hidden by large snow drifts, so we followed the improvised route down through them to eventually reach the track proper a few hundred metres below the the stone building of La Casermetta, an old Italian army outpost and now eco-centre. It was too far to climb back up and visit - not after crossing two cols already.

The distant Aiguille Noir de Peutery (3772m)

La Casermetta

The river flats of the lower Vallon Lee Blanche

Close-up of Glacier de la Lee Blanche

The track down crossed a fast-flowing stream to pass a prairie that was home to many marmot colonies, their thick-furred occupants continually distracting us with their antics. It then morphed into a gravel road as the valley opened out into a broad flat on the northern side of a river braiding its way along a wide stony bed backed by steep peaks.

Marmots at play on snow and grass

Rifugio Elisabetta in its majestic setting

Ibex - king of the mountains

Finally, we turned the corner of a long spur to be greeted by the Rifugio Elisabetta, perched on a balcony directly beneath the Glacier de l'Estellette and across from the face of the Glacier de la Lee Blanche. Only one last short steep climb to earn our post-walk beer as we watched the patterns of light play on the glacier and the ibex cavorting on the rock face high above us. The food was great, if the sleeping spaces somewhat compact - isolated in the heart of the mountains, it was a superb place to spend the night.