Steve & Judy Pardoe's 1999 Tour du Mont Blanc Page

This is our trip report from August 1999, when we repeated the TMB, but in a clockwise direction. The digital images on this page are compressed, to reduce file space and loading time: if you want to see them full size, and more of them, please visit our TMB 99 Photo Gallery. You can read about our 1997 ascent of Mont Blanc itself here.

There's a brief update page here of our mini-tour in July 2003, when we visited some new-to-us refuges, and travelled over the Courmayeur to Chamonix cable car system.

Much of this page repeats our anti-clockwise 1992 trip report, so there will be no need to read both unless you are planning an anti-clockwise trip, or want to see yet more pictures.


This edition 8/9/2008 : updated refuge info, and FAQ Page

Tour of Mont Blanc
(August 1999)
The Tour of Mont-Blanc, or 'TMB' as is known in the area, is among the finest recognized mountain walks in the world. The route encircles the Mont-Blanc massif, crossing several high passes and taking the traveller through spectacular mountain scenery in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.

Although it has several variants, the total distance is in the region of 190 km (120 miles) and the height gained is about 10,000 metres (say 33,000 feet). It is typically undertaken in 11 days; we actually completed it in ten.

Disclaimer: this description is for information only, and is based on our experiences in 1999 and 1992. You should make your own enquiries before undertaking the Tour, and take your own responsibility in all matters of safety.

Life on Tour : Judy and the Mont Blanc massif
seen from Secheron in the Italian Val Ferret

This is a personal account of our Tour, undertaken over ten days in late August 1999, starting and finishing at Champex in Switzerland. Things will change, so we'd be grateful if readers could e-mail us (there's a link below) so that we can keep the page up to date.

[Note: the spellings of some place names vary from map to map, and from country to country, so apologies for any inconsistencies, missing accents, etc!]

We had walked the TMB in the traditional anti-clockwise direction in the summer of 1992, so we thought we'd try it clockwise this time. We deliberately staged it differently, so that we could stay in some new places; we traded off some route variants, doing the Fenetre d'Arpette and Harper's Corner but omitting Tricot and Brevent; and we explored new paths in the Swiss Val Ferret and on Mont de la Saxe. We also stayed in rather better accommodation where we could, and tried to get most of the walking done in the mornings before it got too hot. Staying mostly in valley hotels meant that, in general, the uphill stuff was got out of the way early, which worked really well.

The usual point of departure is les Houches, near Chamonix, but we started at Champex in Switzerland. We used the excellent guide-book by Andrew Harper, with two French IGN 1:25,000 maps of the Massif (see below for details). The route mostly follows valley sides, giving unparalleled views of the Mont-Blanc peaks, and is generally well way-marked. Some sections are quite high, at over 2,500m (8,000 feet), but most of the walking is between 1,500m and 2,000m which is comfortable enough. The paths vary in quality from tarred roads to snowfields, so some experience is essential, and it is unlikely that the TMB will be completed, much less enjoyed, by anyone who would struggle on, say, the Snowdon Horseshoe or the Ben Nevis tourist path. A typical day might include 20 km of walking and 1,200 metres of ascent, which is quite a lot, day after day, with a full pack. If you have more time available, a day or two off to rest may be a good idea.
Judy at the Post Office in Champex, our start and finishing point

One overnights by staying at refuges, Gites or hotels according to availability and budget. Our itinerary and some practical matters are set out at the foot of the page, but there are endless alternatives. In refuges, the cost is low but the facilities may be fairly basic (sleeping in unisex rows in a dormitory, and only cold water for washing), but some of the Gites are quite comfortable, and hotels are as you would expect. The accommodation available changes from season to season, so the information given here should be verified by enquiry before you set out. The tourism office in les Contamines is excellent, and will mail you an up-to-date list free of charge. A correspondent, Roy Butterfield, has pointed out that many hotels have dortoirs, if you ask, so you can get some excellent hotel meals at dortoir rates. We've used the dortoir at the Col de la Forclaz, and it's fine. Camping is not recommended - see the FAQ Page for a discussion.

The Tour takes you through three countries, and although many people you'll meet do speak English, it's a courtesy to have a few phrases in French and Italian, and perhaps German, at your command. The fellow TMB'ers are from all over the world, and the multilingual 'crack' in the refuges can be great fun. We have also found on occasion that rooms miraculously became available when the request was made in the local language! Do try: it's well worth the effort.

Our Route

We found that taking a clockwise direction had several pros and cons.

Cons:

Pros:

Changing direction (in either sense) gives new views, new lighting (morning light was now evening, and so on) and in some cases easier gradients. Having done the tour in both directions we'd be hard-pressed to say which we preferred. We certainly enjoyed this one more than the 1992 Tour, but that was mainly because of the weather.

Our 1999 Tour Itinerary

Day 1 (21. August) Champex to La Fouly (Switzerland)

As in 1992, our Tour started at Champex, a charming high-altitude lakeside resort south of Martigny in the Swiss Valais. We had arrived in Switzerland the previous day, so we were able to leave Champex after breakfast at our Gite, the Chalet en Plein Air. We parked the car by the Breya chairlift, a few hundred metres West of the village, passing our gite on the way back through, and heading down the wooded valley side towards Issert. The path in the woods was quite hard to find, as we were going against the signs, but once we were on the valley floor we picked up a lane through the fields which bypasses the road to its east, including a track between Pt 1117 and Pt 1151 in the village of Praz de Fort. We had coffee there, in a little cafe which had appeared to be closed, and also got some snacks from the small supermarket. The hotel was definitely closed.

We headed out through Chanton to the bridge at Pt 1207 and past the end of the Crete de Saleina moraine, keeping to the (true) left bank of the Drance de Ferret. We got sidetracked as the riverside path disappeared owing to flood damage, and the climb back up a wooded slope was very tedious until we found the true TMB path higher up. The route gained height steadily all the way to the campsite at l'A Neuve, beyond which we crossed the torrent again into la Fouly. We arrived in nice time for a leisurely lunch, which we were able to enjoy on the sunny terrace of the Hotel des Glaciers.

This was really only a half-day's walk, as we were keen to stay at the new Elena refuge in Switzerland, which suited this staging. In fact, it had felt like hard work, as we were not used to the relatively heavy packs. After a lazy afternoon, dinner (in the set, half-board meal) was odd, a cottage pie that had been mixed up into a pale brown slurry, but breakfast the next morning was excellent. We opted for a room, but the hotel also has good dortoirs and washing facilities.

Day 2 (22. August) La Fouly (Switzerland) to Elena (Italy)

The second day was also to be quite easy, over the Grand Col Ferret into Italy. It was asphalt at first, but we left the road at le Clou, crossed the Drance at Pt 1614 and took a line on the west side of the valley almost as far as Ferret. We then needed two shots to find a steep path which quickly rose from near the new bridge across the Merdenson stream to le Planpro at 1925. This may seem like an unnecessary height gain at first, but it's rewarded by a sunny balcony path, a delightful variant which gave great views and excellent walking, far superior to the shaded valley floor. A few of the gullies might have been tricky had there still been snow, but we found none, and had no problems. The path rose efficiently as far as the cowsheds of la Peule at 2071, where it joined the main TMB.
Judy in the Swiss Val Ferret

We paused at la Peule for a snack, watching the farmer feeding his pigs on lovely fresh Swiss milk, and contemplating that if you have to be a pig, this is about as good as it gets. It was still a good pull up to the Grand Col Ferret, but we decided to divert slightly to visit a lower col (just east of Pt 2498) which Harper recommended as a viewpoint. In fact the diversion is minimal, and well worth it on a clear day, as the entire Swiss Val Ferret is in view, all the way back past Champex to the Rhône and Verbier (he says).
Steve at the Grand Col Ferret

We rejoined the path, and were soon at the main Col, and posing for photos along with several Italian day-trippers who'd apparently walked up from the Elena for lunch. Very nice too: the views into Switzerland and Italy are superb, the latter showing our route for the next couple of days, all the way to the French border some 25 km South-West as the crow flies.
Judy at the Swiss - Italian border

We dropped off the col, and before long we were at the new Rifugio Elena, quite the most luxurious of the high mountain refuges we've stayed in, sitting on a balcony opposite the Pre de Bar glacier. The previous refuge here was destroyed by avalanche, and the new one is half-buried in the hillside. I'd booked ahead by telephone, and we were able to get a beautiful bedroom with en-suite shower and WC, at least as nice as you'd find in a motel, and immaculately clean. The drinking water here was among the best we've ever tasted. We were rather late for lunch, but managed to get a bite to eat before heading outside for some serious lazing in the sun.

At dinner we met the charming Redfern family, from Manchester, half-way round their anti-clockwise Tour : we were to bump into them again in les Houches, when they had just finished.
Evening at the Elena The Redfern family in Les Houches, thanks for e-mailing the picture to us!

Day 3 (23. August) Elena to Courmayeur

We were up and out in good time, and headed quickly down the side of the delightful Italian Val Ferret to the road. It was a bit tedious to walk on asphalt, but there was little traffic and the views were compensation enough. We noticed as we passed Arnouva that there seems to be a hotel of some kind there now (and see note below regarding the new "Walter Bonatti" refuge higher up). A little further on, shortly before La Vachey, we left the road and headed up the left bank of the valley, keeping right at a path junction (at 1,851m) towards Secheron.

We had a bite to eat here, before continuing along the flank of the hillside to Armina. A little beyond here we found a left fork, not at all obvious, which led us to within sight of the cowsheds at La Leche. The ground was soggy here, but we worked our way across and steeply up to to a higher path, which then easily led up to La Lechere (no confusion over names, then) and Mont de la Saxe.
Elevenses at Secheron: Mont Blanc in the background

Readers of our 1992 report (or Harper's Guide) won't be in any doubt about our enthusiasm for this amazing hillside. The view over to the immense wall of the Grandes Jorasses is simply world-class, and the eye sweeps from Mont-Blanc to Mont Dolent, taking in a dozen or more four-thousand-metre peaks and several glaciers. It was just wonderful to be walking here again. The summit is just off our maps: I measured 2,370m on our Thommen aneroid, but this read a little high on reaching the next spot height, so the top may be a little lower than that. We were quite sorry when the path eventually led us down towards the refuge and emerging hamlet of Bertone. There is quite a lot of new building going on here, rather overpowering the isolated charm of the old refuge.

It was too hot to sit outside, so we ordered cold meats and cool beer, and sat in the gloom at one of the big refectory tables. There were lots of Italian families who'd obviously walked up from Courmayeur for lunch, and why not?

It was tempting to dawdle, but we needed to find accommodation, and headed down the very easy path to the valley and Courmayeur. Harper's "2/3" stone seat is still there, but looks as though it's been enlarged. We passed through the hamlet of Villair, now much expanded and looking very smart, clearly consisting mainly of the second homes of wealthy Torinese.

Our first choice of hotel was full, but we got a room at the central and very reasonable Vieux Pommier, right by the car park and with a balcony overlooking the main road. When the Mont Blanc Tunnel was open, this would have been unbearably noisy, but Courmayeur is a quiet backwater at the moment. We went for a wander in the picturesque old town, looking at the fashionable shops and enjoying a drink before dining in the hotel, taking advantage of a good mezzo-pensione arrangement.

Day 4 (24. August) Courmayeur to Elisabetta

We had considered taking a day off in Courmayeur, but it was another glorious morning, so we headed off under the main road, over the river bridge and up the asphalt towards the Val Veny. We could see and hear extensive civil engineering in progress, obviously connected with the aftermath of the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. The Italians were planning a new approach road, tunnelled through the valley side to avoid the picturesque village of Dolonne, but it was hard to tell what was new and what was remedial work.

We called in at the little chapel of Notre Dame de la Guerison, but a service was in progress so we didn't go inside. On the road by the chapel there's a rather fine bas-relief sculpture of two miners meeting as the Mont Blanc tunnel was first joined.

By noon we had reached the CAI-UGET Refugio di Monte Bianco above the Val Veny, where the motor road runs out. Here we were able to enjoy another excellent lunch on a sun-drenched balcony with what must be one of the best views in Europe. For some reason, we fancied cheese and ham omelettes, which weren't on the menu but were elicited by a suitably ingratiating request. A couple of cold beers and coffee completed a deliciously leisurely repast that could gladly have been prolonged, but we had more work to do...
Lunch, Italian-style

We hauled our sacs on and headed up into the woods towards Col Checrouit. This was very pleasant, as we were shaded from the worst of the heat, and the altitude gain came quite easily. A barbecue was in progress outside the refuge on the col, and we were inclined to stay the night, but on the other hand it was a perfect day for the balcony walk we'd been looking forward to via Harper's Corner. This would commit us to arriving at the Elisabetta refuge at the head of Val Veny by nightfall, so we telephoned to check that they had accommodation, booked it, and made tracks up the gently rising hillside past the turquoise lake and along the valley side.

It's easy to see why Harper was so enthusiastic about this variant. The views of Mont Blanc and back towards the Grandes Jorasses are simply glorious. Once past the honey-pot of Checrouit, we had the path almost to ourselves apart from a few late parties coming the other way. It got very windy as we rose higher, and as time was now pressing we were keen to maintain our pace.
A cow on the Checrouit path

It seemed a long afternoon as we completed the balcony and plunged down to the valley floor at Lac Combal by the snout of the immense Miage glacier. If you have time, it's well worth a slight detour to climb over the moraine to see the surface, covered in boulders but with eerie cracks down which stones rattle and slide. We could see some small ice floes in the lake that had calved from the ever-moving glacier. The sun was setting in our faces, and by the time we had completed the long march along a causeway in the valley bottom we were in shadow. It was quite an effort to climb the remaining hundred or so metres to the refuge itself.

The CAI Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini is in a commanding position at the head of Val Veny, and is almost indispensable as a halt on the Tour. It's beautifully appointed, in an old-fashioned way, and has excellent cuisine. The place was packed, and the next couple who arrived after us were turned away. We had to share a cramped communal bunk with four very noisy Germans, and none of the 70 souls in the dormitorio got much sleep.

Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini, with the Tré-la-Tête beyond Inside the dormitorio: that's a bunk for six

Day 5 (25. August) Elisabetta to les Chapieux

After such a rotten night, we were glad to be up early, and after a hasty breakfast and the usual scrabbling to assemble our kit from the messy bunks, we launched out into yet another perfect Alpine morning. It was almost cloudless, and we felt privileged to have to share the path only with a few marmots as it rose steadily below the huge Pyramides Calcaires and up to the Col de la Seigne. They are quite tame here, and showed no great urgency in getting away from us. We polished off the 341 metre climb to the col in well under the guide book time, and paused at the huge cairn to take in the views.
At the Col de la Seigne, 2,516m, looking back into Italy with Mont Blanc above to the left

The Col de la Seigne was our second frontier, and as we descended into France we started to meet walkers coming up the other side. The path is not good, steep and deeply eroded in places, and it was quite tiresome getting down to the Mottets Refuge. Here were glad to get our packs off and sit in the sun resting our knees. One can hire donkeys here to carry packs up to the Col de la Seigne, though we've never seen it done. There didn't seem to be a menu, but enquiry in the kitchen produced a welcome cup of coffee and home-made biscuits. I couldn't get a GSM signal so I asked to use their phone, but was told they didn't have one. They do however have nice clean toilets, so I used those instead. Mottets looks quite a pleasant place to stay, they have airy dortoirs and apparently the food is good.

We wandered down the cart track to Ville des Glaciers, surely something of an exaggeration because it's barely a hamlet, and there aren't many glaciers in evidence. This is a "Tomme" cheese-producing area, and there are signs a-plenty encouraging you to buy the stuff. We decided not to, and walked down the tedious asphalt road to les Chapieux, again arriving in time for lunch. This was becoming a habit, but never mind!

Having been unable to phone ahead, I was anxious to secure a room at the only hotel open, the Auberge de la Nova. Otherwise, it would have been necessary to get transport down into the Bourg valley, or else haul up to the CAF refuge at the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme that evening. We were in luck, and tucked into a superb meal of cold meats and salad, washed down with beer, before having a shower, and a siesta in our rather spartan room.

We met an English couple in the evening, and enjoyed a Kir with them before the set three-course meal of soup, saumonette (some fishy comestible), and choice of cheese or puddings. It was delicious, and the entire demi-pension deal of room, evening meal and breakfast was an incredible bargain at 200 francs per person.

Day 6 (26. August) Les Chapieux to les Contamines

This was the one day on which we had a significant amount of rain. We'd had a rotten night, the second such in a row, as a huge party of Japanese were in the hotel and didn't understand the concept of keeping quiet. Having looked at the map, we were rather dreading the 900m height gain of the long pull north out of les Chapieux, but in fact the path is well-graded, and we reached the CAF refuge at the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme quite easily. We'd heard that it was a good place to stay: certainly the accommodation has been greatly enlarged, and the kitchen smells were very tempting. It was a bit early for lunch, so we just had hot chocolate and pressed on. The rain started as we reached the col, and got heavier as we set off along the balcony path towards the Col du Bonhomme. Confused? you might be: for this reason, the more southerly col is invariably referred to simply as "Croix".

This section is one of the least well maintained on the TMB, and one frequently finds oneself walking on perched boulders and searching for markers. At least this time we could see where we were going: in 1992, we'd taken the Col des Fours variant, in a blizzard. At the Bonhomme, we passed the little sentry-box we'd sheltered in last time, and headed down into the Bon Nant valley. We found a few patches of late-lying snow to cross, some of them spectacularly undercut by torrents, as the path ground down interminably towards Balme. Here we were greeted by a troupe of horsemen, who'd presumably come up from les Contamines for lunch. This made for quite a crowd, and service was slow, but we were out of the rain and enjoyed our meal.

The afternoon was just a case of getting the distance done as we trudged further down the valley, less steeply now and on a good jeep track. Having seen all this before, also in rain, there was little to detain us, though the Roman bridge and ancient stone paving just south of Notre Dame are worth a pause. We walked into the village of les Contamines and looked for accommodation, which we found at the Hotel le Grizzli, right in the centre, opposite the church. The owner, Mr Franquet, could not have been more hospitable: he showed us to a choice of rooms, offered us an excellent deal on a double with en-suite bathroom and Jaccuzzi, and the next morning's breakfast was exceptional. Full marks for excellent service!

The Grizzli doesn't do dinners, so we strolled up and down the main drag and settled on the Op' Traken restaurant at the south end of the village. This too was a delight : excellent food and service, and very good value. They have rooms, and it could also be a good place to stay another time (apparently Op' Traken is a technical skiing term).

Day 7 (27. August) Les Contamines to les Houches

We decided on a low level day, avoiding the notoriously muddy climb over the Col de Tricot and instead contouring gently around the valley sides with a final steep pull up to the Col de Voza. The walk through the little villages of the Contamines valley was delightful, and although there were a few tricky sections (including some metal stairs, and the odd steel cable) we linked a serviceable enough path all the way to the hamlet of le Champel.
In the Contamines valley

Here we joined an excellent track which should have taken us to Bionassay for lunch. Judy pointed out a TMB flash on a path to the left (near Pt 1290), but I thought it descended too steeply, and decided to carry on further...   ...in the end, we found she'd been right all along, and we walked an unnecessary few km to cross the stream higher up at Pont des Places. We skipped Bionassay, and instead found a new place to eat on the jeep track to Col de Voza, sitting in the sun with increasingly dark thoughts about the haul up to the top with full stomachs.

Eventually we set off up to the col, where the "other TMB", the Tramway du Mont Blanc, runs up towards the Nid d'Aigle for Mont Blanc itself. Here we took the old TMB path in a bee-line for les Houches, but it soon turned out to be another mistake, as the track deteriorated and we found ourselves slipping and sliding in mud and over rocks. We subsequently learned that this route has been superseded by a more westerly one. We dragged into les Houches, and settled in at the central hotel opposite the tourist information office.

Day 8 (28. August) Les Houches to Argentiere

Another day without a col. We decided against a repeat of the Brevent route, after our snowy epic last time, and opted instead for the Petit Balcon Sud, an old path which follows the right (northern) bank of the Arve. We bought new copies of the "Top 25" maps as a penance for my route-finding errors of the previous day, and headed to the familiar bridge over the Arve, the lowest point on the Tour at 980m. Although it looks fairly level on the map, the PBS undulates quite a bit, and it doesn't seem to get much traffic, as it was quite overgrown in places. Occasional views through the trees across the river showed the gravel works and a succession of hamlets on the busy left bank.

After a while, as the path rose again, we found it had been closed with tape at a spectacular landslide runout. We faced a dilemma: turn back and retrace several km of walking, or try to forge through? In fact, after a few metres we found paint splashes to indicate a way across the jumble of barely stable boulders, and with a bit of care we made it. The path beyond was very narrow and overgrown, and we had to backtrack a few times, but it was all feasible and before long we were once again on a recognized route.

We'd taken a lot longer than expected over that section, so by the time the path dropped to the river at Pt 1084 we were hungry and very thirsty. We diverted slightly into the village of les Tines and found the remarkable Hotel Excelsior, near the station and looking most hospitable, if rather quiet. We ordered drinks, and sat quenching our thirst in their little orchard before discovering that we were now too late to get lunch. Nothing for it but...   ...more beer. It was a wandering line that I took up the valley to Argentiere, but we got there eventually, by now ravenous and ready to kill if necessary. The smell of chickens cooking in a rotisserie seemed irresistible, so we bought one, found a quiet corner beside the graveyard and tore it to pieces, a truly feral experience. It must have taken less than five minutes to gobble the lot.

Then it was time to look for a hotel, and based on our experiences so far we opted for the most central one, la Couronne, which had a room right over the front door at a very reasonable rate. The lift seemed a bit iffy so we used the stairs. The hotel is in a bit of a time warp and breakfast was in a dark and dingy dining room, but the owners were very hospitable and we'd recommend it.

After checking in, we visited the Tourist Office to ask about accommodation ahead, and were told that the chalet at les Grands, high in the Trient valley, should be open. We dined in a small restaurant in the main street.

Day 9 (29. August) Argentiere to la Forclaz

A long road walk to start with took us up the valley and to the hamlets of Montroc and le Tour, the scene of the catastrophic avalanche on 9. February 1999. Heavy snowfalls had accumulated on the slopes below the Grands Montets, opposite, and swept down through the forest before bouncing across the river and cutting a swathe through the ski chalets. Three whole rows of streets are gone, and the area has a desolate appearance behind the plastic screens.

Although many take the cable car to the Col, we were looking forward to the route over the Posettes, so we ground interminably up the hillside and eventually levelled out at about 1,800m. The views were starting to get obscured by mist, and it became quite cold. It seemed a long way up to the ridge leading to the final col at Balme, and on the way we met a few of the people who'd been at the Elisabetta a few days before.

At Col de Balme (2,191m), our final frontier crossing, we paid a return visit to the notorious establishment run by a lady who has a fearsome reputation among Tourists. She actually looked younger than she had in 1992, clearly something to do with witchcraft. Perhaps her cat is getting older instead. Anyway, it was the usual routine of a wait at the counter followed by a grumpy acceptance of one's order (strictly only for menu items; you can't mix and match omelette ingredients, for example) and a marked reluctance to offer bread or any of the trimmings. Having said that, the omelettes were fine, and we enjoyed our stay as much for the commentary of other patrons as for the food or the view.

Update September 2008 - Roy Butterfield reports that Col de Balme Refuge is getting a very bad reputation (we've heard the same). He says, "The Gite Charmillon lower down (on the French side) near the cable car station is lovely although only open July and August".

The "Swiss Hotel" at Col de Balme

After lunch, we crossed into Switzerland for the long balcony walk into the Trient valley. Although it looks level on the map, the path has a lot of minor ups and downs which amount to quite a bit of additional effort, including a little easy scrambling in places. We eventually reached the tiny settlement of les Grands, surely an exaggeration for a cow shed and a tiny CAS refuge? A girl and a donkey were standing outside the shed, and when I asked whether we could stay the night I was met with an emphatic "non!". It dawned on me that the girl perhaps understood me to mean "stay with her", so I explained that I thought there was a refuge: she said there was, but it had closed last weekend. She, it turned out, was a shepherdess, and we later listened while she called her flock with the most animal cries you can imagine.

We were now faced with a serious amount of walking to reach the next possibility for an overnight stay at the Col de la Forclaz. We checked the map and had some dried fruit and nuts, then headed off steeply down the valley side towards the cliffs which guard the upper slopes. These are cut by a ramp, now much improved and protected by a chain. Lower down, we were able to get a GSM signal and so I called ahead to book a room at the Hotel de la Forclaz.

The path falls all the way down to the river, at which point, la Prise de Bisse, it joins the route over the Fenetre d'Arpette, the 2,665m high col which was our optional target for the morrow. There's an occasional snack service at la Prise, and it looks as though there's accommodation, but probably private for CAS members only. The name means the start of a superb open aqueduct, which carries meltwater from the Trient glacier to Forclaz and over onto the Martigny side of the col. The path follows this for a little over 3 km, by definition at a slight and steady downhill gradient, and provided a very pleasant end to what had seemed a very long day.

Our room at the hotel was fine, and we enjoyed the set meal while contemplating our next steps. We felt we were going well, so we opted to complete our Tour over the demanding Fenetre d'Arpette. In 1992, we had taken the Bovine route on what had been our first day out from Champex; this time we wanted to finish in style, if the weather held. Since we expected to reach Champex and our car at the end of the day, we could lighten our loads by booking a second night and leaving our heavy stuff in a rucksack at Forclaz.

Day 10 (30. August) La Forclaz to Champex

In the morning, we duly left Judy's 'sac behind the hotel desk, and I asked whether they'd like us to pay for the night we'd already had, since we were about to wander off into the mountains. "Non, merci, nous avons confiance" was the trusting response, underlining the Swiss reputation for hospitality, and perhaps related to the fact that the hotel has been in the Gay-Crosier family for 150 years.

So we set off along yesterday's bisse path, retracing our steps as far as la Prise de Bisse, and then struck up the left-hand side of the valley towards the Fenetre, some 1,100 metres above. I'd made a mental note of the division of height gain, and was gratified to find the aneroid exactly on track as we ticked off Ourtiers, Vesevey, and the spot heights in between. We paused a couple of times to take in the views of our route past les Grands the previous day, and to gaze at the Trient glacier, now intimately close on our right.

Spectacular crevasses, their depths a beautiful deep blue in the slanting morning sunlight, and occasional serac falls reminded us of the dangers of glacier travel: we'd traversed its companion Glacier d'Orny on our acclimatization walk before our ascent of Mont Blanc in 1997.
The Trient glacier
The path is well graded, but its upper part becomes quite rugged, and, as Harper warns, could be tricky if snow-covered. We had perfect conditions, and it was almost an anti-climax eventually to find ourselves at the top, with no more climbing to do on this trip.
At the Fenêtre d'Arpette (2,665m), the high point of this Tour

There was a bit of a crowd at the Fenetre, and we met again one of the noisy German couples who had kept us awake at Elisabetta. All a long time ago, forgive and forget...    ...they kindly took the photo of us.

The walk down the Arpette valley was quite a challenge. The path is rocky and involves a lot of stepping between boulders, not ideal for tired knees. It took several hours to cover the worst of the gradient and the valley then levelled off into a very pleasant finale. We paused briefly at the small hotel for a last beer en route and then plunged down through the woods towards Champex. Going against the signs, there were a few uncertainties but we followed a fast-flowing bisse and eventually emerged by the Breya lift, and found the car just as we had left it, ten days earlier. We drove back down to Orsieres, and took the main road to Martigny and up the long drag of the Col de la Forclaz to our hotel. No longer itinerant, we felt slightly out of place among those who were still en route, but it felt good to change into comfortable shoes and relax. The hoteliers remembered us, and despite our opting again for half board and the set meal, offered us a dish from the main menu as a treat. Their true Swiss hospitality rounded off another great Tour.


Practical Matters:

Accommodation

There is ample accommodation on the TMB, except during peak seasons. Most refuges, and all the gites/hotels accept telephone bookings, and I would recommend this. Do not, however, book unless you are sure you will keep the reservation!

Aim to arrive at your evening stop by about 4 pm. This leaves time to grab a bed, wash, change and plan the next day's route, and write the log (or crash out) before the evening meal. Some refuges have no electricity, so 'lights out' is at sunset, whether you like it or not. Take a small torch to find stuff in the dark.

Prices vary: generally, we got B&B for about £20, with evening meal usually extra. We spent quite a few nights in small hotels in towns this time, and it didn't work out much more expensive. The higher and more remote the refuge, the less one gets, but it's not necessarily any cheaper. Take cash: although plastic is more widely accepted than a few years ago, it will NOT always 'do nicely'. You will need Swiss Francs, and euro (from January 2002). A money-belt or secure bum-bag is sensible. Although TMB'ers are probably above average for honesty, it's silly to tempt fate, so keep valuables to yourself. I wouldn't take anything I'd hate to lose.

A sleeping bag is not necessary unless you get stranded, so just take a liner to keep the blankets off you for your sake and others'. You will obviously need a towel, changes of clothes, and some light shoes for use indoors or when taking an evening stroll. We found that washing facilities were often primitive : moistened wipes aid hygiene. Foot care is vital, well worth a few minutes every evening. Dortoirs are unisex, so some modest nightwear is sensible.

Click for more details of how to use true alpine refuges and links to the main Alpine club sites.

Food and drink

The route is mostly away from towns, so shopping can be difficult. You should always carry enough food and water for emergencies; dried fruit and nuts are good value for their weight. Breakfasts in the refuges and even in hotels are usually spartan (the Hotel le Grizzli at les Contamines was a welcome exception), so be prepared for an early lunch. The whole day is run early anyway, to get the best light and weather, so it's no hardship. Water was more of a problem this year, as it was a lot warmer, and we found that even carrying about a litre each we were often thirsty.

Clothing & equipment

Sun protection is vital. At the other extreme, thermal underwear, good weatherproofs and plenty of thick jumpers or a fleece are mandatory. The route goes twice as high as Ben Nevis, and at 8,800 feet it can be very cold. What's more, if you have an accident or get lost you could be outside overnight, which is potentially serious, so do carry a 'space blanket' or survival bag.

General gear is a matter of taste and experience. Shorts are good in fair weather, and even in the wet if you are warm. We found that a few 'T' shirts and a couple of long-sleeved cotton ones worked well, with two pairs of synthetic long trousers each. We carried thermal vests and long-johns, but didn't need them this time.

We wore lightweight boots in 1992, and would do the same again, although I wore leather ones this time as my fabric ones were worn out. The general comfort and lightness of modern fabric/suede boots is wonderful, but do get good soles, or you will feel every pebble. Socks must be comfortable and clean: three pairs are the minimum. We used "Thousand Mile" socks and they were excellent, though since they are quite thin you might want to double-check your boots for fit. If the weather is bad or you are very early in the season, you may need crampons and an ice-ace: my preference would be to wait until summer. We carried a pair of Leki trekking poles, and these were a great help, especially on some of the long descents.

We carried conventional rucksacks of 65 and 50 litres, with about 15 and 10 kg respectively. Outside pockets for cameras, water and snacks are good. Don't kid yourself that your 'sac is waterproof : they simply are not. Use a specialised liner, or two bin liners one inside the other, and make a habit of tucking the tops over before you close the lid. Gear in side pockets must also be protected. Check the bag for dryness after every downpour : wet gear is no joke, and could ruin the Tour for you.

This year, as an experiment, we carried a dual-band (900/1800) GSM mobile phone, set up to roam in Europe. This was very useful for booking accommodation, and might have come in handy in emergency, but obviously in such a mountainous region the signal strength varies, and there were a few times when I couldn't get one.

Don't take anything you can live without : every gram counts. If you don't believe me now, you will after 190 km and 10,000 metres of climbing...

Travel

If you are starting at les Houches, you can get there by car (a very long day from the Channel ports) or train; a popular alternative is to fly to Geneva and take a train or bus to Chamonix. Swiss public transport actually works, so this is easy.

Parking a car safely could be a problem, and partly for this reason we left ours in Switzerland, where they don't have crime (well, not much). You might persuade a hotel to keep it for you if you stayed a night or two with them at each end of your Tour.

Since the route is a circuit, you should get back to your starting point, but if you can't, there are few public transport connections. There are mountains in the way! At the time of writing (late 1999) the Mont-Blanc Tunnel between Courmayeur and Chamonix is closed, and unlikely to re-open before the end of 2000, if then (latest news is for limited opening at the end of 2001). There's a train from Martigny to Chamonix, and buses from there to the Contamines valley. There are occasional buses in the Swiss and Italian valleys, but if you 'break down' elsewhere, it's a bit more difficult : the best advice is not to do so.

There are a number of guide books available, but one of the best is by Andrew Harper and published by Cicerone Press. There is also an English version of the official French TMB guide in their Grand Randonnée series, but this is more factual. It does include sectional maps, but since a sheet map is really better for planning, I would get the smaller Harper book, and carry the two excellent IGN 1:25,000 sheets 3531 ET and 3630 OT, for the whole Massif.


Telephone numbers are from the 1999 list from the Office du Tourisme, (BP No 7, Les Contamines Montjoie, 74140 - France, Tel +33 4 50 47 01 58, www.lescontamines.com) or from our own records from the 1992 Tour and later visits.

Update September 2008 : their list of places to stay on the TMB for the 2008 season is on-line here but the URL is sure to change.

The International code for France is +33, for Italy +39, and for Switzerland +41. We have added in the new prefix 04 to the French numbers. Some include local codes for Switzerland and Italy, when dialling from this area of France, which may have changed by now. Note that several Swiss numbers now have '77' in place of a '6'. Apologies for, and please advise us of, any errors.

Overnight places, phone numbers and typical half-board rate per person (where known)

Switzerland:
Champex: Chalet en Plein Air, (19 41 27 783 23 50) a hotel with dortoir
SFR 72,-
La Fouly: Hotel des Glaciers (19 41 27 7 83 11 71) a hotel with dortoir

Italy:
Pre de Bar: Rifugio Elena superb refuge with a few en-suite rooms (19 39 0165 84 46 88)
ITL 70.000,-
Courmayeur: Hotel le Vieux Pommier
ITL 85.000,-
Val Veny: Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini (19 39 0165 84 40 80)
ITL 45.000,-(Discount for BMC card)

France:
Les Chapieux: Auberge de la Nova (04 79 89 07 15)
FFR 200,-
Les Contamines: Le Grizzli (04 50 91 56 55, grizzlihotel@grizzli.com)
FFR 228,- B&B only
Les Houches: La Chavanne
FFR 332,-
Argentiere: La Couronne (04 50 54 00 02)
FFR 181,-

Switzerland:
La Forclaz: Hotel du Col de la Forclaz (19 41 27 722 26 88)
SFR 77,-

We have also stayed at:
Trélechamps (La Boerne 04 50 54 05 14)
Balme: (above Contamines) Chalet (04 50 47 03 54)
Bellachat: Refuge (04 50 53 43 23)
Champex: Au Club Alpin, (19 41 27 7 83 11 61) comfortable hotel, good value
Entrèves: (Hotel Aiguille Noire 89 919)
Les Houches: Le Vieux Manoir, l (04 50 54 46 33) a small Gîte
Miage: (above Contamines) Gite (04 50 93 22 91 or 50 78 07 16)
La Vachey (Albergo Lavachey 19 39 165 869 723)
...and at
Refuge Bertone (above Courmayeur, 19 39 165 84 46 12)

And from "High Mountain Sports" in January 1999,
"Walter Bonatti Hut : Officially opened in August ’98, a new privately owned hut at 2,056m (Tel: 19 39 0165 86 90 55) with bed space for 80 plus 10 in a winter room), named as a tribute to the great Italian Alpinist, has been constructed alongside the Tour de Mont Blanc, one hour above La Vachey in the Italian Val Ferret". Website


You may also wish to read about our anti-clockwise 1992 TMB and our ascent of Mont Blanc.
For more pictures, visit our TMB 99 Photo Gallery on our secondary server.

Here are links to reports from :
Robert Rainey photo gallery and trip report from 2006
Debra Broughton illustrated report from 2004
Joerg Brauns mountain-bike tour in 2001 (in German - updated link November 2005)
Sylvie L'Heureux and Gilles Turgeon walking tour in 1997 (in French).


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Cheshire,   England
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