Tourettes Syndrome
Steve & Judy Pardoe's 2003 Mini-Tour in the Alps

This is supplement to our TMB trip report from August 1999, which still carries most of the accommodation and other details for a full Tour du Mont Blanc. This time, we just visited the bordering areas of Switzerland, Italy and France, travelling on foot or by public transport, and staying in mountain refuges and hotels.

This edition 12/8/2003 (Orny photo added)

Tourette of Mont Blanc
(July 2003)
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).

This is not that Tour.

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

Tourettes : Steve on the new path between the Bonatti and Bertone refuges in the Italian Val Ferret. In the background, the Grandes Jorasses, Mont Blanc massif

This year, we decided to try a mini-Tour, carrying rucksacks for a week or so as usual, but happily using public transport to cherry-pick the best bits, cutting the corner back into Switzerland, and making it more of a holiday. We had walked Andrew Harper's full TMB in the traditional anti-clockwise direction in the summer of 1992, and a variant clockwise in 1999, so we felt we could avoid a third circuit. We stayed at the Walter Bonatti and Albert 1er refuges, and the Au Club Alpin hotel in Champex, and the Excelsior in les Tines.

Getting there
Rather than driving across Europe, we flew from Liverpool to Geneva by easyJet, planning to link four Swiss trains and a Postbus to get us to Champex, our regular base for such walking trips. In fact, the plane was late, so we took a later series of trains which missed the last bus, and had to take a taxi from Orsieres to Champex.

We changed trains at Lausanne, Martigny, and Sembrancher. Coming back, we got the exciting metre-gauge train from les Tines (near Argentiere, and changing at le Chatelard) to Martigny, and thence directly to Geneva airport. Swiss railways have excellent journey planners, so it was all very easy. It cost about 50 SFR each way, and you can use a ticket machine, to save endless queuing at the airport.

Champex is a charming lakeside resort south of Martigny in the Swiss Valais. We had booked a couple of nights at the hotel by phone before leaving the UK, to ensure a pied à terre on arrival, which was as well, as we were quite late and the demi-pension dinner was about to be served.

Next day, we thought an easy leg-stretch would be good, so we re-visited the Cabane d'Orny (2,830m), carrying only a light day-sack. The chair-lift to la Breya (2,188m) saves a lot of time and effort, and the two-hour walk from there to the cabane is delightful. There seemed to be a lot less snow about than in 1997, when we'd been here on our way to the Trient hut as part of our acclimatization for Mont Blanc. It was fun to sit with a big bowl of steaming coffee in one's hands and savour the refuge atmosphere again.
Judy on the beautiful path from La Breya to the Cabane d'Orny. There are now chains to protect a few exposed sections

The view towards the Cabane d'Orny (top right) and the Trient Glacier
(Picture added for Leo in Australia)

After another night in the Club Alpin, we again avoided some tedious valley legwork and took a bus to Orsieres, expecting a quick connection for la Fouly, but found that this was seasonal, so had to await the same bus and driver to take us up the road and drop us at le Clou. At least it gave us a chance to shop for lunch and postcards. Now with our full rucksacks on, we hauled our way up the valley side and across the ridge of the Cretet de la Gouille into the spectacular scenery of the Combe des Fonds, which leads to the Petit Col Ferret (2,490m). We'd opted for this as a change from the Grand Col, and the ascent was fine, with great views of Mont Dolent and its glaciers opposite, and a nicely graded path, until the last section which rambled across boulders to avoid a snowfield.
Judy on the Swiss side of the Petit Col Ferret

Getting down the other side of the Petit Col into Italy was a nightmare of unstable shale and eroded paths, complicated by having to wait for very slow ascending parties as they toiled up the mountainside. Once at the moraine, however, it wasn't long before we were at the excellent Rifugio Elena, quite the most luxurious of the mountain refuges we've stayed in, sitting on a balcony opposite the Pre de Bar glacier. We had a splendid lunch of cold meats, before heading down into the valley towards la Vachey and the privately owned Rifugio Walter Bonatti. It was disappointing to lose so much height, but the weather was threatening and we considered the low road preferable to the exposed hillside route from Arnuva, which only saves a hundred or so metres of descent & ascent. The decision was endorsed as the storm soon broke, and the valley rang to the crash of thunder. It was a good test of my new "Paclite" jacket!

The rain eased and the sky cleared to that incomparable just-washed Alpine blue as we reached the bridge just before la Vachey, and headed off up the hillside towards the refuge, keeping left at the path junction at 1,851m. The 350m climb to the lip of the Malatra valley at 2,025m wasn't as bad as we'd feared, and we were soon unpacking in our comfortably furnished double bedroom, with a stunning view of the Grandes Jorasses from its window. The evening mezzo pensione meal was exceptional : a cold salad of vegetables and beans; lentil soup; pasta; some sort of sliced meat (turkey, perhaps) with mashed fennel, which was delicious; and a sweet. It's not often you're served five courses at that height! Breakfast was a buffet, so full marks to the Bonatti for its catering. They also have token-operated hot showers and a drying room, so it's a really great place to stay.

After dinner, we sat outside in the glorious sunshine and read books from the refuge library, Bonatti's autobiography (in a rather stuffy English translation) seeming particularly appropriate.
Rifugio Walter Bonatti

The view from our bedroom window at the Bonatti

Leaving the charms of the Bonatti, we were unsure whether to head for lunch at the Bertone and the comforts and resources of Courmayeur in the evening, or possibly the Torino hut ; or alternatively to take advantage of the fine weather and make the cable-car trip over to France while it held. We stopped for a few minutes at Arnuva (one of several patois variants of the name for a new high pasture round here) and mistakenly (lazily, if truth be told) took a slightly descending path across the valley side.
This soon deteriorated, and we retraced our steps to pick up a recently improved version higher up. The improvements were still in progress, and we passed a work gang and several signs telling us that this was to be a new route between the Bonatti and Bertone refuges. We then managed to go wrong again, possibly intoxicated by the sensational views of the Grandes Jorasses and Mont Blanc opposite, in failing to descend promptly from la Leche and taking two sides of a long triangle to reach Neyron and the bridge over the Dora /Doire Ferret. We walked down the road as far as Planpincieux, where we found a charming Albergo and another delicious lunch of cold meats and even colder beer.
Judy by the stream at Arnuva

By now we'd decided to try for the cable car, so we headed into La Palud and found that we had just nice time to catch the last connecting service of the day. This was not particularly cheap, but was quite an experience. There's a routine cabin trip up to the half-way station, then another for Pointe Helbronner and the Torino refuge (reached by a covered arcade of steps).

Vicarious Alpinism
An intimate view of glacier travel (looking towards Mont Blanc) from the Helbronner - Midi cable car

At Helbronner we bought further tickets for the exciting traverse of the Mer de Glace to the Aiguille du Midi, and thence down to Plan de l'Aiguille and Chamonix. An alternative we'd considered was to stay overnight at the Torino, getting the clear morning air and easterly light for the traverse, and then taking the Midi 'frique only as far as Plan de l'Aiguille and completing the descent by walking the Grand Balcon Nord and taking train down from Montenvers, but we did this a few days later instead.

We phoned the Hotel Excelsior in Les Tines, where we'd stopped for a beer (or two) on our 1999 TMB, and booked in for a couple of nights. It was just a short bus-ride from Chamonix, and our room looked over the swimming pool and across to the Mont Blanc massif.
Another superb view from a window

The hotel was fine, and reasonable value (it's a two-chimney Logis de France) so we extended our stay, with a gap for a night at the Albert 1er refuge above Le Tour. We enjoyed a couple of excellent and easy day walks, one using the Flegere and Index 'friques to Lac Blanc and the Grand Balcon Sud, and the other by taking the Midi 'frique as far as Plan de l'Aiguille, and walking the Grand Balcon Nord to Montenvers for a delightful barbeque lunch on their well-patronised terrace, before lazily riding the little train to the valley. The GB Sud (on the north side of the valley) has the better (southerly) views, but the GB Nord is the nicer path, unsullied by ski-related ironmongery, and rather less busy. We could hear a lot of stonefall and avalanche activity on the Chamonix Aiguilles, as a result of the exceptional and prolonged heat. For examples of this, the Alpinistes' exit tunnel from the Midi was puddled with water, there were warning notices about the normal routes on Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Blanc being more difficult and dangerous than usual, and we heard that the Hörnli route on the Matterhorn had been closed because of rockfall.

We also made our overnight side-trip to the Albert 1er very easy. Having booked our demi-pension by phone, we walked up the wooded valley beside the Arve to Argentiere for coffee at The Office, continued to Montroc and le Tour, and took the cable car to Charamillon and chair-lift to Balme, where we joined the high-level path towards the refuge. We ate our picnic in glorious sunshine before shouldering our packs and following the excellent path round to skirt the spectacular crevasses and seracs of the Glacier du Tour. There are a few sections where care is needed, but it's generally a fine path, only the last section up the moraine being at all strenuous. On arrival we were too early to check in, so we sat in the sunshine for a few more hours, taking Schadenfreude in watching a clearly inexpert German-speaking party's introduction to boot-crampon compatibility. It seemed they were contemplating the traverse to the Trient refuge next morning, perhaps a little ambitious for a first snow-plod. Some of them were still fiddling with screwdrivers and pliers by evening.

We were allocated bunk space in the older, lower hut, which had a fine view of the valley and a not-so-fine toilet. The very dry summer meant that the smells from the rather basic plumbing, which we'd noticed on the approach to the refuge, were almost intolerable. However, the evening meal was an excellent boeuf en daube, with loads of rice and vegetables, and chilled draught beer if you wanted it. Refuge catering is certainly improving! We passed a fitful night in the stuffy dortoir, and were quite glad not to be making a serious start in the morning. The clouds were down and the storm was well under way, most parties (including the German speakers) having revised or abandoned their plans.
Judy by the Albert 1er refuge (2,702m)

It was clearing and sunny by the time we left, retracing our steps down the side of the glacier, then taking a lower path this time to meet the mid-way cable car station at Charamillon, rather than the Balme one. The wild flowers and views of the Chamonix valley were delightful. A bus back to les Tines, a shower, drink and swim completed an excellent outing.

Practical Matters:

Please see our 1999 TMB page for updates on accommodation and logistics. The following details refer to the 2003 trip, and will not necessarily be updated. Click for more details of how to use true alpine refuges and links to the main Alpine club sites.

The Office du Tourisme in Les Contamines now published a list of places to stay on the TMB on-line here.

Overnight places and phone numbers

Switzerland :
Champex : Hotel Au Club Alpin (+41 27 783 11 61) a pleasant hotel / restaurant with dortoir and small rooms, run by the de Rivaz-Crettex family.

Italy :
Pre de Bar : Rifugio Elena, superb refuge with even a few en-suite rooms (19 39 0165 84 46 88)
Malatra : Rifugio Walter Bonatti, similar and described above (+39 0165 86 90 55) (Website)

France :
Les Tines : Hotel Excelsior (Logis de France, comfortable, run by the Cheilan family, +33 4 50 53 18 36)

For more pictures of the area, visit our TMB 99 Photo Gallery on our secondary server.

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Steve & Judy Pardoe
Cheshire,   England
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