So, earlier in the year Katie and I decided we'd go back to Chamonix to spectate over the UTMB weekend. I thought it would be fun to fastpack the Tour du Mont Blanc route to arrive back the day before the main UTMB race began. The main constraint was time (isn't it always) ~ plotting out the eleven stages from the Cicerone Guide Book written by Kev Reynolds it looked "possible" to combine the various stages into a tight but doable five days. In order travel lite, we opted for fixed overnight combination based on two nights in the valleys and two nights higher up in the mountain huts.
Day 1- Les Houches to Les Contamines to Les Chapieux (23.67 miles / 7,799ft ascent / 6,0725ft of descent)
Getting into it ...
We jumped the bus from our Air BnB in Chamonix where we had left some luggage down to the town of Les Houches and after the short walk through town, started the first climb of the trip. Silly steep in places and it was clear that by the end of the five days, we would be hill fit for sure. It was pretty much a solid ascent right up to Col de Voza where we stopped to refill water bottles and let the sweat drip a while. On the descent down through Bionnassy, we also made our first navigational error by overshooting a small path junction by a bit - realising the mistake a quick map gaze showed the correct route, which confirmed that the decision to take both the guidebook and maps on the trip was a good one.
The valley hike leading to Les Contamines was exactly as you would imagine the alps to be and we made reasonable time. Over lunch, we reviewed what was left for the day and it became clear that the stage combining was going to be challenging ! Out of Notre Dame de la Gorge and we had another long climb up to the Col du Bonhomme. Realising the time constraint, we kept good pace as we climbed into the cloud which covered the Col, unfortunately. Reaching the col was good and also cold but nothing an extra layer didn't fix. Katie found out how important it was to keep gloves close to the top of the pack as once your hands are cold, doing anything (like trying to find your own gloves deep in the pack) is difficult.
Descending past the refuge it seemed a shame not to be sleeping high but we had a gite already booked so downward we continued. We arrived at the Les Chambres du Soleil just in time to share the communal meal and relax, repack and sleep. Top wee place and highly recommended !
|At the start ...|
|Col du Bonhomme|
Day 2 - Les Chapieux to Rifugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti (26.4 miles / 10,915ft ascent / 8,793ft descent)
If the first day was big, this was huge.
We set off early and made our way up the valley in the early cold before the sun hit the hillside. Comic moment was hearing a donkey braying before mounting a horse who was having none of it - fair dues to the donkey for trying at least ! The climb up to the Col de la Seigne was okay even with a little fatigue in the legs thanks to the series of switchbacks on the steeper stuff which led up to the Col itself. It was fun to look back to where we had come from and down in the valley with the Rifugio Elisabetta hidden just out of sight. Reaching the Rifugio and since we were in Italy, it seemed appropriate to stop for some lunch before continuing. Just past the Lac Combal, we turned hard right and started the hard climb that would meet up with a ski lodge and the steep descent into Courmayeur. The town is gorgeous and it would have been nice to have been stopping but we still had a ways to go. I grabbed a couple of cans of juice and some bananas to fuel the ascent as Katie enjoyed a short rest in the town square.
I'd been on this section of the route previously so knew what was to come - not sure if that was a good or bad thing right enough. Endless switchbacks led up to the Rifugio Bertone where we initially thought it would have been good to stay in, but it was crazy busy and we didn't stop. Like on my previous visit, we opted for the more direct balcony route to the Bonatti. This made for nice single track running and we chased the last light as it faded quickly ...very quickly indeed. Arriving at the hut it was like someone turned the lights out. Even another five minutes and headtorches would have been required. Hut staff were amazing and we enjoyed a big feed and couple of beers before crashing out for the night.
|Starting the first climb of the day|
|And into Italy|
Day 3 - Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly to Champex (22.85 miles / 4,865ft ascent / 6,546ft descent)
The "rest" day !
We left the Bonatti a little later than originally planned but in gorgeous light. The balcony gave a nice warm up before we stopped off at the Refuge Elena for coffee and cake ~ pretty sure that Katie will confirm it was the best coffee and cake of the trip. Shortly after leaving Elena, we got chatting with a couple from Australia / USA who had met whilst hiking the West Highland Way. Most folks know the story but it was on the West Highland Way during the Fling Ultra that Katie and I first met. The chat made the climb up to the Grand Col Ferret cruise by and we were soon at the top looking into Switzerland - our third country of the trip. Stopped off for some juice on the way down to La Fouly and nearly choked on the significantly increased prices in Switzerland (about £11 for two pints of Coke). We tried to grab some lunch in La Fouly, but being late afternoon, we were too late for the place we tried which wasn't actually a bad thing since we still had a way to go to Champex. Last climb was a sore sting in the tail and we were both ready to stop as we rambled into town only just making dinner at the Pension en Pleinair ! Post dinner, we went out for a well-earned beer knowing we had covered a lot of the route with one hard day left.
|Grand Col Ferret|
Day 4 - Champex to Col de la Forclaz to Tre Le Champ to Refuge La Flegere (22.81 miles / 8,149ft ascent / 7,271ft descent)
Nearly home ...
Before leaving Champex, we nipped into the bakery to pick up a snack or two. The first section was easy with a gentle downhill gradient before a return to the long alpine climbs that are difficult to train for in Scotland. We stopped off at the Bovine hut for some coffee which helped with the refuelling and to enjoy stunning views. Although Day 2 was longer in terms of miles and climbing, this day we really felt the crux and I spent a fair bit of time considering contingency plans based on not being able to make it to Flegere before last light. Lunch stop at the Col de la Forclaz was good but paying 62 euro for what amounted to 4 slices of toasted cheese, a bowl of tomatoes and two glasses of seven up hurt more than any long climb. Route finding was a little bit tricky heading down the hill with a number of options being available. Unfortunately, we hit the ascent to the Col de las Balme in the hottest part of the day - not much we could do other than slow the pace and keep drinking. Really special moment was reaching the col where we could see back down into the Chamonix valley far below. After cans of juice and a water refill at the hut, a time check confirmed that reaching the Refuge La Flegere was possible, just. We didn't waste a lot of time on the descent (apart from a wee nav error on my part). Down in the valley we decided to phone the refuge to let them know we would be there but late. My initial attempts at holding the conversation in French worked too well and the hut staff assumed I was fluent ! The climb back up was amongst my favourite sections of the trip with a mix of views back across the valley to the high mountains, wee technical fixed ladders and more Chamois along the route than we could count. We arrived at the refuge shortly after dark ...much later and we would have needed headtorches. Similar to the Bonatti experience, the staff were amazing and we enjoyed another big feed before sitting outside looking down to the lights of the valley and up to the stars - braw !
Day 5 - Refuge La Flegere to Les Houches (12.33 miles / 2835ft ascent / 5,485ft descent)
The downhill day ...with a twist !
We had a lazy start and we were last to leave the hut. On the map, it looks all downhill to finish where we started but in reality the undulations all add up. We had agreed to stop at every hut to enjoy a beer or fanta as we decided to stretch out the experience as much as possible. I'd like to say my "route choice" on the way to the Brevent was intentional but I know Katie will confirm it was a total fuck up. We found ourselves on a steep scree slope that would have been dangerous to reverse - the only way was indeed up ! This led to a rather narrow ridge which tested Katie's sense of humour and it is a miracle she didn't kick off more. She did however admit that the concern she showed for my welfare when I went ahead had more to do with concern for her not being left alone rather than actually caring about me falling anywhere. With an escape route identified, we re-joined the main path and I spent a good while getting abuse. Brevent saw a meet up with some pals, Alan and Lynn who had taken the cable car up. Enjoyed some lunch and a beer before continuing on. It took a while and a lot of downhill to finally reach Les Houches where it all began five days before. I don't think we realised how dirty we were until we went into a lovely wee restaurant for dinner ...it seemed a shame to stop !
|Back where it all began !|
What would we change - the fixed accommodation worked well in that we could travel lite. It did mean that we passed a good few places where it would have been nice to stop for the night though and it did mean some longer than ideal days. We were constrained by time - an extra day or two would have taken the pressure off significantly but reduced the challenge factor. Camping would have been perfect but would have required heavier packs, which unless specifically trained, can lead to foot problems due to the impact of the extra weight.
The remainder of the trip was spent spectating the incredible UTMB #brawtimes for sure.
So kit ...here is what I took. We didn't need the waterproofs but wouldn't have been without them. If the weather had shit out, it could have been nasty. We didn't use the water filter but it was nice to know we could get water if needed from any running source. Food - loads of opportunities to resupply !