Walking the Tour de Mont Blanc
Posted on November 8, 2013
Sometimes, when you are sick of climbing, you should just walk away, a long way away. So this summer I walked away to the Tour de Mont Blanc, one of the great walks of Europe (and the world). It takes in some spectacular scenery, is very well marked and there are very comfortable rifugios and auberges in which to stay each night. It is very very civilised.
I, of course, managed to un-civilise it pretty quickly by getting gastro before we even began the walk. I spent three days in bed moaning to myself and being ungratefully grumpy that my nurse/travelling companion would only let me consume crackers, on the trumped up basis that gelati, pizza, rabbit pasta and other tasty tidbits will make vomitous people vomit. Baseless. On the upside, that meant a few extra days in Courmayeur, which is a delightful little Italian town. The Post Office cafe is particularly pleasant.
In any event, we eventually made our delayed departure and headed for the hills. I was pretty sure I was going to loose my breakfast on my way up that first climb but I impressed myself and my walking companion by keeping my insides inside and we had a nice lunch at the top of the first hill (more crackers). Our descent passed an entire village of people out for a village walk – what a fabulous idea! They (and we) were walking through green meadows, dotted with alpine flowers, with the majestic white and blue of the mountains towering above us
Our first night was spent at Rifugio Bonatti, a purpose built and very comfortable place with a commanding view of the south face of Mont Blanc massif. After a hot shower we enjoyed a hearty meal, great conversation with fellow walkers and a few glasses of wine. Then we fell asleep in clean and comfortable beds in a very quiet and pleasantly warm dormitory. Did I mention this was a civilized hike?
The whole trip proceeded much as the first day had. We woke up to a tasty (but curiously small) breakfast of fresh bread and preserves, coffee and the like; stepped outside into the (usually) blue sky; walked for about five hours through absolutely stunning scenery on perfectly marked trails; arrived at a delightful little resting place and then whiled away the hours before dinner with a few glasses of wine in the afternoon sun. So delightful.
We met some absolutely wonderful people on the trail, including a super-woman who has done the Snowman Trek. (This is my new aim for my 40th birthday, seeing as I have already consumed a greater number of varieties of cheeses in one sitting than my number of years). She was so tough that she loaded her pack up will all manner of unnecessary (but oh so luxurious) toiletries because ‘the weight doesn’t really matter”. My aching and puny shoulders refused to believe it.
We were also unfortunate enough to meet the Wicked Witch and the Grumpy Old Man of the Hill. I was belaying near Chateauvert in the south of France recently and struck up a conversation with the Englishwoman belaying next to me. She and her walking companion had also encountered these two colourful characters the previous year while walking the Tour de Mont Blanc. The couple had made an indelible mark on her, as they had on my walking companion and I. Together they run the rifugio at the Col de Balme. The absolute perfection of the situation of the rifugio – perched high above the Chamonix valley, with a perfect view of Mont Blanc, the valley and the surrounding mountains – is only matched by the perfect inhospitability of the owners. They charge obscene amounts for pallid sandwiches and near cold tea and have an almost pathological need to keep clients away from their rifigio – angry shouting at potential customers from the doorway and the use of an electric fence (I am not kidding) seem to be preferred methods to achieve this end. And, for the love of god, don’t try to use the sacred throne, aka the dirty portaloo outside.
However, considering the poor French reputation for hospitality, we encountered almost uniformly wonderful smiling service and assistance wherever we went. La Boerne in Trélechamps deserves a special mention as having the friendliest owners and staff as well as the best food (and that was a stiff competition). The place is also incredibly cute but probably something of a fire hazard. Best not to think too much about that.
On the trail we also met a lot of runners, or rather, we didn’t meet them so much as be passed by them in a cloud of dust and clatter of running poles. They were all training for the ultramarathon. This event sees hundreds of people zipping over the Tour in one sleepless stretch, rather than the ten or so days it usually takes to complete the trail.
For mere mortals wishing to walk, the trail is do-able by any reasonably fit person. Unfortunately although I do just scrape into the ‘reasonably fit’ category it appears that my Iliotibial band does not. The seemingly endless descent into Les Houches was absolute agony (so much so that I passed up the opportunity to visit a petting zoo). I was left hobbly and very disgruntled for quite a few days before being persuaded that the Italian riviera would be a good place to recuperate. So in the end, we never completed the last three days of that glorious mountain trail. Fortunately, there is always next summer…