The breathtaking mountain landscapes of the Alps have drawn travellers, walkers and climbers since Monsieur Saussaure arrived in Chamonix in 1760 to make a botanical study of the area and offered a reward for the first man to scale Mont Blanc. I’ve been lucky enough to experience these mountain peaks and even get close to the top of them during my walks on the Tour de Mont Blanc, so I’m taking advantage of the Nature Photographer of the Year competition, being run by Sanctuary Retreats to share some of my photos with you from these trips.
Below is the photo of Lac Blanc I chose to enter into the competition – if you’re feeling kind you might like to go and vote for my entry here . But because one photo is never enough to tell the story of my walk through the Alps, I’ve included a few more for your enjoyment, together with the story behind each photo.
Lac Blanc is a milky blue glacial lake that sits high above the Chamonix Valley and while we reached it on our Tour de Mont Blanc Walk, it also makes an ideal day walk up from the valley. Most walkers miss out the hard work on the lower slopes and take the cable car up to Flegere, from where a couple of hours walking will bring you up to Lac Blanc, passing small pools on the way to reach this large, milky blue glacial lake that’s backed by mountains. Surprisingly for a place so remote, there’s a very nice mountain refuge there where you can stay the night, although we just had a coffee on the terrace with a slice of Tarte aux Mytilles that still remains in my memory. Read more about our walk to Lac Blanc.
The very first day on the first year that we walked part of the Tour de Mont Blanc we ended up at Refuge Bellechat sitting on the crest above the Chamonix Valley. Looking back, the walk up from Les Houches seems pretty tame but at the time it seemed like the longest uphill walk in the world. Waking up the next morning, we took our cafe au lait out onto the terrace and took in the glorious views of Mont Blanc – we were hooked!
Chamonix is a town that we got to know pretty well, as it was often the start or end of our walk. On our first year we took the small mountain railway ‘Chemin de fer du Montenvers’ up to the Mer de Glace which was my first experience of getting close up to a glacier. Part of me was slightly disappointed that the glacier looked so grubby and grey with all the morraine that it carries along with it as it grinds through the valley. Every year they carve an ice cave into the glacier which you can walk into and admire the coloured lights and ice sculptures – pretty cool.
Champex Lac was where we ended one year and started again the next and this high altitude lakeside village makes a great base if you’d like to do some day walks around the area. There’s a path that runs right around the lake which only takes about 30 minutes to walk and if you do, you’ll get this same view of the lake reflecting like a mirror the wooded slopes and peaks in the distance.
One of the nicest mountain refuges we stayed at on our Tour de Mont Blanc circuit was Rifugio Bonatti, on the Italian side, named for the famous Italian climber Walter Bonatti. After dinner we went outside on the terrace to watch as the setting sun bathed the peak of Mont Blanc in the distance, turning it white and gold, until the sun slipped behind the mountain and it was if someone had suddenly switched off the light.
In the Alps, when the sun’s shining and the sky is blue, it’s the mountain peaks that are the showstoppers in the landscape. However as you walk hour after hour (with more and more frequent stops if you’re me) your eye becomes tuned in to the more subtle beauty of the alpine flowers beside the path. In September there weren’t so many of them, so when I spotted a spot of colour I would take the time to capture it in a photo. Growing on the meagre soil of the Alps there is nothing showy about these plants, they take their chance and snatch their time in the sun ….
… I don’t know what these plants were called but they made a soft, fluffy cotton ball in the meadow. There must have been something that suited them in the soil as there were whole swathes of them across the hillside …
… and here are the pretty purple flowers that we saw growing everywhere in the autumn. In this case they frame the view back towards Courmayeur down in the valley from where we climbed up at the start of this year’s walk.
What is a beautiful landscape if you have no time to sit and enjoy it? This was one of the reasons that my friend Julia and I decided to take the Tour de Mont Blanc in stages, walking for 3 or 4 days each year, rather than trying to complete it in one exhausting circuit of 12 days. We also planned the distances carefully for each day so that we didn’t have to walk for more than about 6 hours, leaving us time to have a leisurely lunch, take lots of photos (in my case) or just stop to admire the view. The picture below is one of my favourite from the whole trip, taken at the top of the high pass of Grand Col Ferret that forms the border between Switzerland and Italy. While I was busy taking photos, Julia was just soaking up the sun and mountain scenery, storing it away as a memory to bring out on dull days back in Bristol.
The counterpart of Grand Col Ferret is the high pass of Col de la Seigne which at over 2500m takes you from Italy into France and gives another fantastic viewpoint down the valley. The rock cairn marks the perfect point to sit and admire the view back from the route that we’d just climbed up from Rifugio Elizabetta. I learned later that this area had been the scene of fighting between the Alpiniste troops on the Italian and French sides during the Second World War, while now we can walk from one country to the next with not even a border post.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my tour of the mountain landscapes on the Tour de Mont Blanc. If you have some wonderful landscape or wildlife photos to share, you may like to enter the Nature Photographer of the Year Facebook Competition and you could win a Go-Pro Hero3 White edition camera - you can enter here . If you’re keen on wildlife, do take a look at the Sanctuary Retreats Galapagos Page for inspiration – a destination that I’d love to visit.
Once again I thank you for your vote .
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The second half of my walk on the Tour de Mont Blanc earlier this September took me and my friend Julia over high mountain passes, with panoramic views of the peaks and valleys surrounding us, as well as the emotional highs we felt on finally completing this demanding high mountain trail which we have walked in stages over the last four years. Read about the highs and lows of the the final three days of this year’s trek as we walked from Chapieux to our journey’s end at Les Houches in the Chamonix valley. (You may like to also read about Day 1 and 2 of this year’s trek )
Day 3 – Chapieux to Refuge de Balme
Having passed a pleasant evening in the Vallee des Glaciers at Auberge de la Nova in Chapieux, we climbed up behind the refuge on a grassy path, over the bridge by a small hydro-electric station and up the mountain side. The path wound steadily upwards, getting more rocky towards the top, with occasional glimpses of Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme on the crest, an hour before we actually reached it. Finally, after 3 hours of steady walking we reached the refuge, which was set on an intersection of many different paths. The large refuge was built of wood and glass but there was no sign of them selling refreshments, so we rested a while before walking up the to Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and took the detour up to Tete Nord de Fours for the most amazing panoramic views.
I hope you enjoy the Qwiki video below about our Tour de Mont Blanc walk from Chapieux to Les Houches
The walk now took as back down to Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and then wound along a grassy hillside to Col du Bonhomme, where we started to get views down the Val Montjoie towards Contamines. The descent to Refuge de la Balme took us down over a bed of glacial morraine with views of Lac Jovet hanging above the valley, then through a marshy meadow where cows were grazing and finally down a difficult shale path to Refuge de la Balme at the head of the valley.
Highlights of Day 3
- We really enjoyed the late afternoon sunshine and our dinner at Auberge de la Nova, which included a home-made vegetable soup (in the refuges it is often packet soup), a tender beef stew and a custard tart with berries.
- Tete Nord de Fours at over 2750M had been recommended to us by a French couple in Chapieux and although I was all for pressing on, I’m so glad that Julia insisted we take the 1 hr detour to climb up there, first to the saddle of Col de Fours and then to the viewing point of Tete Nord de Fours. The final part of the path followed a line of cairns over an outcrop of red rock, walking over patches of snow in places and up the ridge to the viewing point where there was a table with names of all the surrounding peaks. Before us was Mont Blanc itself and on both sides, we could look right down to the valleys as well as to the route we’d climbed up. This was where we stopped for a late picnic lunch, feeling on top of the world, at one with the mountains.
I hope you enjoy the panorama video of Tete Nord de Fours below
- The view from Col du Bonhomme was also stunning as we were now at the head of the Val Montjoie, looking down towards Contamines in the distance, with views of the glacial Lac Jouet. There was a viewing table, a small shelter and this was a flat area where many walkers stopped for a rest. It was great to know that from here it would be all downhill.
Lowlights of Day 3
- As we got closer to Refuge Col de Balme, the path turned into hard shale that was steep and slippery, making it difficult to keep your footing. While we had thought of retracing our steps back up to see Lac Jovet the next day, after this path we decided not to bother as we couldn’t face the hour’s hard climb.
- At Plan de Dames, in the meadow above Refuge de la Balme we passed a large rock cairn, which the guidebook said was where an Englishwoman had perished in a storm. I felt a bit sad, wondering who this lady was and how she had come to be lost in the storm.
Day 4 Refuge de la Balme to Contamines
We enjoyed our stay at the Refuge de la Balme, a collection of old converted dairy buildings, which was run by a group of exceptionally friendly and efficient young men. They were working hard to keep the place spick and span and had almost finished their chores by the time we left around 9am with the sun creeping over the mountain peak behind us while the Refuge was still in shadow. It was an easy walk down the valley, with the odd chalet now appearing in the meadows and forest on either side of the path. After 40 minutes we reached the pretty Refuge Nant Borrant where we stopped for morning coffee, before continuing our leisurely stroll down to the chapel at Notre Dame de la Gorge, where we stopped for a while to look around. By now we were getting close to Contamines and passing day walkers who had come up to see the chapel as well as the nearby boating lake with pedalos and a cafe. The surroundings were becoming more suburban with holiday apartments and proper roads and by early afternoon we reached the village of Contamines itself, with plenty of bars and restaurants. After checking into Hotel le Christiana we sat on the terrace of one of the cafes in the sunshine for a late lunch of Salade Nicoise for me (in honour of my recent girl’s weekend in Nice) and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing.
Highlights of Day 4
- We enjoyed our relaxing morning coffee in the sunny garden of Refuge Nant Borrant, which was covered with colourful window boxes with an array of orange, yellow and green deckchairs, just inviting us to take the weight off our feet. We felt pretty smug as we watched the walkers heading up the hill, in the opposite direction, knowing that they would certainly have a gruelling 6 hour climb before they reached the top and arrive exhausted at Refuge Croix de Bonhomme.
- The chapel at Notre Dame de la Gorge is a place of pilgrimage, built on the site of 13th century hermitage and was beautiful inside with plenty of colour and charming carved wooden statues at the side altars. We also enjoyed looking at the boards from the photo exhibition within the grounds of the chapel, with stunning mountain photography.
- It was good to be back in the relative luxury of a proper hotel at Hotel le Christiania, after the bunk rooms and outside shower blocks of the mountain refuges, and we enjoyed our traditional Savoyard meal of Tartiflette, with plenty of cream and cheese that evening.
Lowlights of Day 4
- We were a little sad to be leaving the grandeur of the high mountain passes, especially as we reached the suburbs of Contamines. The pedalos on the boating lake and slides of the leisure park felt a little fake after the wild beauty of the mountains and we felt rather superior to the day walkers, who were taking a much easier trek than the one we had just done.
Day 5 Contamines to Les Houches
Our final day took us mainly through meadows and attractive alpine hamlets with pretty gardens and window boxes, then climbing through forest higher and higher, occasionally dipping down to cross a fast rushing glacial stream. There are two routes to Contamines and we had decided to take the low road, while the high route would have taken us steeply up under the Bionnassay Glacier, which we had in sight for much of the walk. At the village of Bionnassay we stopped for lunch at the Auberge de Bionnassay, before continuing up through forest to Col de Voza, a high point from which we could look down on the Chamonix Valley. This is a stop for the Tramway that comes up from St Gervais-les-bains, bringing many mountain-bikers, who were gathering for their cycle back down to the valley. After a stop in the cafe we made the final descent for a couple of hours on the winding piste track, under the cable cars to Les Houches where we had started our trek 3 years before. We’d finally finished the Tour de Mont Blanc!
Highlights of Day 5
- We had a very pleasant lunch, sitting on the grassy outdoor terrace of Auberge de Bionnassay, with a view of the Bionnassay glacier hanging on the opposite side of the valley. We were surrounded by tables of locals and shared the Plat de Jour followed by the traditional Tarte aux mytilles. We really enjoyed the atmosphere of the Auberge with an enclosure of rabbits hopping around under the shade of a tree laden with yellow plums.
- By afternoon we were sitting in the cafe garden at Col de Voza watching a large group of mountainbikers who were gathering for their cycle down the mountain back to Chamonix. There was a train stop for the mountain tramway that comes up from St Gervais-les-bains with a fascinating exhibition of old photos and information about the history of the railway.
- Despite the fact that the final couple of days had been less demanding, we felt elated and gave each other a big hug, when we finally reached Hotel Slalom in Les Houches, the place that we had left from 3 years earlier. It was a great sense of achievement, knowing that we had completed the Tour de Mont Blanc. We collared a couple of passing walkers to take a final “End of Walk” photo to complete the series.
Lowlights of Day 5
- As we walked up to Col de Voza our tranquility was disturbed by the buzz of chainsaws in the forest and our path was blocked by a big lorry hoisting tree trunks into the back of the truck. They showed no signs of stopping, so we had to clamber up a grassy bank to get past – no respect for intrepid walkers like us!
- The path down to Les Houches was along a gravel road of the ski piste which was slippery and very difficult to walk on, and occasionally we were nearly run over by mountain bikers whizzing past, although luckily they mainly kept to their own path. It was not the most attractive descent to end our walk.
Resources for walking the Tour de Mont Blanc
On this part of the Tour de Mont Blanc we stopped at the following hotels and mountain refuges;
In Chapieux we stayed at Auberge de la Nova, a friendly inn at the end of the Vallee des Glaciers at 1550m with private and dorm rooms and a large restaurant and garden. We paid €43 per person per night for half board (dinner and breakfast) in a 12 person dorm. You can book by e-mail email@example.com or Telephone +33 479 89 07 15 or via the TMB website.
Our next night was at Refuge de la Balme, a friendly refuge made up of several different buildings of an old dairy farm, with the dorms, bathroom block and dining room all being in separate adjoining buildings. We shared a private room with bunk beds and paid €45 per person for half board (dinner and breakfast). You can book by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or Telephone +33 04 50 47 03 54 or via the TMB website.
In Contamines we stayed at Hotel le Christiania, a family run hotel with an outdoor swimming pool where we stayed in an en suite twin room and paid €69 per person half board (dinner and breakfast). There are many different bars and restaurants in Contamines, but we did not see any other hotels. The dinner was enjoyable but there are other eating out options in the village if you want to keep costs down. I tried to book the hotel directly though their website contact form but got no response so I had to book by telephone.
In Les Houches we stayed at Hotel Slalom, a very pleasant boutique hotel that is right at the bottom of the TMB path, and ideal for walkers who want a bit more comfort and style. We paid €89 per en suite room plus €10 per person for breakfast. The hotel has a bar, but no restaurant although there are some good restaurant options within a few minutes walk. Read my review of Hotel Slalom.
My waterproof North Face jacket and walking trousers and Leki Micro Vario walking poles were provided by outdoor clothing specialist, Ellis Brigham who have a wide range of mountain clothing and walking gear you might need for a trek in the mountains, which are available both through their website and UK stores. Connect with them on Twitter @ellis_brigham, on their Facebook page and YouTube Channel
My Berghaus Explorer Light Gore-Tex walking boots were provided by Blacks, with online and high street stores in the UK, specialising in Outdoor Clothing for walking, hiking and trail-running as well as camping and travel gear. Connect with them on Twitter @blacks_online, and on their Facebook page, Google+ and YouTube channel
We used the Cicerone Tour of Mont Blanc guide by Kev Reynolds - we found it to be an excellent guide for both the clockwise and anti-clockwise route with detailed route guide, maps, accommodation information and points of interest along the route.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
When my friend Julia and I started walking the Tour de Mont Blanc three years ago, we weren’t convinced that we needed walking poles at all. We’d done plenty of walks around Britain without them and couldn’t really see the point. In fact I remember that Julia had to hire one pole from the local ski hire shop in Les Houches, while I had one and borrowed another from Hotel Slalom, which I managed to break before the end of the trip.
Three years on and we are both totally convinced that walking poles are essential on a mountain hike that is as arduous as the Tour de Mont Blanc. In the second year of our walk Julia suffered from altitude sickness and we had to cut short one of our days walking because of it, so she really regretted only having one pole to support her on that trip. Last year I had some inexpensive telescopic poles, but they managed to get wedged together, so that I couldn’t pack them down small, and they had to go. This year I was convinced that I needed some quality walking poles that would stay the course and see me a through a few mountain treks in years to come, so I checked out what my local Ellis Brigham store in Bristol had to offer. My eye was caught by a pair of Leki Micro Vario carbon poles which admittedly weren’t cheap at around £145 but which had the great advantage of packing down much smaller than anything else I’d seen.
Why do you need walking poles?
Perhaps you’re planning a long mountain trek like the Tour de Mont Blanc and are undecided on whether you need walking poles, so let me tell explain why they are essential. Firstly, if you are walking for up to 10 hours a day, carrying a backpack that is 10kg or more, your legs deserve all the support you can give them. The poles spread the load on your knees, legs and ankles through your whole body, so you’ll be less exhausted at the end of the day and with less risk of twists and sprains. Secondly, the walking poles help you balance on uneven ground and sleep slopes, when your rucksack makes you top heavy, or you’re picking your way across a slippery stream.
Trudge up the mountain for 3 hours or more as we did regularly on the Tour de Mont Blanc and the poles will help propel you up the hill, steadying you on the climb. I remember that when I went Nordic Walking on Dartmoor, it was described as “like walking in 4 wheel drive”, which is just the traction you want on an uneven mountain trail. You might think that once you’re over that mountain crest, the walk downhill will be a breeze in comparison, but in fact that can be just as tough, if not more so on your knees. The path may be quite slippery with shale or mud and there could be stones or boulders along the way, so you are just as much in need to poles to support your legs on the downhill run.
Why I chose the Leki Micro Vario walking poles
When I looked around the range of walking poles in Ellis Brigham, I knew that Leki were one of the leading manufacturers of high quality walking poles, so I shouldn’t have any of the mishaps with breaking or locking poles as I’d experienced in previous years. I decided to try the Leki Micro Vario poles because they have a unique design and fold up into sections for storage, making them some of the smallest and lightest poles I’d seen. We were travelling to Geneva on cabin baggage only, keeping our packs as small as possible, so this was a big bonus, as my poles could easily fit easily into the side pocket of my rucksack. The fold-up design also meant that I could pack up my poles and store them in my room in the mountain refuges, rather than leaving them in the communal boot area. Although I’d met the most friendly people on the mountain, I did have a mysterious experience one year when I discovered a piece of my pole had gone missing, so I was a little wary.
How to assemble your Leki Micro Vario Poles
You may think that it would be completely obvious how to assemble a pair of walking poles, but I found that my Leki micro vario poles had a locking button that was hidden when the poles were broken down, and I puzzled for quite a while to work it out, so I’ve made the video below to show you how.
- First fit the two lower sections that are joined by cord together
- Next extend the third section until a small metal button clicks into place to secure the whole pole firmly
- Extend the fourth upper section until you have it at the correct height, marked by the rings on the pole, then push the locking lever down against the pole to secure
- Finally adjust the wrist straps by pulling the top strap upwards to flip up the locking mechanism, adjust the strap length from the underneath and then flip the locking mechanism back down to secure.
I hope you find the video below useful, about how to assemble your Leki Micro Vario Walking Poles
Another great feature of these poles is the grip handle which was extremely comfortable with an egg shaped top that fitted into the palm of your hand and an equally comfortable shaped grip with soft wrist supports.
Who are these poles good for?
I should mention that at around £145 the Leki Micro Vario poles are at the expensive end of the range of poles stocked by Ellis Brigham. There are plenty of options for poles from Leki and other manufacturers, but none that pack so small and light. If you are not a regular hiker and plan to do the Tour de Mont Blanc or a similar mountain trek as a one-off, then I would probably buy some walking poles at the cheaper end of the range. However, for frequent walkers and those who like to travel light, the Leki Micro Vario poles are an excellent investment, the sort of kit that is always a pleasure to use. These poles are also great for those who combine hiking with climbing and need poles that will pack away easily into a rucksack pocket when they need their hands free. Whatever your budget,do make sure that you have walking poles of some sort on the Tour de Mont Blanc as it’s an arduous trek and you really do need them.
The Leki Micro Vario poles are made from carbon for minimum weight with maximum strength. They pack down to around 38cm and extend from 110cm to 130 cm in height. The poles feature the Leki Aergon grip which allows a range of gripping options, with a wrist strap adjustment that is easy to use, even when wearing gloves. The speedlock, external locking mechanism allows the height of the poles to be adjusted easily and securely. The poles also have replaceable metal tips in case one gets caught or breaks. These poles retail at around £145 for the pair, but other walking poles are on sale from £50 per pair. Thanks to Ellis Brigham who gave me a pair of Leki Micro Vario Carbon Poles to try for this review and specialise in all kinds of Mountain clothing and equipment.
More great gear for the Tour de Mont Blanc
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