A tale of two Refuges – on the Tour de Mont Blanc
The mist was swirling in as we reached Refuge Col de Balme, our first stop on the Tour de Mont Blanc trail, with the clouds blowing over the high passes as dusk was falling. Our way had been blocked by a herd of sharp horned cattle, their large bells clanging from the leather collars around their necks. We moved off the path into the brush to let them pass, not knowing if they might try to butt us out of the way. A little further on, the Refuge was in darkness, but a car was parked outside, so I skirted around and an elderly man eventually came to the window. When he asked what I wanted, I explained that I’d rung him to reserve a place and he came to open the front door, indicating where we should leave our rucksacks, inside the door.
The dining room was cosy from a metal stove in the middle of the floor and my hands began to thaw out. We appeared to be the only walkers there, and an elderly lady shuffled forward to serve us hot tea from the bar. For supper a simple meal of omlette jambon was proposed, with green salad, local cheese and bread, followed by a Tarte aux Myrtilles in a dry pastry case. Shortly afterwards three other walkers arrived, two men, one with his teenage son, who had come up from Champex in the opposite direction to us. We compared notes, realising that we had both tried to ring the Refuge to book with little success – it seemed that the couple were not over anxious to take bookings. Madame showed us to the dortoirs upstairs, where the electric lights only extended as far as the stairwell and switched off automatically after a few minutes – thank goodness for the head torches.
Madame brought us three blankets for the night between the two of us – an extra one for my friend Julia as she had not been feeling well due to the altitude. I enquired in my most polite French whether it might be possible for me to also have an extra blanket? “Oh, c’est pas la peine” said Madame – no need, as the three men would be in the dortoir with us and we would all soon get warm. Eyeing the other empty rooms on the landing I wondered whether the Monsieurs might be in a separate room to us ladies, but my suggestion was dismissed – the other rooms were all shut for the end of the season.
The toilet just along the corridoor was pointed out to us, with a tap near the floor to fill a washing up bowel and act as a sink. We were just glad that we wouldn’t need to go outside into the freezing cold, to use the portaloo that was there for walkers coming to the cafe in the day. I went to bed fully clothed and lay awake for a few hours trying to get warm, draping my coat and spare fleece over me and wondering whether I might risk waking the other sleepers by get up and put on a second set of clothes. In the morning we discovered a second bathroom that Madame had failed to mention, and hurried down to breakfast of coffee and baguette with jam. Our rucksacks packed, we set off along the path that skirted the mountainside, pausing only to admire the view of Mont Blanc, it’s snow capped peaks framed by a blue sky.
Later that day, things were quite different as we arrived at Chalet Bon Abri, having crossed into Switzerland and made it by a combination of hitch hiking, bus and train to Champex Lac (that’s another story). Just down the track above the lake we spotted first the tipi in the flower filled garden and then a couple of campers playing table tennis on the table outside. This place was a well-run Swiss hostel in wooden chalet style but where everything was stylish and modern inside.
Madame showed us where to leave our boots downstairs and pointed us to the neatly stacked pairs of plastic clogs that we could borrow to wear indoors. Upstairs, our dorm room had three bunks but luckily we had the room to ourselves and the red checked quilts and orange sheets looked invitingly cosy. Just down the corridor their was a spotless new shower room with piping hot water, although as dinner was being served promptly at 7pm, we went down straight away.
An aperitif of white wine with cheesy waifer biscuits would not have been out of place in a smart restaurant, and we enjoyed the home made carrot soup, followed by chicken in a wine sauce, while examining the route we had just come on the topographic map on the wall. The map was ideal to help us plan our route for next year when we hope to walk a further leg of the Tour de Mont Blanc from Champex Lac to Courmayeur. Is it better to be high in the mountains with basic facilities, or down in the valley with a little more comfort? Let’s just say that we’re planning to start our walk from Chalet Bon Abri next year, and I can’t wait!
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More tales from the Tour de Mont Blanc
My guest post at Roaming tales about last year’s walk – Hiking the Tour de Mont Blanc
My second year on the Tour de Mont Blanc – video diary 2011
My Tour de Mont Blanc diary Day 2 – Col de Balme to Champex
Resources for those walking the Tour de Mont Blanc
On the first night of our walk we stayed at Refuge Col de Balme (Tel 04 50 54 02 33) and the cost was around €40 per person with dinner and breakfast in a 6 bed dorm room. On our second night we stayed at Gite Bon Abri at Champex-de’en-Haut, which we highly recommend, with private rooms and dorm rooms. The cost was around CHFR 76 per person with dinner and breakfast in a 6 bed dorm room and the Gite may be booked in advance by e-mail.
For outdoor clothing I used Ellis Brigham who have a wide range of waterproof jackets, trousers and other walking gear you might need for a trek on the mountains.
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.
At the start and end of our walk, we stayed at the modern, stylish, budget boutique Hotel Slalom that is perfectly placed in Les Houches for summer walking opposite the start of the anti-clockwise TMB route. Double rooms in the summer season €86-99 plus €10 breakfast. Check for the best hotel prices in Switzerland and book here.
We booked our transfer from Geneva airport to Les Houches through Chamexpress and found them to run an extremely efficient airport to hotel service – cost was €28 + tax per person each way.
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