My Tour de Mont Blanc diary Day 1 – Flégère to Refuge Col de Balme
We started this year’s walk on the Tour de Mont Blanc at the spot where we had come down from the mountain last year – the top of the Flégère chair lift above Chamonix. Last year we had descended in brilliant sunshine but now there was a light drizzle that we hoped would soon pass. We’d already persuaded an elderly man at the bus stop in Les Houches to take our ‘before’ photo looking fresh and keen. Now we posed again for photos to mark the start of our three days in the mountains, although I could tell that my friend Julia was anxious to get off for the long day’s walk ahead.
We skirted the hillside, the weather getting increasingly misty as we climbed until we met an impressive cascade of waterfalls with a few wooden bridges to cross. Julia was ahead of me, making good time as I stopped to take photos and a bit of video, so I had to run a bit to catch up with her. By the time we reached a cairn and small hut which marked a crossing of ways, Julia had sensibly put on her waterproof trousers, although I was still resisting, hoping that the rain might pass over. At this point a decision was to be made over the route – either to take a more direct path which would take us down sheer rock faces down a series of ladders or to take a longer route that skirted further up the mountain to bring us down again at the bottom of the ladders. With the rain showing no sign of abating we decided that wet and slippery ladders were too much of a risk and continued onwards and upwards.
Our choice of route was still challenging, taking us up to 2000 metres then steeply down through rocky terrain that was hard on the knees, clambering over rocks, then a steep descent on easier paths where we could look down on a busy road below with toy cars passing along the valley. We wished we did not have to descend again, only to lose the height that we had punished our legs to gain and knowing that what comes down must go up again.
On reaching the road we passed the information centre for the Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve and walked a little further down the path into the pretty hamlet of Tré le Champ. Here was a charming Alpine scene, with brightly coloured geraniums at every window and neatly stacked wood piles waiting for winter fires. We stopped for lunch at the Auberge la Boerne with accommodation for walkers and rather wished that we could be staying the night here, as it felt so civilised. I ate a warm slice of quiche with salad while Julia tried the Tarte aux Mytilles washed down by a cup of strong black coffee, although not being used to the French style she had to go back to ask for a “grande café aux lait’ to get something more suited to English tastes.
After lunch we walked out of the gate of the Auberge, past some small tents pitched on grassy terraces beside the stream and continued on the path that took us up through the forest, past a couple of old houses and a small chapel. By now the rain had cleared and we were enjoying some sunshine in between the clouds.
We climbed up again, regaining hight until after 45 minutes the trees started to thin out and we could see something of the view. Julia had not been feeling great as we climbed up throughout the morning although she was fine over lunch, but now climbing up again she was finding the going tough and we concluded that the altitude might be affecting her. We continued however, reaching a sign which pointed us a further 1.5 hrs up to the highest point of our walk that day, at the Aiguillette du Possette at 2200 metres.
The climb was steady and then the Aiguillette came in sight, with the path climbing higher and higher in front of us. Just as I reached what seemed like the top, another crest would come in sight with a small cairn where rocks were piled alongside the path. Then as that crest was reached another and yet another appeared. Finally I reached the top and waited for Julia who was having to walk at a painfully slow pace but was still managing to keep going. At the top we celebrated the long and difficult climb with some photos and took some time to drink in the views in all directions with a look down to villages in the valleys on both sides of the crest.
Ahead of us and to the left we could see the blue water of the reservoir, Lac d’Emosson hanging above the valley with an enormous dam keeping the water from spilling down the mountain and cascading into the valley. I reflected that I probably would be scared to live in one of those houses immediately below the reservoir in case one day the dam burst and washed me away. We now descended gently along a ridge past small pools reflecting the sky, some crystal clear and others filled with weed. Below us was an undulating meadow with numerous ski pylons, that would become a ski piste in the winter season. As we reached the bottom of the meadow it was around 6.30pm and the clouds were starting to close in, blown by the wind along the crests of the mountains.
The sign now indicated a further hour’s climb along an easy path up to Refuge Col de Balme where we had booked to stay that night. Julia was by now really on her last reserves of energy, just about able to put one foot in front of the other. If only we could just reach the Refuge before the mist and cloud turned to darkness. As we turned a corner we faced another delay – a herd of large cattle with sharp horns and alpine bells clanging barred our path. They were going one way and we the other and somehow we would have to pass each other. I was relaxed but Julia was terrified – she told me later that she had once been chased by a herd of cows as a young girl. We moved off the path and gradually the cattle moved past in pairs, bells clanging loudly. Finally at nearly 8pm we rounded the mountain and Refuge Col de Balme loomed out of the mist. What a relief – it had been a long day!
More tales from the Tour de Mont Blanc
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 mountain 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 Chamonix 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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