We’d arrived at Rifugio Bonatti the night before and were nearing the end of our 2012 walk on the Tour de Mont Blanc. The Refuge is about as close to a boutique hostel as you can get up here at over 2000 metres, perched high on the mountain side above the Val Ferret and the village of La Vachey. Considering that there appeared to be no road access to the refuge, I was amazed at the level of comfort. Our twin bedroom had two pine beds, with tasteful touches like the embroidered linen cloth at the window and the handwoven woollen curtains, with pretty woven bows. The hostel is named after the famous Italian climber, Walter Bonatti, and the walls and corridors of the Refuge were covered with old black and white photos of him climbing in the Alps as well as atmospheric vintage posters of climbing heros of the 1950s and 60s.
Dinner at the refuge was a communal event and we sat down at long tables with all the other guests in the pretty dining rooms with traditional wooden beams and a beautiful old blue and white tiled stove. The dinner was simple but better than we’d tasted at many of the refuges; first salad with local cheeses, then a mini-quiche served with carrots and tiny new potatoes and finally desert of a set blancmange with a bitter chocolate sauce and shortbread biscuits creatively moulded to the Refuge Bonatti motif.
Over dinner we chatted to spoke to a Japanese couple who looked super fit – not surprising since it turned out that they had just run the TMB Ultra-marathon , running courses of 17hrs and 30 hrs each carrying only 3-4 kg rucksacks. This event is only for the elite endurance runners and on a previous year in Chamonix at the start of our walk we had sat in a cafe enjoying a cold beer, as the runners arrived at the finish line looking grey with exhaustion.
Over dinner Julia and I planned our route for the following year when we would finish the TMB, deliberating on which routes to take, the refuges we wanted to stay in and speculating on where we might expect snow even in summer. At the front of the refuge, the sun slowly dipped below the mountains until only the peak of Mont Blanc was lit up in glowing orange and many of the guests went outside to take the perfect “Sunset over Mont Blanc” shot. Finally the sun slipped behind the mountain ridge and the air became suddenly cold.
The next morning, we debated which of the two paths shown in the guidebook we should take. The main path followed the line of the valley and looked less demanding, while an alternative went over the ridge at our back and followed the other side of the Mont de la Saxe ridge before the paths joined up above Courmayeur. We decided on the easier main route, as we were keen to get to Courmayeur that afternoon in time to buy our bus tickets for the next day, for the journey through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Chamonix.
All day we walked along an undulating path with the Mont de la Saxe ridge on our left and the views of Mont Blanc framed by blue skies on our right. It was easy walking in perfect weather and there were plenty of spots where we couldn’t resist stopping for photo opportunities, the ultimate Monc Blanc postcard shots.
By early afternoon we reached the end of the ridge and found a flat grassy viewpoint just above Refugio Georgio Bertone where we settled to have a late lunch with the ultimate view over the valley. There was a round metal table with all the different viewpoints etched on it and down to our left in the valley the town of Courmayeur now appeared. Before long our peaceful lunch-time spot became crowded with group after group of chattering Italians who spread out around us laughing and talking loudly. We realised that this was the first viewpoint when you climb up from Couymayeur and so a favourite for walkers coming up for the day.
Our feeling of being away from it all in the remote mountains was at an end as we started our final decent to the town of Courmayeur. The path below Rifugio Georgio Bertone led us steeply down through shady woodland and I was glad to have my walking poles to support my knees on the uneven path. The path wound downward, downward until we reached a residential road and walked down it into the heart of Courmayeur where we found our Hotel Bouton d’Or. Although it was the end of a tiring day, we remembered to ask the hotel owner to take a final “end of the TMB photo” as has become our tradition.
After leaving our packs, we bought our tickets for the bus the next day at the nearby bus station, to take us back to Chamonix, in good time to pick up our airport transfer to Geneva. The following morning we had an hour to spare before the bus left and noticed that the crowds were gathering in the town centre. Going to investigate, we discovered that it was the start of another ultra-marathon, this time around the Aosta valley, called the Tor des Geants. Crowds of lean, tanned men in colourful lycra were being channelled towards the starting point in the narrow space of the square, amid banners and flags swaying in the wind. We couldn’t stay long enough to see them off but left them to their feat of enduance and headed back down the hill to the bus station to catch our bus to Chamonix and home.
It all felt very familiar at the station in Chamonix, with the geranium filled window-boxes,the view of Mont Blanc from the other direction and the statue of 18th century climbers, Balmat and Saussure pointing up to the summit. We’d started there the year before in 2011 on the second leg of our Tour de Mont Blanc starting at La Flegere and ending at Champex Lac.
In September 2013 we’ll be back to complete the fourth and final leg of the circular Tour de Mont Blanc walk starting again at Courmayeur and finishing at Chamonix Les Houches.
This is a walk that takes around 12 days to do if you tackle it in one go, but I’ve enjoyed taking it at a rather calmer and less exhausting pace. Four year or twelve days, it’s up to you. Mont Blanc, I’ll be seeing you very soon!
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More articles from our 2012 Tour de Mont Blanc Walk
The Tour de Mont Blanc Diaries Day 1 – Champex Lac to Ferret and a walk in the woods
The Tour de Mont Blanc Diaries Day 2 – Ferret to Rifugio Elena and over the pass to Italy
The TMB Diaries Day 3 – Mont Blanc from the Italian side – Rifugio Elena to Rifugio Bonatti
Resources for walking the Tour de Mont Blanc
We started this day’s walk at Rifugio Walter Bonatti, a refuge which I would highly recommend and one of the nicest we stayed in on the whole walk. The Refuge has a domitory and private twin rooms and we paid €58 per person per night including dinner and breakfast, for a private twin room with the shared bathroom just across the corridor. The refuge can be booked by [email protected] and by telephone (+39) 0165 869055.
We ended the 2012 leg of our Tour de Mont Blanc at Courmayeur in Italy, a lovely and lively town which has numerous options for accommodation and eating out. We stayed at the pleasant 3 star Hotel Bouton d’Or which is very well located in the centre of town and 5 minutes walk from the bus station. Rooms at Hotel Bouton d’Or in summer range from €75-90 for a single room and €100-150 for a double room including an excellent buffet breakfast. Courmayeur is an ideal place to stop if you want to build a rest day into your Tour de Mont Blanc circuit and is also one of the three best places to start or end the TMB circuit, the others being Chamonix in France and Lac Blanc in Switzerland. Courmayeur can be reached from Turin and Milan Airport by public bus with SAVDA although we have not taken this route, or from Geneva via Chamonix.
My jacket and walking trousers were provided by outdoor clothing specialist, Ellis Brigham who have a wide range of womens’ outdoor clothing and walking gear you might need for a trek on the mountains, which are available both through their website and UK stores.
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.
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