Continued from previous post: Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)
Day 5 – La Fouly to Refugio Elena
We were up for breakfast at 7am, perky and ready to go. The view of the surrounding mountains was now clear and impressive, set under deep blue skies. From our room we watched a large balloon release to mark the start of the 42k / 111km mountain Ultra-race. We dropped off our bag then walked out of town along the road, then cut off right to move gradually uphill in grassy fields. At one point an angry rogue cow partially blocked our route and we had to detour around her aggrieved grunting. We faced a long ascent but with a steady gradient and a good path underfoot we made good progress. A cyclist passed us going up, looking hot and bothered. We arrived at Refuge La Peule and considered buying lunch, but didn’t as it was not yet 10am and we’d have to carry it. Instead we continued upwards towards Le Grande Col Ferret, passing over five or six wide patches of remaining snow, each with a well-trodden path that was easy to cross. It was cold and breezy as we passed the tall stone cairn at the Col, but we soon dropped down the opposite side, out of the chilling wind, where we found a nice spot to rest and eat snacks.
We had an amazing view of two crawling glaciers buried deep in steep mountain sides, a vista that dominated our route most of the descent. We passed many people coming up, their heads down and struggling, as we bounced easily along the descent, stopping often to take in the view. We chatted to a few about the route ahead, and what they had yet to face on approaching the Col. We arrived down at Refuge Elena around 12.30pm, much earlier than we’d expected. We are told we can’t enter our dorm room until 2pm, so instead we order paninis and eat them in the bar, before chilling on a nearby grassy meadow, out of the wind, until 2pm. The dorm was very new with nice bunks, each with enclosed sides and personal storage units, all neatly done and relatively private. We showered and had some lazy downtime with beers to wile away the afternoon. Dinner was served at 7pm, with 5(!) large courses, although that included a rather random apple as a mid-course palette cleanser. We were stuffed from course 2 onward (spaghetti) but with determination and grit we persisted and ate all that was set in front of us. Later we had a quick, breezy walk outside to look at the sky, and then headed off to an early bed.
Route / Distance: La Fouly to Refugio Elena via La Peule and Le Grande Col Ferret / 12.69km
Full tracking details of DAY 5 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)
Day 6 – Refugio Elena to Courmayeur
We had another night of poor sleep, courtesy of a noisy, and very smelly, snorer nearby. We reluctantly got up at 6.30am, munched through a simple breakfast at 7, packed and were walking by 7.35am. Against some advice we took the gully rather than the road down from Elena, where we soon encountered three portions of steeply sloping snow that we tentatively crossed using poles for balance. We later heard that someone fell here and had to be rescued by helicopter. From here we dropped to a bubbling river, headed across a small bridge and began the climb back up the opposite side of the valley. There were stunning views of mountains and glaciers as our path wound up through wildflower meadows and larch forests. It was a fantastic running trail once it levelled out, and we were passed by smiling groups doing just that. We looked on jealously. We paused at Refugio Bonatti for an hour to sync my ‘memory-full’ Polar Flow watch so we could continue to track our walk, then we bought sandwiches and pressed on. The kilometres passed quickly, us distracted by the fantastic view and pretty alpine flowers.
Now in Italy, we stopped for lunch with a view, enjoying the downtime and silence, and just in time as soon after we reached the highest point of the day where large crowds had gathered. From this pass we dropped steeply down to Refugio Bertone, it also consumed with noisy day-tripping walkers. We then descended quickly through dusty forest trails to reach the outskirts of Courmayeur. We passed thickly-cut slated roofs and dark timber buildings as our road arrived into the town centre. We cut through a pretty, manicured park, with many sunbathers and kids playing, to reach Hotel Crampon. We dropped very satisfyingly into our very nice room where we slowly showered, then headed out for a mini-city exploration. Dinner was not included in the hotel room tonight, so after a lovely walk meandering through Courmayeur centre and all its shops, we sipped chilled beers in small café and sat people-watching. Afterwards, we enjoyed some lovely pizza and red wine in a nearby restaurant, then back to our room for packing before sleep.
Route / Distance: Refugio Elena to Courmayeur via Refugio Bonatti & Refugio Bertone / 19.55km total
Day 7 – Courmayeur to Cabane de Combal
We sat our alarm for 7.30am, but even in a lovely double room we had a night of poor sleep again. Just after the alarm our room phone rang to tell us our bag-lift is here early. Frantic packing ensued. We got organised and dropped off our bag, then returned back down to find a very yummy Italian breakfast, complete with several cake options. Full to brimming with breakfast cake, we plodded uphill through silent Courmayeur villages then faced a very hard trek up steep shady forest trails for over 3km, working very hard and dripping wet with sweat. The path wound its way under a working gondola lift and we wondered what the smug customers must be thinking of us, struggling up under them as they rode up the mountain in comfort. The path finally opened out to flowery meadows that formed an expansive, recognisable ski area with multiple lifts dotted about. We refilled our water at the restaurant on Col de Checroit before beginning a long, manageable uphill trek with great views of the Mont Blanc Massif, replete with glaciers.
Nearing the top of the Col, we had to cross several patches of snow to progress. We passed large groups of students near here, and other campers resting in hammocks. We finally passed the highest point of today at 2434m, where we met Colorado resident Sam and chatted about our lives on the descent. He was trekking alone and camping wild, a very different and personal experience than what we were doing. He was also excited to hear about the ease of motor-homing life in France. We parted ways at a small junction towards to Cabane du Combal as Sam continued on around the TMB route. We spotted marmots on the slopes, then later two young ibex feeding just outside the cabane. We checked in, this time in a 3-bed room shared with a French gentleman called Thierry. We walked up a local climb in our flip-flops, to view a glacial lake and enjoyed the vista down the expansive valley, then enjoyed several beers in the sun as we awaited dinner.
Route / Distance: Courmayeur to Cabane de Combal via the Col de Checroit / 12.63km
Full tracking details of DAY 7 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)
Day 8 – Cabane du Combal to Refuge Les Mottets
Dinner in the cabane was terrible, our first poor food experience on the hike. We spent a reasonable night in our shared room, then up for a very basic breakfast of bread and jam, but still better than the slop served at dinner. We were packed and gone by 8am, along an easy gravel road heading to Refugio Elisabetta and beyond, climbing slowly up to the Old Italian Customs House, set just before the French border. We saw lots more marmots on the path, them either lethargic or unafraid. We enjoyed some time with the nice Italian museum curator, learning about local wildlife, flora and fauna. We then continued up to Col de la Seigne, finding the cairn area packed with people enjoying the expansive views. We crossed back into France and stopped for a quick lunch with yet another spectacular view. There were several more snow crossings on this side of the Col too, and one specific one we chose to ignore and forded the river instead as the snow bridge looked very thin and weak.
From here, we had an easy downhill following hairpins on dirt paths, to reach our accommodation at Refuge Les Mottets. No check-in until 2.30pm, so we very naughtily enjoyed a carafe of wine on deckchairs in a nearby meadow, with horses and donkeys for company, as we waited. It was very sunny or chilly depending on the changeable clouds. We slowly drunk our litre of red before checking-in, a little squiffy. We had a very nice double room, well away from the terrible dorm rooms that were just lines of beds, touching side by side, 32 to a room. We snoozed part of the afternoon then attacked our 5-course dinner with gusto. We enjoyed the food with an accompaniment of traditional and pop music tunes on an organ-grinder turned by our host. Annoyingly, even in our double room we had poor sleep, caused by doors slamming most of the night. We both wrote a detailed suggestion note to the refuge to ensure they adjust all the door closers to stop the doors from slamming so loudly, or at least add signs to tell people to be aware.
Route / Distance: Cabane de Combal to Refuge Les Mottets via the Col de la Seigne / 11.50km
Full tracking details of DAY 8 walk – opposite image (courtesy of my Polar Flow watch)
Our Tour du Mont Blanc hike synopsis to be continued…