Fast and light around Mont Blanc

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first. An imposing snow-crested dome, at 4808m, Mont Blanc is Europe’s highest peak and 30,000 climbers every year attempt to scale it. Was I one of them? No, I wasn’t! Instead, my trip was a trek around the mountain and its neighbours, a so-called ‘fast and light’ version of the classic Tour de Mont Blanc. The ‘fast’ piece made sense as we were cutting down the traditional 170km and 10,000m of ascent down to 110k, and 6000m of ascent in order to complete it in six days rather than ten. The ‘light’ was slightly misleading as we were carrying everything we needed for the week, plus copious amounts of food and drink to keep us going each day.

However, as our expert guide Fred told us emphatically on our arrival, ‘weight is your enemy’ in the mountains. So, as soon as we reached our starting point, the rather basic Hotel du Col de la Forclaz (1527m), we set about editing down the contents of our backpacks to a more manageable weight. Given that our trek coincided with a blazing heatwave, we were able to ditch most of our warm weather gear. Feeling both physically and metaphorically lighter, I bought a clutch of succulent strawberries from the roadside stand opposite the hotel and set off on a short acclimatisation walk to the foot of the Triente Glacier. The heat was intense as the sun glared down unblinkingly from a stark blue sky. As we’d driven up the valley from Chamonix, we’d marvelled at the flotillas of paragliders coasting the thermals: apparently the heat had driven them up much higher than usual, to around 3000-4000m. Churning chalky waters and mountain peaks dipped in snow made for a serene setting at the Chalet du Glacier, a mountain café or buvette where I stopped for a cold drink, admired the view and felt myself gently settle in to the idea of a week’s intense mountain walking.

The first day was tough, due to the relentless heat. After a steady and thankfully shady ascent to the day’s high point of 2042m we made a stop at the Bovine Buvette, housed in a typical Swiss wooden chalet. The cool of its garden was welcome as the temperature was soaring to 32 degrees and it was only mid-morning. We stopped for lunch under a canopy of fir trees and looked out on dark forested slopes, lush meadows and bright alpine roses. Rich brown cows roamed lazily, their bells chiming melodically. After this, there was no respite from the sun as we trudged through the pretty lakeside town of Champex on a scorching Sunday. In our wake, families were picnicking and drifting on the lake’s green waters in bright pedalos as we began a long, dusty, sweat-drenched descent in the searing heat to Orsiere.

For the rest of the week, the weather stayed largely fine, but thankfully not as hot, so we were able to focus more on the steady rhythm of our walking and take in the breathtaking scenery that greeted us every day. The views were so striking and varied that often it was like tramping through a fistful of holiday postcards. Our ascent and descent of the Grand Col Ferret (2537m) on day 3, for instance, offered sensational views of huge mountains, massive hollowed out glacial valleys, endless skies and swathes of snow. On other parts of the trail we marvelled at the delicate mountain flowers that speckled the slopes above the tree line with gorgeous colours. We peered delightedly at the vivid violet wings of the viola calcarate, the dazzling blue petals of the gentiania verna, the classically flamboyant pink of the rhodedendrum ferrugineum and the buttery yellow of the ranunculus montanus. And if you think I’m either making these up or have taken a crash course in alpine botany, my floral knowledge is thanks to the tiny but beautiful mountain museum La Casermetta, found at 2365m, close to the Col de la Seigne at the head of the Aosta Valley in a special cross-border conservation area.

Apart from a few occasions each day when we overlapped with walking groups heading in the opposite direction, peace and quiet prevailed. At times the only sound was the peck pecking of our walking poles, sometimes accompanied by the spirited rushing of running water. It was hard to believe we were on one of Europe’s more popular walking routes. The air was hot and bright, yet felt pure, occasionally sluiced with crisp blasts from the glaciers and snow banks we passed (and sometimes crossed). On the lower slopes we were doused in the heady scent of heated pine. We were treated to lucky sightings of bushy tailed, whistling marmots and fleet-footed chamois and ibex. The nights were often less peaceful, with waves of thunder reverberating between the mountain tops, shards of lightning cracking open the deep night skies.

For most of our trek, the peak of Mont Blanc remained elusive, cloaked in cloud. At times it skulked secretively behind heavy banks of cloud, at others it peeped coyly from behind wisps of cotton wool. Day 4 saw us approaching the hulking granite bulk of Mont Blanc from the Italian side, starting with a short bus ride from Courmayeur to La Visaille, the starting point for our day’s walking. Then we hiked the length of the Val Venay, from the swooping curves of the Glacier de Miage’s troughs and the clear, fast flowing river marooned on its expansive flood plain, up higher and higher to the gulleyed head of the valley, past the Casermetta museum and up to Col de la Seigne at 2516m. We dallied with enchanting marmots as they dashed and frolicked, nibbling plants in the sun. We took a long lunch break by the deep snow banks at the top of the col, hunkered down low in the warm sunny layer close to the ground and sheltered from the wind, peeking up every now and again from between lolling eyelids to see if we could catch the peak unawares.

Yet still it remained unglimpsed as we made our long, long descent down through La Ville des Glacier on the French side of the massif to the tiny village of Les Chapieux. The valley walls were ribbed, one section of creased polished stone standing out like the folds of a rhino’s skin. The dashing river was swollen and frothed with snow melt, occasionally bursting into exuberant waterfalls. We picked our way gingerly across its tributaries, stepping from stone to precarious stone to avoid being drenched in its cold waters. We pushed on to our night’s resting place down rubbly slopes that hold my thighs in a vice of tension, savouring the relief of occasionally gentler descents on spongy, root threaded ground in the shade of proud green pines.

As if by magic, on our final day Mont Blanc revealed itself in the full glory of its snow clad dome as we toiled up the steep stony slopes above Argentier to trek along the spectacular Grand Balcon Sud route past Lac Blanc with grand vistas over the Chamonix Valley. Mont Blanc obligingly revealed itself behind, solemn and stunning. Along with the mesmerising views of the spikily scalloped outline of Mont Blanc and its surrounding massif, we were treated to more whistling marmots. We also spotted a lone ibex and a solitary chamois contentedly grazing on the boulder-strewn slopes, emerging on our final day as if on cue and tempting us to creep ever closer over the uneven ground, brandishing our cameras excitedly. Add in the colourful Alpine flowers peacefully bobbing in the snow-cooled breeze and it really couldn’t have got much better. I finished the week with throbbing calves and a few trophy blisters but a fulfilling sense of achievement and a head (and phone!) full of stunning mountain views. Before the trip, and conscious of my lack of training, I have to confess I’d been worried about whether or not I would enjoy the expedition, or be able to keep up with the group pace. But, as our guide Fred quotes on his website, ‘What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?’ (Van Gogh). It had been well worth the considerable effort and I was particularly glad I’d made my backpack as light as possible!

Places to stay

Some of the places we rested our weary bodies were on the basic side. While not offering five star luxury, I can recommend the following:

Hotel de l’Union, Orsiere, Switzerland and St Bernard country. Run by a very jovial hotel owner who plied us with food and drink, including an aperol spritz which was very welcome after our hot sweaty descent into the valley. The next morning he sent us on our way with a hearty breakfast, fruit for the road and cuddly St Bernard key rings!
• Hotel Astrid, La Palud, just outside Courmayer in Italy was comfortable and had a splendid breakfast spread where you could eat your fill and beyond.
• The faded glamour of the Hotel Richemond in Chamonix. It lacked a few of the features you might expect in a more comfortable hotel eg kettles, decent and sufficient toiletries, but the staff were friendly and helpful and it has a great city-centre location.

My trip was organised by the long-established global adventure travel company Exodus.

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