Today was one of the most difficult and exciting days of hiking I’ve ever done. A real change from the straightforward hiking of yesterday.
I set off early from the refuge as I knew it would be a long day. I was aiming to reach Lac Combal (I love camping by lakes) which was about 20 miles ahead with some difficult terrrain in between.
The day started off with a big climb up to the Col de Bonhomme. The weather hadn’t much improved overnight and I was walking through thick, ominous mist. I love hiking in this weather. The walking is easy and everything looks so mysterious. After reaching an abandoned refuge which loomed out of the mist like something from a horror film, the path swerved and began to climb much more steeply, snow drifts appearing over the trail as I got higher. I began to wish I’d brought trekking poles with me.
I passed the Plan des Dames – a huge cairn on the spot where an English woman perished in a storm several years ago – and began ascending the valley up to the pass. Visibility was poor and before long I found myself walking across a vast snow field. All around me was white. I couldn’t see more than 10 feet ahead and I had no perspective of where I was heading. Although I was following a set of footprints, it didn’t look right. It felt like I was walking right onto the middle of a glacier. I even considered heading back down to the Plan des Dames to check I hadn’t missed a turning when suddenly the mist cleared for a second. I caught sight of the trail to my right, marked by the standard red and white stripes of the TMB, and headed towards it.
The summit was completely covered by snow, and I had an amazing view through snaking tendrils of mist down to the valleys ahead and behind me. But there was still more climbing to be done. I was properly trekking through snow now, ploughing directly up the side of the mountain with no trail of any kind to be seen. There were several extremely steep sections where if I’d lost my footing it would be the end.
Although it was difficult and dangerous, this felt like real wilderness and I was having a lot of fun. I made it up to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, exhausted. And now I was faced with a choice. I had originally planned to take a high-level alternate route via the 2665-metre Col des Fours, but I had been told last night at the refuge that there was too much snow and it would be impossible without crampons. Given that I was already longing for crampons, or at the very least a big stick, I decided I probably wasn’t equipped for the traverse and took the official, longer route down to the village of Les Chapieux.
The descent was easy enough, crossing much less treacherous snow and even getting the opportunity to glissade a couple of times. The inescapable mist cleared again and I was faced with the most spectacular view so far, right down the valley to Les Chapieux, glaciers looming above me on all sides. I was having a great time and almost bounding down the mountain. As I approached the village I lost sight of the trail and had to crawl under an electric fence and through a cow pasture, getting disgustingly filthy in the process. It’s not a real adventure if you don’t get covered in shit at some point.
After a quick lunch in Les Chapieux, the southernmost point of the Mont Blanc loop, I switched direction to the north-east and headed up the adjacent valley. It was road walking for a few miles, which is rarely fun, but it was actually surprisingly beautiful. I traipsed up the western side of the Vallée des Glaciers, along an isolated, winding mountain road in the rain. Imposing glaciers and rushing waterfalls dominated the landscape from the other side of the valley. Every now and then a car would come speeding up the narrow road out of nowhere and I would either have to flatten myself against the rock face or balance clumsily on the edge of the cliff to let it go past.
I encountered a man walking up the road – one of the few other people I had seen today – and asked him in my limited French whether he was hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc too. He wasn’t. He had driven here for the day to photograph snakes, but as this was the wrong weather for them he hadn’t seen a single one. I felt a bit sorry for him but carried on on my way.
After passing through the tiny, seemingly abandoned hamlet of Ville des Glaciers I began the final ascent of the day up to Col de la Seigne which would take me up and over the border into Italy. The climb began straightforwardly enough, following numerous steep switchbacks, but as I rose higher the mist fell again and before long I had trouble navigating. I then experienced one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
I came round a corner and was confronted with a gushing stream flowing over the trail with a raging waterfall right beneath. The point where the path crossed the stream was obscured by a massive and very steep snow drift which was several metres high and looked extremely fragile, as if it could collapse at any moment. A couple of metres above the point where the trail disappeared was a set of footprints crossing the snow. The prints did reach the other side so it was clear that someone had made it across alive. This gave me hope. I looked around for a big stick I could use as a trekking pole but there was nothing but rocks and snow.
I knew the longer I waited and thought about it the less likely I was to do anything so I just went for it. I took it slowly, gripping onto the icy slope with my right hand and making sure I’d carved out a big enough foothold before I took my next step. I didn’t look anywhere but straight down at my feet. I made it across fairly quickly but I was really shaking and out of breath. One wrong step and I would have plummeted right into the freezing cold waterfall. In retrospect it was quite exciting but at the time there was nothing fun about it at all.
I was just over halfway through the climb and there was still a long way to go. I began to navigate a series of snow patches where the trail became very unclear. If not for the mist I would have easily been able to see the col and headed straight towards it but no such luck. I made it through the snow and found myself on a well-trodden path which I assumed had to be the right way. I followed it ever-upwards and became increasingly worried as I realised I hadn’t seen any waymarks in a very long time. Until this point there had generally been a waymark at least every few minutes but I hadn’t see a single one since crossing the snowdrifts about 20 minutes ago. I could easily have got confused there and found myself on a different path.
I was heading north-east which I knew to be correct and I was on a clear path with footprints so it had to be leading to a pass somewhere but nevertheless, for the second time today, something felt wrong. Every few minutes I was sure I had to be approaching the top, but there would always turn out to be even more climbing ahead. I felt sure I must have climbed higher than I was supposed to and when I reached a massive snowfield that I couldn’t see the end of, I decided I was going to have to turn back and make sure I’d gone the right way. I didn’t want to as I still had a fair few miles to go once I reached the col and it was getting late in the afternoon but I couldn’t keep heading in what might have been the wrong direction.
I must have walked back downhill for not 30 seconds when suddenly I saw a hazy figure emerging from the mist, heading uphill towards me. It was François. Somehow he had caught up with me (I suspect intentionally) and it turned out he had hitchhiked the road walk up from Les Chapieux to Ville des Glaciers. I was glad to see him and although he wasn’t having a good time – he’d found the stream crossing just as harrowing as I did – he was convinced this was the right way. Luckily he had an altimeter on his watch which told us we were about 75 meters short of the col’s elevation. We headed back uphill together and crossed the snowfield, eventually finding the path on the other side which continued to head upwards. Eventually the mist cleared again and we saw we were approaching what looked very much like a mountain pass. Sure enough before long we finally saw the cairn and the signpost which marked the top.
Frustratingly the mist completely disappeared as soon as we weren’t lost anymore, and we were rewarded with a stunning view down the snow-covered valley into Italy. We took a short snack break on top of the pass but were too cold to stay for long so headed down the valley, navigating more heavy snow but without any mist so we could at least see where we were going.
The valley flattened out and the snow began to clear. For the first time today there were blue skies above us. The whistling of marmots and the trickling of streams were the soundtrack to our walk as we approached the remote Refugio Elisabetta perched on the mountainside above us. We headed sharply uphill for a much-needed beer. Refreshed and recharged, I continued the couple of miles downhill to Lac Combal, while François stayed at the refuge. He said he had had enough and would end his walk early tomorrow in Courmayeur.
I followed the easy track down to the lake, looking back up at the wilderness I had left. I set up my tent in a small flat spot right by the lake’s outlet stream. The water of the lake is slightly silty from the glacial melt so appears a very vivid and unreal-looking cloudy blue. Today had been a long day but I still felt remarkably good, both physically and mentally. No real bodily complaints and with my 20-mile day today I’ve set myself up for a fairly comfortable five days to reach the end. I just hope the weather improves!