A grey, overcast morning began with another huge climb. The Col de la Balme would be my final border crossing. Here I would step back into France, the first and last country of my journey.
I trudged up winding switchbacks through forest, munching on the last of my croissants as I walked. I soon rose above the treeline, scrambling my way around and across snow before reaching the broad saddle, upon which stood the Refuge de la Balme. Like 90% of the refuges I had passed on the Tour du Mont Blanc, it was closed at this time of year and looked like a creepy place to spend the night. A magical view of the Chamonix valley sprawled out below, leading southwest towards Chamonix and eventually my starting – and finishing – point of Les Houches.
Just off the col, a diversion of several different paths cobwebbed out in all directions, a signpost in the middle guiding the way. Unfortunately the sign had fallen down, and the pointers were bent and splayed all over the place so I had no clue which I was supposed to take. I couldn’t go too far wrong as I just had to head to the bottom of the valley, so I picked a path that seemed to be heading vaguely in the right direction.
Unsurprisingly, I took the wrong path. I soon found myself on the opposite side of the valley to the TMB. However I didn’t bother turning back as I knew it would eventually get me where I needed to be. More empty ski areas appeared to destroy the serenity of the mountains. I found myself walking along a mountain bike trail where signs told me the trail was off-limits to walkers. I nervously made my way down the valley, constantly looking backwards to check for any early-season bikers hurtling towards me.
In the hamlet of Tre-Le-Champ I rejoined the TMB. Were I to follow the road here I could easily have strolled down the valley towards Chamonix and reached Les Houches by early evening. But this was not what the Tour du Mont Blanc had in mind. The path took a sharp turn to head steeply back up into the mountains. The last two days of the TMB would follow the course of this valley from hundreds of metres above.
The sun came out in full force and I began scrambling up steep rocky tracks through dense woodland, heading for the Aiguillette d’Argentière. This impressive crag is hugely popular with climbers and even before I saw them I could hear the far-off shouts of the tiny brightly-dressed figures scaling the rock face, looking like orange and yellow and pink ants from down below.
It looked fun but I was lacking both the gear and the technical ability to get to the top that way so I stuck to what I knew and continued walking up the trail.
After a few miles the trail stopped suddenly, my path seemingly blocked by a vertical rock face. The trail continued straight upwards, up a series of metal ladders and ropes fixed to the mountain overhanging a 1000 metre drop down to the valley below. This is a section of trail known as the passage délicat. It was here that I met my first of many ibex (ibexes?). He was just standing off the trail, licking at a remaining patch of snow. He wasn’t bothered by me at all, and let me get almost within petting distance of him (sadly not quite). I watched him for a while as he brushed past me and stood poised majestically over the landscape, surveying the land below.
I scaled the first of many ladders. Although it was an easy climb, looking down was vertigo-inducing. At times I was almost hanging off the rungs with nothing but air beneath my feet. About halfway to the top, really enjoying myself, I looked back at where I’d come from and saw something that made what I was doing seem like nothing at all. Two climbers had somehow scaled a massive column of rock and were both perched on top, cramped together on a 2×2 metre square of rock, having lunch. A huge drop on all sides, they looked completely unfazed. It would be an understatement to say I was impressed. It was insane.
I continued to the top where I reached the Tête Aux Vents, overlooking the whole north flank of the Mont Blanc Range. A magnificent line of crags, snow domes and glaciers. Alps upon Alps. I managed to snap one last photo here before my camera battery died. I was fuming. My camera has never let me down and I had been certain the battery would last me the entire seven days. I was wrong. There were 13 miles to go and no way of documenting them other than the rubbish camera on my phone, which wasn’t good enough to be worth wasting battery I might need for emergencies.
I headed downhill along an undulating ridge, practically wading through ibex. Around dinner time I arrived at La Flegere, another completely empty ski resort. It was getting late and apart from the desolate buildings it was a nice flat spot with a beautiful view of the Mer de Glace basin and an ice-cold stream flowing nearby. I pitched my tent away from the buildings, directly underneath the ski lift cables. As evening settled over the mountains, the ambience was enough to make me forget the ski-scarred mountains and enjoy a memorable last night on the trail.
I woke up refreshed, ready to smash through the remaining ten miles. One last big climb faced me – up to the 2526 metre summit of Le Brevent. I wasn’t sure what challenges the snow would present me with but it actually turned out to be a fairly easy day. It was another beautiful sunny morning and for the first couple of hours I followed a nice, easy ridge contouring the open, rocky hillside. The last day, the final push. Nothing could stop me now.
Navigating my way past more depressing ski-season debris, I soon began the final ascent of Le Brevent. Shortly before the summit, at the Col du Brevent, the TMB crossed the GR5 – another long-distance footpath stretching from the North Sea in Holland right down to the Mediterranean Sea, in Nice. Definitely going on the list for the future.
The path continued to rise and dropped into a secluded basin filled with snow that the sun couldn’t reach and herds of ibex sauntering around. The trail was nowhere to be seen, but luckily my path was guided by a series of cairns leading me to another metal ladder. I climbed out of the basin and onto a track which guided me up numerous snow patches to the summit of the mountain.
Le Brevent provides an amazing full-frontal view of Mont Blanc – at least this is what I’ve been told. Shamefully I couldn’t identify which of the many peaks filling my vision was the mountain itself. You’d think I’d be able to recognise it as the tallest one but they all looked about the same size. It didn’t help that the clouds kept moving and obscuring the peaks. If my camera had worked I could have snapped a picture to identify it later but alas, no. I gazed down at the sprawl of Chamonix 1500 metres below, and began the long, long descent to Les Houches.
Zigzagging through even more snow, I wound my way down below the tree line, at which point I began racing all the way down to the bottom. I barely stopped until I reached the end. I knew I was completely fucking up my knees but didn’t care.
The last few miles of the walk were unexpectedly strange. I eventually reached the road in the carpark of a zoo, bizarrely located in the middle of nowhere. Leaving the carpark I followed another path through woodland until I found myself looking up at a towering concrete statue of Christ. Completely unexpected, it was a very surreal encounter. At first I thought I might be hallucinating from the heat, but no – at the end of my 100-mile walk I had finally found Jesus. 30 minutes later, I had followed this quiet road all the way back to Les Houches, and my walk was over.
Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc was definitely one of my more challenging adventures. Although I was hiking at the “wrong” time of year, I feel I made the right decision.
I especially loved the snow – it was exciting and absolutely beautiful yet it had melted enough that it wasn’t impassable. There were a few dangerous bits that nearly killed me but I am a huge advocate of type-two fun. Although I wasn’t always enjoying myself at the time, looking back that doesn’t matter at all. The weather started off badly which was pretty miserable in parts but I’m glad I experienced the full range. From blistering heat to pissing rain and everything in between. It’s not an adventure without the bad times.
I also loved the isolation. The solitude is one of the most important parts of my adventures. If I had hiked it later in the year when the refuges were all open and the snow was gone it would have been a very different story. I do like to meet people along the way and I did make a few friends, but in general I like to be on my own schedule and hike my own hike.
I’m already about to leave for the next adventure which has been in the pipeline for a while but is coming up fast. Next month I will be cycling 1200 miles from Gibraltar to London over a mere 17 days. It may well be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. More information to come in a blog post very soon!