Ordinarily, I’m not a morning person: give me an early alarm and I’ll find a way to wake up later and get ready faster. On the trails, it’s a different story. We rose at half six, packed up and joined the queue for grub on the dot of seven. Breakfast was, shall we say, unsubstantial: three slices of baguette, with jam, Nutella and butter on the side doesn’t quite cut it when you have ten or so kilometres and a sizeable peak standing between you and lunch.
We made tracks around half seven and followed a steady trickle of hikers up the gravel track towards Notre Dame de la Gorge, a site of pilgrimage from time immemorial. We didn’t detour inside; for us, this whitewashed chapel simply marked the end of the road and the start of the climb up to Col du Bonhomme. Ahead, the path rises, up and up, flanked by conifers.
Beneath Pont de la Téna, Cascade de Combe Noire tumbled over the rocks; a sliver of silvery ribbon on granite. Shortly after passing Chalet-Refuge Nant Borrant the trail cut through open pastures, revealing the scree-lined slopes of the Aiguilles de la Pennaz. Cows with silky brown-and-white coats grazed beside the Bois de la Rollaz, bells jingling. We weren’t the only ones to take an impromptu pause and snap photos.
Onwards and upwards. Donkeys plodded past, loaded with tour groups’ belongings. On the approach to La Balme, we came upon a cluster of picnic benches, a water fountain (much needed, for the uphill sections were sweaty work!) and a small but well-maintained toilet block. Tempting as an ice-cold drink at the nearby refuge was, we pressed on.
Snaking its way down the hillside is Cascade de la Balme, in all its frothy, foaming glory; like Notre Dame de la Gorge, it’s marked by a star on the map. We gained height steadily, the snowy peaks reeling us in.
Just shy of Col du Bonhomme, a snowfield lay waiting. Out came the walking poles, Decathlon’s finest (read: cheapest, at a fiver each). Neither of us had ever used them before, but they came into their own on snowy terrain.
Atop Col du Bonhomme (2,329m), we cracked out lunch: slightly squashed pains au lait; fruit; a handful of trail mix; a cereal bar. Feeling refreshed and refuelled, we set off. Most walkers were calling it a day at Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme or carrying on towards Les Chapieux. We’d unwittingly left it a little late when it came to reserving accommodation, and consequently found the only place with availability was Refuge Robert Blanc, sandwiched between Glacier des Lanchettes and Glacier des Glaciers. Not ideal, but c’est la vie.
We picked up the variant route via Col des Fours, conscious time wasn’t on our side. Swathes of snow covered the path, and when we reached Col des Fours we quickly realised we couldn’t split off onto the high route which led to Refuge Robert Blanc: there was too much snow, not a soul on the path (so far as we could see), clouds rolling in and a thunderstorm brewing.
And so it was that we found ourselves scooting down Col des Fours on our derrières and following the few walkers who’d braved the variant route down towards Refuge des Mottets. Shuffling sideways down the slope took too long; sliding down was the way to go. Sans sledge, I picked up a fair bit of speed and I won’t be forgetting this hair-raising escapade any time soon.
Once we’d cleared the snow, there were raging torrents and snow bridges to navigate. Luckily, there were a few of us going the same way, including a French family which we bumped into several times over the course of our trip. We inadvertently veered off course towards Le Bouillu des Tufs – the path wasn’t all that clear – and ended up on a dirt track which zigzagged down to La Ville des Glaciers (which isn’t a ville (town) by any stretch of the imagination, though the farm’s calves were adorable).
Time was marching on, and we weren’t confident of making it up to Refuge Robert Blanc in time for tea; from Refuge des Mottets, it’s a nine-hundred metre ascent, with snow on the trail. We hadn’t been able to book a bed at Refuge des Mottets via Au Tour du Mont Blanc, but figured we had nothing to lose by nipping in and asking if they had space. If they didn’t, we’d have no choice but to carry on; if they did, we’d stay there.
As it happened, they did have space – and plenty of it. We later learnt they make 30% of their beds available on Au Tour du Mont Blanc, and the remaining 70% are kept for walk-ins. (The lady who booked us in kindly lent me their landline, so I could call Refuge Robert Blanc to let them know we wouldn’t make it up there.) We were led over to one of the dormitories, where we picked a bed, unpacked and promptly set off for the shower block to freshen up.
I can’t recommend Refuge des Mottets highly enough: their staff gave us a warm welcome, the food was out of this world (more on that in a moment) and I slept like a log that night. We slid onto a bench, and were soon joined by a Finnish couple (who had an enviable five weeks off from work) and a handful of Chinese and Japanese guys (two of whom we saw again at other points on the route).
Related: The Tour du Mont Blanc in 9 Photos
Steaming vats of vegetable soup came out first, alongside baskets of fresh bread. (Already, this trumped Gîte le Pontet.) This was followed by a hefty pot of slow-roasted beef and a large tray of roasted vegetables and rice, plus more bread. We helped ourselves to seconds, and thirds; no one was going to go hungry here, that was for sure. While we were tucking into crème brûlée, a wooden music-maker was wheeled out and the room was filled with tunes like ‘Champs Élysées’ and ‘Penny Lane’.
- I’d recommend steering clear of Col des Fours if visibility and weather conditions are poor; fewer people take that route, and the path isn’t so clear. You’ll want a copy of the IGN 3531 ET map to hand.
- Refuge des Mottets serves up the best evening meal on the TMB and has a mix of private rooms and dorms; half-board in a dorm cost €48pp in July 2019. Check their website for the most up-to-date information.