I spent my twenty-fourth birthday on the West Highland Way. Fast-forward a year, and I’m turning a quarter of a century on the Tour du Mont Blanc. I open a couple of birthday cards before heading down to breakfast. What Residence ATC Routes du Monde lacks in charm it more than makes up for in its breakfast spread: fresh viennoiseries, fruit salad, yogurts, cereals and sliced baguette. Sit tight – we’ve not got onto the entertainment just yet. Exhibit A: a lady breakfasting in a towelled poncho (just how hard is it to get dressed before you come down for breakfast?). Exhibit B: a lady who took a seat at a table (so far, so normal) and then proceeded to touch every single mug on the table and inspect them for cleanliness (…not so normal).
We drop our key in the pot on the reception desk and make tracks. Thick fog hangs over the mountains, swirls around the pines; it’s supposed to lift later. We catch the bus to Montroc, then follow the woodland path through to Tré-le-Champ to rejoin the TMB. Visibility is close to zilch: hazy outlines of trees; a greyish void to the side of the path. Were it not for the steady trickle of walkers heading up towards Lac Blanc, it would feel rather eerie.
Aiguillette d’Argentière – and, with it, the first in a series of ladders – lies ahead. I’m not a fan of ladders on the ground, let alone screwed to a rock face. At least we’re going up, not down, I tell myself. I go first; Laurence follows. After the ladders: steps – logs, really – and a handrail take us up to La Tête aux Vents. We’ve still got our heads in the clouds but there’s a breeze up here and, every so often, the clouds part to reveal the snowy dome-like summit of Mont Blanc. It’s magic; there’s no other word for it.
Today’s leg of the Tour du Mont Blanc takes us through the Massif des Aiguilles Rouges, an expansive natural reserve. I’m captivated by the aiguilles, inhospitable though they may be, and the alpine lakes: beautiful as the British countryside is, it doesn’t have anything quite like this. We pause by the Lacs de Chéserys to soak in the views, and spot a lone marmot scampering across the grass.
We’re making steady progress: there’s just another set of ladders and a snowfield between us and Lac Blanc. Chalet du Lac Blanc is doing a brisk trade in coffees and light snacks. We grab a table with a view and fuel up on caffeine. Even in mid-July, Lac Blanc has a thin sheet of ice on the surface and is surrounded by snowy slopes. It’s a popular day-hike from Chamonix, and for good reason.
Time is (relentlessly) marching on, so we continue on towards La Flégère. We drop a couple of hundred metres, and inadvertently go off-piste for a way before rerouting ourselves towards Lac de la Flégère. We’re feeling pretty peckish by the time we reach Hotel la Flégère, which is closed for refurbishment this summer. Rucksacks off, snacks out; a little something to tide us over until lunchtime.
We plan to stop for lunch at Planpraz – two hours’ walk away, give or take – but only make it as far as Charlenon (halfway between La Flégère and Planpraz) before our stomachs get the better of us. We pull out ham baguettes, peaches, crisps and stroopwafels and tuck into one of our best picnics on the trail. While we were busy munching, a group of trail runners came past. Some of them were in need of a few drops of water, and when we gave them some their leader joked they should have to pay us!
After half an hour’s rest, we pressed on towards Planpraz. When we’d last been up Planpraz, its slopes were knee-deep in snow. Suffice it to say, it looked rather different in the height of summer. At Planpraz, the TMB climbs towards Col du Brévent, at 2,368m. There’s a fair bit of compacted snow to negotiate and, once again, we’re glad we invested in hiking poles for the trip.
On the map, Le Brévent looks deceptively close. We inch up the slope, following others’ footsteps through the snow. A little further on, the snow clears and we’re back on the path, scaling the last of the ladders.
Ahead of us, an ibex traverses the boulders. We stop, transfixed, as do the two French women in front of us. We didn’t see chamois, but we’ve seen adorable marmots and majestic ibex, and that’s more than enough for me.
The TMB skirts the summit of Le Brévent (2,525m); neither of us have the energy nor the inclination to make the detour to the top. We spot the two walkers behind us head down towards the cable car; there are just four of us left on the trail. From Le Brévent, the path twists and turns towards Tête de Bellachat. We lose height quickly and while it’s tough on the knees, it’s nowhere near as bad as the descent into Courmayeur.
We pull out our (slightly squashed) viennoiseries, hoping a little sugar rush will see us through the next couple of hours. More ibex put in an appearance: they bound through shrubs and perch on rocky outcrops, undeterred by our presence. We cut through woodland and soon reach the perimeter of the Parc de Merlet, a wildlife park home to deer, llama, ibex, chamois, mouflons and marmots (amongst other creatures). We’re tiring a little; it’s been a long day.
Les Houches is tantalisingly close, and we can see it from the Statue du Christ-Roi (not quite Rio de Janiero’s Christ the Redeemer, but impressive nonetheless). We pick up the pace a little – the end is in sight – and reach the finish at eight-thirty. We swing by La Chavanne for a celebratory Coke, then catch the Chamo’Nuit bus to Chamonix.
- Hopefully it goes without saying that if you’re taking the ladders, take care: a fall could cost you dearly. If it’s a wet day – or if ladders (with sheer drops below them) aren’t your thing – I’d recommend taking the alternative route from Col des Montets.
- Chamonix Bus operates a pretty extensive network, with regular services linking Servoz and Les Houches to Chamonix, Argentière and Vallorcine. In July 2019, it cost €3 for a day pass, or €2 for Chamo’Nuit services.