27 August 2019 by Susan Gray
Completing the Tour de Mount Blanc is on many walkers’ wishlists. But, if the 170km and nearly 10,000 metres of elevation is too much, why not try a ‘mini tour’, tackling a few carefully handpicked trails according to your interests and abilities.
A mini Tour de Mont Blanc
The classic ‘Tour de Mont Blanc’ (TMB), one of Europe’s most popular long-distance walking routes, traces a circular path around Western Europe’s highest mountain, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland. While the TMB is considered achievable by active walkers (with the right amount of research, preparation and training), the 170km length and nearly 10,000 metres of elevation, often on rocky terrain and sometimes using fixed ladder steps, could be a little too challenging for mountain newbies like me. Here’s where a ‘mini TMB’ could be the best option.
Travelling with a women’s walking group Les Joly Dames , the base for our own ‘mini TMB’ was at a mountain chalet near Victorian spa town St Gervais les Bains, offering jaw-dropping views of Mont Blanc. From here we undertook our own mini TMB focusing on the Les Contamines and St Gervais areas, on the northwestern slopes of the famous 4,810-metre massif.
Patience, skill and empathy
I have huge admiration for walkers tackling the TMB unsupported, shouldering massive backpacks rattling with dried food and saucepans, to keep costs down. (Mountain refuges may be basic, but with supplies having to be helicoptered in, they are not cheap). Alpine conditions can change in the blink of an eye; paths can become as slippery as a glacier in a sudden downpour, and formerly clear trails can dissolve into the opaque mist of low cloud.
For these reasons, and a very personal one I’ll get to a little later, I’d recommend walking with an International Mountain Leader (IML). To achieve this qualification, IMLs have met exacting standards and are able to work at altitude in Alpine winter conditions, climb using ropes, navigate in forests and snow, carry injured climbers and be able to find people under avalanches. Our IML guide Marit van Kampen tailored each of our three walking days to suit the weather, our interests and our abilities. I’d been keen to walk the Baroque Path, revealing the area’s historic importance as a trading route, through the glittering interiors of its churches. But Marit pointed out this is mainly a road-based route, with tarmac shared with cars and mountain bikes. Instead, using her excellent local knowledge, we took another route weaving through scenic villages with impressive churches, including Notre Dame de la Gorge at the foot of a Roman Road, and a pulse-raising ascent of Mount d’Arbois (1,833 metres).
Indulging a niche interest in ecclesiastical alpine architecture was accommodating, but Marit’s most profound kindness to me was supporting a dyspraxic to hike to almost 2,000 metres. Dyspraxia is hard condition. I’d spent years turning ‘accident proneness’ into a joke, to beat others to the punchline. But getting it out in the open on this trip after decades in the clumsy closet felt good beyond belief.
Falls, forests and glaciers
How do you get someone who has regularly gone head over boot laces up a narrow, rocky, open-sided path? With patience, skill and empathy. Mountain landscapes are non-negotiable, but if you want to see the path of glaciers, thundering waterfalls and cross steep-sided valleys using Bionnassay’s spectacular passerelle suspension bridge, the only way is up - one hesitant footstep after another, planting walking poles where it looked firm.
The circular route from Crozat, close to St Germain les Bains, to the 1,800-metre Bellevue plateau and then on to Passeralle with views of the Bionnassay glacier, is understandably popular. Around 10km long with 485 metres of ascent and graded as ‘moderate’, the route offers forest, rocky landscapes and dramatic waterfalls. And views of Col de Tricot and Nid d’Aigle, eagle’s nest, where many climbers begin their ascents of Mont Blanc.
A recent cold rainy snap had made the first stretch feel treacherous to this less-than-sure-footed hill-walker. A narrow, open-sided path, twisting between mud, jagged rocks and flattened grass, with a constant view to the right of how far you had to fall, certainly focused the mind. Fighting the desire to simply stand still in fear, I was capable of only two things: breathing and listening to Marit’s instructions: ‘Put your feet where I do.’ And I did.
Emerging on to the trail at Bellevue, I recovered my breath, power of speech, and ate an almond bar at Marit’s insistence
Bravery on the bridge
Just before the Bionnassay suspension bridge, our gang of four huddled into a rocky corner before tackling the crossing. The steel wires and elegant curve of the bridge did little to dampen my fears. I later learned that I did not so much walk, as fly over its slightly trembling planks, reaching the other side in record time. While I was impressed with the engineering, I had no desire to test it by lingering a second longer than necessary. We were safely in the forest on the other side heading towards a thunderous waterfall.
After enjoying the stunning falls, the route had one more surprise: ground moraines dispersed by ancient glaciers and forming a whacky obstacle course. Again, I followed Marit’s footsteps down, balancing on poles, rather than hunching over and restricting my breath. A family group with a little girl overtook us, the child skipping over the rocks in trainers, as if they were a fun staircase.
With most of the ups and downs behind us, it was time to sit on a tree stump and enjoy Les Joly Dames’ packed lunch of quiche, baguettes and banana bread, washed down with Marit’s life-giving flask of Women’s Balance tea. Food at Les Joly Dames is superb. Both cofounders June and Mairi Watson, are former military wives and can rustle up a formal four course dinner party, fondue, barbeque or homemade granola squares at the drop of a kepi.
The path back to Crozat was gently downhill, with the soundscape of cowbells all the way. Hanging moss on the trees indicated the lack of pollution, and purple orchids and huge yellow globeflowers dotted the meadow. Raspberries and blueberries too green to pick, hung from bushes. Occasionally a shiny green beetle, like a mobile Quality Street wrapper, scuttled across the path. And fox poo let us know foxes, and possibly marmots, would come down to play once we had gone.
Hot, sticky and tired, we recovered from our walk with yoga sessions on the deck of June’s chalet. But it took a few days for the enormity of what I’d achieved to sink in. Sitting in a café on the very flat shores of Lake Geneva, the feelings that had dominated the ascent to Bellevue - unbearable fear and resolve to never put myself through this terror again - began to subside. And in their place came a feeling of pride. I had completed my first mountain walk graded ‘moderate’.
A four-night, long weekend of walking and yoga with Les Joly Dames (https://www.lesjolydames.com), including all meals, three guided walks, yoga sessions and airport transfers costs €800.
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