Day 4 - Elisabetta to Courmayeur (16km - 570m ascent - 1590m descent)

Yet another cloudless blue sky greeted us when we got up at 6am, ready for another day on the TMB. We had eaten well, but slept poorly in the rather cramped wedge-roofed dormitory of Elisabetta. We woke up early, as the day promised grandiose views of the eastern versant of Mont Blanc and we wanted to take all of those in before the clouds built up (as appeared to be the pattern developing on our walk).

Emmalina (the youngest trekker on the TMB)
and her Dad

Early morning views from Elisabetta

Old storage buildings at Elisabetta

Lac de Combal and the
Aiguille Noire de Peutery

In the crisp morning air, the low sun lit up the braided streams flowing through the swampy flat below, framed by a backlit haze of mountains. We quickly followed the gravel road down onto the lower Vallon de Lee Blanche, where a long straight section of road (a real novelty in these mountains) led us across the marshy flats to Lac de Combal. Here the swamp filtered waters had gathered to form a clear glassy lake that mirrored the majestic mountains about it.

Reflections in Lac de Combal

View back over the marshlands of Vallon Lee Blanche

Just beyond the lake, we made a short side-trip, climbing up the jumbled lateral morain of the Glacier du Miage to see the Lac du Miage, formed in a hollow from the meltwaters of the grey, debris-covered glacier, whose blackened ice-face fronted the green-grey lake in a spectacular setting.

The glacier-fed Lac du Miage backed by the blackened ice face and morain

From here, we had to retrace our steps a bit to leave the road and take a foot-path steeply up the eastern slope of the valley - the TMB was taking us up to the grand balcony for some spectacular alpine views. We climbed quickly up through the scrub to more open pastures, passing the ruins of an old bergerie at the Alpe Inferieur d'Arpe Vieille, continuing on to edge around a deep ravine formed by tumbling meltwaters over the eons.

At last, a view of the 4810m summit of Mont Blanc in its entirety

The meltwaters in fact made the ford higher up across this stream impassable (wet boots are no fun in the alps), forcing us to climb even higher to leap across three smaller braids. Fortunately, it wasn't wasted effort as the track continued to climb steeply up on the other side of the torrent to reach the Alpe Superieur d'Arpe Vieille and its small stone chalet. All along the climb, the view westward over the Val Veni to the massif had expanded as we ascended.

Ruined bergerie at Arpe Vieille

Path blocked by meltwater torrent

The fair Nello in mid leap

Crossing the pastures across from Mont Blanc

We were right across from the face of Mont Blanc, framed on its left by the Glacier du Miage and on its right by the stark pinnacle of the Aiguille de Peutery. It formed a massive wall of rock, split by the Brouillard and Freney Glaciers, around which, ever so slowly, cloud was beginning to form. The path continued, climbing more gently across the pastures to the high point of the day, Mont Favre at 2413m, the alpine panorama rolling northwards with our footsteps. It was definitely a place for a break to sit back and enjoy the majesty of the big mountain.

Looking across Val Veni to Mont Blanc (4810m) and the gravel covered Glacier du Miage

The eastern face of Mont Blanc from Mont Favre
- as close as you get on the TMB

Leaving Mont Favre, with its cliffs of brittle shale, we quickly descended to a broad sweeping basin, crossing a series of big snow plaques and working our way to the north on a long traverse. Back over the Val Veni, the gravel-covered forked tongue of Glacier du Miage formed a sweeping curve down from the pristine white jumble of the upper glacier. Ahead lay the ski fields of Courmayeur. Crossing the snowless pistes, we reached a beautiful section of larch forest. It was so nice to be amongst trees again after two days above the tree-line.

Looking over the Val Veni from Mont Favre

Route of the TMB high above Val Veni

Crossing yet another big drift

Glacier du Miage curving down between Tré-la-Tête (3930m) and Mont Blanc (4810m)

Soon after, the track led us down to the Col de Checrouit, where the Refuge de Maison Vieille sheltered beneath the rocky peak that had guided our route. With the rock walls and gleaming white upper glaciers of the massif above and the receding blue hazed ranges deeper into Italy on the opposite side, it was the perfect place for lunch, particularly since it was becoming very warm.

Larch forest near the Col Checrouit

Aiguille Noire (3772m) piercing the clouds above the Col Checrouit

Courmayeur and the Val d'Aosta

Our final section for the day was the descent into Courmayeur, gentle at first as the track took us past the savoyard hamlet of Pra Neiron and down the ski slopes. Small birds twittered, butterflies flitted languidly between the wildflowers and even lizards were out in the hot sun.

The hamlet of Pra Neiron

The village of Dolonne

Narrow streets of Dolonne

However, once we entered a forest of firs the descent became very steep, with a tortuous and seemingly endless series of zig-zags (short and tight) leading us down a narrow spur to the village of Dolonne, whose old slate and stone houses have retained much of their original charm. Passing through its narrow streets to cross a bridge over the Dora Baltea, swollen with grey-green meltwater, we finally reached Courmayeur. Passing the pharmacy, we noticed that the temperature reading was 30°C! No wonder we had sweated so much after lunch, even though it was all downhill.

It had been another hard day at the office, though the TMB has one big plus - it rewards effort with unsurpassed views. After three nights in refuge dormitories, we also rewarded ourselves with our own room in a quiet penzione and a dinner at one of the many restaurants of Courmayeur.

Swollen waters of the Dora Baltea

Day 5 - Courmayeur to Bertone (4km - 770m ascent - 0m descent)

Today was a short day. We were both feeling leg-weary after 4 days, 64 km and 4000m of climbing and descending. In a planning session over a large bowl of taglietelli and a crisp Italian rosé, we decided that, instead of taking a day off in Courmayeur, we would walk two short days - a strategy reinforced by the weather forecast of clear morning skies with cloud and possible thunderstorms later. It also allowed us to get some washing done, buy a few supplies, copy photos to a USB drive etc etc.

Heading out from Courmayeur

So after a morning coffee at our penzione, we finally left Courmayeur at 11am for the 770m climb up to Rifugio Bertone. On the TMB that is a short walk! A slow trudge up the road through the villages of Villair-dessous and Villair-dessus, with their typical savoyard houses of stone and slate brought us to the mouth of the Val Sapin. First passing by dense flower-rich herbfields, we entered a fir woodland to climb up steadily beside the fast-running Tsapy Torrent. Just near a bridge crossing it, we had our first rest stop to devour a few fruit jubes for energy and fill up the water bottles. We were already perspiring in the still morning heat of the valley and the real climb was only just about to begin.

Path through mixed woodland up to Bertone

Once across the torrent, we left the road to follow a stone-walled track steeply up into the forest. It soon became a zig-zagging footpath, winding up the slope as larch gradually replaced fir.

Old stone wall in the forest

Lunch was declared at 1900m, where we could sit in the shade of the larches with a cooling breeze swirling through their canopy. From here, we could look down on the impressive views over Courmayeur, now far below, and the valleys and mountains beyond.

Looking down on Courmayeur

A slow lunch over, we continued the last 100m of the climb, reaching the alpine meadows of Le Pré, just beneath the crest of the ridge. We were out of the valleys and back in the mountains and it felt good.

The meadows of Le Pre and the pyramid of Mont de la Madonne across a gorge

Emerging from a grove of firs

A little higher up and we were at Rifugio Bertone. It was an inviting refuge - in fact, it invited us to lay back on the deck chairs on the grassy terrace, beer in hand, taking in the views that stretched from the valleys of Courmayeur to the pinnacles of Mont Blanc. Even the fair Nello agreed that this was the best way to relax and let aching legs recover, as we watched the procession of big cumulus clouds and listened to the occasional distant crash of falling ice on the glaciers across the Val Ferret.

Cumulus clouds building up over the peaks to the east

The superbly tranquil setting of Rifugio Bertone

By mid afternoon the fair Nello decided that it was time for a siesta, so I went for a stroll up to a viewpoint that looked down over the entry to the Mont Blanc Tunnel - a massive construction project, but so insignificant compared to the mountain above it. The autoroute from the tunnel to Courmayeur passed through a deep and narrow valley separating us from the ridge we had walked yesterday by a stone's throw as the crow flies (to mix my metaphors). All that effort descending into Courmayeur and climbing back up on this side for a couple of kilometres of horizontal progress - oh well, that's the TMB for you.

A little further on, I could see far up the Val Veni to the Col de la Seigne from where we had come, and in the other direction up the Val Ferret to the Col de Ferret, where we were heading. The entire western wall of the two valleys was formed by the peaks and glaciers surrounding Mont Blanc and it was a good way to appreciate the vastness of this massif.

View south toward the Val Veni and the Col de la Seigne

View north up the Val Ferret

It had been a good idea to take a break here and just enjoy the tranquility of the mountains that surrounded us. Rested and relaxed in a magnificent setting, we both felt very content - even moreso because tomorrow would be another short day!

Day 6 - Bertone to Bonatti (11km - 940m ascent - 890m descent)

What we had done was to split a day's walk into two days - to split what would have been 1600m of climbing into two lots and hence to really appreciate this spectacular section of the TMB. Yet another clear blue morning greeted us, giving great views of the summit of Mont Blanc and its glaciers when we reached a path junction, 100m higher than the lodge. We were about to commence our third "variante" of the TMB.

Morning over the Mont Blanc massif

Mont Blanc and the Glacier de la Brenva

Climbing up to the Mont de la Saxe

From the junction, the climb was particularly steep, forcing us on to our toes as we zig-zagged slowly up the grassy spur to reach the rounded ridge-top meadows of the Mont de la Saxe. Walking along this long grassy ridge, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides and with the valleys of Courmayeur far below was something special.

Crossing the alpine meadow of the Mont de la Saxe

Le Dent du Geant (4013m)

To the east, backlit by the early morning sun, the Col du Sapin was silhouetted against the blue-hazed mountains beyond. We strolled the length of the ridge, picking our way along the braided pathways past small lakes (gouilles) that reflected the surrounding peaks. In the distance a flock of sheep grazed on the steep pastures, while overhead a pair of vultures circled in the morning thermals.

Sheep grazing on the slpes of Val Sapin

The Col du Sapin and Tête du Secheron

To the west, the rolling panorama now presented the 2000m dark rock walls of Les Grandes Jorasses and the curious rock cap known as Le Dent de Geant (Giant's Tooth). The air was still and quiet apart from the occasional whistle of a marmot, the odd twitter of a bird and the sound of Julie Andrews singing "the hills are alive with the sound of music ...". Well, I made the last bit up, but it was that sort of country.

Crossing the Mont de la Saxe towards Les Grandes Jorasses

Reflections in a "gouille"

Looking back over Mont de la Saxe from near Tête Bernarda

The narrow ridge from Tête Bernarda

Reaching the end of the rolling alpine meadows, the track now climbed up and around the side of the Tête de Bernarda, increasingly exposed to the steeply sloping drop to the Val Sapin below. A short passage across a narrow, vertigo-inducing crest brought us to the Tête de la Tronche, where we stopped to take in the 360° panorama.

View from near Tête Bernarda

Looking northwards down the Val Ferret

Curious hoodoos in the upper Val Sapin

On top of Tête de la Tronche (2584m)

However, what goes up must come down, and a very steep loose-rocked path zig-zagged tightly down from the heights of La Tronche to the Col du Sapin.

Looking down to the Col du Sapin from La Tronche

Waterfall in the upper Val d'Armina beneath the 3067m Aiguille de Chambave (Tête de la Tronche on the right)

Leaving the Val Sapin and distant Courmayeur behind, we set off northward down into the Val Armina, soon finding ourselves trudging across a series of soft snowdrifts as we traversed the high valley. A long waterfall plunged down the head of the valley above us to rush down the slope, gathering the meltwaters flowing from all over the basin. Reaching this torrent, we were obliged for a second time to climb higher and find a dry crossing.

View across the valley to the Pas d'entre-Deux-Sauts

Old shepherd's hut in the Val d'Armina

Crossing yet another meltwater torrent

Descent from the pass into the Val de Malatra

From here the climb began to reach our second pass for the day, the Pas d'entre-Deux-Sauts, snow-covered and lying between the green meadows of the Tête de Deux Sauts and the barren schist of the Tête du Secheron.

Beyond the pass lay the mostly snow-covered bowl of the Vallon de Malatra and we continued our slow trudge for another couple of hundred metres of descent in soft and ankle-deep snow. Our boots were soon full of cold wet sludge. By now the cumulus clouds had built up and we were walking between shadow and sun.

On the snowy saddle of the Pas d'entre-Deux-Sauts

Lower Val de Malatra

Reaching an area of rocky knobs and snow-filled hollows, we briefly lost the path, only to relocate it a few hundred metres later and descend the valley above the green rushing waters of the Torrent de Malatra. Finding a dry rocky outcrop, we stopped to share our lunch with the marmots who called it home. From here, a short descent past the farm buildings of the Alpe Superieure de Malatra brought us to Rifugio Bonatti, looking directly over the valley to the massive rock walls of Les Grandes Jorasses.

Clouds swirl around the 4208m peak of
Les Grand Jorasses

Curious light on a distant glacier

Ongoing fascination with marmots

Rifugio Bonatti facing the 2000m rock face
of Les Grand Jorasses

The crossing had ended up taking 6 hours, but that still left an afternoon to spend at this, the best of the TMB refuges - spacious comfortable bunk-rooms and 4-course dinner.

It was none too soon either, for not long after we arrived, the cloud cover filled the sky and, for the first time since we began our walk, it rained. The fair Nello was not totally convinced that this had been a rest day - a view that I was sure she would change when we set off tomorrow for the long and high climb over the Col du Ferret and even longer descent into Switzerland. As in life, on the TMB everything is relative.

Day 7 - Bonatti to Le Lechère (18.5km - 950m ascent - 1270m descent)

With the fall of night, the grey clouds departed and yet again we were greeted by a clear blue sky on the following day, the profile of Mont Blanc shining white in the early morning sun. However, we knew the pattern of gradual cloud build-up, so we were off at 8am, with a short climb back up from Bonatti to where we had rejoined the TMB yesterday. Then it was off northwards in the crisp early morning shade on the west-facing slopes of Val Ferret. Across the valley, the sheer rock walls of Les Grandes Jorasses dominated the skyline - imposing their presence on the landscape.

Farewell to Rifugio Bonatti

A blur of deer in flight

Stream rushing down the shady
west-facing slope

We crossed the Torrent de Malatra, passed the falling-down farm buildings of Giue-Degut and headed out on an undulating traverse across the slopes, dense with alpine rhododendrons and other wildflowers and crossing a series of fast-flowing torrents that almost overflowed their stony fords as they rushed down steep gullies to the valley floor below. A startled deer bounded out of the scrub and away, a distant cuckoo commented on our sanity in doing this walk and the ever-changing panorama of peaks and glaciers across and down Val Ferret rolled by as we passed.

Reaching the stone buildings of a farm house, the TMB led us down a series of switchbacks through dense herb-fields and a scrubby cover of tall shrubs to reach the flat and fir-dotted floor of the valley. The Doire Torrent wound its way down through the grassy flats in a wide gravel bed.

Farm house high above Arnuva

The imposing rampart of the 4208m Grande Jorasses
with Mont Blanc receding into the background

River flats at Arnuva

Here we joined a gravel road to cross the river and head up to the end of the flats at Arnuva. We were about to start the major climb of the day, 780m up to the Grand Col du Ferret, so it seemed a good time to take a break and eat a bit of energy food.

The rest day had clearly done the fair Nello a lot of good, as she bolted up the calf-burningly steep slope that led us past a misty series of cascades plunging out of the ravine at the mouth of the Val de Bellecombe (she was obviously not carrying enough weight in her pack).

The Doire Torrent in Val Ferret

Mist-filled chasm of the Belle Combe Torrent

Ever upwards, we crossed a series of strangely dimpled snowdrifts, before making a rather delicate stream crossing at the mouth of a small ravine, on a snow bridge that was being eaten away by the torrent beneath.

The beauty of dimpled snow

Crossing the eroding snow bridge

Mountain bikers descending from Col du Ferret

Glaciers de Triolet and Pré de Bar with Mont Dolent (3819m) on the right

Way back up the Val Veni 30km away

Climbing out of the ravine we reached Rifugio Elena on its balcony beneath the Glacier du Pré de Bar, Mont Dolent (the triple point of the French-Italian-Swiss borders) and the Petit and Grand Cols du Ferret - the perfect place for a coffee break.

The Petit and Grand Cols du Ferret

Pushing on, we set up a steady rhythm as the track climbed steeply up a grassy flank to follow the rim of the ravine ever higher. before finally flattening out (almost) to cross marmot-squeaking alpine meadows and arrive at the Grand Col du Ferret - bienvenu en Suisse! We had done the 780m climb in under two hours, which isn't bad for a pair of old farts. Feeling satisfied, we declared a lunch break, but finding the wind too cold in Switzerland, stepped back into Italy to enjoy our sandwiches and fruit together with the vaste views down the Val Ferret, all the way back to the distant Col de la Seigne, which we had crossed to enter Italy four days earlier. It was a good feeling.

On the col - Switzerland to the left, Italy to the right

However, as expected, the clouds were already building up and looked quite ominous over the distant Swiss Alps. It was time to farewell Italy and descend into Switzerland over the many large snowdrifts that filled the large bowl on the north side of the col.

The snowy Swiss versant of the Grand Col du Ferret

After a while, the bowl narrowed into a steep-walled valley, which we traversed high up to continue our steady descent of the deep Revers de la Peula. An even steeper descent brought us to a small restaurant, where we stopped for a cold drink and a quick lesson in Swiss ingenuity in calculating exchange rates between the euro and franc (enough said).

Grand col du Ferret - Bienvenue en Suisse!

Last look back into Italy down the Val Ferret


Descent into Switzerland from the col

The lush green meadows of the Revers de la Peula

From La Peula, the TMB followed a wide gravel road that wound down the slope to cross the raging Drance du Ferret. On the other side of the bridge, it became a sealed road, heading down the valley through mixed fir and larch forest. Roadwalking is not our favourite past-time and for the first time, despite the pleasant surrounds, we got that "are we there yet?" feeling.

The Drance du Ferret

In the Val Ferret Suisse (heading towards Mont Dolent and its glacier)

Bucolic bliss - Swiss style

On reaching the pretty village of Ferret, with its classic wooden, geranium-decorated Heidi-houses, a footpath and bridge led us back across the Drance du Ferret to wander along a track through forest and herb-field on its far side.

Welcome to Switzerland

Wild river in the fir forest

Shortly after, we reached the Gite Le Lechere, a restored bergerie, which would be our comfortable quarters for our first night in the land of the helvetes.The walk down the Val Ferret and the climb into Switzerland had made this yet another amazing day on the TMB and, for the first time, we didn't feel leg weary. Perhaps all this climbing was taking us to a higher level of fitness - either that or our nerve endings were finally wearing out.