Col de la Croix du Bonhomme - 2483m - a taster section of the Tour de Mont Blanc

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Sunday 24 August 2014

Col de la Croix du Bonhomme - 2483m - a taster section of the Tour de Mont Blanc

After relaxing in the motorhome the day before, we woke up on Sunday morning dawned with a mix of sun and patchy cloud and feeling ready to get our hiking boots on once again.  It had been 5 days since our last big hike up to the Barre des Ercins in the Ecrins National Park, and although we'd enjoyed our sight-seeing in Grenoble, we were now ready to pick up our packs and try a section of the Tour de Mont Blanc, which passes through Les Contamines-Montjoie.  This section also makes up part of the GR5 (also known as the E2) - the European long-distance hiking trail leaving from the North Sea in Holland and finishing at the Mediterranean Sea at Nice in France.

Our plan was to set out towards the Col du Bonhomme, southwest of Mont Blanc, and head on to the Refuge CAF de la Croix-du-Bonhomme if there was time.  This was another walk recommended in our '100 Hut Walks in the Alps' guide and we'd hadn't been disappointed yet by these suggestions. We were excited about the prospect of trying out this section of the GR5, as this would have been around the time we would have been passing through on our GR5 extended honeymoon adventure had things gone to plan. This section of the GR5, is also part of the Tour de Mont Blanc, one, if not the most popular multi-day walks in Europe.  The challenging 170km trail circles the Mont Blanc Massif with 10km of ascent as it passes through Switzerland, Italy and France attracting in excess of 10,000 hikers from all over the world each Summer to set off on this classic alpine circuit.

We set off in earnest, targeting the Col du Bonhomme at 2329m, initially retracing our route to Notre Dame de la Gorge before climbing very steeply out of the valley through the woods, benefiting from the shade and cool air of the trees.  Once again reaching the Chalet du Nant Borrant and the start of the green pastureland, this time instead of turning off as we had done a two days ago on another path back to Les Contamines, we continued straight on up the valley.  The gentler gradient of this section allowed us to appreciate the view opening up, the alpine valley being grazed by cows, the head of the valley ringed with high-sided jagged peaks in front of us.  It was very different from the landscape of the secluded Ecrins National Park just a few days earlier, allowing us to reflect on the immense variation of our recent walks as we made our way up to the next refuge, Chalet de la Balme, in the sunshine.

On reaching the Chalet the Balme at 1706m, the trail markers suggested we allow a further 4 hours to reach the Col du Bonhomme, but with rested legs and keen to get a view of Mont Blanc we pushed on.  A little way passed the chalet, we started to reach the more barren and rocky terrain above 2000m and the gradient started to get much steeper once again.  Despite this increase in gradient, our pace quickened and we reached the col in just half that time.  This pace had surprised us and was probably due to being inspired by the presence of countless heavily laden hikers walking the 7-10 day Tour de Mont Blanc and also several much lighter trail runners moving more quickly uphill (this area is a mecca for fell running and a series of crazy endurance events, including the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, a 100 mile race around the entire massif was scheduled for the end of the week).

Reaching the col, the view to Mont Blanc itself was obscured by closer peaks but there were good views over both the valley we'd just climbed up and the one ahead of us, with its lakes glinting in the sunshine.  After a small pause for photos we continued following the white and red GR markers as the trail traversed the southwest flank of the Mont Blanc massif towards the Col de la Croix-du-Bonhomme.  There was only about 150m difference between the two Cols and we continued at our quicker than usual pace through the rocky terrain.

Soon we reached the Col de la Croix-du-Bonhomme, 2483m, where we were rewarded with a clear view over to the Swiss and Italian Alps stretching as far as we could see. We settled down to prepare some soup in the shelter of the cairn whilst taking in the views.  Whilst enjoying our early-dinner spot, we were joined by other hikers, some from the UK, tackling some or part of the Tour de Mont Blanc and who were headed the short extra distance to the Refuge just below the col.

Making our way back to the motorhome by the same route in the evening light, after a very demanding but exhilarating hike, we felt inspired and talked about coming back one day to take on the entire Tour de Mont Blanc.  Feeling so good, one of us even considered the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc race at the end of the week, but only for a brief moment....maybe next year!

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