A Week in the Shadow of the Mont Blanc Massif – The Highest Mountain in Europe

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Friday 29 August 2014

A Week in the Shadow of the Mont Blanc Massif – The Highest Mountain in Europe

Our general aim to re-visit the Swiss Alps before the end of summer helped us to decide our next destination after leaving Grenoble on Friday, heading north east through hilly terrain to the foothills of the Mont Blanc Massif, close to the famous resort of Chamonix next to the French/Swiss border. The summit of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe at 4800m, was an imposing site as we drove into our planned stopover at St Gervais Les Bains, towering so high above us (4km!) that it was just impossible to really appreciate the scale of the giant and the surrounding snow covered peaks.

Keen to get some good hiking in over the next few days and really appreciate the grand scale of the peaks (despite a mixed weather forecast) we decided to find a base that was a little closer to some higher trails and so moved on later that afternoon to the slightly smaller village ski resort of Les Contamines at 1150m altitude. On the opposite side of the massif to the more well known Chamonix resort, we were pleased to find the car parks by the cable car station (permissive for overnight motorhome parking) very quiet and peaceful.

Eager to explore we took a stroll for a couple of hours a little further up the valley to the church at Notre Dame de la Gorge, a beautifully picturesque location where we sat and read in the late afternoon sunshine and mapped out our possible hikes. With a peaceful atmosphere and set amongst tree lined slopes we felt very tranquil and happy to have based ourselves here a while. As the sun began to drop lower in the sky we even tried a shortish walk, following the GR5/Tour du Mont Blanc trail northwards to the Chalet du Nant Borrant (1469m) before picking up a sign for l'Anery on our left. Knowing that 'Anes' meant donkey we decided to name this tiny, muddy track the 'donkey trail', as we hiked up to around 1600m to enjoy a spectacular view back towards the Mont Blanc massif on the other side of the valley.  This trail made its way back to the church at Notre Dame de la Gorge but on the other side of the gorge.  Crossing the river, we retraced our steps along the GR5 back to Les Contamines and we were feeling very calm and peaceful as we returned to our motorhome that evening.

Our tranquility extended right into Saturday where we decided to put our feet up for one more day and just enjoy the surrounding hills from the comfort of Les Contamines and prepare for the hikes we hoped were to follow.

Sunday morning dawned with a mix of sun and patchy cloud and we set off in earnest, targeting the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme at 2483m, initially retracing our route to the Chalet du Nant Borrant. Trail markers suggested we allow 5 hours to reach the col, but with rested legs and keen to get a view of Mont Blanc we powered up to the col in just half that time. We were also inspired a little by the presence of countless heavily laden hikers walking the 7-10 day classic apline multi-day Tour du Mont Blanc and the 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 we were rewarded with a clear view over to the Swiss and Italian Alps stretching as far as we could see. We prepared an early dinner of some rehydrated soup in the shelter of the cairn whilst taking in the view, before threading our way back to the motorhome after a very demanding but exhilarating hike.

Col de la Croix du Bonhomme - click here to read the full post with more details of this hike 

Sadly the rain arrived on Monday and Tuesday, but with such a peaceful location and with the nearby river paths to stroll along we didn't really mind. Also a little slip on the descent from the Col du Bonhomme had aggravated Esther's Aquasplash injury (a nasty knock to her tailbone) which was making walking very difficult and so putting our feet up again surrounded by the high mountains was rather pleasant. Even if we couldn't see them for low clouds most of the time!

However, by Wednesday we were chomping at the bit again to reach the higher paths and with the sunshine returning we set off early, aiming to climb the south flank of the valley to Mont Joly at 2500m, which should have afforded excellent views over to the Mont Blanc Massif. A stiff and incessant climb followed, but up to around 2000m we enjoyed a remarkable view in the clear air right over to Mont Blanc, still more than 3km above our heads! However, as we reached the summit of Mont Joly a cloud suddenly blew up and obscured the view. Modifying our plans we redirected our steps and rather than make for the summit of Mont Joly, we instead turned left at the slightly lower adjacent col at 2400m and followed a narrow ridge line south, eventually emerging from the clouds and revealing Mont Blanc once more. Cooking lunch at 2400m and taking in the magnificent view we felt very privileged to have such a fine dining room, before taking a longer and more gradual descent to complete our tiring 7 hour hike.

Impressive Mont Joly - click here to read the full post with more details of this hike

With the running festival arriving in Les Contamines on Friday we decided to try one more hike on Thursday before moving on, this time heading towards theGlacier Tre-la-Tete which extends down from the higher mountains to around 2000m at the Refuge de Tre-la-Tete built close to it's head. Another steep ascent on a loose surface was hard work, but we reached the refuge in just 1 ½ hours before pushing on to the 'difficult' path that climbed alongside the glacier. With several fixed rope sections and concerns that another slip might make Esther's injury even more painful to her back we decided to turn around at 2300m, having enjoyed a breathtaking view of the glacier surface tumbling down a near vertical section of cliff. Sitting back at the refuge preparing our lunch and we said one final goodbye to the surrounding hills and valleys that had been our base for the past week before making a longer and gentler descent and packing up our well used hiking gear.

Refuge de Tre-la-Tete - click here to read the full post with more details of this hike

As we drove away from Les Contamines that evening for a one night stopover at nearby St Gervais (before heading back into Switzerland) we couldn't quite believe we had spent an entire week at Les Contamines, but it had been a happy and relaxed week mixed in with some pretty amazing hikes.

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