Full circle around Mont Blanc
The Tour du Mont Blanc is a 200km circular trek that takes in three countries in nine days. For Alison Harvey it was a chance to enjoy spectacular scenery – and bond with her daughter
Saturday 12 April 2008
It was only as we arrived, giggling, into Switzerland after an advanced lesson in family bonding on the mountain crossing from Italy, that I realised we had finally cracked it. The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), a 200km trek through three countries over nine days, really was the perfect holiday for my teenage daughter and me. The only ups and downs we faced were a total height gain and loss of around 10,000m – alarmingly, further than scaling Everest.
At least it was all downhill from the 2,537m Col du Grand Ferret to the village of La Fouly. My super-fit daughter Lara, 14, had been a true mountain buddy – encouraging and cajoling her less fit mother, 52, up the lung-bursting climb in oven heat from the valley floor.
The day had started easily enough, as we walked down from the beautiful Bonatti mountain refuge, through lush clover meadows gashed by wild orchids and vivid harebells, and zig-zagged across streams close to the Pre de Bar glacier. But now it was time for a lie-down (for me) and lunch on the gentler grass slopes of the Swiss Val Ferret along with Keith, our guide, and two other hiking companions. A pair of eagles played in the thermals – seemingly the only other creatures on what Lara was now calling "our mountain" as she excitedly snapped away.
Lara had at first been rather less enthusiastic about walking in the Alps, even when I'd reminded her that, at 4,808m, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Western Europe, and that we'd have jaw-dropping views and lots of fresh air as we trekked over wild and varied Alpine passes from France into Italy and Switzerland and, um, back into France. The gear was another challenge: walking boots, fleeces and full waterproofs do not generally appeal to teens brought up on Topshop.
The only good news, as far as Lara was concerned, was that this was to be a supported trek with an outfit called McNab, based in Argentière. We carried day packs, while our luggage was transported ahead to the next hotel or refuge (apart from two days when we'd have to transport our own gear). We stayed our first night at comfy Chalet McNab, complete with hot tub and roast lamb dinner. Many of our fellow dinners were taking in three peaks in three days; it soon became clear that the TMB was the soft option.
Don't expect a wilderness experience: the TMB attracts thousands of walkers from July to September. But the hike is a classic one. There are various routes, depending on the weather and desired level of difficulty. Ours was the anti-clockwise route; on day one, we were due to hike from Argentière to the top of the Brévent, high above the Chamonix valley, said to be a "demanding day". Still, we had the right boots and the right kit, and I was adamant we were going to have A Nice Time.
Lara was unconvinced. "Hey! Look, Mum," she said, studying the map. "If you go this way it's much shorter. And you can save time with a cable car." She hadn't quite got into the spirit of it.
The first meander appealed to all the senses. A constant roar, much like the sound of traffic on the M25, turned out to be the rushing river below. We stopped to take in the fantastic views of the Mont Blanc massif. But then it was a steep trail through the woods to the Grand Balcon, which seemed oddly popular with tourists in unsuitable footwear walking in the other direction.
"They were sensible and got the cable car," hissed Lara.
It was a rocky scramble to Brévent, but our efforts were rewarded by the sight of a chamois just a few metres away. And Lara's scepticism finally drained away when she saw the dizzying view from 2,525m – all the more special because she had walked it.
Luckily, our joints were spared the long walk down: first a drink at the Brévent café and then cable car down to Chalet McNab and that hot tub. Suddenly, everything was going to be all right.
Day two started with the Bellevue cable car from Les Houches. After a Himalayan-style suspension bridge over the glacial torrent at the Glacier de Bionnassay, we set off for the 2,120-metre Col de Tricot. It was sweaty, suncreamy slog. The col gave way to a panorama of Alpine summer pastures, and, best of all, another café. I almost skipped down the other side, as clanging cow bells heralded our arrival at the valley floor. The days we had to carry our kit, I soon learned, weren't a problem. After a few hours in the mountains you forget about hairdryers and cosmetics. You just add a toothbrush to your bag (and borrow the rest from your daughter).
The walk over the 2,665m Fenêtre d'Arpette from Champex is regarded as the toughest on the TMB, but it offers amazing views of the Trient glacier. The beautiful Bovine route (only up to 1,987m, but 5km further) is the alternative for bad weather or worn-out mothers. The path takes its name from the cattle that use it to reach high summer pastures. (They must have seriously agile cows in the Alps.) A relaxing stroll through woodland preceded a tough hour negotiating rocks and tree roots. We paced ourselves by stopping at fast-flowing streams for draughts of cool water, lazing on rocks and drinking in the beauty.
This, I realised, was what I really wanted. It was just as much about being there as about getting to the next destination. I resolved to return again for a "slow TMB", again with a guide but with lots more time. I was sure my daughter would like the same.
"Mum, I think this trip has been great," said Lara. "But I've heard there's a race where you can run round the TMB in less than 24 hours. I think it would be fun."
Lara, you're on your own.
Geneva is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com). Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com/uk) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com).
Mountain Drop-offs (0871 575 4810; www.mountaindropoffs.com) offers a one-hour transfer between the airport and Argentière, from €50 (£36) per person.
McNab (01274 530 313; www.mcnabalpine.com) offers a trips from its chalet in Argentière. The next dates for the Tour de Mont Blanc are 10-20 July and 20-30 August, costing £1,015.
Chamonix Mont Blanc Tourist Office: 00 33 450 53 00 24; www.chamonix.com
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