We’re in a bit of trouble on our hike, high on Switzerland’s Col d’Emaney. It’s blowing a gale and there’s frozen snow on a treacherously steep slope. My Dutch companions are carrying ice axes, but I’m not roping myself to anyone who learned their mountaineering below sea level in Amsterdam.
My own mountaineering skills are non-existent, and a ledge above a 500metre drop is not a good place for my first lesson. To my relief, we decide to turn back. It takes us two cold wet hours to slog down through mist and snow to the Auberge de Salanfe.
Now what? This is just the second day of a planned eight-day trek. The idea was to cross two high cols, then connect up with the classic Tour de Mont Blanc route and follow it through to Italy. But we’ve come in June, too early in the season, and the bad weather and snow are still around. Are we stuck?
We drink chocolat chaud in the auberge while the manager of the establishment rings a friend who has a van. He’ll meet us in the village, an hour’s walk down the mountain, and drive us to the station at Les Marecottes.
The plan goes like Swiss clockwork. At 16.18 precisely we board the little red Mont Blanc Express, and take a short but spectacular train ride towards Chamonix, along rails clinging to the cliffs above a deep ravine. Our carriage has windows in the roof so we can admire the mighty peaks and waterfalls above us.
We disembark at Finhaut and walk again, this time below the snowline, three horizontal kilometres and three quarters of a vertical one, and still arrive at Restaurant du Barrage d’Emosson in time for a beer by the lake, dinner and an early night. Great!
Next morning the weather has really closed in and our second high col is also likely to be impassable. No problem; there’s always a Plan B in Switzerland. We descend to a road and cross the French border. Nobody checks our passports, but there’s a shop selling essential hiking equipment – Toblerone chocolate and Swiss army knives. And cuckoo clocks, in case anyone needs a wake-up call tomorrow.
Once in France we down a café au lait in Argentieres, then climb up to a small yellow sign on a post – ‘TMB’. We’ve made it to the Tour de Mont Blanc. Italy, here we come!
The full circuit of Europe’s highest range is some 170km long and takes about 60 hours of walking. Most people do it in 8-12 days. It passes through the French and Italian Alps, but we’re doing the stretch across the Valais region of Switzerland, then looping back to Ozieres.
It’s staggeringly beautiful terrain – or is that my pack making me stagger? We plough knee-deep through fields of wildflowers. We wind through dark pine forests beside gushing streams. We clamber up rocky trails and emerge on ridges over 2000metres high, surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
From time to time we drop down and enter villages, each with a picturesque little chapel, old chalets with firewood stacked high outside them and meticulously tended gardens. We fill our water bottles at the icy springs that pour into log troughs.
On the high slopes, some small farms have set up tables and chairs, and Monsieur et Madame offer café et gateaux to a steady stream of passing walkers. The Tour de Mont Blanc is popular.
We meet an English high school group, a party of Aussies with a guide, and an American fitness freak jogging through the snow in his sneakers. ‘I’m gonna run (puff!) the whole route in (puff!) three days (puff!) Travel light. Just carryin’ a credit card (puff!) Have a good one, buddy!’ At lunchtime we find he’s stopped to tell the same story to everyone in our party – he’ll need a fourth day to do his bragging.
The track is generally well made and the TMB isn’t a danger to life, though occasionally to limb. Anyone in reasonable shape can manage the walk, but there are some steep rocky sections and we climb and/or descend 1000-1500m most days. Think of a two kilometre-long staircase and you get the idea.
Tent camping along the way is possible, though we opt to stay in the numerous small hotels and auberges, usually taking demi-pension, which includes a basic but hearty breakfast and dinner. Booking is necessary in the summer (July-October) and some places may be closed at other times.
We usually sleep in the communal dormitories, which we find comfortable enough for people as tired as we are. Our budget for the lot, including too much beer and local Fendant (white) and Dole (red) wine is 100 francs a day.
Fortunately the weather clears as our week goes on and by the time we reach the highest cols we have brilliant sunshine. The masochists among us (self not included) sometimes take ‘variants’, crossing alpine routes to make the trip more challenging. They’re heroes when they arrive alive and even the professional guides of other groups consult them about snow conditions up top.
But we’re all tough guys after a few days in our boots, so we scorn the cable car that takes wimps up the Col de Balme. Instead we walk up the track in record time, only to be confronted by a pack of daredevil mountain bikers racing down in helmets and full body armour.
My mates get to laugh at me once more, when they find me hiding in the bushes while two young bulls block the bridge I need to cross. Okay, maybe they were cows. I only checked the horns and they looked like the fighting sort.
From the terrace of our hotel in La Fouly we watch the sun set behind the glaciers. Then next morning we leave our heavy gear behind and take a day walk up to the magnificent Grand Col de Ferret, 2500 metres high. The sun has softened the snow, so there are none of the ice problems we met earlier in the week.
Two steps across the col, my mobile rings. It’s the phone company, welcoming me to Italy and reminding me of their cheap rates. I take up the offer and call Sydney to tell my wife I’m in a very beautiful and very wild place, but not to worry – civilisation isn’t far away.
Getting there: Train from Geneva to Orsieres costs about EUR35 one way.
Those planning to walk the full Tour de Mont Blanc usually take the bus or train to Chamonix. Cost one way is from EUR25.
When to go: The walking season in the Valais is generally July-October. At other times it’s wise to check whether your planned accommodation will be open and what the snow conditions will be like.
Reading: The Tour of Mont Blanc (Mountain Walking) by Kev Reynolds.
Free, downloadable maps and information on hiking in the Valais area, including the Tour de Mont Blanc, is on the website: http://www.valais.ch/pdf_doc/Touren_2006.pdf
This gives a number of alternative routes, with details of elevation and approximate time required to walk each leg.
Various companies offer guided and self-guided tours of Mont Blanc (none track-tested by your Sun-Herald correspondent). They include:
Equipment: The weather in the Alps can change very quickly any time of year. Good footwear and wet weather gear are essential.
First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney.