Hours of fun whilst sipping whisky round the fire in your one night mountain retreat.
Originally published in Issue 110 of Singletrack World Magazine, let us take you back in time to the kind of adventure you might well find yourself planning from the comfort of your armchair.
Words and photography by Joseph Delves
Additional photography by Jeremy Valender
The Tour du Mont Blanc trail covers 174km through France, Italy and Switzerland. Joseph Delves thought it looked pretty rideable on the map, even self-supported…
The forecast is not good the morning we belatedly set off on the Tour du Mont Blanc and the manager at the hotel suggests we delay and stay another night. “The first section is difficult in poor weather,” she warns. “We have a heated pool,” she tempts. Eager and foolhardy we set off regardless. Somewhere above us lurks Mont Blanc, swaddled in an immense bank of dense cloud.
Behind the lift station at Les Houches, the first section of the TMB trail does nothing to allay my apprehension. Composed of narrow ledges clinging to the side of a fairly severe cliff, chains pinned into the rock provide handholds. It’s the sort of traverse that wouldn’t trouble most hikers, but in the rain, with my stupidly unsuitable shoes and a bike perched above my backpack I’m already getting the horrors.
Thankfully I don’t disgrace myself by voicing my rising dread and soon enough we’re riding a trail pinned against the mountainside. The weather keeps us low and taking the hotel owner’s advice we avoid the vast sprawl of moraine rock above us, instead following a circuitous route to our first planned campsite. Hours pass as we tick along rough forest roads and through fields, until suddenly the track ends just above the tree line. It’s getting late and the last of the hikers are heading in for the evening as we carry onwards.
Bikes hoisted onto our shoulders we continue into the mist as the mountainsides close in. Soon we can’t see more than a hundred feet in any direction. Nobody’s quite sure what time the sun will set, but it can’t be far off. The steep, rocky fold we’re in funnels water directly along the trail. There’s no possibility of pitching tents and in the clouds we can’t see further up the climb. We realise we’ve lost the trail. I think about the swimming pool back at the hotel.
A few panicked moments later we find a cairn signposting the path. Another half an hour, just as it starts raining and is getting undeniably gloomy, the chute opens and, as if by magic, squatting by a river of unmelted snow is a tiny refuge hut. Inside it’s muddy and litter strewn, but guarantees our survival so we pile in. It’s soon dark and, having melted some snow from the glacier, we’re eating disgusting packet rations cooked over a stove in our new home.
What a difference a night makes. A scratching at the door wakes us next morning and we’re greeted by glorious sunshine and a herd of goats happily chewing on the kit we’ve stacked outside. Scrambling up waterfalls that would have been treacherous in the mist, the previous day seems a bad dream as we pass our intended campsite outside the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. Its sole occupant, the caretaker, serves us coffee. There’s a photo hanging on the wall of him as a teenager in this same spot. He looks at least 60 now.
Incautiously we fly down from the first peak, on a flowing, rock-peppered descent, dropping a kilometre of vertical. A great saddle between two peaks, the next climb, the Col de la Seigne takes over an hour of hike-a-bike to clear and marks the border between France and Italy. Although the weather is fine, behind us Mont Blanc remains elusive, gathered in wisps of cloud.
Following an introduction to Italian hospitality and more beers than strictly sensible at the Rifugio Elisabetta we pass Lac Combal, where a Roman road driven straight along the valley floor helps us cover a few quick kilometres before the trail threads skywards. At lower altitude vegetation crowds the way and it’s an hour’s hacking until we’re back in open terrain and dashing down a shallow descent, loose rocks scattering in our wake.
Twenty minutes of descending later I hear a crash up the trail and find one of my friends lying next to his bike 15 feet below the path, a deep gash in his fork neatly mirrored by a mucky gash in his arm. Our pockets stuffed with blood-soaked alcohol wipes and with his arm shoddily bandaged, we descend the rest of the mountain at a more reticent pace as it begins to rain again. It’s getting late and the prospect of a damp evening and the hole in his arm persuades the others that a hostel might be a better option than wild camping. An hour down the trail we come upon a large rifugio.
Unfortunately, the proprietor, a burly man called Giacomo, isn’t sure there’s space for four stinking mountain bikers, one of whom is quietly bleeding on himself. However, appealing in passable Italian does the trick and we’re in. We get our own little hut and are told to be ready for dinner in an hour.
Giacomo turns out to be an excellent host. We eat a huge dinner of spaghetti, pork and peas with juniper, coffee, beer, liqueur and apple pie while he patches up our friend’s arm. He shows us a photograph of himself smiling with all his teeth knocked out following a bike accident, just to prove that things aren’t that bad. In the morning we leave long after the hikers.
The next day it’s sunny as we lose our remaining altitude on the approach to Courmayeur. Pushed hard against the mountains, the route out of town leads straight into an unrelenting climb. Baking in the sun, we stomp through a forest on steeply cut switchbacks to emerge above the treeline at the Villair Supérieur before pushing on to Praz de la Saxe. Here the trail descends gradually as, dipping in and out of the forest’s fringes, it splashes through muddy fields interspersed with fast rolling hardpack. Ahead of us the Grand Col Ferret is, as a hiker coming past us in the opposite direction wryly observes, ‘a big f**king prick of a mountain’.
We try to ride, but the lack of oxygen quickly slaps us down and instead we shoulder our bikes and route-march upwards. “Tour du Mont Blanc avec vélos? Pourquoi?” asks a woman halfway up. Sweating away, I don’t have a reply. Over 2.5km high, the views from the top might be the answer. The descent down, another. Racing into Switzerland alongside rivers of meltwater we lose altitude as quickly as our battered limbs allow along a wild, empty trail. At the bottom we pitch camp beside the Dranse de Ferret river, dunking our tired bodies into the freezing water for as long as we can bear before falling into an exhausted sleep.
Waking the following day to the sound of softly falling rain, we pack before continuing the tail end of the descent. Sometimes in the open, sometimes in the forest, we scoot along ledges cut precariously into the rock until the trail bridges across a valley atop a huge, disused earthen dam, the trees dropping away vertiginously on either side. The following climb into Champex looks benign on paper, but upon reaching the lake beside the town I’m in pieces. France and Italy vie with one another to provide the warmest welcome and the best food. Switzerland doesn’t. And while jumping naked into an alpine lake in any other country would be acceptable, in Switzerland it’ll likely land you on the sex offenders’ register. We take a dip in our bib shorts, pay the best part of forty quid for a crap pizza and hightail it out of town.
Leaving behind the bankers’ cottages we reach the Alpage de Bovine. Seemingly possessing its own microclimate, huge ferns and jurassic plants line the lower slopes before a forest of larch pines higher up eventually gives way to pastures full of gently swaying pink and yellow flowers. Near the top the eponymous cows appear and a bull threatens to charge us before we make it across the rickety fence that marks the summit. The way down passes in a blur. Clattering over rock gardens and knotted roots it’s all I can do to hold on. Half terrified, half elated, we smash along for what seems hours before landing dog-tired in the quiet town of Trient, where we pitch our already soggy tents in the field adjacent the Auberge du Mont Blanc hotel. The restaurant here looks promising, but Swiss prices mean we opt for camping rations, a shower, and a couple of beers instead.
We’re going mouldy.
The following morning I pretend the drumming on the canvas is one of the sharp downpours that frequently prelude a day of scorching alpine sunshine. It isn’t, and I emerge to see a sky like a sheet of lead pulled across the valley. Despite the weather today the route is busy with hikers, bussed in to walk the most scenic stretches. They’re painfully slow, but so are we, resulting in us continually passing one another. First a group of silent Japanese with umbrellas and brightly coloured ponchos march past in perfect single file, then a group of chipper Americans. They’re having a swell time despite the weather, but my mood is turning increasingly black.
Trudging up mountains in the rain I try to give the minor suffering of rubbing shoes and soggy clothing a Nietzschean gloss, imagining myself one col away from some existential revelation. The sort of tourists who’d normally inhabit an Angus Steakhouse overtaking me rather ruins this effect and I’m forced to contemplate the possibility the TMB might not be all that wild, and rather than some great alpinist I’m instead a cold, tired and unfit day-tripper.
The traipse up the Col de Balme is the steepest of the trip, through sopping forest and up high into the barren mountains. There are fewer people about now and the sense of exposure and space is palpable despite the cloud cover. I trudge along in the slow club, the faster riders away up the trail and I’m relieved when I see the red shutters and blank concrete facade of a refuge emerge from the mist.
Upon entering I’m greeted by a bare-chested woman standing in a pile of muddy waterproofs. She seems displeased to see me. Inside my glasses instantly fog as I stumble into a time-warp room replete with gas lamps, coal stove, and a 20-year-old food hygiene certificate. Six separate signs caution ‘eau non potable!’ A decrepit and misty-eyed mountain dog wanders between figures huddled in the darkness. I order three Mars bars and a coffee, which I saturate with sugar, from the owner who flicks on the electric light to count my change before snapping it off again.
Black moods and the white mountain.
Most people circumnavigate the Tour du Mont Blanc in ten days, walking about four hours a day. With bikes we thought we’d halve that. Yet rather than go quicker we’ve simply ridden and hiked longer, most days seeing eight hours on, or under, the bike. With the weather looking grim and somewhere close to exhaustion I’m not sure I can face two days more. When I locate my friends they’ve reached the same conclusion. However, rather than admit defeat, they’ve decided to finish the remaining kilometres today, which might mean another six weary hours of riding but will also see us drinking beers in the hotel sauna by nightfall.
The next few hours pass in a muddy, greasy daze. At one point we ride an incredible descent, all brutally steep switchbacks and root-veined corners, although two trips over the bars in quick succession result in a gashed wrist and me having a sulk beneath a tree. Later, above the town of Argentière we pass the entrance to the perilous ‘passage délicat’, a host of ladders fixed to a series of rock faces. Soggy and tired we vote to miss the ladders along with the final climb of Le Brévent, a decision I’m fully in favour of. Instead, we cut across the mountainside and over a few more wooded peaks which follow in an exhausted blur until, dazed and confused, we roll out of the wilderness and into Chamonix.
Crashing out in the town square, we pull off our rancid waterproofs and lie about on the benches. As the rain stops, with filmic inevitability the clouds break apart and for the first time on the trip we get a sight of Mont Blanc, lit up high above us in the sunshine. I hold out for a minute and then, like the weather, decide it’s probably about time to brighten up.
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