The Tour Du Mont Blanc

The group photo taken outside Heathrow airport on the 5thSeptember featured 7 members of Hampshire Scout Expeditions who were about to embark on a challenging expedition to trek the famous Trail Du Mont Blanc. None of us truly knew the immense task ahead that we had signed up for. The route in question was to start in the Chamonix valley situated near the massive peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges and the Aiguille du Midi. It would then take us through relentless undulating mountain and forest trails into Italy, Switzerland and back into France. Our aim was to complete the 170km route that circumnavigates the Mont Blanc Massif in 6 days, carrying all our kit needed to wild camp 3 out of the 5 nights. The remaining nights we would stay in refuges close by the trail.

After gathering supplies in Chamonix, a final kit check and packing commenced in our chalet the night before our first day on the trail. The morning greeted us with cloudy and misty conditions from Les Houches (1,008m) up our initial 650m ascent into the mountains; however we quickly removed layers to avoid overheating before reaching Col de Voza. At this point the clouds cleared and paved the way for glorious weather and amazing scenery for the rest of the trek. Nearly all the height gained was then quickly lost travelling down into Les Contamines. Our journey continued up a lot higher with the team making good progress where we finished the day at 2443m elevation at Col de la Croix du Bonhomme before sunset. We set up our bivvy bags under the starlit sky much to the amusement of other hikers inhabiting the refuge that night.

It was a chilly start brushing off the ice that had accumulated overnight on our bivvy bags before a quick calorie rich and convenient breakfast consisting of muesli, which none of us are particular fans of. We didn’t let this bother us though as we were all aware this trip would be far from the familiar comforts of home. The day ahead was the shortest, roughly 20km but an exciting one which included our first border crossing into North East Italy. There was yet again considerable height gain up to Col de la Seigne providing stunning views of both France and Italy each side of the Col. Our pace slowed down the steep descents to Refugio Elisabetta where we would spend the night along with several other trekkers from all over the world. It was here we were lucky enough to spot the silhouettes of some male Ibex traversing a steep ridge brandishing impressive curved horns.

Sadly one of the team had to separate from the rest of us due to injury manifesting itself after the first 2 gruelling days. Quick planning and difficult decisions had to be made by the leaders of the expedition to split us so 5 of us carried on with the trek while a leader remained with the injured member thus forming the support team. At the start of day three there was some relatively small height gain which warmed us up as the sun was still hidden from view. As the day went on we continued high along the mountain pass now on the opposite side of the range with more breath-taking landscape including Mont Blanc itself. Next came the never-ending descent into Courmayeur and if this wasn’t enough to contend with, the searing heat, dusty tracks and swarms of crickets made it a difficult task. We met with the others who kindly prepared lunch in the town and it was here that unfortunately another injury meant the support team grew to three. The four of us able to press on were faced with an enormous amount of altitude increase out of Courmayeur to Refugio Bonatti where we wild camped the night.

By day 4 of the expedition the blisters had got to a point where plasters were needed by most of us to make it bearable along with sharing memories of previous HSX expeditions to keep our spirits high. Not only did we struggle towards the end of our long 39km day physically but mentally we were drained so we were very grateful that the support team managed to secure us a refuge for accommodation that night. Our entrance into Switzerland the Grand Col Ferret, at 2537m our highest point, was reached in the morning after a steep ascent. We passed by several herds of cows high in the Swiss Alps whose bells filled the valleys with melodic ringing before dropping down alongside the glacial river. Probably the flattest section of the route led us through small villages before the final climb into Champex, which is home to a glacial lake with beautifully clear water. We had some well-earned rest that evening and it was great to all be back together as a team again to support one another.

The injured participants then headed by public transport back to Les Houches so our leader Jamie could re-join us on the last 2 days of walking. Over half way now we kept telling ourselves as we put one foot in front of the other plodding along the paths through Switzerland. Navigation was more difficult during this section, as the signs were not always obvious and fatigue was really setting in. The route was back into France now passing over Col de Balme giving rise to the Chamonix Valley but there was still a way to go yet. A short detour to find food in Argentière really helped our motivation to carry on to reduce the distance we needed to cover on the last day. This meant walking a total distance of 39km with around 3,000m of ascent including a series of metal ladders hammered into the rock to reach La Tête aux Vents after sundown. Over 13hrs since leaving the refuge – we decided this was where we would lay our heads for the night.

It was a great location from which to see the sunrise the next morning as we set off early on the final day. Our toughest challenge was finding a water source from this point and in the end we had to purchase some rather expensive bottled water from a refuge. More views of Mont Blanc’s snow-capped peak standing a proud 4810m tall were seen from Le Brevent as we were joined by many tourists some of whom took a Gondola most of the way. From there we knew the only way back to Les Houches was down a knee-crunching 1500m consisting of mountain and forest trails. This seemed to go on forever as we all had to dig deep and find our last reserves of energy. We met up with our support team still carrying their injuries during the last hour of the Trail du Mont Blanc. They welcomed us with much needed supplies of food and drinks during that final walk into Les Houches which it felt like we had left a lifetime ago. Arriving at the chalet together to end our tour of the Alps was a real sense of achievement after the many ups and downs both physical and mental which we had all shared.

In the days that followed we had some well-deserved R&R in Chamonix including a spa overlooking some glaciers and the adrenaline fuelled alpine luge. I didn’t know I was capable of eating so much bread and cheese and of course drinking wine in our final days there. Then it was time for the transfer back to Geneva airport for the short flight back to Heathrow terminal 5 which went very smoothly. Now back home my view of Butser hill a measly 271m above sea level just doesn’t compare to the landscape I was enjoying a few days ago. It’s back to work on Monday for the majority of us leaving me only dreaming of the next HSX expedition I get the opportunity to be a part of.

Sam Howe

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