Chamonix & Mont Blanc

Chamonix is widely recognized as the centre of Alpine climbing; the mountain scenery unsurpassed at least in Europe. Climbing Mont Blanc is certainly the most sort after peak in the area (at least amongst mere mortals – different if you are an experienced Alpine climber!) but there are other wonderful walks/climbs which are achievable either with or without a guide. I have included 3 blogs on walking in Chamonix; my own experience on a visit where the intention was to climb Mont Blanc, Sean’s successful ascent and also his collection of favourite walks which he has collated over years of visits to this special Alpine town.

5 Best Walks in Chamonix – Sean

Forget the high mountains for a while,Chamonix has a huge number – and variety – of day walks suitable for everyone. Here are Where2walk’s favourite 5. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do. And as often.

For a full list of walks in the Chamonix valley we recommend the “Mont Blanc Trails” book available from the Chamonix Tourist Office. Helpfully it comes complete with a map.

1. Lac Blanc (2352m)

Start Point:         Various, but usually the top of the cable car at La Flegere (1877m).

Height Gain:       Around 475m

Summary:           Ascent to the glacial Lac Blanc with stunning views of the entireMont Blancrange. Unashamedly our number one favourite.

Our favourite day walk, and arguably the most scenic day walk in the world.

From the start point at the top of the Flegere cable car, the route is always clearly signposted, starting down the wide road to the right that is a ski piste in winter.

At the first switchback in the road it is possible to take a shortcut across the rocks, and while this will save you a few minutes, it’s probably not for everyone. At this point it’s also worth stopping to look at the alpine garden that is being created by the Compagnie duMontBlanc from the summer of 2014 onwards.

The first section of the route is perhaps the steepest, rising up what is another ski piste but a wide rocky road in summer. This should take only around 20-30 minutes to complete. From here the path winds gently upwards through a meadow like area before then traversing, all the time offering views of the Grands Montets, Mer de Glace with the Grandes Jorasses in the distance, and the entireMont Blancrange across the valley.

From the end of the traverse it’s steadily uphill to the Lac Blanc itself, following a well marked and well used path. When you get there you’ll understand why we love this place so much: it’s tranquil, it’s serene, and its views are stunning beautiful. Enough said.

Our tip is to walk a little way further upwards from the first lake when you first arrive at the Lac Blanc, and park yourself on the rocks in front of, or better still just to the left of the second lake. Here you’re slightly higher, slightly further away from the crowds, and the views are arguably slightly better. You may even see people mad enough to go swimming … but they never last long as the water is absolutely freezing. If you don’t believe us, try it for yourself !

There are a couple of options for the descent here. Either you simply retrace your steps down to La Flegere; or you descend 50m retracing your steps but then follow the signpost to L’Index and take the chairlift down to the top of the La Flegere cable from here, or you take the path down to Argentiere (again this is clearly marked). We actually like the second option … but as the lifty will tell you, if it’s windy don’t wear a baseball cap on the way down the chairlift !

It’s worth saying here that you can also actually take the chairlift up the Index at the beginning of the walk, and traverse across to the Lac Blanc from there. It’s definitely less effort but no less spectacular. But beware, we actually did this in early June one year … only there was still 6ft of snow is places !

 

2. Albert Premiere Hut (2702m)

Start Point :        Le Tour (Col de la Balme chairlift 2162m)

Height Gain:       Around 540m

Summary:           Ascent alongside the Glacier du Tour to the Albert Premier Refuge (2702m).

Another great spot. We love this place !

This is another walk where it is possible to walk the entire way up from the valley, but we always get the cable car up from Le Tour and then the chairlift at Charamillion, saving around 90 minutes and a whole lot of effort !

From the top of the chairlift, the path winds steadily upwards towards the Lac de Charamillion, traversing round the hillside towards the Glacier du Tour, across a couple of gullies equipped with handrails (very short sections), before a further longer traverse to reach the moraine of the glacier itself. The path is obvious and well trodden throughout.

The views across the glacier from the traverse onwards are – on a clear day – extraordinary, with the peak of the Aiguille de Chardonnay and the Forbes Arrete to its left to the fore.

The walk up the moraine is probably the steepest and most tiring part of the walk, but adopting a steady pace you’ll soon arrive at the refuge itself perched on the top part of the moraine at 2702m. This is the stopping off point for a number of routes such as the Aiguille d’Argentiere, the Aiguille du Tour etc, so expect to see large numbers of boots being aired on the wall outside !

Our tip is again to continue up a little behind the refuge, find a spot on the rocks above the glacier, get the picnic out and take in the stunning scenery around you ! In front of you is the glacier itself; opposite you is the Aiguille de Chardonnay, and below you stretches the entire Chamonixvalley.

 

While we’re not always a fan of returning by the same route as you go up, in this case it’s a small price to pay for a great day out !

 

3. La Jonction (2589m)

Start Point:         Various

Height Gain:       Around 1188m

Summary:           Long ascent to the “junction” of the Glacier des Bossons and the Glacier de Taconnaz.

Definitely not the easiest walk in the valley. But definitely worth the effort. And don’t worry, you’ll be making plenty of that !

While it is possible to walk up the “real” start of the walk at the Chalet du Glacier Des Bossons at 1410m, we always get the chairlift up from Les Granges/leMont…. if only just to remind ourselves what chairlifts were like in the 1970s !

The Chalet du Glacier itself is a few metres up from where you get off the chairlift, and offers a great view over the Bossons glacier, although it’s sad to think that 30 years ago the glacier was a staggering 50-100m higher, so high in fact that there used to be a grotto carved into it each summer. Not any more though such has been the effect of pollution, global warming, and to be fair, the cyclical nature of glaciers themselves. It’s also worth walking up to the chalet to see one of the pieces of the Air India plane that crashed into the side of Mont Blanc in 1950 en route from Geneva to Delhi. Amazingly it was only in 1987 – some 37 years later -before the glacier started to surrender up the first pieces of the plane !

From the chalet the first part of the route climbs steadily in the trees before crossing a new section of wooden steps and pathway recently added to avoid some heavily eroded areas, and arriving at the Chalet des Pyramides at 1895m.

We always stop here for water, an omelette, and to take in the views of the chaotic towers of ice that form the bottom section of the Bossons Glacier. It really is an incredible sight, while above you you have views up to the Aiguille du Midi and the Aiguilles du Chamonix beyond.

From here the path ascends steeply up a series of switch backs before emerging on the other side of the hill with great views of the Glacier du Taconnaz in front of you. If you look carefully below you can make out the enormous avalanche defences protecting the houses in the valley below.

Another steepish section then follows which sees you emerge once again on the Bossons side of the hill at a point just below Mont Corbeau. This marks around about 2/3 distance … at least of the ascent !

From here the path traverses, before rising again for the final part of the route. Here there is perhaps more in the way of gentle scrambling in a couple of spots, but otherwise it remains a clear well trodden path onwards and upwards. Before long you pass the Gite a Balmat where Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard bivouacked on 7 August 1786, before coming the first people to summit the Mont Blanc early the next day, and within another few minutes it’s journey’s end at La Jonction where the glaciers of Les Bossons and Taconnaz meet.

Above you you see the original route up the Mont Blanc (still nearly another 2000m above you); all around you you see jumbled towers of ice and huge crevasses, and below you, far far below you, you see the Chamonix valley itself. It really is quite an incredible unique spot.

Stay as long as you can … if nothing else it puts off starting the long descent back down the same route as you came up ! And it does seem a long way down … last time were up here in 2013 it took nearly 3 hours to get down to the Chalet du Glacier, so keep an eye on that last chairlift down time !

But do also keep your eyes open as you go down as often there are Ibex to be spotted, and the younger ones will let you get really quite close to them before jumping off seemingly headlong up or down rocks to get out of your way.

Arriving at the Chalet du Glacier you may be tired, your legs may be telling you they’ve had along day, but we defy you not to have enjoyed it !

 

4. Planpraz to La Flegere Traverse (1999m to 1877m)

Start Point:         Planpraz (top of first section of the Brevent cable car)

Height Gain:         Around 122m (downhill)

Summary:           Gentle descending traverse along the north side of the valley between Planpraz (2000m) and La Flegere (1877m) with stunning views.

Wainwright (a Where2Walk legend) once said that no trip to the Lake District is complete without climbing Cat Bells. This is Chamonix’s equivalent.

The start point for the walk is Planpraz , the top of the first stage of the Brevent cable car.

One thing that is worth doing before getting on the cable is actually to pop back across the street and look at the wood carvings in the shop window opposite. While the artist who made them sitting outside his little gallery every day left us in 1987, his sculptures (all hard carved out of solid wood) are still displayed to this day as a celebration of his life and work. Which we think is kind of nice.

Leaving from the cable car at Planpraz, you first must resist the temptation to spend a long (sometimes very long) lunch in – or at the very least an ice cream in the deck chairs in the cafe below – the Bergerie restaurant immediately in front of you. Assuming you do, you’ll see the path rising to the left up what is a ski run in winter. Like everywhere the path to La Flegere is well signposted.

After the first 500m you come to the spot where the parapentes take off: another good excuse to stop for a few minutes to watch. Yes it is like being a bird. And yes, you should do it !

The path then rises to the left of the Altitude 2000 restaurant, and then descends a little to the left of the top of the Parsa chairlift. Again it’s well signposted.

From here the path descends down what is another ski piste, before dropping into a long gentle traverse, and eventually coming out onto yet another ski piste.

Following the signposts you continue to traverse, mainly in the trees, all the while with fantastic views of the entire Mont Blanc range, before the path opens out into more meadow like section. This marks the half way point of the walk.

From here the path climbs gently into the trees, and again follows what is basically a further traverse through a mixture of wooded sections and open sections across wide rocky bowls. At one point you’ll even walk through one of the huge avalanche defences that protect the valley below. Throughout the footpath is clear, well maintained, and with the exception of one very short section, relatively flat.

Crossing the last open section you meander gently through more trees, under the ski lifts that seem to be silently waiting for the snow to come, before all of a sudden you arrive at the cable car station at La Flegere with its huge green gondola speeding up and down to the valley floor every 6 minutes.

A long stop here to take in the views across to the Mer de Glace with the huge wall of Les Grandes Jorasses beyond, is virtually obligatory.  And while you’re doing that you can decide whether you get the cable car down from here to the valley, continue upwards to the Lac Blanc, re-trace your steps (remember it’s uphill on the way back !), or walk down to the valley via the Chalet Floria. We’ll leave that one to you !

We invariably do this as a gentle first day. And you should too.

 

5. Mer de Glace/Montenvers (1912m)

Start Point :        Les Planards (1062m)

Height Gain:       Around 850m

Summary:           Ascent to the Hotel Du Montenvers at the head of the Mer de Glace

You could always just cheat and get the train up to the station at Montenvers (1912m), but as usual we prefer to walk !

The first part of the walk is definitely the steepest snaking up the nursery slopes at Les Planards alongside the Luge run, before then easing off as it heads into the trees following what is the final part of the descent from the Vallee Blanche ski run in winter.

The path is always wide, switching back on itself as you gain height, crossing a number of gullies prone to avalanche is the winter, before exiting the trees and continuing over a rocky area to the always welcoming Rochers des Mottets hut (1638m) offering lovely food in a lovely setting perched as it is looking straight up the Mer de Glace itself.

From here it’s another 45 minutes to an hour upwards through the trees to Montenvers itself, passing under the small cable cars that take tourists down to the glacier itself where each summer, while all the while you have the massive rockface of Aiguille Dru, the Mer de Glace, Les Grandes Jorasses, and the Aiguiiles for company.

One interesting – or should that be jaw-dropping – thing on this last section of the walk is to look for the sign that shows you where the level of the glacier was in 1985. A very stark reminder of the damage pollution and global warming are having on the valley.

As usual there are several option for descending from Montenvers. The most straightforward is the train. The most direct is on foot following the footpath to Chamonix from the hotel itself. The most interesting (and longest) is to walk up to the Signal at 2198m (signposted from the left of the Hotel Du Montenvers ) and then along the Balcon Nord to the cable car station at Plan d’Aiguille and descend from there by foot or the telecabine.

But what you really should do is to have lunch in the sunshine at the Hotel Du Montenvers, take in the amazing scenery, and resolve to come up here again. Soon.

A first taste of Alpine climbing

Aiguille Argentiere in Chamonix

My first visit to the mecca of Alpine climbing. A climb up a 3,900 metre peak up steep slopes, airy ridges and a crevasse ridden glacier.

We planned a 6 day visit to Chamonix in the summer of 2000 with the express intention of climbing Mont Blanc via the Tacul and to include some days acclimatising before. As it turned out we were unable to get up the Blanc as the weather turned but we still enjoyed a 2 day climb up the Aiguille Argentiere – a wonderful, suitably pointy peak at 3,901 above the Glacier d’Argentiere. Following the Argentiere we were able to struggle up the Petite Verte in fairly poor conditions.

There was 4 of us climbing and we hired 2 guides, the blunt Nick Banks and the youthful Graham Mc Mahon – a good choice. This was our first climbing trip of any significance and guiding was essential . Basically Sean & Tricia paired up with Nick Banks and myself and JP ended up with Graham. Whilst in the valley floor we stayed at the Hotel Le Prieure which was fine. However we were not intending to be there for many nights.

When we arrived in Chamonix we spent a couple of days walking the mountain paths above Le Tour and La Brevant – beautiful walking on excellent paths all amidst the most superb scenery in Europe. For anyone just after a walking holiday there is no better place but sadly one that really is very expensive. However we were there to climb and, despite the lovely situation, there was a lot of nervousness about what was about to come (at least there was for me!)

The Aiguille Argentiere

Day 1 To the Refuge d’Argentiere.

Mid-morning we took the cable car up to the Grand Montets – a station I knew well from numerous visits to the area on skiing holidays. The skiing off the side here is as good as anything in the Alps – off piste but usually in tremendous condition. Anyway the 2 guides were clearly assessing our ability with crampons and ice axe and general mountain awareness – I guess we passed but this did not stop them having some fun on the glacier itself as they , attempted, to teach us all how to climb out of a glacier crevasse. Not convinced I would fancy my chances now though.

The route from the station took us down to the glacier, across, and the 100 foot or so climb to the magnificently situated Refuge d’Argentiere. I remember a grand day, hot and rather sweaty weather, stunning views with the route up the Aiguille clearly viewed in front of us. The climb would take us up the glacier of the ‘Normal’ route – a 45 degree slope up the middle of two rocky ridges. To me it was clearly steeper than 45 degrees!

The Refuge is superbly situated, that goes without saying with the views down and on to the Chamonix Valley. Inside the Refuge has been modernised and a pleasant place to stay. The sitting area being warm and comfortable; there is limited food available and drink. This is included in the price and, although I cannot imagine the locals kicking anybody out in to the darkness if there is no reservation, I would certainly suggest pre-booking the refuge.  Mind you the nerves were kicking in for us and we sat around playing cards and drinking copious amounts of water. Plenty of water though meant a 2 am visit to the near outside, thoroughly unpleasant French toilets. This was a right ordeal and involving negotiating 20 or so sweaty bodies lined up on the same bunk including a man with the ‘longest’ snore ever known! I slept badly, I can’t imagine anyone slept well  but it mattered little as we were to be woken at 4 for a 4.30 start.

Day 2 The climb of the Aiguille Argentiere and return to Chamonix.

We left the hut in darkness about 4.30 (if memory serves me correctly) and picked our way through the rocky lands under the southern ridge of the Aiguille to enter the foot of the gully/glacier which was to be our route up. Yawning crevasses needed negotiating and the 2 threesomes were soon roped up for the climb. The climb took about 4 1/2 hours from when lightness hit at the foot of the gully and we hit the summit about 11 am. The gully we climbed became increasingly steep and increasingly hard work. As the lip of the gully became closer Graham started to zig zag up the slope and we slowed considerably but eventually we made the summit knife edge ridge. A hairy walk along the ridge led to the summit – fabulous. The views were naturally superb, I felt good (none of us suffered from the altitude) and the satisfaction was really high.

Nick and Graham hurried us off the summit, they were concerned about the state of the gully in the increasing heat. Heat brings avalanches and they were keen to have us on the glacier before the afternoon dangers kicked in. However none of us slipped and we made it down – the steep section was slow but soon we were racing down the final slopes. Crossing the glacier was possibly the most hairy part of the trip and we were soon back on the clock – not because of avalanche danger but to make the last cable car from the mid station. This we did comfortably and were soon back in the bar in Chamonix.

Day 4 Fun on the Petites  Vertes

After a day in the town the weather was clearly changing and the ‘advice’ from Nick and Graham was not to bother with Mont Blanc, we were unlikely to get beyond the hut. They suggested however a day on the Petites Vertes a few hundred metres above the Grandes Montets cable car station. The ridge up to the Petites Vertes is narrow, step in places and a place to practice and play. My abiding memory is of Tricia suspended upside down on one steep section of the climb, completely unable to extricate herself – she would still be there now without Nick’s help. Sadly the cloud was down and there was light snow falling so the spectacular view up the Vertes itself was not to be enjoyed.

So after the Aiguille Argentiere the trip did peter out somewhat and left us without having climbed Mont Blanc but still having enjoyed a great few days. Climbing the Blanc is not everything.

Sean & Tricia completed Mont Blanc a few years later – their story is here. JP and myself have not….yet!

 

Success on Mont Blanc – Sean

Chamonix 1985

I was 20 back then, and working as the Veilleur de Nuit in the Hotel Le Prieure.

And sitting in the back restaurant at the end of my night shift, watching fascinated as the first rays of sunlight caught the summit each morning around 6am, I’d always told myself that one day I would climb it.

And in 2001 I did.

Chamonix 2000

But first, back to late summer 2000 (see above).

Plans had been made, guides booked, the Aiguille d’Argentiere summitted, and all was set for the next day. Only then came the rain. And when it rains in Chamonix, it snows in the mountains. And man, did it do both !

Come the pre-arranged meeting time with our guides, and we really didn’t have to ask.! Navigating the snow arête on the altimeter, avalanche danger, little chance of success … or a fun next day on the Petit Dru ? A no-brainer.

Which just goes to show that sometimes it’s just not meant to be. But the mountain will always be there the next time.

And so it was in 2001.

Chamonix 2001

Things had a pretty inauspicious start.

Chamonix Experience found us a guide. In fact they found us a fabulous guide, John Entwhistle from NZ. But more of that later.

On his advice we planned an acclimatisation day on the Mont Blanc du Tacul, followed a day or so later by the main objective of the Mont Blanc: into the mountains on the first morning, overnight in a hut, then the climb the following morning.

Things started off great. First cable up the Aiguille du Midi in the morning. Can’t help but looking at some of the other – very obviously experienced – climbers and feeling slightly inadequate. Sure no-one will realise.

We crampon up and rope up in the ice cave, then venture out down the snow arête onto the Vallee Blanche. I say venture, because it’s narrow. Very narrow. And with a 5000ft drop on the left, it’s at best “airy.” At least that’s how it felt.

A 20 minute shuffle, and a good few deep breaths later, we’re down and on the relative security of the Vallee Blanche itself. From there it’s across to the right for 30 minutes to the foot of the Mont Blanc du Tacul: the objective for the day.

It’s relatively easy going: a clear well cramponed path in the snow, a few crevasses to step across, but generally easy going. It’s hot. Very hot, with the bright sunshine and the glare from the snow, but all is well.

We make the summit in fairly good time. We sit and admire the view: north down to Chamonix 14,000ft below in the valley, and south up to the Mont Maudit and the Mont Blanc itself, still 2000ft above. But that is for another day.

Then we start down. I feel fine on the summit, but 10 minutes later I know something doesn’t quite feel right. It’ll be ok so I continue, sure it’ll pass. But it doesn’t, and 20 minutes later I have the mother of all headaches. I feel sick. Very sick.

I do the right thing and tell John. I know what’s the matter and so does he. Altitude sickness. My head is pounding and we still have a long way to go. We make it to the Vallee Blanche. John feeds me aspirins, but they come straight back up.

No option but to continue onwards. And it’s amazing what your body can do when it needs to. It waits until we ascend the snow arête and reach the top station of the Aiguille du Midi before again being violently sick.

But coming down in the cable car is amazing. My head clears completely, and by the time we arrive back in Chamonix barely 20 minutes I’m absolutely fine.

John is very practical and matter of fact. It might not happen again when we do the Mont Blanc, but if it does we turn around straight away. No questions. No messing. People do die on this mountain. And pride or no pride it’s not worth being one of them.

Anyway, 2 days later and we’re again on the first cable up the Aiguille du Midi. Bit more kit this time. And, if honest, a bit wary of how my head will react.

We spend the day practicing crampon technique and stressing our bodies at the altitude. The last 30 minutes back across the Vallee Blanche and up to the Cosmique Hut is tiring, but the fabulous food and company of the other climbers make that soon a distant memory.

9 o’clock and it’s time for a few hours sleep/rest.

1am and the dormitory bell sounds: the signal to get up, get dressed, and get some breakfast.

Boots on. Crampons on. Head-torch on. Then it’s time to venture into the night to start the climb. It’s 2am. And an amazing full moon.

A 20 minute easy traverse to the foot of the Mont Blanc du Tacul, and then the real climbing starts. Again it’s easy going, albeit the dark and seeing by head-torch does take some getting used to.

We reach the shoulder of the Tacul in 90 minutes or so and branch right, descending to the foot of Mont Maudit. Down in the valley below you can see the lights of Chamonix twinkling: it makes you realise how high you are.

Crossing a couple of bigger crevasses, we begin the upward traversing track up the Mont Maudit, reaching the fixed rope in pretty good time. We’ve probably been going 3-4 hours at this point.

John clips us into the fixed rope, flies effortlessly up it, and watches as we ascend rather less gracefully. At the top we’re effectively two thirds of the way there. For the first time I remember thinking “we’re going to do this.”

We take a well earned rest a little further on looking at the remainder of the route, taking us round and then up the North Face of the Mont Blanc itself. All we have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other.

We do just that. It’s tiring is that last hour or so once you get onto the main face of the Mont Blanc. We pass the huge rock visible from Chamonix itself, and the summit seems within touching distance.

Legs feel heavy, but we’re definitely making it. What felt like several hundred switchbacks later – though in reality it was probably only 10 – and we’re ascending the final few metres.

Suddenly we’re there. It’s 8:05 on 27th September 2001. We made it in just over 6 hours. Not bad for a pair of novices !

And it’s as beautiful as I’d always imagined it would be. You can see for miles. Italy in one direction. Across to Switzerland and the Matterhorn in the distance. And all round the bend of the earth. Absolutely stunning and absolutely unforgettable.

Handshakes all round, but handshakes tempered with John’s “remember we’re only half way there” before we forget that there’s still the descent to come.

We stay 20 minutes gazing all around and taking more photos than a Japanese tourist.

Then it’s time to start back down.

We retrace or our steps, round to the fixed rope on the Mont Maudit, down and up to the shoulder of the Tacul, then down its North Face, across the Vallee Blanche, and finally up to the snow arête to the safety of the Aiguille du Midi itself.

20 minutes later we’re down in Chamonix sitting having a celebratory drink. Job done.

All-in-all 6 hours up, 20 minutes on the summit, and 5 hours back down. And you know what, whenever anyone asks I still refer to it as a “a great day out. “

So in summary, it may not be the prettiest mountain in the world or the most technically demanding, but standing on the summit that September morning I really couldn’t have cared less. And you won’t either.

Go see for yourself.

On The Trip

Sean Russell

Tricia Austin (who, it’s only fair to point out, had/has Crohn’s Disease, so it shows you what can be achieved)

John Entwhistle (Our Guide – see below)

Guide

This report would be wholly incomplete without a quick mention for our guide. We booked John through The Chamonix Experience (www.chamonixexperience.com) based in Argentiere, and he was fantastic. Primarily because he got us up there, and back down, but also because he encouraged us when we needed encouraging, cajoled us when we needed cajoling, and barked at us when we needed barking at.

Finally, while not hugely technical, the arête down to the Vallee Blanche is very narrow and exposed (at least for relative novices like we were), and the weather can change so quickly, so hiring a UIAGM guide is essential in my opinion. It could just save your life. It will definitely make the day more likely to be (a) fun, and (b) a successful one. The normal convention is one guide to two clients maximum.

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