Le Tour, Chamonix trip – 1st-8th July

Intro by Editor.

At the beginning of July, twenty IOGers traipsed across the continent – literally by plane, train and automobile – to Le Tour, Chamonix, to stay in a spacious chalet with glorious views down the valley and up towards Mont Blanc. Many thanks to Glenys who once again took on the arduous role of organising the many aspects of a group trip away.

Chalet Les Seracs, Le Tour

In mind was a week of challenging walks in a beautiful area, lots of good food and drink and plenty of laughs and camaraderie. I can safely say that these goals were surpassed. Even the weather, after a shaky start on the first day, was flawless. A bit too hot sometimes? Round the corner there would be a breeze fresh off a glacier or even a glacial lake – of which, naturally, the loony ‘Anglaises’ took full advantage.

After long days outdoors, we were treated to a series of great evening meals by the various teams, who planned shorter walks for those days to make time for shopping and prep – and an extraordinary amount of food and wine was consumed with a clear conscience after hours on the go. The shopping trips were epic.

Towards the end of each evening conversation would become increasingly animated as people tried to decide what to do the next day: maps were flapped, suggestions made, lies told about the ease with which a proposed walk could be achieved, minds changed, and changed again, voices rose – it was all a lot of fun. And people (mostly) suited their plans to their puff and inclination (in my case mostly the least incline available, or even no incline at all).

As so many different walks were accomplished, I leave it to the various participants to tell their stories – beginning with Anne’s outline of a typical day in the mountains…

A Typical(?) Day for the Chamonix Crew

Words and pics by Anne.
1) Get up, take in beautiful Alpine views from chalet balcony, and enjoy leisurely (generally) cooked breakfast courtesy of Marie-Louise and her breakfast band, including best scrambled eggs ever. Reinforced by plentiful sustenance, pack up lunch and prepare for day out somewhere.

2) Walk/take local bus/local train/cable car up/down/across mountains in local area.

3) Very welcome lunch stops in a variety of locations, most with amazing views.

4) Further walking, eventually finding our way back to the chalet, some via a circuitous route into Switzerland and claims they had been kidnapped by the bus driver, but most via a pub/bar for a very welcome cold beer (or two).

5) Cool down in a nearby plunge pool – a wonderful find in a fast-flowing river a short stroll from the chalet. The temperature literally took your breath away but was so welcome after a strenuous day’s walking in the mountains in high temperatures – excellent antidote to aching legs. Tootling back through the village in swim gear, towelling robes and flip flops provided amusement for the locals.

6) Warm up in the chalet’s hot tub, reflecting on the day’s events, life, the universe and everything.

7) Aperitifs – beers and wine galore. How many wine boxes did we get through?

8) Delicious evening meal provided by a different team each day. Hierarchy of teams comprised chef, sous-chef, sous-sous-chef, Paul. Menus were varied and portions very generous.

9) Entertainment. The chalet had its own home cinema but we preferred to amuse ourselves, quite literally with Glen’s hilarious stand-up comic gig, a French sing-song with Miriam demonstrating her skills on the violin, Miriam and Jayne trying out their newly-acquired cowbells, and a rather sobering British citizenship quiz. Results of the latter concluded that only 1 out of the 20 of us qualified to be let back into the UK.

10) Discuss ideas for next day then fall into bed exhausted but happy/merry/sloshed.

Day Two (03/07) – Tête de Balme Walk

Words and pics by Lou.

Click here for interactive map: https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/tete-de-balme-03-07-1

The weather had cleared, so Lou had a cunning plan. We would walk from the chalet up the hill behind us, but not by the direct route. Thus it was that we set off in the opposite direction to climb slowly towards the western end of les Frettes ridge, from where we headed off north-easterly with stunning views across the valley to the Mont Blanc massif. Lunch with a view was taken at l’Aguillette des Posettes (2201m). We then descended slightly to the Col des Posettes before climbing again to our high point of the day at Tete de Balme (2321m). Here we stood with one foot in France and one foot in Switzerland. The return journey was downhill all the way, with a short break at the Refuge du Col de Balme. Our legs took a while to recover.

Day Two (03/07) – Paul & Steve Seek Refuge (Albert Premier)

Contributed by Paul.

You might wonder why we were seeking refuge? Wonderful food and excellent company were available to excess during the recent trip to Le Tour in the French Alps, plus a (very) hot tub. What’s not to like is the obvious question, but Albert had a refuge and we decided to seek it!

Some of our travelling companions had taken the Charamillon gondola and the Col de Balme chairlift the previous day, and then enjoyed [or endured – Ed.] the walk to the Refuge Albert 1er. It’s located above the Glacier du Tour, on its right bank, and is the only shelter run by the CAF Chamonix that can be reached without going on a glacier. At a height of 2,702m, it affords magnificent views of Aiguille du Tour, Grande Fourche, Chardonnet, Aiguille d’Argentière, La Verte, Le Drus and the Aiguilles Rouge. If you’re wondering about the title, it’s named after the King of Belgium, Albert 1st, a mountaineer who died climbing near Namur. Those who had taken the route on the first walking day were so positive about it – and the views – that Steve and I decided we had to see it for ourselves.

After a magnificent breakfast, we set off. No gondola or chairlift for us. Common sense is a quality possessed by many hillwalkers, but not by all of them. Le Tour is at a height of 1,453m, so we had something of a climb ahead of us. Beautiful weather; blue skies and sunshine made for a very rewarding if rather thirsty excursion. Initially, we followed the route of the gondola and then cut off towards the refuge. The path was a little tricky in places and became a bit of a scramble near the refuge, but it was fun and added to the feeling of achievement upon arrival. Being called ‘young men’ by a guide as we zipped past his group made two old codgers feel rather sprightly!

After eating our lunch, we enjoyed a coffee in the sunshine, and bothered a few of the other people also enjoying the location. This included a couple of hillwalkers from the Netherlands (possibly even flatter than Suffolk), an English lady munching her way through the biggest cheese platter ever seen, and an instructor about to take his party onto the glacier (wearing jeans)!

After a baking hot descent, the chalet’s hot tub was very relaxing. A brilliant day was subsequently rounded off by a little alcohol and plenty of bonhomie, plus some wonderful grub (courtesy of the cooking team of the day).

A wonderful trip. Thanks to everyone – the organisers, the chefs, the fellow walkers, and my room-mate.

Day Three (04/07) – Lac Vert Walk

Words and pics by Lou

Lou and Anne made use of their car to drive to the start of this walk in Servoz, the other side of Chamonix from our chalet. The walk was described in one of the books that people had brought, and it looked to offer a slightly different perspective.

Link to interactive map: https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/lac-vert-04-07-17

We set off through the village of Servoz, taking the old road which rose steeply and crossed the zigzags of the new road at several points along the way. Eventually the road ran out and a forest track took us on towards the lake. The vert (green) of the name comes from the reflections of the surrounding pine trees. We spent a long time waiting for the water to become calm to get a good photo with Mont Blanc reflected but too many people insisted on paddling.

For the return leg, we took the option of following a trail through the woods that was marked variously with pink dots on the trees and wooden boards shaped like snowshoes. It turned out to be easier to follow than I had feared, and the compass was not needed.

Day Three (04/07) – Le Tour to Vallorcine via Montroc

Words and pics by M-L

This is a sweet, short walk that about twelve of us did in the morning on Tuesday before going our various ways in the afternoon.

Glenys, Dave and I did the same route at the same time last year before taking a gondola ride from Vallorcine up to Col de Balme and then wandering back down through flowery high meadows to Montroc. But last year they had the final snows at the end of June so spring was very late and the flowers were astonishing. This year the brief season was coming to an end, and we passed on the gondola.

We started out from the chalet – X marks the spot- strolled down the hill to Montroc and then followed a short path up to the pretty hamlet of Tré le Champ.

From there we took winding paths through woods and meadows, pausing briefly at a visitor’s centre en route to try and identify the various animals we had seen from the stuffed versions behind glass, and finished up under some trees picnicking in Vallorcine before a pint in the station café and trains to various destinations.

Not every hike was testing – this one was literally a walk in a park. On the other hand, what follows are two reports on the route to  the Lacs des Chéserys taken by two different groups on succeeding (and successful) days.

Day Four (05/07) – Le Tour to Lacs des Chéserys

Words – Jayne; map – Lou.

Link to route map: https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/lacs-des-cheserys-06-07-17

With Glenys planning a walk to the Lacs de Cheserys, Steve, Paul and I decided to join her. We began with a stroll down to Montroc from the chalet and then took a steep track up to Lac Blanc in 27C heat. My motivation was that it promised an encounter with ibex and some ladders. However, a third of the way up the first section I was becoming emotional at the thought of the task ahead; thoughts of turning back flashed through my mind as I watched Glenys, Steve and Paul stepping out ahead and realised I was the weakest link! But instead we took more breaks in the shade where we could, drinking plenty of water.

[David and I watched their tiny figures from the balcony of the chalet until they disappeared – drinking coffee and enjoying the view. And then I took myself to lunch at my favourite local restaurant: à chacun son gout – Ed.]

As we started to clear the first section the trees thinned and the landscape became rockier; there was also a breeze which reduced the heat. Once I could see the ladder section ahead of us my spirits lifted as this was the first thing I was looking forward to. We stopped for lunch (part one) to get some rest before ascending 12 ladders (we think it was 12, though no one thought to count them at the time) and passing across a tricky ledge with a hand rail. On and on it went till we reached the monument and there standing grazing was an ibex – which was the second thing I was hoping to see and how exciting! Well it was for Glenys and me but Paul and Steve had lunch (part two) on their minds! We had a break…Steve had a nap.

Then we headed off and up to the Lacs des Chéserys and when we arrived we did what most English people would do (except Paul who took photos [which sounds a bit creepy but I’m sure it wasn’t – Ed.]): we stripped off, wriggled into swimwear and got in. Cold but refreshing and amusing to the passing French. Once dry it was up another steep slope to the refuge hut by Lac Blanc. A cold drink was enjoyed to celebrate our 900 metre ascent but not for long as Glenys had discovered that the sign to La Flégère cable car said the route took 1 hour 10 mins, and the last cable car would be leaving in 40 mins.

A quick photo in the snow and then we ran down the hill, rock hopping all the way. As we got closer more people were also running so it became a big race not be left on the mountain to descend the steep 800 or more meters on foot. For us it would also mean a 9 km walk back to Le Tour as we would then miss the last bus. We made it with just 5 mins to spare. What a relief it was to be in that cable car!

And then back to enjoy the hot tub and reflect on what a great walk it had been thanks to our leader Glenys. It was a magical walk and the views throughout were so beautiful that they more than compensated for any effort made.

[The next day Lou and Anne took a slightly abridged version of the same route, and Lou’s report follows – Ed.]

Day Five (06/07) – Ladders and Handrails: Lacs des Chéserys again

Words and pics by Lou

This walk started with a dash to the bus stop and finished with a dash to the cable car, much like a lot of our other walks. However, the difference with this one was that it included a section of ladders and handrails – a bit like “go ape” but without the safety equipment.

It started off pleasantly enough, with a long walk up through the forest northwest of Argentière. As we got further up, the rocky crags looked more and more impenetrable. After a rest stop at the Aiguillette d’Argentière watching some climbers, we tackled the echelles (ladders). Some of them were almost vertical and you needed a good grip and an even better head for heights. It made for an exciting route, and soon afterwards we could relax at the Tete des Vents, where they had thoughtfully placed a large concrete cairn for people to shelter from the wind. Luckily there was very little wind this day, and we strolled on to the Lacs des Chéserys.

Anne found a lake all to herself for a very brief (cold) swim. With little time to spare, we missed out the more popular Lac Blanc and headed off down the Grand Balcon Sud to the La Flégère cable car. The views across the valley to the Mont Blanc massif were stunning.

Day Five (06/07) – Taking it easy on the Grand Balcon Sud

Words and pics by M-L

Map of route (Hilary Sharp 2016)

On this second-last day in the Alps, four of us decided to do the section of the Grand Balcon Sud between La Flégère and Planpraz, taking it slowly and stopping to smell the flowers. Sally, Kirsty and Angela all deserved an easy day, having tackled some “tough stuff”; and I personally don’t like any other kind. So we set off at a gentle pace from the top of the La Flégère cable car for one of the prettiest yet also spectacular walks nearby Chamonix (particularly for those who don’t like scrambling over treeless moraine).

It took about an hour longer than the suggested time of two hours and we arrived in Planpraz in perfect shape for a refreshing beer.

Raising a glass to the ubiquitous Mont Blanc

And then it was up the cable car to Le Brévent at 2,525m to eat our picnic lunches with our feet (almost) dangling into the abyss of the valley leading down to Saint Gervais les Bains. Ain’t life grand?!

[And then a report from the final group to head for Lac Blanc on the last walking day.]

Day Six (07/07) – Lac Blanc Revisited

Contributed by Karen

I was planning a relaxing end to the trip; a stroll into Argentière, catching the bus to Chamonix for souvenir shopping, back to Argentière in time for lunch with the ladies [see next report] and then on to Le Tour to see the sheep being driven down the valley. I was, however, persuaded into one last trip up a mountain and Paul’s promise of a gentle walk – “virtually flat” – to Lac Blanc.

Four of us set off on the bus from Le Tour to La Flégère cable car station where we ascended to the mid station. Our “gentle walk” started from the top of the cable car and it soon became apparent that I had been duped. It was in fact a climb of approximately 500 metres to Lac Blanc. Paul kept assuring me that we were nearly there and that I’d virtually be able to see the lake soon but we made it in the end and it was a lovely spot. Steve took a refreshing dip before we all had a drink at the refuge. We ate our lunch by the lake before returning down the track. It was too late to do too much else by the time we arrived at the top of the cable car so we had another drink while taking in the views before returning down the mountain. We caught the bus back to Le Tour fitting in another drink on the way back to the chalet – tired but happy.

Not exactly the day I had planned but a good end to the week in Chamonix nonetheless, with plenty of banter along the way.

Day Six (07/07) – Les Grands Montets & Glacier Argentière

Words and pics – M-L

The take-it-easy team assembled again to ‘do’ Les Grands Montets on our last full day in the Alps, sadly minus Angela who went home one day early. From the village of Argentière, we took the Lognan cable car to a height of 1,972m and then got off to traverse the hillside to the Glacier d’Argentière, a short upward slope for breathtaking rewards.

Then it was onto the  Grands Montets chair lift which took us to a suddenly very chilly 3,300m at the foot of the Aiguille Verte. As we got off we bumped into Andy and Kate coming down – the area was simply infested with IOGers. As they had already clambered down (and then up) the very long flight of metal stairs to sample what is described as “a snowy wonderland” in the tourist bumf, and as we decided, from on high, it looked like a small dirty field of slush at the end of winter, we eschewed that delight and directed our gaze up to the lookout:”That’s just a bit of meccano pinned to a rock,” said Kirsty. Height is a funny thing. 3,300m can make some people ill and dizzy, others experience little effect at all, while I feel – not unreasonably – high. Pleasantly wobbly and giggly. But definitely not up to negotiating “a bit of meccano pinned to a rock” – not put like that. So we repaired to the little snack bar where the climbers attacking the Aguille Vert could be viewed in awed comfort.

Last year I walked the 800m descent into Argentière from Lognan. It was dull, straight and steep, and my knees told me about it for a week. This year the three of us switched from the Grands Montets to the Lognan téléphérique and descended effortlessly into warm, sunny Argentière and actually hurried to my favourite local restaurant, Le P’tit Vert – where, in the spirit of the IOG, we dined outdoors. A delicious farewell lunch of croûte au fromage, followed by an indigenous version of chicken and chips – like no chicken and chips available in the UK – and various wicked puds. This would require a nap in the afternoon to work it off, but first there was the start of the transhumance from Le Tour – when the flocks and herds are driven up into the high pastures for a month or two of gorging on alpine herbs and grasses. This one involved around 1,200 sheep and goats and one donkey – and watching what is an age old routine in that part of the world seemed a very fitting way to say goodbye to a wonderful week.