A bikepacking tour of Mont Blanc (part 1)

So the best ideas are sometimes formulated in the pub and this trip was no exception. The idea was simple, to do a tour of Mont blanc starting and finishing in Chamonix. We knew that there were organised trips where someone would guide you around and you stayed in hostels and refuges but that sounded expensive. We figured we would just wild camp in bivvy bags and carry our luggage with us, it couldn’t be that hard. So after booking the flights we sat down with the two maps that covered the area we were touring in and worked out a rough route/itinerary for a 6 day trip clockwise around Mont blanc mostly using the popular walking trail. In addition I had managed to get the GPS tracks from someone who had actually taken a guided tour around the route which did come in handy.Processed with VSCOcamWe flew to Geneva and got a transfer to Chamoix which takes about an hour and a half. Switzerland/France greeted us with the craziest thunderstorm that I had ever seen! Some brilliant fork lightning but weirdly very little actual thunder. Upon arriving in Chamonix we started putting our bikes back together at the train station. Naturally having managed to get in front of the storm the heavens opened so we all quickly scurried under the overhang at the front of the station to finish the task. Suddenly deciding to ‘wing it’ on our first night and camp from the off didn’t seem quite such a good idea. However the rain eased off and we cycled out of town and found some woods to camp in. It was late and gone midnight, so it was a quick set up and to sleep.

I learnt an important lesson that first night that I should pull the opening of my bivvy relatively tight around my head. I awoke to find a brightly coloured slug in front of my face which had left slimy trails across the top part of the inside of my bivvy! We packed up and bleary eyed stumbled out of the woods with our bikes much to the surprise of a woman walking her dog.Processed with VSCOcamFrom this point forward the routine of cycle touring kicked in. There are three things that are important in the day ahead after you wake up in the morning. Finding food, deciding where you are cycling to that day and then finally where you are going to camp that night. Our first visit to the supermarket went fairly well and also marked the start of my bread and cheese diet. I can highly recommend pain au chocolat and Emmental as a culinary combination. We also established that everyone just filled their bottles up from the fountains in the town and that water was going to be easy to come by as we travelled around the mountains.

Having got our bearings we set off up the valley from Chamonix towards Argentiere. We were going to just follow the road but due to having the GPS track and my Garmin Oregon on my handlebars I realised there was an off road path that led along the side of the valley to Le tour. We were easing ourselves in gently on the first day and at Le tour would be getting the lifts up to the top of the Col de Balme. However before we reached that point the alps greeted us with some steep slopes and our first pushing of the trip. I also managed to over shift my chain into my rear wheel which alarmingly bent one of the spokes. It didn’t go out of true though and never happened again, the spoke also stayed intact for the rest of the trip too thankfully. In fact it was the only mechanical we had on the whole trip which was pretty amazing. We did have some descending as well as climbing on this portion of the trip which was fun and fast bringing a smile to our faces.Processed with VSCOcamThe lifts from Le tour to the Col de Balme were interesting. The first was a cabin type and after I clearly had no idea how to fit my bike into the space the helpful attendant just lifted my rear wheel in the air and wedged the bike into it floor to ceiling. The second lift was the seat type with a bike rack on one side which the attendant loaded your bike onto. I had my heart in my mouth all the way up. Nothing to do with the height we were off the ground but the angle my loaded touring bike was leaning at on the bike rack! At one point I even moved one seat across to see if I could balance the lift better and tip it back towards me, it didn’t work. We however reached the top without incident and after cycling the short distance to the border crossed into Switzerland.

The valley below us was misty and instead of following the switchbacks ahead which looked very tantalising we instead headed left towards the Croix de Fer and an alternative route which we had drawn on the map back in the UK. I’m not sure if this was a good idea or not, we were able to ride the route in places but in others it was sketchy shale paths with steep drops to one side that left no margin for error. Further on the route became so steep with jumbles of rocks/roots plus the ever present drop that we soon realised we would be walking our bikes down parts of the mountains as well as up them. To be honest between the three of us our skill level wasn’t brilliant and a loaded bike handles very differently to one without luggage. An ill judged front brake tap at the wrong time causes the forks to dive a lot more when you have a sleeping bag and clothes strapped to your handlebars! The steepness that the mountain dropped away at the side of the trail also didn’t really inspire confidence to just ‘give it a go’.Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetEventually we reached a much wider fire road and sped down into Trient. It was also at this point that it started to rain. We knew we had to push on despite the weather and after some riding it was pushing again up the other side of the valley to the Col de la Foclaz. Col de la Foclaz is actually a small village and by small I mean tiny. One shop, a few houses, a public toilet and a hotel, I did discover that Swiss public toilets are very nice though. We considered getting some hot food from the hotel but the price of meals in Switzerland was really expensive. We bought some food in the shop and sheltered from the rain under the guttering whilst we ate it. The rain eased and eventually stopped but we were a bit apprehensive as to whether there would be more to come when we camped that night.

Heading out of Forclaz involved an hour of pushing up a steep narrow path over muddy roots. It was tough going and everyone was tired by this point but the path eventually led us out onto an area of flatter ground where it looked like we would be able to camp. Up ahead though we spotted a hut at the top end of the flat area and the consensus was that we would be daft not to check it out. The hut was deserted but locked, however it had a large lean to/covered area on one side with tables and benches and an area where we could lay down the bivvy bags to sleep. To be honest with the weather looking dodgy it was perfect, cover from the rain, a table with somewhere to sit and an already used fire pit out the front for our evening blaze. The view wasn’t bad either.Processed with VSCOcamWe were up and at ’em early on the second day proper. Camping sleep is different to sleeping snug in a bed at home and you tend to not only wake in the night a fair bit but rise early in the morning. The whole trip we tended to go to sleep around 9pm European time and be up at 7am. Except Joe, he was always last to rise and we usually ended up waking him up so we could get packed up and going again. Mornings in the mountains were misty and felt cold until the sun burnt the mist away. Therefore getting up, getting everything packed and back on the bike and the wheels turning was the best way to warm up. We had a short but steep push to the top that morning and the sun greeted us as we reached the peak of the trail. Nathan who was at the front was almost taken out by a deer before we reached that point though, it was incredible. I have no idea how it managed to run down the steep side of the mountain across our path.

The descent was similar to the day before some singletrack we could ride and some steep paths we couldn’t. It was nice to reach the valley floor as the temperature rose and we stopped in the town of Champex for lunch. It was pretty idyllic eating lunch (bread and cheese!) by a beautiful lake whilst a brass band practised outside the bar across the street. We pressed on up the valley initially on the road and then off road some more. Climbing on loaded bikes was hard in the heat and so we had to stop often to rest. However the trade off for carrying our camping gear was knowing that we didn’t need to be in a particular place by a certain time and could stop when we wanted. We reached the town of La Fouly mid-afternoon but discovered that cafes/bars don’t serve food at that time.Processed with VSCOcamThere was a supermarket so we bought provisions and pressed on until we were the other side of Ferret. We found a really good flat camping spot in some woods by the river and rigged a shelter using all three of our tarps. This trip really highlighted to me that if you aren’t travelling alone working together to create a shelter works much better than everyone doing their own thing. We also worked together on dinner that night and managed to cook scrambled eggs, beans and mushrooms on the fire. The other two also had sausage which I naturally declined as a vegetarian. It was great to get a hot meal in our stomachs. We washed the pots in the river built the fire back up from the embers and relaxed.
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