Thursday, 10 September 2015

Mountain bike tour of Mont Blanc

Back in September 2013 I spent a fantastic weekend riding the tour of Mont Blanc. I made a video of it at the time ( but didn't get round to documenting it on here so thought I should put my thoughts and details of the route down before I forgot them.

This is a really special route. It visits three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) as well as circumnavigating the highest mountain in western Europe. It crosses remote alpages and passes of up to 2,500m. A bike tour should not be undertaken lightly as riding it is both physically strenuous and technically difficult. I would not recommend attempting the route in July or August as the number of walkers on the route can be enormous. June is normally ok for an attempt on the route, however there may be large snow patches to cross, which can be dangerous - I have experienced sliding out of control down one of these with a bike and it's pretty scary! September is probably the best month for it, but a dry October or even November could be good if the snows have yet to arrive.

Being lucky enough to be living and working in Chamonix means I had the opportunity to do this kind of thing on a weekend when other folks would have to plan a whole holiday around it.

I left work in Chamonix at 5 on a Friday afternoon and pedalled like crazy to get to the Prarion cable car in Les Houches before it closed at 5.30. Fortunately I made it in time and 7 minutes later had gone from 1,000m above sea level to around 1,800m. This was the only lift I took on the tour and it didn't feel like cheating as I've pushed up the slope beneath the lift to get up here before and don't feel there is anything to be gained from it. I also had an annual lift pass so the lift was free!
The view from the top of the Prarion lift above Les Houches
The first part of the descent is a lovely singletrack through the pine trees and across the alpine meadows. Lower down the trail turns to 4x4 track before dropping you into Bionnassay. From here I followed the road to the Pont des Places where the track deteriorated into a muddy logging track. A short distance along this I came across the loggers who were scratching their heads over an upturned logging vehicle with its wheels in the air. Not a good one to have to deal with or explain to the boss at 7pm on a Friday!

These guys were having a significantly worse Friday evening than me!

I trundled on to le Champel and then on to the main road to les Contamines before getting onto the bike track that took me all the way to Notre Dame de la Gorge. From here there was a steep climb which involved some pushing, even on a bike with plenty of gears. This led over the ancient Pont Romain and the torrent in its carved out gorge and then past the Nant Borrant refuge where some hikers were enjoying an evening beer. After crossing some meadows I reached la Balme where there is a designated bivouac area. The rules state that it's ok to stay here from dusk until dawn but not to camp for more than one night. This suited me perfectly and there was no one else around.
A cup of tea before bedtime
I brewed some tea and then my pasta dinner followed by more tea. As I drank my final cup of tea before bedtime I noticed that there was a fox stalking me - when I turned my headtorch towards it the fox ducked behind a boulder. It tried several different angles of attack before giving up.

The next morning I woke early and noted a little ice on my bivvy bag as I put the kettle on. This was a reminder that even in September frosts are common at 1,700m. I hadn't been cold in the night though as I was wearing thermals and wrapped in a decent down sleeping bag.

I was on the trail early, mostly pushing and doing a little carrying to reach my first target of the Col du Bonhomme. From here I had imagined that climb to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme might be mostly rideable as it was only sloping gently upwards. This didn't turn out to be the case as it is strewn with boulders and the path is somewhat indistinct in places.
Col du Bonhomme first thing in the morning
The descent from the Croix du Bonhomme was excellent however. There were a couple of tiny snow patches to cross, but mostly the trail was in fine dry condition. I passed some walkers with their luggage on the back of mules here - 19th century style!

The descent brought me to les Chapieux and a road climb to the Mottets refuge where the ascent of the Col de la Seigne began in earnest. The first part of this climb was rideable (just) with an ok surface and steep gradient. Once my legs were cooked I was happy enough to push most of the rest of the climb.
Col de la Seigne
The descent from here was superb again with a fairly mellow start followed by more loose rock further down. The descent drops you into Val Veny - surely one of the most beautiful valleys in the alps. The incredible peak of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey sticks out from the south ridge of Mont Blanc and the Miage glacier flows down into the valley.

Looking down into Val Veny
Soon it was time to start climbing again. While it would be easy to continue down the valley to Courmayeur from here I had read that the trails leading through the col Chécrouit were worth the extra climb. This also meant I would be sticking to the TMB walking route. The climb went on longer than I had expected, and was mostly too steep to ride. Being the third major climb of the day my legs were not too keen on so much hard work.
Val Veny
I reached the top very sweaty and got stuck in to the singletrack descent. This was fun and rewarding until I passed the Maison Vielle refuge which is in the heart of the Courmayeur ski area. From here there was a little more singletrack, then I found myself on a 4x4 track which is a piste in the winter. I turned off this down a steppy path which was not ideal for riding. I was a little disappointed with this part of the descent as I didn't feel I had got value for the large amount of height lost. Maybe I didn't find the best way down.

I grabbed a sandwich, some crisps and cake in Courmayeur and then continued up the road into Val Ferret. The walking TMB route goes over the hill from Courmayeur via the Bertone refuge, but from reading about other mountain bike attempts it seemed that this was not a popular biking route, so I had decided to skip this extra climb and follow the road.

As the day was starting to cool with evening approaching there was a strong catabatic wind blowing down the valley, so I was riding up the road into a headwind. Not the best finish to a great day on the bike, but by grinding on into it I managed to get to the perfect spot to attack the Grand Col Ferret first thing in the morning. I stopped just beyond the road end and set my bivvy up amongst some trees near the river. After cooking my dinner I went for a look at the river which had a picturesque foot bridge.
Almost bedtime on the second night
The next morning began with a ride up the well made 4x4 track to the shuttered-up Elena refuge. From here the path was mostly too steep to ride until the last few hundred metres to reach the Grand Col Ferret. There was some frost remaining up here where the sun had not yet hit the slopes, but the day was already warming up quickly.
Halfway up the very long climb of the Grand Col Ferret
The descent from this col must be one of the best anywhere. It's not particularly technical for most of the descent, but has some scary exposure, flowing singletrack and astounding views. It goes on almost for ever!

From the small town of Issert the climbing begins again, this time up to Champex Lac which is a lovely little town on the edge of  a pretty lake. The trail climbs through the trees passing mushrooms carved out of the tree stumps. Some is rideable, a lot of it is too steep and rooty.

After Champex Lac there is a short, technical rooty descent before the climb to Bovine commences. This is a beast of a climb with very steep sections which were actually difficult to push up without sliding back on the loose surface. The climb finally relents and brings you out to the pasture of Bovine. The farm and buvette were all shuttered up and the cows had made their biannual transhumance to the winter pastures. I stopped for a cereal bar and contemplated the view from this lovely mountainside down to the smoggy industrial Rhone valley.
The alpage of Bovine
A few more minutes of uphill brought me to the high point and the start of a brilliant swoopy, rooty, fun filled trail which took me all the way down to the Col de la Forclaz. This is a trail I am keen to ride again, but the only way to do that is an unsatisfying out-and-back from the Col de la Forclaz or to do the horrible push from Champex. Maybe I'll get round to it somehow.

To descend to Trient I couldn't see any permitted mountain bike route, so to avoid the very busy road I slowly and carefully followed the water-race which leads towards the Glacier du Trient (signed as being forbidden for bikes). From here I took the switch-backs which cross the road and eventually lead to Trient.

The TMB route from here back to Chamonix climbs up to the Col de Balme, then down to Tré le Champ before making its final climb to the Lac Blanc and along the Aiguilles Rouges. The climb from Tré le Champ involves ladders, so I had ruled this out immediately. The Col de Balme is accessible by chairlift from the other side, so I had no desire to push my laden bike up it from this side just for the sake of it.

My route was to follow the road to le Chatelet and then an off-road climb (all rideable) to the Col des Montets. From here it's possible to descend to Montroc off-road and then follow the petit balcon nord back to Chamonix.

I enjoyed the final valley trails to take me home in time for Sunday evening dinner. I arrived at work on Monday morning feeling more like I had had a week of adventures than just a weekend!

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