We’ve chosen to visit at a time where the crowds are generally less but the weather is not as predictable. This time last year many of the high passes were still snowed in and met many adventures with disappointment
This winter has been warmer and the snow in the high passes has already given way to melting but the weather this week is unsettled and as a result so is the schedule.
This morning’s breakfast announcement brings a switch and instead of mentally preparing for a tough hike up the face of the Aiguillette des Houches, we’re instead crossing the Col de Voza with today’s highlight being the swing bridge crossing of the Torrent Bionnassay and views of its Glacier.
A road trips kicks us off descending out of Chamonix back towards St Gervais then winding our way up to La Villette and the unrelenting Chemin des Cheveruils, a dirt road of no real account but is longer straighter and steeper than it seems at the outset.
Warmed up we level out high above the Torrent Bionnassay on a wide forest road. Unlike yesterday, several of us can walk side by side making for a great opportunity to get to know each other in this relaxed and peaceful environment.
With no traffic everyone speeds up and slows down getting to know a little bit about the strangers they’ve agreed to eat and walk with the for the next seven days. It’s like speed dating but not that speedy.
The Larch shelter us from the sun, in this moist forest enclave low on the mountain, we pass many educational signs but they are all in French. Those that can translate have a go and we all have a laugh at some of the literal word associations
With any signs of the habitation long behind us we veer off the trail and the real walking begins, pine needles, roots and rocks, this feels more like it.
The forest cools on what is otherwise a warm day as we further ascend towards our adventure of the day the swing bridge across Torrent Bionnassay. The sounds of the water filters through the trees, it’s too early to be anywhere near the torrent. The sound gets louder and now dominates the atmosphere, crashing and splashing, the cacophony of cascades leads to a beautiful oasis in what has otherwise been a dry walk.
Before us the trees give way to a rocky escarpment, water in free fall from its top smashing on the granite below. The slight wind catches it and curls it like a tail, water turns to mist and escapes it perilous end.
I’m drawn in and find a spot in the mist, but it’s not enough, carefully navigating the collision of rocks I wind my way to a pool where the mist coats me like a cool blanket, my spirit of adventure alive I push further toward the cascade slipping on the mossy rocks and just saving myself from a plunge.
The mist is strong and soon I find even my hydrophobic clothing can no longer resist this moist retreat, succumbing to the saturating flow.
The falls were just a taster and now the track is seriously steep as we plod on ever upward, soon the walking turn to stairs not long after cresting the top and winding to a landing on the cliff side of the bellowing torrent below.
The swing bridge looks like fun, but first its lunch and then explore. The lunch preparation is a morning ritual we are starting to get the hang of. With your container there is a smorgasbord of breads, meats, cheeses and salads to choose from and each take our turn to make a lunch composition just the way we want it, cheekily supplementing with some of the breakfast goodies, you can read French pastries here.
Everyone savours this part of the day, but on this occasion a few of us wolf it down to get a look at the bridge and the interrupted views of the glacier it affords.
Torrent is an apt name as it thunders through this narrow ravine having melted high above us. Like all the glaciers in this area and seemingly around the world, ablation is outstripping accumulation and so they’re all in recession. The evidence of the once mighty glaciers reach is forever etched into the rocks and as a measure of how long this recession has been happening, it’s not unusual to see new growth saplings and other vegetation, where once towering seracs would have proudly stood.
The bridge is fun none the less, made all the more adventurous for the torrent pouring under it. As we climb the other side to the flatter meadow lands, the many faces of the glacier become apparent and at one point the forest breaks and permits a short walk on the rubble edge, overlooking the glacial pool which looks more like a slurry mix, with the amount of ground rock held in solution.
The glacier is only a few 100 meters away but almost invisible at this altitude slinking under the mass of rock and rubble that travel on its back. It’s like a massive conveyor belt in super slow motion, grinding the high rock and transporting its mineral rich cargo to the lowland, further crushing the enormous size rock to rubble on its way.
Tinkerling can be heard on the wind, the unmistakable sounds of cow bells heard well before they are seen. Across the valley cows become visible, as the early season migrations begin to the high alpine meadows and the rich source of food they provide.
Our path takes us away from them and in the fading din of bells our attention turns to the balcony walk and the overly exposed slopes along it paths. The views from here are spectacular extending right through the Bionnassay valley and the torrent now well below us.
Rocky outcrops interrupt the trail causing us into contorted positions to negotiate them while holding on the wire cables, provided for our safety but too low to the ground to be of much good.
Abandoning the cable for finger grips in rocky cracks, our sense of balance is returned and feels safer than the cable. If that wasn’t enough confirmation a walker from the other direction warns of frayed wires in the cable and shows us the deep laceration to his hand as his proof.
The trails remain narrow and ducks in out of wooded larch areas interspersed with exposed slopes and several more rocky outcrops to negotiate
At a non-descript point a junction heads up the top of the ridge and Bellevue, relieved to be off the balcony that continues along the cavernous valley wall, we make a quick up climb bounding out of the larch and onto a grassy plateau with the distinct smell of grease. It’s the Tramway Du Mont Blanc and Bellevue station, the last stop before Nid d’Aigle or the eagles nest.
This final station is the start of the most common route to the summit of Mont Blanc which we will leave for another day. While considered a reasonably non-technical walk, it is high altitude and high exposure, not recommended to be done without a guide or proper acclimatisation. Sitting at 4,800m it is the highest peak in Western Europe and only surpassed by Russia’s Mt Elbrus at 5,642m on the continent.
A break at La Chalette results in all sorts of treats which the team make quick work of, I could get used to these types of huts in the mountains. It’s a far cry from the remote locations of the Victorian Alps
The plateau is wide and expansive, a nice change after ascending and balcony walking. Progressing toward the Col De Voza, the Aiguillette des Houches, tomorrow walks beckons from across the valley. Looking over ones shoulder the Aiguille du Midi comes into view along with the peaks surrounding Mont Blanc. Spinning around the panorama is breath taking, from the Drew’s to the Bionnassay Glacier all laid out for our viewing pleasure.
It’s hard to move away and this is one of those times you just need to take a moment and acknowledge where you are, let the amazing scenery and sensory experience seer you, because all too soon a memory and photographs is all you will have left.
Walking close to the rail line we reach the Col de Voza and another larger hut, this one being decorated with spring flowers ready for the summer crowds. Trams pass by whisking people at a 1920’s pace to the last station and back.
Legend has it that the Tram owner had 4 daughters and in the 1950’s ordered four Trams to be named after them, Anne, Marie, Jeanne and Marguerite. But only three were ever delivered, Marguerite missing out, poor girl.
Crossing the Col de Voza the ascent begins on a dirt 4WD track winding its way to the Maison Neuve and our pick up point. This track while wide is slippery and deceptively steep. If any of us thought it would be an easy descent at the end of a long day we were in for a rude shock
Happy to finally be down we make our back to the chalet and another beautiful 3 course meal.
Experience the walk for yourself here