Tour du Mont Blanc Days 3-5: Champex, La Fouly and the Swiss Val Ferret, Col du Bonhomme and the Italian Val Ferret

Days 3-5 of our Tour du Mont Blanc hike. From Trient, we followed the Bovine route to the lakeside town of Champex. The next day, we walked an interpretive mushroom trail and through the Swiss Val Ferret to La Fouly. From La Fouly, we crossed the Grand Col de Ferret and followed the Italian Val Ferret to Rifugio Bonatti.

This is part of our series of posts on the Tour du Mont Blanc, including:

Day 3: Trient to Champex 1 July 2018

In the morning, we ate a light breakfast from Auberge du Mont-Blanc (Hotels.com | Booking.com) and set out.

We had originally planned to take the Fenêtre d’Arpette route, with its outstanding views of the Trient Glacier and nearby peaks. The TMB trail conditions page, however, warned us against the route because of extreme danger resulting from remaining snow. Hikers coming the other direction told us there had recently been a death on that route. We decided to play it safe and stick to the main route.

The main route — or the Bovine Route — led up an old road to the Col de la Forclaz. From there, the trail climbed gradually through forests and small meadows. Windows through the trees provided views to the Martigny valley.

After a while, the TMB reached its high point for the day and then opened to hillside cow pastures. In the middle of the first pasture, we reached Alpage Bovine.

With a lovely morning and beautiful views, we settled into one of the picnic tables. We purchased a slice of an apricot tart and a radler each. The tart was so good we ended up buying another slice.

From Alpage Bovine, the TMB descended, reaching the valley just past Alpage de Plan de l’Au. It then followed forest roads and trails through the valley, undulating toward Champex. Along this stretch, several trails diverged and converged, presenting some confusing alternatives. If confused, though, one only needed to keep heading up the valley toward Champex. Along these roads, I most remember the tremendous variety and quantity of lupine. After a total of 9.5 miles (15.3 kilometers) and 4897 feet (1500 meters) for the day, we reached Champex.

Champex

In Champex, we walked through town to our night’s stay at Ptarmigan (Booking.com). We checked in and found our comfortable room, just one of two on the property. We cleaned up and took advantage of the balcony to wash clothes and set them out to dry.

Once that was squared away, we walked around the lake and explored the vacation town a bit. We stopped in at Hotel Splendide (Booking.com | TripAdvisor), a grand old hotel overlooking the valley at the other end of the lake. Other guests at La Flégère had recommended it for dinner, but we learned that dinner was only available to hotel guests. We then inspected other dinner options, many of which were not yet open for the season.

After completing a circuit of the lake, we settled on Mimi’s Cafe (TripAdvisor). We ate outside but under shade, enjoying refreshing Aperol Spritzes, fantastic lasagne, and tasty desserts. This was another great dinner, and happily inexpensive for Switzerland. After dinner, we wandered the lake again and then read for a bit before calling it a night.

Day 4: Champex to La Fouly 2 July 2018

In the morning, we awoke and went downstairs to breakfast, which had been set out in the restaurant. Or at least, it had been mostly set out — many items were missing, without clear instruction on where to find them. We searched for them, finding additional cheese and juices that appeared to match glasses and utensils that had been laid out. Once we completed our scavenger hunt, breakfast was delicious.

After breakfast, we packed up and set out for La Fouly. The TMB led us to the far end of town, where we began descending a valley on a trail adorned with a variety of mushroom carvings: the sentier des champignons. Placards offered additional information about local mushrooms.

Once in the Swiss Val Ferret, the TMB wound its way through several small villages. In our reading, many people had commented that this stretch was a bit dull, but we found it to add enjoyable variety. The architecture was fascinating, and signs connected what we saw to information about agriculture in the valley. We also met a very friendly resident cat that clearly made a habit of soliciting affection from TMB hikers.

In the northern part of the valley, the TMB left the road and villages to parallel La Dranse river. Along here, we detoured to get a close-up view of a waterfall formed by the Torrent de Treutse Bô. We had a nice break for lunch below the cascading falls and surrounded by wildflowers.

La Fouly

From the waterfall, it was a relatively short walk into La Fouly. Conversations with my parents, discussions with hikers heading the other way, the guidebook, and blog posts — none of them prepared us for beauty of La Fouly. Tall rock walls with countless waterfalls and cascades towered to the west, with views up to Mount Dolent,  Aiguille de l’A Neuve, and Grand Darray.

After several pauses to gawk, we checked into our hostel, Maya Joie (Booking.com), located just past and uphill from the center of town. The distance for the day had been 9.5 miles (15.3km) and 3635 feet (1100 meters) elevation gain.

At Maya Joiewe were were greeted with a refreshing drink as we checked in and then shown to a cozy two person room. Noting that another large group was checking in behind us, we quickly got settled and took showers.

Cleaned up, we returned to the supermarket in the center of La Fouly. There, we purchased some local apricots, beer, and chocolate (a chocolate mousse-filled bar and an absinthe bar). We enjoyed some of these at a table outside the store, while saving the rest for future days.

We then returned to the hostel for dinner. At only 20CHF per person, it was a great deal. We enjoyed soup, all we could eat bread, salami, onions, cornichons, and raclette (melted cheese with potatoes). We purchased a reasonably priced bottle of wine to go with the dinner. Sorbet and limoncello closed out the dinner. This was a shining example of a place doing one thing and doing it very well.

After dinner, most of the hostel went to watch soccer. We retreated to one of the upper common rooms to read with a view. Around this time, a thunderstorm rolled through the valley, turning the sky dark with crashing thunder and bright lightning. As it passed and the sun set, the entire valley turned orange.

Day 5: La Fouly to Rifugio Bonatti 3 July 2018

Maya Joie served a fairly standard continental breakfast in the morning. The breakfast room was chaotic — all of the food was laid out in a small room in the back, which was challenging with lots of groups trying to head out at the same time — but still efficient.

After breakfast, we checked out and set out up the valley toward the Grand Col de Ferret. We delicately stepped around several enormous slugs and snails on the route. Low, dark clouds lingered and the river ran black with runoff from the fresh rains, giving the morning an ominous feel.

Around here, the signs on the ground seemed to disagree slightly from the book. We had intended to take the alternate route to La Puele described in the book, which would offer us a grander view of the valley. However, we never saw the turnoff and instead followed the signs for the main route… which led us to a view and route that seemed to match the book’s description of the alternate route.

Whichever route we took, though… wow! As we started ascending, the clouds began to lift and break up, and the valley was stunning in the morning light.

A long series of switchbacks brought us to the refuge at La Puele. We didn’t stop other than to admire the views and cows. After more switchbacks, the grade lessened and the trail set out more directly toward Grand Col de Ferret.

Grand Col de Ferret

By the time we reached the col and crossed into Italy, any hints of the ominous start to the day had faded. The remaining clouds were light and fluffy, and the sun was warm. In contrast to the rounded green hills of the Swiss side of the col, the Italian side offered vistas of steep, rocky peaks. Mount Dolent dominated this view. Rhododendron and other wildflowers covered the slopes.

We paused here for thirty minutes or more, watching clouds float along and soaking in the views.

On the way down from the col, we passed cascades large and small. We also caught a glimpse of an ibex with enormous horns. It presented a classic Tour du Mont Blanc scene, unfortunately too fleeting to photograph but still very present in my memory.

Italian Val Ferret to Rifugio Bonatti

We continued down past Rifugio Elena. Here, the TMB veered to the left, passing more cascades and continuing down the Val Ferret part way up the valley wall. A gorgeous walk brought us down to the river again — now much wider — and the Chalet Val Ferret.

Both the lovely setting and the menu tempted us to stop. After assessing the time and remaining distance, it seemed reasonable and so we sat down for lunch.  Kyle had a huge portion of tasty polenta with sausages and tomato; I had a smaller but delicious lunch of gnocchi with local blue cheese and pear crisps.

After the meal, we found it challenging to want to climb again. The TMB, however, made no accommodations and zig-zagged back up the valley wall. By the time it leveled out at an abandoned alpinage/rifugio, though, the views made us forget all about the climb and our post-lunch sluggishness.

For the rest of the afternoon, the heavily glaciated, jagged peaks of Aiguille de Talefre, Aiguille de Leschaux, and the Grandes Jorasses loomed above us across the valley. On our side, rhododendron again blanketed the hillsides. It seemed that every quarter mile, a beautiful cascade tumbled down the mountain and across the trail.

This section of the trail also offered us some of our more notable encounters with others, including:

  • We watched a guide lead a group over a precarious snow bridge that we had bypassed moments earlier. They all made it fine, but we’d given that snow bridge a good look: they made it by luck and not by expertise.
  • While paused at a particularly beautiful spot, just past one of the cascades, a man passed us and did not reappear. I stepped over to make sure he was okay and saw him walking down the cascades. I didn’t think much of it — maybe he was a local heading off to some lesser-known vantage point? A few minutes later, a woman reached us and asked if we had seen someone matching his description. I said we had and that he was proceeding down the cascade. After some back and forth to make sure that was what I really meant and me pointing down at him, she quickly became very nervous. She set off after him, shouting his name, while I went to a higher viewpoint where I could follow his progress and communicate it to her. A minute or so later, he was turned around and heading back to the trail. I’m not sure of the underlying cause, but it certainty seemed like we had stopped in the right place at the right time.
  • Near the rifugio, we got overtaken by some aggressive mountain bikers who just pushed their way through us. I understand that it’s annoying to slow a bike down, but this was on a narrower stretch of trail and a bit of slowing and a heads up would have made the whole interaction much safer.

Rifugio Bonatti

After the mountain bikers, we had just one more stream to cross and then we reached Rifugio Bonatti. Our total distance for this stage was 11.7 miles (18.8km) and 4672 feet (1400m) elevation gain.

Bonatti is a newer rifugio — built in 1997 — perched with fantastic views of the Val Ferret and the Grandes Jorasses. The design also shows lessons learned from many of the older rifugios, including good storage, a long bar, and a more open dining room.

We settled into our room, the largest dorm of TMB hike, and took showers. The showers at Bonatti provide a limited amount hot water per token; somehow we each were lucky and got some leftover hot water from the previous person’s showers plus our own.

Once cleaned up, we bought beers at the bar and sat outside on the patio to enjoy them and the views.

Dinner at Bonatti was fine, but lackluster and with some questionable choices. We started with bean soup, followed by quiche, some greens, and lentils (who serves two bean courses to hikers sleeping in dorms?), followed by a parfait of yogurt or custard, crumble, chocolate, and chestnuts.

Our companions, an English couple who had retired to Les Bossons, were the highlight of dinner. We joked about how we must have walked by their neighborhood on our first day in Chamonix. Since they were headed counter-clockwise and we were headed clockwise, we also swapped tips for the next stages. They recommended a great pizza place across the river from Courmayeur that we would later visit.

Read on to part three of our TMB trip, covering Days 6-8: Rifugio Bonatti to Mont de La Saxe and Courmayeur, then on Rifugio Elisabetta and Croix du Bonhomme.

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