Tour du Mont Blanc Days 6-8: Mont de La Saxe, Courmayeur, Rifugio Elisabetta, and Croix du Bonhomme

From Rifugio Bonatti, we followed a variant of the TMB over Mont de la Saxe and then down into Courmayeur. We hiked back up out of Courmayeur on a stormy morning, reaching Rifugio Elisabetta under broken clouds. Clouds and rain obscured the views for our hike from Elisabetta to Croix du Bonhomme.

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

Day 6: Rifugio Bonatti to Courmayeur 4 July 2018

We woke up to partly sunny skies, with bits of orange light breaking through. This made for a dramatic but somewhat muted sunrise.

Back inside, Bonatti made up for the lackluster dinner with the best breakfast of the four refuges: fruit, yogurt, and granola in addition to the standard bread and jam.

From Bonatti, we set out on another variant of the TMB. From the refuge, we followed the trail up a green valley. The skies started to clear, making for a spectacular combination of light and scenery. Marmots filled the valley; it seemed that one or more topped each boulder. The day’s detour would have been worth it just for this gorgeous, magical valley.

Eventually, we started to climb out of the valley. The TMB climbed steeply through a col and then descended steeply. In the next valley, we detoured slightly to avoid crossing streams on melting snow bridges. We then climbed steeply up out of the valley to the next col, and then up onto the ridge.

Mont de la Saxe

The ridge led to our high point for the day: Mont de la Saxe. Other guests at La Flégère had enthusiastically recommended the variant for this summit. We soon saw why. Mont de la Saxe featured a large, grassy summit with 360º views, including directly across to Mont Blanc. When we arrived, clouds obscured Mont Blanc’s summit.

With a beautiful day, though, we could afford to wait out the clouds. Resting comfortably on the grass, we marveled at the views. We also worked our way though many of our snacks, including another apricot each, followed by the absinthe-filled chocolate bar we picked up in La Fouly. While the Mont Blanc massif never fully cleared, it instead offered us glimpses of various summits and glaciers as the clouds continued to shift.

After more than an hour, we decided we should be on our way, so that we’d have time to wash clothes and have a leisurely dinner in Courmayeur. We leisurely followed the ridge, turning around often to take in subtle changes in the view. Eventually, we reached the edge of the ridge. Here, we rejoined the main TMB and descended steeply.

Many more switchbacks brought us to the outskirts of Courmayeur. This had been a relatively short day, just 8.5 miles (13.6 km) and 2819 feet (860 meters).

Courmayeur

We followed roads into the center of town and to our hotel, Hotel Croux (Booking.com). Check-in was friendly and efficient. Our room was great and had a nice view of Mont Blanc. It had many features clearly designed for skiers, but they also worked well storing our backpacks and setting out our clothes to dry after we had washed them.

The hotel advertised a sauna, and so once cleaned up, we asked the front desk. After letting it warm up for 20 minutes, it was ready. They also kindly provided tea. This hit the spot after six days on the trail.

For dinner, we followed a recommendation from other guests at Rifugio Bonatti. They had mentioned that crossing the river to Dolonne would get us away from more touristy places, and to a fantastic pizza place, Lo Sciatore (TripAdvisor). The advice turned out to be great. We shared a goat cheese salad and the “tour” pizza, divided into regions topped with various local specialties. These included dried beef, spicy pepper beef, pear and a local cheese, and cheese and speck. It was fantastic. We followed it with chocolate gelato for dessert.

Content and full, we walked back to the hotel and went to bed.

Day 7: Courmayeur to Rifugio Elisabetta 5 July 2018

Hotel La Croux also featured the best breakfast of the trip. After days of continental breakfasts, we were elated to see fruit, eggs, bacon, and several cakes in addition to the a wide selection of breads and jams. We also enjoyed espresso drinks.

The forecast for the day was not great, with thunderstorms expected by afternoon. We set out quickly after breakfast in hopes of getting off the high parts of this stage before they reached us.

From the hotel, we again crossed the river before beginning to climb out of the valley. The hike up was steep and hard. We paused several times to catch our breath. To our surprise, we also ran into one of the hikers we had met at La Flégère. He was going counterclockwise and would finish that day in Courmayeur. We had a brief reunion and exchanged a few more notes, including passing along the recommendation to get a pizza at Lo Sciatore.

After a lot more climbing, we were happy to reach the top of the ski lifts. Lots of workers and trucks buzzed about this area, working to complete its transition into a summer destination.

We continued past the various ski areas, pausing for a rest at Rifugio Maison Vieille. This refuge marked the end of the ski area. A few miniature ponies grazed outside the refuge. One suddenly went from gently nuzzling another hiker to snatching a baguette out of his pack.

With storms on our mindand gathering clouds—we soon set out again. The trail contoured along, intermittently passing through forests and open meadows with views.

Shortly before we reached the high point of this section, we saw lightning and heard thunder claps. We donned our rain coats and moved faster. At the high point, the sky opened up, combining driving rain with pelting hail. The lightning was still a ways off, so we quickly descended. Just 10 minutes later, the rain broke and the storm moved off.

We dried our glasses and looked around, finding we were in another green valley, filled with rushing streams and dotted with tarns.

At the foot of this hanging valley, the TMB began descending in earnest toward Cabane du Combal. From the descent, we caught glimpses of the turquoise colors of Lago di Miage.

The views on the descent convinced us to add the short detour to these lakes to our itinerary. So, once in the valley, we climbed up the moraine to a vantage point along the lakes. Buffeted by wind, we ate lunch with a great view of the peaks and of the various shades of the lakes.

As we finished lunch, we noticed the rain was rolling back in, so we explored briefly and then set out toward Rifugio Elisabetta. The TMB to Elisabetta followed an old road through magical wetlands. Small bands of rain rolled through as we made our way across, creating different lighting conditions every few minutes.

Once across the wet area, the trail climbed more steeply. The intensity of the rain picked up too, so we moved quickly and were happy to reach the cozy refuge. Our total distance for the day had been 9.8 miles (15.8 kilometers). With 5476 ft (1700 meters) of elevation gain, most of it in short, steep stretches, we were feeling it though.

Rifugio Elisabetta

We checked in, learned we had the second seating for dinner, and were shown to our room, which we shared with four hikers from Texas. Compared to Bonatti, Elisabetta showed its age. To us, this felt cozy and charming, but some others less used to refuges seemed to be having trouble with it. The cold rain also meant that folks could not spread out to the patio. The refuge staff did a great job of managing all of this and setting a friendly atmosphere.

Once cleaned up, we settled into the dining room to read and have a drink. At one point, a beautiful, full rainbow appeared over the the valley.

As the staff started setting up for dinner, we moved to the porch. There, we talked with some hikers who had been camping, but with the nasty weather, were hoping the refuge would have some no shows and they could get some bunk spaces. By the time our dinner seating came around, two were still holding out hope and another had gone off to set up his tent.

Dinner was good. We had bruschetta, a cheesy risotto that was perfect for the chilly weather, a pork chop, beans, potato, and a nice fromage blanc with berries and whipped cream for dessert.

After dinner, we caught some glimpses of the area under the setting sun, mostly obscured by clouds. This was a little disappointing, as Elisabetta is known for its sunsets. We turned in soon after, hoping for a clear morning.

Day 8: Rifugio Elisabetta to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme 6 July 2018

Though not completely clear, we awoke to a promising morning. Clouds kept us from having a clear view of the sunrise, but they still glowed a friendly pink. We could see up to glaciers and peaks that had been hidden the night before.

After breakfast, we set out for Col de la Seigne and the Italian-French border under partly cloudy skies and beautiful morning light. We made it no more than a tenth of a mile up the valley, though, before the clouds filled in and moved lower. The closer we got to the col, the worse the weather got. It began raining and visibility dropped to about 100 meters at times.

Shortly before the col, we paused for about 20 minutes at an old customs house that had been turned into a museum. It wasn’t open yet, but we took advantage of its porch for shelter and hoped the weather would blow past.

When it showed no sign of improvement, we continued up. A hiker we had talked with at dinner had told us to plan to spend at least an hour at Col de la Seigne. With no views and cold winds, though, we spent only a few minutes.

The weather on the other side was no better. We occasionally got small glimpses of surrounding peaks and valleys through small gaps in the clouds, but most of the descent from the col was in a world of grey.

In the Valle des Glaciers, we were finally below the clouds. We stopped briefly in La Ville des Glaciers to watch Beaufort cheese production. This was also our decision point between the route through Les Chapieux and the steep route to Col des Fours and viewpoint at Tête Nord des Fours.

To Les Chapieux

With the thick clouds and rain, this wasn’t really a choice. There was no point in heading to Tête Nord des Fours. So, we continued down the valley toward Les Chapieux. Most of this stretch was a pretty riverside walk, even with the clouds hiding the higher peaks.

In Les Chapieux, we found a fromagerie, where we bought some Beaufort cheese, a couple of goat cheeses, and baguette. This made for a delicious lunch, and a silver lining to our detour to Les Chapieux.

While eating, a herd of goats appeared from the hillside. Their wanderings through town provided some entertainment for our meal.

Les Chapieux to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme

The TMB from Les Chapieux was steep, and much of the trail was a flowing stream. Along the way, we passed several junctions offering detours to interesting-sounding but cloud-obscured destinations. Stream-scultped slopes and cliffs made up the scenery near the trail, but even this was hard to see through rain and fogged-up glasses.

We were happy, then, when a hiker coming the other direction informed us the refuge was “just over there” and it materialized out of the clouds a few seconds later. Our route covered about 11.2 miles (18 kilometers) and 4665 feet (1420 meters) of elevation gain.

Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme

We checked in and went to our comfortable, four-person room. Though cozy, it had good storage. Our roommates were from Lyon, and expressed some surprise that we would have chosen to go clockwise (the untraditional direction) for our first Tour du Mont Blanc.

Once settled in, we went back to the dining room to read and have a beer. Two pack llamas and some dogs outside provided entertainment.

Dinner was served at 7pm. We started with a soup and bread, followed by a perfect (and ample!) beef bourguignon, polenta, a cheese course, and chocolate cake. It got dark before dinner was over, and we finished eating in candlelight.

Read on to part four of our Tour du Mont Blanc trip, covering Days 9-10: Tête Nord des Fours and Lacs Jovet, Les Contamines, Col du Tricot, and finally back to Les Houches.

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