When the birth of the first grandchild takes place in northern Italy, it’s one of the better excuses to hop on a plane and head to Europe. I guess most arrive with stuffed toys and teeny tiny clothing rather than tents, hiking poles and hiking boots but such an event was a chance to combine being freshly minted grandparents with a week or so spent hiking the tantalisingly close Mont Blanc Circuit.
The Mont Blanc circuit is a 180 km trek that encircles the entire Mont Blanc massif, meandering through valleys and scaling high passes that form the borders between Italy, France and Switzerland. Ease of access from Milan meant that we chose to start in the town of Courmayeur in northern Italy, and walk in a clockwise direction. The well-informed clearly avoid the initial 1200m ascent in favour of the chairlift up to the Refugio Maison Ville. Our hiking boots and sweat stained t-shirts provided a contrast to the colourful sprawl of people spilling out around the bar and grill in the sunshine, basking in deckchairs, and tucking into steaks and wine. We were the overall winners though as the walking got easier and the views more distracting as we wound our way along a narrow trail over a high point of 2430m. Our first bush camp that night exceeded all expectations with clear skies and Mt Blanc soaring far above us.
The next days saw us settle into a routine of repeated climbs to a pass, descent down to a valley, rest, repeat. The route is dotted with a series of refugios which generally provide meals, snacks and accommodation, and passes through a number of villages in the valleys. There are no formal campsites outside of the villages, but we had no problem finding discrete places to throw up the tent in often stunning locations. The track surface is a mix of forest trails at lower elevations, double track, rocky trails, exposed steep ascents and particularly uninspiring sections that use rough and degraded trails around ski resorts and infrastructure.
You’d be forgiven for wondering “if this is day three, are we in France?” Border crossings become meaningless as we descend from one pass and begin our ascent of the next. The occasional village overnighter gave us the chance to restock and freshen up, although the offical campgrounds were considerably less inviting than our peaceful mountain sites. Les Contamines provided the typical French offering, packed with tents pitched tightly together and featuring a miserable dribble of a shower with the temperature fixed at ‘tepid’. Our departure the following day was delayed when Ed was attacked and bitten by a family’s dog when he strayed too close to their campsite. A quick bandage was applied and we left, not particularly reassured by the dog owners attempts to convince us of the dogs good health and dental hygiene.
After a particularly scenic camp looking out towards the Grand Jorasses, we spent our last full day ascending the Col de la Grand Ferret, which took us back into Italy. From our final bush camp just above Refugio Bertoni we had a gentle amble downhill to Courmeyer where we jumped a bus and woke up back in the teeming metropolis of Milan. A litttle leaner, hungrier and very happy.