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Wild and without a plan: Mont Blanc

We’ve come all this way through the Alps, from Austria, through Switzerland and now France. Soon we will be leaving behind the mountains for some sun and beach life. We couldn’t possibly head to the coast, leaving the mountains without experiencing the mightiest of them all: Mont Blanc. After all, it was one of the main reasons we wanted to visit Annecy, to witness the French portion of the Alps.

It turns out that as usual we don’t have much time for it and upon checking the buses we figure it’s too far and we most probably won’t be able to do a decent hike in the time time that we would have.

Our saviour, Yann

This is not good news to our Couchsurfing host, Yann. He will not settle, exclaiming that we categorically MUST see Mont Blanc. It becomes his duty to figure a way for us to experience Mont Blanc. First he sets about consulting transport. He manages to find a bus that goes direct from Annecy to Mont Blanc, early in the morning and returns just after dark. Perfect.

Next we need a hiking route. Yann tells us about an app that contains a bunch of routes for Mont Blanc. A lot of it doesn’t mean too much to us but he looks through all the hikes and decides on the grand south balcony hike (Grand Balcon Sud in French). It’s a fairly short high altitude hike, just over 6KM with just a small elevation gain of 320M. In order to get up there we will need to take the cable car, Planpraz. On the other end we can take the Flégère cable car back down. That will be quite expensive so Yann suggests hiking up and maybe taking the cable car back down.

This is all great information which we would have never figured out ourselves. There is only one problem: Caroline is a bit sick and we are not sure she will be able to hike up the 1100M needed to get from Chamonix to the top of Planpraz where the hike starts.

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Wild and never without schnaps: Innsbruck

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February 11, 2019
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We get up early in the morning. Yann and Cecile have already left for their climbing trip. We made lots of food the previous day to offset the costs of travel today. Today we will go over our daily budget, but that’s fine. It’s not every day that you get to see Mont Blanc. We can live with less for the next days to balance our budget. Probably.

How to get to Chamonix/Mont Blanc

We booked with Ouibus, a French bus company. They have a direct connection between Annecy and Chamonix. It takes around one hour and 30 minutes. Check their website for timetables. You want the station Chamonix Sud – Bus Station. Our bus was brand new, super clean and quite high tech. They also have a very clean app where you can book and hold your boarding passes. We paid €20 each for our return tickets but if you book early you might pick up an offer. At the time of writing this post there are lots of €5 each way offers, so you could get it half price.

The bus ride is simple with no complications. We walk to the train station in Annecy (where the bus departs from) and get on without a bother. The bus is not very busy. The website and app show you the exact pickup and destination locations on a map. Very handy.

Arriving in Chamonix

The first thing we do is go and grab a coffee from some wanna be cool ski cafe, full of people with fake Californian accents. Chamonix is not as pretty as we imagined, but it’s certainly not ugly. It’s clearly a resort town with every building a cafe, hotel or shop. It’s not quite as charming as some of the other beautiful towns we’ve seen in the Alps though, such as Innsbruck, Filisur, Lucerne & Wolfgang.

Other Beautiful Alpine Towns

Beautiful pastel houses flanked by huge mountains
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Wild and never without schnaps: Innsbruck

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A blurred long exposure photo of a train going across the Landwasser Viaduct on the Glacier Express
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Looking over Lucerne castle in the morning
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December 30, 2018
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Chamonix is full of traditional style chalets mixed with classic European buildings, nestled in between the vast alpine mountains. A river flows through the middle of town, bringing down the glacier melt. There is a small town square headed up by a simple catholic church, flanked by snow capped mountains. The drive in to Chamonix is very beautiful. Some of the roads and bridges are quite fascinating, engineering feats conquering the unreasonable landscape. The town is fairly large and has everything you could possibly need, bakeries, cafes, bars and a few other shops.

The mountains are incredibly impressive though, of course they are, for these are the largest in the entirety of the Alps. What makes it even more magical is the subdued autumn tones. There are no greens to be seen, just deep oranges, reds, browns and blacks. It’s not the typical scenery of the Alps you imagine, it’s something more, mystical and eerie.

Going solo to Mont Blanc

After our morning coffee we make hastily to the start of the hike, just outside of Chamonix at an elevation of 1035M. The elevation of the top cable car station is 2000M, so quite the climb. We set off understanding that it’s going to be a struggle, certainly with Caroline’s sickness. Unfortunately the sickness gets the better of Caroline, climbing is just too hard and not enjoyable. She decides to wait it out while I go it alone.

The path is brutal. Straight up, no scenic route. Just zigzagging up the mountain from 1000M to 2000M. I take only a few breaks on the way up, to replenish the lost body water from all the damn sweating. I sit by a few springs and enjoy the view for five minutes or so, I’m above the tree line now so the mighty peaks are visible. What is also visible is a huge storm brewing on top of Mont Blanc.

I arrive at the top after about an hour and a half, incredibly proud, it’s probably the shortest amount of time I’ve hiked so high, but the climb is not done yet. There is more to go. Especially because I take the wrong path and climb another 200M higher before I realise. Apparently this happens quite a lot.

Getting back on track I traverse the balcony at a fast pace. I don’t want to leave Caroline down there on her own all day, bored and upset that she couldn’t make it to the top.

It’s not every day you get to witness Mont Blanc

It seems I have the whole balcony to myself. Yann was worried that the weather would be bad and we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the views of Mont Blanc. He told of previous visits where the valley was so full of clouds that he couldn’t see any peaks at all. That would have been an absolute disaster for us since we only have this one chance to see Mont Blanc.

However, all is good, the views are incredible, even better so than in the summer, in my opinion. The colours and mood are much more interesting. The weather and colours are also what made our 3 day hike around Innsbruck so incredible. Check it out: part 1, part 2 & part 3. The brewing storm only adds to the theatre. I watch it unfold in awe from across the valley, safe on my own mountain, all alone.

There is a small problem though. Caroline has to sit all on her own in a cafe probably bored out of her mind. I check my phone and I have full signal so I send Caroline a message and tell her to walk to the end of the hike and take the cable car up to meet me, where she can at least enjoy the views for a short while without all the strenuous hiking. It’s just a bit of money, so what if we go over our budget for one day. We will survive. Experiences like this need to be embraced. I keep on walking, but loose my signal so I’m never quite sure if she will meet me or not.

Mighty views of Mont Blanc

The trail ascends and descends but stays at an average of 2000M high. There are plenty of fun elements to it, huge rocks to climb up to get even better views, decrepit sections of path with sheer drops and marvelous views of glaciers. You can even see the tramway, which climbs to 2380M, the highest railway in the whole of France, and it’s mega cute, so you should definitely ride it if you get the chance.

Winding path of the grand south Balcony, towering mountains of Mont Blanc in the background
Blue skies over the Mont Blanc glacier
Winding path way to towering peaks of Mont Blanc

After about an hour and a half of hiking, the ski station which marks the end of the trail comes in to sight. I check my phone and I’ve got a tiny bit of signal and a message comes through from Caroline. She decided to come up on the cable car and is waiting for me in the restaurant.

It starts getting cooler, so I put some layers back on and hurry over to the restaurant. Carolines already spent some time enjoying the view so I grab a drink and decide what to do next. There are two options, A: splash out and take the cable car down, or B: walk down. Caroline says she is up for walking down, after all, it’s just down, how hard can it be.

A slight detour

So the normal hike entails going up, walking across, going back down and then finally across the valley floor back to Chamonix. I take a look at the map on maps.me and see that instead of going straight down and across, we can take a sort of diagonal path that leads across, while going down to bring us back to the starting point which is then a short walk back to the bus. It should shave off a bit of time and distance. Settled.

We head off, the path declines steeply and we loose a lot of elevation very quickly and then at some point about 30 minutes later, our chosen path forks off from the normal route down. It twists and turns around the mountain gradually declining. The forest is thick and dense and the path very small, the slopes are steep and a misplaced foot could easily lead to an accident.

The trail is fun and exciting, tree trunks disrupt the path, huge boulders need to be clambered over, streams and waterfalls which flow right over the trail need to be carefully navigated, using rocks and pieces of wood with perfectly timed and positioned hops. It’s only after a little while that we realise we are actually going up and not down, and have been for quite some time. That’s okay. Nature is not always ideal, trails have to traverse obstacles. It will probably start declining soon enough.

Back to the top…

Only it doesn’t. We keep going up, and we can feel it, we starting to break out in a sweat. I’m slightly nervous because Caroline is ill and we don’t have the option to turn around. There isn’t enough time to head backwards and down the other way, or back up to the cable car and down there. We need to continue. I’m also pretty knackered, it’s been a long day and I’ve hiked a lot, including a lot of elevation, in fact, more elevation than I’ve ever overcome before.

We persevere and sure enough the direction changes, but not before we climb almost all the way back up to where we started. It was a gross miscalculation, and had we had a proper map, we would have checked the contour lines and confirmed the ascent. We most definitely would have opted for the other path.

Despite the last obstacle we make it down to the bottom in time for the bus albeit very exhausted for the last half hour we were pacing down the mountain. Well, apart from one stop for a snap of the beautiful autumn sun setting over Mont Blanc.

Cheeky Indian

The bus ride home is uneventful, and I’m fairly certain we both fell asleep for the majority of it as we were the only passengers on the brand spanking new high tech bus. As the bus arrives back in Annecy, the rain starts to pour. We had plans to nip to the supermarket to grab some food but all of that sounds like so much effort now. The Indian restaurant just outside the bus station is beginning to sound pretty appetising. To hell with the budget, Indian it is. And what a great decision it is, delicious food, lots of veggie options and super smiling, delightful old Indian man serves us and makes sure everything is just right. A perfect ending to an adventure day. Now to scurry home and collapse in our bed. Tomorrow is a day of rest.

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

To get to Mont Blanc and Chamonix from Annecy, take Ouibus. They have a direct route and it takes around one hour and 30 minutes. Check their website for timetables. They also have a very good app which we used.

If you are flying in, the closest airport with links is Geneva.

Trains are abundant and you can get connections from all the major cities in France.

If you are on a budget, hitchhike or use BlaBlaCar!

Things to do in Mont Blanc

If you’re made of money you will never run out of things to do around Montblanc!

  • Hike the ground south balcony like we did in this post!
  • Ride the incredible looking Mont Blanc Tramway (just don’t tell us or show us any pics!)
  • Ride the The Montenvers Railway to the Mer de Glace glacier. From there, there are restaurants, caves and various hikes you can do. More info here.

If you’ve not got so much money, like us, stick to hiking, and try and skip the expensive transport, cable cars, trains and trams. Check out the app Hiking Savoie Mont Blanc which our Couchsurfing host told us about. There are a lot of hikes and information on it.

Accommodation

We didn’t actually stay in Mont Blanc so we can’t vouch for anywhere. Again it’s pretty expensive, including the few hostels. We would recommend Couchsurfing.

Failing that check out some of the deals on Booking.com below.

Booking.com

Pro Tips

If you’re on a budget, do what we did and stay in a cheaper location, like Annecy and visit Chamonix for the day and hike the grand south balcony for incredible views of Mont Blanc!

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