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A Bad Day of Hiking on the Tour du Mont Blanc

Do you ever have one of those days – where you really shouldn’t have bothered getting out of bed?

Our fifth day of hiking on the Tour du Mont Blanc was like that. It went from poor to highly unpleasant to downright bad.

We left Refugio Bonatti under cloudy skies that threatened rain. Within 15 minutes it was misting – which is normally no big deal – except for the fact that it turned a minor slope into a mud slide. Getting down to the valley floor entailed grabbing branches and sliding from clump to clump of vegetation.

"Rifugio Bonatti - with the clouds coming in"

Rifugio Bonatti – with the clouds coming in

Then it was up to Rifugio Elena where you could at least get a cup of hot coffee – because by this time it had started raining. Then it’s about a two hour climb up to the Grand Col Ferret. Normally this would be delightful walking with gorgeous scenery but by now it’s pouring and the wind is blowing really hard. Amazingly, we see mountain bikers coming down when we’re close to the pass. Didn’t look like much fun.

At the Grand Col Ferret you cross into Switzerland and a whole new landscape – one that’s not nearly as dramatic as the one on the Italian side. But the trail has a comfortable grade and the rain and wind abate for awhile.

"The trail into Switzerland from the Grand Col Ferret"

The trail into Switzerland descending from the Grand Col Ferret

Meanwhile I’m looking around these mountains, and they all seem to have slumps on them (earth that has collapsed), that have grown over with grass. I have a little inkling in my head that I’m in landslide territory.

And as it turns out, I am.

In less than an hour we arrive at the summer dairy farm of La Peule, which is part rifugio, part restaurant. It’s packed with wet hikers chowing down on giant omelets and yes, cheese fondue. We warm up, fill up but we don’t cheer up. Outside fat drops of rain mixed with hail have started falling with renewed intensity. The rain doesn’t want to abate so we head out with most of the rest of the lunch time crowd – with the Hotel Edelweiss in La Fouly as our intended destination, about 2 hours away.

We opt to take the road instead of the high route because of the rain. It’s a winding farm road with drainage channels at regular intervals. They’re overflowing. We get to the bridge spanning the Drance de Ferret stream, except that this is no stream right now. It’s a roaring river, almost black in colour from all the debris in it – unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And we’ve entered what the guidebook confirms as a lonely valley.

"Steep sided mountains alongside the trail to La Fouly"

Steep sided mountains alongside the trail to La Fouly

Continuing along the road towards the hamlet of Ferret we cross another bridge – and this one has huge chunks of boulders tumbling down, making one heck of a noise. Throw in some thunder and lightning and the mood turns a tad spooky. In less than five minutes we’re stopped by the landslide in the picture below – and it has probably happened in the last 15 minutes. At this point we’re not sure if hikers we’d spoken to earlier at lunch got caught in it. (A few phone calls from the rifugo later confirm that the peopl we had met made it through.)

"Landslide on the Tour du Mont Blanc - near La Fouly"

Landslide on the Tour du Mont Blanc – near La Fouly

The landslide isn’t that big but it sure is scary. It’s taken out the road and there’s a roaring stream running down the middle. We’re brought to a halt.

What to do?

One brave (or foolhardy soul) elects to climb onto the landslide material to check out the possibility of crossing the stream, but he sinks up to the top of his leg immediately and has to be pulled out. The stream one has to cross isn’t that wide but it’s got two ton boulders tumbling down it – miss you’re footing and you’re going to be swept to the river.

My daughter and I elect to walk up the side of the landslide to see if there’s anywhere else we can cross. It looks worse as we climb higher.

Groups are huddling together debating what to do. I’m no expert in landslides and don’t know with the continuous rain if there will be more. We elect, though not happily, to return to the rifugio to spend the night. So it’s back up the hill, and into a dorm room instead of a hotel. Twelve people from Gap Tours also elect to turn around.

As it turns out, if we had waited a few hours we could have crossed the landslide. But we didn’t know that at the time, and the conditions were hypothermia like. I voted for safety.

What would you do?

"Another landslide - we passed the next day"

Another landslide near La Fouly we passed the next day

"Aftermath of flooding"

Aftermath of flooding

The ever efficient Swiss had all the landslides cleaned up in the valley by midnight or so we were told. One look at the river downstream from La Fouly suggests that in this area landslides are a regular occurrence.

I have a new interest in landslides and plan to research and write a future post on what one needs to be aware of in the event of one. Stay tuned or better yet, share your wisdom and expertise.

Useful Information for Hiking from the Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly

  • Total distance is 20 kilometres (12 miles)
  • Height gain is 895 metres (2936 feet)
  • Height loss is 1410 metres (4625 feet)
  • Accommodation options in Arnuva(hotel), Pra de Bar (refuge), Rifugio Elena, La Peule (refuge), Ferret and La Fouly (hotels and camping)
  • Food available wherever there is accommodation
  • The Swiss will take Euros or Swiss Francs – even giant 100 and 200 Swiss Franc bills
Other blog posts related to the Tour du Mont Blanc

Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Michael says:

    Glad to know that you came out of all that unscathed. Some hikes can be unpleasant and not what you expected, but getting back home in one piece to tell the tale is more important.

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