Arriving in the Alps
It had been an eventful first two days in Chamonix and first two days in Europe. After getting settled in our place and maybe slightly adjusting to the time zone, I decided to take advantage of the thunderstorm-free forecast and go big with my planned traverse of Mont Buet from the town of Le Buet all the way to Chamonix where we were staying.
I did nearly all my route planning for Europe by just looking at maps on Caltopo. There are an abundance of “trails” in the Alps on Caltopo and no way to differentiate the popular ones from the faint ones and scramble routes. One particular high ridge caught my eye in the Aiguilles Rogues, across the valley from the Mont Blanc Massif. It seemed to suggest 10 miles of continuous high ridge travel, which sounded like a dream.
After starting the morning with our regular quiche from the local bakery and picking up a baguette sandwich for lunch, Kelly walked over to the train station with me, where I caught the first train towards Switzerland. I got out at Le Buet, a small hamlet of homes near the Swiss Border. It was cool but the first rays of morning light were kissing the flowers and cute little homes. I walked around small homes, past water troughs and mini gardens, following the path to a supposed trail. It was so picturesque, just like I had imagined.
Out of Le Lay, I picked up the trail and started into the forest. The trail did not seem to get much traffic and was rather faint through the meadows. It seemed to be mostly in place to service the waterlines that fed the communities below. Evidence of dams and other hydrological features appeared when I passed a sign warning of potential sudden catastrophic floods.
The trail followed a steep canyon with a beautiful little river. I looked up and it appeared that the trail was going to cliff out, but of course a via ferrata magically appeared when needed, complete with footholds and handholds to navigate through the problematic cliffs. This would become a theme.
Higher up, the trail flattened out in a beautiful gravel bar reminiscent of the Wind River Range. It would have been even more powerful if a large portion of its water had not be suckered into a mysterious hole in the ground.
The contrast between the faint trail but prominent man-made hydrological features was quite interesting. This valley felt wild and beautiful, but the distant power line above reminded me that I was still in the Alps. So much of the Alps has this interesting dichotomy – at times, it almost felt like wilderness, but never quite so.
At Col Des Corbeaux, I technically crossed into Switzerland and filled up on water at the lakes here, because I knew the next long ridge section would likely have no water.
I followed the use trail that passes down beneath Pointe a Corbeaux and then climbs up to Le Cheval Blanc. This section has incredible views of the turquoise blue reservoirs Lac du Emosson.
Once at the summit of Le Cheval Blanc, I started on the long ridge towards the summit of Mont Buet. I knew from Strava heat maps that this section is done decently often. Indeed, it was an official “trail” with painted markers every once in a while. At times, there was a flat path in the rocks, but at other times, it was more like off trail travel. I would call it high routing.
As the ridge narrows and becomes the north ridge of Mont Buet proper, it became steeper. As this was an official “trail”, cables and metal holds began appearing in the tricky sections, relegating the class 3-4 to merely pulling and stepping. There is no terrain too challenging for a trail builder here in the Alps. Many of the rebar stakes moved when I pulled hard however, so I mostly “freed” the route, trusting footholds and handholds in the rock more than the old hardware.
After seeing only a few people the entire way up, the summit of Mont Buet had a few dozen. They had all come from the south up the standard route. I talked to a French man who said it was a classic hiker’s summit. Online I had read that back in the day it was considered the “Lady’s Mont Blanc”, but it is important to remember the the first female ascent of Mont Blanc actually occurred in 1838.
I cracked open a giant gyro wrap I had gotten the night before in Chamonix. I am used to my trail mix, bars, and peanut butter jelly sandwiches to power my big days in America. In Europe, this food is a little less available or just more expensive, so I decided to “go Euro” and carry the food I can get at restaurants or the bakeries in the morning. It made guessing how much food I needed much more challenging. In the end, all the longer lasting calories and protein helped me feel consistently good all day, although I missed a little sugary snack during the last few hours.
It was apparent that the summit would not really leave the clouds, so I disembarked from the summit and continued down to the southwest. I was about 5 hours into my adventure and had finished 6k gain, quite past half of my total gain for the day. But I knew that I still had a ton of high ridge terrain to cover. It would turn out the next descent would be the slowest part of my day.
The section past Grenier de Villy was all technically “trail” with painted trail markers, but the terrain got steep and sharp with shale. It was very Olympic-like. I took a bit of time to find the right way through certain cliffs and avoid slipping. One particularly steep passageway had a helpful handline to climb down. Here, I was actually grateful for the via ferrata or it would have been fifth class.
At one point, I came around a corner and spooked two chamoix (large goat / antelope like animals). One leapt off down the steep chossy slope, flying at probably 40 miles per hour, inducing a large rock slide in the process. I had to cross this slope, so I had a five minute staring match with the other chamois, trying to get it to run before I had to cross the slope. After it refused to give up its higher position, I made a quick crossing beneath and prayed that it would not trundle me into oblivion. Fortunately, it granted me safe passage.
Down beneath the clouds and out of the choss, I reached Col des Chaux. I took a few minutes to rest by beautiful tarns and wildflower meadows. Thousands of feet beneath me, the lush valley of La Diosaz shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. As the clouds shifted, little pieces of glacier on Mont Blanc peeked through the clouds. This spot truly felt wild and grand as could be.
The traverse was far from over. The climb up to Tete de Villy was far more technical than expected. The north side held a vertical drop off, and the south side was 45 degree grass. I carefully moved through some 3rd class grass scrambling. This section was no longer an official trail, so there would be no via ferrata here. It was just me and the terrain.
I moved over numerous little bumps, up and down through some of the most vibrant and unique terrain I have seen. Tread from others, even in the impressionable meadows, was faint to non-existent. After months of planning and worrying, I was finally here. This is what I dreamed of doing. I felt intensely grateful to be out here exploring such a magnificent new place.
Eventually, the ridge mellowed up and became relatively flat and quick. I paused at the final high point, Tete de Möede, to capture a stately chamois enjoying the view. It was a king on his throne.
I dropped down to Col d’ Anterne and found other people for the first time since the summit of Mont Buet. It felt good to be back on trail and through the most uncertain parts of the day.
I passed an active refugio, where I used the bathroom and then continued down the valley towards La Diosaz.
My legs felt surprisingly decent but the trail was pretty rocky so my running was slow down to the river. Then I crossed on a bridge and began my final 2500 ft climb to Col Du Brevent.
I listened to music and enjoyed the long climb in afternoon shade. I passed an entire family of Chamoix. These things are all over the place wherever there are not too many people!
I eventually reached Col Du Brevent and gazed down 4500 ft to Chamonix, and up 7000 ft to the summits above me. Clouds had decapitated the incredible spires of the massif, but the verticality of the valley was still evident. It was definitely too late to take the lifts down from Planpraz, but there was something to doing this entire adventure without using lifts. It felt honest.
I trotted downhill, just trying to save a little in my legs for the next few weeks. Before this day, I had not done more than 5k feet gain and descent on foot this year. With 11k descent through rugged terrain, this was definitely bigger than my typical first “big day” of the summer season. I was pleasantly surprised with how my body was holding up.
I rolled into downtown Cham right around dinner, dodging crowds through the bustling main street. Less than 12 hours after leaving my apartment, I returned – tired, sleepy, but eyes open. I had only been in Europe for a few days, but had already seen so far beyond the typical alpine tourist.
This was a wonderful day out in a new place. It felt like blending my PNW high routing flair with the unmatched access and terrain of the Alps. There is something so special about not knowing what each turn will hold. Discovery and beauty wait around every corner. Welcome to the new playground – from the American Alps (and Issaquah Alps 😉 to the European Alps.
- My route measured 24 miles and 10,500 ft of ascent and 11,500 ft of descent. It took me a little over 11 hours. It definitely felt harder than the stats might suggest because so much of the terrain was mildly technical and very little was actually runnable. The trails were very rocky and slow.
- If there was a typical July snowpack, certain sections may have been tough without traction and an ice ax. This is an extremely low snow year. I did not have to cross really any snow.
- There were no sections harder than class 3 with the use of the various via ferratas and most of it was class 1-2.
- There were a few small, stagnant ponds on the ridge around Col des Chaux that you could filter from if needed. They could dry up later in the season.