Argentière to Col de la Forclaz via Les Grands, Walker’s Haute Route Alt Stage 2

This was our first serious day of hiking with a nearly 1000 meter climb ahead of us. We choses the longer alternate route rather than the direct route to Trient for the promise of scenic views. On a beautiful sunny day the views proved to be worth the extra distance despite our getting caught in a marathon mountain race.

Day 2 – Argentière, France to Col de la Forclaz, Switzerland via Col de Balme and Les Grands

Based on the Cicerone guidebook, “Chamonix to Zermatt: The Classic Walker’s Haute Route,” by Kev Reynolds

Distance: 15k

Elevation Gain: 953m

Elevation Loss: 676m

Time: 10 hours with photo stops, lunch and waiting on trail runners

With breakfast starting at 7AM we couldn’t start the trail much before 7:30.

The day starts with a short walk through Argentière followed by an uphill walk through the forest to Le Tour (1 hour) with occasional views of the peaks to the south, lit at this hour by the early sun and glowing golden through the trees.

Descending into Le Tour you get the first good views of the peaks of France, Mt Blanc on one side and the Aiguilles Rouges on the other.

There are no grocery stores in Le Tour so get picnic supplies in Argentière. The restaurant in Le Tour will sell you a sandwich or you can get lunch at the cafeteria at the top of the first gondola.

From Le Tour you begin the climb to Col de Balme. If you want to avoid most of the climb there is a 2 section gondola that ends near the col (pass). Walking, the first section is steeper than the second. The impressive views are mostly behind you looking down the valley with Chamonix in the far distance.

As we near Col de Balme, the border, it starts to feel like Switzerland, with rolling green hills, peaks in the distance and the sound of cow bells. In fact you can hear Switzerland before you see it.

On this Monday the lodge is busy with the UTMB (Utra Trail Mont Blanc) race. When I was planning this trip I was unaware of the annual multiday event with various races along the Tour de Mont Blanc route. In 2019 it ran from August 26 to September 1.

Our planned route, taking the more scenic alternative stage 2 option to Col de la Forclaz via Les Grands, was unfortunately the route of a 41k race ending in Chamonix. Thinking it would be just a handful of trail runners we continued with our plan. We were so wrong! It turned out to be the “easy” starting race with over 1,000 participants.

On a narrow single mountainside track we had to step out of the way for group after group of runners that moved increasingly more slowly as we intersected with those at the end of the line. Exhausting and punishing the effort added at least an hour hiking time to an already long day.

On the plus side it was a beautiful day with fabulous mountain scenery. The trail traverses one side of the valley with views of Trient on the valley floor, then turns the corner and heads towards the Trient glacier with distant views of the glacier at the top of the river. The track then climbs to the Les Grands refuge followed by a long descent through the forest to the river. Once across the bridge it’s a 50 minute, relatively level to slight decline, walk along a water conduit to the hotel.

Col de la Forclaz

At the Hotel Col de la Forclaz we were in luck. When I made my booking the previous February I could not book a room online, only dormitory beds, and they did not reply to my email inquiries for a room. Now they had one of their better rooms with an ensuite bathroom available. We snapped it up. Yay! One less night in a dormitory.

The spacious room decorated in wood panel with a small sitting area is minimal but comfortable. Few amenities – soap, shampoo and a hair dryer. Few outlets in the room and no Wifi.

We had demi-pension, dinner and breakfast, included in our room package. Dinner starts at 7PM and guests are supposed to arrive at that hour. Bread, one slice per person, is on the table. The meal started with a carrot, potato and zucchini soup with a touch of cream, not bad after adding salt and pepper.

The main dish was a small piece of chicken served with a liquidy ratatouille, cooked-to-mush cauliflower gratin and an enormous pile of shoe string fries. For dessert two scoops of ice cream, one vanilla and one chocolate-chocolate chip.

The restaurant also has regular menu which may be the better option.

Breakfast is as meager as their dinner. Juice, a nice flakey croissant, bright red hard boiled eggs, butter and jams are waiting on your table. Coffee is served individually. Also available at the buffet is bread, corn flakes, muesli and milk. That’s it. No cheese, no meat, no yogurt. Is this Switzerland?

Deciding between Trient and Col de la Forclaz

Hotel Col de la Forclaz is the only hotel at the pass about 225 meters above Trient. Taking the long way around via the Les Grands refuge (the alternative stage 2 in the Cicerone guidebook) is longer but eliminates the 225m descent to Trient only to climb back up the next day. However if you are looking for more hotel options Trient is the better bet.

August 26, 2019

For links to all the posts in this series see the Chamonix to Zermatt page.