My route (aiming to sleep up high but on the main track): my skill level for hiking is fairly moderate (I don’t do ice axes or crampons and have very little snow/ice experience) and this hike is perfect for my level. The only new thing for me were two ladder sections, but the handholds were fine, and despite my fear of heights I made it up them.
The trails are very well groomed (even some of the variants) and the river crossings without bridges were easy to do without getting your feet wet. There was little scrambling or using hands. I think I only really used my hands on the last day on the steep and rocky downhill section (1,500m descent!). Hiking poles may have been useful at some points, but I was fine without them.
The terrain is either uphill or downhill, pretty much the whole way. The Swiss section is relatively level and is the easiest part of the walk, which is perfect since it sits about half-way.
I’m also quite slow and stopping to take pictures all the time doesn’t help with that. My comfort level is to hike 4 1/2 to 5 hours a day (solid walking!). With food and picture stops it usually means a seven hour day. If you use the Kev Reynolds book (most popular), its times are for solid walking and we added a few hours onto a 5 hour day to account for our 1 1/2 hour hot lunches (you cannot pass up pasta in Italy for lunch!).
I wasn’t very fit for the walk with only a handful of day walks under my belt from the start of summer. It was planned only a month out so little opportunity for training. However, most summers I do about 3-4 backpacking/tramping hikes of usually only three to four days length. The first trip of the season is always the hardest!
This schedule was perfect. I started off with longer days and eased off significantly as the walk progressed. Some days I wanted to do more and others I was very grateful for a short walk.
*Walk times given below exclude lunch breaks. Any deviations from the main route are indicated.
- Day one: Les Houches (official start location) to Chalet Contamines in the valley village, 6 hour walk
- Day two: Les Contamines to Refuge Bonhomme (CAF) at 2,400m, 5 hour walk
- Day three: Refuge Bonhomme to Refuge Elisabetta at 2,195m, 7 hour walk
- Day four: Refuge Elisabetta to Refuge Bertone at 2,000m, 7 hour walk
- Day five: Refuge Bertone to Refuge Bonatti at 2,025m, 2.5 hour walk (rest day),
- Day six: Refuge Bonatti to Hotel Edelweiss, La Fouly, 6 hour walk
- Day seven: La Fouly to Au Club-Alpin, Champex Lac, 4 hour walk
- Day eight: Champex Lac to Hotel du Col de la Forclaz, 5 hour walk
- Day nine: Col de la Forclaz to Refuge Col de Balme, 4 hour walk
- Day ten: Col de Balme to Gite Auberge la Boerne, Tre Le Champ, (detour via Argentiere for lunch), 2 hour walk excluding the detour (rest day)
- Day eleven: Tre le Champ to Refuge de la Flagere (via the short Lac Blanc variant for lunch), 4 hour walk excluding the variant
- Day twelve: Refuge de la Flagere to Les Houches (Gite Michel Fagot), 7 hour walk.
This was a great route for sleeping up high. Although, if I were to walk it again, I would avoid staying at Col de Balme (terrible food, unwelcoming, hard to make reservation) and walk straight down to Tre le Champ (easy two hour walk down, although the higher-level variant did look great for good weather, which we didn’t have). I would also try to stay at Lac Blanc Refuge because the view was incredible and it would be nice to experience it when the hordes of day walkers have left. From there I would walk to Refuge de Bellachat (excellent view, small hut, make sure to reserve early as it was full a month out). This way would also break up the brutal descent on the last day.