The path to Bertone, is a boring paved road
8am. All was quiet. There’s nobody but us. Mr Croux told us to head to the church in the centre of the town then look for Strada Villair. We were told to walk along Strada Villair.
Strada Villair was a beautifully paved, blemish-free bitumen road meant for vehicles not hikers. It didn’t have the credentials to pass off as the start to an exciting alphine hike. But it was.
Follow it dutifully till the road ended (it would get steeper). Where the road ended, a broad dirt trail continued from it until we reached something that looked like a makeshift car park area in front of a bridge in front of a ‘waterfall’. There, we saw the sign pointing the way to ‘Rifugio Bertone’, a key milestone of our hike. Further up would be the trailhead, similarly marked by a sign post. Definitely unmissable.
Its a 40-50 minute walk from Courmayeur to the trailhead.
Tour du Mont Blanc, the Quintessential Alphine hike
Our hike was actually a section of the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). The TMB is a 200km hiking trail around Mont Blanc, traversing French, Italian and Swiss territories. Split into 11 stages , the TMB can be finished in 7-10 days or you can tackle each stage singly.
The plan was to do TMB’s Stage 5: hike from Courmayeur (1223m) to Rifugio Bertone (1989m) and to Rifugio Bonatti (2025m). Then head down to La Vachey taking a bus back to Courmayeur. Check the bus timetable here (Courmayer/Val Ferret). Note that it only runs in summer (usually from 1 Jul).
Stage 5 turned out to be the model classic alphine trail – stunning alp views, beautiful blue skies, pictureque resort village at the base. Every vantage point yielded surprising, breathtaking views. As we walked, snow-capped mountains revealed themselves on our left. At our feet, the green meadows were dotted with little wild flowers. White, yellow, purple, pink, in all shapes and sizes.
Courmayeur, best experienced with a glass of wine in hand
The day before, we had driven from Paradiso back to Torino, took a bus to Aosta then another bus to Courmayeur (Savda). Courmayeur was bustling with tourists – mostly Italians taking advantage of the start of summer (and weekend). We liked what we saw immediately. Courmayeur was resorty but had a cosy, relaxed family-like mien. It was less touristy than Zermatt, less snobbish than Chamonix.
The perfect place to chill outside a ristorante, warm sun overhead, with a glass of wonderful Aosta wine in hand.
We stayed in Hotel Croux, with rooms that opened up a gorgeous view and a concierge staffed by warm, effusive, knowledgeable staff. Knowing we wanted to start our hike early, ‘Mr Croux’ was kind enough to arrange for their breakfast counter to open 30 minutes earlier, just for us.
At night, we had dinner Le Vieux Pommier, recommended by Mr Croux. The beef fondue was delicious and nostalgic : 15 years ago, I had it in Poland, Krakow, during my first trip to Europe.
Bertone, a rewarding view after a ‘tough’ climb
The climb to Bertone was supposed to be short but hard: 1.5 to 2 hours. Actually it wasn’t very hard, just that it was an unbroken uphill climb. The trail was well-defined and easy to walk, well shielded by trees so it was an extremely pleasant walk. At certain vantage points where the trees parted, our eyes would be rewarded.
We reached Bertone at 10am.
Bonatti, the hidden Rifugio in the shadow of Mont Blanc
After leaving Bertone (10 mins), we arrived onto a plateau where there’s a bunch of signs pointing to various routes. From here, it’s an easy walk to Bonatti (3 hours, follow the sign).
Soon, we came to a section where the trail split and there were trails spiralling down. We took a pause next to a stone with ‘Lavachey’ printed on it. There were no more signs. To be sure, we asked the first hiker who approached from the opposite direction: is this way to Bonatti? pointing to the trail he came trudging from. Yes, he said. Straight ahead!
We ignored the spiralling trails and continued on the trail that extended straight ahead (see photo below).
We came to last stone, the one nearest to Bonatti. 5 minutes it said. I couldn’t see anything resembling a house so I decided to ignore the time. It’s Italy afterall, so it made sense to trust our own instincts.
We walked up the path indicated, a rather inclined slope. 15 minutes was how long it took for us to finally see the roof of Bonatti.
There were no sign for Lavachey but luckily we were able to consult some local hikers. To get to Lavachey, we backtracked to the ‘Bonatti’ stone, then took the trail in the opposite direction to Bonatti.
The trail led into the forest, skirting across the forest floor, sometimes going over tree roots. It would connect to a broad dirt path, wide enough to accommodate a 4-wheel drive. You can follow this ‘safe’ route but its long and boring. Or you can take any of the smaller trails that meander down through the forest: all the trails lead to the valley below. They’re easier on the legs, more interesting, and take less time.
We got down to the valley in 45 minutes but I reckon we could have compressed this to 30 minutes if we’d taken the minor trails.
The Courmayeur bus was passing by as we reached the valley. Thanks to my mate who flailed her hands desperately enough, the bus stopped to let us board (even though it wasn’t a stop). We didn’t have to walk to La Vachey (yipee!). That saved us a lot of leg work (and only cost 2 euros). We got back to Courmayeur in good time: 1520 hours.
That evening, we took the Savda bus to Chamonix (15 euros). I wished we’d stay @ Courmayeur 1 more night, because it’s loverlier than Chamonix.
Elevation gain: 801m
Time taken: 6 hours 45 mins (including rest time)