Updated: Jan 4, 2022
During a second year ravaged by the Covid pandemic, in 2021, I was fortunate to manage a brief return to the wonderful mountain scenery above Zinal before joining a trek around the relatively remote Combins massif also in the southern Swiss Alps. I chose to travel overland once again to reduce my carbon footprint. This increased the number of Covid related travel regulations with which it was necessary to comply but the challenge was well worth the effort. This blog describes the trek around the beautiful Combins mountains. For further information about the route taken each day please check out my published uploads to the Strava or Outdooractive apps. For example the first stage from Bourg St Pierre can be viewed here with an embedded link to the map: https://www.outdooractive.com/mobile/en/route/hiking-route/switzerland/hike-bourg-st-pierre-to-cabane-de-mille/232395921/
The Tour des Combins route was introduced relatively recently and circles the Combins massif, one of the highest in the Alps. As one of the lesser known alpine treks it is much less visited than those that have been established for many years such as the Tour de Mont Blanc and the Tour de Monte Rosa. The lack of visitors accounts for the increased likelihood of encountering wildlife such as marmots, ibex and chamois on this trek than is on many others. Also, due to its southerly position the Combins, rather like the Circuit des Ecrins, is an ideal trek for those wanting to see wild and relatively rare alpine flowers such as gentians and edelweiss that are not seen so often elsewhere in the Alps.
The route for this trek is illustrated left and the 106 KM is typically undertaken in 6 days, 4 of which are entirely in Switzerland, with an overnight in Italy. Mountain huts and/or gites are available for the entire route and so there is no need to carry a tent or provisions other than something for lunch. The huts and gites are geared up to supply packed lunches if ordered the night before.
Day 1 - Bourg St Pierre to Cabane du Col de Mille, 11.6KM
Total Ascent 980M; Total Descent 197M; Max Elevation 2534M
Bourg St Pierre is a pretty, sleepy alpine village nestling in a narrow valley to the west of the Combins massif. With limited accommodation it is nevertheless an excellent starting point for the trek and can be easily reached via the SBB's excellent network of inter-connected trains and buses. There is a regular bus to the small town of Orsieres to the north.
The village, a gateway to Italy, sits below the St Bernard's Pass and is bursting with history and charm, from its ancient buildings to its newly restored mill and the legacies left by former travellers. History and legend sit side by side within its walls, recalling the bygone eras of Hannibal, the troops of the Roman Empire, those of Napoleon, the passage of millions of pilgrims, travellers and traders.
Bourg St Pierre
Ascending steadily in a north, north easterly direction the trail weaves through wooded slopes before arriving above the tree line to reveal the excellent panorama to the west, of the glaciated peaks running north from the Mont Blanc massif. These include Mont Dolent and the Aiguilles du Tour and d'Argentiere. The drama of this wonderful panorama seemed to increase with each stride upwards. The only problem was the fact that it was generally seen only by looking back necessitating frequent stops to check the view through the viewfinder in order not to miss out on the optimum photo.
Aiguille d'Argentiere and Neighbouring Peaks
This photo of these spectacular peaks in the Mont Blanc massif was taken from the trail at a point where another path forks south east before arriving at Col de Lane. The path from this point is relatively benign generally running parallel with contours and not crossing them. Few hikers were encountered on the trail and it was hard to believe that such a beautiful part of the Alps could be visited by so few people.
I am no ornithologist and cannot explain what prompted this flock of alpine choughs to take to the air together but the bright cloud provided the perfect background to capture the moment.
By early afternoon we got our first view of the Cabane du Col de Mille (shown below). It had been a relatively easy first day and we were rewarded with some excellent views of the snow capped peak of Grand Combin and the surrounding ridges.
Cabane du Col de Mille with Mont Blanc massif beyond
Perched on gentle grassy slopes below Mont Rogneux the cabane affords an excellent view of the glaciated peaks of the Mont Blanc massif to the west. Competing for the visitor's attention is a superb view of the Combin massif to the south east. It had been a very warm day and once beer had been duly ordered it was just lovely to just sit in front of the cabane and marvel at these views. The Covid pandemic was still uppermost in the minds of most trekkers and virtually everyone took the precaution of wearing a mask once inside the cabane.
Grand Combin from Cabane du Col de Mille
Day 2 - Cabane du Col de Mille to Cabane Panossiere, 14.7KM
Total Ascent 898M: Total Descent 630M: Max Elevation 2629M
One of the major advantages of trekking in the southern part of the Swiss Alps is the fact that you can generally be sure of good weather even in early September. It is therefore always well worth making the effort to rise early to see what the dawn light brings for the eager photographer. Today was no exception, rising early before 6 am I took the obvious path to the west of the cabane to take in the magnificent view of the Mont Blanc massif. I was not disappointed. The photo below reveals this magnificent panorama bathed in the soft light of early morning.
Mont Blanc Massif seen at Dawn from Cabane du Col de Mille
This day was an absolute delight. With warm sunshine all day the trail to Cabane Panossiere via Cabane Brunet passes through some of the most varied scenery I have experienced in a single day in the Alps. It was not an especially arduous day. It began with a descent from Col de Mille to 2200M before skirting round the nothern flank of Mont Rogneux. The trail then levelled out into a fairly gentle traverse before swinging from a north easterly bearing to south east and then eastwards to Cabane Brunet for a very pleasant lunch stop. Once we had gained the point at which the trail levelled into a reasonably gentle traverse the views of nearby peaks such as Bec des Rosses began to catch the eye. The surrounding terrain, a patchwork of colour, appeared like a gigantic alpine garden. This suggested that late snowfalls had delayed spring setting back the flowering season by some weeks.
The darkened contours of Bec des Rosses in the distance left and wonderful alpine flowers and grasses in the foreground
At a low point on the trail approaching Cabane Brunet a valley to the south provides an uninterrupted view of Grand Combin and its glacier. The benign nature of the trail meant there was ample opportunity to take in the natural beauty of this fabulous landscape and to attempt to do justice to it photographically!
Willow Herb graces the view of Grand Combin and its glacier
We arrived in good time to enjoy a rosti lunch and a well earned beer at Cabane Brunet. As this was a planned lunch stop it had not been necessary to order a packed lunch for the day. Sitting on the terrace in the warm sunshine admiring the surrounding peaks and enjoying local dishes was a treat. However, the knowledge that the route for the afternoon entailed a fairly unrelenting ascent to our destination meant that it wasn't too long before thoughts turned towards resuming the hike.
The dramatic crags of Col Termin leading up to Bec des Rosses
On leaving the cabane, the trail soon swung south and for some time remained around the 2100M contour. After circumventing the northern flank of Becca de Sery the trail once again turned south and so began the steady unrelenting haul toward the Glacier de Corbassiere. Above the glacier stood Cabane FXB Panossiere, our final destination for the day. The scenery had now changed dramatically. Gone were the open vistas, sunshine and colourful flora. We were now in the gloomy world of rock, scree and moraine surrounded by steep walls of rock. At around 2300M, before the climb steepened further up the moraine to the cabane, we encountered the famous Corbassiere hanging steel bridge. The bridge crosses a dramatic ravine. When it was built, in 2014, it hung over the glacier. Sadly today, as a result of global warming, the bridge dangles above rocks and not ice.
Corbassiere Steel Bridge
From the steel bridge the trail continued for half an hour or so until it passed crags overlooking the Torrent de Corbassiere to its east. From here the path steepens and ascends steadily until reaching the cabane.
The fading sun catches Grand Combin and seracs on the Corbassiere Glacier
The effort ascending towards the cabane was rewarded with one of the most memorable views of the entire trek. As I gained height the sun was breaking through the cloud over Grand Combin and also catching tiered seracs on the glacier below. The cabane enjoys a spectacular location overlooking the Glacier de Corbassiere with great views of the surrounding Combins peaks. It had been an extraordinary day with an amazing variety of contrasting scenery.
Day 3 - Cabane Panossiere to Cabane Chanrion, 18.1KM
Total Ascent 1037M: Total Descent 1337M: Max Elevation 2850M
We were greeted once again by a fine, sunny day. Once again I rose early to catch whatever surprises the dawn would bring. Sure enough as the sun rose it began to dance across the high peaks surrounding the cabane. I was particularly struck by the effect of the sun striking the peaks on Petit Combin.
Early morning sunshine on Petit Combin
After a typically frugal cabane breakfast and some last minute packing adjustments we set off on the trail running reasonably level alongside the glacier. The trail reversed back on itself to a northerly bearing and soon began to make a short ascent to Col des Otane (2846M) on which we spotted an Ibex silhoutted against the clear sky on the crest of the col.
If the Ibex had been situated against the rocky background we probably wouldn't have spotted it. Once we reached the col the path began to descend, gently at first and then quite steeply in a series of zigzags through lightly wooded terrain in the direction of Mauvoisin. A word of warning here, although the path through the lightly wooded terrain is extremely obvious and straightforward do not be fooled by the vegetation on its outside edge as this conceals a steep drop down the zigzags that I had the misfortune to test. Luckily some low growing shrubs stopped my tumble and I had to be helped back onto the trail by Tony, one of my trekking pals.
We were soon sitting on the pleasant terrace enjoying cake and coffee at Hotel de Mauvoisin situated in a tiny hamlet adjacent to the Lac de Mauvoisin. The lake was formed by the creation of a reservoir that resulted from the construction in 1951-7 of the nearby dam, which at 250M high, is the 11th highest in the world. The height of the dam was increased by 13.5M in 1991.
Knowing that we were less than half way along the route for the day and that we had the major portion of ascent still to come we did not need much persuading to get going again. The most immediate requirement was to find the entrance to the dam! The TdC trail actually enters the wall of the dam and ascends all the way through it before reaching the road traversing its parapet. It was an intriguing experience walking through the tunnel built into the dam wall and looking at the array of information boards that the hydro authority had installed telling the fascinating story behind the construction. The view that greeted us when we emerged once again into the bright sunshine was amazing. I was struck by the teal colour of the water, the sheer size of the reservoir and the drama of the glacial water being funnelled into it via a giant water spout on its west bank.
Mauvoisin Reservoir with Mont Durand behind
We traversed the parapet to the east side of the reservoir where the trail resumes in a southerly direction without gaining any height. The trail continues in this fashion for about a quarter of the length of the reservoir and then suddenly turns away from the water to commence a short steep ascent through a series of zigzags. After a short while the ground levels off in the vicinity of what looks like a disused farm building. Close to this sits a recently installed picnic table overlooking the reservoir. We decided to pause here to take our packed lunch. Cabane Panossiere came in for some stick at this point when, on opening the packed lunches, the group realised that the 18 Swiss Franks we had each paid for them had merely produced two chunks of dry bread and a hunk of dry cheese. Anyone considering this trek in future should make prior arrangements either to have lunch at the excellent Hotel de Mauvoisin or to request the hotel to prepare packed lunches for collection.
The path continues south for almost the length of the reservoir, albeit veering away from it somewhat, until it reaches the Lac de Tsofeiret gaining about 300M in the process. This was the second small lake we encountered on the trek that succeeded in persuading some brave souls to take a short swim. In the bright sunshine the water looked very inviting.
Lac de Tsofeiret
The path continues over the short rise seen behind the lake in the photo. The trail beyond that point is not at all demanding and within half an hour we arrived at Cabane de Chanrion.
Cabane de Chanrion
It had been another glorious day on the trek. Most of the hikers who had arrived by this point were enjoying a beer and/or soaking up the sun on the terrace with its magnificent view of the peaks to the south. It wasn't long before I was joining them.
It might be helpful to include a few words about the mountain huts at this point. There had been some uncertainty at the outset about the availability of potable water at all of the huts and also the presence of shower facilities. This was particularly so with Cabane de Chanrion in its extremely remote location. However, as can be seen from the photo above, the cabane has recently benefited from a new extension along with investment in solar technology and its water supply. Consequently both potable water and showers are now available at the cabane. This was also the case with all the other huts visited.
Mont Gele' with Lac de Chanrion in the foreground
The view south from the cabane is spectacular and shows broadly the direction of the trail for the next day. This is clearly visible in the foreground passing to the left of the lake before ascending to the col (Fenetre de Durand) to the right of the peak.
Day 4 - Cabane de Chanrion to Rifugio Adolfo Letey, 23.5KM
Total Ascent 1080M; Total Descent 1097M; Max Elevation 2809M
This was billed as being a long and arduous day and so it was agreed that we would rise early and plan to leave at 7am. Lingering over breakfast is never really an option in remote mountain huts. Breakfasts are invariably meagre affairs with some coffee, bread, a pat of butter and perhaps a little cheese or jam and Chanrion was no exception. Rising early is not a big deal, particularly in Swiss huts where it is unusual to see anyone staying up in the evening much after 9pm.
The weather was fine once again when we set off on what was going to be the longest day so far. The view of Grand Combin as we set off was majestic with the dramatic pyramid shape of Tour de Boussine against it.
Snow Capped Grand Combin (l) and the dark pyramid peak of Tour de Boussine (r)
The trail from Cabane Chandrion headed south descending gradually at first and then more steeply with twists and turns until it reached the small river of Dranse de Bagnes. The ascent from here, at around 21000M, was quite steep at first and then for about a kilometre, from 2600M until the col Fenetre de Durand (2800M), eased considerably. The mist and cloud began to close in while on the col which presented a relatively lengthy stretch of level ground which included the official boundary between Switzerland and Italy.
The weather and light began to deteriorate as we began the descent from the col. It was becoming overcast as the cloud closed in and we still had a long way to go to reach the steep climb up to our destination, Rifugio Alfonso Letey.
On the south side of the col the scenery was not as dramatic and the valley was far wider than we had experienced so far on the trek. The situation wasn't helped by the fact that we had low cloud which was obscuring views of the higher peaks suggesting that on another day the views would be more rewarding.
Cloud and mist obscures the Italian peaks
The peaks shown above, poking through the cloud looked eerily dramatic in the unusual light, The extract from the map below shows this range of mountains quite clearly.
Compared with the earlier days this proved to be quite unremarkable. From the point at which the photo of the mist laden peaks was taken it was a lengthy trudge around the western fringe of the Val d'Ollomont. During the latter stages we were apparently hiking over a submerged canal that supports the irrigation of crops grown in the valley although I have been unable to verify this. The valley presented the first signs of human habitation since we left Bourg St Pierre on the first day of the trek.
Once the trail reaches the west side of the valley it heads generally in a southerly direction until it reaches a wooded section at 2146M marked on the map as Pessinoille. At this point the trail turns west and begins to ascend very steeply in the direction of Rifugio Adolfo Letey (also known as Cabane Champillon). This had been a long and arduous day and make no mistake the pull up to the hut was steep and draining. We reached the hut around 4.30pm having stopped once for 30 minutes to eat our packed lunch plus two short ten minute stops for a breather. The hut though is perched in a perfect position to enjoy views of the neighbouring peaks. What was even more remarkable for some of us was the fact that it serves draft beer in large jugs. I have to confess that for me this was by far the best hut on the trek. The staff were friendly and welcoming, the atmosphere was very warm, the food was outstanding and the generous carafes of very quaffable red wine were included with dinner. Unlike the Swiss huts guests remained in the bar close to midnight and everyone retired to bed extremely contented.
Day 5 - Rifugio Adolfo Letey to Hospice St Bernard Pass, 20.6KM
Total ascent 1203M: Total Descent 1219M: Max Elevation 2714M
An early start at 7am was once again agreed for what was expected to be another fairly arduous day based on the anticipated metres of ascent and distance to be hiked. The hard work began as soon as we set off from the hut. The steep ascent to Col de Champillon began from the door of the hut. I was surprised by how gloomy everything looked as we set off and it is only as we started to gain a little height that I realised that this was being caused by an unusual combination of mist and low cloud. I think we had only been climbing for about ten minutes when I became increasingly distracted by the very unusual light behind me that was resulting from the low mist and cloud.
Looking down on Rifugio Adolfo Letey
The crepuscular light was rapidly changing and as we ascended a series of zigzags I found it necessary to frequently check the view through the viewfinder. Mont de Berrio opposite the cabane looked as though its entire mass apart from its peak was submerged under water. The rays of sunlight breaking through the low cloud in the distance between the mountains was another captivating focal point. The peak effect of this unusual light did not last very long, perhaps 15 minutes and so my attention returned to the task of ascending to the col as I was now some distance behind the main group.
Within an hour of leaving the hut we arrived on Col de Champillon. The low cloud and mist unfortunately ruled out any possibility of enjoying distant views of high peaks.
Ridge running from Col de Champillon
There followed a long descent from the col into the valley formed by the Torrent Artanavaz which contains the villages of St Oyen and St Rhemy. The trail remained a little above the valley bottom so we did not pass through the villages. There is significantly more human settlement evident on this part of the itinerary and although the landscape was still attractive it pales in comparison with previous days on the trek. After a lengthy stretch passing through woodland above St Oyen and St Rhemy the trail arrives on a lengthy balcony from which the major road running up to the Tunnel du Grand St Bernard can clearly be seen. Eventually the trail swings round from a west north west bearing to a more northerly direction and then begins a steady, long and unrelenting ascent to the col. I had been hoping that a large building I had seen from afar sitting below the minor road up the col was our destination.
The end in sight?
Unfortunately the building I had seen was not to be our destination and once I got close to it I was relieved it wasn't as it looked neglected and no longer in use. I think most of us wanted to reach our hotel by this point but this proved to be the first of a few disappointments on that score. After passing the large building seen in the above photo the trail continued inexorably upwards until it eventually merged with the road. Surely, the hotel would suddenly appear along the roadside. This was also not to be the case because after a hundred metres or so the trail resumed above the road and briefly weaved its way through some rocky terrain. Eventually the trail emerged from the rocks close to a statue (of the Madonna I seem to recall) above a sizeable lake or reservoir. The buildings close by this point comprised of a hotel/restaurant and souvenir outlets. Our destination however, was on the Swiss side of the border on the other side of the lake. I was so relieved to finally arrive at the Auberge de l'Hospice de Grand St Bernard. The hotel is a relatively modern building, is well appointed and has a very good restaurant. It is owned by the hospice (monastery) on the opposite side of the road.
Over dinner we discussed the prospects for the following day, the final leg of the trek back to Bourg St Pierre. The weather forecast was for mist and rain. This meant there was no point commencing the day with the scheduled ascent to the nearby col as the spectacular view it affords of Mont Blanc would not be possible. The plan was therefore revised to simply take the trail descending directly to Bourg St Pierre, often following close to the main road down from the pass. I therefore resolved to decide in the morning what my plan would be based on the weather situation at the time.
The following morning we awoke to what can only be described as a pea souper and so at breakfast I decided I would bail from the trek, preferring to enjoy a couple of hours in the hotel's cafe catching up on emails that I had not been able to read over the previous 5 days or so. Over my coffees I reflected on on some of the highlights of the trek and for me these were:
* The panorama of the northern part of the Mont Blanc massif en route to Cabane de Mille
* The spectacular views from Cabane de Mille of Grand Combin and the Mont Blanc Massif
* The variety and beauty of the scenery encountered on day 2 culminating in the superb view of Glacier Corbassiere and Grand Combin on the approach to Cabane Panossiere
* The wonderful view from the terrace of Cabane Chanrion
* The amazing early morning light, mist and cloud looking back beyond Rifugio Adolfo Letey
* The fabulous hospitality and ambience of Rifugio Adolfo Letey
With a warm sense of satisfaction I caught the noon bus back to Bourg St Pierre arriving there simultaneously with my trekking pals who had just completed the final leg of the trek.