Aiguillette des Houches – Chamonix Hikes

Runner descending Aiguillette des Houches

A very pleasant day-hike, the Aiguillette des Houches nonetheless provides a stiff climb that is rewarded with a fantastic view.

Like the Aiguillette des Possettes at the opposite end of the valley, the Aiguillette des Houches is also a great day hike with splendid views across the Mont Blanc Massif. This one is perhaps a little longer, although it does depend where you start from.


Distance: 15km
Altitude gain/loss: 1300m
Time: around 6-7 hours hiking
Shorter options are possible
Grading: Physicalthree marmots Technical two marmots

Aiguillette translates as little needle, and as with Possettes, this little needle is also a good variant on the TMB. Both options add a relatively small detour to find some interesting terrain. The Aiguillette des Houches lies at the South Western end of the Chamonix Aiguilles-Rouges range, giving good views across the lower Arve valley. Both Aiguillettes are among the few summits in the area that can be reached without using either ski lifts or mountaineering equipment.

If you want to organise a guided trek to the Aiguillette des Houches, send us a message or have a look at our guided Classic Chamonix Hikes page.

If you are using public transport, the best starting point is Les Houches railway station. Arriving by car lets you shorten the route by parking higher up at Le Bettey or Parc Merlet. From the railway station, turn left and follow Route de Coupeau until it turns left and crosses the railway. Then turn right and take the minor road to a parking area. Fork left and follow signs up the hill towards Christ Roi. This impressive and incongruous statue stands opposite Les Houches. Perhaps surprisingly, the statue functions as a church with a pulpit inside its base and occasional services. The building just across the clearing houses an enormous church bell.

Large statue seen from below
Statue of Christ-Roi

Merlet Animal Park

From here, take the paths up and then rightwards to reach the parking area for the Merlet Animal Park. The animal park itself is worth a visit. It’s the easiest way to see marmots, ibex or chamois in their natural habitat without having to rely on luck. It’s probably best to save it for a different day though.

From Merlet, keep climbing through the forest. After skirting the Animal Park, take the high path on the left signposted Chalets de Chailloux. At the chalets, the path finally emerges from the trees and into open pastures. The Chailloux buvette is the only refreshment stop we’ll pass on this route, so it’s a good opportunity for a break before the final 300 metre climb to the summit.

Alpine pasture and mountain café
Chalets de Chailloux

A question of names

The path heads right then left before steep zig-zags lead to the top at 2285m. This whole ridgeline is usually referred to as the Aiguillette des Houches, but in fact there are two higher points on it, the 2313m Pointe de Lapaz and the 2310m Aiguillette du Brevent. If you want to visit these, a one-kilometre stroll along the ridge will take in both of them, plus another kilometre back.

Returning to the summit, we suggest descending the south-west ridge as far as Pierre-Blanche at 1697m. This path is airy and exciting, but not too difficult. The reward is a fantastic view over the rocky walls of the Rochers des Fiz and the Pointe de Platé. At Piere-Blanche, turn left and traverse in a long diagonal to eventually meet the ascent path just above the Christ-Roi statue. From here, follow the route you used earlier in the day to arrive back at the railway station.

Hiker on snow on the Aiguillette des Houches ridgeline
The impressive summit ridge

Aiguillette de Houches Variations

If you’re doing the Aiguilette as part of a clockwise Tour du Mont Blanc, you’ll want to turn right at the top and follow one of the paths to Belachat. From here you rejoin the standard route up to Le Brevent. If you’re doing the standard anti-clockwise TMB route, you’ll climb the Aiguillette from Belachat and follow our route in reverse to descend.

If you want a longer day, you can start from Chamonix and hike up via Belachat, or you can turn right instead of left at Pierre-Blanche and visit the Chalets du Fer. The latter is the remnant of iron mining in the area.

Whichever way you climb it, the Aiguillette des Houches is a lovely little mountain on the very edge of the Chamonix ranges. We’d highly recommend it for a good hike in the Chamonix valley.

Map showing the route from Les Houches station to Aiguillette des Houches

The History of the TMB

Today, the Tour du Mont Blanc is the most popular long distance hike in Europe, if not the world. But how did it become established, and who was the first to walk it? To find the answer, we have to go back to 1767, and a man who would play a key role in the history of this region, Horace Bénédict de Saussure. However the story of the actual footpaths goes back even further. Read on for a look at the history of the TMB.

Most of the paths themselves are centuries or even millenia old. They long pre-date Saussure, the TMB or even Alpine tourism. The trail from Les Contamines over the Col du Bonhomme is a good example. It was already an established trade route when the Romans arrived. At the time, Ceutrone tribespeople used it to bring salt from Moutiers to the Montjoie Valley for cheesemaking. The path actually crosses a surviving Roman bridge just below the Nant Borant refuge. Other paths on the TMB have existed for centuries as crossing points between the valleys, or trails for herders to move livestock along.

Horace Bénédict de Saussure

Painting of Saussure, history of the TMB
Painting of Horace Benedict de Sassure by Jens Juel in 1778

Horace Bénédict de Saussure was instrumental, not only in the ascent of Mont Blanc itself, but in the development of mountaineering as a sport. Born in 1740 to a wealthy family close to Geneva, he would become a prominent scientist of the day, with interests in botany, geology, physics and meteorology. In March 1760 he made the first of many trips to Chamonix with the aim of collecting plant specimens. Arriving in winter, he was astonished by the snow covered landscape. He wrote of the uniform whiteness covering immense surfaces, punctuated only by rocky slopes too steep to hold the snow, dark forests, and the serpentine blackness of the river Arve. Interestingly, he also complained about the lack of accommodation – a situation that would be rapidly rectified in the following years. The next two decades saw the development of several grand hotels to serve the nascent tourism industry.

Saussure developed a fascination for Mont Blanc. In the same year, 1760, offered his famous prize for the first party to reach the summit. Two Chamoniardes, Dr Pacard and Jaccques Balmat eventually claimed the prize in 1786 by. Saussure would reach the summit himself the following year. But I’m jumping ahead. This article is about the trek around Mont Blanc, not it’s first ascent.

Statue of Balmat and Saussure - a key figure in the history of the TMB
The statue of Saussure (right) and Balmat in central Chamonix

The first TMB

Twenty years before his ascent of the mountain, Saussure was in Chamonix to explore the Mont-Blanc massif. He embarked on a circuit of the Mont Blanc in 1967, along with a party of friends, guides, mules and porters. This first tour of the mountain range really marks the start of the history of the TMB. The endeavor was partly for scientific interest, partly to help find a route to the elusive summit. Saussure’s party started off on a route similar to that popular today. They crossed from the Chamonix valley into Les Contamines and then went over the Col de Bonhomme towards Courmayeur. From Courmayeur the party reportedly took a longer route. They went further into Aosta before entering Switzerland by the Grand St. Bernard Pass (home to Barry the dog).

Exploits like these helped put the Chamonix area on the map. The Alps up to this point were seen as a land of peasant farmers and inhospitably dangerous mountains, with little cultural or touristic interest. Over the second half of the 18th century, all this changed. The region became a popular destination for the wealthy travelling set of Europe. Roads, hotels and spa towns were built, and the elites of the day came here to take in the air, and to be seen.

Paintinf of Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc and the Arve Valley from the Path to Montenvers, Painted by JMW Turner in 1802

The Growth of Tourism in the 1800s

Throughout the 19th Century, the region continued to grow in popularity, despite the disruption of the Napoleonic Wars between 1803 and 1815. Notable figures in the art world spent time in the Alps. The poet Lord Byron spent the summer of 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva along with Percy and Mary Shelley, poet and author respectively. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein here, even setting a scene of the novel on the Mer De Glace above Chamonix. The Artist JMW Turner also visited Chamonix in 1802, and again in 1836 whilst travelling around Europe. Over the course of these visits, he produced many sketches and paintings of mountain landscapes. Although best known for nautical themes and steam trains, he painted a few notable views of Mont Blanc such as the one above.

The Golden Age of Alpinism

The decade from 1855 to 1865 saw the Golden Age of Alpinism, when British mountaineers (and scientists) hired local French or Swiss guided to tackle the hitherto unclimbed peaks of the massif. The subsequent years up until the ascent of the Dent du Geant in 1882 are sometimes known as the Silver Age of Alpinism. This burst of activity encouraged the growing popularity of the Chamonix valley. Hotels became the biggest industry in the valley, taking over from mountain guides and crystal hunters, and farmers before that. More and more visitors flocked to the valley to see the views, visit the glaciers, and of course to go hiking. By the end of the 19th Century, Chamonix was firmly established as the mountain sports capital of France. At this point, only Zermatt in Switzerland rivalled the town for the title of the premier mountain destination in Europe.

In 1901 the railway arrived in Chamonix and the first mountain railway, to Montenvers, opened in 1908. Another iconic mountain railway, the Mont-Blanc Tramway, followed a year later. The first ski lifts opened in 1924, just in time for the first Winter Olympics which was also held in Chamonix.

A railway line on a mountain in the fog
The Mont Blanc Tramway opened in 1909

The Modern TMB

All this expansion has set the scene for the TMB as we know it today. The full walk typically takes around 10 days to complete. Depending on the variation you take, it’s around 160km long with 10 000 metres of ascent. The usual start points in the Chamonix valley are easily reachable by bus, car or train, and there is plenty of accommodation in the valley. The ski lifts we mentioned can be used to shorten the route, along with several useful bus services. Although there is accommodation all along the route, it does tend to book up early, especially at certain pinch points. You can use sites like to book accommodation, or you can book onto an organised trip with pre-booked accommodation.

If you want to sample the modern TMB then you could take a look at our 4-day version. We’ll guide you from Courmayeur to Les Houches in a long weekend, with half-board accommodation and airport transfers included. Whichever way you choose to do it, over its 250 year history the TMB has become one of the classic multi-day treks in the world.

Hikers on the Tour de Mont Blanc
Hikers on the TMB

La Jonction – Chamonix Hikes

Mont Blanc from La Jonction - snowy mountains with footpath in the foreground

The trek to La Jonction is one of the toughest of the classic day hikes around Chamonix. With around 1500 metres of ascent in seven kilometres, the climb feels relentless. The rewards are some of the best up close views of the Chamonix glaciers. What’s more, you’ll be following in the footsteps of Jacques Balmat and Dr. Paccard as they made the first ascent of Mont-Blanc in 1786. If you take the Bossons charlift, you can reduce these figures a little, but it’s still a big day.


Distance: 14km (12km if you use the chairlift)
Height gain/loss: 1520m (1240m if you use the chairlift)
Time: 6-7 hours hiking time
Grading: Physical four marmotsTechnical three marmots

Person standing on a path in front of a steep glacier on the hike up to La Jonction

Starting point

The walk starts by the ski jump (tremplin) in Les Bossons, or you can take the Bossons chairlift from a little lower down the hill. There is parking in both places. If you are using public transport, Chamonix bus number 2 stops by the chairlift. You’ll want the Glacier des Bossons stop.

Taking the chairlift takes you to the Chalet des Glacier des Bossons café at 1500m, saving nearly 300 vertical metres of walking. The chalet itself is a pleasant viewpoint serving drinks, ice creams and local dishes. If you start at the ski jump, follow the path uphill through the woods to the top of the chairlift.

Chalets des Pyramides

Above the chairlift, a good path climbs steeply through the woods, settling into regular zig-zags. After 400 metres of effort, you reach another mountain restaurant, the Chalet des Pyramides at 1900m. This offers views down onto the shrinking Bossons glacier. It’s also the last place to buy sustenance on the route. Above here there is nowhere to top up your water, so make sure you have enough.

If you want to buy anything here, make sure you carry some cash. The chalet is quite remote, with intermittent phone signal, so you won’t be able to use bank cards.

The top section

A couple of hundred metres above the chalet, the trees start to thin out, giving way to scrubby bushes then open hillsides. On a hot day, you might miss the shade of the trees, but there is often a cooler breeze up here. The path follows a broad ridge between the glacial valleys of Bossons and Taconnaz.

Around 2200m there is a short descent to the right before you climb back to cross the ridgeline. This small col between Bec du Corbeau and Mont Corbeau marks the point where the path gets more difficult. The IGN map shows a dotted line, for difficult hiking route, from here to the top. There are narrow and exposed sections interspersed with rocky scrambles. Here the path disappears and you find yourself following the paint marks on the rock.

Person lying below a boulder called Gite Balmat, looking a bit like they are floating.
Stine practicing her levitation skills at Gîte à Balmat

Gîte à Balmat and La Jonction

Marked on the IGN map as an unmanned refuge, this is in fact just a slight cave beneath a boulder where climbers have sheltered over the years. The name is a humorous nod to Jacques Balmat, who slept here with Dr. Paccard on their way up Mont Blanc.

Marked by a plaque on the rock, the “Gîte” is easily missed if you are not looking out for it. Above here, a few more minutes of walking will bring you to La Jonction. Named for the junction of the glaciers, this viewpoint puts you right in the middle of a field of ice and crevasses. It is a remarkable spot, with a high mountain feeling surrounded by ice. Yet you can reach it with no more equipment than a pair of hiking shoes and some spare warm layers.

A hiker at La Jonction
A younger version of the author at La Jonction

Descent from La Jonction

The descent is made by the same path – there are few options for a circular route here. The map does show a faint path which winds down below the Taconnaz glacier, but it isn’t recommended. Take care on the steeper sections and don’t try to descend too quickly. It’s well worth stopping at one of the two chalets for a well-earned drink on the way down, now that you don’t have the big climb ahead of you.

Map showing the path to La Jonction from Les Bossons
Map data: © OpenStreetMap-Mitwirkende, SRTM | Map display: © OpenTopoMap (CC-BY-SA)


La Jonction is a well-known classic. While popular, it doesn’t get too crowded like some of the easier walks in the valley. The climb is long and increasingly barren, with quite tricky sections near the top. However, the rewards are well worth the effort you’ll put in. Standing at the top on the edge of the glaciers is like being in a different world. If you’re a fit, competent hiker this route is highly recommended. But if you’re new to hiking, we’d suggest tackling some easier routes before this one.

Get in touch if you want more information on Chamonix hiking, or to book a guided trek. Or check out our trekking pages to see what groups we have scheduled.

We have more Mont-Blanc hiking articles here if you want some more ideas.

Aiguillette des Possettes – Chamonix Hikes

View from Aiguillette des Possettes towards Aiguille Verte

The Aiguillette des Possettes stands at the head of the Chamonix valley, dividing it into two branches. One leads to Le Tour, culminating in the Col de Balme. The other winds up over the Col du Montets before descending to Vallorcine and the Swiss border. Between these two branches, the sharp ridgeline of the Possettes Arete leads to the summit of the Aiguillette. As well as being a fine hike in its own right, the Possettes Arête makes a classic variation on the standard Tour du Mont Blanc route.


Distance: 11km
Altitude gain/loss: 800m
Time: around 4 hours hiking
Grading: Physicaltwo marmots Technical two marmots

On the whole, the trek up the arete is varied and interesting but not too difficult. On reaching the summit, you’ll find the airy ridge gives way to a small plateau with spectacular views. The descent takes in the Col des Possettes before returning along the flank of the Aiguillette. The Alpage de Balme restaurant is a great place to stop for lunch on the way down. After this the path skirts around old slate quarries before dropping into the trees to rejoin the ascent path.

Panorama from Aiguillette des Possettes
Summit Panorama

Starting out

We usually start from the Col des Montets where there are a few parking options near the visitor centre. Take the path on the east side of the road, on the Chamonix side of the col. That’s the right-hand side as you arrive from Chamonix. Paths from the different parking areas meet quite quickly at a signpost. From here you can head uphill following the signs for the Aiguillette des Possettes. Take care as the path is steep and strewn with tree roots.

If you’re travelling by public transport, you can take the bus to the Balme/Le Tour gondola station instead. Look for the path at the top of the car park, to the left of the lift station and follow this to meet the path from the Col des Montets.

People picnicking on a mountain top
A popular picnic spot

Leaving the trees

Keep climbing until the trees start to thin, and go left at a junction, again following signs for the Aiguillette des Possettes. The trees get smaller and gradually disappear until you are following a steep path through rocks. There are sections with steps to get up the more difficult parts.

This is where the views start to get better and better, so take a moment to look around. As you climb the gradient eventually eases off, but the summit is still further away than you think. Although a little airy, the ridge is never narrow enough to feel scary. It is uneven and rocky though, so you need to be reasonably comfortable on steeper ground.

View of snowy mountains with people on rocks in the foreground
The Aiguilles Vertes, Drus and Chardonnet from the summit

The Aiguillette des Possettes summit

After a few false summits, you arrive at the summit plateau. In our opinion, this is one of the best viewpoints you can hike to in the Chamonix valley. By hiking, we mean that you can get there on foot, without either cable cars or mountaineering equipment. As well as Mont-Blanc, you can see the Aiguille Verte and the Drus, the Aiguille du Chardonnet, the Tour glacier, the Aiguille du Tour, The Aiguilles Rouges and Mont Buet across the valley, and the Emmosson Dam in Switzerland.

Heading down

After stopping for a while on the summit, continue north-east to descend to the Col des Possettes. At the col, take a sharp right onto a good path leading past the Alpage de Balme farm and restaurant.

This collection of rustic buildings is home to one of the finest mountain restaurants in the valley. It’s a great place for lunch but be sure to book ahead both summer and winter. It gets busy, and with good reason. The menu is full of local specialties from both sides of the nearby Swiss border. You can get French mountain dishes like Tartiflette or Croute Savoyarde, alongside Swiss classics like Rosti.

After the Chalets, the path climbs slightly to cross a ridge, then descends through remnants of slate workings. Just above the tree line, you re-join the ascent route and follow this back to the start. Take extra care of the roots when descending. More than one person has taken a tumble here in the past.

Aiguillette des Possettes summary

The Aiguille de Possettes hike is great for a day out at an easy pace, or for a half-day of harder hiking. Unlike most hikes in the Chamonix valley, you can reach a great viewpoint without lift assistance and without too much of an uphill climb before you reach the treeline. The summit is a popular picnic spot and there is also a good mountain restaurant near the start of the descent. It is a great hike for teenagers and older children, but not suitable for younger kids. The path is often steep, with roots in the forest and rocks higher up. And the summit is one of the best viewpoints in the valley that can be reached without a cable car or mountaineering kit.

Map data: © OpenStreetMap-Mitwirkende, SRTM | Map display: © OpenTopoMap (CC-BY-SA)

Get in touch to book a private guide for the Aiguillette des Possettes, or any other local hike, or if you’re looking for more information. And take a look at our trekking pages to see what trips and group activities we have planned.

You can read some of our other Mont-Blanc trekking articles here for more Chamonix hiking inspiration.

Chamonix Hiking – the Grand Balcon Nord

View over Mer de Glace glacier, runner in foreground

Along with Lac Blanc, the Grand Balcon Nord is one of the must-do day hikes of the Chamonix Valley. The cable car access lets you get high into the mountains with relatively little effort, taking you straight to awe-inspiring views and a great mountain ambience.

Stats (starting from Plan de l’Aiguille)
Distance: 6.5km to Montenvers, 12km to Chamonix
Ascent: 140m
Descent: 530m to Montenvers, 1400m to Chamonix
Time: 2-3 hours to Montenvers, about 4 hours to Chamonix
Grading: Physicalone marmot Technical two marmots

The hike starts with a trip up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to the Plan de l’Aiguille mid station. The complete trip to the top station shouldn’t me missed. You can do it on the same day if you are a moderately good hiker, or on another day if you prefer a more relaxed pace.

Starting the Grand Balcon Nord

From the cable car station, descend towards the Plan de l’Aiguille refuge – a great spot for lunch or refreshments although still early in the walk. Then bear right to follow the popular balcony path. Although it doesn’t gain or lose much height, there is a lot of undulation so the going is slower than you might expect. You a firmly in the world of the high-Alpage here. Below are steeply forested hillsides. Above you, sparsely vegetated moraine walls guard the granite needles of the Chamonix Aiguilles.

After a couple of kilometres, a path on the left is signposted towards Blatiere Alpage. This is one of the numerous small cheese producing farms that still nestle amongst the high pastures of the Alps. The path to the Alpage is another worthwhile route, but for the Grand Balcon Nord we continue straight ahead. All along this path there are views northward to the Aiguilles Rouges on the far side of the Chamonix valley. Perhaps confusingly, the Balcon Nord is named because it faces north. It is actually on the south side of the valley.

Climbing to Signal Forbes

Passing below the north face of the Aiguille de l’M, so called because it looks like a giant version of that letter, you reach a junction. Both paths lead to the same destination, Montenvers station. The lower route enters the trees and is shorter with less climbing. But we highly recommend taking the higher path on the right. This climbs to the ridge on the right to reach Signal Forbes. From here you are met with a sudden and spectacular view of the Mer de Glace glacier far below you.

While you are at the Signal Forbes, it is worth pointing out the Forbes’ Bands on the glacier. These curved light and dark stripes across the glacier were first described by Scottish geologist James David Forbes in the 19th century. One dark and one light band together indicate the distance travelled by the glacier in a year.

On the far bank of the glacier, the Drus and the Aiguilles Vert dominate the view. With all the spectacular mountain scenery on offer, don’t forget to look where you are placing your feet. The path, though popular, is uneven and crosses precipitous terrain.

Signal Forbes


Staying above the Mer de Glace, the path zig-zags its way down to Montenvers. Perched high on a ridge above Chamonix, Montenvers hosts a hotel, restaurant, mountain railway station, museums and a cable car down to the ice caves in the glacier itself. From here you can either take the train down the cog-railway to Chamonix. Alternatively, if you’re feeling energetic, you can walk down one of the several paths through the woods. If you are going to walk down, I’d recommend going via the Mottets buvette – a delightful little snack bar at a little over 1600m. If you take the regular path down, close to the railway line, there is also a snack bar halfway down at Caillet. There is no shortage of refreshment options in the Chamonix hillsides.

Allow about two or three hours walking at a leisurely pace to get from Plan de l’Aiguille to Montenvers, then another hour and a half for the descent to Chamonix. You can buy a combined ticket for the cable car and train, if you plan to take the train down.

If you want to make a (much) bigger day of it, you can hike up to Plan de l’Aiguille instead of taking the cable car. This adds around three hours to the total time, with 1100 metres of additional climbing.

Map data: © OpenStreetMap-Mitwirkende, SRTM | Map display: © OpenTopoMap (CC-BY-SA)

Grand Balcon Nord Summary

The Grand Balcon Nord is a classic Chamonix day hike which can be done as part of a leisurely day or as a brisk afternoon hike. It can be extended if you are looking for a more challenging route, but the cable car and train make it an accessible route for hikers of all levels, including children. That said, the terrain is uneven and the mountain environment can be unpredictable at over 2000 metres above sea level. Check the weather forecast and be prepared.

Get in touch if you want a private guide to organise and lead your Grand Balcon Nord trek. Or have a look at our trekking pages to see what group trips and activities we have scheduled.

You could also read our other Mont-Blanc hiking articles for more inspiration.

High above the Mer de Glace

Col du Belvedere

Crossing Lac Blanc with the Col du Belvedere behind

With a magnificent setting, a sunny aspect, and an amenable 500 – 800 metres of ascent, the Col du Belvedere is a great introduction to ski touring in Chamonix. The route takes you from the edge of the Flegere ski area to the summer tourist hotspot of Lac Blanc. This famous viewpoint is much quieter in winter, when it can only be reached by ski touring. Above Lac Blanc, the col stands at the head of a wonderful valley, whose sense of remoteness belies its proximity to the pistes.

Reaching Lac Blanc

The first part of the tour, the ascent to Lac Blanc, can be achieved in three ways. The longest route starts by following the Trappe piste from the Flegere gondola. Leave the piste on the left hand side, just after it crosses the line of the Chavanne chairlift. From here, a long traverse gains the approximate line of the summer footpath. Follow this through a succession of bowls and steep valleys to reach the lake.

The other two routes take the Index chairlift and Floria drag lift to gain some altitude. The shortest route takes a high traverse from the Crochues red piste. This leads to an exposed crossing of the rocks around Tete Aubury. Once past the rocky ridge, the climb to the lake is very short. you can avoid the exposure of Tete Aubury by following the Crochues piste further down to a flat section near its easternmost point. From here, carefully avoiding the wildlife restrictions, you can begin a fairly short climb to the lake.

Lac Blanc refuge
The Lac Blanc Refuge

Crossing Lac Blanc

For me, one of the highlights of the tour is crossing the lake on skis. This feels like a dangerous moment, but the ice is generally very thick. I’ve never heard of any accidents here. Do be aware that you are crossing deep water, so avoid this if there are signs that the snow and ice cover is weakening. Check with the Office de Haute Montagne if you are unsure.

Col du Belvedere and Lac Blanc
Skiers crossing Lac Blanc

Climbing to the Col du Belvedere

The route to the col becomes obvious after the crossing of the lake. Head straight up the middle of the valley. If there is any avalanche risk, avoid exposure to the steep south facing slopes on your right. Climb a succession of steeper steps with flatter sections in between. The final steep section before the col reaches a little over 30 degrees of steepness.

You may see people heading left about halfway up the climb. They will probably be heading to the Aiguille Crochues – another great ski tour that is a little harder and more involved than this one.

Once you reach the col, beware of the steep slopes down the other side. These access the the North facing Berard glacier, which can be reached in three 50 metre abseils (150m total). A ski down the steep glacier takes you into the Berard valley, a popular destination for ski tourers. This route is well worth doing. However it is a big step up in terms of difficulty, commitment, and the equipment you’ll need to bring.

For our route, the standard Col du Belvedere, take off your skins here to return by the same route.

Skiers approaching the Col de Belvedere
Skiers approaching the Col de Belvedere

The Descent

In warm sunny weather, you can hope for great spring corn snow conditions if you time your descent right. The shape of the valley means that you can play around with slope angles and aspects to find the best snow.

At the bottom, try to carry some speed across the lake to save pushing with your poles. The flat area near the lake makes a good picnic spot, with some of the best views of the Mont Blanc range.

From here down the terrain is a little more complex. The route weaves through a series of little valleys and bowls, so you have plenty of choices to play with. At some point you will have to traverse right to reach the Trappe chairlift, so don’t be too tempted by the untracked snow below. If you drop too far you’ll need to put the skins back on and climb back up.

A skier descending with mountains in the background


The Col de Belvedere is one of the classics of the Aiguilles Rouges, and a relatively straightforward introduction to Chamonix ski touring with no glaciers and mostly straightforward route finding. While it is not especially prone to avalanche risk, the slope angle does reach 30 degrees, and there is potential exposure to steep slopes above. Do check the avalanche bulletin before setting out. If you’re not sure, get advice or go with a professional.

Get in touch via our contact page if you want to ski the Col du Belvedere with us, or if you want an introduction to ski touring.

Map showing the route to Col du Belvedere
Map data: © OpenStreetMap-Mitwirkende, SRTM | Map display: © OpenTopoMap (CC-BY-SA)

When to visit Chamonix

Mont Blanc from summit of Prarion in Les Houches

When is the best time to come to Chamonix? It’s a question we get asked all the time but the answer really depends on what you want to do here. Ski touring is best in the spring, mountain biking in June and September, hiking all summer, and climbing – well it depends on what you want to climb.

Here’s a quick rundown on what activities are good in the valley each month. Have a read before you decide when to come to Chamonix next.


At the start of the year the ski lifts already have been open for a few weeks. To begin with, the resort will be busy over New Year. Once the school holidays have finished though, the rest of January is the quietest part of the ski season and can be a great time to book a ski holiday. It’s also usually good for cross-country skiing.

Snowfalls tend to reach lower altitudes but there will have been fewer of them so far than later in the season. Off-piste skiing/snowboarding and ski touring are possible but the avalanche risk is often higher. Early in the season, the available options depend heavily on the snow cover. December and January are usually the coldest months of the year.

Skier off-piste with cloud and mountains in the distance
Off-piste skiing in January


February brings the half-term holidays and by far the busiest part of the season. The snow is often at its best, but the queues can be at their worst. This is the time to book well ahead for accommodation, ski hire, lessons, and meals out. The French school holidays are staggered over four weeks and run from around the second week of February into the start of March, with the middle fortnight of this period being the busiest.

Lots of skiers and tourists with mountains in the background
Brevent in the February holidays


March hopefully brings spring conditions – longer, sunnier days and consistent snow. It is the start of the peak ski touring season and my favourite time to ski off-piste. Once the school holidays have finished, the slopes are quieter, although not as quiet as January. As the weather is warmer, the snow at lower altitudes is not guaranteed to be good but higher up will be. The cross-country skiing might not stay in good condition and the lower beginner slopes will rely on artificial snow to stay open. Many mountain refuges will open for their spring ski touring season this month.


April is the last month of the ski season, with most of the lifts shutting late in the month. It’s also peak ski touring season and the most popular time for longer trips like the Skier’s Haute Route. The Easter school holidays can be busy, but not so busy as February and the rest of the month is quieter. You can expect spring snow conditions – icy in the morning, slushy in the afternoon and perfect for a couple of hours in between, depending on the slope orientation. The avalanche risk is usually lower (but always check the avalanche bulletin). All this changes if there are April snowstorms, which are not uncommon although the fresh snow doesn’t last as long as earlier in the winter.

April is also the time for end-of-winter parties…


The last lifts close early in the month, excepting the Aiguille du Midi which is open almost year round. Ski touring is still possible on higher slopes but most of the refuges close around the start of this month. For certain ski tours, notably the ascent of Mont Blanc on skis, May is peak season.

Lower down, the snow is fast disappearing making May a great time for low- or mid-altitude hiking and trail running, cross-country mountain biking, and valley rock climbing.

Mountain biker on a track
Cross-country mountain biking in May


June is the start of the summer season, with refuges opening for hiking around the middle of the month and most lifts opening about a week later. This is a good time for hiking and running, with quiet trails and the Alpine meadows in full flower. Care is needed though as higher paths will still be covered in snow. This is the start of the season for trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc.

It is also a great time for mountain biking before the Chamonix summer bike ban comes into force (more on that in July). When the lifts open for biking, late-June gives you a lot of options.

Mountain biker in forest
Les Houches Bike Park


The summer season really gets going in July, with the town and the mountains getting progressively busier. Hiking and running are popular and there will be plenty of events in the town. All the refuges and lifts will be open for hiking and mountaineering. For an Alpine mountaineering holiday, July and August are the most popular months. The Walkers’ Haute Route, from Chamonix to Zermatt, starts to be done towards the end of the month.

For mountain bikers, the lifts in Le Tour and Les Houches serve bike-park runs. In the Chamonix Commune, bike restrictions apply throughout July and August. In practice, mountain biking is only allowed on a few designated paths marked as cross-country routes and described in the tourist office booklet. The Chamonix bike ban rules only apply to Chamonix, not to the communes of Les Houches and Vallorcine.

Rock climber seen from above
Rock Climbing in the Aiguilles Rouges in July


Probably the busiest month of the year, August is the peak season for hiking, running and sight-seeing. Everything is open and the town is busy. Like February, book well ahead for accommodation and eating out. For mountain bikers, the bike parks are open and the Chamonix bike ban continues

The end of August sees the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, bringing with it a week of trail running events and some of the best trail athletes in the world. This event is hugely popular and takes over the town of Chamonix. If you are not coming for the trail running it might be better to pick a different week.

Person standing on top of Mont Blanc with skis
On top of Mont Blanc in August 2011


Calm starts to return to the mountains after the August rush. The temperatures begin to drop, but the weather is often sunny and settled and it’s a great time to enjoy the mountains. Mountain bikers are free to cycle on most paths again, and for the first week or two the bike park lifts will be open as well.

For hiking and running, the trails get much quieter. This is a lovely period to be on the high footpaths. Mountain refuges begin to close throughout the month as the climbing and hiking seasons wind down.

For Tour du Mont Blanc hikers, accommodation becomes harder to find after the middle of the month. The Walker’s Haute route season also ends around then. Although there are some hotels open later on, there is a growing risk of early snowfall making the high passes difficult to cross.

Person climbing a causeway up a cliff
Hiking into Switzerland in September


This is a much quieter time in the valley, with cooler temperatures, few lifts open, and less accommodation available. It is a beautiful time to go hiking in the mountains as the trees turn gradually from green to red and gold. Multi-day hikes are difficult due to the lack of accommodation, unless you carry a tent. Mountain biking is possible throughout the valley, but with no uplift you’ll have to rely on pedal power. Rock climbing is often still possible on the valley crags, especially those facing south.

This month can be quite unpredictable in terms of the weather. Some years the sun shines throughout the month. Some years it rains, other years it snows. The end of the month sees the autumn school holiday, which brings a few more visitors but not enough to make the town feel busy.


Probably the quietest month of the year, with the least reliable weather for any particular activity. Some years it stays warm and dry enough for rock climbing, mountain biking and trail running well into the month. Other years, there is enough snow for ski touring. Sometimes there is a sudden change mid-way through the month, as if somebody turned on the snow switch. If you are here, you might well be able to get out into the lower mountains and do something, but it is hard to predict which sport is best.


As Christmas approaches we see the start of the ski season, although lift opening is sporadic in the first half of the month. Lifts open at Grands Montets first, usually only at weekends and depending heavily on the snow conditions. More lifts open by mid-December, but it is only with the start of the Christmas holidays that you can reliably expect all the lifts to be open. Chamonix is not the best place for an early-December ski break.

From about a week before Christmas, the resort quickly gets busy for two or three weeks. Suddenly it’s high season with parades, Christmas markets, family holidays and busy slopes. This busy season lasts until early-January when the schools holidays finish.

Mountains at sunset with skiers in the foreground
Brevent at sunset in December

Mountaineering and climbing

You might have noticed we haven’t said much about when to visit Chamonix for a climbing holiday. This is because there are a lot of different things to climb here at different times of the year, and the optimal times for some routes have changes in recent years. The best time of year to climb here could fill another post longer than this one. For classic alpinism, or climbing Mont Blanc, the peak season is July and August. Rock climbing is possible all summer. Beyond that, experienced climbers will have a good idea about the routes they’re interested in. The Chamoniard website gives good local info and the refuge opening dates give an idea of when people typically do the routes the refuge is used for.

Final thoughts on when to visit Chamonix

Unlike most mountain destinations in Europe, there is something happening in Chamonix throughout the year. For more details of opening times, check out the lift company website, and for information on events have a look at the tourist office site. Many activities here are seasonal, depending on lift openings and whether there is snow on the ground, but there is rarely a period when no activities are possible. November would be the most difficult month to take a holiday here, but even then the town is not as quiet as most ski areas in the weeks just before the winter season starts.

Whenever you choose to visit Chamonix, you will find the ingredients here for a great trip.

Tales of the Alps – Napoleon’s unpaid bill

Napoleon Crossing the Alps - painting

The story of a very longstanding debt owed to a very small village

At the dawn of the 19th century, newly republican France was at war with much of Europe. In the south-west of the country, the Alps formed a natural barrier against invasion, so the high mountain passes aquired a vital strategic importance. This story focuses on the region around the Swiss-Italian border in what is now the Valais region of Switzerland, only a few miles from the French-Swiss border.

Photo of Bourg St. Pierre
Bourg St. Pierre by Lucignolobrescia CC BY-SA 3.0

In May 1800, the same year that Barry the dog was born there, Napoleon Bonaparte led the French reserve army over the Grand St. Bernard Pass from Switzerland to join the campaign in Italy. With 46,292 men under his command, he needed a lot of supplies to sustain them. Napoleon demanded provisions from the tiny village of Bourg St. Pierre, the last settlement before the pass. Faced with this vast number of troops, the locals had little choice but to comply. The items comandeered amounted to the substantial list below.

  • 22 000 bottles of wine
  • 3 500 pounds of cheese
  • 400 pounds of rice
  • 500 pounds of bread
  • 1 800 pounds of meat
  • 2 037 trees (compensation for their destruction)
  • 3 150 logs (used for rolling cannon over the pass)
  • 188 cooking pots, of which 80 were not returned
  • Local labour
  • Rental of mules

The featured image above shows Louis-Pierre David’s famous 1801 painting of Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass, also known as Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

Napoleon’s letter

At the time, Napoleon refused to pay a single centime for these services, but he did write a letter acknowledging the debt and promising that the French government would pay the sum of 40 000 Swiss Francs. Five years later in 1805 the French government did pay, but only 18 000 Francs. The inhabitants of Bourg St. Pierre kept Napoleon’s letter safe, presenting it to the French government at intervals and meticulously adding interest.

Napoleon plaque on wall
Plaque commemorating Napoleon’s visit

Nearly two centuries went by until 1983, when Francois Mitterand was President of France. At this stage, the mayor of Bourg St. Pierre was named Fernand Dorsaz. He demanded of monsieur Mitterand that the French government pay 150 million Francs (about £50 million), an amount equivalent to the original 22 000 Francs plus 184 years of compound interest. For a village population of around 200 people, that would have been quite a substantial windfall. The Mayor did generously add that he would accept a more modest sum of 30 000 Swiss Francs.

A year later, in May 1984, the French government’s Chef de Cabinet, Jean Claude Collier, presented a commemorative medallion, nearly a metre in diameter, to the village along with a letter from President Mitterand. Fernand Dorsaz might not have obtained the payment demanded, but he was happy with the symbolic gesture. After 184 years, he declared the matter closed.

Napoleon’s letter, the medallion and the Francois Mitterand’s letter are all held proudly in the village of Bourg St. Pierre today.

Ski tourers in a car park
Ski tourers at Bourg St. Pierre’s former ski area

Tales of the Alps – Barry der Menschenretter

Barry on display in museum

How a St. Bernard named Barry became a Swiss legend

Although relatively unheard of outside his native Switzerland, Barry is known as the most famous dog in the country to the Swiss. In German, he is called Barry der Menschenretter, or “Barry the people rescuer”. He was born in the year 1800 at the Great St. Bernard Hospice on the 2469-metre-high Grand St. Bernard pass, which connects Switzerland and Italy. At the time, the St. Bernard breed had yet to be formally recognised, and he might have been known as an Alpine mastiff. Later on, these dogs came to be named for the St. Bernard pass where they lived and worked. For those unfamiliar with his story, here are the legends and the facts told around Barry the avalanche rescue dog.

The St. Bernard Hospice and Monastery

St Bernard pass and monastery
The St. Bernard pass in winter

The Hospice has welcomed travellers crossing the St. Bernard pass for almost a thousand years, since it was founded in 1050 by Saint Bernard of Menthon. Originally it was used by devout French and Germans making the pilgrimage to Rome. These days it is more likely to accommodate ski tourers and tourists than pilgrims, but it is still run by Augustinian monks as it was in St. Bernard’s day.

Sometime in the seventeenth century, the monks started to keep dogs at the pass in order to assist with rescues. Searching for lost travellers has long been part of the job for these mountain monks. Various breeds were probably used at first, but over time the dogs were bred for their strength and hardiness, producing the famous St. Bernard dogs we know today.

Barry the St. Bernard

Barry carrying a boy on his back
An image of Barry from an old postcard

Barry himself was an ancestor to the modern St. Bernard, but the breed had not yet reached the size of the dogs we are familiar with. He weighed around 45 kilos while an adult St. Bernard today can reach 80 to 130 kilograms. Over time the dogs were bred to be heavier and stronger so that they were better able to assist with rescues. Ironically, with the advent of helicopter rescue services, lighter dogs such as collies are preferred for avalanche rescue duties and St. Bernards are now considered too heavy.

Many stories surround the life of Barry, some certainly legendary. He is reputed to have saved at least forty lives over a twelve-year career. Most famously, he rescued a boy he found asleep in a cave of ice. The story goes that Barry warmed the boy by licking him, then carried him back to the hospice on his back. Legends of Barry tell of a dog that worked alone, going out into the snow and dragging back avalanche victims after digging them out. Only when a rescue proved too much for him would he alert the monks who would come to help. In reality it seems likely that the avalanche dogs of the time accompanied the monks as they patrolled the paths around the pass looking for travellers in difficulty.

Death and legacy

Memorial with inscription
Memorial to Barry: Tommie Hansen (CC BY 2.0)

In popular legend, Barry was killed during his forty-first rescue. As the story goes, he was trying to revive an unconscious soldier of Napoleon’s army. Suddenly, the man awoke. Mistaking Barry for a wolf he stabbed him with a bayonet. The memorial to Barry at the Asnières-sur-Seine dog cemetery in Paris alludes to this story. The French inscription states, “He saved the lives of 40 people… and was killed by the 41st!”

The true story is less dramatic. After twelve years of hard work, Barry retired and spent his final two years living peacefully in Bern, the Swiss capital. Following his death, his taxidermically preserved body was displayed at the Natural History Museum in Bern, where it can still be seen.

The tradition of the barrel of brandy that St. Bernards carry around their neck probably started with Barry too, even though this almost certainly never happened. Several nineteenth century writers repeated the story of the barrel of rum or brandy carried to provide warmth for freezing travellers. Barry’s exhibit in the Natural History Museum has worn a barrel around his neck for most of the two hundred years it has been on display. Occasionally a museum director has removed it for authenticity reasons, but tradition has always won out over facts and the barrel replaced.


Mammut Barryvox Pulse

Owners of certain Swiss avalanche transceivers might have wondered where the name Barryvox came from. The original Barryvox transceivers were developed for the Swiss Army at the end of the 1960s by engineers at Autophon AG, lead by Hans van der Floe.

The name Barryvox means “voice of Barry”, and comes from the idea that the bleeping tone of the device was like Barry’s bark as he approached a casualty, letting them know that help was coming. Modern transceivers made by Swiss brand Mammut still bear the Barryvox name.

The St. Bernard Pass today

St Bernard Hospice
Ski tourer approaching the St. Bernard Hospice

The St Bernard Hospice is as popular as ever with ski tourers and snowshoers in winter, or hikers and cyclists in summer. It lies on variations of the skiers’ Haute Route, and on the road-cyclists’ Tour de Mont Blanc. It is a beautiful location, lying next to a lake just a few metres from the Italian border. A night at the hospice is a unique experience where you can expect a warm welcome from the monks.

The St. Bernard dogs no longer live at the hospice year-round, although a few are kept there during the summer months and there is a museum dedicated to them. Most of the dogs moved to the Barry Foundation in nearby Martigny in 2004. The foundation also operates the Barryland museum in the town.

The featured image at the head of the page shows Barry on display at the Natural History Museum in Bern. Photo credit: PraktikantinNMBE, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

What to bring on our navigation courses

Childrens navigation course

Covid-19 has led to a few changes in how we run our navigation courses, and this affects what you need to bring as well. As far as possible, we’d like you to bring your own materials rather than use stuff we give out, but of course, we don’t want you to have to spend a lot of money on maps and compasses to come on one of our short family or children’s courses.

In general, you’ll need access to some sort of map and compass, a pen(cil) and paper, plus suitable outdoor clothing and footwear for the length of the course and food and drink. In the past, we have given out printed paper maps, but the current guidelines suggest we don’t do this. Instead, we’ll ask you to print out your own maps before the course. If you can’t do this, we will still be able to provide printed materials, but we suggest that you bring a plastic wallet/sleeve to keep it in so you only have to touch it once.

Children and family courses in Les Deux Alpes

You’ll need to bring the following items on the day:

  • Maps (you can print these yourself – see below)
  • Compass (any sort of compass will do, including a compass app on a phone)
  • Pen or pencil
  • Paper (or write on the back of the maps you have printed)
  • Suitable outdoor clothes for the weather on the day
  • Snacks and a drink

To avoid handing out materials on the day, we’d appreciate it if you can print out the maps we’ll need and bring them along. Please print out and bring these two maps using the GeoPortail site (both links will open in a new tab).

Les Deux Alpes south, larger scale
Les Deux Alpes, smaller scale

Ideally, change the scale to 1:25000 before printing the second one. To do this click the scale (the 17 055 in the bottom left) and type in 25000 instead.

If you don’t have a compass, you can download a compass app for most smartphones. As long as it tells you where north is it is good enough. If you don’t have a compass or a suitable phone, we will have a couple of spare compasses available to use at your own risk.

The majority of the course will be run outdoors with some small indoor elements. In the event of bad weather we will move inside, but if it is only mild bad weather, light rain etc. we will continue to work outside.

Two-day NNAS navigation courses

You’ll need to bring the following items on the day:

  • IGN Top 25 map for the area – either 3336ET Les Deux Alpes, 3335ET Bourg d’Oisans or 3630OT Chamonix
  • A4 paper maps (you can print these yourself – see below)
  • Compass
  • Pen or pencil
  • Paper (or write on the back of the maps)
  • Suitable clothes and footwear for a day hike
  • Food and drink for a day hike

For the Bronze Navigator course, we would normally loan out compasses and IGN maps to candidates without these. However, to reduce contact we are happy for you to use maps printed on A4 paper and a compass smartphone app. If you are attending a Silver Navigator course, we would expect you to have your own compass and IGN map.

Maps for NNAS Courses

Printable Les Deux Alpes maps

MapPlease print out the large scale map of Les Deux Alpes south from this link. If you want to print out 1:25 000 maps for the Bronze course, rather than buy your own, you will need the area shown to the right (click the image to enlarge it). You will need to cover an area including La Moliere in the top left, Les Perrons at the bottom and la Grande Aiguille at the top right. Depending on your devices, you will probably need at least two sheets of A4. Make sure you set the scale to 1:25 000. If you have any difficulties with this, please let us know.

We may visit the permanent orienteering courses at either Auris or the Col d’Ornon. In this case, you will need to print out the orienteering maps for these locations. We will let you know before the course if this is necessary.

Printable Chamonix Valley Maps

MapPlease print out the large scale map of Argentiere/Grand Montets lift station from this link. If you don’t want to buy the IGN Top 25 map, you’ll need to print out the area shown to the right (click to enlarge) at 1:25 000 from Geoportail. You will need to cover an area which includes, as a minimum, the Flegere top lift station in the bottom left, Lac Blanc to the top left, Argentiere village top right, and Le Lavancher at the bottom.

Bourg d’Oisans

MapAlthough there is an IGN map (3335ET) titled Le Bourg d’Oisans l’Alpe d’Huez,we may well use IGN 3336ET Les Deux Alpes for courses in Bourg as the town is on the boundary between the two maps. We will let you know before the course which map to buy, but we will be most likely to use the Deux Alpes map for the Bronze course and the Bourg d’Oisans map for the Silver.

For the Bronze course only, please print large scale map one and large scale map two of the area south of Bourg d’Oisans. You will also need to print the Adult “Sportif” orienteering map which is the second of the three PDF links on this page.Map If you want to avoid buying the IGN map, you can print the two areas shown to the right at 1:25 000. You will need the area south of Bourg on day one and the Col d’Ornon on day 2.