We were spending our spring busily preparing for our biennial summer trip to France when a text arrived from Mo’s sister that got our gears really spinning:
Hey you guys, it’s looking like we will be in Cham the second week of July. How about an adventure together? Refuge hike? If you plan something we are in!”
We had been kicking around the idea of doing a refuge, or hut-to-hut, hike anyway and the opportunity to join forces with the cousins (and their parents, of course) seemed like an opportunity we couldn’t miss. Our first refuge hike had been quite a success, when we traversed the alps and walked for six weeks carrying baby Sage from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean coast. While we rarely actually stayed in the huts on that trip, they provided a necessary fallback plan on days when the weather really got bad or when we just needed an extra tarte or coffee before heading up the next pass. Overall we prefer the desolation of our US wilderness, but it’s hard to argue with the comfort of a mountain hut after a long day of hiking or when a storm blows in. Hut hikes are an excellent alternative to heavy family backpacks as you can leave the tent, sleeping bags, and stoves at home.
We cleared our guidebook shelf and started brainstorming loops around the Chamonix area that we could do in 4-5 days, with kids ranging from age 7 to 15. Another consideration was that we were signed up to do a Mountain Ultra Trail race in Courmayeur on Saturday July 13th, so we would need to be able to get through the tunnel and into Italy by Friday night at the latest. The initial brainstorm was centered around doing a few days of the Tour du Mont Blanc trail out of Chamonix (possible even ending in Courmayeur), but we thankfully abandoned that plan when the passes started looking pretty big for skinny little seven year old legs. Mo posted on a few awesome Chamonix Backpacking groups online and hit upon a local, “family friendly” route that many people did – the Tour des Fiz.
The Tour des Fiz is a concept of assembling a hike and a loop that circumnavigates the Rochers des Fiz mountain range, just to the west of the Chamonix Valley and in the Reserve Naturelle de Sixt-Fer-a-Cheval. There are multiple routes that one can take around the small massif, multiple starting points, and a nicely assembled website with maps that let you think about how you could link up the nine refuges along the route. It traditionally leaves out of Passy, a smaller and less tourist-filled town a bit down the main valley from the hustle and bustle of Chamonix. A bit lower altitude than the TMB (important in a high snow year), it looked like it would fit the bill nicely for a multi-family adventure.
We were looking at a five day four night outing, starting on Monday and putting us out on Friday, so that our kids could stay with the cousins for the weekend and Mo and I could head over to Italy and keep our mountain adventure going. And Mo was apparently a little turned off by the “family friendly” description, as she added two stages of her own inspiration to the basic loop – we would enter from the Chamonix side by descending from Le Brévent after taking the téléphérique up, and we would exit over the Col de Salenton, which would allow us to stay one night in the much-loved Refuge de la Pierre à Bérard and exit down the valley to Le Buet, where Papy spent many summers in the mountains. It was guaranteed to be a challenging loop that would connect generation old memories of the family while we made new ones ourselves.
Day 1 – Le Brévent to Refuge Moëde Anterne
Sunday evening was a bit hectic as we crowded into a British sports bar in Les Houches to watch the US Women’s National Team take another historic World Cup win (U-S-A! U-S-A!) before laying out food and gear and packing up for the trip. The real considerations were basically how much chocolate and dried meat could we actually carry, and after eating a bit of both for desert we cut our rations down to what seemed like a reasonable amount. Mo and I couldn’t really sleep that night as we were stressed about the route and last minute updates that had been coming in our various information channels – there still seemed to be a considerable amount of snow on the Col de Salenton, and yikes, how had we missed the fact that the Passage du Dérochoir was potentially a technical and exposed section with ropes and a via ferrata? On top of that Mat was struggling with some sort of sudden-onset arthritis – possibly gout from a bit too much meat, cheese, and foie gras (plus running in the record heat and humidity). Whatever it was his joints were killing him, and he wasn’t even sure if he was going to be able to start the hike.
Not letting medical conditions or sketchy alpine conditions get us down, we rallied the next morning for a bit later start than ideal after dropping off luggage in Chamonix, shuttling cars to Le Buet and buying some last-minute provisions (two sets of crampons for the snow on Salenton, a length of rope for the sketchiness on the Dérochoir). We headed up the lift to the summit of Le Brévent and got the show on the road – er, trail!
It felt great to finally start walking after months of planning and weeks of preparation and moving around France. There was a lot of trail traffic up near the téléphérique station and considerably more snow than we had anticipated, even at 2500 meters of elevation. The going was slow but we worked our way across to the Col de Brevent and started descending, Mat showing the kids how to perfect the art of the “butt glissade” as he gracefully descended the neve. The descent down to the river was a massive one, and we lost almost 3000 feet of vert on mellow switchbacks winding down into the valley. We stopped for a quick lunch around 3 PM and realized that there was no way we were going to make it to our intended destination for the night, the Refuge Alfred Wills. Mo and I planned a first day there to leap-frog the poorly reviewed Refuge Moëde Anterne, but also thought we were going to get a start on the trail earlier than noon. Mo put her French sim card, surprising 4G reception, and brilliant French skills to use as she called a barrage of refuges on our route trying to see where we could actually stay that night and how it would set us up for future nights. It turned out that Moëde Anterne had space for us that evening and while Alfred Wills would not give us our 80 euro deposit back, they would let us spend it on beer and tartes if we ever made it there. Despite having to change the itinerary on Day 1 it was a no-brainer decision as there was no way we were making it any farther that night.
The kids marched up the alpine climbs while the parents hung back nursing their aching joints and heavy Day 1 packs. Already we could see the seeds of a successful trip forming, as the cousins embraced their independence on the trail and became a little hiking posse, led by strong and athletic Jordan, with little Dev forcing himself to keep up with the pace of the larger kids. We cruised into the refuge just before dinner time, settled into our dark and dank room in the cellar (desperate hikers can’t be choosers I guess), showered (!), and enjoyed a simple but filling meal of polenta, sausage, pasta, and cheese.
Day 2 – Refuge Moëde Anterne to Refuge de Sales (via the Passage du Dérochoir)
Our night in Moëde Anterne was peaceful and we were fans of the often hated-on refuge. The gruff guardian grew on us and was very helpful with local information, and the octogenarian owner of the place made an evening appearance on the deck as she pointed out and described all the peaks within visible range. These were mountain people, for sure, but friendly enough – we couldn’t help but think that they were getting a bit of a bad rap.
The original plan had been to push on in a counter-clockwise fashion around the Fiz, ending up at the picturesque Refuge de Sales, and then returning to Moëde Anterne for another stay on Day 3. We still didn’t have enough beta on the Passage du Dérochoir however, so we made it a point to chat up anyone that we could find at the refuge on Monday night that looked like they knew the area. Opinions varied on whether we could make it over the passage – the aforementioned octogenarian said quite simply in French “of course the seven year old will be fine, kids love to climb and the rock is not slippery”, while other folks looked at us with horror that we would be taking kids that way. We finally got the best bit of information when talking to another family over dinner, who was not shocked at the fact that we were going over the passage, but the fact that we would be attempting to descend it. It would make much more sense, they explained, to climb the passage, and complete the circuit in a clockwise direction. Of course it would! Why hadn’t we thought of that.
And thus we set off for the day’s adventure, Mo’s sister’s family not really knowing what they were getting into that day, and us having some information on the route but never having done it before. A jeep road took us down and around the Southeastern corner of the Fiz, and then we began a long slog of an approach up to the Col and the actual technical passage. It was a lot to keep eight hikers motivated, especially when we saw a bit of rock fall and had to keep the group moving through a few sections of scree (no stopping til the top! get ready to dive behind a rock for shelter if you hear us yell!) After a few hours we made it to the base of the Passage, which did indeed look like a few pitches of Class 3 climbing. It wasn’t super exposed by climbing standards, but there were a few spots where it would be bad to slip and you would definitely need to use the fixed ropes and iron steps that had been hammered sparingly into the granite.
We roped Dev up in a make-shift harness and hip belay and headed up the climb, Mat leading to keep Dev on belay and the rest of the gang following. Dev cruised it without problem (although he did take on the rope once which made us glad to have it!) and the exciting part of any expedition began to bubble through – the unseen challenges that you were not predicting. We had somewhat forgotten that Uncle Jason and Cousin Jordan were afraid of heights, and the Class 3 section that the seven year old was fearless on became a very difficult task for them to overcome. We watched Jordan transform into a warrior right before our eyes, as she fought back tears (okay she let them flow a bit), dug deep, and sent the climb. Jason also powered through, climbing with his very heavy pack, unable to look down or pause at the resting ledges on the way up. As a party we came together in true expedition style, helped everyone out, and pushed on to the top and the rewarding view at the col.
Once at the top it was clear that the crux of the day had passed. We could see the beautiful Refuge de Sales laying in wait below, and we paused to enjoy a quick lunch before heading down. The geology had immediately changed on the other side of the pass, and we were now swimming in a land of ancient limestone seafloor and coral beds, carved with psychedelic patterns from thousands of years of chemical and glacial erosion. The valley felt infinitely more peaceful than the crowded confines of Chamonix, and we were happy to have an afternoon to kick back and relax at the peaceful mountain hut.
We played cards and liars dice as the sun began to set, and the kids did their best David Attenborough impression while tracking bouquetins (ibex) through the cliffs. We went big with dinner and opted for the fondue (hey we had to do it at least once), a bit surprised that refuge fondue was actually just that – fondue and hunks of bread. No vegetables, no potatoes…. cheese, wine, and bread. Still we were satiated and satisfied after a long day, crashing out in our 40 person dormitory bunk beds after strategically grabbing the level next to a window.
Day 3 – Refuge de Sales to Refuge Moëde Anterne (via the col d’Anterne)
We had promised “no technical sections” on this day, just a bunch of vert, passes, and climbing. We packed up, enjoyed a breakfast of cereal, coffee, and tea, and headed down the valley through the Gorges de Sales. We would link up with the GR-5 and thus the part of the route that Mo, Mat, and Sage had already completed many years before, albeit in constant rain and with a toddler on our back. We would also pass the picturesque Lac D’Anterne, where we had camped (in the rain) many years ago, imagining how beautiful this area must be if we could have seen it.
The Gorges de Sale was unexpectedly stunning, and right as Sage remarked how it was crazy that the whole riverbed was dry, we rounded the corner and water was literally gushing out of an underground source in the limestone. The waterfalls were amazing and we soaked it all in as we descended to our GR-5 turnoff, happy that we weren’t one of the many hikers climbing up the gorge in the other direction. As we approached the Refuge Alfred Wills we were awarded with our most clear view of Mont Blanc thus far. It’s easy to take these views for granted during a good week in the mountains, but the peaks can easily also get socked in for weeks. On our GR-5 trek we only got clear glimpses of the massif once or twice over the period of a few weeks.
Alfred Wills was a welcome stop, and after delivering a slight admonishment for canceling at the last moment, they made good on their promise of letting us spend our credit on snacks and drinks from their kitchen. We filled up on delicious homemade tartes myrtilles, and Devin even ordered a “Milka Pain” which we soon discovered was just that – a Milka chocolate bar and a basket full of bread. Fueled and appropriately hydrated we hit the trail again with the next stop being at the lac.
We dropped packs at the Lac D’Anterne for a peaceful hour of hunting fish, lounging, and swimming in the freezing cold lake (kudos to Jordan for being the first one in!). As parents we really enjoyed these moments when the kids had the space and freedom to run, explore, hunt, fish, play, and most importantly just be kids. At home the older children are already feeling the pull of adolescence, being concerned about their self-image, and their social media presence. But here, beneath the mountains, there was no one judging and no wifi to update your story. It was a real time experience with the ones in your life closest to you, whether you liked it or not.
Reluctantly we had to leave the lake, and there was one more decent push left in the day as we ascended to the Col d’Anterne. The kids flew up to the pass (we had to make them wait for us at the snow fields!) and Devin stayed motivated by developing a complex point system for the first person to reach the GR-5 markers and touch them with a trekking pole. We dropped packs again at the Col, pausing for a moment to relish the accomplishments of the last two days – we could see the Refuge Moëde Anterne and knew at that moment that we would complete our loop around the Fiz. But more importantly we had a tremendous view of Mont Blanc and the whole massif – the same mountains where generations of the Cane family have spent months hiking along the very same paths that we had just traveled. As we watched the cousins descend independently to the refuge we couldn’t help but appreciate the fact that they were literally walking in their footsteps of their ancestors, underneath the same watchful eye of Le Mont Blanc.
Day 4 – Refuge Moëde Anterne to Refuge de la Pierre à Bérard (via the Col de Salenton)
Perhaps the Refuge Moëde Anterne was growing on us, because the bread tasted a little less stale and the coffee less weak on the second time through. We slept well in our upgraded second floor room with a view (no more basement for return customers!) and got an early start on the trail heading over to the Col de Salenton. We had been billing this as the biggest day since the beginning of the trip, with a large climb heading up to the col and possible winter conditions on the other side.
The massif was visible in all of its glory as we picked our way along the trail along the Diosaz river. The climb on the south side of the col was steep but doable, and we worked our way up to the top one step at a time, even the seven year-old legs finding enough strength for the slog. At the top we found pretty much what we expected when looking over to the descent – a couple large snow fields that we would need to cross, including one toward the top that was at a pretty decent angle and would involve a long ride down if one were to slip. After carrying our crampons in our pack for the entire trip we decided to break them out of their bags and put them to use. We fashioned a rope harness for Dev again and headed onto the snow, with a not very well thought-out plan of having the rope tied in to Jason and Mat with Dev in the middle. It would have been bad if Jason had slipped as he likely would have dragged the lot of us down the slope in a rope entangled mess. Luckily he made it across, and we worked our way down slowly conquering wet shoes and the fear of heights along the way.
The slabby descent into the Vallon de Bérard never feels as easy as it should feel, and we picked our way down through the rocks and onto the final stretch which is really just an unmaintained trail of basketball size boulders. The refuge itself is the cutest of the whole bunch, literally built into a giant boulder for avalanche protection, and the crew working it were super friendly and welcoming. The day hiker crew cleared out and Devin hooked up with Noe, the five year old son of the guardian, who was a pure mountain kid that spent his days throwing rocks at ibex and roaming the surrounding mountainsides. We eventually sat down to our most scrumptious meal of the trip – split pea soup (vegetables!) followed by ham and peas with cream sauce, and a delicate panna cotta for desert. We were all flying high after making it through the difficulties of the trip and looking forward to a leisurely morning walking down valley and out tomorrow.
Day 5 – Refuge de la Pierre à Bérard to Le Buet
This was our victory lap of sorts, a mellow descent through the beautiful and familiar Vallon de Bérard to Le Buet and the train station a few hundred meters from the chalet in which Papy spent his time growing up. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of light packs on the last day of a trip, and we floated down the trail a bit eager to get out but also thankful of the last day of scenery. The kids led most of the day and we made good time, stopping for a final chocolate bar at the Cascade de Bérard while we imagined stories of the famous counterfeiter holed up behind its roaring torrent. At the end of the trail our cars were still where we left them, spirits were high, and our bodies were all still in one piece.
In the end it was a glorious trip that was everything you could ask for in an adventure in the mountains. We were all pushed to our edge at various points, and every single one of us were able to dig deep and persevere, in a way that only the mountains can make you do. We offered our circumnavigation as an homage to the Fiz – an indomitable and beautiful chunk of rock that seemed to take on different characteristics from every angle. Most importantly, we had a blast together – laughing, telling stories, sharing snacks, and moving down the trail as one. We couldn’t believe that we had never done a backpack together before – and the only question is whether the cousins would be crazy enough to sign up for another one of our adventures.