Two things have happened this week. I finally got around to seeing some friends in Cumbria for the first time this year, and my 14 year old dog died.
The two things do not combine well for a post but heading off to Cumbria made me think about all of the trips around the Lakeland Fells which Dougal did over the years.
Dougal, a labradoodle we got from a rescue centre when he was about 1 year old, loved to dig in rivers and bark at the stones. He would like nothing more than finding the largest rock to keep, which he could barely fit in his mouth to drag out of the river, and he got very upset when you insisted he left it behind. There’s been many a brick he tried to take home.
He loved climbing mountains and has bagged more than some of my friends and certainly didn’t mind a night under canvas, though I spared him from wild camping trips.
In 2004 he climbed Ben Nevis on a very wet and foggy day, and that is the only mountain that ever left him aching and hobbling around, so the day after we spent the day heads out of the window on the steam train to Mallaig.
This is him at the summit of Scafell Pike with my mum in 2005, wet and misty as usual.
And this is him (ear’s blowing in the wind) when we headed off on the second leg of the Pennine Way, from Standedge to Todmorden.
He never shied away from daft outfits or having his photo taken. This is from a very windy day on Eagle Crag when mum was convinced he was going to get ear ache.
Dougal loved travelling and only last month did he get to spend a month touring Scotland with mum and dad. I’m definitely going to miss him x
Ok, this should be three posts as these were not only done on different days but in different years! But something has gone awry with my photos and I can’t find those of Hebden Bridge to Ponden Reservoir completed in 2006 and Ponden Reservoir to Gargrave completed in 2009 a bit annoying since the late great Dougal, my best friend, joined me on the first of these legs.
Day 3 Hebden Bridge to Ponden 11 miles/ 17.7km
Good job I’m a bit lame and make notes of routes so there’s a description at least. I started the route from the A646 as Dougal and I had managed to get a lift, saving us the walk from Hebden Bridge train station. Which is good, as the route rises quickly out the valley through farm fields and then drops down and back up into Colden, above Hebden Bridge centre. As you cross the moorland and head towards Gorple Reservoir its worth considering having lunch a bit early as if its the right time of year and the Pack Horse pub is open you will fill your boots for a reasonable price. I admit its quite early into the walk for such large portions though! Nevertheless Mum, Dougal and I did manage it.
The walk on to Withins Heights is more grass and less heathery making the walk seem less bleak. Top Withins is a popular walk from Haworth’s Bronte museum, due to its link to the Bronte sisters, so whatever the weather you will not be alone up here.
From here you walk down to Ponden Reservoir.
Day 4 – Ponden Reservoir to Gargrave 14.4 miles/ 23 km
This section of the route I completed without Dougal in 2010 and despite the route being without much hardship, the day was certainly eventful.
I start out leaving my car at Keighley train station and getting a taxi up to Ponden, knowing full well I could get a train from Gargrave back to Keighley. Best laid plans and all that!
So being dropped at Ponden by the taxi I set off on my march over to Gargrave for the train. To be honest I’m mostly gutted I’m missing photos of this section as it wasn’t a particularly interesting bit,covering the space between the South Pennines and the start of the Yorkshire Dales. I’m not doing the area down, its certainly nice, but from the wildness of the moorland and before the prettiness of the Dales it feels like your just covering ground. To be honest its not the last time I felt like this on the Way.
So I set off on the Sunday with the intention of getting to Gargrave for the 3.45pm train, and frustratingly it wasn’t speed or determination that let me down that day but unclear footpaths between East Marton and Gargrave. I’m sure this has been improved by now, but I’m not in a rush to go and check! The villages the route passes through are very pretty but much of the walking is across farm fields.
As I crossed through the last of these looking down on Gargrave I could see my train leaving the station. I’ve never felt so disappointed! Especially when I got there and realised the next one wasn’t until 6pm! So I’m forever grateful to the couple who dropped me in Skipton that day, so I could get the train home.
Day 5 – Gargrave to Malham 18.6 miles / 29.8km
It was 2010 before I made it back to do another leg of the Pennine Way and after the escapade of transport back I managed to do this section with a lift at either end. Starting at Gargrave the route heads towards the pretty village of Airton through farm fields and by the river.
The route continues to follow the river in to Malham village centre.
Malham Cove is a very popular spot in the spring and summer months and so the car park and campsite can often be very busy. I did this leg in March and despite it being cold with snow still on high ground it was hardly a quiet day.
Malham Cove is an impressive wall of limestone. Formerly a waterfall which flowed as the glacier above melted during the last ice age, the glacial lake of Malham tarn still exists but now the river flows underground towards Malham. The Cove is now a popular spot for climbers, but if you like to keep your feet on the ground the Pennine way follows the 400 or so steps on the left of the cove onto the limestone pavement top.
From here the Way heads on towards Malham Tarn and circles behind it.
From there the route continues northwards over the moorland to ascend Fountains Fell. Whilst you definitely gain height it is a bit of a nondescript hill top so it is great to descend, through snow in my case, towards Horton in Ribblesdale and Pen-y-Ghent.
Horton in Ribblesdale marks the last place where the Pennine way is accessible easily by public transport as this is the last time you will be close enough to a train line until you get to Dufton, near Cumbria.
I might have done this whole route nearly 7 years ago, but living in Marsden I regularly walk along bits of this route near my home. Something in the landscape never change! Looking back through these pictures has a tinge of sadness though, as my companion Dougal is no longer with me and he loved to roam the moors of the South Pennines.
Day 2 -Standedge to Hebden Bridge – 15.25 miles / 24.4km
We set off from Standedge in typical West Yorkshire mist and low cloud. This section of the Pennine Way is a nice one in good weather as you walk along the watershed of the South Pennines, first looking out over Delph and then crossing Buckstones Road you eventually reach Windy Hill radio mast and the bridge over the M62. Ok, not exactly the most picturesque bit of the route, but walking over what is the highest motorway in England its certainly interesting. (As a regular commuter on the M62 I can say it is never normally this quiet!)
From here there is yet more moorland to get to Blackstone Edge. On this day you couldn’t see down into Littleborough and Hollingworth Lake; Dougal could barely keep his ears on his head!
As you cross Blackstone Edge you also cross the old Roman Road and pass the Higgin Stone before you reach the A58 at the White House pub.
I’ve recently walked this next section a couple of times to see the new Simon Armitage poem ‘Rain’ which has been carved into the rock. Back when I walked this route though, the poem hadn’t even been thought of as a concept. Eventually you come to Warland Reservoir after which the route heads Easterly towards Stoodley Pike and views over Todmorden.
From Stoodley Pike the route drops down to the Rochdale Canal leaving you half way between Todmorden and Hebden Bridge. Dougal and I then walked into Hebden Bridge for a well earned drink and the train home.
Having embarked on the mission to finish the Pennine Way soon, I thought I’d share some old photos of the route from when I first started, back in 2006.
Day 1- Edale to Standedge – 29 miles/46.7km
Edale is a fantastic place to start a long distance trail, easy access on the train from Manchester and Sheffield and a really easy to follow route to start you off.
From following the track along the valley you eventually head up Jacobs Ladder a steep brutal ascent to get onto the Kinder Plateau. I’ve been up Kinder many times since and still haven’t seen a view from the top! In mist this isn’t the easiest area to navigate.
The route along this section has some great metal signposts by the Peak and Northern Footpath Society. This one is looking back to Kinder and the route back to Edale.
The path continues to wind across the moorland to cross the A57 Snake’s Pass and on to more relentless moorland up Devil’s Dyke – a large deep cutting in moorland top which feels like it is winding a lot before you finally reach Bleaklow Head and the descent down to Crowdon.
Living in Marsden it was too tempting to walk on and make it home so from Crowden I motivated my dad with ice-cream from the visitors centre before dragging him onwards.
The path becomes less barren as it rises up and crosses Laddows Rocks. From here much of the path is now paved to prevent erosion to the peat. Black Hill summit is a bit less barren than this now!
The paving continues down the other side from Black Hill trig point and down to meet the A635 at the top of the Wessenden Valley.
From here it was getting dark as we crossed to descend the Wessenden Valley and follow the route between Black Moss and Swellands Reservoirs to meet the A62 at Standedge.
I love Scotland. Massive mountains, endless views, unreliable weather. Big mountain days, playing in the snow and always knowing you might not meet a soul all day.
However, I have to admit that I only visit Scotland before the Summer season, sticking to snowy winters or early spring. I did have the misfortune to have a week in late June in the Cairngorms a couple of years ago, which was pleasant enough until I ventured away from civilization and was promptly eaten by midges. Then it was a battle of stamina v the midge to get high enough up the mountains to be in the wind.
So since then I have planned trips to avoid this, in the last few years sticking to winter alone. We were lucky to have both perfect sunshine and no midges when I visit the Trossachs in May but i guess that’s not quite the heartland midge territory.
However, now I know this website exists I might plan differently – Midge Forecast – I guess its probably about as reliable as weather forecasts and common sense and DEET might still be required, but nevertheless a useful website, (even if it is a promotional tool for anti midge product too).
Always one to make the most of the bank holiday weekends, I dragged my best friend to the Trossachs. Not only was this her first time hiking in Scotland, it was also the first time she had been camping in the UK too. I had to rectify that immediately!
Now I’m not suggesting she isn’t a hiker, as she’s done the Inca Trail, but somehow she’d made it through her life and never walked any of the amazing hills in the UK. So we took the opportunity to visit a friend in Scotland to rectify the situation.
I opted for Crieff as our base, deciding there would be enough to keep us all happy if the weather was awful the whole time we were there, which lets face it is always a possibility in Scotland. It was also close enough for our Scottish friend to join us for a few days.
I was careful not to have the whole break revolve around mountains, which I would have done had I gone alone, I resisted my urge to inflict my obsession on others. Out of the choice of great walks in the area bizarrely they both opted to climb Ben Vorlich over the shorter walk of Ben Chonzie.
After a day of relaxing at the Blackford Highland games and sampling some very fine whiskey, we spent the next day bagging the two munros of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin.
Ben Vorlich is an easy munro to bag as there is a clear path from Ardvorlich to the summit and we were very lucky to have great views once there. However from there it is clear that not many walkers carry on to bag Stuc a Chroin too; probably put off by the wall of rock staring back at you.
Despite the rockface ahead there is a path of sorts around it to the left to avoid any need to scramble, although my fearless friend still didn’t want to look back at the view!
From the summit of Stuc a Chroin most people skirt back below its summit to the north side to end up back on the Ben Vorlich track. Despite the long walk and jelly legs from the ascent, my friends decided they wanted to descend down to Glen Ample to walk through the woodland. This added an entertaining climb through a 10 metre high deer fence (thankfully there was a person sized hole in it!) and another 2-3 miles to the walk, past the deers at a local farm and back along the country lane. Nevertheless it was a good route all round.
Our second day’s walk was a half-hearted affair to bag Ben Chonzie, just because it was there. But I was please to discover that despite the blanket fog we encountered my friend really wanted to go on. I think I might have turned her into a munro bagger after all!
Our final two days walking on the Tour du Mont Blanc was some of the hardest with steep ascents in hot temperatures.
Day 9 – Les Contamines to Les Houches – 8 hours 45
Total distance 19.5km ascent 1225m descent 1505m
Today felt like a brutal walk, a bloody steep ascent in scorching weather. Being stung by a horsefly and then zapped by an electric fence; my knees ached and I hadn’t eaten enough chocolate the day before. It was hell. And then someone said that we were on a harder variant path…
It was a steep walk through woodland from our campsite at Les Contamines to Auberge du Truc, but there was an amazing view once there.
From there we had to descend down to the Chalet du Miages and then we were faced with a very steep ascent up to the Col du Tricot. Despite it being a relentlessly boring slog of dusty zigzags up to the col, it was worth it. I know, it doesn’t look that steep, but zoom into the photo and see the smaller ants near the summit, they’re people!
Whilst it would have been easy to moan about why we had taken the harder variant path, and not stuck to the main TMB which followed the side of the hill around through Bionnassay village, this route enabled us to have a fantastic view of the Bionnassay glacier and cross a rope bridge to reach the Col de Voza.
Unfortunately, from here we had a very dull slog down the ski trails and tracks to reach the road, which we followed into Les Houches.
Day 10 – Les Houches to Plan Praz (over Le Brevent) 6 hours 30
Total distance – 9.5km ascent 1515m descent 465m
I set off a bit giddy that this was our final day and I had a day of lying in my tent a bit later than normal, eating ice cream and riding the cable car up to the Aiguelle di Midi to look forward to.
The giddiness soon wore off when the long slog through the woodland began. Today was a day of climbing a mountain, Le Brevent, and there would be no relenting in the uphill slog to the top. I didn’t stop to take photos until the refuge Bellachat. Sections up to the refuge were narrow with cable rails for the rocks sections.
The refuge had taken us 3 hours to reach, and though it was less than 400m in altitude and 2km from the summit, a rest was needed.
Though the path onto Le Brevent summit was more rocky it wasn’t as steep and had amazing views across the valley. I have to admit to being elated to have reached Le Brevent and know it was all downhill to the end, but also bitterly disappointed it was so busy with tourists who had cheated and caught the cable car up. Its like slogging up Snowdon to be confronted with a load of people who’ve caught the train up.
The route back down to Plan Praz, were we had started our adventure, didn’t take long, especially since much of the route was still covered in snow and it was easier to slide down than walk.
We arrived at Plan Praz and caught the cable car down for ice cream in Chamonix. Mmmm
The following day I splurged and went both paragliding and up the cable car to the Aguille di Midi. Expensive but worth every penny to see real mountaineers having adventures on Mont Blanc. Maybe next time.
Over the next two days we would leave the Italian side of Mont Blanc and return to France. Goodbye gelato, hello pastries.
Day 7 – Val Veni to Les Chapieux 6 hours 50
Total distance 20.5km ascent 945m descent 640m
Those of you studying the Cicerone guide as you read this, you will spot that we didn’t walk from Courmayeur, where we had previously finished. With limited time to complete the route, and having chosen to camp in the valleys and not stay at the refuges we had no choice to but skip part of today’s walk. Catching the bus as far as it would go, up the Val Veni. This still left us with a long walk, but at least cut out a steep ascent.
It did mean that we weren’t on the TMB main route until we reached refugio Elizabetta, so we followed route 12 and then 13 to reach it. This by the way is a gorgeous valley to walk up and whilst I usually go high wherever possible, I don’t think I would have traded these views.
Beyond the refuge the path continues at a gentle ascent until you get close to the Col de la Seigne. Thankfully we were taking our time enjoying the scenery, otherwise we might have missed this chap!
The route up to the Col de la Seigne still had a significant amount of snow and ice, so even though it wasn’t particularly steep it was slower walking. Once at the Col the view back down into Italy is stunning; although the view onwards to France is a bit limited by the broad col summit.
The route downhill to France and the refugio de Mottets was a nice walk, but then followed by another road walk to our rough camp in the village of Les Chapieux.
Day 8 – Les Chapieux to Les Contamines – 6 hour 50
Total distance 16.5km ascent 930m descent 1315m
It was raining heavily as we set out from our campsite in the village, heading through farms for the Refuge du Bonhomme. The weather was so horrendous I didn’t take any pictures until I reached the refuge and the top of the pass, it was a morning of having my head down and trudging through the wind and rain. Despite the mist the refuge was easy to find. It doesn’t mark the top of the pass though, so we had to trudge on and as the rain finally relented so the camera came out.
Eventually, as we headed downwards, out of the cloud, and through the high alpine valley, we reached the refuge de la Balme where we could thaw out with coffees. From here the route was a gentle downhill following the river through woodland and a gorge to the campsite at Les Contamines. Les Contamines is a short bus ride to St Gervais which it is definitely worth a visit if you require pastries!
The next three days of the Tour du Mont Blanc would take us from the pristine Alpine villages of Switzerland, over the Grand Col de Ferret the highest point of the TMB route, and into Italy – from the home of fantastic cheese and chocolate to the home of fantastic gelato and … chocolate.
Day 4 – Champex to La Fouly – 5 hours 50
Total distance 14.6km ascent 555m descent 440m
Today’s walk would take us through some gorgeous quiet villages as we headed for the end of the valley and our last campsite in Switzerland. It was a cooler day and having a relatively flat route it was also more relaxed.
The start of the walk from Champex takes you through the Santier de Champignons – route of the mushrooms; evident by the trees carved on the woodland trails.
When we reached the road at Issert (and stopped for a hot chocolate) it had begun raining, making the walk through the villages to Praz de Fort less interesting. If your following the cicerone guide on the clockwise route this would be your first days walk, which is described as “a charming pastoral valley whose timber chalets and haybarns recall a long-lost era…” I’m afraid for us it was waterproofs on, head down.
Once we reached Praz de Fort we followed the route along the river to our campsite at La Fouly. Initially a nice track it become a slow gradual ascent, and as a track it wasn’t a particularly lovely route to follow, it became a slog. So it was a surprise to find a huge campsite at La Fouly.
Day 5 – La Fouly to Planpincieux 8 hours 10
Total distance 21km ascent 930m descent 940m
Like gluttons for punishment we started the day by veering off the main TMB route to take the steeper variant route, which would allow us to climber quicker up the pass and also have a more scenic view through the spring alpine meadows. Nevertheless it was a grateful surprise to find the refuge at La Peule.
After drinks at La Peule we continued on upwards to the Grand Col de Ferret, where the top of the pass was still covered in snow, making the walking slower. The view down into the Val Ferret and Italy was worth the effort though.
At 2537m the Grand Col de Ferret marks the high point on the TMB. After admiring the massive view of the valley below, it occurred to us that our campsite at Planpincieux was down there somewhere and we still had a long way to go. The route down the valley was long and steep initially so it was good to know a hot chocolate stop at Refugio Elena was half way down, although we could see the refuge long before we got there. The hot chocolate was like mud and worth it.
From the refugio it was another two hour walk down the track where, passing the refuge Val Ferret we left the TMB main route and followed a path down to the road to the campsite at Planpincieux which, on tarmac, was hard on the feet.
Day 6 – Planpincieux to Courmayeur 5 hours 20
Total distance 13km, ascent 625m descent 865m
Having complained the day before about walking down the road and the fact the summer bus service started that morning, we decided it would be stupid to do the road section again, just to reach the TMB path. So we caught the bus up the valley to the route.
From La Vechy we ascended up a path to pick up the TMB at the Refugio Bonatti – where I can confirm the best hot chocolate in the world is served. Like thick mud. Mmmm
From the refugio Bonatti we headed onwards towards the refugio Bertone; as there was still a lot of snow melting on the high ridge, the rivers we crossed en route were still in spate and required good balance and acceptance that feet were going to get wet.
From Refugio Bertone we headed downhill in to Courmayeur town centre. This section was very busy with families headed upwards. Thankfully we had quite a wait for the bus back up to our camp at Planpincieux so we had time for gelato and a trip up the cable car to admire Mont Blanc up close.
At 105 miles the Tour du Mont Blanc is not the longest long distance route I’ve completed, but it was the first one overseas and the first completed in one go and not broken up over weekends like the Pennine Way.
Suggested by two friends who had completed the trail years ago, the thought of crossing through 3 countries, tackling Alpine passes and walking through sun, snow and probably rain, the TMB sounded just like my kind of trek.
Choosing to walk clockwise meant that we would be passing other walkers rather than catching them up, which for most of the route would enable us to have relative peace. Or as much as you can ever get in the Alps.
With my bags packed, the Cicerone TMB guide studied and a whole lot of enthusiasm and naivety; I headed out to the Alps giddy with excitement.
Having spent the first night at the campsite at Les Bossons, just outside Chamonix we had a fantastic view of Mont Blanc which we were to spend the next 10 days walking around.
Day 1 – Plan Praz to Frasserands 6 hours 30
Distance 13.6km and 400m ascent and 2030m descent
Starting at Plan Praz felt a little like cheating as we had caught the cable car up to the first station. But our last day would be covering the tremendous hike from the floor of the valley to Le Brevent mountain top, so what idiot would do half of the height twice? Not us.
It also gave us a relaxing start to the trek, which in the 32 degree heat was appreciated. The path is really easy to navigate and a good track all of the way. We stopped briefly at Le Flegere refuge for a drink and to soak up the view and check out the ibex who wasn’t at all bothered we were there.
As it was still early in the season we took the Balcon sud route as there was still a significant amount of snow on Les Blancs. This is one of the special joys about the TMB is that whatever season you undertake this in, there are a lot of variant paths than mean you can still do the route.
From the Col de Montetes we had a knee crushing descent of endless switchbacks to reach the road at Tres le Champ, where we then plodded down a path by the road into Fresserands and our campsite for the night, where we could see tomorrows ascent to the Col de Balme.
Day 2 – Frasserands to Le Puety 6 hrs 45
Distance 10.7km approx with 1115m ascent and 1070m descent
Being able to look back over the our first day’s walk made the ascent out of Frasserands bearable; its certainly a steep ascent through the woodland. Initially the path felt like an assault course through the fallen trees and though we made good time it was hard going. Steep never-ending zigzags would become a theme of the trek. These pictures are looking back along the route.
There was an annoying section of downhill before we ascended the paths of the ski area around the Col de Balme to reach the top of the pass, saying goodbye to France and hello to Switzerland.
The descent down included crossing some steep banks of snow – can you see the little people at the top of this one looking back up the route?
Reaching the Treint valley was exactly like reaching the Sound of Music country, with endless fields of wildflowers and the sounds of cow bells, which would be less than romantic late at night but for now was just what I wanted.
Our campsite was the rough ground at La Peuty where the was a toilet block and cold running water and an area to sit and cook. So it was a pretty good spot – quiet except for the damn cows and their bells.
Day 3 – La Peuty to Champex 7 hours
Total distance 13.9km and 910m ascent and 680m descent
Despite the day starting with a climb the path to the Col de Forclaz was steep busy relatively easy, following an old track through the woodland. The cafe at the road was open so we stopped for a strong coffee.
The ascent from here up to the refuge at the Col de Bovine seemed to go on and on, but breaking out of the woodland eventually to see the Bovine refuge was amazing and worth the effort. Even if it was clear why it got its name!
After another coffee at the refuge Bovine we continued on heading downhill to Plan de L’Au, a steep and winding path which eventually flattened and headed through woodland.
We eventually arrived in Champex where we walked around the Lake to the campsite.