Ridgelines Eagles and Milka

The mountains between Chamonix and Sixt-fer-a-cheval are some of my favourite in the world. Most of the area lies within a nature reserve, where hunting and paragliding are prohibited and infrastructure is kept to a minimum. On this particular adventure with Andy and Lucy, our focus was Mont Buet, one of the most prominent peaks standing at over 3000m.

We started climbing through the pine forest on a crisp September morning, seeing our first wildlife of the hike – a red squirrel. Unlike their British counterparts, these Alpine reds are very dark reddish-brown, but they share the same characteristic tufty ears and bushy tail. We eventually emerged above the treeline, startling an adder (the startle was very much reciprocated) basking in the sun on the trail. It made a hasty and slithery getaway, looping back to the path and into a hole, and on we marched. After winding through boulder fields the path became an exposed ridge, with majestical views over the magnificent hulk of Mt Buet. Here we saw our first Chamoix, so perfectly blending into the rockscape that only their movement gave them away.

The highlight of the ascent was the Arête du Buet, an exposed and lofty ridge, made of chossy slate with the odd bit of via ferrata protection to hold on to. I was glad of it, for the ridge dropped off sharply to one side with some brisk and gusty updrafts. The late afternoon light was casting stark shadows on the rippling mountains around, the deepest shade still holding a dusting of snow that fell in the night. Once topped out the ridge broadened and led a deceptively long way to the summit where panoramic views awaited. The Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, the Southern Alps, and all the peaks I knew so well from my years living in the Northern Alps as a child waited patiently to be picked out. After layering up and getting cold (not in that order), we continued towards our objective for the evening, a small unmanned hut on the Col des Chaux.

The south ridge we descended wasn’t unlike the North ridge we ascended: precipitous, smatterings of snow and some via ferrata protection for the tricky bits. The views remained spectacular and we even caught sight of a Golden Eagle soaring below us, the sun shining golden on its wings as it followed the contours round the mountain. An orchestral soundtrack by Olafur Arnalds would have been apt.
Self-proclaimed fashionista Andy never missed an opportunity to remind me of what an idiot I looked like with my hat, which looks more like something a cosmonaut would wear under their space helmet than mountain apparel. “If you fall off the ridge people will think you’ve fallen from space!” and “what time are you docking at the ISS?” were two of the more memorable quips. Fortunately he soon got tired and the wit dried up.

I would love to say that we managed to navigate perfectly to the hut, not losing any height unnecessarily, arriving before sunset, and having the small cabane to ourselves. But none of that was true, and since this isn’t Instagram I’ll try to give the full picture. It was not a well-trodden route and eventually we weren’t quite sure where the path had gone. After an hour or so of route finding, map pondering, down-scrambling and plenty of cursing we found ourselves in the valley, looking up at the col where we so yearned to be. Light was fading, and there on the horizon was the silhouette of a figure entering the cabin. Andy let out a howl of anguish (maybe he didn’t but I won’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.) No doubt they were smugly enjoying sunset and the satisfaction of knowing you’ve reached the day’s destination. After crossing a few more rocky ravines and clambering up some more vegetated slopes, we eventually arrived at the Col des Chaux tired and sweaty. We were treated to an exquisite view of Mont Blanc, draped in pinks and mauves as the last of the day left the Alps.

On this col was our humble abode for the night, the Abri de Villy. There to greet us was a gregarious Frenchman by the name of… actually I’m not sure what his name was, he didn’t offer it and we never thought to ask. “Is there enough space for us?” I asked tentatively. “Mais oui!! Carrément!” he replied buoyantly. He seemed delighted to have company, which isn’t always the case with solo hikers especially in Covid times, and I wasn’t really sure if there was a refuge non-gardé equivalent of the Bothy Code. This was a big relief as we had only packed a tent fly and a bivvy bag between the three of us. The hut was a cosy structure with a raised sleeping platform, a fold down table, and a small window offering a commanding view down the valley. The Frenchman was rewarded for his hospitable welcome with some Milka. Andy opted to bivvy anyway, because “it’s not every day you get to sleep at 2500m beneath the Milky Way being lulled to sleep by the distant throaty cry of rutting deer in the valley below”. He’s a poet that Andy. Part of me envied him (for bivvying, not his vividly descriptive prose), but a much bigger part of me thought he was a fool. His thin synthetic summer sleeping bag looked more suitable for a children’s sleepover in a heated house, and he used the foam padding of his OMM rucksack as a half-length sleeping mat.

Later that night Lucy and I were awoken by an excessively noisy mouse in the hut’s ceiling cavity, and suddenly Andy didn’t seem like such a fool, as we feared for the fates of our expensive down bags. The following morning we exchanged stories. Andy told us he heard a loud lupine noise and sat up abruptly, his sleeping mat hitting his back and scaring him senseless as visions of wolf attacks raced through his mind. Our morning plans of summiting Mont Buet in time for sunrise were very swiftly revised to “We just need to go high enough to see the over the Aiguilles Rouges”. Eventually this too was downgraded to “Sunrise will look great from the hut”. And sure enough it did. The sky was already filled with a palid grey light by the time we rose at 7am, early enough to see the first light dousing Mont Blanc. For breakfast we had porridge cooked in puddle water (the water source at the hut was a small lake/large puddle on the saddle without any inflow). Some previous hut dwellers had left a zip-lock bag full of cocoa powder and small white tablets. Concluding that it would be impractically expensive to leave ecstasy for clueless and dehydrated hikers to drop, it was more likely to be a sweetener, and sure enough we enjoyed sweet and chocolatey porridge.

Day two also featured lots of scenic ridgelines, wildlife and great views. We saw more golden eagles, flocks of Alpine chough floating playfully in the updrafts, and we startled a number of rock ptarmigan. Countless chamoix and a very unphased male ibex occupied one of the less well trodden ridgelines, with a formidable view of Mont Blanc behind them. The chamoix effortlessly scampered down the same sort of steep gulllys we had baulked at the day before. Before dropping into the shadow of the Chaîne des Fiz, and onto the popular GR5 route, we met a friendly conservationist brandishing a radio-telemetry antenna (the same sort they use on Anchor Island). He was waving it about hoping to get a signal from some tagged ptarmigan which had eloped from the Desert du Platé, a limestone plateau a few valleys to the West.

Once off the ridges we passed an idyllic alpine lake, the Lac d'Anterne. The edge dropped off steeply and the clear blue waters beckoned me in. They specifically requested a naked dive into their icy embrace, much to the annoyance of Andy who had to film it. Lucy enjoyed the spectacle from the comfort of her down jacket and front row seat.
Eventually we walked down off the lofty plateau and into the autumnal forests in the valley below. The sycamore, beech and rowan trees were turning, foreshadowing the cold weather that was soon to come. We picked handfuls of bilberries, enjoyed later as a tarte aux myrtilles, and returned to civilisation.