|Mont Buet from the Col de Balme across the valley
The route: Mont Buet is nicknamed “Mont Blanc des Dames” because historically women climbed Buet while the men climbed Mont Blanc. Now all kinds of people head up Mont Blanc obviously, but Buet is still used as a training zone to get acclimated for the big slog.
The most straight-forward route starts in the village of Le Buet, high up in the Chamonix valley, a stone’s throw away from Switzerland. It heads up the picturesque “Vallon de Bérard”, one of the few téléphérique-free areas heading off of the main road. It’s also a nature reserve, and except for a quant refuge at the head of the valley, it’s one of the most tranquil and serene places around.
|Le Vallon de Bérard
The Refuge Pierre à Bérard sits about 3 miles from the trailhead, nestled behind a huge up-valley boulder that protects it from winter avalanches. It’s a sweet little refuge at the bottom of a grand cirque, and worth a quick stop for a cold (or hot!) drink if you’ve got the time. The trail to this point is the most runnable you’ll see on the whole trip – there are a few steep sections, but in general it winds along the river and gradually climbs until the last few hundred feet below the refuge where it finally gets steep.
|Le Refuge et le grand Pierre
Past the refuge it gets even steeper quickly – the path winds for a bit and then continues up granite slabs and scree to just under the Col de Salenton. It’s marked occasionally with placards, cairns, and spraypaint, but you’re basically just trying to keep going up and follow the path of least resistance.
|The “trail” above the refuge
The path to Mont Buet cuts off a few hundred meters below the Col de Salenton and heads into the lunar landscape of the high country. It’s rocky and desolate up here, but runnable when it’s not too steep (which is most of the time). The path ascends to another small col, where you get your first view of the upper Diosaz valley to the North, and then goes up, up, up until gaining the wide and smooth ridge of Mont Buet. From here it’s a relatively level stroll to the summit dome, view indicator, and absolutely 5 star panoramic view of the mountains around you, including the Mont Blanc massif.
|The lunar-landscape “skyrunning” approach to the summit
We were racing the clock a bit as our two boys were left sleeping with Mamie et Papy while we went adventuring. This, and the idea of doing this climb in the heat, encouraged our “alpine start” of 6:20 AM. We ascended the Vallon de Bérard as the sun crested over the mountains and the forest begin to wake up. The gentle climb was magical as the birds chirped and we exchanged “bonjours” with the handful of other hikers on the trail.
We made good time and got to the refuge in an hour or so. The refuge itself was just waking up too, so we filled our bottles and headed up the real start of the climb. We had done this next section two years ago when we came over the Col de Salenton and descended the valley, so we knew the trail was pretty much non-existant and the progress was slow over a maze of granite slabs and loose scree.
|A local cheered us up the climb
Just past the refuge was got passed by a dude that was movin’ – he was the only person we saw actually running the climb all day, and even he was more or less hopping while he hiked really fast. My inner-competitive streak immediately took a hit as I wondered, “Should I be running up this thing like a mad-man too?” The problem was, I couldn’t. It was too steep! We saw the speedster at the top on his way down, and I felt a little better after the run when I realized that he crushed the Strava course-record for the entire climb that day and was a legit French BA. 🙂
After exiting the granite ramps we entered what our guidebook deemed the “Skyrunning” section of this climb. We now equate “Skyrunning” with an off-trail Sierra pass. It’s loose scree and small talus, with a sometimes ill-defined trail, and it’s steep, steep, steep! Sometimes so steep forward progress is difficult. Mo had poles, while I was still being a stubborn American, and my calves paid the price. We power-hiked upwards, passing people as we went, and keeping pace with the other “runners” (besides Mr. CR). The views got more and more beautiful and the summit got closer with every step.
|Mo channeling her inner Euro
We arrived at the summit after about 3 hours of time at 9:30AM. We were definitely in the first cluster of folks, and while the summit wasn’t crowded, we didn’t have it all to ourselves. The view was absolutely stunning. I had prepared for the best and it exceeded my expectations. In typical French style there was an orientation table on the top so you could identify peaks in the distance. We could trace a huge portion of our GR5 route from 2011, see as far away as Geneva, and glimpse into the backside of the Lac D’Emosson which looked especially intriguing. And then, there was an unparalleled view of the Mont Blanc Massif of course. Perfectly clear, just enough distance for some perspective – there it was in all of its glory.
And now it was time for the fun part – the descent! I was stoked on the skyrunning portion, thinking that I would actually be able to run a good portion of it. This turned out to be true, and I felt like I was mountain biking as I carved the turns and slip-slided a bit in my Altra Lone Peak 3.0s. I tried to remember to look up an soak in the view but also had to stay focused on the task at hand.
|Carvin’ turns like a knife through butter
Soon enough we were back into the nightmare talus and granite slab section, which slowed us down considerably. The bonus of this however is that we could look around. The rocks started to beat up our feet and we paused to fill up water and relax for a minute at the refuge on the way down.
The final third of the valley was relatively easy going, although the trail that seemed fairly smooth on the way up now seemed rough and rocky on the way down. We took our time, trying to maintain a decent jog but tired from our recent skyrunning efforts up top! We did pause for a few moments to soak up the magic of this valley – remembering the time we hiked up with both boys and had a wonderfully tranquil moment by the stream, and listening to the serenades of the birds hidden in the trees one more time.
|This trail felt a lot smoother on the way up
We were back at the car just before noon, with plenty of time for our traditional post-run dip in the icy glacial torrent. We “cleaned up” and decided to make use of our afternoon by enjoying a burger and frites lunch (only the French would fry up both a hash-brown and a slice of Reblouchon and put it on a burger with bacon).
The numbers: 12.4 miles, +6,128 feet of elevation gain. Max elevation: 10,216 feet.