Most people would be familiar with the famous Alta Via routes in the Dolomites, or with the busy Tour du Mont Blanc, but fewer will know that there’s two amazing and lesser known long distance routes in the north eastern part of the Italian Alps, in Valle d’Aosta. Lesser known but not in the least less beautiful, these two routes join up to form a circle, so they can be walked together for a total of roughly 300km and 24000 metres of ascent (the same route followed by the trail running race Tor de Géants) or they can be walked separately as a linear trek. This year I decided to walk the Alta Via 2 with a friend, and here’s what happened.
Plan and logistics
The Alta Via 2 runs for roughly 150 km from Courmayeur to Donnas, pretty much following the eastern border of Valle d’Aosta with France first, and the Southern border with Piemonte after, going through the most incredible landscape. However, we had to do things differently, so we decided to walk it the other way round, skipping the very first stage and starting in Champorcher. This way we started with an easy first couple of days and ended with the spectacular views of Mont Blanc as we got closer to Courmayeur.
With the help of a guidebook and some maps we studied the route. It could be done by either staying in huts and hotels, or we could carry our tent and just play it by ear. We went with the second option, it gave us more freedom and it meant we could keep the price low, even though that meant carrying more equipment and food with us. It also meant we didn’t have to book anything, just a place for the first couple of nights in Champorcher and then we could walk as much or as little as we wanted everyday, no ties.
So once all this was decided, all we had to do was pack and go.
Packing for 11 days in the mountains is not easy. You want to keep the weight to a minimum, but there’s so much stuff you need to carry! Starting with all the necessary stuff to sleep and eat: tent, mats, sleeping bags, stoves and gas, pots, cutlery. Then clothes, and here you really need to embrace the fact that you are going to smell and are not going to need more that two t-shirts, plus there’s always going be a chance to wash your stuff, so no need to worry. It’s the bits and pieces that are tricky to organise: headtorch, sunglasses, a book, hat and gloves, portable powerbank, first aid kit, etc. Here is where your packing skills are really going make a difference.
Anyway, even after years of experience you’re always going to do it wrong. We ended up with too much stuff: we brought two stoves and only ever used one, we brought a tea towel and a bikini (it seemed like a good idea at the time), two first aid kits that were totally unnecessary. Long story short, our bags were 15kg each and we were stuck with them.
Day 1 - Champorcher to Rifugio Miserin
When we stepped out the door on day one the sun was shining and we still had not realised how heavy our bags really were, so we were 100% ready for the adventure!
We quickly left the lovely hamlet of Chardonney behind (I used to spend my summer holidays here when I was 10 and it was great to see that not much had changed) and started climbing on an old hunting track. We were really amazed by how many old buildings were popping out everywhere in the middle of the pastures! After a couple of hours we reached Rifugio Dondena and had lunch: salami, cheese and bread, the perfect mountain snack (we would quickly get bored of this!). Then another couple of hours of hiking and we got to Rifugio Miserin, with its beautiful lake and church (there’s churches everywhere in Italy). The wind had picked up so we sheltered inside and enjoyed our first hut beer, then decided to pitch our tent just by the church and treat ourselves to some amazing hut food.
Day 2 - Rifugio Miserin to Lillaz
After some light rain overnight, we woke up to a pretty foggy but quite atmospheric morning. We packed our tent, had some breakfast (porridge is the way to go, especially if your hiking partner is Scottish!) and left for the col Fenêtre de Champorcher. We were excited for a new day on the trail, the only downside was that we were walking beside some pretty huge and ugly pylons. But anyway, we got to the col and there was no sign of them on the other side. We started walking down, not yet knowing that this would become our standard day on the trek (we had to cross a mountain pass pretty much every day). We went through alpine pastures first, we even saw some cows, and then we entered into a beautiful arolla pine forest that accompanied us all the way to Lillaz.
The second day was over, and we were not quite used to the weight of our bags, so we had to make sure we spent quite some time stretching our sore muscles to avoid any pain the next day. Followed by a much needed shower at the campsite, some laundry and a beer, of course!
Day 3 - Lillaz to Rifugio Vittorio Sella
Although we spend so much time stretching the night before, we were pretty sore in the morning and decided to skip the first three kilometres of tarmac and took the bus to Cogne. In the village we had time to stock up on food, grab a quick coffee and then we started walking towards Valnontey, a beautiful alpine village tucked away at the foot of Gran Paradiso. That’s right, we had entered the Grand Paradiso national park, the oldest national park in Italy, and a great place for wildlife spotting.
After the village we took a path that climbed steadily uphill. We quickly got to the treeline and spent some time admiring some amazing views on Grand Paradiso. We got to the hut pretty early in the afternoon and decided to sleep there for the night (it’s forbidden to pitch a tent anywhere within the park boundaries!). We had plenty of time to chill and freshen up in the stream by the hut, then met two very funny Welsh men who were doing the same route as us, and who we met again along the way the following days.
Day 4 - Rifugio Vittorio Sella to Eaux Rousses
After an early start and the usual porridge we were ready to tackle day four and the hike towards Col du Loson, the highest point on the trek (3299m). We left the hut as the first rays of sunshine started worming us up and took the path that quickly gained height through the meadows and the scree fields. Immersed in silence, in the middle of a beautiful corrie we stopped at the sight of some chamois, quietly catching the sun on some rocks. As we got to the col we were able to see the whole Cogne valley in all its beauty, and Monte Rosa in the distance.
The descent on the other side was one of the best sections on the trek, we saw plenty of chamois and ibex, lied down in the sun for a while and finally reached Eaux Rousses, 1600m lower than the col.
The lovely owner of the nearby campsite came and picked us up, so we managed to avoid a 2km tarmac walk. We pitched our tent, did some washing and sat planning the next few days. We could notice days were getting shorter, but we were quite happy to tuck away in our tent as soon as the sun went down, resting our muscles in preparation for a new day.
Day 5 - Eaux Rousses to Rifugio Marmotte
The lovely man from the campsite gave us a lift back to the path, and we started to climb up through the woods to Lago Djouan. One of the things we were looking forward to the most before starting the trek was wild swimming, so even though the weather was not the best we embraced the moment and jumped in! It was cold but made us feel so good afterwords!
We reached our col for the day, Col Entrelor, and after a short descent we reached Rifugio Marmotte. We were unsure if we wanted to stay there at the start, but I’m so glad we did in the end. The hut was run by some really nice volunteers who offered us some tea, we started chatting and straight away the atmosphere became very friendly.
We met some really good people that night, lived some proper mountain hut atmosphere and left happy in the morning, reminded of the real reason why we go to the mountains.
Day 6 - Rifugio Marmotte to Rifugio Chalet de l’Epée
From Rifugio Marmotte we went straight down to the lovely village of Rhemes-Notre-Dame to get some supplies. The very steep climb to Col Fetêtre was awaiting, but it wasn’t as bad as we thought. On the other side of the pass we found the only technical bit of the trek: some metal staples had been placed on the rock to aid the descent. We overcome the obstacle without any issues and reached a beautiful high valley crossed by a stream. We stopped for a bit, and simply lying down beside it listening to the water go by was so regenerating!
Shortly after we reached the hut, where we met our Welsh friends again. We pitched our tent outside but treated ourselves to a lovely hut meal and a couple of glasses of wine. The Welsh guys were changing their plans from the following day, so this was our last night together on the trail.
Day 7 - Rifugio Chalet de l’Epée to Lac du Fond
From here and for the next couple of days we were going totally wild. With scarce accommodation in this section of the trek we had decided to adjust the stages and wild camp for a couple of nights.
We restocked in the lovely village of Valgrisenche and left for Planaval and Lac du Fond. After a long walk on the valley floor to Planaval we climbed up towards Lac du Fond on what was the hottest day on the trek, but we made it just in time to go for a swim in the lake and pitch our tent before the rain came. It didn’t last long though, and we were able to cook outside and enjoy a drop of Genepi, the local herb liquore, before watching a breathtaking sunset and falling asleep in the middle of nowhere, alone for miles.
Day 8 - Lac du Fond to Rifugio Deffeyes
I now know that this was the hardest but also the most scenic day on the trek. We left early to start our climb to Col de Crosatie. We were still sleepy and already quite tired after the previous day, but as soon as we got to the top of the pass we found ourselves facing one of the most incredible views I have ever seen in my life, and forgot about all the rest. From left to right we could see the whole Mont Blanc massif, with the main summit to the left of Dent de Geant and the Grandes Jorasses, Grand Combin to the right, then the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa. Some of the most beautiful mountains in the Alps were all there in front of our eyes, and no picture could make them justice. We had to stop for a while to take it all in.
Then a very steep descent followed, as we had to go down almost 1000m only to regain the same amount of height to Haut Pass. This was definitely the hardest bit of the trek: we were tired under the heavy weight of our bags, but managed to get to the pass at a reasonable time. A short descent followed and we reached a lovely spot by a stream, just out of sight of Rifugio Deffeyes. And what did we do? We jumped in of course, appreciating the little things that the mountains have to offer. The swim was so regenerative that we even found the strength to walk to the hut for a beer.
What a beautiful day, but we were starting to feel like the end was getting closer.
Day 9 - Rifugio Deffeyes to La Thuile
After yesterday we really needed to rest, so a short day was in order. The walk down to La Thuile took us roughly three hours, and by lunch time se were sitting at a bar on the high street enjoying a lovely meal full of fresh vegetables, what a treat after days of salami and cheese!
But after only a couple of hours we were already tired of the traffic, and the commodities that the village had to offer didn’t seem much needed anymore. We were already itching to go back to the wild, and so we waited for the next day to come, with trepidation.
Day 10 - La Thuile to Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini
The second to last day on the trek and one that we had been waiting for for a long time: today we were going to see Mont Blanc in all its glory. The ascent from La Thuile to Col de Chavannes was long but steady, and we even saw some cow herds making their way down to the valley after leaving the alpine pastures.
On the col we had another one of those moments where we had to stop and just admire what was in front of us, in silence. We stayed there for at least an hour studying every glacier and every pinnacle of the southern side of Mont Blanc, map in hand trying to figure out where everything was. Plus we were so close to the border with France.
We then quickly descent to Val Veny and Rifugio Elisabetta, where our path joined the more famous Tour du Mont Blanc. We had a lovely night in the company of some German and Dutch trekkers, played some board game and went to bed with that trepidation that precedes every important moment in our life: tomorrow would be our last day.
Day 11 - Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini to Courmayeur
The last and unfortunately the ugliest day on the trek. The descent down to Courmayeur was long, knee breaking and it went under the many ski lifts that have been built above the village. I’m not a fan of ski resorts, and to see the mountain reduce this way always makes me very sad.
But anyway, arriving in Courmayeur felt good. We celebrated with ice-cream and local biscuits and put on some fresh clothes for the first time in over a week!
Now it was time to relax, take it all in and enjoy the moment. We were tired, but we knew that we would have been ready to walk again the next morning. The end of a path is just the start of another.
This experience left in me the desire of doing more treks of this type, and I’m already thinking about what I could do next year. I had not been in Valle d’Aosta in many years, and I was surprised to find it still so wild compared to other areas of the Alps. Who knows, maybe I’ll even go back next summer to complete the loop with Alta Via 1. To be continued?…