Our Recent Trek Through the Alps!

The Haute Route Italienne: In the Shadow of Giants

From the 25th July to 2nd August, a group of nine students from Coombe Dean School took part in a tough 95km trek, from beneath the Matterhorn to the foot of Mont Blanc. With over 6000m of ascent, 12 cols to cross, a high point of over 2,900m and days lasting up to ten hours, this was a significant challenge. The trek is known as the Giants’ Trail, so called because it makes its way beneath some of the biggest mountains of the Alps, including Monte Rosa, Grand Combin and Mont Blanc.

After a pre-dawn departure from Plymstock, the team flew from Bristol to Geneva and transferred to the Aosta valley. With some time in Courmayeur to begin to get a feeling for the grandeur, steepness and cultural differences of the Alps, the team were ready for the coming adventure. A significant thunderstorm in the early evening (the same storm system that caused havoc in the Tour de France) meant the following day’s itinerary was modified to avoid stream crossings which may have suffered from the torrential rain.

Blue skies had returned and the team enjoyed a pleasant first day introduction to trekking, a four hour walk (all uphill) to reach Rifugio Barmasse, at 2100m it was over twice the height of Scafell Pike, and the team’s first night in a mountain hut.

With a ‘standard time’ of seven hours, the second day was going to be long; rain was forecast and made an appearance before lunchtime. Awkward terrain slowed the team and a steep slope of old, hard snow towards the end of the day made for a difficult crossing. By using fixed handrail ropes and safety waist loops, the team were able to cross this and arrive at the hut by 6pm.    

The third day was shorter and the weather was warmer and drier. After crossing a col, the team descending through a winter avalanche-scarred valley to arrive at Hotel Valentino and a welcome chance to hand-wash some clothing. Pizzas in the nearby restaurant were also very welcome!

Day four dawned bright and sunny, the hotel’s breakfast buffet was scoured clean and we were on our way by 8am! A long afternoon climb of over 1,000m in the sun was eased by an ice-cream stop, and the team arrived at Rifugio Champillon with their own private yurt.

A short climb on the following morning and then a long descent saw the team arrive in the village of Saint Oyen, and their accommodation in Chateau Verdun, a former staging post and stables for pilgrims travelling along the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.

Our sixth day was along the Pilgrims’ Road to the mighty St Bernard Pass. This road is over 1,000 years old, and has seen many historical figures treading its stones – with that day being Coombe Dean’s turn. Passing through St Rhemy, the team began the climb to the pass and its world famous monastery. In keeping with the monastery’s tradition, all those arriving on foot are offered sustenance from the monks living there. After tea and a welcome from one of the brotherhood, the team explored the kennels (where the St Bernard dog breed and also mountain rescue have their origins) and the museum. Some team members enjoyed returning over the border to Italy for their first independent international trip!

The following day was the longest, with three significant cols to cross and some fixed rope sections, this was likely to be a tough day. The team were up and out early and arrived in good time at Col Malatra, the highest col on the Alta Via 1 (at 2,928m, it is more than twice the height of Ben Nevis). With Mont Blanc seeming to be within touching distance now, the team spent the evening at the busy Rifugio Bonatti.

The eighth and final day was the long ‘balcony path’ towards Courmayeur. The famous “Tour du Mont Blanc” shares this section of the path and the team met trekkers from all corners of the world. With Courmayeur far below us we descended the twisting and turning final path into town and had a well-earned trip to a local gelateria for locally produced ice cream.

Having returned to the base camp hotel and been able to spruce up, the team had an afternoon exploring the town, its shops and cafes and its Alpine museum. After an early night and a very early start, the team transferred to Geneva and were back in Plymstock by lunchtime the following day.

Each and every member of the team were a credit to themselves, their families and their school. They were polite, helpful and keen, as-well-as showing resilience and determination in what were, at times, challenging conditions. It was an honour to lead them and show them the delights of trekking in the Alps. Hopefully they will return with friends, confident in their abilities to manage a similar journey in the near future.

I would also like to thank Mrs Hodges and Miss Wright for being prepared to take part in the expedition, and to go through the same trials and tribulations as the students in what ought to be their holidays. Without them it would not have been possible for us to take on this challenge.

We were also fortunate to be offered support from AlpKit Foundation, Tilley hats and Bam socks; their support is both valued and  appreciated.

A final thank you is owed to the Parents, for their support and belief in the school, supporting staff and their children; thank you one and all.


Andy Hodges

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