What I did last summer: Tour des Combins on the Swiss-Italian border

Along the TDC

August snow on the Tour des Combins

Ok, not last summer, but in summer 2010, I walked the six day circular trek around the Grand Combins massif in the Swiss Valais. I did the trip with a group of four other friends in August. We had a great time, even if the weather – particularly in the second half of the trip – wasn’t always sunny. But then again, who wouldn’t like a snowfall in August for a bit of variety?

As a rough guide to the difficulty of the trek; we were only moderately fit, spending our usual days in various offices across Europe, but fared alright.

Getting there

TDC trek overview map

Tour des Combins

The usual route starts and finishes in Bourg St. Pierre, which is accessible on a Postbus from Martigny. However, our trip started in Mauvoisin, as we had to plan our route around availability at the Chanrion hut, which tends to book out quickly. Mauvoisin is accessible on a different Postbus, also from Martigny.

As it turned out later on, Mauvoisin was a much better start/ finish than Bourg St. Pierre, which is unfortunately a highly uninspiring place assembled around the main road to the St. Bernard pass with very little going for it. The Mauvoisin hotel on the other hand is a very nice place, serving refreshments and is staffed by a very helpful team.

Bourg St. Pierre also proved a difficult place to buy any substantial provisions for the trip. All huts along the way serve food and will also be able to sell you something for the road. However it won’t be much and it will come at a price, so better stock up before heading to your starting point. Drinking water can be bought at huts too. Taking purification tablets with you to sort out your own drinking water is a good idea.

Day 1: Mauvoisin (1,964m) – Cabane Chanrion (2,462m)

Walking time: 4 hrs; Ascent/ descent: 750m/ 200m

The Mauvoisin dam from the TDC

Looking back at the Mauvoisin dam

The first day had only half a day of walking in stock for us, but many miles to cover in total. Availability at Chanrion meant we had to make it there all the way from London in one day. A flight to Geneva, a train to Martigny, a missed Postbus and a taxi ride later, we arrived at the Mauvoisin hotel at the foot of the Mauvoisin dam.

From there it was mostly uphill. First to the top of the dam and then to Col de Tsofeiret (2,640m). The terrain was easy until here. The steep descent from the pass gets a little bit difficult. Afterwards it’s a short walk to Cabane Chanrion.

Chanrion is a very basic and relatively small hut that also serves as a starting point for a couple of summit and glacier trips. There is no electricity or hot water, but the atmosphere is great.

Day 2: Cabane Chanrion (2,462m) – Cabane Champillion (2,456m)

Walking time: 8hrs 30mins; Ascent/ descent: 900/ 650m

Setting off from Cabane Chanrion

Setting off from Cabane Chanrion

Off we were for the longest and most challenging day of the whole trip at 7.40am. Still, the last to leave the hut! The day was a bit of an up and down with some serious ascents and descents.

Our first milestone was Fenetre de Durand (2,797m). A true wuthering hight with bellowing winds, followed by a long descent into the next valley. Then a long traverse at nearly consistent altitude, before a punishing ascent to Cabane Champillion.

The last stretch uphill starts just as you start feeling you might have just done about enough walking for the day, and it does so with a serious incline.

Arriving at the Champillion hut feels amazing. The hut is relatively modern, with hot water showers. It is also worth noting that it is in Italy. The Swiss-Italian border runs through Fenetre de Durand. So unlike me don’t forget to take some Euros (if the Euro still exists by the time you set out). Huts only accept cash.

Day 3: Champillion (2,465m) – St. Rhemy (1,619m)

Walking time: 6hrs; Ascent/ descent: 350/ 1,150m

Cabane Champillion in the morning

Leaving Cabane Champillion

Day three starts with some more of yesterday’s medicine. Up and up a zig-zagging path to Col Champillion (2,708m). After that though the rest of the day is mainly downhill all the way to St. Rhemy, including a lovely stroll through some woodland just before the village.

St. Rhemy is a nice village with old stone houses and a couple of restaurants. We spent the night in the nearby St. Rhemy en Bosses at the Vieille Cloche B&B , which was like an oasis of luxury with whole appartements, double beds, hot showers and a breakfast spread for kings.

Day 4: St. Rhemy (1,619m) – Bourg St. Pierre (1,632m)

Walking time: 7hrs 45mins; Ascent/ descent: 850/ 850m

Trail towards St. Bernard Pass

Onwards and upwards to St. Bernard

Most of the stretch between St. Rhemy and Bourg St. Pierre follows the road to the St. Berrnard Pass. There are short stretches that lead directly next to the road, but most of the path is further away not loosing sight of the road and heading in the same direction.

The first part up to the pass is very pleasant, the second part (more than a half of the day’s walking time) is a never-ending drag. When you finally arrive in Bourg St. Pierre you might be slightly disappointed by the lack of anything other than tacky souvenirs. However you’ll get a good view of the Grand Combins and a nice coffee at the St. Bernard Pass, which takes you back into Switzerland.

We spent the night at the Hotel du Cret motel, which was a little bit run down. On the other hand the motel served giant truck drivers dinners, including a meat feast for two, which definitely made the day for the boys.

Day 5: Bourg St. Pierre (1,632m) – Cabane Brunet (2,103m)

Walking time: 7hrs 15mins; Ascent/ descent: 900/ 400m

Cows on the TDC

Cows, out of the way! Please …

Our penultimate day promised great views of Valais’ summits and beyond. But they were not to be. Instead fog wallowed around and a light drizzle started soon after we started gaining altitude towards Col de Mille.

On the plus side, lunch at the Col de Mille hut (2,473m), where we arrived drenched, cold and not having seen anything, was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip. The hut is the overnight destination of day 1 of the usual TDC route, and staying here must be a great experience (if you’re up for basic – the loo is outside).

In the afternoon we carried on to Cabane Brunet, through more rain and around herds of cows. The Brunet hut is accessible via road and feels more like a mountain restaurant with a bunkhouse. The dorms are comfy and clean.

Day 6: Brunet (2,103m) – Mauvoisin (1,964m)

Walking time: 7hrs; Ascent/ descent: 750/ 900m

Walking in snow

Not your usual summer walk

The rain had somewhat thinned out, but it was still with us. There’s a great option on this part of the Tour to traverse the Corbassiere glacier between Brunet and Panossier. By all accounts, in good weather the traverse should be easy enough for the inexperienced.

Sadly the weather was all but good, with limited visibility the higher we got, so no glacier for us. Instead, we took the usual route, which skirts around it. But to add to the fun of the normal path, rain started turning into snow as we ascended to Panossier (2,645m).

This part of the trip comes the closest to both Combins – the Grand Combin and the Combin de Corbassiere. And despite the weather, we got some great views of both, when the clouds started breaking up while we were having lunch in the hut.

As we started gaining altitude towards Col des Otanes (2,846m) the snow returned and soon we were marching through a slippery inch of snow that made the descent to Mauvoisin that bit more fun. As we walked out of the snow cloud hanging around the mountain peaks, greenery returned and we came back from December to August.

Now it was time for a final beer and some Mexican chilly salt in celebration of our achievements/ survival, before we caught the Postbus back to Martigny.

Planning the trek online

The TDC is exceptional in that it is possible to plan the entire trip online. The best overview of the whole trek online is available on summit post, including information about the route, huts and access points. And you can print your maps from the Wanderland website, which includes online walking maps for the whole of Switzerland. Further details are also available on Outdoors Active by Anke Buchholz.

And now over to you. Have you done the Tour des Combine yourself; how did you find it? Or, are you planning your trip and have questions? Leave a comment below….

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  1. Thanks for your brilliant write up, 7 of us are planning on doing this exact trip in September 2015. We are in a Search & Rescue team and will be taking our 7 Search dogs with us as a fund raising event for our team, any tips?

    1. Hi Jon, that sounds like a great fundraising idea. I am sure the dogs will love St. Bernard. Also, thanks for the praise. Glad to hear you like the post. If you are planning to stay at the Chanrion hut, I’d recommend booking very early. If you can, I would avoid staying in Bourg St. Pierre. I found it very unappealing. Enjoy the planning! marketa

      1. Thanks Marketa. We are looking at the huts this week, not sure if we can book this early but will call them to find out! I’m putting together some fund raising material, and would love to use some of your photos as they are of exactly where we wil be walking, would it be OK? Obviously I’ll credit them back to you and your website 🙂 If it is OK, do you have any higher resolution versions I could use?

      2. Hi again Jon. Why not, that sounds interesting. What are you actually raising funds for? m.

      3. Its for the running of the team, this is us http://www.k9-sar.com, we work for the police looking for missing people, like mountain rescue but in Berkshire!

      4. Hi Jon. Sorry for the slow response. I am travelling at the moment. I’ll get back to you properly at the weekend. I should have some time to look for some higher res shots then too. M.

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