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Bonatti Tour II: Home

Bikepacking the Mont Blanc Massif in the shadows of mighty peaks and glaciers, based out of Courmayeur - the town that Walter Bonatti called home...


Awe. Nerves. Excitement. They all hit everytime I push a small gear up into a big Alpine valley, and crossing contours on the maps I’d been studying at home, up through Val Ferret from Courmayeur, was no different. This was real Rough Stuff Alps territory, and with original compiler Fred Wright a trailblazer, like Bonatti, it seemed right to marry the two biking and climbing works into a challenging ride from the town the Alpinist called home for most of his life. For our first few kilometers towering granite peaks plunged us into shadow until we gained at least 250+ metres, local cheesemongers sold us their smelly wares along the valley road, the Dora di Ferret river raged with melt water to write-off any swimming, and sombre stormy skies shrouded us to the tune of clanging cowbells as we rode (and bike-hiked) the Tour du Mont Blanc track towards the welcoming lights of the Bonatti Hut

It was in these mountains that Bonatti found solace amongst the meadows, glaciers and peaks. And in the 1950s he took the great step of “giving up a safe job in the city for the unknown … qualifying as an Alpine guide, and going to live in Courmayeur.” The Bonatti hut was named/dedicated to him out of a love and appreciation for the climber. Contrary to my belief before visiting, he didn’t actually live there at any point but is said to have visited several times, and it makes sense once you witness the view over Grandes Jorasses and Walker Spur/Buttresses – blithely selected by Bonatti and his friends for the climactic feat of their very first Alpine summer. “In 1949, with three companions, Bonatti repeated the famous Walker Buttress of the Grandes Jorasses … considered at the time to be one of the three hardest climbs in the world. Walter was just nineteen … Its ascent marked the real beginning of Bonatti’s career as an extreme climber”

Dropping back out of Val Ferret, descending sketchy Tour de Mont Blanc paths, we were then immediately faced with the road climb up into Val Veny which hugged the south faces of the other huge peaks in the area – the scenes of some of Bonatti’s most infamous climbs, most noteably their retreat to the Gamba Hut after the Freney tragedy in 1961. From biking level, looking up was this haven of glaciers, jagged pillars and remote ridges that you read about in Bonatti’s book; I can’t imagine what the north-side, where Bonatti spent most of his time in sinister shadow, was like. He actually had a vast golden granite pillar named after him – the Bonatti Pillar – following his famous first ascent of it over five days, but it has since unfortunately fallen.

Up higher, we reached yet more stunning gravel tracks and switchbacks of the Tour du Mont Blanc, eventually raising a refreshing glass to Bonatti at the Rifugio Elisabetta, well perched footing the Aigulle des Glaciers peak with views back towards the Peuterey peaks and beyond, Mont Blanc. As we persistently pedalled slowly through the mountains, Bonatti continued to persist with the Traditional ‘Alpine’ techniques of the thirties and consistently rejected the use of devices that make success certain, or make climbing too easy – this went against his ideas of purism, adventure, and ‘the impossible’ for him. Back in the 60’s he fell out big-time with a lot of the climbing fraternity, even to the extent of having his car tyres slashed in Courmayeur (apparently!), and so chose to hang up his climbing shoes in 1965, and get away from it all…

Alpinists of Bonatti’s ilk already had my respect, but stepping outside the Bonatti Hut and looking over Grandes Jorasses to see the twinkling of a solitary light perched above the glacier, I guessed from the Bivacco Jachia, my respect for all mountaineers was well and truly hammered and bolted that first stormy night. The three of us were quite happy to retreat into the bustling, warm atmosphere of the post-dinner Bonatti refuge, ready for another day of riding the valleys and rough stuff of the Mont Blanc area, in the mere shadows of the peaks that Bonatti conquered.

In our minds, it would be hard to beat these couple of days but we still had two mini-tours to go.

Our next stop was Bergamo…

Journey | ITALY

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