Tour Du Mont Blanc
I have recently completed the Tour Du Mont Blanc which turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life!
The TMB is one of the world’s best known long distance hikes and takes in a circuit of the Mont Blanc Massif and saw me visit France, Italy and Switzerland before heading back into France.
It is roughly 171km long and takes in 10km of vertical ascent AND descent!
The tour provides an awesome opportunity to take in some high mountain trekking with less danger than the more technical mountains in the area.
Throughout the length of the Tour Du Mont Blanc hikers are treated to the incredible beauty of the Mont Blanc Massif.
With towering snow covered peaks that take your breath away, snow fields to negotiate, green lush meadows, stream crossings, mountain paths, high routes, low routes, Mother Nature, refuge culture and of course meeting fellow beings from all over the world treading the same journey as yourself.
My Tour Du Mont Blanc
I flew out to start the Tour on 18th June 2019.
Flight was from Gatwick to Geneva and didn’t take long at all. I was meeting a friend of mine who I had met the previous year while staying in a hostel in Snowdonia. We kept in touch, he had successfully ascended Mont Blanc, we got chatting and the rest, as they say is history.
Prior to heading out there we had booked an Alpybus to transfer us from Geneva to Chamonix which is where we were staying for 2 nights before embarking on the tour.
I stayed at a lovely hotel called La Chaumiere which offered us twin rooms and a very good French breakfast each day. Just 10 minutes walk into Chamomix Centre it is ideally located and quiet.
They also served Affligem Belgian beer which believe me was very good and very strong!
On the Wednesday we walked into Chamonix. I instantly fell in love with the energy of the place, the outdoors feel and I knew I would be coming back with more frequency in the future.
We went to the Office De Haute Montagne where we found out essential information about the route. Potential dangers, which paths may be unpassable due to dangerous snow conditions and whether we needed to take Ice Axes and crampons etc.
As it happened a few of the higher routes were still deemed too dangerous to take and so the lower variants were planned for our journey. We were also warned about collapsing snow bridges that cross various streams and rivers along the way. The excitement was mounting!
On the Wednesday afternoon we set about the arduous task of booking the various mountain refuges and hotels that we would stay at along the way.
The Cicerone Tour Du Mont Blanc book is the bible for the route and a must have item.
The small pocket sized book details all of the route, the variants and crucially, places to stay along the way. This then allows you to plan your days and know how far you will be hiking each day which then allows you to work out water and snack requirements each day.
We had left it until the day before we were due to set off, as for some mad reason we thought we might be able to just wing it on our way round. After speaking to several people we were advised that booking was essential in order to avoid being turned away and then having to continue trekking on.
As we had not taken tents and sleeping bags it meant that the idea of being turned away was enough to get our arses into gear and get booking.
Neither myself or my mate Paul were great at French and fortunately back at our hotel a very helpful receptionist assisted us in booking the refuges that needed a phone call.
TMB Website – Booking Made Easier.
Many of the refuges can be booked via the official Tour Du Mont Blanc website which is handy as they show prices and how many spaces are left.
Had we had a laptop with us the booking process online would have been much easier than via my android phone. Let’s just say there were a few moments of choice words!
In a nutshell, be more organised than us. Book in advance before you head out, plan your route based on your ability level and save yourself the stress of it on holiday!
The good news is, it all worked out fine in the end and 3 hours later we had 9 nights of accommodation booked in various refuges and hotels.
The average cost of a night was around 65 euro which covered half board. A simple, but very welcome 3 course evening meal, a bed in a shared, mixed dormitory for the night and let’s just say, a very simple breakfast.
Unless rock hard dried packaged toast, biscuits or cake is your thing for breakfast, it is worth carrying some muesli or similar in a plastic lock seal bag. You will likely not have access to milk high up either, so consider this too! Bananas became our main staple purchased along the way along with cheese and cured meat.
As a point of note most refuges take cash only. I took 800 euro of cash and that was enough. I also took £1000 on a Monzo card which is accepted by those places with a card machine and is charge free in Europe. I came back with change from all of that, despite enjoying some great food along the way, a few meals out and the odd beer – or three.
Equipment – Light is Right!
One of the hardest things to get right is the equipment needed. Carry too much and each day will be harder than it needs to be – too little and well, you could end up being uncomfortable.
I took the following:-
45l rucksack, trekking poles, 1l water bottle, waterproof trousers and jacket, thin down jacket, 1 fleece mid-layer, 1 long sleeved base layer, 3 x fast wicking t shirts, 3 pairs of trekking socks, 3 pairs of merino wool boxers, 1 pair of trekking shorts, 1 pair of FjallRaven Trousers, 1 pair gloves, 1 cap, 1 woolly hat and 1 buff.
High factor sunscreen, toothbrush, toothpaste, ear plugs (ESSENTIAL!), painkillers, small medical kit, head torch, small pen knife, camera (one of the heaviest items), phone charger, camera charger and power bank, plug adaptor for France and Switzerland, mini crampons, map, compass, whistle, sun glasses, silk sleeping bag liner (ESSENTIAL), lightweight travel towel, tissue paper, small amount of soap to wash clothes, well-worn in trekking boots (ESSENTIAL), flip-flops – to walk about in the refuges and free those feet!
As it happened the trousers I took were way too heavy and could have selected a thinner pair. Also my camera which added significant weight. All said and done with some snacks for on the way and 1l of water my pack weighed about 12kg each day. My mate Paul who had super light-weight everything and was just under 10kg.
And they are off!
After missing a bus to take us from Chamonix to the start of our TMB (Les Houches) – (ok, yep, we were stood on the wrong side of the road and the bus drove straight past!) we eventually got under way.
Our route would take us as follows:-
Stage 1 – Les Houches – Les Contamines 18km.
Stage 2 – Les Contamines – Les Chapieux 20km
Stage 3 – Les Chapieux – Rifugio Elisabetta (Italy.) 15km
Stage 4 – Rifugio Elisabetta – Courmayeur
Stage 5 – Courmayeur – Rifugio Elena 20km
Stage 6 – Rifugio Elena – La Fouly (Switzerland) 16km
Stage 7 – La Fouly – Champex Lac 15km
Stage 8 – Champex Lac – Trient 19km
Stage 9 – Trient – Argentiere 20km
Stage 10 – Argentiere – Le Brevent – Chamonix – 20km ish…
The route is incredibly well signposted from the get go. The Europeans have REALLY got this sorted and it would be hard to completely get lost – that said, take a map and compass and know how to use them!
We stayed for the most part in refuges with hotels in Courmayeur and Argentiere. Both were a very welcome break to have some space and not be lying next to people who you have never met before. Refuge culture is a lot of fun and very different and the simplistic nature of it all and feeling of “in it togetherness” is a very lovely thing and something that in my opinion, makes the Tour Du Mont Blanc very special.
When we were there we were treated some incredible weather.
The first two days from Les Houches to Les Contamines and Les Chapieux saw the only grey sky’s, slight rain and thunder storm of the whole trip. Beyond that we experienced a heat wave which became news worthy with temperatures well above 35 degrees C most days – something I loved, my trekking mate, less so!
It must be said that the Mont Blanc Massif and views on offer are mind blowing and utterly beautiful.
On many occasions before we set off I found myself staring at Mont Blanc herself, marvelling at her vast expanse, her beauty and ruggedness, the snow formations and what seemed like unlimited potential to climb. Truly awe-inspiring.
The two most magical elements of the entire trip for me was from Courmayeur to Rifugio Elena. The entire hike ambles along at around 2000m (once a long and steady climb has been completed) with lush meadows to your right and the vast expanse of the back of Mont Blanc and the associated mountain range to your left.
The second highlight was the very long and tiring hike at the end from Argentiere over Le Brevent (2525m) and back down to Chamonix. The scenery in the Chamonix valley and then up high over Le Brevent – well, you have to see it to believe it. It was magical hiking along the balcony with its narrow paths, steep sides and sheer scale of everything around you. The snow fields high up which made the day even more exciting!
We shared the final leg of the journey with the Mont Blanc Marathon weekend which to say made for an electric final day would be an understatement.
The French know how to put on a weekend of running celebration and despite the blistering heat, heavy pack on and boots I couldn’t help but have a little run along with some of the runners along some of the mountain trails.
The sky’s were filled with brightly coloured Paragliders with the Les Brevent Cable Car taking people up and down the mountain as we traversed snow fields being careful not to slip and fall – well, a long way.
Both Paul and I commented a few times how it would be easy to underestimate the Tour Du Mont Blanc. Make NO mistake. This is a SERIOUS trek that is somewhat relentless, day in day out and Paul and I are both pretty fit chaps.
While the paths are well signposted and made, there is a LOT of uphill and downhill. The book says it’s around 10km of vertical height gain and loss which means hard work uphill and equally hard, but different work on the downhill. You will need a strong set of lungs and legs and be mentally used to trudging for many hours in a variety of weathers.
Before embarking on the Tour Du Mont Blanc it would be a sensible idea to get a decent amount of miles in the legs from hiking with a 10kg pack before heading out to take on this challenge. Some strength based work to really help iron out any imbalances would also be a good idea. It is only when you hike for many hours, with a reasonable load that if any weaknesses are present they soon become exposed. Mountain fitness is a VERY specific type of fitness.
We met a lovely young couple from Devon who were out. The chap hadn’t done much hiking before and within 2 days had agonising pain in his hip which prevented him carrying on. Gutting.
Each day we hiked between 15 and 22km with hiking times usually being between 7 and 8 hours per day. Some days were 10 hours or more which included a 20 minute stop at one of the other refuges along the way. Given the soaring temperatures we experienced, there was more than one day that we were hanging out due to dehydration by the end of the day.
I personally found that as the 10 days went on (the tour bible suggests 11 days) I became fitter each day. While the altitude is not high – the highest I got to was 2650m, it can be felt if pushing hard. So we took our time and as the days ticked by, I felt increasingly fit and by the end – I felt like I could hike and never quit!
For the first few days there were the usual aches but you find a rhythm after a few days.
Get your pack sorted the night before, have a good meal, rehydrate, get your head down (with ear plugs in!), get up, breakfast, check bag, hydrate more and then get going.
On most of the stages there are places to get more water. Either at refuges where water and food, coffee, beers can be bought or from water outlets along the way. I filled up my bottle a few times from mountain streams and suffered no ill effects. The water is generally fine to drink from each of the taps. If in doubt take some chlorine tablets or a small water filter. You will likely not need them.
In some of the bigger towns you can purchase pastries, meat and baguettes from the local patisserie. Alternatively energy bars from the various mountain shops and pharmacies for energy during the day. Personally I bought some date bars and saucisson and cheese which despite the searing heat, stayed fine, if not a little sweaty!
I loved the whole experience of staying in the various and varied mountain refuges along the way.
From the super small, but cosy and simple Alpine Club refuge in Les Contamines. I ate way too much food and spent the night unable to sleep. Sweating away and sleeping next to someone of whom I had no idea who they were as they came in after lights out. On the flip side are more newly refurbished and expansive facilities such as those at Rifugio Elena with their single bunk beds, private space and wonderful shower facilities.
Once you arrive at your refuge just book in. They tell you what time dinner is and breakfast and show you to your bed for the night in a mixed dormitory of various sizes. Then it is simply a case of get your bed ready (you will need a silk sleeping bag liner – the refuges provide blankets and pillows), have a shower and chill out.
Dinner is served usually around 7pm and is a social affair which provides lots of opportunity to chat to fellow hikers from all over the world.
It was such a lovely thing sharing stories and laughing over drinks and food with like-minded people.
You may find, as we did that sometimes you keep seeing the same faces and catching up a various sections along the way. It all adds to the experience!
One of my favorite moments was sharing some beers, laughter and stories with Sandra, Andor, David, Paul and others whose names escape me as the sun went down over the mountains in La Fouly. A really fond memory.
The Tour Du Mont Blanc has been an amazing experience and one I shall treasure. Some journeys are life affirming, this one was life changing in many ways. The scenery, the people, the energy of the Mont Blanc massive all made it special. I had several peak experiences during the week which were very special to me and I will spare you from knowing.
I will be back again to repeat the tour, clockwise and albeit next time in fewer days and some of it spent camping. I will also be going back to Chamonix and the area to hike and climb more mountains including having a crack at Mont Blanc in the not too distant future.
To the people I met on the Tour and shared some beers, conversations and great times with James, Sandra, Andor, Sylwia, Simon and David – thank you all for being part of a memorable experience and I hope that our paths cross again sometime soon.
Thanks go to Solid Ground Outdoors for the T Shirt which had a number of admiring comments on my way around. 🙂