Updated November 2020
In September of 2019 we had the pleasure of completing the Tour du Mont Blanc hike counter clockwise starting in Les Houches, which is generally considered the “standard” route. We experienced outstanding weather, for the most part, met a lot of great people and now look back on it as one of the best treks we’ve ever done (as well as one of the most strenuous). So, read on for an overall trip report and, if you are already at the serious planning stage of the process, here are links to our detailed Tour du Mont Blanc guide to one of the world’s great long-distance treks.
A Little Stroll in the Alps
With my ever-growing obsession with long-distance trekking leading the way in much of our trip planning these days, it was inevitable that we would eventually find ourselves on the famous (infamous?) Tour du Mont Blanc. Typically starting in France, then crossing through sections of both Italy and Switzerland before returning to its French origins, the TMB, as it is commonly known, is the darling of nearly every “best of European trekking” list. The Tour du Mont Blanc trail is universally considered both one of the most impressive and most difficult treks to be had in the Alps. Needless to say, the first definitely got Laynni’s attention. The second, however, meant she would need some serious convincing.
Tour du Mont Blanc Difficulty
Which is how we found ourselves spending a good chunk of the summer walking up and down Saskatoon’s Meewasin trails wearing weighted backpacks among all the joggers, school groups and casual strollers. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough hills in Saskatoon (or the trails around Waskesiu, for that matter) to adequately prepare the body to tackle roughly 10,000 metres (!!) of the Tour du Mont Blanc elevation gain over the course of 11 hiking days. Yes, you heard that right, the Tour du Mont Blanc hike averages nearly 1,000 metres per day. Just to put that in perspective, we generally consider day hikes to be a decently strenuous workout with 300-400 metres of gain. So, multiply that by 2-3 times, and do it every day for a week and a half. The total elevation gain is roughly the same as the Camino Del Norte and Camino Frances, but both of those took us more than a month. It is nearly double that of the Everest Base Camp trek, although much of Nepal’s signature hike takes place at problematically high altitudes, making the total difficulty much more comparable.
But, as we hoped, we ultimately found it hard but manageable. Once your mind simply accepts the occasionally irritating fact that every day you will need to walk uphill for hours to the top of some pass or other, then slog your way all the way back down into the next valley – giving up every hard-won inch you gained – it becomes somewhat easier mentally. Although it is a bit misleading to only talk about the elevation gain, since it is actually the steep downhill sections that are hardest for most people, myself included. On the Mont Blanc trek they almost always coming toward the end of the day, when your body is already exhausted and your mind checked out, the long descents can be torturous with your fatigued thighs shaking, your battered toes jammed up against the front of your hikers, and your sweaty back desperate to rid itself of its relentless burden.
Tour du Mont Blanc Highlights
But the scenery! Simply stunning, nearly every step of the way. The main benefit of circumnavigating the entire Mont Blanc massif and crossing all those aggravating valleys and mountain passes is the constantly changing views – the hiking trails with long climbs toward tall peaks, panoramic vistas at the top, and picturesque walks back down into expansive green valleys. Particular highlights were the green rolling hills around Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, the unbroken views back down Val Ferret (Ferret Valley) as we climbed from Refugio Elena to Col Ferret (Ferret Pass), and the uninterrupted sight of Chamonix Valley and the entire Mont Blanc range on our final day between Lac Blanc and the stunning viewpoint at Le Brévent. Unquestionably the best of all, though, was twilight and sunset from extraordinary Lac Blanc, as the beautiful mountains practically loomed over us from Aiguilles Rouges, slowly changing colour with the sinking sun while the dead calm lake offered up shocking reflections impossible to discern from the real thing. The small contingent of guests remaining after all the day-trippers had left stood around quietly awestruck, soaking in the majesty of the scene (other than those that couldn’t pry themselves away from their yogurt desserts or rowdy card games). I almost didn’t notice the spry ibex clinging to the rocks above me, until he suddenly decided to bound past, showing off his uncanny dexterity among the boulders that even the best of our rugged Vibram hiking soles couldn’t possibly hope to match (let alone our not so uncanny dexterity).
And here is a short video that gives just a small idea of the incredible scene that night:
It wasn’t all burnt-orange sunsets and cocky mountain goats, though, as we did face some less than ideal weather here and there. In fact, day one started out in thick fog which periodically shifted into mist or full-on rain throughout the day (making us even more comfortable with our decision to take the cable car out of Les Houches to avoid the initial 650-meter climb). The only time we saw any sun was for about 15 minutes during our lunch break at Refuge de Miage which was, apparently, plenty of time for both of us to slightly sunburn our faces. Days 2-4 more than made up for that inauspicious start, though, providing dazzling blue, cloudless skies and endless views taking us around the bend, past La Ville des Glaciers which offers homemade cheese and up and over Col de Seigne into Italy. In Courmayeur, a posh Italian ski village featuring high-end shops like Burberry and Bang & Olufsen, things turned frigid and windy, and half-way through the following day the rain set in with a vengeance. Luckily, just at the right time we came across an abandoned barn full of the shattered remains of, you know, farm stuff, plus an almost unfathomable amount of old cow shit. It gave us a chance to fully gear up, however, (poncho, pants, gaiters, gloves) and meant we didn’t feel even remotely bad for using it as our own personal toilet. The interminable climb up to Col Ferret the next day took place in freezing temps and a harrowing wind that felt like a harbinger of winter (in fact, people just 2 days behind us had to make the same climb in more than an inch of snow), but as soon as we crossed the pass into Switzerland and started back down into a green ridged valley reminiscent of New Zealand (or Lord of the Rings, whichever fits your personal experience more closely) mild and sunny once again became the order of the day. Other than draining colour from our photos, the only time inclement weather actually influenced our route was on day 8 out of Champex-Lac after we joined up with the Haute Route, when significant snowfall up at Fenetre d’Arpette kept us from trying our luck on this notoriously treacherous and difficult pass. We do know 4 others who pulled off a successful traverse, surely rewarded with spectacular views for their trouble but, ultimately, we were comfortable not taking the chance (or adding over 500 metres of extra gain and loss). Then, after some mixed sun and cloud, our final 2 days couldn’t have been better, full of brilliant sun and puffy, mesmerizing clouds drifting in and out of the scenery. All in all, we feel pretty lucky. I can tell you, we sure wouldn’t have wanted to be doing this during the 35C heat wave earlier this summer, and in September snow and even more rain had been definite possibilities.
So, that’s the gist of the whole experience although, of course, there were many other noteworthy aspects (to us, anyway).
Refuges and Accommodation
We did a independant Tour du Mont Blanc hike which meant that we booked our accommodation in advance after scouring through the TMB guide book for our options but people can also do it with a guided tour where everything is taken care of for them. Or chose to do the Tour du Mont Blanc camping the whole way. We stayed mainly in dorms in mountain huts/refuges/rifugios/gites, sharing with as few as 2 others (twice) and as many as 20 (twice). We treated ourselves to the comfort of our own hotel room in Courmayeur on night 4 (the excellent Hotel Triolet), and at Le Peuty we slept in a barn and ate in a yurt. We joined long lines of an extremely international group of underwear-clad hikers in the hallway of Bonhomme waiting for our brief allotted shower time (the men’s line never died down for close to 3 hours), were shocked by the sudden loss of hot water in Bonatti, and were bluntly informed that Lac Blanc simply doesn’t offer showers these days. Electricity came and went, charging stations were common but in high demand, and food was generally communal, good and plentiful. Every room seemed to have at least one snorer, but not as many as we’d come to expect from other hikes, making us suspect at least some correlation between the greater level of fitness required on the TMB and healthy breathing patterns. In any case, our ear plugs remain firmly at the top of our list of necessities.
Update for the 2021 Tour du Mont Blanc Hike Season
Many people were unable to complete their TMB hike in the 2020 season after having had made bookings for their accommodations. Many of the TMB refuges, hotels and mountain huts let those people postpone their reservations until the 2021 season. This means that it is likely to be even busier than normal and, depending on the situation at the time, many may decrease the number of people that can stay each night. So it is important if you want to do the Mont Blanc circuit in 2021 to begin booking your accommodation as soon as possible. Especially the ‘pinch points’ of the Refuge Elisabetta and Refuge Bonatti areas. There are some places that allow bookings earlier than others so it’s going to take extra research and planning to get your requests in as soon as they open to reservations.
Who Did We Meet on the TMB?
Unsurprisingly, we met a large variety of trekkers from many different areas of the world and walks of life. Some we saw again and again throughout (I think we only spent 2 nights apart from Israelis Uval and her father), some crossed our paths seemingly randomly (we hiked with Rishi the first 2 days, then ran into him at Alp Bovine on day 8, said our goodbyes again, then helped him find a taxi in Le Peuty to rejoin the alternate route he had lost) and others who seemed we’d be with long-term disappeared without a trace (Francois stopping to chat with a Belgian guy on day 3, never to be seen again).
It was definitely social and friendly, although lacked the same intense camaraderie of the Caminos. The main difference being that the popularity of the Tour du Mont Blanc requires accommodation to be pre-booked (we reserved most of our beds 6 months in advance, and still we had to completely adjust our dates once), which means most schedules are basically set ahead of time. On the Camino, people generally don’t book ahead and routinely changed their plans and itineraries in order to stick with others they meet along the way. This allowed for the formation of tighter groups and stronger bonds. On the TMB, we met lots of great people but inevitably our schedules diverged sooner or later, leaving just a few days with each of them.
There were a pair of American women we saw off and on who had decided to come a bit last-minute and were “winging it” from day to day, with generally successful results. Even though basically every place was fully booked, from an official standpoint, they somehow managed to weasel their way into a couple beds night after night, sometimes through the benevolence of sympathetic hut managers, and sometimes by riding the luck of last-minute cancellations or injuries. Nonetheless, you couldn’t pay me to face the level of stress and panic they seemed to be experiencing every afternoon as the moment of truth approached, full of tense uncertainty and embarrassed pleading.
Random Things About Our TMB Trek
Maybe it is our rural Saskatchewan background, but we apparently find taking photos of cows far less engrossing than most of our fellow trekkers. Any time you saw a huddled crowd of hikers blocking the trail you could be sure some dim-witted cow was blandly posing for photos nearby. We did, however, find it interesting that in the Alps they make sure every single cow has a bell, not just the troupe leader, providing some pretty noticeable musical accompaniment at times. And some of the valuable Swiss fighting bulls sport rugged studded collars and imposing bells nearly the size of their heads, which seems fitting to their physique but somewhat pointless beyond that.
Following the Routiere des Champignones between La Fouly and Champex-Lac, we repeatedly encountered an older American man and his younger female partner. They would, without fail, be stopped by the side of the trail puzzlingly enamoured with yet another cluster of giant mushrooms (it was the Mushroom Route, after all), with him describing some surely fascinating details while pointing with his walking stick, then ending each impromptu lesson by using his pointer to destroy the celebrity fungus in question, like a toddler compulsively tearing the heads off dolls. There were also a whole string of wooden sculptures along the trail, including this strange one of a squirrel (?) cupping a walnut (?) at his crotch. We hope.
My least favourite person on the entire hike was young-French-manbun-and-tights guy who always seemed to be bounding from one destination to another with great urgency and impressiveness, yet still kept showing up in the same places as us every few days. Besides his objectionable fashion sense, I took particular issue with his decision to drop to the ground next to the busy lunch stop at Alp Bovine (day 8) and rip into a vigorous set of push-ups. I can honestly say I rarely feel the urge to launch my toe into the ribs of a perfect stranger, but every now and then…
We met a guy on Col des Posettes (day 10) who was actually hiking in jorts (jean shorts, for the uninitiated). I literally can’t imagine a less practical pair of pants for that activity and weather. And this is day 10, remember. Naturally, we immediately assumed Eastern European (invariably the strangest fashion choices come from the former Soviet bloc) – maybe Kosovo, or somewhere deep in the Lithuanian countryside. But no, turns out he was Dutch, and a pretty nice guy to boot. Sometimes you just can’t generalize. I still couldn’t bring myself to ask him about the reasoning behind the jorts, though.
Cabane du Combal was a private lodge just across the French border in Italy and was probably our favourite stay of the trek. Modern, comfortable, professional, and the food was amazing (pork chops with mushroom sauce and pasta for dinner, a packed lunch that lasted us 2 days). However, even though 4-bed dorms were both normal and highly sought-after in other refuges, the regular hotel room that we shared with just one other couple at Combal felt strangely uncomfortable, somehow weirdly intimate despite the extra space and modern bathroom. Plus, they gave the only key to the other couple, which seemed like an odd policy, and we had to climb halfway up a rocky outcrop out back to get a phone signal. Oh yeah, there was also a massive ibex horn sticking out of the wall in the dining room, which I didn’t really get. Of course, now that I type all that, it seems I must have really enjoyed those pork chops.
We finished our hike at the spectacular Le Brèvent viewpoint after a very long, tiring climb (of course), deciding to take the cable car down to Chamonix from there and avoid the “knee-wrenching” and “wearisome” 3 ½ hour descent back to Les Houches thus finishing our TMB hike. Naturally, I wanted to celebrate by sitting down, loosening my shoes and enjoying a terrific Mont Blanc blonde lager with the gorgeous, imposing façade of the real Mont Blanc looming over us. The sun was shining, we were finished our hike, it was a picture-perfect scenario. Then the waitress mistakenly brought me an IPA, and the moment was ruined.
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