HIKING THE TOUR DU MONT BLANC
WHAT TO EXPECT
Walking above wispy mist dancing through the valley, cowbells dinging faintly somewhere out of sight, the crisp air yet to swell and become heavy with humid heat, my stomach full with Nutella, mixed berry jam with a side serving of fresh baguette, I could have been dreaming.
I’d spent many days in the Alps in my early twenties, so the beauty was no surprise. But to be able to journey through it and feel a part of it was – quite frankly – life changing.
Never before had I hiked day after day, staying in mountain huts, walking with purpose, sometimes but not always alone, through a landscape that was at once enduring and transitory, varying yet familiar. To wake up each morning, marvelling at a heavenly view, lace up my hiking shoes, heave on my backpack, grab my poles and go became habitual – almost as unconscious as breathing.
My 10 days hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc changed me and I can’t recommend this walking route enough.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is the most famous of all the long-distance hiking routes in Europe. And it’s popular for good reason. The most obvious allure is the scenery and the pull of walking in the shadow of the iconic Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco. At 4,808m it’s the highest mountain in Western Europe and is the spiritual home of mountaineering. It’s where alpinism started and it has been the proving ground for many of the world’s greatest ever mountain climbers. Although the TMB doesn’t even come close to the summit, don’t think it doesn’t pose challenges. This is not an easy walk. Every day is filled with at least one mountain ascent and descent, some days you have to tackle two. The paths are, at times, exposed. And although the ground is well trodden, the loose gravel and scree can become treacherous when it’s wet and steep.
But the rewards are plentiful. From the homemade jams, mountain cheeses and chocolate mousses, to the dinner table conversations with people from all walks of life united by a common passion, the TMB is more than just a mountain trek. Along with natural beauty there is culture, tradition and history. You walk through open pastures and narrow village alleys. You’re wowed by towering peaks and ancient churches. You meander through sleepy towns and bathe in glacier-fed lakes. In my opinion, it’s this full package of nature and culture that makes the TMB so unique. And I have just as many memories of breathtaking landscapes as I do of snippets of conversation and the taste of fresh bread in the morning.
Of course my strongest memories are of Mont Blanc, glimpsed at every angle, from full frontal to sneaky sideways glances as I negotiated steep, sweaty ascents with my heart beating so rapidly I wondered whether it was audible to the birds that swept by. And in amongst it all, I remember the moments of stillness when the sun warmed my face, the breeze tussled my hair, my breath deepened and I felt a freedom I had never experienced before.
On this page I share my experience and recommendations for hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc. I hope they come in handy, but at the same time, I hope you don’t follow any guides – mine or otherwise – too steadfastly. The wonder of hiking is that you can make it your own, go at your own pace and do as you please.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?
170km (on the regular route, with options to take longer and harder detours, which I did, and I can thoroughly recommend them – weather permitting) with a height gain of close to 9,000m, sounds daunting at first. But as I was once told, ‘it’s not the distance that kills ya, it’s the speed’. Pace yourself. There are elite athletes that run the TMB in less than 20 hours. I took 10 days to walk it and most guidebooks recommend 12-14 days. I think if you relatively young and fit and the weather is on your side, 10 days is ideal. Due to the location of the mountain lodges, some days will be considerably longer than others. But I tried to hit the sweet spot of six hours of actual hiking per day. To be honest, less than this just feels like you have time to kill in the lodges in the afternoons and evenings. But too long and you won’t be able to fully enjoy the evening conversation round the dinner table.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?
When I walked the TMB in 2015 half-board accommodation was between €40 and €60 per night. I didn’t eat much during the day as the temperature was scorching and it was more about drinking litres of water and snacking on nuts and raisins. But I totally stocked up at breakfast and dinner. Lunches are available in mountain lodges and village restaurants for between €10 and €30. Italy was the cheapest of the three countries. Switzerland, was by far the most expensive. And cash is king. Most places don’t take card. There’s no need to buy bottled water. You can fill up your bottle all over the place and the water tastes wonderful.
WHEN TO GO
The peak season is July. Thus, avoid July! I went at the end of June and finished up in Chamonix around the 4th of July. However, you can’t go too early in the season. The huts open when the path is – mostly – free from snow. Although early to mid-June is probably fine, you should contact each refuge to check. Apparently early September is really beautiful, too. And there are fewer people on the trail then, as well. And to ensure you don’t turn up anywhere that’s already full booked, I suggest booking your accommodation in advance. I booked everything in April, two months before my arrival.
Definitely. You meet people the entire time. All the hosts sat me at tables with lots of other people and everyone shares the same love of trekking and being out in nature, so you always have a good starting point for a conversation.
I didn’t have any hassle from guys. People were pleasant, not flirty. Many were impressed I was walking it alone and the speed I was trekking.
The TMB is so popular you’re never alone for long. I did have a couple of days mostly to myself when I took less-travelled ‘variants’; then I didn’t see any other humans for several hours. I actually really loved that. That would be my only criticism, really: there are so many people hitting this trail that it’s had to ever feel completely alone for an entire day. So make the most of the hours when you have some solitude. I trekked with people for a couple of the days. I enjoyed their company and hearing their stories. But it was great to be able to be so honest and say: thanks for today, but tomorrow I want to hike alone. Everyone respected that. That was pure freedom.
WHAT TO PACK
I started in Les Houches, France then walked around 19km to Les Contamines via Refuge de Miage, a gorgeous little place tucked into a deep, green, bowl. This is a variante from the main route, but I totally recommend it. The scenery on this stage is particularly varied.
From Les Contamines I walked up and over Col des Fours, stood on top of Tete Nord de Fours (the highest point of my trek) 2,726m before walking down a steep, snow covered slope into a hidden valley housing Refuge des Mottets. A long day, 23km, with a big climb, but it was one of my favourites.
Today I crossed into Italy, and was rewarded with good coffee and pizza. From the Refuge des Mottets it’s an immediate incline up to the Col de la Seigne. Here I crossed the border and down into a high valley to Refugio Maison Vielle, high above Courmayeur. I walked around 20km in total.
Looking back through my notes, my first sentence was “today was hard”. Over the 19kms, there are two big climbs from Courmayeur, first the Col Sapin (2,436m) and then the Pas Entre Deux Sauts (2,524m). I stayed at the famous Rifugio Bonatti, named after the famous Italian climber.
From Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly it was a long walk down to the valley then up to the Grand Col Ferret, 2,537m. Cols have a habit of marking boarders in the Alps and this one was the boundary between Italy and Switzerland. Another long day: 24km.
From La Fouly it was a relatively easy 15km-ish to Champex. It was incredibly hot and the lake in the village was calling to me. I dived in and ended up hanging out in the shade until Pension en Plein Air (my home for the night) opened up at 4pm.
I walked from Champex to Col de la Forclaz (19km) via the much more secluded Fenetre d’Arpette, 2,665m. This was a tough route, taking me up and over boulders but it was fun and the seclusion offered by the remoteness was wonderful.
From the Col de la Forclaz to Le Tour (18km) I walked over the Col de Balme (2191m) and left Switzerland behind. As I climbed over the Col and back into France, Mont Blanc was there to greet me, standing proud and impeccably dressed in the Mer du Glace.
A short day, but I’m so glad I decided to stay at Refuge de la Lac Blanc. It was by far my favourite overnight experience. From Le Tour I headed straight up a steep slope to the stunning Lac Blanc (2,352m). The walk was only 11km, but it was a steep, sweaty climb.
From Lac Blanc I walked to Le Brevent, where I treated myself to a proper lunch before the steep, knee-destroying march down to Les Houches. This was a mega day, around 28km, mostly downhill on a steep, gravelly, winding path. Finishing felt over-whelming.
WHERE TO STAY – A FEW OF MY FAVOURITES
REFUGE DE MOTTETS (FRANCE)
Yes it was basic – the dormitory is in an old cow shed. But the location is spectacular, the food delicious and the main building charming. The hosts are lovely too – friendly, welcoming and attentive. The atmosphere here was among the best of the entire trip.
RIFUGIO MAISON VIELLE (ITALY)
The toilets are mostly squatters and the bedrooms are basic, but the food is filling and scrumptious, the people that run the place have plenty of tales to tell and the location on the top of a mountain is just wonderful.
RIFUGIO BONATTI (ITALY)
This was a well-known place, perhaps a little too well-known - it was busy. There's a lack of toilets and showers, too. But, on the plus side, the food is fantastic – I particularly enjoyed the homemade jams and chocolate mousse. And the views, well… those are to die for.
REFUGE DE LA LAC BLANC (FRANCE)
Perched on a rocky precipice overlooking the Chamonix Valley, Mont Blanc, Grandes Jorasses and Lac Blanc this refuge boasts the most spectacular views from a lodge I've ever seen. The food is basic but tasty. And the staff - some of the friendliest on the entire trek.
MY FIVE TOP TIPS
Start early. I usually started walking between 7.30 and 7.45am most days. It’s cooler, quieter and a photographer’s dreamtime.
You don’t need hiking boots. I took mine but it was a waste of time. My ASICS trail running shoes were fine. And comfortable.
Walking poles are your best friends. I found them particularly helpful on the downhills. And there were plenty of downhills.
Book in advance. It’ll provide you with a clear destination each day. Plus I knew I wouldn’t be turned away if/when I arrived.
Prepare by walking with a heavy backpack over undulating terrain for an entire day once or twice a week. And mix in some higher intensity training for the uphills.