When I think of Mont Blanc in the French Alps I conjure images of the beautifully hand painted posters from the 1920’s of men and women skiing, skating and mountain climbing looking very pristine and well to do. I always thought it of a place that the upper-class in Europe might have spent their holiday time back then and having the chance to first visit Chamonix in the French Alps back in 2010 I felt like I stepped into that time.
This trip we are exploring the famous walk Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB, which will have us exploring the European Alps and circling the Mont Blanc Massif! The total distance of this walk will be approximately 170km, (106 miles), and reaching varying ascents, the highest at 2,665 m (8,743 ft.) We be walking into 3 different countries, France, Switzerland and Italy, so this is very exciting!
It is a circular route and considered one of the classic long-distance hiking trails in the world and I must say there were quite a few people on this trail. There were a lot of Tour Groups walking and it was great to see so many different nationalities, ages and types of people experiencing the Alps.
Most people would normally walk in an anti-clockwise direction taking around 10 – 11days. Though there are different routes to choose along the way as well as shorter version of the walk. We decided to be different and go clockwise taking us 10 days to complete the walk.
So, before I share the walk details I want to share a brief bit of history and interesting facts. I find going to a new place with a little piece of knowledge makes the place even more interesting and wonderful.
Facts and History about Mt. Blanc-
- Mont Blanc (French for White Mountain) is the highest mountain in the European Union, at 15,781 feet.
- In 1741 two Englishmen, Windham and Pococke, discovered the ‘Chamonix’ valley and its glaciers.
- Madame Coutterand opened the first guest house in 1770.
- There were two local men in 1786, Paccard and Balmat, they were the first ever to ascent Mont Blanc.
- In 1808 Marie Paradis was the first woman to ascend Mont Blanc.
- The first luxury hotel was built in 1816, ‘The Hotel de l’Union’.
- In 1821, ‘La Compagnie des Guides’ was created following an accident on the Mont Blanc.
- Until the end of the 19th century, mountain guides were the main economic resource in Chamonix, but by the 20th century, the hotel industry become the predominant economic resource in the valley.
- In 1860 a carriage road was built making it easier to get from Geneva to Chamonix.
- In July 1901, the railway line that passes through the Chamonix valley was inaugurated. This opened the town to winter visitors.
- In 1924 Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympic Games
- 1950 and 1966 each saw a passenger aircraft crashing into the mountain killing all on board though in 1960 a small aircraft was successful at landing on the summit!
- Mont Blanc’s summit is thick ice! The actual height of the summit does change from year to year as it depends on the depth of the snow on her cap!
- The numbers of climbers reaching the summit grows with approximately 20,000 climbers each year!
The walk around Mont Blanc utilisers a lot of old ancient paths, some going back to Celtic tribes of this area who used the mountain passes as a trade route. The Roman Soldiers also used many of these pathways and through one valley as you descend from the Col du Bonhomme is a Roman Road and it takes you down over an old arch stone bridge and to the chapel of Notre-Dame de la Gorge. It is always something special when you know that you are having the chance to walk on history, to think of when this path was first used or bridge was built. I try to imagine what was it like when there was no path? What did that building look like when it was first built and how did they go about building it?
When we arrived in Chamonix the vibe was just excitement and it wasn’t only from us, it was from the hundreds of people who have congregated in this little village to join in on the annual mountain marathon! As you look around the town every direction there is a runner, hiker, mountain climber or rock climber! I have never seen so many extreme sports people in one spot before and they were all buzzing. There are 5 different races of varying length but the main one is the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc or UTMB. The winner this year did the entire route (that we will take 10days to do) in 19 hrs 1 min and 32 seconds! Around 15mins ahead of second place and the first female did it in 25 hrs 46 mins and 43 seconds! We took roughly around 240 hrs!
When planning for this walk as with any walk you really MUST do your research and be prepared. Find out as much information as you can and not only on the walk itself but also on the country that you are travelling to. Find out information on the culture, language and when is their holiday season as well as the best time to travel and their weather. All this makes a huge difference to the journey.
Do you have to carry your own pack? Simple answer is No you don’t if you choose not to as there are plenty of companies that will transport it for you. There are plenty of companies out there especially on this trip that offer this service as well as small group tours or self-guided tours and they will organise your accommodation and bag delivery for you. On the TMB it is most popular for people to book with tour companies so if you choose this do book ahead of time as they fill up quickly. I will not recommend a company for this service unless I have used them and they pay me to advertise for them, sorry, but be assured there are many out there and you really won’t go wrong with them.
If you are flying in to Geneva then there are shuttles that will get you to Les Houches, Chamonix etc. and easy enough to find. Also check with your Hotel you plan to stay in as they often have a shuttle service.
A big must to find out what you would expect from the terrain especially on this hike. Be honest with yourself and ask is it in your capabilities? Do your research, watch YouTube videos and hear and see what people are experiencing. There are some difficult stages to get through and physically hard at times. You must remember you will be going over mountain passes, Though not of any altitude height, but on rough rocky terrain with some incredibly steep ups and downs. If you are not prepared and fit enough for this you will struggle and if you have issues with knees, back etc then be prepared to slow it right down and take your time.
From personal experience this is a trail, though challenging, most people would be able to do but I would say do it at your pace and do shorter stages if you have issues. I guarantee the enjoyment and rewards are so worth it if you walk YOUR walk and Yes you will still hurt, but that’s ok it’s a good hurt.
As earlier mentioned the total distance of this walk will be approximately 170km, (106 miles), and reaching varying ascents, the highest at 2,665 m (8,743 ft.)
Guide Books and Maps –
Having the right guide book and maps for any walk is a must! Please don’t rely on following others especially on this route as you will quickly find out that there are so many different walks and routes in the Alps that you end up going the wrong way. Now days there is the luxury of the internet and there are aps and information available though sometimes too much and that is overwhelming. So again research! Google is the best tool to use and I also find YouTube and Facebook great resources. The Cicerone book, Trekking the Tour of Mont Blanc by Kev Reynolds was a great tool to use. This is a two-way guide, meaning it gives the route to you both clockwise and anti-clockwise. It also gives you the breakdown of each stage and what to expect like terrain, ascends and descends, distance, alternative routes, (a must know in case the weather turns), accommodation and more. It also has maps but I would recommend getting a proper map to use as the maps are just basic and hand drawn, won’t help you if you get off track. I would recommend a map that is 1:25 000 scale as the detail is better though we had a 1:50 000 and it did the job. Maps and guide books are always being updated as routes for various reasons get changed. Get the updated ones.
Signs and way markers –
Learn what signs you need to follow and do be aware that on this hike it does change a little though mostly the same. The main one you will follow will be the TMB, (tour du Mont Blanc), however in some parts you won’t see this but instead a Red and White stripe or just a sign pointing to various villages ahead of you. Learn what villages you will be going through on the days walk as this will help a lot and you won’t end up in the wrong village. Like I mentioned before there are so many different hiking trails through the Alps it would be very easy to take the wrong one. We had no trouble with finding our way and it is extremely well sign posted.
Accommodation for this walk can vary depending on what you would like or what your budget will allow. Research on this and we found Switzerland more expensive though very nice. There are refuges or B&B’s, hotels, campgrounds so much to choose BUT this is a very popular walk and there are a lot of tour companies who have places booked up so my recommendation is to book ahead! If you are worried about getting something or not wanting to organise this yourself then get a tour company to do it for you even though it will cost more, it can save a lot of time and effort on your behalf. Remember they do this for a living so they already have the contacts. If you want to do it yourself then look at Airbnb, Booking.com etc. If you want to save money then look at youth hostels and camping. There is something for all budgets just remember it is a short season and a very popular walk.
When to go –
This is a walk in the mountains which means you are limited to seasons. My recommended time for this walk would be in the warmer seasons starting from late June early July and ending September early October. This however is subject to weather and what the seasons produce as you can’t always predict whether they have an exceptionally cold winter or mild. This is not a route that should be done in the winter! Even in the summer months do expect that the weather could change and produce a cold snap at any time. We were walking at the end of August beginning of September and we had all types of weather. The first two days were extremely humid and warm then we ended up with a few days of cold rain, thunder storms and freezing winds and a day of snow as well then back to warm weather all in 10 days! Europe has their main holiday time around August/September so it does get busy.
What to take –
I have always said “You pack it you carry it” but not necessarily on this hike as I have mentioned you can get baggage service. You will need to pack for all weather on a trip like this as Mountains are unpredictable and even if you have a baggage service you will need a day bag with wet weather gear and warm clothes just in case.
So, what do you need? Well you will enter villages and small towns at the end of the day so basic provisions will at points be available to purchase, do remember that sometime these places still have siesta (not sure why) but as it is a popular route they expect tourists. You will on most days should carry something for your lunch and snacks but read the guide book and see what is up ahead of you.
Water as always is important especially when it is warm and I would then recommend at the min 2 litres each, however if you know that you have some villages you are going through that day then carry 1 litre and refill. Do Not fill up from the creeks and rivers! There is a lot of farmlands around and farm animals do their business in the water so avoid getting sick and don’t drink it. Some of the villages have fountains these are great to drink from so icy cold and fresh.
Do you need Bedding and Towels etc? That really depends on what type of accommodation you are planning to stay in. If you are in Hotels then no, if you are in B&Bs and Refuges you should check as not all do supply. If you are camping or staying hostel then yes. To keep things light pack a silk liner to sleep in and get yourself a micro-fibre travel towel. As I carry a sarong all the time I find this doubles as a blanket and a towel.
The clothes you need will be your usual hiking gear, plus wet weather gear, and warm gear. That is the basic as for the rest that really depends on whether you are getting your bags transported or not. Do be aware though the bag services do have a weight, size and even type of bag requirement so check with the company first. Some companies will only allow 7kg max while others allow 10kg or 15kg. The 7kg limit usually is if you are with a tour company that is carting the bags by Mule! Yes, they still use the Mules to get around.
Don’t Panic if you are thinking that there is no way you can limit yourself as you might be there not just for the walk but for other touring around requiring different clothes. My suggestion is to arrange with the hotel you start at to have some of your gear you won’t need for the hike stored with them. This is a common request they get and not yet found one to say no.
Another thing to remember that might help lighten your load is you can wear the same outfit at night each night! Yes, you are in a different place every night so no one apart from who you are travelling with has seen your “going out outfit” before.
The Basic List –
- A backpack, the size depends on whether you are carrying everything, getting a bag transfer etc.
- Boots or shoes you will be trekking in
- Spare pair of shoes to put on in the evenings
- 2 sets of socks. Liners are good to wear under your thicker socks to help prevent blisters and they can be washed more often and easier to dry
- 3 pairs of underwear, yes that is all you need! Wash the pair you wear at night and for the most it will dry by morning but if not, you have spare. I recommend you don’t wear cotton! Check out my post on underwear!
- 2 hiking T-shirts
- 2 zip-off hiking pants, (this will give you 2 pairs of shorts as well) I wear the clean pair as my going out pants and have them as back up hiking
- A warm lightweight jacket
- 1 thermal top, pants optional, as the weather can change dramatically
- Rain Jacket, pants or poncho
- 2 hats! One to keep the sun off but the other a beanie for if the weather changes. I use a Buff as well.
- Gloves for if the weather changes. These really helped us!
- Sarong! I recommend this for so many reasons. It is a must in my pack as it is a towel, scarf, blanket, something to put on after a shower, rug to sit on, bag, top, even a jacket to dress up and outfit and much more
- Something to sleep in, esp. if you are in a dorm style room and sharing with others
- 1st aid kit
- Hiking sticks (optional)
- Water bottles or hydration pack
- Map and guide books
Any extras if camping would be
- Cooker/gas cylinder, lighter/matches. (do be aware that gas cylinders and matches are not allowed on planes but they are available all over the world so just purchase when you arrive
- Food utensils
- Head torch, (helps find the toilet at night or use your phone if you have it)
As for anything else that would really depend on you. I carry a mini I-pad for my work as well as extra cameras, sadly this means carrying extra chargers, batteries etc
Suggested Route –
The most common places to start are Les Houches in the Chamonix valley or Les Contamines in the Montjoie valley both in France though this is a circular route so start anywhere you want. This below is just a suggestion and is what the Cicerone guide book does but starting Les Houches. The distances at times might seem short but remember the terrain is not flat.
Clock-wise – this is not the same as the stages we did this is just a guideline to help you plan.
- Les Houches to La Flegere. Distance 18km. Here I would even suggest even adding an extra day and stopping at Le Brevent (approx. 10km) and catch the cable car down to Chamonix for the night.
- La Flegere to Trient. Distance 19km. There are route variants for this stage. You also have the choice of cable car ride and chairlift ride Le Tour (This is on a route variant) There is also a choice to stop at the pass and border of France to Switzerland. The Col de Balme, (approx. 14kms from La Flegere) it is an unmanned refuge so there is no food available here.
- Trient to Champex. Distance 17kms. This also has a route variant so be aware. Distance is very minimal in the choice but the terrain and weather is a huge factor in your decision which route to take. One has you going up (and down) through the forest areas of the Alp Bovine. Very lovely and a great place ½ way for lunch. The other route (we explored this ½ way the day before) is more challenging as you will be heading over a pass of 2665m and difficult terrain. There has been a rock slide at one point and so there is a section of scrambling. Do Not attempt this route in bad weather.
- Champex to Ferret. Distance 18km. Much easier day and there is a choice to do 16kms by stopping earlier at La Fouly approx. 16kms.
- Ferret to Rifugio Bonatti. Distance 17kms. This day has you crossing borders again from Switzerland to Italy and crossing another pass at 2537m. There are options to stop at places earlier to stay like Rifugio Elena (we stayed here) approx. 10kms, or further down at approx. 13kms Chalet Val Ferret.
- Rifugio Bonatti to Courmayeur. Distance 12km. If you are wanting a day off walking this is the place to do it! There are also variants to the route, again depends on weather so do check.
- Courmayeur to Rifugio Elisabetta. Distance 18km. This is a dorm style accommodation. There is a variant on this route again check. If you want to go further and stay in a town this will be approx. 34kms as there is no town between Courmayeur and Les Chapieux, which isn’t really a town either but has a few options for accommodation. Don’t fear as there is a bus service from Courmayeur that takes you around 14kms to Cantine de la Visaille.
- Rifugio Elisabetta to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. Distance 20km. Again, this is a dorm style accommodation with the next town not for another 13kms after that. There is a route variant here to check with a 4km difference. The pass at the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme is 2483m and if you take the shorter higher route to get there you will cross the Col des Fours at 2665m. The recommended route goes through Les Chapieux at 16kms and is a good option to stay before the big climb up to the pass. This section also has you leaving Italy and going into France.
- Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme to Les Contamines. Distance Virtually all downhill (steep in some places)
- Les Contamines to Les Houches. Distance 16km. Again, there is another route Variant.
I do hope this helps in the planning of your adventure and check out our blog from our journey.