Friday, February 17, 2012

Tour du Mont Blanc: An Introduction

Below you’ll find an overview of the Tour du Mont Blanc. For details on each stage, go to my Travel and Outdoors page.
I became interested in the Tour du Mont Blanc (hereafter known as the TMB for simplicity’s sake – and because that’s how it’s marked in many places) after reading a Backpacker article (“Hike the Classics”) on 10 great alpine treks. Since I’d only done one (Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia), I was interested in all of them. (Peru is next.) I’m not even sure why we settled on the TMB, although I think it came down to it being the easiest to get to with frequent flier points!

The TMB circles Mont Blanc, the gorgeous glacier-covered 4807m/15,771’ mountain that sits at the head of the Chamonix Valley at the intersection of France, Italy and Switzerland. Mont Blanc is impressive enough in its own right, but it’s also the center of a spectacular massif of peaks, aiguilles, glaciers and ridges. As it loops around the massif – sometimes along the floors of gorgeous alpine valleys; sometimes on the top or side of ridges – the TMB provides ever changing and often spectacular perspectives.

Note that this is NOT a wilderness hike. The TMB mostly follows regular hiking trails (very smooth and well maintained in general), but there are numerous, usually short sections on roads (paved and unpaved) and it’s a rare day when you don’t go through at least one village. The signs of civilization are everywhere, from roads in the valleys to the numerous downhill ski pistes and lifts. And much of the hiking is through pastureland so you’ll see (and hear) plenty of cows. That said, this is gorgeous alpine terrain – everything you would expect from such a hike.


There's a lot of up and downs
in them thar hills...
The main route is approximately 170km or 105 miles with over 10000m or 33,000 feet in elevation gain and, of course (and more importantly for one’s knees and feet), loss as the trail crosses high mountain passes and then drops to valleys. There are several alternatives along the way. These alternatives are almost all more difficult in that they involve more (sometimes much more) elevation, potentially greater exposure to weather, and more difficult trail conditions. We did the main route with a couple of small variations but there are two alternatives we would have liked to take: the Mont de la Saxe option on Stage 5 (Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti) and Fenêtre d’Arpette on Stage 8 (Champex du Lac to Col de la Forclaz). We skipped the former because we weren’t feeling physically great at that point (sore feet and knees from the descents) and the latter because of an unpromising weather forecast.

Most people do it in 11 stages (from Kev Reynolds’ well known TMB guide) but it is possible, of course, to do the TMB in as many or as few stages as you’d like (assuming you can find places to stay) and/or take rest stops along the way. For that matter, you could just hike sections, assuming you can find transportation (see the next section). We met a couple of Swiss guys doing it in six days and if you’re feeling super fit and adventurous, there’s actually an ultra-marathon that mostly follows the route: the record is just over 20 hours!


As most people do, we started in Les Houches, France, a small town down the valley from the well known alpine sports resort town of Chamonix. Les Houches is easily reached by the regional train from Saint Gervais des Bains. You can get to Saint Gervais via train from Lyon, Annecy, Geneva (all accessible via TGV from Paris), or via bus from Geneva.

Other starting points are Les Contamines de Montjoie in France, Courmayeur in Italy, and Champex du Lac in Switzerland (although none of these options has as frequent or as easy transportation as Les Houches).

Once you’ve decided where to start, the next decision is clockwise or counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise). We went counter-clockwise (the more common choice) partly because it makes for an easier first day (elevation gain of only 646m vs. 1546m via the clockwise route) and partly because it wouldn’t be much fun to descend the “passage délicat” on Stage 10.

If you do decide to go clockwise, you’re better to start in Champex than Les Houches.


We did the TMB from Sept. 18-28. We were about a week too late! Many huts and other accommodations were closed for the season, especially on the French side. (The whole town of Les Contamines-Montjoie, the first night stop, had shut down that day.) We took tents and stoves so we had the option to camp, but we joined up with two women who didn’t have camping gear and therefore had no choice on two occasions but to hike extremely long distances to bridge gaps between available accommodation. (We also got absolutely slaughtered by a snowstorm on our second day, although that could happen almost any time of the year at the higher elevations. Obviously the odds increase later in the season.)

On the plus side, the trail wasn’t crowded and there was lots of space in the huts, gîtes and dortoirs that were open. During high season in July and August, it can often be difficult to find accommodation and you may need to book in advance, locking you into a schedule that may end up being either too fast or too slow. Alternatively, you can try calling ahead in the morning and booking that evening’s accommodation but make sure you speak some French (and Italian).

Ideally I’d suggest the first two weeks of September, after the summer high season but before things start to shut down in mid-September.


There are hundreds of options for accommodation, especially in the larger towns (Les Houches, Les Contamines-Montjoie, and Courmayeur), ranging from hotels, pensions and auberges, to gîtes d’étape and dortoirs (various forms of dormitory-type accommodation), to mountain huts (refuges or rifugios). Camping is also an option along much of the route (although check under “Camping” below).

We stayed in a small hotel in Les Houches before starting but otherwise used a combination of mountain huts and gîtes/dortoirs. We also camped three nights.

Huts

The huts are absolutely superb. Most are privately owned, sited in amazing locations and feature fully equipped kitchens, bathrooms and bars! Accommodation is generally some sort of dormitory room (4-8 beds) but private rooms are sometimes available. It’s quite the luxury to come in from a long hike and get a hot shower (and a cold beer).

Favorites were Chalet Nant-Borrant (early in Stage 2 and therefore a good potential stopping point for the first stage if you don’t want to stay in Les Contamines), Rifugio Walter Bonatti (end of Stage 5), and Refuge du Lac Blanc (on an alternative route on Stage 10).

We also stopped for breaks and drinks at two amazing looking refuges: Maison de Vieille (above Courmayeur on Stage 4 – our traveling companions on the last half of the trip had stayed here and loved it) and Rifugio Bertone (a steep two hours above Courmayer on Stage 5).

There were also four that were closed but were all located in amazing spots and must be fabulous: Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini (overlooking the Italian Val Veni and Val Ferret and right below Mont Blanc at the normal end of Stage 3), Rifugio Elena (an hour past Rifugio Bonatti at the very head of the Italian Val Ferret), Refuge du Col de Balme (right in the col when one returns to views of the massif after a couple of lower elevation days in Switzerland), and Refuge La Flégère (end of Stage 10).

Gîtes d’étape and Dortoirs

In definition, these are different. The former basically describes a private youth hostel whereas the latter is a dormitory usually in a hotel. In practice, I had difficulty distinguishing between them, especially since we twice stayed in places called “Auberge” (which I always thought to mean more of an inn) that basically seemed like dortoirs. Essentially we’re talking about dormitories with shared bathroom facilities, although we often found that we could get a room with only four beds (and given that it was the shoulder-season, we usually ended up by ourselves). Only twice did we stay in a room with more than four beds in it. These places often have private rooms as well, although these will not likely have their own bathrooms.

Hotels and Apartments

We only stayed in a hotel in Les Houches but there are plenty of options, including some inexpensive ones in the main towns along the way.

We also found an apartment hotel in Courmayeur, Italy. We had trouble understanding the difference between this and a regular hotel. It was basically a small hotel room with two twin beds and our own (very nice) bathroom. It seemed the only difference is that it hadn’t been assigned stars by the tourist authority.

Camping

We carried camping gear and planned to camp half the nights but ended up only camping three nights.

Organized Camping

We only stayed at an organized site one night (in La Fouly, Switzerland, end of Stage 6) but we saw organized sites at the ends of Stage 1 (Les Contamines, although it had closed that day), Stage 2 (Les Chapieux, where they allow camping in a meadow in the village with a public WC nearby but no showers), Stage 7 (Champex du Lac), Stage 8 (Col de la Forclaz, although it sits on a shelf right above the road and must be rather loud for sleeping; continue another 30 minutes into Stage 9 to the small village of Peuty and you’ll find a similar set-up to Les Chapieux)

Rough Camping

We saw occasionally rough campsites along the way and twice found sites off the trail (both of which were absolutely spectacular as they both sat right across from Mont Blanc, one on the Italian side and one on the French side). In theory, you can camp almost anywhere except the Vallée de l’Arve (from Col de la Balme down into the Chamonix Valley – I’m not sure how far the restriction extends up the sides of the valley but I did notice that there’s no camping allowed in the Auguilles Rouges reserve, which you’ll pass through in Stages 10 and 11), Vallée des Glaciers (start of Stage 2 up to Col de la Seigne), and any of the Swiss valleys (which shouldn’t be necessary as there are organized sites all three nights in Switzerland).


Most of the accommodations (including most huts) offers demi-pension (dinner and breakfast) and a full pension option (add a bagged lunch for the next day). The dinners are hardy and filling and the bagged lunches are usually awesome as well (cheese, meat, bread, fruit, chips and cookies). Breakfast are in the European style (breads and cereal) and so less than North Americans are used to. So you could basically do this trip without visiting a grocery store. There are grocery stores in the main towns and villages if you’re camping or want to buy lunch food.

Water is a cinch. Almost every town we passed through had some sort of public water trough and you can always fill up at the huts along the way. We only had one problem with water and that was on our tenth day. We completed Stage 10 but kept going since 1) Refuge de la Flégère was closed and 2) we wanted to shorten the final day to catch our train. That meant camping since there was nothing open on Stage 11. We passed a water trough in a pasture area called Charlanon, about an hour into Stage 11, but assumed we'd find water in our eventually destination, Plan de Praz, a big skiing station with restaurant, hotel and huts. Alas, everything was shut down and we couldn’t find even a stream to treat the water so we had to squeeze what we had through dinner and breakfast until we were descending the next day.


I’ve published my complete packing list but keep in mind that we camped. If you’re not camping, you could do this trip with a good-size daypack (probably 35-45L) and ditch the tent, sleeping bag and pad, cooking gear and the breakfast/dinner food. A few notes:
  • Whatever you do, don’t skimp on clothing. Snow is a possibility at any time. Have a good warm hat and gloves, very good rain gear, and lots of warm layers (including extra clothes stored in something waterproof).
  • A compass, map and guidebook, plus knowledge of how to use them, are very important. It’s extremely easy to follow the TMB in good weather, but if it’s snowing, it’s entirely different matter. In spite of our experience, Tom and I actually got lost in Col de la Bonhomme during a snowstorm on our second day. We figured it out quickly and got back on track but be prepared to navigate if necessary.

4 comments:

  1. Keith, this is very well organized and a good planning tool. I will use it for a trip sometime in the future. Thanks!

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  2. I thank you too! I am probably going with an organized/guided tour, but it's helpful to get detail on what it's actually like. Many thanks

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  3. Thank you for this detailed post! It answered many questions I've had while planning for my upcoming trip. Thanks again.

    ReplyDelete