It wasn’t until reading an article on top hikes of the world that we jumped on the chance to hike the 110 miles around the tallest mountain in the Alps, a route known as the Tour du Mont Blanc. This was actually our second choice of European hike, the first being the Portuguese Way. I think we made the right choice, although by day ten our legs and my hip weren’t in agreement with our minds. Our starting point was the small town of Les Houches, a few miles outside of Chamonix in the French Alps, mainly due to that being the preferred start when doing the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction, and also because we had been staying a mile outside of town for the past four days.
Once again we had to wait for Andrea to finish work on the Friday lunchtime, and as long as we made it back to Chamonix by early the following Sunday morning all would be good. This would give us eight full days and a couple of partial days to do the circuit. With an average of eleven miles a day we should have enough time. The route would take us primarily along trails, beginning in France, before heading into Italy and the town of Courmayeur, continuing on to Switzerland and finishing back in France – with various options along the route we could deviate making the hiking mostly harder, sometimes easier, even taking the bus between sections.
Starting at Les Houches we headed anti-clockwise around Mt Blanc
Our friends from Chamonix provided us with transportation to the Kitsch Inn in Les Houches, our official starting point. Immediately we were met with the first of at least one daily significant climb – this shouldn’t have come as a surprise due to the circuit having around 10,000 meters of elevation gain! With today being a bonus day, being that we only had the afternoon, we weren’t sure of our destination and had no where to stay, in fact we had no where to stay at all for the entire hike. This was good, in the fact that we could hike for as long and as far as we wanted, and bad in that we could get somewhere and everything could be full – hopefully the latter wouldn’t be a problem with us starting the TMB at the tail end of the season, although some of the refuges official closing dates were during the time of our hike.
The highly recommended guidebook we were loosely following, Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide, had a day one stop at Les Contamines. This would give us the perfect place to lay our heads, reducing our distance by eighteen kilometers, a touch over ten percent. This also ended up being one of the few nights we actually got to pitch our tent and cook on a stove – we had bought everything necessary to live under canvas for the duration and didn’t want to be carrying all of this extra gear just for the heck of it.
- Day 1 – 18km: Les Houches, France to Les Contamines-Montjoie, France – Pontiet Campground
- Day 2 – 18km: Les Contamines-Montjoie, France to Vallée des Glaciers, France – Refugio Mottets
- Day 3 – 29km: Vallée des Glaciers, France to Courmayeur, Italy – Pension Venezia
- Day 4 – 12km: Courmayeur, Italy to Val Ferret, Italy – Rifugio Bonatti
- Day 5 – 20km: Val Ferret, Italy to La Fouly, Switzerland – Camping des Glaciers
- Day 6 – 15km: La Fouly, Switzerland to Champex-Lac, Switzerland – Camping les Rocailles
- Day 7 – 18km: Champex-Lac, Switzerland to Trient, Switzerland – Hotel La Grand Ourse
- Day 8 – 19km: Trient, Switzerland to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France – Refuge Lac Blanc
- Day 9 – 22km: Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France to Les Houches, France
Towards the end of day one, around the time that we had both had enough of the heavy packs, the hip pain kicked in, giving me a major cause for concern. I had hope to get a little further than the first day before this happened! This would be by far the furthest that both of us had hiked in a long time – Andrea had never done a ten day hike before and I hadn’t walked for this many consecutive days since the trek in to Everest basecamp some ten years prior. A few painful stretches and a good nights rest would hopefully remedy this, and if not then I’d be walking in a lot of pain going forward..
The next morning we fortunately both felt good, even though we knew that within fifteen minutes we’d be dragging ourselves up a grind of a hill for a couple of hours. Once again we had no goal and knew of no campsites along the route! Today we would also hit our TMB highpoint of 2685m at the Col des Fours, a variant to the regular route, but one that would bypass the guidebooks end of day two town of Les Chapieux. We were hoping to combine the first three days into two so getting past this town gave us progress. With the progress came a wet and windy late afternoon, and an overwhelming desire of not wanting to camp tonight. We had already met others on the TMB with an itinerary similar to ours, although most of them were having their baggage transported to that evenings accommodation ensuring they had definite goals for each day – we had learnt that Refugio Mottets was the lodging of choice for day two. Given the fact that when we arrived they informed us that camping was only possible half mile away up on the windblown hillside we instantly made the decision to crash down in their large dorm room and cook our own food. This was a bargain at $37, far less than the usual half board prices in most of the TMB refuges.
Andrea at Col du Bonhomme
We were by now getting used to how the days usually start, with a big ascent, and today’s didn’t even provide us with a flat warmup – it went straight up behind the refuge. What sucked even more today was that it had rained all night long and was still at it when we left. Its not worth trying to wait bad weather out in the mountains as it can be crappy for hours, even days on end!
We plodded up and up, through a continuous mix of drizzle and full on rain, in and out of low cloud, finally arriving at the top of Col de la Seigne. The guidebook mentioned… “Arrival at the col is an eye-opener. Standing on the borders of France and Italy views in all directions are magnificent.”, ummm, that is if the weather is on your side – we saw nothing but pea soup in all directions. Once again we skipped the usual refuge and marched on, passing through pastures full of cows and the jingling of their bells, eventually descending down into the beautiful Italian town of Courmayeur – the final two hours of which will haunt Andrea forever. Steep mud and rocks are not her ideal terrain, especially when it goes on and on!
The boutique ski town of Courmayeur
We were both pretty much spent after today’s 29km extended day, and with no chance or desire to camp we headed straight to the tourist office to find the cheapest hotel in town with a hot shower and half decent bed. Funny how others we had met over the past couple of days had the exact same idea as us. It was great to keep crossing paths with fellow TMB hikers, most of whom were a blast, including a super friendly pair of Kiwis, various people from England, and a couple from the US who were running the entire circuit over 4-5 days.
It was now the end of day three and we were about to begin stage five from the guidebook. If we could combine one more day into our itinerary then we should be back in Les Houches by Saturday, a day earlier than expected. Andrea was actually happy to finish in Chamonix which would save her hiking the final steep downhill section to our starting point – I on the other hand had decided to finish where I had started, even if I had to run with my backpack! In the meantime, and to make things a little easier for Andrea I insisted on buying trekking poles in Courmayeur, something that should save her knees and make the countless more descents more tolerable.
With only one out of the previous three nights spent in a tent we weren’t doing so well – it was about to get even harder as camping in Italy is pretty much forbidden at any of the refuges, nor is wilderness camping permitted, unless of course you don’t get caught. It turned out that today, even with another climb straight from town would be our shortest day. After only walking for twelve kilometers we arrived at the too welcoming Rifugio Bonatti, and so it was that for the third consecutive night camping didn’t come into the equation – we deserved an easier day. The staff allowed us to take the dorm only option, and happily provided us with hot water to add to our bags of pre-mixed mush. A little pricier than the last refuge at almost $29 each, but with all of our hiking buddies, a comfy bed and a view overlooking Val Ferret we couldn’t have been happier.
For day five, or stage six from the guidebook, we would follow Val Ferret from Italy into Switzerland, hopefully providing some of the best views of this amazing part of the Alps. After a quick breakfast we hastily hit the trails, hoping for a stunning sunrise, especially after the hike in was cloudy and pretty miserable. Luckily we were rewarded, if only for an hour or so.
Sunrise in the Val Ferret
There are definitely pros and cons of hiking this late in the season, with the plus side being availability wherever we chose to stay and trails almost to ourselves, and the primary negative being the weather. Deluges can occur anytime of year in the mountains but we were hit almost every day by cloud and pretty miserable weather, admittedly mixed in with some blue skies – having to endure these conditions was preferable over having to hike with masses of others!
Due to the previous day being a lazy one we knew today we would have to work hard, and with the highpoint of Grand Col Ferret being at 2537m there would have to be a nice big climb thrown in. Ideally the previous night we should have stayed at Rifugio Elena but we heard they wrapped up for the season a day earlier than scheduled, leaving only their winter shelter open. We had no idea what the shelter would have provided so decided to remain at Rifugio Bonatti instead. We passed Elena around halfway into the days ascent to the col, again providing awesome views of the surrounding mountains. The continued climb became steeper, at one point giving me a big lead on Andrea allowing time to stop on the trail and make tea for us. The col indicated the border between Italy and Switzerland, where from here on everything would become more expensive but we may also get a better chance to camp.
Rifugio Elena, all closed down for the season
Up until this point I had felt great with barely any hip problems, making easy work of the daily ascents and descents, however for some reason after our long gradual hike down into La Fouly things started to go downhill. Maybe knowing that there was an open campsite and being back to sleeping on grass bothered me, or maybe it was purely down to the previous five days of hard work, only time would tell.
Our arrival in La Fouly prompted a large Swiss beer, fully justified by the fact that we had to wait for the supermarket to open before heading to the campsite – this went down like liquid heaven. A short walk away from the center of town was the Camping des Glaciers site, just what we needed with huge areas of pristine grass and an inside area for cooking and catching up with email. The grass must have been the super soft variety as I crashed out for a couple of hours the instant I became horizontal. Siesta came and went, dinner came, showering came, then the rains came and spent pretty much the entire night with us, ensuring that we would be packing up in the wet. This has to be my favorite part of camping! We were fortunate having a large dry building at this campsite where we could at least pack things away and prepare breakfast – without this the day wouldn’t have got off to a good start.
Today’s hike would take us to Champex, a short fifteen kilometers away from La Fouly, and the easiest day based on the guidebook. Other than a short and steep climb up to the quaint town it was almost flat, offset by the persistent drizzle we endured until our lunch stop at the foot of the climb. Rain had definitely become a daily occurrence and a big nuisance.
Finally we found sunshine in Champex-Lac
Someone must have been smiling down us as Champex-Lac was actually sunny, with blue skies illuminating the towns lake, and a very nice looking bar overlooking its shores. It would have been wrong not to reward ourselves with large beers for our good weather fortune and crossing the 100km point – we were now 112km into the 170km total distance. Camping les Rocailles was on the edge of town, in the direction we would be leaving the following morning, and being our sixth night would give us a 50/50 split between camping and other accommodation. I guess carrying camping equipment day in and day out has now paid off!
The weather gods provided us just enough time to strip down camp on our seventh day before sending rain down on us once again. It started off drizzling but unbeknown to us this day would turn into by far our worst. As per the guidebook today also had a nice looking alternate route that would take us to our destination of Trient – we had dismissed this alternate earlier but decided to backtrack a little to find it once the rain had subsided. We were both so glad we couldn’t find the trail and reverted back to the original route taking us over Alp Bovine and Col de la Forclaz. By the time we reached the final col the wind whipped up turning the torrential rain horizontal – we were drowning! Fortunately nothing that hot drinks couldn’t fix. Refreshed and with no sign of a let up in the weather we donned our waterproofs and backpacks and headed out into the monsoon, after all it was only a mere thirty minutes down to Trient.
The below pictures were within an hour of our soaked arrival…
Colorful window boxes are typical of the Alps
Hindsight bit us in the butt here as if we had waited around for an hour the clouds cleared and the sun smiled down on us, hoping for forgiveness for how wet the rain god had made us – we could easily have camped or stayed at a cheap hostel down the road in the next village. Instead, due to how wet everything was we checked into Hotel La Grand Ourse and met up with our Kiwi friends for drinks and dinner. This didn’t do our budget any favors at all!
The three course pasta dinner went down well, hopefully supplying us with the much needed calories the following day would require – we had decided to combine two of the guidebooks stages, so nine and ten would be polished off in one nineteen kilometer push, leaving the final stage of twenty kilometers for Saturday. This would work out perfectly, with our arrival back in Chamonix a day before we head to Geneva.
Our penultimate day started in the usual way with a flattish section leading straight into a long switchback climb through the forest, and guess what, it was wet once again! The day didn’t go quite as planned after we took a wrong turn at Col de Balme, although with the ever continuing rain showers we weren’t too disappointed. For mileage sake the route didn’t appear any shorter, and was in fact classed as an alternate TMB trail – instead of hiking the exposed area around Aigullette des Posettes we following a cable car down towards Le Tour and Montroc. With nowhere in sight to find refreshments and get dry we continued on towards the very pretty village of Tré-le-Champ.
A worn out Andrea
The beginning of the exposed ladder sections, eventually leading to the spectacular Grand Balcon Sud trail
If we hadn’t been tied to a schedule this would have been a quaint place to stay for the night, officially the end of stage nine, but for us only half way through our eighth day. Consisting of what looked like only a handful of buildings, all offering beds and food, the small village had amazing charm – window boxes decorated with colorful flowers, wooden carts loaded with freshly picked vegetables, and worn rustic architecture. We headed straight for the prettiest place, the one with the very low doorway and crooked beams throughout, but also the one that had the best aromas from freshly cooked tarts. Andrea and I devoured lunch and wished we didn’t have to move forward and upwards!
Stage nine was beckoning, along with what was described in the guidebook as having various exposed ladder sections. The alternative was to take a longer route, detouring around the ladders and bridges, but providing us with no means to elevate our heart rates! To get to the ladders the route out of Tré-le-Champ first had a decent chunk of elevation gain, leading us through Réserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges, and on up to Tête aux Vents at 2132m. Weather permitting, all of the upcoming route leading to the following days finish in Les Houches offers some amazing panoramic vistas of the Mont Blanc range – maybe the weather gods could give us a break for the next thirty six hours! It wasn’t to be, and although the rain was holding off we definitely didn’t start this afternoon by being able to see very far ahead.
The vertical ladders came and went, the ascent came and went, the weather came (but didn’t go), and before long we reached the final steep climb to the privately owned Refuge Lac Blanc. We had chosen to call this home tonight, slightly short of the official end of the stage at Le Flégère, but reputably a far more attractive option. The only downfall was their insistence on having half-board, something we didn’t require but had no other option – the food turned out to be excellent, prepared and served by a couple of Nepalese guys who head to this area from their earthquake ravaged home village every summer hiking season.
For a change we awoke to a very chilly but clear morning, the reflection of the surrounding mountains glistening in Lac Blanc – this was the photo opportunity I had been waiting for with some pretty good early morning lighting. A quick breakfast of bread, jam and instant coffee, and we departed for what was to feel like our most physical day so far, not sure if this was to do with the end being within our grasp or whether it really was a tough day!
A curious but wary Alpine Ibex
The first hour of the day would take us to what should have been our scheduled stop for the night at Refuge Le Flégère, looking pretty run down but with deck chairs set out offering amazing views of the awe inspiring mountains across the valley. The guidebook was right, this route really was living up to its endless vistas. Snow covered peaks reflecting in small mountain lakes, picture postcard blue skies, ibex checking us out, and very few other tourists made this a grand finale.
Before being able to celebrate the completion of 10’000 meters of ascents we still had one last significant climb to make, taking us first up to the Col du Brévent at 2368m, eventually navigating a couple more steep ladder sections leading to Le Brévent at the highpoint of 2526m. This was it, with nothing more than knee crippling downward motion remaining. We would both have prepared to just keep on going up, and with Andrea deciding against ending the hike here due to peer pressure from a group of English a few days prior, the cable car ride back to Chamonix would have to be skipped. Instead, against what I thought were extreme odds I had Andrea with me for the long descent to Les Houches.
Going down seemed to go on forever, with plenty of moments that I thought my hip, nor Andreas desire would hold up! Around three hours after leaving the cablecar at Le Brévent we wandered into Les Houches, totally exhausted and ecstatic at the same time. We had fortunately somehow missed the imminent rain, instead greeted by a distant rainbow. It was at this moment we needed a final bit of luck – a quick check at the bus times back to Chamonix informed us we had half an hour to grab two very well deserved cold beers at our starting point some nine days earlier.
This was one of those hikes we won’t be forgetting anytime soon, thoroughly living up to all expectations of relentless climbs, frequent miserable weather, and the amazing views that this beautiful part of Europe is known for. Overall, we weren’t treated too badly by the weather gods, we only got lost a couple of times, and we both held out physically. This hike is definitely not to be underestimated, especially when trying to be self reliant and not rely on shuttle companies to ferry heavy bags between destinations. Finally we would say that attempting the tour mid September is probably the best time of year to avoid the masses we heard about earlier in the season – we met the same dozen or so people on the trails and had a great time with other hikers and locals alike.
Les Houches, France to Les Contamines-Montjoie, France
Mileage: 18kms Stage 1 ● Pontiet campground ● 15.10 Euro ● Mostly sun
Les Contamines-Montjoie, France to Vallée des Glaciers, France
Mileage: 18kms Stage 2/3 ● Refugio Mottets ● 33 Euro ● Sun & wind
Vallée des Glaciers, France to Courmayeur, Italy
Mileage: 29kms Stage 3/4 ● Pension Venezia, Courmayeur ● 55 Euro ● Mostly rain & cloud
Courmayeur, Italy to Val Ferret, Italy
Mileage: 12kms Stage 5 ● Refugio Bonatti ● 51 Euro ● Cloudy & showers
Val Ferret, Italy to La Fouly, Switzerland
Mileage: 20kms Stage 6 ● Camping des Glaciers, La Fouly ● 22.30 Euro ● Mostly sun & cloud
La Fouly, Switzerland to Champex-Lac, Switzerland
Mileage: 15kms Stage 7 ● Camping Les Rocailles, Le Champeux ● 30 Euro ● Mostly rain with sun later
Champex-Lac, Switzerland to Trient, Switzerland
Mileage: 18kms Stage 8 ● Hotel La Grande Ourse ● 136 Euro HB ● Rain all day
Trient, Switzerland to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France
Mileage: 19kms Stage 9/10 ● Refuge Lac Blanc ● 110 Euro HB ● Wet & cloudy
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France to Les Houches, France
Mileage: 22kms Stage 11 ● Sunny
September 11th – September 19th 2015
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