Posted by: Nicholas Davis | July 13, 2013

Reflections on the Tour du Mont Blanc

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My mother and I just finished the awesome, 180km high-mountain walk that is the Tour du Mont Blanc over 10 days. It was something that we’d been discussing for a while, combining Mum’s love for long-distance walks with my obsession with the Alps. We learned a lot from the experience, and thought that it would be worthwhile sharing some reflections here for others planning to do the Tour du Mont Blanc in the future.

1. You don’t need much stuff. We carried all our own gear and managed to get everything down to a weight of about 8kg for mum, 10kg for me without water. We based our gear on the really useful list at www.walkingthetmb.com, and noted that:

  • you really don’t need a sleeping bag – extra blankets at refuges are fine for cold nights
  • two shirts, one pair shorts and one trousers was more than enough for day wear
  • having long underwear and a warm jacket proved useful for evenings, even in July
  • trail runners proved fine as footwear – but they definitely needed to be waterproof
  • we definitely needed the hiking poles and earplugs
  • leave your bulky DSLR at home and take a Fujifilm x100s instead – just as good quality, far lighter and you’ll end up using it more

2. Snow can make things pretty tricky, so plan accordingly. We walked from July 4th to July 13th 2013, after an excellent winter in the Alps that featured lots of snow. As a result, we crossed literally kilometres of the white stuff, some of which was angled across steep gullys where a fall would be very dangerous indeed. To avoid the challenge of snow, we’d recommend doing the TMB in September if you have a choice (August apparently is super busy). We saw only a few people using crampons, but we bought Mum a stretch-over set in Courmayeur nonetheless, which made her much more comfortable on long stretches of steep, sometimes quite slushy, snow. The large amount of snow also meant the river crossings were more challenging than normal, and we ended up with wet feet a few times.

3. Walking clockwise works really well. The traditional TMB route starts in Les Houches and proceeds counter-clockwise towards Contamines and the Col du Bonhomme. We started in Montroc and went clockwise towards Col de Balme and Col de la Forclaz (except on the final day, where we did the Tre-le-Champ to Flegere stage also starting from Montroc, to be able to start from our place and do the ladders going up). There are two big advantages of going clockwise – first, you see different people every night, as opposed to moving with the same vague group over the 10 days or so. Second, it feels like no-one else is walking with you. Since it seems that 90% of people doing the TMB tackle it anticlockwise, when going the other direction you start off each morning with no-one in front or behind you. Then, after 2 or 3 hours of walking, you’ll cross a bunch of people coming towards you from the next refuge, pretty much all at once, fairly bunched up. After they’ve gone, silence and not a person in sight again. Excellent.

4. The refuges in the middle of stages are really worth staying at. Most of the English speakers on the TMB (with British and Americans constituting the majority of TMBers when we were doing it) follow the Cicerone guide, and stick fairly closely to the stages as described. Since we were flying a bit more by the seat of our pants, booking accommodation a night or so ahead and walking a bit more or less depending on how we felt, we ended up staying at many refuges that fell in the middle of the guided stages (e.g. Rifugio ElenaMaison Vieille, Mottets etc). These turned out to be the best we stayed at – the best food, the best service and they weren’t fully booked, so we often had only a few people in the dortoir. Which means less snoring.

5. Prepare to walk for far longer than the guide (and the signs) indicate. Going up steep-sided mountains carrying a decent pack, crossing snow, fording rivers, avoiding landslides, checking the map and stopping to take photos of marmots and ibex – these all make the trip slower and more interesting. Only on one day did we beat the guide’s estimates, and that was because we consciously stretched out and powered on to see if we could. Every other day we were an hour or two behind the estimated times even without counting breaks. Which is absolutely fine when the weather is good, by the way, but something to keep in mind if you need to arrive at a refuge or get off an open slope by the time the afternoon storms roll in.

6. You don’t have to carry all your gear. The majority of people we encountered doing the TMB were only carrying small, light packs during the day, as they were with a tour group that moved their main bag for them from hotel to hut to hotel. The advantage of this is obvious – you can ease the load on your body by only carrying an extra layer, lunch, camera and water up and down all the hills (though we did see people carrying day packs that looked more loaded than our backpacks). The big disadvantages are first, that you have to walk to the group schedule (no going a bit further, taking a rest day or doing a detour to end at a different hut), and second, we presume that some of the high mountain huts (e.g. Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme) must be off limits, as there isn’t road or telepherique access for the people transferring bags.

7. Make sure you’re fit before you go. Mum may have had her Seniors card for almost a decade, but she walks for two hours every morning at home and has completed numerous 1000km plus walks across Europe. Even she was surprised by the physicality of the TMB, particularly with a pack – it’s pretty much all up and down and when you are often above 2000m you need to be able to handle the altitude too. You get fitter as you go along, but tackling ascents such as that from Contamines to Col du Bonhomme or from Tre-le-champ to Posettes requires the ability to just keep climbing up for 3h or so.

All in all, an amazing, awe-inspiring, ridiculously photogenic walk that Mum and I both enjoyed immensely and which I’d love to do again the other way around soon. Or, in my dreams, all in one go.

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Responses

  1. we are experienced hikers, aged 65 and 62 and planning to hike the Highlights of TMB July 5 through the 12, 2014. We will be carrying our own gear. Your notation about snow really concerns me. Were their particular segments of the hike that tended to have more snow than others, and, having a fear of heights, are their segments of the hike where you are on trails with steep sheer drop offs? i appreciate any information you could offer. thanks J

    • Hello Jude, we are also taking the trip starting on 5Jul but taking 14 days. I have read a lot of blogs and comments regarding the weather. The advice has been that the snow on the ground is not really to worry, it is to pay attention if there are any storms. It is rare that people don’t make it the next assigned nightly stop. Are you going with a guided tour or self-guided. We booked with Mac Adventures.

  2. Hey Jude,

    I think it really depends on the amount and timing of snow this winter, which will determine how late and high the patches remain. Last season was pretty spectacular, hence the late snow remaining, which was mostly on the high passes. You can call ahead to a couple of the refuges in advance, ask about the snow and prepare accordingly.

    Thanks to the season all the cols over 2000m had snow for us, which was quite a few kilometres on grand col ferret, a huge amount across col de la croix du bonhomme and the last few kms of the ascent to col de la seigne from Elisabetta. There were a few patches on the Trient side of the col de balme. There wasn’t any snow at bovine, or on the path in the Aiguilles rouges (Flegere etc) by the time we got there. In other parts of the trail there was the odd patch of snow on the north faces of mountains where the trail is in the shade (even below Elisabetta, and between Bertone and Bonatti), but it is really only the high sections where there are a long sections of snow to think about.

    There were a couple of bits where we felt a bit nervous because of drops and consequences of a big slip – notably the patches on col de balme (where it was a fairly steep slope below), the grand col ferret on the italian side (which was possibly because we were descending, going the other way than normal, so were facing the cliffs below), and the traverse across bonhomme, which was genuinely quite exposed and we spoke to a couple who needed a guide to help them across when they got stuck. We took these bits slowly and cautiously, but others didn’t – we spoke to a big group that said that on the snowy descents going in the traditional direction they simply sat on their jackets and skidded down on their bottoms, saving quite a lot of time. I could see this would have worked well descending toward les Chapieux from bonhomme, and toward Elisabetta from seigne in particular. Everyone is different!

    Don’t let any of this deter you at all, however – it is usually really very safe to walk across the snow (our place above chamonix is under snow for 3 months a year), you just need to manage balance and shoe grip a bit more than usual. Walking poles are therefore super useful for balance, and mum found the light crampons we bought gave her excellent grip. Then it’s just about tramping across the sections pretending it is a normal trail, often in the footsteps of the thousands before you, and being careful when you get onto or off the snow patches, as that’s where it gets slippery. I was totally fine in trail runners throughout.

    Finally, it was by far the best walk I’ve done in terms of scenery, accommodation, food, great conversation and exercise. So don’t stress and have a great holiday!

    Best, Nick


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