Quick Adventure Facts:
Who - Matt (see gear list) & Family
What - The Tour du Mont Blanc
When - July 7th to July 17th 2017 | 10 Days
The Tour du Mont Blanc is a circuit around the Mount Blanc mastiff which passes through portions of France, Italy and Switzerland.Length
The TMB offers many official and unofficial variants. The average route length is approximately 100 miles.Terrain
The TMB is a "tourist grade" trail, meaning it is very well maintained. There is no scrambling or particularly difficult terrain, but that does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, it is very physically demanding with long steep ascents and descents. If you have hiked the JMT or PCT you may find it similar to the High Sierras, in that you hike up up up to a pass then down down down to a valley, and repeat.
The TMB has a whopping 11,600 meters (38,000 feet give or take) of elevation gain. That means that on a 9.5 day hike like ours you are climbing 4,000 feet and descending 4,000 feet or more every single day.
Most people hike the TMB in the summer where temperatures routinely are in the 80's and afternoon thunderstorms are common. Even then, you are likely to find a little bit of snow near the passes and strong winds at the higher elevations.
The busy season for the TMB is mid July through August. If you hike it too early and there may still be snow on the passes, too late and you may get early winter weather. The downfalls to hiking it during the busy season are crowded trails and crowded refuges.
While the TMB doesn't have an official beginning or end, most hikers begin the TMB somewhere in the Chamonix Valley in France or in Courmayeur, Italy. Both locations are easily accessible via shuttles from Geneva, Milan or Turin.
The trail is very well mark and almost impossible to get lost on. Side trails usually lead back to the main trails and there are plenty of other hikers to refer to for help.
All the trail signs are in "hours" rather than km or miles. Don't underestimate how long this trail takes. It is only 100 miles or so, but it is extremely steep with massive elevation gain and descent every day.
If you plan to stay in refuges during the busy season it is a good idea to make reservations in advance
Camping is actually prohibited along most of the trail other than a few designated campsites.Resupply
There are "refuges" every 3-5 hours which are like hostels with bunkrooms. They have water, toilets, and sometimes hot showers. Most of them sell snacks and tasty beverages, and some have full cafes with cooked food. If you stay the night at a refuge they will usually cook you dinner and a light breakfast. They'll even pack you a picnic lunch to go if you want. All for a price.
The trail also passes through small mountain towns about every 2 days or so. They are ski towns which have resupply, lodging, and restaurants. You don't need to carry more than snacks.
If you are looking for a wilderness experience look elsewhere or choose a different season. Each day you may encounter hundreds of fit Europeans running circles around you wearing day packs or hydration packs. There is so much food and lodging that you can do the trail without even carrying a backpack if you want to. All the food stops can actually slow you down quite a bit since you are constantly stopping to eat and relax while you take in the views.
Water is fairly easy to come by, there are frequent mountain streams and every refuge has water. We never carried more than a liter or two.
Note: France and Italy use Euros. Switzerland uses Franks, but the Swiss locations on the trail took Euros without a problem. Many of the refuges don't take credit cards so bring Euros.
A typical 3 season set up like Matt used will work well on for TMB. You can check out Matt's gear list here.
By: Matt Favero
When I was in the midst of my first Tour du Mont Blanc in 2015, I couldn’t help but envision how much fun my wife would have. The abundance of refuges/rifugios made it possible to avoid sleeping in a tent all together. Couple that with the fact that they also include a warm shower and a hot meal and I knew it was the perfect opportunity to take her along on an amazing hike through the Alps.
I began the slow process of convincing her that she should go with me. As my pitch evolved, the traveling party grew. My daughter joined first, then my mom, my dad, then my sister, her boyfriend, her daughter and then another niece. Before you knew it, there was 9 of us!
We began the process of planning our trip which involved the difficult process of finding refuges/rifigos that could accommodate all of us. Slowly but surely we were able to reserve places to stay. One night involved having to split up but we were going to make it work.
We landed in Geneva on my daughters 7th birthday and took a shuttle to Les Houches, France where we would begin our hike the next day. We bought supplies, ate dinner and passed out for the night.
The next morning we took a cable car up to the ridge and began our hike. Spirits were high and the weather was beautiful. We slowly made our way up to Col du Tricot and took a nice break. On the way down my father started to have issues with his balance, starting to stagger and stumble. His walking progressively became worse as the miles passed.
As the day wore on, fatigue set in on the group and my niece and father were having a tough time. Eventually, I had to carry my father’s pack as well as mine. We finally made it to our refuge for the night.
It didn’t take long before people in our party started second guessing if they could do it. They were sore and morale seemed to be low. We decided we would take the bus back to Les Houches the next day and then a bus to Courmayeur, Italy the day after that. From there we could take a cable car up to the rifugio we were supposed to stay at on night three. This would allow us to essentially skip two days of hiking but stay in all but one of the places we booked.
When we arrived in Courmayeur we had an unpleasant surprise. The cable car to our rifugio wasn’t running. This would mean a 4 mile hike uphill…in the rain. Surprisingly, everyone took the bad news in stride and we started our ascent.
The trail was muddy and wet. We all took turns slipping but managing to avoid falling, expect for my dad. His balance was back and he was doing well but that didn’t stop him from ending up with a muddy butt.
As fatigue was setting in, we came over the crest of a hill to reveal our refugio and wild ponies. The ponies were a magical surprise that quickly helped distract us all from the long wet climb we just endured. We unloaded our packs in our room and proceeded to chow down on some of the best pasta that i’ve ever had.
Then next morning we headed back down to Courmayeur passing through the lovely village of Dolonne. The 7 mile day was scheduled relatively short on purpose to allow us time to enjoy our time in the only Italian town that we’d pass through. We checked into our hotel and spent the rest of the day exploring, napping and eating delicious food.
We were sad to have to leave Courmayeur in the morning but the climb out of town was gorgeous despite how strenuous it was. After a couple of hours we arrived at Rifugio Bertone to take a break and eat some snacks. The difficulty of the climb had brought out some frustration within the group but the tiny goat roaming free and coming up to hikers helped to break the stress.
After our break, we made the small climb over the crest of the ridge and started to follow my favorite part of the entire TMB. The trail levels off following along the stunning Aosta Valley for miles. The remainder of the day was spent strolling with smiles on our faces through one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Eventually we made our way to Rifugio Bonatti. The rifugio is probably the nicest one of the entire Tour and we took advantage of the showers, the food and the hot chocolate.
The next morning as we departed, helicopters were dropping off fresh supplies and picking up garbage from the rifugio. The trail continued along in much the way it ended the previous day before dropping us into the valley.
The stroll along the valley floor was relaxed and serene. The trail eventually began to climb a little, leading us to the last refugio in Italy, Rifugio Elena. We took a break to enjoy some sandwiches and bask in the summer sun.
The trail immediately makes a steep climb out of Rifugio Elena as it heads for the Swiss border. We eventually found ourselves above patches of snow and the temperature dropped as the wind picked up.
By the time we made it to the border, almost everyone had their puffy coats on. The wind was howling and we each took turns taking pictures at the border crossing while waiting for everyone to catch up.
Once the entire crew reached the border, we started our descent into Switzerland. Not long after we started, we came across a large patch of snow. My niece, Lisa, had never seen snow in person, so we all took the time to make snow angels and throw some snow balls. It was a fantastic surprise and an awesome moment to share with Lisa.
The remainder of the descent into Switzerland was smooth and gradual. We eventually made our way to the Ferret Valley and hiked downhill to our refuge for the night. It was a long day with a lot of climbing but it was one of the best yet.
The next morning half of the group decided to take the bus to the end of the day while my wife, my daughter, my mother, my father and I hiked along as planned. This section of the trail is routinely the day when hikers do their biggest miles. The valley gradually descends towards Orsières making its way through quaint village after quaint village.
Just before Orsières, the trail climbs out of the valley and makes its way to Champex Lac. This beautiful Swiss ski town is located next to a high altitude lake that is absolutely breath taking. We met back up with our family here, had lunch, resupplied and took a swim and paddle boat ride along the lake before heading to our refuge for the night.
In the morning we began, perhaps, the second easiest section of the trail. Known as the Bovine segment of the TMB, this portion began with a lovely walk through a narrow valley before a long, slow climb up a mountain. The trail then crosses a river and continues ascending higher on the other side before reaching an alpine meadow full of flowers, cows and the tasty Algae de Bovine snack hut.
We stopped for a snack and a couple of drinks before finishing the last few hundred meters of climbing before starting the long descent towards Trient. About half way down, the trail passes through a pasture of cows. The cows are friendly, fearless and they love gold fish crackers. They will literally kiss you for one. No lie!
After the pasture, the trail continues its descent making a nice pit stop at Col de la Forclaz. The col features a hotel with an amazing restaurant. I’ve been there twice and they truly have the best cheeseburgers I’ve had anywhere in the world. Everything is locally sourced and the beef comes from those goldfish eating cows in the pasture :)
This is also the point where the family had to split up for the night. My wife, my daughter and myself stayed at the hotel while the rest of the family made its way down into Trient to stay the night. The plan was to get up early and meet them in the morning.
We woke up early, ate breakfast and made our way down into Trient. On our way down we crossed a road that was having a Tour de France style race. We banged our trekking poles on the railing to help encourage the riders with their arduous climb.
Not long after, we made our way into the village and met back up with the rest of my family. My sister, her boyfriend and her daughter decided to take the bus to the next nights lodging while the rest of us decided to carry on.
When the trail leaves Trient, it immediately starts the long climb up to the French border. The views from the border are spectacular as you can see for miles down the Chamonix Valley. My parents hiked down into the valley while the rest of us took a serious of ski lifts down from the border to village of Le Tour and the valley floor.
After briefly exploring Le Tour, we continued down the valley stopping in Argentière for a break. My parents caught back up with us shortly thereafter and we enjoyed lunch and some ice cream together.
When lunch was finished strolled along the Arve river as it meandered towards Chamonix. We finally reached the cable car to our refuge at Le Flégère only to discovered that they weren’t letting anyone up, only back down. After explaining that we had reservations at the refuge, they let us take the next car up and we chalked our incompetence to being “stupid Americans.”
The refuge was really awesome and the food was great. My daughter was having a great time with an Italian Greyhound that we met from from Poland named George. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. He even had the canine equivalent of a passport.
The next morning was to be our last on the trail. We took the cable car back down to the valley and started following the river again. The trail takes you through the heart of Chamonix and all of the tourist shops. We played the part and bought souvenirs before eating lunch and continuing on.
The last portion of the trail continued along the river through parks and forests before bringing us back to Les Houches. We celebrated with a victory lunch before making our way to our Air Bnb to recuperate.
This trip was a real learning experience for me as a hiker. I’ve always been committed to making sure that every step was taken along a route. This adventure showed me just how insignificant that can be when the real goal is to share the experience of nature and the world together.
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