We'd talked about doing the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) since the moment we stepped off the trail in Patagonia. We'd had such a great time getting out there and hiking from place to place, using our legs as the only mode of transportation, that we were feeling just crazy enough to take it up a notch in terms of distance and days.
Our counter-clockwise loop around Mont Blanc would start in Chamonix and take us through three countries, up and down a myriad of valleys and peaks (both literally and emotionally), and to what might be the physical limit of our flabby legs. Now that we're back in the land of creature comforts, here's how it all went down:
Day 1: Chamonix (FR) to Les Houches
Miles hiked: 5.88
"Well, this isn't going to be so bad!"
With a generous noon checkout at our hotel, our first day on the trail started late and took us south. We started the hike on a path called Le Petit Balcon which would eventually connect us with the greater TMB, but gave us a slightly less abrupt climb to warm our legs up with.
Spirits were high, and the fantastic views of Mont Blanc kept us smiling for all our afternoon mountain selfie breaks. And with our slight variant on the TMB shaving about 2 miles off our final distance, our legs were pretty happy too.
Day 2: Les Houches to Les Contamines
Miles hiked: 11.66
"I thought our hotel was IN this town."
We had a lot further to go on our second day, so we hit the road a bit earlier and prepared for the long climb up the ski slopes above Les Houches. We wound our way down through fields of adorable ponies and goats, passed a few tiny French towns, and finally veered up a valley to the northeast to suddenly spill out in the center of the village of Les Contamines.
Once we got into town, we double checked the address of our hotel and discovered it was about a 30 minute walk further down the road, just outside the town. It might not seem like much, but after hauling our tired legs up and down hills and arriving ravenously hungry in a town full of hiker pubs, we didn't want to take another step away from what seemed like the place to be in Les Contamines. We sulked off to our lonely little hotel, but the hot showers and massive, delicious menu du jour we found when we got there quickly changed our tune.
Day 3: Les Contamines to Chapieux
Miles hiked: 10.98
"Don't worry, we're gonna get those sheep."
Early the next morning, we gave our legs a good, long stretch in preparation for the biggest day of climbing on the entire TMB. We set off around 9am and started our ascent gradually, climbing up the ancient stones of the old Roman road, but as we continued onward the gentle sloping gave way to steep, rocky scrambles up the pass at La Croix du Bonhomme.
It was here where we reached our first major mental test of the TMB. Over the course of 3 or so hours, we experienced the discouraging feeling time and time again of believing we'd reached the top, only to find that the trail wasn't quite done with us yet.
Once we wearily dragged ourselves up to the windy, frigid refuge at La Croix, we slammed a few cups of piping hot instant coffee to get our energy back up for the steep descent into Les Chapieux. The caffeine worked like a charm, giving us an incredible second wind and just the kick we needed to chase down a farmer and his dogs moving a flock of adorably frantic sheep to pasture.
Day 4: Les Chapieux to Courmayeur (IT)
Miles hiked: 18.47
"I think because they said it's not possible, that made me really want to do it."
As we sat down to dinner in Chapieux the night before, our conversations with fellow hikers had unsurprisingly turned to our planned route for the next day. While the itinerary we were following for the next day called for a bus transfer over the last 7 miles of less scenic trail, we mentioned to the group that we thought we might try to do the whole thing on foot. We got an unequivocally negative reaction from everyone, and even an offer to buy us a massage back in Chamonix if we were able to accomplish the feat. Game on.
While the weather didn't look fantastic, we determinedly picked our way up the pass to Col de la Seigne and into Italy. On the way, we experienced dense fog, whipping wind and rain, and more of the endless hill phenomenon we'd survived our way through the day before. We gritted our teeth and kept on walking, especially after getting passed by a couple of impressively crazy guys attempting the climb in tiny shorts.
Once we reached the summit, we rewarded ourselves with a bowl of hot barley soup at Rifugio Elena and dried out our clothes a bit. While the miles that remained ahead of us were indeed long, they were fortunately at a very gradual downhill slope.
When we finally ambled our way into Courmayeur that evening, the tiredness in our legs and feet made even the task of getting up the one flight of stairs to our hotel room seem daunting. We sat down as quickly as we could to a gargantuan carb-laden dinner of pasta and pizza. Little did we know that while we were lamenting our achey bones, filling our faces, and feeling accomplished, an ultramarathon was finishing down the street from us, where people much tougher than us (and sometimes twice our age or more) had raced each other over 200 miles and 24,000m of climbing. And we thought we had had a workout.
Day 5: Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti
Miles hiked: 7.44
"You should probably put your jacket on."
If we hadn't been feeling sore up until now, our dogs were definitely barking today. And what's more, the rain was back on in full force. It took a lot of willpower to pry ourselves away from our hotel breakfast and get back on the road.
We climbed through the larch and alder forests above Courmayeur in a downpour and thick fog, almost running right into a little herd of donkeys that were spread across the trail. They seemed frozen in place on the hillside, not moving a muscle as we slipped right through them.
After hiking Patagonia with the expectation of getting and staying wet pretty much all the time, Nick decided that he didn't want to deal with the possibility of getting too hot in a jacket, so he decided to take on the hike in only a t-shirt. This proved a bit foolhardy and at around 4 hours into our trek, when he finally lost feeling in his fingers, we made the call to stop in an old smelly stable on the trail to suit him up again.
We continued along the Valle des Glaciers, a bit disappointed in our ability to see the natural beauty around us through the fog and rain. But in a cruel twist of TMB fate, once the bulk of the hiking was over and we packed in the last 10 minutes to Rifugio Bonatti, the sun broke through the clouds and shined brilliantly on the Alpine faces to our left. While we were frustrated by the beating we'd taken on the trail, the incredible views that this ridiculously timed break in the weather gave us were priceless.
Day 6: Rifugio Bonatti to Champex(CH)
Miles hiked: 11.95
"I'm so OVER THIS!"
After the last two particularly tough days on the TMB, we'd begun to have our fill of this pattern of intense morning climbs, followed by a loss of all the altitude we'd gained to finish the day at a low-lying village. We were cautiously optimistic that because Rifugio Bonatti was at almost 2500m, we might be looking at a less intense climb the next day.
But in the TMB's cruelest move yet, we set off directly down a series of switchbacks to the floor of the valley below, passing by a snack bar that beckoned us to come inside and deposit a few euros. A snack bar? We seriously lost all that height for this?! Aaaagh! As we turned to face the mountain pass ahead of us, we no longer felt like we were in a fair fight against nature. The TMB gods ultimately worshipped the purse, and we were just along for the ride.
The trail would continue through several inexplicable dips and turns past "attractions" and other opportunities to spend a few clams on snacks that afternoon, and after a while we'd had enough for one day.
We saved our knees from further abuse and snagged a bus in the town of La Fouly, taking it all the way up the steep hill to the village of Champex.
But if we hadn't made the decision to bus up the hill, we also wouldn't have had the chance to ride with some tiny Swiss kids finishing up their school day, their fidgetyness and singing brightening up our afternoon.
Day 7: Champex to Col de la Forclaz
Miles hiked: Goose egg
"And on the seventh day, we bussed."
Excuses: The weather was forecast to be not-so-nice in the afternoon. We were worn down to nubs by the last few days of big distance and bad conditions. We were running low on hiking clothes that we hadn't already made smelly.
We'll admit we felt a little less deserving of our giant hiker-portion dinners this night, but we were pretty happy to have some extra time to nap and regrow our knee cartilage.
Day 8: Col de la Forclaz to Argentieres (FR)
Miles hiked: 10.71
"But if we don't take the TMB, we'll miss the snack bar." *empty, soulless laugh*
Today, we finally broke with the TMB in a big way. After the past few days of up and down, up and down, we were determined not to lose the altitude we'd gained, so we found an alternate route that left the TMB completely and struck out on our own.
While we had a little bit of a scramble here and there, the feeling of accomplishment when we were able to look out over the Chamonix valley and cross over into France our way was sweet indeed.
Another uniquely Nick and Stef feature of this day: we set our alarms at 4:00 am to stream the second half of the Seahawks game.
Day 9: Argentieres to Chamonix
Miles hiked: What TMB?
"I mean, we've like, 'made it'."
At this point, we were ready to be back in Chamonix, and there were really only two ways to get there on foot. One involved (surprise!) climbing up another 2500 feet then descending back down again. The other involved just walking along the road, which might garner us a few honks but would at least be slightly downhill and smooth.
We finally decided that neither of these options were going to cut it, and hopped aboard the ski bus for a 10 minute ride into town. Besides, it was a gorgeous day on top of Mont Blanc, and now we had time to get up there and savor it.
Gondolas of fire
Once we pulled into Chamonix, we flung down our packs and made for the Gondola leading to the top of L'aguille du Midi to look out upon the lands we had conquered below.
We hitched a ride to the snowy mountaintop, feeling a certain swagger among the throngs of tourists whom we were sure hadn't been out hiking this past week.
As we skimmed across the Glacier du Geants, our bubble was quickly burst by the discovery that there were some insanely hardcore people scaling each of the high peaks around us. Guys, we're tough, but we're not that tough.
We did a good amount of research before we left, but in case you decide to take up the TMB's challenge and strike out for Chamonix next year, here are the things we had to learn on the road.
The TMB isn't always the best way. Invest in a detailed trail map, so you don't have to put your knees through the agony we did. Unless your goal is to stop in every little village for fondue and a radler, you'll probably want to diverge from the main TMB now and then.
You'll see every kind of weather. We learned this in Patagonia, but even though there's no ice field here in the Alps, the massive glaciers on all the peaks really do create an ever-changing climate. Layers, layers, layers.
Give yourself some rest days. We felt super organized about booking our itinerary all in advance, but it turned out we could have used a day or two in one of the cute little towns along the way to recover. And being travelers on a budget, we couldn't just abandon hotel reservations we'd already paid for. So build some flex time into your schedule, or leave early enough each day that finding a room on the fly isn't an issue.
Go on the shoulder season. We didn't see this, but we heard that it's basically a long queue on the trail in August. In September, we had a few days where we barely saw anyone, and we never had an issue of crowding.
A good overview:
Includes routes that stretch from 4 days to 11 days (typical): http://www.chamonix.net/english/summer-activities/trekking/tour-of-mont-blanc
When to go:
Between July and the second or third week of September. July & August are the high season and it's recommended you pre-book accommodation. We went in mid September and pre-booked ours even though we probably didn't need to. If you book along the way, plan on calling or booking online a couple days before you arrive at the next stop.
How to get there:
You can start and finish the TMB via many of the towns along the way. The easiest is Chamonix as there are many daily bus transfers from Geneva Airport. Les Houches, France, and Courmayeur, Italy, are other popular options.
Where to stay:
There's no one way to do the TMB and this includes where and how often you stop for the night. You can camp for free, book dorm room beds or private rooms. We booked a mix of private rooms at refuges and private rooms at Hotels.
We used booking.com to book our hotels and emailed the refuges. If you'd like to follow the same itinerary you can book via the links below or search for alternatives in the same towns.
Les Aiglons Resort & Spa, Chamonix - Highly recommend. We started and ended our trip here. Very accommodating, let us leave our extra bags at the hotel for free during our hike with nearby laundry and good food. Also nearby the Aiguelle du Midi Gondola to the top of Mont Blanc where we celebrated finishing the hike. Pay via credit card or cash.
H??tel du Bois, Les Houches, France - Great hotel near laundry and good restaurants. Pay via credit card or cash.
La Chemenaz H??tels-Chalets de Tradition, Les Contamines, France - Good hotel with a great set menu dinner. About 20 minutes past the main part of town. Pay via credit card or cash.
Auberge de la Nova, Les Chapieux, France - Great refuge run by very nice owners who cook a delicious hiking dinner. Easy to book via the email address on their site. Pay via cash.
Hotel Berthod, Courmayeur, Italy - Great hotel in the center of town and near many good restaurants. Recommend staying here for more than one night to take a break in the middle of your trek. Also offers paid laundry service. Pay via credit card or cash.
Refuge Bonatti, Lavachey, Italy - Refuge with amazing view overlooking the valley. Great dinner and easy to book via the email on their site. Pay via cash.
H??tel du Glacier, Champex, Switzerland - This is a great but expensive hotel. There is not much to do in Champex. Would recommend looking at nearby alternatives before deciding where to stay. Pay via credit card or cash.
H??tel de la Couronne, Chamonix - Great hotel at the top of the Chamonix valley. After this you have an easy walk, bus or train back to Chamonix. Pay via credit card or cash.
Les Aiglons Resort & Spa, Chamonix - The same as the first hotel at the top. Highly recommend. Pay via credit card or cash.
If you're looking for a prepaid, guided trek, Mountain Travel Sobek follows a similar route and provides more details about each days hike.
Please feel free to email us with any questions!
We're meeting up with our friend Christine in Munich to experience Oktoberfest, then venturing out on a good old fashioned European road trip.