Thursday, October 10, 2013

Most of a Tour du Mont Blanc

Just want to see the pictures?  They're in this Google+ album

Tour du Mont Blanc -- September 2013

The Tour du Mont Blanc is a 105-mile (170 km) hiking circuit around the Mont Blanc massif in France, Switzerland, and Italy. It is a very popular trail, well-marked, with plenty of lodging options ranging from camping to dormitories in mountain refuge huts to hotels in the small towns along the way.  There are 10 mountain passes to cross, and the total elevation gained and lost is about 33,000 feet (10,000 m). Some 10,000 hikers embark on the circuit every year; most take 10-12 days to do the circuit.

The TMB is a circle route, and can be done in either direction. The traditional, and most popular, direction is counter-clockwise. We decided to hike it clockwise: rather than hiking in a conga line with the same people every day, we would instead face a flurry of oncoming traffic for a while and then less congestion for the remainder of the day.

We started our TMB hike on September 9. This is relatively late in the season; by mid-September, some of the mountain huts are closing for the season and the weather can be hit-or-miss. We made a few adjustments to the “standard” clockwise tour in order to reach some huts before they closed. Notably, we decided to start in Chamonix (France) rather than Champex (Switzerland), and rode the cable car up to 2000m rather than slogging 1500m uphill from the Chamonix valley up to the summit of Le Brévent.

Day 1 – Sept  9 2013: Chamonix to Lac Blanc
From our hotel next to the Chamonix train station, we walked across town to the Plan Praz cable car, paid 12.50 Euros each, and hopped aboard.  Ten minutes later we were at Plan Praz (2036m). The summit of Le Brévent (2526m) was clouded over, so we didn’t see any need to ride the next tram or hike up to there. From Plan Praz we had two hours of relatively level walking to La Flégère (1875m), which is the usual stop for this stage of the tour. The skies cleared across the valley, and we had spectacular views of Mont Blanc and the rest of the massif. 
La Flégère is the usual stop on this leg of the clockwise route. But since we’d had the luxury of a cable car ride rather than a 1500m climb from the valley floor, we detoured from the main TMB for two hours to Lac Blanc (2352m) where we had reservations for the night at Refuge Lac Blanc. The Refuge is a comfortable place: lockers, toilets, and showers on the ground level, kitchen and dining area on the first floor, and dormitory sleeping on the second floor. The dormitory beds were arranged in pods of five. A second building contained additional dorm space. Half board (dinner, bed, and breakfast) cost 51 € each, and for an extra 9 € they packed us a lunch (or as they said it, a “pic-nic”) for the next day.
Distance:   12.2 km Door-to-door:    5:40

Day 2 – Sept 10: Lac Blanc to Trient 
Part of the standard route for this section includes the steepest section of the whole TMB. The Cicerone guidebook says
 “extremely steep, and has a series of near-vertical  ladders, rungs, platforms, and steps … and is not recommended for anyone with a tendency towards vertigo.”  
That was enough warning for me, and we took the somewhat longer alternative route.
While we were finishing breakfast and packing up, clouds and light sprinkles moved in at Lac Blanc. We hiked in rain gear for the first hour or so. The “easier” alternative route did have some steps and ladders, but none were particularly exposed or intimidating. It took us three hours from Lac Blanc to rejoin the main TMB route above the village of Tré-le-Champ; this was a descent of 900m, some of it was quite steep at times.
The guidebook recommended staying in Tré-le-Champ if the day’s route had been from La Flégère to Lac Blanc. When I was making reservations before the trip, lodging in Tré-le-Champ was booked full. Since we would be starting at Lac Blanc, 500m above La Flégère, I figured that we would  be okay going all the way to Trient; I had paid a deposit at a hotel in Trient. What I didn’t realize was how much vertical was actually going to be involved for the day, and how steep much of it was. In retrospect, splitting this section with an overnight in Montroc or Argentière would have been the winning answer, even at the expense of an extra few kilometers of level walking and an extra night’s lodging.
The first half hour of ascent from Tré-le-Champ at 1460m was very steep; maybe not as bad as the GPS profile suggests, but very steep nonetheless. The main TMB route here goes up to Aiguillette des Posettes (2201m), with a view that is supposed to be one of the highlights of the TMB. We looked at the low cloud ceiling, the extra 200m of ascent and descent, and the distance we had yet to cover, and decided to take a bypass going directly to Col des Posettes (1997m). The Aiguillette was mostly in the clouds when we hiked below it, so we wouldn’t have seen anything anyway…
From Col des Posettes, the trail climbed steadily to Col de Balme (2191m) on the border between France and Switzerland.  The descent from Col de Balme was on a rough rocky road that was approximately a 20% grade for five kilometers; it seemed unrelenting. 
Too much downhill! After a nine-hour day with over 3000’ of ascent and 6000’ of descent, we were tired puppies when we reached our hotel. Just as we got inside the hotel, it started raining hard; one more reason we were glad to be done. 
We had reserved dormitory space at the Auberge du Mont Blanc for 68.00 CHF each, half board. The Auberge had recently been purchased by a Brit named Chris Longbottom; he used to own a tour company that ran bicycle tours in Europe, and in years past we had done three bike tours in Italy through his company. We didn’t meet him, but his hotel didn’t seem to be run as well as his bicycle tours were; with a full hotel including a busload of Oriental tourists, meals were a bit of a circus. The Auberge is right next to a highway, there was intermittent traffic noise all night. There is another hotel just next door (name?) that I would be tempted to try next time, looked like a similar kind of place.
Distance:   20.5 km Door-to-door:    9:20

Day 3 – Trient to Champex
We decided to stick with the standard route for today, going all the way to Champex. From the Auberge, Jill called ahead to reserve rooms for us. 
From Trient (1279m) it was 7km of steady steep uphill to Collet Portallo (2040m). While we ate lunch at the Collet, the clouds parted long enough to give us some brief views of Mont Blanc. The weather was chilly and damp, and we stopped for hot chocolate at a remote buvette (snack shop) not far below the Collet. It was a steep descent on trails down to 1575m, then easy road walking the rest of the way. We encountered a British mountain biker wearing a Jackson Hole t-shirt, a bit of a surprise for us.
When we came to Champex, I was responsible for some minor confusion over where we had reservations; I led us to the wrong place (with a similar name). That detour added 20 minutes or so, but fortunately no extra uphill. Perhaps we were all still worn out from Day 2, but we were definitely glad to finally arrive at the Au Club Alpin in Champex. We had the luxury of twin bed rooms with sinks and heat, hot showers down the hall, and an excellent meal in the dining room. Half board was 82.00 CHF each. Champex is a cute little resort town by a lake, and it was very quiet in mid-September. The rooms on the street-side were a bit noisier, it is on the main road in Champex.
Distance:   18.9 km Door-to-door:    8:20

Day 4 – Champex to La Fouly
This was a fairly easy day. We took our time and stretched a nominal five hours of walking into almost an 8-hour day. It started with a somewhat steep downhill to Issert at 1055m. The trail ran through a mushroom preserve area, with lots of signs about different types of mushrooms, and also a couple dozen interesting wood carvings on tree stumps along the trail. 
The villages of Issert and Praz de Fort were interesting with some great examples of very old (ca. 1700) barn construction. From Issert to La Fouly the trail was one long gradual uphill on a mix of paved and gravel roads with a few sections of walking trail. Nearing La Fouly there were some very nice cascade waterfalls coming down from glaciers that were up out of our sight. There was a interpretive nature trail for kids with the mascot “Charlotte la Marmotte”. At La Fouly we stayed at the Hotel l’Edelweiss, 61.50 CHF each for half board in the dorm. It seemed like a nice hotel, rooms were quite a bit more expensive though (100 CHF each). The showers were hot, the restaurant was nice.
Distance:    18.5 km Door-to-door:    7:50

Day 5 – La Fouly to Rifugio Elena
The standard guidebook route suggests going all the way to Rifugio Bonatti, another 2½ hours of walking. We decided that we liked to move at a slower pace than that given in the guidebook, so we reserved space at the Rifugio Elena instead. It was a steady, generally easy grade all the way from La Fouly to Grand Col Ferret (2537). The skies were mostly clear, and the views were spectacular. It was noticeably cooler today, and at the Col it was windy and cold. Views from the Col looking down Val Ferret on the Italian side were amazing, with glaciers on the south-facing at a remarkably low elevation. Doug picked out the prominent peak as the Grandes Jorasses, although I wasn’t convinced at the time.
The descent from the Grand Col Ferret down to Rifugio Elena is a 500m descent in 2.5km, it’s steep but  consistent, not quite as brutal as we were expecting. Rifugio Elena was a score, our favorite for the trip! We booked rooms for 57.50 € each, half board; the rooms are nice modern hotel rooms, small but comfortable with en suite facilities and plenty of hot water. It was breezy on the deck (killer views!), but we found a sheltered spot around the corner of the building to enjoy a beer in the sunshine. The Rifugio was not very busy, they were closing for the season in two more days on the 15th. 
Distance:    13.7 km Door-to-door:    6:30
Day 6 – Rifugio Elena to Rifugio Bertone
The hiking times in the guidebook suggested that we could go all the way to Courmayeur in about 6½ hours of walking. We decided on a shorter day, staying at Rifugio Bertone. That would leave us a very short day to get into Courmayeur, have time to find a hotel, do laundry if needed, sightsee, and make phone calls to figure out whether Rifugio  Elisabetta was still open and how to plan the next stages from Courmayeur. The manager at Elena called ahead to Bertone for us, reserving rooms rather than dorms.
The skies were clear early in the day, and we had spectacular views of Val Ferret,  the glaciers, the Grandes Jorasses (reminded us of the Grand Teton!) and Mont Blanc. Later in the afternoon it clouded over, and started to rain after we reached Bertone.
We had a leisurely lunch on the deck at Rifugio Bonatti. There was a lot of activity there associated with the Tor des Geants, a 330 km endurance race that had been going on all week and was ending in Courmayeur that day. Bonatti has spectacular views, a large modern (and busy) restaurant, and lots of day traffic; the refuge is just a 30-minute hike up from the road at the valley floor.
When we reached Rifugio Bertone, the weather was cool and damp and on the verge of showers. At check-in, I didn’t comprehend enough Italian to understand it all but apparently there were no rooms ever, or no rooms available because they were double-booked, and the main dorm was full so we had to wait while they unlock and mop and clean a second dortoir room. The manager seemed a bit unfriendly to me, a bit annoyed that we were there or something. To reach the toilets you had to walk outside, there seemed to be only one working toilet for all of the guests (perhaps 25). There was a long wait for showers so I didn’t bother, knowing there would be one in Courmayeur tomorrow. Fortunately we had the second dortoir room all to ourselves. Half board in the dorm costs 40.00 € each, certainly cheap enough; it was our least favorite accommodations but was actually closest to what we were expecting from the huts. It rained lightly for most of the night…
Distance:    16.5 km Door-to-door:    7:30
Day 7 – Rifugio Bertone to Courmayeur
We left Bertone in the fog and some light sprinkles. The trail is a steady descent all the way to Courmayeur, where the rain was getting steadier. After a stop for expresso (and the best hot chocolate ever, for Jill), we went to the tourist office and booked a hotel, the two-star Hotel Edelweiss. Rooms are 80.00 €, bed and breakfast for two people; the rooms were comfortable enough and very reasonably priced.
Distance:    6.0 km Door-to-door:    2:15
Declaring Victory in Courmayeur
The weather forecast for the next few days was discouraging: rain today, heavier rain tomorrow with snow line well below 2000m, rain possible the day after tomorrow. We all readily decided to declare victory in Courmayeur; there didn’t seem to be any point in hiking the next couple of days (which will be long, due to some huts closed for the season) in rain and clouds and snow.  We booked hotel rooms back in Chamonix for the next night, and reserved seats on the late afternoon bus through the Mont Blanc tunnel  from Courmayeur to Chamonix.  Doug and Sue made plans for a trip to Torino, Jill and I made plans for a rental car and the French Riviera. In Chamonix the next evening, it was raining hard most of the evening; in the morning the snow line was down to about 1500m. We were quite pleased with our decision!
Total distance from GPS log : 106 km

Some Random Thoughts on the TMB

  • The daily stages in the Kev Reynolds book were longer than we wanted. Doable, but generally longer than enjoyable. We liked it better when we took shorter stages and took plenty of time for pictures, lunches, scenery gazing, etc. Most sections we could hike at the nominal pace indicated in the book and on trail signs, but we preferred a more leisurely pace. Better to break it up into shorter chunks, take a couple extra days as needed.
  • The trail conditions are not as good as we are accustomed to in National Parks and good National Forest trails, with steeper gradients, very little tread maintenance, etc. The sections that we thought of as steep were at least as steep as Snow King, and at times more like the trail in Hanging Canyon. This made for slower hiking than I expected just looking at distances and elevations
  • Maps: the 1:50,000 IGN map Pays du Mont-Blanc was adequate, but I bought the 1:25,000 IGN maps instead and they were money well spent. Every bookstore in Chamonix and Courmayeur has them by the dozen, they are available in a water-resistant version as well. 
  • Weight: Jill and I were each carrying 30-31 pounds including water. Too much, I had one extra change of clothes for the hut that I didn’t need. “Wear one, wash one” is fine but note that the drying conditions were often less than ideal. I was glad to have a third set of socks.
  • Reservations: After the first two nights, we just called ahead each day (or the evening before) for the next lodging. This worked fine, and I strongly recommend having flexibility rather than having reservations on a fixed itinerary that would be costly to cancel. Of course it could be more of a problem in peak season, but we were always able to reserve at our first choice of lodging.
  • Hiking clockwise worked well. When we encountered larger groups (sometimes 10-15 or more) it was easy enough to step aside and let them pass; much easier than dealing with trying to pass them going in the same direction (or them passing us).
  • Starting in Chamonix by riding the cable car up to Plan Praz was great, we didn’t feel any need to do the 1500m slog uphill from Les Houches to Le Brevent and then 500m down to Plan Praz. Had we been going counter-clockwise, we would have gladly spent the money to ride the cable car down from Le Brevent rather than doing a 1500m downhill!  Getting to Chamonix or Courmayeur is easier than getting to Champex for a clockwise start.
  • Season: we started hiking on 9 September. A week earlier would have been better. In 2013, some huts started closing on 14th or 15th of September, Rifugio Elisabetta (a key stopover) was scheduled to close (or at least be unstaffed) September 18th . Also, the cable cars at Plan Praz and La Flegere closed on September 15th as well; after that, you’d be committed to at least 1000m up or down between Chamonix and the La Flegere / Plan Praz terrace.  Going before 1 September would mean dealing with August crowds and/or the huge mobs associated with the Ultra-TMB race that is usually held around September 1st , definitely want to check those dates.
  • Courmayeur would also be a nice place to start, though uphill either direction. Going clockwise, Courmayeur to Rifugio Elisabetta (5 hrs, 1560m gained) would be a brutal first day but could be broken up into a short day to Maison Vielle for starters.
  • Lodging:  Excellent information and online booking options at , also see the hut listings (and closing dates!) online at   Next time, I would also use or to explore a wider range of hotel options, though possibly at a higher price.
  • Weather: best weather info I  found was at  but there might be some better. It would be worth researching this beforehand if you have smartphone with data plan along; some lodgings had WiFi but sometimes at a cost. Cell/data coverage was available most places though sometimes marginal; Rifugio Elena was the exception.
  • Chamonix lodging: We stayed at the Mercure Chamonix Centre before the trip, and the Langley Hotel Gustavia after the trip. Both were adequate, the Mercure claims 5 stars vs the Langley 2 or 3 but it is more expensive. Both are very convenient, right next to the train station and bus stop. Both had luggage storage rooms that we could use without charge if we had been hotel guests. 
  • Courmayeur lodging: the Hotel Edelweiss was fine. It is 10 minutes walk from the bus station, uphill, would not be fun if you had a lot of luggage. The Courmayeur visitor center, at the bus station, had lots of good information and was very helpful; an essential stop if you haven’t booked ahead.
  • Hut stuff: Our friend Janet had recommended bringing your own pillowcase, in addition to a sleeping bag liner (mandatory). A good idea, and also very handy for carrying your stuff in places like Refuge Lac Blanc, where the packs stay on the ground floor and the dorm is on the second floor.  Most huts had slippers or Crocs for guest use, but Jill and I were glad to have our own along, much easier than trying to find a pair that fits, etc. Most places had bins to store hiking boots out of the sleeping areas. Jill was glad to have her air mattress along, I did okay without.
  • Picnic lunches from the hut/hotel were expensive (though good), do these only when you won’t have access to a grocery to make your own or a patisserie to buy pre-made sandwiches.
  • Laundry: Chamonix has one self-service laundry, across the street from the Aiguille du Midi cable car. Courmayeur does not have one, as best we could determine.


  1. Ray, thanks for the excellent run-down of your TMB experience. I see you've hiked in many wonderful places, including Patagonia, somewhere I was fortunate enough to visit a couple of years ago and absolutely loved (did the "W" at TDP). I've been considering a trip to do part of the TMB later this year and wanted to see how you felt it compared to other great hiking trips you've done. It seems the hiking is pretty difficult, and it certainly is not an inexpensive area to visit. Did you feel the rewards were worth the effort? The views, scenery, mountain hut culture? Or in your view, did you get more out of TDP or perhaps the Dolomites? Thanks in advance for sharing any thoughts!

    1. Hi. TDP had the most spectacular scenery, at least when the weather cooperated. In the Dolomites it seemed like we had great vistas all the time, less time spent in forested areas with limited views. The trail conditions on the TMB were similar to TDP, whereas in the Dolomites the trail maintenance seemed to be better. If anything I'd say the TMB felt a little bit "confining" or maybe a somewhat-artificial objective in the sense that we'd sort of committed to do the lap around the block rather than to doing whatever hike seemed best for the next day or two given the weather forecast and our energy levels. After this past September, though, the Dolomites are our new favorite :) in terms of the total mix of scenery, trail options, food/culture, etc. But I'd revisit the TMB in a heartbeat if some of my other friends wanted to go. Hope this helps!