Tour du Mont Blanc

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc will stay in my memory as one of the highlights of my life.  Starting in Chamonix, France, we walked to Switerland, then Italy before finishing back in Chamonix.  The scenery was amazing, at times breathtaking, and we were fortunate to have a dream run of beautiful summer weather.  The physical challenge of a 170 km walk and ascending over 13,000 metres (more than Mt Everest!), was immensely rewarding. What an unforgettable journey.

Meet the team

Arriving in Chamonix on a Saturday afternoon in mid-August I was eager to explore the pretty mountain town.  Officially called Chamonix – Mont Blanc, this was to be our start point for the two week hike ahead of us.  Set at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe at 4,800 metres.  It was thrilling to look up a the snow-capped summit and the massif towering above us and imagine what was ahead of us.

Arriving on Saturday afternoon and with a few free hours before our initial briefing, we wandered around the town, soaking up the atmosphere.  Summer flowers were blooming in hanging baskets and the river Arve was rushing and gurgling through the town.  It was exceptionally pretty.

Tour du Mont Blanc

In Chamonix

At 6.00pm our group nervously gathered in the foyer of the hotel for our first meeting and to get details about the adventure ahead of us.  There were 14 of us in total: 4x Brits, 4x Americans, 2x Scots, 2x Australians and 2 NZers living in Australia; plus our English guide.  We were an eclectic bunch but soon bonded with our common love of hiking and the outdoors.

Day 1:  Up to Lac Blanc where I discover I have failed to prepare….again

Our morning routine soon became very familiar.  We prepared our lunches of baguettes with a wide choice of local cheeses, ham, cold meat and salad ingredients.  Then we were off to breakfast.  Croissant, eggs, bread, ham and meat, cheese, cereal, yogurt, tea and coffee or juice.  Everyday it was pretty much the same.  Pack our day packs, pack our luggage and take it downstairs ready for the pick up and transfer.

We were ready for our first day of walking, up to Lac Blanc.

As faithful regular readers will know, I have a history of booking trips and not necessarily reading the detailed trip notes and adequately preparing.  There was the biking holiday in Cuba which on one day alone had a 60km cycle ride. I had failed to do any training whatsoever, and hadn’t even ridden a bike for two years.  Then the time I went to Peru for the Lares Trek and was shocked to discover that our hardest day had a 1000 metre ascent at altitude, seeing us climb to 4,800 metres.  Or the challenging Larapinta trail which was much harder than I anticipated…..

This time however I felt ready.  I had even read the trip notes!  I was comfortable with the distances, on average about 15 km per day, and I’d noted the metres ascended and descended.

But……but…..but…..it turns out I had been in denial and was once again hopelessly unprepared.  Somewhat naively I had visions of rolling foothills at the base of the Alps and assumed that the metres ascended were accumulative for the day.  The first day came as a rude shock to discover that there was an ascent of around 500 metres non-stop up a mountain….then a 1000 metre descent down the mountain.  A total of around 8 1/2 hours walking!  There was no gentle rolling countryside at all!

So day one turned out to be a walk through the outskirts of Chamonix.  We took a cable car to the start of the trek before hiking up to Lac Blanc where we had a picnic lunch.  The downwards trek included a steep descent on rocky paths, navigating ladders, before getting a train back to Chamonix and collapsing in a tired sweaty heap.  The views were absolutely stunning, but all I could think was, surely tomorrow wouldn’t be as hard?

Tour du Mont Blanc

Walking near Chamonix

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Descending the ladders

Tour du Mont Blanc

Stopping to admire the views – a hazard on the walk!

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont BlancTour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

The gorgeous Lac Blanc, a popular day walk from Chamonix. Mt Blanc towers above us.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 2: The hardest day, and a frosty welcome to Switzerland

My legs were already burning from the efforts up to Lac Blanc so it was a rude shock to discover that day 1 was really just a warm up.  Today’s climb was more than double the previous day’s ascent as we walked into Switzerland via the Col de Balme.

It was a steep climb that just went up and up.  Would it ever end? It seemed like it would go for hours.  Maybe I would have to set up camp along the way.  But then finally we were at the top, and we were in Switzerland!  It felt amazing, admiring the gorgeous views over France in one direction and Switerland in the other.

However the Refuge at the Col de Balme was…..well interesting to say the least.  There are lots of refuges along the way, the purpose of them is to offer travels accommodation, food, and necessary sustenance for a modest (or not so modest) cost.  The clue is really in the name! However the elderly couple that ran this particular refuge didn’t have one hospitable bone in their body.  They refused to serve some of our group for no reason whatsoever, while others walked out in protest refusing to spend their money with the old couple.  Yet others of us were able to order a bottle of water without incident, it was seemingly random.  We amused ourselves that evening at dinner reading reviews of this particular refuge:

Known to locals as the “dragon lady refuge” due to the charming disposition of the proprietress, it is worth a visit just to see how much wrath you can incur.

And my favourite: Flee this inhospitable refuge run by an old hag as pleasant as a prison door.

After such a frosty welcome it wasn’t hard to leave the refuge on get back on the trail.  From here there was a steep descent into the village of Trient.  A few hours later and we were a sorry bunch – exhausted, blistered, and doubting whether we would survive the rest of the trek.  As we neared the end of our day we gratefully looked down at the village glad to be near the end.   However we had a nasty surprise ahead though, as we discovered there was a sting in the tail. Our destination and accommodation for the evening, Forclaz, was another particularly steep climb for the last 45 minutes or so.

We had ascended 1190 metres, and walked 1060 metres down and were weary .  We were all relieved when Ian, our guide, told us that we had an easy two days ahead.

Although my thighs were burning and I was physically exhausted, the spectacular views were exhilarating. I was elated to be hiking in the mountains again.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Taking corny tourist shots – but views were too good!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

At the border – welcome to Switzerland

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 3 – The Bovine route

So my version of easy and Ian’s version of easy turned out to be a little different.  But even with lots of ups and downs, it turned out to be a much less challenging day than the previous one.

It was exceptionally pretty. We were walking in lush green hills, surrounded by cows and the constant musical clanging of the cow bells.  I discovered that some of the cows were prized fighting cows – something I had never even heard of!  We also stopped off at particularly cute refuge with freshly baked cakes and tarts.  After the previous day’s frosty welcome at Col de Balme it was a welome change to see some smiling, friendly faces.

We finished at the beautiful village of Champex Lac.  We stayed at the Hotel Splendide, which lived up to its name!  Sitting at the top of the valley with spectacular views, and only a short walk to the charming alpine lake, it was exceptionally pretty.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Fighting cow!

Tour du Mont Blanc

A welcoming refuge – as it should be!

Tour du Mont Blanc

A warm welcome at this refuge, a nice change from the previous day!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

The pretty alpine town of Champex Lac

Day 4 – Finally it’s easy!

Maybe we were getting fitter and our legs were adjusting to the walking, but it was actually finally easy!  The countryside was gorgeous, with gentle rolling foothills and beautiful lush green meadows. The clang of cowbells our constant backdrop.  We walked through pretty, alpine farming villages and watched out for wild flowers.  It was a beautiful summer’s day, perfect for a hike.  And the views!  Hard not to feel on top of the world.  We finished at La Fouly after a relatively short day, ready for another big day.

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Champex Lac, early morning

Tour du Mont Blanc

Wood carvings around Champex Lac

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Gorgeous little alpine village

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 5 – Grand Col Ferret and bienvenuto to Italy

I am a slow learner, but day 5 of walking and it finally dawns on me that “Col” means big climb ahead.  I have learned rather belatedly that Col means a mountain pass.  So “Grand Col Ferret” means a really big hill.  This particular one is the highest pass of the walk so the views are completely stunning.  However what goes up must come down, and we descend into a beautiful valley.  We have also arrived in Italy.

Our destination, and where we are based for the next few days is the pretty little village of La Palud.  It sits on the outskirts of Cormayeur,  a gorgeous ski town in the Italian Alps.  La Palud is a picture perfect village with cute houses and a respectable collection of bars and restaurants, all underneath the towering mountains.  This may well have been my favourite place ever.

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Briefing at the start of the day

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc
Tour du Mont Blanc
Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Welcome to Italy!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

A day off – so up to Mont Blanc

After five days with lots of walking we had a well earned rest day.  One of the options was to take a cable car to Helbrunner then over the glacier to Aiguille de Midi in France, just a stone’s throw from the summit of Mt Blanc.  In fact if you choose you could then take another gondola back down to Chamonix.

It was another stunning summer’s day, so a small group of us decided to head up.  It felt like we were so close, but in actuality it was quite a long stone’s throw – we were at 3,800 metres and the top of Mt Blanc is at 4,800 metres.  On such a beautiful day it seemed so achievable to make it to the top.  There were a number of mountaineers who must’ve camped at the base and were ready to make the ascent up the summit. They looked so close, I could almost imagine making it to top myself!

After a few hours enjoying the views, and simply being in awe of the majesty of the mountains, I headed back down and made my way to Cormayeur.  I then spent quite a bit of time walking around this cute little village.

Later on for dinner a few of us headed to Dandelion, a local restaurant specialising in fresh local produce.  It was spectacularly good!  The night we were there they were showcasing local fresh mushroom and truffles.  Paired with local wine specialtiees, what’s not to like?  So yummy!

Tour du Mont Blanc
Tour du Mont Blanc

The pretty village of Cormayeur

Tour du Mont Blanc

Mountaineers on their way to Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Maybe one day I could climb it?!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc looks so close!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

On the Cable Car to Helbronner

Day 6 – Views and more views!

After the rest day we felt refreshed and ready to go.  We started with a short van trip where we were dropped off back at the Tour du Mont Blanc trail. What a day for it, with spectacular views of glaciers after another decent uphill up to the refuge.  We stopped off at the Bonatti refuge, named for Walter Bonatti, the Italian mountaineer and explorer.  The refuge is famous for its hot chocolates so thick and rich you could almost stand a spoon in it.

We then followed a gorgeous contouring path around Mont de la Saxe, back to Cormayeur.   The views were exceptional: glaciers, the southern end of the Mont Blanc massif and the Grandes Jorasses.  It really is breathtaking. But then it was back downhill, where we walked in to Cormayeur.  It wasn’t such a long day, so we had time for a gelato before taking the bus back to the cute village of La Palud.

Tour du Mont Blanc

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

A short stop at the Bonatti refuge for hot chocolate

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Views down to the valley

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 7 – A very long day, we walk back to France

Today was surprisingly hard.  We walked back to France.  This sounds much more impressive than it actually is! It was a very long hard slog to the top of the Col de la Seigne, and very steep.  It was a sunny day, but very cold, as there was a sharp wind coming straight off the glaciers. As always though, the views were breathtaking, which makes up for an awful lot.

We stopped for coffee and hot chocolate at the Elisabetta refuge and had a peek at the dormitories.  This was eye opening!  The dorms had people packed in like sardines.  Clearly Ian was preparing us for our evening accommodation, as he had pre-warned us that the small village where we were staying had very limited facilities.  I am quite sure that he wanted us to see that things could be much, much worse!

It was a long day of walking, but we finally arrived at Las Chapieux, a tiny village only inhabited during summer and with an interesting history.  Because of its position on the border it played a vital role in the resistance in the second world war.  I was right about the simple accommodation though, it was very simple and tiny!  However after viewing what was on offer at the Elisabetta refuge there were no complaints from our crew.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

At the start of the day….optimistic it would warm up!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

The wet weather gear finally gets a showing – I used it as a wind break to keep warm.

Day 8 – Two Cols in one day… and I lock a cyclist in a toilet

By now my legs had kicked in (finally!) and I was ready for the challenge.  Today was the Two Col day, we had two big ascents ahead of us.  First the Col de la Croix de BonHomme and then the Col de Bonhomme.

At first it really did feel very hard.  We climbed up what seemed a never-ending hill, up a stony, slippery path that at times completely disappeared.  We scrambled up rocky creeks, puffing and panting, with our eyes on a summit that never seemed to get any closer. But reaching the top felt fantastic, and enjoying a freshly made piece of pie and a coffee at the top was extremely satisfying.

After all the climbing up we had a steep descent on an old Roman road to Les Contamines.  It was a gorgeous day and we had made good time, so we stopped off at a refuge and enjoyed the afternoon sunshine.

I had been practising my French, but it’s not that great, so when I asked where the bathroom was and was directed to a shed outside, I wasn’t one hundred percent confident.  When I tried the door nothing happened.  I knocked, however there was no response.  The key was on the outside, so I turned it, but still no luck.   So I finally decided that I had misunderstood and decided just to enjoy the sunshine and some tea, and try again later.

It was about 15 minutes later when someone else in our group who was sitting a little closer to the shed heard some shouts.  He went to investigate and discovered that a cyclist had been locked in the toilet. Oops! I kept very quiet, however there was much hilarity amongst our group that evening at dinner when the full story was revealed.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Lush green rolling hills

Tour du Mont Blanc

We stopped off at a little church near Les Contamines

Tour du Mont Blanc

Near Les Contamines

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

Another rest day – I have a very lazy day

We had another scheduled rest day, this time we were in the French village of St Gervais de Bains.  My fellow hikers headed off on excursions up mountains by cog railway, or went swimming, or other hiking activities.  On the other hand, I decided to have a real rest day.  I went to a cafe for an hour or so, wandered around the town and then went out to lunch.  I still think that I had the best day!

St Gervais de Bains is another very pretty town.  I had been to the information centre and found a map of old Roman ruins.  I took myself on a tour of the town and hunted old ruins from my would be treasure map.  Then I rewarded myself with a delicious lunch at BistrotSerac in the town square, before enjoying a massage at a place across the road from the hotel.  It was a great way to enjoy some down time.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Views from Saint Gervais de Bains

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 9 – Col de Tricot and a day of drama

We were nearing the end of the hike but there were still a couple of big days ahead of us.  First up was a steep trail up to the Col de Tricot.  There’s no other way to say this – the Col de Tricot was bloody hard.  It was a warm day, and the final hour was a long, hard, hot slog up a very big hill.  What an amazing feeling when we reached the top.  It had been a 1200m ascent, and I think that we were all feeling pretty happy.

All of us perhaps except our guide, Ian. We were sitting at the top eating our baguette sandwiches, enjoying the view, when it became clear that Ian was in intense pain.  We were very worried about him.  Eventually it was decided that he shouldn’t walk any further.  A helicopter rescue was soon underway to take him to hospital.  We joined another group to walk down the hill, and headed downwards hoping that Ian would be okay, until we reached Les Houches, our destination for the evening.

Mark, the Exodus logistics manager based in Switzerland, came to meet us before dinner to give us an update.  Thankfully Ian was okay.  He had been diagnosed with a kidney stone.  However to our great surprise he was being discharged from the hospital and would be okay to guide us on our final day. So just one day to go!

Tour du Mont Blanc

We made it to Les Houches!

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Feeling happy at the top

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Looking up to the Col de Tricot

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Stopping at a pretty refuge

An unexpected rest day and I am The Shining

We had an unexpected free day after the drama of the helicopter rescue from the previous day.  Ian was well enough to walk, although we would have to swap our days around, giving Ian some time to recover.

Ian may have been recovering from the kidney stone, however the next morning he received a shock of a different kind!  As per usual, I was starting the day with yoga. I usually did this in the hallways because the rooms were generally too small, and as it was so early in the morning it didn’t bother anyone.  The style that I practice involves a ujjayi breath, a deep breathing technique which can sound quite noisy (or “like the ocean”!).  I happened to be in one of the final poses, a headstand (or Shirshasana), and concentrating quite hard.  I dimly heard a door open, some footsteps heading towards me, then the words, “Bloody Hell!” just before the sensor lights come on.

Ian, had been discharged from hospital the previous evening and slept in the guide’s room, basically a converted cupboard, so was heading down the corridor to use the bathroom.  Groggy with painkillers, he had heard the noise from the breathing and seen a shape, and gotten quite a shock.  He told me he was reminded from a scene from The Shining!

The rest of the day was pretty relaxing.  We relocated to nearby Chamonix, checking back in to the Hotel Richemond where we had started our adventure.  I decided a long lunch was in order, so went to Atmosphere for lunch on the banks of the river in Chamonix.  It was absolutely superb.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Day 10 – the final push

While our last day was also our biggest uphill push, 6 hours of climbing, an ascent of 1,500 metres, it didn’t feel as challenging as some of our earlier days.  I think our legs were primed and ready at last!  The views were amongst the most breathtaking that we had seen.  We were surrounded by stunning snowcapped mountains, and of course Mont Blanc was towering above us.

It was a gorgeous day, with clear blue skies, and there were many parasailers floating gently above us.  They were so close we could wave to each other and comment on the views!  The day before, when we were supposed to be walking, it had rained a little in the afternoon.  Ian joked that he had arranged a perfect day for us at great personal sacrifice.

After a very long day of climing we finally reached the top of Le Brevent, 2,525 metres high.  The views were amazing, everywhere you looked.  It was a fantastic feeling to reach the final summit, having completed 10 days of the Tour du Mont Blanc.  We celebrated with some bubbles, and then started the steep walk down, to the cable car which returned us to Chamonix.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

On the way up

Tour du Mont Blanc

Magnificent views

Tour du Mont Blanc

Parasailing with Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

Happy at the top on the final day!

The farewell to Mont Blanc, and baguettes!

Circling Mont Blanc over these two weeks was one of the best hiking experiences I think I will ever have.  As well as enjoying majestic views surrounded by mountains and glaciers, we had walked in three countries and over numerous mountain passes. It was funny thinking back to the first evening.  We were 14 strangers sitting in a room looking around at each other and thinking anxiously of the days ahead. We started as strangers and finished as friends after two weeks of shared experiences, hills and hard upward slogs.

It was the adventure of a lifetime and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.  But I think it will be a while before I eat another ham and cheese baguette!

 

 

Tour du Mont Blanc

We made it!

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