As I sat in my accommodation in Les Houches about to embark on hiking the Tour du Mt Blanc, I had to reflect that it was ‘third time lucky’!
Two years ago I was all set for hiking the Tour du Mt Blanc when I was let down by the British Home Office who kept my passport far longer than they should have. Last year I had the trip all planned and booked again when I dropped a knife on my foot, severed the tendon and ended up in a plaster cast.
So perhaps you can forgive me for feeling a bit paranoid. But this year it is really happening. I have trained; I have packed carefully; I have researched and booked my flights, accommodation and transfers. I am in Les Houches and I am ready to go.
Unfortunately the guardienne of my hostel in Les Houches has fallen asleep so I can’t check in to my accommodation. But it is 30 degrees Celsius here so I can hardly blame her.
It is my first time in the Alps in summer – I have only been here to ski before – and the contrast with winter conditions is remarkable. It is so green with forest-covered slopes – it is lush! The sun was baking the earth from a cloudless blue sky.
How to plan for hiking the Tour du Mt Blanc
The Tour du Mt Blanc is one of the world’s most famous long distance hikes. It is a circuit of the magnificent Mt Blanc massif, on paths that cover around 170 kilometres (105 miles). People generally hike the TMB between mid June and late September, with August being the busiest period.
There is significant height gain and loss every day with many passes to cross so it is not to be taken lightly. In fact the accumulated height gain and loss is in the region of 10,000 metres (32,800 ft).
One of the very interesting things I discovered while hiking the tour is that there are many ways to ‘skin this cat’, if you see what I mean. I met people who were cramming the hike into seven days by using buses and trains to cut corners. I met people who were walking massively long days to finish in eight days. I met people walking with an organised tour group and people walking on an organised but self-guided tour. I met people whose bags were being carried by pack horses (cheaters).
The other big variation I noticed is in the route of the tour itself. Not just whether people are hiking clockwise or anti-clockwise, but how the route and the route markings seem to have changed over the years. The three countries each have their own system of route marking for a start, although the new green TMB branding appears throughout.
In many places you can still see the old painted red and white splotch markers. There was some variation between the popular Tour du Mt Blanc Kev Reynolds guidebook, the IGN map I carried and the waymarking signs. There seemed to be some old routes that are no longer followed and many more variants – perhaps to meet the needs of the many different types of trekkers and levels of fitness.
Hiking the TMB clockwise or anti-clockwise?
One big decision to make is whether to walk in the traditional, anti-clockwise direction, or the less common clockwise direction. Les Houches in France’s Chamonix valley is a convenient place to start from, with easy transfers from Geneva airport. I particularly wanted to stay at Rifugio Bonatti but found this would have been unavailable if I had walked anti-clockwise.
So I chose to walk clockwise and was very glad I did. In mid July the TMB is already very busy and if you add to that the hordes of day walkers coming up the cable cars to enjoy the alpine scenery, it can sometimes diminish the sense of adventure. But walking clockwise I had many hours when I had the scenery all to myself – particularly at the beginning and end of the day. It’s not like no one does it clockwise, in fact the guide book has a complete guide to hiking in both directions.
However, I am a confident walker whereas some people might find it more comforting to always have other hikers in sight. You are also more likely to meet the same walkers each night in the refuges if you want to make friends to hike with.
Training for the Tour du Mt Blanc
Training for the Milford Track in New Zealand back in April formed part of my preparation for the Tour du Mt Blanc, although it is a quite different experience. The Milford Track is much shorter, with only one strenuous day, but it was good practice at carrying a backpack for six hours a day over multiple days. My training included ashtanga yoga to build up strength in my muscles and joints. Strong knees are vital for long downhill passages while hiking. I did a number of day and weekend walks in England – particularly in the Peak District.
None of which was really adequate physical preparation for hiking in the European Alps but it was all I had time or opportunity to do. Training for the Alps in the English Chiltern ‘Hills’ is almost laughable! The main two things to focus on are, firstly to work on strengthening your knees and core muscles; and secondly to get some experience walking all day with a full pack on your back. If nothing else this last might make you rethink your packing…
Packing for the Tour du Mt Blanc
As with the Milford Track, packing as lightly as possible was key for me, while still using quality outdoors clothing and equipment. Walking in the European Alps makes that easier than in New Zealand thanks to the system of refuges that provide beds, bedding and (really good) meals. So you don’t have to carry a sleeping bag or food apart from water and snacks. Something I would recommend that I didn’t know about is flip flops (or jandals or thongs or whatever you call them) to wear in the hut once you’ve taken off your hiking boots for the day.
Take a look at my TMB packing list and feel free to use it! TMB gear list
Accommodation on the Tour du Mt Blanc
I booked all my accommodation in advance by email. I found the accommodation in the guide book or online and was pleased with most of the options I chose. At the point where I had already booked most of my refuges I discovered this new and useful website for planning your TMB trek. This seems a good place to start planning your route and accommodation can be booked through the website.
TMB accommodation is a mix of mountain refuges and village guesthouses. There are also some more hotel-like options if you have a bigger budget or want more comfort.
Of course you don’t have to book everything ahead. I met people who were simply phoning ahead in the morning to book a bed. This would give you more flexibility in terms of hiking days but I wanted the security of knowing I had a bed each night and wasn’t sorry to be committed to hiking a certain number of hours each day. Also, there were a number of days when I had no phone reception so that could have been problematic. Finally, if you want to stay at some of the higher altitude refuges in mid summer it is essential to book ahead – and I mean months ahead. Particularly popular places like Rifugio Bonatti.
I also booked my transfers from and to Geneva airport ahead of time and this all worked perfectly.
Take a look at my TMB itinerary and accommodation and feel free to refer to it! TMB Trip Itinerary
Time to start hiking the TMB…
But first a word about my accommodation in Les Houches. There is loads of accommodation in Les Houches and I chose a low budget one because, well my budget was low.
The Gite Michel Fagot is named for a Belgian mountaineer who spent a lot of time in this area. Subsequently a Belgian couple bought the old school house and set up the chalet to provide affordable accommodation to climbers and hikers. Michel’s climbing axe and a section of rope links are proudly displayed on the wall.
I enjoyed staying here, the (Belgian) guardienne was lovely and spoke more languages that you can imagine. The dining tables were beautifully presented and a delicious home-made evening meal was enjoyed by all. A salad of tomatoes, cucumber and melon with a balsamic sauce, followed by Blanchette (a traditional slow-cooked turkey and chicken dish) over pasta with broccoli, and dessert of banana topped with crème and caramel and peanuts.
This certainly boded well for the rest of my TMB culinary experience. Now if I could just handle the hiking bit…
Natasha von Geldern
Here is my day by day account of hiking the TMB:
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