It was evident by morning #3. We would get up in unison, as multiple Garmins and phones chimed, every morning at 6am. Breakfast was normally at 7am, which in France always consists of fresh baked bread, apricot jam and so much butter. Then we would
look for the route. It doesn’t take long to realize that regardless of which day you’re on and which point you have chosen to take refuge, when you start your day on the TMB, the way is always up.
Last year, a dear friend reached out to us and asked if we were interested in hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc with her and a group of friends. Our first reaction was “We wish, but there’s just no way. Money, jobs, kids, garden, pets… we just can’t get away for something like that.” But, the idea of it didn’t go away. I’ve always told myself whenever I find something in life that I want to do but think I can’t… ALWAYS dissect the can’t. WHY can’t I? Am I really not capable of it? Are there really no options? And as it often turns out, there usually are options, and quite often you can do it. So with a lot of effort and help from family and friends, we were able to seize this once in a lifetime opportunity. And, my oh my, was it worth all the effort!
At first mention, we didn’t know all that the Tour du Mont Blanc involved. We learned that over a period of 7-12 days, you will hike about 105 miles with an accumulated gain of around 30,000 feet, depending on the routes and options you take. This hike encircles the extraordinary Mont Blanc itself, giving you spectacular views of every side while passing through France, Italy and Switzerland. The window to hike is small, due to weather and trail conditions, so it is often fairly populated in sections. We chose to stay at hostels/refuges along the way rather than setting up in tents. We also chose to shorten the amount of days spent hiking, so our distance between stops was a bit longer than average.
My husband and I planned to do plenty of training so we would be comfortable with the altitude and strenuous trek well before July rolled around. But life with 3 kids, jobs, dogs, yard work, projects and mayhem was life with 3 kids, jobs, dogs, yard work, projects and mayhem. Our training was little to none, I’m abashed to admit. My advice for the TMB after having completed it is this: train well, pack for all weather conditions, and bring a copy of “Trekking: The Tour of Mont Blanc” by Cicerone with you. Ignore the fact I only managed 2 of the 3, myself.
Day 1 – Chamonix to Les Houches, France. We left Chamonix late morning as our hike into Les Houches was only 5 miles. It was more or less flat and an enjoyable way to stretch our legs as we began the official route. We stayed at Gite Michel Fagot, which I highly recommend. The food was truly wonderful and the host incredibly kind. Dinner was smoked salmon roulade, sausage with eggplant, carrots, saffron rice and apricot tiramisu. There was a group of young men from Israel also staying at the gite. They were on their final day, having hiked the trail in reverse. Our evening wound down around their singing which was a pretty surprising and wonderful way to usher in our first night’s rest before the real hiking began. They were also the first of many wonderful people we met from all over the world, each of whom added a unique perspective to our wonderous adventure.
Day 2 – Les Houches to Les Contamines, France. This day kicked me hard. Our first full day, 11 miles, almost 2500 feet in gains taking us to 7000 ft in elevation. My lack of training was smacking me in full force and I had to hike a ways behind the rest of our group. They were also experiencing record breaking temperatures pushing into the 90s, so the heat was a definite thorn in my side.
We crossed a pretty fantastic suspension bridge early on and had our first peek at the some of the extraordinary views this hike offers. But the highlight of this day? The cows. Definitely the cows. We crested the second ascent to find a mountain valley full of grazing milk cows with all their bells chiming. It was the most amazing sound and such an incredible thing to experience. It made me forget the burn in my quads and gave me the refresh I needed to finish the last few miles. Our Gite this night was not great. So I will leave it unmentioned.
Day 3 – Les Contamines to Les Chapieux, France. This day kicked me even harder. 12 miles, 4500 feet in elevation gains and the way was very much up. All. Day. Long. 3700 ft to 8200 feet and then an extremely steep down into town.
The trail also took us through snow despite the sweltering heat. On our way down we saw hundreds of sheep grazing on the mountain pasture and managed to witness a sheep take a wrong step and roll ass-over-tea-kettle down the mountainside. 4 hooves in the air every other second and “Baaa” “Baaa” “Baaa” as the shepherd and herding dog chased after. It was good for a long laugh over dinner as my husband retold the story to our fellow hikers.
We stayed at the Auberge Refuge de la Nova, and it was one of our favorites. The host was amazing and I would love to return just to spend more time in her company. The food was so so good, the wine just as delightful. At dinner we ate and laughed, and ate and laughed, and the feeling of warmth that spread over our group was something I will always remember. The joy that is shared among good friends, new and old, out on a grand adventure and sitting down together for an incredible meal is something we all need more of in life. It is the kind of thing you want your memory bank to be filled with when you are too old to take any more such adventures. I hope my husband and I can return to Les Chapieux one day.
Day 4 – Les Chapieux, France to Lac Combal, Italy. Today we got our “mountain legs.” We were told by fellow hikers that by the 3rd or 4th day your mountain legs will kick in the hike will seem to ease up, and sure enough it did. It was still challenging by all means, and the ascents still proved extremely difficult for me, but my muscles were not as sore and my legs were rising to the challenges ahead. This was a 12 mile day and we gained 3400 feet in elevation when we crossed into Italy at 8300 ft.
The views were the best we had seen thus far but the weather had started to change. Once we reached our lodging the rain began to fall and lightning struck all throughout the mountain peaks. Our lodging at Cabane du Combal was the nicest we experienced
among the route with private baths and smaller occupancy to the rooms. Dinner began with heaping bowls full of pasta followed by pork and mashed potatoes, just exactly as my Italian Grandmother used to make when I was little. The smells, the flavors, my first night in Italy… it was a bit overwhelming and my cup ran over with sentiment. As the lightning continued, we began to make plans to take a bus the next morning rather than risk the storm. An old Italian gentleman overheard us and piped in “that part of the hike is the best view of Mont Blanc you will ever see. There is nothing like it in the world. You do not miss it. If it is raining, you take the bus. But if no rain -you hike.” The rain poured throughout the night.
Day 5 – Lac Combal to Rif Bertone, Italy. 12 miles. 4500 feet in gains. The rain stopped by the time we departed that morning. So, adhering to the advice of the old man, we hiked. This was without doubt, the most beautiful part of the entire trek for me. It only took us 90 mins to reach the most scenic point, and it was the most enjoyable ascent I’d hiked yet. The view was so breathtaking I even had the energy to sprint to the top of a lookout for pics (after taking off my 25 lbs pack of course).
The weather turned in our favor that morning and we enjoyed every bit of this span of trail with plenty of pictures taken to remember it by. We decided to take the lifts down to Courmayeur as we still had a very long and steep ascent to our lodging that night, and another storm was on its way in. It was definitely the right choice as the rains almost beat us to our lodging at Refuge Bertone. This refuge definitely had the best view of all the places we stayed. Watching the storm roll in at 7000ft was pretty humbling. Mother nature is truly a force.
Day 6 – Ref Bertone, Italy to La Peule, Switzerland. 15 miles and 4100 ft of elevation gains. The storm finally caught us on the trail today. My husband and I decided to stay a bit behind from the rest of the group and take it a bit slower. As we left Italy, there was a very long and steep ascent that took you up above the clouds to Grand Col Ferret before crossing into Switzerland.
The storm began to make things a bit dodgy right as we came upon Rifugio Elena, so we stopped in for what turned out to be the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had and weathered out the worst of the wind. Our lodging this night was at a working dairy farm. It was not as luxurious as some of the other places we stayed, of course, but the food was some of the best with the cheese, milk and yogurt all being made right there on the farm.
There was a large fire in the main room where countless numbers of shoes were piled to dry as we enjoyed what was my favorite dinner of the entire trip. I think it was a strata, it’s kind of a golden blur, but the fresh cheese was absolute heaven, it was perfectly warm, and I ate every last bite. Then, about 3am, I was awoken from a dead sleep by the pungent over ripeness of one of the stages cheese goes through to become cheese. This smell ensured that I am meant to enjoy the sound of cow bells from afar and taste the cheese only while visiting. I clearly do not have the olfactory strength to run a dairy farm.
Day 7 – La Peule to Champex- Lac, Switzerland. Almost 16 miles and over 2800 feet in a whole lot of rain. Although the weather was not favorable and the views a bit hidden because of it, this was one of the most memorable days for me. My husband and I stayed back from the group again, enjoying our slower pace and time together. With 3 kids and a crazy life, time alone is not easy to come by. We took the time to reconnect and laugh and really take in the incredible place we were.
We marveled at the tiny details on all the houses and barns that have been standing for several hundred years in these small swiss mountain villages. And as we came through Champex-Lac, with only 30 more minutes to our next refuge, we decided to make a new plan. While the smell of roasted nuts and fresh food from the farmer’s market filled the streets, and the patrons sang along loudly to Flogging Molly in the little streetside pub, we booked the last room at The Hotel-du-Glacier (built in 1895 and still a small family business). We had gnocchi with smoked salmon and wine and took hot showers in the comfort of our own room. Which, when you have been sharing sleeping quarters and coed bathrooms with so many other people for so many days, is a really big deal. We enjoyed every moment spent here and since returning home, every time my husband mentions “Remember that night in Switzerland?” my heart overflows with love for him. I will ALWAYS remember that night in Switzerland.
Day 8 – Champex – Lac, Switzerland to Tre-Le-Champ, France. This day would have been a 20 mile day, crossing the toughest section of the entire 105 miles.
We had the option of hiking in the remaining 30 minutes and continuing on with our group, but we chose to rest this day and took the train around to our next stop. The trains in Switzerland and France are like nothing we have here in America. They are wonderful. It was a fun and adventurous morning and we got to our final lodging at Auberge La Boerne well rested and before 3pm. The rest of our group hiked to the closest town and then also took transport in to our lodging, cutting down a bit of the day’s mileage. With the exception of one feisty soul, that is, who did the entire leg. Woot Woot!
It may have been in part because a dashing Brit offered to accompany her safely along the rest of the route, or perhaps it’s because she had youth and stamina on her side. Either way, we all cheered as she arrived at our lodge right as dinner was served. We stayed at Auberge La Boerne and it was absolutely wonderful. The food was great and the rooms had the feel of being on a pirate ship. We drank and ate and laughed and truly enjoyed our last night on the trail together. Sometime during the night the resident feline wandered in and curled up on the bed with one of us, which we all took as good omen for our final day’s travel.
Day 9 – Tre-Le-Champ to Chamonix, France – the final 9 miles with about 2000 feet
in elevation gains. We had planned to hike up to the top of our ascent and then take the lifts down to Chamonix but the lifts were closed for maintenance. Whoops. So we took an alternate gravel road down from the mountains, and although steep and difficult to keep our footing in areas, we were glad to be making the file descent to town. This route also allowed us to witness an avalanche atop one of the peaks, which stopped us all in our tracks and left us feeling a bit lucky to see such a rare sighting from a safe vantage point. We returned to the same hotel we lodged at the night before we departed, The Hotel L’Heliopic Sweet and Spa.
After completing the TMB, we took full use of the pool, sauna, steam room, ice room, cold water plunge and spa at our hotel. My husband treated me to a massage at the spa and I can honestly say it was the best I’ve ever had. In town, we found the most exceptional apricot, vanilla and sea salt macaroons I’ve ever tasted and stocked up on bread, jambon and fresh apricots. The history of Chamonix is quite impressive and I am so glad I got to visit.
This was truly a once in a lifetime trip, and although I hope to return with my husband and enjoy some the highlights of the TMB again, I will never be able to duplicate this experience with the 7 incredible people I shared it with. My overall final advice for the TMB? Make the trip.
Read the book, plant the flowers, take the trip, and always have the courage to be kind.