I first heard about the tour of Mont Blanc through a couple of friends that had taken part in the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) a crazy race that sees hardy individuals complete the 170km route through 3 countries dipping down into several valleys and raising up many cols to total 10,000m of climbing in one go. Having not really spent that much time on my two feet in the mountains and the fact that you need to gain sought after qualification points and be successful in a ballot before even gaining your place on the start line completing the UTMB is currently out of my reach (for now).
After a bit more digging I found that the Tour of Mont Blanc (TMB) is a well signposted trail that circulates Mont Blanc and pretty much covers the same route as the UTMB. Every year from mid June to September 10,000 hardy walkers take on the 10-11 day trek around the ever-present Mont Blanc. My research involved buying a copy of Kev Reynolds TMB Guide and deciding that I was going to complete the route in about 4 days. I did a bit of research into how to break the route up and this was what was suggested:
Day 1 – Les Houches to Les Contamines
Day 2 – Les Contamines to Courmayer
Day 3 – Courmayer to Champex
Day 4 – Champex to Les Houches
I booked a refuge in each of these places and packed my bag ready to complete the TMB.
The first day I had planned to go from Les Houches to Les Contmaines. The guide I had seen said that it would take approximately 6hrs to get there so off I went. The route starts off with a climb up Col de Voza that on reflection of all the climbs I did this is not a very pretty climb. You ascend a dirt track without so much of a pretty view in sight; until you reach the top where it all changes and you are suddenly stood on the top of a ski run with a feeling that your adventure has really begun.
I continued on my little trip walking the uphill’s and running on the flats and downhill’s and reaching Les Contamines in 2 ½ hours. Well that was a lot quicker than I planned, I decided that it was stupid to stop so soon canceled my booking in Les Contamines and continued on my little adventure. It was on this first day that I started to get mesmerized by the waterfalls. They are a beautiful white colour and cascade down the mountains I could have stared at them for hours but continued on with the start of the climb up to Col de la Croix. This climb feels like it goes on forever and there were even patches of snow to navigate on the way. Before reaching Col de la Croix I got to the top of Col du Bonhomme and met a group of lovely American walkers who said they were planning on staying at Refuge des Mottets, it sounded great and I crossed my fingers and hoped they would have space for me. I arrived at the refuge at around 4.30pm 7hrs 45mins after leaving Les Houches. It was very pretty set into the hillside and in a regenerated cowshed with other walkers already there basking in the sunshine, stretching and hanging up washing. I wondered inside and luckily there was space for me at the refugee and I got shown my deluxe bed ha! Dinner was at 7pm so I had time to grab a shower and wash my kit and get ready for the next day. Dinner was a lovely affair you got shown to your designated spot and fed a wonderful 4-course meal. We had soup, salad, Beef Bourguignon and then crème brulee. After dinner with my ears plugs firmly in I headed off to bed hoping that I would be able to walk the following day.
Waking up after a slightly restless nights sleep I decided to abandon my original plan and my new one was to go for as long as I could and then find somewhere to stay for the night…completely sensible! So after a breakfast of muesli, bread and jam I put my packed lunch in my bag and started the first climb of the day up Col de la Seigne. Once you reach the top of the col there is an awesome downhill/flat stretch that lasts around 10km where you can really open up your stride and get into a good running rhythm. With a slight up hill up to Mont Favre Spur there is then another awesome downhill to Courmayer. Courmayer is a pretty big village and people choosing to do half of the tour can stop here and hop on a bus back to Chamonix. I wound my way through Courmayer and started the climb towards Refuge Bonatti. This climb felt like it was going on forever and apparently the wasps and flys of Italy decided that they wanted to surround me and be part of my journey…I was thrilled by this. I started to struggle a bit on this climb so decided to find a little rock over looking the valley to tuck into my packed lunch. After a fuel boost I carried on up the hill and stopped again at the Refugue for a coke, which was amazing in the 30 degrees heat and tucked into a very generous slice of apple cake. From here the route is beautiful skirting around the side of hills with an awesome view of the valley below. It was along this part of the route that I realised that I was going to have to go all the way to the bottom of the valley before climbing back up again to Refuge Elena where I had planned to stay the night, I was less than thrilled about this as I was quite tired now. Never the less I made my way to the Refuge that was perched on top of a hill glistening in the distance. After 10hrs on my feet I arrived at the refuge again playing roulette to see if they had space for me which they did – thank god. This refuge was reinforced with steel after being caught in an avalanche in the 1950’s. The views from here are amazing. I met a lovely guy from Australia and a couple from the UK and we shared our stories of the day and tucked into a wonderful meal of antipasti, pasta, chicken and vegetables, fruit and finally chocolate cake. I was suitably stuffed at the end of that meal. The night was finished off by a group of French walkers grabbing their guitar that they just happened to bring along with them and singing along cheerfully to a host of songs.
I was glad to wake up and still be able to walk, always a bonus when that is your main aim for the day. Today I would try and get from Italy all the way through Switzerland and to the border of France so off I went climbing the Grand Col Ferret getting to the top of the Col there was again a good stretch of downhill’s and flat sections that went through quaint Swiss villages. Once I got to Issert it turns out there were some road works going on blocking the signs that I needed and sending me slightly off course. I noticed after about 1mile that I was meant to be on a track further up the hill so had to do a bit of cross country scrambling until I finally got back on course and reached Champex where I grabbed a sport of lunch next to the lake in the sunshine. The course is pretty well marked the whole way with a range of signs however I did find the signs not to be as good in Switzerland this said with help of the guide book you cant go too wrong.
After lunch my legs seized up a bit so I had to walk for a mile or so until I could start running again. I wanted to get to the refuge at the top of Col de Balme which apparently had great views into Switzerland and France so I made my way up mountains extremely grateful that I had a bit of my sandwich left to snack on on the way up the mountain. On reaching the top I bumped into a few people wondering why the Refuge was closed… my ad hoc accommodation plan was no longer working. I had a quick check of my guide book to see that there were quite a few Gites in Le Tour so made my way back down the Chamonix valley to find a place to stay for the night. I found a beautiful gite and had a lovely meal of salad, chicken, rice and fruit mouse outside with a couple of girls from America and a British couple. Again we shared stories of our trip so far and started day dreaming about the ice cream that we would all be eating in Chamonix the following day.
Today was going to be a relatively short day with the climb up to the top of Le Brevant and a quick dash down to Les Houches. As I started the climb up my foot started to hurt and annoyingly this was due to my shoelaces and the tongue of the trainers pushing into the top of my foot. It was fine going up hill and I could get a good pace going on however on the downhill and flats it didn’t want to play and the bits were I should have made good time I had to walk. As I got to La Flegere I saw a lovely Dutch lady that I had met two days before in Refuge Mottets. She had a first aid kit and very kindly helped me try to put a bit of cushioning on the top of my foot via blister plasters. Unfortunately this didn’t really help so I just decided to stroll away and enjoy my last little bit of the adventure. Reaching the top of Le Brevant and looking at the mountains that I had just circled on my little feet was a pretty awesome felling. I started to make my way down the last bit of the route with my shoelaces undone which relieved the pressure on my foot. Four days later I arrived back in Les Houches with a great feeling of accomplishment having just completed the Tour Mont Blanc.
I have to say that this was one of the best things I have ever done. It was unusual for me not to be racing the clock and other people but the feeling of accomplishment was huge. This was definitely a challenge, a fun one with awesome views that I would absolutely do again and fingers crossed I will be on the UTMB start line one day.
Salomon 20 litre backpack – 2 × 750ml Water bottles – Kev Reynoles Guide – Phone – Money – Passport – Phone and watch charger – Shorts, Sports bra and vest – Trail Shoes – Garmin – Sunglasses – Pajamas – Shorts, t-shirt and jumper to change into at night – Waterproof jacket and compression tights – Gloves and buff – Underwear and spare socks – Flip flops – Vaseline, lip balm, shower gel, sun block, insect repellent, toothpaste and tooth brush – Earplugs – Sleeping bag liner – Gels – Compass – Emergency blanket