In Travel Podcast 21 I’m walking the Tour de Mont Blanc with my friend Julia. The TMB, as it’s known, is a long distance mountain trail that takes a circular route through France, Switzerland and Italy, but rather than take 12 days to walk the whole thing we decided to walk it a few days at a time each year and this was our second year on the trail. In the podcast you’ll hear about the highs and lows of walking the trail, the pretty hamlets we passed through, the wonderful mountain scenery, the rather basic mountain refuges where we stayed and our encounter with a herd of mountain cattle with very sharp horns. Although my friend Julia had some problems with altitude which meant that we couldn’t walk as long or as far as we wished, thanks to the kindness of strangers,we made it to our end point in good spirits, ready to come back for more mountain walking next year.
The Ultra Trail in Chamonix
After we’d settled into Hotel Slalom in Les Houches, we went into Chamonix to stock up on provisions, get some cash out of the machine for both France & Switzerland and found that the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc was taking place that weekend, with four different long-distance races through the mountains on parts of the Tour de Mont Blanc trail. We sat in a cafe having a beer, watching the exhausted runners coming back into the finish at the end of the race. It was touching to see their families waiting for them, running through with them to the finish line ringing bells to welcome them back in. Another race was starting that evening from Chamonix and was due to pass by our hotel in Les Houches.
From Flegere to Tre-le-Champs
The next day we caught the bus from Les Houches into Chamonix and took the lift up to Flegere to where we had finished our walk last year. We traversed the track that skirted the mountainside and after about an hour reached a waterfall cascading down the mountain. The weather was not too kind and we were surrounded by cloud and drizzle which got worse as we gained altitude. We reached a point where several paths crossed at which point we needed to make a decision on whether to take a route that would take us down a series of metal ladders which was the quickest route, but Julia wasn’t too keen as she suffered from vertigo and we thought that drizzle and slippery ladders were not a safe combination.
Deciding to avoid the ladders due to the rain, we climbed higher and higher until the rain was practically snow and my hands were freezing. Scrambling down a rocky couloir we came out on the other side of the peak to see the road in the valley far below and the weather started to improve. Having climbed so hard to get up high, we wished we didn’t have to come down into the valley and lose the high ground.
We managed to overshoot the correct path to take us down to Tre-le-Champ and so had to walk 15 minutes down the road at the bottom of the valley to reach the pretty hamlet with wooden houses with window window boxes and hanging baskets filled with geraniums and wood piles stacked up for the winter. The Auberge de Boerne there seemed a very pleasant place to stay and we wished we could have spent the night there, although we only stopped for a lunch of quiche and salad.
Tre-le-Champs to Refuge Col de Balme
From Tre-le-Champ we climbed up through shady forest until we were above the tree line and headed higher to the peak of Aiguille de Possette, one of the highest parts of the route. It was an arduous climb with many false peaks but from the top we could look down into different valleys in all directions. As we descended on the other side, passing several green mountain pools, below us we could see a grassy meadow and a ski piste. From here we had to walk up a further hour and by this time it was 6 pm and the darkness & mist was coming in. As we got closer we met a herd of cows on the mountainside which Julia was terrified of, as she had been chased by herd of cows as a girl, so we stepped off the path and waited until they had passed by.
Julia was suffering from altitude sickness and had to go slowly but finally we reached refuge Col de Balme in darkness. At first I could not spot any signs of life, but seeing a car parked there I know there must be someone inside. As I skirted around the refuge, I finally saw an old man through the window who asked what we wanted and finally let us in. Inside a warm stove was burning and we were served an Omlette Jambon with bread and local cheese. After we’d eaten a couple of other Italian men with a teenage boy arrived, but there were no other guests. We all had to sleep in one dorm despite the fact that other rooms were available but Madame told us that they were all shut up. She gave us three blankets between the two of us – giving Julia an extra one as she had not been feeling well. When I asked whether I too might have another blanket she told me it wouldn’t be necessary as with 5 people in a room it would be warm enough. I spent the first half of the night feeling cold and trying to put on extra clothes to keep warm without disturbing the others in the room. After our restless night, we were up at 7.30 and after a breakfast of bread and jam we were on our way again. Read my diary of Day 1 on the Tour de Mont Blanc – Flegere to Col de Balme.
Refuge Col de Balme to Champex
On the suggestion of the other walkers and the man at the refuge, we took a different way to the one suggested in the guidebook which gave us a great view of the Glacier du Trient hanging above the valley. From the glacier we descended through forest to a river running at the bottom of the valley, hoping to reach Col de la Forclaz before too long. On reaching the valley bottom and crossing the bridge, however, we realised that the cafe here was not Col de la Forclaz but Chalet du Glacier. It appeared to be a favourite weekend spot for people to walk along a flat path to a picnic spot by the cafe. By that time Julia arrived, she was feeling so unwell due to the altitude so we had to stop and rest for some time in the cafe. As the route to Champex was a further 4 hours walk, we realised that there was no way we would reach the hostel before nightfall unless we made alternative plans.
At Col de la Forclaz, we investigated public transport options and found there was a train from Martigny but unfortunately the bus to take us there would not come for another 2 hours. We looked into taxis but were told they would cost ¢70, so in the end we decided to hitch hike which I had never done in my life. We stuck out our thumbs and within 5 minutes a Frenchman stopped with his teenage daughters at the back and dropped us to the station at Martigny where we could get 2 trains and a bus to reach Champex by evening. We realised that the times given in guidebook were underestimated and so we will make sure we plan for shorter legs for next year. Read my diary of Day 2 on the Tour de Mont Blanc – Col de Balme to Champex.
What to pack for the Tour de Mont Blanc
It’s worth planning the mountain clothing and equipment that you’ll need when walking the Tour de Mont Blanc, ensuring that you take just what you need, as you will have to carry it all. Key items are a comfortable pair of walking boots with ankle support, a waterproof jacket such as the gore tex jacket that I got from my local Ellis Brigham store and walking trousers made out of lightweight quick-drying material, which often have zips around the legs. I also took a pair of stretchy running trousers and some lightweight running t-shirts that would also be quick drying and not feel sweaty to wear. I recommend taking waterproof trousers but I found I didn’t use them very much so it’s probably not worth spending a lot on them.
The first thing to do when you arrive at a mountain refuge is take off your boots and normally the refuge will lend you plastic clogs or slippers, then you have a shower and change into clean clothes that are just for wearing in the refuge. I also found that it can get cold at night even in summer so a couple of fleeces are also necessary. As the refuges normally have mixed dorms, I would just sleep in your refuge gear rather than bringing special nightwear. A pair of walking poles are also essential and if you can get ones that are telescopic then they will fit more easily in your luggage. Read my article on what to wear for the Tour de Mont Blanc.
Our last day at Champex
The bus set us down in Champex and we walked up the hill to Chalet Bon Abri where we spent the night which was a lovely, efficiently run Swiss Gite and a total contrast from what we had experienced the night before. Read my article on A tale of Two Refuges to see what I mean! Champex is a pretty lakeside town and the next morning we took a turn around the lake beside the sparkling water and relaxed on the lakeside terrace of a cafe. Although she had felt quite weak due to the altitude, Julia had enjoyed our trip but decided that she needed to be fitter next year and would look into ways to avoid the altitude problems. We felt that we had under-estimated the distances involved and found that we were taking far longer to walk each part of the route than the times given in the Cicerone Tour de Mont Blanc Guide. The two different refuges we stayed in were a complete contrast – the first was run by an older couple who only unlocked the bathroom the morning when we left, making us realise how lucky we were to have the luxury of electric light rather than only a head torch to clean our teeth by, while the second was very comfortable and modern and even had wifi!
In September 2012 we plan to do the next leg of the Tour de Mont Blanc, starting at Champex and ending at Courmayeur, so look out for more Tales from the Tour de Mont Blanc later this year.
Resources for those walking the Tour de Mont Blanc
On the first night of our walk we stayed at Refuge Col de Balme (Tel 04 50 54 02 33) and the cost was around €40 per person with dinner and breakfast in a 6 bed dorm room. On our second night we stayed at Gite Bon Abri at Champex-de’en-Haut, which we highly recommend, with private rooms and dorm rooms. The cost was around CHFR 76 per person with dinner and breakfast in a 6 bed dorm room and the Gite may be booked in advance by e-mail.
For women’s mountain clothing I used Ellis Brigham who have a wide range of waterproof jackets, trousers and other walking gear you might need for a trek on the mountains.
We used the Cicerone Tour of Mont Blanc guide by Kev Reynolds – we found it to be an excellent guide for both the clockwise and anti-clockwise route with detailed route guide, maps, accommodation information and points of interest along the route.
At the start and end of our walk, we stayed at the modern, stylish, budget boutique Hotel Slalom that is perfectly placed in Les Houches for summer walking opposite the start of the anti-clockwise TMB route. Double rooms in the summer season €86-99 plus €10 breakfast. Check for the best hotel prices in Switzerland and book here.
We booked our transfer from Geneva airport to Les Houches through Chamexpress and found them to run an extremely efficient airport to hotel service – cost was €28 + tax per person each way.
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