Making a complete circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif, the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is one of Europe's greatest long distance treks. Combining wooded trails, high altitude meadows and rugged mountain passes, the 170km circuit provides a world class journey through stunning alpine scenery - and all within the grasp of the experienced British hillwalker. Justifiably popular, the tour attracts some 10,000 walkers a year, so whilst solitude is rare the spectacular views and friendly huts easily compensate. Travelling by foot through France, Italy and Switzerland, the trail allows three distinct cultures, and more importantly cuisines, to be sampled.
It is possible to start the TMB from many points, and to complete it in either direction. The most popular approach, and that offered by most guiding companies, is to complete the circuit by heading anti-clockwise from Les Houches in the Chamonix valley.
In its first days the tour heads south to Les Contamines before tackling one of its more difficult climbs to reach the wild-feeling Col du Bonhomme. The time spent between here and the Col de la Seigne provides a rare chance to escape modern life, a mobile phone signal black hole keeping the mind focussed on surroundings. From the Col de la Seigne, with its crumbling World War Two vintage military fortifications, the tour crosses into Italy before heading down to Courmayeur.
Leaving Courmayeur, the route heads up the Mont de la Saxe ridge to the Bonatti Refuge. With panoramic views of the south faces of Mont Blanc and the Grand Jorasses, many trekkers find this to be their favourite day of the trip. The following day involves a big climb up to the Grand Col Ferret, from where the Grand Combin and other Swiss 4000m peaks come into sight. From here a gradual descent leads down to the Swiss village of La Fouly.
After the previous two days of ascent the gentle valley trail running through quaint Swiss villages leading from La Fouly to Champex is a blessing for tired legs. From here, the Tour climbs through forest tracks which gradually give way to high alpine pasture, before the Col de la Forclaz is met. Keep an eye out for the decaying remains of Swiss military instalations, before descending to the sleepy village of Trient.
For its final three days the Tour heads back into the Chamonix valley. A gradual climb leads up from Trient to the Aiguille de Posettes, from where it is possible to see the remainder of your trek. From the Posettes a short descent leads down to Tre Le Champ. The last two days of the tour, heading through the Aiguilles Rouge to Les Houches, are a highlight for many, allowing for the enjoyment of spectacular views of the Mont Blanc Massif whilst safe in the knowledge that you are on the home straight.
"Though it sounds daunting, the trek is well within the capabilities of anyone with reasonable hillwalking fitness"
How hard is it?
With nearly 10,000 metres of height gain over its 170km length the Tour can sound quite daunting. While it would be physically possible to race around the circuit in a few days - indeed the world's best trail runners complete it in just 20 hours - to make the most of the experience it is worth taking your time. Broken down into manageable sections over a traditional ten or eleven days, the trek is well within the capabilities of anyone with a reasonable level of hillwalking fitness. The longest days tend to take around eight hours, with the hike from Les Contamines to Les Chapieux often judged to be the toughest, tackling over 1400m of height gained over its 21km. By adding a couple of rest days along the way the trail provides an exceptionally satisfying mountain experience, easily fitting into two weeks away from work.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc
As you drag your weary limbs up the climbs during the final days of your tour spare a thought for those who arrive at the same point with thousands of metres of height gain already in their legs. Each year some 2,500 competitors set off to run, hike, stagger and crawl their way around the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, or UTMB for short. One of the world's most famous 'ultra' marathons, this race follows the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc, with the winners completing the 170km circuit in a little over twenty hours.
By mountain bike
For those who fancy something a little different it is possible to complete a version of the tour by mountain bike, enjoying the same fantastic views along with some great descents. Some sections on the classic walker's route are unrideable, but by choosing alternative trails a similar circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif can involve very little pushing or carrying of bikes. By mountain bike the circuit is likely to take four days.
Guided or unguided?
An experienced hillwalker with a grasp of navigation should feel comfortable attempting the TMB without a guide. For those with less experience there are a number of companies who offer guided trips around the Tour, staffed by qualified International Mountain Leaders. These organised tours usually include food and accommodation, meaning that you don't have to spend time booking huts and hotels before leaving home. These companies often offer open trips, meaning that you can walk with a group of others - great if you've always fancied the trek but can't find partners to join you.
When to go?
The mountain huts which can be used on the Tour open in mid-June and usually close in mid-September. There may be patches of hard snow on the higher cols early in the season, necessitating the use of an ice axe and crampons (or yaktrax style walking crampons). Snow usually clears by the beginning of July, so plan for a later trip if you would prefer to avoid carrying extra equipment. Towards the end of September the weather can deteriorate, however a self-sufficient trip at this time of year could enjoy quiet trails and beautiful autumnal conditions given a spot of meteorological luck. Those who prefer to enjoy peace in the mountains should avoid the busy UTMB period at the end of August.
How to get there
Most people start and finish their trip in Chamonix, the internationally famous mountain town perennially popular with British walkers and climbers. The quickest and easiest way to get there is to fly into Geneva airport and then jump onto a pre-booked minibus transfer. Driving to the Alps may prove to be more cost effective if travelling in a large group, but the ten-hour drive from Calais to Chamonix never seems to fly by. It's also possible to reach Chamonix from the UK by train in a long day, travelling through the channel tunnel.
Where to stay
There is absolutely loads of choice in Chamonix, from simple campsites and cheap hostels to five star hotels. The Ski Station is one of the good budget options, and offers free bag storage while you are away trekking.
When trekking, the style in which you choose to travel will dictate where you sleep. It is possible to stay in fully catered mountain huts and hotels every night, to be completely self-sufficient by carrying your own tent and food, or to find a mid-point between the two. Accommodation often fills up during the busiest period between mid-July and the end of August, so booking in advance is a good idea. The different accommodation options, along with contact details, are described in the guidebooks listed below.
Rest day activities
For those with a desire to savour their mountain journey, or simply in need of a rest for weary legs, it is worth spending an extra day or two in the towns and villages along the route. If completing the Tour anti-clockwise from Chamonix, then Courmayeur provides the perfect place to take a day out. A short bus ride away, an afternoon spent at the spa at Pre Saint Didier will soak away aches and pains. Alternatively, the Helbroner lift allows access to views usually reserved for hardened alpinists, with the option to ride small cable-car bubbles across the Vallee Blanche to the Aiguille du Midi. Round off the day by enjoying delicious Italian food in Courmayeur's cobbled town centre.
On organised trips, overnight bags are usually transported by vehicle each day, meaning that you can enjoy hiking with a light pack. Those walking without a guide can also enjoy walking with a lighter pack as it is possible to organise for a local company to transfer luggage between nightly accommodation.
The weather in the alps in the summer is best described as unpredictable. It is possible to experience both roasting hot weather and snow storms on the same trip, and occasionally during the same day. As the summer continues it is not uncommon for spectacular evening thunder storms to develop. If the forecast is for an afternoon deterioration, then an early start is advisable. It is essential to be prepared for all conditions, from baking sunshine to cold, wet storms. You would be extremely unlucky to have to cancel your trip due to bad weather, but particularly severe storms may necessitate a temporary change of route to avoid the highest passes.
The trail is generally well marked, but maps are still needed. The following options are all available form the Office de Haute Montagne in Chamonix.
IGN 3531: Saint-Gervais, 1:25,000 & IGN 3630: Chamonix, 1:25,000
Pays du Mont Blanc, 1:50,000, IGM Rando editions
Tour du Mont Blanc, 1:50,000, L'Escursionista editore, includes a booklet containing topographical photos of the tour.
Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide by Kev Reynolds (pb. Cicerone).
A comprehensive guide to the TMB, the book describes and maps the route by daily stages in both anti-clockwise and clockwise directions, with variants and information about huts, refuges and facilities en route.
This guide is in full colour, with points of interest, accommodation details and overview maps for every stage, along with details of the natural and cultural history of the region. There are also routes around Courmayeur and Arnuva and to Lac Blanc as well as essential practical information on travel to and around the Mont Blanc Massif, mountain safety, languages, currency and more. The result is an ideal companion to take on one of the world's greatest mountain adventures.
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