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Tour de Mont Blanc

August 13, 2012

I’ve recently come back from doing a decent stretch of the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB). Not surprisingly, it was thoroughly enjoyable being in the mountains and getting a range of perspectives on this beautiful part of the Alps.

Jovet Lac- a detour on the route up to Col du Bonhomme

What is TMB? It’s a mountain walk that skirts the Mont Blanc massif; about ten day’s walking if you do 6-7 hours a day. The altitudes are 1,000m to 2,600+ going up and down mountain passes and valleys with some alpine villages on the way. Usually done July-September when most of the snow has gone at that height. There is a well signed route (finger posts and way-marks) with some alternatives and additions. It can be done clockwise or anti-clockwise (the guidebooks debate this). We went anti-clockwise.

Views of the glaciers and peaks of the massif

In practice there is quite a lot of flexibility about how you do it with short or long stages and rest days. Lots of people do just some of it to fit in with the time available, or skip bits. We started at les Contamines and went round to le Tour. We skipped a bit by taking a bus from Courmeyeur to Arnuva, walking over Grand Col Ferret and down to la Fouly village and then getting a bus from there to Champex. Six days walking in all. We were ‘self-guided’ but our main baggage was transported for us so that meant carrying just a day sac, other than for two of the days. Some want to do the whole tour as a challenge some as quickly as possible. Some stretches can be done by mountain bike.

What’s the walking like? Most of the stages involve at least one major ascent and descent; say around 1,000 metres up and the same down. So it’s roughly equivalent to doing one of the main Lake District or North Wales peaks each day, plus some more. Many of the paths are mature having been used for trade, farming and connecting isolated village communities for hundreds of years. The route out of Les Contamines goes back to Roman times. So the ascents can be steep and pretty tiring (especially if you’re overweight and a bit out of condition) but they’re not technical and – of course – there’s the huge pleasure of reaching the top of a col (pass) and a whole new vista opening up.

The ascent to Col du Bonhomme

A big attraction is the variety of the landscape. TMB goes round the Mont Blanc massif so you’re always getting different perspectives on the glaciers,  peaks, needles and gorges. The route goes through France, Italy and Switzerland and mixes pastoral valleys with farms, hamlets and small villages with bleaker and rockier mountainsides and lakes. The numbers of flowers, in mid-July, took me by surpise; the mountainsides were carpeted in purple, blue and yellow. We also saw plenty of wildlife including ibex and marmottes.

An Alpine astred; one of a mass of flowers on the TMB

To get the most out of a walk like this, it’s important to be able to recuperate. A lot of the pleasure is concentrated physical activity followed by rest and food! TMB is well served by accommodation- mountain refuges as well as B&B, gites d’etape and small hotels in the villages. The location of some of the refuges is superb; it’s hard to beat ending the day and starting the next one high up in the mountains.


The refuge at Col de Croix du Bonhomme (2433 metres)

The refuges on TMB are mainly open mid-June to mid-late September; the facilities are fine if you like communal living- meals are taken together round large tables and sleeping is in dormitories. In our experience there’s a good collective ethos (a bit like the youth hostels of yesteryear): friendliness, sharing and respect for other users- for instance a tacit ‘lights out’ at ten in the evening. A whole mix of people were doing TMB; young teens with their parents up to many past 60 (me included). Some on their own, some in twos and threes, and groups, some guided and some not.

What about the weather? As I’ve said it’s basically a summer walk but that doesn’t guarrantee the weather. In fact the changes in the weather during the day, and at different heights, is one of the characteristics of mountains and a an attraction. We went during the second week of July and the weather was mixed: sun, showers, some low cloud, windy on top.

Sun breaking through low clouds as we go up to Col de la Forclaz

The rain and low cloud did mean that we couldn’t do the high route  from Champex over la Fenetre d’Arpette, a highlight of TMB but dangerous in bad weather conditions.

So: well worth doing. Have a read of one of the guidebooks beforehand and plan a route that suits you. All the best!


From → Mountain walking

One Comment
  1. permalink

    Well done Pete. Best regards Chris

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