Dates of Trip:
The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a 110-mile Alpine trail traversing three countries and circumnavigating Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, a peak which overlooks the entire circuit from the dizzying height of 4810m. And although the TMB and its variants rarely go above 3000m, the trail has no shortage of climbs and cliffs, gaining (and losing) over 10,000m of elevation. But with great heights come great views. Anyone who partakes in even a tidbit of the TMB is rewarded with relentless vistas of breathtaking peaks, tranquil pastures, and cozy villages.
The Alps are a mountain range I fell in love with as a child. I would stare at pictures of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, dreaming of skiing the slopes beneath. In 2015, when I finally had the opportunity to work in Grenoble, France surrounded by the Alps for a summer, I discovered the existence of the TMB. Naturally, I decided to attempt it near the end of my summer, but after just three days of hiking, I fell ill and had to stop in La Fouly, Switzerland. This irked me, taunted me, and pained my soul for the next 2 years.
Fortunately in 2017, I received an offer to work in Geneva, Switzerland for the summer, and upon confirming, I knew I absolutely had to attempt the route again. And thanks to the tremendous generosity of the MITOC Sean Collier Adventure Grant, I was able to set forth in my journey without worry of finances but, instead, with a renewed sense of vigor to finish what I had started and to come back with quite the story to tell. Here is the condensed version…
After failing to navigate the French railways from Geneva, Switzerland to Chamonix, France in a timely manner, I arrived in Montroc, one train stop past Chamonix, about three hours later than I had otherwise intended. Now late in the day and already frustrated, I finally started my hike up the small French peak in front of me, heading towards the boarder with Switzerland. Today, the next, and part of the subsequent would be spent re-visiting the valleys and peaks of this unique edge of the Swiss Alps. I camped just over the French mountain in the valley on the other side, meeting some French people just finishing their hike of the TMB, having been going clockwise. The next day, I trekked well over 23 miles and well over a vertical mile both gained and lost, bringing myself to the point of exhaustion and nearly quitting and wild camping. Thankfully, I was able to push through those last miles and stay at a real campsite with some internet access. Throughout the day, I had battled drizzle, cows on the track, and stomaching delicious hot chocolate. Such frivolous problems puts things into good perspective.
This exhaustion nearly stymied my trip. Already, I was considering a rest day, but instead, I just slept in a few extra hours and was ready to go the next day, finally about to venture into new territory! A few hours of hiking, and I was nearly to the Italian border. I stopped for some coffee, met some fellow Americans, and received some advice on where to camp that night. After coffee, I trekked onwards and upwards until I reached the border, the top of a mountain looking down into a long and straight Italian valley. My first glimpses of this new country! Stunning! The glacier nearby fed the chilly winds and made staying here impossible, so I slowly made my way down to the valley floor, losing light with every step. Growing tired, it took quite some effort to push onwards up the next climb, but the hint I was given for a possible campsite kept my fire alive. Eventually, I reached the spot: a chunk of ruins. I was somewhat surprised to stumble upon a few others there who had already set up camp, but by the darkness, we had quite the merry collection of international hikers seeking refuge by these ruins (but certainly not inside of!).
The next morning, I enjoyed coffee at the nearby refuge with a Hungarian I had met the night prior before heading further up the mountain, electing to take the high-route variant of the TMB. I quickly got lost, yet I just happened to run into a gracious Italian who brought it upon himself to walk me nearly all the way to Courmayeur, the next Italian city. It was brutally hot, and I even ran out of water, but the views were worth every tidbit of this light suffering. The Italian and I parted ways, I found a refuge that offered food and water, and I just happened to meet up with a Romanian who had also spent the night at the ruins. We sat, ate, talked, and ultimately hiked down into the Courmayeur valley together. Both exhausted from the demands the high route of the TMB had exacted upon our bodies, we deciphered the Italian bus system which brought us to the only campsites in the area, a few miles from the city. Camping anywhere near the city was illegal, and there was no way we had it left in our bodies to hike out of the very low-lying city valley into the high mountain passes before sunset.
That night we enjoyed a pizza together before heading to sleep early. The next morning, we caught an early bus, explored Courmayeur, and stocked up on food. I would be continuing my trip, but my newfound Romanian friend elected to take a rest day and do some sight-seeing. I meandered my way up the scorching slopes out of Courmayeur, looking back here and there to enjoy the view of the city. The trail went up and then around the mountain. My target for the night was a refuge that welcomed campers; however, the sun was setting, the temperature was plummeting, and my will was fading. On a potty break, I happened to find a nice flat spot that was sheltered from the wind at a legally-acceptable (above 2500m) spot to camp. I jumped on the opportunity, set up camp, and watched the sun set behind the grandiose mountains and fantastical valley before me.
I woke up too early the next day. Even at 5am it was hardly light out enough to justify getting out of my warm bed, so I slept in another hour. Once packed up, I headed out, and found myself finally losing some altitude and heading towards the valley floor. For the first time during the hike, I actually experienced some flat ground! Most valley walks had a slight up or downhill, but this valley was perfectly flat and along a river for a solid mile, at minimum. Then my climb to the French-Italian border began. I stopped by a hut that had some very interesting nature factoids, but ultimately, I had an aggressive goal for the day, so I had to continue on. I made it to the border-crossing, met some more Americans who were just starting their TMB adventures, but we did not dwell long. The weather was clearly deteriorating, and we wanted to go down. The drizzle began during my descent, but luckily I found a mountain hut where I bought crepes and rode out the worst of the deluge. Then I had to decide which path I would take to my final destination, Refuge du Bonhomme (which welcomed campers). Would I take the high variant that had cumulative less climbing, or would I take the path that lost another 200 meters elevations before climbing to my destination. I elected to take the high route. Perhaps, not the best idea. I found myself nearing 2500 meters in altitude and surrounded by a thunderstorm. Luckily, I found some other Americans (literally the only other crazy people up here at the time) with whom I weathered out the storm. They were both very experienced mountaineers who agreed this was not the best decision, but we were there, so we just hunkered down. Together, we hiked and made our way to Refuge du Bonhomme. It was a muddy and slippery and then rocky path, but it was fun!
That night, I was allowed to make use of the refuge common area before heading off to sleep. The next day, I slept in until 9am or so, before slowly packing and heading out. I was out of euros and rather hungry, so I thought that perhaps I would stay at the campsite just at the bottom of this over one vertical mile descent, but upon reaching the campsite, which was well outside the neighboring town, that no, I should press on. I ended up buying myself a well-deserved heavy lunch which was very welcome after not eating for nearly 24 hours and hiking all too many miles on an empty stomach. After, I purchased groceries and made my way towards Les Houches, the town most people start their counter-clockwise TMB trek from. I was only one day from my TMB end… so I thought. On the very small peak right before the town of Les Houches, where I otherwise would have paid to camp, I met some hikers who had told me the nearby hotel granted them permission to camp, and that I was free to join them. Saving some money and meeting fellow hikers sounded great, so I stopped and enjoyed their company. I helped a German guy sort of fix his tent, and eventually went to sleep.
The German asked me, the next morning, if he could hike with me. He was young (19) and a complete novice without a map. I felt so bad for the kid! He had a few days to kill before meeting a friend in Italy and completely underestimated the demand hiking would take on his body. I ended up spending most of the day helping him better prepare for his few days of hiking and camping. Upon arrival in Les Houches, he was exhausted, so we had enjoyed some coffee before taking a bus into nearby Chamonix where we found a bag drop in which we placed all of his extra items that were weighing him down, including (but not limited to) a newly procured rock collection, several novels, extra clothes and shoes for his Italy trip, and somehow more. By the time we made it back to Les Houches, and heading up the next climb, we were both tired, and I could hardly protest when he asked we stop for the night when we came across a clearing in the forest that looked inviting. Frustrated that I should have been done with my hike by then, and saying goodbye to all hopes of completing the intended second half of my hiking trip, I was probably not the best campsite buddy. I regret this immensely, but I certainly learned my lesson.
The next day, we very slowly hiked up to the ridgeline overlooking Chamonix and directly across from Mont Blanc. The views were stunning but the pace miserably slow. I wanted to finish my hike today and reach Montroc! At the highest point of the ridge, I gave the German fellow a piece of my map and told him where he could camp for the next day in Chamonix because I really wanted to continue on solo. This was not so much because he was a poor hiking partner, but rather, this was a solo journey for me to explore and exacerbate my limits. I needed the space to think and emotionally recollect. I couldn’t do this with a multi-day hiking partner stranger. He was very understanding, thanked me for all the help I had given him thus far, and we split up. Despite this, nighttime and my energy levels were falling. I ran into some French people who had already set up camp not far from the trail. I asked them if there was anywhere camp-able nearby if I continued for another hour or so. They said definitely no, so they invited me to stay with them. I gratefully accepted, but I pitched my tent some distance away from the kind couple.
The next morning, they insisted on sharing with me their coffee and a bit of bread, for which I was immensely thankful, for I had once again run out of food (having been promised food by the German kid that I had left behind. Oops?). We parted ways, and I headed towards Montroc, slowly and mostly losing altitude. I got to navigate several vertical meters of scary ladders which, for those who have never tried, were downright ridiculous with a heavy pack on! An interesting experience on my weary mind and legs. But eventually, I made it down and I headed towards the Montroc train station where my journey had begun.
Something felt different. I wasn’t sure what. A sense of accomplishment, perhaps? Certainly a boost of confidence and an ample contrast to the fear I had had before. But mostly and honestly, I was hangry. I did not linger long and I had to walk another hour and a half before I found a place to eat. I enjoyed a large lunch, great coffee, and some very nice wifi before hitting up the local grocery store and heading to the local campsite which I would use as a basecamp for my hikes during my last few days in France. My knee was immensely aggravated, and dears of an old injury resurfaced stifled any hopes of finishing the large ‘second half’ of my hike I had hoped to complete, but I was still able to enjoy my remaining days in the area, meeting some more great people, hiking to a glacial pass I had visited two years prior, and enjoying the raw beauty that always brings my heart back to the Alps.
The “me” who started the TMB no longer exists, and a far better version ended up in Montroc those few days later. I recommend you, too, try it sometime and that you will enjoy the new “you.”