The Tour Du Mont Blanc
If you have been keeping up to date with my recent blogs and social media posts, you will know that we have been doing quite a lot of hiking in my spare time. All this hiking has been our preparation for the Tour Du Mont Blanc.
Living in a ski resort means that you get to meet some interesting and useful people. A friend of ours, Paddy Morris is a ski instructor in the winter, but he is also an international mountain leader and a thoroughly nice bloke. Paddy said he was organising a hiking trip from St Gervais in France to Courmayeur in Italy, which makes up part of the TMB.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all travel, and the TMB is very popular during the summer with tourists from America and the Far East. But, the enforced travel restrictions mean that there is virtually nobody doing it right now.
We live about an hour from the start point and the local travel restrictions area have been relaxed, meaning we could do the hike and take advantage of the lack of tourists.
There are a few versions of Tour Du Mont Blanc, including hiking, road and mountain bike routes that take you around Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain. The full route takes you through France, Italy, and Switzerland and usually takes around seven days to complete on foot. There is an ultra marathon that follows the route, called the UTMB, which is 106km of running up and down mountains.
We are not ultra-marathon runners, but a unique opportunity came up to hike a section of the tour with barely anyone else on it.
We drove from Morzine to St Gervais near Chamonix. We met up with Paddy, and the rest of our group at the tram station. We boarded the Tram Du Mont Blanc, which took 1200m of climbing out of our hike. Some people may say this was cheating, but I don’t care, as it was a very pleasant way to start the trip and it meant that we could cover the whole distance in three days.
The Tramway du Mont Blanc is one of France’s last mountain rack-rail trains and is the highest railway in the Haute-Savoie department of France.
This cog railway winds its way up from Saint-Gervais, Le Fayet, between meadows, pastures and small mountain lakes, via Les Houches to the Nid d’Aigle (The Eagle’s Nest) at 2,372m. We got off the tram at Les Houches to start our hike.
The route kept us in the tree line for the majority of the day’s hike with the exception of the Col du Tricot, where we saw our first big descent down a steep technical trail, which I would love to mountain bike down at some point.
With another big climb, we got to our refuge for the night. We increased our pace, as the sky was getting pretty grey and an electrical storm was brewing. The thunder and the few flashes of lightning were a bit unnerving as, we were very close to the clouds. Piers, the tallest of our group had his walking poles sticking out of his backpack. Paddy advised him to take them out, as they looked a lot like a lightning conductor at the time.
There are some refuges on the Tour De Mont Blanc that get quite a lot of business, so they are pretty good in terms of their amenities. The first night we stayed in the Refuge de Tré La Tête. We had hot running water and cold beer on our arrival, which was very welcome after 25km yomping up and down the mountains. The storm cleared as we arrived at the refuge, so the refuge guardians built up some picnic benches that gave us the most impressive view during dinner I have ever had.
The refuge had some chickens roaming around. I know these are not typically mountain animals, but the refuge guardian told us that they are very good at killing snakes! We didn’t see any snakes, so the chickens were obviously doing a great job.
After dinner, for some reason a few of us thought we hadn’t done enough walking, so we hiked up the mountain above the refuge. This was exactly the right thing to do, as we saw a heard of young Chamois playing on the cliff tops and some marmots.
Chamois are very cute mountain goats, with the amazing ability to stand on the most precarious cliff faces while chasing each other and play fighting, as you can see from my video below.
With slightly sore toes, we set off from our refuge at about 8 am after breakfast. Day 2 was a long one taking on the Col du Bonhomme and the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, taking us up to 2479m. There was still quite a lot of snow and streams to cross on the route, so hiking boots were a necessity.
What goes up, must come down, so from the top of the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, we descended the other side to Les Chappieux with stunning views and a few more marmots. But, of course, we had to hike up again for a further 6km to our refuge along a road. Strangely, this was the most difficult part of the whole hike. I think this was more of a mental thing though, considering the terrain we had already covered.
Our second refuge was the Refuge Les Mottets, which seemed a lot newer than the previous one. On arrival, a refuge guardian came outside to take our drinks order and give us all the information about our rooms. This service was a great welcome after 34km of hiking. We did have to share a room with another couple in our group, but this is still pretty good for a refuge. The food was great, and not far off restaurant quality.
Our final day saw us crossing the border into Italy, which was just less than an hour’s hike above the refuge (which provided an excellent packed lunch for us all), up the Col de Seigne. The col was quite steep with a few streams to cross formed from melting snow from above.
There were a few more people on this part of the route, mainly elderly people. It was inspiring to see super-fit seventy-year-olds taking on this epic hike. However, we did see a young guy that had run out of steam, who was lying on the ground. We offered him some sugary snacks and some water, while his friend came to pick his backpack up, before leaving him there (what a great friend!). After making sure he was OK we continued to the top of the col.
Do you see that feint spiky mountain in the valley in the photo above? Well, our finishing point in Courmayeur was just behind that. So there was still a fair distance to travel in fact, the whole day’s hike was about 35km. For me, this leg of the journey was the best part. The alpine views from this valley and the next one were epic, and among the best I have seen.
Our route saw us traversing the Col Chécroui, a balcony high on the mountainside. This gave us views of how the Glacier Miage cut through rock forming the valley. Although, we were preoccupied with the number of marmots running around the meadows either side of the hiking trail.
As we descended towards Courmayeur, we were considering taking the Dolonne cable car down into Courmayeur itself. This was due to tired feet and aching bodies, but once we got to the top of the cable car, we found out that it was not running.
So we stopped at the restaurant at the top to refuel with ice cream, before setting off again. The route took us down an old downhill mountain bike trail. It got pretty steep, and Carolyn and I found it easier to actually run down the mountain. It was much easier on our knees and quads to speed up for the last 700m of descent. As we started running, we came across a guy with a broken arm. He had fashioned a sling from a buff and used a climbing carabiner to attach it to his backpack. This was obviously a recent injury, but it didn’t stop him running with us.
Although we probably would have taken the option of getting on the cable car, we were glad we finished it off properly with that last downhill section. It gave us a great sense of achievement for completing our planned route on foot.
Carolyn and I had a plan to have a beer and a big bowl of pasta in Courmayeur. However, by the time we got into the town square by the church, we only had 30 minutes to spare before meeting our taxi to take us back to our car in St Gervais. Luckily this was enough time for a celebratory beer.
Staying In A Refuge
I have stayed in refuges without running water and have had me virtually sleeping in the same bed as a stranger. The idea behind a refuge is to rest and refuel yourself for hiking, skiing, climbing and mountain biking in remote areas of the alps.
Some people are disappointed in the service refuges give, especially wealthy tourists. You need to remember that in many cases, they are resupplied by helicopter, due to their remoteness. And they are built for alpinists to rest on their way to some epic adventure. Therefore, you need to take all this in to account when staying in one.
Was It Difficult?
The first day we hiked 25km, the second, 34km and around 35km on the third day. This is a fair distance, but you have to take into account the elevation. You are constantly climbing and descending, which is hard work with a heavy backpack on. For me, the downhill sections were the hardest, as it puts lots of strain on your knees and quads.
The first few steps in the morning are not exactly inspiring. However, after about 15 minutes, you loosen up and feel fine to push on throughout the day.If you want to do anything like this, I recommend that you get some hiking in before you go. The training hikes we did proved invaluable and helped us massively.
I am not going to go into a full kit list, but as we were staying in refuges, we didn’t need to take camping equipment. Due to the coronavirus guidelines, we had to take our sleeping bags. In hindsight, we could have saved weight with just taking a liner, as it was pretty warm in the refuges.
We had to take clothing that covered the potential weather conditions you can experience in the Alps. So I took a good, breathable and waterproof jacket and trousers. But I walked in a technical t-shirt and shorts the whole time.
There was a bit of a debate, whether to wear trail running shoes or hiking boots. We took, both, as our bags had space. This may seem like unnecessary weight, but boots were good for hiking over snow and through water, while trail running shoes were cooler and more comfortable. The change in footwear was welcomed when it was needed.
The most important items we carried were snacks and water. The refuges did provide lunch, but it was good to keep topped up with fuel along the way. There are a few places where you can refill water bottles and hydration packs from natural springs.
Would I Do It Again?
I am glad I did the hike, but that box has been ticked now. I would love to do another hike from Courmayeur or nearby, with an overnight stay in a refuge. This would give me the chance to explore a part of the Alps that I am not familiar with, and I would make sure there would be time for that big bowl of pasta!