The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a walking trail in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, a 180km (112 miles) circuit of Mont Blanc, starting and finishing in Les Houches near Chamonix. The highest point reached by the standard route is 2,584m (8,478ft). Trekkers typically take eleven days to complete the circuit, give or take a day or two. This is bucket list stuff and an unforgettable experience. But you have to be quite fit.
The TMB is manageable for normal fit mountain walkers who are happy to walk for between 5h and 7h 30m per day along a long-distance trail. It will greatly help your enjoyment of the trek to arrive fit at the start, used to walks of similar distance and height gain to those that you are about to face.
The TMB is tackled in eleven stages, the villages and huts used along the route determine the distances each day. Perhaps the toughest stage is the 21km (13 miles) walk from Les Contamines to Les Chapieux. This involves a total ascent of 1,430m (4,692ft) to cross the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme at 2,479m (8,133ft).
For those wary of walking the TMB in one go, there are many towns and villages along the route suitable for rest days. A rest day in Courmayeur, a superb little Italian town, or maybe Argentiere in the Chamonix valley could extend the duration of the walk and give you a breather if you find the going tough.
If you’re thinking of tackling the TMB, the window is quite short. The Tour du Mont Blanc season runs from the start of July to the middle of September. This short season is imposed by the weather. There’s a likelihood of late-Spring snow patches remaining into late June across the higher passes, and the chance of the weather deteriorating into late September. The weather can be unpredictable, even in the height of summer. The typical summer’s day in the Alps brings hot sun, perhaps with occasional rain or afternoon storms. However, fresh snowfalls occur each summer on a handful of occasions. Most often, these leave a coating of an inch or two on higher passes only, and they disappear in a day or two, sometimes the snow stays for longer periods and is deeper. While the TMB should be approached as a summer Alpine trek, with snow quite unlikely, it is wise to know that snow can fall even in summer, so it really is essential to be prepared for the worst.
Underfoot you will experience a variety of tracks and trails on the TMB. The mountainous sections run on single-track paths that can be rocky in places, sometimes with steps but mostly just the bare earth. Mud is not a problem in the same way as on paths in the UK, for example! Tracks are also common – perhaps gravel forest roads, ski pistes, or rough tracks for vehicles over agricultural land. There are some sections of country lanes, of which much the longest is one 4.5km stretch near les Chapieux.
The two stages above the Chamonix valley from Argentiere to Les Houches generally get the most votes for trekker’s favourite sections. With good weather these section reveal the most stunning views of Mont Blanc, across the deep Arve valley, with the panorama from Le Brevent at 2,525m (8,284ft) being particularly good. Other stages on the Tour have their own attractions. For calming, pastoral beauty the relatively easy stage from La Fouly to Champex in the Swiss Val Ferret is hard to beat. The Italian stages have especially good views of the Mont Blanc range, and in clear weather the views from Col de la Seine, Tete de la Tronche and Grand Col Ferret are exceptional. Jagged snow and rock peaks are ranged along the skyline here, their glaciers tumbling down to the valleys far below.
There is great satisfaction in completing stages of a long-distance trek, even more so when it’s a famous one like the TMB. There might be times when the climb seems too much effort, and when you encounter bad weather; at such times the end goal keeps you going. One of the best feelings on the trek can be nearing the end of a stage, once you’re well into the walk, knowing that you’ve ticked off another leg of the quest. At such points you’ve also got an evening in a new village to look forward to. Traveling in a self-sufficient manner through the culturally and linguistically diverse terrain of the TMB, this all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying experience.
Rebecca Taylor is Director at SkiBoutique.
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