Tour du Mont Blanc: Oops, Mind the First Step!

Planning for the TMB

Before we could hike the Tour du Mont Blanc, we had to get there, ‘there’ being the alpine hinterlands where France, Italy and Switzerland come together in a knife’s edge rampart of high granite. Events would show this to be no easy thing in itself.

Many things have to happen before you can take a selfie like this.

The TMB begins in the popular ski resort city of Chamonix, which is also considered to be nothing less than the birthplace of alpine mountaineering. Owing to a location at the bottom of a narrow valley, Chamonix has no proper airport at all. Most TMB hikers fly into Geneva, Switzerland, the closet major city (by a quirk of geography, Geneva is actually northeast of Chamonix…the same direction as Paris.) From the de-facto capital of French speaking Switzerland, Mont Blanc is only an hour’s drive away, or a slightly longer but very easy and scenic trip by train.

Several factors caused us to instead choose Paris as our touch down point. Though much further from Chamonix than Geneva (6 hours by car, and about as long by train) a round trip ticket to Paris was, on average, two thirds the cost of one to Geneva. The fact that Paris is the ONLY continental European Airport reachable from RDU by a direct flight certainly didn’t hurt either. Finally, we both wished to see Paris…Brian, who had never been to Europe, especially wanted to finish the trip with a tour of the famed “City of Light.”

Sometimes a selfie will be completely ruined by some annoying thing in the background.

The decision to opt for Paris over Geneva – creating a much longer and more complex journey by land — would have significant repercussions later on. But that was to come.

Out trip itinerary, without going into details, looked like this:

Fly to Paris Wednesday Afternoon; arrive Thursday morning local time; immediately go by metro to the train station (Gare de Lyon) where westbound trains leave from; take a TGV and then a pair of local trains to Chamonix, where we would arrive shortly before 7 pm, and then take a public shuttle bus to our hotel.

Counting a change of trains on the Metro we would be switching trains four times and doing so in a country where neither of us understood the language…Brian’s attempts at Francais du Tarzan nonwithstanding. What could possibly go wrong with such a plan?

As it turned out, about 10,000 things might go wrong with such a plan, starting with the fact that any or all of those trains might never leave the roundhouse, a fact which the M.E.P. never considered. But…Our next best option was a bus that arrived at nearly midnight. We cast our fortunes upon the rails of the French national railroad service (SNCF) and hoped for the best.

There were no easy days on the TMB…and no easy ways to get there, it seemed.

Another key decision by the M.E.P. (Minister of Expedition Planning) was to begin hiking immediately the morning following our arrival, rather than taking an acclimation day in Chamonix. The Minister’s stated reason for doing this was simple…we didn’t exactly know how many days it would actually take us to do the hike. We planned for thirteen, but in truth we had no idea if injuries, contingencies or simple fatigue would force us to take an extra day or two off somewhere along the line. That being the case, we needed all the time we could built into the back end of the trip as a shock absorber for contingencies, IE, stuff that might happen.

This decision too would have serious implications down the line.

It’s a long and winding road to Europe’s greatest walk.

A third and final key decision by the M.E.P. would concern the booking of accommodations for the hike itself. Sylvia and I had many discussions on the best way to do this, finally arriving at the conclusion that it was better to book our entire night by night itinerary ahead of time.

There are two schools of thought about doing this. One states that it is better to book ahead during the peak summer season, since many of the busy stopping points on the TMB fill up. On the other hand is the school of thought that it is better not to book TOO far ahead for the simple reason that you are then locked into this itinerary for the remainder of the trip. Should you be forced to change your plans, goes this school of thought, all your booked nights fall like dominoes. Good luck trying to re-schedule a week’s worth of plans on the fly at tightly booked mountain huts and doing so in one or two foreign languages.

Sylvia and I thought the difficulties of booking on the fly outweighed the advantages, with the language barrier definitely being a prime factor in our decision. We therefore decided to cast our lot with booking all our nights in advance, trusting to a simple and generous hiking plan. If it broke down, well, we’d deal with it. Which is the kind of thing that’s easily said sitting on your couch at home…but at any rate, the die had been cast.

Most of the accommodations on the TMB come with a view. Many in fact ARE a view…as is this one, the Refuge de Miage

All three of these factors…The decision to fly into Paris, the decision to start the clock ticking the very next morning after arriving, and the decision to book all our accommodations in advance…would have implications whose ugly head would rise in the last days prior to the trip.

Our night by night by night schedule, from the moment we left our house the end of the hike, is below:

Day Date location start mi location end EOD Accomodation
1 18-Jul RDU En Route
2 19-Jul Paris Chamonix RockyPop Hotel
3 20-Jul Chamonix 12 Les Contanamines Refuge du Truc
4 21-Jul Les Contanamines 12 Les Chapieux Ref Du Bonhomme
5 22-Jul Les Chapieux 10 Col de la Seigne Ref Elisabeta
6 23-Jul Col de la Seigne 12 Cormayeur Hotel Funivia
7 24-Jul Cormayeur 0 Cormayeur Hotel Funivia
8 25-Jul Cormayeur 8 Grand Col Ferret Ref Bonati
9 26-Jul Grand Col Ferret 14 La Fouly Auberge Les Glaciers
10 27-Jul La Fouly 10 Champex Pensien en plien air
11 28-Jul Champex 11 Trient Auberge Mont-Blanc
12 29-Jul Trient 0 Trient Auberge Mont-Blanc
13 30-Jul Trient 9 Tre-le-Champ Gite Boerne
14 31-Jul Tre-le-Champ 6 Above Chamonix Ref La Flegare
15 1-Aug Above Chamonix 12 Chamonix RockyPop Hotel

Rest days in bold. The miles needing to be hiked by days end are shown if any.

We planned to break our hike in three stages, each separated by a rest day. The first stage would be Chamonix to Cormayeur, Italy; the second, and reputed to be easiest, from Cormayeur to Trient, Switzerland; and the third, and by all accounts toughest, would be from Trient back to Chamonix and the close of the loop. We were both of the opinion that two rest days would greatly aid us in managing injuries and completing the trip.

If trouble arose and the plan broke down, the M.E.P. planned to use public transportation – readily available in this area in the form of buses, trains and cable cars – to get us back on track. If for example we failed to reach a given destination on the alotted day, or fell behind due to injury or fatigue, we could always cancel the next one or two nights, go to ground wherever we were, then hop a bus or train or whatever conveyance offered itself to scoot ahead and pick the circuit up where we left off.

While this might have been overly optimistic – it assumes there is a direct and viable line of communications between where you are and where you want to go – it was in fact exactly what many, if not most, of the hikers we encountered along this route did, some by choice and some by necessity.

Sometimes you look back and realize just how far you’ve come…and when you do, I-Cloud storage is real handy.

As a final note, our last nights accommodation on the trail – the Lac Blanc Refuge – cancelled on us just weeks before the hike, citing legal difficulties that had forced the hut to close. Fortunately, we were able to quickly and easily re-book in the popular La Flegare.

The key to the whole trip, we felt, was reaching the Italian town of Cormayeur at the conclusion of the fourth day. If we could make it there, and then take a rest and resupply day, we could probably complete the entire circuit. But if we struggled badly, well…that might be the place where the plug to the whole thing got pulled. I had already been forewarned by an acquaintance who had completed the hike that the descent in to Cormayeur was, in his words, ‘brutal.’

We began our planning as early as February and finished in May. We had everything set…and now, we could forget, at least for the time being.

But as the date of the trip approached, ominous rumblings began to reach us. A friend of ours who works for a French company told us that there was a labor dispute in progress that might impact our plans. Train strikes in France are common and quite disruptive when they occur, but generally well-orchestrated to the point where the trade unions politely announce well in advance when they will walk out. These effectively become travel blackout dates in France, into which the traveler ventures at his peril.

French trains usually run right on time…when they run.

We watched closely as the dates approached. Finally, and to our dismay, the announcement came just day prior to our departure…the French Rail workers would strike on the very day we were set to travel.

What followed were two or three of the most stressful days I can remember, as we pulled out all stops attempting to find some way – ANY way – of reaching our destination in the event the trains did not run. Everything from rental cars, shared rides, buses, even up to re-booking our flight into Geneva was considered – but every method we tried seemed to lead back into a box. It could get us somewhere, but not where we wanted to go, unless we paid a ton of money. We would have considered a mule had one been offered. As it was, we began to face the fact that we might not be able to start our hike on the day we had expected.

At the last minute the dark clouds suddenly cleared. A friend of Sylvia’s living in France provided us the intel we needed – the French Trains would run, apparently the unions had been mollified. With great relief we departed that morning for the airport, with fingers crossed that within 36 hours, we would be on the trail in the Alps…at last, we would be walking the storied hundred miles of the Tour du Mont Blanc.


Next…à la montagne, monsieur le chef de train!



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