Want to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc — Europe’s most celebrated Alpine hike — this summer? Well, you better get cracking…The trekking season gets under way in less than six weeks.
Realistically, you probably should have started planning for it already. Sylvia and I did the complete tour in late July of 2018. But we began our bookings in February and completed most of them by May, though a few places held out on us until almost the very last minute. On many summer days, refuges and hotels will be booked solid.
Is it too late to do start planning for the TMB?
No, it’s not! At least, not if you are willing to be somewhat flexible with your travel itinerary.
We suggest the following…
- Consider hiking in September. Peak hiking season in the French Alps is July and August. Hiking in early to mid-September avoids much of these crowds. Note if you go later in September many of the huts and hostels will have closed for the season.
- Consider June, if you do well with snow. The trails won’t be very crowded. Check to see when each hut opens for the hiking season. We don’t recommend this because some of the higher passes will still be snowed in, but in some years it’s less difficult than others depending on snowfall.
- Reserve space in the ‘choke point’ huts. Bookings in certain huts are almost mandatory because of their location on the edge of very remote areas. In particular, the Refuge de La Croix du Bonhomme (France), the Rifugio Elisabetta (Italy) and Rifugio Walter Bonatti (Italy). Each can be bypassed but it means a lot of walking. If you must wing it, consider booking these as a framework of your trip and leave the rest of your itinerary open. Bonatti and Elisabetta were also our two favorites!
- Consider tenting. We saw many people doing this. You won’t have to worry nearly as much about bookings, but you still might want to have a meal in a refuge. Of course, you must carry a tent and the related gear to be self-sufficient.
What if I don’t have enough time for the full hike?
The FULL tour takes most people 9-12 days, not including rest days. It took us thirteen days, eleven hiking. Many people will simply not have time to take the two weeks off needed to do the full hike.
There are other options. For example…Consider hiking one (or two) sections. The best parts are from the Col de la Blame (France-Swiss border) to Brevent (Fance) and almost the entire Italian section. Public transportation in this area is plentiful, so skipping sections you don’t want or don’t have time to do is entirely possible.
The Eight Day TMB Option:
It is possible to do this entire hike in eight days, though it takes a high fitness level to do so, and even then will require skipping some sections. Note that what you are about to read is considered CHEATING:
Day One: Very Hard. Take the funicular train or cable car to the Col de Voza. This skips the depressing slog out of Les Houches. Hike the Col de Tricot high variant if weather permits, descend into the town of Les Contamines and keep going – much of the low route past the town is easy walking. After a tough ascent arrive at either the Refuge Nant Borrant or keep going to the Refuge del la Balme.
Day Two: Even Harder. Take the Col des Fours high option (again if weather permits.) Go through the Valle des Glaciers, over the Col de La Seigne and into Italy, staying for the night in the Refugio Elisabetta.
Day 3. Much easier than the first two days…Hike from the Elisabetta to the city of Courmayeur.
Day 4. A fairly moderate day, barring the climb of out Courmayeur; push on to the Refugio Bonatti.
Day 5. Another fairly moderate section…Hike from the Bonatti to the Swiss frontier at the Grand Col Feret and down into the village of La Fouly.
After arriving in town, hop on a bus and skip ahead to the tiny Swiss hamlet of Trient. You will need to research the transportation options here; it will likely require a connection with a second bus or train somewhere, but it is doable…we met a couple that did this and claimed it took 2 to 3 hours on one bus and two trains.
The intent here is to skip as much of the Swiss section, which is the least interesting section, as possible. Pick the trail up again at Trient.
Days 6, 7 and 8 (all hard) proceed exactly like described in Kev Reynolds Guidebook for the Tour, except substituting sections 9, 10 and 11. We also recommend you consider the option of bailing out by cable car at Brevent if you are pressed for time, saving you the hours long, grueling descent into Les Houches.
The problematic thing about this itinerary is the first two days are absolute killers – you risk biting off too much too soon. And you won’t realistically have the option of a rest day if you are pressed for time. The trick of this trek, in our opinion, is to survive the first three or four days and get your mountain legs under you.
You could lessen the up-front impact of this itinerary by starting in another place…for example, Courmayeur. You could also start in Trient and end in La Fouly, saving yourself the need to shuttle between them. Or, start in Brevent and do the route backwards to the Col de Voza. This would save the long, hard days for the end, but would force you to climb down some dicey ladders.
Any Final Advice?
Be wary of creating an itinerary that has you at the mercy of the French Rail System – prone to frequent outages from labor strikes – as we did. Our advice is to pay the extra money and fly directly into Geneva, the closest major airport to the Tour (it’s a bit more than an hour by car.) You won’t be sorry.
See our Tour du Mont Blanc resources for more details. Be certain you have the fitness level and willingness to complete whatever itinerary you choose to pursue…There’s no easy button on this trek, but you won’t regret a single step!