Pros and Cons

The Tour Du Mont Blanc…

Why Do It?

  • The most famous and popular hike in Europe
  • Circumambulate the highest point in Western Europe!
  • This is NOT a mountaineering route it is a walking tour of high valleys and moderate Alpine passes
  • No technical training or special equipment needed
  • Altitude not really a factor (except just barely at one or two points)
  • Several whole days are just one continuous panorama if the weather cooperates
  • Generally, very well marked trails
  • The ”Monarch of the Alps” Mont Blanc is not one mountain, it’s a whole range
  • Stunning Alpine scenery the majority of the way
  • Visit three countries (France, Italy, Switzerland)
  • Stay in refuges/hotels every night, no need to tent!
  • Refuges and villages along the way allows for a light pack weight
  • Tenting possible too, with restrictions
  • Charming old world Alpine culture abounds
  • Huge Glaciers, immense rock faces, wide Alpine meadows
  • More waterfalls than you can shake a hiking stick at
  • Acres of wildflowers
  • Hike during the day; eat, drink and lounge in the evenings (not to mention lunch break)
  • The city of Chamonix is one of the great hiking/outdoor meccas in the world
  • We liked the Italian city of Courmayeur even better!
  • Spectacular high variants for the hardy hikers
  • Alternative low routes if bad weather or simple fatigue strikes
  • Social experience of the Refuges full of cosmopolitan hikers
  • Excellent transportation network
  • Buses, trains, roads, even cable cars connect many points
  • Many itineraries available
  • Many re-supply options
  • If things go wrong, in most areas you can bail out rather swiftly
  • Highlights: the Col de Fours, Fenetre d’Arpette, Col de Balme, the days around Courmayeur and the last two days of the ‘Grand Balcon Sud.’
  • No need to go with a tour group you can organize this yourself
  • We have never seen ANY mountain like Mont Blanc…it’s hard to describe it unless you’ve seen it
  • Refuges Elisabetta, Bertone, Elena, Bonati, La Flegere and Lac Blanc
  • Optional side trips by cable car/funicular train up Mont Blanc itself
  • Trip by gondola to Punta Helbronner or Aiguille de Midi well worth it
  • Mostly good (though steep) trails, barring washouts
  • Many great guidebooks; Kev Reynolds work is the definitive one
  • Long hiking days during summer, ambient light until almost 10 pm
  • Real chance of seeing Chamonix, Ibex
  • Taking a rest day in Courmayeur is strongly recommended

 

But consider this before you hike:

  • More than 100 miles of walking, and it’s not flat
  • VERY steep trails in places
  • Some rough sections; some lengthy, bad downhills
  • Most will require 9-11 days to do the full circuit
  • At least one rest day a smart idea
  • A TON of up and down (ten thousand meters elevation gain; that’s more than Mount Everest)
  • Many, probably most, who do this trek don’t walk the whole way
  • Ten major ascents if high variants are included
  • Even if you DON’T do the high variants you still need to assault many steep grades
  • Long, very exposed sections with no easy retreat to shelter
  • Snow may linger well into the summer in some high cols (we saw it in August)
  • Late afternoon thunderstorms almost a daily ritual in the Alps
  • Expect at least a few days washed out by rain, low clouds
  • The speed with which bad weather moves in can be quite shocking in the Alps
  • Ladders and other appliances bolted to mountains (actually not that many)
  • The “Delicate Passage” near La Flegere (actually not that bad going UP)
  • Rough, exposed section between the Cols Bonhomme/Croix du Bonhomme/Fours
  • Roughest section on the main tour is the area around Brevent; but the Fenetre de Arpette variant probably the roughest overall
  • Very tough (and scenically lousy) first ascent out of Les Houches is disconcerting
  • The last day is by FAR the hardest
  • Some of the gnarliest sections of trail were through wooded areas (roots plus rocks)
  • This is NOT a wilderness hike; livestock, towns, cafes, roads, ski slopes, power lines…
  • You will hear cowbells in your sleep for months
  • Many areas carved up by ski industry development
  • Crowds, especially around the areas accessible by ski lifts
  • Many day use areas clogged with rude, loutish non-hikers
  • Huts often overrun with people
  • Some refuges are nice; others are cramped, airless dungeons
  • The TMB can be expensive
  • Switzerland is especially expensive
  • You will be tempted to eat, drink and tourist yourself into destitution
  • Quite a lot of road walking, especially on low variants
  • The most confusing sections are those that cross through towns and ski areas
  • Most agree the least well marked section is Italy and the best France
  • Many of the Refuges near roads are actually more like cheap flop house motels
  • Those who tent are not always welcome at or near the refuges
  • Many of our fellow hikers tented; most told some tale of woe involving the experience
  • While many refuges claim to offer hot showers, sometimes cold water is substituted. 😊
  • Lowlights: The first slog to the Col de Voza, the ski-lift infested areas around the col de Checrouit/Plan Praz, the Col de Forclaz and most of the middle part of Switzerland
  • In fact, most of the Swiss segment of the TMB, while pleasant, is rather forgettable (the Fenetre d’Arpette notably excepted.)
  • Europe is a surprisingly inconvenient place by American standards
  • While re-supply and transport options abound, they inevitably are closed, not running or on vacation in the Maldives when you reach them
  • The best airport to fly into by far is Geneva. It’s also one of the most expensive in Europe to fly into
  • Transportation strikes in France and Italy are common and can impact your plans
  • Beware the Col de Tricot and the Fenetre d’Arpette in bad weather; both can be bypassed
  • Several brutish downhills – into Courmayeur (Day 4) Tres-la-Champ (Day 9) and the final one into Les Houches (the worst)
  • Some confusing places where many trails go in different directions, especially at the Col de Balme and the area known as the “Tufs”
  • GPS often comes in handy (but is not required)
  • Carry a good contour map and guide book
  • Cell phones work in many areas but power can be a problem
  • Expect to see mobile devices jammed into every available power strip at all refuges
  • Carry a good battery pack and European wall adapter
  • A map that shows side trails is very handy, there are many in the area
  • Note that the popular Reynolds Guide, while excellent, totally downplays does not fully convey the challenges of many sections (Kev must be a cyborg.)
  • Most places English is spoken, but don’t count on it. French is very helpful
  • We found the Italian people very helpful and pleasant
  • We found the French people to be very….French. 😊
  • Most of the Refuges will let you upgrade to a smaller (or private) room for extra cost. It gets tempting…