There are some basic categories that every participant in an adventure must define before embarking. Categories such as travel, accommodation, food, money, etc. Not having just one category designed turns an adventure that you will remember for the rest of your life as something beautiful into an event that has a very high probability that you will remember it for the rest of your life as a huge mistake.
That is why all our adventures have very detailed plans. I’m not saying we’ve never been hungry and thirsty, let alone satiety. Very often I was cold in the mountains, I was thirsty, without food, sleepless, tired to the core. But no matter how much my better half doesn’t believe it, I’ve never risked my life or the lives of my companions. That’s why our plan for the Tour du Mont Blanc was almost bulletproof.
What is the Tour du Mont Blanc?
Meet the enemy to love him
What is the Tour du Mont Blanc? Are you fit for this challenge? Should you do it? In my humble opinion, classical hike TMB can be completed by almost anyone. By bike – it is another story. TMB is about 170 km long and the total ascent is higher than Mount Everest; 10,000 meters. It is not common to cross a TMB by bike and keep in mind that this trek is not intended for such actions. Many routes cannot be ridden by bicycle, so keep in mind that you will carry a bicycle very often.
Beginning, trajectory, end
The usual time for TMB hike is between 7 and 11 days. A very competitive hiker can finish it in 4-5 days. The most common start of the route is Les Houches, a small town on the outskirts of Chamonix in France. A town that is also known as the starting point of most climbers on Mont Blanc. Keep in mind that this is just a common starting point that suits many because Chamonix has the best connection to Western Europe. If you come from Italy, you will likely choose Courmayeur as a starting point. La Fouly, Champex, or La Forclaz are more accessible to the Swiss. The usual direction of the trek is counterclockwise because that way you have a better view of the valleys and peaks on the trail.
I Knew I Should've Taken That Left Turn At Albuquerque
Don’t expect the slightest chance of getting lost on this track. Hiking trail markings are very good. You will not have the smallest dilemma of where to go next. The Tour du Mont Blanc route signs differ from the usual red and white hiking markings. The mark for this track is a black and yellow rhombus, usually with the inscription TMB. Of course, I absolutely advise you to have some kind of navigation. And always use what you are good at. You will easily find quality paper maps because this part of the world is very well mapped. Electronic maps are somewhat easier to find. I prefer electronic navigation and have been using Garmin devices for years. Although, lately, I mostly use a couple old phones to which I copy topological maps. Please note that I carry two devices with very low power consumption just in case one runs out or breaks down. As an additional type of security, I have the most important navigation locations loaded on my Garmin watch.
Alone with myself in the wild, finally
Don’t count on it. Tour du Mont Blanc is visited by thousands of people every year. If you expected solitude and loneliness and wanted to wandering in the wild with the feeling that you are completely alone – that will not happen here. This of course depends on the time of year when you visit the track. But since it is absolutely not recommended that you start this hike out of season, count on having a lot of opportunities to socialize.
Five stars in five nights
This is probably completely unnecessary information, but don’t expect too much comfort. In some locations, you will have a very rich offer. Les Houches and Courmayeur lead the way with available accommodation options. On the other hand, in many locations, you will be quite limited in your choice. In my experience, you will have the smallest choice at the Col de Seigne on the French-Italian border. In any case, expect mountain lodges and dormitory rooms. If you want to sleep in a tent on TMB, keep in mind that camping and bivouac on the TMB route are strictly limited to some locations.
Staying in mountain lodges and dormitory rooms
Sheldon Cooper ideal accommodation
An eye mask and earplugs are highly desirable, if not mandatory. TMB is tiring and if you don’t rest properly during the night, you won’t enjoy the next day. I had the misfortune to catch a cold on one of the stages, and during that night, a surprising number of people with whom I shared a room had trouble sleeping properly 😉 Tsk… In the morning, most of those who complained to me was surprised by my attitude that they had to prepare earplugs for shared accommodation. I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are. If people could stop snoring with a simple decision, the world would be a much happier place. Unfortunately, when you are sick, you have absolutely no control over it.
Thunder can't do anything to me, call me Thor
If you are not the mentioned Scandinavian God of Thunder, show nature due respect. On some routes, you will have the choice to use lower roads in case of bad weather. In other locations, you will have to wait for the weather to improve. Ultimately, there are options to skip some sections if your commitments do not allow you to extend your stay on the track. Thanks to the proximity of Mont Blanc, rescue teams are among the best in the world. However, the last thing you want to do on an adventure like this is to be rescued by mountain rangers. And there are situations when even these highly trained professionals are unable to help people in need for hours. If you continue reading travel blogs from the Tour du Mont Blanc, you will find out how I found myself in the middle of one such action. In any case – respect nature, otherwise Miss Nature will teach you respect in a little harder way.
Time of the year
Why am I alone on the trail in November... and where is the trail??
Mountain lodges, huts, dormitory rooms open in June and close in late September. Without that logistics, the Tour du Mont Blanc is very difficult to cross. Of the eight high passes over which this track leads, a couple of them will have the last traces of snow even in August. TMB is a summer trek. I am sure that this trail can be mastered at any time of the year, but the big question is how much effort you will need for that out of season and whether you will enjoy it at all.
Why everybody run?!?
If you are able, avoid the very end of August, as an ultra marathon is held then. If this is not possible, keep in mind that marathoners have an advantage. Clear the way for them and don’t slow them down. Ultramarathoners cover this 170-kilometer long track in 20-26 hours. If you think this is crazy, look for a PTL® (Petite Trotte à Léon) race that takes place in the same locations at the same time. The last thing these heroines and heroes need to experience is to wait for you to get off the narrow part of the path. If you think I’m exaggerating, in 2019, 2,500 runners took part in the longest 170 km route. Another 5,500 runners took part in the remaining three shorter sections. Not to mention the logistics of about 15,000 people. If you really have no other choice, be very considerate on TMB at the end of August.
Staying in nature is free, right?
The approximate price for the Tour du Mont Blanc is around 1000 euros per participant. This includes shared accommodation and meals. Most accommodations include dinner and breakfast. In my experience, it is a great dinner and breakfast which includes local specialties such as cheeses and wines. If you want a little privacy, luggage transfer from one location to another, and similar benefits, the costs can be doubled. Most of the locations are cash-only. The local currency in France and Italy is the Euro. Switzerland uses the Swiss Franc. In Swiss, per my experience, absolutely everything can be paid in euros, but the exchange rate will be 1:1, which is approximately 7-10% less favorable than the official exchange rate. Keep that in mind and if you want to avoid these costs, prepare Swiss Francs before embarking on the trail. I have to admit that for all these years of winding along the Italian-Swiss-French borders, I did not pay the slightest attention to the Swiss unfavorable exchange rate when paying in euros. Paying for coffee and apple pie 10% more is still better than being hungry, so …
What we decided in the end and what we simply accepted
As I mentioned in the previous text, Courmayeur is a much more logical starting point for the Tour du Mont Blanc for participants living east of the Alps. For this reason, our first overnight stay was in the Courmayeur area.
One of the basics of our frequent trips is low cost. Whenever we can, we choose more modest accommodation so we can travel as often as possible. That’s why our choice for the first night was camping. After a bit of searching, we picked up Camping Du Parc on the very edge of the village of Pré Saint Didier near Courmayeur. This campsite has chalets, caravans, and tents. Another detail in the choice of accommodation is that whenever my finances allow, I choose accommodation under a solid roof. Even though I really like sleeping in a tent. A meal or kitchen is the last but not least important requirement. So, in the end, we chose a caravan for accommodation. It turned out to be a complete success.
A big bonus of this accommodation is the owner. Friendly, with a lot of understanding and full of advice on where to go, what to see and how to save money and time. When I asked him to spread out the tent (the night was magical for sleeping outdoors), he did not hesitate to give me permission even though we had not agreed in advance. When it came to paying, he charged us less as our expedition had fewer participants than we had originally planned (four instead of five) even though the price of renting a caravan did not depend on the number of users. When we reappeared at the camp after five days, he honestly asked how we got on the Tour du Mont Blanc and if we were happy with the adventure. Great guy, trust me.
The location of the camp deserves all the praise. Located along the main road leading to the tunnel below Mont Blanc, the camp is very easily accessible. However, since it is located near the Dora Baltea River and that it is protected from the road by a small ridge, no vehicles can be heard in the camp.
We arrived at the camp in the early evening after 16 hours and 1200 km of travel that took us from Belgrade via Ljubljana, Venice, and Milano to Courmayeur and the foothills of Mont Blanc. After we checked in, I set my tent and after a quick shower, I impatiently went to investigate the surroundings of the camp. The thunder of Dora Baltea, the river I had only seen passing by before, the view of the peaks bathed in the rays of the setting sun, and the excitement I felt for the approaching challenge kept me awake until late at night.
My friends had been asleep for a long time while I repeated even the smallest details of the plan for the next day. For the hundredth time, I checked are the maps loaded into the navigation, is there any change with the weather forecast and I keeps repeating all details of the different routes we would take to reach our next destination. I was soo anxious. For the first time, I will not be on the field. As my friends defeat the strenuous sections of the Tour du Mont Blanc track, I will circle with the car to greet them with a clean wardrobe, food, and fully equipped accommodation at the next location.
I had the impression of immense responsibility. What will happen in the mountains is inevitable. Nature has a plan for each of us and my friends will just follow her guidance as they master the climbs and rush to the next point on the map. But if I make a wrong turn and am late, or experience a breakdown or something unforeseen happens – they will reach the destination without any support. In my head, I detailed backup plans for each route, which included approaching their location as close as possible to get them out of any trouble or provide them with spare parts, clothes, food. I never told them this. While we were at the TMB, I didn’t mention it so as not to burden them with such thoughts. Later it was completely unnecessary to talk about it. After all, we know each other well, and without talking about it, they noticed my concern in those days.
Although concern was still part of my thoughts, I eagerly crawled into the tent. The morning will bring the beginning of a new adventure that we have all been looking forward to.
As the night passed over the camp, I enjoyed every wink of the stars, the rustling of leaves in the wind, the sounds of the river. With each deep breath of air colored with the scents of pine trees, I was more fulfilled, happier, more complete. I came back to the mountain. Finally.