Whatever way you look at it, the Tour du Mont Blanc is a daunting prospect! Approximately 106 miles in length, with 32,000 ft of ascent and descent, crossing three countries and circumnavigating the highest mountain in Europe it is a proper challenge. If you like stats, that means you climb roughly 300ft and descend the same every mile you walk – go out and try and do that at home and you’ll be hard pushed to find the hills to be able to do so! Then do it for 100+ miles.
So that’s the putting-off dealt with. Now let’s talk about the incredible uplifting and awe-inspiring walk that this great hiking route gives you. I decided when I turned 50 last year that I wanted to do something challenging to celebrate being a silver traveller – I am an avid skier, I cycle and run a lot and do quite a bit of walking as well, so I expected to be fit enough to complete the challenge. I had also lived in Chamonix in France for five years earlier in my career, so the Tour du Mont Blanc was always on my wish list. Together with my wife, my eldest son who is almost 16 and an old uni friend of my wife’s and her 16-year-old daughter, we made our bookings last year and committed to this walk, thinking that it felt like forever away and there would be loads of training time. Of course, with the Covid-19 situation and lockdown, training wasn’t as intense as we might have hoped, especially as we were doubtful until about two weeks before going whether we would even be doing the walk this year!
There is so much to talk about from this amazing trip, which we decided to do in 6 ½ days. The guidebooks I had read suggested that 4 days would be doing it almost at a run and 11 days would be doing it at a comfortable pace, so I opted for somewhere in between. We had mainly 8-10 hours of walking each day, but had two days which were much shorter which helped with some of the blisters that appeared on feet, shoulders and backs and the general fatigue in the legs caused by four or five hours of constant climbing each day. The scenery was stunning throughout, even where there were a few ski lifts in evidence in places like Courmayeur and Chamonix, and the hanging glaciers, the amazing rock formations, the mountain streams and the stunning waterfalls never ceased to hold our attention. The walk itself was tough, there were some very long and very steep climbs and descents, although by day five we were pretty much hardened to the rigours of the physical aspects! We managed to find some of the hottest days ever to do our walk, with five of the days topping over 3o degrees and one having heavy rain and dropping to 5 degrees. The mountain streams helped us to top up our water bottles on the hotter days, with the addition of a chlorine tablet each time just to avoid upset stomachs. The streams were also ideal for filling a hat with cold water from the glacial melt and putting it back on my head to help keep temperatures down in the extreme heat! As a challenge and an experience I would rate it up there as one of the best holidays I have ever had, and we all feel a great sense of satisfaction and pride at having completed something so extraordinary.
I did most of my research online and used a great site www.montourdumontblanc.com for making the bookings of mountain refuges and helping with guide times for walking hours each day. There is something magical about staying in a mountain refuge at 2000m+ on some nights and having the solitude and sense of wonder of the high alpine beauty with almost nobody else around. There is also something a bit irritating about having someone you don’t know snoring a little distance away in your dormitory for thirty people, so we were all delighted we had taken our ear plugs and indeed our eye masks as there weren’t always curtains in the dorms. That said, because we were a group of five, we were able to get our own bunk room on a number of nights, so had some privacy and quiet at bedtime. If you are a snorer, or have a snorer travelling with you, make sure you book a private room, which most refuges have so that you don’t incur the wrath of other walkers during your trip!
I think we had spent more time worrying about what the food would be like than we had about how tough the walk was going to be as we all love our meal times and had half anticipated something approximating to school meals. It turns out that we had worried about the wrong thing – the evening meals were excellent, without exception and even included local specialities such as fondue or croute. They were all three-course dinners and, given the countries we were staying in, catered to local palates which are generally discerning and with high expectations!
So, if I was planning this walk again, what would I do differently to make it even better? We might have made it a few days longer with a few more overnight stops, including a couple of hotels just to get that extra space and comfort alongside the refuges which were all incredible but more basic than I would want every night for a longer period of time! It would also remove the ten-hour days which we had a couple of times, by reducing the daily distances. Our longest day was 21 miles, with 6500ft of climbing and over ten hours from start to finish with very few stops and it really felt like a route march! I might also consider finding a company to take our bags – we carried everything for the whole trip with us, along with at least 3 litres of water each day (which we kept topped up wherever we could) so our bags weighed about 15 kilos when full which does add a lot of extra effort on the up and a lot of extra weight on the knees on the down. There are companies who do transport bags for you so it’s worth looking at that if you’d rather just take a day pack as you walk – we even saw some bags being carried by mules!
And my top tips for things to take which may not make it on every kit list: chlorine tablets to put in your wild drinking water, a power pack to charge phones etc as not everywhere has mains electricity, a soft jacket to put inside your sleeping bag liner to make a comfy pillow, ear plugs and eye mask as already mentioned!
IGN Map GRTMB Tour du Mont Blanc 1:50000
Cicerone Tour of Mont Blanc guidebook by Kev Reynolds
General kit list:
Retractable Walking Poles
Merino wool everything – I used merino socks, underwear and t-shorts and had no chafing or blisters whatsoever!
Compeed or similar foot rub to put on before walking each day
A peaked cap or wide brimmed hat
Waterproofs and waterproof trousers if not too heavy
Walking boots with Vibram soles or similar
Plasters, antiseptic cream and some sort of muscle rub (we used BioFreeze)
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Cosmos and Avalon Waterways.