Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines

Setting Off on the TMB

See our video recap of Day 1 here.

We arrived in Les Houches the afternoon before we were scheduled to begin the TMB.  We got settled into our inn, Auberge Le Beau Site, stocked up on trail mix at the local Carrefour and walked to the trailhead so we would know exactly where to begin the next morning.  Our auberge was about 15-20 minutes from the start of the TMB.

Since it was our last morning before being on the trail, we decided to give ourselves a bit more time and aimed for a later-than-normal start.  We planned to leave by 9 a.m., but it was about 20 or 25 after before we departed the auberge.  (As a side note, the inn held our extra bag until our return for 4 euros.)

Based on Dave and Brenda’s report, we expected the initial climb to the first pass, Col de Voza, to be relatively easy.  Boy were we wrong!  We missed a sign early on and lost the trail, setting us back about 30-40 minutes.  (I should emphasize that we missed the sign; it was in fact clearly marked.)  Besides that fiasco, the climb was just far more demanding than we expected.  Now, it’s difficult to say if we would have felt the same if this leg were on our third or fourth day or if it just seemed so taxing since it was the first.  (Did I mention that we didn’t train for the hike AT ALL??)

When we finally reached the col, we stopped at a small restaurant for lunch, where we mistakenly ordered breakfast though also had a delightful charcuterie and cheese platter.  The remainder of the hike to Les Contamines was very pleasant and wound through several quaint villages.

Upon arrival in Les Contamines, we quickly found our bed and breakfast, La Ferme de Bon Papa, just off the main road.  The hostess was lovely, though we weren’t able to communicate with her well, as we do not speak French and her English was very limited.  The B&B is an old farmhouse built in the 1600s and belonged to the great-great-grandparents of the current owner.  Our quarters were comfortable, with a private room and bath.  We showered, had dinner in the village at a small pizzeria and turned in for an early night.

Our first day on the TMB had been longer and harder than we expected, with a total hiking time of nearly 7.5 hours (9:40 a.m. – 5 p.m.), including lunch and breaks, but we had made it and were ready for what was next.


Day 2: Les Contamines to Col de la Croix du Bonhomme

A Daunting Day

See our video recap of Day 2 here.

There’s no other way to slice it:  Day 2 was the toughest of the whole TMB.  It started off on a positive note with a delicious and filling breakfast of yogurt, granola and fruit.  The first hour of the walk was also pleasant, meandering through forest and parkland until reaching Notre Dame de la Gorge, a lovely church tucked in a meadow by a river.  Then the fun began.

The vast majority of the rest of the walk is uphill, and by uphill, I mean uphill.  After an initial sharp ascent, the path is mostly flat to gradually inclining, and there is a beautiful stretch through pastureland with incredible views of the Aiguilles de la Pennaz.  The path then takes a steeper incline before coming to Refuge de la Balme, which served as a nice spot for us to have lunch.  Unfortunately, we arrived at 11:30 a.m. and lunch was not available until 12 p.m., so we had some time to kill.  Had we procured lunch items in Les Contamines as we originally planned, this would have been avoided.  Nonetheless, since we had nowhere to be but the next refuge, the wait wasn’t a problem and we had a pleasant meal of salad and omelette.  (Yup, an omelette – standard lunch fare in French cuisine).

Let me tell you, that omelette was vital in our ability to survive the last part of the day’s journey.  After departing the refuge, the entirety of the remaining leg consisted of very steep inclines.  Though you can see Col du Bonhomme in the distance, it feels as though you may never arrive.  But alas, arrive we did.  The col provides a majestic 360-degree view into valleys on either side, but it was so cold and windy that we spent most of our time at the top tucked behind a hut out of the wind before taking a few quick snapshots and continuing on our way.

From here, a sign indicates 45 minutes to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, our destination for the evening.  Though we typically met or beat estimated hiking times for trail segments along the Tour, this was an exception.  That final leg was deceptively long.  As time continued to pass with no view of the refuge in sight, we started to despair.  “It has to be around that bend.” “It must be at the top of that ridge.”  Finally we arrived, so ready to unload our packs and rehydrate ourselves.  There was nowhere to get water between our lunch spot and the refuge, which made that portion of the hike all the more difficult when we ran out of water.  (Though we were at fault for not refilling at lunch.)

Upon entering the refuge, we quickly checked in and were escorted to our room – a semi-private space shared with two other people.  An upgrade!  We had booked dortoir lodging, so this was a nice surprise.  We then returned to the common area to refresh with a Leffe.  Unfortunately, that’s where the positive experience ended.

The shower rooms didn’t open until 5 p.m., so we had to wait for more than an hour to freshen up.  The common area was cold (there was a wood furnace, which went inexplicably unused), which made sitting around in our sweaty hiking clothes all the more uncomfortable.  We were assigned seats for dinner and sat with two young Scottish guys hiking the GR5.  Let’s just say that the conversation was significantly better than the food.  The meal of beef burgandy, pasta, cheese and chocolate brownie was mediocre at best and proved to be the worst we experienced on the TMB.  While the refuge is well situated with nice views, it was the most unpleasant stay of our trip, though located as it is, it has quite the monopoly on TMB hikers.

All in, our second day was just less than 7 hours* (8:40 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.).  We had conquered our toughest leg and were feeling good about the road ahead.

*Note the Kev Reynolds book recommends walking from Les Contamines to Les Chapieux on Day 2, another two hours past Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme.  I could not fathom going further than we did, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Day 3: Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to Rifugio Elisabetta

Onward to Italy

See our video recap of Day 3 here.

In keeping with our experience at Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, breakfast consisted of stale bread and jam.  Needless to say, this was less than sufficient to fortify me for what lay ahead.

At this point, TMB hikers have two choices:  to continue along the classic route to Les Chapieux or bypass the village by taking a variante across Col des Fours.  The variante is shorter, and as we were told it’s more scenic, if steeper, we opted to go for it.

The top of the col was ice-covered, which provided an exciting variation we enjoyed with some of our new-found friends.  The views were outstanding and the path was less challenging than I had expected, but despite this, I had a difficult morning.  This leg of the journey took far longer than we anticipated, and my spirits were low.  When we reached Refuge des Mottets, where we stopped for lunch, we caught up with some of our friends and realized we weren’t as far behind as we had thought.  (Of course, it isn’t a race and there is no prize for arriving first at your refuge.  It is, however, dispiriting to lose sight of all those with whom you initially began the day.)

We had a nice lunch of salami and cheese, including Beaufort cheese made in the adjacent La Ville des Glaciers.  After lunch, we had a switchback ascent up to Col de la Seigne, which provides the first look into Italy.  We sheltered ourselves from the wind behind a stone placemarker and enjoyed the view before descending into the valley.

Situated below a dramatic glacier, Rifugio Elisabetta was a welcome sight.  The refuge was warm and inviting.  We were escorted to our beds at the far end of the dortoir and immediately freshened up.  Hot showers are available, though you must purchase a token to activate the hot water and only 35 liters are provided.  Having no concept of how much 35 liters is, I was terrified of running out before my shower was complete and opted to turn off the water as I washed.  Ultimately, I had plenty of hot water to finish my shower and wash my hair.

Afterward, we rewarded ourselves with a pre-dinner snack of our leftover salami and a bottle of wine.  We reconnected with a friend we had met the night before, only to learn he had arrived at the refuge nearly four hours before us!

Living up to our expectations for Italy, Rifugio Elisabetta provided our best dinner on the TMB.  We began with two small pizza squares, followed by a mild Gorgonzola risotto, pork with wine sauce, zucchini and potatoes.  A brownie with whipped cream was served for dessert.

Day 3 involved some mental struggles but ended on a high note.  All in, we hiked for more than 8 hours (8:20 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.).


Day 4: Rifugio Elisabetta to Rifugio Maison Vieille

Italy Keeps on Giving

See our video recap of Day 4 here.

After the previous night’s dinner, breakfast left a lot to be desired – stale bread and jam once again.  Prepackaged muffins were provided, which at least provided some additional substance.

The day’s hike proved to be our best so far.  With not a single cloud in the sky, we were treated to spectacular panoramic views of Mont Blanc.  The weather could not have been better for this truly indescribable stretch of the trail.

We reached our destination, the Rifugio Maison Vieille, at lunch time and feasted on a fantastic meal of mushroom tagliatelle and polenta with cheese and sausage – complete with a liter of wine!  With the warm weather and the lounge chairs provided at the refuge, we spent the afternoon reading and relaxing outside.

We upgraded to a nice private room for the night.  Bath facilities at the refuge are unisex, and the shower was only lukewarm, though given the temperature this wasn’t a big deal for us.

After the scrumptious lunch, I was slightly disappointed in the dinner, which consisted of spaghetti pomodoro, beef and vegetables with a caramel cake for dessert.  I imagine this is due to the fact that the dinner is part of the “half-pension” package, while the refuge  restaurant is open to the public, and in fact, several local patrons were there for lunch.

Day 4 was a short one; we hiked for just more than 4 hours, from 8:30 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.

Day 5: Rifugio Maison Vieille to Courmayeur

Rest Day

See our video recap of Days 5 and 6 here.

When developing our itinerary, the plan was to take the cablecar from Rifugio Maison Vieille down to Courmayeur.  Unfortunately, the cablecar closed five days prior to our arrival, which meant getting back into our boots for the hike down to the village.  The refuge provided a substantial breakfast of yogurt and fruit, and we were on our way.  While not what we planned for our rest day, it was a short hike of less than an hour and a half (8:40 – 10 a.m.) to Dolonne, the picturesque village next to Courmayeur.

We arrived at Hotel Berthod and were able to check-in early, allowing us to change out of our hiking clothes for a stroll through town.  Though we spent some time in the winding streets, the majority of the day was dedicated to sleeping and reading.  When it came time for dinner, we decided to walk back to Dolonne.  Our search for lunch had proved that high-quality, reasonably priced dining options were scarce in the touristy town of Courmayeur.  Our effort was rewarded when we came across Fuori Pista, a pizzeria owned by a Calabrian family.  We had a spicy salami pizza and, once again, polenta and sausage.

Potential Itinerary Revision

So you may be wondering:  Would we stay at Maison Vieille again, knowing we would have to hike down the next morning?  Or would we continue to Courmayeur, get two nights in a hotel and more fully extend our rest period?  Well, we asked ourselves this, and in fact, we contemplated proceeding on to Courmayeur after our lunch at Maison Vieille.  With the beautiful weather we had and the grounds at Maison Vieille that were conducive to lounging outdoors, we decided to stay and were glad that we did.