Planning for the Tour du Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc, as viewed from just below Rifugio Bertone

Mont Blanc, as viewed from just below Rifugio Bertone

I first learned of the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) a couple of years ago.  My husband Derek and I had decided to make extended hiking a core part of our annual vacation, and I was looking into well-known walks around the world.  I stumbled upon a Wall Street Journal article that was enticing, if daunting.

After some additional research, Derek’s curiosity was officially piqued.  As we began planning our 2014 vacation, he was insistent that we do the Tour.  I still wasn’t convinced.  With only two weeks to travel, I wasn’t so keen on spending the vast majority of it tromping through the mountains.  When I agreed to do more hiking on our trips, I was thinking of three to four days – not 10!  Of course, he knows where my weaknesses lie, and when he floated the idea of spending a couple of days in Paris (my favorite city) on the front end of the trip, I was in.

But how do you begin to plan for a 100-mile hike with multiple locations from which you can begin, various distances you can walk each day and a broad selection of overnight accommodations from which to choose?  Despite the TMB’s popularity, I found clear and informative recommendations for planning the trip surprisingly difficult to find.

One popular site hosted by a TMB veteran provides helpful information on equipment and recommendations for traveling to the area, among other issues, but I found essential matters – such as a suggestion of point-to-point hiking for each day and accommodation recommendations – to be overwhelming or non-existent.  For my purposes, I found two sites to be most helpful and they served as the basis for planning our itinerary.

The first is a seemingly “official” TMB site run by an association of refuge caretakers.  Specifically, I found the “Create Your Route” feature to be useful.  This tool allows you to enter your departure location, date and the direction you’re hiking (the TMB can be approached in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction, with counter-clockwise being the traditional route) before directing you to an interactive map that provides approximate hiking times between points with accommodation options along the way, many of which can be reserved directly on the site.

The second resource I most utilized was Dave and Brenda’s blog chronicling their second journey on the TMB.  While we did not follow their itinerary completely, I referred to it enough in planning our own trip that a joke soon emerged between Derek and me when discussing various legs of the hike.  “Well, Dave and Brenda said that section was pretty tough.” “Dave and Brenda didn’t stay here.” “What did Dave and Brenda say about that?”

Finally, while I didn’t actually purchase the book in time for planning our route, the Kev Reynolds Cicerone Guide is absolutely essential for the hike.  Our itinerary did not directly reflect the one outlined in the book (and, in fact, I would advise against following his recommendations for some portions – more to come on that), and we didn’t really reference the guide for directions – the path is very well waymarked.  Instead, it provides an idea of what to expect each day and includes landmarks and other notes to help orient hikers along each leg.

While it may seem like there is an abundance of resources available for planning a TMB trip, I spent a significant amount of time culling small details from multiple sources and seeking out an elusive all-encompassing guide.  While I am grateful to the resources I most utilized (I don’t know how I could have done it without Dave and Brenda!), I believe the knowledge gained from my own journey could be helpful to others planning a similar trip.

I encourage you to review my TMB-related posts for detailed suggestions on planning your trip, as well as a recap of my journey.  If you have any questions or would like more information on any topic, please just ask!

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Creating Your TMB Itinerary

Rifugio Maison Vieille, just above Courmayeur

Rifugio Maison Vieille, just above Courmayeur

As mentioned in my earlier post, I spent a lot of time planning our trip and developing our itinerary.  It was a daunting process.  Having never before been to the Alps or hiking for such an extended period, it was hard to know just how long each leg would take us and how the cumulative impact of the hike would affect us from day to day.  So, you learn what you can and, at some point, you just make a plan and hope for the best.

For starters, you need to determine from which point you will start, which direction you will go and how many days you have.  We chose to begin in Les Houches (the traditional starting point) and approach the hike counter-clockwise (the traditional direction).  Most hikers we met who were walking counter-clockwise also began in Les Houches, though some started in Chamonix.  Beginning in Champex is typical for those going clockwise, and we met several people doing that route, as well.

We allotted 10 days for the hike, including one rest day in Courmayeur.  Given those time constraints, as I planned our itinerary, it became evident that we would not be able to complete the Tour – that is, begin and end in Les Houches.  Instead, we began in Les Houches and ended in Le Tour.  (Le Tour is the highest village in the Chamonix Valley and just before Tre-Le-Champ, the typical end point for the day’s leg, though some hike on to Lac Blanc.)

While I believe we would have ended the hike somewhere above Chamonix regardless of the time we had (the descent from Chamonix to Les Houches is known to be arduous), I do wish we had one more day, as the views along the last stretch are said to be some of the most spectacular.  In that case, we would have stayed a night at Lac Blanc and thereafter found the best spot to catch a cablecar or bus back.  Of course, depending on the time of year you go, this part can be tricky, as most of the cablecars were already closed when we were there in mid-September.

One last point before sharing our itinerary:  In addition to the above mentioned items, your trip will also be greatly shaped by the time of year you select for the hike.  For example, we did the hike in mid-September and none of the refuges were full.  This allows for those wanting more flexibility to avoid booking in advance and instead determine each day how far they will hike.  There are other perks, as well, such as sharing the bathroom/showers with fewer people.  It’s my understanding that most lodges are at or past capacity in the high season and those without reservations can be left out in the cold – literally!  For our preferences, I couldn’t imagine a better time than mid-September when the season is coming to an end.

With that, our TMB itinerary was as follows:

Of course, creating an itinerary and implementing it are two different things.  We strayed from our plans one day with disastrous results (though great potential).  In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss in detail the demands of each day’s hike, the state of accommodations and how/where we would have done things differently.  For a real-time summary of each day’s highlights and lowlights, watch our daily video recaps here.

TMB Quick Tips

Here are a few helpful hints to keep in mind as you prepare to take on Tour du Mont Blanc:

We found hiking poles to be essential.  We are frequent hikers and do not typically use poles, but in this case, we were happy to have them for stability as we negotiated our way up and down the passes.

We recommend the flexibility and savings provided from packing lunches instead of eating at refuges and in villages.  Supermarkets are plentiful in the small towns, and bread, cheese, meat and snacks are easy to come by and keep well.

The temperature can vary greatly from point to point within a day.  I would often go from long sleeves and a jacket to a tank top and back all within the span of a few hours.  The one item we did not have and greatly wished we did were gloves.  The top of the cols were typically very windy and cold, and my hands would freeze and go numb.

The weight of your pack is important, but don’t let anxiety about its size overrule some amount of relative comfort.  It’s important to have hiking clothes for warm and cool weather, but remember you will also want clothes for the refuges.  Derek considered ditching his sweatpants to reduce weight, but I convinced him to carry them, noting the evenings could be cool.  Ultimately, he was glad he did and wore them several nights.

If you are staying in the dortoirs, I would highly recommend earplugs.  Without a doubt, there will be at least one snorer in the room.  Those without earplugs often found it difficult to get even a few good hours of sleep.