Planning the Tour du Mont Blanc

We recently returned from a fantastic ten-day hike of the Tour du Mont Blanc through France, Switzerland, and Italy. We’ll eventually add detailed posts about the actual hike, but we want to share some notes on planning the trip and logistics with our trip fresh in our minds.

The Tour du Mont Blanc

Spanning more than a hundred miles of trail and three countries, the Tour du Mont Blanc features on many lists of the world’s best multi-day hikes. The route passes over several cols, through valleys, and along ridges for around 30,000′ in elevation gain. Along the way, you can stay in a variety of towns and mountain refuges. You can enjoy fantastic French, Italian, and Swiss food as you see all sides of the Mont Blanc massif and surrounding alps. You’ll see countless marmots and maybe some ibex and chamois.

I was first drawn to the TMB after our trip to the Dolomites, when I began considering the Alta Via and some other longer-distance European hiking routes. After more research and seeing some photos, the Tour du Mont Blanc became a priority for us.

Planning resources

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As we planned our walk of the Tour du Mont Blanc, we relied most heavily on Kev Reynold’s guide, which we also carried with us on the trip. The guide describes the TMB both clockwise and counter clockwise and provides historical context. Overall, this guide is indispensable if you are planning your own trip, though we found some of its distances and elevation profiles to be inconsistent with our experience. Also, the TMB seems to be regularly re-routed, so some sections were different than described in the book. In particular, the variante the book describes up to the Grand Col Ferret now seems to be the main route.

We also used an edition mpa map of the TMB. While I appreciated it for an overview of the route and landscape, the map had some serious deficiencies. First, it is oriented upside down which remained confusing even after use. Second, it shows only the TMB and its primary variations, so no information about other detours or connecting trails is provided. The detail is too limited to use for navigation and it provides limited (at best) information about elevation changes.

As the trip approached, we relied on the official TMB website, especially their trail conditions page. We also supplemented with several blog posts.

When to Go

The Tour du Mont Blanc can be hiked between late June and late September, with peak popularity from mid-July through August. If you go early or late in the season, you avoid crowds, though snow may make some of the higher variantes inaccessible and some refuges and chalets may not be open.

We walked the TMB from June 28th to July 8th. This was the beginning of the season. Most refuges open in mid-June, wildflowers are out, and much of the snow has melted. We had originally planned on a week earlier to avoid crowds even more, but because of availability of flights and lodging, we shifted to a week later. This turned out to be fortuitous: the Alps had record snow in winter 2018, and the week of extra snow melt made some routes easier. Because of the record snows, some refuges (though none we had planned to stay at) had also delayed their openings from mid-June to early July this year. One of our desired high variants — via the Fenêtre d’Arpette — was also closed due to late melting snow and portions of trail that had to be rebuilt after winter.

Because of crowds, I also would not have wanted to go any later into July than we did. As we got into July, the trail got more crowded by the day. The numbers and sizes of groups noticeably increased.

On our hike, we saw several larch. I’d expect fall to also be spectacular, though there would be the risk of snow.

There are also several events, including the Chamonix Marathon(s) and the Tour du Mont Blanc Ultra Marathon, that use all or part of the trail. You may want to schedule to avoid them. Again fortuitously, one of the Chamonix marathons occurred the day before we started; another occurred the day after we completed that section of the TMB.

Guided or Independent?

From the start, we had planned to both plan and walk independently. We like to be able to go at our own pace and schedule and to linger at favorite views; we like to have the flexibility to take detours and side trips that appear interesting. Everything we saw on the trip affirmed our choice. We missed some of the cultural experiences (e.g., stopping in at a cheese producer for a tour) afforded by some of the guided experiences, but we gained much more in freedom. Simply put, I don’t think either of us would have had the patience for a guided version. We also spent about half of what we would have on some of the better-reviewed guided walks.

That said, my parents also hiked the TMB last year. They went on a guided walk with HF Holidays and had a fantastic time. There are definitely perks to having the trip planned out and logistics handled for you. Groups that had their luggage transferred were often zippier up the passes than those of us carrying everything. They spent less time figuring out where and what to eat, and they didn’t have to worry about how lingering snow might affect their plans.

There are also in-between versions. This includes services that will let you walk independently but that will handle the booking of hotels and refuges and will set walkers up with “cards” describing the route and variations for each day. Through the TMB website, you can also book combined hotels and luggage transfers to minimize what you carry. Each of these comes with markups we didn’t want to pay. Each also comes with constraints, e.g., not all of the accommodations are listed on the TMB website.

So, as you plan, consider which experience is right for your priorities. Though we walked on our own, our trip also highlighted differences in quality between various guides and planning services. On the route, we saw some guides do frankly stupid things that put walkers at risk. Others seemed to exercise great care and attention. We also met walkers following “cards” who seemed well informed and to be having a great time, while others seemed to struggle to follow the instructions on the cards they had been provided and to not know where they were.

How many days

Most Tour du Mont Blanc itineraries call for 10-12 days, though you’ll also find 14-day itineraries online (often with one or more rest days, such as in Courmayeur). You’ll also find some seven to nine day itineraries online, though many of these involve skipping some sections.

We chose to spend 10 days for the circuit. That had us walking 10-15 miles (once we added in detours) with manageable elevation again each day. We would have enjoyed an additional day, but we were already maxing out our vacation time. We would not have enjoyed spending fewer days. With any less time, we would have been rushing past some of the best views, skipped some detours, or arrived too close to dinner (or without time to do laundry) on some days.

Which Direction: Clockwise versus Counter-clockwise

People traditionally walk the Tour du Mont Blanc counter-clockwise. We chose to walk clockwise. Everybody we met at the refuges wanted to know why we chose to break tradition.

We chose clockwise because it allowed us to meet new people every night, rather than seeing the same people regularly throughout the trip. Each night at dinner, we met people heading the other way. They gave us tips about what was ahead for us, and we gave them tips about what was behind us. In this way, we learned about restaurants to try, snow conditions, and side trips not to miss.

Going clockwise also meant that rather than walking with others on the trail and getting stuck behind groups accordingly, we instead came across waves of people heading the other direction. Depending on the spacing of accommodations further up the trail, we’d have anywhere between two and four times a day when we met large numbers of other people coming the other way. Often, this would be on one of our ascents or in a spot where we had a good view, so we wouldn’t mind pulling over a lot to let them go by while we rested or enjoyed the view. It was more tedious on narrow sections of the trail. Other than these large waves of traffic headed the other direction, we often had sections of the trail to ourselves. This was especially true early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Having now done the TMB, I also think that the ascents are, on average, more gradual and the descents steeper going clockwise. This worked well for us. If we had worse knees, we might have preferred more gradual descents and steeper ascents.

Where to start and getting to the trailhead

The traditional start for the counter-clockwise route is in Les Houches, an easy 15 minute train ride from Chamonix. As we learned on our last day, this involves a long slog up a road to get started. I suspect we would have found it demoralizing.

For our clockwise route, the book recommends a start in Champex. This makes for a relatively easy first day from there to La Fouly or Ferret. However, the logistics of getting to Champex are a bit more complicated and more expensive. Because of this, we instead chose to start and finish at the train station in Les Houches. That made for a hard first day with more than 5000′ of elevation gain, followed by a second hard day. In addition to making it easier to get to the trailhead, we liked having the Champex-La Fouly day as a more relaxing third day to recover a bit.

Courmayeur, just through the tunnel from Chamonix, could also work as a start and end point. However, the initial climb out of Courmayeur is steep in either direction. Others also start and end in Argentière or Tres-Le-Champ. Going clockwise, that means starting with the climb up to the lovely Aiguillette des Posettes (or, if bypassing it, directly to the Col de Balme). Counter-clockwise, it would mean a steep climb for the first day. While the transportation worked well, Tres-Le-Champ fell in the middle of one of our stages, that itinerary would have necessitated changing our other start and stop points or adding an extra day, and so we did not consider it further.

Where to stay and when to book

There are all sorts of accommodations along the TMB, from refuges to high-end hotels. We decided to stay in a mix of mountain refuges (for cost and location), hostels (for cost), and mid-range hotels (to be assured an occasional good night’s sleep and long, hot shower).

Other than changing our start and stop points, we generally followed the stages described in the guidebook. Because of availability and cost, we shifted the recommended stay in Ferret to La Fouly, a couple of kilometers short. Before we started the TMB, we spent two nights in Chamonix. This gave us a buffer day in case of delays with our flights or luggage and to get past the jet lag.

  • Alpina Eclectic Hotel, Chamonix (Booking.com). Convenient location, comfortable enough but small room with mountain views. We liked that they had a sauna and jacuzzi to work out the jetlag. We booked them because they advertise luggage storage on their website, so we could store our bags from the plane while we walked the TMB. However, when we went to check out, they declined to store our luggage (even for a fee) without a return reservation. They receptionist also gave us bad advice that sent us more than a mile out of our way to an alternative (closed) luggage location. As a result, we do not recommend this hotel.
  • La Flégère (refuge; website). One of the top two refuges of our trip, La Flégère is located at the top of a cable car in a ski area. Despite the more developed setting, the views across to the valley Mont Blanc are spectacular. I also saw the one chamois of our trip while watching sunrise here. The accessibility of the location also means that Flégère had good food and hot showers. This was early in the season, and we shared a five-person room with just one other person.
  • Auberge Mont Blanc, Trient (hostel; Booking.com). Reviews had made us concerned about this stay, but we really liked it. We stayed in a double room that was spacious and comfortable. Bathrooms were shared but clean and there was no line for showers. Dinner was good with ample portions. The hostel also has a large patio (both enclosed and outdoors) looking out on Trient’s pink church and the Trient Glacier.
  • Ptarmigan, Champex (bed and breakfast; Booking.com). A cute bed and breakfast overlooking the lake in Champex. The location was great and the owners friendly. We booked partly because of outstanding reviews for their restaurant, which we later learned was not open for the season. The bathroom was shared with just one other room, and the balcony was a nice perk. They seemed a little disorganized, as the self-service breakfast was a bit of a scavenger hunt (e.g., to find some parts of the coffee machine and to find the refrigerated items). Once located, however, the breakfast was good.
  • Maya Joie, La Fouly (hostel; Booking.com). Maya Joie surprised us with an excellent stay. We stayed in a double room with shared bathroom. The room was comfortable with good storage. Even with large groups, we didn’t have to wait for the showers or run out of hot water. Dinner, at an additional 20 CHF per person, was a great value. It included a soup starter, all you can eat salami, cornichons, onions, and excellent raclette, followed by sorbet and limoncello.
  • Rifugio Bonatti (website). Location, location, location. The refuge looks out on to the breadth of the Italian side of the Mont Blanc Massif. It’s an outstanding view. Opened in 1998, the refuge has many nice touches learned from years of experiences. We stayed in a large dorm (dortoir) here and despite the many people, we got a good night’s sleep. Dinner was fine though not the best compared to other refuges. It also included the curious choice (for shared living spaces) of two bean courses. Bonatti served the best breakfast of the four refuges, though, with fruit, yogurt, and granola in addition to the standard bread and jam.
  • Hotel La Croux, Courmayeur (Booking.com). Outstanding. The location was convenient and our spacious room had a view of Mont Blanc. Breakfast was excellent: espresso drinks, fruit, eggs, bacon, and several cakes in addition to the standard bread and jam. After five days on the trail, we were happy to make use of the sauna, and the hotel staff also prepared tea for use during the sauna. Highly recommended.
  • Rifugio Elisabetta (website). Elisabetta is in an excellent location, right below two glaciers and looking out over the wetlands above Lago Combal. It’s a smaller refuge, which means that dinner is served in two sittings (one at 6pm and the other at 7:15pm) and breakfast is a bit of a madhouse. The food was fine but not standout. The combination of good natured hikers and staff, plus the stunning scenery, make it all work. We stayed in a six person room — it worked but was cramped. Overall, we were happy with our stay here but — based on some comments we overheard — it may not be a great choice for people who are, um, needier.
  • Refuge de La Croix de Bonhomme (website). One of our other favorite refuge stays. We arrived shrouded completely in cloud and rain. Once the clouds lifted, the views were outstanding. We’re glad we spent the night here so we could wait out the weather. We stayed in a four person room, shared with two others, and we found it spacious and comfortable. Dinner was particularly good, with respect to both quality and quantity, here. The refuge is remote, so charging and shower facilities are more weather-affected: the rainy day meant the showers were cold and the end of dinner was candlelit.
  • Hôtel-Chalet de Tradition La Chemenaz, Les Contamines-Montjoie (Booking.com). This hotel was fine. It was a bit further from Chemenaz than we had expected — around a 15 minute walk to town — in an area that seemed dead. Our first floor room was comfortable but had a weird patio with a view 90% blocked by the hotel restaurant. The hotel also had a sauna, though we instead used the time for a relaxing dinner in town. We skipped the 15€ breakfast and instead got pastries in Les Contamines.

There are also different viewpoints on when to book. We had a fixed amount of vacation days, which meant that we had to keep moving no matter the weather. We also wanted to stay in smaller rooms — fewer snorers, fewer people in and out of bed — at refuges and hostels when possible. Because of this, we booked in late January. Even booking this early, and for out of high season, we were often getting one of the last smaller rooms or one of the last places at our preferred accommodations. The guide services seem to gobble up inventory early and then release some as group sizes firm up. This meant we could have booked later and still gotten our first choices, but it would have meant checking back regularly rather than just booking all at once.

We met others on the trail who had more flexible schedules. They took advantage of that to create rest days as needed or to stay put and wait for good weather so they could do the routes they wanted. They tended to book one to two days ahead, either online or by phoning ahead. With flexibility, this seemed to work out for them in shoulder season, though we met some people who had to stay put for a day or alter their plans because of limited availability.

What to pack

There are countless packing lists for the Tour du Mont Blanc online. Lists written for those carrying all of their baggage focus on cutting as much weight as possible. Most of those lists suggest carrying one to two hiking shirts, one pair of hiking pants / shorts, and one set of clothes for refuges. Others are written for people taking advantage of luggage transfer services, which basically means you can take whatever you want.

In our packing for the Tour du Mont Blanc, we tried to strike a balance. Since we were carrying everything, we wanted to carry relatively little. We had noticed on our Rota Vicentina walk that while we liked having clean clothes every day, carrying that much really cut down on our energy and motivation for spontaneous detours and side trips. On the other hand, we didn’t want to commit to doing laundry every night or to worry about whether the next day’s clothes would dry. This meant that we each settled on 3-4 hiking shirts and two hiking pants or shorts, sleep clothes, and then 4-5 pairs of socks and liners and underwear. If I were to go again, I’d probably do the same. While we did laundry multiple times, what we carried meant that we really only had to do laundry once at the mid-point.

A note about sharing the trail

Overall, we found others on the crowded trail to be friendly and looking out for each other. This is important on such a crowded route. Unfortunately, there were exceptions. Some groups clearly were well-versed in trail etiquette. Others, as can unfortunately be the case when part of a group, failed to recognize they were sharing accommodations and trails with others. The TMB is also popular with trail runners and, especially on some of the Swiss and Italian sections, mountain bikers. With increased numbers and speed, otherwise minor discourtesies quickly become dangerous. Groups ran us off the trail, trail runners accidentally jabbed us with their poles, and cyclists nearly clipped us without so much as a warning. While these were the exceptions, they were also the biggest detractor to an otherwise outstanding vacation, so I wanted to mention it. Be courteous and be prepared.

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