Recently, while sitting on the couch sipping coffee in Paris, I got the urge for some wilderness. I was yet to learn how to embrace the big city life. I needed a long hike.
Little did I know the adventure I was about to embark on would be one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life.
The following post is a recount of my trip, the good, the bad and the ugly.
∼The Tour Du Mont Blanc∼
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Western Europe, punching 5.8 kilometres up into the sky. It’s feet stretch across three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland), and make up a significant part of the European Alps.
The Tour du Mont Blanc, commonly called the TMB, is a hiking route which winds for 170 kilometres around the entire range through valleys, old villages and high mountain passes. It is said to be one of the world’s greatest walks.
A solo hike around the TMB sounded like the perfect way to satisfy the urge. The only thing was I had never solo trekked anywhere before, or done any type of alpine hiking full stop. In fact the only multi day hike I had done was almost 10 years ago on Hinchinbrook Island in Australia, where the biggest threat was crocodiles, not the climate.
However, five minutes of research and my heart was set.
Three weeks later I was on an eight hour bus ride from Paris to Geneva (in Switzerland), which is a good portal to access the Alps.
The next morning another bus delivered me to the feet of Mont Blanc itself, in a vibrant alpine village called Chamonix which is nestled in the Chamonix Valley.
∼Day 1: A Cold Wet Start∼
So, I was there. A little disorientated, but rearing to giddyup! Unfortunately at this time Chamonix looked nothing like the previous picture (which was taken on a glorious day two weeks later).
It was cold, misty and wet. The cloud cover hid the mountainous scenery surrounding the village, and I could not see any other humans anywhere, just evidence of habitation.
It was here I jumped a short train towards to Les Houches (pronounced LeZOOOSH, not Lezz hoochies, as I was saying before being abruptly corrected).
From Les Houches, I found wooden steps signifying the start of the trek, leading up a steep incline into the wet green forest, and the real footwork began. With a few hours of daylight left it was time to hustle.
Unfortunately, after two hours of (very) steep uphill walking with an 18 kg pack, I was beginning to ask serious questions as to whether eating copious amounts of cheese and baguettes for the previous three months had helped my cause.
I had done 40 kilometres of walking on flat terrain with a pack the weekend before in preparation, and it wasn’t enough. I new my body would adjust, but in hindsight, more preparation is an absolute must to fully enjoy the beginning experience.
Luckily, just in time, nice views started to unfold, distracting me from my doubts.
I finally popped out above the forest, the country flattened out, and I found a refuge at the first mountain pass (called Col de Voza). I went inside to chat to the bar staff, pretending to look like I wasn’t completely f***ed, who said I could pitch my tent nearby for free if I wanted.
There was a couple of hours of daylight left, but my legs couldn’t lift me off the bar stool (even if I had tried). So I settled in for some local beers, coffee and an all you can eat French Buffet instead.
I was now completely stuffed, both physically and gastronomically, and didn’t even think to take photos.
∼Day 2: Finding A Rythm∼
The following day felt long but also helped the legs break the wall and hit a rhythm.
After a good downhill start crossing creeks and little villages amongst the clouds, I took a coffee in a small café in a tiny village built entirely of old dark wood.
I then shot off downhill. Spirits were high and caffeine levels were peaking. I set a fierce pace, rapid footsteps chewing up the road below me and spitting it out behind, each step acutely timed with Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack from the movie ‘Into The Wild’, which was stubbornly lodged in my brain. Mate! I wasn’t missing a beat!
It was 45 minutes before I realised I was going the wrong way.
Back up the hill and on the right track, I reached Les Contamines by lunch and caught the last legs of a market where I found bread, cheese and haggled with a desperate old bloke over some olives. He made me pay for every one a tried, claiming they each weighed approximately 10 grams. Lucky they were delicious.
After lunch, and another hard forested ascent, I made camp at Refuge de la Balme in misty rain by late afternoon.
Once reaching the camping area I found there were no flat spots to picth the tent. All the creamy turf was already taken. I could have found a spot to wild camp, but it was late, and I was still getting comfortable about the solo wild stuff, so I persisted.
I set up where I could, which was at quite the angle. It turns out the combination of my sleeping bag material placed on top of my thin foam heat reflecting mattress creates the slipperiest surface ever known to man. As a result, the whole night, every five minutes without fail I would slide bag and all to the bottom of my tent.
#fuming. But life could be a lot worse!
∼Day 3: A Parting Of The Clouds∼
The next morning fog had settled across the landscape, rendering anything more than 10 metres away near invisible.
I had a steep two hour scramble up the ridge through glacial streams and rubble to reach Col du Bonhomme, and more than once had to back track due to poor visibility obscuring hiking markers.
As I drew close to the col I was hit with freezing cold winds, and to my shock, snow. It was unexpected and required the quick addition of layers to continue.
Out of the mist a bright blue figure came rushing towards me. It turned out to be an Isreali bloke who had just jogged in shirt and shorts through a blizzard over one of the highest points of the trek.
“How you going?” he said. “Ah good thanks mate……..but I’m just walking around though…” I said, feeling like a complete slob. After a chat he jogged off into the clouds. I later learnt people were training for the UTMB, a marathon where maniacs run around the entire route!
After crossing Col de la Croix I came across Refuge du Bonhomme. As you enter, warm air and the scent of food and strong coffee hits you, and there is no way to avoid temptation.
I picked up a traditional carbonara for fuel, planned the rest of the day, then continued down the side of the ridge towards Les Chapieux.
It was here I met a father and Son from England. The father was doing the trek for his 70th birthday! The son was a human mule.
On our way down into the valley, for the first time since I’de left Les Houches two days earlier, the grey clouds parted and the truly epic scale of the region could be seen!
We entered the hamlet of Les Chapieux at mid afternoon. The tiny village surrounded and monstered by huge peaks feels like the edge of the world.
I bought some bread and goats cheese for dinner, said farewell and good luck to the English pair, and was on my way again through the Valley of Glaciers.
By late afternoon I had set up a wild camp in what would be one of the most picturesque spots of the trip. I was perched on a rocky outcrop, surrounded by the ruins of old civilisation, overlooking ice caps and glaciers.
I had a little flick in a nearby stream for trout but came up empty handed (I had brought with me a little telescopic fishing rod, just in case!). Cheese for dinner it was.
On dusk a chill hit the air. So, for entrée I huddled around my metho cooker, brewing up a steaming hot bowl of miso soup. I was hopping around like Gollum when it was ready.
I found a rock with a great butt groove, overlooking the region. I grabbed the bowl of broth, cackling to myself at how good it was going to be, then inevitably fumbled the bowl holder and wore it on my hiking boots.
That was extremely, extremely devastating. But the rest if dinner sufficed.
As I was finishing my meal it got colder still. I retreated to my tent, and closed my eyes happily listening to the far off bells of goat and sheep roaming the countryside.
The night was freezing. My sleeping bag has a lower comfort limit of minus five degrees C, and it wasn’t enough. Some extra woollies got me through.
∼Day 4: A First Taste Of Italy∼
An early start got me to Col de la Seigne, the next mountain crossing and border to Italy, by around 10AM. The entire climb has an amazing backdrop, looking back down over the French Valle de Glaciers.
The col unfolds out across barron peaks lashed by icy winds. The view extends far into the Italian Vallon de la lee Blanche.
The Valley was full of life. The sun had come out, and the wildlife was buzzing. I got a bit over excited at this point, diving around the place to take photos.
I literally ran down the slopes, something which my knees later payed for. I was starting to envy the trekking poles everyone was using. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy them. “Don’t be a bloody wussbag”, I could hear my dad saying.
I lunched at Refuge Elisabetta at 2200 metres. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking along the valley to Courmayeur, a tourism hub in the Italian Alps.
By the time I reached my destination I had covered nearly 30 kilometres which was the longest day yet. My body was ready for a rest, so I found a cheap hotel, and spent day 5 relaxing, washing clothes, eating pizza, and preparing for the next leg.
I entered the hotel smelling like a stray dog. At first the hotel attendant told me they had no rooms left, but as I swung the pack on my back to leave, he called me back. “Sir, my Boss Tony, he keeps a room spare for….special circumstances…let me call him” he said in a thick Italian accent. Not really knowing what ‘special circumstances’ were, I hesitantly agreed, as did Tony.
We climbed the staircase to the top, reaching an old wooden door five feet high, which I’m sure had made solid contact with many foreheads over the years. The receptionist fiddled with the old school key and we ducked as we entered. I was expecting a cramped old attic, but in front of me was an series of large rooms full of antique furniture, old alpine memorabilia and the best views in town! All mine!
The digs included buffet breakfast, and for an 7 extra Euros, a four course full on Italian dinner.
I sat down to eat the first night. Options included all types of pastas, cured meats, sweet fruits, herb roasted chicken with pea puree and buttery steamed veggies, steak tartare with basil, tomato and red onion, and a f***ing amazing tiramisu. My red wine was refilled when it emptied by my personal waiter.
I don’t know how that’s even possible. But it happened.
After dinner I made a bee line straight for reception. I’ll stay two nights please my good man!
∼Day 6: Back On The Goat∼
After the rest day (day 5) and second night in the hotel, the climb on the morning of day 6 was perhaps the hardest yet. It got me good. It was also a very different landscape to the previous few days. The trees were bigger and the rocks more dramatic. The path climbed up the side of Mont de la Saxe to Refuge Bonati, just as it started to rain.
I stayed at the refuge just long enough to see the rain off and kicked on down the other side of the range into the next valley (Val Ferret). By late afternoon I found a nice campsite on the valley floor among a few other campers.
∼Day 7: Switching To Switzerland∼
The start of day 7 followed the icy stream in Val Ferret to the foothills leading up to Grand Col Ferret, which is the crossing between Italy and Switzerland. On the other side of the col the Swiss have their own Val Ferret, wrapping around the range to the North West.
After an hours walk down the Swiss side of the range I reached La Puele farm. The establishment make a nice (but expensive) omelette and serve up local beer.
The walk to the farm was steep but pleasant with the sound of cow bells in the background.
I made my way down into the valley to a village called La Fouly, with the option to set up in the local camp ground. It was 3 PM and the rain had come back.
I opted to kick on, with an aim of finding a nice wild camp a few hours down the track.
The way soon became a bit hairy, with steep rocky slopes on one side and a huge glacial torrent on the other. The rain had turned into a downpour. Lightning was flashing and cracking all over the place and the pine trees were bent in half!
I kicked on through the weather, which although wild, turned the landscape into a beautiful place. After a couple of hours, to my relief, I found some tiny old Swiss villages with thin streets and medieval buildings.
Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos due to the constant down pour. At 6 PM I found a little bus stop on a road to have a dry dinner, and saw on a sign that Champex, the next major hub, was only 2 more hours walk up the next ridge.
A couple of hours later, just on dusk, I trudged into Champex and payed for a camp site. After more than 12 hours and almost 40 kilometres of walking I could barely feel my feet. A friendly Danish family offered me some dinner, but I had already eaten.
Day 8, I decided, would be another rest day.
∼Day 9: Champex to Trient∼
The morning of day 9 involved a climb to the highest point of the trek at 2665 metres altitude, the Fenetre d’Arpette (meaning the Window of Arpette). Here on a clear day you can see into Italy, Switzerland and France.
I hiked with Simon, a young bloke from Denmark (and part of the family I had met a couple of days earlier). The fit bugger set a quick pace and we made it too the Fenetre in good time.
Mid afternoon we made it to the small Swiss village of Trient, where I set up my camp for the night in a freecamp with many other hikers. Simon continued on back up another climb to meet back up with his family who had taken another route from Champex.
∼Day 10: Returning to France∼
I made an early start to reach the Col du Balme by Breakfast. The col represents the border between Switzerland and France.
I was the first hiker on the way up, and consequently stumbled across a heard of mountain goats for the first time of the trip! They were a few hundred metres away, grazing in the morning sun on a steep mountain slope.
I made it too the col by 8 AM, ordering a coffee at the refuge.
A French bloke behind the counter informed me that there are two species of mountain goat in the region and the one I had seen was the Chamois (pronounced ShamWAHH).
This species is a small timid antelope-like goat with thin black horns curving back at their tip (and thinking back, were hanging in the room I stayed in at Courmayeur).
After the chat I made my way down the other side of the col towards the Chamonix Valley, where the last 10 days of adventure had all began.
I made it down too the tiny village of Tre-le-Champ by lunch and topped up some supplies. It was tempting to walk to Les Houche that afternoon, but I had my mind set on making it to a mysterious sounding place called Lac Blanc. A body of water sitting at over 2400 metres altitude and within a nature reserve.
From Tre-le-Champ I had to climb back up almost 1000 metres of altitude that afternoon, reaching Lac Blanc late in the day. The effort was well worth it, filled with mountain goats, marmots and wild bluberries.
I gorged on the Bluberries. Shortly afterwards I crossed a couple of old French lades who told me that Red Foxes piss on them which can transmit a number of serious diseases to humans. Thanks ladies, great timing.
The mountain goats on the plateau were all of the other species, called the Bouquetin (pronounced BookTA) in French (or Alpine Ibex in English). In France if you tell someone they smell like a Bouquetin, it means they stink to high heaven! This species is far less timid, being much larger with some males boasting ridiculously huge horns.
At the very end of the day I reached Lac Blanc, bright blue green and glassy calm, where I enjoyed some local beers (the brand is literally called Mont Blanc) at the refuge while appreciating my surroundings.
I found a spot for my camp overlooking the region. Someone had made a little rock wall wind break, which I was more than happy to use. The sun was coming down, as well as the temperature.
I made dinner and relaxed until light faded away with sounds of Ibex clashing horns and a gushing waterfall 100 metres to the right of my tent. I don’t know if I have ever felt so content.
∼Day 11: Almost There∼
The next morning I woke for sunrise but found a dark grey angry sky instead. After some light had appeared I was on my way, back up to Lac Blanc and over the next ridge.
I had the scent of home, and I wasted no time descending towards Chamonix.
Once in Chamonix I found an urban camp ground to put the tent. The backdrop was as good as any.
∼Day 12: A stroll to Les Houches∼
At the very beginning of the trek, I had taken the train from Chamonix to Les Houche, and I felt the need to walk that same leg to complete the full way around on foot.
So on day 12, I got up late, went for a coffee and breakfast in Chamonix, and casually strolled for two hours down the road to Les Houche in my trusty thongs (flip flops, jandals…wherever your from). The stroll follows the range and passes some great buildings, ruins and forests.
Was a very pleasing feeling once I reached Les Houche, completing the full circle.
The day ended with a good ol’ BBQ with the Danish family I had met days earlier in Switzerland, who had also finished up the trek. Cheese, beer, bread, salad and sausages.
We were also joined by some Turkish mountain climbers who had waited two weeks in Chamonix for good weather to climb to the Mont Blanc summit, but sadly hadn’t got it. They said it’s a treacherous journey, and one which must not be attempted in any sort of foul or uncertain weather. A Korean climber had died attempting it while we were walking around the mountains feet.
The camp ground owner came over later to politely ask we keep down the noise and dim the lights. She hung around for a little, and we all watched the full moon reflecting off the icy peaks a long way above us. She went into a story about her father, who was a mountain guide, taking her to the summit of Mont Blanc when she was 18. Her eyes glazed over, and she was lost for words. All she could say was, “it changes you”.
∼Day 13: An Overview∼
I spent my final day with the Danes at 3.8 kilometres altitude, on top of the Aiguille du Midi. It is the closest you can get the towering peak of Mont Banc, without climbing it.
A cable car takes you to a series of platforms and tunnels set in the rock, providing views over France, North to Switzerland and back East over Italy.
After all was said and done, the trip was everything I was craving for, and one of the most satisfying things I have ever experienced. Complete immersion in nature, culture and wilderness.
I was nervous at the beginning about fitness, safety and navigation issues. But I ran into none. In particular, water, food and campsites (both official and wild) are frequent, providing the ultimate opportunity to explore and feel comfortable that the requirements for life are never more than half a days walk away.
The Cicerone guide provides a good itinerary, but if you have the time, one need not stick too it. It is the perfect opportunity to simply follow your desires.