Tackling the Tour of Mont Blanc - Helen Fairbairn
Visiting three countries and scaling numerous alpine passes, Helen takes on this epic trek, one of Europe's most celebrated long-distance walk.
Time: 11 days
Distance: 170km / 105 miles
Total Ascent: 10,000m / 32,800ft
Highest Point: 2,665m / 8,750ft
Difficulty Level: Demanding
Europe's most famous mountain has a reputation that precedes it. In the 18th century Mont Blanc inspired the birth of alpinism, and its allure has only increased since then, as adventurers of all persuasions pit themselves against its slopes.
Yet the 4,810m peak doesn't stand alone. It's simply the highest point of an extensive massif characterised by knife-edge ridges, teetering pinnacles and glacier-clad summits.
This is hallowed ground for mountaineers, but a magnet for trekkers too, thanks to the 11-day hike that circumnavigates the range. If this were Asia, Mont Blanc would be a sacred mountain, and the Tour of Mont Blanc the kora, or path to enlightenment, that encircles it.
Rewards and Challenges
Completing the TMB is certainly an enlightening experience. Passing through France, Italy and Switzerland, it's a cultural as well as physical journey. Around half the nights are spent in a succession of mountain hamlets; for the remainder you sleep up high, either in or near the excellent network of mountain refuges.
Yet it's the scenery that really stands out. The high peaks are ever-present, but beneath the summits, the landscape is a veritable showcase for the lakes, meadows, flora and fauna that makes the Alps so appealing.
But this is no walk in the park; it's a physical challenge too. While the huts and villages offer comfort and convenience - letting you re-supply food or stay half-board - there's no avoiding the topography of the trail.
The route crosses numerous passes above 2,000m high, and the total ascent of 10,000m is put in perspective when you consider that the climb from Base Camp to the summit of Everest is less than 4,000m. If you're hauling camping gear in particular, the average daily ascent of almost 1,000m soon makes itself felt.
Timing is Everything
From a practical perspective, timing is everything. Though the path is often largely clear of snow from the start of June to mid-October, virtually all walkers tackle it between mid-June and mid-September, when the huts are open. With 10,000 annual walkers and numerous organised tours, solitude is a rare commodity during July and August.
To avoid the crowds, go at the start or end of the season, or even in the weeks just before or after the huts open. Though this option is restricted to self-sufficient and experienced hikers, the empty trail is worth the effort. The first week in October, when trailside foliage glows with autumn colour, is a particularly beautiful and peaceful time to go.
Though the route can be accessed from various locations, the traditional starting point is Les Houches, near Chamonix, in France. Most people then hike in an anti-clockwise direction.
Before you set off, you'll need to decide on your exact itinerary. There are several places where the trail splits, with a harder variente diverting away from the official route. The variants are still well-signed and follow obvious paths, but offer slightly wilder experiences than the main trail.
After leaving Les Houches, most people hit the high mountains on stage two, when an all-day ascent of 1,300m brings you from lowland pastures to the lofty refuge at the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme.
The following day tackles two more high passes. First comes the Col des Fours, the joint-highest point of the route at 2,665m. Snow patches can linger here all year, while deep crevasses hover overhead.
A 900m descent and 800m climb brings you to the second col, where a ruinous customs hut marks your passage into Italy. The Rifugio Elisabetta, at stage end, is one of the most memorable of the circuit, with more glaciers looming ominously above.
Day four provides uninterrupted views of Mont Blanc's south face, the towering rock walls and immense ice falls seeming just a stone's throw across the valley.
Many trekkers then take a rest day in the ski resort of Courmayeur, enjoying the opportunity to relax and refuel with authentic Italian cuisine. The 11-day tally doesn't include rest days, but most people add at least two to their schedule.
The following stage is one of the most challenging and rewarding of the circuit. Some 1,600m of ascent brings you along a broad ridge with tremendous views of the Grandes Jorasses, to the Rifugio Bonatti. It's easy to become blasé when you pass sublime scenery on a daily basis, but the stunning vistas of the previous three days sustain inspiration throughout.
Switzerland and Lac Blanc
The next couple of stages follow lower forest trails through the southwestern corner of Switzerland, then it's up again, to the rocky notch of the Fenêtre d’Arpette. This col marks your second visit to 2,665m, with two sentinel spires and a huge boulder field protecting the pass itself.
You return to French soil at the subsequent col. The grand finale is two days along the renowned balcony trail on the west side of the Chamonix valley, past all the most famous views of the Mont Blanc massif. Lac Blanc is a highlight here, a wild tarn nestled deep in a forbidding corrie, which remains partially frozen all year.
Having closed the circuit to Les Houches, most people make a beeline for the comforts and facilities of Chamonix town. Aching legs are guaranteed, but outweighed by the immense satisfaction of completion.