I like to travel, especially with my husband. We’ve taken boats, trains, planes, cars and even bikes to all different types of destinations. But putting on some good hiking boots, slappin’ on my backpack, and trekking across a country by foot is by far my favorite way to travel.
You might not see as many destinations or hit up as many of the touristy spots of each country or town you visit, but you gain so much more and soak in all that the area around you has to offer. In September of 2016, my husband (Dan) and I set out on a glorious adventure to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc (a 160 km trek around the Mont Blanc massif through France, Italy, and Switzerland). This is our story…
Day 1-5 of the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB): 83 km, 6015 meters of elevation gain, 4590 meters of elevation loss
We started in Les Houches, the official start of the trek (see map). We took the traditional route of the TMB – starting in Les Houches and continuing in a counterclockwise direction.
The trail was easy to follow since thousands of people do this trek every year: trail markers differed in the 3 countries we visited and instead of the trail signs showing how many kilometers were left until your next destination, it was the time instead. For example, instead of it saying “Refuge du Balme, 9 km” it would say something like “Refuge du Balme, 3 hr 20 min”. This was a little confusing at first since we didn’t know if that was the average time for people who do this trek or if it was fast or slow or whatever. But we realized fairly quickly that we definitely walked faster than what the signs read and knew it was definitely going to be a short day of hiking on Day 1. We made our way up to our first col (or mountain pass as we call it here in the US): the Col de Tricot.
We made our way down the steep descent to our first mountain hut (Refuge de Miage) and landed there around 2:30 pm. We had to wait until 7 pm for dinner: your fee for the night at each mountain hut included dinner and breakfast but dinner was always at a set time for everyone staying at the hut. What were we going to do for 4.5 hours? Drink, that’s what we were going to do. We ordered some beers and watched the sun set on our view of the mountain at the base of our hut. We got into the habit of looking at the maps and our route cards for the following day during this time and make a plan of when we should be at each stop so we can see if we should pick up our pace at any time. It also made the time pass pretty quickly since we were usually hungry and wanted dinner earlier than 7 pm. Some mountain huts had games like Scrabble and Jenga so that would help the time pass but most of the time we had to talk to each other (ugh! just kidding – I love talking with Dan). So we had dinner which was probably our least favorite dinner of the whole trek (salad, cheese/potato omelette, cheese plate, and pie). Most of our accommodations were dorms (although we had some private rooms as well) which meant we slept next to strangers.
The second day was much harder (we did 37 km this day) so we got going early. The first part of the day was a short uphill climb to the Refuge du Truc (we didn’t stop here) and then a mild descent to Les Contamines (where a lot of people stopped the first day of their trek – we wish we had). From Les Contamines it was a fairly level trail going to Notre Dame de la Gorge, a really beautiful chapel in the middle of the woods. We stopped there to take in the view and muster up the energy to continue our trek uphill. Just after the Notre Dame de la Gorge, the trail steeply climbed uphill with absolutely zero reprieve. After a long day of uphill, we made it to our second mountain pass: Col du Bonhomme where we rested a bit and took in the view. We knew we still had a little bit of uphill to go but the bulk of it was finished. This was our longest and hardest day and to boot.
We finally made it to our second mountain hut: Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. I didn’t feel all that great at the end of the day so no beer for me this time, instead I had some tea and chocolate cake (the sugar was really helpful after such a long day of hiking).
The third day was much easier. We woke up and took the short jaunt up to Col des Fours from our mountain hut which is the highest point reached on the TMB at 2,665 meters above sea level (you can do the “official” route to skirt around this but we didn’t – we did the alternate route). From the Col, we descended to Ville des Glaciers, a tiny village with beautiful views. This is where we started to see less and less tourists. There weren’t a lot of cars or buses or gondolas around this area and it was glorious. The only people we saw were doing the same thing we were so it was nice to hike with like-minded people. After the village, we made our way up to Col de la Seigne where we crossed into Italy. We descended down the other side of the mountain pass into the valley and then a slight climb up to the Rifugio Elisabetta where we stayed for the night.
Day 4 brought us into Italy – Courmayeur to be exact. There was an option to take a cable car down to the town but we decided on doing the descent by foot. That was such a big mistake. That was the most difficult part of the whole trail (even including the ascent on the second day). Both Dan and I were aching quite a bit by the time we got to the bottom, so much so that we actually had to take a break when we reached the bottom. It was a horrible trail too – really dusty and slippery (glad we didn’t do this in the rain) and extremely steep with absolutely zero views. If you ever do this trek, I highly recommend taking the cable car down. It is not worth the amount of ache at the bottom, seriously.
The next day we woke up to rain… So we did the smart thing (yes, the smart thing) and took a bus instead of walking to our next hut. This is what’s sorta great about the TMB, you can take “shortcuts” for most of the legs of the trek. This is especially nice if you’re sick or hurt but still want to continue on to the next hut.
After the rain subsided, we got to see some glorious rainbows peak through the mist. We hopped on a bus (best 3 euros we ever spent) and got dropped off just a mere 3 kilometers from our hut. We got to the hut early (10:30 am) and because we got there so early, we were able to see some runners doing the Tour des Geants – a 330 kilometer race through the Alps and is considered one of the hardest races in the world. It started in Courmayeur so we saw runners just as it started – that’s a little too ambitious for my taste.
Day 6-11 of the TMB: 84 km, 4720 meters of elevation gain, 4490 meters of elevation loss
Day 6 brought us into Switzerland after gradually hiking up the Grand Col Ferret. It was quintessential Switzerland, I felt like I should break out in song it was so perfect. Green green meadows, cow bells ringing, absolutely beautiful.
Day 7 started later than usual: we didn’t leave the hut until 9:45 am since our route cards told us this was going to be the easiest day of the whole trek. We made our way gently downhill to the town of Issert which brought us back into civilization – lots of tourists, cars, busy streets. After Issert, the trail goes uphill on a beautiful track that showcases different pieces of wood art – it was awesome. Legs and lungs were feeling good at this point but it was very hot and humid (stupid Colorado has totally spoiled me with the lack of humidity). It was an easy climb to the town of Champex, a beautiful town with a lovely lake but also very expensive since it was a resort town.
On Day 8 we made our way to a working dairy farm (Dan was super stoked because he grew up on a dairy farm). It was underwhelming though, but there was still a great view from the farm and we saw a few cows get into a couple of scraps. After our short break, we made our descent to Col de la Forclaz (yes it was a descent to a mountain pass… weird, I know). Once at Col de la Forclaz, the trail went down to Trient where we stayed just off the main TMB trail at L’Auberge Mont Blanc.
Unfortunately, this is the day that Dan got hurt – pulled a muscle in his calf and had a hard time walking that evening. We weren’t sure if he could finish the trek.
The morning came and Dan’s leg wasn’t any better and I woke up with a terrible cold. So we both weren’t at our best. The trail had us immediately ascend up to the Col du Balme with many, many switchbacks. There were a ton of people this day, not sure why. Nothing was going to damper my mood though, since this was the day that we finally got to see Mont Blanc again! And it was a beautiful day with very few clouds. We made our way down to Tre-le-Champ where we stayed at Auberge la Boerne.
On Day 10, my cold was getting much worse. But we wanted to get going first thing because the weather report said rain/thunderstorms would be moving in later in the day and I wanted to get good views of this particular leg of the trek (it was supposed to be one of the prettiest).
This was an interesting part of the trek too with a ton of ladders and for those of you with vertigo or a fear of heights this might be difficult. It was for me but I was going to conquer this trek if it was the last thing I did! Dan was a really good partner during this part of the trek since he knew I was nervous. He’d always go first and wait for me to catch up to him before he continued on. He would keep saying “You got this” and I knew I did.
We decided to do the alternate route and go up to Lac Blanc where there’s a teal blue lake with Mont Blanc as a background and I wanted to see that view. So it was slightly longer and slightly more elevation gain but well worth it. We had some hot chocolate at the hut there and then made our way down to our final hut for the night (Refuge de la Flegere). This is where we saw so many people. Apparently, Lac Blanc is a popular day hike and unfortunately, we were hiking that leg on a Saturday when most people had the day off. So there was double the amount of people usually on this trail. We were anxious to get to our hut and relax.
Dan took a nap as usual since his leg was still hurting quite a bit. I wrote in my journal and had some chamomile tea to help with my cold which still wasn’t great.
Our last day was bittersweet and it was an easy day. Not much hiking left and we definitely weren’t going to do the descent down to Les Houches on foot. We made that mistake once already and plus Dan’s leg was getting worse by the day. We took our time and took lots of pictures. It was a beautiful sunrise on Mont Blanc and I was overwhelmed with so many emotions. Our adventure was at an end, and we did it!
So all together: 167 kilometers hiked (around 104 miles), 10 mountain passes, about 11,000 meters (36,000 feet) of elevation gain, about 9800 meters (32,157 feet) of elevation loss, and tons of beautiful views. Thanks for reading and make sure you shop Mtn Chicks merch!
This blog was written by Sarah Beaton, Mtn Chicks Colorado Ambassador