Having long pondered a multi-day challenge, including the Camino de Santiago, a bike ride along the highland way or a kayak expedition, this year the dates, the timings and ironically covid restrictions lined up perfectly for the two of us to tackle part of the Tour du Mont Blanc. Possibly one of the most renowned multi-day hikes in Europe, the route crosses through France, Italy and Switzerland and has some pretty hefty elevation gain, all rewarded with jaw-dropping views over valleys, glaciers and of course Mont Blanc itself.
Although the full route is a complete loop that takes around 10 days, we didn’t have holiday time nor training time for this trip and opted instead for 5 days (considering arrival and departure) from the convenient start point of Les Houches, just above Chamonix, finishing in Courmayeur. If you’ve read our post about planning the hike you’ll know it was all relatively last minute!
Although most guides have a pretty set route, as we were booking late we were more bound to which mountain refuges had space for us on our dates. We did opt to follow the traditional anti-clockwise route and started at what is generally considered the beginning for the entire hike, in Les Houches just above Chamonix. Perhaps fate made that the routes included most of their ascent in the morning and often mid-afternoon arrival into the refuge, giving us the opportunity to shower, get a drink and generally relax the tired feet and shoulders.
We broke up our route into the following:
Day 1. Arrival in Chamonix walk (or bus) to Les Houches and walk to Bionnassay. Two routes that take you from Les Houches to Les Contamines (the standard first leg of the route) the variant via Col de Tricot being more taxing. Due to our late booking into Bionnassay, we opted for the easier, classic route as we weren’t quite reaching Les Contamines on our first day! There is also the option to take the Bellevue cable car from Les Houches up to Col de Voza if you want to avoid tackling a hill to set off, especially if you set off, as we did, at midday when it is very much under the sun in the heat of the day.
Day 2. Bionnassay to Nant Barrant. This route took us through the pretty village of Chapel and then wound down into the valley through several villages and farms, meandering across meadows and through forests until we reached Les Contamines. It’s one of the largest towns on the route with many amenities such as cafes, restaurants, supermarket and clothes shops, for those in need of a cap (Zo with her burnt forehead!!). From Les Contamines the trail was pleasantly flat, taking us along the river, until it gradually starts to rise just before reaching Nant Barrant.
Day 3. Nant Barrant to Les Chapieux. A morning on a never-ending uphill to reach le Col du Bonhomme; we were finally rewarded with beautiful views before carrying on up to Le Croix de le Col du Bonhomme. Here the main TMB path forks and you either take the high route to Les Mottets or you wind down to Les Chapieux, so depending on where you’ve booked you’ll have to make sure to pick the right path! There is then a couple of hours of downhill before reaching Les Chapieux, a tiny hamlet consisting of a couple of hotels/hostels and a cheese shop/pizzeria – incidentally, a great place to book a sandwich for the next day’s hike. This was by far our shortest day and we arrived by about 2pm, giving us plenty of time to chill.
Day 4. Les Chapieux to Maison Vielle. This was our longest day but still manageable. There is an option to get a bus from Les Chapieux to Les Mottets in Les Vallees Glacier but we were happy to hike as it’s mostly flat and a good way to warm up before the uphills. From Les Mottets to Col de la Seigne is what seems to be another never-ending uphill slog, but once you’re there you have your first glimpse into Italy and the view really does deliver. From here there’s some downhill and flat and potential pitstop at Rifugio Elisabetta or Cabane du Combal before you tackle your next uphill. Although it’s definitely not as strenuous as the first it is not to be underestimated. The view is consistently beautiful and this is definitely the best day for snapping some pics! We arrived at Maison Vielle around 4pm, so despite the path being considerably longer than the other days, it was very feasible. At Maison Vielle we were surrounded by beautiful views of Mont Blanc to one side and across the mountain tops past Courmayeur on the other side.
Day 5. Maison Vielle down to Courmayeur (walk or cable car down) and bus back to Milan. This day was scheduled purely because we were due to arrive in Courmayeur on the Italian holiday of Ferragosto (15th August) and the prices in Courmayeur were way above our budget, so we had opted to stay on the trail in order to avoid spending too much. From Maison Vielle you have a very steep downhill taking you down over the ski fields and then winding down into Courmayeur, or you can also take the cable car down (as we did) in order to skip this steep and not entirely attractive route. We had a bus to catch and didn’t want to risk missing it, or turning up too sweaty. We therefore had some spare time to have a coffee in Courmayeur, enjoying the less outdoorsy and considerably more chic side of mountain life before heading back on the Flixbus to Milan. It is also possible to take the Flixbus from Courmayeur back to Chamonix if like us you do half the route but need to get back to Chamonix.
Where we stayed
Day 1. Auberge de Bionnassay. A no-frills-attached hotel in the village of Bionnassay, we were a little sceptical of the 27-bed dorm room but due to the Covid era, we were the only guests in the said dorm. We had a great dinner and a bit of a dismal breakfast but we certainly appreciated that they were following all Covid-related regulations and their garden area was perfect for a fresh drink on arrival.
Day 2. Nant Barrant. A pretty mountain hut with beautiful views and a great garden to relax in. The accommodation itself is modest, with just a few toilets and a couple of showers to share between everyone. We thought it prudent to mention for those worrying that here they really weren’t as strict on covid-regulations, with shared tables for dinner time, however, dorm rooms weren’t totally full.
Day 3. Auberge De La Nova. A comfortable place to stay, it’s worth knowing in advance that there is no signal or wifi here, meaning the entire hamlet of Les Chapieux, not only the lodging is a connection free zone. Great if, like us, you’re trying to have a bit of a digital detox, nonetheless if you also want to update friends and family on your whereabouts then keep in mind that you may have to warn them that you aren’t likely to get hold of them there. There is the option to buy 30 mins of sketchy wifi from the local cheese shop for the princely sum of €2.00, perhaps not to be relied upon.
Day 4. Rifugio Maison Vieille. Set in an incredible location in the shadow of Mont Blanc and overlooking the mountain tops towards Courmayeur, this is definitely basic accommodation. During the day there are plenty of people around, having taken the lifts up from Courmayeur so there’s a nice atmosphere around early afternoon, however, it means that if you arrive early don’t expect to be checked in until the most part of this crowd has returned down the mountain, instead, you can have a drink and enjoy the view. The facilities here are pretty basic, with the hole in the floor style toilets, however, showers are clean and have plenty of hot water and since you’re in Italy you can count on a good dinner.
How we navigated
The route was generally very well sign posted, with either directions and handy, if not depressing, time scales added. The rest of the route in France was marked with red and white stripes, which was pointed out to us only 3 days in. When the signs weren’t quite adequate, we turned to our guide book Trekking the Tour of Mont Blanc written by Kev Reynolds. Although his descriptions gave us many an evening of entertainment and often the descriptive prose left finer details to the wayside, he never failed to point us in the right direction.
What we packed
We will do a full write up of the packing list in another post but spoiler alert: keep it light. We both carried 35L rucksacks which was more than sufficient and yet somehow still felt heavy! If you’re camping it’s clearly a whole different kettle of fish but given that neither of us are used to carrying weight on our backs, we opted for the refuge choice. The main problem faced by anyone doing the Tour du Mont Blanc is that you can go from sweating buckets to needing full waterproofs on to a chillier evening requiring down jacket and fleece. We both took a few changes of clothes and washed a few bits inbetween to tide us through. A lightweight towel is a must, as is a cotton sheet sleeping bag if you’re staying in refuges.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing… what we would’ve changed and kept
No regrets!! We’re both delighted to have been able to do this hike and completed it in one piece and were lucky to have experienced good weather, with just a couple of downfalls at the beginning of the hike. Nonetheless there are always things that we would both change. As for Zo, the option to go with her mums trusty leather boots which took her up and down the Scottish Munroes, was not such a good one for the blisters. Thankfully, she had the foresight to pack her Salomon trail running shoes which saved the day. For Em, the backpack she chose was missing a vital chest strap and back support which meant some nifty readjustments and youtube video watching was required to avoid some serious shoulder pain.
*As a final disclaimer, we appreciate how lucky we are to live in Milan and be so close to this much sought after hike, which with travel restrictions and covid worries simply isn’t an option for an awful lot of people at the moment. We hope that if you’re local and fancy a challenge or planning your next adventure for when the world does seem a little bit more normal again, this will be helpful and you’ll let us know all about your adventure!
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