You know how you start planning for something, and when it finally comes time to execute you think “oh, this really wasn’t all that difficult”? Well, backpacking through the Alps along the Tour Du Mont Blanc was definitely NOT one those times.
In my defense, Ontario is flat land and there is no way a step master could have prepared me for this.
Despite wanting to quit every ten seconds on the way up, there’s nothing I would change about this experience. Now I know better for my next trip!
The Tour du Mont Blanc is roughly 170km of looping madness that travels through the countries of France, Italy and Switzerland. It is most commonly hiked counter-clockwise (as we did) but there are, and were, plenty of people that do it clockwise as well.
If the length wasn’t enough to scare you, the total elevation gain overall is somewhere in the range of 10,000m (that’s 10km, or 32,800ft). Some days were an easy 400m ascent over the course of 16-20km of trail. And some days were over 1600m of ascent.
I have yet to determine which ridiculous steep areas I would have rather climbed up than down, and vice versa. I don’t think either clockwise or counter-clockwise saves you from crippling exhaustion.
So long, Toronto! We took an overnight flight to Paris. I guess that technically makes this piece “Day 0” but whatever. We’re on a plane and that’s all the matters. A quick stopover in Halifax, where everything was closing or closed by the time we landed (thanks for the service) and back on a plane for the remaining 6 hours to France.
We had a bit of a rough start to our time in Europe. We landed at CDG, collected our bags and made our way to the trains only to find out that they were in the middle of some dispute and striking. This caused the service to be erratic at best, and the prices to skyrocket. I’m pretty sure our trains cost just as much as our plane tickets.
Pro tip for those traveling to Europe: you can save yourself a bit of headache and hassle and money by booking your train (and bus and plane) tickets online at GoEuro. This isn’t sponsored in any way; I make nothing from you using that link. It’s just a good resource (and now I have it noted for my next trip).
The service in Paris really leaves a lot to be desired. The rep at the counter for train tickets was anything but helpful, and thanks to the super slow service, we missed the train we were aiming for and had to wait around for two hours until the next one. This also meant two extra transfers on our route, plus a bus instead of a train for the last leg. At least the scenery is half decent.
We finally rolled in to our first hotel in France around 11:30pm. We kept the owner updated with our progress through all the delays and she was kind enough to wait the extra hour and a half for us. Shameless plug for Hôtel Les Mélèzes – top rate service here.
At this point we had been awake for approximately 37 hours and promptly crashed for our early departure the next morning. On the bright side, we had completed 1.2km of the Tour du Mont Blanc on our way to the hotel from the bus stop.
It’s 6am and we really don’t want to but we really have to get going. Up and at ’em!
Les Houches is a really pretty town to the west of Chamonix. The Tour du Mont Blanc trail travels through it along the main road and then follows another up in the mountains. And oh, the mountains!
And when I say “up”, I mean “UP”. It just climbs, forever. Things we weren’t prepared for: UP.
It does offer a lot of nice views, of course. So that made it slightly more manageable. Only slightly.
We got a pretty good head start on the day, but as we approached the third refuge other hikers started catching up to us and slow-as-molasses-in-January pace. Which is fine. It wasn’t a race at the time we were hiking it. Plus we had friends to make along the way.
As we approached the 4th refuge the owner was out talking to some of the hikers about the upcoming col. It was still covered in snow, which is to be expected for mid June. Especially since this past winter’s snowfall was so heavy and late in to the year.
The unexpected part was the thunder storms rolling through. It looked like a bright, beautiful and clear day to us. But this guy was saying it was too dangerous to pass on the snow with the storm. It sounds like pretty good advice, so we decided to take it.
Unfortunately the storm was forecast to last several hours, which puts us far behind our schedule. So we had a decision to make – wait it out and see how far we can get afterwards, or find another way.
Given that we were taking quite a stately journey we decided to find another way, as it was quite unlikely we’d be able to make up the lost time on the trail. So we headed back down to Les Houches.
In town, we stopped at the fromagerie that doesn’t appear to have a name but sits at the corner of Rue de l’Essert and Route de Bellevarde. It was the best goat cheese I had the entire trip.
We didn’t know it at the time, so here’s another pro tip for you: the red buses of Chamonix, running from Les Houches to Le Tour are FREE. Just get on it. We walked. Which wasn’t terrible, since we planned to walk in the other direction anyway. And this whole area is just beautiful with all the surrounding mountains. I would have missed these photos if I were on a bus.
The rivers were always so angry here. We were always on the lookout for somewhere to stick our feet in, because submerging your feet in frozen water after hiking for hours is the greatest feeling in existence. If you haven’t yet tried it, I strongly suggest it.
Luckily, just before our hotel, we came across a park with a lake – Lac des Gaillands – and this suited our needs just fine. We weren’t in any rush at this point, so we threw down our tarp and spent a bit of the midday here.
We headed to our hotel – Hotel Vert – for check-in time, to meet our check-in buddy.
We happily ditched our backpacks and headed in to Chamonix proper for a late lunch. Or really late brunch. It was an omelette place and it was amazing.
At this point we were exhausted and headed back to the hotel for an early turn-in.
We packed up and headed in to the Chamonix proper for some more touristy adventures. The centre of Chamonix is like the rest of what I’ve seen in France with very pretty architecture. This is by far the most I’ve seen of the french flag, however.
As is our custom, we checked out the little church and lit a candle for our loved ones. No visit to Europe is complete without touring the places of worship.
We wandered through a few of the shops – their outdoor gear is basically the same prices as ours – and then grabbed some ice cream to wait for the bus.
This was arguably the best ice cream of the entire trip.
Originally we wanted to take the lifts over the mountains through Aiguille du Midi. Unfortunately, they weren’t yet running for the season. So we went under the mountains instead, through the tunnel that connects Courmayeur and Chamonix.
I thought the mountains in Chamonix and Les Houches were fabulous (and by rights, they are) but the Italian side has them beat, hands down.
Our campsite was located just west of Courmayeur, and our hosts graciously offered to pick us up at the bus terminal. Apparently the main road was currently closed, so the usual bus service was not running.
Camping Aiguille Noire, named for the mountain peak that looms over it, is located in a valley about 10 minutes up the road from where a variant of the Tour du Mont Blanc comes down from Masion Vielle.
If you’re doing the Tour du Mont Blanc, or are just camping in the Courmayeur area, I highly recommend the Camping Aiguille Noire. They are very accommodating, and very knowledgeable of the area – both touristy things and trails.
I had debated bringing my full tripod on the trip, but I’m glad I didn’t. This was really the only night I had any desire to be up after dark, and I still suck at night shooting.
Given our original plans were to arrive here on this day, it meant we had an entire extra day to be tourists. Our hosts at Camping Aiguille Noire were adamant about us taking the Skylift up to Mount Helbronner as it was a beautiful clear day, it would definitely be worth it.
Boy, were they not wrong.
From Entreves, the Skyway takes you up in two stages. There is also a hiking trail that follows underneath, but no thanks. This is pretty steep climb, even in the lift.
It’s a beautiful climb, however. The lift itself spins as you rise, so everyone gets a 360 degree view of the area.
We took a short break at the first stop, the Pavillion at 2173m. There is a garden here, that was not yet open for the season, as seems to be the case with just about everything. Oh well. We got a good view of the trek we made in from camp.
The top of Helbronner is a 3466m point with a four-story viewing platform on top of it. And quite busy, as most tourist traps are. It’s also significantly cooler up here, which was a nice break from the ground.
We were lucky to have Mont Blanc not play hide and seek in the clouds while we were here. Apparently that’s quite common, as most blogs we read as we planned this trip had mentioned that.
Fortunately, the clouds stayed well away from us and we were granted these magnificent views. From here we headed back down to Entreves and made the trek in to Courmayeur proper.
I said Les Houches was a really pretty mountain-encased town but Courmayeur takes the cake on this one. Especially with this angry river running through it. We never did find anywhere to stick our feet in that didn’t look like it was going to carry us off with it.
Unfortunately, as pretty as Courmayeur was, practically the entire town was closed up because it was “pre-season”. The souvenir shops had signs up saying they were opening at the end of the month. Well that doesn’t help us, or the dozens of other hikers already making their way around the Tour du Mont Blanc! I’m still bitter about not getting my keychain.
At least the food sort of makes up for it. Sort of.
We wandered a bit more after lunch then made our way back towards camp, following the angry river back up to Entreves and around to the Camping Aiguille Noire. Across from the campsite, the river is deep enough to tumble boulders along the bottom without them bouncing above.
In a way, I’m a little sad that we didn’t get to complete the first portion of the Tour du Mont Blanc. But I’m equally as happy about spending an extra day in Courmayeur and having the time to explore.
It’s our fifth overseas for this trip, and our last day in Courmayeur. We decided to take it easy, considering the insanity that still lies ahead.
We slept in, and by “slept in” I mean we laid around in the tent until the sun was fully up. And then the tent was far too warm, so we moved our lounging outside. Around midday we decided to head up to Maison Vielle for lunch, as recommended by our lovely host at Camping Aiguille Noire.
As always, the way up killed us. I tend to stop to take a lot of pictures on the way up. Partly because I am quite literally in awe with every step. But moreso because I need to catch my breath with every step. And not because of the beauty. Because my cardio sucks.
The TMB is wonderfully signed all along the way. The timestamps are pretty accurate too, especially for those of us that are not accustomed to these climbs *ahem*.
If you’re wondering why we didn’t go to La Grolla, it’s because it’s not yet open for the season. Like everything else in Courmayeur. It certainly would have been an easier climb. But it also wasn’t the recommended stop, so forget that.
So up we go, following the signs to Maison Vielle. While this wasn’t the worst climb of the trip, it was still our first real test and I think we managed quite well.
An ongoing game is to guess where the tree line actually ends, as you can plainly see it thinning. Whatever you guess, double it and add ten. The forest is tricksy and the winding trail makes it go on for far longer than your eye can gauge.
We, of course, did make it out of the tree-line. Eventually. The trail opened on to this great expanse of nothing between a bunch of mountains. And in the center sat Maison Vielle.
This was by far the most spectacular views for lunch. Also, arguably the best food of the entire trip. We had sausage with a tomato sauce over polenta, and Bierra Moretti to wash it down. You should definitely make it a point to stop here for one of your meals, or even stay the night if your plan has you anywhere near Courmayeur.
We sat at the table for a bit and enjoyed the views, then head back down. Down is always easier than up.
The last suggestion on the list from our host was the sauna, which I also highly recommend. Apparently I was too busy enjoying myself to take any photos of this part of the adventure, but let me assure you they are clean and comfortable. Also, splurge for the apertifs! Alcohol and snacks are great in any occasion.
This was our last view looking down on Camping Aiguille Noire. Tomorrow the real fun begins…
(Day 6-9) (Day 10-14)