Tour du Mont Blanc – three countries in the shadow of the white giant (France-Italy-Swizerland)
At more than 170 kilometers distance and over 11,000 elevation gain: The Tour du Mont Blanc is a challenge in every respect. France, Italy and Switzerland are being crossed, and the high alpine weather is always good for a surprise. June and September are good months for the hike, as July and August are during the peak season.
Tour du Mont Blanc
A steep start
In Les Houches, I start the Tour du Mont Blanc following the green TMB-marks on the signs along the way: From 1,008 up to 1,653 meters – Is there anything better in the early morning? With sweat-laden clothes I reach the pass Col de Voza.
Beautiful landscape: Colorful pastures with buttercups and gentian, in front of a mountain panorama under fleecy clouds. I am grateful for the drinking fountains in each village, since the sun beats down on me. While I am having a snack at a shady spot, some cattle are being driven past me. I don’t know who looks more irritated: the cows or me.
After the village of Les Contamines, the road leads to the Notre Dame de la Gorge. Built as a shelter for travelers, then later converted to a Catholic baroque chapel in 1700.
A large climb: More than 1,100 meters of altitude are to be overcome in order to reach Col du Bonhomme. A group of French hikers occupies the campsite near the Refuge de la Balme – together with their nine-person tent and their two donkeys.
The sun has crawled behind the mountains, and the path leads me over snow bridges – the last remnant of winter. The cold air above these forms a strong contrast to the otherwise hot day. I overcome the last, tiring meters in the snow and am now on the pass: A thrilling 360 ° -look! The mountains are white striped, some lengthwise, some crosswise.
The Refuge at the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme is just an hour away. Another snow bridge, and suddenly my right leg crushes thigh-deep through the cold white. With cautious steps, I reach the hostel. Below, there are tent spots with low semicircular stone walls. My temporary home is installed ten minutes later.
Four o’clock in the morning: Raindrops and hailstones are crashing onto my tent. Lightning! I start counting: One Missis… – THUNDER! Calming, the storm is still 150 meters away. I crawl deeper into my sleeping bag, as far away as possible from the tent poles.
In the morning, the sun welcomes me with a superb view: a green ridge with a few white spots reminds me of a giant dinosaur.
In the 3-house-village Les Chapieux, I am delighted about an exquisite selection of homemade products: I decide for a piece of delicious goat’s cheese.
On the way to Ville de Glaciers, a memorial commemorates the Second World War. In June 1940, French troops fiercely resisted the Italians: four days, in snowstorms and 25 degrees Celsius below zero, until the armistice on June 25th.
I follow the flat path for two hours, until the Refuge Les Mottets comes into view, beautifully situated at the end of the valley. As I climb up to the Col de la Seigne, I watch several marmots gathering hay. Understandable – who wouldn’t like to have a soft and warm nest?
A large cairn marks the highest point of the pass; a panoramic view rewards my effort. One more step, and I am in Italy. At the Rifugio Elisabetta then comes some bad news: “Camping is forbidden,” a hiker tells me. Thus, I keep on going to the Lac Combal – unfortunately without success, the grim hut keeper shakes his head and points downwards: “There are some campsites along the road.”
The weather has little sympathy. I continue, accompanied by a hailstorm, over a muddy path through the forest. Wet to the bones, I finally reach Camping La Sorgente, where I relax in a four-bed cottage. It thunders – the walls wiggle. Good decision.
Mt. Blanc in sight
On a once again sunny morning, I follow the asphalt road to Courmayeur. My goal: Having an original Italian pizza for lunch. I turn left and find a small restaurant. With a full stomach, I then explore the town in search of the continuation of the Tour du Mont Blanc. I recognize my mistake shortly thereafter: Not to the left, but to the right I should have turned.
After three hours, I’m back at the intersection, this time I take the direction to Villair. Small quiet side streets branch off the main road, where not even small Italian cars would fit through.
Afterwards, I walk over serpentines through a forest part. Shady trees are my closest friends here. 800 meters of altitude and two hours later, the Rifugio Bertone, the ascent and the shade are behind me. The blazing afternoon sun accompanies me through lush green and colorful flowers over a flat way. On the other side, a massive mountain landscape descends steeply into the valley … And somewhere, hidden behind isolated clouds, lies the European king of the mountains.
Rifugio Bonatti, and the usual reply from the landlady: “There is no camping here.” This time combined with a positive message: “As long as you do not place the tent in sight, there is no problem.”
One hour later, I sit in the tent and look through the open tarp towards the southwest. A few kilometers away and clearly visible: The 4,810-meter-high elevation with the famous molar-shaped white tip.
Swiss wooden houses and garden dwarf armies
I take off even before the sun sends its first rays over the Mont Blanc. A river separates me from the Rifugio Elena, the bridge is probably still in hibernation. The hostel, which I reach with wet feet, is also closed. So, porridge and coffee again, before I start the zig-zag climb to Grand Col Ferret.
At the pass, I look back into the Italian valley: on one side lies the steep craggy mountains, on the other a green forest and meadows. A herd of stone bucks graze calmly on a high pasture. I turn around and look into Switzerland. Clouds dominate the sky; the last snowfields cover the path.
Now down into Swiss Val Ferret, past the Alpagne de la Peule farm. At the bottom, I use the river Drance de Ferret for a break, while I let my feet rest in the cold wet. Since today I have learned how painful blisters are. La Fouly is quickly reached, and the route is not too exciting. My goal of Champex du lac is a four-hour-hike away – much easier with fresh dry socks. A cattle herd accompanies me on the way through a coniferous forest. The cows disappear, the cowbell ringing continues.
A short distance over a narrow path on the side of a mountain, and I reach a Swiss village. Country-style wooden houses, narrow alleyways and an army of garden gnomes welcome me to Praz de Fort. Then, unexpectedly a steep ascent. Artfully carved mushrooms and squirrels of the forest trail “Sentier des Champignons” transform the strenuous venture into an entertaining adventure.
Quite late I reach Champex. The campsite located there charges 15 Euros for a crowded meadow. I mobilize my last forces to get to the Relais d’Arpette. In the backyard of this refuge, I pitch my tent.
A window to another world
Exciting encounters on the way to the Fenetre d’Arpette, an alternative route of the Tour du Mont Blanc. First, I meet a group led by a shaman who is walking up to to the source of the river in order to honor the spirits of nature. Afterwards, I cross paths with Alex, a hiker on the Haute route who masters the twelve day hike with minimal equipment.
I follow a pleasant path between colorful meadows with daisies and pasque flowers. But soon, it transforms into a field of rocks and walking becomes climbing. The “window” is already plain to see, a small gap in the set of mountain teeth. Again snowfields, again I break in. With wet shoes and agape I am standing in the window three hours later, gazing towards the V-shaped Trient Valley: on the left the giant, ancient Trient-Glacier spreads out, and innumerable waterfalls stream down the valley.
Instead of the way to Trient, I take the direct route to the Col de Balme. A steep descent, a climb, past the Refuge Les Grandes and the hut at the Balme Pass is visible on the horizon – closed, as I soon notice. Good for me, so I can set up my tent there – Right on the border stone, one half in Switzerland, the other in France.
Two Swiss day hikers contribute some cheese and sausage to my dinner. Gratefully, I enjoy the meal with an unobstructed view of the Mont Blanc, which glows reddishly in the evening sun.
As I was lying in the tent, a rustle announces an evening visitor: A fox looks under the cover, probably to wish me a good night. His curiosity is satisfied, and he goes off his own way.
Heavy traffic on the Tour du Mont Blanc
Along the ski-lift the route descends to Le Tour. Here there are no signposts for the Tour du Mont Blanc. Some hikers go straight back to Chamonix, a stroll of three hours. I turn off to the right, towards a small mountain village – Tre le Champs. It is known for its carvings: in a front yard, a horde of totems is watching me, fiercely looking tree trunks.
A lot going on today: it is Sunday, the sun is shining. Mountain bikers, climbers, day hikers and preparers for the Mont Blanc Marathon have to share the path.
This is the last climb of the Tour du Mont Blanc: First, up to the La Flegere ski station, then it continues to Planpraz. The users of the paragliding station are floating silently past the gigantic mountain. Finally, the last part: Over a steep winding path up to the Col Brevent, where some mountain goats nibble on bread crumbs. A final climb, and the top of the Brevent to 2,525 heights is reached.
I share this place with Americans and Asians who owe the view from here to the gondola. While they focus their cameras on the mountain, I feel somewhat misplaced in the crowd after hiking alone for six days. Les Houches is located at 1,008 meters – a descent over 1,500 meters. At 18.30 I finally march into the village with sore knees – perfect timing though, three minutes before the last bus leaves for my campsite.
Swiss cheese, French salami and Italian pizza: The Tour du Mont Blanc is one of the most enjoyable hikes in Europe, not just culinary wise.
Above the tree line, there are spectacular views of rugged mountains, below, the charm of small mountain villages can be experienced.
For authentic impressions some basic words of French and Italian should be known, not everyone speaks English here.
The alternative through the Fenetre d’Arpette is worthwhile, if strenuous. A total of 9-11 days is a good average value to enjoy the hike to the fullest.