“You should look into this hike. It’s a circuit through France, Italy and Switzerland.” my physical therapist told me right after I had just hiked Mount Whitney. I was on the mend from my bike injury and was starting to hike more.
That night I Google imaged it and told myself I had to do it. The question was – guided or not guided? And who with?
I messaged Mich (pronounced “Meesh” short for Michelle) who I hadn’t seen in about 7 years but we had kept in touch. “Let’s do it unguided!” she said. Game on 🙂
I ran into Evan, he gave me his TMB book, and I collected lots of notes from him, Alex and Steve. From that we were able to plan the route and the lodging.
Having gone to a few destinations the past couple of months, I realized the need to be flexible – flight changes and flight delays – it happened all the time. This one was a flight delay from Florence to Frankfurt in which I missed my connection to Zurich. Mich thankfully was an amazing friend and told me we’ll change the plan and stay in Zurich when I got there. We met up and it was like old times. She has done so extremely well at the Naval Academy and in life, and one of the most optimistic people I know. I couldn’t have had a more perfect hiking partner and friend for this trip.
First things first:
- Guided vs Unguided: you can do this trek unguided. It takes a lot of research, booking your lodging and figuring out logistics, but it’s so worth it. Go with a guide if you want though as you won’t have to navigate the trail but we found that fun. Also if you want your stuff to be transported (some people had super light day packs and their stuff was transported from one place to the next) you can do so, but I believe you’re not able to do the entire route.
- The whole route or part of it? We were planning to do ~88 miles and we ended up doing the whole thing (105 miles plus an added 5 miles to see Lac Blanc). Planning it ourselves gave us this flexibility since for the days we were going to skip a stage, we ended up doing 2 stages in one day for 20 miles instead of the usual 10 miles (aka we just woke up a bit earlier)
- What the heck is a “Stage?” A Stage = 1 day. There’s 11 stages of the TMB and you can combine them if you’d like but generally people tend to do a stage per day which the book recommends.
- Get the book by Kev Reynolds. It’s the Holy Bible of the TMB. Legit has things like, “turn right at this firewood stack.”
- What to pack: Aw yes, that question. If you’re carrying all your stuff like we did then you want to pack as light as possible. Here’s what I had: 35 L backpack (Mich had a 36 L one), Camelbak, (no need for Nalgene since you don’t need to boil water), 2 pairs of hiking clothes – one to wear – so that’d be: 2 t shirts, 2 hiking pants (or one pair of shorts of those 2), 2 long sleeves, 1 down jacket that’s super compact, 1 rain jacket, 1 rain pants, socks (choose # you want to bring), one pair PJs (short sleeve and light weight pants), one pair lounge wear for the huts when you get there (just leggings and use one of the 2 long sleeve shirts), snacks! (have about 2 granola bars on hand – we made the mistake of not bringing any snacks), Garmin watch & charger, phone charger, Kindle or book, headlamp, hiking boots, hiking poles, shower sandals, sneakers (if you want them for the huts), sunglasses, sunhat, sleeping liner (super important), headset if you want to listen to music to take out the snoring at night with your fellow bunk mates and/or bring ear plugs, warm hat and gloves (I only used both of these once so they weren’t really necessary), sunscreen & toiletries, debit card and cash in euros and Swiss francs.
- Altitude: you’re not going to suffer altitude sickness since these mountains aren’t high up – the highest point is a bit over 8,000 feet
So – what was the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) like?
Day 1. Hiked 11+ miles! Had great day overall. We took the bus from Geneva to Chamonix this morning then a bus to Les Houches and started the trek. Food at Col de Voza where I had a cheese and bacon omelette yummm. Met Dennis from Singapore on the trail and a couple from Israel at our hut. Refugee at Gite le Pontet tonight and had a delicious meal! Meat and potatoes with champignons, bread, salad and pineapple and sorbet and a Belgium biscuit for dessert. Got to practice my French tonight at dinner since we sat next to 4 people from northern France (who are super cool) which was fun … was also nice to understand the language a bit on the trail too. Currently lying in my bunk bed (in my sleeping liner which you need to bring for these huts) and I’m hoping nobody snores haha.
Day 2. Hiked 10+ miles (Stage 2). We hiked up and up and up. Mainly gravel. We had 2 pieces of bread and a super small bowl of cereal for breakfast so were sooo hungry by lunch since we didn’t pack any snacks. Whoops. I had some Scratch electrolytes but that’s it. And we continued uphill. But finally made it to Lacroix du Bonhomme! And since this is becoming “Nic’s food chronicles,” I ate a vegan tart (so good!), a cheese and bacon omelet, 3 slices of bread, and local apple juice. Aka 2 meals essentially and more carbs. We then finally descended and now staying at Auberge de la Nova another hut. Still practiced a bit of French at dinner and Mich got to speak Spanish to these two guys from Spain. Our dorm tonight is all English speaking though funny enough. A couple from Britain, a couple from Florida and another couple from Canada. They’re all doing luggage transport and thought it was cool we’re doing self guided and carrying our packs. But our packs aren’t that big. Just 35L so totally manageable.
Day 3: Mich and I decided to combine stages 3 and 4 so it was going to be close to 20 miles today. We woke up early and went from Les Chapieux → Col de la Seigne → Rifugio Elisabetta. During this stage we crossed from France 🇫🇷 into Italy 🇮🇹 We had lunch on the grass overlooking a great view. We ran into the Florida couple, two German bikers and kept crossing pass with 2 French guys who were camping so they had a bunch of gear. These stages were beautiful! Our favorite day so far. From Rifugio Elisabetta → Courmayeur there were hardly any people probably because they ended after stage 3 or they were taking the bus. So far 40+ miles of hiking! Tomorrow we have a rest day and our feet and knees could use it!
Day 4: (or really day 5 since we took a rest day in Courmayeur, Italy yesterday) but 4th day of hiking! I’ve come to the conclusion that if one is gluten free they should not attempt the TMB. I’ve lost track of the number of baguette slices I’ve devoured oh et le beurre…et le fromage…c’est tres bon!!! The Tor des Géants was taking place at Courmayeur – 330 km run (that’s 205 miles) can you believe that?! They were still coming in today so all during our uphill we were cheering the runners on. We ran into Dennis today who said he was on his way back to Chamonix to summit Mount Blanc as well as Bill and Jane (from Canada). Today was a short day only 8 miles of hiking including 2,821 feet of elevation gain, and still in Italy. The views are spectacular. We made it to the Refugio Bonatti which is one of the nicest huts. At the hut we had dinner with Amit and Bar (the couple from Israel) who are doing the same stage as us tomorrow. Geez even the food was so good – salad (yay for some veg!), soup, omelet with cabbage and mashed potatoes (probably one stick of butter to one potato yum) and this delicious chocolate cookie with yogurt and orange candy. Tomorrow we cross into Switzerland.
Day 5: stage 6. Best views ever. We left Refugio Bonatti and crossed over to Switzerland today. We saw glaciers, land that looked like Iceland, waterfalls and more. It was absolutely gorgeous! Definitely my favorite stage so far. Almost got run over by a stampede of cows…no joke, it was scary. We stayed at Auberge des Glaciers and the food was so good! We sat next to a mother and daughter from Florence and talked a lot about hikes 🙂
Day 6: Stages 7&8. We had a lot of uphill today. And combining stages we hiked about 19 miles. I was starting to feel it. It was a lot of forest today, so pretty boring in terms of views. And did I mention uphill?! Looking forward to tomorrow.
Day 7: Stage 9. Hiked from Switzerland into France. Second favorite stage (favorite one so far was Stage 6). Saw cool French Stonehenge. Had only 3 pieces of Toblerone for lunch, and hungry for dinner, but since it wasn’t ready till later we had to rely on beer and wine to fill our stomachs…no complaints 😉 Can’t believe tomorrow is our last day to complete the route!
Day 8: Stages 10 & 11. People tell you to skip Stage 11 but don’t do it. Just bring water, cause we ran out on Stage 11 and there wasn’t a place to refill. Hiked up from Tré-le-Champ to Lac Blanc. total of 19 miles today. Saw Mont Blanc today in all its glory on Stage 11 – this stage was rocky, had a bunch of ladders and hand rails to hold onto. Started at 7:30 am and arrived in Les Houches at 7:15 pm. Amazing day.