You know those trips where there’s so much to say about them that you don’t even know where to start (aka every trip I ever take that’s more than 3 days long)? Well, that’s how I feel about my experiencing hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc. Called the TMB for short, the trail is a 110-mile loop that circles around the Mont Blanc massif and passes through France, Italy, and Switzerland. Mont Blanc is the tallest mountain in Western Europe at 15,781 feet.
I’ll be doing a series of posts about the TMB and my experience on it as I try to put it into words. First up – what it’s like to hike the TMB!
Many of the photos (pretty much all the good ones, and definitely any picture including me) in this post were taken by the amazing and talented Allison Dobbs of Allison Dobbs Photography. She lives in Denver does incredible portraits, weddings, lifestyle, landscape, race photos, and obviously, strenuous hiking trips, so check out her website!
If you research the TMB for more than about 5 seconds, a couple of things will stand out to you. First, you’ll note that it’s one of the most popular trekking routes in the world – about 10,000 people head to the TMB each summer. Second, you’ll read that most people spend 7-11 days hiking the trail. If you’re like me, you assume that that means that most people complete the trail in 7-11 days, but that’s not what it actually means. More on that later. So, Allison and Bobbi and I decided that since we are in good shape and experienced trekkers, 8 days on the trail was a reasonable amount of time to complete the trail.
Most hikers start in Les Houches, which is a small town about 5 miles from Chamonix – the main “hub” of the TMB. Thanks to a misunderstanding, we actually started in Chamonix itself and hiked to Les Houches, adding about an extra 5 miles each way to our TMB experience. As we heard a thousand times on the trail, no one does this. If you decide to do the TMB, just take the bus to Les Houches and start from there.
Our trek would require us to hike about 15 miles a day on average – sometimes more and sometimes less – to complete the entire circuit on time. There’s a very helpful website that allows you to reserve your accommodations online and plan out your entire trek based on how long you’d like to spend hiking each day. It even shows the estimated time it will take to get from place to place! This was how we planned out our entire trek. It should be noted that many people also pay private companies to book all of their accommodations for them. There are benefits to doing it this way (such as a luggage service that takes all your gear from place to place so you don’t have to carry it), but you can expect to pay 3-4 times as much for that type of service.
One thing we did not know is that many people (the vast majority, in fact – about 90%) do not hike the entire trail. Most utilize the bus system that is active along the route and will take a bus from their hotel each morning to a given spot on the trail, then hike the rest of the way to their next destination. There are lots of reasons people do this – to skip the hardest parts (of which there are MANY), to skip the “less scenic” parts (of which there are few), to get some extra rest time, and to just avoid hiking insane distances every day. We really had no concept of this prior to actually getting out on the trail. We steadfastly refused to use any type of transportation besides our own two feet, but after completing the entire trail, I kind of understand why people do. It would have been a lot easier and a lot less painful!
Oh, Mont Blanc. Where do I begin? Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc was the most physically challenging thing I have ever done, hands down. I’m not alone in that assertion – Bobbi (an Ironman) and Allison (who just finished a 50-miler in June) agreed. So, what makes it so difficult?
There are a host of factors, several of which had to do with choices we made about the hike. First of all, hiking 15 miles a day on average is pretty challenging in itself. Our longest day was 22 miles and I believe our shortest was about 11. Second, we did not ship our luggage (which the vast majority of people do), which meant we were carrying about 25 pounds each in our backpacks, including water. I’ll do a packing list in a few posts, but just know that we only brought 2 hiking outfits each and our packs still weighed that much. So yeah.
But there are plenty of things about the hike that make it challenging on its own, regardless of what you are carrying. First, you are hiking in the Alps, and there is no such thing as “flat.” We heard a similar joke in Nepal when our guide would tell us we were coming to a flat section and we’d get there and it was still a challenging climb. “Well, it’s Nepali flat,” he would say. Same thing in the Alps. There’s no such thing as flat, just “Alpine flat.” Based on Allison’s Garmin data, we had about 5 miles total of the trek that was not a significant incline or decline. We climbed one mountain with a grade of 41%!
What’s crazy is that for as hard as the inclines are (and they were very hard, even though our elevation was usually only around 7,000-8,000 feet – I still really struggled with my breathing and heart rate), the descents were often more painful. All of those steep climbs meant steep descents, too! Each climb and descent was several hours long, and somehow, we almost always ended the day on a descent. This meant that our exhausted legs and feet were being slammed down into our boots for the better part of several hours to end the day, and quite frankly, it sucked. There’s no other way to say it. We had trekking poles, of course, but there’s no trekking pole in the world that could have stopped that pain. It’s just brutal.
For all the pain the mountains bring, there is so much beauty, too! Depending on whether you take the main route or add on some of the alternate portions, you will climb about 11-13 significant passes overall. These passes offer some of the best views of the entire trek when the weather is good, and they are worth the climb. It’s also at the top of passes that you cross into new countries along your route, and there’s something pretty exciting about climbing a mountain in France and getting to the top and being in Italy!
The trail is not considered very technical, but it is still challenging because it is generally pretty rocky in many sections. For me, that meant that I spent most of my time looking down at the trail because it seemed like every time I looked up, I tripped over something. A more coordinated person might not have this experience. This really just meant that we had to stop to take a lot of pictures and look around and soak it all in, which was fine by me – it gave me a chance to breathe!
One of the other fun aspects of the trail is that it occasionally winds through some tiny but beautiful alpine towns! I use the term “town” loosely because it was typically more like a cluster of a few houses, but seeing the alpine architecture was so much fun. There are a few more major towns along the way where there are restaurants and some sports stores, but for the most part, you’ll pass through little villages!
While the majority of the trail is pretty exposed (hello, sunscreen applications every 2 hours on the dot), there are also some beautiful wooded portions. I would say that we passed through woods at some point each day, but most of the time, we were on the sides of mountains. We made a point to leave early every day (usually about 7:30-8, depending on what time breakfast was served) in order to get in a few hours of hiking before the sun came up over the mountains.
One of the truly unique aspects of the Tour du Mont Blanc is the lodging situation along the trail. The accommodations are mostly mountain refuges and lodges, with the occasional small hotel thrown in. The trail is famous for the many dormitories that people stay in along the way. To this end, we didn’t really know what to expect. We had been told there were rows and rows of bunk beds in large rooms, and that was…sometimes true. Sometimes it was tons of bunk beds in tiny rooms! No matter what, the bunks were all literally touching, with no space whatsoever in between – basically one long bed. You could literally be sleeping inches from a stranger! I will say that the lodge owners were generally very conscientious about who slept where, and they kept groups together, kept women together, etc. We never felt unsafe at any point and got really lucky with our placements each night!
As a traveling group of 3, we usually didn’t have the option of booking private rooms, but many people traveling in groups of 2 are able to do this. We had a private triple room on 3 of the 8 nights of our trip and stayed in dorms on the other nights. One dorm had probably 30 people in it, while the smallest had 4. It’s all just a matter of the place you’re staying! Whether we had a private room or a dorm, there were hot showers each night, which was a game changer
We booked all of our accommodations using this TMB planning website (the official website of the TMB) and honestly enjoyed all of the places we stayed! Some are definitely more spacious and luxurious than others, but each was a really unique experience. We didn’t expect the TMB to have a strong cultural component, but the lodges are actually a legitimate cultural experience. We noticed differences between the French, Italian, and Swiss lodges – especially the food! – and enjoyed learning about each. One recommendation: even if you are creeped out by the idea of staying in a dorm, I definitely recommend doing it at least one night. Some of our favorite nights of the trip were spent in dorms, and it was all part of the experience! Only two of the places we stayed required us to pay in cash, while the rest accepted cards – this information is available on the website. It’s important to know, because many of the lodges are in isolated areas and you will not be able to withdraw cash if needed, so check beforehand!
We chose half-board at each lodge, meaning our breakfast and dinner was included in the price. Meals are served family-style and each lodge has assigned seating in a large dining room. I requested gluten-free meals well in advance (by booking online) and was accommodated everywhere, with only one exception. Does that mean there were always amazing gluten-free options? No. I ate lot more cheese and a lot fewer carbs than normal. But still, with the exception of the one place that did accidentally give me a dinner with gluten (rendering me violently ill for the entire night and half the next day), it was really much better than I expected. Vegetarians and other dietary restrictions were common on the trail, too! One refuge, in Italy, even made me gluten-free pasta and a gluten-free cake! It was the best pasta I’ve ever had, but maybe I was just carb-starved by that point.
Breakfast is light and simple – honestly, much lighter than you might think given that everyone is about to get up and go hiking. Most places offered some bread or pastry, fresh yogurt, and granola or cereal. They do not eat eggs for breakfast in the summer (which is oddly specific, if you ask me), so I was frequently out of luck when it came to breakfast. I had brought a protein bar for each day in preparation for this exact situation, so it was ok, but my stomach definitely suffered for not eating my usual full meal. I also drank an inordinate amount of hot chocolate, all of which was delicious.
Lunch costs extra and is packed in a picnic style. A typical lunch consists of a sandwich, a piece of fruit, possibly a hard-boiled egg, and some type of dessert or pastry. For me, this meant I got the inside of the sandwich (meat, cheese, etc) in a bag, plus some fruit and an egg. It was actually hilarious and really quite delicious. Some days we didn’t buy lunch and subsisted on protein bars and Snickers, and some days we did – it just depended on how far we were hiking.
Dinners are typically carb-heavy and featured a lot of pasta or rice. We were served pork at every single lodge except for one, where we had chicken. If you don’t like pork or don’t eat it for religious reasons, I highly recommend you request vegetarian meals, because it was literally pork all the time. I generally do not eat pork but did on this trip because, well, otherwise I would have eaten nothing but cheese and Snickers bars. So, plan accordingly!
Well, this post has already been plenty long enough (sorrrrrryyy), so I’ll leave it at that! Next up: stories from the trail and what I learned about myself during this experience.
LEAVE A COMMENT: What’s the most physically challenging thing you’ve ever done?