Adventures, Mountains, Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc: Day 1

TMB Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines

From Gite Michel Fagot to Chalet Contamines with a hot lunch stop at the restaurant in Bionassay. Six hours of walking including a few stops to wait out the rain, plus a one hour lunch stop.

Trail notes: gentle uphill to the col in the rain, lots of road walking, beautiful rivers and forested sections.

If rushed on time, I would recommend skipping this section — the easiest day of the Tour — and the scenery gets much better.

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Adventures, Europe, Mountains, Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc: my route via the mountain huts

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My route (aiming to sleep up high but on the main track): my skill level for hiking is fairly moderate (I don’t do ice axes or crampons and have very little snow/ice experience) and this hike is perfect for my level. The only new thing for me were two ladder sections, but the handholds were fine, and despite my fear of heights I made it up them.

 

The trails are very well groomed (even some of the variants) and the river crossings without bridges were easy to do without getting your feet wet. There was little scrambling or using hands. I think I only really used my hands on the last day on the steep and rocky downhill section (1,500m descent!). Hiking poles may have been useful at some points, but I was fine without them.

The terrain is either uphill or downhill, pretty much the whole way. The Swiss section is relatively level and is the easiest part of the walk, which is perfect since it sits about half-way.

I’m also quite slow and stopping to take pictures all the time doesn’t help with that. My comfort level is to hike 4 1/2 to 5 hours a day (solid walking!). With food and picture stops it usually means a seven hour day. If you use the Kev Reynolds book (most popular), its times are for solid walking and we added a few hours onto a 5 hour day to account for our 1 1/2 hour hot lunches (you cannot pass up pasta in Italy for lunch!).

I wasn’t very fit for the walk with only a handful of day walks under my belt from the start of summer. It was planned only a month out so little opportunity for training. However, most summers I do about 3-4 backpacking/tramping hikes of usually only three to four days length. The first trip of the season is always the hardest!

This schedule was perfect. I started off with longer days and eased off significantly as the walk progressed. Some days I wanted to do more and others I was very grateful for a short walk.

*Walk times given below exclude lunch breaks. Any deviations from the main route are indicated.

  • Day one: Les Houches (official start location) to Chalet Contamines in the valley village, 6 hour walk
  • Day two: Les Contamines to Refuge Bonhomme (CAF) at 2,400m, 5 hour walk
  • Day three: Refuge Bonhomme to Refuge Elisabetta at 2,195m, 7 hour walk
  • Day four: Refuge Elisabetta to Refuge Bertone at 2,000m, 7 hour walk
  • Day five: Refuge Bertone to Refuge Bonatti at 2,025m, 2.5 hour walk (rest day),
  • Day six: Refuge Bonatti to Hotel Edelweiss, La Fouly, 6 hour walk
  • Day seven: La Fouly to Au Club-Alpin, Champex Lac, 4 hour walk
  • Day eight: Champex Lac to Hotel du Col de la Forclaz, 5 hour walk
  • Day nine: Col de la Forclaz to Refuge Col de Balme, 4 hour walk
  • Day ten: Col de Balme to Gite Auberge la Boerne, Tre Le Champ, (detour via Argentiere for lunch), 2 hour walk excluding the detour (rest day)
  • Day eleven: Tre le Champ to Refuge de la Flagere (via the short Lac Blanc variant for lunch), 4 hour walk excluding the variant
  • Day twelve: Refuge de la Flagere to Les Houches (Gite Michel Fagot), 7 hour walk.

This was a great route for sleeping up high. Although, if I were to walk it again, I would avoid staying at Col de Balme (terrible food, unwelcoming, hard to make reservation) and walk straight down to Tre le Champ (easy two hour walk down, although the higher-level variant did look great for good weather, which we didn’t have). I would also try to stay at Lac Blanc Refuge because the view was incredible and it would be nice to experience it when the hordes of day walkers have left. From there I would walk to Refuge de Bellachat (excellent view, small hut, make sure to reserve early as it was full a month out). This way would also break up the brutal descent on the last day.

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Adventures, Mountains, Tour du Mont Blanc

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc

 

 

On the way to Lac Blanc (short variant)

I’m always looking for long hikes where I can sleep up high in the mountains. This summer’s big adventure took me to the Alps in Europe. They’re special. You can hike, eat well (French cheese, Italian pasta), stay in mountain huts and enjoy the best scenery for days and days (or even months) all while carrying a super light pack. You don’t even need hiking boots (trail shoes are all the craze) or a sleeping bag. It is a perfect summer activity for those of us who live in small city apartments. No need to store tents, big packs, boots, etc. Get yourselves a 30L pack and some trail shoes and you’re all set. Well almost.

Choose the Tour du Mont Blanc. Take 10-12 days to do it and it leaves you with enough travel and recovery days at either end while only taking a two week vacation. Another popular route is from Chamonix to Zermatt (the Haute Route), which is a bit longer and you may struggle to have a weekend to recover before going back to work if you want to stick to two weeks off. Also, it doesn’t have as many mountain huts so you’re mostly sleeping in the valley villages. There are plenty of village sleeping options on the Tour du Mont Blanc as well though. It is nice to do it occasionally during the walk so you can stock up on supplies.

What you’ll see: glaciers are everywhere, chamois, marmots, wildflowers of every possible colour (the alpine meadows were in full bloom in mid-July), the tallest mountain in Europe and the beautiful range it sits in, cows with bells, dogs with bells (everything moving has a bell on it!), mossy forests, fast flowing rivers, and tiny stone/wood villages (my favourite was in the Swiss section).

Wildflowers!

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Where to stay: if you want to be up high in the mountains for the sunsets (and sunrises!), then stay in the refuges (mountain huts). I particularly enjoyed those at around 2,000m to 2,400m (highest on the track). I didn’t go off-track to any of the super high ones, but they did look spectacular if you had the right skills to get to them. Most of the refuges include dinner and breakfast (half pension/demi pension) rates averaging at about 45 Euros per night (ranging from 30-55 Euros) for a dorm room, much less if you go without the meals. Not all the huts had self-serve cooking facilities so if you’re cooking for yourself, you may need to carry a stove or eat cold food. You can often buy a la carte options so you could play it by ear. Or, you can have your hot meal for lunch (which isn’t included in demi pension anyways) — there were usually huts with food at a convenient lunch stopping time.

Hot showers are often included (yes, there are hot showers!) and there was a hot shower at every hut I stayed at (except for a cold one at Bonhomme because it was a rainy day and the water is solar heated). You can book many of these online or make reservations over the phone (most wardens speak English, but everyone speaks French).

Refuge Bertone

Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme Refuge

When to go: I started the Tour in mid-July, which was perfect timing for the wildflowers. The weather was mostly sunny, warm, and settled (although a few rainy days) with highs ranging in the valleys up to 33C, but much cooler high up (still t-shirt weather, until you stop!). Not warm enough for glacial lake swims, but I don’t think it ever would be! Most of the snow had melted and there were only a few patches in a couple sections of the hike. These were easily passed through with lots of footprints to follow. Also, if you time it well, you can watch the Tour de France cycling while you’re close by — maybe the finish in Paris?

Check out my next posts on my route and gear, as well as day-by-day imagery. 

 

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Take the train to the Rhone Alps

From London to Grenoble on the train is a bit over six hours on uncrowded and super fast trains. I was worried about finding space for my GIANT pack (that contained all the camping and hiking gear for two people for six days, including food!), but the train from Paris was pretty empty. It was a comfortable journey through beautiful countryside.

GR54GR54

From Grenoble, rent a car in the station and drive to Ecrins National Park, only an hour away on easy roads. This park has a stunning selection of walks, including the 10 day Tour L’Oisans also referred to as the GR54. I did a few sections of this route and loved it. You are surrounded by peaks, with new ones revealing themselves around every bend. The scale of the place feels enormous as you start hiking from the valley floor.

Waterfall #100

If you love waterfalls and alpine lakes do the section up to Lac Muzelle (starts from Bourg D’Arud, only about 15 minutes from Bourg D’Oisans — bus runs back and forth during the summer only, not in September!). There were amazing waterfalls all the way up, about four hours straight up. And when you get to the top, it is even more beautiful than you can imagine. An alpine lake surrounded by towering peaks and a glacier. Also grazing sheep and the smartest dogs, which are trusted to manage the sheep on their own and even herd them around. We were confronted by one of the dogs, huge white furry things, which barked at us for a few minutes and then left us alone. I wonder how much training they require? I can’t imagine any dog in New Zealand being capable of that.

MuzelleRefuge Muzelle

The Refuge was in an amazing spot on the edge of the icy lake (brought my togs, but no way was that going to happen). And, much to our surprise and delight, there is a hot shower, real mattresses and bedding, and a five course dinner and breakfast served. It was the best hut experience ever. Some people were camping on the flats by the lake, but it was a cold and rainy night, so I’m glad I decided to treat myself with the hut.

You can turn this walk into a 2-3 day loop as well by continuing on to Lac Lauvitel, another pretty alpine lake, but we weren’t able to make it as the slate cliffs down to the lake are treacherous in the rain. Everyone we saw warned us not to go on, so we listened.

Refuge Muzelle

Another section of the GR54 starts from Bourg D’Oisans, a good valley base with bike rentals for the nearby and infamous climb up to Alpe D’Huez. I did it in the reverse from Huez to Bourg D’Oisans — about a three hour walk through meadows, forests and pretty alpine villages.

Tour L’Oisans. Ten days through the French Alps.

I would highly recommend this region and would love to come back and do the ten day circuit. The GR54 is supposed to be a bit tougher than the Tour de Mont Blanc, another popular ten day walk. But this region is spectacular and doesn’t have the same amount of crowds. I was there the first week of September and it was pretty quiet. Most of the villages had closed, but the huts are mainly still open until mid-September.

Cicerone’s guide book on the national park was excellent — all the info you need with hut opening times, services, and details on the best walks in the region.

Huez to Bourg D'Oisans on the GR54

Huez to Bourg D’Oisans on the GR54

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My next post will have more pics from another walk in the French Alps, not on the GR54, but just as spectacular.

 

Adventures, Mountains

Take the train to the Rhone Alps

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Adventures, Mountains

Best spot for a hut: in the Rhone Alps

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