9 Days in the French Alps: Thru-Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc
When I graduated from college in 2016, I took my brand new degree and did what seemed like the only logical thing: I abandoned all responsibility and went backpacking through Europe. Like many 20-somethings, I had no idea what I wanted to do after school, and going abroad seemed like both an amazing life experience and a great way to procrastinate becoming an “adult.”
So my boyfriend, Matt, and I loaded our backpacks and spent the next five months dirt-bagging and country-hopping around Europe. And that’s how we found ourselves in the French Alps, getting ready to embark on one of the world’s most famous treks, the Tour du Mont Blanc.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is a 180-kilometer (110-mile) trail that encircles the Mont Blanc massif, which is Western Europe’s highest peak at 15,770 feet. The TMB includes three countries, 32,000 feet of elevation gain, and a nearly constant view of the glorious Mont Blanc. It climbs to more than 8,000 feet five times and sees thousands of hikers every year.
Oh, and it’s one of the most epically beautiful places on the planet.
While the distance and altitude may sound daunting, the popularity and accessibility of this trail make it manageable for any reasonably fit person. There are about 50 refuges (huts, inns, and other places to stay) along the Tour, and each leg offers some form of provisions and lodging.
What You Need to Know
Most people plan for 7 to 12 days to complete the circuit, depending mostly on how many hours you want to walk each day. Our group consisted of Matt, myself, and two friends, and we shot for nine days, averaging 20 kilometers per day. That comes out to about 12 miles a day, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but kept us plenty busy with the drastic elevation changes and our fully loaded packs.
Because there are so many refuges (huts or other accommodations) on the trail, the options can be overwhelming, and it’s common to hire a service to make all your reservations. I’m sure you can imagine that getting in touch with remote mountain huts in foreign countries could be a bit stressful, so I recommend saving yourself some gray hair and paying someone else to shoulder that burden.
The usual starting point is Chamonix, a picture-perfect mountain ski town in eastern France. It’s like the European version of Jackson Hole, except even more vibrant and beautiful. As the home of the first ever Olympic games in 1924, this is indeed the original outdoor town. There are plenty of places to resupply along the TMB, but Chamonix is the largest town on the trail, so we made sure to buy all of our gear and maps before setting out.
To get to Chamonix, we flew into Geneva and used a rideshare from the airport into the mountains. And, because we were on a tight budget, we spent the night before our trek at one of Chamonix’s many large campgrounds on the outskirts of town. The local bus system is cheap and easy to use, so getting around was no issue.
From Chamonix, most hikers complete the TMB counter-clockwise, walking to Italy and then Switzerland, and closing the loop back in France. We were told by a local that the first seven kilometers between Chamonix and Les Houches were “not very interesting,” so, like many others, we skipped it and took a bus. Thru-hiking purists may scoff, but our group had no qualms about omitting this bit.
No matter how you divide up the mileage, almost every day on the TMB features one significant climb and descent. The ascent out of Les Houches to Col de Voza is small in comparison to others on the tour but felt enormous as our first day on the trail. This section involves a lot of small roads and residential areas, but still has plenty of mountain views. And little did we know that they would only get better from here.
On our second morning, we tackled the 5,000-foot ascent to Croix du Bonhomme, one of the longest, most taxing climbs on the trail. I’m an experienced backpacker, but months of traveling hadn’t done much for my muscle tone, and this climb was a real doozy.
After lots of huffing and puffing and hiker traffic jams, the reward was one of the most breathtaking and photo-worthy views on the entire route (and of my life), plus a rustic mountain refuge serving hot food and refreshments. The descent was steep but blessedly short, and we spilled into Les Chapieux for a well-deserved night’s rest.
It might seem that these first days should have been the easiest since we were fresh, relatively full, and not yet worn down by the mountains and the weight of our packs. But as with any strenuous activity, it often takes a little time for your body to stop its initial protesting and decide to cooperate with what you’re putting it through. At some point (for me it was the moment we crossed into Italy at the Col de la Seigne) you’ll forget about the aches and pains and just realize how psyched you are to be there.
As the second largest town on the TMB, Courmayeur, Italy, offers plenty of accommodations and is nestled in a beautiful valley at the foot of the longest, steepest descent on the trail. If you plan to treat yourself to a luxurious hotel or meal, Courmayeur is the place to do it. From there, it’s only about a day’s walk to the Swiss border, which comes at another of the trail’s highest points. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a walk in the park after crossing into Switzerland, but terrain-wise, the most grueling parts of the TMB are behind you.
Of course, Switzerland is notoriously expensive, and my group found ourselves worn down from hunger despite the relatively gentle landscape. The Swiss section of the TMB is the greenest and most wooded part of the trail, and it was a refreshing change after so many days among the scarce, burly flora of the high mountains.
What to Expect with the Weather
We were exceedingly fortunate to have nearly perfect weather during our journey, with warm August sun during the days and clear, crisp nights. On our final day, though, as we climbed to the French border at Col de Balme, the weather turned cold and sour and began to spit freezing rain from the quickly darkening sky. Exhausted and weary from our eight full days on the trail, we decided to use a shortcut that took a more direct path back to Chamonix. So, admittedly, I did miss about ten miles on the Tour du Mont Blanc, having skimmed over a little at the beginning and end, but this really doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
When I re-read my journal entries from the TMB, the theme I find is one of feeling humbled and awed at being immersed in such a rugged, dramatic landscape. Up close, the Alps were more stunning and impressive than I ever could have imagined, and truthfully, the trek was more difficult and rewarding than I expected. And even though the hike was only nine days, it permanently altered my perspective on backpacking and taught me that embracing humility is a vital part of experiencing the natural world.
Now I think of the Tour du Mont Blanc as one of my crowning achievements, having spent it in good health, great company, and a constant state of wonder at my immense fortune to be there at all.
Written by Madison Eubanks for RootsRated in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Robbie Shade