Tour Du Mont Blanc (TMB) in Eight Days: Our Itinerary and Recap!

IMG_2728My husband and I just returned from hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc, a loop trail that goes around the Mont Blanc massif in France, Italy, and Switzerland.  I will have separate posts for what we packed for this adventure, as well as some FAQs if you are interested in more tips about the TMB.  But this post is my recap:  where we went, where we stayed, what we ate, and how long this thing took us!  We decided to do the trip in eight days and book it all ourselves — not using a hired guide company or trip planner.  So here it is — our eight-day self-guided TMB itinerary!

Pre-Hike Day 1 (Sept 1 for reference): Fly from Denver to DC to Geneva.  This was just a day of flying!  Why oh why were there no direct flights?!  Note: trekking poles are not allowed in carry-ons so although our plan was not to check a bag, we ended up checking my husband’s with his poles (my poles made it through somehow…).

Pre-Hike Day 2: Geneva to Les Houches.  We used Chamonix Valley Transfers for a very efficient shuttle from the Geneva airport (Switzerland) to Chamonix (France) (pronounced Sham-on-ee).  We booked this transfer and the return trip a week or so in advance — sort of last minute for me!  Although we were staying in Les Houches (pronounced Lez Ooosh) where we would start our journey, we got in to Switzerland early in the morning and had plenty of time to noodle about Cham for a few hours.  Plus, we arrived on the Sunday that UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc — big trail running race!) was finishing, so we thought it would be fun to see the hullabaloo and watch some folks shuffle across the finish line.  Cham was a bit nuts but we grabbed (not great) sandwiches near the finish line to take in the scene, as well as a few snacks at a bakery for “just in case”.  We also stopped at an ATM to get some cash (we got 400 Euros which ended up being perfect… we finished our trip with 1.60 Euros left!).  We also got some quiches for an evening snack or breakfast the next day.  (I ended up eating mine at 2 am when I woke up in the middle of the night starving!)  After lunch, we were pretty tired so we decided to hop a bus from Chamonix to Les Houches.  It was 3 Euros per person for the bus but if you check in to a hotel/inn in the valley, they all provide you with free bus passes.  We just didn’t have ours yet because we hadn’t checked in anywhere.  Oh well.  The bus was really easy.  Once in Les Houches, about four miles outside of Chamonix, we checked into our Airbnb.  There were a few hotels in Les Houches, but the Airbnb price was right and we just needed a spot to crash before our journey.  We thought about going to a grocery store for last minute provisions but being a Sunday they all closed in early afternoon.  So we took naps and then had a short walk around Les Houches until dinnertime.  We had dinner at Le Delice, which had great reviews but also looked casual enough for our travel-wear.  They had a limited menu because UTMB folks had eaten much of the food, so I wasn’t able to try their great-sounding veggie burger.  I did get a yummy tomato salad and we split some patatas bravas.  My husband also had his first beer of our journey.  It was a cute spot and service was good — would recommend.  After dinner, we went to bed to rest up for our journey to begin the next day!

TMB Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines.  

Route: Bellevue lift to the Col de Tricot variant (high route).

Strava Stats: 7.7 miles from the top of the lift, 2,147 ft of gain hiked, 4 hrs and 45 minutes elapsed including a coffee stop at Auberge Le Truc.

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First things first.  We stopped at a bakery in Les Houches for some bread and a Croix de Savoie, which is a local pastry for the Savoie region.  We then eased into our journey by taking the Bellevue lift out of Les Houches.  This was something like 15 euros per person and some of the people crammed in with us smelled pretty bad, but it saved us two or three hours of uphill, non-view hiking.  A friend who did the TMB last year had recommended we take the lift option, and it was a great suggestion — we would recommend the same.  At the top of the lift, among some clouds, we officially started on the TMB.  Well, we actually officially started on the TMB variant to Col de Tricot.  We really enjoyed this variant, which offered good seclusion, lots of views of the Bionnassay Glacier, and some nice steady climbing.  Oh, and a short Himalayan-style suspension bridge!  (Not as scary as I’d feared.). At the top of the col, we were greeted by a lovely herd of sheep with bells.  (Col is a French word that means the same as “pass” in the US — the low point between mountains that you can use to cross the range.) We looked down to the very small town of Miage in the valley.  Here we had our first of many tricky descents of the TMB.  This one was wasn’t too steep but was made more challenging by the abundant sheep poop on the trail and some slick wet spots.  I thought of the delicious baguette stuffed in an outside pocket of my husband’s pack and prayed he would not fall in the mud/poop!   At the bottom of the valley, we said “bonjour” to some cows before another, smaller climb to Auberge Le Truc, a cute little refuge where we stopped for coffee and to eat our snacks outside on a picnic table.  This was a benefit of having plenty of time our first day — getting to stop and rest and drink warm beverages under the overcast skies.   The auberge (French inn) also had a cool composting toilet that made me think I could live in a tiny home.  After our little break, we headed down down down once again into the valley to our destination, Les Contamines (pronounced LAY contaMEEN), where the sun was shining.

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The cows of Miage

We were well ahead of schedule when we arrived (taking about 2/3 the time predicted on the TMB signs), which meant it was still the afternoon siesta time from 1 to 3ish when all the stores in town close.  This would become a bit of a theme.  To pass the time, we took a walk around to get our bearings, and then we got some more drinks (beer for my husband, tea latte for me) at a restaurant in town that had a nice patio.

At 3 pm, the stores opened and we went in a few.  The grocery store was selling very cool Les Contamines trucker hats — probably the coolest hats we’d see the whole trip — but we didn’t buy one since we were set on hats.  We did pick up a box of chocolate biscuits (cookies).  We also stopped at one of the outdoor outfitters and checked out the collection of Buffs.  They actually had a few French and TMB Buffs that we liked but figured we could get at one of our later stops — turns out we could not find these same Buffs in Cham at the end of our trip.  Boooo!

Next we checked into our hotel — Hotel Gai Soleil (pronounced gay solay)– which I cannot recommend enough and which was definitely one of the nicer places we stayed during our hike.  Delicious food, big clean private bathroom, cozy private bedroom, friendly owners.   Our reservation included dinner and breakfast, which were served in a nice dining room with wood beams.  I think dinner was served at 7 pm which we learned is standard for the TMB and for restaurants in the region (i.e., most restaurants are not even open before then!).  The owner really graciously helped me find a vegetarian option — when she mentioned “eggs” I immediately said “YES PLEASE”, as I was concerned about getting enough protein during the trip.  We showered and rested until 7 and then enjoyed the delicious dinner, including an omelette (for me), quiche, and a very yummy tiramisu that I wouldn’t mind eating again right now.

A great first day.

TMB Day 2: Les Contamines to Refuge Mottets.

Route: Col du Bonhomme to the Col de Fours variant plus a bit off track through a cow field.

Strava Stats: 16.2 miles, 5,887 ft of gain, nearly 7 and a half hours elapsed.

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After a nice, complimentary breakfast buffet at Hotel Gai Soleil (yogurt, pastries, fruit, corn flakes, cheese), we started what would end up being one of our most challenging but also most beautiful days on the TMB.

We quickly learned that most of accommodations served breakfast around 7 am, which meant that everyone was coming out of Les Contamines and hitting the trail around the same time.  This second day was the only day when we really felt the crowds, probably because so many people were starting right after UTMB and hadn’t yet had a chance to spread out across the trail.  So obviously I had to power-hike past all these people.

The trail was very flat and easy until we arrived at the Notre Dame de la Gorge church. After this stop, the trail took an immediate steep uphill, which is where I made my move, feeling my legs powerful and fresh as I passed group after group of hikers until things were more reasonable — still people around but most going a similar pace and not blocking the trail.  After a bit in the woods, the trail opened up towards the Col du Bonhomme and we all marched up, marveling at the views in all directions.  There were peaks of various shapes, a glacier, and sheep being chased around by a dog.

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View from the Col du Bonhomme

At the top of the col, our first of the day, we had some of the biscuits we’d bought in Les Contamines and some water.  And I took a million pictures before we continued the trek up a bit to the Croix du Bonhomme and then to Col des Fours via the variant.

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The view past the Col du Bonhomme while hiking towards the Croix du Bonhomme and Col des Fours.  The helicopter was picking up leftover gear boxes from UTMB.

This day had a lot of climbing but we decided to add to it by doing the Col des Fours variant, which offered a distant view of Mont Blanc but more importantly a direct route to Refuge Mottets, rather than taking the long and less interesting route through Les Chapieux.

The immediate surroundings during the hike from the Croix du Bonhomme to the Col des Fours aren’t very scenic (it included a big power line), but when we got to the Col Des Fours, we could see Mont Blanc in the distance and the Valle des Glaciers below us.  Just a nice descent into the valley and we’d be at Mottets, we told ourselves.

And then we got lost.

Well not really lost so much as off trail.  After an hour or so of hiking to the left and across the valley to the meadows on the other side, we could see tiny ant hikers down below in the valley on a trail.  I looked down and saw grass below my feet — not the typical terrain for the well-worn TMB.  The British couple that we had followed, and then passed, hollered out at us from behind.  They had a GPS.  I ran up the hill to see if I could tell whether there was a way to cut down.  I didn’t see a direct route but it looked like the path we were on eventually hit a road we could take into the valley.  Directionally, it wasn’t too far off track.  We hiked through cow pastures and nicely asked the cows not to attack us (they didn’t) and used the GPS app (no clue which one it was!) to confirm that the road would lead us to the correct destination.  After a detour that I’m guessing added at least three miles to our journey, we arrived in town and once again saw the lovely yellow signs of the TMB.  Our UK friends unfortunately had an additional 3 hours of hiking uphill and off the TMB to their refuge (yikes!).

We were grateful to roll into Refuge Mottets on schedule, despite our roundabout route.  That meant we grabbed prime sleeping: two dorm spots that were separated by some wood planks — i.e., I didn’t have to sleep right next to strangers!  I didn’t get a photo — huge mistake — but just understand that the beds were touching, so this wall situation was hugely nice.  We got some coffee and a Nutella crepe to keep us happy until dinner was served at 7 pm, and while we ate we claimed one of the few outlets at Mottets to charge our electronics.  (There is no wifi at Mottets but that was sort of nice, since it wasn’t like we were going to research the local dining scene or anything…) Then we parked ourselves in some camp chairs in the yard, watched the donkeys in the field, and chatted with some young midwesterners.  It was quite chilly at Mottets, and we heard rumors that the water wasn’t super hot, so we decided to skip showering for that one day.

At 7, everyone scrambled to the assigned seats at the dinner tables — we were next to a group of young male San Franciscans and a couple of young Canadian couples.  Dinner was not the best food I’ve ever eaten but also far exceeded my expectations.  I figured there would be very limited vegetarian options at a rustic spot like Mottets.  But there was bread, unlimited vegetarian bean soup, a cabbage slaw, rice and ratatouille. For meat eaters, sausage and braised beef.  OK flan for dessert.  There was also traditional musical entertainment with a music machine (not sure of the official name!).  My husband paid our 100 euros after dinner (what a deal for dinner, lodging, and breakfast), while I scampered off and brushed my teeth before the post-dinner bathroom rush and before dark fully set in.  This is why they say to pack a headlamp!  We nestled into our sleep sacks and had a not-great-but-not-terrible night of sleeping in the dorms.

TMB Day 3: Refuge Mottets to Courmayeur.

Route: Standard route up the Col du Bonhomme to Alpe superieur de l’Arp Vieille and Col Checrouit, then through Dolonne to Courmayeur.

Strava Stats: 16.5 miles, 3,783 ft of gain (and way more down), 7.5 hours elapsed.

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This was one of my favorite days but it also had one of my least favorite sections.

The 6:30 am breakfast at Mottets was lacking — mostly cornflakes, which we’d quickly come to hate.  And some very dry bread, prunes (which we didn’t have), OJ, coffee.  No yogurt. 😦

But then we were off to Courmayeur.  We were the first ones out of Mottets, which was already a bit ahead of the other lodging options on the TMB.  That meant with our good hiking pace we arrived alone at the Col de la Seigne where we crossed into Italy.  What a beautiful spot!  Marmots!  Mont Blanc!  No people!

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View from the Col de la Seigne.  The snow-covered thing?  Monte Bianco.

 

We descended past Refugio Elizabetta into the valley, did not pass Go and did not collect $200, and followed the road at the bottom of the valley for a mile or so.  Then it was time to climb again up (generally up, but then more undulating and flat) a trail to Alpe superieur de l’Arp Vieille and then to Col Checrouit, all along the slope of the valley (Val Veni) opposite the big mountains.  We did get slightly delayed by a herd of slow and disorganized cattle that were walking on the path.  The Italian cow herder was also freaking out at one of the hikers coming the opposite direction, apparently accusing him of interfering with the cows’ progression.  The Italian got up in this guy’s face and was screaming at him in Italian while waving his hands wildly.  The guy kept his cool but it was a very strange scene that I hoped wouldn’t escalate.

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Monte Bianco and me

After hiking along the side of the valley, the route gets less scenic as we turned right through the ski resorts, where there — very strangely — was a pony grazing on a slope.  Perhaps because we were eager to arrive in Courmayeur and get some pizza, the descent into town felt endless and miserable.  We were hoping to take the Dolonne cablecar down but we found out (by walking by and seeing not a soul) that it had closed for the season just a few days earlier, on Sept 1.  Well-reviewed restaurants in the Dolonne area also appeared to be getting some renovations before winter, so we did not venture that way for dinner.  Dismayed, we continued our descent, which we had to take slowly because my husband’d knee was bothering him from three days of big downhills.  The trail was deep dusty dirt that got in our shoes and covered our legs and made us just want it all to end.

(The Cicerone book has a variant for this latter part of the route, and it looks a bit less steep. If we had known what the main route would be like, we probably would have tried the variant.  But we were counting on that Dolonne cablecar!)

Eventually, mercifully, we arrived in town.  It was still a bit of walk to the center of town and our hotel, Novecento Villa Romantic Hotel, which I’d booked using Chase points.  We first stopped for pizza, but found several of the restaurants closed for that odd in-between time after lunch and before dinner.  The gelato shop I’d read about — Creme et Chocolat — was also closed because it was a Wednesday (booo).  So we just popped into a casual takeaway focaccia spot, Pan Per Focaccia.  We were not disappointed!  I had a square of fresh tomato pizza and a fizzy water and felt rejuvenated.  We headed to the hotel to shower and attempt to clean our clothes (my socks may never be the same).  The hotel was very nice and comfortable.  It had spa but for whatever reason we didn’t take advantage of it.

Dinner was not provided at our hotel, so at 7 we ventured out once again and enjoyed polenta and pizza at La Terrazza.  (I had extra pizza wrapped up to snack on the following day.)  We also took a stroll around Courmayeur, which is a nice ski town with some luxury shops.  And then it was time for sleep.

TMB Day 4: Courmayeur to Val Ferret.

Route: Standard route.

Strava Stats: 12.3 miles, 4,123 ft of gain, 6 hours elapsed including a stop at Bonatti.

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We knew this day was going to be more mellow than the two preceding days, so we took it easy in the morning, enjoying a leisurely 7:30 am breakfast.  The buffet included at Novecento Villa Romantic Hotel was extensive and included eggs, yogurt, a variety of cereals, baked goods, meats and cheeses, etc.  I really should have just loaded up on eggs but admittedly I also indulged in some carbs.  Also, the coffee is best in Italy — much less consistent in the other countries on the route.

After stuffing ourselves silly, we took the road out of town (not clearly marked, but as described in the Cicerone book, it is the road up out of the church square in the center of town).  It immediately started climbing, which made sense because we were deep in a valley and had descended some 5000 feet to get into Courmayeur the previous day.  I didn’t mind the climb — it was mostly shaded and although we were sweating bonkers-like, it was relatively cool.  Once we could see into the valley on the other side and the big mountains, we could tell that the sun of Courmayeur would not be staying with us for the rest of the day.  This was a bit of a bummer because the views from the balcony on this section are supposed to be some of the best of the trip.  But considering how bad it could have been, the weather held out pretty well and we still saw some lovely views.

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Courmayeur down in the valley

We decided to take the standard route rather than the high route because (1) we’d put in a lot of work in the previous days and were open to having a bit of a rest and (2) the weather wasn’t fantastic.  Even the standard route was lovely; my understanding is that it just offered a slightly lower vantage point compared to the high route.

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View of Mont Blanc behind us, plus some clouds

We thought we might out-hike the clouds behind us, but they eventually caught us and sprinkled some light rain down.  We put on our raincoats and put our rain covers on our packs, but it wasn’t enough rain to justify rain pants.  (For more on the gear we brought, see my post on what we packed for the TMB.)

Although the crowds were much, much thinner than what we experienced that second morning, we did have a leapfrogging situation with some Americans — Coloradans, no less — and had to pick up our pace to officially drop them.  They were perfectly nice but not people we wanted to chat with all day.  (We also mused — without much basis — that they seemed like people who are anti-Colin Kaepernick, and we didn’t need people like that on our vacation.) We also got stuck for a bit behind two female backpackers whose packs were the size of tiny homes and who for some reason would not pull over to let us pass, even when there was ample space to step to the side.  Finally, they ran into some folks they knew, so we snuck past as they chatted.

The route was relatively flat, somewhat rolling, once we were out of the valley, and with not too much additional effort we arrived at the famous Rifigio Bonatti, named for famed mountaineer Walter Bonatti.  (Note, there is a short but steep climb up to Bonatti, but this is also the TMB route so you have to climb it whether you are stopping or not!)  We had heard great things about Bonatti and we were pretty hungry so we decided to stop.  It wasn’t raining at the moment, so we parked outside on the patio with our snacks: more bean soup for me and more polenta — with red sauce and sausage — for my husband.  (They also had a vegetarian polenta option but I’d eaten a GIANT bowl of polenta the night before. Also note that the food here ain’t cheap!)  Soon after we started eating, it began sprinkling so we moved to the cozy dining area inside the refuge. Many others were stopping here for the night or just for a break, but it wasn’t overly crowded.  After our hearty lunch, we had another 1.5 hours or so until we arrived at our final spot for the evening: Chalet Val Ferret.

I’m not sure why I booked Val Ferret over Bonatti or very popular Refuge Elena which is just a bit further along the route.  But it was fine, quite a bit smaller than the other places we stayed.  There were 16 people total staying there the night we were there.  If I can have one complaint, it was that the place was a bit cold — cold floors, not super hot water.  After a cold, cloudy, damp day, we really wanted to cozy up with a coffee or something, but it wasn’t to be.  There was a nice little fireplace heater in the common area (also only space where the wifi worked) but the six or so seats were quickly occupied by a group of older Canadians.  We found another seating area that was less warm but worked fine, and there we met some lovely young Canadians who were changing jobs and taking a few months to explore Europe before starting their new gigs in a new city.  We also met a nice young Israeli couple, who we’d see again on our trip.

At 7:30, dinner was served.  And it included — you guessed it — SOUP AND POLENTA!  The vegetarian polenta was topped with a huge number of yummy mushrooms.  A very hearty meal.  Some of meat dishes included pasta with ground deer!  Dessert was a very simple fruit cup. Meh.

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Vegetarian dinner at Chalet Val Ferret

We also tried to do a little laundry in the sink at the hotel.  My socks from the Courmayeur day never dried and thus smelled horrific after a couple days of being damp in my pack.  We set things out on the towel heater and also blew them with the hair dryer.  It was sufficient for most of our items, but those socks were beyond help.  I stuffed them into one of the small pockets of my pack and vowed not to take them out until I was home next to my washing machine.

TMB Day 5: Val Ferret to La Fouly.

Route: Standard route.

Strava Stats: 10.1 miles, 2,696 ft of gain, 4.5 hours.

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We started our day once again with the standard inn breakfast — cereal, yogurt, bread, very good coffee.  (There was a good looking blueberry tart but we didn’t want any more carbs!). And then it was back out to climb up out of the valley.  A pattern emerges.

This was our easiest day on the trail.  There were still many lingering clouds as we ventured up past Refuge Elena to the Grande Col Ferret, which was neither the largest of the cols, nor did it have ferrets.  What a misnomer!  I have no doubt that on a clear day the view is absolutely stunning as you look back into the valley and see the whole Italian route behind you.  But we were in the clouds by the time we made it to the top.

 

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View from the climb out of Italy and we get into the clouds

Through the clouds we heard cow bells and knew we were heading into the pastures of Switzerland.  (Note that Switzerland is the most expensive of the three countries on the TMB and if we are being candid, offers the least impressive sections of the TMB.)  We took a relatively mellow descent past La Peule — a cow farm slash refuge where we stopped for an expensive and not great tasting coffee — down to the town of Ferret.   Past Ferret we took the mostly flat path along the river to the small town of La Fouly.

Because we’d had such a mellow day and had started our journey ahead of the Bonatti folks, La Fouly was a bit of a ghost town when we arrived.  But!  Who did we see at the bus stop?  Our UK friends with the GPS app!  We spoke briefly to them and they recommended Auberge des Glaciers for lunch, although they warned us that items touting cheese as an ingredient included a ton of cheese.  Noted.  We wished them well and walked back to Auberge des Glaciers, which appeared to be the only place open in the whole village.  It had a nice patio and luckily the kitchen was still open (I think it ended up closing at 2:30 pm).  We ordered rosti, a classic Swiss dish featuring potatoes.  I ordered mine with three eggs on top because I really wanted some protein, but it came with only one egg.  I guess my order was unconventional.  This was a very pleasant lunch, and we got a beer, sparkling water, and a very good blueberry cake for dessert (blueberry desserts and pastries were EVERYWHERE).  However, this lunch totaled 72 FRANCS!!! Yikes!  But rosti!

After lunch we took a lap around the grocery store, which opened at 3, and got some really terrible tasting raw, unsalted mixed nuts.  Couldn’t find normal nuts.  My husband also picked up 50 Swiss francs from the bank because we planned to take the bus the following day, and while many spots in Switzerland do take Euros, the bus did not.  (The bus was like 14 francs per person, FYI!)  Then we headed to our lodging at Maya Joie, just at the entrance to town.  Maya Joie was… interesting.  It was perfectly acceptable for TMB standards — the (shared) bathrooms were clean, the room was fine even though we had two little beds.  But not as special as some of the other places we stayed.  Throughly OK.  There is one exception: the dinner.  Raclette!  Even if you do not stay at Maya Joie, you must must must get some raclette while in Switzerland.  At Maya Joie, it was served with a starter of surprisingly good mushroom soup, and then the traditional raclette accoutrement — pickles, pickled onions, bread, dried meats, potatoes.  As a vegetarian, they gave me a giant plate of seasoned tomato slices instead of the dried meats.  Yum!  The raclette was all-you-can-eat, and I surprised myself by happily gorging on several rounds, even as my husband and our dining companions — the couple from Israel! — turned down more food.

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The staff at Maya Joie very nicely invited us into the kitchen to see the raclette-making process

After dinner we retired to our private room (there is also a dorm option) and our little separate beds.

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Our beds and our sleep sacks at Maya Joie

TMB Day 6: La Fouly to Trient.

Route: Bus from La Fouly to Champex, then Fenetre d’Arpette variant (high route).

Strava Stats: 11.2 miles, 4,002 ft of gain, just a little under 7 hours.

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This was probably our least favorite day and in our view could be skipped to make this a seven-day TMB itinerary.

We started with a chaotic 7 am breakfast at Maya Joie.  We were on a very strict timetable so we ate as fast as we could.  The breakfast items were all in a tiny room at the end of the dining room, and people were furiously dashing for the OJ and the toasters and the cornflakes and the yogurt.  We got what we needed and power walked to the bus stop to head to Champex-Lac, skipping the (less remarkable, pasture-y) section between La Fouly and Champex.

According to the bus route, we should take the 7:18 am bus to Som la Praz and change buses to Champex.  But the bus driver told us that it was all the same bus, so we trusted him, even as he passed our stop and drove to Orsieres.  But, magically, at Orsieres the bus number changed and we headed back to Som la Praz and then to… Champex!  Champex is a very pretty town that is a bit larger than La Fouly.  And it has a lovely lake! If we were doing it all over again, we’d probably hike to La Fouly, catch the bus to Champex to stay the night (and hopefully find raclette!), and then catch another bus to Trient.  Lesson learned!

When we got off the bus, we stopped at a bakery on the edge of town and were pleasantly surprised that it was not nearly as expensive as our La Fouly experience.  However, the croissants were just OK — not very buttery.  My husband got a baguette sandwich because — unlike me — he doesn’t live on croissants alone.

Around 8 am we were finally headed off for this leg of the TMB.  We’d decided to take the high route over the Fenetre d’Arpette, which would take us to one of the highest spots on the TMB (allegedly tied with Col des Fours but Strava says Col des Fours is higher).  The Cicerone book acted like this high route was the be all and end all, and generally I’d agree that higher spots are super rewarding.  So we were excited.  The route started with long, steady climbing under the brutal sun and then in the final third, more technical climbing with a tiny bit of scrambling and a tiny bit of exposure (this was all mostly Class 1 with a tiny bit of very easy Class 2).  This route was less technical and less demanding that a lot of Colorado hikes, but we did see several people that were struggling and probably wished they’d taken the standard route.

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View looking back while going up to the Fenetre D’Arpette

After the final set of steep switchbacks, we were at the top and gave out a collective “meh.”  The view ahead was just OK — yes there was a glacier, but this wasn’t the best view of said glacier.  The view behind us was nice, but still didn’t compare to some of the other views we’d seen on the journey.  So after a quick sip of water and some snacks, we headed down the other side of the “window.”  The descent was more steep and more technical and even more brutally sunny than the ascent and it went on FOREVER.  Oh, and there were bees that were buzzing around us the whole time — probably one of the bees that had stung Killian and led to his DNF at UTMB…  So this was not our favorite section nor our favorite day.  As my husband said, “the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.”

Finally we made it down to the river coming off the glacier and a mirage of a snack stand appeared.  It was the aptly named Chalet du Glacier.  We got some bubbly beverages and I had a just-OK-but-it-will-work ice cream under the shade of a picnic table.  This snack stand also had fondue, which was tempting because I was hungry and in Switzerland, but ultimately we declined since it was so warm out.  From there it was an easy walk into the “towns” of La Peuty and then Trient.  La Peuty is really just a few houses, a small refuge, and a campsite.  Trient, which is directly past La Peuty, offers a small farm, a few more houses, and two not-particularly-well-reviewed refuges, including ours: Hotel La Grande Ourse.

As mentioned, La Grande Ourse did not have great reviews but we were actually pretty pleasantly surprised by it.  We had a private room with private shower, and both were clean and more than adequate.  And they were near the lobby so we had wifi in our room (others reportedly did not).  Yes, the whole place is more sterile and less charming than many other TMB options.  And expensive.  But it was fine.

We got to our room, showered, and proceeded to eat most of the snacks in our bag.  We had had such a rushed breakfast and then hadn’t had a proper lunch and then hadn’t had fondue, so we were famished.  But that’s why we brought emergency biscuits and Bobo bars and RX bars!

The dinner at La Grande Ourse — which was particularly mentioned in reviews as being bad — was passable but yeah probably the worst dinner we had.  But they still had a vegetarian option, so my expectations continued to be surpassed.  Dinner was perfectly fine soup and then some not-great curry with rice.  My curry had a bitter flavor, probably from the eggplant, and needed more salt.  Dessert was an OK panna cotta with berries.

At dinner, our assigned seats were not with our UK friends who were also there nor with the San Franciscans from Mottets, but with some new folks: a couple that we guessed were in their 70s from Maryland.  They were nice enough but a little odd and kept saying  “I’m not sure why we decide to do this” and we kept wondering if they were just awkward or if they were hating their time on the trail.

TMB Day 7: Trient to Argentiere.

Route: Standard route to Col de Balme and Aiguillete des Posettes and Tre le Champ, then detour to Argentiere.

Strava Stats:  12 miles, 3,823 ft of gain, 6 hours elapsed.

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The TMB redeemed itself on this day, one of our favorites.

We had the included breakfast buffet at the Grande Ourse — you guessed it: corn flakes, yogurt, toast, OJ — and then set out on our second-to-last leg of the journey.

There was a nice steady, partially shaded climb out of the valley up to the Col de Balme, one of my favorite spots because of the surprise view waiting at the top.  Mont Blanc! Pointy things!  Chamonix!  France! I took approximately 7000 photos and then we took a short descent before going back up for the Aiguillette des Possettes, which offered its own awesome views.  Really this whole day had awesome views until the very end.

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Col de Balme cartwheels

It was a Sunday, and we could tell the Aiguille des Possettes was a popular day hike given the number of crowds.  But it was all manageable.

The down, as always, felt too long, and I even got out Google maps to orient myself and evaluate how close we were getting to Argentiere, our final destination.  There wasn’t a ton of thought put into the decision to detour into Argentiere.  I’m guessing when I was planning I honestly didn’t know I was getting us off track, or at least I thought it was only a short bit off track.  And it’s really not that far off track.  But just note, it is off track.  The Cicerone book would probably have you stay in Tre le Champ that evening, but I’m going to be bold and actually recommend Argentiere, which is a real town.  To get to Argentiere, we followed the signs for Tre le Champ (normal route) and then followed signs for Argentiere along the road and river.

We got into Argentiere around 1 or 2, and I really desperately wanted an omelette for some protein.  So we randomly chose a cute restaurant with an outdoor patio: La Petite Verte.  My omelette was very good, and my husband had a croute, which is bread with melted cheese and ham.

We then checked in a little early at Yeti Lodge, which was a very cool spot.  Also very affordable.  There was another group checking in after a day of mountaineering and I wanted to ask them what they’d been up to — had they gone up Mont Blanc? — but resisted that urge.  Yeti Lodge is made of several suites, or chalets, with a common kitchen and living space, and then has private rooms and bathrooms within each chalet.  It was a cool setup.  We showered and put our clothes out on the patio to dry and air out in the sun.  Then we read the helpful binders left in our chalet, with information about dining in Argentiere and the bus schedule.

We took a walk through town and had dinner at The Stone Bar, a pizza place on the main road.  It served perfectly acceptable pizza — not the best we’ve ever had but definitely not the worst.

TMB Day 8: Argentiere to Chamonix.

Route: Detour route from Argentiere to Lac Blanc, then descent from La Flegere using the cable car, and then walk to Chamonix on town path.

Strava Stats: 10.2 hours, 4,251 ft of gain, 5.5 hours elapsed including photos and rest at Lac Blanc.

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Because we were in Argentiere and didn’t like the prospect of backtracking up through Tre le Champ, we weren’t really sure what to do this day and even toyed with taking a bus straight from Argentiere to Chamonix.  But as we were walking around town the previous night, we saw a trail marked with a non-TMB sign for Lac Blanc and decided that was some kind of direct route we’d try.  I’m glad we stuck it out.

But first, we had a peaceful breakfast in our chalet at the Yeti Lodge.  Coffee, cereal (not just cornflakes!), hard boiled egg (!!!!), pastries, toast.  Then we were off.

We took the trail in town, climbing up and up and up the Aiguillette de Argentiere.  We ran into a group of very nice older Minnesotans who were only on the first day of their trip.  After chatting with them for a few minutes, we continued our climb, following signs for Lac Blanc.  Finally we arrived at the Lac des Cheserys, which are the little warmup lacks before Lac Blanc.  At the largest of these lakes, you can stand at the far side and see the reflection of Mont Blanc in the water.

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Mont Blanc and Lac de Cheserys

After passing these lakes, we took the ladder and wooden steps up and up and up to Lac Blanc.  We had read that Lac Blanc can be insanely crowded, but it wasn’t bad on a Monday before lunch.  Note, we did see many people coming up as we were going down so it may have gotten more crowded around lunchtime.  We took some pictures and ate a quick snack from our bags, then headed down to the La Flegere cablecar.  We had initially thought that perhaps we would hike to Le Brevent and take the cablecar directly into Chamonix, but we were tired and didn’t really feel like hiking all the way to Le Brevent.  And good thing!  It turned out that the Brevent cablecar was closed for the season, so we would have had to descend a long, long way on foot into Chamonix.

At the La Flegere cablecar station, I got some Badoit sparkling water and my husband had a cheese pretzel.  Then we rode down to Les Praz, which is just outside of the center city Chamonix.  We walked the final mile or two along the path on the river, and then we were done our journey!

We walked through town and then checked into our hotel in Chamonix, the Grande Hotel Des Alpes.  This is a four-star hotel that was very well reviewed and that I was able to book for two nights using Chase credit card points.  I’d recommend it — we had a very pleasant stay.

We had a delicious dinner at Le Panier de 4 Saisons.  Our hotel made a reservation for us, but I am also guessing that if you showed up right at 7 in September you’d be able to get a table.  It did fill up as the night went on.  I enjoyed an incredibly good goat cheese ravioli here — it was very clearly handmade and so delicate.  For my entree, I had a fried crepe filled with ricotta and vegetables.  Also very good, and I appreciated the vegetarian options on the menu.  My husband had a more traditional Savoie meal: ham, cheese, and potatoes. For dessert, my husband LOVED his Mont Blanc sundae. The creme brulee was also very good.

Post-Hike Day 1: Chamonix.

Breakfast was not included in our hotel stay, so our first stop of the day was The Junction, a hip coffeeshop that also offers bagel sandwiches and smoothies.  I got a mango smoothie with added protein powder.

Then we were total tourists and went on the little train to the Montenvers to see the Mer de Glace glacier.  The ice cave was actually very cool, and the glacorium had interesting info on glaciers — I only wish it has been a larger exhibit.  Overall a worthy but pricey trip.  Note that we wore our sandals on this, but the optional hike down to the ice cave was a little dicey.  Wear real shoes or take the cablecar down to the stairs.

Notably, as mentioned above the Brevent cablecar was closed for the season (it closed just a few days earlier) and the Aiguille du Midi cablecar was closed for repairs.  These are to-do items #1 and #2 to Chamonix, so it was a huge bummer to miss out on them.  We had the opportunity to go to the lower, less-awesome halfway point for each, but at over 30 euros a pop, we didn’t feel the need, particularly given that we’d been circumnavigating Mont Blanc for the past eight days.

There were two other activities in Chamonix that we didn’t do but which I’d probably have wanted to do if we had another day or two:  parasailing and rock climbing.  From the valley, you could see countless parapentes up towards the peaks, and while it looked pretty scary, it seemed like the thing to do.  As we were checking out of our hotel, we heard an older couple talking about how fun it was and that made me think that probably I could be brave enough.  Rock climbing is of course the quintessential Chamonix activity, so I also think it would have been fun to try out a beginner rock climbing excursion, even if just for a half day.  There are various outfitters for both activities in Chamonix.

We had lunch at Omeletterie La Poele, the only omelette-focused restaurant we could find.  We both ordered baked omelettes, the special of the house, but wished we had ordered regular omelettes.  The baked omelettes were too cheesy and heavy.  However, the green salad served with them was great with a pungent dijon dressing.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring all of the outdoor shops in Cham, including very affordable Quechua (whose stuff we’d been seeing all along our trek) and super-on-sale NEPA (a Korean brand), plus the usual suspects – The North Face, Patagonia, Arcteryx, Salomon, Mammut, and Cham original — Ravenel and Co.  The Patagonia shop actually had someone doing repairs for free on the day we were there, so I took my down sweater in for a quick and easy patch.  Woohoo!  Somehow we avoided buying anything, but great to know all these options were around if we’d forgotten anything!

Huge recommendation for Bizes for dinner.  In addition to a fantastic tomato pesto dip for the bread, they offer a variety of meats and veggies cooked on a Josper grill, which is apparently a blend between a grill and an oven.

We grabbed some gelato at ChamonIce — it was the only ice cream spot open — and jumped into our nice bed at the hotel.

Post-Hike Day 2: Chamonix to Denver.  We filled up at the 20-euro per person breakfast at Grande Hotel Des Alpes before Chamonix Valley Transfers picked us up and deposited us back at the Geneva airport to fly home.

That’s it! Man, that was a beast so if you read the whole thing, props!  Let me know if you have any TMB questions — I’m happy to help!  

 

 

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One thought on “Tour Du Mont Blanc (TMB) in Eight Days: Our Itinerary and Recap!

  1. Pingback: FAQs about the TMB (Tour du Mont Blanc) — Answered! | athlettuce

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