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Ever since I was a little kid, and first saw pictures of the Alps, I’ve wanted to walk there. It finally happened this year with the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), a 104 mile loop around Mont Blanc, the tallest and most massive mountain in Europe. The trail crosses four major passes above 8,000′ and takes a trekker through France, Italy and Switzerland. Alpine views of the mountains, snow pack, glaciers and deep valleys are everywhere and close. Mont Blanc and its court of surrounding peaks tower and dominate all, it is so impressive. Elevation gain/loss is about 29,000′. The trail often feels remote and exposed above the tree line, but one is seldom far from a village or one of the many mountain refuges that provide lodging and meals to hikers. Even in the shoulder seasons, there are numerous other hikers on the trail.

My plan was to do it in 6-7 days, counter-clockwise, starting in Chamonix. As refuges and other services start shutting down in the middle of September and I had made no reservations in advance, I carried camping gear and clothing for temperatures down to 25F. Wild camping is illegal on most places on the TMB but there are designated sites and commercial campgrounds that make it possible with some planning. Though illegal, wild camping (bivouac) seems to be tolerated as long as it’s up high, out of sight, dusk to dawn, leave no trace. The tent and cold weather sleeping bag also would give some security in the event of severe mountain weather. Food and water are generally plentiful and it was not necessary to carry more than a pound of either at any given time.

Day 1: Bellevue cable car head to Les Contamines, 8.5 miles, 1,276′ ascent, 3,218 descent.   The day started in Paris at 4:30AM. By 2:00PM, I was at the head of Bellevue cable car near Chamonix, France. Had lunch at the head of the lift then I was off. Weather was cloudy, foggy, mid 50s.   Hiked to Camping La Pontet on the trail just past Les Contamines  Had hoped to get further along but it was getting dark due to the overcast, rain was threatening and it had been a long day.  Campground was ok but no views. Got setup just before night fall, ate a bit, lights out! Pictures are descending from Col de Voza into the Les Contamines. Pics show there was more sun than I remember.

Day 2:  Les Contamines to Les Chapieux. 9.8 miles, 4,353′ up, 3,119′ down. It rained overnight, heavy at times, but stayed dry in tent. Packed up and off by 7:30.  The itinerary for the morning was the climb to Col de Bonhomme.  Walked along a skim milk colored torrent of glacier melt water for a couple miles.  Weather was overcast, cool.  As I gained altitude, started seeing fresh snow on the ground and a dense fog setting in.   By the Col, snow was, 3-4”, low visibility.   Ate “brunch” on the way up, the one cold soak meal I brought, miso broccoli slaw, yum! Temps steadily dropped as I climbed. At 7,000′, this sea level dweller was feeling the elevation and had to stop more frequently to get my heart rate down. Once over the pass, the cloud ceiling lifted and the sky cleared a bit to make for dramatic lighting of my first real glimpse of the Alps. Huge smiles and OMGs all the way down to Les Chapieux. The descent was not too steep and I was able to cruise along nicely. I decided to stay at the Refuge de la Nova in Les Chapieux. There was a campground nearby but it was again getting both late and cold and I was out of food. The Refuge was kind enough to take me in without a reservation. Lovely place, stayed in a nice dormitory  room.  Dinner was incredible, lentil soup, pork cheek bourgeon, roasted potatoes, salad, cheese plate, and panna cotta with raspberry coulis (wow)   Dinner was family style and I met and chatted with other hikers. Everyone in the dorm was asleep by 8;30. Pics from this day and of the Refuge de la Nova:

Day 3:   Les Chapieux to campground near Courmayeur. 14.9 miles, 4,999′ up, 4464′ down. Slept well in the dorm, had a hearty refuge breakfast of muesli, plain yogurt, hard boiled egg and bread , picked up a “pique nique” lunch provided by the Refuge (ham and cheese on baguette, apple, tomato, chips, boiled egg, Twix bar) and was off by 7:30 again. Hiked up the Val Chapieux to the Col de la Seigne (8,240′) and over into Italy by noon.  Weather was windy, crystal clear and cool.   Temps at the Col in the mid 30s. Walked down the lovely Val Viny.  Feeling very alpine now. Mont Blanc and attendant peaks seem so close and towering. Intended to camp at Camping Hobo near Courmayeur, but they were unexpectedly closing for the season that day so I caught a ride to Courmayeur and got a hotel. Courmayeur is lovely Italian ski and tourist town nestled into the surrounding mountains. It’s the second largest town on the TMB besides Chamonix, but much smaller than Cham. Stayed at the Hotel Berthod, super nice.  Dinner at Pizzeria de Mel. This was a bigger day than the previous two, more miles, more elevation, more awe inspiring scenery. I was feeling good, and seemed to be holding up to the rigors of trail. It was such a spectacular day! Sleep came easy. Pictures of the day and Hotel Berthod:

Day 4:  Courmayeur to Gite Alpage de La Peule. 15.4 miles, 6,626′ up, 3,716′ down. Great buffet breakfast at the Hotel, these people understand a hiker’s appetite, off by 7:30. Gorgeous weather again.  Windy, clear, cool.   Climbed steeply up the mountain side of the Val Ferret past the Refuge Bertone  Forest at first, then open after Bertone.  Now starting to bump into hikers from previous days and meeting new ones every day. Ate my carried lunch at the renown Refuge named for the great Italian alpinist Walter Bonatti, The trail then led back down to Arp Nouva in the valley . Going down always worries me a bit because, you know, what goes down must go up again. On the way, was passed by the Parisian couple I’d met at Refuge de la Nova. They were moving fast but we seem to be keep meeting up because I do longer days to make up for being slow. Arp Nouva marks the end of Val Viny and the beginning of the climb to the Grand Col Ferret.  It was getting late to go over the Col and I didn’t know where I’d stay the night.  It got colder and windier as I climbed. I considered staying in the winter room for “emergency use only” at the closed Refugio Elena but it was kind of dismal inside and only 5:00. Besides, if anyone came in, I would have been hard pressed to explain my “emergency”. Three young Frenchmen came by and gave me a big smile and a hearty “allez”, so up I went too.  They were soon out of sight leaving me to push on by myself. I crossed the Col into Switzerland at 6:30.  34°, winds 25mph, gusts to 40. Wind chill was probably in the teens. It felt sketchy, but so exhilarating. As I thought it might, the wind dropped once over the pass. and the easy descent led to the rustic Gite Alpage de la Peule the Parisian couple had mentioned was still open (many of the refuges I had passed where closed for the season). It was late twilight when I arrived but the two women who operate the refuge took me in and fed me a hot meal though dinner for the other hikers was already over. The Parisian couple were here plus two young Belgium couples. We talked Belgian politics and the separate cultures of the Dutch and Flemish populations there. This was the biggest day climbing wise and the views where so incredible throughout. I was so overwhelmed. Pics in the slide show and below that a little video of the Grand Col Ferret (sound on for best effect!).

Grand Col Ferret, sound on for best effect

Day 5:  Gite Alpage de la Peule to Col de la Forclaz. 21.4 miles, 4,674′ up, 6,481′ down. Had a good basic breakfast at the Alpage and was off by 7:30. The first half of the day was a leisurely walk down the Swiss Val Ferret through La Fouly and Champex, much of it on paved and gravel road. Lots of little villages in between. Herds of cows with their musical cowbells were everywhere. Around noon, passed by the beautiful clear alpine lake at Champex-Lac.  I had been thinking I might camp a little further on at Champex-en-Bas but it was still early afternoon when I got there and I wasn’t tired (yet!). Decided to climb to Col de la Forclaz and the mountain hotel there. Much of this was in forest but plenty of views of the Swiss mountains including stately Monte Rosa on the border of Italy and Switzerland, the second highest mountain in Europe after Mont Blanc. Again I was late arriving at the hotel but after a gentle scolding, they skipped checkin formalities and shuffled me off quickly to the dinning room where I was served soup, salad, sliced roast beef,  frites and ice cream. Solid! This was the longest day, 12 hours and the most mileage of the trip. The vibe of this Swiss section was softer and gentler than the previous days. The series of little villages, herds of cows and sheep and green grass meadows contrasts sharply with the barren rocky moonscape of the higher elevations. In the evening as I approached the Col de la Forclaz, I saw a couple hunters with high power rifles working the high ridge on the way to Forclaz. More pics of the day:

Day 6:  Col de la Forclaz to Auberge la Boerne (camping). 9.5 miles, 3,752′ up, 4,116′ down Breakfast at the hotel, then off. Though the weather continued super fine, it soon became clear I hadn’t recovered well from the long day yesterday. Even on the short descent before the big climb to Col de la Balme,  I was going slow, even for me. The previous big three days had caught up with me.  I’d planned to go to La Flégère high on the “balcony trail” above Chamonix but that meant another 3000′ of climbing late in the day. I started considering stopping at Tré les Champ where I could walk down to Chamonix via the valley path the next day instead of the longer route around the upper rim of the Chamonix Valley.  This notion flipped my mood.  I enjoyed the rest of the climb to the Col and celebrated by stopping at the unexpectedly open Refuge Col de la Balme for lunch.   Met up with Antoine and Margaux last seen at La Nova three days prior.  Had a large bacon, cheese and mushroom omelette with side salad, so good!  Enjoyed the descent to Tré les Champ with great views of Mont Blanc, the Aiguille peaks surrounding it, the Chamonix Valley and the Aiguille Rouge on the north side of the Valley. As punishment for my laziness, decided to camp at one of two campsites in Tré les Champ. Luckily, I chose the campsite attached to the Auberage la Boürne.  Sweet little campsite next to a channeled brook, just fellow hikers in tents, no RVs.  Nice dinner and wine (!!) with hikers from all over the world: Denmark, UK,  Japan, Canada, Australia, US and of course France. It was about 32F overnight but no wind and I was snug in my down sleeping bag.

Day 7:   Tré les Champ to Chamonix, 6.7 miles, zero’ up, 1,198′ down. Had a late breakfast (8:00), packed up and away by 9:00. Then a leisurely walk down the valley to Chamonix, stopping for a French pastry and a second coffee along the way. This area is more populated than the rest of the trail, but mostly walked on dirt paths. All the way, had great views of Mont Blanc  and famous related peaks.  Great way to end this little adventure. Got a hotel across the street from the bus station around 1:30, a modern hip Euro style ski hotel with a  balcony and super view of the mountains.   Had long hot shower, ahh. Did a hand wash of clothes so as not to offend on the train tomorrow and then went for walk around busy but lovely Chamonix, dinner in town and a good night sleep. Last hiking day pics:

Caught the bus/train back to Paris the next day. This proved a bit exciting as the bus to Geneva was late and looked like I might miss my train to Paris. Made it to Geneva 7 minutes before the train’s departure so sprinted as fast as my 72 year old bod would allow.  Rushed through the station asking directions on the fly and boarded as the “door closing” announcement was being made. The doors literally closed behind as I stepped through.  Whew, that was close but my lucky star still shines on me.   The rest of the trip to Paris was blissfully uneventful and I was able to quietly reflect on the past week. Ahhh…..

What a spectacular hike this has been.  The weather was superb, the crisp, clear air yielding huge vistas at every turn.  Even now, a week after the finish, I’m still high as a kite with it all.  The week before my week had been rainy and the day after I left Chamonix, it started raining and snowing again for another week. How lucky can one get? So awesome! I don’t mind hiking in the rain, but to have missed some of those views would have been sad indeed. And of course, the people I met on the trail, refuges, hotels and shops. All were friendly and kind, so glad to have met them. Trip of a lifetime, really!

For those who might be interested in what gear I carried and wore, here is my Ligherpack page for this hike:

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