So, here I sit on a train to a small town about an hour away from Lausanne, Switzerland reflecting on an amazing adventure in the Alps. My backpack smells like sweat, my legs are fatigued, at least 2 of my toenails are black, my hair hasn’t seen a good conditioner in weeks, and my heart is full, though everything seems to feel like a dream. Do you ever feel as soon as a vacation is over, it was really only a dream?!! I feel that way right now – I’m not quite sure how I landed on this train or if I really spent an amazing 11 days trekking around Mont Blanc.
Mont Blanc is the tallest mountain in the European Alps, at about 4,809 meters (15,778 feet). The trip I reference above, also called the Tour of Mont Blanc or “TMB”, has been on the list for years – the circuit passes through Switzerland, Italy and France. How did I hear about it? I met a Swiss guy some time ago who talked about this adventure – how lovely it was and how it could be done self guided. Since then, it’s always been in the back of my mind, but it never seemed within my reach for some reason….I have no idea why. Perhaps the thought of it was intimidating – how on earth could I accomplish such a thing?! How can this possibly be done without a guide?
In December of 2017, I FINALLY started researching self guided trips around Mont Blanc – it only took about 10 years! I found a tour company called Macs Adventure to help plan it. The thought of researching all the logistics seemed like a hideously daunting task, so I hired them to do it for me! It turned out great – though I can see how people are able to book everything on their own given how organized the trail is and the number of lodging options available (at least in most places). One of the benefits of companies like Macs Adventure is they provide an app that has a description of the trails as well as a GPS map to help navigate the trip. Super easy to use assuming you use it! If you want to plan this on your own, the bible for this trek is called “The Tour of Mont Blanc” by Kev Reynolds. It lays out the entire trip and provides recommendations on lodging, routes, etc. We leveraged the book every day, it’s one of the best I’ve seen.
We started counter-clockwise (the most popular route) in Les Houches, France (not 100% confident on the pronunciation but I do know its NOT Lez Hoochies – lol) and ended in Chamonix, France. There are a total of 11 stages – about 29k of elevation gain and 29k of elevation loss – roughly about 110 miles depending on how many times you get lost or if you decide to take the variant routes. The variants supposedly provide better views along the way, but in many cases are significantly more difficult. We did 2 of them – the others seemed to be terrifyingly exposed (at least to me).
The trail was so well marked, I’m not sure how people got lost, but everyone we spoke to (including us) had some challenges at least once. The day we did get lost, we followed the path of one of the most challenging variants. Instead of looking at our handy app, we kept following the standard red and white stripe trail markers and a 20-something backpacker. It never felt quite right but we kept going. BIG mistake – we should have used the app – but we assumed the trail was heading in the right direction. It took us an hour and a half off track! We nearly had another disastrous detour, but thanks to a heaping pile of human poo on the trail (not ours – LOL), we redirected and headed back the proper way. (Apparently when you gotta go, you gotta go!)
The terrain was as you would expect – MOUNTAINOUS with the most stunning views you can imagine! The challenging parts of this hike are the significant ups and downs on a daily basis. Those ups and downs will break your soul if you let them. You just have to realize you are in an amazingly beautiful place and accomplishing something you will never forget – to keep on keepin’ on.
Photo: Mont Blanc in the Chamonix Valley
On most days we hiked what felt like straight up for a minimum of 4 hours, however, there were a couple of “easy” days of 2 hour ascents. What goes up must come down so the downhill is brutal. Switchbacks are not the norm, hence my comment about the black toenails…the day after day, relentless shoving of toenails into the toe box of my hiking boots has made for some lovely feet! My trip to the nail salon is going to be hideous!
Photo: Leaving Refuge de Mottets where we stayed 1 night
Photo: Entering Switzerland from Italy
I absolutely LOVED the entire Italian valley called Vallon de la Lee Blanche (I had a precious cat named Blanche!). You can see all the way from the French border (starting point) to Switzerland when this leg of the trip is complete. It is the coolest thing to be able to see how far you have gone – unreal feeling actually! In the image below, we started this leg of the trip from the most pointed “Rock” about two inches in from the left! We have about another hour to the border of Switzerland from this point in the picture.
Photo: Bye-Bye Italy – you were amazing!
Photo: Beautiful Italy!
A panic attack is inevitable any time there are slippery rocks, ledges, steep drop-offs or steep descents in loose rock. Irrational fears blow – I can’t explain them. Somehow I managed to dig deep, breathe and carry on until we got to the dreaded ladders. The ladders are in Stage 10 the Tre le Champ area of the trail, which thankfully is near the end of the TMB. The 10 sets of ladders themselves are not too crazy, its the ledges in between that will scare the bejeezus out of you if there is any slight fear of heights! There are railings – BUT STILL.
Photo: The ladders!
Photo: Not my ideal downhill trail!
The lodging was great! We did the “comfort” tour which means we stayed in 3 star hotels and only 2 huts. I was ok with that in the end….the huts are fun – but the food just wasn’t that great. Les Mottets was in a beautiful location but they gave us corn puffs, bread and cheese for breakfast. Not super sustainable when hiking 6 to 8 hours a day.
Photo: Hotel Edelweiss in La Fouly
Photo: Refugio Walter Bonatti
Who do you meet on the trail?? The Brits. The Irish. The Americans. The Australians. The French. The Germans – that’s who! What do we all have in common? We all hiked the TMB! The camaraderie of fellow trekkers from all over the world is one the magical components of travel. The people you meet can make or break trips. In this case, we were extremely lucky with the peeps who crossed our path (below). The German couple second from the left were unbelievable hikers – they would leave a half hour later and finish an hour sooner every day – without sweating I swear! All in this group but Sean and I, saw an Ibex – I still think those animals are really unicorns – somehow we missed them every day whilst they were grazing by seemingly every trail our friends were hiking. We miss them – thank goodness for Facebook!
It was hard, it was long, it was scary at times, we sweat like pigs, it was beautiful, the people were amazing – what else do you need on a vacation?? Every time I return from adventure like this, my gratitude for life expands 10-fold.
What amazing adventures did you have this summer??
Viva La Life Bus!