Winning the competition to walk the TMB? Unbelievable, what an opportunity! A challenge? As a walker in the UK I thought it would be totally manageable. However, the TMB pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of achieving. In my wildest dreams I never thought I could climb vertical ladders, cross rope bridges over fast flowing rivers or descend with steep 1 km drops but I did it! The hike was technical with plenty of heights and challenges on the terrain. It was the most amazing hike I have ever undertaken. The group was fun and the guide was so knowledgeable and supportive. That, coupled with the mountain scenery made the whole trip just totally awesome, such a very special challenge. How lucky was I!
Day 1 - Chamonix to Les Houches via Col du Brevant
I awoke in Chamonix to a clear day, the mountains looking spectacular in the morning sunshine. The reality of winning this trip is sinking in. Today we start hiking! We left the hotel around 8.30, me and 8 Americans with our guide Robert, with a stop at the bakery for lunch on the way to the Plan Praz cable car. The cable car took us up 1 km to the start of our circuit. A group photo at the top and we set off up to Col du Brevant. We set off, settling into our individual strides whilst walking as a group. Unfortunately one of our group fell and decided it wasn’t for him so turned back. We regrouped at the Col with our Guide and continued up to Le Brevant. The landscape has changed. We are walking almost in a crater of hard rocks, quite desolate. As we continue to climb I see the first challenge – 2 vertical ladders! I feel physically sick! I panic and start to shake. But it’s onwards and upwards or give in. I’m here to challenge myself and enjoy all the trip has to offer so with the guide’s unwavering support I climb the boulders and ascend both ladders! Rather unbelievable and not something I ever thought I could ever achieve. As a group we continue up to Le Brevant and down past another cable car station to sit for lunch. What a spot, overlooking the valley in plain sight of Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi – its crystal clear and just stunning .
Sure as anything, what goes up must come down and we begin what I now believe to be the hardest descent of the trip into Les Houches, over 1,000m down to the valley below. We move slow and steady holding rails as the paths narrow and drops become so very real. It’s hot, my drinking water is running out and there seems no end to this path! Finally we begin to traverse roads as we drop in Les Houches arriving shortly after in our hotel. Wonderful! Great to see Blain, the member of our group who had pulled out earlier in the day sitting at the bar as I come down for dinner. Blain and I had eaten dinner the previous evening back in Chamonix, what now seems like a lifetime ago! We share a beer prior to dinner with the group on the terrace overlooked by the mountains.
Day 2 - Les Houches to Les Contamines via Col de Tricot
A stunning view of the mountains with the sun rising just over the top was the view I was greeted with from my hotel room. We breakfasted early and headed to the centre of Les Houches to pick up supplies for the day from the bakery. Les Houches is the actual official start to the Tour du Mont Blanc with a welcome arch to signpost the start / end of the walk. However lots of groups set off from Chamonix and I’m very glad we did as it was one tough day to have in the bag. We’ll appreciate this way round towards the end of our trip I’m sure. We take the Bellevue cable car up the mountain from the valley floor ascending 700m. Given some route options by the guide, the decision has been made to take the marginally shorter but steeper route over the Col de Tricot. We head away from the cable car onto a wonderful, shaded path through the forest, climbing continually but staying cool in the rising temperature. We head down to the Bionnassay Glacier River to cross on a Himalayan rope bridge. Not my favourite for sure! But the group as ever respect my request to cross the bridge alone to reduce bridge wobbles! I am lucky to be part of such a supportive group. The Glacier is stunning, the river loud and fast and the views incredible as I look to my left from the centre of the bridge. We continue up. We have to ascend 1,400m today up to Col de Tricot so we continue on. The sun is hot as we head up, eventually reaching the summit at 2,120m. We can see in the distance a refuge which for sure will have cool drinks. The descent to the refuge takes almost as long as the ascent! It is a steep and narrow path but absolutely beautiful.
We head into an open valley and rest for a drink. What an achievement. We have only one small climb up and back over a couple of hundred metres then a long descent into Les Contamines. However on arrival at the hotel we find a swimming pool, such a welcome sight. After a swim and a shower I head to the store to stock up on sun cream. The weather is staying warm and at such height I am going through vast amounts of sun protection. A beer in a wonderfully shaded garden before dinner with the group on the terrace in the shadow of the mountains. I am loving Les Contamines.
Day 3 - Les Contamines to Les Chapieux via Col du Bonhomme and La Croix du Bonhomme
The hardest day! A quick bus ride along the valley floor out of Les Contamines takes us to the base of our climb. We set off from Notre Dame de la gorge at a height of 1,210m and headed up. Literally up! We were on a Roman paved path of slabs of rock that was almost vertical. Its slow and steady progress as the heat continues to rise. We take the opportunity to rest at the Refuge de la Balme for a cold drink and a water refill. The group has settled into walking speeds and is moving pretty quickly. Zack is finding it tough, struggling to eat and drink. Everyone is supporting him with supplements and the knowledge there is no rush. Just one step at a time. The day is simply roasting and the climb ahead is long and steep. We set off, I am walking with Jim slow and steady and we reach the pylon and grab some shade to wait to regroup. The guide is carrying Zachs pack; it is a tough climb. As we stop, the group encourages Zack to drink, to take electrolytes, to keep on.
We continue up to the first patch of snow within our reach. We didn’t at this point realise it was also the last patch of snow that would be within our reach! Col du Bonhomme (2,329m) comes into view. As we round a corner Jim stops. He’s hit a wall. We wait, rest, refuel and regroup. We can see the Col, we just need to take our time. We carry on and reach the top! A 1,300m climb in intense heat on steep paths though these beautiful mountains. We are 90% there! We stop for lunch and take a much needed rest. I head off shortly after lunch to walk the short uphill to Croix du Bonhomme, a beautiful path climbing slowly until we hit some scrambling and before I know it I have reached the top. 2,483m of mountain and the views are spectacular.
As we regroup we decide to stop at the refuge below for a cold drink. All refuges so far have been fantastic. Unfortunately this one is horrendous. It is dirty and full of flies. We cut our visit short and head down to Les Chapieux. 900 m of descent here we come! As we descend into Les Chapieux the path winds on and on. We can see the Auberge and the feeling of dread with tonight’s accommodation begins! It’s dormitory accommodation and shared facilities. Not my favourite. Jeff and his sons in law have kindly offered me the spare bed in their room which is kind and I accept. As it turns out the evening is fun and not too bad, just incredibly hot for everyone in the small room. I’m up early and take all my belongings outside to sort through and have some space, leaving the guys to get themselves together. It’s an early breakfast and onwards to Courmayeur and Italy! By now all of the group have painful legs. Zack is feeling better and now starting to eat a little, feeling more energetic but we are all looking forward to a rest day tomorrow to try and recover.
Day 4 - Les Chapieux to Courmayeur via Col de la Deign (2,516m)
We head off early, loaded with picnics. At the Auberge de la Nova we are at 1,550m. As we head over Col de la Seigne at 2,516m we have another 1,000m climb. We jump on a bus along the valley floor heading towards the Aiguille des Glaciers at the head of the valley. We pass a number of abandoned farm buildings, ironically called the City of Glaciers. Possibly the smallest city I’ve ever been through and get off the bus to begin the climb. The hiking each day just seems to get better and better. The views and the mountains in every direction are majestic and beautiful. We reach the top of the Col and are greeted with yet another view of Mont Blanc peeping through the clouds as we enter Italy.
As we cross the Col the valley opens out and the path winds its way downwards through the opening valley. It is just stunning. We set off and begin our descent. We descend 1,200m to La Visaille and Chris runs a much needed group stretch session. We all have significant leg pain although blisters are scarce fortunately. But with tough descents our legs are tight and stretching really helps. We arrive in the beautiful town of Courmayeur and stop for an ice cream. Perfect! Then it’s off to the hotel. A wonderful room and balcony with the knowledge we have 2 nights in one place. I feel happy and relaxed. We have a full day off tomorrow to rest and recover which I am so looking forward to. Hotel Crampon is wonderful. Clean, spacious, friendly and just the perfect place after the 4 days walking. Courmayeur looks like a fun small town.
As it's Marcey’s 60th birthday Patti and Ashley have arranged for champagne and prosecco and some nibbles at the hotel. Marcey was delighted. A fun way to start birthday celebrations. We head out to dinner at a lovely family run Italian restaurant. The food is delicious and it isn’t long before jugs of limoncello and shots of grappa make their way around. We have just completed 4 tough days on the TMB and have a day off tomorrow so the evening is relaxed and possible slightly later than normal. What is unusual is that it is now raining heavily outside. We emerge from the restaurant and run back to the hotel. It makes a change to be wet after days of intense heat!
Day 5 - Courmayeur – REST DAY
Exciting today to sleep in until 8am and eat breakfast over an hour later than previous days! I head into town with Jeff and we walk around the shops picking up ibuprofen gel for my very tight muscles. There has been a landslide overnight so the whole village has only a limited water supply. The hotel has some reserves but no showers today!
The group has separated for the day with people heading to a number of spas or just mooching around. I rest in the hotel’s garden in comfort for over 3 hours. My painful legs appreciate the rest! It’s a perfect day. We reconvene for pre dinner drinks in the garden and meet our 2 new group members, newlyweds, another Zach and Jordan. They are honeymooning and excited to start hiking. I was sceptical about having a rest day thinking as the mileage is not onerous each day on the trip why would we need it? But for sure we did and we have all benefited from the downtime.
Day 6 - Courmayeur to Refuge Bonatti
We leave the now dry Courmayeur, looking like it will have water in 3 or 4 days, very tough for the new hotel guests and residents but the valley is still blocked. We head up to the path behind the lovely little church. A lovely day awaits us walking along the Italian side of Mont Blanc to tonight’s refuge. No luggage transfer today. We are carrying all we need for the evening and following day as our bags will not make the refuge but will meet us in our next hotel in a couple of days in La Fouly. The previous evening at dinner we had devised a Scavenger Hunt for the group. We created a list of some of the most obscure things we all needed to find, a bit of fun to keep us entertained along the way. As we leave the town of Courmayeur climbing steadily we pass a group looking like they have camped out the previous night. On the scavenger hunt list was to find a person playing a guitar. There are 4 or 5 of us walking ahead and we see a guitar propped up against the van with the group of people close by. We explained what we were doing and asked if they would play for us. They readily obliged. It was so much fun as they played, we videoed and quickly hid the guitar from the following group. It was now 1.0 to us.
We arrived at the refuge Bertone for a quick rest and drink and headed onwards. We had rested, we had only climbed 750m and then walked along to the Bonati refuge. A shorter day with less climbing and no real descent as we were staying high in the mountains for the night. We arrived in the sunshine for a late lunch at 2pm. The afternoon was spent finding other things to tick off our scavenger hunt list, playing cards and chatting whilst we settled into our dormitory for the evening. As evening came, the temperature dropped and a storm came in. The whole of the valley was alive. The mountains lit up by lightning as the rain swept the length of the valley. A spectacular sight.
Day 7 - Refuge Bonatti to La Fouly, Switzerland Toughest day for me
After a rather disturbed night in the dorm at the Bonatti refuge I woke with a heavy feeling, just not quite right. I felt nauseous and not good. Breakfast was busy and early but the toilet kept calling. I felt rather drained. However we regrouped and set off by 7.30am. As the group walks it settles into a natural rhythm. People walking in twos and threes along the way. Those bringing up the rear of the group saw 2 wolves. Quite remarkable and unexpected to see them cross our path, then they were gone into the mountain. We had a reasonable descent into the valley of about 300m into a lovely refuge on the valley floor. I ate and drank to try and build up my strength as the day would see us leave Italy and head into Switzerland, to La Fouly. We started the climb; it was to be in 2 stages. The first to the Refuge Elena was roughly a 250m climb with a further 500m up to the Grand Col Ferret at 2537m. I started up and immediately found it difficult to control my breathing. I felt panicked which then exasperated the situation as I couldn’t take in enough oxygen. I slowed to the back of the group and walked on alone. Eventually reaching the Refuge Elena and feeling relieved to have settled slightly. There was another opportunity to use the bathroom, rest and eat and drink. The path up the Col Ferret was visible and whilst a long climb looked not too steep. We set off but I felt incredibly tired and heavy in my legs and whilst my breathing was starting to regulate I wasn’t feeling desperately comfortable in myself. A couple of hours later we reached the top of the Col and the border with Switzerland. What a feeling! Immediate relief to know the hardest part of the day was done and I could enjoy the views. I felt incredibly relieved to have made the 750m climb today. It was only downhill now which I knew I could cope with.
We rested and looked back along the valley. The views were incredible, looking back we could see the Col de La Seign which we had climbed on Day 4 as we entered Italy from France. Looking forwards we could see Switzerland ahead. We were however now losing sight of Mont Blanc as we descended down the scenic route into La Fouly. Whilst the scenic route did mean a further 250m climb we rested at the Alpage de la Peule and as we entered La Fouly we were greeted with a picture perfect Swiss village. So neat and tidy it was beautiful. My hotel room with its balcony overlooking the mountains was perfect after last night’s dorm arrangements! I was exhausted and knew I needed to eat and rest this evening to get ready for the last few days walking. Perfect surroundings to do just that.
Day 8 - La Fouly to Champex-lac
I woke feeling rested and much better. No rush this morning as we had a shorter day with only a 400m climb. After a relaxing breakfast and a later start of 8.30 we set off in good spirits. A bakery stop off for lunch and we headed off. A valley walk with only a 400m climb up into Champex-lac. The valley walk through picture perfect Swiss villages was fantastic, surrounded by mountains. It was truly a Heidi day! With time on our hands we stopped at a small kiosk by the road side in the valley after a couple of hours walking.
We could see the edge of Champex–lac up the mountain via the forests so we set off, arriving into the village by 2pm. Champex-lac was picture perfect. A glacial lake in a small town surrounded by mountains. Stunning. A late lunch and then a swim in the glacier lake. It was fantastic. What a great day after the struggle of yesterday. Best dinner so far followed by a game of cheat and old maid, a great day on the tour.
Day 9 - Champex-lac to Trient
The penultimate day of walking. We have all now found our rhythm. The early days with people struggling have passed. We are all fit and well and really enjoying the walking, the company and the scenery. We left the charming village of Champex-lac walking past the bakery for supplies and along the valley to the forest. Then as ever on TMB the only way was up. The path, initially a track, rose steadily but not steeply out of the valley. An initial climb of 650m took us to Alp Bovine after around 3 hours. A wonderful refuge at the top of the mountain with the most delicious selection of cakes. However between us and the refuge was a huge herd of big black cows with huge bells clattering around their necks. We had heard cows throughout the day but not directly encountered any. These were now right across our path. I buried myself in the group with my head down and walked forwards through the herd. The climb had been easy. My legs were strong with no pain and no lactic acid build up. I was feeling healthy and well. We rested for around an hour in this wonderful place at the top of the mountain in the warm sunshine. Dare I say, the climb was easy! I even enjoyed it! We have a further 100m or so of climb to finish and then the descent into Trient to an Auberge which was very well set up for its travellers. As we headed into the village of Trient we could see a scattering of brightly coloured buildings and a beautiful pink church. The village was small but again had all we needed. We arrived as our Auberge opened. I had a private basic room this time, no dormitory with a shared bathroom. Perfect. After a shower and rest I headed down the bar and sat with the group to listen to the live music in the garden. Dinner was simple and an early night planned after the lovely evening was perfect.
Day 10 – Trient (Switzerland) to Argentiere (France)
We had an early breakfast at The Hotel Grand Ourse in Trient and were ready to leave for 7.30. The aim was to make the most of the 1,000m climb up to Col du Balme in the shade. Col du Balme is the border back into France after our 3 days of hiking in Switzerland. The path out of Trient past the beautiful pink church was a small incline, heading up to the woods at the base of the mountain. We crossed the river, re-grouped and made a plan to meet as we came out of the woods by an old picnic table. The group was walking in 3 smaller groups pretty regularly. Chris, Zach, Jordan and Jeff up front, Ashley and myself with Zack bringing up the middle, Marcey, Blair and Patti, not too far behind, bringing up the rear. The hike up to Col du Balme was a zig zag path mostly through the woodland and how easy it has become to make the ascent. My breathing is steady and although it’s so hot I walked comfortably up to Les Herbages at 2036m without needing to rest. A further hike up to Col du Balme reaching an altitude of around 2,200m passed as easily. A wonderful refuge and a pot of Twinning’s tea was my reward at the top of Col du Balme! Fantastic!
It’s taken until Day 10 but my legs are pain free and I am fit to just hike. I do not want this trip to end. After a lovely pot of tea and crossing the border into France we began our descent initially to Tre-le-Champ and onwards reaching Argentiere around 3pm. A quick shower at the Hotel Couronne which was the first accommodation to have a kettle, tea bags and milk in the room – wonderful! A beer in the garden adjoining the hotel with Sara who had joined us to check in was a real treat. Cards, nibbles and dinner ending the night around a fire pit with a glass of French red wine.
Day 11 – Argentiere to Chamonix
The last day of the TMB! Wow this has come around quickly. Some of the group have booked a paragliding session from the top of Plan Praz where we started back into Chamonix to end the TMB rather than take the cable car back down. I had thought I could do it but although I have overcome so many fears this trip I think I’ll take the cable car down! So, another early breakfast and a 7.30 start to ensure we can hike back to Plan Praz and watch the paragliders in the group begin their descent.
A relatively easy day today over some stunning scenery as we have rounded the end of the valley and Mont Blanc is back in plain sight. It has felt much longer than 11 days. To be honest it was quite an emotional day and felt a little surreal. It has been an incredible trip, the chance of a lifetime. A wonderful group to walk with and Robert as our guide was the perfect balance between helpful, knowledgeable and enabling me to overcome my limitations, plus have space to just hike. The route has been technical and difficult. Steep in places, both up and down, with the descents often far more challenging than the ascents. Certainly Day 1 into les Houches was an absolute killer of a descent. Delighted, I feel a huge sense of achievement and had an incredible experience. Thanks to Mont Blanc Treks.