the decision and planning (sure, we’ll call it that)
Before graduate school and after I quit my job, I had about 2 month to do some traveling and move across the country. So, I used 40 of those days backpacking around in Western Europe. I bought a flight in to London and out of Rome and booked my hostel for my first night in London. That would be as much planning as I got to before jumping on a plane. An example of my preparedness, I was flashing my iphone 3 in the Detroit airport so I could put a European sim card in it to text and call people.
Of course, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, which including traveling from city to city with a railpass (here are few evaluation of the europass), visiting some friends I had made the year at the hostel on Maui, and do some trekking. This was also a time where I didn’t know too much about trekking, I had just gotten into it and had my first trip earlier that year with my California friends Jared, Miguel, Arnold, and Matt in Yosemite. In my trekking career at the time, I had learned about layering, awesomeness of zip-lock bags, and the magic of wool, but I still hadn’t learned the no-no of cotton. So, I had a hard shell, soft shell, wool long sleeve base layer, sport shorts, some kind of long polyester pants, and a set of indoor clothing. I also had the essential purchases from that first trek including my Asolo 95 boots, one-person tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and of course backpack. I even had a water bladder, which I thought was an essential at the time. Some of the more sillier things I had included a full-sized bath towel, a roll of medical tape and gauze, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol for first aid. I did have the sense to pick up a headlamp, backpack rain cover, and a couple of real maps recommended by outfitter the day before the trek. Though it took me getting to the first town to get hiking poles and a quick dry t-shirt.
Anyways, most of my trekking stuff stayed at the bottom of my pack during the first couple weeks of my trip in Europe, though the sleeping bag was useful at certain hostels and on the floor of my first couchsurfing. I don’t remember when exactly I decided I wanted hike the Tour du Mont Blanc, but I do remember talking about it with a fellow backpacker on my last day in London. I remember doing some research here and there on my laptop at hostels, where I could get internet, but that was mostly figuring out day to day activities and booking hostels. I also lost my power cord for that brick at a hostel after the first week. I did get Trekking the Alps by Kev Reynolds (no, not his dedicated Guide to the Tour du Mont Blanc, but rather a boiler plate of very brief summaries on 20 treks in Europe) on my iphone so I knew I need to get to Les Houches to start and it would take 8 to 11 days. If you were wondering why I didn’t get his actual full guide book, it was because I was being cheap and thinking why pay more for something that has less treks? A mistake I’d realize later on as the my book was not an adequate guide, just point to point.
I wanted to do the hike the typical counter clockwise direction as I actually looked forward to meeting new people being a solo traveler and having people walk in the same direction would be helpful so I don’t get lost. Navigation on the main route was never bad as it was always marked by the TMB sign, red and white stripes, or piles of horse poop. The alternatives can be more dicey at times.
I also knew there were huts to stay at along the way, but I still decided to bring my tent in case (for some unknown reason). Looking back, it is kind of hard not to giggle at the state of naivete I had going into this. It was a learning experience and I’ll have more on some of those lessons later on.
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day 1: Les Houches to Mont Lachat to Refuge de Miage
At breakfast on the first day, I met Joshi. He was a med student from England who was also trekking the TMB. So we thought it would be cool to start together. Our ambition told us to not take it easy and to the standard route through Col de Voza and Le Champel. Instead, we headed for the closest peak.
The way up was full of clouds and fog, something I’d have to get use to on the trek. On a way up, we got a glimpse at the valley we ascended from.
As we reached the peak of Mont Lachat, it was complete white around us.
From Mont Lachat, it was a very steep down hill to connect with the main alternate. The initial down required sliding on my back. By the time we reached the lift station at the bottom that trail, I was soaked. After lunch there, we continued on toward Col to Tricot through the fog
and the meadow full of blooming flowers
until the bottom of Glacier de Bionnassay.
At the swing bridge, we saw a large group of day hikers
checking out the glacial run off.
After that, it was a grueling up toward Col de Tricot again in the fog.
All that left was a zig zag down to the first stop of the TMB,
Refuge de Miage.
Day one was in the books full of cloud and fog, but we did see a glacier. I was completely soaked for the majority of the day and I wished I had known about gaiters at the time. Below is a recounting of the route I took (in purple) versus the actual TMB (orange).
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day 2: Refuge de Miage to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme
We woke up on day 2 to a completely different view.
After a brief up, it was a nice slopping down toward Les Contamines-Montjoie.
In town, that’s where I first found the magic of prosciutto at the local cheese chop. After grabbing lunch for the next day it was a quick stop at the outfitters to pick up some hiking sticks and a quick dry shirt, both on sale. It was the first time I’ve used hiking sticks and they can definitely be useful on these none technical treks. One thing to be aware of the towns on the trek is that they close all during midday, so plan accordingly.
The walk out of town was along the rushing glacial stream from the south accompanied by plenty of day hikers.
Along the sloping up, there are stops here and there where you can get a nice looking at the stream rushing through some canyons.
After passing a couple of huts and the crowd started to thin out
as we get closer to the major up of the day.
As we got higher up, we can see an high attitude pond across the way. It would have made a nice day hike.
It was around early afternoon when we reached a little shelter at Col du Bonhomme.
The trek from the pass continues up through a bit of rocky section
before coming to the next pass at Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and
the second stop of the trek. Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme.
From the refuge we could see what I believe to be the standard TMB, but I would not be heading that way since we wanted to do the variant from here to Col des Fours, one of the high points of the TMB.
Unlike others that were heading all the way down to the town of Les Chapleux, we would enjoy the rest of the beautiful day with a nice half liter of wine. It was reasonably priced too around 10 euros if I remembered correctly.
The night ended with a full moon as I headed to bed early before the long day ahead of us.
Day 2 was a complete contrast from day 1 as the beauty of the of the Alps shown through. It was definitely difficult with a major uphill and the last bit definitely hit me pretty hard. I remember wanting to push on for the last section rather than stopping an eating, which made me feel a lot worse on the last section. It was a lesson I didn’t learn from though.
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day 3: Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme to Têtes Nord des Fours to Rifugio Maison Vieille
The day 3 started before the dawn. This was because the most convinent stopping point, Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini at the bottom of Glacier de la Lee Blanche was completely full. It is one of the most popular refuges on the trek due to its location under the glacier. So, we had to trek further all way to Rifugio Maison Vieille.
As we had planned, we started upwards toward the Col de Fours. After following a few markers, route became less clear as we headed up with several areas of snow in the way.
We figured we’d continue up and eventually found a few pills of rocks and cairns. This is where I’d eventually regret not having Kev Reynolds’ Cicerone TMB guide book. If I did, I would have read that Col de Fours is not at the top of this section. Rather, we would reach it first, then should drop our bags and head up to where we eventually got to,
Têtes Nord des Fours. This was probably the most awe inspiring view of my trek.
Not only that, we reached the top at the same time as a pack of mountain goats.
It felt like something out of the Discovery channel, well before it turned into reality shows.
Anyways, the TMB variant calls for a return from where we came up to the Col des Fours. Not having the guide book, equip with my still novice map reading skills at the time, and the awe of the moment lead us to continue along the ridge.
There is an actual trail this way, a high mountain trail with cairns here and there. But not the actual trail we thought we were on. It should have been more clear when we started to hit some snow fields.
The trail continued over a bit more difficult terrain and didn’t seem to go down to the valley as we had thought. Joshi decided to run a head while I trying to figure out where on the map I actually was. The route on the map I thought we were on, was actually much lower than I actually was. I continued on the trail for a while until I saw Joshi all the way down on a dead end dirt road way below me. We yelled back and forth for a few minutes trying to get my bearings and he said he had bushwhacked down to the dirt road and he was going to go ahead.
At the time, I was a bit shocked as I felt like my trust was being betrayed. That aspect hit be pretty hard and stayed with me that entire day. Perhaps it was a growing up moment with the lesson of self sufficiency at the time as I ruminated on the events. Looking back in hind sight, I think the effect on me was really understanding the value of my true friends and those you trust and trust you back. This trip happened during a time of transition and the year of events leading up to that made me take for granted some of the people in my life. Understanding that and being able to reflect on it really spoke to the overall theme of the trip.
Anyways, I don’t blame Joshi now for going ahead and I did see him again. The main thing is that everyone walks their own walk and we were both worried about getting covering the entire distance, so I understand why he went ahead. I back tracked a few steps to an area of boulder field that I though gave me the best chance to scrambled down. It took me about half hour to an hour before getting the dead end dirt road where I had last seen Joshi. From there it was a set of switchbacks until I reached the bridge at the bottom of the valley.
Talking about lessons I hadn’t learned from the day before, I should have stopped here for lunch and refill my water. However being worried about the time and still full of rumination, I decided to head up and have lunch where there is a view. That next uphill was probably the most mentally and physically difficult thing of the entire trek. I was going at a snail’s pace and drank all my water by the time I was at Col de la Seigne.
I didn’t spend much time at the pass separating France and Italy as the wind was very fierce and heavy clouds were starting to form. Not to mention, I was out of water.
As headed into Italy, I passed a welcome center that didn’t have an facilities or water. That was bit disappointing, but dragged on until I reached the hill at the bottom of Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini. I could see why it was such a popular hut. At that point I was able to refill my water and found my second wind as I continued on.
That energy was probably because I briefly stopped to eat and drank a good amount of water. Though I’d like to say the awesome glaciers in this section pushed me forward.
After crossing a lagoon, it was uphills again with views of moraines and glaciers.
It was blue skies still ahead of me, but the clouds were coming over the mountains at this point.
I new I would be racing the rain.
I arrived at Rifugio Maison Vieille around 7pm as the rain started, the sun went down, and dinner had just begun. That dinner was one of the best I’ve ever had in my life with really good homemade Italian dinner. I was probably just exhausted.
I had caught up with Joshi at the hut and I was at peace at that point so it was nice to hang out with him and others. It was a day with the highest of highs and lowest of lows, but I survived it. It was also exactly the type of memorable day you’d hope to have on a trip like this. This was a section I would return to with Meg and I’m sure part of it has to do the experience of this day.
Below is a map of my best guess of my actual trek that day (again in purple). The marked yellow trail is the actual Col des Fours variant while the orange trail is the actual TMB. Also looking at the map afterwards, I kinda wish I stayed on the route I was one since it get pretty close to Glacier des Lanchettes and an alpine lake before meeting up with the TMB at Col de la Seigne. However, there is a couple sections on the map that looks like it would be quiet hairy with plenty of exposure. Not something I probably could do myself at that point of my trekking experience.
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day 4: Rifugio Maison Vieille to Courmayeur
The rain poured through the night and by the time I was ready to get on the way, it was a combination of downpour and fog. I was soaked within a minute. I started the day with Joshi and another trekker, but had all sorts of problems on the down hill with the mud. I told them to go ahead as I would eventually slip and slide down the switchbacks into Courmayeur.
At the bottom of hill, I met a German couple from Hamburg. Elka and Sascha were graduate students and headed into town together. Courmayeur was their destination and they were planning to bus ahead to Lac Champex because they were limited on time. With the rain and at the midway point, I thought it was a good idea to call it a day at Courmayeur as well.
The information center pointed us to a cheap hotel called Venezia Camere. Here is a picture of it the next day.
It was simple, but was good. There was a heater so I could hang everything in my pack up to dry. I also had a nice view of the mountain I had slide down too.
I ventured outside into the rain to the local grocer and cheese shop for an amazing lunch.
After a nap, the weather outside cleared up in the evenings. I was able to walk around town and even found a wifi spot to check the complete backlog of my emails.
For dinner, I met up with Elka and Sascha for a nice pizza dinner.
Day 4 wasn’t a long day, but it provided a nice needed break at the half way point.
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day 5: Courmayeur to Tête de la Tronche to Rifugio Bonatti
The skys stayed clear the following morning. Before I started my walk, I asked the hotel to hold onto a few extra things I had been carrying around like my tent and sleeping pad. I probably dropped my pack by half the weight. I knew I would be back this way because I was planning to continue on through Italy after my trek since my flight was out of Rome.
My day 5 was actually a short distance since I wanted to stay at Rifugio Bonatti, one of the best huts on the trek. It was going to be my destination on day 4. So I decided to go for another variant, Tête de la Tronche via Mont de la Saxe. A little issue at this point was that this section ran off the maps I had (as you will see below), so my route was a good amount of guess after the top.
Anyways, the trail heads gradually up through a forest with view of Courmayeur behind you.
As the train continues to ascend, views of the snow covered peaks, moraines, and the previous pass can be seen.
The variant climbs up on Mont de la Saxe, the trail takes you across a meadow of wild flowers, ponds filled with tadpoles, and sneak peaks of Mont Blanc.
The view from Tête de la Tronche is a 360 view. From down the valley toward Switzerland
and back from where you came from.
From the Tête de la Tronche, it’s a relatively sharp and steep down among the wildflowers through Col Sapin until
you reach the next valley called Vallon d’Armina. I mistaken this valley as the route to the hut, where the actual variant heads up again toward Pas Entre-Deux-Sauts.
I followed the trail in that valley until I met up with the normal TMB. From there it was a short half hour walk until Rifugio Bonatti.
Bonatti was definitely a first class hut, with amazing views from the dormitories.
I found a few friends at dinner that I had met along the way at previous huts. The social aspect of the trek was an understated highlight on the trek.
Day 5 was a very nice day and the actual last of my sunny days on the trek. If I had known that, I might have pushed ahead further. Again, my map is a bit incomplete on this section, so I’ve supplemented it with Kev Reynold’s figure for this leg from his TMB book.
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day 6: Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly to Champex d’en Haut
Day 6 was going to be a long day for me. I planned to combine 2 legs together since the latter one has pretty minimal elevation gain and a section many people bus rather than walk. Since I was determined to walked the entire circle, this was a good place to knock out an extra day.
The day started nicely,
but the clouds would continue to build as I continued through the valley with views of couple different glaciers.
As I reached Rifugio Elena, the clouds were on me.
My trek up to Grand Col Ferret on the border of Italy and Switzerland was a complete white out.
It wasn’t until I reached a couple farm houses did the fog lift a little. It was replaced by rain though.
I continued down the trail toward La Fouley crossing several pastures with electric fences. The first of which gave me a jolt. It was also a challenge to avoid all the cow pies while trying not to slip in the mud. I was pretty sure at one point, the bull of a heard was keeping a pretty close tab on me.
After reaching La Fouley, I decided I deserved a hot meal and visited a local restaurant. After a egg, cheese, and bread goodness, it was on toward Lac Champex. Right after La Fouley, the trail is pretty flat though an area of alpine forests.
Through the clouds, there are cascades running down rock faces here and there. I’m pretty sure there are glaciers up there somewhere.
The trail continues along the river la Drance de Forret
before crossing to the other side and continuing through a couple of alpine villages.
Scenes like this can get anyone humming the sound of music as they walk.
The rain started again as I headed up a final ascend into Champex. Along the way there were some interesting carved figures along the way and some cool caves. I didn’t explore the caves much as it was getting late.
Lac de Champex was so clear I rounded it toward the town center. The tourist information center was closed already as I arrived and the couple hotels I talked to were full already. So it was onward for another 30 or so minutes to the next hut.
By the time I reached the hut Gite Bon Abri, dinner had passed. It was ok since I still have some bread and prosciutto. She did make me a nice warm pea soup that helped to warm me up.
Day 6 as a long 12 hour day and I wish I would have been able to see more other than the fog. However, it was pretty tranquil overall with some nice glaciers in the beginning. Overall though, I probably would go for the bus the next time. I think the completeness aspect of looping the TMB is something you’d have to decide for yourself along the lines of walk your own walk. No one will care if you took a bus as long as you are happy with what you got out of it.
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day 7: Champex d’en Haut to Fenêtre d’Arpette to Refuge Du Col de Balme
There is another variant for this section of the TMB. The normal route goes around the Bovine Alps, which the variant heads up high toward Fenêtre d’Arpette. Fenêtre d’Arpette is the other highest point of elevation on the TMB in comparison to the Col des Fours and should only be attempted in good weather. My forecast was mostly cloudy and seemed decent as I started out. So I attempted the pass.
After a half hour or so, I reached another hut and met one of the most badass people I knew then, Franck. He was heading over the Fenêtre d’Arpette as well so we decided to head over together. Franck spoke only broken English but we were able to communicate enough.
As we headed upwards, we met up with the clouds once again.
We continued through the valley as it became steeper and steeper. While I was stopping to catch my breath, Franck was stopping for cigarettes. It wasn’t long before we caught up with another group.
A little further up, we were met with some snow cover.
I was guzzling down my water through the ascension to the pass, while Franck never touched his.
When we reached the pass, Franck and the other guys celebrated with a cigarette. I was frozen stiff from the high winds and my sweat soaked clothing. I had to continue on.
A few minutes below the pass, we were through the clouds and I was warm again.
That’s when we first saw the Glacier du Trient. A bit further down, we found a nice rock for lunch and enjoy the crack of the glacier.
The trail then continues down into the valley as we can see the uphill on the other side we’ll be taking.
Toward the bottom of the valley, we were able to get a pretty awesome view of the glacier head on.
There is a little store once we reached the bottom of the valley by the river. However, they said didn’t have potable water. Being the cheap me, I didn’t want to pay for water, which I should have. Franck was nice enough to lend me some on the last up.
While at the store, we were visited by a fox.
It was a pretty good day.
We continued up the other side of the valley getting more views of the glacier until reaching an unmanned (sometimes) hut, Refuge Les Grands. It would have been a fine stopping place for me, but I didn’t have enough food for the night so we continued on.
As we rounded the side of the mountain, we could see the pass toward Trient, the typical stop on the TMB.
We continued to climb until finally reaching Col de Balme, the boarder of Switzerland and France.
Here on this windy and foggy path, there is a hut called Refuge du Col de Balme. It is known as the worst on the circuit and has been called lifeless. However for me this night, it was home. I said goodbye to Franck as he was continuing on and check into the hut. There was only one other person there and the place was cozy. So I was happy after another long day.
Day 7 was definitely one of the highlights of the trek despite the constant fog. It was the closest I came to the glacier and the fox (one of my favorite animals) was majestic and awesome.
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day 8: Refuge Du Col de Balme to Les Houches
I hadn’t planned day 8 to be my last, but a full day of downpours changed my mind. When I woke up, it was still foggy and windy at the pass.
There seemed to be a possible break as I rounded the ridge toward Aiguillette des Possettes.
But the clouds never really lifted fully.
The views into the valley was pretty cool when the clouds did open a little.
It was a mix of drizzle and clouds most of the way down.
It started to rain as I headed down toward Tré-le-Champ.
I found a restaurant for a brief shelter and lunch, but the rain never stopped. The next section I had read involved some metal ladders on the side of rock faces. With the rain continuing for most of the day, I opted to finish the TMB on a lower trail, the Petit Balcon Sud.
It was mostly a trail through the alpine forest through the Chamonix Valley with openings here and there with views of the large glaciers.
At the last viewpoint of my trek, Le Christ Roi
overlooking Les Houches, the sun finally broke through.
It was quite a feeling to be walking back into Les Houches after 8 days.
Day 8 was a wet end to my TMB. With the continuous rain, I didn’t want to attempt the metal rungs heading up to Lac Blanc and Col du Brévent. Being rained on for a 3rd day in a roll is pretty demoralizing. A bit of me does regret not having gone up there as the sun opened up at the end of the day. It is a section I will have to return to do. The map below shows my route and the official TMB and variants.
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I checked into the same hotel after finishing on day 8 and ended up staying another night after that. I was pretty exhausted and did absolutely nothing the next day.
After my day of nothingness, I packed up and headed toward the bus station in Chamonix. I took a bus under Mont Blanc back to Courmayeur, where I picked up the rest of my things. Another bus got me to the nearest train station where I continued on to Venice via Milan and then finally to Rome. By that time, I’d reached my limit of my trip and was glad to be heading home.
Through the many places I saw and the many experience I had, the TMB was the defining portion of the trip for me and it set my travel focus as reflected by this blog.
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