I thought it would be worth noting down the variations we did of the Tour du Mont Blanc as well as some tidbits from our guide that will be useful if I ever do this again, and for anyone else who plans to do the trek. If that’s not you, feel free to just scroll through the photos, or a recap of the trip can be found here. Photo credit to our trip leader Dan Stone for most of these photos, and to my parents for the rest, because my phone camera lens cracked a few days into the trip and I stopped taking photos.
For reference, we did the trek counterclockwise starting in Les Houches, France as is tradition and then stayed in Les Contamines, Chapieux, Courmayeur (two nights), Refugio Bonatti, La Fouly, Champex, Trient, Argentière, Chamonix (two nights), and finally made it back to Les Houches.
In approximate time-order, here are some things we either did well or should have done differently:
- If you arrive on a Sunday (as we did), make sure to buy lunch for Monday’s hike either in the arrival airport or in a bigger town (Chamonix, Geneva, etc) because everything in Les Houches is closed on Sundays.
- This is a little bit niche, but in the grocery store in Les Contamines there are some galettes de framboise (raspberry cookies/mini cakes that are sort of like fancy fig newtons) that are so good and the only other place we found them was in Chapieux, the next stop. After that we were out of luck for the rest of the trek.
- After staying in Chapieux (either camping or in the refugio Auberge de la Nova), almost everyone hires a taxi or a bus to take them ~10 minutes up an asphalt road to get to the trailhead to start the trek to Courmayeur instead of adding those boring miles to an already long day.
- That same day from Chapieux to Courmayeur, just after crossing the border from France to Italy, there is a small museum set up in a former customs building in the middle of nowhere. Inside there is a very cool 3D model of the whole Mont Blanc massif with the trails drawn in and mini huts and such, and a guide to talk you through the map. It’s super cool and absolutely worth a stop.
- You get to Courmayeur, Italy after only three days of hiking (assuming you started in Les Houches), but it’s still worth taking a day off here. You can either hike up and around the ski area or take the cable car up for some wonderful views, and the town itself also has some fun museums and shops and gelato.
- In Courmayeur we stayed in Hotel Crampon which was established and is still run by the Grivel family who made the original crampons (cue one of my favorite comics) and I feel like that’s a pretty good reason to stay there, plus the amazingly tasty apple tart that was part of the breakfast buffet.
- In La Fouly, if you take an evening walk, there is a ropes course and mini climbing wall and fun playground less than a mile up the trail towards Champex that’s worth a visit. Depending on the time of year and when the ropes course opens, you could even plan to do the ropes course in the morning before starting the hike for the day (to Champex) because it’s a relatively short, easy day.
- From La Fouly to Champex, at the beginning of the trail you walk through a little town instead of through the woods which is a little weird but look out for all of the easter eggs, like weird sculptures and murals on the walls and one garden so full of gnomes that you can’t see any grass.
- That same day from La Fouly to Champex, once you get to the final climb in the woods there are a bunch of carved wooden statues along the trail, and you have to be on the lookout because they’re not super obvious to spot. My favorite was two squirrels roasting a mushroom but there are a ton and they’re all very fun.
- Still on the same day from La Fouly to Champex, near the end of the trail when you start climbing there is a cave on the left before a wooden bridge crossing a river. Go inside with a headlamp, it’s not that deep but has some very pretty rocks.
- Jump in the lake in Champex no matter how cold it is.
- From Champex to Trient, there are two routes, the longer less-steep official TMB route and the shorter but steeper Fenêtre d’Arpette trail. The first one has better views throughout the day via the Col de Bobine and a fun giftshop with ice cream just above Trient, and the second one goes up more steeply through a valley with no views until you get to the top and then it’s (supposedly) amazing. Both are great options, but we went the longer less-steep route. Then when we were at the giftshop above Trient, instead of going down to the town we turned onto a flat trail above the valley leading back towards the Fenêtre d’Arpette to get to small café with homemade blueberry tarts. A fair bit of extra mileage but very worth it.
- From Trient to Argentière, most people start the day by walking up a valley without many views up to a hut. We went up a different way that involved more immediate climbing and then wound around the other side of a hilly thing to get to a high point above the hut, and then went up even more to find the stone border-marker between Switzerland and France before walking down (through a bunch of sheep) to the hut for lunch.
- From Trient to Argentière, there is a variation near the end of the trail that goes up and along the Aiguilletes de Posettes ridge with wonderful views and delightful blueberry bushes. Definitely worth it even though it’s slightly more climbing than the official route.
- From Argentière to Chamonix, the main route involves a bunch of metal ladders. They’re a lot of fun and were not a problem for anyone in our (mostly retired) group. We luckily had a clear hour or two on an otherwise rainy day when we got to this section of trail, and I personally would have been fine doing them in the rain but our guide was a lot less psyched about that.
- Take a day off in Chamonix. You can go up the Aiguille du Midi for incredible and close-up views of Mont Blanc, and then on the way down, from the mid-station, you can do a traverse over to the top of the train and ride down the train for a fun bit of movement on the day off. Another fun option is to take the other train up to the Mer de Glace glacier, and walk inside of it (this is what we did since it was too cloudy to take advantage of the views on the Aiguille du Midi). There is also a cool museum about glaciers by the hotel a short 5-minute walk from the upper train station near the glacier. Walking down to Chamonix from the top of the train takes about 2 hours. If you start down this trail, there’s a great picnic spot about 5 minutes down.
- Make sure you know when the cable cars stop running for the season. We finished our trek from Argentière to Chamonix at the top of the Flégère cable car, and then rode it down to the hotel for the night. In the morning, we took the same cable car back up to where we were to continue hiking, and it was the very last day of operation for the season. It would have been very annoying to miss this by a day and have to hike all the way back up.
- On the trek from Chamonix to Les Houches, one person in my group with a bad knee had planned to do the uphill from where to started at the Flégère cable car to the next cable car on Mont Brevent, which was our high point for the day, and then skip the 5000 ft of descent by taking that second cable car down. Unfortunately for him, it was running but only for construction materials and had stopped taking passengers the previous day. So that was a long trek down but luckily it was also the last day.
- In general, buy lunch supplies for the next day in the grocery store as soon as you arrive in a town but also check the bakery hours to get fresh bread in the morning. Most bakeries will make fresh sandwiches early in the morning if you order the night before.
- This is just good policy generally for travel, but always carry a swimsuit for lakes and hotel pools and big rain puddles and saunas and such.
So that’s the trek, and it’s awesome. Sorry for writing a novel but maybe these details will be useful to someone, somewhere. Happy trekking!