The Tour de Mont Blanc (“TMB”) is one of Europe’s Great Walks. Labelled Grand Randonée (“GR”) 5, the trek traces a circuit around the Mont Blanc massif. On the traditional anti-clockwise (or counter-clockwise for my American readers) route, the Tour begins in the French village of Les Houches, passes out of France into Italy and then Switzerland, before crossing back into France and returning to Les Houches. Along the way, the TMB offers incredible views of Mont Blanc, the surrounding peaks, and an array of quaint alpine villages.
Maps and Navigation
The most common map used on the TMB is the Carte de Randonees Pays Du Mont-Blanc. This 1:50,000 map is available at the Maison des Montagnes across from the Tourist Information office in Chamonix. A pair of 1:25,000 maps covering the TMB is also available, but the guide office recommended against these and I found the extra detail was unnecessary.
Many hikers carry the “Blue Bible,” the Cicerone guidebook titled “Tour of Mont Blanc” by Kev Reynolds. Either the map or the guidebook alone is sufficient to get the job done. The map is lighter but omits details contained in the guide book.
The trail is generally well marked throughout. The southern French and Italian sections were quite easy to follow, with the Swiss section close behind. The most difficulty, as limited as it was, came during the return to France as the trail topped the Col de Balme and meandered past Chamonix over Le Brevent toward Les Houches.
Chamonix, an adventure town located eight kilometers up-valley from the trail’s starting point in Les Houches, is the primary staging point for trekkers and alpinists heading into the mountains of the Mont Blanc massif. Most TMB’ers fly into Geneva and then take one of the many transfer options available to get you to Chamonix. The SAT bus is one of the cheaper options.
To get from Chamonix to Les Houches, the cheap and easy option is to take the No.1 bus in the direction of Le Tour. You can catch the No. 1 from the stop in Chamonix-Sud (next to the bowling alley near the Aiguille de Midi). Stay on through the first Les Houches stop until you reach the Bellevue Téléphérique (cable car). The trailhead is on the left about 50 meters past the Téléphérique parking lot.
Permits/Entry Fee: None required.
The refuges scattered throughout the hike provide varying levels of accommodation, from private rooms to vast dormitories with bunk beds. In general, the accommodations are sufficient to provide a tired hiker with a good night’s sleep.
Official campsites are only sporadically available. Free camping, though not technically allowed other than in France, is possible and enforcement appeared lax to say the least.
The Maison des Montagnes in Chamonix has a great list of TMB accommodations. The fairly comprehensive list contains locations, prices, number of beds, and contact information for all the refuges, gites, dortoirs and other accommodations along the trail.
Gear and Provisions
Most TMB’ers stay in refuges and, consequently, don’t need much gear other than clothes. That said, you can get anything you need in Chamonix. The town is stocked with outfitters and guide shops ready to sell or rent the latest gear.
Cooked food is available at varying prices at the refuges located every few hours along the TMB route. The dinners can range from self-prepared dehydrated pasta to a full spread of delicious risotto, pork, potatoes, vegetables and chocolate cake.
Breakfast, on the other hand, is hilariously consistent and expensive. The petit dejuener invariably consists of bread, butter, jam and your choice of coffee, tea or hot chocolate. If you end up staying at Rifugio Elizabetta (also called Rif. E. Saldini), go with the hot chocolate. It’s the most luxurious and decadent chocolate I’ve ever seen in liquid form.
For those who would rather keep up the pretenses of a backcountry experience, groceries are available in Les Houches, Les Contamines, Courmayeur, La Fouly, Champex, and La Praz. The selection can be limited but you’ll find everything need to get you through.
The TMB is well traveled and easy to follow. The trail was in good shape throughout despite the absence of a central organization responsible for trail maintenance. That said, the trail in places was incredibly steep and could be challenging for inexperienced hikers. This was especially true for the later sections after the trail returned to France from Switzerland.
The typical hiking season on the TMB is July – September. I was on the TMB from Sept. 6-14. Although it rained both days I was in Chamonix before the hike, I experienced great weather nearly every day on the trail. The temperature was warm, but not uncomfortable, during the day. At night, temperatures dropped to somewhere above freezing.
Amazingly, the only real rain I saw on trail occurred during my zero day in Courmayeur. From what I heard from locals, this was very unusual. Chamonix had rain every day in July and most days in August. September is usually colder and dryer but rain should be expected even then.
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