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Tour du Mont Blanc Hike


Early retirement adventures
Tour du Mont Blanc...Done!

Two years ago, YouTube recommended I watch the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 170km (100 mile) trail race around the Mont Blanc Massif with 10,000 metres of ascent and another 10,000 metres of descent. I was hooked and, since then, the idea of hiking (not running) the Tour du Mont Blanc (it's the same route as the trail race) has been in my mind. Well, secretly, I may have thought about running it one day, but more of that later.


I therefore put "Hike the Tour du Mont Blanc" on my list of targets for 2022 and although I didn't do it that year, a plan was hatched to do it this year, along with friends Peter and Mark. Last week, that's what the three of us did.


What is the Tour du Mont Blanc?

The Tour du Mont Blanc (or TMB) is one of the most popular multi day hikes in Europe. It circumnavigates the Mont Blanc Massif, a mountain range within the Alps that includes 11 summits above 4,000 metres, including the highest mountain in Western Europe, Mont Blanc at 4,810 metres. The route goes through three countries, France, Italy and Switzerland.


Our route

You can start in a number of different towns and hike in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, but the traditional route starts in the French town of Les Houches and goes anti-clockwise. That's what we did, starting in Les Houches, walking to Italy, then to Switzerland and finally back into France to finish, back where we began, in Les Houches.


There are also a number of variants to the traditional route, most of which add time and/or difficulty but come with additional views. We didn't do any of the variants, but that's something that we could return to do as day trips sometime in the future.


You can do the TMB as part of an organised group, but it's easy to do independently - it's well signposted and we had a real paper map just in case, which did come in handy on a couple of occasions to check we were heading in the right direction.


Where we stayed

We mostly stayed in refuges, which are like hostels in the mountains - if you're thinking of dormitories and bunk beds then you're on the right track. They're basic, but they do the job. We generally had breakfast and evening meal in the refuge and for lunch we had a combination of picnics prepared by the refuges or we picked up something if we went through a town. I was amazed that every refuge produced something vegan for me (kudos to them), even if I received some strange looks when I poured coffee on my muesli at breakfast🤣. Our last night was a little different, in a tent, just to add a little variety.


The lesson learned is to book the accommodation early. We booked at the beginning of February for our July trip, and already found many of the accommodation options were fully booked which meant we had some longer distance days than we would ideally have done.


What I took

Either in my backpack or on my body, I took:

1 pair of trail running shoes for hiking

1 set of trekking poles (I have some for trail running so used those)

1 pair of flip flops for the evening

3 running style T-shirts

2 pairs of shorts

3 pairs of underpants

3 pairs of socks

1 pair of pyjama shorts

1 pair of long hiking trousers (for cooler evening)

1 pair of long johns

1 thermal long sleeve shirt

1 micro puff jacket

1 rain jacket

1 pair of waterproof outer trousers

1 cap

1 buff

1 travel towel

1 sleeping bag liner

Personal hygiene stuff - soap, deodorant, toothpaste, sunscreen etc

Ear plugs

Head torch

First aid kit, whistle and foil blanket/survival bag

2 water bottles (total of 1.25 litres)

Sunglasses

Penknife

Phone and charger

GPS watch and charger

Power bank

Map

Snacks/energy bars


Whatever I wasn't wearing went into my 30 litre Decathlon MH500 backpack. I was a bit nervous as I decided to get a new backpack just a few days before we set off, which I'm sure isn't ideal. Fortunately, it was great, just the right size and comfortable too. My gear and backpack weighed in at around 8kgs.


The only things that I didn't use were the waterproof outer trousers (I knew I wouldn't) and the head torch.



How was the hike?

Tough, awesome, hot, breathtakingly scenic, camaraderie, fun, sad and tiring are some of the words that come to mind.


I definitely underestimated the effort required, how much the hot sun takes out of you, how hard the ascents and descents are, and perhaps the impact of not sleeping as well in dormitories as I would at home. I thought I was fit, so this has been something of a wake-up call. In fairness, our seven day schedule was at the quicker end, with most people we came across seeming to take between nine and twelve days. We also had a lopsided schedule because many of the refuges were booked, so we had to book what was available rather than being able to spread the distance and elevation equally. I lost 2kgs (4.4lbs) during the hike which perhaps shows that it was not a walk in the park.

Day 4 was the day that I found most difficult, I think because it felt the hottest and perhaps because it was the cumulation of four long days. Days 5 and 6 were our short days and felt easy in comparison - for a moment I thought we could have combined them, which would have been possible, but I think having those shorter recovery days was good. Day 7 was another long day, descending can be as tough on the legs as ascending, and it had a number of sections that were more exposed and where making a mistake or having a slip would have been a very bad idea.


The scenery was simply spectacular and often changing. High snowy alpine peaks, glaciers, rock faces, valleys, meadows (with cows in them - they really do have bells around their necks), wild flowers, ibex, marmots and an eagle. No doubt I've missed things out that I should have included. This ought to be the longest paragraph, but I'll let the photos do the talking instead.

I used "sad" amongst the words to describe our hike because, although seeing the glaciers is super impressive, what struck me was seeing how much they have retreated. The landscape clearly shows where they used to be and it's very far different from where they are now. To think that many, perhaps all of them, could disappear within my lifetime is both sad and extremely worrying. If anyone thinks we're doing enough about climate change then they should go and look at the retreat of the glaciers - we clearly need to do much more, myself included.

Apart from the final one, every day was full on sunshine. Day 7 was mostly overcast, and I was glad for a little rain in the morning so that I could wear my rain jacket and not feel that I'd carried it all week for no reason. We also had an amazing thunder and lightning show during night 5 when we were staying in Trient - it might not have been fun if we'd been walking in it though.


Hiking with Peter and Mark was fantastic. I can't remember half of what we talked about, probably because it was mostly nonsense. We each live in different countries so we don't get to see each other that often, so to have a whole week and an adventure together was awesome. We didn't even need to use our earplugs to protect ourselves from Mark's stories!


How about running it?

As I said, the idea for doing this hike was hatched from watching the UTMB Trail race, and I will admit to at least wondering whether it's something that I would like to do. Now, having hiked it, is running UTMB still anywhere close to being in my thoughts?


I'm 99% sure the answer is no. How people run this route is beyond me, having found the hiking tough, running it seems completely incomprehensible. Last year's winners were Killian Jornet who completed the whole thing in 19h49m (a new course record) and Katie Schide in 23h15m (the female course record of 22h30m is held by Courtney Dauwalter) - we took seven days while they took less than one, which is mind blowing! I'll watch the UTMB coverage again on YouTube this year, I'll look forward to recognising parts of the course, but I'm sure that FOMO isn't going to be an issue.

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16 Comments


This sounds like an amazing adventure. Thanks for posting it. I might add it to my bucket list if the Camino Santiago doesn't kill my desire to ever hike again 🤣

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Guest
Jul 22, 2023

Great write up. Am glad to read that busy wasn't one of the adjectives used.

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Knowing that it's a very popular hike, u did wonder if it might be crowded and not be as enjoyable as a result. But it really didn't feel busy. We did set off on a Friday which we thought might put us ahead of most people who likely start at the weekend, so that may have helped. Or it may be that the mountains are a big space so there was more than enough room for everyone.

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Well done! Did you carry the tent or was it at the site when you got there?

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The tent was already there for us. We did see a number of people who were camping and carrying their tent, but their backpacks were quite a lot bigger than ours. My friend Peter is not a fan of camping!

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David Patrick
David Patrick
Jul 21, 2023

Fantastic David. Loved your write up of the Tour of Mont Blanc. Europe has plenty of long distance hikes so you have lots to choose from in future years! I've just completed the Gran Bucle 100k in Val d'Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees from Vielha. Baggage transfer at 100 euros per person made this adventure so much easier and much more enjoyable!

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And how about Mirsie's trail run, also at Val d'aran I believe? I bet she'd be crazy enough to run the UTMB!

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Interesting. Since we retired at 55 we have done some similar activities to you including moving house (within the UK though) flash-packing in Sri Lanka, Thailand,Cambodia,Vietnam and touring Costa Rica and Mexico.The itineraries were all organised by ourselves.We also bought a second hand Vw transporter a few years back and had it converted to a camper van locally.I’m not saying we copied you exactly, as some of this stuff we did either before you or about the same year you did! This year we did a week’s cycle trip down the Danube from Passau in Germany to Vienna in Austria which was my wife’s idea and great fun.Tiring as well, a bit like your walk although probably not as energetic.…

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Hi Mark, it's interesting to see that some of your experiences are similar - as you say in your last sentence, it's great to compare and contrast and to get some prompts and inspiration from what others are doing. Your mention of a week's cycle trip is getting me thinking...

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