The Tour du Mont Blanc

Europe's Ultimate Long Distance Trek

Stress relief on the TMB

Work-Life Balance

Working in a university provides many opportunities, stability and being well paid.  The department I was working in was very much all of the above.  As the department (which specialised in working with people of all ages and backgrounds in the outdoors) grew exponentially year on year, so did my challenge and pressure.  As with all pressure this is great in the right doses, but this quickly evolved in to stress and was affecting my personal life.  I had to find a way of releasing the pressure to a manageable level.

My hobby of adventure sports was fast in decline, and my means of reducing stress was fading.  I needed a new and exciting way to vent my frustrations and ever mounting stress.  Having done a little walking in the Tatras in Poland the year before, I knew that this could hold the answer to releasing pressure and therefore taking the stress off, I delved into the inspirational library of content that is the Cicerone website, you are allowed to disagree.  I needed something meatier than Poland, but short enough to be considered a holiday.  The first one to catch my eye was the Tour du Mont Blanc.  11 days completing the route anti clockwise, or 10 days clockwise.  10 it was to be, and September 2014 was to be the start of this journey of what I thought would be a one off adventure.

I poured through the guidebook on it’s arrival through the post and established that I definitely would be completing the clockwise 10-day route.  I confirmed any other details required for my own reassurance, and immediately got on to the luxurious airline website that is RyanAir to book my flights to Geneva.  Sorted.  The flights were cheap, and probably the only piece of the trip that would be.  The bill for the trip then started to mount as I booked more refuges.  I have to admit though there was something awesome about booking these venues, as much as I knew they were slowly breaking the bank.  Refugio Bonatti for instance had a feeling of significance in the area with the name it had inherited.  So this had to be booked.

Thankfully the bills stopped mounting, and I knew I could now start to look how my itinerary could be flexible if required, as I am not one for following a prescribed programme of activity.  Knowing that this might happen I did pack a tent as an emergency, in case I didn’t quite make it to a refuge/gite.  I can’t quite remember everything I packed, but the kitchen sink was in there just in case.  I carried this ridiculous pack, one because I knew I could and secondly, I seriously needed to burn off a bit of the ‘office muscle’ that had been acquired over the last couple of years in management.  And it wasn’t being burned off any time soon elsewhere.

The adventure begins with a little luck

Walking to my check in desk at Manchester Airport, I walked in quiet confidence that I was well prepared and ready for my first solo adventure in Europe.  As I got closer I noticed some paper on the floor and was considering ignoring it, until I realised that it was in fact a CHF100 note.  I picked it up and immediately asked anyone in the area if they had dropped any money.  Everyone denied having lost any money.  I discreetly checked online how much I had just pocketed and was absolutely chuffed to bits that I had just found my beer money.  That should do, about £80 or so.  I was yet still to be acquainted with the expense of beer in the Alps.

Landing in Geneva I easily navigated the airport to the trains and now en-route to Champex.  However as I sat on the train I realised a major flaw in my planning.  This train did not go all the way, and stopped significantly short of my destination.  I hurried on to the website to acquire a new accommodation in Vevey.  Vevey Hotel & Guesthouse, was a cheap and agreeable location along the route.  Next morning I now had to make up for lost time, so with an early start, fuelled by the magic and wonder of coffee, I boarded the first train.  After a couple of connections and some great views of the Alps, I arrived in the picturesque village of Champex.

Champex at start of Tour du Mont Blanc
Great view of Champex at start of the TMB

Straight on to the TMB

Without a moment to really take in the atmosphere of this great village, I forced myself in to gear and got straight on with starting this famous route.  I was off and I couldn’t believe I was on my way.  The legs were good, and thankfully too tired still for my brain to have caught up with worry and doubt.  As you can tell it was a lovely day to start, with great weather and that was how it stayed.  This part of the route was pretty stale as a day of walking goes, but it was shattered when I reached the refuge in La Fouly.  The lady who ran the place was abrupt and had no time for dimwitted people like me.  Though I wish she would appreciate that I was just tired.  However I quickly demonstrated this when I returned to the table to consider my itinerary, having dumped my kit in the bunk room and proceeded to fall asleep up right at the table.  She took pity on me and woke me gently to some food, and a drink at meal time.  It was a bit embarrassing as the 4 or 5 people that were there when I had arrived, had tripled, and I hadn’t even been awoken on their arrival.  The food was amazing, and I had a seriously goodnights sleep.

On my march up the hill two mountain bikers were slowly making ground on their ascent.  But they blatantly looked like they were struggling.  I can’t quite remember, but I think it was a 900m day of ascent, with 1,400m descent from the col.  I found my pace and stuck to it, with a quiet determination to beat the riders.  We tussled for lead for most of the way, but eventually they were slowed by the awkward steps of the descent.  As a mountain biker, I would have been put off by these, they were horrible.  I arrived at Refugio Elena, and had myself a coffee and a piece of cake.  Some habits just don’t die.  As I sat there devouring the much needed caffeine and simple sugars, I saw the weary riders collect their much needed caffeinated drinks.  As they turned to sit at a table there was a mutual smile and nod of a battle won and lost.  It was great, this is exactly what I came for, meeting people, to challenge myself and an amazing view.

View from Refugio Elena, TMB
Panoramic view of the Mont Blanc Massif from Refugio Elena

Arriving at Refugio Bonatti, the view was still impressive and was immediately in awe of my bedroom window view.  I sat there for sometime knowing that I had just been given the best seat in the house, and would easily be the envy of the rest of the dorm.  I took the below photo sat on my bed.

Refugio Bonatti on the TMB
Room with a view

At meal time we were sat as per the refugio’s arrangement, and I was sat with a giant of a Russian.  He was a great guy, he showed us loads of pictures of places he had been in Russia and telling us where we should visit.  His phone was like a small tablet, it was enormous, but lost in his palm.  He must have been 6’8″ at least, and the same sideways, he was a mountain of a man.

My journey continued in to Courmayeur the following day, but with great views of the Mont Blanc Massif.  The only drama I hit today was my inability to read the address of the hotel I was staying in, when I booked it.  Unfortunately I had booked the wrong Hotel Edelweiss.  I was supposed to book the one in Courmayeur, but mistakingly had booked the one in Pré Saint Didier.  This was a terrible path to walk, and have since learnt my lesson, but a valuable one all the same.  It was a 5+km detour one way.

Mont Blanc
My only selfie on this trek

I continued with little issue to Refugio Elisabetta, where I met some interesting people over food.  But I think everyone had had a long day and were keen to get to bed.  It was an interesting sleeping arrangement, it felt like there were 30+ people in the dorm and were all sleeping alongside each other on the alpine style hut beds.  The snorring was epic, and if it wasn’t that, it was the temperature plummeting to a level that can only be described as Baltic.  At about 5:30am, one person woke, which pretty much meant we all woke.  We headed on mass to the dining room, where we proceeded to have porridge.  It was different, but a good different.  Not quite sure what it was to be honest.  Feeling motivated by this meal, a distinct lack of sleep and the brisk morning air, I got cracking.

Decisions to make and break an adventure

I headed up to the Col de Seigne, where I took one look back down the valley.  It was an amazing view, and can honestly say this image has received no tweaks or edits to improve it.  I could have stayed there longer for sure.  But I needed to get going.

Col de Seigne on the Tour du Mont Blanc
Photo of the trek

Leaving Italy behind and the amazing refugios, I decided today could be a big day if I wanted it to be, and merge two days together.  It would be a big one, but it could be done.  I was also completing a variant, by heading over the Col des Fours, which was a shorter route, to finish at CAF Col du Bonhomme Refuge.  But on arrival i decided I would headed on by running from here to Contamines, which made the day a total of 29km, 1,134 m ascent and 2,265m descent.  My knees were effing and blinding when I arrived at the fantastic Chalet CAF des Contamines.  I found it hard to make myself comfortable as my legs began to ache, and the warden considered my day ‘crazy’, which just emphasised the ridiculous attempt I had just completed.  This could have ruined my trip, but it was a win, I had now made it 9 days instead of 10 days if all else went well.

Next day I headed to Les Houches, seeing Mont Blanc today was pretty spectacular, but in all honesty I can’t remember much of the day.  From the outset, I was popping paracetamol and ibuprofen like smarties.  It was bearable, and I definitely had lost the spring in my step.  I arrived at the Gite Fagot.  it was nice and I settled in quickly, once again resting the knees, I should have iced them, but I didn’t.

Beer o’clock is short-lived

Today was another variant on the walk up to Lac Blanc, and it was definitely to be the challenging day of the trip.  I past what appeared to be an animal sanctuary of some sort, and wondered what the animals may be.  As usual I had conducted no research in to what I may see along my route.  This is something I am working on constantly to better.  I then headed wearily and clumsily up to the Refuge.  I was exhausted.  I dumped my kit, and it was about 2 hours to dinner.  Sitting in the dining room I saw a number of Americans enjoying a cold one, this was bound to be significantly better than medication for my knees.  I ordered a bottle of La Blanche, from the Brasserie du Mont Blanc.  It was amazing, so I ordered two more in quick succession. It was on considering a further bottle, that I overheard the Americans mention that it was 7 euros a bottle.  On that I decided I no longer required any further alcohol.  Another tick on a life lesson, ‘ask how much first’.

What a great view though to enjoy whilst drinking great beer at Lac Blanc Refuge.


End of the TMB circuit

Heading down from Lac Blanc I continued along the normal route.  It was as though I had now seen all the amazing views and anything now would only be second best.  So for two days I plodded steadily back to Champex.  It was not without incident, but compared to the rest of the trip it was insignificant.  Staying Champex, I decided it was important to get a protein meal, and ordered what sounded good.  Boeuf tartare, I wasn’t sure what it was and I thought what the hell.  When it arrived, that is exactly what I though, ‘what the hell is this?’  Randomly though I enjoyed it, as unappetising as it looked.  It was a great view from my dorm, and a better one walking round the village.  This was a great trip and it has seriously sparked further inspiration to continue with similar and bigger adventures.

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