The Tour of Mont Blanc is an incredible circuit – if you have the weather on your side you might risk falling because you can’t take your eyes off those snowy mountains. Even if you don’t get the views (and this is the Alps so you have to expect some rain) there is usually something to grab your attention – there are masses of Alpine flowers to test your botany knowledge, and if you’re lucky you’ll spot wild animals including marmots and Ibex.
Many of the mountain refuges are friendly, some are to be avoided, and if you don’t fancy sharing a dorm you can often plan your route to take advantage of rural hotels or camp sites.
We went in mid-July 2004, and did the walk in the classic anti-clockwise direction. Earlier in the season there is a likelihood of encountering snow as we did in a few places. We were lucky enough to see the highest point of the route, the Col des Fours, covered in snow.
Over the past few years there has been a proliferation of walking guides so it’s worth spending some time browsing a good bookshop to find the one you like. There are a number available on Amazon if you can’t find them in the shops.
We found the Cicerone guides pretty useful, and if you want to do the Tour in the clockwise direction, it might be worth getting your hands on a copy of the Kev Reynolds’ Two-way Trekking Guide, but it’s thicker and a good deal heavier than other versions. Weight is an issue on any multi-day walk, so ask yourself if you want to be carrying all those extra pages for nearly a fortnight.
We took the older and in our opinion more informative TMB book by Andrew Harper used by one of us in 1991 and still pretty accurate – you’d need to check on the accommodation info as places come and go over the years but the route description doesn’t change much. The book is smaller and lighter and Harper’s writing style is more immediate. He’s not afraid to give his opinion:
“The (Col de) Balme refuge is run by a lady who has changed little over the years. She rules the procession of her customers with a firm hand: arrive after one o’clock and you get no lunch.” He describes the toilet as “best seen by fumbling torchlight … you can experience at first hand the facilities generally endured by your forefathers.”
The book was published in 1988 – in 2004 when we were there, nothing had changed.
We also used the French Topoguide Tour du Mont-Blanc GR +10 Jours de Randonnee – which is great if you can read French – it even has the IGN maps included.
The weather in the Alps, like any high mountain environment, is varied and changeable. You’re unlikely to have the sun beating down on you every day, and you’ll be unlucky if it rains on you the whole way but it can happen, so you should be prepared.
It goes without saying that you need to be pretty fit to do the Tour of Mont Blanc – the cumulative effects of all that ascent and descent shouldn’t be underestimated. But though we did try to get in some training beforehand, in 2004 we were living in Holland, the flattest country in Europe, so the chances for getting our legs conditioned for the hills were minimal. But if you want to keep going to the end it is important to have some stamina and to keep your rucksack as light as possible.
A lot of the people we met were doing a section of 4 or 5 days, which is another option. You can start in Les Houches and stop in Courmayeur, taking the cable car back over to Chamonix via the Aiguille du Midi.
And lastly, you don’t have to follow the stages as they’re laid out in the guidebook – half of the fun is planning your own route, deciding on what you want to see and then making it happen.