Steve & Judy Pardoe's Tour du Mont Blanc Page (1992)

Please note, this "1992" page has largely been superseded by our 1999 TMB trip report, from when we repeated the TMB, but in a clockwise direction. Our TMB 99 Photo Gallery is here. Only the new 1999 page will be updated in future, so please refer to that for latest route information and logistics.


Tour of Mont Blanc
(July 1992)
The Tour of Mont Blanc, or TMB, is a 200 km (120 miles) hike around the Mont Blanc massif in the European Alps. The route crosses several high passes and takes the traveller through spectacular mountain scenery in France, Italy and Switzerland.

Total height gain is about 10,000 metres (33,000 feet), so the average gradient is a taxing 1:10. However, the normal route generally follows good paths, and there is a variety of inexpensive accommodation available, making light-weight hiking feasible.

Mont Blanc massif from the Aiguilles Rouge

Disclaimer: this description is for information only, and is based on our experiences in 1992. You should make your own enquiries before undertaking the Tour, and take your own responsibility in all matters of safety.

The Tour of Mont-Blanc, by Steve & Judy Pardoe

This is a personal account of our Tour, undertaken over nine days in the summer of 1992, starting and finishing at Champex in Switzerland. Things will have changed, so we'd be grateful if readers could e-mail us (there's a link below) so that we can keep the page up to date.

[Note: the spellings of some place names vary from map to map, and from country to country, so apologies for any inconsistencies, missing accents, etc!]

The Tour of Mont-Blanc, or 'TMB' as is known in the area, is among the finest recognized mountain walks in the world. The route encircles the Mont-Blanc massif in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. Although it has several variants, the total distance is in the region of 190 km (120 miles) and the height gained is about 10,000 metres (say 33,000 feet). It is typically undertaken in 11 days; we actually completed it in just under nine days, starting on a Monday afternoon and finishing on the following Wednesday lunchtime.
We walked the TMB in the traditional anti-clockwise direction. The usual point of departure is les Houches, near Chamonix, but we started at Champex in Switzerland. We used the excellent guide-book by Andrew Harper, with two French IGN 1:25,000 maps of the Massif. The route mostly follows valley sides, giving unparalleled views of the Mont-Blanc peaks, and is generally well way-marked. Some sections are quite high, at over 2,500 m (8,000 feet), but most of the walking is between 1,500 and 2,000 m which is comfortable enough. The paths vary in quality from tarred roads to snowfields, so some experience is essential, and it is unlikely that the TMB will be completed, much less enjoyed, by anyone who would struggle on, say, the Snowdon Horseshoe or the Ben Nevis tourist path. A typical day might include 20 km of walking and 1,200 metres of ascent, which is quite a lot, day after day, with a full pack. If you have more time available, a day or two off to rest would be a good idea. We found that a little light training in the months beforehand was well rewarded.
One overnights by camping, or staying at refuges, Gîtes or hotels according to availability and budget. Our itinerary and some practical matters are set out at the foot of the page, but there are endless alternatives. In refuges, the cost is low but the facilities may be fairly basic (sleeping in unisex rows in a dormitory, and only cold water for washing), but some of the Gîtes are quite comfortable, and hotels are as you would expect. The accommodation available changes from season to season, so the information given here should be verified by enquiry before you set out. The tourism office in les Houches is excellent in this respect.
The Tour takes you through three countries, and although many people you'll meet do speak English, it's a courtesy to have a few phrases in French, Italian and German at your command. The fellow TMB'ers are from all over the world, and the multilingual 'crack' in the refuges can be great fun. We also found on two occasions that rooms miraculously became available when the request was made in the local language! Do try: it's well worth the effort.

Our Route

Day 1 Champex to La Forclaz (Switzerland)
The route (for us) started at Champex, a charming high-altitude lakeside resort south of Martigny in the Swiss Valais. We had only arrived in Switzerland that day, so we had only the afternoon to walk. We set off after lunch in Champex, in pouring rain, a foretaste of trials to come. We took the lower but longer Bovine route, though in better weather, the high pass over the Fenêtre d'Arpette would be more interesting. The promised spectacular views of the Rhône Valley were denied us, but after the long trudge up to a balcony path, the route was easy, and we arrived at Col de la Forclaz in nice time for dinner. The hotel has good dortoirs and washing facilities, and excellent coffee.

Day 2 Col de la Forclaz (Switzerland) to Trélechamps (France)
The second day was a long haul over the Col de Balme into France. We followed the bisse, an open aqueduct, along the edge of the Trient valley, then crossed its head and traversed up to the Col. There is a dilapidated refuge there, right on the French/Swiss border, run by an elderly lady of slightly difficult temperament. We had tepid, watery soup, and my request for a piece of bread was met by a scowl, followed by a rummage in a cardboard box on the floor, from which a stale crust, as thin and transparent as a Communion wafer, was reluctantly offered. I wouldn't want to stay there overnight.
The walk down into the Chamonix valley in the afternoon was delightful, taking in a highly-recommended variant over the Posettes, a ridge path reminiscent of the Grampians. We stopped at Trélechamps, a superb Gîte, the Dutch patrone* of which could not have been in more delightful contrast to the Balme lady.
*[she was no longer there in 1997]
Day 2 Trélechamps to Brévent

Harper stages the next day only as far as la Flégère, but after confirming by telephone that there should be vacancies, we decided we would try to reach the then-new refuge at Bellachat. We took the traditional route out of Trélechamps, climbing the impressive iron ladders onto the Aiguillette D'Argentière.
This leads to the famous Grand Balcon Sud, a balcony path on the North side of the Chamonix valley (so the views are to the South) which is worth doing as a day trip in its own right. As far as la Flégère, the paths are excellent, and the views of the Mont-Blanc massif sensational. One can amuse (or, more probably, bore) oneself and companions by listing the well-known peaks as they pass by on the left.

Judy climbing the iron ladder

After several pleasant hours opposite the magnificent scenery of the Mont-Blanc Massif, taking in lunch at la Flégère, we found the path deteriorating as the typical result of ski facilities. These may look very pretty in winter, but without snow cover they leave awful scars. This is in a national park, with stern notices about litter and wildlife, but it's all a bit selective when it comes to ecology.
Steve & Judy overlooking the Mer de Glace

We later started a very long climb over the summit of le Brévent (2,525 m). From the lonely col at 2,368 metres onwards, we were walking across deep snow, and some aids such as crampons and ice axes would have been advisable so early in the season. The slope falling away to the North was frightening, and it was starting to thunder, so we were jolly glad to get over the top, and almost walked past the refuge, slightly off the path and looking like a garden shed.

Judy crossing the snow slope before the Brévent

The Bellachat refuge is basic, and the evening meal was minimal, but its balcony position offers staggering views across to Mont-Blanc and its glaciers: on a clear evening, the sunset was unforgettable. I asked about the "bathroom" facilities...   "...no bathroom, Monsieur, there is a tap outside". This accompanied a hole in the ground outside the shed, and ablutions were a chilly business.

Day 4 Brévent to Miage
The fourth full day started with a bone-crunching descent into the valley at les Houches, dropping to the lowest point of the Tour from almost the highest in a couple of hours. It turned out to be a very arduous day: after loitering over coffee in les Houches, we found that the evening stop we were planning at Bellevue was not to be, as one can no longer stay there, and the next stop is far further on at Miage. A hasty telephone call confirmed a reservation, and we pressed on, climbing onto the Col de Voza (where the route crosses the Tramway du Mont Blanc) and dropping again to skirt the huge snout of the Bionassay glacier. The coup de grace was the crossing of the Col de Tricot (2,120 m), and alarmingly steep descent through slimy yellow mud into the Miage valley, in pouring rain and failing light.

The setting, on the floor of a hanging valley below the three glaciers of the Dômes du Miage, is beautiful, and the refuge, run by the amiable M. Orset and family, is most hospitable. We would recommend the omelettes, and especially the myrtle tarts, when in season. On our return in 1997, we visited the much higher refuge at Plan Glacier, up beside the Miage glacier, which is approached from here.

We were reluctant to turn our back on such an idyll when we climbed out over the Col du Truc for the sixth leg. This took us very easily to les Contamines, a substantial resort town in the Nant valley, and on up to La Balme (not to be confused with the col, or with several other Balmes in the area).

The Miage valley, with the hamlet and refuge at left, and the glacier top right

Day 5 Miage to Balme
We stopped in les Contamines to buy food (the next two days being very remote) from the village's excellent shops, and 'phoned ahead to reserve the morrow evening's accommodation at the Elisabetta refuge far away in Italy. The afternoon was very wet, but a pleasant and easy path quickly led us up the Bon Nant valley to la Balme, a refuge with a very run-down dortoir which used to be the cattle-shed. One can see why they left...    Balme also apparently used to be famed for its omelettes, but our fare was a plate of greasy burgers and beans. We were glad to leave next morning, after a miserable night, even though our departure was at 7:30, in pouring rain and with the prospect of a 'killer' day ahead.

Day 6 Balme (France) to Elisabetta (Italy)
This was the big one: from La Balme to the Elisabetta refuge, crossing four cols, climbing over 1,800 metres and covering about 23 km in the day. The rain got heavier and the cloud thicker the higher we climbed; the first col, the Bonhomme, leads into a gentle balcony with famous views to the South which were completely invisible to us. The next, (confusingly) the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, is a proper col with a wooden shelter little larger than a sentry-box at the top. We tried to open the door to get inside for a moment, but it was stuck. We tried harder, and a face appeared at the tiny window: the shelter was literally full of French Boy Scouts! They were a bedraggled bunch, also on the TMB, and after they left we were able to get a few minutes in the dry to look at the guide-book and map. There is a terrific camaraderie among TMB'ers, and whenever we met the Scouts again later on the route, they would shout and wave and ask how we were doing.
We could have dropped from the Col to the hamlet of les Chapieux, where there is a Gîte, but that would have been a long diversion, so despite the weather we decided to cut the corner over the Col des Fours.

By the time we reached the 2,665 m col, the highest point normally reached on the TMB, the weather was vile, with heavy snow and a white-out. The path and waymarks were invisible, and we were glad of a good map and compass, and experience in using them. We were extremely relieved when we eventually found the marker pillar, just where we expected it. The climb to the col was pretty desperate, but there was worse to come: the descent into the Vallée des Glaciers was hazardous because of soft snow lying on loose shale, and took hours of painstaking footwork. There is a spectacular cataract to the left of the route, and we were keen to avoid sliding into it.
Judy at the Col des Fours
The weather cleared as we got lower, and we were able to stop and dry our gear while we picnicked on the food we'd bought in Les Contamines, by the river at the tiny hamlet of Ville des Glaciers. The afternoon would be all uphill, and so we set off quickly for the last refuge in France at les Mottets. By here it was again very wet, so we stopped to put on dry socks and had a welcome bowl of hot chocolate at the refuge. There were delicious smells from the kitchen, suggesting that this would be a good place to stay, but we were booked in at Elisabetta, so we had to get there (it being very bad form to break a reservation).
One can hire donkeys at Mottets, to carry ones bags or even oneself, but that wasn't for us. The long haul up the valley side to Col de la Seigne (2,516 m) seemed to last forever, but as the gradient eased on the final slope and we saw the Italian sky, the weather cleared and the view east into the Val Veni and beyond was just fantastic. There is a big cairn and an orientation table at Seigne, so we took some photos of each other, and then headed into the valley, below the huge Pyramides Calcaires. The top gullies were full of snow, so it was easy to run and slide down their gentle slopes, making excellent speed to reach Elisabetta in good time for a superb Italian dinner.

This is a beautiful refuge, the pride of the Italian CAI, and occupies an airy site just below the Glacier of the Lee Blanche. Sadly, there was no hot water available, but we were lucky enough to have a small dormitorio to ourselves, with a view of the glacier and all the fresh air that its 2,300 m elevation provides. After a (cold) wash and a gigantic meal, the day seemed almost tolerable in retrospect!
Judy approaching the Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini, with Tré-la-Tête beyond

Day 7 Elisabetta to Entrèves
Harper and the GR books offer a high-level route for the first full day in Italy, but the cloud-base was low so we settled for the valley, following the track down towards the Miage glacier (another Miage). It's well worth a slight detour to climb over the moraine to see the surface, covered in boulders but with eerie cracks down which stones rattle and slide. Further down the valley, we came across the spectacularly chaotic devastation caused by a recent landslide which had closed the road. Below Cantine we headed off into the pastures and woods of the Val Veni, eventually climbing steeply onto the ridge to rejoin the formal route at the Col Chécroui. There is a very hospitable refuge here, and we enjoyed a good lunch before trudging down into the valley to Dolonne and Courmayeur. The hillside has been wrecked by ski operations, and what's left of the path is very tiresome to find and follow.
Dolonne is a charming hamlet, but apart from that has little to offer the TMB'er. Courmayeur has, if anything, too much: we had just enough energy to walk up to Entrèves, a pretty village now crammed under the South portal of the Mont-Blanc tunnel. We felt like being pampered, so we asked for accommodation at the Hotel Aiguille Noire: the owner, perhaps unused to visitors looking quite so bedraggled, was initially reluctant to admit to being open at all, but a few words of Italian and our evident need brought out the Good Samaritan in her, and a hot shower and double bed were indescribable luxuries. Entrèves and Dolonne are very photogenic, and we came back after the walk was over to do them full justice with the cameras.

Day 8 Entrèves to La Vachey
Miraculously, the eighth day dawned clear: our balcony view of the immense Brenva glacier and the Eastern aspect of Mont Blanc could have held the gaze all day, but we had something even better in prospect. The route over the Monte de la Saxe is brilliant. After retracing our steps to Courmayeur, we headed out via the 'suburb' of Villair, and took a steep but well-made path up to the Bertone refuge (1,991 m). The situation of this refuge is excellent, and it would be a pleasant place to stay if one had time to kill*. We took in coffee and apple cake, then headed on up the grassy ridge to Monte de la Saxe, trying not to step on too many of the flowers, until at last the crest was reached, and the valley wall fell away beneath us to the North.

*We did so in 1995, and it is!

The view from the crest is beyond belief, sweeping from Mont-Blanc to Mont Dolent, with the vast, mile-high wall of the Grandes Jorasses directly opposite. After a few minutes we reached the summit of Tête de la Tronche, at about 2,570m. A rest, a sunbathe and a good look at the view seemed in order, but the summit was occupied by about a hundred young Italian mountain troops, so we waited until they'd gone before getting too exposed!
Judy near the Bertone refuge (on a later visit) and Steve above la Vachey, with the Grandes Jorasses behind (a mountain, not an ailment!)
It was a good few miles down into the Val Ferret for our next overnight, so we had to get our boots back on eventually. The descent is very steep in places, compensated for by the wonderful views which keep changing as the valley beckons. Accommodation in the valley is limited to the busy Albergo at La Vachey, which is comfortable and has a good restaurant. There is a bus service to Courmayeur, so you could use that and come back up the valley next morning if the hotel was full.

Day 9 La Vachey (Italy) to La Fouly (Switzerland)
Next morning was to bring our third and final frontier crossing, but this time in perfect weather. The Italian Val Ferret runs out below the glaciers of Triolet and Pré de Bar, where the Elena refuge was in the process of being rebuilt*. The last couple of kilometres involve about 500 m of grinding zigzags to gain the ridge at Grand Col Ferret (2,537 m); a few more metres bring you to a small summit which is a great place to picnic, and to take in a last view down the valley into Italy. Mont-Blanc is still visible in the distance, and on a really clear day you can see all the way back to the Col de la Seigne. Above the glaciers towers Mont Dolent, its summit marking the junction of the three countries of the Tour.

*[It is now open again, snow permitting]


So we set off down into Switzerland, for the penultimate leg. The Swiss Val Ferret is very beautiful, and popular with day-trippers. The path takes one through typical Swiss villages with impossibly neat barns and fields. We had delicious ham and cheese omelettes in Ferret, relishing the luxury of Swiss hospitality, followed by the inevitable horror at the size of the bill... The next village, almost a town, is la Fouly, where the Hotel des Glaciers provided a very reasonable dortoir and evening meal. The Patron is a mountain guide, and his 'workshop', just across the valley, includes the Glacier de l'A Neuve and the amazing needles that crown the skyline. La Fouly has a collection of second homes, which are expensive even by Swiss standards, and one can see why.

Day 10 La Fouly to Champex
We awoke for our last day on the TMB with a mixture of gladness and sadness: the end was in sight (almost literally), and yet there would be no more real excitement. The walk down the valley as far as Issert is delightful, taking in some very attractive paths, and an interesting diversion along the rim of the lateral moraine of the Saleina glacier. The ice is now far up the valley, but the massive earthworks that mark its former extent are amazing. After Issert, it's all uphill: by now rather tedious, and frankly an anticlimax as the views are enclosed by thick forest and the climb seems never-ending.
We emerged into the sunshine in time for lunch at Champex, the blue waters of its lake reflecting the smart hotels and shops of this popular resort, and found the car just as we had left it, nine days earlier. Rather than driving straight away, we prolonged our visit by having lunch by the lake, and then staying in the dortoir of the Chalet en Plein Air. No longer itinerant, we felt slightly out of place among those who were still en route, but it felt good to change into comfortable shoes and relax. It had been a great Tour.
Steve & Judy at the start and finish, Champex Post Office


Practical Matters:

Accommodation

There is ample accommodation on the TMB, except during peak seasons. Most refuges, and all the gîtes/hotels accept telephone bookings, and I would recommend this. Do not, however, book unless you are sure you will keep the reservation!
Aim to arrive at your evening stop by about 4 pm. This leaves time to grab a bed, wash, change and plan the next day's route, and write the log (or crash out) before the evening meal. Many refuges have no electricity, so 'lights out' is at sunset, whether you like it or not. Take a small torch to find stuff in the dark.
Prices vary: generally, we got B&B for about £20, with evening meal usually extra. The higher and more remote the refuge, the less one gets, but it's not necessarily any cheaper. Take cash: plastic will NOT 'do nicely'. You will need (French & Swiss) Francs, and Italian Lire. A money-belt or secure bum-bag is sensible. Although TMB'ers are probably above average for honesty, it's silly to tempt fate, so keep valuables to yourself. I wouldn't take anything I'd hate to lose.
A sleeping bag is not necessary unless you get stranded, so just take a liner to keep the blankets off you for your sake and others'. You will obviously need a towel, and several changes of clothes, and some light shoes for indoors. We found that washing facilities were often primitive: moistened wipes aid hygiene. Foot care is vital, well worth a few minutes every evening. All the dortoirs are unisex, so some modest nightwear is sensible. Details of how to use true alpine refuges are here.

Food and drink

The route is mostly away from towns, so shopping is difficult. You should always carry enough food and water for emergencies; dried fruit and nuts are good value for their weight. Breakfasts in the refuges are usually spartan (Trélechamps is an exception, where the breakfast is a feast), so be prepared for an early lunch. The whole day is run early anyway, to get the best light and weather, so it's no hardship. Water is not a problem, as there are taps and streams at intervals, so about half a litre is all you need to carry unless it's very hot.

Clothing & equipment

Sun protection is vital. At the other extreme, thermal underwear, good weatherproofs and plenty of thick jumpers or a fleece are mandatory. The route goes twice as high as Ben Nevis, and at 8,800 feet it can be very cold. What's more, if you have an accident or get lost you could be outside overnight, which is really serious, so do carry a 'space blanket' or survival bag.
General gear is a matter of taste and experience. Shorts are good in fair weather, and even in the wet if you are warm. We found that a few 'T' shirts and a couple of long-sleeved cotton ones worked well, with two pairs of long trousers each. One was 'Tactel' and the other poly/cotton: with these and thermal long-johns, you can wear three layers in emergency.
We wore lightweight boots, and would do the same again. Although our feet got cold and wet at times, the general comfort and lightness of modern fabric/suede boots is wonderful. Do get good soles, though, or you will feel every pebble. Socks must be comfortable and clean: three pairs are the minimum. If the weather is bad or you are very early in the season, you may need crampons and an ice-ace: my preference would be to wait until summer.
We carried conventional rucksacs of 65 and 50 litres, with about 20 and 15 kg respectively. Outside pockets for cameras, water and snacks are good. Don't kid yourself that your 'sac is waterproof: they simply are not. Use two bin liners, one inside the other, and make a habit of tucking the tops over before you close the lid. Check the bag for dryness after every downpour: wet gear is no joke, and could ruin the Tour for you.
Don't take anything you can live without: every gram counts. If you don't believe me now, you will after 190 km and 10,000 metres of climbing...

Travel

If you are starting at les Houches, you can get there by car (a very long day from the Channel ports) or train; a popular alternative is to fly to Geneva and take a train or bus to Chamonix. Swiss public transport actually works, so this is easy.
Parking a car safely could be a problem, and partly for this reason we left ours in Switzerland, where they don't have crime (well, not much). You might persuade a hotel to keep it for you if you stayed a night or two with them at each end of your Tour.
Since the route is a circuit, you should get back to your starting point, but if you can't, there are few public transport connections. There are mountains in the way! You can get a bus through the Mont-Blanc Tunnel between Courmayeur and Chamonix, and there's a train from Martigny to Chamonix as well. There are very occasional buses in some of the valleys, but if you 'break down' elsewhere, it's a bit more difficult: the best advice is not to do so.
There are a number of guide books available, but one of the best is by Andrew Harper and published by Cicerone Press. There is also an English version of the official French TMB guide in their Grand Randonnée series, but this is more factual. It does include sectional maps, but since a sheet map is really better for planning, I would get the smaller Harper book, and carry the two excellent IGN 1:25,000 sheets 3531 ET and 3630 OT, for the whole Massif.


Our Itinerary

Please refer to our 1999 TMB trip report for more recent details : what follows is for historical interest only, and may be out of date.

Telephone numbers are from the 1995 list from the Office du Tourisme, Les Contamines Montjoie, or from our own records from the 1992 Tour and later visits. The International code for France is 0033, for Italy 0039, and for Switzerland 0041. We have added in the new prefix 04 to the French numbers. Some include local codes for Switzerland and Italy, when dialling from this area of France, which may have changed by now. Apologies for, and please advise us of, any errors. Dates are given in European format (dd/mm/yy)

START: Switzerland:

Champex, dep 14:35, 6/7/92;
Arr La Forclaz (Hotel du Col de la Forclaz 19 41 26 22 26 88) 18:35; dep 08:00, 7/7/92;

France:

Arr Trélechamps (La Boerne 04 50 54 05 14) 15:15 (Gîte); dep 08:45, 8/7/92;
Arr Bellachat (Refuge 04 50 53 43 23) 16:30; dep 08:15, 9/7/92;
Arr Miage (Refuge 04 50 93 22 91 or 50 78 07 16) 17:35; dep 08:20, 10/7/92;
Arr Balme (Chalet 04 50 47 03 54) 16:30; dep 07:30, 11/7/92;

Italy:

Arr Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini (19 39 165 84 40 80) 17:30; dep 09:00 12/7/92;
Arr Entrèves (Hotel Aiguille Noire 89 919) 17:00; dep 09:00 13/7/92;
Arr La Vachey (Albergo Lavachey 19 39 165 869 723) 18:00; dep 08:35, 14/7/92;

Switzerland:

Arr La Fouly (Hotel des Glaciers 19 41 26 83 11 71) 16:00; dep 08:30, 15/7/92;
Arr Champex 13:10
FINISH

We have also stayed at:
Le Vieux Manoir, les Houches (04 50 54 46 33) a small Gîte
Chalet en Plein Air, Champex (19 41 26 83 23 50) a hotel with dortoir
Au Club Alpin, Champex (19 41 26 83 11 61) comfortable hotel, good value
...and at
Refuge Bertone (above Courmayeur, 19 39 165 84 46 12)

The recently re-opened Refuge Elena (19 39 165 84 46 88) in the Italian Val Ferret should make for nice staging, but was not open either time we were there.


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