Steve & Judy Pardoe's TMB FAQ Page

This is a page of Frequently Asked Questions (and answers!) about the Tour du Mont Blanc. We get a lot of enquiries from readers, and while we are generally delighted to help, there are many questions which keep cropping up and can be answered quite generally.

Our trip report from August 1999, when we repeated the TMB, but in a clockwise direction is here, and there's a brief update page here of our mini-tour in July 2003, when we visited some new-to-us refuges, and travelled over the Courmayeur to Chamonix cable car system.. You can read about our 1997 ascent of Mont Blanc itself here.

This edition 08/09/2008

The Tour of Mont Blanc 
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, crossing several high passes and taking the traveller through spectacular mountain scenery 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 ten.

Disclaimer : this description is for information only, and is based on our experiences between 1992 and 2003. You should make your own enquiries before undertaking the Tour, and take your own responsibility in all matters of safety.

Life on Tour : Judy and the Mont Blanc massif
seen from Secheron in the Italian Val Ferret

When should I do the TMB?

The best, and really the only feasible months are July, August and September. The main constraints are snow cover, and availability of accommodation. Weather patterns are changing in Europe, as everywhere, and snow can fall at any time of year, but most of the route should normally be clear of lying snow by July. Mid-June may be clear in some years. The end of the season is more concerned with shorter days, and the opening times of the refuges. These vary, but many close in early or mid-September.

If you are competent with crampons and ice-axe and wish to carry them, there's no reason why the snowy sections of the TMB should prevent an early Tour, but your choice of accommodation may be more limited.

Where should I start?

The TMB is a circuit, so you can start anywhere, and go in either direction. The typical point of departure is les Houches, near Chamonix, but we have started at Champex in Switzerland. It depends on how you are travelling, and where from. Geneva is a popular landfall from outside continental Europe, and has good bus and / or rail connections to both Chamonix and Champex.

Should I go clockwise or anti-clockwise?

We've done both, and there's not much to choose between them.

Clockwise :

But :

How fit do I need to be?

Hard to say, but the TMB is to be enjoyed, rather than endured. Almost any able-bodied person could walk round the route, or variants, given enough time. However, if you are carrying a reasonable amount of kit and want to have the energy to look around you without being completely drained every evening, you will probably be a regular hill-walker, with experience of exposed mountain routes. You will sometimes be climbing (or descending) well over 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) in a day, and that's quite a lot, if you are not used to it. Many walkers use poles, and it goes without saying that your boots and other clothing should be comfortable and practical.

What if I can't finish the 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! The Mont-Blanc Tunnel between Courmayeur and Chamonix is open again, so there are buses between Chamonix and Courmayeur. There's a train from Martigny to Chamonix, and buses from there to the Contamines valley. There are occasional buses in the Swiss and Italian valleys, but if you 'break down' elsewhere, it's a bit more difficult : the best advice is not to do so.

Do I need to be able to navigate?

Yes! Waymarking is generally quite good, but foul weather can strike at any time, and it's essential to be able to navigate with map and compass, and to recognize the signs of deteriorating weather. You could be in a complete white-out at 2,500 metres, and you can't assume that anyone else will be around to help. The IGN maps are excellent, so there is no excuse for getting lost. An altimeter (pocket aneroid) is a useful confirmation, but a compass is the essential tool. Every member of the party should carry a compass, whistle and torch, and have a clear idea of the day's objective and rough outline of the route, in case of separation.

What about guidebooks and maps?

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. There's a tiny bit above the Italian Val Ferret not covered by these sheets, but it's nothing to worry about.

What is the route like underfoot?

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 2,500m (8,000 feet), but most of the walking is between 1,500m and 2,000m 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 may be a good idea.

Where can I stay overnight?

One stays at refuges, Gites or hotels according to availability and budget. 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 Gites are quite comfortable, and hotels are as you would expect. The accommodation available changes from season to season, so the information should be verified by enquiry before you set out. The tourism office in les Contamines is excellent, and will mail you an up-to-date list free of charge, or you can view it on-line here. Many hotels have dortoirs, if you ask, so you can get some excellent hotel meals at dortoir rates. We've used the dortoir at the Col de la Forclaz, for example, and it's fine. Camping is not recommended - see below for a discussion.

Do I need to book - and can I?

Most refuges, and all the gites/hotels accept telephone bookings, and we have generally found that if you book even 24 hours ahead you will stand a good chance of getting into most of the refuges. Lots of people don't bother, so even a late booking can be better than none. What's more, if you do try to book ahead and there's no room, you'll be warned in time to look for alternatives. The TMB is becoming very popular, so it may be more important than it was a few years ago. By the way, you may need to pay in cash.

Do not, however, book unless you are sure you will keep the reservation! Aim to arrive at your evening stop by about 16:00 (or earlier if you haven't been able to book ahead). This leaves time to be allocated a bed, wash, change and plan the next day's route, and write the log (or crash out) before the evening meal. Some 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.

What about camping?

Camping is generally not recommended, for a number of ethical and practical reasons. Usable land is scarce in Europe, and it all belongs to someone. The Alps have been well equipped with refuges precisely so that mountaineers don't need to carry tents and other overnight equipment with them, so it makes sense to use the huts rather than camping. Don't forget that in addition to a tent you would need a sleeping bag and perhaps additional clothing, plus food and cooking equipment, some facilities for washing it, and access to clean water. Then there's personal hygiene, which is more difficult in the wild, and can quickly become antisocial.

In Switzerland, camping outside a recognized site (or campground as Americans call it) may be illegal. In France, we have heard of people's tents being confiscated (even while the owner was not there) when placed where they shouldn't be, such as on the Col du Midi.

Since the question of camping comes up quite often, I asked a couple of my more serious "Alpinist" friends what they thought about using tents near Alpine refuges. The consensus was that it would be frowned on, but people did it (though they were probably talking about much higher / more remote refuges than you find on the TMB or Walkers' Haute Route). If you buy a meal at the refuge, and then ask permission to camp, the Guardian will probably be a lot more welcoming than if you simply turn up and use their water and lavatory. Common sense, really.

Click for more details of how to use true alpine refuges and links to the main Alpine club sites.

What about languages?

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 and Italian, and perhaps 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 have also found on occasion that rooms miraculously became available when the request was made in the local language! Do try : it's well worth the effort.

Of course, we've found ourselves conversing in halting French, for example, only to find that the other party were also Anglophones, to the general amusement of all.

Food and drink?

The route is mostly away from towns, so shopping can be 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 and even in hotels are usually spartan, so be prepared for an early lunch. The whole day is run early anyway, to get the best light and weather. How much water you need to carry depends a lot on the weather, but carrying a litre or two each is probably enough, if you make sure you also drink at every refill opportunity.

Clothing & equipment?

Sun protection is vital. At the other extreme, thermal underwear, good weatherproofs and plenty of thick jumpers or a fleece are mandatory. At 2,500 metres (8,000 feet) it can be very cold, even in August. What's more, if you have an accident or get lost you could be outside overnight, which is potentially serious, so do carry a 'space blanket' or survival bag in your party.

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...

Other pages...

You may also wish to read about our anti-clockwise 1992 TMB and our report on the Walker's Haute Route.
For more pictures, visit our TMB 99 Photo Gallery on our secondary server.

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Cheshire,   England
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