Expert insight to Tour du Mont Blanc
Tour du Mont Blanc, or often known as TMB, has become established as one of the great walks of the world bolstered because it circumvents Mont Blanc, a mountain that everyone has heard of and which most people still think is the highest in Europe. The massive of Mont Blanc is virtually a mountain range in itself as this beautiful 30 km long slug of rock, snow and ice has 400 summits scoured by 40 glaciers and a permanent crown of crisp snow. It lies in 3 different countries, with 7 different valleys that define the boundaries of the range and which carry the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc in some of the most exquisite mountain scenery anywhere in the world.
Being a circular route, the TMB can be walked in either direction though, for reasons that escape me, it is usually completed in an anti-clockwise direction and traditionally started in Chamonix, a town that is acknowledge as the centre of Alpine sport.
The first day of the walk begins at a village called Les Houches just outside Chamonix. The track ascends from the road next to the lift of the Bellevue cable car and, spurning the opportunity to ride instead of walk the steep pathway. Unlike the Himalayas, this walk turns out to be harder work in many ways. For, although there isn’t the high altitude to cope with (as the highest point is about 2,800 metres (9,000 feet), almost every day involves a climb up of anything up to 1,500 metres (5,000 feet), over a mountain pass, followed by another 1,500 metres down to the next valley and our overnight stop. Signposts on the mountain point the way and give times to the next point: Our first great views come on day two as the TMB goes right to the head of the Val Montjoie and crosses into the Valee des Glaciers using the two Cols du Bonhomme. Like all the saddles the wind gets swept up from one side or the other (usually from the East in our case) making them very cold places to stop and enjoy the wonderful views.
Here at Bonhomme the best views are back the way we have come that reveal the winding route passing between green, alpine meadows all the way back to the village of Les Contamines 11 Km, as the crow flies, in the distance. To our front, the path continues over a series of grassy bluffs and little streams that fall steeply away. Above, dark, severe looking peaks stand guard forbidding anyone to try and pass them. They are the muscular foot soldiers who are the first line of defence for Mont Blanc. But this view was simply the warm up act for the next day. To our surprise, the chap who owned the Refuge de la Nova, our overnight stop, offered to drive us and 6 other trekkers to the next settlement called Ville des Glaciers which was an extremely grand name for a collection of 3 houses. This saved us a walk of an hour and a half on a road that rises through pasture that has nothing to recommend it and we gratefully accepted his offer as it meant we could linger at the Col and enjoy the views for longer than otherwise we could.
This decision was rewarded in spades because the Col de la Seigne, which defines the border of France and Italy, has magnificent views in all directions. In front and to our left, Mont Blanc dominates the view. Its snow covered dome sparkles in the autumn sunlight and clouds spring from its summit. At its feet the limestone needles of the Pyramides Calcaire provide a formidable barrier like courtiers or gate-keepers to the god. To our front, the saddle falls away into a long, deep trench that cuts a gash in the mountains and which runs for almost 30 Km to the Grand Col Ferret that we will cross in a few days time. All around are spiky peaks and rugged ridges that are often separated by dirty glaciers that are retreating up the mountains. I wished we could have been here during the late spring when the alpine flowers would have been in full bloom, lighting up the green meadows and splashing bright colour onto this extraordinary canvass.
Another of the great pleasures of hanging about places like this is the feeling of peace and calmness that emanates from remoteness. There is no hustle and bustle of urbanisation. No mobile phones to break the silence, no horns or sirens, no squeaks from pedestrian crossings. No angry shouting, no calling or whistling, no muzak, no waiting in queues, no being ordered about and forced to conform. We are sitting above all that, looking down on pressing human endeavour. We are busy doing nothing.
It was just as well that we lingered here because the next day, following overnight rain, we found ourselves the meat in a sandwich of cloud. Above us, the great peaks disappeared in a cloak of menacing looking cloud while, below us, fluffy white cloud obliterated the valley. We were in a kind of reverse purgatory, neither in the bad weather of high mountain snow and wind, nor in the foggy duvet below. This day we are travelling to Courmayeur and have decided to endure the steep descent into the town. We took the right hand route to Col Chercouit, taking the high trail that rises steeply up the south side of Val Veny, another 3 hours away, and then planned to catch the cable car into town. The upside turns out to be some good views of the south of the Mont Blanc Massive, as much as the low cloud would allow, but the bad news was that the cable car was not running! So we had to endure another painful two hour descent into Courmayeur.
After a rest day in Courmayeur in which we travelled up to the pristine Glacier du Geant in a cable car, we moved eastwards and found ourselves once again held in the clear air between a sandwich of cloud. The dry air in which we found ourselves gave us unobstructed, if a little dull, views all the way back to Col de la Seigne. As we descended so the rain began. The trail is now a wet, muddy path often submerged in rivers of rainwater which makes climbing difficult. We walked through the grassy meadows instead of along the trail. This was much better in that there was no longer any slipping and sliding about but was still hard going because the footing was more uneven. Reaching the Grand Col Ferret, we didn’t linger in the cold wind but ploughed on into Switzerland, reaching the hamlet of La Fouly in time for tea and cake.
The following morning was bright and sunny with not a cloud in the sky! It was to become a feature of the weather thereafter that one day was bad, the next perfect. So it was that we had a lovely morning stroll through several old alpine valley villages resplendent with flowers before climbing up through the (welcome) cool of the forest to the lovely town of Champex. Here we took Sunday lunch by the lake that reflected the verdant green slopes below the summit of La Breya on its still waters.
We weren’t to get wonderful views again until we reached Col de Balme on the French border with its simply stunning views down the valley all the way to Chamonix. To our left (South) was the northern side of the Mont Blanc Massive with the Aiguilles (Needles) Vert and Midi dominating the middle view with their snow capped, dog toothed peaks. Beyond them, the contrasting smooth dome of Mont Blanc was the king of all it surveyed, dominating its lower rivals and enjoying every moment of attention it received. To our right, the Aiguilles Rouge looked like someone had taken a knife to its summits and chopped them all flat, leaving a uniformly high ridge that ran all the way to Chamonix.
Overall the pathways of the TMB are reflective of the various countries’ economies so that in France the trail was generally well marked requiring only occasional reference to the map. In Italy, however, the trail was poorly marked, often splitting into numerous options like the flayed end of a rope, all of which offered hope but delivered only disappointment. In Switzerland, however, even a blind man could find his way.
But whatever the downsides they could not dampen the enjoyment or the joie de vivre of the entire experience of walking in the mountains. It’s an intoxicating mixture of spectacular scenery, the sense of space and freedom that can only be truly experienced in the mountains. It is the freshness of the air, the light of the sun, the might of the earth, the magnificence of Nature and the essence of geological history. It’s worth every drop of sweat to climb to the views but I wish I didn’t have to suffer the strain on my thighs and kneecaps when returning to civilisation.