Looking for a path away from the post-Super Bowl blues? Check out our short slide show from the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Tour du Mont Blanc
The Tour du Mont Blanc is complete. As we sit in our Chamonix hotel lobby directly below western Europe’s tallest peak, some reflections:
We knew the weather in the Alps was unpredictable, so we packed rain gear, a warm jacket and lightweight clothing designed for layering. We had two days of overcast and some rain at the beginning, then five days of brilliant sunshine with highs in the 60s, 70s and into the low 80s. Cool nights the entire time.
There was a snowstorm (yes, in mid-July) at one of the passes the day before we went through. Later, we had several days of clouds and some rain, but very little precipitation while we were walking. The last couple of days were clear until late afternoon, when rain, thunder and lightning entertained.
Bookings. We booked our tour through an Irish company (Follow the Camino) and asked for a mix of refuges (hostels) and hotels. We wanted to stay in some remote locations where refuges are the only option. We got private rooms, rather than shoulder-to-shoulder dorms, in the five refuges.
Refuges are rustic, noisier, and not as relaxing as the hotels. They also have shared baths. But, they are great places to meet people. We have met lots of people on this trek and often run into them for several days afterward. Generally, the refuges get quiet by 10 p.m. or so.
The hotels on the Tour are nicer and less expensive than chain hotels in the U.S. Both hotels and refuges have bars and restaurants. They are places to hang out after a long day on the trail. The hotels on the Tour du Mont Blanc have character and the staffs have been very welcoming. All our accommodations included breakfast and eight included dinner. The dinners have been very good, some superb.
What’s for breakfast? Always bread, butter, jam, coffee, tea and juice. Wonderful fresh croissants almost everywhere. Most places had cereal, yogurt, meat and cheese. Two hotels had eggs and most had fruit.
Lunch was usually a picnic on the trail. The usual fare was fresh bread, cheese and fruit, capped with chocolate. We had lunch at some spectacular settings in the Alps. Hotels and refuges offer packed lunches, but we usually shopped for our own.
The cost of the Tour du Mont Blanc is much less than most other European travel, but far more expensive than the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Luggage transfer: the routine was to have our small orange-and-black bags at reception by 8 a.m. When we arrived at our next accommodation, we would check in and (voila!) the bags were waiting for us. We carried small Osprey day packs with water bladders during the day. One exception: our bags skipped ahead a day when we stayed at the very remote Refugio Elisabetta. We have carried our own packs on prior treks. We figured the elevation change would make it too tough and we were right.
We have not found language to be a major problem. French is dominant, but most of the time people know at least some English. Sue’s study of French this past year has helped.
Many people are doing part of the Tour du Mont Blanc rather than the whole thing at one time. There are quite a few day hikers, especially when the weather is good.
Most go counterclockwise around Mont Blanc, but a significant number go the other way. Hikers usually start in Les Houches, but we met many who started in other places. We started in Chamonix, France, a beautiful and popular resort at the foot of Mont Blanc.
Trekkers readily engage strangers on the Tour. Friendships form quickly, much like the Camino.
Mont Blanc trekkers come from all over world. Europeans dominate, but there are some Americans, Canadians, Asians, and people from other parts of the world. Many travel in groups, some with guides. We are among the older trekkers here. Many seem to be experienced mountaineers and we have seen a number of people running (yes, running!) the trail. They are likely training for the annual Mont Blanc run in August, when some do the entire 110 miles in between 20-plus and thirty hours. There are also a fair number of mountain bikers. We have seen some who push and carry their bikes up several thousand steep feet and then ride down. There are a small number of campers as well.
Most people use trekking poles. Sue and I can’t imagine not having them, for many reasons. But, we have seen people doing the trek in running shoes and even sandals. Go figure! Few people on this trek wear hats.
Safety. If you are careful and have proper gear, this trek is safe. There are steep drop offs and the ascents and descents are steeper than we expected. Much of the time, each step must be measured on the often rocky and root-covered paths, which takes a lot of concentration and is exhausting. Some of the water crossings have been challenging, but doable. Some trekkers use crampons over snowy passings. Neither of us fell during the trek, but there were a few close calls.
Not much politics, but we have heard a strong dislike of Donald Trump here. Many have expressed concern and have talked about similar movements in their countries. A Danish high school student asked me during dinner about Trump. “Why do you ask?” I questioned. “Because the U.S. President is the most powerful person in the world and Trump scares me.”
Most of all, the astounding views and the chance to meet so many interesting people were worth every step.
What a treat it was to enjoy a leisurely breakfast this morning, knowing that we had only a short walk back to Chamonix, the starting and finishing point of our Tour du Mont Blanc. Plenty of time for a second cup of coffee!
It was our final ascent of the Tour du Mont Blanc, which we began July 13. The thick clouds and rain of Saturday afternoon had cleared Sunday when we completed nearly 33,000 feet of climbing and an equal amount of descent over 10 trekking days.
As we reached the Col de Balme, Mont Blanc's greeting was more powerful than any camera can capture. We looked at the peaks from the Switzerland-France border and were struck by the fact that our feet had carried us 110 miles around the Massif du Mont Blanc and through three countries.
“Every step was worth it,” I said to a Bay Area family we had gotten to know the past few days. We all gazed at the 15,770-foot peak that we had not seen since day six. Meanwhile, we had become acquainted with many other mountains in the Massif.
We had gotten much stronger as the trek progressed and will miss the feeling that we can climb like we have never before. Unfortunately, this will pass when we return to our less strenuous lives in Oregon.
As we complete the circuit tomorrow with a relatively short walk to Chamonix, we will be looking up at Mont Blanc. She and this experience will provide vivid memories forever.
We peeked out our curtain this morning with fingers crossed. The sky was gray, but dry. Perfect! We dashed down to breakfast at 7:00 am, eager to get an early start. We walked through a mostly deserted Champex, guidebook in hand, searching for our trail.
We anticipated a bit of a climb today, as we've had every day, and wanted to beat any change of weather over the col. Our day began easily, meandering through meadows and along a wide track through the forest. That soon came to an end and we found ourselves steeply climbing up and sloshing across roaring streams of snowmelt.
The blue skies of the past five days have gone and there has been a bit of rain, thunder and lightening today, a rest day in Champex, Switzerland. We met trekkers who had to turn back this morning from the next day's col due to lightening. They faced a 200€ taxi to the next town around the mountains.
Our trek Thursday to this 5,000-foot elevation lake town was advertised as the easiest day of the Tour. It was all downhill from La Fouly to about 3,400 feet. We passed through several tiny Swiss villages that were strangely almost deserted. So far, so good.
The guidebook said there would be a bit of a climb to the lake. Well, 1,600 feet was much less than previous days, but the steep trail featured rocks, roots and steep drop offs. We have learned there is very little easy about the Tour du Mont Blanc, except how easy it is on the eyes.
Switzerland is not part of the European Union, but there has been no passport control, even when we checked into our hotel. The Swiss franc is the official currency, but the euro is accepted here. The cashiers all carry huge wallets with both francs and euros. We have been using credit cards to get the best exchange rate.
French is the main language in this part of the country, just as we had gotten used to our Italian greetings.
We are to walk to Trient Saturday, but the weather might make the high cols impassible, mainly due to the threat of lightening. Our plan B is a bus-train-bus combination. We are very much hoping to be able to walk…we want to complete the Tour! (And we are hoping to avoid buses, trains or 200€ for a taxi.)
Help us solve the mystery at the bottom of this post.
What is this? We saw this machine a few days ago in a remote Alpine refuge that looked like it had once been a horse facility. Do you know what it is? Let us know by clicking on “comment” at the bottom of this post.
Today, our seventh day of walking and our eighth day on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the trail led us 8,300 feet up and over the Grand Col Ferret and down into Switzerland. It was quite a climb!
Our first two hours of walking delivered us to Refugio Elena, strategically nestled into the hillside and sporting a spectacular view of the Glacier de Pré de Bar. Coffee on the deck and then it was time to push ahead.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is taking us to dizzying heights, testing us every step of the way. It hasn't been easy, but it continues to reward us.
We've met some wonderful people on our journeys. It's one of the things we like most about trekking.
We met Dutch teachers Micah and Anna last night in La Vachey. This afternoon we walked to our destination of La Fouly together, the (mostly) gentle downhill allowing for easy conversation.
It was “ciao” to Courmayeur, Italy today after a day of rest in the Alps resort city. The Tour du Mont Blanc has been more than challenging for us, so we needed the break.
Walking into a new country was a new experience on Saturday. We heard “buon giorno” more often than “bonjour” almost immediately and by the time we walked into Courmayeur, it was clear we were no longer in France. We will leave the specific cultural differences for another time, but we noticed them in the city and most definitely along the trail.
Of course, today started with a steep, 2,500-foot climb, but after that it was the easiest hiking day of the Tour so far. We walked about ten miles at 6,500 feet overlooking a steep glacial valley. The Mont Blanc range on the other side seemed close enough to touch. It was stunningly beautiful.
After a steep descent, we found our hotel in another resort town, Levechy, next to a roaring river at the foot of the Alps. A shower and a beer on the deck made for a perfect cap to the day. Dinner tonight in the hotel, part of the package deal.
The warm weather is supposed to hold for at least another day and the guide book says we will have another amazing look at the Tour's namesake as we cross into Switzerland at 8,000 feet tomorrow. That means another steep climb and “ciao” to Italy for now. We will return!
We awoke Sunday morning (day 5) to more clear blue skies, and after a 6:30 am breakfast packed our things and started our trek.
The hike down from Refugio Elisabetta eventually leveled out onto a wide pathway of relatively easy walking…a welcome relief to the relentless ups and downs of the last few days.
We were pretty sure the easy walking would not last, and of course it didn't. We soon found ourselves headed up and out of the area known as Vallée des Glaciers. Anticipating two nights and a day of rest in the village of Courmayeur, we figured it wouldn't be too tough.
Our itinerary called for an eleven mile day. After what seemed like at least that, if not more, we arrived at another Refugio situated on a ridge above our destination.
Trail markers pointed us steeply downhill for what was estimated to be another two hours of walking.
Ski lifts to the rescue. We purchased our tickets and hopped on the lift down. Best purchase of the trip!
From my bottom bunk looking out a small window in a wood-paneled room, I see a glacier and Alpine peaks high above. Our home for tonight, the Elizabetta hut in Italy, is at about 7,500 feet, two miles from the Italy-France border.
The only way we could get to this place, as remote as you can get on the Tour du Mont Blanc, is by walking. Sue and I are in day four of the Tour. Day three was beautiful, grueling, treacherous and much more. More than 8,000 feet in elevation change hardly tells the story.
After we had climbed for four hours and 4,000 difficult feet up on Friday, we reached the col (pass) at 8,100 feet, thinking we had 3,000 feet downhill to our refuge, or hostel.
I looked up and could make out moving figures far above, climbing through the snow to another pass.
“I am so glad we don't have to do that,” I thought.
Think again. Two hours later, we had endured slippery snow banks and rocky passages, and were so exhausted that taking photographs was just too much. There were moments when we wondered why we were here.
Today, we had four hours of steep climbing, but very little snow. It took us to an 8,200-foot col, at the Italy-France border, and as we arrived, so did our view of Mont Blanc, at 15,770 feet. It appeared close enough to touch, outlined by brilliant blue sky. While eating our picnic lunch, it was crystal-clear why we were here.
Refugio Elizabetta is nearly lost in the Alpine landscape in the photo above.