Tour du Mont Blanc (the hike)

The following is a detailed account and photo log of my experience on the Mont Blanc Circuit.


DAY 1: 19/8/2016

As the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a circular route, it can be walked in both the clockwise and anti-clockwise direction. For the same reason, hikers can choose to start from any point of the circuit, with the popular start points being Les Houches in France, Courmayeur in Italy, or Champex in Switzerland.

We chose to start in Bellevue (near Les Houches) and hike the TMB the anti-clockwise way. Getting to the start point is relatively easy – hikers can ride the Mont Blanc Tramway from Saint Gervais-Le Fayet station to Bellevue station.

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Excellent weather on the first day
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Tracks of the Mont Blanc Tramway
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La Fayet Tramway station (Lower Terminus)
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Inside the train

Upon arriving at Bellevue station, we did a final equipment check before starting the hike. The first few kilometres of the trek were surprisingly easy, and we blazed through the trails thinking that all 170km of the circuit would be like that. Of course, we were completely wrong about that.

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Bellevue Trailhead

We soon crossed a creaky suspension bridge that hung over a huge raging river that originated from the Bionassay Glacier, before reaching a blueberry field where we had sandwiches for lunch. It was my first time eating wild blueberries. They were really tasty!

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A stark reminder to not underestimate the force of nature
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Creaky suspension bridge
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Bionassay Glacier in the background

Thereafter, it was a long steep climb up to the Col de Tricot, a high mountain pass at an altitude of 2130 A.S.L. The Col looked deceptively close even though we were an hour and a half from it (we actually estimated 10 minutes). After all, the three rules of mountaineering are that it’s always farther than it looks, it’s always taller than it looks, and it’s always harder than it looks.

The views at the Col were amazing – we could see the Bionassay Glacier on one side and the village of Miage on the other. There was also a flock of sheep grazing on the slopes of the Col.

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Col de Tricot (2130m)
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Chalets de Miage in the background, at the bottom of the slope

After crossing the Col, we proceeded on a knee busting 600-metre descent to the Chalet de Miage. Again, we thought we could do it in 30 minutes but ended up taking almost 2.5 hours.

The Chalet de Miage was akin to a paradise resort – the views in every direction were breathtaking and the temperature was a comfortable 15-18 degrees Celsius. The sleeping dormitory wasn’t too bad at all – it was warm, clean and comfortable. Despite saying that, hikers should still always use a sleeping bag liner for hygiene purposes. We spent the remaining afternoon and evening washing up, admiring the scenery, and having dinner. It was overall a very pleasant first day.

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The mountain refuge
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Interior of the refuge
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Looking back at the Col de Tricot
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Aiguille de Bionassay

DAY 2: 20/08/16

Unlike in Singapore, the weather forecast in Europe is incredibly accurate. The AccuWeather App even provides a “minutecast” which tells you exactly when the rain would start / stop. When informed on day 1 of a high possibility of rain the next day, we had good reasons to take that warning seriously. We ensured that our bags were waterproofed not just internally but also externally using a rain cover, to prevent water from collecting inside the bag and adding unnecessary weight to our backs.

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Fully waterproofed during the storm

Within 45 mins of starting our hike, the skies opened up as predicted. We climbed up a small ridge before descending sharply into Les Contamines, a small town similar to Saint-Gervais. The reduced visibility meant that there wasn’t much of a view, and also not many pictures taken as both my camera and phone were safely stowed away.

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Les Contamines
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Poor visibility and low cloud cover

We stocked up on supplies at a supermarket in Les Contamines, before climbing up to Refuge de Nant Borrant. The views at Refuge de Nant Borrant were significantly different from the views the previous day – there were no snow-capped peaks or glaciers in sight; the landscape comprised green rolling hills shrouded in mist.

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Refuge de Nant Borrant
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Chill
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Gloomy skies for the rest of the day

DAY 3: 21/08/16

Day 3 of the TMB circuit was probably one of the toughest days of the circuit. The ground was still wet and slippery from the previous day’s downpour and the cloud cover remained low. 

Knowing that we had three Cols to cross over the entire day, we started off at an easy and controlled pace, climbing slowly out of the valley. The views along the way were really impressive (see photos below).

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Looking back down towards the refuge
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Misty and damp
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Green rolling hills gave way to sharp jagged peaks
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We got slightly lost at this piont as the paths branched off in many different ways. We later found out that they would all converge again.
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First sighting of ice
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This entire area would be a huge glacier in winter
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Col du Bonhomme can be seen in the background

We soon reached a massive grass plain surrounded by snow-covered peaks. Before long, the gradient increased and we were soon on our final ascent to Col du Bonhomme (2330m).  Climbing up to the Col was pretty tough, probably harder than climbing up Col de Tricot. We ran into a couple of “false Cols”, which deceptively appeared like the actual Col. After an endless trudge up a grassy slope and patches of snow, we finally arrived at the mountain pass. The view at Col du Bohomme was arguably one of the best among all the Cols of the TMB circuit. It was a pity that the visibility was so poor that day.

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At Col du Bonhomme (2330m)
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The higher Col, Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, in the background

After a fairly easy descent from Col du Bonhomme, we zigzagged our way back up again towards a higher Col, Col de la Croix du Bonhomme (2500m). After a couple of switchbacks, we reached a chaos of massive boulders which we navigated through on all fours. No photos were taken here as I was more worried about staying alive. We finally reached the Col and sought shelter at a refuge just beneath it. We decided to wait for the clouds to clear before ascending the next Col, Col des Fours, which is the highest point of the entire TMB circuit at 2700m A.S.L.

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At the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme (2500m), after crawling through a chaos of boulders
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The refuge beneath the Col

Above an altitude of 2500m, hikers should be able to feel a noticeable drop in the oxygen level – care must be taken to avoid overexertion. Thankfully, climbing the Col des Fours was relatively easy, less the slippery glaciers that we had to cross. Being above the tree line, there was little or no vegetation around, resulting in strong winds. Due to the high altitude, the temperature was also dipping to ridiculously low levels, and I had to put on my winter gloves to prevent my fingers from turning numb.

We were unfortunately greeted with no view upon arriving at the Col des Fours. It was still an impressive sight nonetheless – this was the only Col of the TMB circuit that was entirely covered in snow due to its sheer altitude. Occasionally, the clouds would part a little and allow us to peek down the other side of the Col.

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Highest point of the circuit – Col des Fours
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Looking down from the Col
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Random hiker posing for the camera
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Trying not to slip and fall

We spent the rest of the day descending to a disappointing little hamlet, Les Chapieux, where we spent the night. This descent was probably the toughest descent of the entire hike – it was so steep and jarring that we had to rest every couple of minutes to prevent knee damage. That said, all hikers attempting the TMB should invest in a pair of hiking poles, as they absorb much of the load on the knees during descents (I wouldn’t want to imagine the Les Chapieux descent without the aid of trekking poles). The cheapest collapsible pole will do the job fine; absolutely no need for fancy shock absorption technology and whatnot.

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Les Chapieux

DAY 4 – 22/08/2016

After a cold, gloomy night at Les Chapieux, we set off before daybreak in anticipation of the relatively long distance that we had to cover today. This was also going to be my first border crossing (France-Italy) on foot! The first 5km of the route (Les Chapieux-Ville des Glaciers) was done on a winding dirt track, which eventually gave way to a steep rocky trail that culminated at the highest point of the day, Col de la Seigne (2530m).

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La Ville des Glaciers, a mountain refuge just before the 1000m climb to Col de la Seigne

 

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Looking back down at the valley we climbed out of

 

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While not extraordinarily steep or difficult in the technical sense, the long, slow trudge out of the valley was particularly memorable due to the magnificent view along the way – the Alpine vista that greeted us was stunning and almost mystical.

 

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Aigulle des Glaciers (3800m)

 

After 2 hours of tackling unforgiving switchbacks, we soon found ourselves at the Col, which also marked the French-Italian border. At an altitude of 2530m, this Col is also the highest point of the traditional TMB circuit without accounting for the higher “variant” sections such as the route traversing Col de Fours at 2685m.

 

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We were greeted by this stone at the Col, which has the letter “I” for Italy on one side and “F” for France on the other

 

While the Col per se was a tad anti-climatic, the view of the jagged, needle-sharp peaks of the Italian Alps was a fascinating sight. It was amusing how both the hikers’ greeting language and the mobile network changed shortly after crossing the border as if a switch had been flicked!

 

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Hikers taking a much-needed breather at the Col

 

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After descending from the Col, the route brought us through an expansive valley, which was probably the only flat section of the TMB circuit
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The peak of Mont Blanc finally came into view

 

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That’s Lake Combal – a clear, probably swimmable lake

 

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Lake Combal in the foreground and Mont Blanc in the background

 

We spent the rest of the afternoon trekking along a narrow, winding ridge that eventually led us to Refuge Maison Vielle, where I had legitimate Italian food (polenta and bolognese) for the first time in my life.  I remember the food to be ridiculously amazing, which shouldn’t be a surprise given my perpetually hungry state during the trek. The sky that night was also particularly good for stargazing (see Day 5 for star photos).

 

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Refuge de Maison Vielle, with Mont Blanc in the background

 


DAY 5 – 23/08/2016

Day 5 was significant for two reasons:

  1. It’s the halfway point of the trek; and
  2. We re-entered civilisation momentarily.

After trekking more than 80km over the last four days, our bodies started showing signs of wear and fatigue – this is the point where we started using muscle rub and pain relief patches judiciously and rationed our water to avoid carrying an excess load.

The trek began with a precipitous 900m descent down to Courmayeur. This town is quintessentially Italian and it is by far the most beautiful town I’ve visited in my entire life. It might even be worthwhile to spend an entire day here before resuming the trek the next day.

Note: The descent to Courmayeur is unforgiving and I would advise people with weaker knees to consider taking the cable car.

 

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Courmayeur from above
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Courmayeur at ground level

After the descent, we had a quick bite at a cafe and stocked up on supplies at a supermarket, before hitting the trail again. The ascent out of Courmayeur was so rapid that we could feel our ears popping as we walked (no surprises here). Day 5’s route passes by Refuge Bertone (good for a lunch break) and then zigzags across a ridgeline overlooking Aosta Valley – this section is the closest point you’ll ever get to the Mont Blanc massif so slow down and admire the beautiful glaciers!

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Panoramic shot from Refuge Bertone

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1000m drop on my right
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Mont Blanc towering over my tiny frame

Note: If it’s your first time shooting stars, you might want to read the following tips:

  1. Use a camera with full manual control,
  2. Set focus to manual and turn focus ring to infinity, then turn it very slightly back,
  3. Switch to manual exposure mode and adjust the aperture to the widest possible (smallest F-stop),
  4. Adjust shutter speed to 20 seconds (you need a tripod),
  5. Set ISO at 100,
  6. Retry at various ISO settings between 100 – 6400 until stars show up clearly on the screen (only for mirrorless / DSLR cameras).

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DAY 6 – 24/08/2016

Day 6 was an exciting day for me as we were going to cross into the third and final country of the hike – Switzerland. I had heard so much about this place prior to arriving here – the image I had of this country was a highly efficient and clean paradise, albeit with an incredible cost of living. I was extremely keen on seeing this place with my own eyes. While we had technically entered Switzerland on our first day upon touching down at Geneva Airport, it was only for a short period of time as we crossed into France soon after leaving the airport.

The trail leading from Refuge Bonnati led us on a quick descent into the valley. As usual, we geared ourselves for another series of switchbacks to the next high mountain pass, Grand Col Ferret, which also marks the border between Italy and Switzerland. At 2500m, it was one of the higher passes on the circuit. I thought ‘Grand Col Ferret’ was a really nice name. 

 

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View en route to Grand Col Ferret
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At the Col – Roy is standing in Italy while I am standing in Switzerland

 

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Hikers chillin’

 

 

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Looking towards the Swiss side

 

 

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Goodbye Italy, you’ve been beautiful.

 

After we crossed the border, the scenery dramatically changed. The sharp jagged peaks gave way to green rolling hills. Well, I must say I was quite disappointed, as I preferred the look of snow-covered peaks – the view before me was akin to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands / Taiwan’s Qingjing farm, which was… kind of boring. On the bright side, the green rolling pastures provided for gentler gradients, which eased the pressure on the knees. We found this tiny refuge-like building along the way down, and we entered it to buy a drink. Holy smokes, it was 7 euros per pint of coke! We still bought a coke each anyway as we were dying of thirst from the midday heat. It was THE most expensive non-alcoholic drink I ever had in my life.

After the break, we resumed our journey towards Champex. This leg was rather unique as we could shave 21 km off the route by taking a bus ride, and skip the not-so-scenic parts.  While purists would insist on walking this segment, we weren’t going to waste our energy here. The refuge at Champex served us rice with an interesting sauce for dinner. This was a welcome change as we were tired of pasta and bread. During dinner, the refuge’s host also treated each of us to an intense 40+% shot of hard liquor to keep us warm for the night.

 

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View of the mountain pass from the Swiss side
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En route to Champex

 

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Lac Champex

 


DAY 7 – 25/08/2016

Day 7’s route gave us two choices – the easier “Bovine” route or the slightly technical “Fenetre d’Arpette” route. Both routes lead to Trient, a small Swiss hamlet. Due to the risk involved with the technical route, we agreed prior to the hike that we would only attempt it if we were in a good physical condition that day, and if the weather was perfect. Unfortunately, Roy woke up with a bad hip, and we decided it would be best to skip the technical route. The Bovine route was by far one of the easiest sections, so there’s nothing much to comment about. Here are the photos!

 

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Forest trail leading to the Bovine plateau
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Runners doing the ultra TMB race

 

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Swiss cottages along the way

 

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Amazing view

 

 

 

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VIew of the Rhone Valley

 

After descending from the Bovine plateau, we crossed Col de la Forclaz and descended into Trient. There was practically nothing in Trient, and the only attraction was a pink church (see below).

 

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Pink church in Trient

 

 


DAY 8 – 26/08/2016

Today, we walked out of Switzerland and back into the Chamonix Valley in France. We were also going to cross the final high mountain pass of the circuit – Col de Balme (>2400m above sea level). We were excited that we were finally on the last leg of the journey! By the 8th day, we had befriended most of the hikers who were on the same journey as us; it was really satisfying to connect with people who have similar interests from all over the world! Oh yes, no more 7 euros coke. 😀

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Up, up and away. Switchback after switchback

 

 

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Col de Balme (2400m) in the background

 

 

 

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On the Col de Balme.

 

 

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Chamonix valley in the background

 

After a quick descent into the Chamonix valley, we found a restaurant where we had our first proper lunch in 9 days! We weren’t technically in Chamonix yet. Instead, we were in a nearby town called “Tre-la-Champ” and we had over 10 kilometres to cover to reach our end point.


 

DAY 9 – 27/08/2016

Day 9, although being the last day, was not an easy day at all. In fact, it was every bit as intense as day 2 or 3. Without warning, the path led us on an intense vertical climb out of the Chamonix valley and back into the high mountains. We caught sight of ibexes (wild mountain goats) along the way! They didn’t seem to enjoy human company as they fled the moment we walked by.

 

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Vertical climb out of the valley
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Ibexes on the rocks

 

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Vertical ladders

 

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Chamonix valley down below

 

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Panorama of the Alps

 

The highlight of the final leg is “Lac Blanc”, a spectacular high altitude alpine lake overlooking Chamonix. Hikers should plan their hike to ensure that this final leg does not fall on a weekend. This is because Lac Blanc can be accessed via cable car from Chamonix, which results in the place becoming akin to a human circus on weekends. Thankfully, the view more than makes up for that.

 

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The lower lake
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Reflection of the Aiguille du Midi

 

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Lac Blanc

 

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Descending from Lac Blanc

 

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Random pile of rocks

 

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I really love this shot

 

 

Hikers can walk back down to Chamonix or take the cable car via la Flégère. The latter option is highly recommended, given the steepness and harshness of the descent. Upon reaching Chamonix, we successfully completed the entire Tour du Mont Blanc! In total, we covered nearly 170km horizontally and over 11km vertically and walked through France, Italy, and Switzerland.

This was without a doubt the most amazing hike I had ever done!


 


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