There are different kinds of challenges. Sometimes you might want to see how much scuba gear you can carry through the desert. Other times, you want to see how the newbies fare on long Grand Canyon hike.
After my friend Joe pointed me to an article on the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB), I decided that in might be an interesting challenge to see how much wine and cheese (and risotto and lasagna and…) I could consume while hiking through the mountains.
The answer is, as it turns out, a lot!
The TMB is a 110-mile loop around the tallest mountain, really the Mont Blanc massif, in Europe, featuring beautiful views, tranquil lakes, and alpine villages, passing through France, Italy, and Switzerland on the way. Or, as I did it, a 120-mile loop, through rain, snow, and mist, with visibility occasionally dropping down to a couple of meters. The “normal” itinerary is 11 days, but needing to fly to Chicago, I didn’t have that much time, so I planned on 6 days. (I wound up opting to take 6.5 days…with a glorious bit of sunshine and some of those views on the last half-day!)
The hike is generally on well-maintained trails, and often roads, more roads than I’d imagined. While camping is possible, there are a series of Refuges/Refugios and villages where most people sleep. The trail is generally obvious and well-marked, although on occasion some critical junctions aren’t posted, and the route can be less obvious when walking through town. The refugios worked well for me, but I think this is mainly because I went before the main season so they weren’t crowded. I suspect the nasty weather kept even more people away. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much with the crowds.
For example, the Refugio Elisabeta, parked at 7,200′ (2195m), with views of views of Mont Blanc, the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey and the valley below, was delightful. The mushroom risotto was amazing–and you’d better believe I embraced the offer for seconds. Our host Marta was delightful. And both the house wine and the surprising Italian microbrew (an oatmeal stout), were delicious. But the Refugio only had 12 guests that night–it has a capacity of 90, and often hits that during busy season. I had a room to myself, and it wouldn’t have been as nice sharing it with a bunch of other stinky people. (Yes, some people might like that, though.)
This certainly isn’t a wilderness experience, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an enjoyable hike. There is the potential for a good deal of elevation gain and loss, especially if you stretch the miles each day, and some of the high passes can challenge the lungs of someone who lives near sea level. And inclement weather can add an element of excitement.
For example, near the end of a long first day, not at all acclimated to the elevation, and already wet hours of downpour, I started walking up the Col du Bonhomme, in the snow, in my mesh approach shoes. The temps dropped below freezing. The rain turned to snow. The visibility dropped. At the top of the col, I entered a small warming hut to get out of the wind and wring out some wet clothes. Inside the hut were a couple Israeli guys, one of them in full-body shivering mode. They didn’t know what they were getting into. I encouraged him to take off all his wet clothes and put on dry clothes. And eat something. When it seemed like things were under control for them, I left for the final push to the Refuge du Bonhomme, telling them that if they didn’t make it by 8pm, I’d come back to help. I confess to being quite happy when they trudged in at 7:58, meaning I didn’t have to go back out. It’s probably good to have some experience hiking in snow in the mountains, especially when the forecast calls for snow in the mountains you’re hiking in!
The advice given by many I bumped into along the trails was not to go over the high passes given the weather and poor visibility. I sure wouldn’t have if there were a thunderstorm risk. But generally, conditions were passable, if not ideal. That said, because of the lack of visibility I didn’t cross the Col du Fours or the Fenêtre d’Arpette, both variations to the main route. On the plus side, I did get to test the subfreezing limits of my summer backpacking gear–no problem except for the inappropriate footwear choice. (For those looking for gear recommendations for this hike, I’ll provide them separately.)
The hike provided an opportunity to dust off my rusty French. It helped. While often there were English speakers, it wasn’t always the case, and frequently the French helped gather richer details on routes, conditions, and where to find more cheese.
I suspect it would have been awesome walking in the warm sunshine with expansive mountain views. All told, though, it was still a great way to spend the week, sometimes focused on the small things, enjoying the moments differently, and enjoying the contemplative meditative benefits of walking through whiteout conditions. For someone looking for a taste of backpacking through the mountains, and a taste of Italian dinners, French cheeses, and Swiss…well let’s maybe not talk about the Swiss food, the TMB ain’t a bad choice!
For those looking for more info on the TMB, do start with Kev Reynolds’s The Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide. I will post separately, a breakdown of my itinerary, reviews, and gear recommendations.