I walked around Mont Blanc (read a bit more narrative and see some pictures). Here are my thoughts on how to cover the TMB in 6 or 7 days. Your mileage may vary. And there are lots of ways to slice and dice this. (And here are some TMB gear recommendations.)
This was done at the end of June with the longest days of the year, and a couple weeks before the crowds really take over, so I made no reservations and always had great flexibility to go the distance I felt like.
Stay at Hotel Slalom www.hotelslalom.net 44 rue de Bellevue, Les Houches. +33 (0)4 50 54 40 60. Nice place, and VERY convenient to the traditional start/finish of the TMB (the old start is literally right across the street. The new start, maybe 100m up the road. The owner, Tracey is extremely helpful and accommodating—and served the best breakfast of the week (both times).
The plan: from Les Houches to Refuge De La Croix Du Bonhomme – 29km – 10-11 hours book time. Actual time about 10.5 hours, with a very long lunch (over an hour) in Les Contamines.
This worked pretty well, even with the nasty weather for the last few hours, rain followed by snow as I gained elevation. A decent place to pull up short would be Refuge de la Balme, allowing you to sleep lower your first night. (Or if you’re itching to move, push forward to Les Chapieux.
The plan was to take the variant via Col des Fours to Ville des Glaciers and on to Refugio Elisabeta. (about 17m and 6-7 hours.) However, fresh snow and visibility dropping down to a couple meters, combined with my inappropriate footwear, made that less then prudent. (Two very fast hikers did take the route—these guys flew by me after—and it took them ~2 hours longer than expected, navigating one step at a time by GPS, with visibility about 1-2m and no signs of markers/footprints.)
Instead, I walked the main route down to Chapieux and then back up to Elisabeta. 22km, 8 hours book time. This was my easiest day, despite the fact that it was also the day that I felt the acclimatization/elevation issue the most—I walked more slowly than normal for me, and still made Elisabeta in about 6.5 hours.
I LOVED Refugio Eliabeta. Food and drink were awesome. Nice house wine. Nice craft oatmeal stout. Marta was a gracious host. That said, the were 12 guests that night. Capacity, which they hit in busy season is 90. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much with 89 other guests crammed in. I might have pushed on to Courmayeur.
The plan was to haul ass to lunch in Courmayeur (18km/5 hours) and then on to Refugio Bonatti (12km/4.5 hours) for a 30 km/9 hours day. I took a long lunch in Courmayeaur—could have spent a couple days wandering around there. I also took about a 45 minute delay at Refugio Bertone, grabbing a cup of coffee, and waiting to see what the weather was doing. A thunderclap just before Bertone, didn’t lead to anything, and I continued to Bonatti.
Bonatti is well-run, and the hosts are great. Since locals can hike up from the road in about 30 minutes, they do, and it was crowded, even in the pre-season. I’d probably push on to Refugio Elena which was a pretty easy 7km past Bonati, giving me more options on the remaining days.
Head to La Fouly for lunch, book time, 20km/6 hours, and on to Champex (15km/4 hours). (This was a back-up stopping point, depending on how the previous days had gone–but not needed.)
Even with the bad weather slog up and over Grand Col Ferret, my new-found hiking partner and I made it to La Fouly in 5 hours. We were pretty close to book time for the continuation to Champex.
Stayed at the Pension En Plein Air. Food was OK. Showers were awesome! Long and hot!
This was to have been a very big day. Champex – Fenêtre d’Arpette – Col de la Forclaz (14km/6.5 hrs) Quick lunch and on to Tré-le-Champ (13km/5 hours), and then energy permitting, another 6km to Refuge du Lac Blanc.
But my trail companion and I made some weather related decisions, decided to head for the Refuge du Col du Balme, and then continued on to Montroc when the Refuge was closed (and the Auberge la Boerne was full.) This was about a 10-hour day, with some extra walking back and forth between Montroc and Tré-le-Champ because of poor signage and a not sufficiently detailed map.
This would have been a hike out from La Blanc to Les Houches. (20km, 8hrs) But having decided the day before to add a ½ day, the new target became Refuge de Bellachat. With bad weather, very poor visibility, and poor trail markings, we opted not to take the standard route over Le Brévent. Instead, we took a lower down and up alternative to Bellachat—this turned into a long day with about 10 hours of walking through rain and mist with a leisurely lunch at La Flégère in the middle.
We arrived at Bellachat prior to its opening for the season, but having phoned ahead, we knew they’d accept us as the only two guests that night. What a great view of the Chamonix valley, Mont Blanc, and the Bossons glacier right off the deck. Bellachat is a simple refuge, but what a view!
In good conditions, the hike from Lac Blanc to Les Houches would be pretty fast and easy.
This was a bonus day. And glad I waited for the clouds to clear. Rather than the simple 7km/2.5 hours walk down to Les Houches, I added a ridge walk up from Bellachat to get some better views, and then a more meaning path down. This added ~3km and an hour or so, but it was worth it.
Spent another great night at Hotel La Slalom before catching an early shuttle back to Geneva for the flight home.