The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
15. TOUR DU MONT BLANC
France / Italy / Switzerland
Distance: 170 km
Time: 10-12 days
Ever since Horace Benedict de Saussure, the Swiss aristocrat and physicist, set out from Chamonix in 1767 and made his way over the Col du Bonhomme, the Col de la Seigne, Courmayeur, the Great St Bernard Pass, and trekked over the mountains and valleys of the Mont Blanc massif, people have been following in his footsteps. Saussure loved these mountains. In 1760 he offered a reward to the first man to climb Mont Blanc’s summit, made his own unsuccessful attempt in 1785, and was the third to conquer it in 1787. He wrote extensively on the massif’s topography, its rock strata, even its fossils. He carried thermometers and barometers to the summits of Mont Blanc’s surrounding mountains, and his work led him to believe the earth was much older than most had previously thought. Saussure is nowadays considered by many to be not only the founder of modern alpinism, but the man who first brought the Mont Blanc massif’s wonders - both scientific and natural - to us all.
People who have never walked a mountain trail have heard of this one and know of its reputation as the finest alpine walk in Europe. The Tour du Mont Blanc (or TMB) will take you around the highest mountain in Europe west of the Caucasus on a 170-km journey through the mountains and valleys of the Mont Blanc massif, with Mont Blanc - la Dame Blanche, the ‘White Lady’ - at the heart of this conglomerate of more than 400 individual mountain peaks as well as glaciers, aiguilles and rock faces any of which would be famous in their own right if they were anywhere else but here. Larger, really, even than a massif, it is a mountain range all on its own. Completing the trail will involve an energy-sapping 10 km of total ascents and descents (with 8,478 ft being the tour’s high point) as you pass in and out of the valleys that reach into three countries and define the massif’s boundaries, valleys that attend the White Lady as if they were her courtiers.
Normally walked in an anti-clockwise direction over eleven days, a popular starting point is Les Houches, in France’s Chamonix Valley, in Courmayeur in Italy’s Aosta Valley, or near Martigny in Switzerland on the eastern boundary of the Rhone Valley. Wherever you decide to begin, this circuit of the ‘Monarch of the Alps’ - with its summit fully 3,700 m above the town of Chamonix - will be a highlight of your walking life. Most begin in Les Houches where you can take a cable car up to Bellevue with its panoramic outlook to Mont Blanc and the granite spires of the Aiguilles Rouges, before a steep ascent skirts the Bionnassay Glacier on the way to the Col du Tricot and past two charming alpine hamlets - Miage and Les Contamines-Montjoie. Leaving Les Contamines the real climbing begins, all the way to the Col du Bonhomme (7,641 ft). The Italian border is crossed at Col de la Seigne (8,255 ft) and here the views open to the horizons around you - the Val Veny ahead and the entire massif laid out to your left.
TOUR DU MONT BLANC
Photo: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma
Descending past the Glacier du Miage and along the northern slopes of Mont Favre and down to Courmayeur, you’ll want to get to bed early to prepare for the next day - a long climb to the tour’s highlight - the grassy slopes of Mont de la Saxe and its views to the Mont Blanc range. More cols are crossed on the way down to Rifugio Bonatti, idyllically placed on a small grassy plateau opposite the Grandes Jorasses. Another stiff climb to Grand Col Ferret (8,323 ft) has you in Switzerland, and a long descent into the Val Ferret ends in the village of La Fouly. Next is an easy day’s walking to Champex, situated in a saddle between two mountains, where two routes - one through woodlands but the other a higher rocky walk with a degree of difficulty - ends at Col de la Forclaz (5,010 ft) on the Chamonix-Martigny road, once little more than a track used by mule teams and smugglers.
Another steep climb - this time to the Col de Balme (6,991 ft) - ends in outstanding views to Mont Blanc that will continue as you move over the ridge of Aiguillette des Posettes (7,221 ft) and through the Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve (look for ibex and chamoix). You should consider an out-and-back diversion here to lovely Lac Blanc (7,717 ft) as you make your way to La Flegere and then above the Arve valley to the summit of Le Brevent (8,284 ft) and another fabulous Mont Blanc viewpoint. From Le Brevent take a cable car if you like down to Planpraz and Chamonix, past Refuge de Bellachat and through woodlands and forest … and back to Les Houches.
The good news, too, is that because there is plentiful accommodation along the entire route it can be done in convenient sections if you’re either pressed for time or lacking the necessary stamina. Make no mistake - should the weather turn nasty, and it will before you’re done - the going will get tough, despite the trail’s preponderance of ‘easier’ alternatives. And there is much more to this route than mountain peaks. Meadows, suspension bridges, the company one finds in its bric-a-brac-filled mountain ‘refugios’, bilberry, larch and alpenrose, and wildflowers - more than 2,500 species and subspecies of alpine flora. Something for everyone, as they say, or as one Swiss walker confessed recently: ‘Many of us prefer the flowers to the summits’.