The thought of completing the Tour du Mont Blanc had been in my head for about 9 years now, ever since my wife and I first traversed the Alps on the GR-5 trail with our toddler in 2010. On that route we coincided with the TMB for the three or four days out of Chamonix as we headed south into the Vanoise National Park. The TMB had its own thing going for it – while it was much more crowded than the longer route we were on, it was also full of a vibrant energy and camaraderie that our path was lacking due to its length and remoteness. It felt almost like an Appalachian Trail, but in the high mountains, with stunning views everywhere you looked. At least that’s what we imagined – in July of 2010 we saw a freak weather pattern that left us hiking in about two weeks of snow through the region, so much of what we saw was in a bit of a white-out.
Every trip since I had thought about pulling off the TMB somehow but was never able to make it happen. And then, in 2019, my brilliant wife and I were sitting down at the kitchen table in Berkeley, California, trying to sketch out a few more weeks of what our summer in the mountains would look like, when she came up with the amazing idea. “Hey – what if we put the kids in a colonie des vacances (French sleep-away camp) for a week – we could find one near Chamonix, and that would give us a week to do whatever we wanted… we could do big runs…. go out to dinner…. or even try to run the Tour du Mont Blanc.” Alarms were literally going off in my head – this could be another epic adventure with my wife, and I would get to preview the course that I would hopefully be attempting in a single push during UTMB in 2020 or 2021. Yes! We had to make this happen.
And with that statement our last bit of summer planning was set into a whirlwind of motion. Colonie des Vacances were a staple in French family life -most French kids get sent off for one, two, or even three weeks during the summer so their parents can work, sleep, or rage the Mediterranean coast sans enfants while they are gone. Never mind that our kids had never actually been to a sleep-away camp before, that they would be going in a foreign country, or that French was their second language – they were getting signed up for “Les Petits Trappeurs” in Morillon, a few valleys over from Chamonix. We’d drop them off at Saturday, pick them up next Saturday, and try to get around the Mont Blanc Massif in the meantime.
Like most of the adventures that my wife and I have experienced together, she had the crazy idea, and I was employed to put some of the practical steps in motion. I immediately started thinking about and planning the route – a trail running book that I read laid out a 4 day circuit, averaging about a marathon in distance per day and sleeping in the larger towns along the way (Courmayeur, Champex, and Chamonix). We didn’t want to be rushed, and I realized that this would be one of my longest mileage weeks ever (and about 20% of annual miles for my wife) so I started to look at a 5 day itinerary. I aimed to sleep at high mountain refuges whenever possible, and tried to combine hiking times, distance, and elevation to come up with a sensible plan of attack. I arrived at a five day outline that would get us 90% of the way around the massif. We would start in Les Contamines, go into Italy and sleep in Rifugio Elisabetta, cross through Courmayeur and sleep up high again in Rifugio Bonatti, descend into Switzerland and stay in Champex-Lac, and then return back to France for a final night around Argentière. On the fifth day we could complete the loop to Les Houches or Les Contamines, or we could train it in and call it done if we were exhausted. We spent the next week frantically calling, emailing, and bugging the refuges to get reservations, and in the end it all worked out. We were set to attempt the TMB in a five day push.
As the day approached after a magical July in France we were giddy with excitement, and there was a bit of nervousness on my part as well. Me and my wife’s rock solid relationship was built on long periods of extreme travel and adventure – we traversed a remote portion of the Indian Himalayas together for 30 days a few years after we met – and so parts of this expedition felt like old hand. My thoughts on the route, and keeping the purity of the trip intact, had evolved a bit from our early kitchen table planning sessions. First, I was growing more and more attached to the idea of actually making a complete circumnavigation of the massif, and not taking buses or trains or finishing it only 80% if we really didn’t have to. A few weeks of running on the trails on the Chamonix side of Mont Blanc had made me remember how truly sacred and special the entire massif was. If a mountaineer’s highest level of respect to a mountain is to stand on its summit, then surely a trail runner’s highest offering would be to run around it completely. If we were doing the Tour du Mont Blanc, I wanted to make it an actual complete tour.
Secondly, we had been staying for nearly a month in a beautiful chalet in Les Houches that was literally on the Tour du Mont Blanc trail. Like we could walk out our front door and stand on the trail. So it became clear to me that we actually had to start and end from the chalet as we made our circuit around the mountain. This meant that we wouldn’t actually start in Les Contamines, but would instead start at the chalet on Saturday night, after we dropped the kids off at camp. Yup, we were starting this thing with a night run.
PROLOGUE – LES HOUCHES TO LES CONTAMINES (VIA COL DE VOZA)
(10 mi / +3000 ft / -2800 ft) – (16 k / +945 m – 847 m)
We dropped the kids off with some seemingly very competent 16 year old French camp counselors, who neither spoke English nor took our attempt to give them a third emergency phone number seriously enough to write it down. They’d be fine, we assured ourselves. What could really go wrong?
We jetted back to the chalet as we were aiming for a 7 PM departure on the trail. We had about an hour climb up to the Col de Voza, and then generally flat and rolling miles into Les Contamines, a village just one valley over. We had obsessed over our gear for weeks, finally landing on two small running packs full of just the essentials. Running clothes, bare minimum refuge clothes, enough layers and shells to keep us safe in case the weather shit hit the fan, tooth brushes, some gauze, dozens of Gu’s, and as many candy bars as we could stuff in our pockets. (Find my gear list here.) We wolfed down some leftover polenta, suited up for the adventure, and hit the trail at 6:50 PM.
The climb up to the Col de Voza was steady and known, although the descent into Les Contamines would be new for us, as we took the higher altitude “Col de Tricot” Variation with our son in 2010. Our exuberance propelled us down the trail as we watched the sun set below gorgeous skies, only stopping to check for emergency voicemails from camp once (or twice). We donned our headlights when it was finally necessary, and we were set to roll into our hotel at Les Contamines about 10 PM as we began to lament the fact that all of the restaurants would surely be closed, and that we were a bit hungry. And then, as we turned the final corner into the town, we jogged squarely into the annual Fête des Guides, a celebration of the life and livelihood of the professional mountain guides of the region. We passed on the cheap beer and wine and instead indulged in some dry, overcooked hot dogs – perfect for filling our bellies before passing out for the night.
DAY 1 – LES CONTAMINES TO RIFUGIO ELISABETTA (VIA COL DU BONHOMME, COL DES FOURS, AND COL DE LA SEIGNE)
(19 mi / +7960 ft / -4554 ft) – (31 k / +2412 m – 1380 m)
We knew that one of the most difficult days of the loop lay ahead on Day 1, so we got an early start before breakfast and were on the trail by 6:30 AM. Not only would it be our largest elevation gain of any day at almost 8000 feet, but we would be heading over 3 cols and heading into Italy. We had fond (but snowy and steep) memories of the Col du Bonhomme from our trip down the GR-5, and had seen the other side of the Col de la Seigne during the Gran Trail Courmayeur 55k race we had run a month earlier.
We headed out from Les Contamines and began our slow and steady climbing that would consume the entire first half of the day. As the sun crested over the ridge we could only express our thanks for the perfect weather that the day was bringing, and remember the literal snow-storm on this pass in 8 years ago. We settled into a climbing rhythm, a fast uphill hike where both our poles and feet moved at a relatively fast cadence. We had been working on our “TMB Pace” the previous few weeks, and the general idea was to power-hike all of the uphills, walk or jog the flats, and jog the descents, with an emphasis on recovering and resting the body for the next uphill. This strategy worked brilliantly and we begin to pass hikers on the long climb, often not hiking much faster than them but staying incredibly consistent and not taking breaks.
The Col du Bonhomme was beautiful, and the vistas to the South were the clearest that we could hope for. We could see the distant, glacier covered peaks of the Vanoise National Park in the distance, where we headed for and eventually stayed in refuges in during the GR-5. We chatted with a couple British mountain bikers that were pushing/riding their bikes all the way south to Nice – interestingly enough they were covering about as much ground as we were in a day. We finally crossed over to the Refuge du col de la Croix du Bonhomme where we took shelter and slept in to escape the snow in 2011. We had a decent coffee and a good but expensive chocolate brownie before gearing up for the Col des Fours.
The climb up to the Col des Fours was minimal, really just an extension of the larger climb we had been working on all morning. At the very top we were joined by a group of four badass women, all wearing matching Salomon running kits and moving very fast. We chit-chatted, they made some comments about how they were moving too fast and wished that they were taking five days too, and then we never saw them again for the rest of the day. We would eventually figure out that Salmon was hosting an elite women’s UTMB training camp over the same days that we were doing the TMB, and it was actually Lucy Bartholomew and a bunch of other pro women runners that took our picture at the col. Ooops! It was totally amazing to be sharing the trails with these incredible athletes though.
The descent off the other side of the Col des Fours was steep and runnable in parts, but horribly rutted and eroded in others. It really underlined the need for some serious trail maintenance and construction efforts on the TMB, with trail conditions being the most severe (and trail maintenance basically non-existent) in France. We get spoiled in the States with expertly constructed trails and CCC workers displaying artistically dry masonry skills deep in the Sierra backcountry. As we would see in Italy, even some basic drainage and erosion control goes a long way.
After flying through uplifted plates at seemingly all angles we arrived at the bottom of the valley and the Ville des Glaciers (the Col des Fours alternative route eliminates the trip down and back up from Chapieux). We were there on a Sunday, around 11:00 AM, and were lucky to observe the most beautiful small church service in the most gorgeous, tiny, outdoor chapel that I have ever witnessed. I did walk over and stand behind the congregation of about 40 people for a few seconds, but felt that what was occurring was so sacred and that I was somehow soiling the environment that I didn’t stick around, nor did I take a picture. We left to begin our long climb out of the valley discussing how we would certainly go to a church service like that one in the divine shadows of Mont Blanc.
The climb up to Col de la Seigne was a big one, but the time went fast as we counted the Salomon pro runners passing us on the way up (Beth Pascall was one of them I believe!) At this point in our Courmayeur race we were starting to hurt and couldn’t really stop to appreciate the beauty that lay before us. However now we could take a few moments at the top and really soak it all in – the expansive view of the Italian side of the massif, home to Monte Bianco and a matching gray, black, and white color palette. The adrenaline of the day fueled us down the short descent and soon we were powering up the final, steep climb to the Rifugio Elisabetta, our shelter for the night.
Rifugio Elisabetta was a warm, welcoming spot perched up on a windy ridge overlooking the entire valley. The staff was a mix of Italian and Catalan, and our dinner table discussion was a lively mix of six different languages (Spanish, Catalan, French, English, Korean, and Greek) revolving around Bay Area sports (the Korean dude was a big Giants fan) and tales of previous TMB hiking exploits. We stretched and did yoga overlooking a glacier, ate chips and drank Sprite out on the glorious outdoor deck, and eventually passed out, sharing our room with a loud French snorer and an even louder wife that kept knocking on his upper bunk bed whenever he really got going.
DAY 2 – RIFUGIO ELISABETTA – RIFUGIO BONATTI (vIA COURMAYEUR)
(17.5 mi / +5640 ft / -6160 ft) – (28 k / +1720 m / -1870 m)
The weather was forecasted as “unstable” for the next few days, with the threat of afternoon thunderstorms looming, and we hit the trail around 6:30 AM. One thing that you learn after spending some time around Mont Blanc is that detailed forecasts aren’t really worth the paper they are printed on – the weather is either stable or unstable, and that’s about all you can say about it. Sometimes stable becomes unstable in the blink of an eye – Mont Blanc does what it wants with the weather surrounding it, and it doesn’t really care what you think. Early starts on the trail always pay dividends, whether it’s extra time to lounge in the afternoon sun, or beating out the worst of an afternoon storm.
The first part of the descent into Courmayeur was along an ancient Roman road connecting the Col de la Seigne with Lac Combal, the huge moraine from the Glacier de Miage, and finally the town itself. This area is chock full of history as it was the main site of combat between French and Italian forces during World War II, and has historically been one of the easier passages through the mountains dating back thousands of years. The origin of the name of the col likely comes from the Celtic word “Sange”, which means marshland, and is exactly what you run through as you head down the valley. This was an area that we absolutely detested in the mid-day heat of the Gran Trail Courmayuer race – however on this trip we were quite enamored with the location as the sun rose over the surrounding mountains.
The descent into Courmayeur went smoothly and we enjoyed the runnable (although dusty) trails. Courmayuer was our main pit-stop on the trip, and we needed to stock up on a few things before leaving town. We had plowed through the candy bar stash that we had started with and needed to load up for the days ahead, our cell phone with the French SIM card (and emergency camp contact number) was not holding charge so we needed to swap the SIMs out, and I had been pining for some Foccacia since we left Italy weeks before. Luckily in the span of an hour we were able to take care of all these necessary items and started off on the climb to the Northern balcon section of the Italian side, Rifugio Bertone, and our final destination for the night, Rifugio Bonatti.
The climb up to Bertone was steep and full of Italian day hikers, some heading up for lunch, some heading up for a longer loop that they could connect with a bus in Val Feret. The Italian hikers were incredibly strong, likely having grown up in these mountains and hiking these climbs every weekend. As I gasped and tried to keep a decent pace on the climb I was hiking next to an Italian woman chatting effortlessly on her cell phone the entire way up. There were young people, old people, families, and kids along the trail – a much different feeling than when you go out for a hike in the United States. Yes, the refuges prevent the European mountains from retaining that wild and sauvage feeling that we get in the Sierra or the Rockies, but they also seem to allow for an easy gateway to get people of all abilities up into the mountains. As we climbed up to Bonatti we saw literally hundreds of children under the age of 12. A day in the mountains in Italy really is a family affair.
The balcon traverse to Bonatti was as dreamy as imagined, with stunning views of the Jorasses, Dent de Geant, and behind us to Monte Bianco. On the French side the glaciers often seem very high up and out of reach – on the Italian side they are right there, in your face, often seeming like you could reach out and touch them. The Rifugio Bonatti was packed when we arrived and basically stayed that way until we left the next morning. It seemed that all the Americans doing the TMB had somehow congregated at the same place on the same night, and we immediately felt old and crusty compared to the 20-somethings and millennials that were out discovering themselves on their first long backpack trip. We kept to ourselves as much as we could (although I was forced to chime in when a loud American one table over was blatantly making fun of trail runners over and over again), and enjoyed the extra rations provided by our melancholic Swiss table-mate, whose girlfriend was unfortunately injured and not able to join him on the trip. He had already paid for her spot at all the refuges, and thus her place setting sat untouched, while the workers delivered food to her seat, not really sure how to handle the situation. I was hungry and so I ate her servings, despite it feeling a bit like I was eating the offerings off some sort of altar for the departed. In the end the views and the delicious food of Bonatti made up for the loud Americans and somewhat crowded quarters, and we thoroughly enjoyed our night.
DAY 3 – RIFUGIO BONATTI TO CHAMPEX (VIA GRAND COL FERRET)
(24 mi / +5020 ft / -6930 ft) – (38 k / +1520 m / -2100 m)
Today was set to be the longest mileage day of the trip, although on the map at least it looked fairly runnable once we crossed the border into Switzerland. We were some of the first people out of Bonatti after a decent breakfast (weak coffee, packaged toast, average muesli and milk) and picked up the balcon right where we left off, soaking in the massive views of the glaciers that lay just ahead. We were really in the groove of the trip by now and it felt great – like a real retreat from our “normal” lives of parenting, working, cooking and cleaning. It was a luxury to be able to just wake up, get fed breakfast, and be able to hit the trail, knowing that traveling through beautiful mountains together was the only thing on the agenda for the day. The experience was proving to be some of the best time we had spent together since having kids.
The climb up to the Grand Col Ferret was around 1000 meters or so, but it didn’t even feel like much as we were now used to the moderate ascents, and we settled into our normal slow and steady pace, passing hikers lugging heavy packs on the way up when they stopped to catch their breath. The col was a circus of 30-40 Italian teenagers out on some sort of wilderness trip – they were singing and running and yelling and acting like fools, which was a bit annoying at the time but in retrospect seems an entirely appropriate way for adolescents to be enjoying the mountains. If you can’t use your outside voices in a place like that, where can you?
Switzerland honestly felt exactly as expected – a long, moderate and very runnable descent into lush green pastures full of beautiful, healthy cows grazing and clanging the weighty bells hanging around their necks. I recalled that this is the section where the elite speedsters in the UTMB and CCC really start putting the hurt on the folks trying to stay in touch with the lead groups. If you were feeling good at this part (or had elite level fitness and genetics) you could really lay down some fast miles. We kept it moving and even enjoyed the double-track jeep road as it gave us a chance to finally run side by side and chat a bit.
We were getting lower and the mountains were getting noticeably smaller as we began to round the northern corner of the massif. After a quick stop in La Fouly for candy bars and cold drinks to refuel we checked a posted TMB map and realized we were about halfway around the loop! The weather had been holding much better than expected so far, and we cruised the rest of the descent until the final short and steep climb leading up to Champex-Lac. Champex felt almost like a manufactured tourist town – an idylic crystal clear lake with tourists driving paddle boats across its surface and lush hillsides as far as the eyes could see. We managed to pause for long enough to take a quick dip in the lake and rustled up some decent sandwiches at the grocery store after balking at the lunch prices at the lakeside restaurant (manufactured tourist towns bring manufactured lunch prices apparently). We checked in for the evening to the Gite Bon Abri, which had some nice features (a private room for us! easy electronic charging, nice outdoor patio space) and some challenges as well (a less than gourmet meal cooked by 18 year olds, possible bed bug bites from the sheets). Breakfast wasn’t available until 7:30 so we opted for some takeaway sandwiches, Twix bars, and two apples in the morning instead so that we could get an early start.
DAY 4 – CHAMPEX TO MONTROC (VIA BOVINE, COL DE LA FORCLAX, AND COL DE BALME)
(16.5 mi / +5660 ft / -5870 ft) – (27 k / +1720 m / -1780 m)
Rain had been threatening for the last few days and today is the day when it finally caught up with us. An early before-breakfast start got us up to Bovine before the sprinkles began. We had our hopes set on the Fenêtre de l’Arpette high altitude variation, but it didn’t make sense to head up there with so many clouds in the sky. The lower Bovine route was pleasantly beautiful as it climbed up through a white granite section that reminded us of the California Sierra and afforded views of the large Swiss mountains in the distance. It was a neat feeling to see Martigny in the valley far below and realize that we were finally turning the corner and coming into the final stretch of our trip – a straight shot down the Chamonix valley and back to Les Houches.
When the rain finally came we were mentally prepared for it and thankful that we had gotten 4+ days of beautiful weather already. We donned our Patagonia Houdinis and gloves as the sprinkles started, and soon changed into tights at the Col de la Forclaz when the temperature started to drop a bit more. The climb up out of Trient was pleasant and relaxing as we wove our way through the rainy pines and moistened granite faces, and despite the steady downpour our spirits and morale were high. By the top of the Col de Balme we had all of our layers on and were giving thanks for the Arc’teryx Gore-tex shells that we had lugged along with us the whole adventure as they were keeping us mighty warm and dry. We literally passed a group of 10 hikers on the col that were so cold their hands were shivering and shaking uncontrollably, and we decided to pose quickly for a picture on the border as we entered back into France before taking the easier descent down the ski slopes and to the train station at Montroc. We technically had a reservation at the Charamillon refuge on the slopes, but the pull of a warm shower and bed at our chalet in Les Houches was just too strong. We sucked up our pride and hopped on the train down-valley, vowing to be back out there on the first train in the morning to finish up the loop.
DAY 5 – MONTROC TO LES HOUCHES (VIA COL DU BRÉVENT)
(17 mi / +5930 ft / -6900 ft) – (27.5 k / +1800 m / -2100 m)
It was amazing sleeping in our “own” beds for a night without the threat of snoring strangers or folks up and down all night long. Our hope for the day was that Mont Blanc would welcome us back with clear skies and glorious weather, and the mountain gods must have been smiling upon us because that is indeed what happened. We were on the first little red train up the valley and started at the Montroc train station, right where we left off in the downpour of the previous afternoon.
This was a victory lap of sorts, as these were our “backyard trails” for the summers that we spend in the valley. While I fell in love with the steep and severe gray and black glaciers of Italy, the familiar green, brown, and white topography of the Chamonix valley was like an seeing an old friend after a couple of years apart. It was one of the clearest mornings we had ever experienced and we soaked up the views from the Balcon Sud trail as we headed across to Planpraz. We had purposefully not ran the balcon this summer, knowing that we would hopefully finish the TMB loop with this section, and our souls lit up with joy as we flew around the familiar turns on the runnable traverse.
A quick search for snacks at Planpraz was fruitless (no chips and six euro sodas!!!) so we headed up to the Col du Brévent with couple of Gu’s remaining and our bellies rumbling slightly. We soon forgot our hunger as we realized that we had never been up the official TMB route to the Col, usually approaching it from the backside or the high route across from Lac Inconnu and L’Index. It was a very pleasant single-track climb up to the top and we relished in what would be the last major climb of our loop as we approached over 30,000 feet of vert. We paused for a second at the Col to marvel both the view of the Fiz range as well as the non-existent snow patches where we had glissaded down a month before. A quick trip up the jeep road took us to the madness of the upper lift station and then to our final descent back into the valley.
It was clearly August as the trail down to the small lac below the lift was a zoo, filled with tourists and families that probably had no business descending that low that late in the day with the last téléphérique leaving at 5:30 PM. It cleared up a bit on the descent to Bellachat, yet another new spot for us that we had somehow not visited before! The views across the valley directly into Mont Blanc were as stunning as reported, and the tartes and drink prices seemed to match as well. But we were hungry and we welcomed one final breather before the last push of the journey.
Endorphins were maxed out as we floated down the wooded, singletrack descent into Les Houches, passing the bizarre and yet somewhat peaceful concrete Christ le Roi statue and then awkwardly crossing the freeway to get back to the other side of the valley. We jogged a bit into the center of town and then the hunger of five days out on the trail caught up with us as we ducked into Carrefour for one last caloric topping off. We finally got our bag of chips as well as some drinks and decided to walk it in the last mile to our chalet and really savor the finish (as well as the chips!). A final 50 meter climb put us back at our literal doorstep at Le Tremble, and it was then that we realized that we had actually circumnavigated the entire Mont Blanc Massif.
105 miles later, over 30,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, 3 countries visited, and we were right back where we started. For us it was a pilgrimage – a pure and aesthetic way to offer our sacraments to a sacred mountain. And as any pilgrim will tell you, the beauty and joy often comes not from the destination but from the journey that it entailed. It is tempting to try to describe the deep personal discoveries that were made, or the monumental personal growth that resulted from the trip. But as I reflect upon the experience I realize that is not what actually happened. Perhaps I am getting too old for those large transformations to occur in my life. Instead, as we circumnavigated the mountain, I experienced a level of serenity, peacefulness, and clarity that I don’t normally experience in my day to day life. Everything was simple and calm as we embarked on the trail just past sunrise every day and rested and relaxed outside until just before dusk. I got to spend nearly a week of uninterrupted time with my soulmate and one true love on the planet as we gazed upward in awe of the natural beauty around us. Looking back I can give nothing but thanks for the opportunity for this experience and the ability to see it through.
After we devoured the two remaining frozen quiches from our freezer and whatever cookies remained in the pantry, I asked my wife if she would ever do the trip again. Without hesitation she instantly replied – “Oh absolutely – and next time we could go around clockwise.”