It's a hot day in the Italian Alps. It's hot in France, too. I have one foot in each country and I'm standing on the French-Italian border at the top of a mountain pass. It snowed yesterday, but today I'm sweating in the summer heat. Every day is a surprise here on the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), the most popular long-distance hike in Europe.
More than 10,000 people make this trek each year. For hikers, the TMB is the ultimate summer adventure: a 10-day circular walk that starts and finishes in France and passes through both Italy and Switzerland along the way. It encompasses 11 mountain passes, about 32,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and a dozen nights in remote mountain inns and huts. In short, there's no better way to experience the centuries-old traditions of the Alps than hiking the Mont Blanc circuit. There aren't many better workouts, either.
Monarch of the Alps
At 15,771 feet, it would be easy to attribute Mont Blanc's nickname, Monarch of the Alps, to size alone. That would be a mistake. Its mystique is as much about its rugged alpine scenery—some 400 summits, 40 glaciers, seven valleys, and three countries—as it is about the height of its tallest peak, the highest in Western Europe.
Although the TMB stretches through three countries, it's the French alpine culture that dominates the circuit. French is the trek's unofficial language. At the mountain huts, evening meals are casual, family-style events with crowded tables, buckets of soup and meat, and raucous singing—usually in French, and usually something like this: "Oui! Oui! Oui!" yells one side of the dining hall, and "Non! Non! Non!" yells the other. And so it continues, on and on and late into the night. Every night.
The traditional approach to the TMB circuit is a counter-clockwise hike that begins near the mountaineering resort town of Chamonix, France. Most hikers—the do-it-yourselfers and the guided groups alike—collect in Chamonix before beginning the real hike about four miles down the valley in the village of Les Houches. From there you get your hiking legs under you right away with a stiff 3,000-foot climb to the first pass, Col de Voza, and your first high-elevation views of the Mont Blanc range.
Over the next 10 to 14 days, the walk will challenge, amaze, and enthrall in equal parts. It's not easy by any measure, but almost anyone with a moderate level of fitness can do it. Over the course of my trip, I met a 60-year-old grandfather, two middle-aged sisters, and a pre-teen girl, among many others, on the trail. It's fitness level, not age, that should be the biggest factor in determining if you're ready for the TMB.
If you're concerned about being in shape, getting lost, or lugging a backpack around for nearly two weeks, the way to go is with a guided hiking outfitter.
Guided hiking options
I frequently refer people to the U.S.-based Alpinehikers, a small walking tour company run by an American (and former year-round Swiss resident) named Troy Haines. At $2,895 for an 11-day inn-to-inn circuit, Alpinehikers' July 2006 Mont Blanc trek comes in near the low end of the pack for overall price.
Your $2,895 with Alpinehikers nets you meals, inn-to-inn luggage transfers, accommodations (three-star inns when available, dormitory-style mountain huts some nights), and two experienced guides—crucial for group hikes, because one guide typically takes the "fast" group while the other leads the more leisurely walkers.
Other reputable guided hiking options include:
- Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures' 10-day, $2,800 trek from July 7 through 16
- REI Adventures' 14-day, $3,150 trek with eight departure dates from June through September
- Mountain Travel Sobek's 13-day, $3,490 trek with six departure dates from June through September
- Backroads' nine-day, $3,498 trek with one departure each in July, August, and September
It's critical to look at what you're getting for the price compared to what you want or need from your trip. Backroads, for example, targets travelers who want upscale accommodations and a relatively catered experience (there are more free days and leisurely strolls built into the itinerary). Mountain Travel Sobek includes the travel days to and from Geneva as part of its "13-day" trip. Alpinehikers and Ryder-Walker take a more rugged approach—basic accommodations, day-long hikes, and simple but authentic meals—while providing a quality experience that would satisfy most seasoned hikers. My advice here is to only pay for what you need from a trip, and not a penny more.
Getting there and when to go
High season in the Alps is largely determined by the previous winter's snowfall. This affects not only how much snow is on the ground at the highest elevations, but also the strength of the glacial runoff each summer.
Most guided outfitters start trips around the end of June or beginning of July, and this is when most of the do-it-yourselfers get going, too. France's summer holiday usually falls between July 15 and August 31. This is the busiest time on the trails, and can make finding accommodations more difficult. Thus, the "best" times for the smallest crowds and best weather are early July and early September.
The closest international airport is Geneva. Transatlantic airfare invariably skyrockets in the summer months, so expect to pay somewhere around $600 to $1,000 round-trip from the East Coast for a July or August departure. Chamonix is also accessible from just about anywhere on the Continent by train.
However you get there and whenever you go, the Tour du Mont Blanc is an experience to savor. The question, ultimately, comes down to whether you consider sore muscles and blistered feet a fair tradeoff for 105 miles of alpine adventure. To me, the answer is easy.
"Oui! Oui! Oui!"