More Enticement to do Tour du Mont Blanc
In case you missed the first two parts of 10 Lessons from Fastpacking Tour du Mont Blanc: Part 1 covered what we learned about the route and the sport of fastpacking; and Part 2 covered our experience with Refugé (mountain hut) accommodations.
This third and final part is focused on encouraging every hiker to tackle at least part of this beautiful circuit around Mont Blanc – even those with acrophobia! In addition, I recommend key pieces of gear I used for TMB and I get all sappy about the mountain town of Chamonix.
Lesson 7: Partners, Groups, Families, and Solo Trekkers All Enjoy TMB
Brian and I have shared many running and traveling adventures together and work well as a team. Our navigation is a combination of Brian’s map skills and my attention to landmarks, signage, and the direction other backpackers appear to favor; we point out the details for each other along the way, like the animal stump carvings along the Swiss portion of TMB. Our conversation is all over the map.
“I think blowing snot rockets is a behavioral contagion,” said Brian after quick spray from his nose “. . . like yawning.” Contagious crude behavior. . . really?
“I think it has to do with a combination of wind and cold temperature,” I said after clearing my left nostril. This topic came up for debate at least three times during our TMB, but had started in the Rocky Mountains long before we traveled to Europe.
A group of fit middle-aged women made TMB their reunion and overtook Nant Borrant the night we were there – their cheerful banter was fun to hear, and all were quiet by 9 p.m.
In the Aosta Valley of Italy, we saw families hiking together and sleeping in Rifugios with children as young as eight years old. Families with even younger children can hike higher parts of TMB by riding lifts out of villages to the trail. The mountains are an awesome natural playground for kids!
We saw many women hikers who had chosen TMB as their first solo backpacking adventure. Great choice! You never go far without encountering warm and friendly greetings from other hikers; villages are not far from the trail; and opportunities to bail out and catch a ride are abundant. Yet, hikers can still experience hours of solitude in nature.
Lesson 8: Ladders Above Chamonix are Okay for the Moderate Acrophobic
On our return to the French Alps above Chamonix Valley, we traced a high ridge on braided paths that wove through rows of knee-high slabs. Hikers were picking fresh blueberries next to the trail. I wondered when we would head down toward civilization at the bottom of the valley when our route turned abruptly up a series of iron ladders bolted into the rock. Yikes!
“Do you remember these ladders on your 100th mile of UTMB?” I asked Brian. That would be insane! I pictured exhausted runners, delirious with fatigue and sleep deprivation, feet numb from duct taping their blisters, fumbling on the ladder rungs.
“No, UTMB takes a higher route through here.” So, we could have skipped this part?
A girl who looked to be six years old appeared at the top of a rock face and climbed down the series of ladders without a hint of drama – her parents stood by, calm and quiet. I’ve just been schooled. My tolerance for heights could be classified as “moderate.” Once I grabbed the rungs, my fear dissolved.
I lost count of the number of ladders we climbed above that first set. I climbed them all with my trekking poles in my hand thinking each ladder was the last. Duh! Stow your poles . . .
Unless it is wet and foggy, don’t skip this part of TMB. The memory of clinging to rugged mountains high above Chamonix Valley is one I’ll never forget. Besides, a six-year-old can climb down them without a hint of fear!
Lesson 9: Gear that is Worth its Weight
Full detailed packing lists for TMB are posted all over the Internet. In addition to carrying essential extra clothes, toiletries and biodegradable soap, here are a few key pieces of gear I recommend for TMB:
(Affiliate Disclosure: If you purchase items from REI through the links on my blog, I receive a small bit of compensation while your cost is not affected.):
- Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 – Spacious front pockets for easy access to phone and snacks, reachable side pockets for water bottle and trekking poles, shoulder straps are wide to comfortably distribute the load without need for padding.
- Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles – fold into three parts (like a Z!) for ease of packing, are feather light (9 oz), quick to assemble, and strong. Poles help stabilize balance on steep sketchy terrain, distribute effort to the upper body, and take pressure off sore feet and knees. The only downside of bringing trekking poles is they must fly in checked luggage – they are not allowed beyond security!
- Sea to Summit Silk Liner with Pillow Insert – For comfortable and hygienic sleeping in the bunks. I highly recommend having one with a an extension to cover the pillow.
- Patagonia Alpine Houdini Rain Pant – Rain gear is essential on TMB – mountain weather can fluctuate wildly from sunny and warm to cold and snowy. Hypothermia is a real threat. It had snowed the week before we got there – in August. The Houdini pants were super light and packed down to the size of my fist. They have received great reviews online for protection from rain, but I can’t say I tested them myself as it never rained on our TMB. At the time of this post, these pants were only available in close-out sales.
- Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket – This waterproof jacket has a hood that never tugs or obscures your vision when you turn your head. It weighs only 5 ounces and exceeds the breathability and waterproof requirements for UTMB. I only needed it for the chilly wind on our TMB but have tested it in rain at home and it repels water like a champ. Did I mention the brilliant design of its hood?
- Puffy jacket or down sweater – Warmth to weight ratio of down is hard to beat. I wore mine every day after the sun went down.
- Resealable plastic bags of all sizes. Gallon to keep clothes dry, quart-size for snacks, sandwich size for pocket electronics that aren’t waterproof.
- Smartwool – my favorite merino wool clothing. I wore Smartwool T-shirts, socks, and tights on TMB – merino wool keeps you warm when wet, dries quickly, never stinks, and does not feel itchy.
- SteriPen – stream water on TMB was always clear enough for UV light to purify. We could have left our filter at home!
- Smart phone – my iPhone was my camera, GPS, map, connection to my family back home, and web browser when we searched for a pharmacy after my bee sting. Brian had a SIM card for data. I used Verizon’s international $10/day service which accessed my regular data plan. Cellular coverage is as plentiful as the villages on the route.
Lesson 10: Plan Extra Days in Chamonix
We started and finished our TMB in Chamonix on the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB) race course, but the classic TMB route traverses above town and dips into Les Houches, six kilometers away from Chamonix. Traditional TMB hikers start and finish in Les Houches.
We arrived in Chamonix the evening before we embarked on our circuit thinking it would be easier to buy food and official TMB paper maps there instead of the smaller village of Les Houches. Though storm clouds obscured the highest peaks, my jaw dropped at the dramatic landscape surrounding town.
Chamonix is flanked by jagged peaks jutting into the sky and glaciers reaching down toward town for a stunning in-your-face mountain backdrop that wrapped itself snug around my heart. This village felt like my home in Boulder Colorado, sitting up against the Rocky Mountains, but on steroids! Chamonix is the best achievable mountain town of the imagination.
An extensive network of trails surrounds town and trams can get you up close to Mont Blanc. Mountain athletes – bikers, trail runners, climbers, and hikers – stroll through town, sometimes with a baguette stowed alongside their trekking poles.
Specialty chocolate and cheese shops, small grocery stores, and pizza restaurants are packed with lean, suntanned, casually dressed patrons, and every major outdoor outfitter has a store front on the pedestrian mall.
Despite having just fastpacked 105 miles over five days, we were inspired to explore another 30 miles of trails around Chamonix during our two extra days there. A handheld water bottle, light jacket, and snacks were all we needed to carry – it was great to be light on our feet again!
The nearest airport to Chamonix and Les Houches is Geneva Switzerland. A comfortable, reliable, and inexpensive way to get to Chamonix from Geneva is the Ouibus and it stops in Les Houches on the way. If you prefer to be dropped off at the doorstep of your lodging, instead of town center, you can take a private mountain shuttle from Geneva Airport.
We used the Rome2rio application to figure out a series of trains from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to Geneva and were taken on a three hour beautiful train ride through the countryside of France and Switzerland. Okay, I’ll admit, I slept through some of it! A simpler, quicker, but more expensive option is to buy an airline ticket to Geneva.
Tour du Mont Blanc and Chamonix are worth every minute of travel hassle to get there. I hope this post has inspired you to put them on your bucket list! Feel free to ask questions in the comments section if you are wondering about something I didn’t cover here, or in Parts One and Two.