“Let’s leave behind all the non-essential items”. From no pajamas, to one set of trekking clothes, to sharing one towel, all of these would ultimately save us holding kgs of weight across the mountains.
We pack our bags optimistically and still end up with 10kg each to take with us. The inevitable weight of camping equipment (roll mat, tent, sleeping bags) had us dreaming of the latest gear – one day I’ll be able to afford a nifty £700 1kg tent. For now, we were stuck with my Vango tent. It’s 10 years old, 5kg but has the merit of having survived an Icelandic storm in 2016.
Day 1 18th July – Les Houches to Les Contamines
After a chat with the friendly Tourist Information Office in Chamonix, we decided to drive our van to Les Houches, the start point of the Tour du Mont Blanc. Originally, we were going to leave the van in the bustling streets of Chamonix, but the recommendation of Prarion cable car park was brilliant. Les Houches, at 1,032m, was quiet and surrounded by a crown of snowy mountains. We left the van where parking spaces were available in abundance.
The Tour du Mont Blanc began with a steep staircase and it was a 2hr ascent up to Col de Voza at 1,653m. We trekked adjacent to a ski slope through steep meadows and woodlands. Each turn of the trail revealed an incredible view of the Mt Blanc massif.
After a 2 hour ascent up to Col de Voza, we stopped off at Cafe La Rioule, a quaint wooden hut with picnic benches. We enjoyed a well-earned coffee with outstanding mountain views.
We descended down through Bionnassay, La Villette and La Frasse until reaching the river bank of Les Contamines, the last settlement of any significance until Courmayeur (Day 4).
As we were ‘cheap skating’ the Tour du Mont Blanc, we had to walk 35 minutes out of town to Camping du Pontet, a pretty campsite located next to a boating lake and adventure park. We started the day at 9:30AM and arrived into camp at 6:00PM.
For dinner, we had a mash of “everything leftover in the van” – a mix of tomatoes, pesto, courgette, potatoes and a ball of mozzarella melted on top for good measure. Day 1 was a fairly tough start to the trek, we both had welts and bruising from our rucksacks!
Day 1 figures:
- Camping: €8.80 per person
- Coffee: €4 per person (homemade lunch and dinner)
- Total spend: €12.80 per person
- Ascent: 646m
- Descent: 633m
Day 2 19th July – Les Contamines (1,032m) to Refuge col de la Croix du Bonhomme (2,443m)
We had a restless night at the campsite due to a tribute band playing until 1:00AM in the morning. Nevertheless we were up and ready to go for 10:15AM. At Camping du Pontet, we ordered a fresh baguette for 1.10 EUR and combined this with boiled eggs from our van as a cheap and cheerful breakfast.
I would rate Day 2 of the Tour Du Mont Blanc as one of the hardest trekking days I’ve ever done. From Notre Dame de la Gorge, it was a relentless upward ascent for over 6 hours from 1,164m to 2,479m. We passed waterfalls cascading down valleys, snowed-in paths and grand jagged peaks. The distance, ascent and descent combined made this the longest day of the entire trek. As we were just 2 days in, I hadn’t adapted to walking with a weighted rucksack and probably looked like a suffering turtle for most of the day.
We met a friendly couple from Yorkshire called David and Gill, they told us they were doing a high route variant called the “Col Des Fours.” After a flick through our guidebook at lunch, Jim Manthorpe described the variant as “the views of Mont Blanc are the finest you can expect anywhere on the trail”.
We reached Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, a very secluded mountain hut, at approximately 5:15pm. With the dormitory sleeping up to 113 trekkers, we were lucky enough to get a dormitory bed with dinner on the spot. As we would be staying at 2,479m, this meant that we could continue with the high route that David and Gill suggested, rather then descending down to the valley.
Croix du Bonhomme was communal, cosy and a great gathering space to meet international trekkers. We sat in tables of 8 for dinner with vegetable soup, chunks of beef served with cheesy polenta and “fly cake” for dessert (we saw alot of flies on cakes that was left on the table all afternoon). The cake was disguised as it was cut into bite-sized pieces, which we ate anyway as hungry trekkers. The evening was spent exchanging travel tales with an American Med student and a game of scrabble. With the sunset at Croix du Bonhomme, we saw over 30 wandering Ibex amongst the hills whilst a fellow hiker played guitar for the evening.
Day 2 figures:
- Half board dormitory: €52 per person (the showers weren’t working so not too happy about this!)
- Total spend: €52 per person
- Ascent: 1,316m
- Descent: ?
Day 3 20th July – Refuge du col de la Croix du Bonhomme (2,443m) to wild camp near Col de la Seigne (2,516m)
After a nourishing bowl of porridge served with jam, bread and orange juice, we set off for the Col Des Fours variant recommended by David and Gill. Setting off at approximately 8AM, we reached the Col at 9AM and met up at the base of the summit whilst taking in the incredible views together.
From Col des Fours, it was a steep, rocky and zig-zagging descent down from 2,537m to 1,789m at La Ville Des Glaciers. We climbed back up to Refuge Des Mottets at 1,870m and enjoyed a ham/cheese omelette and a sandwich as an early dinner/late lunch. The lunch was served with complimentary slices of crusty bread that we took with us and ate later after setting up camp.
From Refuge Des Mottets, it was approximately another 750m of steady ascent to the Col. The path was gentle and fairly wide which made it a lot easier than yesterday’s trek.
We read that wild camping is illegal in Italy thus we set-up camp at approximately 2,300m on the French side of the Col.
It was approximately 6PM when we began to set-up camp and throughout the day we’d been bumping into a mum, dad and teenage son from Montreal.
Without knowing their names, we called the lady “pink mummy” . We kept an eye on pink mummy as the teenage son and father seemed to have raced on without her. As we were setting up camp, we saw an urgent movement as the dad raced back towards pink mummy. They conversed shortly and we watched a noble gesture as the dad took the rucksack off pink mummy to support her trek. The teenage son was nowhere to be seen and we assumed that the dad was trying to keep his family safe by taking his son to the refuge first, then doubling back for mum. It’s witnessing small acts like this that really demonstrate the camaraderie between trekkers.
We had leftover bread for dinner and Alex saw flashes of lightening at night which lit up the tent. We were worried about the upcoming weather forecast as wild camping and thunderstorms don’t mix well.
Day 3 figures:
- Omelette: €8, sandwich €5, can of coke €3
- Total spend: €8 per person
- Ascent: 904m
- Descent: 748m
Day 4 21st July – Wild camp near Col de la Seigne (2,516m) to Courmayeur (1,224m)
We woke up to sunrise and we’re on the trail for a 7:40AM start. We were just an hour short of crossing the border into Italy. Reaching Col de la Seigne was the first time either one of us have trekked from one country to the other.
We strolled pass Refugio Elisabetta and bumped into pink mummy on the descent to Lac Combal. The family were curious of our wild camping endeavours and we wanted to find out how the Refugio was. Refugio Elisabetta is the most in-demand refuge on the trek due to it’s locality. We heard that the food was great but the sleeping arrangements involved shoulder-to-shoulder sharing with strangers. I was suddenly glad that camping granted us the spontaneity and privacy of camping under the stars.
We reached Lac Combal and followed a stunning balcony route to ascend Col Checroui at 1,956m. From there, came one of the hardest and knee crushing descents we had to do on the trip down to Courmayeur. The descent was through dusty forested tracks that felt endless and painful.
We arrived into Courmayeur at 6:00pm after another 10hr trekking day. We had booked a room at Hotel Triolet for €69 including breakfast. Having not showered for the last 3 days, the hotel felt like the most wonderful treat I’d ever had. A shower after 4 days of trekking really helped to ease the muscles from the trek.
We were just a 10 minute walk away from Pizzeria Du Tunnel, one of the best pizza restaurants in town! The pizza was spilling off the table when presented to us and it was the best thing we’d eaten on the trek.
We bumped into pink mummy in the restaurant and dad asked us if we used the cable car to descend into the city. We said no and the dad stated it was the best €10 he’d ever spent. The final descent was painful and with no views and I’d highly recommend anyone doing the TMB to save your knees and take the cable car down.
Day 4 figures:
- Hotel Triolet: €34.50 per person
- Pizzeria Du Tunnel: €19 per person
- Total spend: €63.50 per person
- Ascent: 580m
- Descent: 1,560m
- We decided to stop the TMB half way due to the stormy weather conditions that were forecasted.
- The Tour du Mont Blanc refuges only take cash. With 10 nights on the trek, this would mean holding in excess of €500 to account for the cost of accommodation. We thought this was an awful lot of money, hence deciding to camp.
- We loved the freedom of wild camping but unfortunately this isn’t made easy on the TMB. It’s illegal in Italy and Switzerland and just about tolerated in France.
- We’ll return to finish the TMB on a long weekend soon, this time we will book accommodation in advance! We checked the TMB from Courmayeur onwards and the camping logistics seemed more difficult in Italy and Switzerland (taking buses, detouring off the TMB etc).
- Food is fairly expensive on route (8 to 10 euros just for a omelette!). We carried alot of snacks with us!
- We trekked anti-clockwise, this is the traditional direction of the TMB although I am not sure of the practicality of it, as it means that all the hardest treks are at the start. A good breakdown of ascents/descents on route is available here.
- The total cost of the 4 day trek was €134.50 per person. That’s just €33.62 per day with 2 nights camping, 1 night in a refuge, 1 night in a hotel and all meals stated above.
- We took the bus back to Les Houches (Flixbus from Courmayeur to Chamonix then a local bus from Chamonix back to Les Houches). Flixbus was €5 and the local bus was €3. I would recommend booking Flixbus in advance as the bus journey involves crossing a border.
- If you have any questions, please feel free to comment here and I’ll be happy to help.